Fridtjof Nansen and the Armenians
In the hot weeks of June 1925, Fridtjof Nansen—the great Arctic explorer, scientist, and Nobel laureate who had lately become the League of Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees—found himself motoring across Soviet Armenia in a sincere, if ill-fated, attempt to secure a home for the hundreds of thousands of Armenians unmoored in the aftermath of the genocide of 1915.
On the table lay a proposal submitted by the Armenians to the League of Nations to irrigate and cultivate the Sardarabad desert, and to settle some 50,000 refugees in this sparsely populated region west of Yerevan. Nansen, who had been tasked with evaluating the feasibility of the project, assembled a five-member international commission of experts to travel to Armenia for a two-week investigation.
Their reports were published in Geneva in 1927. That same year, Nansen published “Armenia and the Near East,” an account of his travels in the Armenian countryside, and the launching point of a project that would occupy the final years of his life.
From the beginning it appeared that for Nansen, what was at stake was far greater than the prospect of fertilizing a swath of land in the arid plain of Sardarabad. In a post-war Europe, this enterprise of development and repatriation held the promise of a kind of redemption for a West that had done little to reverse the grisly episodes to which the Armenians had been repeatedly subjected in the previous decades. And on the eve of a changing and uncertain time, it held the possibility of advancing the new diplomacy of openness and cooperation set forth by the League of Nations.
“It seemed highly desirable to find some such solution,” Nansen wrote in the foreword to “Armenia and the Near East.” “For by doing so one might hope to do something, at least, to procure for the Armenians that ‘national home’ which the Western Powers of Europe and the United States of America had pledged themselves to give to the Armenian nation, and of which the League of Nations had repeatedly held out a prospect.”
And so Nansen, at 64, set out with his team of specialists to take up this challenge, dedicating himself wholeheartedly to a cause that would become no more than a footnote in a lifetime marked by prolific accomplishment. History has rendered the effort misguided. But on the 150th anniversary of Nansen’s birth—which rolled around this month—it is perhaps worth revisiting the conviction with which one man hoped to stir “the conscience of Europe and America.” More interesting still, “Armenia and the Near East” provides a rare glimpse into that transformative period of Armenian history—when a broken nation teetered between the unfulfilled promises of the West and the steely assurance of Communist Russia.
Fridtjof Nansen was born on October 10, 1861, in Christiania (later Oslo), Norway, the second child of Baldur Nansen, a lawyer, and Adelaide Johanne Thekla Isidore, the daughter of an aristocratic family. Growing up in a bustling household—both Baldur and Adelaide had children from previous marriages—Nansen found comfort in the outdoors, where he mastered skiing and skating, and learned how to swim, fish, and hunt.
In 1881, Nansen enrolled at the University of Christiania and began studies in zoology. A promising student, he was soon offered the opportunity to journey to the coast of Greenland where he studied Arctic zoology and ice formations. Upon his return, Nansen was appointed the curator of zoology at the Bergen Museum, where he continued his research and in 1887, completed a dissertation on the central nervous system of marine animals.
In the meantime, Nansen had been planning another expedition to Greenland, and the following year he and his small party became the first to cross its interior—a feat that brought Nansen considerable fame in Norway and abroad. Returning home, Nansen accepted a position at the University of Christiania, married, and started a family.
Still, a restlessness surged inside him, and in 1893, Nansen set out on yet another adventure with the goal of reaching the North Pole. Things were less providential this time. Fram, the famous vessel constructed for the journey, drifted off course and the crew did not make it to the North Pole. But never one to give up, Nansen continued on skis and traveled farther north than anyone before him, setting a new record and again earning a hero’s welcome in Norway.
Scientific work continued to occupy Nansen’s time in the ensuing decades though his rising international reputation also made him an attractive candidate for diplomacy. At the turn of the century, he helped engineer Norway’s break from Sweden, and became the country’s first ambassador to Britain.
During World War I, Nansen traveled to the U.S. where he persuaded Washington to provide food and supplies to neutral Norway, whose trade networks had been devastated in the war. The trip to the States also drew Nansen’s attention to Woodrow Wilson’s “Fourteen Points”—the foundation of the League of Nations. Convinced of its promise, he lobbied for Norway’s entry into the newly established organization at the close of the war.
