The Hye-Phen

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What Happened in Artsakh (An Oral History): Part 1

by | Apr 24, 2024 | Interview

Grigor Nemet is an activist and photographer based in Oakland. He runs a family-operated wine company called Kareen.
Cover Image Courtesy of Jessica Khosravian

We’re honored to share this recorded oral history with Greg Nemet about the general state of things in Artsakh and Armenia. Formerly a photographer and currently a winemaker, Greg is an Armenian-American from the Bay Area.

Greg is a walking wikipedia who is generous with sharing his knowledge, so it is truly a treat to get to ask him anything about Artsakh. 

We have a lot of questions about what circumstances allowed these events to happen (that are hauntingly reminiscent of our past), what might be in store for the future of Armenia because of them, and what we can do as ordinary people looking to do something.

We hope that this conversation is accessible and inviting to those who might not know about everything that’s going on, but are curious. Keep in mind, Greg’s opinions are his own.  If you have an alternate point of view about a particular issue, send it to us as a submission. The Hye-Phen does not necessarily share these views as a collective, but aims to showcase diverse voices, and hopes that these conversations open doors for connection and community.

This conversation was originally recorded as audio and was originally transcribed into 50 pages, and since then has become abridged for clarity. We will be periodically releasing a multipart series for free. The Hye-Phen is a fully independent and self-funded platform. If you feel inclined to support us, donate to our project, or to The Lorik Humanitarian Fund to provide housing and community for refugees who have been forcibly displaced from Artsakh.

Anyways, let’s get started and ask Greg a thousand questions, or maybe just, like, 15. 

Sirov / With Love,
Sevan M. / The Hye-Phen


Introduction

SM:

I think this conversation is for those people who feel lost, or who don’t know everything but are too afraid to ask. I know a lot of us out there, even Armenians, who just don’t know what is actually going on or why. 

GN:

What just transpired? How did it happen? What’s going on? Where can we go from here? And hopefully, somewhere in these conversations, we can start piecing together inch by inch, piece by piece, and come back together. 

Because I feel shattered. I feel shattered after 2020. And I don’t think too many of my brothers and sisters either feel the same way, or they’re even more lost. So, there’s a good intro right there.


The History of Artsakh 

GN:

So first of all, when we talk about Artsakh (and I love questions like these–tell us about Armenia in five sentences or less, right?), it has a 3,000 year old history – 3,000 plus. But before we talk about why Artsakh has played an integral role in Armenia, let’s back up for a second.


Artsakh is currently ethnically cleansed, completely, of any indigenous Armenian. I think they keep floating right now, there’s those 20-25 souls around somewhere, interspersed inside of Artsakh that was about, two months ago fully part of, you know, and completely inhabited by Armenians. It currently has maybe a few dozen there. We now see these horrible images of what happened after Armenians left their indigenous lands, such as the removal of the parliament building that was just being decimated.

Artsakh was always a region inside of the greater kingdom of Armenia from millennia ago, from the pre-Christian Armenia. It was kind of an integral area, but on the periphery. So, if greater Armenia was stretched from, let’s say, deep into modern-day Turkey to the west, so like way past Lake Vaan, right? Then Artsakh would be kind of on the eastern more extremity, onto the mountainous areas, and into–and this is important because we call it Lernayin Karabakh, right? The mountainous Artsakh. 

There’s also the flatland Artsakh that Armenians never had in the current history, which was completely decimated centuries ago. And there was one of these kingdoms, the melikdoms, that was an integral part of Armenian existence on multiple levels, from the ancient times, then entering into the modern era, around the year 400. Haha. That’s how old it is. Yeah, modern. This is around the time of Mesrop-Mashtots, St. Gregory the Illuminator, and the Christianization of Armenia, right? 

Amaras was where Mesrop-Mashtots first wrote the Armenian alphabet, you know? It was a gut-wrenching experience when I saw that that monastery was being handed over, or ethnically cleansed. Our identity was formed, or almost formed, in Artsakh as well.

Another thing that’s very important to note is that through all the wars, all the invasions – the Byzantines, the Greeks, the Romans, and then, you know – in every part of the Old Kingdom of Armenia, Armenians fled, came back, fled, came back. We founded Cilicia, an area that’s further out of the entire Kingdom of Armenia region, which is now in present-day Turkey, in the Middle Ages. Artsakh, forever and ever, in whatever shape it is today, was always inhabited by Armenians–up until September of 2023. I want our readers to get the gravity of that inside our head spaces.


 

“…Through all the wars, all the invasions – the Byzantines, the Greeks, the Romans, and then, you know – in every part of the Old Kingdom of Armenia, Armenians fled, came back, fled, came back. Artsakh, forever and ever, in whatever shape it is today, was always inhabited by Armenians–up until September of 2023.”

