Author: Oleg KUZNETSOV, Moscow
Based on publications by Yulia Antonyan, Associate Professor of Ethnography, Cand. Sc. History, Yerevan State University
Modern social and political life Armenia is a mix of various political and religious doctrines commonly and distinctively featuring nationalism of various sorts. Many researchers explain this phenomenon by the ideological dominance of the Armenian Gregorian Church in the Armenian society. Over the centuries, it has acted for the national statehood of Armenians living in the Ottoman and Russian empires. However, the collapse of the USSR gave birth to new religious beliefs, such as the Armenian neo-paganism, with their own groups of followers, which only exacerbated the situation. Apart from traditional Armenian ideas based on national-religious isolation and exclusivity, the national consciousness of the Armenian people has become poisoned with the aggressive ideas of Nazism inextricably linked with Garegin Nzhdeh’s Tseghakron doctrine.
Armenian neo-paganism, which glorifies the racist doctrine Tseghakron and idolises the personality of its creator, Garegin Nzhdeh, has soon become a subject of systematic and scrupulous scientific research in Armenia. One of the pioneers in this area was the Associate Professor of Ethnography of the Yerevan State University, Candidate of Historical Sciences Yulia Antonyan, whose studies has made her famous in Europe thanks also to her publications providing a broad picture of deification of Nazism in post-Soviet Armenia over the past 30 years.
National religion or Armenian neo-paganism
In her first article on the topic, Воссоздание» религии: неоязычество в Армении (Reconstruction of religion: neo-paganism in Armenia) published in 2010, Antonyan writes: “The followers of the Armenian Apostolic Church have interpreted the beginning of the Garabagh movement, war and the coming of sovereignty as mass religious confirmation and means to assert their national and religious identity. The beginning of the pagan movement dates back to the same period. Disillusion with the new post-Soviet realities, the socio-economic collapse of independent Armenia in the 1990s, during the Garabagh war and the blockade, as well as massive impoverishment and the resulting biographical breakdowns have caused an incredible spread of Western Protestant churches and religious organizations promising to alleviate social tension, spiritual liberation from the hardships of this world and salvation at the end of days, which reminded many Armenians the real situation in the country. Armenian neo-paganism is a consolidating force for the majority of these motives: search for identity and renewed spirituality, as well as the dream of salvation and rebirth (not eschatological, but real), but not the individual or communal rebirth as in Protestant religions, but national. In this sense, it has everything to be a serious competitor to other religions."
The birth of Armenian neo-paganism dates back to 1991 and is associated with the name of Slak Kakosyan. According to Y. Antonyan, “Slak, previously known as Edik Kakosyan, was one of the Armenian dissidents of the 1970s. In 1979, he was expelled to the US for promoting nationalist ideas, but was not deprived of the Soviet citizenship. Apparently, he learned there about the ideas and followers of Garegin Nzhdeh, who left an indelible mark in the Armenian history of the first half of the 20th century, including as the founder and ideologist of the Tseghakron movement, which is still one of the driving forces of Armenian nationalism. Tseghakron is translated as the religion of nation, i.e. a religion that recognises the Armenian nation as an object of worship...
“Upon his return to Armenia in the early 1990s, Slak Kakosyan gathered the like-minded people (mostly relatives and friends) around him to create a neo-pagan community, which has later been registered as a religious movement. In the mid-1990s, he became a popular TV celebrity. He appeared as a guest in various programs, was interviewed about his teachings, while the celebrations in Garni (especially Vahagn's Birthday or the New Year celebrated on March 22) have gathered many journalist. This interest remains to this day. Remarkably, one of Kakosyan’s followers, Ashot Navasardyan, is also one of the founders of the Republican Party of Armenia, the ruling party of the country until May 2018. The partisans also include a number of neo-pagans or sympathizers, including the late Prime Minister Andranik Margaryan. During his tenure in the office, neo-pagans have received state support, including financial. In particular, Margaryan funded the publication of the main book of neopagans Ukhtagirk (Book of Vows) compiled by Kakosyan.
How Nzhdeh became God
Y. Antonyan wrote a separate article on the practice of deification of Garegin Nzhdeh and his theory of Tseghakron in modern Armenia: Возвращение героя: новые культы «древней» религии (Return of the Hero: New Cults of the ‘Ancient’ Religion). The article was published in 2014 in the journal of the K. Minin Nizhny Novgorod State Pedagogical University (it is a revised version of her article Как Герой становится Богом: Гарегин Нжде и армянские неоязычники (How a Hero Becomes God: Garegin Nzhdeh and Armenian Neopagans) previously published in Yerevan in 2007).
“One of the nationalist newspapers published by circles close to neo-pagans used the phrase Thus spoke Nzhdeh as an epigraph alluding to the famous Nietzschean Zarathustra. This is not only a metaphor hinting at the competence of the publisher but also a direct allusion to the divine essence of Garegin Nzhdeh, about whom we can learn from the Book of Vows. The fifth chapter of the book, The Book of Greatness, is about the life of Garegin Nzhdeh and reflects the process of his deification (Nzhdehization, as a synonymous neologism). This process is presented in a mythological interpretation, although in general it reproduces the main stages in Garegin Nzhdeh’s biography...”
