Category Archives: migration

Choices Facing the Czech Legion, 1918

Dreams of a Great Small Nation: The Mutinous Army that Threatened a Revolution, Destroyed an Empire, Founded a Republic, and Remade the Map of Europe, by Kevin J. McNamara (PublicAffairs, 2016), Kindle Loc. 252-285:

FOLLOWING RUSSIA’S WITHDRAWAL from the war in March 1918, Moscow began shipping home more than 2.3 million German and Austro-Hungarian POWs aboard trains from camps across all of Soviet Russia. More than 200,000 of the men in Austro-Hungarian uniforms hailed from the more obscure corners of the Habsburg realm, and they were known to their rulers—but almost no one else—as Bohemians, Czechs, Moravians, or Slovaks. They and their leader, a philosophy professor named Tomáš G. Masaryk, wanted a nation of their own. And they were willing to fight for it. From his London exile, Masaryk had traveled to Russia under an assumed name early in 1917 to persuade the men to fight for France on the Western Front, in return for which the Allies would consider creating a new nation, Czecho-Slovakia. Between 50,000 and 65,000 of these Czechs and Slovaks would throw in their lot with Masaryk.

On May 14, 1918, in Chelyabinsk—a Russian frontier settlement on the steeper, more fractured, eastern slopes of the Ural Mountains, the gateway to Siberia—about eighty Hungarians, hardened survivors of war and imprisonment, former POWs being returned to the Austro-Hungarian Army, sat waiting in the last three cars of a westbound train otherwise full of refugees.

Their steam-powered locomotive was replenished with wood and water. The bored, brooding veterans awaited the sudden jerking motion that would bring the creaking wood-and-steel train back to life and resume its languid journey west through the Ural Mountains, in the direction of Austria-Hungary. They had survived the Eastern Front, hellish conditions in Russia’s POW camps, and several Siberian winters. And now many of the men—still loyal to the Habsburg dynasty—understood that they would be thrown back into combat. If no longer imprisoned, they may have felt doomed.

Across the platform stood a train facing east crowded with men who had also worn Austro-Hungarian uniforms, but these strangers appeared to be in better spirits. They were Czechs and Slovaks—part of the more than fifty thousand in Russia who had become followers of Masaryk—washing down stale black bread and blood sausages with kettles of strong tea. Strangers in a strange land, they had reason to be hopeful that they might win a nation for their people. Unlikely as it seemed, this was their moment.

The cars that carried the Czechs and Slovaks had been moved off the main track onto a siding, due to what Russian authorities claimed was a shortage of locomotives. These men, a handful of whom had deserted to the Russians and fought in a special unit of the tsarist army, won the new Soviet regime’s permission to organize their own trains and depart Russia via Siberia, keeping a small number of weapons for self-defense.

Their eastbound trains were destined for Vladivostok, a distant port on Russia’s Pacific coast more than thirty-one hundred miles away. In Vladivostok, the men hoped to board Allied ships that would circumnavigate the globe and deposit them in the trenches of the Western Front alongside their former enemies, the French. In return for fighting with the Allies, it was hoped, they would win freedom for their peoples. At least that was the plan.

If Russia decided to turn them over to Austro-Hungarian authorities, many of them would face certain imprisonment and possible execution. Several hundred of these men had innocently emigrated to Russia long before the Great War in search of jobs or land and had enlisted in the tsar’s armies in 1914 as a prudent obligation. A few thousand more had served in the Austro-Hungarian army on the Eastern Front, but deserted to the Russians. For these men in particular, firing squads awaited them back home and the Austrian authorities were unlikely to exercise great care in deciding which among them was guilty. Those spared execution and deemed able to fight would be returned to the Austro-Hungarian army, perhaps to die facedown in the mud or snow for the privilege of preserving a German-speaking empire that held them firmly in second-class status.

Most of the Czechs and Slovaks traveling to Vladivostok, however, were newly released captives of the Russians. This motley legion had assembled because one elderly professor from Prague thought it was a good idea.