In 1920, Nansen became the League’s commissioner for the exchange and repatriation of prisoners of war and the resettlement of refugees displaced by the Russian Revolution. He also realized the 1924 population exchange between Greece and Turkey, and less successfully, tried to curb the Russian famine of 1921. In 1922, Nansen was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He spent the prize money on agricultural development projects in Ukraine and Russia.
By the time Nansen arrived in Armenia in 1925, he was well aware of the limits of the League of Nations, and the rising tensions between the new Soviet government and the West. Armenia at the time was part of the Transcaucasian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic, along with Georgia and Azerbaijan (not to be confused with the short-lived Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic of 1918), and it was stipulated by Soviet authorities that Nansen’s work be conducted outside the framework of the League of Nations and with the cooperation of Soviet Armenian representatives.
The country was largely rural, its basic infrastructure already sagging under the pressures of a rising population of refugees and orphans. Yerevan, Nansen wrote, suffered from “a serious shortage of houses, and inhabitants have to live in very crowded conditions.” In the villages, there were outbreaks of tuberculosis and malaria, and occasional “marauding expeditions” by Kurds from the Turkish side of the border.
Local officials had their hands full, and informed Nansen that they would accept additional refugees “if these could be brought to Armenia without cost to the country, and if outside help could be obtained to make possible the irrigation and cultivation of new land”—namely the Sardarabad desert, for which the Armenians hoped to obtain foreign capital.
The Sardarabad desert, Nansen wrote, was “a true wilderness, an endless scorched, dry, brown plain, with nothing but here and there a few thistle-like tufts of camel-thorn, a rough plant with sharp spikes that you approach at your peril.” Even so, the landscape was dotted with evidence of former habitation—crumbling houses and old churches, and other signs of civilization. What had made this once-fertile land so desolate? “Can the climate have become drier since those days?” Nansen wondered.
Leafing through records of rainfall and temperature patterns, lake water levels, and other indicators, he concluded that “war, not fluctuations of climate, has brought about these great changes and turned the land into a desert.” It would be possible then to revive Sardarabad, but to begin the commission wanted to survey the plain firsthand.
Packing into four government-provided automobiles, they set off on their second day in Yerevan. What is most striking about Nansen’s account of these excursions is his eye for local customs and the everyday details of social relations.
Outside the village of Markara, close to the road, a crowd gathered at once—as usual only men—staring curiously at ourselves and our cars, and of course, bent upon knowing our business….Their clothing was varied in the extreme, and sometimes ragged; not particularly Oriental, except for a sheepskin cap here and there, which looked anything but Occidental in such burning sunshine; otherwise they had on the dull, ‘wholesale’ Bolshevik caps of soft, drab cloth, with here and there a white cotton blouse, but chiefly European coats and long trousers and dilapidated foot-gear.
A little farther on there were some women weeding a cotton-field. I wanted to see how the work was done, so we stopped and I walked across to them. Then a curious thing happened: a handsome young woman got up, came to me, and gravely handed me a small cotton-plant. This done, without looking about her, she quietly returned to her place, and bending down, resumed her weeding without looking up again. It was a gesture of welcome in accordance with the custom of the country, very touching in its artless simplicity. I kept those modest leaves as a memento of Armenian womanhood.
Armenian hospitality continued to make an impression throughout the trip. Everywhere, it seemed, the commission was welcomed with fruit and wine. At the new university in Yerevan, Nansen was awarded an honorary doctorate. At Holy Etchmiadzin, the commission was received by the Catholicos George V. The Armenians were a hard-working lot, and Nansen held out hope that the country would prosper.
But his optimism notwithstanding, Nansen also took note of the incongruities of the Soviet system. Here were Armenians, Russians, Georgians, and Azerbaijanis—gathered up in the name of collectivism, their grievances swept under a rug. In a village close to the Turkish border, the commission was welcomed by a group of Armenian men offering water, milk, and fruit.
