In January 1919 General George Milne, who led the British military in the Caucasus, wrote the following letter to his superior, Sir Henry Wilson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, telling him just what the British military thought of the various peoples of the Caucasus:
“I am fully aware that the withdrawal of the British troops would probably lead to anarchy but I cannot see that the world would lose much if the whole of the inhabitants of the country cut each others throats. They are certainly not worth the life of one British soldier. The Georgians are merely disguised Bolsheviks led by men who overthrew Kerensky and were friends of Lenin. The Armenians are what the Armenians have always been, a despicable race. The best are the inhabitants of Azerbaijan, though they are in reality uncivilised.” (Papers of Sir Henry Wilson, IWM DS/Misc/80, 37/5, 22/1/1919)
There was a distinct contrast between the British occupations in the various parts of Transcaucasia. Of the three Caucasian states Georgia received the most favourable treatment by Britain, despite the suspicions of Bolshevism. The Georgians received a letter from the British Foreign Office pledging support for their independence from Russia. Outside of Batum the British military occupation was very light.
Martial Law was declared in Azerbaijan, General Thomson was appointed Military Governor and British military police were drafted in to “impose order” on the populace. The Azerbaijani Banks were taken over by the Imperialists, food rationing was introduced and labour was strictly controlled. In the words of a Foreign Office Report “it was necessary to re-establish an administration in almost every department of the country’s life” (A 34 page summary of the British Imperial administrations in Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia is retrospectively given in FO 371/6280, 31.5.1922).
Armenia got no military occupation at all and was largely left to its own devices aside from aid and sometimes British military intervention, when it exercised its impulses toward irredentist nationalism against its neighbours.
The British objective in relation to Armenia seems to have been to establish a buffer state in the Caucasus between the Turks and Azerbaijanis to prevent a linking up of these two Turkic peoples, that would create a more powerful bloc against British interests. Lord Curzon referred to the Erivan Republic as a “tampon state.” (Cited in Emin Shikhaliyev, Britain’s Armenian Policy in the South Caucasus, IRS, Spring 2017, p.61)
At this point in time Britain did not know what size an Armenian state would emerge. However, it seems to have been intent to incorporate the Azerbaijani region of Nakhchivan in it to increase its area. Major Gibbon was sent there to settle Armenians, under the guise of humanitarian effort, and when he failed, due to local hostility, General Thomson dispatched military forces and General Devy to support the population relocations aimed at Armenianising Nakhchivan (ibid, pp. 51-2 and IRS, Autumn 2017, pp. 36-40).
It was probable that the British, although encouraging the Armenians into demands for a Great Armenian state in Ottoman eastern Anatolia, were knowledgeable enough to realise that this was wholly unrealistic, given the demographics. So a concentration of Armenians around Erivan province was viewed as a more practical alternative.
However, this British attitude – the non-supervision of Armenia – enabled the Erivan Republic to ethnically cleanse from its territory large amounts of Moslems to create the most ethnically homogeneous state in the Caucasus (see Ilgar Niftaliyev, Genocide and Deportation of the Azerbaijanis of Erivan, 1918-1920, IRS NO. 15, 2013, pp.40-44)
When General Thomson, the British Military Governor of Azerbaijan, entered Baku he declared that “there is no question of the Allies retaining possession of one foot of RUSSIA.” (FO 371/3667/11067, 9.5.1918). He insisted that the National Council of Azerbaijan, which was acting as a government in Baku, and whose members had been elected to the Russian Constituent Assembly in late 1917, act as a part of Russia, governed temporarily by the British military until the Whites could take over power.
General Thomson, whilst clearing all Azerbaijani forces out of Baku invited the forces of General Bicherakhov, the White Russian, back into the city. He gave his support to the armies of Denikin, Kolchak and Yudenich and demanded that the Azerbaijan National Council establish relations with the Russian National Council, which was demanding the full recognition of Russia’s territorial integrity, the overall authority of the Russian Constituent Assembly. He also demanded that it give allegiance to Kolchak’s government in Ufa.
