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Historical Background

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The so-called “Armenian Question” is generally thought of as having begun in the second half of the nineteenth century. One can easily point to the Russo-Turkish war (1877 -78) and the Congress of Berlin (1878) which concluded the war as marking the emergence of this question as a problem in Europe. In fact, however, one must really go back to Russian activities in the East starting in the 1820′s to uncover its origins. Czarist Russia at the time was beginning a major new imperial expansion across Central Asia, in the process overrunning major Turkish Khanates in its push toward the borders of China and the Pacific Ocean. At the same time, Russian imperial ambitions turned southward as the Czars sought to gain control of Ottoman territory to extend their landlocked empire to the Mediterranean and the open seas. As an essential element of this ambition, Russia sought to undermine Ottoman strength from within by stirring the national ambitions of the Sultan’s subject Christian peoples, in particular those with whom it shared a common Orthodox religious heritage, the Greeks and the Slavs in the Balkans and the Armenians. At the same time that Russian agents fanned the fires of the Greek Revolution and stirred the beginnings of Pan-Slavism in Serbia and Bulgaria, others moved into the Caucasus and worked to secure Russian influence over the Catholicos of the Armenian Gregorian Church of Echmiadzin, to which most Ottoman Gregorians had strong emotional attachments. The Russians used the Catholicos’ jealousy of the Istanbul Patriarch to gain his support to such an extent that Catholicos Nerses Aratarakes himself led a force of 60,000 Armenians in support of the Russian army that fought Iran in the Caucasus in 1827 -1828, in the process capturing most of Iran’s Caucasus possessions, including those areas where the Armenians lived. This new Russian presence along the borders of eastern Anatolia, combined with the support of the Catholicos, enabled them to extend their influence among Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. Russian pressure in Istanbul finally got the Patriarch to add the Catholicos’ name to his daily prayers starting in 1844, furthering the latter’s ability to influence Ottoman Armenians in Russia’s favor in the years that followed. Most Ottoman Armenians were still too content with their lot in the Ottoman lands to be seriously influenced by this Russian propaganda, but those who immigrated to Russian Caucasus to join the Russian effort against Ottoman stability and power. The lands that they abandoned were turned over to Muslim refugees flooding into the Empire from persecution in Russia and Eastern Europe. This led to serious land disputes when many of the Armenian emigrants, or their descendants, unhappy with life in Russia, sought to return to the Ottoman
Empire in the 1880′s and 1890′s.

The Russians were not the only foreign power seeking to exploit the Ottoman Christians for political purposes. England and France sponsored missionary activities that converted many Armenians to Protestantism and Catholicism respectively, leading to the creation of the Armenian Catholic Church in Istanbul in 1830 and the Protestant Church in 1847. However these developments were not directly related to the development of the “Armenian Question“, except perhaps as indications of the rising discontent within the Gregorian church which the Russians were seeking to take advantage of in their own way.

On the other hand, the Reform Proclamation of 1856 was of major importance. While not abolishing the separate millets and churches and the institutions that they supported, the Ottoman government now provided equal rights for all subjects regardless of their religion, in the process seeking to eliminate all special privileges and distinctions based on religion, and requiring the millets to reconstitute their internal regulations in order to achieve these goals. Insofar as the Armenians were concerned, the result was the Armenian Millet Regulation, drawn up by the Patriarchate and put into force by the Ottoman government on 29 March 1862. Of particular importance the new regulation placed the Armenian millet under the government of a council of 140 members, including only 20 churchmen from the Istanbul Patriarchate, while 80 secular representatives were to be chosen from the Istanbul community and 40 members from the provinces. The Reform Proclamation of 1856 led England and France to be more interested in Armenians which in return intensified the interests of Russia in the same ethnic group. Their concern was based on their own imperialist interests rather than their affection for Armenians. Russia now sought to gain Armenian support for undermining and destroying the Ottoman state by promising to create a “Greater Armenia” in eastern Anatolia, which would include substantially more territory between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean than the Armenians ever had ruled or even occupied at any time in their history.

