The Black Garden- My views on Thomas de Waal and Karabagh

July 12, 2011

The issue of Nagorno-Karabagh has always held a special place in my heart. As I grew up on the streets of Glendale, I often encountered Karabagh veterans, television programming dedicated to the war, and the images of Armenian warriors defeating the occupiers. Also, losing family in this war was something that had brought the topic closer to my heart. I lost two older cousins in the war. My cousin Robert was killed fighting to secure the Lachin corridor. My cousin Serop also lost his life. His unit had run out of food and essential supplies, so he and two other brothers in arms decided to charge an Azeri unit of 50 men. Not only did they die heroically, they managed to force the Azeri unit to retreat into the hills of Shushi. Both my deceased family members are decorated heroes who died in honor of their country. Serop is buried next to Monte Melkonian at Yerablur: the pantheon of Armenian heroes. Growing up, I did a lot of reading on the Karabagh conflict. That still continues today with the book Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through War and Peace. I haven’t finished reading the book, so I wouldn’t call this a book review yet. But as I get through the pages, I quickly realize that the Karabagh conflict needs to be studied more by historians, academics and individuals with the proper credentials.

As I picked through the pages one by one, I found it hard to put down. I will get to some of the talking points in a minute. But first, the author is of key importance here. Thomas de Waal is an English Journalist who specializes in the South Caucasus (Azerbaijan, Georgia, and our beloved Armenia). He is well versed in Russian, and can speak conversational Armenian and Azeri. He has done reports for the BBC, the London Times, and is often quoted as an expert on the region. This particular book is considered to be his best work, and a comprehensive commentary on the history of both the Armenians and the Azeris through their time leading up to and after the war in Nagorno-Karabakh.

For a self proclaimed Armenian patriot like me, it was at times difficult to understand that both sides could be at fault in this conflict. However, my inclination towards research and patience towards scholarly writing (thank you, university education) made me take a few looks at this book. At some points I felt that it did do a good job of describing the plight of Armenia and the conflict. Armenians prior to the crumbling of the Soviet Union had amassed in public support for reunification with Karabagh, a historically Armenian enclave that had switched hands during numerous occupations from two empires. It was during Stalin’s reign that the Transcaucasia Soviet Federative Republic had broken up and formed the SSR’s of Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. While Lenin had said in rhetoric that the cultures of the Soviet Union were very important, it was Stalin’s policy of “Russification” or for Soviet History buffs the end of Korenizatsiia— the policy of cultural importance in the Soviet Union—that drove Karabagh away from Armenia. Stalin intentionally divided cultures so that a single republic can gain power over others. He grouped Nagorno-Karabagh and Nakhijevan into the Azerbaijan SSR, and also combined groups with no common history and culture into autonomous republics. The Karachays—a Turkic people—were grouped with the Caucasian native Cherkassy. The Turkic Balkars were grouped with the Karbardins of Caucasian origin.  The Chechens and Tatars were grouped altogether and sent to Uzbekistan. Thus the driving force behind the unification of Armenia and Karabagh had predated the conflict itself. This is an important point that Thomas de Waal conveniently omits in his writing.

So when he refers to the self determination of the Armenian people in Karabagh, he leaves out a very important point in describing the history and source of the major conflict. Karabagh, also known as the ancient Armenian state of Artsakh, was in fact a part of Armenian history that exchanged hands throughout various republics. To those who have taken any Armenian history class, this is naturally obvious. To those of us who don’t know, the modern republic of Azerbaijan claims Karabagh as a historical entity from which they inherited from the Christian Albanians who preceded them. But let me remind the reader, that Azeris are essentially Turks. Their origins are from Central Asia. In fact, they not only speak a mutually intelligible dialect of Turkish, they also identify themselves as a greater part of the Turkic world. You often hear the saying “one nation, two republics” to describe the two states. In fact, the early Azeri Popular Front movement called on its unification with their Turkish brethren. Azeri leaders since the independence of Azerbaijan have called occasionally for the unification with Turkey. This is a point which de Waal omits as well.

Now, I must give credit where it is due. In describing the horrible pogroms of Baku, Sumgait, Kirovabad, and the greater Karabagh conflict, he is thus far on point. Let me remind the reader that I am still only a third of the way through the book. However, a lot of problems exist in the research of this book. He uses personal interviews on both sides as almost primary sources. He is a journalist, and a skilled interviewer. However, as a researcher, he cannot use grandfathers’ tales to justify points on politics and neighborly relations with the Azeris. He talks about pogroms that occurred in Armenia against the Azeri population as well. De Waal at some point mentions that the Azeris lost just as many lives in Armenia as the Armenians of Azerbaijan did. If he makes a point like this, then the evidence must be sufficient, which it is not. In fact I have yet to encounter a news article from that time frame which points to Armenian pogroms aimed at Azeris. While soviet journalists covered the well documented pogroms of Baku and Sumgait, the same types of “pogroms” aimed at the Azeris in Armenia were not documented. This is a dangerous claim to make. Some of his analysis on an outcome to the conflict, now in a 17 year cease fire, is in my opinion very accurate. He outlined the importance of coming to an agreeable end to the conflict, which has wreaked havoc on both the populations and the geopolitical nature of Armenia and Azerbaijan. There must be dialogue between the two states. How realistic are de Waal’s solutions? That remains to be seen.

This leads me to my final point. As much reading as I have done on the Armenian-Azeri struggle, there is no comprehensive, encyclopedic, academic research at this point in time that can do justice to the issue. Because de Waal had the fortune of learning Russian and studying an area in the world that is not often studied, he found himself in a convenient position to become an expert. Why? Because he actually attempted to put a comprehensive work on the issue of Nagorno-Karabagh, he is often quoted as the expert. It is flattering to me as an Armenian that he decided to study the plight of my people. However, it is a personal wish of mine to have other scholars, and not journalists, do research on such a deeply rooted conflict. It is not as though I am asking for a conclusive opinion of why Armenians were right or wrong, or vice versa. Just like other conflict zones are analyzed like Israel and Palestine, it is important to have a series of well researched points to help form an idea of what happened between 1988 and 1994. Then we can begin to prescribe the region some sort of alleviation to the problems it faces.

This book, just like any other book that is about Armenia or Armenians, should be read by all prospective students who want to get involved in academic research. This way, instead of reading a book and calling it outrageous, you can calmly take it point by point and refute what is actually being said. Black Garden provides us with some knowledge, and lots of details regarding the lives of citizens on both sides affected by war. It offers stories which demonstrate the thought processes behind the leaders involved in the conflict. Most importantly perhaps is the careful preparation of the summaries that describe each part of the war. However, De Waal is often quoted as an expert in the region, probably because he is the only one without an Armenian or Azeri last name that comments on it. While the conflict in the South Caucasus is not resolved, it needs strong academic research from qualified individuals in order to help bring about the truth of the war that means so much to me.

For Immediate Release
Media Contact: Elen Asatryan
Email / Tel: (818) 500-1918
Armenian National Committee of America Western Region
125 N. Belmont, Suite 200, Glendale, CA 91206 * Tel. (818) 500-1918
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