91 years ago amid the chaos of the First World War and the turmoil of genocide, a small but resilient people drew on their legendary past for strength as they made their last stand for freedom at the gates of Sardarabad.
At stake was their very survival.
For four days in 1918, the Armenian people, volunteers and refugees alike, united to defend the remnants of their nation from total annihilation. The Turkish army was advancing on Yerevan, intent on cleansing the Armenian provinces of the former Russian Empire.
Outnumbered and outgunned, the Armenian volunteers, most of whom were refugees, should have been crushed, sealing the Turks promise of extermination. But this proud people, considered by the legions of Rome to be an unconquerable race of mountain warriors, came together in a moment of supreme crisis.
The call for battle rang throughout Yerevan all day on May 24th as the bells of Etchmiadzin and every church in the province called on men, women and children, young and old, peasant, trader and clergyman alike to join the fighting soldiers in the defense of their common fatherland.
By 1918, only a sliver of Armenian territory in the east had remained unconquered by the Turks who continued to press further, poised for a total purging of Armenians from their ancestral lands.
But the perseverance of an entire people, beaten and battered throughout history was felt across those fields of battle that day as a few thousand people were roused from the brink of famine to hurl back the Turkish tide, saving the eastern heartland of Armenia and paving the way for a declaration of independence.
On May 28, six centuries after the collapse of the last Armenian Kingdom, the Armenian National Council in Tbilisi declared the birth of a democratic republic. Founded on the principles of equality, it was the Armenian people’s first experiment with democratic self-rule. In its first year, the fledgling republic, battling the scourge of typhus and struggling to feed a dying population, conducted its first parliamentary elections.
In this election, the Republic of Armenia, before any other nation, gave all adults, regardless of gender, race or religion the right to an equal and direct vote.
Despite the dire circumstances, an overwhelming majority of the Republic’s voting citizens got out the vote, giving 90% of the vote to the founding party of the Republic, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (and electing three women to the country’s legislature). A month earlier, acting Prime Minister Alexander Khatisian proclaimed the “Act of a United Armenia” creating 12 seats in parliament for deputies from Western Armenia, with which it sought reunification.
The move signaled the government’s commitment to the establishment of a united homeland from the fragments of genocide. The prospect of viable independence compelled hundreds of Armenia’s, dispersed throughout the Diaspora, to journey to the new republic and work toward the revival of the people. Meanwhile, thousands upon thousands of refugees returned to their homes to rebuild their lives.
In the first year of Armenia’s independence almost 200,000 people died of hunger, but hope did not fade as the nascent country continued to push forward against the greatest of odds. By its first anniversary, the Republic’s boundaries had grown beyond the small province of Yerevan to include a total area of about 50,000 to 60,000 kilometers.
The next year ushered in the employment of over 5,000 workers in hundreds of small factories and distilleries. Hundreds of miles of telegraph wire were repaired and extended. Thousands of miles of road were in operation and hundreds of miles of railroad track laid down. By 1920 a state university with a growing student body was established. 420 elementary schools were built to educate over 38,000 young Armenia’s and 22 secondary schools functioned for more than 5,000 students.
In the span of two and a half years, the Democratic Republic of Armenia created the vision of a homeland that would keep the hope of a nation alive during almost a century of exile and Soviet domination. It laid the foundations for the reemergence of Armenian statehood in 1991 and served as a source of inspiration for a new generation of freedom fighters struggling for self-determination against the threat of renewed genocide in Artsakh.
The dimmest moment in our history became our brightest. A nation, growing new roots after centuries of oppression, rose above adversity and forged its own destiny in 1918 by establishing a democratic state far ahead of its time.