One of the greatest concerns in Ronald Suny’s scholarship has been to study and document Turkey’s long-denied 1915 genocide of more than 1.5 million Armenians.
His work is not only significant, but personal — Suny’s maternal great-grandparents were killed in the tragedy.
“What I’m trying to do is explain the emotional environment in Turkey at the time,” says Suny, professor of history and political science in LSA. “What would lead a government to kill hundreds of thousands of their own subjects, who, in their own view, were perfectly loyal?”
This year, in recognition of his scholarship at Michigan, Suny was named the William H. Sewell Jr. Distinguished University Professor of History. The Distinguished University Professorship is the highest professorial title granted at U-M.
Suny will present his lecture, “They Can Live in the Desert, but Nowhere Else: Explaining the Armenian Genocide 100 Years Later,” at 4 p.m. Tuesday at Rackham Amphitheatre. The lecture will tell the story of why, when and how the genocide of the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire happened.
“To receive something like this is a wonderful moment, one of appreciation and recognition that of course you don’t think you deserve, but you shyly accept with gratitude,” Suny says.
Suny began his career at U-M in 1991 as the Alex Manoogian Professor of Modern Armenian History, and he later founded LSA’s Armenian Studies Program. Suny also was a founding member of the Workshop for Armenian/Turkish Scholarship, an ongoing collaboration of scholars from across the world charged with investigating the causes, circumstances and consequences of the Armenian genocide.
“When I came to Michigan, I realized that in order to end the century-old antagonism between Turks and Armenians, one had to delve deeply into this history and tell the truth,” Suny says. “We had to let the chips fall where they may.”
The implications of Suny’s research have been wide ranging. At a lecture at Istanbul’s Koç University in 1998, Suny explicitly referred to the events as a genocide — despite it being illegal to do so in Turkey. He also was one of the first scholars to do so publicly.
The response was explosive. This was the first time many of those in attendance had even heard of the genocide, and it led to a widespread increase in interest in studying and documenting the tragedy. Suny also believes that by recording the history of Armenians in Turkey, we learn important lessons for our time as well.
“These are not dead stories,” Suny says. “There are parallels that exist between what happened in 1915 and what is happening to the Kurds in eastern Turkey today.”
Suny also is an expert in non-Russian nationalities of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union, and on the nature of empires. His work bridges the gap between traditional concerns of historians and the methods of other social scientists.
Suny has received a National Endowment for the Humanities grant, a Guggenheim fellowship, and, with colleague Fatma Müge Göçek, the academic freedom prize from the Middle East Studies Association.
“History is a database for how human beings have acted, are acting, and are likely to act,” Suny says. “It’s is the only thing that we have that can tell us about the present and the future.”