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It was against this background that the Ottoman-Russian war (1877 – 78) awakened Armenian dreams for independence with Russian help and under Russian guidance. Toward the end of the war, the Armenian Patriarch of Istanbul, Nerses Varjabedian, got in touch with the Russian Czar with the help of the Catholicos of Echmiadzin, asking Russia not to return to the Ottomans the east Anatolian lands occupied by Russian forces. Immediately after the war, the Patriarch went to the Russian camp, which by then was at San Stephano, immediately outside Istanbul, and in an interview with the Russian Commander, Grand Duke Nicholas, asked that all of Eastern Anatolia be annexed to Russia and established as an autonomous Armenian state, very much like the regime then being established for Bulgaria, but that if this was not possible, and the lands in question had to be returned to the Ottomans, at least Russian forces should not be withdrawn until changes favoring the Armenians were introduced into the governmental and administrative organization and regulations of these provinces.1 The Russians agreed to the latter proposal, which was incorporated as Article 16 of the Treaty of San Stephano. Even as the negotiations were going on at San Stephano, moreover, the Armenian officers in the Russian army worked frantically to stir discontent among the Ottoman Armenians, urging them to work to gain “the same sort of independence for themselves as that secured by the Christians of the Balkans.” This appeal gained considerable influence among the Armenians of Eastern Anatolia long after the Russian forces were withdrawn.

The Treaty of San Stephano did not, however, constitute the final settlement of the Russo-Turkish war. Britain rightly feared that its provisions for a Greater Armenia in the East would inevitably not only establish Russian hegemony in those areas but also, and even more dangerous, in the Ottoman Empire, and through “Greater Armenia” to the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean, where they could easily threaten the British possessions in India. In return for an Ottoman agreement for British occupation of Cyprus, therefore, to enable it to counter any Russian threats in Eastern Anatolia, Britain agreed to use its influence in Europe to upset the provisions of San Stephano, arranging the Congress of Berlin to this end. As a result of its deliberations, Russia was compelled to evacuate all of Eastern Anatolia with the exception of the districts of Kars, Ardahan and Batum, with the Ottomans agreeing to institute “reforms” in the eastern provinces where Armenians lived under the guarantee of the five signatory European powers. From this time onward, England in particular came to consider the “Armenian Question” as a useful tool to advance its own ambitions, and to regularly intervene to secure its solution according to its own designs.

A delegation sent by the Armenian Patriarchate of Istanbul attended the Congress of Berlin, but it was so unhappy at the final treaty and the Powers’ failure to accept its demands that it returned to Istanbul with the feeling that “nothing will be achieved except by means of struggle and revolution2 Russia also emerged from the Congress without having achieved its major objectives, and with both Greece, and Bulgaria being left under British influence. It therefore renewed with increased vigor its effort to secure control of Eastern Anatolia, again seeking to use the Armenians as a major instrument of its policy. Now, however, it was resisted in this effort by the British, who also sought to influence and use the Armenians by stirring their national ambitions, though in this respect, in the words of the French writer Rene Pinon, who is in fact known with his pro-Armenian views, “Armenia in British hands would become a police station against Russian expansion.” Whether under Russian or British influence, however, the Armenians became pawns to advance imperial ambitions at Ottoman expense.

