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Reviewed by:
  • Iconography of Armenian Identity, vol. 1, The Memory of Genocide and the Karabagh Movement
  • Roger W. Smith
Iconography of Armenian Identity, vol. 1, The Memory of Genocide and the Karabagh Movement, Harutyun Marutyan (Yerevan, Armenia: Gitutyun Publishing House of the National Academy of Sciences, 2009), xvi + 416 pp., cloth $80.00.

In this fascinating and highly unusual volume, Harutyun Marutyan, an anthropologist at the Armenian Academy of Sciences, traces the changes in Armenian identity over the three-year period of the Karabagh Movement (1988-1990). During that brief period, collective identity in the country evolved from that of a victim nation to that of a people who assert their rights to independence, governmental accountability, and security. The path to this transformation of national identity, the author argues, led through remembrance of the Armenian Genocide.

A short section on Karabagh would have been helpful to the reader. Almost from the inception of the Soviet Union, Karabagh—a territory within Azerbaijan whose population historically has been close to ninety percent Armenian—fell under Azerbaijani authority. Late in the 1980s, increasing Armenian demands for self-determination went hand-in-hand with the rise of a movement to join Karabagh with Armenia. After war broke out, violence against Armenians in Sumgait, Azerbaijan, renewed local Armenians' consciousness of the 1915 genocide and led them to draw parallels between what had taken place in the early twentieth century and what they were experiencing in their own time.

In Karabagh itself, the movement focused mainly on reunification with Armenia; in Yerevan, its goals were at first unclear, but soon took a turn toward demands for justice for the victims at Sumgait and for more openness in government and society. Many Armenians turned against the Russians and the military: [End Page 464] why had they not stopped the pogroms, and why had the perpetrators been charged merely as "hooligans," not as persons engaged in ethnic violence with support from Azeri officials?

Marutyan leads us on an extended tour of the Karabagh Movement in Yerevan, but does so in a highly unusual way: he photographs and interprets the content of a thousand or so posters that were produced by amateurs, professional artists, school children, and others, all calling for justice and almost all doing so through references to the 1915 genocide or to other violence against Armenians. Though what took place in Yerevan was considered part of the Karabagh Movement, relatively few of the posters sought to press the claim for unification.

The book is fully illustrated with what can only be described as powerful, sometimes, biting images/icons, with changes in content traced over the three years of the Movement's activity (how it ended is not explained). Marutyan interprets the images and provides a historical commentary, stressing the gradual evolution from a kind of confusion, to supplication to the Soviet authorities for justice, to a more assertive stance: "We must fight, not weep" (p. 240).

References to the Armenian Genocide had been suppressed during Soviet rule; commemorations were held each year beginning in 1965 on April 24, the anniversary of the beginning of the genocide, but little else was done to mark the events. But now, the events in Sumgait and increasing disenchantment with the Soviets—for failing to protect Armenians and pursue justice—had brought historical memory of the trauma to the forefront. Increasingly, during the Karabagh period, anything that was perceived as a threat to the Armenian people was interpreted as genocide: the nuclear power plant outside Yerevan, the synthetic rubber plant that spewed out pollution in the city, and even the privileging of Russian language in schools over Armenian—all were now perceived through that lens. A new activism and a sense of empowerment replaced the docility of the Soviet period. Separation from the Soviet Union quickly followed.

The author's observations are probably on the mark, but his explanations can be challenged in some respects. He makes an impressive case for the importance of the posters, but every day, at rallies held at Opera Square, members of the Movement delivered speeches and made their demands. Could not these, rather than the posters, have produced the effects that he describes? Also, one...


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