Simon Vratsian (1882–1969; his last name was originally Գռուզինեան=Gruzinean) was born in the northern Caucasus, near Nor Nakhichevan. He joined the Dashnakts‘ut‘iwn (Armenian Revolutionary Federation, ARF) in 1898, “mistakenly believing he was joining the Hnchaks: He had entered the wrong room in a building where both the Hnchaks and the Dashnaks were holding meetings.” He was a delegate at the 1907 party congress in Vienna, and became part of the ARF leadership. From 1911 to 1914 he served as editor of the Hayrenik‘ daily newspaper in Boston, later serving as editor of Horizon in Tiflis from 1917-18. In 1918 he took up various important roles in the newly established Republic, including serving in Parliament, as Minister of Labor and Agriculture and State Property, and briefly from November 23, 1920, to December 2, 1920, as Prime Minister—the last to hold that position.
On December 2, 1920, power was officially transferred to the Bolshevik Revolutionary Committee. Vratsian became the leader of the Committee for the Salvation of the Fatherland which spearheaded the February Uprising in 1921. In April 1921, Soviet troops occupied Armenia, and Vratsian escaped with thousands of Armenians to Iran, later following the road of exile to Paris. From 1924-1933 he was the editor of Droshak in Paris and in 1928 published Hayastani Hanrapetutʻiwn. He was the author of several other books, including Ankakh ew Miatsʻeal Hayastan (Անկախ եւ Միացեալ Հայաստան), 1920; Hayastaně Bolshewikean Murchi ew Tʻrkʻakan Sali Mijew (Հայաստանը Բոլշեւիկեան մուրճի եւ Թրքական սալի միջեւ), 1941; and the 6-volume memoir Keankʻi ughinerov (Կեանքի ուղիներով = On the Path of Life), 1955-1967; and from 1933-1939 published and edited the journal of history and culture Vem.
In 1952, after the death of Levon Shant‘, Vratsian became the principal of the Nshan Palanjian Jemaran in Beirut, holding that position until his death in 1969. It was during this time that he met a young man from Tulare, CA, named Richard Hovannisian (for which, see below).
The first edition of Hayastani Hanrapetutʻiwn was printed in Paris in 1928 and funded by the ARF Central Committee of USA. Its 529 pages are divided into 3 parts: Part I consists of 15 chapters covering the period leading up to the formation of the Republic of Armenia; Part II consists of 16 chapters on the Republic of Armenia until 1920; and Part III consists of 3 chapters and includes important documents.
In his introduction, Vratsian explains that he has no intention of recording only the good and avoiding the bad events. His stated goal is to present the historical truth, with documents, and to present all events with a proper balance. He writes:
They [opponents of the Republic] are working hard to make the past look darker. Isn’t it that the darker the night, the brighter the stars? This book is to remind the forgetful people of facts that should not be forgotten, and to show the new generation the life the Republic of Armenia lived.
Thirty years later saw the publication of the 2nd edition of Hayastani Hanrapetutʻiwn, in Beirut (Tparan Mshak). In addition to incorporating many revisions by the author, the volume, which runs to 684 pages, also includes Vratsian’s 1941 publication Hayastaně Bolshewikean Murchi ew Tʻrkʻakan Sali Mijew (Armenia Between the Bolshevik Hammer and the Turkish Crescent) and Vratsian’s chapter contained in the 1926 volume Mayisi 28, published in Paris by the ARF.
In its introduction, Vratsian explains:
This book was first published in 1928 in May, on the tenth anniversary of Armenia’s independence, and within a few months, 2,500 copies were completely sold out. After that, for more than 30 years, more than once, especially by the new generation, there has been a desire for this book to be published in a new edition, but neither the Central Committee of the ARF, which undertook the first edition, nor anyone else has honored this wish. The author himself was not able to undertake such a wholesale publication.
Unfortunately, today due to daily worries the Armenian intelligentsia of the diaspora is not able to conduct historical research and produce new works. The republishing of this volume aims to fill that gap.
In the afterword, Vratsian provides a sort of summing up, which merits quoting at some length:
Forty years have passed since the birth of the Republic of Armenia on May 28, 1918, but the idea of independence has not yet become a common national consciousness of the Armenians. There are Armenians who deny the existence of the Republic. And yet, the fact remains. History cannot be erased by denial. …
Time is a decisive factor in the assessment of historical events and the change of generations over time. However, forty years were not enough to quench the passions around Armenia, and the idea of independence took its rightful place in the general consciousness of the Armenian people. But no matter how short, now time plays its role. The historiography of Yerevan [i.e., Soviet Armenian], with its hesitation, has already begun to show a positive attitude towards some events related to the Republic of Armenia. ... We will not be surprised if May 28 is adopted by the Bolsheviks tomorrow. Let them appropriate. The important thing is not who is the author of historical events, the important thing is the events. ... If the struggles that led to the establishment of the independent Armenian state on May 28, 1918, had not taken place, and the first Republic of Armenia did not exist with its national character and structure, today Soviet Armenia with its national character and structure would not exist. …
Regimes are a temporary phenomenon. Leaders are also temporary. Nations and homelands and peoples sitting in their homeland are eternal. The freedom-loving Armenian people are eternal, who, by dying, created the independence of the homeland.
