Recovering and raising voices: “This is the history of humanity”

In My Name Is Revenge, I met with emerging genocide scholar Asya Darbinyan to discuss her work and future career path. To mark the release of the audiobook, I’ve caught up with Asya to find out how her career has developed since then, and what she thinks about genocide studies today.

Ashley: The first time we met was at Tsitsernakaberd, the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute in Yerevan. Where are you working now?

Asya: Currently I am a Visiting Scholar at the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University in Worcester, MA, working on my book project tentatively titled Russian Imperial Humanitarianism: Assisting the Armenian Refugees of the War and Genocide.

I moved to the US in 2013 to pursue a PhD in History with a focus on the Armenian Genocide at Clark University. I was lucky enough to have Professor Taner Akçam, who is a character in your book, as my dissertation advisor. It was a challenging and at the same time quite a rewarding journey.

I defended my dissertation in December 2019 while I was also teaching courses on the history of genocide (a course for Master students, focusing on the Native American, Bangladeshi, Yazidi cases, in addition to the more traditional cases – Armenia, the Holocaust, Rwanda) and on the Armenian Genocide (this course was for undergraduate students, 35 of them, no single Armenian among them) at Stockton University in New Jersey.

That’s when I learned how much I enjoy designing my own courses and teaching college students.

Asya Darbinyan, refugee and genocide scholar and historian
Dr Asya Darbinyan

Ashley: What’s the focus of your research as a genocide studies scholar?

Asya: I consider myself a historian of humanitarianism and refugee studies as much as a genocide scholar. Regarding the latter, for many years genocide studies in general, and Armenian Genocide research in particular, have focused on official documents.

Most publications on the history the massacre and deportation of the Armenian people in the Ottoman Empire aimed at proving the crime of genocide by analyzing foreign sources, largely neglecting the voices of the survivors. As a result, the voices of those who experienced forced displacement, attacks on their houses and families, rape, abduction, forced conversion, starvation, exhaustion and epidemics were marginalized.

My scholarly work focuses on the humanitarian emergency and refugee crisis at the Caucasus front during the First World War, caused by population movements as a result of war and genocide.

But most importantly, reflecting on the experiences of the Armenians, my project addresses a number of questions related to the refugees’ understanding of and reaction to those developments. Analyzing testimonies, and memoirs of the refugee-survivors, I recover and raise their voices and emphasize the role they played in this struggle for survival.

They were not simply victims dependent upon external actors’ mercy and assistance: they were self-reliant, willing and able to self-organize.

Tsitsernakaberd, the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute in Yerevan

Ashley: You inspired me when you said that you hoped to one day organise university forums to show the value and interest of genocide studies. Have you been able to achieve this goal?

Asya: That’s very kind of you.

It still is one of my most important goals. I have organized, moderated and conducted public lectures and workshops on genocide education and awareness, and mass atrocity prevention for high school students and teachers, for university students and educators from a variety of disciplines, and local communities in Armenia, Georgia, USA, and UK.

An important part of my teaching, as well as the goal of my public outreach is to demonstrate the relevance and significance of our past experiences of confronting humanitarian and health crisis, genocides and other mass atrocities, to our everyday life and present-day developments.

When the audiences – be it high school and college students, community members or colleagues from other academic departments – look at a hundred-year-old photograph of genocide orphans from the Ottoman Empire covered in rags, aboard a small boat trying to reach the shore of an island in Greece and find shelter there, next to a 2016 photo of a modern motor-boat transporting a group of malnourished children refugees from Syria to that same island for the same purpose, they start raising questions and engage in meaningful discussions.

They realize, that despite our different backgrounds or scholarly interests, mass violence, poverty, inequality, and struggle for survival are not topics to be discussed merely by those studying or teaching humanities. These are problems of humanity.

Republic Square, Yerevan

Ashley: What do you hope to achieve in your career?

Asya: My short-term career goal is to expand the scope of my research and complete the revisioning of my dissertation, so that I can publish my book and share the results of my scholarship with everyone interested. Based on extensive research in archives and libraries in Armenia, Georgia, Russia, the US, and elsewhere, my book is going to shed new light on the experiences of those Armenian refugees of the genocide, who were forced to leave their homes in “Western Armenia” and find shelter and eventually a new home in “Eastern/Russian Armenia,” just like, for instance, my great-grandmother Anna and her son, my grandfather Andranik, did.

It will also revisit the history of Russo-Armenian relations and present the complexity of imperial policies towards Armenians during the Great War. These policies are never black or white. Russia did not want “Armenia without Armenians.” Those historians who still insist on these more cynical or overly simplified explanations of Russo-Armenian relations underestimate the importance of global and regional contexts in which these relations and policies are formed and developed.

My long-term plan has not really changed. I love conducting research, uncovering new files and sources, writing and publishing, as much as I love teaching and organizing workshops and other academic events for intellectual exchange.

To be honest, the academic path turned out to be much more difficult and complicated than I assumed it would be. A lot of the difficulties have to do with the still heavily male-dominated structure of academia. There are more female students interested in refugees and genocide studies than male, but the professors and the senior scholars are still predominantly men, especially in Armenian Genocide studies.

I have also faced a number of obstacles as an international scholar in the US, because of the harsh immigration policies and lack of both funding and job opportunities for non-citizens. But I believe that persistent hard work and continued effort will eventually produce results.

Tsitsernakaberd, the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute in Yerevan

Ashley: Do you think genocide is an important topic for everyone to better understand?

Asya: I do believe that, absolutely! Genocide is a global problem. The Armenian Genocide is not the history of the Armenian and Turkish people; the Genocide of 1994 in Rwanda is not the history of the Tutsi and Hutu people. This is the history of humanity.

As we’ve observed during this global pandemic, the Native Americans were the most vulnerable group in the US with highest mortality rates (more than the African American communities). Why? Because one of the greatest democracies in the world has not yet dealt with its own past, has not faced the crimes committed against the real owners of these lands, hence not properly apologizing for the genocide and taking the full responsibility for the safe, secure and prosperous future of the first citizens of this land. And I believe Australians too can relate to this story.

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