They were friendly folk, but grave and unsmiling. We inquired how many people there were in town. Only one and a half thousand now, they replied, but there had once been three and a half—two thousand having been massacred or carried off by the Turks in the last war. They said it as if they had been talking of the previous year’s harvest; it was all in the day’s work. That their animals, great and small, had been taken, that the major part of the town lay in ruins, they did not even mention. Such is the history of the Armenian people.
And later, at the opening of a new irrigation canal near Gyumri, when the President of Azerbaijan gives a speech in Russian and Turkish, Nansen remembers that “the Tatars in Azerbaijan were among the bitterest enemies of the Armenians, and it was not very long since they had perpetrated their bloody massacres of the Armenians in Baku. But it is all unity, peace, and concord now.”
In the end, Nansen’s enthusiasm about cultivating stretches of the Sardarabad desert—“once it is given water and seed, the most splendid crops will spring up everywhere”—came up against considerations of cost and time. He concluded that the plan would be a hard sell back home, and redirected the commission’s efforts to exploring other options.
These included cultivating land on the outskirts of the capital and draining a marshy patch near the Arax River. All in all, he estimated that the new plan would yield 81,000 acres of fertile land and sustain 25,000 people—at least 15,000 of whom “should be Armenian refugees brought by us from Europe.” The funding, he hoped, could be secured through a loan, with the aid of the League of Nations. The loan would be guaranteed by the local Armenian government, as well as by the Soviet state and the State Bank of Russia, and repaid by the Armenians once the new farms became profitable.
“By developing this fertile land it might be possible at long last to make life fairly safe and prosperous for an incredibly maltreated people,” Nansen wrote. “Accordingly we considered that we had every reason to believe that the Governments of the Great Powers would gladly give their adhesion to this plan, and thus honor, without incurring any great sacrifice, some, at least, of their pledges to the Armenians.”
Nansen appealed to Vidkun Quisling—one of the commission members, who subsequently settled in Moscow where he represented various foreign interests—to win the Soviets’ approval. In the meantime, Nansen returned to Europe to present the new scheme to the League of Nations. In 1926, when a powerful earthquake struck near Gyumri, Nansen became even more determined to obtain financing for the project. But from everywhere reverberated a loud “no.”
Does the League consider that it has now done its duty, and does it imagine that it can let the matter drop without undermining the prestige of the League, especially in the East?….Woe to the Armenians that they ever were drawn into European politics! It would have been better for them if the name Armenia had never been uttered by any European diplomatist.
Exasperated, Nansen briefly resigned from his post as High Commissioner of Refugees. Ultimately, he resolved to take matters into his own hands. Through his personal efforts, he was able to settle 7,000 refugees in Armenia in 1928 (many of these refugees now traveled on Nansen passports—international identification certificates issued by the League of Nations). Nansen was still pursuing the cause when he died in May 1930, of a heart attack.
Armenia was now unmistakably part of the Soviet enterprise. In 1936, the Transcaucasian Republic was divided along ethnic lines, resulting in the Armenian SSR. Many of the refugees who had settled there were suddenly subject to Stalin’s forced programs of collectivization and industrialization. By the time a second wave of newcomers, more than 100,000 Armenians from abroad, arrived after World War II, repatriation had been given a bad name. Deceived by promises of a better life, the repatriates were denied exit visas and swallowed up by the Soviet machine.
Although it was the darker undertones in Nansen’s travelogue that prevailed, the Scandinavian diplomat remained for the Armenians a celebrated figure, admired for his commitment to their cause and the earnestness with which he sought to affect change. For his part, Nansen applauded the doggedness of the Armenian spirit, consoled perhaps by some idea that the Armenians would make something of their new homeland.
“The Armenian people have never abandoned hope,” he wrote at the close of “Armenians and the Near East.” “They have gone on bravely working, and waiting…waiting year after year. They are waiting still.”
Photo attached: A Nansen passport issued in London to Onnig Isbendjian, an Armenian refugee from Smyrna. The passport is from the collection of the Diocese’s Krikor and Clara Zohrab Information Center.