Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Whiskey Robber and the Daredevils

In the 1990s in Hungary, there was a young man by the name of Attila Ambrus who came to be known as the Whiskey Robber. He came of age in a time of sweeping changes. An ethnic Hungarian born in Romania, he moved to Hungary in 1988 and committed about 29 robberies in Budapest over the course of seven years always outsmarting authorities. His first foray into the murky criminal world began with robbing a post office and later moving to banks.

Ambrus was elevated to national folk hero status in Hungary. He came to be known as the Gentlemen or Whiskey Robber because he was always polite and charming with his unsuspecting victims and would often drink a glass of whiskey ahead of one of his robberies. There was humor in his actions as he would give flowers to female tellers before robbing them and was also known to send bottles of wine to police.

In 2004, author and adjunct professor at Columbia University Julian Rubenstein wrote a book, "Ballad of the Whiskey Robber" based on Ambrus' life story. The Whiskey Robber garnered public sympathy and became a larger-than-life hero who risked everything to achieve his aims.

A New York Times articles sums it up best: "Sometimes sad, often hilarious and always absurd, Ambrus' tale microcosmically condenses the politico-historic oddities of his place and era into one entertaining and fairly tidy is set amid the flash and contradiction of Budapest in the 1990s, when Russian mobsters and American entrepreneurs were moving in on the ruins of the state-controlled economy with equal voraciousness."

The Daredevils

For the past 12 days, Armenia has been held hostage. Despite the exceptional tension, all of us have been struggling to go on with the daily ritual of our lives. There have been moments of relative peace, mostly when we're sleeping. But even then, some or all of us wake up intermittently in the dark of night, check social media and news sites to see if anything has transpired.

When 30 armed men stormed the Armenian Police Yerevan City Patrol Regiment Building in the suburb of Erebuni on July 17, no one could have foreseen that the standoff would last 12 days (with no end in sight) and in its wake, leave a nation divided and confused.

In the process of this developing calamity, for it is as such, a police officer was killed, several others held hostage and then released, there have been periodic shootings, injuries on both sides, demonstrations, marches, wildly contradictory posturing, a polarized public, fear, detentions and arrests.

It's difficult to make sense of the unfolding events. There is a contradictory narrative developing that is both fascinating and frightening.

The armed men have called themselves the Daredevils of Sassoun after an epic Armenian poem that tells the tale of four generations of heroes who fight valiantly against despotic rulers. The symbolism isn't lost on anyone. The actions of the modern-day Daredevils can be the stuff of folk legends.

The question that has been torturing me is how can a segment (or most) of our people support the actions of these men? How can we go into the streets to demand a legitimate form of governance via an illegal and criminal action? How is it that people are holding up photos of these men and chanting "Sasna Dzrer?" How did it come to this?

Putting the symbolism aside, their operation has sparked both a wave of sympathy and outrage. There is no doubt that their actions were dangerous and obviously criminal. By resorting to the gun, they have created a precedent which will have far-reaching implications. It can set the stage for future violent initiatives and create a culture of militancy and radicalism that this fragile country cannot afford to address nor may it be able to.

It's almost impossible to predict how this standoff will end as it seems authorities in Armenia are content to let it drag on. On the flipside, if they storm the building and if one or any number of the Sasna Dzrers are killed, it might lead to their elevation in our national consciousness of the heroes of the past, who were trying to fight valiantly against despotic rulers.

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