Category: Diplomacy

C.K. Scott Moncrieff: A Man Out of Italian Time (Review of Chasing Lost Time, a Biography by Jean Findlay)

Jean Findlay, Founder and Head of Publishing at Scotland Street Press, author of Chasing Lost Time: The Life of C.K. Scott Moncrieff, Soldier, Spy, and Translator

Reviewed by David Garyan


Price Beyond Rubies: On Writing “The Hat Jewel,” an article by Jean Findlay, published by Interlitq
Read Jean Findlay’s Interview with David Garyan, published by Interlitq
Read David Garyan’s review of C.K. Scott Moncrieff’s Ant, an anthology compiled and edited by Jean Findlay
Read David Garyan’s review of Jean Findlay’s novel The Queen’s Lender


C.K. Scott Moncrieff: A Man Out of Italian Time

C.K. Scott Moncrieff was a man of contradictions; like the land, Italy, he came to inhabit in the last years of life, it may perhaps be more precise to think of him not as the person who translated À la recherche du temps perdu into English, but as the embodiment of all the greatest virtues and likewise the lowest vices which the old country has exemplified over its long history—and continues to exemplify. In many ways, it’s neither Marcel Proust—as many literary enthusiasts too often believe—nor his monumental work that came to define the soldier, translator, and spy; instead, it was the tense contradictions found in Italian life described here by Luigi Pirandello about his native Sicily which really formed the man known as C.K. Scott Moncrieff.

Scott Moncrieff’s outlook on life largely resembled the one Pirandello used to describe Giovanni Verga‘s; the two men’s lives were all about—though Pirandello only writes about Vega in the previous paragraph—ambitiously going “where their certain fantastic sensuality” brought them, and because of this they tended to suffocate and betray “their true, hidden passion, with that ambition of an ephemeral life.” For the sake of brevity, we’ll avoid a discussion of the latter artist’s specificities, but the former, as Findlay writes, led a life full of opposing tensions: “A Catholic convert, he was also a family man, military man, a manly poet. A homosexual who flirted with women and had lasting emotional relationships with a number of close female friends.” Truly, this personality was closer to what Pirandello has described—the Italian soul—than what Proust embodied.

Those who live on the aforementioned island, which the great playwright and poet called home, have perhaps been given no choice but to learn the ways of successfully navigating the demands of life in the midst of totally opposing tensions—after all, it’s the descendants of exactly these people who once enjoyed the privilege of existing at the crossroads of civilization, but, at the same time, precisely because of this, they’ve also had to hold the curious distinction of perhaps being the most subjugated individuals in the world. “Palermo,” as the late American actor George C. Scott once joked, “is the most-conquered city in history. First the Phoenicians, the Romans, Carthaginians, Byzantines, then came the Arabs, the Spaniards and the Neapolitans. Now comes … the American Army!” The Chicago Tribune offers a likewise witty retort to the statement: “The Normans. Don’t forget the Normans. Or the Greeks, Vandals, Goths, Swabians, Aragonese, Savoyans, Austrians (in a trade for Sardinia and future considerations) and, finally, the Italians, through annexation via a referendum that was probably rigged.” It’s certainly been a complicated history, and organized crime hasn’t exactly helped disentangle the place—by any stretch of the imagination—from an altogether different type of colonialism, but this is for another discussion.

What’s true is that those who reside on the island at once know the importance of displaying the highest honor and commitment in relationships, but they’re also equally comfortably in showing off those very same traits in revenge and hostility. Additionally, there’s the utter and total tendency to view foreigners and native strangers alike with the utmost suspicion—at the same time, individuals also possess the comfort of being both extremely open and curious about others to an extent I have never seen; all this is a matter of survival skills, I guess—skills passed down throughout the years from having to play good host to Romans and Arabs alike, people who, in all honesty, weren’t always such bad guests themselves, bringing innovation and culinary curiosities just the same. Who knew that arancini actually originated under Arab rule? And who knew, according to a UMass website, that the “orange was first introduced to Europe by the Arabs via Sicily?”

For good and bad, hence, the psyche of this nation has been shaped by what many would consider to be a negative phenomenon—domination—and for the most part, people have learned to make this a part of life; nevertheless, the ease and tact with which Italians are capable of navigating diametric opposition is also the reason why they can comfortably treat public resources and spaces in the most reckless, irresponsible way while having the capacity to maintain the greatest sanctity and cleanliness among family and in the home—streets and infrastructure littered with garbage while the floors at home are clean enough to eat from; such contradictions have not only been pointed out by Pirandello—a man Scott Moncrieff greatly admired and enjoyed translating—but also other Italian writers like Borgese as well.

It’s precisely this tendency to embody both the closed and open disposition—the mental effort to somehow synthesize diametrically opposed psychological forces so well described by both Pirandello and Borgese—that the great translator, solider, and spy himself embodied; and many times, as Jean Findlay, Scott Moncrieff’s great-great niece and biographer writes in her book, on more than two fronts: “Charles had a tough, discerning mind which disciplined his own life into several compartments: the literary man to Prentice, Marsh, and most of the world; the family man to his mother, brother, and relatives; the spy to Louis Christie and the Secret Intelligence Service, and the Rabelaisian homosexual to Vyvyan Holland alone. He was a man who one day could write a metaphysical religious poem of great depth, and on the next a filthy, funny limerick. He could, as Findlay describes, send a dirty limerick to Vyvyan Holland and in the very same letter he could thank precisely the same individual “for sending an Anthology of Catholic Poets.” The ability to reconcile such opposing forces and live with them is one of the trademarks of the Mediterranean sensibility, but they’re also the necessary ingredients for gregarious individuals, fond of hosting lavish parties, and, very naturally, spies—chiefly spies.

Even before Scott Moncrieff began translating the work that would really make both him and Proust famous in the Anglophone world, those reckless yet austere characteristics—especially typical of the Italian soul—and so well described by Pirondello and Borgese—were already very much a part of the future translator’s character, and the reader realizes this when he recklessly publishes “under his own name an ambitions story called  Evensong and Morwe Song,” in which he had “painted a recognizable picture of a Winchester master.” Winchester is world-famous for being the most prestigious boarding school in the UK, having existed in its present location for more than six hundred years. The fact that the young artist’s work had so to say painted a recognizable picture shouldn’t have been a problem, except for the fact that, aside from dealing with homosexual themes, it likewise exposed the “snobbery” and “hypocrisy” in such institutions. Findlay writes the following about the incident: “Even one hundred years later, a school magazine would hesitate before publishing such a story,” and although she admits that the family, to this day, has no idea why his scholarship to Oxford was rejected, it seems sensible to believe that the aforementioned episode had a great deal to do with it, given that he excelled in his studies, and more tellingly, that admission did not just depend on a “competitive entrance examination,” but also on “the report from the headmaster at Winchester,” at that time a man by the name of J.M. Burge. Since the latter’s endorsement was at best lukewarm, it is plausible to assume that the failure in securing the prize didn’t stem from a lack of academic competitiveness but rather with the contents of the recommendation.

At the same time, it’s hard to believe that Scott Moncrieff would ever have dared to pull such antics in the presence of his family, given that he had an almost austere (in the best possible sense) dedication and love for them. Anxious as he was to see Proust published in English, he was nevertheless quite embarrassed about the prospect of his relatives reading the Sodom and Gomorrah part of the novel, going so far as to change the English title to Cities of the Plain. Findlay writes that he was “glad in a way that his father would not see it, yet knowing that there were other family members whom it would no doubt offend. He was well aware that the active and promiscuous homosexual world described by Proust was offensive to most people, so in translation he had tried to soften the blow by not being as direct as Proust could be in French, using euphemisms and hidden innuendos where he could.” Once again, we see how the contradictory elements of recklessness and piety could fully manifest themselves in the man. Later in his life, upon discovering that his pet owl had died because he had left him alone to peruse Florence on a visit to the “fleshpots and fiaschi,” by his own account, the remorse was far too great, according to Findlay: “He wrote a gloomy and confused letter to Prentice saying that he had inherited the family trait of ‘accepting diametrically opposite advice and feeling the full importance of things that don’t matter.'” The reader never really finds out what these unimportant things or specific advices are, but one gets the sense that we’re talking precisely about the contradicting temperaments so well described in Italian, particularly, Sicilian personalities.

Being a homosexual in a society which not only imprisoned one of its greatest writers—Oscar Wilde—in 1895, but also handed down two years of hard labor which, according to Findlay, greatly contributed to “breaking his health and confidence,” was certainly risky business. Indeed although “he had written one of his most poignant pieces, De Profundis, in prison and been inspired while there to compose the Ballad of Reading Gaol,” Findlay’s former statement certainly holds far greater weight, as the notable Irish author would go on to die only five years later, at the young age of forty-six, in 1900. In 1907, when the young Scott Moncrieff began visiting Robert Ross (Wilde’s lover and literary executor) at Half Moon Street, which was a “haunt of the literary homosexual coterie,” those tragic details would’ve been no stranger to the impressionable schoolboy. And yet, he, even at such a tender age, already had the capacity to discern the importance of appearances; it’s perhaps, then, his capacity in mastering the ability to maintain them—something which would serve him well as a spy in Italy—why he ultimately chose the country to begin with, or more correctly, why he was chosen for the role by Louis Christie.

