Armenians in Russia and the USSR

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Armenians in Russia and the USSR

Armenian history can be traced back some three thousand years to a time when the Armenian people were clearly identifiable on what was traditionally called the Armenian plateau, which extended through present-day eastern Anatolia (or eastern Turkey) to the South Caucasus (or Transcaucasia). The Armenians were on the crossroads of international commerce and, accordingly, their land became a region fought over by contending empires and nomadic invaders.

Eastern Armenia, in the South Caucasus, was laid waste by centuries of warfare. Western Armenia, present-day eastern Turkey, was conquered by the Ottomans between 1514 and 1534. Many Armenians fled to other countries, so by the seventeenth century the Armenians experienced a large diaspora that extended from Poland in the west to India and the Far East. This diaspora was chiefly mercantile, and it enjoyed a high standard of living and education. It was from the Persian and Indian diasporas that the Armenian liberation movement originated in the seventeenth century.

Attempts were made by a wealthy, self-appointed adventurer to better Armenian security in the Caucasus by encouraging a forward movement of the nominally Christian Russian Empire. Nothing much came of these early appeals, but by the early 1800s the Russians of their own accord occupied South Caucasus and Eastern Armenia.

The Armenian peasants in Eastern Armenia, under the Russian Empire, remained serfs until 1870. Armenian peasants in Western Armenia, who were no better off than serfs, saw their condition deteriorate further in the nineteenth century as the Ottoman Empire, under pressures from the European powers, was forced to abandon, one after the other, its possessions in the Balkans and some territory in eastern Anatolia.

The Armenian Enlightenment

The Armenian enlightenment movement of the nineteenth century sought to better the condition of peasants both in the east and in the west by raising national consciousness. This movement arose in several quarters: the Russian Armenian intelligentsia, university graduates, who lived in the major cities of Russia and the Caucasus; the scions of the Armenian moneyed class, the amiras, of Constantinople and Smyrna, who were sent to Europe to study and adopted progressive European values; the American Protestant missionaries who established churches, schools, and medical clinics all over Anatolia, and who instilled in Armenians the American ideals of democracy; and, finally, there were Armenian rite Roman Catholic monks who revived Armenian scholarship.

Failure of Ottoman Reforms

The Ottoman liberal reform movement (the Tanzimat), which evolved at the same time as the Armenian enlightenment, failed chiefly because of the enmity of the fundamentalist Muslim clergy and conservative Muslim society that objected to the acceptance of Christians and Jews, the despised gavours (unbelievers), as the equals of Muslims.

Armenians in the Russian Empire

The Armenians of the former Russian Empire can be divided roughly into two groups: those living in Caucasian Armenia, the vast majority of whom were peasants, and those who lived in other parts of the empire as merchants/entrepreneurs, craftsmen, various professionals, and the like. In the Caucasus, for instance, the Armenian middle class dominated Tbilisi, the seat of the Transcaucasan viceroy and the capital of Georgia, and they enjoyed great financial success in Baku, which later became the capital of Azerbaijan.

Russian tsar Nicholas II continued his father's policy of repressing the domestic radical movement, which drove the revolutionaries into hiding or abroad, chiefly to Geneva and London. Native Armenian radicals made little headway domestically until 1903 through 1905, when Nicholas II closed down Armenian schools and attempted to deprive the Armenian Church of the income from its hereditary properties.

The Armenian radical intelligentsia followed the example of their Russian and Jewish compatriots. Armenian socialists established the Hunchak Party in Geneva in 1887, among the Russian radicals who had fled Russia, and patterned their party on the Narodniks, the Russian populists, who believed in "going to the people" to educate and radicalize them. For the Russian populists, "going to the people" meant going out to the oppressed Russian peasants of the Russian Empire, whereas for the Hunchaks, the people (they) were the oppressed Armenian peasants of the Ottoman Empire, among whom the Hunchaks eventually became active.

Another Armenian political party, the Dashnaktsutiun, was founded by Russian Armenians in 1890 and spread then to the Ottoman Empire. Interestingly, this Armenian Revolutionary Federation, realizing that the Armenians were too few in number and too weak in strength to attempt to overthrow either of the powerful imperial governments or to establish themselves as an independent state, did not advocate Armenian independence. It was the Dashnaktsutiun that cooperated first with the Young Ottomans, an aristocratic liberal group of European-educated Turks, and then up to 1913 with the Young Turks (Ittihad ve Terakke Jemieti, the Committee for Union and Progress), mostly young army officers from the Turkish military academy in the Balkans.

Hamedian Massacres

Both the Armenians and Young Turks wanted to overthrow Sultan Abdul Hamid II (1876–1909) and reestablish the constitution that Abdul Hamid had arbitrarily suspended. Using the pretext of an Armenian revolt, Abdul Hamid turned viciously against the Armenians and instigated a series of massacres from 1894 to 1896 in the six "Armenian provinces" that resulted in the death of some 100,000 to 200,000 [to 300,000] Armenians and demoralized tens of thousands more.