When the Chairman/Prime Minister of the Azerbaijani government, Fatali Khan Khoyski, met the British occupiers General Thomson told him he had come to Allied Russia and not Azerbaijan. The British Imperialists refused to recognise the Azerbaijani Republic in existence. Thomson made it clear that if the Azerbaijanis disputed the British authority they would have to do it through military force – rather than the democratic process, knowing that this was impossible (Anar Isgenderli, Realities of Azerbaijan: 1917-1920, pp.175-82).
However, General Thomson seems to have had a change of mind during his administration of Azerbaijan. He soon became repelled by the attitude of the Russian National Council, who wanted immediate and complete control of the Caucasus. General Thomson informed them that they were acting as if Russia actually existed – when it really didn’t. At the same time Thomson, became impressed with the governing qualities of Khoyski and the Azerbaijani National Council, and decided to work through Azerbaijan’s existing structures and depend on native military formations, who were scattered throughout the national territory and who were allowed to re-enter Baku a few months later (WO 106/1562).
It was decided in Whitehall that the status of Azerbaijan, along with the other Caucasian peoples, would be decided by the Paris Peace Conference to be held in the following year. This was communicated by Thomson to the Azerbaijanis.
The Bolsheviks and self-determination
Prior to the Great War nationalism was largely undeveloped in the Caucasus. It was not in the Tsarist interest to encourage it and Britain saw little to gain in promoting it there. There was, of course, a section in Liberal England who promoted ideas of nationality in the widely dispersed Armenians, but that was primarily a nonconformist Christian, anti-Turkish impulse. The British State itself did not see any tangiable advantage in supporting the idea of an Armenian state.
In August 1914 a lot of propaganda regarding “small nations” was unleashed from Britain to justify the War on Germany. But this was certainly not meant to apply to the peoples of the Russian Empire, which was the military ally of Britain against Germany. Disrupting the Empire of an ally in a war situation was not a favourable outcome.
It was the emergence of the Bolsheviks that prompted impulses in the peripheral nationalities of the Russian Empire for self-government. One of the first acts of the Bolsheviks was to issue the Rights of Peoples, published in November 1917, which declared support for “The right of all peoples to free self-determination up to and including separation from Russia and the formation of independent states.” (Firuz Kazemzadeh, The Struggle for Transcaspia, 1917-1921, p.56)
This Bolshevik declaration went further than the dreams of the most advanced nationalists in Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan and it was practically an invitation to separate from the Russian state.
The Brest-Litovsk negotiations with Germany – which were very much conducted in the public gaze – consisted of the Bolsheviks issuing large amounts of propaganda around the “rights of nations to self-determination”. This cannot have gone unnoticed in the borderlands, where nationalism hardly existed. Rosa Luxembourg, a doctrinaire Marxist in Germany, criticised Lenin for this on the basis that the Bolsheviks were only stirring up trouble for the Socialist state in the future.
The new proto-national political expressions in the Caucasus were still acting as part of Transcaucasia and Russia, assuming that their destiny lay with Russia, even if it was to be in some form of federation, at this juncture. The first congress of the Musavats in November 1917 demanded national territorial autonomy within the Federative Russian state and an all-Russian Congress to settle territorial disputes (see Rahman Mustafayev, From Imperial Province to Parliamentary Republic, IRS, No. 1 2010, p.5)
The Musavats initially supported the Bolsheviks both because of the Bolshevik declarations for self-determination of the peoples and a common desire for the ending of the War. This contrasted with the Menshevik programme of a “one and indivisible Russia” and continuation of the War on behalf of the Entente (see Huseyn Tosun, Developments in Azerbaijan after the Bolshevik Revolution, IRS, Spring 2018, pp.98-9).
However, Lenin’s dispersal of the Russian Constituent Assembly in Petrograd in January 1918, after it had rejected Bolshevik dominance, led the Musavats and the Caucasus Commissariat to break off relations with the Bolsheviks and establish the Seim. The Musavats were forced into an untenable temporary alliance with Georgian Mensheviks and Armenian Dashnaks to preserve the basics of existence – order and stability.
The Bolshevik acquiescence to Brest-Litovsk had a number of implications for Russia that are not generally understood, due to the mystifications of anti-Stalinism. It, for one thing, represented the isolation of revolutionary Russia, with a virtue having to be made of “socialism in one country” by Lenin. Of course, the Bolsheviks hoped for the spread of the proletarian revolution to the West but they were disappointed.
