Houri Berberian, Roving Revolutionaries: Armenians and the Connected Revolutions in the Russian, Iranian, and Ottoman Worlds (Oakland: UC Press, 2019).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book and how does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
Houri Berberian (HB): This book is both a departure and a continuation of my previous work.
My fascination with revolutions and revolutionaries dates back to my first book, which focused more closely on the Iranian Constitutional Revolution and Armenians, and the latter is something I pursued in shorter essays as well. Although the book indirectly addressed connections and crossings in the triangulated frontier empires of the Russians, Ottomans, and Iranians, it was not its main focus. I continued to develop my interest in early twentieth-century revolutions and revolutionaries and delved into world history in my teaching. Starting in 2008, I was introduced to the possibilities of connected histories, especially in relationship to the history and historiography of Armenians.
The graduate seminar I taught on comparative and connected revolutions in 2012 and the animated discussions we had in that seminar served to cement in my mind the necessity of a connected histories study on revolutions. I became convinced that expanding our lens to explore larger regional and global contexts opens up multiple worlds of richness, possibilities, and interconnections. This book is a product of my deepening commitment to excavating and examining the myriad connections and the meaningful ways in which those connections shape lives and histories, ties that may seem invisible at first, until we look closely and realize how ubiquitous and powerful they are.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
HB: This book explores the connectedness of the Russian, Ottoman, and Iranian revolutions by using the case of Armenian revolutionaries. The three revolutions coincided with revolutions in Portugal (1910), Mexico (1911), and China (1912). The revolutions in the Russian, Ottoman, and Iranian states drew strength from each other’s successes and attempted to effect change in their own particular environments. In all cases, but in varying degrees, these upheavals all involved, to some extent, the collaboration of linguistically and ethnically diverse imperial subjects and the adaptation of European Enlightenment ideas, as well as socialism in its many variants.
The book looks at the prevalent crisscrossing or circulation of Armenian activists, arms, and print through these revolutions and across the South Caucasus, Asia Minor, and Iran, as well as Europe, within the context of transformations in transportation and communication. It also analyzes the weight of ideas—like constitutionalism, federalism, and socialism—all of which filtered through the frontiers via revolutionaries and workers, as well as circulars and newspapers, and were adapted to or indigenized under local conditions.
I apply two key approaches to the study of these revolutions and Armenians that are both novel and absolutely crucial in understanding them. First, I employ a connected histories and—what I call—a “connected revolutions” approach, which I apply to the study of our three revolutions. By connected histories, I mean a systematic exploration of the circulation of ideas, individuals, and objects, and—in our case of Armenian revolutionaries—arms, print, and global ideologies. It is substantially different from comparative history in that it considers ideas, people, and objects not merely in relation to one another but through one another, in terms of relationships, interactions, and circulation.
