The Nzhdeh Effect

A military legend’s impact on the Armenian Liberation identity

With the ongoing security concerns and the potential for further and broader conflict, the period immediately following the end of 2020 had drawn more and more attention to Syunik —the pan-handle of southern Armenia. It’s the only land connection with Iran and, at that time, with Artsakh. Syunik is a space of key strategic importance for the country and for the region, including its industrial value mainly due to the numerous mines dotting its landscape.

In the autumn of 2021, ethnographic fieldwork in and around Kapan and Goris, the major cities of Syunik, brought to light the richness of local perceptions on the history and geography of the province.

“The other provinces of Armenia should not get upset,” a native of Syunik asserted. “It is the most important marz of the country.” According to another interviewee, “Syunik has the status of a super-marz.” Another favorite reprise among the local inhabitants is that “Syunik is the backbone of the country,”—a saying that is more widely cited in Armenia. The implication is that the country cannot exist without it. “Whoever heard of anyone standing confidently on their feet without a backbone, much less an entire country or nation?” This is an argument that is especially popular because it is associated with a key, if somewhat controversial, figure from the past century Garegin Nzhdeh (1886-1955).

Nzhdeh is not a character imagined in historical isolation. There is a strong tradition of Syunik (and Artsakh) as the source of national liberation movements for the Armenian people in modern times. One of the earliest proponents of foreign intervention to free Armenia was Israel Ori (1658-1711). He was a native of the Sisian area within Syunik. His travels and campaigns took him to various courts in Europe, and ultimately to Russia. Later, In the 1720s, for a short period of time, Syunik was ruled by Davit Bek and his lieutenant, Mkhitar Sparapet. They led local forces against outside incursions and were given the right to a brief autonomy by the Persian shah who ruled over the region.

One interviewee made it clear that Garegin Nzhdeh began his own campaigns by taking an oath in the name of Davit Bek. Other noteworthy names from that time—Aram Manoukian (1879-1919) and Andranik Ozanian (1865-1927)—likewise had roles to play in the struggles for independence and for Syunik in the early 20th century.

The people of Syunik, then, consider themselves the bearers of a certain legacy, one that some characterized as petakanamet—statist, state-centered, or, to put another way, valuing sovereign statehood and independence. The historical figures mentioned had all of Armenia and the entire nation in mind. But their connection with Syunik endows that province with a special value—as the birthplace of national heroes, as the particular place of struggle for freedom.

Opened in 2003, Garegin Nzhdeh’s memorial in Kapan, Syunik. Photo Credit / Credit_Armine Aghayan CC BY-SA 3.0

Opened in 2003, Garegin Nzhdeh’s memorial in Kapan, Syunik. Photo Credit / Credit_Armine Aghayan CC BY-SA 3.0
Opened in 2003, Garegin Nzhdeh’s memorial in Kapan, Syunik. Photo Credit / Credit_Armine Aghayan CC BY-SA 3.0

For the people of Syunik, and in popular Armenian historical narratives generally, Garegin Nzhdeh and his militia on the ground were instrumental in declaring the region an independent country, called Lernahayastan or Mountainous Armenia—lasting a few months in 1921. The popular telling of this history claims that it was only because of Nzhdeh that Syunik did not end up like Artsakh or Nakhichevan. Serious historical research tells a more nuanced story of the inter-play across local and external forces, realities on the ground, and blunt, at times arbitrary policies pursued by the new Bolshevik rulers who simply wanted to manage the many conflicts that had arisen in the Caucasus.

It is no coincidence that these stories come up within the context of a menacing post-war scenario. Starting in May 2021, Azerbaijani forces moved in to various positions all along the new eastern borders of Armenia, mostly in Syunik (as well as the provinces of Vayots Dzor and Gegharkunik to the north). The main highway cutting through Syunik and connecting with Iran was blocked—the Armenian government had an alternative route constructed soon thereafter. Two villages likewise got cut off by the Azerbaijani army. Baku claims that Armenia’s and Azerbaijan’s borders have never been determined and that the USSR’s administrative lines allow them to hold the territory they currently control, an argument vehemently contested by Yerevan. The Azerbaijanis have also taken tactical heights by force and have been shooting into Armenia on a regular basis.

Civilians and military personnel have been kidnapped. Cattle rustling has also been a documented phenomenon. Rural communities avoid farming in fields near bordering areas or putting their cows or sheep out to pasture near Azerbaijani military posts. This affects their livelihood alongside threatening their sense of security. The most far-reaching incursions of all have been outright attacks into Armenia—Syunik in November 2021 and Syunik and other eastern bordering areas, Jermuk most notably, in September 2022.

Other stories prevailing in Syunik emphasize the antiquity of the province and its historical Armenian legacy. It is true—older interlocutors would note this point especially—Syunik and other parts of Armenia had a substantial Azerbaijani population until the collapse of the USSR. However, all the same, Syunik is considered an ancient homeland for the Armenian people. It was a large, influential feudal province, and later with its own principality in ancient and medieval times.

The distinction between the terms “Syunik” and “Zangezour” offers an interesting reflection on the province. An overwhelming majority of Armenian interviewees claimed both equally as their own. Indeed, the main mountain chain running through Syunik is called the Zangezour range. One of the local broadcasters in Kapan has that name, as does one of the main mining companies. It is only among the younger generation that reference to Zangezour is less common than Syunik. Local Armenians insist that the way the Azerbaijani leadership instrumentalizes—or weaponizes—that term does not apply to them at all. Syunik and Zangezour denote more or less the same space, according to the Armenian population of the province.

Nzhdeh is not a character imagined in historical isolation. There is a strong tradition of Syunik (and Artsakh) as the source of national liberation movements for the Armenian people in modern times.

The ordinary inhabitant of Syunik must withstand the sudden and traumatizing appearance of Azerbaijani flags and soldiers just on the horizon. The stories invoking Davit Bek and Garegin Nzhdeh thus receive strong resonance in the current, tenuous circumstances in which Syunik finds itself. The rich legacy of Syunik’s past acts as a coping mechanism and inspiration for the resilience which the Armenians of Syunik have to display as the local, regional, and global powers continue their back-and-forth on the future of the South Caucasus.

Politics and geopolitics, economy and trade, and strategic fall-outs surrounding Syunik remain consequential in 2024. The notion of the exclave of Nakhichevan being connected to Azerbaijan via Armenian territory has been noteworthy in this regard—the so-called “Zangezour Corridor.” Though not termed explicitly as such, one of the provisions of the cease-fire of November 2020 was the facilitation of such a connection, with Russian oversight. For the government in Yerevan, the plan has been to open all borders and construct or improve its highways and railroads—to increase connectivity all throughout the South Caucasus and wider Middle East. The government in Baku, however, has dropped strong hints that they expect some sort of sovereign passageway cutting across Armenia, potentially blocking the border with Iran—something that Azerbaijan might pursue by force.

One telling expression from Syunik was someone chiming in during an interview: “The people of the province were natives of Zangezour before, natives of Syunik now, and of Mountainous Armenia to come,” recalling the briefly-declared independence by Garegin Nzhdeh in 1921.

Originally published in the June 2024 ​issue of AGBU Magazine. end character

About the AGBU Magazine

AGBU Magazine is one of the most widely circulated English language Armenian magazines in the world, available in print and digital format. Each issue delivers insights and perspective on subjects and themes relating to the Armenian world, accompanied by original photography, exclusive high-profile interviews, fun facts and more.