Times are full of events. History is not over. We believe that Armenia will again be free and independent, with wider national borders. To be able to give a place in his bosom to all the children in the diaspora who have been blown away by the world.
The Republic of Armenia continues to live in the heart of the Armenian people as a lasting memory of the past and as a lively hope for the future.
When Vratsian wrote (as quoted above) that due to “daily worries the Armenian intelligentsia of the diaspora is not able to conduct historical research and produce new works,” he was pointing out the fact that Armenian Studies as we now understand the term did not yet exist. Vratsian, like others, including the founders of NAASR, saw that there was a need for professional, trained scholars to engage in the kind of research and publication work that would properly illuminate all aspects of Armenia’s history and culture. The establishment of permanent programs and university chairs in Armenian Studies, a process begun in the 1950s by NAASR, would lead to this kind of scholarly production that continues to grow exponentially today.
One of early beneficiaries of this process—as well as someone who contributed substantially to its acceleration—was Richard G. Hovannisian. Hovannisian’s 4-volume The Republic of Armenia, building on his earlier Armenia on the Road to Independence (1967), stands today as the definitive work on the difficult birth of the modern Armenian state, and Hovannisian pioneered the study of modern Armenian history and through his work as a writer and teacher has given it legitimacy and standing in academic circles.
The son of genocide survivors who settled in the vicinity of Fresno, CA, Hovannisian became almost the embodiment of Vratsian’s hopes, a diasporan Armenian intellectual who would write the history of the Republic. Hovannisian spoke with NAASR’s Ani Babaian and Marc Mamigonian on May 22. We present excerpts from that conversation.
Hovannisian: I was in Beirut to learn Armenian in 1955-56, and it was a challenge for me because I had determined that this [i.e., Hayastani Hanrapetutʻiwn] was the book I had to read. I got there in September of 1955 and recognized the Armenian letters but I couldn’t read—I could paste words together—and so I spent many hours a day and surprised everybody, including Baron Vratsian, in that I completed reading that book by December, that is by Christmas. … I didn't know the vocabulary, and Vratsian’s style is also a mixture of Eastern Armenian and Western Armenian, more Eastern Armenian than Western Armenian, and it was a challenge. When I finished it in December before Christmas, I went to Baron Vratsian and said, “see, I finished the book,” and he looked at me awry—he didn't quite believe me. And then I asked him—this is a famous story I love—in Eastern Armenian salaries are known as rojig, and for us Western Armenians rojig is a sweet, you know, a confection, and so I said “Baron Vratsian, didn’t you have any money so you paid people with rojig?” At that point he understood that I had read the book even if I hadn’t understood everything he had written.
Mamigonian: In your grandson Garin’s book (Family of Shadows) it says that Vratsian had “developed the secret conviction that Richard himself would one day write the true history of the Republic of Armenia.” Did you yourself have that conviction when you first read the book?
Hovannisian: No, not at all, but I did have the conviction that I wanted to write about that period of time, because it was so important and so controversial. Especially in the United States our communities were split apart by the symbolic meaning of the tricolor—one segment virtually idolized it as a symbol of freedom and independence to be redeemed and the others saw it as a symbol of misery and horror that was overcome only by Armenia becoming a part of the Soviet system and having the protection of the Soviet Red Army. They were both right and they were both wrong. We were, in those times, rather fundamentalist we didn’t relativize very much, so I wanted to sort of bring this Republic out of the shadows, the shadows of ignorance and prejudice that prevailed. Because everyone on all sides really didn't know that much about it, and most of us were Western Armenian diasporans who hadn’t lived there and haven't lived through it. So, that was my mission, but I didn't think that I would be doing a definitive history or competing with Simon Vratsian.
Mamigonian: If you look at Vratsian’s book now from the perspective of a historian, what do you think the value of the book is as a work of history?
Hovannisian: I find it really surprising and a bit amazing that an actor in the Republic, that is, he was the last Prime Minister of the Republic, could less than ten years later write a rather comprehensive and balanced history of it. Like myself he was sympathetic to the concept of Armenian independence, but at the same time he showed the difficulties and challenges the Republic faced. And to do this just a few years later, it’s quite impressive, so I found myself going back to the volume repeatedly.