How does the neo-pagan scripture interpret the biography of Nzhdeh? According to Ukhtagirk, history is nothing more than cosmic time with four periods: cosmic spring, summer, autumn and winter. Cosmic spring is the birth time of one of the most significant (neo-)pagan deities, Vahagn. It is followed by cosmic summer and autumn, after which Vishap (Dragon) takes over the world and a cosmic winter begins. Now, on the threshold of a new cosmic spring, a man-god appears, who must herald the new birth of Vahagn. And his name is Garegin, which, according to Ukhtagirk, means Messenger of Spring. “Believe in Garegin and wait for Vahagn” is the motto of the Book of the Greatness, which is a cross-cutting theme through all its content. "Those who believe in Garegin will be saved, and those who do not and will not wait will remain weak and will not survive the flood." Even a cursory reading of the passage suggests an analogy with the Second Coming of Christ, when those who believe in him and God the Father will be saved, and the rest will perish...
The mythical biography of the Hero must follow a certain logic. Each stage of his life, each of his transformations should be marked by a number of typical features that make a hero the Hero. According to this model, he must spend his childhood in obscurity, in isolation (among animals, in the underground, in a cell, etc.), where he shows remarkable abilities and communicates with the deity. As a child, Garegin was sent to the monastery for education. However, unable to withstand the cold walls of a Christian monastery, he fled and wandered through the sunny mountains and valleys. Once, the tired Garegin saw his late grandfather in his dream, who revealed to him the whole truth about his ancestors, nation and gods. After that, his grandfather told him to ‘nzhdehisize’ (a neo-pagan term meaning the process of acquiring all the qualities of a hero, a saviour deity, which Garegin Nzhdeh became later). His party nickname ‘Nzhdeh’ is interpreted as a ‘wanderer’. This meaning is fully consistent with the first stage of the process of ‘Nzhdehization’, during which Garegin leaves his homeland, spends years wandering, until, finally, he asks the heavens to return him home, to his ‘roots and blood’. A divine voice reveals to him that he will be ‘led by the lamp of Vahagn’. “And Garegin Nzhdeh saw Vahagn's lamp in the night sky and followed it. The lamp brought him to the country of Ararat. Nzhdeh went to the Garni temple, where Vahagn appeared to him. After that Garegin was called ‘the man who saw Vahagn’... Then Vahagn gave Garegin Nzhdeh ideas that later became the pillars of his Tseghakron doctrine and ideology. Blessed by Vahagn, Nzhdeh went to fight the Death.
Then Nzhdeh fought the ch’ariyas inspired by the dragon. Ch’ariays (non-Aryans), according to neo-pagan mythology, are evil creatures fighting with the noble Aryans associated with the Semites and Turks. Nzhdeh's struggle with the Ch’ariyas is, in fact, a reproduction of the mythical battle of Vahagn with Vishap, after which Garegin Nzhdeh received the name of ‘Savior of the Aryans’ (the next hypostasis in the universal model). However, the Armenians later renounced Nzhdeh (a hint at the Soviet times, when Nzhdeh was considered an enemy of the state). This leads to the war of the Aryans against the Aryans (that is the Second World War). At that fateful moment, Vahagn demanded Nzhdeh to sacrifice himself for the sake of the ‘roots of the nation’. So, Nzhdeh surrendered to Russians, who took him to Moscow, where he was tried and sentenced to term in prison (where he eventually died). That’s how the ‘Savior of the Aryans’ turned into a holy martyr in full compliance with the mythological model. Now he only had to go into another world. Nzhdeh dies far from Ararat, in a Russian prison, and before his death, the mother goddess Anahit appeared to him and told him that he "must atone for the sins of the people so that she can forgive the Armenian nation for all her wounds."
As we can see, Nzdeh is glorified and deified in modern Armenian neo-paganism at the highest level. He is considered an analogue of Christ in the Christian religious tradition or the prophet Isa in the Muslim religious tradition. That is, he is not a god, but the source and object of the ethno-religious epic, which gives him the opportunity to be a source of a set of rules and norms of behaviour or even a world-view.
According to Y. Antonyan, Nzhdeh remains a cult figure of Armenian neo-paganism: “A set of practices related to the places of his memory is formed around the name of Nzhdeh. These are, in particular, the places of his ritual burials: his ashes are partially buried in the Spitakavor monastery (Vayots Dzor), partially in Gapan city (Syunik), where a memorial was built in his honour, and on Mount Khustup, halfway to the top of the mountain. Since 2008, neo-pagans have organised a pilgrimage to Mount Khustup every summer, approximately in mid-July-early August, where only men participate due to the severity of the journey, but also taking into account the ritual aspect of the event... The purpose of the pilgrimage is not only to visit the grave of Nzhdeh, but also to climb to the top of Mount Khustup (3,206 m), spend a night there to see the dawn of the next day. The pilgrims hope that they will see Vahagn on the mountain, similar to how Vahagn revealed himself to Nzhdeh. The ceremony is performed twice: halfway near a granite stone of the second of Nzhdeh’s graves, and on top of the mountain, which not all pilgrims are able to reach."
Modern Armenian neo-paganism is an ideological derivative of Armenian nationalism. To be more precise, it was born from the ultra-radical form of Armenian nationalism – Garegin Nzhdeh’s Nazi theory of Tseghakron. He became an object of religious ritual, while his teachings became an integral part of a new religious cult. Nzhdeh (not himself, but his artificially created image, cleansed of real biographical details and thus strongly mythologized) has already become a completely canonical element of not just political, but social and everyday culture. He has been deified as one one of the ancient pagan gods as the reincarnation of the supreme Armenian pagan deity Vahagn. That is why, after the change of the political regime in Armenia in May 2018, there are no prerequisites for its denazification, since the image of Nzhdeh has become an organic part of the Armenian national mythologeme, one of the dominants of the Armenian national identity. Therefore, any attack on Nzhdeh will become a subject of extreme ambuguity. The current turbulence of the socio-political situation in modern Armenia threatens the authorities and elites with the most uncertain and even unpredictable consequences.