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Armenia Azerbaijan Geopolitics Russia

Karabakh: How colonisation and ethnic cleansing made the Armenian “majority”

Armenian colonists being transported by the Russians to settle Karabakh and Erivan

During a TV interview with the Azerbaijan President this week the German presenter asserted that historians had concluded that Karabakh was historically an Armenian area and Armenians were a majority within it. President Aliyev quite correctly countered this assertion with the question “which historians?” and pointed out that history is often written with a political agenda in mind. And, of course, most of what is loosely called “history” with regard to Karabakh has been written by Armenians with the intention of constructing an argument in favour of their people controlling the place called Karabakh.

Such has been the success of Armenian propaganda that this notion of Karabakh being historically Armenian is simply taken for granted, factual knowledge in the West. However, quite the contrary is actually the case.

Leaving aside the fantasies of great Armenian kingdoms stretching thousands of miles across Anatolia and the Southern Caucasus since time immemorial, if we look at the evidence of recent history we see that there is little to support the Armenian version of history about Karabakh. And we can do so largely through the use of Russian, British and Armenian accounts.

What we find in these sources is that although there was probably an Armenian presence in the area called Karabakh for centuries it was never the dominant or most substantial element. Only comparatively recently, during the 20th Century, as a result of a Russian colonisation process over generations did Armenians come to form the majority in the highland areas of Karabakh (Nagorno Karabakh).

The Muslim Khanates

The Eastern part of the Anatolian high-plateau and the Southern Caucasus region, containing a Christian Armenian population, was divided between the Ottomans and the Persians from the 16th Century. This division, defined in the Amasya and the Qasr-i Shirin peace treaties, existed until the Russian conquest as a result of the wars with Persia/Iran in 1804-1813 and 1826-1828.

Baku, Quba, Sheki, Shamakhi, Karabagh, Nakhchivan and Erivan were all Muslim khanates during the 18thCentury with predominantly Muslim populations. There were minorities of Georgians, Armenians and Jews within these khanates, and some had powerful chiefs over their peoples, but the khanates were Muslim entities and recognised as such by all significant external interests (Audrey Altstadt, The Azerbaijani Turks, p.8.)

Svante Cornell, the Swedish scholar, describes the character of these khanates, including Karabakh, in the following passage:

“From the early sixteenth century, the ruling dynasty of Iran—the Safavid—was in fact a Turkic dynasty. During the subsequent 200 years, Azerbaijan remained stable under Safavid rule. However, the Safavid dynasty fell in 1722 and the empire disintegrated… The Azerbaijani areas of the empire disintegrated into more or less independent khanates. These were organized on the model of the Iranian monarchy, and their financial base was state ownership of land. Tribalism was still an important factor, as members of a tribe living in an area formed the constituent territorial units of the khanates. Although the Azeri language was already widely used as literary language in the fifteenth century (i.e. before the Safavid era) there was no tradition of unity or common state. Further the population on Azeri territory was not (and is still not) homogeneous. There were Armenians, Lezgins, Talysh and Kurds inhabiting the area and forming sizable minorities. The consequence was that Azerbaijan was divided into almost twenty khanates; needless to say, this fact facilitated Russia’s manipulation of the local leaders, in conformity with its traditional policy of ‘divide and rule’.” Svante E. Cornell, Small Nations and Great Powers: A Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict in the Caucasus, p.21.)

Sir John MacNeill, the British Envoy to Tehran, writing in 1836, when more Armenians had been brought to Karabakh, gave this interesting description of the character of the khanates:

“By the treaty of Goolistan Persia had ceded, and Russia had acquired, Georgia, Immeretia, Mingrelia, Derbend, Badkoo, and all Persian Daghistan, Sheerwan, Shekkee, Ganja, Karabaugh, and parts of Moghan and Talish. Of these, the first three were inhabited chiefly by Christians of the Georgian and Armenian churches. Karabaugh was partly Christian and partly Mahommedan; but the population of the others was chiefly, and of some almost exclusively, Mahommedan. Each of these latter divisions had been held by a chief, whose dignity was hereditary in his family, and whose relations to the superior government and to the population subjected to his authority resembled, in many respects, that of a feudal baron in Europe. He possessed a jurisdiction nearly absolute in his own khanate, or barony, maintained a number of troops for the defence of his country, paid a fixed revenue to the crown, furnished a stated number of horse or foot, or both, to serve the sovereign in his wars, and himself attended when he was summoned.” (Sir John MacNeill, Progress and Present Position of Russia in the East, pp. 66-7.

These autonomous khanates were, to some extent, buffers between the Russians in the North and the Iranians to the South. They had availed of the turmoil in Iran during the second half of the 18th Century to break free of the Shah, before Aga Muhammad Khan succeeded in bringing them back under Persian influence in the 1790s. However, caught between two more powerful countries their existence was precarious.

With the absorption of Georgia by Russia in 1800 the khanates room for manoeuvre was drastically curtailed and their days were numbered.

The Russians moved across the Mountains from Daghestan into the Southern Caucasus. In January 1804, General Pavel Tsitsianov attacked and captured Ganje, the key to opening the way to the northern provinces of Iran. General Tsitsianov’s army overran the Ganje khanate, killing the Khan and around 3,000 of his people. This demonstration of brutal force was meant by Tsitsianov to be an example to the other Khans – resist and you will perish.

After the destruction of Ganje, the Karabakh, Shusha, Sheki and Shirvan Khanates surrendered to Russian suzerainty, with the Khans signing letters of concession to the Tsar, drafted by General Tsitsianov. The Khanates were occupied without the use of any further force and became vassalages under the control of the Russian military commander. The khans were provided with a personal salary by the Tsar and continued to have control of their internal affairs, but had to pay tribute and accept stationed Russian garrisons. (Tadeusz Swietochowski, Russia and Azerbaijan, p.4.)

The ruler of Karabakh, Ibrahim Khalil Khan, was forced to sign a treaty with Russia, under Oath. The articles of the Treaty of Kurakchay made the Karabakh Khanate a Russian protectorate, with the Khan renouncing the right to treat with other parties. Along with vassalage the Khan had to pay Russia a large annual tribute and accept a unit of Russian soldiers stationed at the Shusha fortress.

The significant thing about the Treaty of Kurakchay is that there is no mention of Armenians in it. The Russians acknowledged, in receiving the title deeds, that this was a Muslim Khanate. Any Armenians that resided within it were considered to have no great significance and certainly it was not regarded by anyone as an Armenian territory. (The text of the treaty can be found here.)

In October 1813 the Persians signed the Treaty of Gullistan with Russia, after defeat in the first Russian/Iranian war (1804-13). With the signing of this Treaty, the Khanates extending from Derbend and Baku, to Ganja and Karabakh were added to the Russian Empire. So, Eastern Georgia, Daghestan, and the Azerbaijani lands North of the Araxes River (Baku, Shirvan, Derbent, Karabakh, Ganje, Shaki, Talysh and Quba Khanates) were taken by the Tsar, leaving most Azerbaijani Turks to this day in Iran. Gullistan was a kind of armistice rather than a final settlement between Russia and Iran. It was an interlude that was ended when the Iranians began a second war to regain the lost territory from Russia.

After losing the second round of war with Russia, Persia surrendered all territories to the north of the Araxes River in the Treaty of Turkmanchai of 1828. This Treaty confirmed the placing of the Northern Azerbaijani Khanates under Russian rule.

Armenians as a Colonising Element

One of the most significant aspects of the Treaties of Gullistan and Turkmanchai was St. Petersburg’s use of the Armenian populace to create a Christian buffer-zone along her expanded borders with Ottoman Turkey and Iran. This had the effect of separating Caucasian Moslems from their co-religionists in the two great Moslem states. Between the late 18th Century and the dawn of the 20th Century Russia resettled and concentrated a large number of Christian Armenians in this buffer zone, using the Armenians as a colonising element among the Moslem populace and producing significant demographic changes in the region. (Galina M. Yemelianova, The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict in the Context of Muslim-Christian Relations, Caucasus International Journal, Vol. 7, No.2, Winter 2017, p.126.)

It was Peter the Great who first saw the potential of using the Christian Armenian population across the Caucasus for the purposes of Russian expansionism and control. Peter was the first Tsar to order the resettlement of newly occupied Moslem territories with various Christian populations.

Catherine the Great’s rule featured the “Eastern System” of Prince Potemkin, including a fortified line in the North Caucasus colonised by Cossacks, and the establishment of a navy to control the Caspian. Potemkin wished to employ the Christian Georgians and Armenians as advance guards of Tsarist expansion toward Constantinople. The Prince sent a letter to the Armenian Catholicos Luke assuring him of Russian determination to put an end to Moslem authority. Potemkin wanted to establish the significant Armenian minority in control of the strategically valuable Khanate of Karabakh to create a Christian state in the locality, joined with Erivan. (Abgar Ioanissian, Rossiya i armanskoe osvoboditelnoe dvizheniye, p. 80, Cited in Farid Shafiyev, The Russian-Soviet Resettlement Policies and their Implications for Ethno-Territorial Conflicts in the South Caucasus, p.43.)

Luigi Villari, who later observed the terrible massacres of 1905-1906 in Baku and elsewhere, noted:

“The wily Romanoffs saw in the Armenian people a most useful instrument for the advancement of their Middle and Near Eastern policy, a race widely scattered over the dominions of Turkey and Persia who might be employed against those powers at the opportune moment. Armenians were granted many exemptions and privileges and admitted into the ranks of the Russian army and public service, while Armenian commercial colonies were established in all the chief towns of the Empire. Peter’s successors followed a similar policy and the immigration of Armenians continued and increased.” (Luigi Villari, Fire and Sword in the Caucasus, p.145.)

The advance of Russia and its increasing military prestige were welcomed by the widely spread Armenian minority, particularly those already inhabiting the districts of Tiflis and Karabakh. In Karabagh, although the Armenians were a small minority, the Russians found it easiest to rule the region through the Armenian nobility, who were dependent upon Tsarist power, and the Russians took steps to enhance the position of the community there. (George Bournoutian, ‘Eastern Armenia from the Seventeenth Century to the Russian Annexation,’ in The Armenian People from Ancient to Modern Times, ed. Richard G. Hovannisian, pp. 81-107.)

During the first Russo-Persian war local Armenians contacted the Tsar’s agents in Southern Caucasia and provided valuable information about the movement of Iranian forces. (AKAK, Vol. II, 1868, p. 290. Cited in Stephen B. Riegg, Claiming the Caucasus: Russia’s Imperial Encounter with Armenians, 1801-1894, pp.47-8.)

In June 1805, a year after the failed Russian assault on the Erivan fortress, Tsitsianov sought to recruit Armenians residing in mountainous Karabakh. He goaded the Karabakh Armenians about their past “famous bravery” and questioned whether they had lately become “womanly, like those Armenians who engage only in commerce.” (AKAK, Vol. II, 1868, p.833.) Tsitsianov urged the Karabakh Armenians to attack any retreating Persian forces after Russian assaults. By the end of 1805 the Tsarist Army had gained control of Karabakh, with the collaboration of local Armenians. (RGVIA, f. 482, op. 1, d. 200, l. 2. Cited in Stephen B. Riegg, Claiming the Caucasus: Russia’s Imperial Encounter with Armenians, 1801-1894, pp.47-8.)

Russia looked to the local Armenian population to entrench its gains in the Southern Caucasus. The Tsar relied on the eager participation of the Armenians to advance further into Persian territory and to settle the newly conquered lands. Many Armenian meliks answered the Tsar’s call by defecting from Persia to Russia’s service with their Armenian peasants. (AKAK, vol. III, 1869, pp. 235-36.) In the latter stages of the war, with the Persians on the retreat, Armenians in Persia were often forcibly resettled in Russian territory. In one example, during December 1812, the Russians “liberated” 3,000 Armenian families near Lankoran and brought them for resettlement to Karabakh. (RGVIA, f. 482, op. 1, d. 23, ll. 1-1ob.)

Stephen Badalyan Riegg, the US/Armenian scholar, notes:

“Active Armenian participation in the Russian war effort in 1804-13 manifested itself primarily in the form of intelligence gathering. Broadly speaking, these activities fell into two categories: Persian Armenians sneaking out of Yerevan and other Persian territories into Russian camps with information, and Russian officials dispatching Armenians on specific espionage missions… Successive tsarist commanders relied on the reports and information provided by Armenians to formulate strategy, ascertain Persian and Ottoman actions, and communicate with entities where the Russian presence was impossible.” (Stephen B. Riegg, Claiming the Caucasus: Russia’s Imperial Encounter with Armenians, 1801-1894, p.63.)

Along with “Armenians’ active participation in the Russian war effort in the South Caucasus—from Karabakh Armenians’ fighting alongside Tsitsianov’s army to their espionage for Gudovich” the Armenians were viewed as “St. Petersburg’s key regional ally” setting the stage “for a partnership that would remain intact for several decades.” (Ibid, p.65.)

At the beginning of the second Russo-Persian War of 1826-8, Archbishop Nerses of Ashtarak encouraged the Armenian community of Tiflis, Ganja, Karabakh, Shaki, Shamakhi, Baku and Derbend provinces to fight with the Tsar’s Caucasus Corps against the Iranians. Nerses created an Armenian national flag and assisted in the formation of an Armenian volunteer militia, under the leadership of Armenian ecclesiastics. These militias fought with the Russian army in the battles of Oshakan, Ashtarak, and Echmiadzin. In May 1827, hundreds of Armenian soldiers deserted the Iranian garrison of Erivan, and went over to the Russian army. This incident forced the Iranians to cease recruiting the Armenians for military forces. (George Bournoutian, ‘The Armenian Church and the Political Formation of Eastern Armenia,’ AR 36, no. 3, 1983: p. 13.)

The Armenian Colonisation of Karabakh

Article XV of the Treaty of Turkmanchai allowed for the large-scale movement of Christian Armenians from Persia into Erivan and Nakhchivan. The areas which were incorporated into the Russian Empire as Moslem Khanates, with only small numbers of Armenian subjects, began to experience significant demographic change under the Russian conquest.

Sir John MacNeill, former British minister at Teheran, noted the Tsar’s role in this forced migration, aimed at building up the Armenian colony around Erivan. The biggest concentration of Armenians in the south Caucasus was in the Erivan Khanate, where they had made up about 20% of the total population. In this Khanate, in Etchmiadzin, was located the seat of the head of the Armenian Church, the Catholicos:

“The Emperor Nicholas… removed partly by force, and partly by the influence of the priest-hood, many thousand families of Armenians from the Turkish provinces in Asia to his own territories, as he had already moved nearly an equal number from Persia, — Cleaving whole districts depopulated, and sacrificing, by the fatigues and privations of the compulsory march, the aged and infirm, the weak and the helpless.” (Sir John MacNeill, Progress and Present Position of Russia in the East, pp.105-6.)

This was the start of the population change in the Caucasus, beginning in 1828-9, when for the first time the Armenian population began to rise above the 25 per cent level. As Svante E. Cornell noted:

“… a majority of the Armenians in the Caucasus lived scattered in the numerous Azerbaijani khanates, notably in the khanates of Yerevan, Karabakh and Nakhchivan… Armenians were to play a crucial role throughout the entire period of Russian rule in the Caucasus, being loyal allies and occupying important positions in the administration… Russia consistently tried to alter the demographic conditions in the South Caucasus, by inciting Muslim Azeris to leave, and welcoming Christian Armenians in great numbers.” (Svante E. Cornell, Small Nations and Great Powers: A Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict in the Caucasus, pp.19-20. Tadeusz Swietochowski, Russia and Azerbaijan, p. 11.)

Following the second Russo-Persian war, the question of how to keep the newly annexed regions secure emerged. The Russian historian, I.I. Shavrov estimated that between 1828-1830, 40,000 Armenians moved to Transcaucasia from Iran and around 80,000 arrived from the Ottoman territories, to be settled in the Elizavetpol (Ganja) and Erivan gubernias. He noted the important implication of this by 1911: 

“Out of the 1,300,000 Armenians who now live in the Transcaucasus over 1,000,000 are newcomers. Russia moved them there.” (I.I. Shavrov, New Challenges to the Russian Cause in the Transcaucasus—Upcoming Sale of Mugan to Aliens, pp.59-60.)

In the five or so years from 1828, around 140,000 Armenian migrated to the Russian Transcaucasia, of whom 100,000 came from the Eastern Ottoman territories and 40,000 were from Northern Persia. General Paskevich advised Armenian delegations he met in Iran that the right to resettle in Russian Transcaucasia had been guaranteed by Article XV of the Treaty of Turkmanchai. Paskevich advised all Armenians to migrate over the border as soon as possible, before the departure of Russian forces. The mass resettlement was organised by the Russian military.

The Armenians were not always enthusiastic migrants. Many, happily living in Northern Persia, had to leave behind homes, property, gardens and land. Cossacks were sometimes moved in to “encourage” them to move to Russian territory by General Paskevich. (Firouzeh Mostashari, On the Religious Frontier: Tsarist Russia and Islam in the Caucasus, p.42.)

These Armenian migrants were encouraged to settle in the newly captured territories of Erivan, Nakhchivan or Karabagh. General Lazar Lazarev, an ethnic Armenian, whom General Paskevich had appointed to organise the mass resettlement, issued a proclamation in April 1828 stating that Armenian migrants could choose to settle in Erivan, Nakhchivan or Karabagh, where they would be given fertile land on which they were required to pay only one-tenth of the produce of their farms in taxes.

During the Soviet period, in 1978, to mark the 150th anniversary of their resettlement from Iran, Armenians erected a monument in Maraga, Karabakh. However, in 1988 it was destroyed by the secessionist Armenian nationalists, presumably to obliterate the recent origins of the populace and maintain the false narrative of an ancient and original possessor of the territory. (Farid Shafiyev, The Russian-Soviet Resettlement Policies and their Implications for Ethno-Territorial Conflicts in the South Caucasus, footnote 238, p.86.)

The Armenian settlers were awarded an exemption from taxes for six years and provided financial assistance. Those who owned property could send their families on ahead while sales were facilitated. Lazarev distributed subsidies among the Armenians as a big incitement to emigrate and there were reports of forced uprooting of Armenian settlements by the Russians. General Paskevich instructed the Russian administration in Nakhchivan and Erivan to settle Armenians by whole villages and not to mix them with the Muslim populace. In addition, Etchmiadzin ordered that all priests leave Iranian territory or face the loss of position and be punished in the afterlife.(SAOKOIAN, Vol. 2, pp.159-160. Cited in Farid Shafiyev, The Russian-Soviet Resettlement Policies and their Implications for Ethno-Territorial Conflicts in the South Caucasus, p.85.)

According to Lazarev himself, in just over three months, between the end of February and early June 1828, he managed to relocate over 8,000 Armenian families. The vast majority of around 40,000 people were directed to the Armenian and Nakhichevan oblasti, with the rest of the migrants sent to Karabakh. (RGIA, f. 383, op. 29, d. 539, ll. 12-13. RGIA, f. 383, op. 29, d. 539, l. 9ob. Sergei Glinka, Opisanie pereseleniia armiian, p. 87. Cited in Stephen B. Riegg, Claiming the Caucasus: Russia’s Imperial Encounter with Armenians, 1801-1894, pp.128-9.)

This had obvious repercussions for the ethnic/religious make-up of these two regions that were to become the cause of dispute for generations. In their objections to the influx of Christian settlers, native Muslim inhabitants complained to the Tsarist authorities that they had been “deprived of all means of farming, and thus of feeding their families in the future.” (NAA, f. 90, op. 1, d. 435, l. 50.)

The influx of Armenians into these areas had the effect of precipitating the departure of native Moslems, who migrated toward the territories of the Shah and the Sultan, with Shi’ites tending to go South to Persia and Sunnis West to the Ottoman Empire. Many of the uprooted Moslems, from the Nakhchivan and Ordubad regions, left behind their abandoned homes and fields. (NAA, f. 90, op. 1, d. 448, ll. 7-7ob.)

Bournoutian, analysing Persian and Russian sources to estimate the population change as a result of Tsarist conquest estimated that 26,000 or around 30 per cent of the Moslem population of the Erivan Khanate died or migrated out, and around 45,000 Armenians migrated in by 1832. (George Bournoutian, Eastern Armenia in the Last Decades of Persian Rule, 1807-1828, p.69.)

Over the following century more than a million Armenians were resettled in the Southern Caucasus, many of them in mountainous Karabakh, where there had been only around 19,000 Armenians to 35,000 Moslems in the 1830s. (J.F. Baddeley, The Russian Conquest of the Caucasus, pp. 67-76.)

Svante E. Cornell writes:

“… immediately after the treaty (of Turkmanchay), Russia encouraged and organized a population exchange. Thus, huge number of Armenians left Persian and Ottoman lands to settle in the Russian Caucasus, and respectively large numbers of Muslims left the South Caucasus for areas under Persian or Ottoman control. According to Russian census reports, the Armenian population in Karabakh represented 9 per cent of the total in 1823 (the remaining 91 per cent being registered as ‘Muslims’), 35 per cent in 1832, and a majority of 53 per cent in 1880… the figures for Mountainous Karabakh remain unknown; it is nevertheless certain that the overall increase in Armenian population was due to an increasing migration of Armenians to Mountainous Karabakh or an exodus of Muslims from the region. The process accelerated after every Russo-Turkish war (1855–56 and 1877– 78) as Russians saw the Azeris as generally unreliable and as potential allies to the Turks, given their ethno-linguistic affinities. In contrast, the Armenians were seen as Russia’s natural allies in the region, devoted to the tsar, and reliable. In a sense, then, Armenians were favoured by the authorities and even took up important positions in the administration of the region… Armenians left Turkey whereas numerous Azeris, in particular Sunni Azeris, migrated from the Caucasus to the Ottoman Empire. By the turn of the century, there were over 1,200,000 Armenians in the South Caucasus.” (Svante E. Cornell, Small Nations and Great Powers: A Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict in the Caucasus, p.54.)

Karabakh was about 80 per cent Muslim in 1823, according to Russian sources. (Nigar Gozalova, The Karabakh Issue in Relation with Armenia and AzerbaijanAVIM Conference Book, No.24, 2019, p.39.) After the liquidation of the Karabakh khanate it was administered by the head of the military district of the ‘Transcaucasian Moslem Countries’. In 1840 it was transformed into Shusha uyezd, and later became part of the Elizavetpol province. Karabakh became the centre of territorial conflict between the Armenians and Moslems of the area:

The province of Karabakh was divided into two parts – the mountainous region and lowlands. The mountainous part of Karabakh was a commanding and strategically important area. Its landscape provided a military advantage to local Armenian elites – the maliks – in defending their position against the mostly Muslim lowlands. During the siege of the fortress of Shusha by the Iranians, one of the main reasons behind the successful defence by the commander of the garrison, Colonel Reutt, was the assistance provided by the local Armenians inhabiting the area in the vicinity of the fortress. According to a Russian survey, while the Armenian population was plentiful in the mountainous areas, the Muslims formed the majority of the rest of the Transcaucasian Khanates as well as in the lowlands of Karabakh in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. (George Bournoutian, The 1823 Russian Survey of the Karabagh Province: A Primary Source on the Demography and Economy of Karabagh in the Early 19th Century.)

Along with the Armenian inward migration to Karabakh and other areas there was a corresponding Moslem exodus to both Persia and Ottoman Anatolia. Between the 1780s and 1914 around 6 million Moslems fled from the Ottoman Empire’s borderlands to the Anatolian provinces. Population movement in Eastern Transcaucasia, which generally meant an immigration of Armenians and an emigration of Moslems, increased during the Crimean War of 1853-56, and after, and the 1876-78 Russian-Turkish War. But it was not until nearly 1880 that the Armenian population of the Erivan province reached a solid majority. (Nigar Gozalova, The Karabakh Issue in Relation with Armenia and AzerbaijanAVIM Conference Book, No.24, 2019, p.42 and p.74. In 1897 Moslems constituted 53 per cent and around 55 per cent in 1916.)

Shavrov, who was involved in colonial policy in the Tsar’s administration summarised the effects of the Russian colonisation process in Transcaucasia in ‘A New Challenge to the Russian Issue in Transcaucasia’ in 1911:

“From 1828 to 1830 we resettled more than 40,000 Iranian and 84,000 Turkish Armenians to Transcaucasia and placed them in the best state lands in the provinces of Yelizavetpol and Iravan, where the number of Armenians was insignificant… The mountainous part of Yelizavetpol province and banks of the Goyja were settled by these Armenians. It is necessary to keep in mind that apart from 124,000 Armenians, which were resettled officially, a great number of Armenians settled there unofficially, so the total number of settlers considerably exceeds 200,000…

The successful end of the Turkish war of 1877-1878 brought about an influx of new settlers from Asia Minor, about 50,000 Armenians and 40,000 Greeks settled in the Kars province, and the empty province got sufficiently great numbers of foreign populations. Moreover, General Tergukasov brought 35,000 Turkish Armenians to the Surmali uezd, all of whom remained in the area.

After this, a continuous flow of Armenians from Asia Minor started… During the course of Armenian disturbances in 1893-1894, the Armenians moved on an even larger scale. At the time of arrival of Prince C.S. Golitsyn, the newly appointed commander-in-chief, in 1897, the number of resettled Armenians was not 10,000 as in 1894 but about 90,000… of 1,300,000 Armenians now living in Transcaucasia, more than 1,000,000 don’t belong to the number of indigenous inhabitants and were settled here by us.” (N. Shavrov, A New Challenge to the Russian Issue in Transcaucasia; Upcoming Sale of Mughan to Foreigners, pp.59-60.)

An Armenian majority in what is now the Armenian Republic only became a majority through the Russian conquest, Armenian colonisation and the displacement of the original Moslem inhabitants. As a result of this Russian plantation and subsequent attritional factors by 1900 the Armenian population of Russian Caucasus had reached 1.3 million. (Tadeusz Swietochowski, Russia and Azerbaijan, p.11.)

Effects of the Colonisation

The Armenian colonisation organised by the Tsarist state was a sometimes informal colonial policy, instituted by the military governors of Transcaucasia, and it was inconsistent, ebbing and flowing according to events and improvised decision making. However, it was still very real in its effects.

Sir John MacNeill described accurately the effect of the change in power relations brought about by the Russian conquest of the Southern Caucasus:

“In most of the provinces the Mahommedans had been the rulers and the Christians their subjects. When the power of Russia was consolidated, the Christians naturally became the favoured people, and domineered over their former masters with senseless insolence, scoffed at their religious rites, and were even known to interrupt their most sacred ceremonies. The Musselman saw a mosque converted into a stable and another into a tavern, and was taunted by the Armenians with the premeditated insult they had offered to his faith.” (Sir John MacNeill, Progress and Present Position of Russia in the East, p.73)

The Armenian migrants settled on Crown lands or bought out Moslems with Russian subsidies. However, despite the population displacement, relations between the communities were generally tolerant, with little evidence of serious conflict. This may have been because separate settlements were established that mitigated against territorial rivalry. Also, the Armenians were not so different from the Moslems, being an Asiatic/Oriental people rather than European. There had indeed, already been long-standing Armenian settlement in the area. It was the Russian presence that was seen as more alien. (Tadeusz Swietochowski, Russia and Azerbaijan, p.11.)

The cause of serious conflict lay in the future with the development of nationalism, particularly the Armenian variety of the Dashnaktsutiun, and Western encouragement of the Christian Armenians to be a Western people, with a special status above the rest of the population, in a potential nation-building project.

Below is a later Dashnaktsutiun account of these events, from Dr. Pasdermadjian, from 1919:

“The part of Armenia that is under Russian sway is included in the Transcaucasian Provinces of Russia. It was conquered by the Russians in the early part of the nineteenth century and wrested from Persia. Before the Russian conquest Transcaucasia was divided between a number of Khanates and Melikates (small self-governing principalities). The Khans were Tartars by origin and ruled mostly over Tartars, while the Meliks were Armenian feudal lords, and their domination extended over the Armenian districts of Carabagh. All these different principalities were tributary to the Persian Government. Neighbouring these dependencies to the northwest there existed a Georgian Kingdom, including the present Provinces of Tifiis and Kubias. Georgia, being squeezed in between two powerful Moslem countries like Persia and Turkey, and subject to permanent attacks from these quarters, appealed toward the end of the eighteenth, century, to the Empress Catherine for protection and help. At this juncture, in the year 1787, the Armenian Meliks of Carabagh took occasion to send a delegation to the Russian court praying for Russian assistance against Tartar neighbours, who were in constant conflict with them.

The Russian Government promised immediate help to both Armenians and Georgians, and, moreover, undertook, in so far as the Armenians were concerned, to free them from Persian domination and to organize a new Armenian State made up of the Armenian Provinces under the suzerainty of Russia.

Encouraged by these promises, both Armenians and Georgians placed all their military forces at the disposal of Russia and powerfully contributed to bring about the conquest of Transcaucasia from Persia. But, unfortunately, the solemn promises of the Empress Catherine were not fulfilled, and the conquered territory was brought under Russian sway. It was through the enforcement of this method that Georgia and part of historic Armenia, including Echmiadzin, the seat of the supreme head of the Armenia church and nation, were annexed by Russia.” (Garegin Pasdermadjian, Armenia and her Claims to Freedom and National Independence, pp.9-10.)

There is an acknowledgement in this passage that it was Muslim Khanates that gave way to the Russian conquest. But there is also an attempt to distort history by suggesting that Karabakh was an Armenian enclave. In fact, Karabakh had been an independent Khanate in the period 1743-1805. Ibrahim Khalil Khan, the ruler of Karabakh, had successfully resisted a large Persian army from his Shusha stronghold in the 1790s, and it was he who signed the Kurakchay Treaty on 14 May 1805, which ceded hegemony to the Russians. At this time there were certainly an Armenian populace in Karabakh, and particularly the most mountainous part. But they would have represented only a minority of the population of the Khanate. (Aydin Aslanov, Karabakh as Independent Khanate, 1747-1805, pp. 4-11 and Jamil Hasanli, How Karabakh Khanate was Joined to the Russian Empire: Historical Myths and Realities, IRS, No.1, 2012, pp.15-21.)

It is interesting that Pasdermadjian gives the credit to the Armenians for inviting the Russians into the Caucasus, and for placing themselves at the Tsar’s disposal for a military conquest. Bournoutian’s research supports Pasdermadjian’s claim. It is, however, curious why this should be a cause for boasting.

The Armenian dream of an autonomous Armenia under the supervision of the Church, guarding the Tsar’s frontier, went unrealised. Eastern Armenia was for a short time in the 1830s re-named the Armianskaia Oblast, creating the impression of semi-autonomy. However, St. Petersburg soon grew uncomfortable that this policy might be misinterpreted, and in 1844 the entire region of the Southern Caucasus was re-organized into the Russian Caucasian Region with Tiflis as its administrative centre and seat of the Russian Viceroy. 

Russia also disappointed the Armenians in Karabagh. Despite its significant Armenian population, Karabagh became part of the Muslim Province, which included the territories of the Khanates of Shirvan, Shakī, Qubā, and parts of Talish, after Russian conquest.  This was partly because of the treaty which Russia made with Ibrahim Khan of Karabagh in 1805, which guaranteed his family the governorship of the region in exchange for becoming a Russian vassal. But the inclusion of Karabagh in the Muslim province was to be one of the most significant legacies of the Tsarist conquest, which the Armenians spent two centuries attempting to undo.

The Tsars’ attempts at colonisation of the Caucasus with Russians largely failed and settlers returned to Russia. The Russians that were settled proved to be unsuitable colonising material.

So, Russia had, instead, to settle and concentrate Christian Armenians as a colonial element in the region and over a million Armenians were planted in the Southern Caucasus during the 19th Century. The period during the final Russian-Persian war of 1826-8 and after, saw a large migration of Muslims out of Erivan Province and its occupation by Armenian settlers. The wars of 1855-56 and 1877-78 resulted in further migrations turning Erivan from an Iranian Province with a Moslem majority in 1820 to a Russian Province with a slight Christian majority by the end of the century. Karabakh similarly, in which around 10 per cent of the population were probably Christian in 1820, had begun to develop a Christian majority by the start of the 20th Century. (George Bournoutian, Eastern Anatolia in the Last Decades of Persian Rule, 1807-1828, pp.69-74)

The claim of “self-determination” for the Armenians of Karabakh is negated by the processes by which they became a majority in this territory. Majorities formed by colonisation and ethnic cleansing of local populations are not legitimate in exercising such a right.

Ethnically Cleansed Occupied Provinces (1988-2020)

Gubadli – 1988 population 38,543/33,704 displaced Azeris

Fuzulii – 1988 population 125,181/117,918 displaced Azeris

Jabrayil – 1988 population 72,753/69,000 displaced Azeris

Agdam – 1988 population 204,015/149,697 displaced Azeris

Khojaly – 1988 population 16,425/11,629 displaced Azeris

Kalbajar – 1988 population 77,488/71,458 displaced Azeris

Zangilan – 1988 population 42,487/38,982 displaced Azeris

Shusha – 1988 population 34,679/30,397 displaced Azeris

Lachin – 1988 population 78,565/74,145 displaced Azeris

Khojavend – 1988 population 12,735/11,104 displaced Azeris

For more information see Great Britain against Russia in the Caucasus; Ottoman Turks, Armenians and Azerbaijanis caught up in Geopolitics, War and Revolution (Manzara-verlag, 2020)

13 replies on “Karabakh: How colonisation and ethnic cleansing made the Armenian “majority””

Oh my God. I can’t believe my eyes that there are such people who is doing a thorough research before pointing finger out Azerbaijan. Unfortunately, today in the western media has a kind of tone that Azerbaijan doesn’t ‘deserve’ Nagorno Karabagh, etc. as if we had done ethnic cleansing to Armenians.
Thanks for your research, and article. Very informative.

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Didn’t need to read anything past the moronic headline written by a “dr”. However, only a complete imbecile would write this drivel, and an even bigger imbecile believes it. Tell us “dr”, why is your “research” more valid than WRITTEN, ESTABLISHED AND RECORDED history? Azerbaijan never existed in history as a country in any shape or form, until genocidal Turks decided to conjure it up in 1920. Everything else is just noise.

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Your research should go back to the 1600 hundreds. You will see the Armenians are the indigebous peoples or Artsakh, Karabakh.

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Great work, Dr. Walsh! Thank you very much for this detailed and/or scrutinized information you provided in the article. All these facts and sources are very valuable. I appreciate it!

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Hi Pat Walsh,
Could you please include a link for the complete list of all the references and sources for this article. I am very interested, and would like to start a comprehensive research for this article, and then switch to some others.
Thanks,
Ruz

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This is from my book Great Britain against Russia in the Caucasus: Ottoman Turks, Armenians and Azerbaijanis caught up in Geopolitics, War and Revolution.’ pp.91-44. Main sources include: Svante E. Cornell, Small Nations and Great Powers: A Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict in the Caucasus, p.21. Sir John MacNeill, Progress and Present Position of Russia in the East, pp. 66-7. Elchin Garayev, ‘Relations between the Irevan khanate and the Ottoman Empire in the 2nd half of the 18th Century’, IRS No.39-40, 2019. Firouzeh Mostashari, On the Religious Frontier: Tsarist Russia and Islam in the Caucasus, p.13. Tadeusz Swietochowski, Russia and Azerbaijan, p.4. Keith E. Abbott, Extracts from a Memorandum on the Country of Azerbaijan, Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society, pp.275-6Sir Valentine Chirol, The Middle Eastern Question, p. 15. Alexis Sidney Krausse, Russia in Asia; A Record and a Study, 1558-1899. Galina M. Yemelianova, The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict in the Context of Muslim-Christian Relations, Caucasus International Journal, Vol. 7, No.2, Winter 2017, p.126. Sergei Soloviev, Istoriya Rossii, p. 687. Cited in Farid Shafiyev, The Russian-Soviet Resettlement Policies and their Implications for Ethno-Territorial Conflicts in the South Caucasus, pp.35-6. PhD thesis, Carleton University. Vasiliy Potto, Kavkazskaya voyna, Vol. 3, p. 720. Cited in Farid Shafiyev, The Russian-Soviet Resettlement Policies and their Implications for Ethno-Territorial Conflicts in the South Caucasus, pp.40-1.Abgar Ioanissian, Rossiya i armanskoe osvoboditelnoe dvizheniye, p. 80, Cited in Farid Shafiyev, The Russian-Soviet Resettlement Policies and their Implications for Ethno-Territorial Conflicts in the South Caucasus, p.43. Luigi Villari, Fire and Sword in the Caucasus, p.145. George Bournoutian, ‘Eastern Armenia from the Seventeenth Century to the Russian Annexation,’ in The Armenian People from Ancient to Modern Times, ed. Richard G. Hovannisian, pp. 81-107. AKAK, Vol. II (1868), p. 290. Cited in Stephen B. Riegg, Claiming the Caucasus: Russia’s Imperial Encounter with Armenians, 1801-1894, pp.47-8.
AKAK, Vol. II (1868), p.833. RGVIA, f. 482, op. 1, d. 200, l. 2. Cited in Stephen B. Riegg, Claiming the Caucasus: Russia’s Imperial Encounter with Armenians, 1801-1894, pp.47-8.Stephen B. Riegg, Claiming the Caucasus: Russia’s Imperial Encounter with Armenians, 1801-1894, pp.45-6. PhD thesis, University of North Carolina. RGVIA, f. 846, op. 16, d. 4265, l. 8. Cited in Stephen B. Riegg, Claiming the Caucasus: Russia’s Imperial Encounter with Armenians, 1801-1894, p.55. AKAK, vol. III (1869), pp. 235-36. RGVIA, f. 482, op. 1, d. 23, ll. 1-1ob.George Bournoutian, ‘The Armenian Church and the Political Formation of Eastern Armenia,’ AR 36, no. 3 (1983): p. 13. Jamil Hasanli, How Karabakh Khanate was Joined to the Russian Empire: Historical Myths and Realities, IRS, No.1, 2012, pp.15-21. W.E.D. Allen and Paul Muratoff, Caucasian Battlefields, p.43.Svante E. Cornell, Small Nations and Great Powers: A Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict in the Caucasus, pp.19-20. Tadeusz Swietochowski, Russia and Azerbaijan, p. 11. I.I. Shavrov, New Challenges to the Russian Cause in the Transcaucasus—Upcoming Sale of Mugan to Aliens, pp.59-60.Firouzeh Mostashari, On the Religious Frontier: Tsarist Russia and Islam in the Caucasus, p.42. Ronald Grigor Suny, ‘Eastern Armenians under Tsarist Rule’ in The Armenian People from Ancient to Modern Times, ed. Richard G. Hovannisian, pp. 109-37. Farid Shafiyev, The Russian-Soviet Resettlement Policies and their Implications for Ethno-Territorial Conflicts in the South Caucasus, footnote 238, p.86. SAOKOIAN, Vol. 2, pp.159-160. Cited in Farid Shafiyev, The Russian-Soviet Resettlement Policies and their Implications for Ethno-Territorial Conflicts in the South Caucasus, p.85. Serkan Keçeci, The Grand Strategy of the Russian Empire in the Caucasus against Its Southern Rivals (1821-1833), PhD Thesis, London School of Economics, pp.290-1. RGIA, f. 383, op. 29, d. 539, ll. 12-13. RGIA, f. 383, op. 29, d. 539, l. 9ob. Sergei Glinka, Opisanie pereseleniia armiian, p. 87. Cited in Stephen B. Riegg, Claiming the Caucasus: Russia’s Imperial Encounter with Armenians, 1801-1894, pp.128-9.NAA, f. 90, op. 1, d. 435, l. 50. NAA, f. 90, op. 1, d. 435, ll. 50-50ob. NAA, f. 90, op. 1, d. 448, ll. 7-7ob.
George Bournoutian, Eastern Armenia in the Last Decades of Persian Rule, 1807-1828, p.69. J.F. Baddeley, The Russian Conquest of the Caucasus, pp. 67-76.AKAK, IV,c.38-9. Nigar Gozalova, The Karabakh Issue in Relation with Armenia and Azerbaijan, AVIM Conference Book, No.24, 2019, p.39. Nigar Gozalova, The Karabakh Issue in Relation with Armenia and Azerbaijan, AVIM Conference Book, No.24, 2019, p.39. Svante E. Cornell, Small Nations and Great Powers: A Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict in the Caucasus, p.53. George Bournoutian, Eastern Armenia in the Last Decades of Persian Rule, 1807-1828, pp. 77-9. Nigar Gozalova, The Karabakh Issue in Relation with Armenia and Azerbaijan, AVIM Conference Book, No.24, 2019, p.42. In 1897 Moslems constituted 53 per cent and around 55 per cent in 1916.Ibid, p.74. N. Shavrov, A New Challenge to the Russian Issue in Transcaucasia; Upcoming Sale of Mughan to Foreigners, pp.59-60.Aydin Aslanov, Karabakh as Independent Khanate, 1747-1805, pp. 4-11 and Jamil Hasanli, How Karabakh Khanate was Joined to the Russian Empire: Historical Myths and Realities, IRS, No.1, 2012, pp.15-21Geoffrey Drage, Russian Affairs, pp.587-8. George Bournoutian, Eastern Anatolia in the Last Decades of Persian Rule, 1807-1828, pp.69-74, Svante Cornell, The Nagorno Karabagh Conflict, p.5 and Justin McCarthy, Death and Exile: The Ethnic Cleansing of Ottoman Muslims 1821-1922, p.31-2. Firouzeh Mostashari, On the Religious Frontier: Tsarist Russia and Islam in the Caucasus, p. 155.

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Thank you Pat, I am planning to start researching it, trying to contact anyone possible on your list and discuss it, me or anyone I manage to get interested in. I know it is going to take time, but I will try my best. My mission to myself is to make sure that academic involvement in the would is never biased, and based on science, facts and honesty (“hippocratic oath” 🙂 to history). Thanks again for the response!

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