Armenians in 1877-1878 Ottoman-Russian War (The ’93 War)

The 1877-1878 Ottoman-Russian War, named as The 93 War in Turkish history, is considered as the turning point in the emergence of the “Armenian Problem” and its gaining an international dimension (Küçük, 1986, p.1). For this reason, it is very important to emphasize their roles in this war and its effects for the Armenian problem to be assessed from all aspects.

The Ottoman Empire had to deal with significant problems inside and outside and also faced a serious “governance problem.” In such conditions, it was drawing a picture of a collapsing empire; Armenians, one of the elements constituting the “Millet System” attempted to determine their own future by following other Christian communities’ paths.

The fact that Russia, who was following a policy of spreading in Ottoman lands, captured some lands where Armenians lived in the 1828-1829 Turkish-Russian War had encouraged their plans and inclinations to annex other provinces where Armenians lived. In this period, pro-Russian opinions spread fast among Ottoman Armenians who hoped Russia would rescue them from Turkish oppression (Lewy, 2005, p. 7). Consequently Armenians had turned into a nation who co-operated with the enemy from the “Loyal Nation” and the most significant stage of this transformation had been the ’93 War.

Pan-slavism politics that Czarist Russia followed for Slavic communities is one of the biggest reasons for the 1877-1878 Turkish-Russian War. This war, resulting in absolute victory for Russia, took place in two areas which are theDanube-Balkans and the Caucasia-Eastern Anatolia battlefronts. The Caucasia-Eastern Anatolia battlefront witnessed significant developments which Armenians living here for centuries played a role in. There were around 80 thousands soldiers in the Ottoman Anatolia Army and more than 120 thousands soldiers in the Russian Army which stretched to a larger space in Caucasia. The strategy of the Russians who attacked from three wings was established on capturing Kars and Erzurum; whereas the strategy of the Ottomans was based on defending the region on the whole. While Müşir Ahmet Pasha commanded the Ottoman Army, Loris-Melikof commanded the Russian Army, which launched attacks with flash operation.

Behaviours of Armenians in the ’93 War

In the ’93 War, as both sides wanted to benefit from local elements to be used against the enemy, irregular voluntary troops emerged especially in the Caucasia Battlefront. Ottomans benefitted from Ajaria, Cherkes, Abkhas and Kurds of different tribes whereas Russians benefitted from Armenians, Georgians, Kurds, Cherkes and Terek Kazaks (Şirokorad, 2009, p.437-8). The Russian Army generally acted with the support and co-operation of Slavs in the Balkans and Armenians in the east

Armenian stamps about the Ottoman-Russian War

In this war, there was two-sided and complementary support of Armenians as “Russian Armenians” and “Ottoman Armenians.” Among these, Russian Armenians who lived in Caucasia supported Russians by directly serving in the Russian Army. Furthermore, it is seen that Armenians had a significant majority in the commanding positions of this army. In the Russian Caucasia army centred in Yerevan, there were thousands of Russian Armenian soldiers, hundreds of officers of all ranks and commanders with the rank of general. The commander of the Russian Army, which started the occupation of Eastern Anatolia rapidly in the beginning of the war, Mikayel Loris-Melikof (1826-1888), being a Russian Armenian from Tbilisi, was actually named Melikian (Lewy, 2005, p. 7).

