Henry D. Astarjian
With Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech, which marked the inception of the cold war, Soviet propaganda in the world and in the Middle East escalated; they offered Marxism-Leninism as a substitute to corrupt capitalism, a system that exploited the masses for the benefit of a few. They presented themselves as advocates of justice, determined to help the oppressed people bring about radical changes in their lives. This meant overthrowing their regimes, and ridding the region from the colonialist-imperialist domination.
The fact that the Soviets had successfully defended Stalingrad and pushed the German forces all the way to Berlin was a forceful, convincing, propaganda point. So was their entry to Berlin! They stressed this point over and over again, praising the heroism of the Soviet soldier, and the wisdom of their commanders. At the end of the litany, it was all, ultimately, attributed to the superiority of the Communist regime, and the endurance of the Soviet people.
Of all this rhetoric, the one that impressed people most was their capture of Berlin. “If it wasn’t for the Soviet Army, the American forces could not have taken Berlin,” boasted their local propagandists. I argued against this point of view because it gave my interlocuters, the Communist propagandists in my neighborhood, the upper hand. It mattered to me that the West was not the first to enter Berlin. At the time we did not know that Ike had made a decision to let the Soviet soldier, rather than his, die for Berlin.
Kurds, who were Soviet sympathizers, were very happy and proud with this victory, but the Turkomans of Kirkuk felt sorry for the defeat of the Axis, since most of them were pro-Nazis even after Turkey had shifted alliance from Hitler to the allies.
This kind of Soviet propaganda echoed favorably in the Arab world because it articulated the realities of their daily life, albeit somewhat exaggerated, and because it fortified their belief that British policies had undermined their society in order to rob the riches of Baba Gurgur.
While the Soviet propaganda belabored to convey its message to the Iraqi general population, it did not have to struggle too hard to win the hearts and minds of some diasporan Armenians who were familiar with the Russian rather then the Soviet culture. Russo-Armenian “Friendship” is rooted in history. Armenia was one of the Russian Khanats in the Middle Ages. Their Tzars had given Holy Echmiadzin, the Vatican of the Armenian Apostolic faith in Armenia, their constitution, Bolozhenia. They were Armenia’s allies who defended Armenia against the invading Turkish Army in the 1920s.
Armenia was one of the sixteen Soviet Republics, and many an Armenian had served, as top-ranking general or foot soldier, in the Soviet Army and defended the fatherland. Anastas Migoyan, an Armenian, was in the politburo, survived all the politburo purges, later, and became Prime Minister. There was his brother, the creator of the MIG jet. Last, but not least, there was Aram Khachaturian the world famous composer.
The Holy Sea of Echmiadzin was the definition of an individual Armenian’s national identity, therefore Soviet or not, Armenia, and by extension the Soviet Union, was their spiritual home.
The Soviets had exploited this relationship to advance their interests, in not only the Armenian community of Kirkuk, but also that of Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, where hundreds of thousands of post-Genocide Armenians had found a safe haven, and thrived.
In fact, this exploitation was not new; a few years after the Bolshevik Revolution the Soviets recruited some Armenian men of cloth, to implement their great designs for the Middle East. For example, the Armenian Archpishops of Iran and Iraq were agents of OGPU, the predecessor of KGB. The former had authority, which extended to India. In fact, the chief of OGPU in the 1920s was an Armenian who was later liquidated in Paris.
Armenian “Patriots,” knowingly or unknowingly, were ready and willing to be a part of this strategy believing that their support would help their motherland to stand in good stead with the Soviets. In fact, in the mid-1940s, a handful of Armenians were in the hierarchy of the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP), and at least one of them was an original founder of the organization.
It was this Communist Armenian network, which smuggled the defecting Kim Philby, the famed Soviet mole in the British Intelligent Service and one of the original CIA advisers, from Beirut to Cyprus and ultimately to the Soviet Union. This defection shook Whitehall and the Western world, handing the Soviets a major victory. Kim Philby was a collaborator of McLean-Burgess et al., the Soviet moles in the British Intelligence Organization.
The Arab world was oblivious to this defection except for Saudi Arabia, which paid a passing attention to the event only because they knew his father, Kim Philby senior, who had converted to Islam and assumed the name “Abdullah.” He had been a mole and a top adviser to the Saudi Royal Family. He had been an influential strategist in the battle over Saudi “Baba Gurgur.”
In Kirkuk, the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) Club, for instance, was a theater for Soviet propaganda. This most nationalist, noble, benevolent, conservative, and capitalist Armenian Union, which was established by Boghos Nubar Pasha (the onetime Armenian Prime Minister of Egypt), was hijacked by the Armenian Communists, in the name of love for, and loyalty to, the fatherland.
As a teenager I used to go there. They used to sing and teach the youth songs praising the Soviet way of life. Soviet movies shown to us were about the accomplishments of the Soviet regime: the happy life in the kolkhozes, the giant combines, the rich harvests, the contented farmers, the valiant workers of Soviet Armenia, the gymnasts, the healthy vineyards, the famous Armenian cognac factories, and finally, the brave Soviet soldiers standing on guard to protect the beloved fatherland.
AGBU events started by singing Soviet Armenia’s national anthem Sovetagan Azad Ashkhar Hayastan (Free World, Soviet-Armenia). The hammer and sickle studded red flag displayed on stage had substituted the historic red, blue, and peach-colored flag of nationalist Free Armenia.
They told us about how great the Soviet regime has been for Armenia since 1921, when the Bolsheviks toppled the three-year-old free and independent Armenian Republic, and took over the country. They despised the Free Armenian Republic, which in 1918 had risen from the ashes of millennia-old Armenian history and had enjoyed America’s patronage; they spat on its tricolor flag. They were proud of the fact that the Reds of Armenia, in collaboration with Lenin’s forces, had axed to death thousands of incarcerated nationalists who had waged the failed February Uprising against the regime. They were proud of the Sovietization of Armenia! AGBU was so involved in towing the Soviet line, that the opposition labeled them KGBU. Like Philby’s case, Armenian Communists were highly instrumental in the workings of the International Communist movement, and were actively involved in the cold war, which in the Middle East reached its zenith in 1956.
That year, in Beirut, the hub of international espionage and the most important cold war theater, there was a big struggle for control of the Armenian Catholicate, the Great House of Cilicia. They were to elect a new Catholicos. This was of paramount importance to the superpowers because control of the Catholicate meant control of the churches in Syria, Lebanon, Iran, and Cyprus, the all too strategically important countries for the superpowers. Control of the churches, in turn, meant control of its parishioners and supporters, thus denying the Soviets bridgeheads in these countries.
The Soviet and the United States Embassies in Beirut were intimately involved in this duel. The negotiators on both sides, those who preferred the Soviet candidate and those who opposed it, had open lines to their perspective Embassies, receiving minute-to-minute instructions. Finally, after days of haggling, the Soviets lost. Thus, America won another round in the cold war.