For all intents and purposes, and for all the good and bad which comes with that, Italy is the quintessential country of appearances. Anyone who was born here or has lived in it for some time—again for better or worse—will know the importance of maintaining a “tidy surface,” even when what’s underneath is in total ruin; in addition, the ability to maintain a proper exterior is good even when the effort actually contributes to ruining the precious life underneath. Unlike the specific traits discussed before about Sicilians, the concept of bella figura captures the imagination of all Italians; literally translated as “beautiful figure,” the term does not simply encompass the ability to project attractive physical attributes; on the contrary, even Italians are sensible enough to understand that not everyone can have Aphrodite-like beauty—the term, hence, really encompasses the capacity to act with proper dignity, respect, and tact in any given situation. Everything must have the proper presentation and decorum—moderation being the lifeblood of Italians; at least that’s what they say or seem to believe.

Naturally, a person who drinks too much at a party and thereby ruins its decorum has violated the tenets of bella figura; however, a woman dressed to the nines—simply out to buy groceries—seems to be tolerated just fine in these parts and such behavior is even heartily encouraged, and not just by the men either. Is this truly moderation or have we, once again, returned to the wicked duality of Pirandello and Borgese? And what about the all-too-exaggeratedly elegant piazzas and duomos—well, again, moderation in this respect would be a grave sin for Italians. Max Weber’s idea of the Protestant work ethic seems—just as a momentary, humorous aside—to be challenged here, as the Catholics supposedly have less propensity for labor, suffering from some kind of Mediterranean or mañana-madness-inducing shortage of capital, and yet it’s the Protestant churches which are generally much less extravagant and grand.

Returning to our discussion of bella figura, that, apart from its seemingly positive attributes, also has rarely-spoken-about undertones which are, to say the least, actually quite dark—something I discovered not long ago; in a conversation with a friend, who jokingly said that Italy’s communitarian nature, along with people’s desire to protect the virtues and sanctities of their associations, may seem very positive, until you realize there may, perhaps, be no problem with the happiness a husband receives from cheating on his wife, so long as no one finds out about it and the harmony of the community isn’t ruined—again, the importance of appearances. It’s precisely this type of lifestyle, based largely on semblances, that the soldier, translator, and spy—not himself an adulterer, but whose “sin” of homosexuality was very well interpreted as being just as grave in his time—had to adopt, and do so quickly; in a sense, he had to become an Italian before he ever had the chance to translate Proust, and certainly before he was actually forced, in a sense, to relocate to the old country for the sake of his “health.” It’s perhaps, then, not a stretch to say that the man known as C.K. Scott Moncrieff was not so much the translator of À la recherche du temps perdu (a work he not only translated very well, but interpreted in such a way that it ended up, to this day, best representing the novel in its time, despite the criticism he received for being too libertine in his interpretation) but rather the conduit for the highest virtues and likewise lowest depravities that Italians and their culture represented—not only then, but also now.

Even the German scholar of Proust, Ernst Curtius, is recorded as having written the following, included by Findlay in her biography: “I had imagined the translator of Proust to be an aesthete. He was something much better: an individual character … He was a Roman body and soul. It was not an antiquarian or artistic interest that drew him to Rome, but the everyday life of the city.” Despite Ernst’s totally captivating portrait of the soldier, translator, and spy, nowhere, however—at least in my analysis of the matter—is the case for Scott Moncrieff’s Italian soul more apparent than towards the end of the book, where Findlay writes: “Beneath the bravura was an exhausted man with far too much on his plate and no one to look after him. He [Scott Moncrieff] found in Pirandello’s chaotic world the irony he saw in his own life; that the appearance is rarely the reality and the layers of subterfuge people erect to present a face to family, friends, or the public is excellent material for drama.” Indeed, the Italian respect and affirmation for the arts—the need to uphold its reputation as being one of the progenitors, along with Greece, of Western culture—means, at once, that drama is not only highly appreciated but also actively encouraged by its citizenry, but only on stage, where the fourth wall prevents it from leaking out onto the incredibly ritualistic society held together by honor and decency, lest such a spectacle should ruin the meticulously constructed bella figuras of all those consuming the show in their chairs, naturally with all the proper etiquette; its bona fide, altogether genuine human display in public, however, is completely frowned upon, even if the person is on the verge of a breakdown—through all their fault in most cases or perhaps even none of their own.

In this sense, neither the biography nor perhaps even the living biographer can ever fully answer the question of whether Scott Moncrieff would’ve enjoyed living in Italy if his medical condition didn’t “demand” his relocation there; from the book we’re given to understand that health concerns, along with his work as a journalist and translator, were merely a cover, mainly because Britain now once again needed capable spies on the ground in the old country: “There had been one hundred intelligence agents based in Italy during the war, but since 1918 numbers had hugely decreased because officially Italy was politically friendly on the surface. However, it was apparent the country now needed watching again,” and who better to watch it than a capable person like Scott Moncrieff, a man of duty, honor, clever resourcefulness (what many Italians often refer to as sa arrangiare—literally, knowing how to arrange, and what the Italian-American anthropologist, Thomas Belmonte, has also referred to as arrangiarsi).

Findlay confirms that “the job description could have been written for Charles, his sense of honour was still paramount. Recruiting Charles was an enormous help to Louis, who was needed to travel in countries across the Mediterranean—Greece and Turkey, also Egypt, Yemen, Aden, Muscat, Iraq, and Palestine.” In any case, aside from the question of whether Scott Moncrieff would’ve enjoyed living in Italy out of his own volition or not, what’s undeniable is that he was an expert in the country’s customs and culture, and not just because of his Catholic conversion. Aside from the tenets of bella figura, the soldier, translator, and spy was also adept at what Italians refer to as the aforementioned arrangiarsi; literally it means to make do, but the real meaning is more akin to making something out of nothing—it’s the calculated ability to utilize the correct strategy in any given situation in order to make the right connections, to say the perfect thing, and to, literally, arrange all public and private matters in ways which are beneficial to you. An uneducated man living in Naples, for instance, where job prospects are already far and few even for those with university degrees, must necessarily be skilled in the art of arrangiarsi or effectively perish; good arrangiarsi exemplifies everything from washing car windows at red lights if you have absolutely nothing to ensuring your sons and daughters marry above their respective stations if you have only a little and are looking for more. As with bella figura, in the best sense, the aforementioned tenets imply a capacity for creativity and innovation; in the worst sense, however, they can also lead down the altogether undesirable roads of excessive cunning, deceit, and corruption.

In any case, Scott Moncrieff’s translation of Proust, to this day, embodies the best sense of making something out of nothing, precisely because there was no model to work from and no one to help him. Aside from that, Proust wasn’t exactly the most organized individual (well, it’s difficult, anyways, to hold that against any writer), and Scott Moncrieff had to navigate various hurdles before he could even enjoy the comfort of what most publishers might call a perfectly typeset page, let alone our own privileges granted by Microsoft Word. As Findlay writes: “Proust’s novel was published in France before, during and after the First World War. There was a shortage of typesetters: many were dead and those who remained were overworked with under-trained assistants. The first volumes were printed with a lot of typesetter errors, far more than average because Proust was a complex writer and not all typesetters could follow the ideas or the sense of his sentences. Charles, however, did understand Proust. He also worked in a newspaper office and knew how typesetter errors occurred. In France the box of e’s and the box of a’s were adjacent to each other and to mistake le for la was a common error, but more so in Proustian compound sentences where the le or la is one of the many objects of the sentence, and could well be an idea. Much of the work in translating Proust was for Charles also a work of interpretation and instinct. He did not have access to the original manuscript (which was in longhand and extremely difficult to decipher anyways) and he still had a demanding day job.” If this doesn’t symbolize the best traits of arrangiarsi, I don’t know what does.

When his brother, John, accidentally shot himself cleaning a gun, the good translator took on more work (perhaps a greater amount than he could handle) to support his family; in this sense, too, he embodied the best of what honor and responsibility mean in countries like Italy, where family really is the centerpiece of every social activity. Having received, ironically, the tragic news immediately after securing a well-paying appointment, equaling “the purchasing power of over £100,000 a year,” Scott Moncrieff wrote the following to his brother’s widow: “by the greatest good fortune, I have now arrived at a decent position in the world and I swear to you that as a long as I live I will do all I possibly can to be a father to them [the children] and a helper to you. I think I knew more about him, knew him more intimately than anyone else but you—and I wish I could be with you to dry your tears, or mingle them with my own.” These are certainly not the words of archetypal hedonists concerned only with their own welfare and pleasure. As Findlay writes: “Charles contributed to the family income until his death. He was able to ensure that David, his nephew, was privately educated, and he visited the family in Oxford regularly.” Certainly we’re talking about a complex, contradictory figure, and this is meant in the best, almost exalted Mediterranean sense—having the capability to be flexible when life’s whims demand it, and yet, at the same time, marshalling a stoicism rigid as a rock when that very same life requires unbending dedication.

Indeed, one of the most touching and beautiful instances in the book where we witness those aforementioned traits is after the death of his father, when Scott Moncrieff begins to feel the full “call of family responsibility.” In the midst of deciding the future of Anna’s house in north Oxford, he oscillates so much between whose name it should be transferred under—his or hers—that Anna later remarked in a letter to Prentice the following: “Charlie changes his mind so much.” Indeed, the man is flexible to the whims of life’s demands, and, yet, at the same time, in the midst of this flexibility, he never wavers in the commitment to help the widow of his brother, simply because, in the end, it doesn’t really matter whether the house is in her name or his—he will be in both cases completely committed to the task of helping her financially. Having myself lived in this strange land for two years, no other trait I can think of but this indecisiveness yet stoic commitment to people and also things can perhaps be considered more representative of the Italian soul—it’s why, once again, many parts of the country can comfortably present crumbling infrastructure to the public, and, yet, those very same citizen may sport floors clean enough to eat from in their own private homes; the proverbial traits that Borgese and Pirandello have described so well.