Young Turk Revolution

In 1908 the Young Turks, encouraged by the Armenians and other minorities, carried out a revolution and reestablished the constitution. These early, heady days witnessed jubilation among enlightened Turkish and non-Turkish inhabitants of the empire, since the constitution now guaranteed all inhabitants—Muslim, Christians, and Jews alike—equality under the law. As before under the Tanzimat, traditional Muslim society and clergy refused to accept non-Muslims as equals.

The very next year, in 1909, the Armenians of Cilicia—among whom a wealthy and Westernized class existed—angered tradition-bound Turkish leaders, and a massacre resulted whereby some thirty thousand Armenians were slaughtered throughout the region.

The Armenian Genocide

In 1913 a radical group of Young Turks overthrew the Ottoman government and established a dictatorship. The ruling triumvirate led an ill-prepared Turkey into World War I on the side of Germany against Russia and the Allies. The ideology of exclusive nationalism became a policy sometime around the beginning of Word War I, when the central organ of the Committee for Union and Progress instituted a plan to empty Anatolia entirely of Armenian Christians by deportations and massacres under the cover of war.

A major Turkish argument for eliminating the Armenians is that it was a military necessity because Nicholas II had offered the Armenians a homeland if they supported Russia during the war, and that the Armenians were a potential fifth column. Such promises as the many made by Tsar Nicholas were part and parcel of wartime propaganda that few on any side intended to keep. Similarly, the Young Turks promised a "semi-autonomous" Armenia at the Erzerum (or Erzurum) Congress of the Dashnaktsutiun in July 1914, if the Armenians on both sides of the border would fight against the Russians. The Armenian delegates declined both offers.

Founding a Republic

In March of 1917 the Russian bourgeois revolution took place. The Russian armies in Turkey, losing clear direction, began to disintegrate. The Armenians who lived in the territories added to Russia in 1878 fled with the retreating Russian armies. The Armenians within Russian territory organized a federation with Georgia and Azerbaijan to bring order to South Caucasus. With the advance of the revitalized Turkish army into the Caucasus in 1918, however, the Transcaucasian Federation dissolved and Armenia, only some 4,000 square miles (or 11,000 sq. km.) in size, declared its independence on May 28, 1918, and was left to face the advancing Turkish armies alone. In acts of desperate self-defense, fearing a continuation of the massacres, the Armenian remnant repulsed the Turkish onslaught in three major encounters, thereby bringing it to a temporary halt.

U.S. President Wilson and the Armenian Mandate

Struggling with the problems of security, refugees, war, and famine, Armenia sought an American mandate to sustain the fledgling state and to assist in its reconstruction. President Woodrow Wilson made an appeal to the U.S. Senate and traveled throughout the United States seeking public support for his plan. The Senate, however, which had grown isolationist in the interim, rejected the proposal and left Armenia to survive as best as it could.

Bolshevik Takeover and the Armenian Soviet Republic

Meanwhile, the Bolsheviks carried out a coup d'etat against the provisional government in November of 1917 and created a Red Army to consolidate their power and recapture the territories of the defunct Russian Empire. Almost no Bolsheviks lived in Armenia, because Armenia at that time was an agricultural region. The Armenian Bolsheviks, later known as the Baku Commissars, were concentrated in Baku, which was the most industrialized part of South Caucasus.

Armenia at this juncture faced three enemies: the revitalized Turkish nationalist army that stood ready to attack Armenia once more and annihilate the remnant of Armenians; the Azerbaijani nationalist army that sought, successfully, to occupy Nakichevan and Nagorno-Karabakh, two districts inhabited by Armenians; and the Red Army that had struck a deal with Mustafa Kemal Pasha Ataturk not to lay claim to the areas of eastern Turkey (specifically Kars, Ardahan, and Batum) that had been captured by the tsar in 1877 and 1878 and abandoned in 1917.

The Bolshevik leaders in Moscow saw Ataturk's army as an anti-imperialist force and hoped to see the growth of communism in Turkey. Moscow also wanted to establish its power in Muslim Central Asia and did not want to antagonize the Muslims of Turkey. Lenin's hope for a communist revolution in Turkey was in vain. Once Ataturk assumed full control, he obliterated the Turkish Communist Party.

In 1920 the Armenian Republic, facing a Turkish army in the west and a Red army in the east, surrendered to the Bolsheviks as the lesser of two evils. The Bolsheviks then signed a draconian peace in Moscow with the Turkish nationalists that left Armenia bereft even of its traditional emblem, Mount Ararat, and its historic capital, Ani. Eventually, an Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic was established as one of the constituent republics of the USSR. The present-day independent Armenian Republic, with the same boundaries as the former Soviet Republic, occupies only the central eastern edge of historic Armenia.

Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic

The Baku Commissars having been killed, the young Armenian Bolsheviks who came under the leadership of the Red Army were inexperienced and ideologically narrow. They immediately conducted purges and in 1921 the Armenians rebelled against Soviet power. The rebellion was but a brief interlude and was harshly vanquished.

