“When serious dangers are threatening a nation, only the strong ones remain in their positions. At these moments, the people among the strong seek the strongest and put their fates in his hands. This is how a true leader comes into the world.”
These lines written back in the 1930s by Garegin Nzhdeh brilliantly describe Leonid Azgaldyan – a man whose life path proves that in fateful periods when the sovereignty of the state is in jeopardy, victory is possible only if a selfless and strong leader appears, capable of uniting the people around him and fighting the enemy.
Leonid Azgaldyan was a hero of the Artsakh War, as well as founder and commander of the Artsakh Liberation Army.
From the very first days, Azgaldyan was involved in the movement and struggle for the independence of Artsakh. Though he became one of the leaders and inspirers of this struggle, he would not join any party – not a single political or other movements.
Azgaldyan preferred action to words and discussions. Unlike many, he did not spend his time on meaningless meetings or unsubstantiated speeches at rallies. He put all his effort into the service of only one constructive goal – the struggle for the liberation of his homeland.
“I want to emphasize – the nation that loses Artsakh will suffer a complete defeat, whether Armenians or Azerbaijanis. Therefore, this is not just a matter of a small piece of land – very important issues are being solved here and now,” said Azgaldyan.
Fewer words and more actions in the name of Armenia – this was the unspoken guideline for action for Azgaldyan and his associates. But his simple speech devoid of gloss and high-profile epithets still possessed almost magical power of persuasion. “This is Armenia, and that’s it,” he said, and this simple phrase contained everything that he believed in – his whole philosophy of life and his only reason for worry.
No one expected that a silent and modest physics student would choose such a life path. As the son of a senior official, Azgaldyan could have joined the ranks of the so-called “golden youth” of Soviet Armenia, live in pleasure, and not worry about his future. However, a different path awaited Leonid Azgaldyan.
The hero of the Artsakh War was born in 1942 in Tbilisi. Shortly after his birth, his family moved to Yerevan where he would spend his school years. Thanks to brilliant knowledge and mind, he managed to enter the Moscow State University’s Faculty of Physics.
Azgaldyan’s student years ended with tragic news – his mother passed away. Azgaldyan decided to return to Yerevan. Another event had contributed to this decision as well – he had tense relations with the administration of the Moscow State University because he had together with his friends organized a mourning rally dedicated to the memory of the victims of the Armenian Genocide. This was unheard of insolence in the 1960s. Accordingly, he had found himself under the scrutiny of the state security agencies of the USSR.
The professional talent of the scientist would render him great services during the Artsakh War. The pragmatic Azgaldyan clearly realized that the struggle would inevitably be transferred from squares and bureaucratic offices to the battlefield. The Soviet leadership would never easily give up the NKAO to Armenia.
These were tense times – the Soviet Union had collapsed, and Azerbaijan in protest of the Artsakh movement was organizing systematic pogroms of the Armenian population. The premonition of an imminent war forced Azgaldyan to begin serious preparation for combat.
Azgaldyan’s house was turned into a real workshop. Together with his scientist friends, he designed and prepared parts for machine guns and explosives and then tested them out of town. In parallel, Azgaldyan studied the theory of military art in order to have at least superficial knowledge in the area.
While all the media and the nation were involved in speeches and rallies, Azgaldyan expected the worst – a war. He urged the Armenian intelligentsia to abandon empty talk and lead the people’s struggle and urged the people to join his activities.
To his surprise, only a few responses came. Subsequently, he would repeat many times: “The intelligentsia of our nation is mainly people with a low spirit.” This was not an accusation of others but rather self-criticism, an unselfish confession of a man who was bitter from the indifference and cowardice reigning around.
Few responded to Azgaldyan’s call, but these were the best people – ideological, strong-willed, and generous people, a handful of chosen ones whom Azgaldyan could proudly take into his army. Azgaldyan had the ability to attract very different people who had the same goal and who believed and fought for the reunification of Artsakh and Armenia.
In February 1990, together with his comrade, Leonid Azgaldyan established the military-political organization Army of Independence. Azgaldyan realized – a group of armed people was not an army. In order to have the right to be called an army, a coherent army system, a combat-ready army had to be formed, and it needed to adhere to the strictest order, know all the subtleties of military art, and, most importantly, be devoted to the idea.
As a leader, Leonid Azgaldyan was responsible for the solution of this problem. Although he himself still needed experience, the practice he pushed his unit into would pay off. Already in the first battles, the Independence Army saw tangible success.
In June 1991, Azgaldyan established a new military organization, the Liberation Army. This was a new qualitative step among all Armenian movements and detachments during the Artsakh War.
Throughout the conflict, the Liberation Army bore a major role. Subsequently, many high-ranking officers, colonels, and generals of the regular Armenian army would come out of the Liberation Army, and they would consider Azgaldyan their godfather, leader, and teacher.
Azgaldyan completed the ranks of his army not with quantity but with quality, demanding his subordinates to follow strict discipline. For instance, in his troops, it was strictly forbidden to smoke and drink alcohol. This was difficult for many. Azgaldyan wouldn’t waste his time with such soldiers and instead would ask them to join other squads that weren’t as strict. Surprisingly, having no idea about army life and the military code before the Artsakh War, Azgaldyan was able to create such a military organization that took into account every little detail.
Legends circulate about discipline in the Liberation Army, but people who had the honor to serve with Azgaldyan insist that everything is true. Even the soldiers’ breaks were accompanied by exercises and training. Azgaldyan was the first to begin to work out, serving as an example to others and supporting them with the words “a lot of sweat means little blood.”
His fighters were able to complete any task quickly, accurately, and, most importantly, with minimal casualties. “Fighters who are ready to sacrifice their lives are the most precious thing we have,” said Azgaldyan, “In no case should their deaths be abused.”
27 liberated villages, many large and small battles, and not a single defeat – no one could boast about such success. However, Leonid Azgaldyan, was always dissatisfied with the results, the soldiers, and, above all, himself. He repeated that victories could all become pointless because there was no regular army that would serve as support for these victories. But he still called his small detachment an army, although he did not even have a lieutenant’s rank.
Leonid Azgaldyan died in 1992, never having received any military rank. He perished when he, as usual, was at the forefront. Azgaldyan with his example of courage and self-sacrifice evoked genuine respect and love in his comrades-in-arms and everybody who knew him personally or read about him.
Unfortunately, little is known to the broad Armenian public about Leonid Azgaldyan, a true patriot, an intellectual, and defender of the homeland, and the state to this day has not honored him with the title of a national hero of the Republic of Armenia.
But the importance of nominal awards fades in comparison with the importance of popular recognition – one cannot but rejoice that today, more and more young people learn about him, that many patriotic evenings and commemorative concerts are being held, and that a lecture hall named after Leonid Azgaldyan was opened at the Russian-Armenian University.
“Do not believe my death, I will die under the walls of Istanbul.” This phrase by Azgaldyan suggests that he was not only an excellent strategist, physicist, teacher, commander, and warrior but also a philosopher of national thought who had a deep vision of both his mission and the Armenian mission as a whole.
Translated from Russian, original by Eleonore Sarkissian, armat.im