Friday, May 28, 2010

The Blue Book

On Friday night I attended a screening of The Blue Book, an event jointly organized by the Oxford University Armenian Society and the Oxford branch of the Aegis Society. The documentary film, made by Gagik Karagheuzian, follows the British Armenian historian Ara Sarafian as he refutes a Turkish petition to the British Government denying the authenticity of archival documents related to the Armenian genocide.

What really struck me was how little mutual ground the Armenians and the Turks share in this debate. At one point, the film shows Mr. Sarafian at a major forum on Turkish-Armenian relations at Istanbul University in 2006, and then again, debating a Turkish historian on a Turkish television program. On both occasions, Mr. Sarafian is unfailingly polite and refuses to be baited. But whereas in the Russian-Ukrainian case, the 'genocide thesis' is often a matter of interpretation of evidence, for the Turks this dispute is twisted into an attempt to undermine the evidence itself. This makes academic debate seem like an almost impossible task - how can you debate someone when you're talking about two different things?

Although a brave effort and very educational, the film is a bit slow at times. I'm not sure it would appeal to wider audiences, because it's often too academic - for example, there are long segments of Sarafian in the archives, explaining in meticulous detail how the methodology of the Blue Book refutes the falsification claims. This can feel like listening to an paper at an academic conference. I don't think this is a problem in itself, but it's something to think about if the film were ever to be used to 'sell' the Armenian cause to a wider variety of audiences. But then again, I don't think that's the film's purpose.

During the question and answer period following the screening, I asked Mr Sarafian what he feels is the value of third-party official recognition, such as the genocide resolutions recently struck down in the US Congress. He answered that such recognition is 'vitally important,' for two reasons. One is that in such polarized circumstances, you sometimes need an external point of reference, someone who can put pressure on the deniers. And the second is that genocide does not belong to any one ethnic group - each example is, literally, a crime against all of humanity. I definitely agree with the latter point, and it's something I often hear among Ukrainians. I also agree with the first point in principle, but I think there are problems. Britain can certainly apply moral pressure, because of it's 'democratic' credentials, and even political pressure because of its role in the EU and as a world power. But because Turkey views the British Government as complicit in the 'falsification' of documents from 1915, I worry that this could undermine its credibility as an external point of reference.

In response to another question, this one from an Armenian, Mr. Sarafian also mentioned that Armenians in the diaspora have to careful of their language to avoid confirming popular fears that Armenians are going to 'come back' and repossess their lands from the Turks. This is an interesting perspective on diaspora-homeland relations, because so many definitions of diaspora privilege the desire to return to the homeland. But for groups like the Armenians and the Ukrainians (with the possible exception of the 'fourth wave'), the desire to return does not equate to a desire to 'move back'. These diasporas are often several generations removed from the homeland, and in the case of the Armenians, the homeland they were dispossessed of as a result of the genocide has been superseded by an independent republic. But this is a dilemma - how does a diaspora express its connection to a homeland that is often more 'there' than 'here', in a way that communicates emotion without possessiveness?

One final rambling from me: during the question and answer period, two people raised their hands to mention the recent 'rapprochement' between Russia and Poland over Katyn. One suggested that Russia's approach could be seen as a corrective to Turkey's view that the Armenian 'genocide thesis' is an insult to the Turkish people as a whole, given that Russia is the legal successor to the Soviet Union and yet through Katyn, appears to have found a way to condemn the Soviet regime without condemning the current Russian people or government. I don't agree with these comments. I think Katyn is the anomaly in Russia's approach to its past - Russia has certainly not moved closer to many Ukrainians' desire to discuss Holodomor, nor has the country resolved its own conflict over the role of Stalin in its national history. The recent debates over whether to include Stalin's image on Victory Day posters is emblematic of this. I think the contradictions in Russian approaches to the past should intrigue us as much as these occasional moments of historical 'openness' - under what conditions is denial a sustainable position?

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