Russian Practices for Armenians in the Revolution Period

Taking place in February and October of the Julian calendar and March and November of the Gregorian calendar in 1917, the Russian Revolutions also caused important developments in Turkey and Caucasia as they were in the close distance. It was natural for Caucasia to be actually the region most worn off as it was an area of struggle and a place of war in Turkish-Russian relations throughout history. Caucasia and especially the region of Trans-Caucasia, constituting the south of Caucasia, were to be hosting quite dynamic events after the February Revolution. The Temporary Russian Government representing the Russian administration by replacing the demolished Tsarist Russia established a committee involving one Armenian member and attempted to control Trans-Caucasia. This committee, mostly known as Ozakom, was given the task of civil administration of all Trans-Caucasia along with the lands that Russia took from the Ottoman Empire during the First World War (Hovannisian, 1967, p. 75-76). Its members consisted of Azeri, Georgian ,and Armenians. When the committee was being formed, the demographic structure of the region was not considered and despite their lesser population, two Georgians were given place (Ati, 7 March 1334/1918, No. 66). This organization would function as the administrative organ in Trans-Caucasia of the Temporary Russian government at first and the Russian government to be established by Kerensky later.

Although the Russian people were under harsh conditions due to the revolutions, the Temporary government acted with the principle of “war until victory” which meant “going on war” and maintained politics which were not expected at all and which were not applicable to the real conditions of Russia at all. With a statement by the Russian government on 17 March 1917, it was informed that, “the new government will stalwartly be committed to the international treaties of the demolished government and it will also follow the words of the Russia” (Bayır, 1983, p. 5). There is no doubt that these politics aroused the biggest astonishment in Turkey. Turkey welcomed the revolution with great contentment and evaluated this as at least the dismemberment of old rival Russia and the freedom of captive nations. It is also natural that the thought of gaining back the lands that Turkey lost to Russia during the war was also involved.

Nothing became like expected in terms of Turkey, which developed great expectations due to the developments. The practices of the temporary government, especially on Armenians, were showing beforehand that the Caucasian battlefront would be the stage of great problems between Turkey and Russia. The first practice of the temporary government on this issue was accepted with the name “Regulation about ‘Turkish Armenia’” [1] on 9 May 1917. According to this, “Turkish Armenia” lands, which are Turkish lands occupied by Russia during the war and given to the administration of Ozakom before, was to be taken under the direct administration of the Russian government, a general commissary was to be appointed for the administration of this region, and an assistant dealing with civil issues was to be appointed to this commissary. This decree was an important accomplishment for the realization of Armenian demands. Not satisfied with Ozakom, Armenians seemed satisfied with the current situation (Şahin, 2003, p. 372).

In the politics they followed in the Armenian question, following policies very up-and-down and changeable according to the interests, Russians followed a different method here as well. It was easily understood that “an urgent political attitude” lies on this decision on 9 May. Although Russia gave statements within the principle of “war until victory,” especially lower ranking officers and soldiers in the Russian army discharged themselves and started to go back to their country (ATASE, A. 1-2, K. 302, D. 1231-937, F. 7). Those who were tired of war and were not able to abandon their positions, on the other hand, didn’t refrain from sending friendship messages to the Turkish trenches (Kurat, 1990, p. 301). Driven to the point of losing its dominion over these Turkish lands in Caucasian battlefront, the Temporary Russian government wanted to make Armenians the watchmen for the gains of its followers during the war (Öke, 1986, p. 152). Armenians “voluntarily” adopted this task. An Armenian was also brought to the assistantship of the general commissary appointed by the Russian government and this person played the main role in settling Armenians brought from Russia in Turkish lands evacuated by Russian soldiers in a short amount of time. After the gathering and settlement of thousands of Armenians, a significant Armenian population started to be observed, especially in the Van and Bitlis provinces (Afanasyan, 1981, p. 26). It was understood that Russians, who went for using Armenians in this way, were successful in this policy. Armenians, on the other hand, thought of solving “their national problems in Turkey and Trans-Caucasia by depending on the Russian bayonet” (Mir Yacoub, 1993, p. 89).

Satisfied greatly with these developments, Armenians speeded up their preparations on the issue. They carried out a very big congress of the Dashnaksutyun majority in Tbilisi in October 1917. Establishment of “Great Armenia” (?) was decided there and an organization called the “Armenian National Assembly” was established in order to execute this plan. Armenians started a big arming enterprise with this assembly. The assembly called all Armenians below the age of 32 under arms (The Trans-Caucasian Post, March 15, 1919, No. 7). Armenians thought that they were progressing step-by-step towards their goal.

With the revolution on 7 November 1917 by the Bolsheviks, the administration in Russia changed hand twice in the same year. The temporary government was abolished and it was replaced by the Bolshevik government which would turn into Soviet Russia later. Following this, a “peace decree” written by Lenin himself was published on 8 November 1917. This decree involved concepts such as immediate extermination of war, a peace treaty without annexation and compensation and self-determination. In fact, these served the purpose for Turkey the most. Turkey had to leave significant amount of its lands in Eastern Anatolia to Russia until the beginning of 1917. Not only important cities like Trabzon, Erzurum, Erzincan, and Van came under the control of Russians, but also Turkey didn’t have any link left with the all of the lands to the east of this line (Kurat, 1990, p. 330-331). Therefore, with such a peace decree, Turkey was not losing any land, didn’t pay compensation, and more clearly, the borders between Turkey and Russia in 1914 before the war would protect their validity.

