Déjà Vu All Over Again

Sketches of [a] Karabakh Soldier:
Memoirs of a participant in the events of 1918-1920 in Karabakh

By Zareh Melik-Shahnazarov
Translated from Russian to English by Igor Astapov
Schwarz Publishers, 1996, Moscow
Book review by Lucine Kasbarian

“You have to know the past to understand the present.”
-Carl Sagan, American astronomer

Imagine this scenario:

  • The “powers that be” are doing everything to hinder the reunification of Karabakh (Artsakh) with Armenia.
  • Azeris are promising autonomy to Armenians if they submit to Azeri rule, only to follow up with massacres and/or expulsion.
  • Turkic pseudo-historians and propagandists are falsely presenting Armenians as oppressing the Azeris.
  • Turkic groups are selecting religious holidays upon which to commence massacring Armenians so as to better rouse religious fanatics.
  • Azeri and Turkish troops are blocking transport arteries and imposing a starvation siege upon the Armenians.
  • Turkish and Azeri militants are attempting to sever Zangezur (Syunik) from the rest of Armenia.
  • Foreign peacekeeping troops are aiding the Azeri aggressors instead of protecting the Armenian targets.
  • Turkish and Azeri battalions are massacring Armenian civilians—women, children and the elderly.
  • Blinded by Baku’s oil deposits, European interventionists wishing to curry favor with Azerbaijan are foiling the Armenians.
  • Turkish officers and military advisors are embedded in and are guiding the Azeri infantry.
  • Turkish and Azeri militaries are acquiring, stockpiling and stealing advanced foreign weaponry to use on the Armenians.
  • Traitors within the Armenian ranks are issuing false directives to soldiers to retreat, and selling out their country for personal gain and security.

Sounds like the 2020-2024 invasions of Artsakh, yes?

Not quite. The above also describes the assaults on the Armenians by the very same actors in 1918-1920.

The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 saw the Russians team up with the Turks and Azeris (then called Tatars) to eliminate the native Armenian population of Artsakh and establish their dominance throughout the Transcaucasus. Of course, the Turkic groups simultaneously devised a plan to drive the Russians out of the region, as well.

The author, Zareh Melik-Shahnazarov was born into the noble family of Melik-Shahnazarian of Shushi. The Melik-Shahnazarian dynasty gave the Armenian nation and the Russian army 50 officers as well as diplomats. A relative, Davit Shahnazarian, was a friend to Napoleon and his special envoy to Iran. Later he became the Persian ambassador to France. The author’s descendant, Ashot Melik-Shahnazarian, was the first ambassador and permanent representative of the Republic of Armenia to the United Nations in Geneva.

Melik-Shahnazarian’s personal account of Turkic religious fanaticism, sinister plots, invasions, terrorist strategies and treacheries reads like an espionage novel but is wholly based on fact. It is a snapshot of the robbed childhood of an Artsakh-born boy describing the destruction and occupation of his beloved cosmopolitan Shushi. Shahnazarian served as a chronicler, scout, infantryman and officer for the people of Artsakh under the capable leadership of his father, Samson Melik-Shahnazarian as well as General Karekin Njdeh.

Written in the plain language of a 15 year-old instructed by his commander father to document everything he saw during military actions and everyday life (“No distortions!”, his father insisted), these accounts are raw, immediate, highly descriptive and equal parts restrained and emotional. For his citations, Shahnazarian earned the moniker “the little historian.”

Even for the casual observer, the events in the book and the actions that followed right up until the present day leave no doubt that the intention to eliminate Armenians from their native homelands is not a new concept—it has been a long-held strategy of successive Turkic leaderships.

In the battle for Shushi, what advantages did the Armenians possess?

Love of their ancient homeland, an esprit de corps among the combatants, a knack for military strategy, discipline, superior hand-to-hand combat ability—which the Turkics feared and sought to avoid at all costs, personal courage, and the ability of women to aid the self-defense effort by feeding and clothing the troops and by forming their own battalions. The Armenian heroism superseded any sacrifice depicted in oft-touted military motion pictures such as Gunga Din.

What disadvantages did the Armenians possess?

Even though the Armenians “punched above their weight category,” they were outnumbered and outgunned by the Turkic terror brigades. The Armenians no longer possessed oil reserves to attract and bargain with potential allies. Their chivalry worked to their disadvantage: The Armenians did not target civilians, did not torture or murder captured combatants and did not betray Russia nor abrogate military and diplomatic agreements — all which were not reciprocated. Lastly and most devastatingly, the Armenians were betrayed by traitors.

One would venture to say that the same advantages and disadvantages hold true today.

Sketches of [a] Karabakh Soldier offers us this lesson: When Armenians suppress their egos and collaborate under the guidance of patriotic, trustworthy and competent leaders, they are a force to be reckoned with. If Armenians do not finally learn this lesson (and put their resources behind military academies and a home-grown arms industry), they will arrogantly dance their way into extinction.

This slim volume is a playbook with which to move forward. At 100 pages that can be read in one sitting, this is the one book Armenians should read this year. To locate a copy, contact this writer at Lucine Kasbarian | Facebook.

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Lucine Kasbarian is a journalist, book publicist and political cartoonist.

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