Armenia’s Forgotten Founding Fathers

Author: Suren Stepanyan
Edition: Memory

Armenia’s First Republic, formed on May 28, 1918, marked a return to Armenian statehood after 543 years. It provided not only independence, but a country in which thousands of ethnic Armenians, fleeing genocide in neighboring Ottoman Turkey, could take shelter. Yet today, most Armenians pay little or no attention to this period. Some fear that two of the founding fathers of the First Republic -- Interior Minister Aram Manukyan and Prime Minister Hovhannes Kajaznuni -- have simply been forgotten.

Aram Manukyan photographed several months before his death in 1919 in Yerevan.
This photo of Hovhannes Kadjaznuni was taken in New York City during his 1919 trip to the US.

The possible reasons for this memory lapse vary. The government’s lifespan was short: just over two and a half years, until December 1920, when power was ceded to the Bolsheviks. In the ensuing decades, the First Republic was not a topic for public discussion. That changed when Armenia regained its independence in 1991, but history classes still pay the era scant attention.

Every year, though, Armenia celebrates May 28 as its Republic Day, an official holiday complete with concerts and speeches. But attention falls mostly on the three Armenian defeats of Ottoman Turks that preceded the republic’s foundation (Sardarabad, Gharakilisa and Bash-Aparan). This was the moment, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan stated in 2017, when “our ancestors won their right to live.” He did not mention the First Republic.

Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan and other senior officials during 2017 celebrations for Republic Day at the Sardarabad Memorial.

To some historians, however, the First Republic and the battles that preceded it are interlinked. As the administrative head of Yerevan, Manukyan had organized the May 1918 defense of the city against invading Ottoman Turks, leading to their defeat at the Battle of Sardarabad.

He went on to serve as interior minister in the First Republic before dying of typhus in early 1919 at the age of 39.

Kajaznuni, a professional architect, became prime minister during these same chaotic days in May 1918, when Armenia was struggling to cope with famine, refugees and the threat of annihilation by outside invaders. A proponent of multi-party government and ties with Western powers, he served at his post until 1919, when he was sent as a government envoy to the United States.

Prime Minister Hovhannes Kajaznuni sits in his office in the First Republic’s government building in 1919.

With the Bolsheviks’ advent to power, he took refuge initially in Romania, but later returned to Armenia to continue his work as an architect, teaching at Yerevan State University and collaborating with famed architect Alexander Tamanyan. Kajaznuni was arrested in 1937, during the Great Terror, and subsequently died in prison. journalist Tatul Hakobyan, who is researching the First Republic, does not recall a Republic Day when state officials spoke about the historic roles of Aram Manukyan or Hovhannes Kajaznuni or visited their houses or family cemetery plots.

“I am sure that most of the top officials do not even know [the plots’] place and condition, and some of them might have not even heard of the two statesmen,” Hakobyan claims. journalist Tatul Hakobyan, 49, stands near the Kajaznuni family’s grave, in an area with weeds and litter. He has launched a cleanup of the site.

Forgotten Graves

Only Manukyan’s grave still exists, lost amidst a jumble of graves in Yerevan’s vast Kentronakan graveyard, the country’s largest. Hakobyan believes Kajaznuni’s burial spot vanished  when the city’s Kozern Cemetery was destroyed in Soviet times.

Historian Mikle Babayan, the honorary president of the Union of Young Historians, notes that only 10 people visited Kajaznumi’s family plot on the 80th anniversary of his death last year and only five on the 150th anniversary of his birth this February. Such visitations are made within the Caucasus to convey respect.

Kajaznumi’s great-granddaughter, 60-year-old Ksenia Orlova, says that she thinks the former prime minister’s memory “is irreversibly forgotten.”

“We were surprised that none of these events [the anniversaries of Kajaznumi’s birth and death] was remembered on a state level,” Orlova, who lives in Moscow, emailed Chai Khana. “Only those who have respect toward his political career remembered him.”