If the Bolsheviks had held out for a non-annexationist treaty that allowed for a belt of states to be formed as a buffer between the Soviet state and the West, and the Germans had agreed, it would have been the case that self-determination was a possibility. But the Bolsheviks ensured the isolation of the Russian proletarian state whilst hoping for its expansion, uncurbed by buffer states to the west and south.
Most of the Bolsheviks, including Bukharin (“revolutionary war”) and Trotsky (“neither war nor peace”), opposed the signing of Brest-Litovsk and wanted war, in some form or other to continue. Lenin, from the start, maintained that military resistance was hopeless and argued for submission to the German demands to maintain a Soviet state on such territory as remained to them. He calculated that submitting to Brest-Litovsk was a retreat in good order that would have the effect of steeling the people and create conditions for the building of an effective army and regeneration of the state. Lenin, calculating that he was indispensible, got his way when he threatened to resign.
Lenin’s gamble of signing Brest-Litovsk also had internal consequences for Russia as it isolated the Bolsheviks from their allies, like the left SRs, who wished to continue it. So the decision not to wage war in defence of the state, against the Germans, led to a different form of war – Civil War. In the Civil War social life had to coalesce around the Bolshevik nucleus, which demanded all power to the Bolsheviks.
The Bolshevik Revolution was isolated in Russia, under a single-party dictatorship. If the Soviet system could have developed into a multi-party democracy it could only have done so in early 1918. But the Bolsheviks closed off that possibility themselves because they had no faith in such a thing – not because of a civil war or as an emergency war measure. When the war on the Bolshevik state ended in 1920 Lenin did not discard the arrangements made in 1918 against multi-party democracy – he built upon them, extending and strengthening the one party totalitarian state.
The dispersal of the Constituent Assembly narrowed the broadly based political support in defence of the February Revolution, which contained the Bolsheviks as one element, and Brest-Litovsk obliterated it entirely. This made a one-party state and the reduction of the Soviets to mere appendages of the Bolsheviks inevitable. Henceforth, the Bolsheviks determined on the annihilation of all other political tendencies in the society as a prerequisite to their own survival. This would inevitably bring them into conflict with parties like the Musavats and the March 1918 events in Baku were one of the consequences.
The Georgian, Armenian and Azerbaijani representatives of Transcaucasia were therefore brought together not only in order to prevent the chaos and conflict in Russia spreading to their area but through Bolshevik action. This prompted the Transcaucasian Commissariat to establish autonomous government as a kind of shield against the Bolsheviks in November 1918. The main intention of this federation was to protect the region against what was going on in Russia proper, until the situation improved and then some new relationship would be established with the rest of the state, with the Bolsheviks gone.
However, Lenin’s gamble paid off – almost accidentally – because the Allied lines in the West held against the million extra Germans transferred to the front. Germany lost the War and the Bolsheviks as a consequence survived to face a Britain that, although triumphant, was substantially weakened, both physically and in terms of will, by 4 years of German resistance.
Lenin was either a genius or he was very lucky, saved by circumstances that were largely beyond his control. But from then on the totalitarian state he established, constructed in the circumstances of early 1918, made, in the years to come, a fundamental social revolution possible.
The Transcaucasian Commissariat momentarily inclined toward acting as an entity independent of Russia when it had to deal with the Ottoman advance in the Caucasus in early 1918. If it had followed through on this it could have secured peace and protection from the Ottomans. But it was disinclined to do so until the end.
The Commissariat, and from February 1918, the Seim – particularly its Menshevik part in Georgia – could not bring itself to become something apart from the Russian State, despite its collapse, and the general antagonism to the Bolsheviks in the Caucasus. The Commissariat, acting as part of a Russia that was in collapse, decided to go to war with the Ottomans and then lost very quickly (the Azerbaijani element was not in favour of this course).
It was the Bolshevik propaganda at Brest-Litovsk which provoked the separate organising and arming of Armenian, Georgian and Azerbaijani military units in response to events that pushed the parts of the region toward separatisms. And in May 1918 the Seim, which had only been established 5 weeks previously, dissolved and individual declarations of Georgian, Azerbaijani and Armenian independence were made.