Russia had to make peace and end the war as soon as possible. This was the reality of Russia. Without the internal war ending, it wasn’t possible for the external war to succeed. The Bolsheviks didn’t fall in the same mistake as the temporary government did. Though they didn’t have peaceful opinions in reality, the Bolsheviks were aware of the realities of Russia. For this reason, the Bolshevik government applied to the Central Powers under the leadership of Germany and stated that it wanted to separate from the Allied Forces and withdraw from the war. Although Russians were good in the Caucasian battlefront, their situation in the German battlefront was not pleasant. For this reason, they thought that these two battlefronts would balance one another. They wanted to balance their disadvantage in the German battlefront with their advantage in the Caucasian battlefront. The peace negotiations, which started with the initiatives of the Russians, were concluded when the Brest-Litovsk Treaty was signed between the parties on 15 December (Dokumentı Vneşney Politiki SSSR I, p. 26-28; Wheeker-Bennet, 1963, p. 1963, p. 93). Therefore, a general armistice was put into force in the battlefronts between Russia and the Central Powers. Three days after this, the Erzincan armistice was signed between the Russians and Turks in Caucasian battlefront (ATASE, A. 4-1933, K. 2697, D.284-88, F.1-45, 1-46). In this way, Russia signed an armistice with also Turkey in the Caucasian battlefront after the Central Powers, and in a way, guaranteed peace.

The Bolshevik government could now take action to realise its thoughts. And it happened so. The Bolsheviks, who were never willing to abandon Turkish Eastern Anatolia, started to seek some solution plans in this regard. They believed that this situation of Russia was temporary and were planning to engage Armenians who were already prepared in this work as they knew that they couldn’t directly hold the region in their hand until the civil war was soothed. The activities of the Bolsheviks to gain the Armenians were transformed into action from thought in the last days of 1917. The first initiative for this purpose took place on 29 December and they appointed the president of Baku Soviet Stephan Şaumyan as “Caucasia Extraordinary Commissary” “until the establishment of Soviet dominion in Caucasia” (Hasanov, 1993, p. 42). However, an organization called the “Trans-Caucasia Commissary,” which didn’t absolutely recognize the dominion of Bolsheviks, existed in Trans-Caucasia. This organization was in a way the continuation of Ozakom. The three nations of Trans-Caucasia (the Azeris, Georgians and Armenians) never recognized the Bolsheviks. They recognized the Temporary Russian Government, which demolished the Russian Tsarism as the real revolutionist government of Russia, and they saw the Bolsheviks, who demolished the Temporary government, as illegal (Şahin, 2002, p. 103-123). This disagreement would detract the two sides from each other and would continue increasingly until the independence of Trans-Caucasia. The Bolshevik initiation on 29 December was both to gain Armenians and to break the opposition formed against it in Trans-Caucasia.

The Nations Commissary of the Soviet government, Stalin, brought the initiations about Armenians a step further on 31 December and published a declaration titled “On Turkish Armenia” in the Pravda newspaper which was the media organ of the Bolshevik government. The declaration had a quality of a call for Armenians and advised them to “seek the solution of problems within new Russia formed on the basis of soviets” (Yerasimos, 1994, p. 296). The most important of the initiations of the Bolshevik Russian government for gaining Armenians took place in the first days of 1918. The decree, which referred to the declaration of Stalin above, was accepted by the vast majority in the Soviet Public Commissaries Council on 11 January 1918. Known more as decree number 13, as it was published on Pravda newspaper on 13 January 1918, the decree included this information in summary: the Soviet Russian government supports Armenians to administer their own destiny in ‘Turkish Armenia,’ the necessary conditions for Armenians to make a referendum in the region are these: the Russian army will go out of ‘Turkish Armenia’ lands and an Armenian Public Assembly will be established in order to protect the security of the properties of the Armenians in the region, Armenian immigrants distributed to various countries will be made to come back to the region, a temporary administration will be established in the region, and Stephan Şaumyan will be authorised to implement the points above. One of the most interesting provisions was in the last part. “The borders of Armenia will be determined as a result of the negotiations it will do with its neighbours” (BOA, A. VRK, No. 817-40).

This decree involving very important points for Armenians didn’t go beyond being an “intention document” which couldn’t be put into practice. Who would force Turks for bringing the deported Armenians back, how would an Armenian militia provide security in the region, and how would Baku Soviet under the Dashnaksutyun Party accept the government whose chief would be Şaumyan, were among the questions nobody knew the answer to. The only result of this decree indeed was nothing else but “setting the Turkish reaction in motion” (Yerasimos, 1994, p. 296-297).

