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Is the Pen Mightier than the Sword?

Historians, Disputed Ownership of History, and Ethnic Conflict in the South Caucasus

Is the Pen Mightier than the Sword?

Dadivank Monastery Complex (Photo: Martin Cígler via Wikimedia Commons, 2015; cropped. CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Armenian Studies Center of the UCLA Promise Armenian Institute presents "Is the Pen Mightier than the Sword? Historians, Disputed Ownership of History, and Ethnic Conflict in the South Caucasus," a virtual international conference in collaboration with the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies, the UCLA Center for European and Russian Studies, the UCLA Richard Hovannisian Endowed Chair in Modern Armenian History, the Society for Armenian Studies, and the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR).

Friday, January 28, 2022 to Saturday, January 29, 2022
9:00 AM - 3:00 PM (Pacific Time)

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Registration for this event is required and free. Please click here to register. 

From Ernest Renan’s celebrated Sorbonne lecture of 1882, “Qu’est-ce-qu’une nation?” to Eric Hobsbawm’s more recent work on nationalism, the role of historians and their craft in engendering and legitimating ethnic and national conflicts around the world has been a commonly accepted fact, even if it has not been properly scrutinized. The profession of history and its practitioners have often been at the forefront or in the trenches of ethnic conflicts and cleansings from the Balkans to the Former Soviet Union. In Hobsbawm's memorable phrase, “historians are to nationalism what poppy-growers in Pakistan are to heroin addicts: [they] supply the essential raw material for the market. Nations without a past are contradictions in terms. What makes a nation is the past; what justifies one nation against others is the past, and historians are the people who produce it.”

In few other regions of the world, perhaps, have historians been as complicit in engendering ethnic and territorial conflict as in the South Caucasus, home to Armenians, Georgians, Azerbaijani Turks, and a host of smaller communities. Historians’ pivotal role in such conflicts was most visibly demonstrated in the 44-day war over Artsakh or Nagorno Karabakh, and the ethnic cleansing of the region’s Armenian population in the fall of 2020. After all, at the center of the conflict is the history of an otherwise obscure and enigmatic kingdom known as Caucasian Albania (not to be confused with Albania in Europe) and its relationship with the region’s Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Though they disappeared from history around the ninth century C.E., the Caucasian Albanians and their arcane history were resuscitated by Azerbaijani historians during the 1960s to lay claims to the history and cultural patrimony of the disputed enclave. Were the Albanians the “ancestral forerunners” to the Azeri nation and are Karabagh’s historical monuments (including ancient cathedrals) part of the patrimony of the Albanians and therefore of the Azeri nation as Azeri historians claim, or was the area under dispute always part of “historic Armenia,” with the local Armenians as the area’s “indigenous” population, as claimed by Armenian historians. What is remarkable is that “invented traditions” of Albanian history were not only mobilized during the era of glasnost thus laying the discursive basis on the militarization of the Armeno-Azeri conflict over “disputed ownership to history,” they have also been recently weaponized by the Aliyev regime and its supporters to lay claims to an endangered cultural patrimony.

Spurred by the violence and monument-destruction in the mountainous region of the Karabakh, this symposium brings together some of the world’s leading authorities to examine the role of historians in fanning the flames of ethnic/territorial conflicts across the troubled landscape of the South Caucasus. Examining case studies from Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia to Nagorno Karabakh and its surrounding regions and Nakhijevan in Azerbaijan, scholars will present comparative and connective histories of how the historian’s craft and its proponents have been implicated in the incitement of conflict and the destruction of cultural heritage. Topics to be explored include Soviet nationality policy, the production of national histories for the South Caucasian nationalities, the standardization of curricula of national histories under Soviet and post-Soviet rule, and the destruction of historical monuments. A concluding plenary panel will assess the question of historical memory in the South Caucasus and how historians in the region can help facilitate peace and conflict resolution.