The four Caucasian Republics of Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Dagestan came into existence in the vacuum between the advancing Ottomans and the dissolving Russian state. Georgia decided to accept German protection and declare independence before Azerbaijan put its trust in the Ottomans and declared its own independence on 28 May. Armenia followed suit on the same day. An agreement was reached between the Azerbaijani National Council and the Armenians consenting to the creation of an Armenian state within the limits of the Aleksandropol Province. The city of Erivan was ceded to the Armenians on condition that Armenians would give up their claims to the mountainous part of Karabakh in the Elizavetpol Province (see Ismayil Hajiyev, Lost Historical Lands of Azerbaijan, IRS, No.24, 2016, pp.50-1)
The Ottomans stepped into the breech that had opened up in Transcaucasia, driving all the way to the Caspian and capturing Baku with the Azerbaijani national forces. The Ottomans, themselves had no problem with the Caucasian states and even placed the new Armenian state under their protection in a treaty signed with the Erivan Republic (a treaty the Armenians immediately repudiated on the Ottoman Great War defeat).
Britain Encourages the Caucasus Nations
In a Memorandum to the War Cabinet on 1 November 1918, Arthur Balfour, the British Foreign Secretary stated:
“Recent events have created obligations which last beyond the occasions which gave them birth… In the South-east corner of Russia… in Transcaucasia and Transcaspia… new anti-Bolshevik administrations have grown up under the shelter of Allied forces. We are responsible for their existence and we must endeavour to support them.” (CAB 23/8, WC 511, 1.11.1918)
It was presumed in Britain that some Russia would emerge from the Civil War and Britain would have to deal with it, no matter what management it was under. This had an implication with regard to whether Britain should promote the development of independent states in the region, which a future Russia, of whatever complexion, would surely not appreciate.
Britain’s interest in the Caucasus had nothing to do with self-determination and any desire to establish democratic nation states. It was primarily geopolitical. The general British view was that the people of the Caucasus were unfit to govern themselves, being at a lower level of civilisation. When the states that eventually emerged from the situation of necessity finally succumbed to the Bolsheviks that was taken as proof by Britain that their view of the Caucasian people had been correct.
I must emphasise: If the idea around “self-determination” helped the British geopolitical interest the principle was supported, but it was never a principle in Britain’s policy to establish democratic nation states in the region.
In late 1917 Britain had began, for the first time, to encourage notions of nationality and self-determination among the peoples of the Caucasus in order to produce a new battle-line against the Germans and Ottomans. Whilst some success was achieved in this in relation to the Armenians and Georgians the British were not successful with the Azerbaijanis.
One British observer, Morgan Philips Price, a correspondent with The Manchester Guardian, who spent a number of years in the region, noted that the “national revival”/movement in Azerbaijan (and Dagestan) or “Tartar nationalism” was different in kind from the more narrow nationalisms of the Christian peoples of the Caucasus:
“The Tartars feel that their religion gives them a particular connection with all other Moslem neighbours. They feel a certain community of interest and fellow-sympathy with their co-religionists in Turkey and Persia. This form of freemasonry is characteristic of Moslem movements, which are not nationalist in the narrow political sense, as among Christian races, but cultural, like the earlier movements in the middle of last century among the Armenians and Georgians. They aim at developing the Arabic, Persian, and Turkish literature and language, at spreading knowledge of the great Moslem writers and thinkers of the past in Islam, and, generally, at promoting intercourse between Moslems in different parts of the world. Nationalism, in the sense of separating out one group of Moslems from another on the basis of language or origin or past history, of dividing Turk from Caucasian Tartar, or from Persian, has not yet been developed; and on the whole it does not seem likely that it will be.” (War and Revolution in Asiatic Russia, pp.262-3)
Philips Price, writing in early 1918, had the sense to dismiss the nightmares of British statesmen about “Pan-Turanianism” and “Pan-Islamism” that were gripping the makers of policy in Whitehall. He understood that the Azerbaijanis were a people with a wider, more complex, culture than the Armenians (and Georgians) whose nationalism would be primarily territorial.
Most of the world lived in a pre-capitalist state until the Great War and it was felt – in Imperial Britain anyway – that the future was going to be Imperial rather than national. British Imperial writers predicted before the Great War that nations were dying and Empires were spreading across the earth. That was “progress” and it was very much part of a Social Darwinist imperative that saturated Imperial thinking at the time.
