Battle for the Caucasus: Britain versus Russia 1918-20 (Final Part)

The Young Turk government in Istanbul (aside from Enver Pasha anyway), the Sultan/Caliph, and even the leader of the Turkish resurgence in Eastern Anatolia, Mustapha Kemal, were all favourably disposed to Britain and the West. The Turkish leadership would have been very open to a reasonable and honourable peace settlement with the Allies, either negotiated in early 1918 or imposed in 1919, it it had been made. The Grand National Assembly that had been established in Ankara was a thoroughly Western institution, neither Ottoman, nor Soviet in character. In fact, as the subsequent history of the Turkish Republic showed, from the time when a Peace Treaty was actually made, Turkey was a natural partner of the West and a strong barrier to the eastward spread of Bolshevism.

One can only conclude in the light of subsequent events that the British and other Imperialist occupations of Turkey, and the continued hostilities, were a great waste of blood and treasure. Of course, the blood spilt was very largely other peoples – Greeks, Armenians, Turks, Kurds – rather than English.

It was, however, not the British failure to win that condemns British policy in the light of history. If Britain had won things would have undoubtedly been worse, even from the perspective of the Anglosphere.

If the British Prime Minister had succeeded in his policy of dismembering Turkey in the Treaty of Sevres, through his Greek and Armenian proxies, it is very likely that Bolshevism would have spread across the region, westward, in a situation of great discontent and instability.

The thoughtful part of the British State must have understood this in 1922 and disposed of Lloyd George before he did any more damage to the world.

The Bolshevik/Turkish Conjunction

Republican Turkey and Bolshevik Russia combined to defeat the British Empire and see off Lloyd George. But they were hardly natural allies. It was Britain and the Armenians that forced them into a rather unnatural alliance of convenience in 1919-22 that had revolutionary consequences for the world. Both forces combined temporarily in the interests of common survival and broke the British Empire’s power from the Bosphorus to Transcaspia.

The British War Minister, Winston Churchill, in his Sunderland speech, made during the first few days of 1920, had noticed that something was stirring in Eastern Anatolia that boded ill for the British Empire. According to Churchill that something should not have existed but for the hesitancy of the “great nations” at Paris (or “masters of the world” as Alimardan Topchubashov, leader of the Azerbaijani delegation accurately called them)  in following through on what British military force had achieved in 1918:

“Turkey fell prostrate before the armies of General Milne and Marshal Allenby. She looked up to her conquerors, and saw with intense relief that they were British. She asked for our orders and appealed for our guidance… The great nations gathered together were for more than a year unable to agree to a plan and in the meantime the Turkish Army has largely passed from our control. A new force of turbulent, warlike character has come into being in the highlands of Asia Minor, who reach out with one hand to the advancing Bolshevist armies from the north… A conjunction of forces between Russian Bolshevism and Turkish Mahommedanism would be an event full of danger to many States but to no state in the world it be more full of danger than to the British Empire, the greatest of all Mahommedan states. Up to the present time the armies of Denikin and Koltchak have absorbed the whole of the strength of Bolshevist military power, and have protected British interests… But the armies of Koltchak are almost gone, and those of Denikin are in serious danger, and if they were to disappear, as they may, a series of evil consequences, incalcuble in their scope, would be immediately set in motion, and from those consequences, we of all countries, would be the most affected.” (The Times 5.1.1920)

Whatever about the beneficial aspects of the pleasure of being conquered by the British, the facts of the matter were that the British might have been the conquerors, but the conquest was now being sub-contracted by the British Government to the Greeks and Armenians. And the Greeks and Armenians certainly weren’t the British, either in military power, interest or intention.

It was probably better, as Churchill noted, to be conquered by the relatively disinterested British Imperialism, than by the Greeks and Armenians, who each had a very fundamentalist agenda for the Turkish people that was far from benevolent. But could the Greeks and Armenians, as Lloyd George hoped, really make the conquest for Britain, even with substantial assistance from His Majesty’s Government?

Churchill was prophetically right, of course. The situation created by the Russian policy of the British Government from 1918-20 set off a chain of events which generated the most effective anti-Imperialist struggle in history, in terms of its impact on the world: The Bolsheviks were about to clear British Imperialism out of the Caucasus; Mustapha Kemal was about to clear Britain out of Turkey; the clearing would lead to the great British defeat at Chanak and the fall of the Lloyd George Coalition (and Churchill himself); this event was to inspire subjugated peoples across the world to smash the imposed treaties of the “masters of the world”; it was to generate resistance movements all over the Moslem world and elsewhere; and the Soviet State was going to emerge, triumphant, as a beacon against Western Imperialism for oppressed peoples, as well as a threat to Western Capitalism, that led to great concessions to the working classes across Western Europe.

And the world was radically changed for the best part of a century.

As has been noted, a vital condition necessary for the defence of the Caucasus against Bolshevism was an honourable and speedy British accommodation with Ottoman Turkey after Mudros in October 1918. The Turks were the only force on the ground who could have resisted the Bolsheviks, in the absence of a British will to intervene directly. However, Lloyd George pursued a policy of slowly throttling the Turks, using Greek and Armenian catspaws, before and after the punitive Treaty of Sevres was finally revealed in all its glory, to be imposed on Turkey.

Lloyd George seems to have despised the Turks as an inferior people unfit for governing and he had a corresponding delusional faith in the quality of the Greeks, as a great people, from his Classical education.

Of course, the Prime Minister was a Nonconformist Liberal, a group known for their hostility toward the Moslem Turk over the decades. Lord Riddell, a close friend, revealed that Lloyd George was also prejudiced against the Turks as “a decadent people” who had “nearly brought about our defeat in the War.” And he had a belief in the Greeks as “a rising people” that he could make great again. The British Prime Minister complained about the British military’s high regard for the Turks, which he put down to them being Tories. (Lord Riddell’s Intimate Diary of the Peace Conference and After: 1918-1923, p.208)

If the Prime Minister believed the Greeks to be “a rising people” he soon put a stop to this when he used them as instruments of his policy in Anatolia.

The moment of Churchill’s speech was really the final chance for a reappraisal of British policy toward the Turks. The Winter of 1919 had suspended most of the fighting, the Parliament in Istanbul had returned a Nationalist majority to signify Turkish resistance, President Wilson was an invalid, the Senate was refusing to ratify the Peace of Paris, and, as Churchill had described at Sunderland, trouble was stirring in Eastern Anatolia.

In fact, Winston Churchill had, with great foresight, already pointed all this out to the Prime Minister, back in October 1919, in a Memorandum, suggesting a clean settlement with the Ottomans. In this Churchill suggested to Lloyd George that the Allies should “renounce all separate interests in the Turkish Empire other than those which existed before the war” including the conquests of Syria, Palestine, Mesopotamia.


“Instead of dividing up the (Ottoman) Empire into separate territorial spheres of exploitation, we should combine to preserve the integrity of the Turkish Empire as it existed before the war but should subject that Empire to a strict form of international control, treating it as a whole and directing it from Constantinople.”

Churchill impressed on the Prime Minister the fact that Britain already possessed “far more territory… than we shall be able to develop for many generations” and “we ought to… concentrate our resources on developing our existing Empire instead of dissipating them in new entanglements.” (25.10.1919, cited in Sean McMeekin, Ottoman Endgame, p.435)

But the British Prime Minister did not listen to such statesmanship from the aristocratic Churchill. He blew this way and that as the winds from the British Democracy took him. He put his faith in the army of a lost civilization and gambled for the final time.

