Radical Roots: On the Origins of the ARF

By: | Posted on: 06.05.2014

In Mikael Varantian’s classic biography of Simon Zavarian, he asks how it came to be that a people who were as downtrodden, divided and passive as Armenians ended up creating a movement as revolutionary as the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF).

His answer: remember the founding generation. Varantian implores his readers to get to know Zavarian, Kristapor Mikayelian, Stepan Zorian (Rosdom) and others who built the organization.

So, just who were the founders exactly? What were their philosophies and backgrounds? What brought them to form and propel the ARF the way they did?

These are complex questions with no single answer. But over the years, I’ve found that there is a glaring, overwhelmingly important factor that’s rarely discussed.

Namely, all three founders were active in Russian revolutionary circles prior to their involvement in Armenian affairs. They were members of Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will), a Russian revolutionary group that shook the world with its assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. They were followers of the federalist, non-Marxist wing of the socialist movement. This involvement had a major impact on every aspect of what would later become the ARF.

Let’s start first with the initial mission of the ARF, which was to organize all groups concerned with Armenian liberation and channel their energies into a unified force. This was essentially the same mission of the Russian revolutionaries who, as propagated by people like Mikhail Bakunin, sought to unify fragmented peasant uprisings in the countryside into a single calculated popular revolution. The founders clearly took inspiration from this strategy and transferred its core tenets to the Armenian plane.

The decentralized organizational structure of the ARF is an even more telling example. At a time when most revolutionary movements operated in a top down hierarchy, the founders emphasized local autonomy and initiative from below.  They adhered to the socialist model of free and independent organization “from below upward”, “not by the orders of any authority . . . but as a result of the natural development of all the varied demands put forth by life itself.” This was the prerequisite for revolution espoused by Bakunin, Alexander Herzen, Peter Kropotkin, and other influential Russian revolutionaries.  And it was this decentralization that made the ARF stand out and attract members throughout the Armenian world.

Even the name Dashnaktsutyun (Federation) itself is emblematic of where the founders drew their influence. The Russian socialist movement was known the world over for its emphasis on federation as a principle—as opposed to the statist, top-down approach of the Marxist dictatorship of the proletariat. They envisioned a new society where agricultural cooperatives, workers’ associations, voluntary communities, and provinces would be federated up into nations and then, in the more distant future, joined together under international brotherhood.

The ARF adopted this principle of federation not only for its internal structure, but also for its external policy. The founders called for local autonomy and democratic federation within the Ottoman Empire and Transcaucasia. They did not define independence as forming a separate state. They advocated for an autonomous Armenia federated together with other nations under a constitutional, democratic order. In fact, national independence did not even officially enter the platform of the ARF until 1919—one year after the First Republic had already been established.

What about the ARF’s famous call to go “depi yerkir” (toward the homeland)? Again, this was an appropriation of the Russian Khozhdeni v narod (going to the people) movement. In the summer of 1874, thousands of Russian youth left their homes, schools, and universities and went to the countryside to make direct contact with the peasantry. They lived among the people, studied their problems, integrated into their lifestyle, and tried to foment revolt. The movement ultimately failed, but it had a major demonstration effect. Nearly all of those who later founded Narodnaya Volya came from this movement.

Its philosophy also affected Mikayelian, Zavarian and other founders who went back to their villages and communities after graduating school in Russia. They worked with the Armenian peasantry, served in schools and organized revolutionary groups. The concept later carried over to the fedayee movement in Western Armenia and has resurfaced in more recent times, with the Artsakh movement and re-independence of Armenia.

Another important concept that influenced the activities of the ARF was “propaganda by the deed.” This was the idea that daring revolutionary actions are important not only onto themselves but also for awakening consciousness. In a closed authoritarian society, getting your message across is a difficult task. Events such as the assassination of the Tsar proved that direct action could do more for inspiring resistance than thousands of pamphlets. Such acts were seen as important supplements to oral and written propaganda in order to bring about transformation in society.

The early years of the ARF were characterized by such actions, including the attempted assassination of Sultan Abdul Hamid, the takeover of the Ottoman Bank, and the Khanasor Expedition, to name a few. ARF leaders regularly referred to the importance of action in waking up the masses and the concept carried on into later activities such as Operation Nemesis and Zinyal Baykar (Armed Struggle).

The parallels are countless (too many, in fact, to cover in such a short space). From its structure, to its political program, to its actions, and even its slogans, the ARF was heavily shaped by Russian radical currents. In the words of the prominent ARF figure Vahan Navasartian, “There is no denying that our organization has on it the stamp of the Russian liberation movement.”

More important than the actual similarities, however, is the point that the founders were not afraid to draw from outside experiences to deepen their own people’s struggle. Their involvement in non-Armenian activism helped inform their worldview and led them to make pivotal contributions to their nation. In fact, even after forming the ARF, they stayed engaged with other revolutionary movements their entire lives.

It is worth asking how relevant these roots of the ARF are for us today. Over a century later, as we grapple with similar problems of oppression, division, and passivity, we should ask ourselves what we can learn from the example and principles set forth by that revolutionary founding generation.


*This article is reprinted from our sister publication, Haytoug (AYF- Western Region, USA)

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