Possessing this Italian soul is precisely why Scott Moncrieff may have allowed himself to take liberties with the translation, much to the chagrin of Proust and his later critics, who often attacked him for destroying the façade of the original. And yet, what “purists” don’t seem to understand is that the effort of translation is less about the bare transmission of words and more about the communication of culture. This is something that Peter France, the noted scholar at Edinburgh, quoted by Findlay in her book, also confirms—that it’s “not merely a technical task to be carried out with proper efficiency (as done ideally—though not so far in reality—by a machine). The sort of translation to be discussed here has to do with the values, the personality, the intention that underlie the original. In relation to these, the translator’s duty is in part ethical (or even political).” It was Scott Moncrieff’s job, hence, to connect the void not just between the Protestant and Catholic attitude, but also between their two respective literary traditions, mainly because “Proust was stylistically and morally foreign to a protestant English audience, and bridging that gap was part of Charles’s role,” as Findlay so correctly emphasizes.

The translator, soldier, and spy we’ve come to know as C.K. Scott Moncrieff was, in this respect, certainly a man of his time, even if reading the biography often gives us the sense of exactly the opposite—an individual trapped by the oppressive circumstances of his surroundings. Indeed, those not in possession of the Italian soul, which allows for the navigation and, ultimately, reconciliation of life’s contradictions, may view his existence according to the parameters of the latter—a sort of Stephen Dedalus-like figure trapped in the grayness of his native Ireland, seeking to exile himself from both his location and generation, except this time we find ourselves in Scotland and the Catholic identity is embraced instead of rejected. Findlay, to some extent, confirms this view, writing: “He was leading a double life and thinking double thoughts. His letters home extolled the ideal family life, while in London he was drawn as by a magnet to the Ross establishment, the antithesis of family life. However, a change was happening in him, as the war changed everyone. The gulf between his professed beliefs and his actions was beginning to show: he felt the battle of good and ill, the confusion, within himself; he did not know where he stood, and was tired and sore.” Reading the passage, one would be tempted to go down the path of the Stephen Dedalus interpretation, but it would be an altogether wrong assessment for a man like Scott Moncrieff, mainly because, in fact, he did embody those previously-discussed Italian sensibilities—the soul—a fiery divergent character in the most passionate instances, and the cold, determined stoicism in the most testing moments; and further still, the ability to not only embody such oppositions but also possess the strength to synthesize the antithetical forces within the confines of one anima, perhaps in the purely dialectical Hegelian sense, but perhaps also very naturally in the “mixture of litanies and sperm,” exactly that sense of style proposed by Montesquieu, who believed, as Findlay writes, “that the sacred and the profane create an invigorating blend and thereby embrace the whole of life.” This idea, upheld by all means and methods, and for all intents and purposes, is drama not for the stage but precisely for the streets—it’s the drama in all its contradictory Italian sensibilities of the soul that Pirandello, like Scott Moncrieff, actually embodied in real life, according to Findlay: “The plays and stories hit a switch in Charles—Pirandello tackled appearance and reality with a twist. Human situations are rarely as they seem from the outside, there is often a secret story, sometimes a sombre, sexual one. Pirandello’s plays touched incest, adultery, prostitution, with a keen and compassionate eye, unveiling dark stories from the inside.” Indeed, having to live “much of his life under great threat,” and at the same time being “bound by honor and secrecy,” it’s completely understandable why the solider, translator, and spy would’ve “sympathized with Pirandello’s themes intimately: his plays dealt with necessary lies and secrecy.”

In many respects, it would be wiser, hence, to look more at the man as Goethe (had they been contemporaries) might have seen him, precisely at the time when he himself visited Italy—that very moment when his own soul came to understand a people’s solemn and stoic resignation to things that simply don’t work, along with their ability to adapt and live merrily with such reality. Noticing the utter pollution of a particularly beautiful street in Palermo that “in its length and beauty,” was one that “vies with any in the Corso in Rome,” he emphatically clamors: “By all the saints …. Is there no helping it?” The shopkeeper replies. “Things with us are as they are,” going on to explain that surely they could brush away the horse dung and dust, but what good would that do to their already-rickety brooms, which are barely functioning, composed of nothing except for “very little besoms of palm-branches, which, slightly altered, might have been really useful; but as it was, they broke off easily, and the stumps were lying by thousands in the streets.” Either way, in this respect, the beautiful street will be polluted by something. The great Goethe, realizing this, along with noticing the cheerful way in which his newly-made acquaintance has communicated his town’s dilemma, the quick-witted German pronounces that this was “consolatory proof to me that man has always humour enough to make merry with what he cannot help.” In this respect, too, Scott Moncrieff was a man who had the power to change many things, and, in fact, moved a great deal of stones he was capable of lifting, but his mountains stayed firm—as nature intended them to be—and for this, no human being can be blamed.


About Jean Findlay

Jean Findlay was born in Edinburgh. She studied Law and French at Edinburgh University under Peter France and Theatre under Tadeusz Kantor in Kracow, Poland. She co-founded an award winning theatre company and wrote and produced plays which toured to London, Berlin, Bonn, Rotterdam, Dublin, Glasgow and the Pompidou Centre in Paris. She spent years in London writing drama and book reviews for the Scotsman, and has written for the IndependentTime Out and the Guardian.  In 2014 she published Chasing Lost Time: The Life of CK Scott Moncrieff, Soldier, Spy and Translator with Chatto and Windus, now in Vintage paperback and with FSG in New York. She founded Scotland Street Press in Edinburgh in 2014 and now runs this small, award-winning publishing house. For writing The Hat Jewel she won a Hawthornden Fellowship 2018 and a Lavigny International Writer’s Fellowship 2019.

Nestor Fantini, Human Rights Activist, Interviewed by David Garyan

Nestor Fantini

Nestor Fantini, Human Rights Activist, Interviewed by David Garyan

Interview Series


DG: We live in a time of unprecedented uncertainty. The fragility of the democratic values we cherish are being tested by a virus that in many ways requires people to set aside their personal liberties for the greater benefit of society, and for good reason; in this respect, especially, the frailty of the nation-state—if we see it as the representation of a single individual’s will—is being exposed. In a globalized world, however, no nation can really exist by itself, and yet, these are precisely the principles on which nation-states are grounded: independence, self-reliance, and a strange sort of homogenous unity. From a human rights perspective, how has COVID impacted nation-states and what does this mean for minority populations living within them?

NF: From a human rights perspective, COVID has, in a strange way, greatly impacted nation-states, and, at the same time, the influence of the pandemic has only shown what we’ve known for a long time, yet repeatedly refused and still refuse to acknowledge—that minorities have and continue to be the ones who must bear the greatest burden of society’s ills; in this respect, the pandemic has done very little to alter the age-old problems of minority discrimination. From the suffering imparted by economic stagnation to the dangers and inconveniences of navigating poor infrastructure, it has always been and it still is to this day the ones on the fringes of society who’ve had to struggle most in order to ensure their own survival—overcoming a pandemic like the one we have right now is certainly no exception to this rule. Take, for example, a country like India; it offers a fascinating case study related to our discussion because we can look at this very pressing matter from different perspectives, an economic one and that of human rights; in terms of the former, we know that people are having a hard time dealing with the virus because there’s a great deal of poverty to be found there; in addition, those people already disadvantaged must deal with the fact that the infrastructure which is available to them is mostly neither spacious enough nor even safe by any means to accommodate proper quarantine measures required by the very governments who institute those “safety” regulations to begin with—in some cases, these authorities are even responsible for the construction of such dwellings, government housing, for example. What I’m trying to say, hence, is that there are many problems like the ones people are facing in India also to be found in the US—perhaps not to the same extreme degree, but the characteristics, certainly, the nature of the difficulties are not that drastically different, at least from the economic side of managing a pandemic. At the same time, the problem, as you say, isn’t just an economic one—it plays out along racial and ethnic lines as well. Neither I nor anyone will be very much surprised to hear that the privileged are going to encounter far less problems getting their hands on the vaccine first. In India, the caste system will contribute to this dilemma while in the US the issue will be determined by equally predictable factors—ethnicity and race. In both cases, the social constructs of skin color and cultural hierarchies, and that’s precisely what they are—things created by humans—will determine how nation-states are going to react to the problem. So, I’m afraid there’s no simple answer to the question of how COVID has impacted nation-states from a human rights perspective, since we can say that it has impacted them quite a bit, yet, at the same time, almost not at all because minorities are in many ways fighting the same battles for justice they were fighting hundreds of years ago.

DG: We are precisely seeing what might happen when the existence of democratic governments is threatened; it was, after all, only a year ago that Italian authorities—in their attempt to control the outbreak—orchestrated an unprecedented shutdown of the entire country, which, according to the Italian paper Avvenire, constituted the largest suppression of constitutional rights in the history of the Italian Republic. Almost exactly a year later, Italy has blocked vaccine shipments to Australia. As someone who has directly experienced how authoritarian measures can be justified to stop threats real or imagined, how concerned should we be that, perhaps in the future, even more extreme measures might be employed, if and when the situation does worsen? Let us hope not.

