Garegin Nzhdeh – Armenian Military Leader, Political Activist, Thinker, and Publicist

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Garegin Yeghishevic Ter-Arutyunyan (1886-1955), better known as Garegin Nzhdeh (The Wanderer), was an Armenian military leader, political activist, thinker, and publicist. He was born on January 1, 1886, in the village of Kznut in the Nakhichevan district of the Russian Empire, in the family of a clergyman.

He received his primary education at a Russian school in Nakhichevan, and later continued his studies at a gymnasium in Tiflis. In 1902, he enrolled in the law faculty at the University of St. Petersburg but left his studies to engage in revolutionary activities. He became a member of the Dashnaktsutyun Party in 1904.

Autobiography written by Garegin Nzhdeh:

I joined the Armenian revolutionary movement at the age of 17, while still in high school. Later, I left university to fight against Tsarism and Sultanism.

In 1906, I moved to Bulgaria and, with the support of leaders of the Macedonian liberation movement Boris Sarafov and Liapov Gurin, enrolled in the Officer School named after Dmitry Nikolov in Sofia.

After graduating from the school, I returned to the Caucasus to cross into Turkish Armenia with the “hayduk” (guerrilla) squad of Murad. After this, I operated in Persia (actively participating in the Iranian Revolution of 1907 and, already under surveillance by the Tsarist Russian secret police, faced persecution – editor’s note).

In 1909, I returned to the Caucasus again (to organize the purchase and further transportation of arms and ammunition for the Iranian revolution – editor’s note) and was arrested. I spent over three years in prisons from Julfa to St. Petersburg; after the famous trial of 163 Dashnaktsutyun members, I escaped to Bulgaria to avoid exile to Siberia.

In 1912, I assembled a company of Armenian volunteers and, together with Andranik, participated in the Balkan War (against Turkey – editor’s note) for the liberation of Macedonia and Thrace. In the final phase, we, as revolutionaries, withdrew from participation in the war between the Balkan nations and disbanded the Armenian company.

During this war, I was wounded. The Armenian flag and the chests of Armenian warriors were decorated with crosses for bravery (participated in the First Balkan War as part of the Macedono-Adrianopolitan military grouping, honored along with Andranik with high officer ranks, awards, and the title “Hero of the Balkan Peoples and Greece” – editor’s note).

With the outbreak of World War I, after receiving a pardon from the Tsarist government, I returned to the Caucasus to engage in military actions against Turkey. In the initial period of the war, I served as the deputy commander of the 2nd Armenian Volunteer Battalion (the commander of the battalion was Drastamat Kanayan, better known as “DRO” – editor’s note). Later, I commanded a separate Armenian-Yezidi unit.

In 1917, with a small unit, I came to the aid of the encircled Koghbu and rescued the Armenians of that area. During the same period, I moved to Abas Gel, established contact with the Yazidis, and together with their leader Ivo quickly returned to Tbilisi, where I introduced him to the Armenian National Council.

On the eve of the proclamation of Armenia’s Independence, I led battles near Alajoy. Thanks to this, Armenian units retreating along the Erzurum-Sarikamish-Kars line were able to safely reach Alexandropol; I crossed the Arpachai River only with the last retreating Armenian soldier and only when my men had managed to evacuate the excavation materials of Professor Marr from Ani.

At the end of May (26-28 May – ed. note) 1918, I led the battle at Karakilisa, where I was wounded. I was nominated for the highest bravery award. It must be acknowledged that without the Battle of Karakilisa, there would not be present-day Armenia, or even the Armenians currently living there. The three-day heroic battle at Karakilisa saved the Armenians of the Ararat Valley from total annihilation and laid the foundation for the Armenian state.

(Note: In November 1918, I was appointed commander of the forces in Zangezur. From 1918-20, I participated in the defense of the borders and independence of the Republic of Armenia.)

During Armenia’s period of independence in the fall of 1919, I saved the 2nd Armenian regiment, which was encircled between Davalu and Vedi.

In the second half of 1919, I moved to Syunik to aid Gokhtan, which was besieged by the troops of Edif-bey and doomed to starvation and destruction. Both the region and its Armenian population were saved.

From that time on, I dedicated myself to the cause of protecting and saving the Armenians of Kapan and Arevik from annihilation, fending off the constant attacks by the Musavatist Azerbaijan and Turkish Pashas Nuri and Khalil.