There were considerable inconsistencies in the “Turkish Armenia Decree” published by the Bolsheviks. The first of these was how the public militia to be formed would protect the interest of all of the people living in the region. According to the Ottoman official census results, of which reliability has been proven, the rate of Armenians to the general population within the Ottoman borders in 1914 when the war started was only 6.9% (Öke, 1986, p. 132). This number increased in Turkish Eastern provinces, but this didn’t have almost any meaning before the Turkish-Muslim majority, which was close to 90%. Also, it was obvious that a militia organization constituted of this small minority would be incapable of protecting the rights and security of the majority and would solve this in accordance with its own interests. The second inconsistency was about the initiations of Soviet officials for bringing back the Armenians deported to other regions. What kind of a pressure could Soviet Russian government, which was incapable even in the events around the Russian capital Petrograd for a long time, put on the Turkish administrative and military officials in order to make the return of Armenians possible? This article was nothing else but something to make Armenians feel that they were protected. The third: what power would put this decree into practice when there was no power left to stop the Turkish army after the discharge and withdrawal of Russian armies? (Yerasimos, 2000, p. 16). All aside, before the advantages brought by the Brest-Litovsk and Erzincan armistices and the Russian thesis of a peace without annexation and compensation, what power could make Turkey return from this point when it had come to the stage of compensating the former losses?

When it is considered that the Bolshevik Russian government had decrees not only for Armenians but also for other subjects and especially Muslims and words for gaining them, it will not be difficult to understand that these policies are completely for the purpose of propaganda. However, it is also obvious that such a decree had the necessary effect on the Armenians. The statements of an Armenian named Kirokasyan about the decree are the evidence of that Russians achieved plausibility on the Armenians and accomplished their goals. The statements of Kirakosyan are as follows: “the decree of Soviet government on ‘Turkish Armenia’ was against the Turkish oppression and invasive efforts. Turkish imperialism again wanted to occupy Armenian lands and prevent the realization of the legal rights of Armenian people by taking advantage of the end of war, the wish of Russian soldiers to go back to their homelands and Soviet government’s accusation of annexing politics of Tsarism” (Kirokosyan, 1971, p. 434-435). These words are also an important example of the viewpoint on the events for “Soviet history perspective.” Following these events, presentation of a “self-determination” right to Armenia by the People Commissaries Soviet in All Russia Soviets Third Congress on 28 January 1918 was gladly welcomed (Yerasimos, 1994, p. 296-297). In this way, the number 13 decree was once again approved by the authorised Russian officials.

Consequently, the effect of such a decree on Turkey was “setting the Turkish reaction in motion.” The Turkish committee in Brest-Litovsk, who heard about the number 13 decree through Galip Kemali Bey, immediately met the Russian delegation as related to the issue on 18 January. Turkish Foreign Affairs ministry Ahmet Nesimi Bey protested the publication of the decree in his long meeting with Troçki from the Russian delegation, stated that all responsibility for the disastrous results of this belonged to the Soviet government and said that arming the people of a country outside Russia and dispatching and obliging them to declaration of independence was not compatible with the principles that the Russian revolution claimed and that Russian deputies defended. According to Ahmet Nesimi Bey, the Russian administrators engaging in peace negotiations with Turkey and its allies were publicly applying to hostile politics against Turkey with such behaviors, and by arming Armenians in Eastern Anatolia. In this way, the Russians would create obstacles before the desired peace. Elaborate information about this interview was given to Talat Pasha by Ahmet Nesimi Bey and this opinion appeared in Talat Pasha as a result of this: “As Russians must have armed Armenians when withdrawing from Eastern Anatolia, there will be the obligation of dispatching forces to Armenians in order to get these lands back. For this reason, we should be prepared” (Kurat, 1990, p. 370-373). As is seen, the activities of the Turkish side as a response to Russian manoeuvres were carried out without delay and the necessary precautions came to the stage of being taken in a short amount of time. With these highest level initiations, the reflex and reaction of the Turkish side on the issue would start to be shaped well, but the Turkish government wouldn’t hesitate to take very radical steps about this issue on the contrary to the expectations of the Russians. The most important reason for the Turkish forward operation, to be started on 12 February 1918, would show itself as a prevention of the vileness and massacres that the Armenians, which were left in the region and armed by the Russians, perpetrated on the local and civil people of the region. These “wrong steps” taken by the Armenians, with the encouragement and aid of the Russians, would present quite significant advantages, both militarily and politically, for the Ottoman Empire in the Eastern provinces and the Caucasian battlefront in the first half of 1918; Turkish troops would arrive at the Russian border before the war in a short amount of time and following this, the military troops reaching the 1877-1878 Ottoman-Russian border would also occasionally control the regions until the Turkish-Russian border in 1828-1829.

Explanations

[1] These lands called Eastern provinces or six provinces were constituted of these provinces according to the Ottoman administrative units: Erzurum, Van, Bitlis, Diyarbakır, Sivas, and Elazığ (Ali Emirî, 1334/1918, p. 19). This region where almost thirty provinces are situated according to Republic of Turkey administrative units was expressed similarly but different from Turkish version in Western and Armenian sources. While it is called “Six Armenian Vilayets” in some Western sources, some call it “Turkish Armenia” and “Western Armenia.”

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