NF: I happen to see the issue in a somewhat different way. If we look at WWI and WWII, for example, many of the genuine and necessary sacrifices, which we might today interpret as “constitutional suppressions of our rights,” were an indispensable part of the machinery which successfully combated fascism. The famous WWII poster Loose Lips Might Sink Ships comes to mind now. Indeed, from a retrospective viewpoint, we can look at the matter as a hackneyed piece of propaganda—something to dismiss simply on principle altogether, and many of us would feel comfortable doing just that, mainly because we, as of today, know very well there were no elaborate German plots to ruin the country from the inside, merely as an example. However, it’s important to remember that at the time—during the most critical moments of the war—we had no real way of gauging the extent of the danger we could’ve or could not have found ourselves in. Of course, freedom of speech and all other constitutional rights are always important and should be upheld wherever and whenever it’s possible to do so; at the same time, during periods of national emergencies or wars, we must seriously and critically reevaluate those rights—the best way to implement them in unpredictable circumstances, for instance—if we’re to consider ourselves responsible, politically engaged citizens. Another example I would like to bring to your attention is the League of Nations and its failure to stop WWII from happening; it was precisely the inability of the respective governments to work in unison which brought this second crisis about. In this respect, I admit, it certainly is a bit concerning to see political maneuvers such as blocked vaccine shipments and other things of this nature, but, really, what’s more frightening to me is how the pandemic is being used as an excuse for governments to become more authoritarian; indeed, it’s one thing to say that we must work in harmony to make certain sacrifices that will become beneficial for all of society, and it’s an entirely different thing for the government to use the pandemic as a cover to achieve exactly the opposite—making society even more authoritarian to the detriment of us all. Do you see the difference? To definitively answer your question so that there can be no doubt about it: There are genuine sacrifices which are worth making, even when they happen to encroach on the so-called human rights, if only for the benefit of a better world in the future, while those disingenuous sacrifices—the ones which authoritarian governments falsely portray as being “necessary” are not the ones I’m referring to when I speak of democratic societies implementing cautionary measures (in this case sanitary ones) with benevolent intentions for its citizenry.

DG: With the election of Donald Trump, it has become clear that economic problems, coupled with a majority population’s grievance over whom a nation really “belongs” to, can lead to some unfortunate consequences. Alas, such problems have existed for centuries, always leading to disaster. It is safe to say that throwing a pandemic into this equation does not help matters. Is it too much of a stretch, then, to draw a connection between COVID and the economic/political problems that plunged the entire European continent into not only two world wars, but also genocides, and countless other human rights abuses? Given how the US loves to frame its problems in militaristic terms (the war on drugs or war on poverty, for example), it is quite appropriate to say that we have now lost more people “fighting” COVID than all the casualties our troops suffered in WWII. Is this the end of American prestige?

NF: I don’t believe so. Perhaps I might consider the argument that Donald Trump himself was the end of American prestige but even that wouldn’t be correct. Many people still look to the US for leadership and guidance. Donald Trump did much to undermine that faith and trust; however, our ability to contribute towards the effort of making this a better world—and, yes, fighting the pandemic—has by no means disappeared; that’s not to say the task will be easy. Changes must come and they must be substantial. I’ve already spoken at length about minorities and those in underprivileged positions; more specifically, however, at the national level, the government has to roll out vaccination programs with greater efficiency and speed. With regard to international measures, we must reengage not only the European continent but also the entire world in those cooperative efforts which Trump abandoned during his term—the World Health Organization, of course, but also pacts like the Paris Agreement. Already this is starting to happen with meetings between top officials of institutions such as the aforementioned WHO. As I said before, indeed, we can draw a connection between the forces of history, which seem to be running parallel to our times—precisely as many historians and scholars would expect them to—but if that’s the case, there’s a more positive side to such developments as well, at least in terms of arguing against the end of American prestige. This line of thinking—the decline of America—is really nothing new and from my perspective, I really begin to see it emerging during and after the American Civil War. The country was in ruins—certainly as divided as it could ever be—and we’re not even mentioning the economic and political tolls that came about as a result of those events. Many people couldn’t imagine how a country so divided and broken could rebuild itself after such an experience. Undoubtedly, in 1865, the nation had overcome the worst disaster, which was secession, but at what price? We know that the war had done a great deal in leaving a legacy of economic backwardness and polarization that, in many ways, is still felt today across large parts of the land. Why do I say this? Precisely for the fact that the US was by no means the most powerful and influential country after the Civil War, but it nevertheless managed to become that very beacon, despite suffering circumstances which were far worse than what we’ve now endured under Donald Trump. Still, people may argue that the difference isn’t so great between what transpired during those four years of 1861 through 1865 and our own four years of 2016 through 2020—let me just state that they would probably be right in making such a claim, but even if they’re not wrong, I maintain that it wouldn’t be unjustified to believe, at the same time, that America has likewise not seen its best days yet. In other words, if people want to think this is our 1865, then so be it, but there are nevertheless two roads still facing us—the question hence becomes: Do we take the right one or the wrong one? I say only that choice, and that choice alone can really determine whether the end of American prestige has in fact come or not.

DG: Politics have always been a sensitive issue—in the sense that it has mostly been students and young people who have been at the forefront trying to make real changes. Despite the substantial progress achieved over the years, things have not gotten “easier,” however. Just last February, for example, Patrick Zaki, an Egyptian student studying at the University of Bologna, was arrested after traveling back to his home country. He was beaten and tortured and remains incarcerated to this day, due to his work as a human rights activist. In a way, for the college students who’ve never experienced what it feels like to be incarcerated, the “idealism” runs high, meaning they really believe in being able to change the world, which, inherently, is not a bad thing; and yet this is precisely the attitude which can also lead to a lot of unnecessary grief not only for them, but their parents as well. What advice, looking back on your own life, would you give the younger generation? What is the right course for those looking to “change” the world—political idealism, apolitical intellectualism, detached pessimism, or a combination of all three?

NF: I completely understand the cautionary advice surrounding political idealism, and, yet, I also neither see apolitical intellectualism nor detached pessimism as the answer. Perhaps I can get on board with balancing the three, but, despite the difficulties which I’ve had to endure myself, I’m still inclined to say that political idealism is important. Real change can’t come without idealism; we can think of it almost like a polar star—we will never reach the celestial body, the so-called promised land itself—but we can use its light as a guiding point for where we need to go and what needs to be done. I’m familiar with the Zaki case and it’s another one of the many unfortunate incidents this generation has had to endure. The truth about political prisoners such as Zaki in Egypt lies precisely in the fact that for Egypt the matter really has very little to do with Zaki himself, while, for the world at large, the matter really has little to do with Egypt. What do I mean? My point is that Egypt has decided to detain Patrick Zaki not because of who he is or what he’s supposedly done or not done, as a matter of fact; no, they’ve imprisoned him precisely because of what he represents. The detention of Zaki, and others like him, is a form of deterrence, of psychological warfare, if you will, utilized by authoritarian governments to send the following message to all would-be dissidents: See what happens if you disobey. In reality, the actual person of Patrick Zaki—the sole man in the flesh—poses very little existential danger to a state like Egypt, and not because he hasn’t done anything wrong, but even if he did, his isolated actions by themselves would still not be able to bring down an entire state; this is something the status quo knows very well; thus, what governments really fear is the non-corporeal ideology within the flesh of Zaki—something less “unique” than the individual of whom only one “copy” exists in the world. Ideology, on the other hand, is easily transferred, replicated, and much harder to kill because you can neither touch it, nor even see it. Ideology can infect great amounts of people just as quickly as a virus can—funny that we should be talking about that during a pandemic—and it is precisely that which governments really dread the most, especially during a pandemic. Authoritarian governments, hence, view dissident ideology with both a great suspicion and unease because it represents a sort of virulent revolution, a type of revolutionary movement guided by entities even more dangerous than COVID. For this reason, countries like Egypt quickly try to quarantine any and every “host” of “threatening” ideology they can get their hands on—all in the attempt to prevent their ability to spread it, but like our pandemic, for example, COVID itself isn’t dangerous unless it proliferates. And since authoritarian governments view political dissidents like viruses, it makes sense for them to try and keep people locked in “labs” to prevent their doctrines from diffusing. The second issue I raised is the one for the world at large. What do I mean? There are hundreds of democratic countries out there and only one Egypt. Why haven’t those powerful democracies managed to free Zaki from his Egyptian jail cell? Precisely because, like with Zaki, the matter has little to do with Egypt. As we’ve already discussed, the issue revolves exactly around the concept of nation-states—they are, in fact, based on a strange mixture of self-reliance, independence, and homogeneity, as you pointed out earlier. By nature, hence, nation-states love conformity, and while many can handle some forms of dissent, it’s not the way they would inherently prefer to operate, at least not on a consistent basis. I can think of no country in which the status quo prefers, more often than not, to have its views challenged rather than accepted. At the same time, I want to make clear that this isn’t an argument attempting to justify the silence of many nation-states on such matters—my point is that even the democratic countries like the US still have a long way to go in ensuring that minorities are protected, underprivileged voices are heard, and everyone’s needs are basically met, but this is a subject we’ve already discussed and I’m quite sure there’s no justification to repeat it. Instead, I’d like to say that the work of fighting for a better world must not stop, regardless of those difficulties; additionally, the efforts of securing the release of such prisoners of conscience like Zaki must continue like before. Believe it or not, just like those fighting for justice feel the pressure to conform when they witness the imprisonment of their fellow activists, so, too, the countries which imprison them likewise feel the pressure from the international efforts that try to secure their release. My message and advice, to answer your question, is the following: Do the best you can—call your local representatives, write to lawmakers, demand that action is taken; the key is consistent action, and, like I said, when governments do mobilize to demand the release of prisoners like Zaki, the status quo which has imprisoned them does consequently feel the weight of its own actions. These things take a long time, I know, but as you’re well aware, Amnesty International, along with their supporters, contributed a great deal in securing my own release. The work is difficult but it must never end.