Aram Manukyan’s family plot in the Kentronakan cemetery is surrounded by dozens of gravestones.
There is no designated path leading to Aram Manukyan’s gravestone, which survived the Soviet era.
Aram Manukyan’s wife, Karine Zalyan, a member of parliament and a doctor, is buried in Kentronakan next to him and the couple’s two sons.
Vandals have stolen a bronze medical emblem from the gravestone of Aram Manukyan’s wife, Karine Zalyan, a physician.
Chai Khana managed to find the Kajazuni family plot in Kentronakan by asking cemetery workers. The plot contains only a memorial (the slab in the center-left) for Prime Minister Hovhannes Kajaznuni, whose final resting place is unknown.
A memorial to Prime Minister Hovhannes Kajaznuni in the Kentronakan cemetery features the names of his children and wife. Journalist Tatul Hakobyan believes he was probably buried in Yerevan’s Kozern cemetery, which was demolished during the Soviet era.
Prime Minister Hovhannes Kajaznuni’s daughter, Margarita, erected this memorial to her father and other family members in Yerevan’s Kentronakan cemetery.

Members of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, commonly known as Dashnaks, often visit the grave of Manukyan, who has no direct descendants, but Hakobyan believes that considerable ambiguity exists among the party over Kajaznuni’s eventual acceptance of Soviet rule.  

The Armenian Revolutionary Federation does not accept this claim.

For now, two central Yerevan streets named for Manukyan and Kajaznuni are the clearest public testaments to their roles.  The Yerevan city government last year announced plans to build a statue of Manukyan, but no such plans have been announced for Kajaznuni; much to his family’s chagrin.

Spokesperson Artashes Shahbazyan blamed the lack of public interest in the First Republic on the Soviet Union labeling its officials as traitors and unsuccessful adventurers.

He agrees that more needs to be done to remember the First Republic. “The problem comes from the educational field. There is not enough information on the First Republic’s history neither in school, nor in university programs.”

Given that Education Minister Levon Mkrtchyan is a Dashnak, conceivably, that may change.

The party intends “to speak more about the First Republic figures, the phenomenon of statehood and its importance nowadays,” Shahbazyan says. The plans include TV shows, documentaries, debates and public lectures.

The Armenian Revolutionary Federation museum in Yerevan.
The Armenian Revolutionary Federation museum features one of Aram Manukyan's shirts, with threadbare sleeves and collar.

History Preserved, History Neglected

For now, much of the information about Manukyan and Kajaznuni lies in the Armenian Revolutionary Federation’s history museum in Yerevan. Anush Amseyan, the museum’s director, concedes, however, that few visitors come to learn about the history of the First Republic. The handful of people who visit the museum are either with school groups or want to learn about the Dashnaks’ own history, she says.

Other physical testimonies to  the two men’s past are scarce.

The headquarters of the First Republic at 37 Hanrapetutyan Street now houses a pizzeria.

Only the skeleton of Manukyan’s house on downtown Yerevan’s Arami Street is still standing. It features a plaque identifying it as the site of his death.

The building is privately owned and its ultimate fate is unclear. The street itself has lost nearly all of its historical buildings to new residential or commercial structures.

(Video footage by Davit Ayvazyan)

After 27 years of independence, drily remarks Babayan, the building could have been turned into a house museum documenting the First Republic.

The apartment where Prime Minister Kajaznuni lived -- at 4 Pushkin Street, also in downtown Yerevan --  currently contains a company office. The building and land belong to a construction company owned by influential real-estate developer Samvel Mayrapetyan.

Pushkin 4 has been designated an eminent-domain property and can be demolished. Local media report that a “multifunctional building” will be built in its place.  

A plaque on the wall of Aram Manukyan’s house in downtown Yerevan states that “Between 1917 - 1919, Aram Manukyan, the founder of the First Armenian Republic, lived and died here.”
“You live in freedom and independence due to such sons of the Armenian nation as Aram,” reads one poster (on the left) on the wall of Aram Manukyan’s former house. “Remember our heroes not just in toasts. Don’t be a ‘Bolshevik,” don’t litter,” urges the poster on the right.
Prime Minister Hovhannes Kajaznuni’s former residence at 4 Pushkin Street in Yerevan.
The derelict conditions inside the late Prime Minister Kajaznuni’s apartment-building mirror those in Aram Manukyan’s former residence.
In Soviet times, Prime Minister Kajaznuni’s residence was preserved as a building of architectural significance. It no longer has that protection.
A map of the USSR still hangs inside Prime Minister Kajaznuni’s ruined apartment building in Yerevan.

Orlova says that her family had hoped in the early 1990s for the opening of a house museum for Prime Minister Kajaznuni. His daughter, Margarita, who died in 1994, had assembled the necessary  items, she adds.

No signs exist that the government harbors such plans now.


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