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Filed under Austria, Czechia, democracy, Germany, Hungary, language, migration, nationalism, Russia, USSR, war

Czech “Enemy Aliens” in Russia, 1914

Dreams of a Great Small Nation: The Mutinous Army that Threatened a Revolution, Destroyed an Empire, Founded a Republic, and Remade the Map of Europe, by Kevin J. McNamara (PublicAffairs, 2016), Kindle Loc. 1184-1207:

Almost 900,000 emigrants arrived in Russia from Austria-Hungary between 1828 and 1915, among them tens of thousands of Czechs and Slovaks. The largest number resided in the vicinity of Kiev (Ukraine), where there was a Czech High School, a Prague Hotel, and, by 1910, a weekly Czech-language newspaper, the Čechoslovan. In most combat nations, “enemy aliens” were subject to internment, deportation, and expropriation of their property. Unlike in most countries, however, where enemy aliens often lived on the margins of society, in Russia the Czechs and Slovaks were business owners, managers, landowners, professionals, engineers, foremen, and skilled workers. Yet, at the outbreak of the war, the Russian public began targeting any person whose ethnicity, religion, or former citizenship might link that person to Austria-Hungary or other enemy nations. By 1914 there were about 600,000 “enemy aliens” and 100,000 visitors from enemy nations in Russia. Of these, about 200,000 were Czech and 600 were Slovak, with 70,000 of them in farming communities in Ukraine. More than half had arrived in Russia since 1885 and many had never become naturalized Russian citizens.

During the first week of hostilities, the Russian army sealed the borders to immigrants who might think of escaping the country. As early as July 25, 1914 (OS), the army ordered the deportation from areas under military rule of all “enemy-subject males of military service age,” specifically, “all German and Austrian males age 18–45 who were deemed physically capable of carrying a weapon.” This order was quickly extended to the entire Russian Empire and included women and children as well. As many as one-half of Russia’s 600,000 “enemy” subjects were sent to camps or designated areas held under police surveillance. As early as September 1914, the government ordered the confiscation of all property belonging to anyone who was even suspected of belonging to a pan-German organization. Given the use of German by many non-German Habsburg subjects and the dearth of information regarding Vienna’s non-German minorities, Czechs and Slovaks were easily targeted. “A sense quickly grew among officials that all enemy-alien property was fair game.” Factories, farms, and stores could be confiscated, often at the behest of disgruntled Russian customers or competitors who turned their business disputes into acts of revenge by denouncing their “enemy alien” owners.

Once it was clear that mere suspicion of enemy support or sympathy could cost an immigrant freedom or property, thousands of aliens applied for exemptions and persons of Slavic ethnicity received most of them. The first exemptions were granted to Czechs. Committees of Czechs and Slovaks sprang up in the major cities to petition the government. Delegations met with the minister of internal affairs, Nikolay A. Maklakov, and the foreign minister, Sergey D. Sazonov, solemnly pledging their allegiance to Russia.

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Filed under Austria, Czechia, economics, Hungary, language, migration, nationalism, Russia, war

Imperial Russia’s Česká Družina

Dreams of a Great Small Nation: The Mutinous Army that Threatened a Revolution, Destroyed an Empire, Founded a Republic, and Remade the Map of Europe, by Kevin J. McNamara (PublicAffairs, 2016), Kindle Loc. 1020-1060:

The Česká Družina, a small unit of Czech soldiers in the Russian army initially composed of Czech emigres to Russia, played a unique and decisive role in turning unhappy Austro-Hungarian soldiers into a rebellious army. Czechs and Slovaks fighting for Austria-Hungary were welcomed into the Russian imperial army in ways few other soldiers could be. Indeed, they were explicitly encouraged to defect.

In March 1915, two days after an Austro-Hungarian attack on the Russians was repelled, food and other supplies were growing scarce. Most of the professional Austro-Hungarian officers had been killed and lesser men were put in charge. Amidst heavy snows, strong winds, and freezing temperatures, a unit of Czechs in the Ninety-Eighth Infantry Regiment held a line near Gorlice, a town on the Ropa River in Austrian Galicia. Their Austrian commander took advantage of the weather by having hungry Czechs tied to trees as punishment for eating meager portions of the reserve food supplies.

“We all had had enough,” recalled one of the Czech soldiers, Josef Křepela, “of that suffering, hunger, berating, and hitting that our commanders subjected us to, and a thought about an end to all of this torture was secretly growing inside us.”

Each night fresh troops were dispatched to relieve the freezing, hungry men in the trenches, foxholes, barns, and shacks along the Austrian front above the Ropa River. Their commander, Lieutenant Reiman, spit out an ironic farewell to his Czech soldiers: “Auf Wiedersehen in Russland!” “And every morning,” Kŕepela recalled, “when he learned about a guard who disappeared somewhere behind the Russian lines, protected by the barbed wire, he would waste no time writing a criminal report to the closest commanding headquarters.” Once, when a good friend of Křepela’s disappeared during a snowstorm, a laughing Reiman showed Kŕepela a copy of the criminal complaint he filed against the missing soldier, telling him, “The Russians must now have a whole regiment of you Czechs!”

