On 24 APRIL Armenia and its diaspora marked the centenary of the Turkish deportations and killings of 1915 which left an estimated 1.5 million dead. But as the nation looked to the past with a little help from its most famous celebrity ‘daughter’, Kim Kardashian, questions emerged for me about Armenia’s future aspirations.
On 10 April, two weeks before the official national day of remembrance, Armenia’s National Genocide Memorial was mobbed with people. It was overcast and drizzling with rain. The thousands of wreaths adorning the memorial, a concrete chunk of Soviet monumentalism which overlooks the capital Yerevan, usually rest silent and undisturbed. But on that day things were different because Armenian-American superstar Kim Kardashian, her sister Khloe, and rapper husband Kanye West, were in town accompanied by legions of police and photographers.
Before the Kardashian circus had pulled up, I was completely ignorant of its presence. I was getting irate from trying unsuccessfully to make my way into the museum adjoining the memorial, which was mysteriously closed. Unusually for Armenia, even my offer of a bribe wasn’t opening the doors. Something was up. It then became clear: two weeks prior to the official day of remembrance, the Kardashians were there to pay their respects.
Armenia’s suffering overshadowed as Turkey pulled a fast one
Choosing one particular date on which to commemorate genocide is always tricky, particularly so in this case; Turkey none-too-subtly advanced its Gallipoli commemorations to 24 April in an attempt to divert the West’s gaze from its historical crimes in Armenia. So as global heads of state flew out to Turkey for the Gallipoli events [Putin and Sarkozy were the only big guns to show up in Yerevan] Turkey partially succeeded in eclipsing Armenia’s suffering with Gallipoli.
To explain, 24 April is significant because it was on that date in 1915 that the Young Turk government executed 20 leading Armenian intellectuals: a symbolic assault on the brains of Armenia which marked the start of a fresh assault on hundreds of thousands of Armenian bodies.
The official slogan of the Armenian state’s commemorations is ‘remember and demand’, the latter exhortation a reference to the ongoing struggle for recognition of the events of 1915 as genocide. And although some Armenians I spoke to detested Kim Kardashian, others thought that she had helped a great deal on this score.
“Kim Kardashian has done more than any political or religious leader to highlight the Armenian genocide” claimed one young Armenian man, a concert pianist, to whom I spoke. “By just coming here”, he told me, “she’s achieved more than any politician or even the Pope [who recently referred to the Armenian woes of 1915 as the ‘first genocide of the twentieth century’] to get our genocide recognised internationally”.
Dispute over the mass killings of Armenians
So why the controversy about recognition? Turkish denial aside, there are those who dispute whether, to quote the 1948 UN definition of genocide, the Turkish acts of 1915 constitute “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group”.
Several points about the genocide are important. The figure of 1.5 million deaths is an estimate: figures for mass killings are rarely neat. It was largely carried out in the course of forced ‘death marches’ rather than in death camps, although there were ‘deportation centres’ which functioned as sites of death. Starvation accounted for many of the deaths, although many were also shot, drowned or burned to death. An interesting footnote relates to German involvement: many German officers, commanding Turkish regiments at this point in the First World War, presided over the deathly deportations.
The divide between ‘Westerners’ and locals
I don’t know whether Kim Kardashian was fully aware of the ins and outs of the controversy when she did her bit at the Armenian Genocide Memorial two weeks ago. The whole thing had the vacuous shades of that staple of modern Irish culture – the returned Yank – about it. Think Grace Kelly visiting Ireland in the Sixties.
Kardashian, looking resplendent in a red jumpsuit, certainly seemed to add to the noticeable divide between ‘Westerners’ and locals in Yerevan that day. It was in no small part due to this conspicuous divide that I ended up, by chance, sitting at a hotel bar alongside some members of the American film crew covering Kim’s ‘homecoming’.
They told me that on the trip the Kardashians had also visited their ancestral northern hometown of Gyumri: a city destroyed by an earthquake in 1988 and with none of the gaudy and glitzy glamour of parts of downtown Yerevan.
Suffice to say, Kim didn’t stay long in Gyumri. The scheduled day-long trip was curtailed to an hour, they revealed. I later visited Gyumri and could see why. To describe it as a ‘dump’, as one member of the Kardashian entourage did to me, would be unkind but, regrettably, reasonably accurate.
Armenia continues to suffer from wealth disparity and miserable poverty
The plight of the Kardashians’ ‘home town’ highlights the problems that Armenia faces in the wake of today’s centenary, after which the world will move on to the next historical commemoration. These include hostile neighbours in Azerbaijan and Turkey; lack of post-communist political evolution; and over-reliance on Russian troops, one of whom recently, in Gyumri , drunkenly massacred a local family of seven.
But most of all, Armenia suffers from wealth disparity and miserable poverty. In a country which has tended to look to its diaspora for financial support, there’s precious little evidence of ‘trickle down’. All of which, despite her recent ‘homecoming’, makes the super-rich Kim Kardashian a problematic standard bearer for modern Armenia.
Armenians may look with gratitude to the Kardashians for helping to make today’s genocide commemoration newsworthy but, in the wake of the circus, they still have precious little chance of keeping up with them.