Day 1 (January 28)

Introductions and Keynote (9:00 - 10:00 AM)

Ann Karagozian: Welcoming Remarks

Sebouh David AslanianThe ‘Mountain of Tongues’ (ǰabal al-alsun), Difference, and Ethnic Conflict in the South Caucasus

 Victor A. Shnirelman: Images of the Past and Conflicts of the Present

Panel 1: Russian Imperial Expansion and Soviet Nationality Policy (10:00 AM - 12:00 PM)

Victor Agadjanian: Panel Chair

Stephen Badalyan RieggAscending the Mountain of Tongues: Russia’s Annexation of the South Caucasus and its Implications

Ronald Grigor SunyPrimordial Poppy Growers and the War on Drugs: Historians and the Soviet Empire's Production of Nations
Terry MartinStrategic Primordialism: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis?
Adrienne Edgar: Discussant 


Break: (12:00 PM - 12:30 PM)

Panel 2: The Nagorno Karabakh/Artsakh Conflict and the “Invented Tradition” of Caucasian Albanian History (12:30 PM - 2:30 PM)

Peter Cowe: Panel Chair
Marco Bais: Albanians and Albania in Greek and Latin Sources: Problems and Methodological Issues
Sebouh David Aslanian: Caucasian Albania as an Invented Tradition and the “Paper War” Between Armenian and Azeri Historians

Igor Dorfmann-Lazarev: The Legacy of Stalinism in the post-Soviet Nations and the Cultural Cleansing in Nagornyj Karabagh

Levon Abrahamyan: The Semiotic Roots of the Caucasian Albania Issue
  Marc Mamigonian: Discussant 


Day 2 (January 29)

Panel 3: Ethnic Conflict, Historians, and Monument Preservation/Desecration (9:00 AM - 11:00 AM)

Hagop Kouloujian: Panel Chair
Hamlet PetrosyanThe Cultural Heritage and Monuments of Artsakh/Karabakh at the Cross-hairs of Azerbaijani Attacks: From the 1960s to the Present

Christina MaranciStrzygowski’s Ghost 
  Patrick Donabedian: Armenian Architecture of Artsakh: Observations on its Characteristic Features

Anoush Suni: Discussant 

Break: (11:00 AM - 11:30 AM)

Panel 4: Historians, the “Titular” Nation, and Minorities in Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan (11:30 AM - 1:30 PM)


Melissa Bilal: Panel Chair

Artyom TonoyanSacred Causes, State Interests: Religion and Violence During the Second Karabakh War

Oliver ReisnerHistory for the Masses: About the Relationship Between Historians and Politics in Stalinist Georgia

  Arsène SaparovPlace-Names Wars in Karabakh: Russian Imperial Maps and Political Legitimacy in the Caucasus

Mikail Mamedov: Discussant

Roundtable Discussion on Historians, Collective Memory, and Conflict Resolution (1:30 PM - 3:00 PM)

  Vicken Cheterian

Boris Adjemian 
  Gayane Shagoyan 
  David Leupold
  Lusine Kharatyan



VICTOR A. SHNIRELMAN: Images of the Past and Conflicts of the Present

Once Ernest Gellner pointed out the importance of the images of the past for a nationalist ideology. Yet, he left this field to his student Anthony Smith who analyzed various nationalist narratives and worked out their classification. However, to paraphrase Ernst Cassirer, I argue that social functions and intensity of interiorization of such sort of narratives are more important than their content. The views of the past play a great social and political role and are widely used in symbolic politics. Their functions are to legitimate current political ambitions: the claims for national independence or political autonomy, for certain social advantages, or access to vital resources – financial, economic, educational, religious, cultural, and the like.

In multi-ethnic states, images of the past are evidently more attractive for the minorities rather than for the dominant majorities. Indeed, the latter believe that their interests are safely secured by the state, whereas the minorities often feel some discrimination.

Under this environment, a scholar faces a dilemma – to keep loyalty to a scholarly community or to serve his/her people’s interests. Thus, more often than not, historical narratives of the neighboring ethnic communities differ from each other while making an emphasis on different historical evidence or interpreting the same data in a different way. A historiographic conflict is a result which causes a cultural war.