Many of the secondary commanders under the command of Grand Duke Mikhail Nikolaevich, the Caucasia governor of Russia and brother of the Czar, who took over the position after Melikof, consisted of Armenians from Tbilisi. Some of these are Beybut Shelkovnikov, Ivan Davidoviç Lazarev (Ohannes Lazaryan), Arshak Tergukasov and Avinov who all had the rank of general. In the meantime, a separate troop called “Yerevan Corps” was formed under the command of General Tergukasov (Şirokorad, 2009, p. 437-8). Russian Armenians fought mostly with the dream of establishing Armenia which Russians provoked and promised. Right at this point, the remarks of the Armenian Patriarch of the period Nerses to the British ambassador in Istanbul are interesting: “… there are many Armenians among generals and officers of high ranks employed by Russians in Armenia (in Caucasia) and Georgia. Some of those demonstrated excellence and were in close communication with their Armenian brothers in Turkey…” (PRO, FO, 881/3554, nr.4, to Lord Derby from Layard, Istanbul, 18 March 1878). Layard commented on Nerses and Armenians that, “no matter how he (Patriarch) is a clergy and does not have worldly desires, Armenian people were determined not to accept Ottoman rule anymore and the Patriarch was in a position of not being able to reject these demands of Armenians” (same document). This assessment was almost like a messenger of the Armenian terror movements to be intensified by the 1890s.

The second important base of Armenian support to the Russian Army is concerning Ottoman Armenians who lived in the Eastern Anatolian provinces and especially along the border. After the restrictions brought by the Paris Treaty, Russia was planning to depend on the Armenian population here to be able to realize its plans in Eastern Anatolia and the Mesopotamia basin. When the Russian Army, progressing rapidly in the ’93 War, occupied some provinces in Eastern Anatolia, it got in touch with Armenians living there and also Armenians in the Russian Army started to provoke Ottoman Armenians (Karal, 1995, p. 129). Meanwhile, some Ottoman Armenians got involved in the war by guiding and spying for the Russian armies (Lewy, 2005, p. 7). Also, Russians were spreading horrific stories among the people; this situation naturally was creating horror and excitement in the people (Mehmed Arif Bey, 2006: 621).

Mehmet Arif Bey, the Army First Secretary in the eastern battlefront, emphasizes on the “money effect” and the demographic structure of the region while talking about the people living along the border and how Russians found and used spies in a foreign country. According to him, “people living in the area where both sides have armies were made up of Kurds, Karapapaks and Armenians. When the situation is like this the enemy does not have difficulty in finding spies. Some of these served for both sides, both Russians and Ottomans…There was no need to understand what kind of a goal Armenians were serving for…” (Mehmed Arif Bey, 2006, p. 455-456). As it is seen, Ottoman Armenians helped Russians greatly in spreading through Anatolia in the ’93 War just like in the Crimean War (McCarthy, 2001, p. 67). On the other hand, when the Russian Army in the Balkan battlefront came almost to the gates of Istanbul, some of Russian generals and officers were hosted in the houses of Armenians living in San Stefano. This group had been provoking the Armenians of Istanbul (Karal, 1995, p. 129).

With the influence of the environment in the lack of authority created by the ’93 War, severe safety problems led by Armenians in the Eastern Anatolian provinces emerged. In the beginning of the war, Patriarch Nerses had published an “advising epistle” meant for the Armenian nation because of incidents and conflicts appearing in various places (BOA, I.HR, nr.274/16595). Zeytun Armenians, who were in a riot since 1875, on the other hand, speeded up the seizure and looting activities under the leadership of Babik (BOA, Y.PRK.A, nr2/24; Ermeni Komitelerinin A‘mâl ve Harekât-ı İhtilâliyyesi, 1983:29-30). Some Armenian murderers arrested after these incidents, were punished by various penalties according to their crimes (BOA, Y.PRK.HR, nr.1/40). Also during the war, the booklets in the Armenian language sent to Armenian schools in Erzurum, Gemerek etc. by the Armenian Patriarchate were seen “harmful” and eradicated (BOA, MF.MKT, nr.50/4; nr.50/93).