DG: Speaking of idealism and optimism, the recent election of Joe Biden as President of the United States has certainly brought great aspirations—at least equaling and perhaps even surpassing the hope we had after Barack Obama’s election; and yet, a 2008 Gallup poll reveals the utter lack of enthusiasm people had for his selection as Vice President back then: “The only recent vice presidential choices to spark less voter reaction than Biden were Dick Cheney in 2000 (net 4%, with 14% more likely and 10% less likely) and Dan Quayle in 1988 (net score of 0, with 10% more likely and 10% less likely).” Additionally, people were concerned that should anything happen to Obama, Biden would consequently become president—clearly, the hope and optimism surrounding Obama was based on entirely different ideals than the positive surge that propelled Biden to the top; in the case of the former, it was a real belief in the possibility of change, while in the case of the latter it was the reassuring comfort that we would be returning to “normal,” meaning no more Twitter rants and a lot more “presidential” behavior. In this sense, what can Biden do to become more than just the anybodyisbetterthanTrump president?

NF: With regard to the numbers, they’re just that—numbers, and I’ll leave it that. I’m sure it’s not necessary to repeat the age-old maxim about statistics and lies. Personally, I tend to place a higher value on circumstances and the situational context. Okay, so in retrospect Biden wasn’t well-received in 2008. What difference does that make? All kinds of trends, ideas, and individuals were not popular at some point in time, but they managed to capture the public’s admiration later on. I can give many examples of people like Socrates, Galileo, and Darwin who were all basically loathed by one or another in their day and now most of us (the sensible ones, at least) revere them. And so, the Gallup poll might be right, and I have absolutely no doubt that it is, but, perhaps, this is precisely the reason to love Biden even more today. Let me say that, firstly, we’re no longer living in 2008, and, secondly, Biden himself isn’t the person he was thirteen years ago. When the poll was taken, he had no experience in the White House—something he has now, and this is a quality which I believe changes the game completely, rendering the argument more or less irrelevant. It’s certainly possible for people that you didn’t think of highly before to add new skills to their repertoires and this may go a long way in changing your opinion about any given individual. For example, a high school dropout might be the hometown punk, but there have been plenty of those who’ve turned their lives around for the better. Now, let’s reflect for a minute: Biden, as a senator running for vice president in 2008, was certainly not a loser before he ran for president, even if people didn’t think highly of him then, but with the additional experience he’s gained along the way, the prospect of having him as president instead of Trump must certainly, at this point, be much more desirable than the nuclear option, if I may be so blunt. To answer the second part of your question, I believe Biden has many opportunities to stand out—and success with the pandemic is his biggest opportunity. Earlier you mentioned that more people have now died from COVID-related complications than all the casualties our troops suffered in WWII. Well, wouldn’t it be something if Biden were to create a cohesive, targeted set of policies that were to not only substantially reduce the country’s burdens as they relate to the pandemic, but maybe even get rid of many ills altogether. We can no longer ignore the fact that people are in desperate situations. Businesses have been closing, individuals are being laid off, and young people are frustrated with both their immediate and future prospects. Indeed, it’s unfortunate, like you said in your previous question, that the US has historically approached its problems with a warlike mentality, but if Biden can successfully win this so-called “war,” it would instantly propel him to the rank of the more desirable presidents we’ve had over the course of this country’s recent history, if not its entire course. Having said that, containing a pandemic is no easy task, let alone completely beating one, but as a man who’s overcome many difficulties in his life already, I don’t see why this particular challenge isn’t within the realm of possibilities for him. Biden would need to surround himself with a skilled, knowledgeable staff capable of getting the job done—a tall proposition, certainly, but not too idealistic. The fact of the matter is that he’s been in office for just over two months—let’s see where the road leads.

DG: Many people are not only delighted but overwhelmed by excitement at the prospect of returning to normal under Biden’s leadership, but is that really what we want? In other words, might there still be a chance to shake up the system a little bit, to actually bring some change, for lack of better words, and if you’ll allow me the expression—to drain the swamp, but in a democratic, politically inclusive way, and what would such a presidency look like? We may even ask whether such trailblazing administrations can actually exist—Biden’s reluctance to do anything about the Khashoggi murder seems to be another discouraging sign that further reinforces the point: One cannot be a politician and idealist at the same time. How do you see it—should we resign ourselves, yet again, to the fact that nothing will really change, at least from the perspective of human rights?

NF: I’ve already spoken about the importance of political idealism for the youth and I understand how that can be a more pressing issue for politicians, especially those like Biden who are holding a high office; in this respect, too, I believe in moderation. The Khashoggi murder was a quite a surprise, but Biden’s reluctance to act appropriately right then may have been more due to circumstances than to his own ethical code of conduct. I can’t stress enough that Biden has been in office for just over two months. Punishing a major ally, even if they are one of the worst human rights offenders in not only the region, but also the world, is certainly the noble thing to do, but perhaps not the most sensible foreign policy objective carried out so early into one’s presidency, at least from the perspective of regional stability. Politics is, above all, about relationships and it’s best to be on safer grounds before embarking on such controversial decisions. From a human rights perspective, Biden’s actions aren’t possible to defend, but we must also think about the possibility of those very same human rights—which we do cherish so much—deteriorating even further if Biden had decided to act differently. What do I mean? Increased hostility, violence, and repression that could’ve sprung forth in the region as a result of the president’s decision to sanction a few of those actors. As far as changing things for the better, some revolutions, if you will, are better made gradually than quickly. I know this seems like an excuse, but I really do believe in progress and I think Biden is far more capable of giving us that, as opposed to Trump, at least from the much-needed perspective of human rights.

DG: It is not an overstatement to say that Donald Trump will be remembered as the worst president in recent US history. The only one who can really come close is Nixon, and, yet, aside from the Watergate scandal, he was actually pretty popular during his term; additionally, unlike Trump, it must be admitted that he was not nearly as deranged; that we should refer to Trump using such words is unfortunately necessary. What is truly regrettable, however, is Trump’s destruction of the Republican Party. In a country whose mindset was already insulated by the two-party system, it seems that the Democratic Party has really done it this time—with this election they have completely crushed their opponent for the foreseeable future; the silver lining in all of this is that Democrats now have an unprecedented opportunity to accomplish many of the things they could perhaps not have accomplished in other years, which may not be a bad thing altogether. And yet, as an American living in Europe, I tend to see party plurality as a largely positive development—something I wish we could have back home. How do you see the issue? What is the future of the Republican Party and can it ever really free itself from the legacy of Trump, from the mob who stormed the nation’s most hallowed place of democracy, trying to overturn a fair election?

NF: What you say about pluralism is interesting and I would agree with you, except for the fact that US politics have, for the most part, had priorities and intentions which could be considered different from their European counterpart; at the same time, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what those differences are, but what remains essential is that the Republican Party has been the one to stall many of the reforms that would’ve greatly benefited minorities, along with other deserving people in need. I don’t know if the Republican Party can ever win the trust of those populations again, but that point, also, may be an irrelevant one because the demographics of the nations are changing anyways. It has become an indisputable fact that by 2050, more or less, the composition of the country will have changed so much that White Americans will no longer be the majority. Now, when that happens, Republicans will be faced with two choices: Either get with the program, as they say, or fade from existence. For too long, the GOP has been trying their best to subjugate people in inner cities and low-income neighborhoods in general. From Reagan’s infamous trickle-down economics (but even before that) to Trump’s aggrandizement of the one percent, we’ve seen this movie play out too many times. What many people don’t know, however, is that a substantial number of these policies first arose in California. Those who are more or less my age will remember the Pat Buchanans and Pete Wilsons. Years upon years of discriminatory social and economic policies ultimately contributed to the fact that California has not sent a Republican to the Senate since 1992—almost thirty years. Part of that has to do with the effects of the ongoing demographic shift which I’ve already mentioned, but also the frustration and anger over not only state but also national policies endorsed by Republicans. As I’ve said already—big changes have to come. The future of the Republican Party will rely mainly on the following premise—its ability to embrace the future or not, simple as that. Already we’re starting to see Biden overturn many of Trump’s discriminatory policies, along with appointing minority candidates to top cabinet positions. Incidentally, we were speaking earlier about his ability to stand out as a president—in two months he’s already shown an aptitude for doing that. The appointment of Deb Haaland, the first Native American elected to serve in a cabinet secretary role, is an encouraging sign that we’re heading the right way. As far as the Republican Party, they will have to be receptive to similar changes if they want to be embraced by the representatives of the shifting demographic.

DG: What are you working on at the moment? Any interesting projects you would like readers to know about?