.


We can migrate all the way from the Middle Ages into the Dark Ages when Ani, the capital, was sacked, and Armenians migrated all over the world, reestablished in Cilicia, and founded some noble houses in Georgia, right? Bagratunis turned into Bagrationi and Georgia and started kind of migrating. Essentially, the diaspora became a thing in the Middle Ages. But Artsakh continued having these little Melikdoms.

SM:

What’s a Melikdom?

GN:

The Meliks are princes, right? Meliks were allowed by the Persian kings to like, okay, you pay me some kind of a tax, but you can control your lands. The
fiefdoms, and these little kinds of enclaves, were always present in Artsakh in particular. So that was the continuation of the indigeneity of our bloodline in that region–while we were kind of dispersed all over the other lands, where, you know, the crux of Armenian lands are predominantly in what today is considered Eastern Turkey, right? That’s Western Armenia. 

Throughout all those centuries, Artsakh continued being this Armenian core–even though it was like an Armenian minority, because it was the lesser part of what you would see on the map. But nevertheless, the spirit of Armenianness, of our culture, was always in those mountains, up until three to four months ago.


Redrawing Borders

GN:

So to answer your question, then, we obviously have empires collide and empires that take over. So Artsakh, at one point, was part of the Persian Empire. It was never part of the Ottoman Empire–it was always on the eastern side of things. Then, the Russian Empire kind of came down and then the Soviet Union project started. And then, a political kind of gerrymandering, let’s call it, and then began the parceling out of lands. 

And that’s why I’m always confused when Armenians of the diaspora look at the map and go, “Well, yeah, yeah, Artsakh is kind of Armenian, but wasn’t it part of Azerbaijan?” It’s okay, but let’s pause. It’s nobody’s fault. Genocides and being away from our indigenous lands is what separated us from these continued stories. But can we find out how it was part of Azerbaijan? And what started that story? 

It was constant political map-shifting that brought about that arbitrary–and I use that word very fully– assignment of Armenian indigenous land to this new entity that was called The Azerbaijan Republic. The reason why I’m saying it’s a new entity, and let’s be quite frank about this notion, is that–and this is a very complicated conversation, and I do want to jump back into the modern era–but let’s stay here for a second. 


After 1915 

In the years following the end of the Armenian Genocide and the formation of the the First Republic of Armenia in 1918, there was another entity that was created that was called the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. It then gained brief independence, just like Armenia gained brief independence, and just like Georgia gained brief independence. So in 1918, 1920, and the early 1920s.

That entity was created, why? Let’s understand why. So, there was never an Azerbaijan north of the Araks River, but there is today. We’re in the diaspora. We know that Azeri people that are not Azerbaijan, like the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan, our “enemy” Azerbaijan. There are millions of Azeris living in modern-day Iran, and Iran has two provinces with the name Azerbaijan, but they’re south of the Araks River.

There was always this idea to create this Turkic state as a way for the Soviet Union to be able to kind of push, and have a little bit of this influence, and a possibility of projecting power onto Iran, then called Persia. Together with Atatürk’s blessing, once the Soviet Union formed and started to kind of gerrymander the borders in the Caucasus, why were these decisions laid? They were all made politically, and politically speaking, there are two things to consider. 

On the one hand, Lenin really wanted to kind of play nice-nice with Atatürk because Atatürk was flirting with communism. He completely folded into the West and completely modernized Turkey. And we all now see what his project turned into: modern-day Turkey. But in those days, he wasn’t too sure if he’d go in the direction of the west, or keep flirting with the east. Subsequently, Lenin and Stalin were like, okay, for us to keep flirting with this guy, or at least trying to pay homage to the possibility of Turkey potentially one day joining the communist realm, they did a lot of things that badly affected us (Armenians) because at the end of the day, the Turkish leadership was always on the same path: erasure, erasure, erasure, erasure of the Armenian identity.

And that went from the Ottoman Sultans to the Pashas to the president of the modern-day Republic of Turkey, which was Atatürk himself, and even to today in everything you hear Erdogan talk about. So that’s one side of the story.


An Independent Artsakh 

The second side of the story deals with this new entity that now claims it’s got a millennia old history. Azerbaijan, now north of the Araks River for the first time ever, puts pressure on Iran as well. Because right below the Araks River in Iran are the two provinces of Eastern or Western Azerbaijan. This is kind of like the formation of this new entity. 

So now that everything is formed, there are concessions. And Armenians are constantly on the losing end of all of that, even within the framework of the Soviet Union. Stop me if you have to, or you can let me know if this is, if I’m getting carried away here, but I’m going to try to get to the very last question, then we can kind of progress forward.  