Armenian-Kurdish-Cherkes Relations during the ’93 War

Among the factors determining the behaviours of Ottoman Armenians in the eastern battlefront, there are elements stemming from demographic/social structure and war conditions. Ottoman supportive forces generally consisted of Kurds and Cherkeses reflecting tribe structures. These irregular groups, though they provided significant contributions from time to time in war, could violate the order and authority in the battlefront and behind. Observations of Mehmet Arif Bey on this issue are also interesting: “Cherkes cavalries mostly brought from Samsun were each a good fighter with their courage and valour but they did oppression and cruelty on villagers and violated the safety in army and worsened the situation of the army. According to him, “… some Armenian villages came to a position where they prayed and helped for Russian victory to be able to get rid of these…” (Mehmed Arif Bey, p. 358). During the war, when an Armenian who did not want to give his sheep was killed by Cherkes cavalries, Armenians complained to the commander as a community. After the court was held, the murderer was hung in Kars with the command of the Pasha (same work, p.359).

Mir Mehmed from the Kurdish governors started to do looting and banditry with mobs he mastered and destroyed Armenian villages which were loyal to the state (Mahmud Celaleddin Pasha, 1983, p. 358-9). When the Russian troops withdrew at the end of the war, some Kurdish and Cherkes groups attacked again the Armenian villages on the border by acting with the sensation of revenge. Consequently, thousands of Armenians on the border migrated to Russian Caucasia and Ottoman lands left to Russia with the Treaty of San Stefano (Lewy, 2005, s.7; McCarthy, 2007, s. 58-9). Actually, the conflicts between Armenians and Kurds who share the same geography stretches back to older times. This situation of conflict increased with the tension of Muslim – non-Muslim emerged with the Edict of Reform and with the “governance crisis” in the 1870s; it got intensified in the war conditions of the ’93 War. This assessment made by British ambassador Henry Layard right after the Treaty of San Stefano is noteworthy: “… The extremes that Kurds implemented on Armenians in the Van Province and Beyazıt region increased Armenian hatred for Islamic (Ottoman) rule…” (PRO, FO, 881/3554, nr.4, Layard’dan Lord Derby’ye, İstanbul, 18 Mart 1878).

Before the ’93 War ended, the Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul sent letters of complaint to Foreign Ministers of big powers and in the meantime, Russian Armenians applied to the Russian government to help Ottoman Armenians. On the other hand, Armenians cancelled the former decision of directly involving in the ’93 War with a meeting on 18 December 1877; but they started an intense work before Russia by this date (Gürün, 1983, p. 105).

The process after this appeared in the form of Armenians waiting for repayment of the support they gave to Russians in the war and opening up the way for autonomy by following the path of other Christian communities. As it is known, the Armenian Patriarch Nerses applied to the Grand Duke Nikola in San Stefano with the demand of “autonomy” or “patronage” and articles regarding the necessity of “Armenian Reform” had been put to both the treaties signed later, with the condition of being under the control of big powers. Besides, it was because of the conflicts mentioned above that it was decided to provide safety for Armenians against Kurds and the Cherkes (Mahmud Celaleddin Paşa, 1983, s. 578-9, 629, 697). Until the reforms were implemented on a satisfactory level, Russian troops would continue to stay in the provinces where Armenians lived. The articles in question made the Armenian problem gain an international dimension and caused Armenians to become a target of imperialism.


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Prime Ministry Ottoman Archive (BOA).

Ermeni Komitelerinin A‘mâl ve Harekât-ı İhtilâliyyesi (1983), (prep. H.Erdoğan Cengiz), Ankara.

Lewy, Guenter (2005), The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey: a Disputed Genocide, Utah.

Gürün, Kâmuran (1983), Ermeni Dosyası, Ankara.

McCarthy, Justin (2001), The Ottoman Peoples and The End of Empire, New York.

McCarthy, Justin (2007), “The Demography of the 1877-78 Russo-Turkish War”, The Ottoman-Russian War of 1877-78, (ed. Ömer Turan), p. 51-78, Ankara.

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From Layard to Lord Derby, 18 March 1878, Istanbul.

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Mehmed Arif Bey (2006), Başımıza Gelenler, 93 Harbinde Anadolu Cephesi-Ruslarla Savaş, (prep. M. Ertuğrul Düzdağ), Istanbul.

Public Record Office (PRO), London, Foreign Office (FO).

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