As darkness fell one evening that March and another snowstorm gathered force, Kŕepela was ordered to take a replacement unit to the front. Under the watchful eye of their gun-wielding commander, Reiman, Kŕepela ordered thirteen young men huddling in snow-covered trenches into the storm. He led them through waist-deep snow toward a burned-out village on the Ropa River, which had been trapped between the lines of the opposing armies. When the men stopped to catch their breath behind a partially collapsed barn, Kŕepela decided to act.

“I looked into the faces of these boys, pale, with snowflakes on their freezing faces,” he said. “How beat-up and absolutely non-soldierly they looked. It was evident they were not interested in any bravery, or a war medal, which they would gladly exchange for a piece of moldy bread now. Taking pity on them, I suddenly asked, ‘Boys, would you like to go to Russia?’ I will not forget the happy twinkle in the eyes of these poor wretches, who told me with one voice, ‘Yes!’”

With desperate enthusiasm—but without any more of a plan—Kŕepela gingerly led the men single file toward Russian lines. Crossing a bridge over the Ropa after midnight, the men walked carefully past the dead and dying soldiers from both armies. Former enemies lay together mortally wounded in the same shattered homes, bleeding, delirious, softly crying for help. Discarded weapons were strewn about. In one house, two dead cows competed for space with the body of their dead owner. The stench drove Kŕepela and his men away. Taking refuge in another abandoned home, where a pale young girl, shell-shocked, wandered aimlessly from room to room, the men warmed black coffee and waited for the heavy snows to stop. By 3:30 a.m., they collapsed onto the empty beds and the floor, exhausted.

They awoke a few hours later to bearded Russian soldiers holding bayonets at their faces.

“Then,” Kŕepela said, “happiness starts flowing through my body, and I shake hands with these good men, who are offering theirs. Moved, I speak the only Russian word I know—‘Zdravstvujte!’ (Hello!). We willingly gave them our rifles and all of our equipment, keeping only a beggars’ bag holding nothing but bread crusts.” Soon they were sitting on the floor with the Russians, forming a circle around a dim candle. “Are you all Czechs?” asked one of the smiling Russians. The Czechs nodded. Knowing what this meant, the Russian left.

A few minutes later, an officer wearing a Russian uniform entered the cabin. The officer lit a cigarette Kŕepela offered him, looked over the prisoners, and said in perfect Czech, “Hey guys, who among you is from Prague?” A confused silence hung in the air. “With open mouths, we look surprised. How did the Czech in the Russian uniform who is talking to us in such a friendly manner happen to show up here?” It turned out Reiman was right—a Czecho-Slovak regiment did exist in the Russian army, the Česká Družina.

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Filed under Austria, Czechia, Hungary, language, migration, military, nationalism, Russia, war

Wordcatcher Tales: Trümmerfrauen, Kachelofen, Luftbrücke, OGs

I recently finished reading a new book, Journey Interrupted: A Family Without a Country in a World at War, by Hildegarde Mahoney (Regan Arts, 2016). It’s about a German family in New York City who planned to visit relatives in Germany. They set out in the spring of 1941, after the war had started, so they aimed to take the long way around, via the West Coast, Pacific Ocean, Japan, and Siberia, because the war in Europe had started, but the Eastern Front was quiet. They landed in Yokohama just as Germany attacked the Soviet Union, violating the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939. They spent the war years in Japan, several postwar years in Germany, arriving back in New York a decade after they left.

I came across a few words of interest, which I’ll cite in context to give a small taste of the tale.

Trümmerfrauen (rubble women), from Kindle Loc. 2036-2042:

We devoured the food the waiter gave us, thrilled to have solid food to eat. The next stop we made was at the Red Cross. Once again, we were badly shaken at the sight of the many men we passed who had lost legs, arms, or both and had not yet been able to get prostheses. Turning the corner into the next street, we saw something we deemed highly unusual. There, in front of long planks of wood, sat a row of women, all with hammers in hand, chipping cement off perfectly good bricks and throwing the cleaned bricks on a pile. They proceeded to take another cement-caked brick off the pile of rubble, knock off its cement, and throw it on the cleaned pile. That procedure went on throughout the day in almost every city, and it was thanks to the many Trümmerfrauen (“rubble women”), as they were known, that the rebuilding of Germany had slowly begun.

Kachelofen (tile oven), from Kindle Loc. 2338-2342:

The very gray days were beginning to get shorter, and even during the midday hours it was difficult to distinguish between land and sky. In that part of northern Germany the days were uniformly gray, cool, and frequently misty and foggy. It was a time of year I did not like at all, remembering the freezing weather in Karuizawa. It was, however, a time to enjoy sitting around the old-fashioned tile oven in the living room. In those days there was no central heating. Instead, each room had a Kachelofen (a tile oven) in which one built a fire in the early morning that kept on heating the room throughout the day with the addition, from time to time, of more wood or coal.