Nations which sprang up out of the Great War are disinclined to write histories of themselves in pre-national form. The Great War catastrophe resulted in “progress” being national rather than Imperial. Not to have been a fully-fledged nation in 1914 was later seen to have been backward.
After the Great War the world was organised by the victors under a League of Nations, including newly constructed nation states with only a rudimentary national character, where no nations were before. These new nations bore no responsibility for the catastrophe that had taken place and which the League of Nations was established to prevent again. However, they were now required to be nations, by the states that had organised the catastrophe and under their authority. The future was the nation – although not all nations were equal!
A handful of states, who had brought about the catastrophe, presided over these new nations, deciding who was and who wasn’t deserving of the prized national status. The world was now required to “progress” in this form within a system presided over mainly by Britain and France. Unfortunately, the tendency is to now write history within this scheme of things, which invariably results in deference to the definers of progress and gratitude for their recognition.
Britain had bombarded the world with propaganda about the Great War being about “democracy” and “small nations” for 4 years. When President Wilson took the U.S. into Britain’s Great War he reinforced this particular moral aspect of the War and put behind it the new American power. A combination of British moral humbug and US moral earnestness therefore caused the Versailles Congress and its League of Nations to present itself to the World as the beginning of a new international order of things which would operate on the basis of democratic rights, self-determination, law and justice.
Is it any surprise that the Caucasian Republics believed they could become independent nation states in this general atmosphere and in a world being re-ordered by righteous champions of democracy?
The Azerbaijanis, who, among the Caucasian peoples, were the most serious about establishing national democratic structures, took the British at face-value and accepted the occupation as a kind of transition to the new world. The Musavat set out to prove their competence in government to the British and, it should be said, succeeded in leaving a good impression on them.
Of course, the reality was different. Britain advocated and applied its “self-determination” principle inconsistently – as it saw fit. As a general rule it advanced the principle in areas where problems could be caused for potential rivals to British power. This enabled it to destroy functional states and put together weird conglomerations and bloated states that spelt trouble for the future. In its own backyard – which was a sizeable part of the world in 1919 – on the other hand, Britain repressed such notions with its military forces (e.g. Ireland, Iraq, India etc.)
The new national governments were formed on a predominantly anti-Bolshevik basis and their interests conflicted with the Bolsheviks, despite the Bolshevik declaration on the Rights of Peoples. The peripheral areas, in consequence, provided potential bases for the formation of anti-Bolshevik movements whom Britain could support.
However the bigger question of Great Power politics confronted the British occupation in the Caucasus was: should Britain attempt to establish and support a series of buffer states that could be employed as a barrier against a future Russian return to the area or should it obstruct the development of such entities in the interest of future relations with a traditional Power that was not going to go away?
That was a question which it never fully resolved. The answer to it had to be supplied by the Bolsheviks themselves.
Denikin and the Nations Problem
In the Summer of 1918 Generals Denikin and Alexeiev had organised a volunteer army in Southern Russia to overthrow the Bolsheviks. It managed to dislodge the Bolsheviks from the area around the Black Sea and went on to occupy all of the Russian territory to the North of Georgia and Dagestan.
General Denikin was the main British Imperial instrument against the Bolsheviks in the absence of forces of their own, which had been hurriedly demobilised by Lloyd George at the end of 1918.
There was always a contradiction between Britain’s support for Denikin and building any independent Caucasian Republics. Denikin, who Britain was lavishing with armaments and supplies against the Bolsheviks, made it clear that he intended to re-incorporate the Caucasus into a new Russian state, when he had seen off the Bolsheviks.
In December 1918 Armenian forces attacked Georgia, attempting to take a strip of territory and add it to the Erivan Republic, which was being governed by a Dashnak dictatorship. Firuz Kazemzadeh summed up the Armenian attitude:
“Had it not been for their faith in the Allies, they would never have attacked Georgia. They had been sure that Britain and France would not object to the punishment of a people who had collaborated with the Germans during the war. The West they felt owed them a debt. Had not Gladstone once said that to serve Armenia was to serve civilization? And ever since British, French, and American statesmen, writers, clergymen and diplomats had been repeating this phrase. Yet now that the Allies were in Transcaucasia they failed to champion the Armenian cause.” (The Struggle for Transcaucasia, 1917-1921, p.181)
Around the same time the Dashnaks began attacking Azerbaijan. General Andranik took his Special Striking Division into Karabakh, only to be stopped by General Thomson in Baku, who informed him that a dim view would be taken of any further aggressions. Andranik was encouraged to go on a tour of Europe, to get him out of the way.