Ani Babaian: There were people who were not really happy with the book, and with the republication in 1958 and some of the changes Vratsian made.
Hovannisian: This was a time—and I am not talking about the 1950s, I’m talking about the 1920s—when there was a strong degree of criticism, some self-criticism and criticism in general—criticism of the party itself—because they had lost power and been expelled from Armenia. And one needs to find if there was another option or alternative. This was also the time of former Prime Minister Hovhannes Kajaznuni who wrote the mea culpa H.H. Dashnakts‘utiwně anelik‘ chuni ayl ews, which was sort of his visa to be able to go back to Armenia even though in the end they liquidated him.
Mamigonian: When you think about Vratsian’s book and your own 4-volume work what, in your mind, anyway, is the relationship between the two?
Hovannisian: My works use Vratsian as a sort of guide, but they go much beyond that because Vratsian did not have access to the archives that I had. I was able with my wife Vartiter to travel to various countries and dig into the archives there which revealed a lot. I mean, just enormous amounts of primary material including reports from British officials and representatives in Tiflis, Yerevan, Baku, the internal squabbles among the British on how they should behave or what attitude they should assume regarding the Caucasian Republics in general and Armenia in particular, the internal squabbles among the big powers, etc. That’s why my history is more, I think, a history of the world in the post world war period, because you really can't understand what was happening in the Armenian Republic unless you understand about Woodrow Wilson and what his policies were, why he didn't get along with his Senate and why they killed the mandate, and how all of these issues are interrelated. I tried to put the Republic into that larger context, which doesn’t always satisfy a reader who wants a quick answer or quick information.
Mamigonian: A couple of years ago when the centennial of the first Republic was being observed and commemorated you took part in a lot of those events. What is it like for you to have seen—and to have played a significant role in—a shift in the perception of the first Republic over the course of your life and your career?
Hovannisian: Well, it’s to be welcomed. It’s interesting that even in the years when I was writing this book as a sort of counter view to the Soviets and I would go to Armenia, even then, on the side, the Soviet scholars would take me aside and say how happy they were that I was writing this history that they couldn't write. They would try to facilitate whatever I did—they sent me hundreds of books and so forth. Even the director of the archives—a very nice man, a good communist—when I got to know him quite well he even took me into the inner sanctum of the archive to show me file after file of the Republic of Armenia, saying this is where your material is. It was an irony, because I knew I couldn’t ask him to open them and he knew that he couldn’t open them without getting in great trouble, but it showed that there was silent support. I think it was actually more difficult for the diaspora to accept the Republic than it was for Soviet Armenia. The transition has been made, and I don’t think there’s much of a controversy about the flag. There may still be controversy about certain aspects of the Republic, and of course it wasn't a perfect place. These were political leaders who had no or very little governmental ruling experience and they stepped into a quagmire of death and destruction, genocide and civil war, and they only had two and a half years or three years to try to bring Armenia out of what Hovhannes Kajaznuni called andzev kaos, formless chaos, and they did a pretty good job.
Click here to view Richard Hovannisian's Dec. 3, 2015, NAASR lecture "The First Republic of Armenia and Its Importance Today."
- Poster of coat of arms of Armenia, published in 1949 by H. Babessian. (From NAASR Mardigian Library.)
- Simon Vratsian (from hairenik.com)
- Cover of NAASR library copy of Vrats‘ean, Ankakh ew Miats‘eal Hayastan (=Independent and United Armenia; Poston: Tparan “Hayrenik‘”, 1920)
- Cover of NAASR Library copy of the first edition of Hayastani Hanrapetutʻiwn (Pariz, 1928)
- Cover of NAASR Library copy of the second edition of Hayastani Hanrapetutʻiwn (Pēyrut‘, 1958)
- Spread of opening pages of 1958 edition of Hayastani Hanrapetutʻiwn
- Covers of the four volumes of Richard Hovannisian’s The Republic of Armenia (Berkeley, CA: Univ. of California Press, 1971-1996)
- Richard Hovannisian, on Zoom with Marc Mamigonian and Ani Babaian (Courtesy of Ani Hovannisian Kevorkian.)
- Simon Vratsian speaking at the Jemaran (Courtesy of the Hovannisian family.)
- Richard Hovannisian (in red) and students at Nshan Palanjian Jemaran in Beirut, ca. 1956 (Courtesy of the Hovannisian family.)
- Vartan Gregorian, Nazik Kotcholosian, Khenguhi Kotcholosian, Simon Vratsian, Richard Hovannisian, Fresno, 1958 (Courtesy of the Hovannisian family.)
- Vartiter and Richard Hovannisian with Simon Vratsian; at right, Kaspar Hovannisian, Tulare, 1958 (Courtesy of the Hovannisian family.)