Mount Ararat, towering symbol of Armenia, is an awful reminder of wrongs unrighted
by Robert Fisk
Published: 04 August 2007
There is nothing so infinitely sad – so pitiful and yet so courageous – as a people who yearn to return to a land for ever denied them; the Poles to Brest Litovsk, the Germans to Silesia, the Palestinians to that part of Palestine that is now Israel. When a people claim to have settled again in their ancestral lands – the Israelis, for example, at the cost of “cleansing” 750,000 Arabs who had perfectly legitimate rights to their homes – the world becomes misty eyed. But could any nation be more miserably bereft than one which sees, each day, the towering symbol of its own land in the hands of another?
Mount Ararat will never return to Armenia – not to the rump state which the Soviets created in 1920 after the Turkish genocide of one and a half million Armenians – and its presence to the west of the capital, Yerevan, is a desperate, awful, permanent reminder of wrongs unrighted, of atrocities unacknowledged, of dreams never to be fulfilled. I watched it all last week, cloud-shuffled in the morning, blue-hazed through the afternoon, ominous, oppressive, inspiring, magnificent, ludicrous in a way – for the freedom which it encourages can never be used to snatch it back from the Turks – capable of inspiring the loftiest verse and the most execrable commercialism.
There is a long-established Ararat cognac factory in Yerevan, Ararat gift shops – largely tatty affairs of ghastly local art and far too many models of Armenian churches – and even the Marriott Ararat Hotel, which is more than a rung up from the old Armenia Two Hotel wherein Fisk stayed 15 years ago, an ex-Soviet Intourist joint whose chief properties included the all-night rustling of cockroach armies between the plaster and the wallpaper beside my pillow.
Back in the Stalinist 1930s, Aleksander Tamanian built an almost fascistic triumphal arch at one side of Republic Square through which the heights of Ararat, bathed in eternal snow, would for ever be framed to remind Armenians of their mountain of tears. But the individualism of the descendants of Tigran the Great, whose empire stretched from the Caspian to Beirut, resisted even Stalin’s oppression. Yeghishe Charents, one of the nation’s favourite poets – a famous philanderer who apparently sought the Kremlin’s favours – produced a now famous poem called “The Message”. Its praise of Uncle Joe might grind the average set of teeth down to the gum; it included the following: “A new light shone on the world./Who brought this sun?/… It is only this sunlight/Which for centuries will stay alive.” And more of the same.
Undiscovered by the Kremlin’s censors for many months, however, Charents had used the first letter of each line to frame a quite different “message”, which read: “O Armenian people, your only salvation is in the power of your unity.” Whoops! Like the distant Mount Ararat, it was a brave, hopeless symbol, as doomed as it was impressive. Charents was “disappeared” by the NKVD in 1937 after being denounced by the architect Tamanian – now hard at work building Yerevan’s new Stalinist opera house – the moment Charents’ schoolboy prank was spotted. Then Tamanian fell from the roof of his still unfinished opera house, and even today Armenians – with their Arab-like desire to believe in “the plot” – ask the obvious questions. Did the architect throw himself to his death in remorse? Or was he pushed?
Plots live on in the country that enjoyed only two years of post-genocide independence until its 1991 “freedom” from the decaying Soviet Union. Its drearily re-elected prime minister, Serzh Sargsyan, permits “neutral” opposition but no real political debate – serious opponents would have their parties and newspapers closed down – and he recently told the local press that “the economy is more important than democracy”. Not surprising, I suppose, when the corrupt first president of free Armenia, Petrossyan, is rumoured to be plotting a comeback. Sargsyan even tried to throw the American Radio Liberty/Free Europe station out of Armenia – though I suppose that’s not necessarily an undemocratic gesture.
Nonetheless, interviewed by Vartan Makarian on an Armenian TV show this week, I found it a bit hard to take when Vartan suggested that my Turkish publisher’s fear of bringing out my book on the Middle East – complete with a chapter on the 1915 Armenian genocide – was a symbol of Turkey’s “lack of democratisation”. What about Armenia’s pliant press, I asked? And why was it that present-day Armenia seemed to protest much less about the 20th century’s first holocaust than the millions of Armenians in the diaspora, in the US, Canada, France, Britain, even Turkish intellectuals in Turkey itself? The TV production crew burst into laughter behind their glass screen. Guests on Armenian television are supposed to answer questions, not ask them. Long live the Soviet Union.
But you have to hand it to the journalists of Yerevan. Each August, they all go on holiday. At the same time. Yup. Every editor, reporter, book reviewer, columnist and printer packs up for the month and heads off to Lake Sevan or Karabakh for what is still called, Soviet-style, a “rest”. “We wish all our readers a happy rest-time and we’ll be back on August 17th,” the newspaper Margin announced this week. And that was that. No poet may die, no Patriotic War hero expire, no minister may speak, no man may be imprisoned, lest his passing or his words or incarceration disappear from written history. I encourage the management of The Independent to consider this idea; if only we had operated such a system during the rule of the late Tony Blair… But no doubt a civil servant would have emailed him that this was a “good time” to announce bad news.
In any event, a gloomy portrait of the poet-martyr Charents now adorns Armenia’s 1,000 dram note and Tamanian’s massive arch still dominates Republic Square. But the dying Soviet Union constructed high-rise buildings beyond the arch and so today, Ararat – like Charents – has been “disappeared”, obliterated beyond the grey walls of post-Stalinist construction, the final indignity to such cloud-topped, vain hopes of return. Better by far to sip an Ararat cognac at the Marriott Ararat Hotel from which, at least, Noah’s old monster can still be seen.
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