Armenia: A perspective from the Diaspora

Having been to Armenia on five occasions in the last few years, and discussed with people their views on their nationality and what defines it, I wanted to explore how this was seen from within the Diaspora. The Diaspora does not have a single voice, and is based in many countries so will have many different evolutions depending on the culture that it happens to reside in. I wanted to explore this through the UK based communities.

In England, there are 2 focal points for the Diaspora, one in London, and one in Manchester. The group in the North West is the smallest and amounts to 250-300 people. Of these, approximately 80 people, are members of the Holy Trinity Church in Manchester. The majority of the people in this region will be of Western Armenian (WA) descent, albeit that there are people who have come here from the Republic of Armenia (RA).

I had the opportunity to meet up with 2 members of the church – Artur Bobikyan ( Deacon) and Ara Couligian (Ex-officio Chairman). Artur was born in the RA and is currently resident in Manchester, whereas Ara was born in Cyprus ( Greek Cypriot Armenian) and is part of the WA Diaspora. I discussed a variety of issues with them, and they provided a candid view of their personal perspectives. A number of interesting themes distilled out of this conversation which I intend to explore through further dialogue. These themes are not seen to be generalisations for the Diaspora, but angles from these personal discussions and potential guidance on direction. This discussion has lead me to the following summary.

One could be forgiven for expecting that all Armenians are one nationality, with a common culture, and historic lineage, and that despite being widely distributed have a binding thread running through them all. At some level this is the case, but under the surface there are many differences which could almost define them as 2 separate nations. In the early 1600’s Armenia became part of the Ottoman Empire; from 1829 the Eastern part was ceded to the Russian Empire. Herein lies the foundation of a critical divergence – the Western Armenians developed with a significant Turkish influence to their culture and language, whereas the Eastern Armenians were influenced by Russian / Soviet regimes. The Eastern Armenians eventually gained independence within the RA, whereas the Western Armenians were subjected to the genocide, with the survivors fleeing to a variety of different countries.

Armenians from WA Diaspora and from RA have a common alphabet, and religion, but their languages and cultures have diverged through the different influences. This can give rise to unexpected “clashes” over who is speaking the authentic language, which is the correct pronunciation, and what constitutes the Armenian culture.

The Armenians as a nation have suffered, and it seems to be part of their national psyche to continue to emphasise this as a way of binding the community together where other attributes divide. The Genocide is a major source of that emotion, and the fact that it remains largely unrecognised is a source of constant frustration. The perspective from the WA is that this is their suffering, and is not felt by those in RA. The suffering of the people in RA derives from being under Soviet rule for 70 years. This is controversial; other conversations I have had would indicate that the Genocide is a common thread amongst all Armenians. Ironically, the RA had great benefits under Soviet rule, particularly education and investment ( albeit patchy); since its collapse, a lot of the infrastructure has deteriorated, and the country is subject to much poverty. The Diaspora continue to be a significant source of funds for the RA, although corruption and the Mafia are impacting the country’s ability to move forwards.

The cultural differences between the WA and RA Armenians leads to difficulties in bringing the community together outside of the RA. This will be especially the case in England where the WA will be heavily influenced by the local culture of “fair play”, and general compliance with laws and institutions; where the darker side of Soviet attitudes is practiced within the WA community in the UK, then there is a potential for conflict.

An attribute of Armenians in RA ( principally men) is that they are all “Kings”. They will do what they want to do, they are competitive, no one will tell them what to do; this is in the context of being loyal and caring to family and friends. This trait seems to be evident in the Diaspora in England, neatly summarised as “Too many Chiefs and not enough Indians”. Unfortunately the consequences of this can be politicking and disharmony.

The Armenian community in Manchester is small, and over time as the generations inter-marry, the very essence of what it means to be an Armenian will be diluted, and will be subsumed by the surrounding Britishness. With the cultures and languages being varied, the only hooks for the whole community to hang onto, and which have no cultural variations, are the symbolism of Mount Ararat, the alphabet, and the Genocide.

Without the Genocide, the RA would have been a much larger country, with Mt Ararat at its core, and the cultural differences would have been much less pronounced. In some primordial way, locked in the DNA of every Armenian, is the knowledge that the Genocide split the nation into two and potentially triggered the beginning of the end of this ancient people. In this context it is entirely understandable why they do not want the Genocide to be forgotten – it is a form of unresolved grief, a sense that the cohesion of this nation is slipping away; a feeling of great loss.

The WA Diaspora is splintering and diluting as it gradually dissolves into the cultures and communities of their current places of residence. The RA is losing people as they migrate to other lands to seek greater wealth to feed their families, and the corruption and political instability in the government is doing little to deal with the poverty. Its development is impeded by the closed borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan, and the friendly relationship with Iran is not shared with the developed nations; Georgia to the North is not a favourable neighbour. Meanwhile it is embroiled in an unresolved conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. The future does not bode well for the RA and the Armenian people unless some fundamental changes happen which allow it to truly develop as an independent nation, and for it to be a real alternative as a homeland for the people of the Diaspora.

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Categories: Being Armenian

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