NF: I recently finished teaching a couple classes on criminology at Rio Hondo College. Although I retired some years ago, the urge to get back into teaching did catch up with me, and I plan to continue this activity on and off, naturally with a much lighter load of courses than I had before. These days I’m also contributing to the Spanish-language newspaper La Opinión. Life in retirement is wonderful but staying busy here and there isn’t bad either.


About Nestor Fantini

Nestor Fantini, born on May 11th, 1953, in Cordoba, Argentina, is a human rights activist, writer, educator, and former political prisoner. He has contributed to the Huffington PostLa Opinión, and has served as the editor of the online Spanish-language magazine HispanicLA.

Yesterday Karabakh, Today Artsakh, part II, an article by David Garyan

July 23rd, 2020
Ravenna, Italy

Part I

Yesterday Karabakh, Today Artsakh, part II

As a follow-up to my article on the situation in Artsakh, I wanted to take the time to further underscore the fact that, despite Armenia’s victory in the conflict, the area remains disputed and isn’t recognized on the international level or by any UN member state. I wrote the article in response to the all hateful propaganda directed towards Armenians, which I’d been encountering on the internet over the past weeks, as the conflict was starting to escalate; and if there’s despicable propaganda on one side, you can be sure the same phenomenon is playing out in the other aisle as well. I can’t stress enough that both camps are guilty, but it seems like the majority of Turkish or Azeri people with whom I’ve had discussions just want to highlight the wrongdoings of the other side and never their own. I’m sure individuals from Turkey and Azerbaijan feel the same way when they encounter an Armenian, which is precisely why tensions escalate quickly and haphazardly, as was the case in Los Angeles recently, where Armenian protesters clashed with Azeris. According to the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), the Azeris who showed up to the protest were chanting “Death to Armenia.” The newspaper which published the story didn’t confirm this but did embed ANCA’s Twitter post about the matter into the actual article.

Given the contentious history, there are always excuses for any hostilities between the peoples of both nations. On the Armenian side, for example, there’s much to be said about the Baku pogrom or Sumgait massacre, but very few openly comment on the horrors of Khojaly, for example. Why is that? Before we even get into a discussion of the various massacres committed by each side, let’s take a moment to focus on the current situation. It’s only natural for both sides to blame each other for breaking the ceasefire and each camp has in the past been guilty of violating it; there can no doubt about that. In the most recent case, however, if we only look at the 170 signatories who signed the UN global ceasefire appeal during the COVID crisis, we see that Armenia’s name is on the list, and Azerbaijan’s name isn’t. What do we make of this?

Again, there’s really been enough finger-pointing and the purpose of this article is to offer a complementary perspective to my first piece which set out to describe some of Artsakh’s history and the important figures that were either responsible for its foundation or who later shaped it in some meaningful way; along with the inclusion of some history, I also used various statements by US senators and representatives in order to truly highlight the fact that Artsakh is a disputed region. While internationally it’s recognized as part of Azerbaijan, the presence of Armenians in the area goes back thousands of years and the arbitrary transfer of the region to Azerbaijan by Stalin in 1921 played an essential role in Armenia’s decision to occupy the territory roughly seventy years later; thus, by using the statements of US senators and representatives, the article aimed to show that even in America—which, at the federal level, recognizes the region as part of Azerbaijan—the only thing which remains clear is that Artsakh is a disputed territory; it may belong to Azerbaijan, but self-determination has always proven to be a thorn in the side concerning issues like this.

It’s for all those aforementioned reasons that a complementary piece to the initial article is necessary in order to further show that while international recognition of the territory has never been disputed, international support in this matter isn’t only given to Azerbaijan, whose guilt alongside that of Armenia will be discussed.

In the interest of fairness, let’s begin with Armenia’s wrongdoing and subsequently discuss that of Azerbaijan. For starters, the Nagorno-Karabakh War resulted in Azerbaijan losing around twenty percent of its territory and displacing, according to a UN report, over 800,000 civilians. What Azeri authorities consistently fail to mention, however, is that, likewise, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), there were “360,000 ethnic Armenians who arrived in Armenia from Azerbaijan from 1988 to 1993 as a result of the conflict over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.” So displacement, unlike Azeri authorities would have us believe, isn’t really a one-way street.

Both sides suffered a great deal and the important thing isn’t to make it a competition but to acknowledge the humanity of both sides, which leads to the next point: During the Nagorno-Karabakh War, atrocities were committed by Armenian and Azeri forces alike. Again, in the interest of fairness, let’s begin with those committed by Armenians: The most notable in this respect is the 1992 Khojaly Massacre; the Azeri government claims that more than 600 lives were lost, but a 1993 Human Rights Watch report states the following:

On the Azeri side, no discussion can be complete without first mentioning the 1988 Sumgait pogrom. Again, like Azeri sources, those of Armenia are exceptionally liberal when it comes to calculating death-toll estimates, placing the number at over 200 while a Minorities at Risk (more about this project) report records the Armenian casualties at twenty-six, along with six dead Azeris. Although much lower than the figures at Khojaly, the more unfortunate thing about this is that Armenia experienced a devastating earthquake only ten months later, killing over 25,000 people and leaving over 500,000 without homes. According to another report by the same agency: “In the ensuing relief effort, Azerbaijan continued to block all shipments into Armenia. In response to what Azerbaijan authorities saw as attempts to annex Karabakh, Azerbaijan moved to punish Armenia and Armenians by firing Armenian workers and expelling them from their homes in Azerbaijan.” All this happened during a period when Armenia was experiencing its most severe crisis; now, they’ve refused to sign a UN ceasefire agreement during a pandemic. Let me ask: Where’s the humanity in that? In 1988, I was only one year old when the earthquake hit. My mother carried me out of a building in her arms, but enough sentimentality. Instead here’s an image from that event depicting what seems to be two men digging for survivors.

In many respects the Khojaly massacre perpetrated by Armenian forces was an act of revenge for the horrors of Sumgait; the former was orchestrated on the 26th of February, 1992 while the latter occurred on the 26th of February, 1988, culminating on March 1st of that same year. It’s this vicious cycle that I mention in the first article that causes so many problems in the resolution of this conflict. Payback after payback and it really doesn’t matter at this point who started the most recent fighting or even who began it in the first place—the only thing that matters is who’ll be the one to decide that it’s over.

Let’s continue with another Azeri massacre of Armenians—in this case Maragha—in which, according to multiple Amnesty International (AI) reports, between 45 to 100 people were killed, and not simply that, as stated by one source; their bodies were disfigured and indiscriminately thrown into mass graves. This particular AI document  states the following and the full report quoted below can be viewed here:

This dossier compiled in 1993 by the same agency gives a lower death-toll and this is meant to demonstrate that there can be contrasting perspectives in eyewitness accounts, along with the fact that different reports may focus on important matters that another source may choose to leave out—things such as hostages that were never found or wounded individuals who didn’t necessarily perish during or immediately after the massacre but nevertheless died as a result of their injuries later on; naturally, we may give both sides the benefit of such doubts.

One of the biggest atrocities committed by Armenian forces was during the Capture of Shusha; this can be considered the turning point of the war as it signified the first major victory for the country. Azerbaijan claims that more than 193 lives were lost. I couldn’t find official data on this, but, in the interest of solidarity, let’s just say this was the case. Due to the heavy fighting, the city was reduced to rubble, as this picture shows.

James Carney’s article “Carnage in Karabakh” in Time magazine had this to say about the extent of the damage: “scarcely a single building escaped damage in Stepanakert.” War doesn’t justify the killing of civilians, so let’s not pretend otherwise, even if it serves Armenian interests to use that rationale. Who are we really benefiting with arguments like this when they can just as easily be made by the other side? What’s interesting is that seventy-two years ago a massacre against the Armenians was carried out in this very same city, causing the destruction of the entire Armenian-populated quarter; according to Thomas de Waal‘s book, Black Garden, approximately 500 people lost their lives and the event resulted in the removal of the town’s entire Armenian population.

Indeed, though deadly and gruesome, the massacres during the Nagorno-Karabakh War didn’t amount to nearly the same casualties as those which occurred before and immediately after the creation of the Soviet Union, which was able to suppress and shelve the conflict not long after its formation, relatively speaking.

The so-called March Days were responsible for over 10,000 casualties. Orchestrated by the Bolsheviks with the help of the Dashnaktsutyun (the Armenian Revolutionary Federation), it was an attempt to suppress a possible revolt against Soviet authorities by Azerbajain’s Musavat Party. To demonstrate how dirty politics in fact are, we may simply look at this example: During the period of Soviet Azerbaijan, more precisely in 1978, the country’s leader at the time, Heydar Aliev, issued the following statement at a meeting dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the birth of Stepan Shahumian (the man who helped the Bolsheviks orchestrate the March Days) in Baku on October 11, 1978: “В марте 1918 года мусаватисты подняли антисоветский мятеж в Баку, намереваясь задушить Советскую власть. Благодаря решительным и твердым мерам, принятым большевиками, мятеж был ликвидирован.” The verbatim English translation is as follows: “In March 1918, the Musavatists launched an anti-Soviet revolt in Baku, intending to strangle Soviet power. Thanks to the decisive and firm measures taken by the Bolsheviks, the rebellion was liquidated.” Exactly twenty years later, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, of course, that very same leader, Heydar Aliev, according to a UN General Assembly Security Council report, issued a very different statement: “Taking advantage of the situation following the end of the First World War and the February and October 1917 revolutions in Russia, the Armenian nationalists began to pursue the implementation of their plans under the banner of Bolshevism. Under the watchword of combating counter-revolutionary elements, in March 1918, the Baku commune began to implement a criminal plan aimed at eliminating Azerbaijanis from the whole of Baku province.” What version are we really to believe?