Luftbrücke (airlift, lit. ‘airbridge’), from Kindle Loc. 2610-2614:

In May 1949, there was good news. The Luftbrücke, also known as the Berlin Airlift, which had begun in June 1948 in response to the Soviet blockade of Berlin—the United States, Britain, and France had been flying in supplies to the western sector of Berlin after the Russians had cut off all routes by land and sea—was winding down when the Soviet barricades were lifted. At the end of September, Luftbrücke finally ended its operation after more than a quarter million flights.

OGs (Office Girls, called OLs in Japan these days), from Kindle Loc. 2858-2864:

I started work at Time Inc. on the twenty-third floor, where the Time International offices were located. There, right off the elevators, was the office girls’ desk, where two of us were stationed at all times. We were known as OGs and did everything from making coffee first thing in the morning to sorting and delivering mail, sharpening pencils, and running errands. At the end of the day, we made the rounds of the offices and picked up any mail left in the outgoing boxes on the writers’ desks and worked with the mailroom when there were larger packages or boxes to go out. Most of the week things went pretty smoothly, except at the end of every week just before Time magazine was put to bed and press time approached. Then things would get pretty tense, as everyone was pressured and under the gun to meet the deadline.

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Filed under Germany, Japan, labor, language, migration, U.S., war

Alexander Selkirk’s Rescue, 1709

The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down, by Colin Woodard (Mariner Books, 2008), Kindle Loc. 1058-1081:

Selkirk had been stranded on Juan Fernández Island for four years and four months, indeed ever since William Dampier’s ill-fated privateering mission had passed through these parts in the latter part of 1704. Selkirk, a Scotsman, had been the mate aboard Dampier’s consort, the Cinque Ports, whose captain and officers had lost faith in their commodore’s leadership and sailed off on their own. Unfortunately, the Cinque Ports’ hull was already infested by shipworm, so much so that when the galley stopped at Juan Fernández for water and fresh provisions, young Selkirk decided to stay—to take his chances on the island rather than try to cross the Pacific in a deteriorating vessel. According to the extended account he gave Rogers, Selkirk spent the better part of a year in deep despair, scanning the horizon for friendly vessels that never appeared. Slowly he adapted to his solitary world. The island was home to hundreds of goats, descendents of those left behind when the Spanish abandoned a half-hearted colonization attempt. He eventually learned to chase them down and catch them with his bare hands. He built two huts with goatskin walls and grass roofs, one serving as a kitchen, the other as his living quarters, where he read the Bible, sang psalms, and fought off the armies of rats that came to nibble his toes as he slept. He defeated the rodents by feeding and befriending many of the island’s feral cats, which lay about his hut by the hundreds. As insurance against starvation in case of accident or illness, Selkirk had managed to domesticate a number of goats, which he raised by hand and, on occasion, would dance with in his lonely hut. When his clothes wore out, he stitched together new goatskin ones, using a knife and an old nail, and grew calluses on his feet as a substitute for shoes. He was rarely sick and ate a healthful diet of turnips, goats, crayfish, and wild cabbage. He’d barely evaded a Spanish landing party by hiding at the top of a tree, against which some of his pursuers pissed, unaware of his presence.

Although Selkirk greeted Rogers’s men with enthusiasm, he was reluctant to join them after learning that his old commodore, William Dampier, was serving with them. Cooke wrote that Selkirk distrusted Dampier so much that he “would rather have chosen to remain in his solitude than come away with [Dampier] ’till informed that he did not command” the expedition. Dr. Dover and his landing party were only able to rescue the castaway by promising they would return him to the island were he not satisfied with the situation. Selkirk, in turn, helped them catch crayfish, piling them into the ship’s boat before they rowed him out to the Duke. On seeing Selkirk for the first time, Rogers said he looked wilder than the original owners of his goatskin coverings. “At his first coming on board us, he had so much forgot his language for want of use that we could scarce understand him, for he seemed to speak by halves,” Rogers wrote in his journal. “We offer’d him a Dram, but he would not touch it, having drank nothing but water since his being there, and ’twas some time before he could relish our victuals.” Selkirk was remarkably healthy and alert at first, but Rogers noted that “this man, when he came to our ordinary method of diet and life, though he was sober enough, lost much of his strength and agility.”

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Filed under Britain, migration, Pacific, piracy, Scotland

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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Filed under Armenia, Caucasus, democracy, migration, nationalism, USSR

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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Filed under Armenia, Caucasus, migration, nationalism, religion, Turkey