The Armenians in the Soviet Union, except for being deprived of the eastern Armenian territory by Russia, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, were treated as well or better than the other nationalities within the union. Lenin attempted to pacify the national minorities by a system of khorenizatsya (nativization), which encouraged the various nationalities to administer their local republics while at the same time remaining loyal to the Soviet central government. Due to Soviet policies, Armenian nationalism was preserved and strengthened during the Soviet period, even though Moscow continued to take harsh action against overt nationalists.

Armenian intellectuals living in Baku, Tiflis, or Moscow were encouraged to emigrate to Armenia in order to enrich Armenian life. State support was given to historians, linguists, composers, painters, sculptors, novelists, and poets. The state supported a university, a conservatory of music, a national theater and opera, and a film studio. Religion and religious practices, however, were discouraged and the church was suppressed.


Once Joseph Stalin solidified his power and introduced rapid industrialization, the five-year plans, and collectivization of agriculture, political repression was applied against all those who resisted the new order. Furthermore, the great purges that began in the 1930s wiped out almost the entire cadre of top-ranking Armenian communists, as well as many intellectuals, who were either imprisoned, exiled, or executed. By 1939 the purges came to an end and Stalin had removed any real or possible opposition to his rule. He brought to an abrupt halt Lenin's policy of nativization and introduced a period of Soviet patriotism, which was thinly disguised Russian nationalism.

World War II and the Death of Stalin

Armenians fought gallantly during World War II and Armenian troops engaged in heavy fighting at the front, and produced sixty generals and four (out of ten) marshals of the Soviet Union. Toward the end of the war Stalin allowed the Armenians to elect a new head of their church, the Catholicos, a post that had remained vacant since 1938 when the then Catholicos was apparently murdered by the KGB and Stalin denied permission to the Armenians to elect a new one.

Following the war Stalin ordered a "repatriation" campaign to bring Armenians from overseas to help rebuild their devastated country. Over 100,000 Armenians, chiefly from the Middle East and Greece, immigrated to Armenia. The local population, however, did not welcome the extra burden imposed on a country already beset by a shortage of food, housing, and decent working conditions. By 1948 the inability of the newcomers to adapt themselves to Soviet conditions made them suspect and many were exiled to Siberia. It was also around this time that Stalin raised the question of a return of the territories from Turkey that the Russian Empire held between 1878 and 1921, not with the intention of adding them to Armenia because there were no longer any Armenians living there, but to Georgia that already had a Muslim population in the area abutting Turkey.

Armenia and Georgia seemed to have been favored by Stalin economically, although he retained strong political control and viciously suppressed any signs of nationalism. Beginning in the 1950s Georgia and Armenia, because of their climates, topography, development, and facilities, became destinations for Soviet tourists, and Armenia attracted diasporan Armenians as well, advertising the "advantages of socialism." Otherwise, Armenia experienced the vissitudes of Soviet rule much as the other European republics did, contending with economic development and political repression. Armenian cultural and intellectual life, however, managed to grow exponentially.

The Free and Independent Armenian Republic

Armenia remained relatively prosperous for a Soviet republic until the period of Leonid Brezhnev's rule, when the economy was undermined by indifference and corruption at all levels. Furthermore, bad planning and unrestrained growth of industry led to degradation of the environment and an ecological disaster. A movement in the 1980s to save the ecology morphed into a political movement, the Armenian National Movement (ANM), which sought to unify Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia. The ANM argued that the Azeris were engaging in cultural genocide by repression that undermined the Armenian nature of the province, which they likened to the Armenian Genocide of 1915, calling it a "white genocide," or slow death, as compared to a "red genocide," or outright massacres.

The Azeri leaders in Azerbaijan were incensed by Armenian demands. In February 1988 a massacre of Armenians occurred in Sumgait, a working-class suburb of Baku, and then, subsequently, in January 1990 another bloody pogrom took place in Baku. War broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan. In 1991 the former Soviet Union imploded and Armenia, along with all the other Soviet republics, became independent. In the first free elections in Armenia since 1919, the ANM became predominant in the parliament and Levon Ter-Petrossian, its leader, was elected president. Since then presidential power has passed into the hands of Robert Kocharian, the former president of Nagorno-Karabakh, who had been appointed premier by Ter-Petrossian. The war with Azerbaijan ended with a truce, and as of mid-2004 the issue of the political future of Nagorno-Karabakh had yet to be settled. Although Armenia is once more growing economically, it is hindered by a blockade imposed by Azerbaijan in the east and the Republic of Turkey, in sympathy with Azerbaijan, in the west. Nevertheless, it remains the most stable of the three South Caucasus republics.

SEE ALSO Atatürk, Mustafa Kemal Pasha; Armenians in Ottoman Turkey and the Armenian Genocide; Enver, Ismail; Talaat



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Dennis R. Papazian

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Armenians in Russia and the USSR

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