Seminar: "Catastrophic Dialectics of Violence and Victimhood: The Armenian Regional Government in Van Province"

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Catastrophic Dialectics of Violence and Victimhood: The Armenian Regional Government in Van Province (May-July 1915)

Speaker: Yektan Türkyılmaz (Research fellow, Duke University Department of Cultural Anthropology)
Date:  December 27, 2012 Thursday
Time: 5.30 pm
Place: santralistanbul Campus, E1 301

In the representations of 1915, very few episodes became as much powerful referent symbols as the events of Van in 1915. From April to August 1915 the province became a scene for the most tragic occurrences, which resulted in the destruction of Ottoman city of Van, physically, culturally and demographically. Volumes of “scholarly” and popular histories have been devoted to depict what really happened in Van in the spring of 1915 in Armenian, Turkish, English and Russian languages. From the movie Ararat to life stories of Arshile Gorky to scholarly accounts of the Armenian genocide the “self-defense” of Van is a focal story in Armenian narratives of 1915 as a heroic and exemplary episode. The denialist versions of historical constructions locate the events as the vantage point of 1915 and a palpable evidence for the Armenian disloyalty. Both threads put the emphasis on the first period i.e., the Armenian uprising in the month of April. In contrast my talk addresses commonly ignored latter period of Van 1915, the short-lived experience of Armenian governorship in the province from May 8/21 to July 18/31and discusses the intricacies of the victimization of Van Armenians.

The already very precarious inter-communal co-existence of diverse ethnic and religious communities in the eastern provinces of the Ottoman Empire collapsed suddenly and violently in the course of the World War I.  The entire population of the area was disastrously affected by this collapse; yet, the Armenian communities of the region paid a disproportionate human cost due to the murderous forced deportation policy. The Armenians of the city of Van organized a successful one-month long armed resistance in April 1915. The occupation of the city by Russian troops accompanied by Armenian volunteer battalions in the early days of May spared the Armenians of the city from an imminent massacre.  At the same historical moment when the rest of the Ottoman Armenians were facing genocidal extermination at the hands of their own government, in Van an Armenian Governorship was created under the protégé of the occupying Russian armies on May 7/20, 1915. The Armenian government in the province of Van was short-lived (May 7/20-July 18/31, 1915); yet it is a unique experience of Armenian nation-state formation in Eastern Provinces. The new government –although had limited economic and political resources—implemented policies to create a prototypical nucleus of a possible future independent Armenia. Drawing on the papers of the Armenian Regional Government, Ottoman archival documents, periodicals published in the province, memoirs and secondary sources my paper explores, how in multiple diverse and often conflicting ways the Armenians of the province, became victims of the 1915 catastrophe.

This talk does not only address an extremely rarely visited historical episode but also raises theoretical questions around the complexities of communal victimhood and its political uses and implications.

Yektan Turkyilmaz received his Ph.D. from Duke University, Department of Cultural Anthropology. His dissertation titled, Rethinking Genocide: Violence and Victimhood in Eastern Anatolia, 1913-1915 explores the nature of political tensions and debates among the political elites on the eve of the Armenian genocide and offers a new perspective which moves beyond prevalent deterministic, escalationist and teleological formulations on the antecedents of the catastrophe. Turkyilmaz is currently a research fellow at Duke University Department of Cultural Anthropology.