STEPHEN BADALYAN RIEGG: Ascending the Mountain of Tongues: Russia’s Annexation of the South Caucasus and its Implications

From Peter to Putin, Russia’s encounter with the South Caucasus has elicited the attention of regional and global players for the far-ranging geopolitical implications of that engagement. This presentation sketches the key patterns of Russia’s multi-century penetration into the South Caucasus. The multifaceted nature of this imperial project explains how Moscow has re-emerged in recent years as both a contributor to, and an arbiter of, regional disputes. By considering the evolution of tsarist policy toward the indigenous groups of the South Caucasus, the presentation accents the contingent nature of Romanov empire-building that progressed alongside local nation-building in the long nineteenth century. Just when the Marxist revolutionary tide appeared to sweep away the sprouting manifestations of national self-determination, the internationalist Soviet authorities arose as the champions of distinctive national identity. This presentation, thus, traces the focal points of Russian-South Caucasian contacts from the eighteenth century to the early Soviet era.


RONALD GRIGOR SUNY: Primordial Poppy Growers and the War on Drugs: Historians and the Soviet Empire's Production of Nations

The study of Soviet nationalities in the West during the long decades of the Cold War was characterized by a view of the USSR as a repressive russifying state determined to eliminate the national cultures of the non-Russian peoples. What was missed was the actual policies and practices of Leninist nationality policy that at different times promoted national cultures and degrees of local autonomy and at others, as during the Stalinist period, did indeed conform to the image of an imperial center oppressing the peoples of the periphery. With the arrival of the constructivist understanding of nations, the Soviet Union appeared to growing numbers of historians to be an example of how states, even empire states, construct nations within their midst. The disintegration of the USSR seemed to confirm both accounts – the primordialist and constructivist – and in this paper, the author sets out to determine the salience of each approach.


TERRY MARTIN: Strategic Primordialism: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis?

Inspired by the work of Viktor Shnirelman, I will re-visit the origins and nature of the primordial turn in the understanding of nationality in the later Stalinist period.



MARCO BAIS: Albanians and Albania in Greek and Latin Sources: Problems and Methodological Issues

Greek and Latin sources on Caucasian Albania provide information on a wide range of questions. I will focus in particular on ethnic and geographical issues. On the one hand, I will try to outline the complex ethnic landscape of the Eastern Caucasus, in which classical sources place the Albanians. On the other hand, I will try to highlight the elements that allow us to give a definition of the geographical space that the classical sources designate as Albania or in which, in any case, they place the Albanians. At the same time, I would like to draw attention to some problems and methodological issues related to the use of classical sources in the reconstruction of Albanian history, both in the light of recent publications, which show an excessive distrust in the possibility of reconstructing Albanian history on the basis of ancient sources, and with respect to the discomfort that some historians seem to have in dealing with issues of ethnic and geographical nature in a context where the historiographic discourse is often manipulated and deformed for political purposes.


SEBOUH DAVID ASLANIAN: Caucasian Albania as an Invented Tradition and the “Paper War” Between Armenian and Azeri Historians

Long before the days of perestroika and glasnost, when the issue of the political status of Artsakh or Nagorno Karabakh could not be brought into the open, a more discreet and Aesopian form of this territorial dispute was waged between historians and ethnographers in both republics. Indeed, beginning in the mid-1960s, a historians’ paper war, ostensibly over the medieval history of the area that now constitutes Karabakh, began to be waged across the historical and ethnological institutes and university departments of the two republics. As Nora Dudwick noted long ago, this war of histories can be viewed as the “transmutation” of actual conflict onto the terrain of history. Thus, when political discussions, disagreements and battles could not be conducted in the open due to “fear of sanctions” from central authorities, they were fought between historians. The pages of “academic” journals, history books, encyclopedias, archeological manuscripts, and popular newspapers acted as so many embattled landscapes, where rivaling versions of the past, conflicting histories and perceptions, clashed and collided.