Turkish Resurgence

In early April 1920 the Treaty that Britain was wishing to impose on the Turks was at least 12 months overdue when an Allied Conference was held at San Remo to discuss the situation. The Conference consisted of the Prime Ministers of Britain, France and Italy and also Venizelos, the Greek Prime Minister who wished to create a Greater Greece in Ottoman Anatolia and return Istanbul to Constantinople and establish a new Byzantium.

Sir Henry Wilson recorded this entry in his Diary on 19 March of a meeting he and Churchill had with the Greek Premier in which they warned him not to put his faith, and the future of his people, in Lloyd George’s schemes:

“Winston and I had an hour with Venizelos this afternoon. We made it clear to him that neither in men nor in money, neither in Thrace nor in Smyrna, would we help the Greeks, as we had already taken on more than our small army could do. I told him that he was going to ruin his country, that he would be at war with Turkey and Bulgaria, and that the drain in men and money would be too much for Greece. He said that he did not agree with a word I said.” (Major-General Sir C.E. Callwell, Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, His Life and Diaries, Vol. 2, p.230)

The present writer is not particularly disposed to either Winston Churchill or Sir Henry Wilson. But in studying British policy in the Caucasus, 1918-20, both men have gone up greatly in my estimation.

At the moment of the San Remo Conference the Red Army was massing on the border of Azerbaijan, having conquered the Mountain Republic of Daghestan, and was waiting to knock down the first of the 3 Transcaucasian states that Britain and the League of Nations had recently established.

Sir Henry Wilson recorded in his diary another meeting he had in San Remo, with the Prime Minister, which vividly reveals the hole Lloyd George had dug for himself in relation to Turkey, Armenia and the Caucasus. After discussing the French occupation of the Ruhr in Germany with Lloyd George:

“Then we discussed Turkey. I told him that I… agreed with (Marshal) Foch and worked out 25-30 divisions to enforce the Treaty, of which we had 15-20 there already… At 4 o’clock we had a meeting of the full Conference. I think this was the most incompetent, impotent, cynical meeting of all the hundreds I have been present at. Subject – Turkey. Nitti (Italian Prime Minister) opened, and then Lloyd George that it had been decided that morning that none of the three Powers would send a single battalion to Armenia; that they had decided to arm the Armenians, and to let them fight it out with the Turks; if their cause was just, and if they were strong enough they would win, and if not then they were not worth saving. (Note – Not much mention here of protection of minorities, of Small States, of self-determination, of the brutality of the Turk, of poor Christians massacred by Mahammedans, etc.) This absolutely cynical avowal was concurred in by Millerand… Then Venizelos said he had lots of troops and could work up to 12-13 divisions. He said it would be time to look after the minorities after he had established himself firmly in Thrace and Smyrna. The others agreed. Anything more cynical I have not heard.

Curzon spoke good sense when he asked how the boundary between Turkey and Armenia could be traced if, for example, Erzurum, now occupied by the Turks, was given to Armenians who were totally unable to take it away from the Turks, or if Armenia were given access to the sea and could not get there. I asked, ‘How do you expect Armenia to hold her own against a fully armed Turkey and a rearmed Azerbaijan?… These sort of questions proving too much for the Frocks (Frock-coated Politicians). Nitti closed the Conference! Foch and I walked down the hill arm in arm, and we agreed that this was the most pitiable of any meeting we had been present at. ‘La politique a deus sous’ as the old Marshal said. It was a shocking exhibition.” (Major-General Sir C.E. Callwell, Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, His Life and Diaries, Vol. 2, pp.233-4)

The first thing that is noteworthy about this is how the need for particular forces to impose the Peace Treaty on Turkey made a defence of the Caucasus impossible. Secondly, in the absence of forces, the Imperialists were entrusting the future of the Armenians to the fate of the Greek Army and its invasion of Anatolia. Thirdly, what is striking is how irrelevant the defence of Azerbaijan was to the Western Imperialists, although it was strategically, as the gateway to the Caucasus, the vital defence line that needed to be held.

We shall find out the probable reason for this last fact later.

In May 1919 the Greeks had been landed at Smyrna/Izmir by Allied shipping to begin the conquest of Anatolia on behalf of the British Empire. This was a momentous decision, sparking off the beginnings of Turkish resistance to the British occupation, which was now rightly seen as a colonising/extermination project against the Turkish people.

The Armenians had also been transported into Cilicia, on the Mediterranean, to bolster the French occupation and begin the dismemberment of the Ottoman State in the South, in preparation for the imposition of the punitive treaty. But when an Armenian Legion, employed by the French Imperialists, began to flex its muscles in Cilicia, with the intention of establishing a part of Magna Armenia there, popular resistance, which had not made an appearance under the earlier British occupation, was generated.

In July 1919 in Erzurum, in eastern Anatolia, the Turkish resurgence had began with the issuing of the National Pact. The Congress held at Sivas in September then signalled the development of an independent source of political power and influence in Turkey. In January 1920 a Parliament was returned with a Nationalist majority in Istanbul which ratified the National Pact, frustrating the British occupations scheme of creating a client regime that would do its bidding in Turkey. 

The stirrings of Turkish resistance to the Imperialist occupation motivated Lloyd George to order the military repression of the Ottoman Parliament in March 1920 (as he had attempted in Ireland the year before), the declaration of Martial Law, the imposition of strict military censorship, and the establishment of a puppet government, placed under close supervision. The Sultan/Caliph was then advised that if he was incapable of pursuing the British interest, 100,000 Greek soldiers would be dispatched to the capital to assist him. There were curfews instituted and massive heavy-handed arms searches and sweeps organised across Istanbul. A Royal Navy Blockade of the Bosphorus was instituted on 15 March, British soldiers killed a number of people and began seizing others for deportation to Malta. Show trials were organised for potential opponents of British authority with the Law bent to facilitate “justice” (see Ferudun Ata, The Relocation Trials in Occupied Istanbul).

These measures, known as “The Second Occupation”, in which the British threw down the gauntlet to the Turks, really began the struggle for power between Britain and the new Turkey that was to have a direct bearing on the situation in the Caucasus. Lloyd George ignored all good advice to start the war he desired in Anatolia to see his Treaty through to success (see Sean McMeekin, Ottoman Endgame, pp.436-7).

However, straight after the British repression in Istanbul, Mustafa Kemal began to reorganise a Turkish state in central Anatolia – at Ankara – far beyond the range of the Royal Navy’s guns. A National Convention was established at the end of April 1920 as an alternative source of power to Istanbul, which reassembled the repressed representatives of the Turkish democracy from Istanbul, in Angora/Ankara.

The Ottoman Sultan/Caliph, whose Palaces lay within the gun-sights of British battleships, attempted to suppress the alternative source of power in Ankara, with some initial success. Detachments of his “Army of the Caliphate” formed in April captured towns close to the rebel capital, there were a number of risings against the “excommunicates” and a division of the new Republican army was annihilated by the Sultan’s forces.

But the Sultan’s efforts were destroyed when the British announced the terms of the Treaty of Sevres at the end of May 1920 – which declared the destruction of the Ottoman State and the confinement of the Turks to a small inland territory in about a third of Anatolia, where they could be whittled away like the natives on the American prairies or Australian outback. Istanbul and the Straits was to be put under international control with the rest of the country balkanised and placed under spheres of influence of the various Imperialist Powers, Greeks and Armenians.