This is all coming to my version of explaining why Artsakh was never a part of Armenia, and that’s because Armenia itself was carved out and piecemealed into Azerbaijan. We always talk about Artsakh, right? But the entire time that Artsakh was free and independent, I, as a teenager from the influence of my elders, was always thinking that if we do not talk about Nakhichevan, Artsakh one day will be in the horrible situation that it is today. 


Nakhichevan 

GN:

And let’s talk about Nakhichevan. Nakhichevan is that southern enclave that, now, they’re talking about connecting Azerbaijan through Armenia in, and dissecting Armenia because there are two parts of Azerbaijan that are not connected. Let’s talk about Nakhichevan as an exclave that was carved out of Armenia. And similarly, the same thing was being done to Artsakh. The only difference is, through the Soviet rules of discrimination, the Nakhichevan Armenian population decided slowly and surely to move. I have great aunts and great uncles from Nakhichevan, but they moved to Tbilisi. Why? Because living in Nakhichevan as an Armenian became very, very hard. They had no no future, even though it was in this new Soviet communist experiment, where everyone is supposed to be equal. But mandatory policy still existed. For example, as an Armenian, you could become a teacher, but you could never become a principal. You could go to university, but you could never get a PhD.

SM:

And why not?

GN:

Because there would be corrupt obstacles, because one of the issues in the Soviet Union was always rampant corruption, right? These were things you just couldn’t pinpoint. There was no rule in Nakhichevan that explicitly said “Armenians cannot become PhDs.” But, you have to understand that to become a PhD, you would have had to have a professor sign off on certain things, and most of those professors were Azeri. So they would never allow an Armenian to get their PhDs, so if Armenians wanted to get a PhD, they had to go to Yerevan or Moscow instead of staying in their hometown. The message was essentially to get out. And once you get out, you just don’t come back. 


Discrimination 

GN:

So discrimination just happened on a higher level in Nakhichevan, and the Armenians of Artsakh, by the 1980s, during Gorbachev’s time as the Iron Fist fell, the internal statistics is that the Nakhichevan predominantly stopped being majority Armenian, while Artsakh stayed that way. We can say this was because of the spirit of Artsakhtsis, whatever we want to say. In the 1980s, Artsakh proper was still majority Armenian, while Armenians in Nakhichevan were a vast minority. 

SM:

But even then, we still see discrimination still existing, right, early on?

GN:

Absolutely. In Artsakh especially. Here’s an anecdote to understand the discriminatory side of things. One of the first kinds of pushes for the Artsakh movement was something as simple as a soccer match. So in the late 1970s, one of the best soccer teams in the Soviet Union was FC Ararat (FC stands for Football Club). They won the Soviet League and even started playing the European leagues, so it was like a very big thing. There was a storming of a TV tower at a time when these matches were happening. And it brought to the forefront how bad the situation was. If you were to look at the Soviet map, for example, Artsakh was mere miles away from Armenia proper, but to get from Artsakh to Armenia, you would have to go 300 miles further east to Baku, sit on a plane to go to Yerevan, or sit on a train to go to Yerevan back west. They made sure that everything that led to Baku from Artsakh had no connections to Armenia, including the jamming of the TV station and the non-broadcast, or something as simple as FC Ararat, which was then kind of like, you know, the Golden State Warriors.


Reunification? 

GN:

So, we’ve gotten to this point of repeated discrimination. Artsakhtsis did not leave. And then, Gorbachev brought in this kind of thawing and this democratization of the Soviet system, under which Artsakh started to voice its opinion, more and more and more,
repeatedly asking to reunify. 

So, my answer to you on why Artsakh never reunified is because there was not enough time. By the time the full independence movement happened, the Soviet Union had collapsed and the independence movement burst into a war – a war which we won, up until what we just saw happen four years ago. So I don’t know if that answers the question. 

SM:

But, why, even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, couldn’t Armenia unify with Artsakh?

GN:

Within those 30 years, it was a delicate process, right? Because there was the Artsakh autonomous oblast, the political entity that was liberated, minus this region of Shalmyan, which was horrifically ethnically cleansed in the first war (when I referred to wars, I refer to the first war and this was the second war, in my opinion). Then there were the adjoining areas of what I considered to be the fully liberated Artsakh – it’s everything that connects Armenia to Artsakh. 

The conversation was always, “Let’s negotiate for some of the territories so that we can get all of Artsakh back into the fold of Armenia,” right? And that negotiation was ongoing for 30 years. So the process was there

SM: 

That’s real Armenian time, 30 years.

Grigor Nemet
Grigor Nemet is an activist and photographer based in Oakland. He runs a family-operated wine company called Kareen.