This talk provides a quick overview of the historian’s war on the past of the Caucasian Albanians and argues that the re-discovery of their alphabet and history in the 1930s and the subsequent weaponization of Albanian history have played a pivotal role in the current conflict. As an “invented tradition,” Caucasian Albania has provided the discursive terrain for the recent ethnic cleansing and monument destruction in the South Caucasus.


IGOR DORFMANN-LAZAREVThe Legacy of Stalinism in the post-Soviet Nations and the Cultural Cleansing in Nagornyj Karabagh

Today more loudly than ever before, Azerbaijani leaders and academics publicly assert two revisionist theses which seek to deny to the Armenians the right to live on their ancestral lands and to erase in them every sign of Armenian historical memory. The first thesis relies on the idea that the Azerbaijani people descends directly from Caucasian Albania, an ancient kingdom, abolished in the sixth century, whose heartland laid on the flatland east of Artsakh (Nagornyj Karabakh); the second maintains that all the Christian monuments situated on the territory of Artsakh, as well as those situated on the territory of Azerbaijan, are Albanian monuments. My paper will first discuss the role of Armenians in the process of cultural transmission in the South-eastern Caucasus between the fall of the Albanian kingdom and the appearance of the Turkophone populations in the region in the eleventh century. It will then turn to the genesis of Azerbaijan’s official theses regarding the history of the South Caucasus. I shall explain how the Soviet politics of nationalities facilitated the creation of a new historiographic doctrine disconnected from the former historiographical traditions and from any objective analysis of historical sources. Finally, I shall also elucidate why the debates over ancient history and ‘ethnogenesis’ play such a prominent role in the present conflict.


LEVON ABRAHAMYAN: The Semiotic Roots of the Caucasian Albania Issue

The paper will discuss the history of the Caucasian Albania / Aluank' as an issue of semiotic origin, a combination of name-oriented moves lying in the base of a name ➞ nation creation process. On the basis of a close reading of the medieval writer Movses Kalankatuatsi’s “History of Albania,” the paper will demonstrate how the author of the “History” was constructing a separate history of a country, taking as a model Khorenatsi’s “History of Armenia.” As if following modern theories of nation-building, Kalankatuatsi, the paper argues, defined the Caucasian Albanians according to their progenitor, history, language, boundaries, and religion. He understood Caucasian Albanian identity in the sense close to the modern term “citizenship" and "Albanian” as “resident of Albania,” including Armenians residing on the right banks of Kura River and proper Albanian tribes of the left banks.

Following Aleksan Hakobian (Akopian 1987), the paper contends that such strategy could be considered as “legitimizing” the unwillingness of the actually Armenian principality of Albania to join the political ambitions of the Bagratite kings of Armenia in the early tenth century to re-unite the Armenian provinces into a new Great Armenia. The author of the “History of Albania” tried to save his people from the centripetal appetites of the Armenian medieval kings but, instead, delivered them into the hands of modern Azerbaijani expansionists who are looking for Albanians on the left banks of the Kura River.



HAMLET PETROSYAN: The Cultural Heritage and Monuments of Artsakh/Karabakh at the Cross-hairs of Azerbaijani Attacks: From the 1960s to the Present

The presentation comprises of three parts. The first offers a brief introduction to a general Azerbaijani policy toward Armenian cultural heritage in the territories under Azerbaijani control (from the 1960s to our days), the second discusses the condition of Muslim monuments in the Republic of Artsakh, and the third part presents the case of Tigranakert in Artsakh.


CHRISTINA MARANCI: Strzygowski’s Ghost

In 1918, Josef Strzygowski (1862-1941) published Die Baukunst der Armenier und Europa, an 888-page foundational text on medieval Armenian architecture in all its dimensions. Die Baukunst stages a pitched battle between the noble Aryans of Armenia and corrupt Machtmenschen of the Mediterranean, between the dome on squinches and the basilica, and between abstraction and figuration. As I sought to show twenty years ago, Strzygowski cast a long shadow on later scholarship, informing both specialist work and the role (or lack thereof) of Armenia in broader histories of art.