This was completely against the Wilsonian principle of self-determination and statements made by Sir Edward Grey and Lloyd George during the War. The Treaty’s Article 89 left to the judgement of the President of the United States the boundaries of an Armenian state. (see Jorge Blanco Villalta, Ataturk, pp 251-2)

With the publication of this extremely punitive Treaty the whole basis of the Sultan’s war on Ankara collapsed, since no one would fight for such a miserable future. And so the British had a lot less success in promoting Civil War in Turkey than they did in Russia (and later in Ireland) and the risings soon petered out, with the Caliph’s Army either melting away or fleeing behind British protection.

One of Mustapha Kemal’s first acts in response to this existential threat was to make contact with the Bolsheviks. A Turkish Commission was sent to Moscow in May 1920 to parley with Lenin. Soviet Russia was the only country from which necessary help could be obtained. In the conditions of mid-1920 a Turkish/Bolshevik alliance against the Imperialist Powers was essential both to the survival of Turkey and the geopolitical recovery of Russia in the region. Kemal and Lenin were acutely aware of the geopolitical situation in the Caucasus and the Bolshevik leadership recognised a true anti-Imperialist in the Turkish leader. 

The British “Guarantee” 

The Russian Soviet State had refused to recognise the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic, established in January 1920, as it had refused to acknowledge previous Azerbaijani governments from May 1918. It maintained both political and military pressure on Azerbaijan from the moment the British evacuated in August 1919. However, Lenin made two offers of recognition – to the Bullitt Mission in March and to Captain Malone in November 1919 – in return for an end to the British proxy-war on Russia. Lloyd George ignored both offers for reasons undisclosed, so they remain in the sphere of historical “what might have beens”.

In January 1920 Russian Commissar for Foreign Affairs, Chicherin, issued the first of his Notes to the Government of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic demanding an alliance against the White counter-revolutionaries in Southern Russia. In reply the Azerbaijanis asked for official recognition of the ADR before negotiations on any issue would ensue and that the Soviets uphold the principles of national self-determination they had proclaimed, and extended to Finland and Estonia.

With Daghestan cleared of Denikin’s forces in March 1920 the Azerbaijanis, alarmed at the concentration of Soviet forces on their Northern border, telegraphed Chicherin, declaring their wish to live in tranquility and establish good-neighbourly relations with the Soviet State. This was the final act of Azerbaijani diplomacy as the Soviet State moved to reclaim the country for Russia. (Firuz Kazemzadeh, The Struggle for Transcaucasia, p.278-82)

There were a number of economic, political and strategic reasons why the Soviets wanted to take possession (or repossession from the Russian viewpoint) of the area that had become Azerbaijan. First, of course was the natural resources, and in particular the oil fields of Baku, which composed 75% of the Soviet supply and which was vital for industrialisation and the survival of the Communist State. Second, the conquest of Azerbaijan, the gateway to the Southern Caucasus, opened the way to Armenia and Georgia as well as to Persia for Bolshevism. Thirdly, it facilitated the export of communist propaganda in all directions from this strategic hub. And lastly it blocked the influence of the Imperialists, particularly Britain, from the region.

Despite the fact that the will had been lost in Britain to fight the Bolsheviks, and a speedy British withdrawal of remaining forces had been already undertaken, to the defence of a new line to the South, encouragement continued to be given to Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan to resist the Bolsheviks in any invasion of their territories

The Caucasus states had, of course, been recognised by the League of Nations and Bonar Law, stated the Allied Governments’ position clearly in the House of Commons, on 24 February 1920:

“If the communities which border on the frontiers of Soviet Russia, and whose independence or de facto autonomy they have recognised, were to approach them and to ask for advice as to what attitude they should take with regard to Soviet Russia, the Allied Governments would reply that they cannot accept the responsibility of advising them to continue a war which may be injurious to their own interests. Still less would they advise them to adopt a policy of aggression towards Russia. If, however, Soviet Russia attacks them inside their own legitimate frontiers, the Allies will give them every possible support.”

This was understandably taken as a British guarantee to provide all support necessary in the event of a Soviet invason. However, in late April, when the Foreign Minister of Azerbaijan called the British Foreign Office, expressing his fear of an imminent Bolshevik attack, Lord Curzon cabled the British High Commissioner in the Caucasus, Oliver Wardrop, with the following advice:

“There is no question of our giving Georgia and Azerbaijan active military support in case of an attack on them by Soviet forces, and you should be careful not to put any such interpretation on Mr. Bonar Law’s statement of February 24th.” (DBFP, Vol XII, 27/4/1920)

On March 20 1920 a report with the headline ‘Turkish Intrigues in the Caucasus. Azerbaijan Enmeshed. Pan-Turanian Danger.’ appeared in The Times. Presumably this was a signalling of a washing of the British hands of Azerbaijan, as the Red Army massed on its borders:

“In consequence of information received from Transcaucasia there is reason to believe that the Turkish Government have concluded an alliance with the Republic of Azerbaijan… The Tartar Republic has, from its inception, been looked upon as a protege by the Young Turks and Pan-Turanian extremists who saw in it a means of establishing communication with Turkestan and getting a foothold on the Caspian. The immense value of the petroleum fields in the Apsheron Peninsula round Baku made the political control of this State additionally desirable.”

The Times alleged that an “offensive and defensive alliance” between Turkey and Azerbaijan

“appears to have been the result of meetings between representatives of the Turkish Government acting in the interests and under the instructions of the Nationalist leader, Mustapha Kemal Pasha, and a Tartar delegate, General Kerimoff. It was signed in October of last year in Constantinople. It’s most important provisions are those which bind the two States to grant reciprocal assistance in case of foreign aggression against the territorial integrity of either, as that may be established by the forthcoming Treaty of Peace yet to be signed, or in case any Foreign Power should attempt to establish a political, administrative, or economic protectorate over either.”

The document which detailed military arrangements between the Azerbaijan Republic and the Turks was signed by Jevad Pasha, Chief of the Ottoman General Staff, according to The Times.

The Times editorial, commenting on the revelation, stated that “The issue presented is one of considerable gravity, because the British Government recognised the Republic on January 15, when they were presumably unaware that the Azerbaijan had entered into formal relations with an enemy Power.”

It continued that the Turks

“conceived that it might be used as a half-way house for the development of the Pan-Turanian movement in Central Asia. Though it is apparantly not signed by any Turkish Minister, it must have been made with the cognisance and approval of the Turkish Government. As well as of Mustapha Kemal Pasha, the leader of the Turkish Nationalist forces in Asia Minor. The latter probably arranged its terms. Further light on this matter is thrown by letters from Constantinople published this week in Near East. These letters state that Enver Pasha and his brother Nuri have made Baku their headquarters for a wide-flung net of Pan-Islamic intrigue in the Middle East”.

The letters, according to The Times show that the Azerbaijan Republic “sought Turkish support… because they were afraid that they might be brought under the influence either of the Bolshevists or of General Denikin.”

Noting that an Azerbaijani delegation was in London at that very moment The Times suggested that “the only course now open to Great Britain is to inquire whether the Azerbaijani Government admit the existence of the Convention, whether if so, they are prepared to denounce it, and whether in any case they will undertake to cease harbouring Enver or his criminal associates.”

A month later the Times revealed that the Government had taken its advice and interrogated the Azerbaijani delegation on this military convention involving the training and arming of the Tartar army:

“It’s existence was denied by the Tartar Delegation in London, but recent events show that it is possible that the Delegation may not have been in possession of full information on the subject.” (28.4.1920)

The Azerbaijani delegation was in London requesting urgent assistance against Bolshevik invasion on the basis of the British guarantee made by Bonar Law a couple of months previously.

But, at the same time, Georgia and Azerbaijan had already become resigned to their abandonment by Britain through the non-appearance of the arms they had been promised as part of the “every possible support.” The British War Office obstructed their delivery, believing they would ultimately end up in the hands of the Bolsheviks. So Georgian and Azerbaijani delegations met Lloyd George on 11 March and appealed to him to use the leverage of his trade negotiations with Lenin to enable them to secure agreements with the Soviets (FO 371/4932).

The Fall of Baku

The Azerbaijani Government were actually the least anti-Bolshevik government in all the states of the former Russian Empire. They had observed a strict neutrality in the Russian Civil War and had opposed British efforts to support Denikin from it. The ADR only wished to pursue an independent course. But in the Spring of 1920 the Azerbaijani leaders, with the failure of Britain to make good its promises, knew that the survival of their Republic depended entirely on the good will of Soviet Russia.

With over 70,000 Soviet troops of the 11th Army massed on Azerbaijan’s Northern border and its army diverted to Karabakh to resist an Armenian insurrection the Azerbaijani parliament voted to hand over power to the Azerbaijani Communist Party, to avoid bloodshed. Good terms were offered by the Soviets including “the protection of the territory of Azerbaijan” from “any kind of aggression and annexations”, the retention of the Azerbaijani army, the continuance of the right of political parties to “enjoy freedom of activity”, the right to “freely determine the form of government”. (Anar Isgenderli, Realities of Azerbaijan: 1917-1920, p.202)

Needless to say, the Bolsheviks reneged on most of these offers after occupying the country. The Bolshevik slogan of “self-determination” had become “Self-determination of the toiling classes of each nationality.” The Bolsheviks themselves defined what the attitude of “the toiling classes of each nationality” was, they being the Dictatorship of the ProletariatSo self-determination became a matter of political expediency and this was demonstrated by the recovery of the Caucasus and other Tsarist territories for the new Russia. With the exception of Finland, whose independence was recognised back in the early days, in 1917, Lenin’s policy of “self-determination” had be reined in to become, in practice, a fiction. (Robert Vincent Davies, The Conscience of the Revolution: Communist Opposition in Soviet Russia, pp.96-7)

Norman Narimanov, Chairman of the Presidium of the Revolutionary Committee of Azerbaijan, wrote a number of letters to Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky and Radek, protesting the loss of Azerbaijani independence and some territory, but to no avail (Khagani Ismail, The Armenian Question and Turkic-Muslim Genocide, pp.377-380)

On 28 April the Red Army entered Baku and the Soviet administration, directed by the Georgian, Sergio Ordhonikidze, a close fried of Stalin, declared all relationship with the Entente to be over. There was some solid resistance in the countryside to the Soviet invasion, particularly around Ganje, but the Red Army quickly established its authority over the country.

Bolshevik/Turkish Collaboration

The Turkish/Russian alliance was fatal to the Caucasian Republics and there was an understandable feeling among some Azerbaijanis that the Turks had let them down in forming an alliance with the Bolsheviks that had put paid to their short lived freedom.

The present writer can understand why this is a difficult issue for both Turks and Azerbaijanis and it is perhaps only an outsider who can give an objective estimation of it.

It was Ankara that facilitated the relatively bloodless Soviet coup in Azerbaijan by working through Turkish and Azerbaijani Communists, to secure the “rapid overthrow of the present, pro-British government of Azerbaijan and its replacement by a government that is able to co-operate with the Bolsheviks.”

It was insisted in a Resolution by Halil Pasha and Fuat Sabit, of the Turkish Communist Party in Baku, presented to Kazim Karabekir, Commander of Turkish forces in Eastern Anatolia, that “the occupation of Baku by the Red Army” only take place at the request of the Azerbaijani Communist Party and “the conquest of Azerbaijan must be avoided.” (see Sahib Jamal, Last Spring of the First Republic, IRS, Spring 2016, p.42)

The Bolsheviks in Baku had been greatly discredited after their alliance, under Stephan Shaumyan, with the Dashnaks, which resulted in the massacre in the city of 12,000 in March 1918. After that Azerbaijani Communists had worked through the Hemmat, the oldest political party in the country. After the Bolsheviks in Hemmat forced a split in the party and the exit of the Menshevik element they turned the Hemmat into the Azerbaijani Communist Party.

When in September 1919 a delegation of Turkish nationalists arrived in Baku to enlist the support of the Azerbaijani Government they were refused support by the Musavat government, fearing British retaliation. The Communist Party of Azerbaijan took up the offer and “played the role of a bridge between the proletarian revolutionary Moscow and the revolutionary movement in Turkey.” (Firuz Kazemzadeh, The Struggle for Transcaucasia, p.232)

The Azerbaijani Communist Party engaged in intense propaganda which accused the Musavat government in Baku of being too close to British Imperialism and it proclaimed the message that only the Sovietisation of Azerbaijan would really free the peasantry and workers and secure genuine independence for the country. Within the Musavat Party itself there were also pro-Bolsheviks who preferred the idea of Soviet hegemony to British Imperialism. (Tadeusz Swietochowski, Russia and Azerbaijan: A Borderline in Transition, p.172)

Kazim Karabekir’s recommendations formed the basis of a letter from Mustapha Kemal to Lenin on 24 April 1920. The day before the National Assembly in Ankara demanded that Azerbaijan allow “Soviet troops to move to the borders of Turkey to defend them from British attack”. Halil Pasha attempted to mollify the government of the ADR by claiming that the Red Army “would only pass through the territory of Azerbaijan on their way to Anatolia, where they would join the Turkish war of liberation.” (ibid, p.43)

On 26 April Mustapha Kemal promised the Bolsheviks that in return for Russian finance of 5 million gold rubles, medical supplies, food and the war materiel necessary to defeat British Imperialism “the Turkish government commits itself to take military operations against the imperialist Armenian government and secure the inclusion of Azerbaijan in the group of Soviet states.” (Baskin Oran, Turkish Foreign Policy, 1919-2006, p.94). 

Former Ottoman officers smoothed the Red Army’s way through Daghestan by urging the Mountaineers not to resist (Bulent Gokay, A Clash of Empires: Turkey between Russian Bolshevism and British Imperialism, p.75)

Later, the Turkish leader, Mustapha Kemal, explained to a meeting on 14 August 1920, how “with our influential help and assistance” the 10th and 11th Red Armies “easily passed through the North Caucasus and entered Azerbaijan. Azerbaijanis met the troops who arrived with complete peace of mind. The Soviet armies took the necessary military and strategic measures on the borders of Armenia and Georgia and began to establish direct communication with us.” (ibid, p.44).

What we can conclude, therefore, is that geopolitical realities made the Turkish nationalist/Bolshevik alliance an imperative for mutual survival and it was Britain and its relationship with the Armenians that was responsible for it. It was essential that the “Caucasus Wall” be surmounted to secure the flow of material Westwards from the Bolsheviks to Ankara. The Azerbaijani policy of neutrality prevented this. So Azerbaijan, which was opened as a corridor by an alliance between Mustapha Kemal and Lenin for the transmission of Soviet aid to the Turkish independence forces, and which assisted the successful Turkish War of Independence became, as a consequence, part of the Soviet State for 70 years.

Mustapha Kemal did not abandon the Azerbaijanis – because the British position made resistance to the Bolsheviks impossible for them. Only with Turkish backing could the Azerbaijan Republic resist and Turkey was, at that moment, engaged in a life or death struggle for existence.

What Mustapha Kemal secured was a relatively bloodless takeover of Azerbaijan by the Red Army. Only a pragmatic British alliance with Turkey in the period after the Mudros Armistice, on the lines Churchill suggested to the Prime Minister in October 1919, would have made a defence of the Caucasus possible, since the British Government showed itself unwilling to conduct one themselves. The British War on Turkey condemned Azerbaijan to Soviet conquest.

For Azerbaijan to survive Turkey, first, had to live. And Turkey would have found it much harder to continue in existence, let alone revive itself, with a hostile Russia and Armenia on her Eastern flank.

Azerbaijan: Unwanted by Britain; Wanted by the Bolsheviks

The fall of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic went almost unnoticed in the West and there was little lamentation for it. Firuz Kamemzadeh noted:

“The Great Powers hardly noticed the disappearance of Azerbaijan from the national scene. In a note to the Italian Ambassador in Paris the United States Secretary of State wrote that this country would like to see the restoration of a unified Russia with the possible exception of Finland, Poland and Armenia. Azerbaijan was not even mentioned. The delegation of the now defunct State sent a note of protest to the Ambassador of the United States… The delegation expressed its hope that the Peace Conference would help Azerbaijan to regain its independence and appealed to the democratic sentiment of the American people. Dozens of such appeals… were sent to various governments. They had no effect. The case of Azerbaijan was closed, its delegates in Paris joining the ranks of the numerous Russian emigres.” (The Struggle for Transcaucasia, 1917-1921, p.285)

On 28 April 1920 The Times announced the “Bolshevist coup at Baku. Alliance with Soviet Russia.” The underlying message from London was good-riddance to the Tartar state, given recognition by Britain, only a few months earlier. Under the dismissive headline “Azerbaijan’s Dubious Career. In League With the Turk.” the Azerbaijan Republic was given a short orbituary.

The Times noted, after a short history of events earlier in 1918 that had led to the Ottoman capture of Baku, that

“The Turkish occupation and influence came to an end soon after the Armistice of October 31, 1918, and since then the Azerbaijan Government has pursued a somewhat devious policy. The Tartar administration, although its formation had been greatly assisted by the Turks, professed friendship for the Allies, on the one hand, while with the other welcome and protection were extended to refugees from Turkey whose names were on the Allied list of war criminals… In spite of the suspected pro-Turkish proclivities of the Azerbaijan Republic, the Allies agreed to recognise it as a de facto Government.”

Under the heading “A Revolution in Azerbaijan” The Times’ editorial on the same day commented:

The Times continued:

“The Republic of Azerbaijan has for a long time been in an extremely equivocal position…is there a chain of intrigue stretching from the Turkish military conspirators recently in Constantinople through Mustapha Kemal Pasha in Asia Minor to Enver Pasha in the Caucasus, and so byway of the Azerbaijan revolutionaries to the Bolshevist leaders? It certainly looks as though, throughout this long line, there have been intimate links, but on the other hand the Government now overthrown leaned strongly in the direction of the Turks, and were reputed to regard the advance of the Bolshevists with alarm. The chief motive of the Bolshevists is believed to be an ardent craving for the oil of Baku…”

“Although Baku has for years been famous for its oil resources… It is probable that its importance in this connexation is on the wane. It’s production has for some years been falling in quantity, and the political eruptions, which have become endemic in that part of the world, cause grievous dislocation of its once profitable industry.”

In contrast to the British dismissal of Azerbaijan Stalin was quite open about the reasons why the Soviets decided to recaptur Azerbaijan for the Russian State. In The Policy of the Soviet Government on the National Question in Russia, written a couple of months after the fall of Baku, Stalin explained:

Three years of revolution and civil war in Russia have shown that unless central Russia and her border regions support each other the victory of the revolution and the liberation of Russia from the clutches of imperialism will be impossible. Central Russia, that hearth of world revolution, cannot hold out long without the assistance of the border regions, which abound in raw materials, fuel and foodstuffs. The border regions of Russia in their turn would be inevitably doomed to imperialist bondage without the political, military and organizational support of more developed central Russia. If it is true to say that the more developed proletarian West cannot finish off the world bourgeoisie without the support of the peasant East, which is less developed but which abounds in raw materials and fuel, it is equally true to say that more developed central Russia cannot carry the revolution through to the end without the support of the border regions of Russia, which are less developed but which abound in essential resources.The Entente undoubtedly took this circumstance into account from the very first days of the existence of the Soviet Government, when it (the Entente) pursued the plan of the economic encirclement of central Russia by cutting off the most important of her border regions. And the plan of the economic encirclement of Russia has remained the unchanging basis of all the Entente’s campaigns against Russia, from 1918 to 1920, not excluding its present machinations in the Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Turkestan. All the more important is it, therefore, to achieve a firm union between the centre and the border regions of Russia. Hence the need to establish definite relations, definite ties between the centre and the border regions of Russia ensuring an intimate and indestructible union between them…

The demand for the secession of the border regions from Russia as the form of the relations between the centre and the border regions must be rejected… Apart from the fact that the secession of the border regions would undermine the revolutionary might of central Russia, which is stimulating the movement for emancipation in the West and the East, the seceded border regions themselves would inevitably fall into the bondage of international imperialism. One has only to glance at Georgia, Armenia, Poland, Finland, etc., which have seceded from Russia but which have retained only the semblance of independence, having in reality been converted into unconditional vassals of the Entente; one has only, lastly, to recall the recent case of the Ukraine and Azerbaijan, of which the former was plundered by German capital and the latter by the Entente, to realize the utterly counter-revolutionary nature of the demand for the secession of the border regions under present international conditions.

When a life-and-death struggle is developing between proletarian Russia and the imperialist Entente, there are only two possible outcomes for the border regions: Either they go along with Russia, and then the toiling masses of the border regions will be freed from imperialist oppression;Or they go along with the Entente, and then the yoke of imperialism will be inevitable.There is no third course.The so-called independence of so-called independent Georgia, Armenia, Poland, Finland, etc., is only an illusion, and conceals the utter dependence of these apologies for states on one or another group of imperialists…

Soviet Russia is performing an experiment without parallel hitherto in the world in organizing the cooperation of a number of nations and races within a single proletarian state on a basis of mutual confidence, of voluntary and fraternal agreement… In that lies the guarantee of the consolidation of the revolutionary union between central Russia and the border regions of Russia, against which all the machinations of the Entente will be shattered.” (Pravda, No. 226, October 10, 1920. J.V. Stalin, Collected Works, Vol. 4, November, 1917 – 1920)

The Soviets had, unlike the British, no doubt about the value of the oil of Baku and its other attractions. They also provided the stability and order in the region for its continued extraction in great quantities, to serve the economic needs of the Union.

Whilst Britain at the height of its power, failed in its attempts to occupy and stabilise the region, and abandoned it in only the space of a year, the Soviet State took it in hand, imposed a territorial settlement that lasted for 70 years and quelled “the political eruptions” which made the British despair of it. And when the Soviet Union crumbled in 1990 the disputed territories again were subject to “the political eruptions” that led to a re-run of 1918-20 and the loss of Karabakh to the Armenians.

On September 1 1920 the Bolsheviks convened the famous Congress of the Peoples of the East at Baku, broadcasting the message that the Soviet State stood with the world’s oppressed against Western Imperialism.

Just after the fall of Azerbaijan a Soviet trade delegation arrived in England at the invitation of the British Prime Minister, whom it met on 31 March. 

Armenia’s Final Gamble

The Red Army would probably have rolled into Armenia and Georgia straight after the fall of Azerbaijan, if it hadn’t been for the Polish Army reaching the gates of Kiev in May. This forced the Bolsheviks to abandon the conquest of the Caucasus temporarily and conclude treaties recognising Armenia and Georgia. Communist parties were established in both countries through these treaties in preparation of a resumption of the conquest, which was put on hold whilst the Red Army was otherwise engaged. 

The U.S Senate, who well understood Britain’s game in the Caucasus, on 24th May 1920 passed a resolution declining Wilson’s acceptance of a US Mandate over Armenia, taking America was out of the game.

In the weeks following the publication of the Treaty of Sevres the Greek Army swept forward from Smyrna into the Anatolian interior. The new Turkish Army was only finding its feet and was outnumbered by the Greek forces. The line of the Turkish sans culottes broke under pressure and there was some panic in the National Assembly in Ankara, with a number of deputies demanding French Revolutionary justice to be applied to those who had led them into this position. There was despondency and even a desire to yield to the Imperialists and accept their terms, rather than face destruction (see Jorge Blanco Villalta, Ataturk, pp 249-252).

And then, at that critical moment, the Armenians presented Mustapha Kemal with the chance to raise morale and restore confidence in the new Turkey.

Under the protection of England the Armenian Erivan Republic had been formed with Kars as its de facto capital. This, of course, was seen as merely the nucleus of the Great Armenia that was to come and which, under the provisions of Sevres, was to extend over the whole of Eastern Turkey in a broad belt from Batum and Trebizond on the Black Sea through Kars and Erzurum to the Persian frontier.

In attempting to help impose the Treaty of Sevres of August 1920 on the Turks the Erivan Republic took advantage of the Greek offensive in Western Anatolia and attacked Moslem settlements in the Anatolian/Caucasus borderlands. This was in the area known as the Three Sanjaks which Russia had gained by the Treaty of Berlin in 1877, had lost to the Ottomans under Brest-Litovsk in early 1918, and which the Turks had evacuated under the terms of the Mudros Armistice in late 1918. These areas had been a source of dispute and the place of skirmishes between the Armenians on the one side and the Turks and Kurds on the other. Now the Dashnaks entered the Kars Sanjak and began massacring the Moslem population. 

This attempt to grab territory from the Turks fatally isolated the Armenians. They were now surrounded by enemies – Nationalist Turkey, Bolshevik Russia, Menshevik Georgia, and Soviet Azerbaijan – and almost completely reliant on Britain to pull them out of the dire situation they had got themselves into. The Erivan Republic was without oil or electricity because its aggressive actions against Azerbaijan, which had led to its sole supply of oil, from Baku, being cut off.

The first Armenian Prime Minister, Hovhannes Katchaznouni, later conceded:

“It is an irrefutable fact… that we have not done everything that we should have done – it was our duty to do – in order to avoid war. And we have not done everything for the simple but unpardonable reason that we were ignorant of the real strength of the Turks, and too sure of our own strength. Therein lies our fundamental mistake. We were not afraid of war, because we were sure of being victorious. With carelessness of inexperienced and ignorant men, we remained unaware of the forces that the Turks had organised on our borders, and so we were not cautious. On the contrary, the hasty occupation of Olti was the gauntlet which we threw down, as if intentionally; as though we ourselves were desirious of war and sought it.” (Hovhannes Katchaznouni, Dashnagzoutiun has Nothing to do Anymore, p.41)

The Turks did not want war with the Armenians. They were under great pressure from the Greek advance and even from their Soviet allies, who were trying to make a deal with the Armenians in order to Bolshevize Turkish territory at Kars. 

Turkish national forces bided their time, whilst the Greeks advanced, and then moved against the Armenians, driving them out of Kars, in October 1920. General Kazim Karabekir’s army reached the gates of Erivan and occupied 80 per cent of Armenian territory.

The Turks then imposed the Treaty of Gumru on the Armenians, in which the Erivan Republic gave up its claims in the Sevres Treaty and submitted itself to Turkish supervision. This finally confined Armenian territory to the Caucasus and effectively blew away the castle of cards dreamt up by President Wilson, arbiter of the territories of the Armenian state. It was agreed by the Erivan Republic that Nakhichevan and Zangezur would remain as Azerbaijani territories.

The original Erivan Republic, established under Ottoman protection in May 1918, had been 9,000 sq. kms. Britain had then expanded its de facto territory, in November 1918 to 50,000 sq. kms. Under the Treaty of Gumru, with the Turks, it was reduced to a territory of 27,000 sq. kms.

Britain lost its Eastern ally with the Armenian renunciation of the Treaty of Sevres and was from then on heavily dependent on the Greeks.

Russia and Turkey – A Revolutionary Marriage

Dagobert von Mikusch noted the effect of Mustapha Kemal’s victory over the Erivan Republic:

“This successful Armenian campaign, promoted by Mustapha Kemal at the right moment, had three very important results – it revived the spirits of the despondent and renewed their decision to continue the resistance; it freed the Ankara Government from any attack from the rear, and, in the third place, it established immediately contact between Russia and revolutionary Turkey.

These two outlaws, excluded from the European family of nations, were thrown into each other’s arms. As long as England occupied the Dardanelles and thus commanded the Black Sea, the existence of the infant Soviet State was continually menaced. Accordingly the statesmen in Moscow were convinced that they were defending their own interests in supporting the Angora Government, since the National Pact of the Kemalists had as one of its principal demands the unconditional possession of Constantinople and the Straits. On the other hand Russia was of incalculable value to Turkey as a source of material help and moral support. Without the friendship of Moscow Mustapha Kemal would scarcely have succeeded in reaching his goal…

After the settlement of the dispute about the boundary, an offensive and defensive Alliance was concluded between Angora and Moscow – a revolutionary marriage, so to speak, between Nationalism and Communism, in which both parties made their own mental reservations.”  (Dagobert von Mikusch, Mustapha Kemal, Between Europe and Asia, p. 260).

Von Mikusch mentions “the dispute about the boundary” as an obstacle to a Turkish-Bolshevik alliance. This was about the area around Kars and Ardahan on the Trans-Caucasian frontier, which the Armenians claimed as part of Magna Armenia. The Bolsheviks were using the Armenians as bargaining chips against the Turks, while in the process of aiding Ankara against the common enemy of Western Imperialists. The Turks refused to cede the Kars/Ardahan area to the Armenians/Bolsheviks for Sovietisation and a stand-off developed.

In 1683 a Polish army had saved Vienna from the Ottoman advance into Central Europe. In late September 1920 Mustapha Kemal availed of Marshal Pilsudski’s stylish victory over Lenin’s Red Army outside Warsaw to capture Ardahan and Kars from the Armenians, which the Bolsheviks had earmarked for Sovietisation, and the issue was finally settled. The Bolsheviks, being pragmatists, recognised the territory as Turkish and not Armenian, and contented themselves with mopping up the lands that the Erivan Republic still possessed, before it collapsed.

In return the Turks gave up any claim they had to the important strategic port of Batum on the Mediteranean, which the British had occupied and which the Soviets wanted.

The chief logistical benefit for Ankara in the alliance with the Bolsheviks was in the supply of war materiel. Turkish forces, which had only a rudimentary system of arms production in Anatolia, inferior to the British-supplied Greeks, were supplied with Bolshevik arms and munitions from the East, including 40,000 rifles, 63 million bullets and 15,000 shells. Lenin also transferred substantial finance in money and gold to the Turkish anti-Imperialists. This was a major contribution, considering the need for the same in Russia itself. (Baskin Oran, Turkish Foreign Policy, 1919-2006, p.91)

The driving force behind the Turkish/Soviet alliance against British Imperialism was undoubtedly Josef Stalin. Stalin overcame stiff resistance within the Bolshevik state to the accommodation with Turkish nationalism to seal the deal (see Salahi Sonyel, Turkish Diplomacy, 1918-1923, pp.62-5).

Stalin viewed the opportunity of dealing a significant blow to British Imperialism as much more important than any adherence to doctrinaire Marxism. He was proved correct in the effect the policy had on the Moslem world and particularly in relation to Iran, where the British hegemony began to unravel as British will and power was revealed to be much more insubstantial than it appeared at the time of the Armistices.  

Of course, the Bolsheviks had another agenda in this giving of aid in gold rubles to the Ankara treasury and Bolshevik propaganda:

“The Bolsheviks supported the Turks, but, at the same time they put temptation in their path. The alliance with the Nationalists was not a question simply of self-protection for the Soviet; it was meant, by driving a new trench westwards, to further the advance of a world-revolution. With matchless political jugglery Mustapha Kemal was able to make use of Moscow, never altogether dashing its hopes of converting him, and yet at the same time reducing its communistic missionary activity ineffective.”  (Dagobert von Mikusch, Mustapha Kemal, Between Europe and Asia, pp 259-60).

With great political skill Mustapha Kemal accepted the Bolshevik aid, negated Communist influence in Turkey and made the Bolshevik/Turkish co-operation a major source of concern to Britain. By doing this he smoothed the way for a British facilitation of a strong and independent Turkish State when he had won the military contest in Anatolia against the Greeks and the Western Imperialist Powers.

Britain and Armenia – The Final, Fatal Embrace

Even after the fall of the gateway to the Caucasus, Azerbaijan, the British still encouraged Armenia and Georgia to hold out against the Bolsheviks. But little support was provided beyond moral and political statements and some obsolete Ross rifles. Britain withdrew its last remaining forces from Batum at the end of June 1920. The port of Batum was strategically important as a barrier between resurgent Kemalist Turkey and a Bolshevik takeover of Georgia and it was on the main the supply route to Armenia.

The British wanted the Armenians to hold out against the Soviets as the Erivan Republic was the sole barrier to a land route between Russia and Turkey through which the Turkish nationalist forces could be supplied with munitions against the Greek Army, which was doing Lloyd George’s work from the West.

The Armenians had facilitated the Bolshevik advance into Azerbaijan by occupying the main bulk of the Azerbaijani army in defending Karabagh from a Dashnak insurgency. Now the Bolsheviks and Soviet Azerbaijan demanded the withdrawal of all Armenian nationalist forces from Azerbaijani territory, including Karabakh, Nakhichevan and Zangezur. Armenia rejected the Soviet ultimatum and, after relying on Britain to the death, instead of coming to terms with the Bolsheviks, was defeated in a series of encounters. The Erivan Republic was forced to sign a peace with the Soviets at Tiflis in August 1920 conceding the Azerbaijani territory to Soviet Azerbaijan.

Armenia rejected further Soviet offers based on the proviso that she sever all ties with the Entente. Armenia continued to place all her trust in England.

Armenia got no credit for relying on British moral support and it was now damned for having conceded so quickly to the Red Army. The British acting-High Commissioner in the Caucasus, Commander Luke, after finding out about an Armenian side-deal that sought to allow the Bolsheviks to occupy Azerbaijani Nakhchivan, told the Armenian government in Erivan that they had been guilty of “a betrayal of trust” and that they had “committed an act of treachery against Great Britain” which was “deplorable”, especially after having recently received “a large consignment of British munitions” (FO 371/4959/E10726, 11/081920).

The Armenians assured the British that they had only yielded temporarily to the Bolsheviks and would now form an anti-Bolshevik bloc with the Georgians (FO 371/4959/E10733, 12.08.1920). This was, of course, impossible because the Georgians could never trust the Armenians. The British, themselves, did little more to help the Armenians but urge their other catspaw, the Greek army in Anatolia, on to save them.

The Allied High Commissioner for Relief in Armenia, William Haskell, chose this moment to leave Erivan and tell the British Foreign Office what it wanted to hear, in order to abandon the Armenians to their self-deserved fate:

“The country is a desert and the people nothing but professional beggars… There is no administrative or political capacity in the country, no money, and no resources to develop. Foreign Armenians who have amassed fortunes… will neither contribute nor return to the national home.” (FO 371/4960/E12174, 20.09.1920)

Unlike the Zionist project in Palestine the Armenian colonial project had utterly failed for Britain and it was now time to abandon it to the Bolsheviks to pick up the pieces. Britain and France closed the doors of the League of Nations to Armenian appeals and refused it entry to its ranks to save it.

This was one of the first examples of the League of Nations showing that it would not become what it was supposed to be. It was not going to defend its own decisions, taken by the Peace Conference which established it, to defend the Caucasian Republics it had set up. Furthermore, the League was going to be used by Britain, the sole World Power, in its own interests, when it suited it, and ignored when it did not.

At the end of 1920 Lord Curzon initialed the following Foreign Office Memo:

“whatever may have been expected of us originally we intend to do as little as we can for Armenia either in money or men.” (FO 371/4963/E14026, 9.11.1920)

The Armenian surrender to the Treaty of Gumru provoked the Bolshevik takeover in Erivan. The Red Army, which was then invited in by a section of Armenians who desired to be saved from oblivion, Bolshevized what was left of Armenia – although a better term might be rescued.

When Armenia requested a loan of 1 million Sterling to pay for their continued defence Curzon refused them as they had no Sterling credit. Both H.M. Treasury and the War Office were insisting on the repayment of previous loans to the Armenians with interest. A year earlier Curzon had promised his spiritual leader, the Archbishop of Canterbury that: “You may rely on me to spare no effort for the safety of these unhappy people.” (Akaby Nassibian, Britain and the Armenian Question, p.178 and p.193)

At this point of time the Armenians, having earlier abandoned Denikin and the Whites, sounded out the Bolsheviks as possible instruments for what was left of the Greater Armenia policy (see Sean McMeekin, Ottoman Endgame, pp.442-3). However, the Soviets had their own agenda and Stalin’s nationalities policy did not correspond with the Dashnak one. Armenia’s main attraction for the Soviets was that it drove a wedge between the two Turkic nations – Turkey and Azerbaijan. Not bottling up Turkey would link it to Moslem Transcaucasia, Transcaspia and beyond.

Afterwards the Armenians regretted not surrendering to the Soviets earlier, since it might have been advantageous for a land-grab against Turkey and Azerbaijan. As the last Prime Minister of the Erivan Republic, Simon Vratsian, later wrote:

This idea, undoubtedly, has long occupied and continues to occupy Armenian politicians. I confess it has not let me rest either, and continuously torments me. Did we not perhaps commit a fatal mistake? Should we not have Sovietized Armenia right along with Azerbaijan, or soon after, in the months of July and August? Should we not have spat on Europe, the Sevres Treaty and Wilson and tied our hope with Moscow?…

“There are those who say that if the government of Armenia had been able to find common ground with Soviet Moscow at that time, further disasters could have been avoided and Armenia, albeit Soviet, could have had more expansive borders, encompassing even territories from Turkish Armenia.

Of course, it was exceedingly difficult in those days to have dared to take such a step. Who would have dared to even think that Sevres would be voided… and Europe’s and America’s promises and committments would not be worth an eggshell.” (Along Life’s Pathways, Vol. 5, p. 167)

Everything beyond the desire for a great Armenian state was secondary to the Armenians. Any political force, of whatever character was acceptable to them if it facilitated the expansion of Armenian territory and the cleansing of alien populations from it to create a great homogenous Armenian state.

In 1921 General Drastamat Kanayan (Dro), the Dashnak leader, proclaimed himself Military Dictator and suddenly metamorphosed into a Bolshevik and Supreme Leader of Armenia’a Bolshevik Revcom, declaring Armenia a Soviet state, awaiting the embrace of the Red Army. 

That might have been understandable in terms of expediency. But Dro did not last long in his new guise and was invited to Moscow and placed under Cheka surveillance, before he made his escape, to Paris. A couple of decades later he was leading Hitler’s Armenian Legion in the invasion of Soviet Russia. Dro had a lot of the characteristics of the National Socialists, and he put the skills he had developed in ethnic cleansing operations in the Caucasus at the disposal of the Nazis for use against the Jews in the Crimea. However, one constant remained: What he did in his career with the Nazis was always done for what he saw as the interests of Armenia, first and foremost. (see Antranig Chalabian, Dro – Armenia’s First Defense Minister of the Modern Era, pp.241-8 for ‘Dro’s Collaboration with Nazism’)

In February 1921, with the Red Army engaged in its conquest of Georgia, there was an attempted Dashnak rising against the Communist government. The Soviet Union was unable to suppress the insurrection and had to temporarily abandon Armenia. The Armenians appealed to the West for assistance.

The leader of the revolt, Vratsian, seeing no help forthcoming, even appealed to the Turks to save Armenia from the Bolsheviks, invoking the Treaty of Gumru/Alexandropol, in which Ankara had promised to assist Armenia if she was attacked. However, the government of Armenia had already repudiated the Treaty on 10 December 1920 and had requested that the Turks declare it null and void, to establish friendly relations with Soviet Armenia. (Firuz Kazemzadeh, The Struggle for Transcaucasia, 1917-1921, p292 and pp.322-3)

There was, then, no Turkish rescue of the Armenians from the Bolsheviks.

When the Red Army refocussed its attention on Armenia, it was soon subdued in April. The last remaining Dashnak resistance retreated from Zangezur into Persia.


The Allied Supreme Council recognised the de jure independence of Georgia in January 1921. However, by then the British had made up their minds to not defend the state which the League of Nations established. After some resistance Georgia fell to the Soviets in February/March. Lenin provided generous terms to the Georgian Mensheviks to ensure an easy transition to Bolshevism. Having signed the deal with Lenin the Menshevik government, however, decided to leave for exile.

The Bolsheviks concluded a Treaty of Friendship and Fraternity with the Turkish National forces in Moscow on 1 March 1921 settling border disputes and other outstanding matters that impeded co-operation. The Treaty of Kars of 13 October 1921 brought Soviet Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan into the terms of the Moscow Treaty.

With the fall of Georgia and the crushing of Armenian resistance Russia was Master of the Caucasus again. And there was worse to follow for Britain. The good understanding between resurgent Turkey and Russia destroyed the British plans to dominate the Caucasus and Iran:

“The fall of Tsarism augmented British responsibilities and with them British opportunities. By the end of 1918 the exigencies of war had drawn British forces into an occupation of all Persia. They had found their way beyond Persia’s northern boundaries into central Asia and introduced British sea-power to the Caspian… There was no serious intention to extend the British Empire to the Caucasus and the Caspian, much less to the Sea of Aral. But it could not be expected that Britain would renounce all the savoury prospects that the simultaneous ruin of the Ottoman and Tsarist Empires offered her. The Cabinet accepted Curzon’s project of a semi-independent Persia under British tutelage, and an Anglo-Persian treaty embodying his ideas was signed in the summer of 1919 by a subservient Persian government.

In a few months, however, the situation had entirely altered. Curzon’s self-congratulations over his diplomatic masterpiece were premature. The Treaty had not yet been ratified. While it was being concluded, Denikin was advancing on Moscow, the Bolsheviks were in extremities and British troops in Transcaucasia still guarded the northern frontier of Persia. Protests by Persian nationalists were overborne. But by the following spring Denikin had been put to flight, the Red Army in pursuit entered Baku, which British troops had just left, crossed the Caspian, landed on Persian territory and pushed the scanty British force into the interior.

The combination of Communist propaganda and pressure by the Red Army was irresistible. Persian nationalists, listening to Soviet manifestoes and deciding that Russian imperialism constituted a lesser threat to their aims than British, gradually obtained the upper hand at Teheran and prevented ratification of the Anglo- Persian treaty. Ultimately the treaty was repudiated, in terms that added insult to injury, and a Persian-Soviet treaty substituted for it. Curzon’s discomfiture was complete and his exasperation at the Bolsheviks, for their share in the slaughter of his favourite offspring, bitter.” (K.W.B. Middleton, Britain and Persia, pp.125-6)

Lord Curzon’s desire for “a Moslem nexus of states” as a buffer against Russia began to unravel in 1920. In May the Bolsheviks attacked the strategic port of Enzeli on the Iranian Caspian forcing the surrender of the British garrison and fleet. The British failure to defend Persia shattered Curzon’s Anglo-Persian Treaty, which remained unratified as the Persians faith/fear in Britain began to dissolve. In February 1921 General Ironside, who had been brought in to restore order in the country organised the Reza Khan military coup to put in place a strongman administration, which he felt could be trusted to keep out the Bolsheviks, when Britain departed. But the new government repudiated the Agreement and turned to Bolshevik protection against British Imperialism in place of British “protection” against Russia.

Not only was Russia master of the Caucasus again, it had rolled back British Imperialism in Persia. And worse was to come a year later when Britain met a resurgent Turkey at Chanak and had to abandon the Treaty it had sought to impose on the Turks and conclude a new one at the conference table at Lausanne.

In November 1920 Stalin stated:

“The importance of the Caucasus for the Revolution is determined not only by the fact that it is a source of raw materials, fuel, and food supplies, but also by its position between Europe and Asia, between Russia and Turkey in particular: and also by the presence of most important economic and strategic roads (Batum-Baku, Batum-Tabriz, Batum-Tabriz-Erzurum). All of this is taken into account by the Entente, which, possessing at present Constantinople, that key to the Black Sea, would like to keep a direct road to the Orient through Transcaucasia. 

Who shall finally establish himself in the Caucasus? Who shall use the oil, the most important roads leading into the depth of Asia, the Revolution or the Entente? – that is the whole question.” (J.V. Stalin, Sochineniia, Vol. IV, p.408)

The answer was the Revolution. Britain had lost the Caucasus to Bolshevik Russia.

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