Second, the study insists on a global approach by focusing on turn-of-the-twentieth-century global transformations that smoothed the road toward revolution and facilitated the circulation of revolutionaries. Critical to a meaningful understanding of these revolutions is an appreciation of the global context or conjuncture that allows us to see them beyond their regional setting and local particularities and in light of larger transformations. The extent of circulation of roving Armenian activists, arms, and global ideas that we witness at the turn of the twentieth century only becomes possible when we consider the role of new technologies like railways and telegraph and the proliferation of periodicals and books, all of which had a powerful effect on revolutionaries taking part in multiple struggles. The period in which these revolutions took place, particularly from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century, witnessed significant shifts in technologies of global communication and transportation that led to faster and therefore more frequent travel (by railway and steamship) and communication (by telegraph) across wider distances, thus shrinking the time it took to get to places near and far and giving the impression that the world had become smaller because it had become more easily accessible (David Harvey’s time-space compression). At the same time, the world seemed to expand because these same technologies made available a range of ideas, encounters, and exchanges, thus magnifying the available and reachable horizons. This two-pronged consequence of time-space compression, shrinking and expanding, was instrumental in connecting our revolutions because it made possible the circulation of revolutionary operatives and intellectuals as well as the ideas and ideologies that fuelled those revolutions.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
HB: I hope the book will reach a wide academic and lay audience, but I suspect scholars and students will get most from the book, particularly those who are interested in world history, the history of revolutions, as well as the history of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, of the South Caucasus, and more specifically of Armenians. I would be very pleased, of course, if it had a broad impact on a number of fields, disciplines and across academic and lay audiences and changed the way we think about and study revolutions and non-dominant groups, such as the Armenians, with a focus on connectivity rather than insularity or comparison.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
HB: I am currently preparing an essay about Armenian revolutionary Rubina who helped plan and herself attempted the assassination of Ottoman Sultan Abdülhamid II in 1905. The study explores the portrayal of Rubina by contemporaries and others, which has produced a highly gendered narrative at the cost of appreciating her truly revolutionary role–not only in the conventional sense but also revolutionary in terms of her gender. This essay will appear as a chapter in Age of Rogues: Rebels, Revolutionaries and Racketeers in Turn of the Century Eurasia Minor, edited by Ramazan Hakki Oztan & Alp Yenen (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2021) but is also part of a larger book project I am planning on late nineteenth/early twentieth-century Armenian revolutionaries’ use of political violence, from attempted assassinations of government officials to traitors and informers. In addition to exploring the local and regional circumstances of such acts, the study will also place these operations within the larger context of global terror tactics, including the closest examples from the Russian Empire, and examine them and their practitioners as part of a global transformation in political movements, organizations, and tactics.
J: What conclusions would you like readers to draw from your book?
HB: I would like readers to appreciate the importance of studying these three revolutions through connections and within their local, regional as well as broader global context. My engagement with a connected histories approach is in direct contrast to a comparative method which invariably privileges one side. So, I hope that readers will appreciate the novel application of this methodological model particularly in the case of the MENA region.
With the study, I would also like readers to recognize the significance of studying the place of less well-represented and little-studied peoples like the Armenians and to bring them out of the marginality they have at times inscribed for themselves—and others have inscribed for them—to foreground histories often hidden by national and nationalist approaches. In many ways, Armenians’ participation in three revolutions, their journeys across and within imperial frontiers, and their experimentation with global ideologies make them ideal subjects for grasping the connections between these early twentieth-century revolutions. Armenians were only one of many groups that, through their mobility, acted as connectors in history; for that reason, they should be viewed as one part of a larger whole within the wider regional and global context. However, they are also a unique group for investigation because they prepared for all the movements and participated in varying degrees in all three revolutions.
Last but not least, it is crucial for us to comprehend why they did so. They did so because they believed that the fate of the Armenian populations living in all three empires would benefit from revolutionary change and the promise of greater representation, social and economic justice, harmonious coexistence, and equality of all citizens. Therefore, the wider participation and collaboration in these revolutionary and constitutional movements must also be seen as part and parcel of the more limited Armenian struggle in the Ottoman and Russian Empires, as the campaigns and their participants were intertwined and informed by each other. Our revolutionaries saw the movements as connected and part of the same fight and, therefore, so should we.
Excerpt from the book
In October 1908 a full-page illustration appeared on the last page of the Armenian-language satirical weekly, Khatabala (Trouble), in Tiflis. It features a simplified depiction of the Ottoman Empire arched by a banner-like rainbow that reads “CONSTITUTION.” The backdrop is a cloudy, stormy sky. The seas are dark and tempestuous. Below the rainbow, in the center of the empire, stands a man identified as a Turk, with his back to the reader/viewer, holding a banner that proclaims “Unity, Equal[ity].” On his right, from the top, with expressions and postures that vary from attentiveness to ennui, are men identified as Kurd, Armenian (in red), Bedouin, Arab, and Jew. They hold banners that say “Autonomy,” but only the Armenian’s banner is upright. The others brush the ground. All except the Arab (depicted as black) and the Bedouin, both of whom are armed, are on their knees in submission or supplication. The Armenian’s posture, however, appears somewhat different than that of the other kneeling Ottoman subjects. His outstretched arms, along with his gaze, seem to be directed across Anatolia toward the Balkans, perhaps with respect or in support. In the Balkans, from right to left, are those identified as Albanian, Macedonian, and Greek. Between the Albanian and the Macedonian, standing slightly in the background, is an older, white-bearded, and rather meek man, who is not identified. These figures all hold banners of autonomy and are standing; the Macedonian and the Greek, however, hold rather agitated poses, with their banners unfurled in the air. The caption to the illustration is a poem:
Թող շողշողուն ծիածան Այս «նշանով հաշտութեան»
Ձեզ շաղկապէ, հէք ազգեր Թող դարման են ձեր վէրքեր
May the resplendent rainbow With this “sign of conciliation”
Conjoin you, poor nations May they remedy your wounds
How are we to interpret this illustration? How could this satirical portrayal of constitution and the relationship of the empire’s ethnicities to it reflect a real and complicated relationship with constitutionalism in the Ottoman Empire? Could it also perhaps even help us understand the contrasting Armenian views toward constitutionalism, in general, and toward specific constitutions in the Russian and Iranian states, as well as views on autonomy, unity, and equality? The Armenians’ complex relationship with constitutionalism is not unique to that concept; rather, it reflects a wider and equally multifaceted affiliation with other prevalent, global ideas and ideologies such as socialism, nationalism, and anarchism, particularly anarchist interpretations of federation, autonomy, and decentralization. Our frontier-crossing revolutionaries who traversed Eurasia in pursuit or in support of revolutionary transformation in the Russian, Iranian, and Ottoman Empires were also boundary crossers—that is, they navigated not only geographical expanses but also the world of global ideas and ideologies. They experimented, adopted, adapted, and even synthesized concepts and world visions according to the actual circumstances in which they lived and their own particular interests and aspirations. Their disagreements and debates over constitutionalism, federation and decentralization, and socialism and the national question in many ways mirror the disputes taking place contemporaneously among European (understood in its broadest and most extensive sense) leftists. They also reflect or are part of larger trends in the region, as the discussion in this and the following chapter demonstrate by drawing parallels when germane, especially with Georgians, Bulgarians, and Macedonians. This chapter and the next rely heavily on revolutionary Armenian-language periodicals and a number of books published in the revolutionary period by intellectuals and activists in the Russian, Ottoman, and Iranian Empires and in Europe. They represent the vibrant array of ideological and political leanings.
. . .
In this chapter, the focus is on the ways in which and the paths through which ideas moved as well as the ways revolutionaries accommodated and applied them. The chapter returns to the illustration with which it began to discuss constitutionalism’s place in the Armenian revolutionary discourse and then moves to federation, decentralization, and autonomy... This chapter seeks to answer the following questions, which are key to understanding how the circulation of global ideas contributed to connecting triangulated revolutions: How did ideas such as constitutionalism and federation motivate and inspire our revolutionaries? How did the revolutionaries understand these ideas? Which ideologues and theoreticians did they find appealing? In other words, what did they read, with what concepts did they engage, and whom did they reference and translate? How did their personal encounters and exchanges with thinkers in and from Western and Central Europe and Russia, as well as their keen awareness and deep familiarity with international leftist views, movements, publications, and world events, contribute to the mobility of ideas and revolutionaries’ ideological boundary crossings? How did they adapt ideas or mental constructs to their own reality, link them to their own objectives, and accommodate them to the revolutions for which they fought?
. . .