In mid-1920, after Dro’s units left Zangezur and Karabakh (on August 10, 1920, by agreement between Soviet Russia and the Republic of Armenia, Zangezur, Karabakh, and Nakhichevan could be occupied by the forces of Soviet Azerbaijan, but I did not recognize this agreement – ed. note), I took charge of the self-defense of the entire Syunik region.

This mountainous region, which according to the agreement between the Armenian government and Moscow’s representative Legran was transferred to Azerbaijan, found itself completely cut off from the outside world, without sufficient reserves of food and weapons, lacking officer personnel, and without any external help, managed to dictate its will to the Soviet government in a state of political isolation after a year of fighting on two fronts.

(After the establishment of Soviet power in Armenia, Nzhdeh organized the self-defense of Syunik and Zangezur. On December 25, 1920, he proclaimed the “Autonomous Republic of Syunik” and led its government.

In April 1921, this state entity was renamed the Republic of Mountainous Armenia, and Nzhdeh was appointed its Sparapet, declaring Mountainous Armenia independent. The government was headed by Semyon Vratsyan.

Thanks to Nzhdeh’s organizational talent and military prowess, the self-defense forces of Syunik were able to repel all attacks by communists, Musavatists, and Kemalists. The struggle continued until the enemies, realizing the futility of their efforts, abandoned their plans – ed. note).

Under Myasnikyan, by the declaration of June 1921, Syunik was recognized as part of the motherland – Armenia. Thanks to the defense of Syunik, the Armenian intelligentsia, revolutionary and militant elements of Armenian nationality were also saved. (In 1921, after the establishment of Soviet power in Zangezur, Nzhdeh moved to Iran – ed. note).

  1. My life and my activities testify to the following: I always arrived at moments of danger. In peaceful times, I did not seek office as I had no desire for it.

I always preferred to lead militias, popular forces, feeling somewhat indifferent toward so-called regular units.

I promoted commanders from among the people and molded them, if one could put it that way, in their own image and likeness.

Even in war, I remained humane, even in my relations with Turks and Tatars – evidence of this are my orders and appeals to the units under my command. What has been attributed to me by Soviet power is just ordinary propaganda slander, born out of the desire to discredit the opponent at any cost.

I never relied on external forces or even the resources of my own country. I followed the vow of the Mamikonians, was a man of deep faith and ethics, so I had to drink from the cup of sorrow. God and my homeland were always at the forefront of my temple of faith.

Armenia was sacred to me. I lived and breathed it, always ready to suffer, sacrifice, and give my life for it. It was my sacred pain, joy, the meaning of my existence, my immortality, my highest right and duty; at the same time, the people of the country were deeply attached to me and wholly trusted me.

Those who opposed me were semi-intellectuals and military individuals devoid of a sense of the sacred, guided only by bureaucratic rules.

Throughout my life, I never received a salary (only once in America did I break this principle, agreeing to a weekly wage. I broke it and was justly punished.

Since then, human baseness has followed me everywhere like a shadow). I even refused a pension granted by a foreign country. Although I had every opportunity to live luxuriously, I lived like a common man, almost in poverty. I would consider materialism to be one of the greatest vices for a revolutionary, a warrior, and a patriot.

When leaving Armenia, I took with me the skin of a tiger, killed by my soldiers on the Armenian bank of the Arax river—my only reward.

Jamal Pasha’s dagger was my only military trophy. Let this dagger, the undefeated flag of Syunik, and an old Armenian dictionary—the only comfort in my exile—be laid upon my chest in my grave.

  1. Armenians outside Armenia face the risk of degradation. Only by deeply understanding and realizing national values, virtues, and sanctities can one fight this evil. For this reason, I created a movement called Tsegakronutyun (in the late 1920s and early 1930s in several European countries and the US, I organized nationalist and patriotic organizations.

I established in Bulgaria and then in the USA, the national and patriotically oriented Tsegakron organization—literal translation being ‘the religion or faith of the nation or ethno-faith.’ It united patriotically inclined Armenian youth and intelligentsia of the Armenian diaspora, which focused on resolving the Armenian Question related to the liberation of historical Armenian territories from Turkish and Soviet occupation and the return of Armenians to their homeland—ed. note).

The aim was to restore to the Armenian a sense of being the master of their homeland, saving them from spiritual and political homelessness and vagrancy outside their native country. It was a patriotic movement, only through rejuvenation in which could all separate Armenian political currents unite. Because of this preaching of patriotism, the schismatic, rootless, and defeatist part of Armenian society betrayed me.

(In the summer of 1933, Nzhdeh moved to the USA. There he intended to assist K. Tandergyan in the assassination of Turkish Ambassador Muhtar Bey—ed. note).

