Igor Dorfmann-Lazarev
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Haroutioun Khatchadourian
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This book represents an excellent example of what scholarly research is able to do in the face of a catastrophe: in detachment and with objectivity, to recognise a disaster, to situate it within historical perspective, to describe events and to identify those responsible. By unveiling knowledge, research can ultimately restore those traces of humanity whose destruction and obliteration has been the purpose of antagonistic forces, not least of governments and agents of state. The doings of such states are often achieved thanks to the indifference of the wider world. Such a force strives to consign its antagonist to perpetual darkness and the unknown condition of what is forever forgotten.

The catastrophes to which we refer consist in the deliberate and methodical eradication of all human traces after a territory has undergone a demographic transformation. The long-drawn-out genocide to which the Armenians have been subjected is leading now not only to the disappearance of the Armenian population in Nagorno-Karabakh (Artʿsakh)—which had once lain within the boundaries of the Persian Empire and then on the southern borders of the Russian Empire—but to the eradication of all evidence of their habitation there over millennia.

The definition of the crime of genocide, conceptualised by Raphaël Lemkin, was endorsed by the United Nations on 9 December 1948 in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. As Marcello Flores writes in his Introduction to the present volume, this definition encompasses cultural annihilation, distinct from any systematic policy of mass murder perpetrated against a targeted population. Indeed, it is possible to destroy a national, or a religious, or an ethnic group without actually committing murder. A genocide can also be carried out by breaking the personal and emotional bonds uniting a given group within a territory and by obliterating the cultural heritage it has left therein.

Cultural heritage can be both material and immaterial: a genocide can be enacted through annihilating the linguistic, spiritual, symbolic, religious and social attachments that give cohesion to a human society—as it can through the destruction of monuments, churches and cemeteries. The preservation of a monument can itself be genocidal, when it is accompanied by, and often conditional upon, the alteration of its function. A place is not a place by any other name: the re-naming of places has always been favoured by tyrants as a form of nominal obliteration without the inconvenience of material destruction.

A human group can survive even when it is demographically erased from the map, as long as traces of its humanity—such as shrines, cemeteries, libraries and museums—endure. However, when it simultaneously undergoes a double ‘final solution’—both physical destruction and cultural eradication—that human group is threatened by a complete disappearance from the face of the earth.

We know that Raphaël Lemkin shaped the notion of the crime of genocide while referring to the ‘final solution of the Jewish question’ attempted by Nazi Germany. In his major work published in 1944, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation, Analysis of Government, Proposals for Redress, Lemkin coined the term genocide in order to define a crime that had no name. Yet he had already started to investigate the genocidal phenomenon long before he proposed a name for it—soon after the end of the First World War. This means that in this preliminary research Lemkin referred precisely to the historical case of the annihilation of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. In 1933, he addressed the Fifth Conference for the Unification of Penal Law in Madrid (14–20 October 1933) with a proposal aimed at including within the definition of genocide both physical extermination and metaphysical destruction.1 The first one speaks of ‘acts of barbarity’, and the second of ‘acts of vandalism’.

The double concept elaborated by Lemkin in 1933, in its possible criminological qualifications, coherently accounts for the historical situation of the Ottoman Armenians during the Great War. The Armenians were transformed by the Young Turks of ‘Union and Progress’ into a fundamental racial enemy. It is in the quality of a racial enemy that a very large majority of the Ottoman Armenians were murdered as a human group, mainly during the paroxysmal phase of the extermination, between January 1915 and the end of 1917. Between 1918 and 1922, genocidal policies against the Armenians were started again and were finalized by the national revolution led by Mustafa Kemal.2 The ideology and the politics of genocide denial were conceived by the Turkish state at the time of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. To the Caucasus the genocidal enterprise was exported in 1918, and it is renewed today by the Azerbaijani state. As for the phase of denial, which still lasts, this concerns not only the truth of the genocide, but the whole of the history of Armenia since ancient times. Historians who study the genocide of the Armenians legitimately describe theirs as a never-ending genocide.3