The illustration with which I began this chapter certainly gives us an idea of the perceptions of different ethnicities in relation to the Ottoman Empire. Even though they are all shown holding the banner of autonomy in response to or to accompany the banner of unity and equality, some seem to be more vehement advocates of autonomy than others. The Armenian is portrayed as somewhere between the aggressive Balkans on one side and the rather apathetic or dispirited Kurd, Bedouin, and Jew on the other. His banner is held high, although he himself is kneeling. The Turk takes center stage, representing his dominance in the empire’s power structure. Constitution is represented by the rainbow, symbolizing peace, rebirth, and promise. The illustration may be drawing from the story in Genesis, in which a great flood brought on by God to rid the world of humans who have corrupted the world and filled it with violence—an ancient form of man’s inhumanity to man—is followed by a rainbow signifying God’s covenant with man. In Genesis, God vows, “I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth. . . . I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh.” Following Genesis, if we understand the rainbow of constitution as a symbol of that covenant and covenant as “a formal agreement . . . between a superior and inferior party, the former ‘making’ or ‘establishing’ the bond with the latter,” then we can make sense of all the illustration’s symbolism, including the stormy clouds menacingly looming behind the rainbow. The constitution represents a covenant and a promise between the “superior” Ottoman state and its subjects not to rain violence upon them and instead to usher in a new period of unity and equality. The response of the “inferior” parties seems demoralized, hopeful, skeptical, or indignant. The poem, too, rings a note of promise and expresses a wish to “conjoin” with “conciliation” and to “remedy” past injuries. However, it does so in the context of and perhaps in contrast to competing visions or understandings of constitution.
The illustration no doubt represents a complex, newly constitutional Ottoman world. It also, however, opens a way for us to comprehend the rather nuanced relationship of Armenians to the period’s global craze of constitutionalism in three empires and revolutionary movements. Much has been written about the impact of the concept of constitutionalism on Russians, Iranians, and Ottomans.
. . .
The overwhelmingly positive view, not only throughout this region but also around the world, dominated the discourse on constitution and the aspirations of people worldwide.
Constitutionalism as an idea, a goal, and an actualized model had wide reach. News of constitutional struggles as well as pamphlets and books about constitutionalism circulated not only through telegraphy and print but also frontier-crossing revolutionaries who benefitted from the other turn-of-the-century marvels, the steamship and railroad. Thus, the idea of constitutionalism and its devotees connected revolutions at home and afar. Armenians pursued and sought constitution in all three empires: Russian, Ottoman, and Iranian. Some activists and thinkers, however, had mixed feelings about the reality or practical application of constitution, even if they espoused its principle and promise. This should not be construed as a rejection or ambivalence about the significance of constitution; on the contrary, they attached so much importance to it and the multiple problems it could resolve that they worried about the kind of constitution being supported or established.
This article is part of the new Jadaliyya Iran Page launch. To inaugurate the Iran Page, its co-editors are pleased to present the following articles, interviews, and resources:
"Jadaliyya Launches New Iran Page" by Iran Page Editors
"Covering Race and Rebellion" by Naveed Mansoori
"The Systemic Problem of 'Iran Expertise' in Washington" by Negar Razavi
Extended Iran Media Roundup
New Texts Out Now (NEWTON) Interviews
Houri Berberian, Roving Revolutionaries: Armenians and the Connected Revolutions in the Russian, Iranian, and Ottoman Worlds
Nile Green, The Persianate World: The Frontiers of a Eurasian Lingua Franca
Narges Bajoghli, Iran Reframed: Anxieties of Power in the Islamic Republic
Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi, Revolution and its Discontents: Political Thought and Reform in Iran
Golbarg Rekabtalaei, Iranian Cosmopolitanism: A Cinematic History
Peyman Vahabzadeh, A Rebel’s Journey: Mostafa Sho‘aiyan and Revolutionary Theory in Iran
Engaging Books Series: Cambridge University Press Selections on Cosmopolitanism and Political Reform in Iran
Jadaliyya Talks: Arash Davari and Sina Rahmani on "Divorce, Iran-America Style"
"Essential Readings: Post-Revolutionary Iran" by Arang Keshavarzian