I forgive everyone for two reasons: first, my national creed does not allow me to feel animosity towards any Armenian; second, I deeply understand these unfortunate people who have not yet overcome their inner slave and therefore remain powerless and resentful.

As a homesick exile, I have only one desire—to die in my native mountains.

(Even when only planning the invasion of the Soviet Union, the military-political leadership of the German Reich set several objectives, one of which was the destruction and dismemberment of the multi-ethnic Soviet state by creating national governments and military formations.

One way to attract representatives of these peoples to Germany’s side was the creation of National Liberation Committees, in which the dominant role was played by former leaders and military commanders of once-independent states, who were in exile.

After the beginning of the war with the Soviet Union, work was activated to create military formations from Eastern peoples. On December 22, 1941, the High Command of the Armed Forces (OKW) issued an order to create four legions from Eastern peoples, among which the Armenian legion was named).

The military objective of this formation was the state independence of Armenia from the Soviet Union, which was guaranteed by Germany.

Armenian legionnaires were part of 11 battalions, as well as other units. The total number of legionnaires reached 18,000 people (11,000 in combat units, 7,000 in auxiliary units). A significant portion of the legion was held in concentration camps and used for rear-guard duties.

One of the powerful elements of propaganda work was the promise to grant independence to Armenia after the cessation of the military campaign.

The legion was commanded by Drastamat Kanayan. He was assisted by Garegin Nzhdeh. General Garegin Nzhdeh saved many soldiers and officers’ lives by liberating Soviet Army prisoners from fascist concentration camps. Nzhdeh regularly visited training camps, centers, and battalions of the Armenian Legion, meeting and talking with his compatriots—(ed. note).

  1. A coup d’état occurred in Bulgaria, ripe due to the military-political situation. The Red Army is expected. Knowing what awaits me, I still decided to stay, despite the opportunity to fly to Vienna. I am not leaving Bulgaria to avoid persecution of my organization.

I have even more compelling reasons to stay, known to two of my friends. (In 1944, when the Soviet Army had already entered Bulgaria, Nzhdeh was in Sofia and refused to abandon and leave the country.

He remained a faithful patriot, believing it his duty to stand with his people to the end and prevent reprisals against the Armenian community in Bulgaria. Nzhdeh well understood that the NKVD was interested in him—(ed. note)).

The Soviet Army arrived, and what I expected happened. Taking advantage of the current chaos, a few Armenians—degenerates not nurtured by the milk of their own nation—have already set to work. They, mainly cobblers, act as police agents accompanied by armed Bulgarian militia, going from house to house looking for me.

Forever despicable slaves, who always employed foreign forces to satiate their impotent malice and destroy their enemies among their countrymen. No less abhorrent, however, are the nationalists who are such only in name. With their bazaar-level morality, they have sunk to the level of beasts.

Acquaintances, friends, relatives—no one will open the door for you, even if you’re carrying the Nazarene’s cross on your back and wearing a crown of thorns on your bloodied brow, seeking refuge with them.

They’ve forgotten, forgotten everything, that it is only thanks to my efforts that they didn’t suffer the fate of the Jews, and for four years, they’ve only gotten richer and richer. Those who sought your greeting just yesterday, today, run away from the very mention of your name, from your shadow.

The Reds are waiting for me. Low is he who, under all circumstances, prefers life to death. Let the inevitable happen. Today, I am bound to life only to the extent that I feel obliged to serve Armenia.

Where are you, venerable people of Armenia, with the heart of a ruler, whose soul always knows how to rise in times of danger?

Diaspora, you have once again made me relive the bitterness of shame. Shame on you!

(Nzhdeh. September 1944. Sofia. Armenian State Security Service Archive, Case 11278, Vol. 4.)

In late October 1944, Nzhdeh was arrested by SMERSH and transferred to Moscow, where he was tried and sentenced to a lengthy term of imprisonment. The interrogations and investigation were completed in 1948, and after that, until 1952, he was held in Vladimir Prison. He spent the years 1952-53 in Armenia, in Yerevan Prison.

In the summer of 1953, he was transferred to Siberia, to the Taishet prison, and from there back to Vladimir Prison. There, already gravely ill, he passed away at the end of 1955 and was also buried there.

It was only on August 31, 1983, that Nzhdeh’s remains were transferred to Armenia, and in 1987 a portion of them was interred on the slopes of Mount Khustup (Kapan District), another part at the Spitakavor Church (Yeghegnadzor District), and in the Armenian capital, one of the squares was named in his honor.

Translated by Vigen Avetisyan

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