Since the 1990s, the study of Armenian art and architecture has developed in conspicuous ways. Collaborative and interdisciplinary efforts have produced innovative studies of single monuments and entire building traditions. The last five or ten years, concomitant with the global turn in art history, have also witnessed the increasing visibility of Armenia in surveys of art and architecture, digital projects, and museum exhibitions. These efforts have stressed the connectedness of Armenia to other cultures.

Then came the 2020 war in Artsakh, which not only physically endangered Armenian monuments in the conflict zone, but also weaponized them in disputes over ownership and territory. Die Baukunst, with its dueling traditions, its rhetoric of native and foreign, and its inevitable outcomes, feels increasingly and disturbingly familiar. Does Strzygowski’s ghost still haunt the scholarship on Armenian architecture? And what does the future hold for the study of the monuments of Artsakh?


PATRICK DONABEDIAN: Armenian Architecture of Artsakh: Observations on its Characteristic Features

The architecture of early Christian and medieval Artsakh fits into the general framework of the Christian architecture of Armenia. But at the same time, like all regional schools, it has its peculiarities, its characteristics. Some are marked, constrained by nature, but some are due to deliberate choices. One can also record features of interregional kinship. Taking into account the theme of this meeting, the following presentation will try to identify elements of commonality and difference with the architecture of Caucasian Albania.



ARTYOM H. TONOYAN: Sacred Causes, State Interests: Religion and Violence During the Second Karabakh War

As during the First Karabakh war of the 1990s, there was an abundance of religious symbolism and rhetoric during the most recent war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The present paper seeks to analyze the religious rhetoric and symbolism employed and deployed by the conflicting sides during the war ranging from Armenian battlefield baptism ceremonies to Turkish facilitation of jihadist mercenaries from Syria. Among other things, the paper seeks to map out the intersection of religion and violence and the development of the religiously inflected “otherization” narratives contributing to the intractability of the conflict.


OLIVER REISNER: History for the Masses: About the Relationship Between Historians and Politics in Stalinist Georgia

This paper discusses the case of the elaboration of the first Soviet Georgian history textbook between 1936 and 1943 and the role and self-perception of Georgian historians (Ivane Javakhishvili, Simon Janashia, Nikoloz Berdzenishvili) in the writing of this historical work. The paper will first discuss the career path and research of each historian in the period leading up to their appointment in the writing of this textbook. The paper will then analyze the minutes of a working meeting on the textbook that was convened on 14 September 1940 to review the first draft. The paper will conclude by examining a meeting with Stalin by Niko Berdzenishvili and Simon Janashia late in 1945 in Abkhazia, where Stalin discussed the textbook with them and demanded some changes. Based on an examination of various primary sources, the paper will draw some conclusions on the role and self-perception of Georgian historians during the dark years of Stalinism.


ARSÈNE SAPAROV: Place-Names Wars in Karabakh: Russian Imperial Maps and Political Legitimacy in the Caucasus

Place-names play an important ideological role in the modern Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Karabakh. Both sides have used toponymic evidence to claim a prior occupation of the disputed territory. Azerbaijan relies on the Russian maps to prove that the Armenian population are recent newcomers; Armenians point to medieval documents to prove the opposite. This article attempts to reconcile the contradictory evidence used by both sides by looking at the transformation of place-naming practices in the wake of the emergence of a modern bureaucratic state.

I argue that before the rise of the modern bureaucratic state in Europe, the place-naming was not within the realm of the interests of the state. The Russian conquest brought the uniformity of toponymic landscape into the Caucasus, where several toponymic landscapes co-existed in time and space. This resulted in the elevation of one landscape into an official landscape and the silencing of the other.

Download file: Conference-on-Caucasus-Jan-28-29-2022-o3-ycr.pdf

Sponsor(s): The Promise Armenian Institute, Center for Near Eastern Studies, Center for European and Russian Studies, The UCLA Richard Hovannisian Endowed Chair in Modern Armenian History, The Society for Armenian Studies, The National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR).