Category Archives: Armenia

Calcutta’s Mix of Migrants

From The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta, by Kushanava Choudhury (Bloomsbury, 2018), Kindle Loc. approx. 1140-1150:

Calcutta was a collection of the whims of the communities who migrated there and became rich – Bengali and British, as well as Armenian, Jewish, Marwari, Bohra Muslim, Haka Chinese, Punjabi, Gujarati, Portuguese, Greek and Dutch. In Phoolbagan, within walking distance from my house, there were graveyards of Jews and Greeks, Chinese and Bohras. Their tombstones told of men and women who had been born in Budapest and Constantinople and died of cholera in Calcutta. Sumitro and I had walked the city’s streets, discovering airy Sephardic synagogues, Armenian churches, and temples to the Jain saint Mahavir. In the old Black Town, we had mingled with the deity-sculptors among the lanes of Kumortuli, communed at the annual chariot festival at the Marble Palace and witnessed clandestine human hook-swinging during the Raas festival.

Off Beadon Street, in Satubabu and Latubabu’s Bazar, so named after the two nineteenth-century Bengali business titans who founded it, metal hooks were dug into the backs of penitent believers and then hung from what looked a great balance scale made of bamboo. Then the hooked swung high in the air around the pivot of the scale, like giant gliding birds. The practice had been banned for nearly two hundred years, but it still took place, surreptitiously, in the heart of Calcutta.

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The Karabakhi Soviet’s Domino Effect, 1988

From Caucasus: An Introduction, by Thomas de Waal (Oxford U. Press, 2010), Kindle Loc. 1889-1922:

When Nagorny Karabakh became the Soviet Union’s first dissident region in February 1988, it took almost everybody by surprise. Within the space of a week, the Karabakh Armenians had broken a series of Soviet taboos, staging public rallies, strikes, and effectively a public vote of no confidence in Moscow. Many Azerbaijanis have seen a high-level conspiracy in this. They argue that a remote province such as Karabakh could only have risen up and challenged the status quo on the critical issue of national borders after receiving strong positive signals from the top. This speaks to Azerbaijani fears about the power of the Armenian lobby—and Gorbachev did indeed have two Armenian advisers. Yet the fact that Gorbachev decisively rejected the Karabakhis’ demand suggests that there was no conspiracy—more a tangle of misunderstandings and mixed messages. The Karabakh Armenians and their Armenian lobbyists believed they had much more support than they actually had.

On February 20, 1988, after a series of petitions had been presented in Moscow, Armenian deputies in the local soviet voted to ask the central authorities to facilitate the transfer of the region to Soviet Armenia. Azerbaijani deputies abstained. The Politburo immediately rejected the request and said the soviet’s actions “contradict the interests of the working people in Soviet Azerbaijan and Armenia and damage interethnic relations.” The local soviet’s bold resolution had repercussions for the whole Soviet Union. Soviets, the basic building-blocks of the USSR’s system of government, had nominal power but were in practice supposed to be mere rubber-stamping bodies. Once the Karabakh soviet had challenged that consensus and dusted off Lenin’s concept of “all power to the soviets,” the system faced paralysis. It was the first shot in a “war of laws” between Soviet institutions—later Azerbaijan’s Supreme Soviet would reject the Karabakhi move, and Armenia’s Supreme Soviet would support it. The deadlock soon spread to Georgia and later to Russia in what came to be known as a “parade of sovereignties,” as autonomous entities across the Soviet Union tried to reinvest power in institutions that had been mere façades since the 1920s.

Gorbachev faced a dilemma in dealing with the Karabakh revolt. To have agreed to the soviet’s demand would have set a precedent he did not want to see. To have arrested the demonstrators would have been risky and against the spirit of glasnost he was trying otherwise to inculcate in the Soviet Union. In the event, he tried to smother the problem. The official media remained silent about it. A battalion of 160 Soviet Interior Ministry troops was sent to Karabakh, and a Politburo delegation traveled to the region to try and talk sense into the rebels. Appeals were made to the “brotherly solidarity” of the two peoples.

Gorbachev was far more liberal than any other Soviet leader before him, but his response revealed the limitations of the Soviet political system. Real political dialogue had effectively been banned in the Soviet Union for more than sixty years. “I had hundreds of conversations,” said a Moscow official who traveled between Armenia and Azerbaijan seeking compromise on the Karabakh issue in 1988. “I didn’t meet a single Armenian or a single Azerbaijani who held a compromise position on this question, from shepherds to academicians.” The expectation was that Moscow would rule decisively in favor of one side or the other. The party authorities in Baku never thought of inviting the Karabakh Armenians for talks on their demands—even if they had been allowed to—while the Karabakh Armenians traveled to Moscow, not Baku, to push their claims. Within months, dissatisfied with Moscow’s handling of the national issue, Armenians and Azerbaijanis were burning their party cards and openly defying the central authorities. Karabakh also exposed the weakness of the interconnected Soviet command economy. One of the first strikes in the Soviet Union in almost seventy years, at an electronic parts factory in the Karabakhi capital, Stepanakert, slowed or halted production in sixty-five radio and television factories across the Soviet Union. The overall effect was that as soon as the rigid, authoritarian Soviet system was challenged in a comprehensive way, it suddenly looked very brittle.

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Genocide as a Weapon of National Identity

From Caucasus: An Introduction, by Thomas de Waal (Oxford U. Press, 2010), Kindle Loc. 1031-1055:

After years of nondialogue, some Armenian and Turkish historians began to find common ground in meetings in the late 1990s. Taboos of silence were broken, but some of the Turkish citizens who led the process paid a high price. The Nobel Prize–winning novelist Orhan Pamuk received death threats when he asked aloud why the Armenian massacres were not discussed. The Istanbul Armenian editor Hrant Dink, who had built bridges between the two communities and had been attacked by extremists on both sides, was murdered. His funeral was another landmark, as thousands of outraged Turks turned out in solidarity with the dead man. This in turn led to a courageous online signature campaign in which Turks endorsed a statement beginning “My conscience does not accept the insensitivity showed to and the denial of the Great Catastrophe that the Ottoman Armenians were subjected to in 1915.” As of October 2009, more than thirty thousand Turks had signed.

In October 2009 the two countries’ governments, signing the historic Protocol on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations Between the Republic of Turkey and the Republic of Armenia, agreed to set up a commission “on the historical dimension to implement a dialogue with the aim to restore mutual confidence between the two nations, including an impartial scientific examination of the historical records and archives to define existing problems and formulate recommendations.” This agreement was condemned by many Armenians, especially in the diaspora, who said that a new investigation was tantamount to a betrayal of historical truth.

In the Caucasus, use of the word “genocide” has become a weapon of national identity. In the wake of the Armenians, other ethnic groups have adopted genocide days and called on the outside world to recognize their collective suffering. For Circassians, the key date is May 21, 1864, when they were deported en masse from the Russian Empire. Azerbaijanis have adopted March 31, referring to the day in 1918 when Armenians killed hundreds of Azeris in pogroms in Baku. For Pontic Greeks, Genocide Day is May 19, 1919. If all mass killings of recent times are to be honored, other national groups, such as Kurds, Meskhetian Turks, and Assyrians, also have good claims to make—but in their cases it seems that murderous policies were only too successful, as they lack the numbers and resources to mount campaigns on the issue. In an ideal world, it might be more dignified to call for a truce to the dueling of genocide claims and a mass honoring of the dead instead. In the very politicized world of the wider Caucasus region, that idea looks sadly unfeasible.

The repercussions of the mets eghern (“great catastrophe”), as Armenians call it, are far from over. As Israel has done, the Republic of Armenia formed itself as a country defined by mass death and exile, with a corresponding state ideology of “never again” that was later invoked in the war with Azerbaijan in the 1990s. The shadow is even longer outside the region. The Armenian diaspora in the Middle East, the United States, and France consists largely of the grandchildren of those who survived the Anatolian holocaust. Only gradually is a dialogue emerging about the issue between Armenians and Turks.

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Religious Cleansing after the Crimean War

From The Crimean War: A History, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2011), Kindle Loc. 7351-7390:

To encourage the Christian settlement of the Crimea, the tsarist government introduced a law in 1862 granting special rights and subsidies to colonists from Russia and abroad. Land abandoned by the Tatars was set aside for sale to foreigners. The influx of new Christian populations during the 1860s and 1870s transformed the ethnic profile of the Crimea. What had once been Tatar settlements were now populated by Russians, Greeks, Armenians, Bulgarians, even Germans and Estonians – all of them attracted by promises of cheap and fertile land or by special rights of entry into urban guilds and corporations not ordinarily available to newcomers. Armenians and Greeks turned Sevastopol and Evpatoria into major trading centres, while older Tatar towns like Kefe (Theodosia), Gözleve and Bakhchiserai fell into decline. Many of the rural immigrants were Bulgarian or other Christian refugees from Bessarabia, territory ceded by the Russians to the Turks after the Crimean War. They were settled by the government in 330 villages once occupied by the Tatars, and were helped financially to transform mosques into churches. Meanwhile, many of the Tatars who had fled from the Crimea were resettled on the lands abandoned by the Christians in Bessarabia.

All around the Black Sea rim, the Crimean War resulted in the uprooting and transmigration of ethnic and religious groups. They crossed in both directions over the religious line separating Russia from the Muslim world. Greeks emigrated in their tens of thousands from Moldavia and Bessarabia to southern Russia after the Crimean War. Moving in the opposite direction, from Russia into Turkey, were tens of thousands of Polish refugees and soldiers who had fought in the Polish Legion (the so-called ‘Ottoman Cossacks’) against Russia in the Crimea and the Caucasus. They were settled by the Porte on Turkish lands in the Dobrudja region of the Danube delta, in Anatolia and other areas, while others ended up in Adampol (Polonezkoi), the Polish settlement established by Adam Czartoryski, the leader of the Polish emigration, on the outskirts of Constantinople in 1842.

On the other side of the Black Sea, tens of thousands of Christian Armenians left their homes in Anatolia and emigrated to Russian-controlled Transcaucasia in the wake of the Crimean War. They were fearful that the Turks would see them as allies of the Russians and carry out reprisals against them. The European commission appointed by the Paris Treaty to fix the Russian-Ottoman border found Armenian villages ‘half inhabited’ and churches in a state of ‘advanced decay’.

Meanwhile, even larger numbers of Circassians, Abkhazians and other Muslim tribes were forced out of their homelands by the Russians, who after the Crimean War stepped up their military campaign against Shamil, engaging in a concerted policy of what today would be defined as ‘ethnic cleansing’ to Christianize the Caucasus. The campaign was largely driven by the strategic demands created by the Paris settlement in the Black Sea, where the Royal Navy could freely operate and the Russians had no means of self-defence in their vulnerable coastal areas where the Muslim population was hostile to Russia. The Russians focused first on the fertile lands of Circassia in the western Caucasus – territories close to the Black Sea coast. Muslim villages were attacked by Russian troops, men and women massacred, farms and homes destroyed to force the villagers to leave or starve. The Circassians were presented with the choice of moving north to the Kuban plains – far enough away from the coastal areas for them not to be a threat in case of an invasion – or emigrating to the Ottoman Empire. Tens of thousands resettled in the north but equally large numbers of Circassians were herded by the Russians to the Black Sea ports, where, sometimes after weeks of waiting by the docks in terrible conditions, they were loaded onto Turkish boats and taken off to Trebizond, Samsun and Sinope in Anatolia. The Ottoman authorities were unprepared for the mass influx of refugees and several thousands of them died from disease within months of their arrival in Turkey. By 1864 the Muslim population of Circassia had been entirely cleared. The British consul C. H. Dickson claimed that one could walk a whole day in formerly Circassian territories and not meet a living soul.

After the Circassians, it was the turn of the Abkhazian Muslims, at that time settled in the Sukhumi – Kale region, where the Russian campaign to clear them off their lands began in 1866. The tactics were essentially the same as those employed against the Circassians, except this time the Russians had a policy of keeping back the able-bodied male workers out of fear for the economy, and forcing out their women, children and the elderly. The British consul and Arabic scholar William Gifford Palgrave, who made a tour of Abkhazia to collect information on the ethnic cleansing, estimated that three-quarters of the Muslim population had been forced to emigrate. Overall, counting both Circassians and Abkhazians, around 1.2 million Muslims were expelled from the Caucasus in the decade following the Crimean War, most of them resettling in the Ottoman Empire, and by the end of the nineteenth century the Muslims of these two regions were outnumbered by new Christian settlers by more than ten to one.

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Djemal Pasha and the Armenians, 1915, 1922

From Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East, by Scott Anderson (Doubleday, 2013), Kindle Loc. 2682-2700, 10156-10159:

As for where this potentially vast sea of internal deportees might be sent, Talaat and Enver had already selected a spot: gathered up from across Anatolia, most would be herded down to the barren reaches of northern Syria. The insanity inherent in this scheme, of uprooting a vast population and casting it into a land already devastated by the deprivations of war, would play out to obscene result: by best estimate, some 800,000 of the Armenian deportees were to perish—starved, shot, or beaten to death—en route.

The consensus among historians is that Djemal Pasha stood very much apart from his Young Turk coleaders in his response to the expulsions. In June, the first survivors of the death marches began to trickle into the north Syrian city of Aleppo, a way station toward their intended destination, the “relocation zone” of Deir al-Zour some one hundred miles to the east. Visiting Aleppo, Djemal Pasha was horrified by what he saw. Reiterating a March decree that commanded his army to protect the Armenians, he lobbied Constantinople to impose the order on military units where it really mattered, in Anatolia. That plea was ignored.

Getting no satisfaction from Constantinople, Djemal allowed thousands of Armenians to remain in Aleppo rather than continue their death march, and despite the deepening hunger and food shortages spreading through Syria, he ordered an increase of government food aid to the refugees. Testament to his love of order and regulations, he issued a rash of new edicts directing that the army regulate and maintain the food supply for the Armenians, that cars and horses be procured for their transportation, even that each refugee be given a financial allowance. But implicit in the stacks of documents that the Syrian governor signed in his office each day was the notion that his regime actually had the wherewithal to carry out these initiatives, never mind that all evidence—evidence that started just outside Djemal’s office windows and stretched to the farthest corners of his realm—argued otherwise. It was as if he fancied himself the administrator of a canton of peacetime Switzerland, rather than of a poor and highly fractured region the size of Italy that was being ravaged by war, hunger, and disease. In the face of the Armenian crisis, as with so many other problems that came his way, Djemal responded with a mixture of bluster, threats, and pleas, and when none of that worked, he simply averted his gaze. By September, with the crisis worsening, he issued a new edict, making it a criminal offense to photograph the Armenians.

Djemal Pasha continued his adventurous life in the postwar era, if only briefly. Having escaped from Constantinople along with his two co-pashas, Talaat and Enver, aboard a German torpedo boat in the last days of the war, Djemal wandered the battlegrounds of Central Asia, falling in and out of alliances with a bewildering array of factions. His luck finally ran out in July 1922 when he and an aide were gunned down in the streets of Tbilisi, Georgia. Claiming credit for the assassination was a shadowy Armenian nationalist organization that had vowed to liquidate those responsible for the Armenian slaughters of 1915-16, and which had earlier assassinated Talaat Pasha in Berlin. The following month, Enver, the last of the Three Pashas and Djemal’s coadventurer in the Caucasus, also passed from the scene, shot in a Russian Red Army ambush in Tajikistan.

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Smyrna, 1919: Mustafa Kemal’s Last Chance

From The Sultans, by Noel Barber (Simon & Schuster, 1973), pp. 240-242:

The armistice was barely a month old when Mustafa Kemal reached Constantinople, after month of fighting the Arabs. He found the enemy everywhere – British warships in the Bosporus, French troops in the capital, Italians guarding the railways. The Ottoman Empire had been smashed, all the leaders of the Young Turks were abroad in hiding, the Government was led by an old pro-British diplomat from the reign of Abdul Hamid called Tewfik Pasha.

Mustafa Kemal should have been in a unique position, for with Enver gone he had no rival as the only successful general in Turkey. He was also kn own to have consistently opposed joining the Germans in the war. Yet political power eluded him, largely because of his own lack of tact. He passionately advocated ‘Turkey for the Turks’ in political speeches, demanding generous peace terms. He publicly attached Tewfik’s government and the occupation forces; he tried to stem the timid acceptance of total defeat; he tried to form a new political party as the months rolled by – until Turkey was shocked by a blow which to them was even graver than defeat.

In February 1919, Venizelos, the Greek Prime Minister, made a formal claim to the Peace Conference in Paris for the possession of the city of Smyrna on the Aegean coast of Anatolia. It was the price which Britain and France had already agreed on as a reward for Greek entry into the war. So many Greeks lived on the Aegean coast that Venizelos’ demands seemed reasonably fair, but there was also a more cogent argument in favour of them. Lloyd George regarded Venizelos as ‘the greatest statesman Greece had thrown up since the days of Pericles’ and it seemed to him highly expedient for the Greeks to replace the Turks as protectors of the British route to India. To President Wilson, a Greek occupation of Smyrna would be preferable to Italian threats to make the Mediterranean an Italian lake. According to the American author Edward Hale Bierstadt, ‘at the suggestion of President Wilson Greece was authorised to occupy Smyrna in order to forestall any Italian move in that direction’.

Three months later, on 15 May, 20,000 Greek troops landed at Smyrna, backed by British, American and French warships, and, as Churchill put it, ‘set up their standards of invasion and conquest in Asia Minor’. Delirious crowds of Greeks – for centuries a subject race of the Ottoman Empire – welcomed their ‘liberators’ who immediately sought revenge by massacring as many Turks as they could find in the city and province.

At first the Turks could not believe the Greeks were in Smyrna. It was one thing to suffer the occupation even of Constantinople by alien troops of the victorious Western powers, but for a former subject people to be presented with one of the greatest cities in Anatolia was an altogether different kind of humiliation. A crowd of 50,000 gathered in protest before the mosque of Sultan Ahmed in Constantinople. Under the machine guns of Allied troops, they carried black flags while black curtains shrouded the national flag of Turkey. Mustafa Kemal was there and (as he later wrote) was obsessed with only one thought – somehow to reach Anatolia and organise resistance to the Greeks, and the docile Turkish government which had given Smyrna away.

To Mustafa Kemal, distrusted by both Turks and British, it must have seemed an impossible dream. He was already known to the Allied occupation authorities as an intractable hotthead with dangerous left-wing sympathies. And, though respected for his military prowess, he was at this time hardly a figure to inspire confidence. Furious and impotent, he had let himself run to seed. Down-at-heel, short of money, he was living at the modest Pera Palace Hotel overlooking the Golden Horn. His face was lined and grey from a recurrence of his disease.

Yet, unknown to Mustafa Kemal, the British, even before the Greeks stepped ashore at Smyrna, had suggested that the Sultan should send a high-ranking officer to deal with increasing violence in the area. The request was not exactly a threat, but it masked an alternative distasteful to the Sultan. If the Turks could not keep their Anatolian house in order, the Allies would have to send in troops.

Mustafa Kemal was the last man anyone would have imagined would be nominated to handle the gathering storm in Anatolia. And yet that is exactly what happened, for he was the last man – the only man – available. At their wits’ end, the Sultan and Damad Ferid, the Grand Vizier, turned to him. The British were horrified; they already had evidence that he was concerned with plots to prepare centres of resistance, and his name was on a list for possible deportation to Malta. The Grand Vizier, however, finally persuaded the British that the troubles in Anatolia were due to rebel factions loyal to the memory of Enver and anxious to restore the Committee of Union and Progress….

Mustafa escaped from Constantinople by barely and hour, thanks to the blundering jealousies of the Allies. Urgent orders were certainly sent to intercept him, but the British, French and Italians all played varying parts in the control of passenger vessels, and each distrusted the others. While they were bickering, Mustafa Kemal slipped through the net.

He landed at Samsun on the Black Sea coast on 19 May 1919 – four days after the Greeks had occupied Smyrna. His orders were to disband the Turkish forces in the area. Instead he immediately started to organise a resistance movement and raise an army.

The Anatolian Greeks and Armenians would pay an especially dear price for these external interventions.

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Pamuk on the Conquest of Istanbul

You can often tell whether you’re standing in the East or in the West, just by the way people refer to certain historical events. For Westerners, May 29, 1453, is the Fall of Constantinople, while for Easterners it’s the Conquest of Istanbul. Years later, when my wife was studying at Columbia University, she used the word conquest in an exam and her American professor accused her of nationalism. In fact, she’d used the word only because she was taught to use it as a Turkish lycée student; because her mother was of Russian extraction, it could be said that her sympathies were more with the orthodox Christians. Or perhaps she saw it neither as a fall nor a conquest and felt more like an unlucky hostage caught between two worlds that offered no choice but to be Muslim or Christian.

It was westernization and Turkish nationalism that prompted Istanbul to begin celebrating the conquest. At the beginning of the twentieth century, only half the city’s population was Muslim, and most of the non-Muslim inhabitants were descendents of Byzantine Greeks. When I was a child, the view among the city’s more vocal nationalists was that anyone who so much as used the name Constantinople was an undesirable alien with irredentist dreams of the day when the Greeks, who had been the city’s first masters would return to chase away the Turks, who had occupied it for five hundred years—or, at the very least, turn us into second-class citizens. It was the nationalists, then, who insisted on the word conquest. By contrast, many Ottomans were content to call their city Constantinople.

Even in my own time, Turks committed to the idea of a westernized republic were wary of making too much of the conquest. Neither President Celal Bayar nor Prime Minister Adnan Menderes attended the 500th anniversary ceremony in 1953; although it had been many years in the planning, it was decided at the last moment that to do so might offend the Greeks and Turkey’s western allies. The Cold War had just begun, and Turkey, a member of NATO, did not wish to remind the world about the conquest. It was, however, three years later that the Turkish state deliberately provoked what you might call “conquest fever” by allowing mobs to rampage through the city, plundering the property of Greeks and other minorities. A number of churches were destroyed during the riots and a number of priests were murdered, so there are many echoes of the cruelties western historians describe in accounts of the “fall” of Constantinople. In fact, both the Turkish and the Greek states have been guilty of treating their respective minorities as hostages to geopolitics, and that is why more Greeks have left Istanbul over the past fifty years than in the fifty years following 1453.

In 1955 the British left Cyprus, and as Greece was preparing to take over the entire island, an agent of the Turkish secret service threw a bomb into the house where Atatürk was born in the Greek city of Salonika. After Istanbul’s newspapers had spread the news in a special edition exaggerating the incident, mobs hostile to the city’s non-Muslim inhabitants gathered in Taksim Square, and after they had burned, destroyed, and plundered all those shops my mother and I had visited in Beyoğlu, they spent the rest of the night doing the same in other parts of the city.

The bands of rioters were most violent and caused greatest terror in neighborhoods like Ortaköy, Balıklı, Samatya, and Fener, where the concentration of Greeks was greatest; not only did they sack and burn little Greek groceries and dairy shops, they broke into houses to rape Greek and Armenian women. So it is not unreasonable to say that the rioters were as merciless as the soldiers who sacked the city after it fell to Mehmet the Conqueror. It later emerged that the organizers of this riot—whose terror raged for two days and made the city more hellish than the worst orientalist nightmares—had the state’s support and had pillaged the city with its blessing.

So for that entire night, every non-Muslim who dared walk the streets of the city risked being lynched; the next morning the shops of Beyoğlu stood in ruins, their windows smashed, their doors kicked in, their wares either plundered or gleefully destroyed.

SOURCE: Istanbul: Memories and the City, by Orhan Pamuk (Vintage, 2006), pp. 172-173

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