The only thing crystal-clear here is that the same man isn’t simply an individual of his time, but a politician of it. Thus, which politician are we to believe—Soviet Aliev or the post-Soviet one? Should we believe that the Bolsheviks with the help of Stepan Shahumian are heroes for crushing an anti-Soviet revolt in Baku or that those very same Bolsheviks with the help of that traitorous Armenian were responsible for killing more than 12,000 people? Perhaps we can simplify things by complicating the issue with the addition of a scholar: According to Michael Smith’s article, “Anatomy of Rumor: Murder Scandal, the Musavat Party and Narrative of the Russian Revolution in Baku, 1917–1920,” which states: “The results of the March events were immediate and total for the Musavat. Several hundreds of its members were killed in the fighting; up to 12,000 Muslim civilians perished; thousands of others fled Baku in a mass exodus.” Issues like these are exactly what I was trying to highlight rather subtly in my first article, but since the point may not have gotten across to some people, I’ve decided to take a more direct approach. Let me pose the question again: Which Heydar Aliev do we believe?

Moving right back along now to Azeri atrocities committed against the Armenians. Aptly named the September Days, it’s not difficult to realize at this point that this event was an act of revenge for the March Days—a sort of reverse Khojaly, if you will. A 1995 Human Rights Watch report summarizes the two events nicely, although their death toll for the March Days could’ve perhaps been higher, but who cares about a few lives here and there, right? One death can be a genocide if there’s enough hate involved.

What do all these unfortunate events show? Precisely what I was trying to suggest in the first article: “Indeed, Azeris will never forget the atrocities of Khojaly while at the same time deliberately choosing to ignore the pogroms committed against Armenians in Sumgait, Baku, and Stepanakert; however, this has more to do with realizing political objectives than any kind of genuine hate for a people.” In this conflict, when one side has committed or commits an atrocity against the other side, it really isn’t that difficult to find something equivalent that has happened at some point in the past, or will probably happen in the future; all this needs to stop.

While Armenian and Azeri politicians are busy pointing fingers, people are dying; that was another thing which I initially attempted to illustrate by using the statements of US senators and representatives. The back-and-forth will never stop; tomorrow, an Azeri will find some other international lawmaker to back up his own cause and what will that really do to further the relations between the two countries themselves? Something else is needed—something besides politics. A few people I’ve spoken to about this disagree—they believe politics is the only solution. When I mentioned that our family knows an Armenian man and an Azeri woman who are married to each other, one person even discounted such cultural contact as not really relevant in the process towards building better relations between the respective countries; I find that very hard to believe.

Politics isn’t everything because the majority of Armenians and Azeris aren’t actually politicians; they’re just regular people. It’s therefore up to us to build bridges, to form bonds and go places where governments can’t take us. It’s my firm belief that the true resolution to this conflict will not come from the political arena but from Armenians and Azeris themselves. The eighteenth-century Armenian poet Sayat-Nova, who wrote both in Armenian and Azeri, along with Georgian as well, thought of himself, according to de Waal, precisely “as a bridge builder.” The poet was most content when, in de Waal’s words, he could move “between the different nations and regions of the Caucasus,” never tied down to a single identity. In one of his Azeri poems, he writes:

The word “nation” in the poem is ambiguous; however, Sayat-Nova’s biographer, Charles Dorsett (quoted in de Waal), states the following about why the poet may have chosen that specific word: “What nation? If the Armenian nation, or the Georgian, why is the poem in Azeri? It would seem his horizons are broader, and that he is thinking in such terms such as the Caucasian unity, in which Armenian, Georgian, and Azeri might live together in harmony, under the beneficent rule of a wise leader like Irakli II, and Azeri, as the common language, was the best vehicle for the message.” An Armenian poet writing in Azeri? Truly, this is something that both sides probably wouldn’t want to acknowledge, but it’s precisely what proves my point—politics isn’t the solution. It’s the power of art and culture that will serve to mediate whatever differences exist between Armenia and Azerbaijan.


About David Garyan

David Garyan has published three chapbooks with Main Street Rag, along with (DISS)INFORMATION, a full collection with the same publisher. He holds an MA and MFA from Cal State Long Beach, where he associated himself with the Stand Up Poets. He is currently studying International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage at the University of Bologna. He lives in Ravenna.

Yesterday Karabakh, Today Artsakh, part I, an article by David Garyan

July 22nd, 2020
Ravenna, Italy

Part II

Yesterday Karabakh, Today Artsakh, part I

The recent escalation in violence between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh is an unfortunate event in what has become a long struggle for self-determination in the case of Armenia and preserving the integrity of national borders in the case of Azerbaijan.

The area, historically known as Artsakh, has always retained a strong Armenian character, both in terms of culture and religion. David Marhall Lang, one of the most notable British scholars on Armenian, Georgian, and Bulgarian history, traces the territory’s name back to an ancient Armenian king: “Historically speaking, the evidence of Armenian occupation is overwhelming. The area’s ancient name of Artsakh probably recalls the name of King Artashes I (190-159 B.C.), founder of the Artaxiad dynasty.” Moreover, in line with Lang’s argument, the emergence of cities such as Tigranakert, probably founded by Tigranes the Great, or perhaps even his father, provide further scholarly evidence that Armenians inhabited the area long before there was even a nation called Azerbaijan.

Ten years ago an archaeological museum was opened in the city with the aim of studying and preserving the ancient Armenian ruins.

Likewise, places like Amaras Monastery, dating back to the fourth century AD, show the extent to which Armenian religious sights have impacted the region. Founded by St. Gregory the Illuminator, the grounds later served as the site where his remains where buried in 338; it’s this religious leader who converted his people from paganism to Christianity, effectively making Armenia the first nation to adopt the religion as its official faith in 301—twelve years before Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, after which it took ten more years for Rome to do what the aforementioned saint had already done twenty-two years ago in his own land. Indeed, it was also in Amaras, at the beginning of the fifth century that Mesrop Mashtots—a medieval Armenian linguist and theologian who invented the unique Armenian alphabet—founded the first school that would use the script which would go on to serve Armenians to this day.

According to Peter Brown in his book, Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World, published by Harvard University Press, Mashtots “also created the Georgian and Caucasian-Albanian alphabets, based on the Armenian model.” Hence, Mashtots proved to be a man who was interested in worldly pursuits—in the sense that he was a theologian who didn’t simply concern himself with the agenda of his own people. Below is a picture of the simple yet picturesque monastery which has captured the imagination of both Armenians and foreigners alike.

Another important testament to the Armenian presence in the area is Gandzasar, a thirteenth-century Armenian-Apostolic cathedral built between 1216 and 1238. To this day, Azeri attempts to whitewash Armenian history in the region have led to efforts which try to portray the monastery as the cultural and religious heir of Caucasian Albania;  an Economist article from 1997 highlights just one of the ways in which the Azeri political apparatus manipulates history for their own ends: “Those sculpted men who built the church and hundreds of others like it were not Armenians at all, the Baku scholars have argued, but Albanians. And the Albanians, they add, were the ancestors of the Azerbaijanis.” Such skulduggery has been challenged by various scholars, including the noted Russian historian Victor Schnirelmann, and recognized American scholar on Armenian studies, Robert Hewsen; the former has made numerous statements (written in Russian) regarding Azerbaijan’s attempt to shift Armenian intellectuals and monuments from the past into the sphere of Albanian history while the latter wrote the following in his book, Armenia: A Historical Atlas: “Scholars should be on guard when using Soviet and post-Soviet Azeri editions of Azeri, Persian, and even Russian and Western European sources printed in Baku. These have been edited to remove references to Armenians and have been distributed in large numbers in recent years. When utilizing such sources, the researchers should seek out pre-Soviet editions wherever possible.” Along with this, the successful obliteration of medieval Armenian khachkars (stone cross carvings) in the city Djulfa to erase any traces of Armenian presence is an event The LA Times has called cultural genocide.

While it’s a sad and unfortunate matter that some nations choose to destroy monuments for the purpose of erasing people’s legacies in specific regions, our purpose is better served if we analyze Azerbaijan’s manipulation of history; the latter dilemma is something the Economist, at least in Gandzasar’s supposed Albanian heritage (as claimed by the Azeris) is also quick to point out: “This is nonsense. According to most historians, the Albanians, a Caucasian people first recorded by the Romans, simply disappeared around the 10th century and became assimilated with their neighbours. All that remained was a territorial name, which the eastern branch of the Armenian church took for its diocese.” There can be no denying that Artsakh has always been a frontier land and that Armenians, too, have engaged in historical revisionism; what can’t be disputed, however, is the overwhelming historical proof that Armenians have resided in the territory long before the Muslims ever arrived—the only confirmation one needs for this is simple math: Islam is a religion founded approximately seven centuries after the birth of Christ; Tigranes the Great, meanwhile, founded Tigranakert—by the most modest calculations—fifty years before Jesus himself was even born; thus, it’s not even Christians who were already establishing ancient cities in Artsakh, but pagan Armenians. The presence of many religious sites such as Gandzasar Monastery (pictured below) show how firmly people renounced their polytheism in order to embrace a monotheistic faith.

Following a war with Iran, the Russian Empire formally annexed what’s today once again known as Artsakh in 1813; however, after the Russian Empire itself collapsed in 1918 and the short-lived republics of Armenian and Azerbaijan were born in 1918, conflicts over the region really began to take shape. Under the leadership of the USSR, hostilities were shelved as the expression of nationality was discouraged in the interest of building a greater Soviet identity.

There’s neither enough space nor time to discuss all the incredibly complex history of the region; what’s relevant to mention, however, is that in 1921, in an effort to bring Turkey under its communist sphere of influence, Joseph Stalin formally transferred the Armenian-settled highlands of Artsakh to Azerbaijan (the Turks and Azeris share many cultural and ethnic ties). As the notable historian Robert Service wrote in his biography of Stalin: “There was a demand from the Azerbaijani communist leadership in Baku for Karabakh, an Armenian-inhabited enclave butting into Azerbaijan, to be made part of Azerbaijan; and the Armenian communists fiercely opposed this on the ground that Karabakh should belong to Armenia. Ruling the Caucasus was never going to be easy after the wars fought between the Azeris and Armenians from 1918. But on balance it was Stalin’s judgement that the Azerbaijani authorities should be placated. Revolutionary pragmatism was his main motive. The Party Central Committee in Moscow gave high priority to winning support for the Communist International across Asia.” Hence, it was this transfer (the motive of which was to spread Soviet influence at the expense of undermining the national integrity of regions), that arguably, has been the root cause of many troubles in the area, and perhaps the underlying cause for the Nagorno-Karabakh War, when the Soviet Union (which had managed to suppress inter-ethnic tensions) collapsed and led to the resurgence of hostilities between the neighboring countries.

After the conclusion of the conflict in 1994, the area, today once more known as Artsakh, fell under the full control of Armenia and is until now heavily dependent on it; the breakaway republic remains unrecognized by the international community, although regional governments such as those of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, the California State Assembly, Georgia, and Hawaii, just to name a few, have recognized the region’s independence on the grounds of self-determination. Furthermore, cities such as Glendale, California (where almost half the population is of Armenian descent) have renamed their streets to show solidarity with the republic; previously called Maryland, lawmakers in a historic move about two years ago opted to rename one of the town’s most scenic strips in honor of its Armenian-American citizens, who’ve done so much to improve the community throughout the years. This is a picture of me standing at that intersection last year with the awareness that I would shortly depart for Italy to study human rights at the University of Bologna.

Similar measures have been taken in cities like Watertown, Massachusetts, as the state, like California, is also home to a large number of people who claim Armenian descent.

In fact as early as the 19th century, notable American personalities such as the feminist and human rights advocate Alicia Stone Blackwell, were beginning to be fascinated by Armenian culture and even translated poets such as Bedros Tourian into English. Without going too much off-topic, Tourian was at the height of his creative powers when he suddenly died at the age of 21 from tuberculosis. During his short life, Tourian wrote numerous poems and plays and was well-versed in writers like Victor Hugo and Alphonse de Lamartine, having read them in the original French. Perhaps his most poignant poem, “Complaints,” is the author’s plight in having to accept his own mortality. Though somewhat dated, Blackwell’s translation nevertheless offers a powerful glimpse into the author’s resistance against fate, which is captured in these two stanzas:

Shifting back to the area of our discussion, in the interest of fairness, it’s best to acknowledge right away that not only were both sides guilty of mass atrocities during the Nagorno-Karabakh War, but that to this day one side is responsible for some bloodshed that the other side has retaliated against and visa versa—the vicious cycle continues, which is why collaborative efforts such as this joint Armenian-Azerbaijani documentary on the region have more potential to mend differences than the efforts of politicians. Indeed, Azeris will never forget the atrocities of Khojaly while at the same time deliberately choosing to ignore the pogroms committed against Armenians in Sumgait, Baku, and Stepanakert; however, this has more to do with realizing political objectives than any kind of genuine hate for a people. Bring individuals of various faiths and nationalities around a dinner table and they’ll find ways to resolve their differences; I’ve always been a firm believer in this. In my own program, there are Turks and Azeris with whom I’ve established friendly relations, further proving that politics and people are not as inseparable as society has made us believe.

It’s unfortunate that war had to erupt; based on the principle of self-determination, however, Armenians should have the right to create their own republic, especially given the fact they form and have historically constituted the majority in this region.

The right to self-determination is supported by a large number of senators and representatives within the US government. Furthermore, the Pallone Amendment, which recently passed into law and was co-sponsored in the House Committee on Rules by Representatives Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Adam Schiff (D-CA), Brad Sherman (D-CA), and Jackie Speier (D-CA), will enhance the oversight of human rights violations around the world; as stated by Frank Pallone himself, the recent aggression by Azerbaijan against Armenia was a key factor in the passage of this particular amendment: “This amendment is especially important now as Azerbaijan threatens Armenia’s safety and sovereignty with offensive attacks staged by Azeri armed forces in Armenia’s Tavush region. The United States should not be aiding and abetting reckless, autocratic states with appalling human rights records for any reason.” Along with the the recent money laundering schemes by Azerbaijan, which were instrumental in securing the release of the officer who murdered Gurgen Margaryan in Hungary (also my article on this topic), the passage of this resolution couldn’t be more timely.

Let’s return, however, to the amendment of Frank Pallone Jr. and the general discussion of support for Artsakh by various US senators and representatives. Regarding the importance which American foreign aid plays in the region, Rep. TJ Cox, a democrat from California issued the following statement:

Along with this, a letter signed by congressmen and women Jackie Speier, Adam Schiff, Gus M. Bilirakis, and Frank Pallone Jr. was drafted, expressing great concern over the recent escalation in violence and demanding greater accountability on the part of Azerbaijan. In the same vein, individual congressmen and women have issued their own statements of concern and the need for greater accountability.

Congressman Tony Cardenas, representing the 29th District of California stated this:

New Jersey Senators Cory Booker and Bob Menendez stated:

Congresswoman Linda Sanchez, representing the 38th District of California issued the following statement:

The mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti, whose city recognized the independence of Artsakh posted the following on Twitter:


Congressman Josh Gottheimer, representing the 5th District of New Jersey stated the following on Twitter page:

Congressman Jim Costa, representing the 16th District of California gave this statement:

Congresswoman Katherine Clark, representing the 5th District of Massachusetts stated this:

Lastly, Devin Nunes, representing the 22nd District of California called on Turkey to cease threatening Armenia in the following Twitter post:

Turkey has repeatedly called Armenia’s presence in Artsakh an illegal occupation. Ankara itself doesn’t realize, however, that its military intervention in Cyprus and the subsequent control over half the island isn’t recognized by the international community or any UN member state. As James Ker-Lindsay writes in his book, An Island in Europe: “Concerning the situation in Cyprus, the UN concludes in its resolutions that the proclamation of the ‘Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’ (TRNC) is void. The international community collectively refuses any recognition of this entity. Hence, only one state exists on the island, the Republic of Cyprus, whose northern part is occupied by foreign forces. Classified as illegal under international law, the occupation of the northern part leads automatically to an illegal occupation of EU territory since Cyprus’s accession.” The Turkish government, along with Azerbaijan, should thus exercise caution when they threaten to blow up Armenian nuclear power plants, given that harebrained schemes like this would only worsen their own situation—the radioactive material emitted from such an explosion would cover not only all of Azerbaijan, but also Western Turkey. Indeed, Armenia would be greatly harmed, but in the attempt to pay back their foe, the entity dealing out this retribution would suffer the same damage as the enemy he’s inflicting it upon.

It must be repeated that I’ve never had problems with the Azeris and Turks that I’ve gotten to know personally; however, when I see blatant propaganda being posted on the internet by individuals of those nationalities claiming that Armenians have been and continue to be the sole aggressor in this conflict, I must speak out. We’re a small nation and it’s been too long that we’ve had to stand back and watch the greater powers either carve out, map, or exterminate our nation—all the while making promises they were never intending to keep. Where’s Wilsonian Armenia today? Why did the Western powers not do more to ensure that the Treaty of Sèvres was properly honored after WWI? In comparison to the land promised below, our country is a shadow of what it should’ve been. It’s no longer possible to stand back and watch. It’s no longer possible to assume that greater powers will act in our best interest; the consequences of such assumptions have been clear.

It’s true that every nation gets short-changed and every country loses territory; however, some incur more loses than others. Armenia has forfeited plenty over the years and been on the receiving end of political deals gone bad. While the French were busy getting back Alsace-Lorraine and the Italians were annexing South Tyrol, Armenians were being exterminated on the very land where they had lived for years while losing precisely that territory they were being exterminated on, mainly because a government refused to honor legitimate treaty obligations. Whether something similar will happen, no one but God knows. The only certain thing is that Artsakh—whether historically or now—has always gravitated towards Armenia and it belongs there today, even if that sense of belonging isn’t honored by the rest of the world.


About David Garyan

David Garyan has published three chapbooks with Main Street Rag, along with (DISS)INFORMATION, a full collection with the same publisher. He holds an MA and MFA from Cal State Long Beach, where he associated himself with the Stand Up Poets. He is currently studying International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage at the University of Bologna. He lives in Ravenna.