Connecting history

Connecting history

 Office of the Dean March 18, 2019

UCI professor spotlights Armenian revolutionaries

By Annabel Adams

Hidden in archives across the globe are clues that point to an intricate connection between Armenians and several 20th-century revolutions. These clues—from correspondence to revolutionary pamphlets and newspapers—prompted Houri Berberian, Meghrouni Family Presidential Chair in Armenian Studies at the University of California, Irvine, to rethink how the history of revolutions, and history itself, is approached and represented.

Through a “connected histories” method, Berberian’s new book Roving Revolutionaries: Armenians and the Connected Revolutions in the Russian, Iranian, and Ottoman Worlds illustrates how Armenian revolutionaries moved physically and ideologically through the 1905 Russian, 1905-11 Iranian and 1908 Ottoman revolutions. Focusing on the experience of Armenians, Berberian says, shows us how political movements and ethnic communities do not exist in isolation. Armenians, at this time minorities in these empires, defined themselves as part of local, regional, and global identities, and collaborated with others to make an impact on concepts like constitutionalism, federalism, and socialism.

To explore the connections between Armenians and 20th-century revolutions, Berberian scoured both digital and physical archives, from the Armenian Revolutionary Archives in Watertown, Massachusetts, to archives and libraries in Vienna, Paris, and Armenia. She searched for correspondence as well as revolutionary pamphlets and newspapers published by revolutionaries and for revolutionaries. She then brought the bigger picture of this historical timeframe into focus, noting the significant convergence of advancements in transportation—railroads, steamships and the telegraph—and the development of the printing press. These advancements enabled the movement of the revolutionaries themselves and their ideas.

One archival find, a 1908 full-page illustration in the Armenian-language satirical weekly Khat‘abala (Trouble), features a simplified depiction of the Ottoman Empire arched by a banner-like rainbow that reads “CONSTITUTION.” Represented are several ethnicities whose body language and postures portray different points of view, and allegiance, to the idea of constitutionalism. The Armenian portrayed directs his outstretched arms and gaze across Anatolia toward the Balkans possibly in admiration of the revolutionary movements of Balkan peoples or even solidarity.

“The illustration no doubt represents a complex, newly constitutional Ottoman world. It also presents a way for us to comprehend the rather nuanced relationship of Armenians to the period’s global craze of constitutionalism in three empires and revolutionary movements,” says Berberian. The image makes up the cover of her book.

Roving Revolutionaries is the first book of its kind to take a connected histories and global approach to these revolutions and Armenians, illuminating how historical movements and revolutions have relied on networks of people and ideas. Because Armenians did not have a state of their own (the Republic of Armenia was not established until 1918), they were invested in the revolutions of the empires to which they belonged. Common ideology among the three—Russian, Ottoman and Iranian—were ideas of representation, freedom of speech, constitutionality, popular sovereignty, assembly, and democracy. Armenian revolutionaries did not see themselves as passive agents in these revolutions. Instead, they actively collaborated with others and contributed militarily and ideologically to varying degrees and rates of success to all three revolutions. “They saw that their future was deeply connected to the future and situation of their neighbors,” Berberian says.

“I hope this book brings world history to the Armenians and Armenians to world history,” Berberian says. “I am more convinced than ever that expanding our lens to explore larger regional and global contexts opens up multiple worlds of richness, possibilities, and interconnections.”

Roving Revolutionaries: Armenians and the Connected Revolutions in the Russian, Iranian, and Ottoman Worlds (University of California Press, 2019) is available in early April.

This fall, students at UCI will be able to declare for the first time a minor in Armenian studies.

Photo credit: Steve Zylius/UCI