The British had suspected an Armenian plot with General Denikin against the Georgians. Denikin’s volunteer force had occupied Georgian Sochi in January 1919 claiming to act on behalf of the Abkhazians, presenting a difficult problem for the British.
In early 1919, after his victories against the Bolsheviks, Denikin invaded Dagestan, crushing the young Mountaineer Republic with great brutality. He then massed forces on the borders of Georgia and Azerbaijan and threatened Baku. Both Georgia and Azerbaijan attempted to help the Republic of Mountaineers against Denikin but without Allied support they could not save Dagestan. The British were at the same time aiding Denekin with war materiel that he was using against the Dagestan people.
Denikin also ran an underground organisation in Baku armed with explosives, rifles and communication material which was preparing for a rising – before being discovered. The White General Bicherakhov, who had been brought back to the city by the British, was found to be plotting a coup and had to be removed to England. When he was there his forces were expelled from Baku by General Thomson.
The threat from Denikin and his attempts to take the Caucasus back into Russian control prompted the Georgians and Azerbaijanis to draw up a mutual defence agreement in June 1919. Finally, the British acted. Major-General Cory defined a demarcation line to the North of the Caucasus mountains that Denikin had to withdraw behind. Denikin instituted a food blockade of Georgia and Azerbaijan and delivered a large quantity of ammunition to the Armenians in response (The Struggle for Transcaucasia, 1917-1921, pp.246-7).
The Bolsheviks used Denikin’s aggression to court the Caucasus peoples. Commissar Chicherin published an appeal which declared that the British intended to give them up to Denikin:
“Comrades, workers and Peasants of Azerbaijan, Daghestan and Georgia! Soviet Russia has no intention of marching against your republics… She stands firmly on the principle of self-determination… And if you, the Muslims and the Georgians of the Caucasus, are satisfied with the form of government of your republics, live in tranquility, exercise your right of self-determination, and restore good neighbourly relations with us… Soviet Russia expresses the firm hope that the workers and peasants of Daghestan, Azerbaijan, and Georgia will not allow their freedom to be trampled under the feet of the Tsarist General, the English executioner, Denikin.” (ibid, p.248)
The Caucasus Republics could not, of course, respond to the Bolshevik appeal because of the British occupation. The British realised the potential danger, however. Denikin was brought to heel with the knowledge that without British support he could not maintain his forces in the field.
Britain’s immediate policy in early 1919 aimed at keeping General Denekin, out of the Caucasus, and directed against the Bolsheviks.
The British military mission that arrived in Southern Russia during late 1918, provided General Denikin’s White army with war material. The White armies had no local production facilities for making war, so British assistance was vital. It is almost certain that Denikin would have not been able to build or maintain his army of 225,000 men, or advance toward Moscow, without the British assistance. Without such help the Russian Civil War would have been confined to small scale engagements by Diehard anti-Bolsheviks. The British Mission organised, armed, trained and equipped the White Russian armies. Many of the British instructors also took part in fighting the Bolsheviks alongside Denikin’s forces.
Britain was also supporting Admiral Kolchak’s army in Siberia. But during the spring and summer of 1919, the White armies in the North suffered several defeats and began retreating. Denikin’s army was more successful in Southern Russia, taking great amounts of territory from the Bolsheviks and advancing towards Moscow during the Summer. It was realised that Denikin was the White commander with the best chance to defeat the Bolsheviks. Most British military aid was directed toward to his army and Southern Russia.
There were various views in Britain about what should be done with regard to Russia. But if there was one constant in British policy it was the desire to keep Russia fighting itself for as long as possible so that the disablement of the Russian State was continued. It was much better for Britain if a weak Russia emerged from its Civil War than a strong one, whether it be White or Red. The basic aim of the British policy was, therefore, to weaken Russia and to prevent its re-emergence for as long as possible.