After the anti-Armenian pogroms in Sumgait, Kirovabad and Baku between 1988 and 1990, a process of ethnic cleansing and cultural annihilation massively affected the Armenian populations of the Republic of Azerbaijan and the territory of Nakhichevan. Only the population of Nagorno-Karabakh could be protected from these policies after Armenia’s victory over Azerbaijan in 1994. After Armenia’s defeat in the war of 2020, however, the risk of genocide of the Armenians of Karabakh became very high. An act of genocide was the complete siege to which the territory of the Autonomous Republic (already amputated after 10 November 2020) was subjected from 12 December 2022 to 19 September 2023. Indeed, the total confinement of the Armenian population of Karabakh represented nothing less than an organised starvation. It is the terror provoked by Baku that explains why on 19 September 2023—the day the Azerbaijanis launched the military conquest of the territory—the population of Karabakh fled in its entirety to the Republic of Armenia. The Armenians of Karabakh thus resigned themselves to accepting the definitive loss of their homeland to the Azerbaijani state. The government in Baku immediately proceeded with the eradication of all vestiges of the history of Armenian settlement in this territory. This policy of destruction might now be extended to the territory of the Republic of Armenia. The southeast of Armenia (the region of Siunik), and even the entire Armenia, may also soon become a lost reality, imprisoned in the darkness of vanished civilisations.

The idea of the present book was conceived by a group of noted historians, art historians and anthropologists at a particular historical moment, the immediate aftermath of the military defeat of 9 November 2020. The investigations conducted by the authors are of utmost importance for us all, not only for those immediately concerned with the Caucasus. They attain three objectives: the authors expose the ‘vandalism’ of the Azerbaijani state against the most precious monuments and traces of Armenian societies in the Caucasus; they agree in determining the heavy responsibility of nationalism and denial in the work of destruction; through a careful analysis and thorough documentary inquiries, they contribute to an invaluable project of creating a record of a cultural heritage which would otherwise disappear. Karabakh will inevitably follow the destiny of Azerbaijan and Nakhichevan where Armenian culture has already been completely erased.

The scholarly and documentary qualities of Monuments and Identities in the Caucasus are many: its methodological rigour, the way it embeds recent events within the scope of history, and its theorizing of a present crisis. All these make this a work of enduring value for the understanding of historical societies, the identification of what threatens a society, and the practicalities involved in the preservation of memory. This book asks us to think more deeply on what we mean by those repositories of memory we know as museums, libraries, archives. In preserving the memory of the eradicated societies of Karabakh, Nakhichevan and Azerbaijan, we may yet make those societies exemplary for others subjected to tyranny and genocide.

Through its sense of scholarly and ethical commitment, this book proves that knowledge of the past not only makes possible an understanding of the present: it also enables us to act. The warning of Marc Bloch, an outstanding researcher as well as a Resistance fighter, who imagined new tasks for the ‘historian’s craft’ at the time of the Nazism and the extermination of the Jews of Europe, was heard at a very dark moment.4 Monuments and Identities in the Caucasus offers to its readers the possibility of learning about research in action, about how to take action through scholarship.

Professor Vincent Duclert,

École des hautes études en sciences sociales, Paris, France

10 November 2023


At that time (October 1933), Lemkin was Lecturer in Comparative Law at the Institute of Criminology in the Free University of Poland and Deputy Prosecutor of the District Court of Warsaw.


See the major work by Raymond H. Kévorkian, Finalizing a Genocide. Mustafa Kemal and the Elimination of Armenian and Greek Survivors (1918–1922) (Parachever un génocide. Mustafa Kemal et l’élimination des rescapés arméniens et grecs (1918–1922)), Paris: Odile Jacob, 2023 (in French). See also Donald Bloxham, The Great Game of Genocide. Imperialism, Nationalism, and the Destruction of the Ottoman Armenians, Oxford University Press, 2005.


See my recent essay: Armenia. A Never-Ending Genocide and a Vanishing World (Arménie : un génocide sans fin et le monde qui s’éteint), Paris: Belles Lettres, 2023.


‘Misunderstanding of the present is the inevitable consequence of ignorance of the past. But a man may wear himself out just as fruitlessly in seeking to understand the past, if he is totally ignorant of the present’, in Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft (Apologie pour l’histoire ou Métier d’historien), New York: Knopf, 1953.

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Monuments and Identities in the Caucasus

Karabagh, Nakhichevan and Azerbaijan in Contemporary Geopolitical Conflict

Series:  Texts and Studies in Eastern Christianity, Volume: 31


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