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It had been British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli and the Tories who had defended Ottoman integrity against Russian expansion at the Congress of Berlin. But with the assumption of power by William E. Gladstone and the Liberals in 1880, British policy toward the Ottomans changed drastically to one which sought to protect British interests by breaking up the Ottoman Empire and creating friendly small states under British influence in its place, one of which was to be Armenia. In pursuit of this policy, the British press now was encouraged to refer to eastern Anatolia as “Armenia“; British consulates were opened in every corner of the area to provide opportunities for contact with the local Christian population; the numbers of Protestant missionaries sent to the East was substantially increased; and in London an Anglo-Armenian Friendship Committee was created to influence public opinion in support of this new endeavour. The way how Russia and Great Britain used Armenians as a tool for their own ambitions has been adequately documented by numerous Armenian and other foreign sources. Thus, the French Ambassador in Istanbul Paul Cambon reported to the Quai d’Orsay in 1894 that “Gladstone is organizing the dissatisfied Armenians, putting them under discipline and promising them assistance, settling many of them in London with the inspiration of the propaganda committee.” Edgar Granville commented that “There was no Armenian movement in Ottoman territory before the Russians stirred them up. Innocent people are going to be hurt because of this dream of a Greater Armenia under the protection of the Czar,” and “the Armenian movements intend to attach Eastern Anatolia to Russia.” The Armenian writer Kaprielian declared proudly in his book The Armenian Crisis and Rebirth that “the revolutionary promises and inspirations were owed to Russia.” The Dashnak newspaper Hairenik in its issue of 28 June 1918 stated that “The awakening of a revolutionary spirit among the Armenians in Turkey was the result of Russian stimulation.” The Armenian Patriarch Horen Ashikian wrote in his History of Armenia “The protestant missionaries distributed in large numbers to various places in Turkey made propaganda in favor of England and stirred the Armenians to desire autonomy under British protection. The schools that they established were the nurseries of their secret plans.” And the Armenian religious leader Hrant Vartabed wrote that ”The establishment of protestant communities in Ottoman territory and their protection by England and the United States shows that they did not shrink from exploiting even the most sacred feelings of the West, religious feelings, in seeking civilization“, going on to state that the Catholicos of Echmiadzin Kevork V was a tool of Czarist Russia and that he betrayed the Armenians of Anatolia..3

In pursuit of these policies, starting in 1880 a number of Armenian revolutionary societies were established in Eastern Anatolia, the Black Cross and Armenian societies in Van and the National Guards in Erzurum. However these societies had little influence, since the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire still lived in peace and prosperity and had no real complaints against Ottoman administration. With the passage of time, therefore, these and other such Armenian societies within the Empire fell into inactivity and largely ceased operations. The Armenian nationalists therefore moved to center their organizations outside Ottoman territory, establishing the Hunchak Committee at Geneva in 1887 and the Dashnak Committee at Tiflis in 1890, both of which declared to be their basic goal the “liberation” from Ottoman rule of the territories of Eastern Anatolia and the Ottoman Armenians.

According to Louise Nalbandian, a leading Armenian researcher into Armenian propaganda, the Hunchak program stated that:

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“Agitation and terror were needed to “elevate the spirit” of the people. The people were also to be incited against their enemies and were to “profit” from retaliatory actions of these same enemies. Terror was to be used as a method of protecting the people and winning their confidence in the Hunchak program. The party aimed at terrorizing the Ottoman government, thus contributing toward lowering the prestige of that regime and working toward its complete disintegration. The government itself was not to be the only focus of terroristic tactics. The Hunchaks wanted to annihilate the most dangerous of the Armenian and Turkish individuals who were then working for the government as well as to destroy all spies and informers. To assist them in carrying out all of these terroristic acts, the party was to organize an exclusive branch specifically devoted to performing acts of terrorism. The most opportune time to institute the general rebellion for carrying out immediate objectives was when Turkey was engaged in war. “4

K. S. Papazian wrote of the Dashnak Society:

“The purpose of the A. R. Federation (Dashnak) is to achieve political and economic freedom in Turkish Armenia, by means of rebellion … terrorism has, from the first, been adopted by the Dashnak Committee of the Caucasus, as a policy or a method for achieving its ends. Under the heading “means” in their program adopted in 1892, we read as follows: The Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnak), in order to achieve its purpose through rebellion, organizes revolutionary groups. Method no. 8 is as follows: To wage fight, and to subject to terrorism the Government officials, the traitors, … Method no. 11 is: To subject the government institutions to destruction and pillage .”5

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One of the Dashnak founders and ideologists, Dr. Jean Loris-Melikoff wrote that:

“The truth is that the party (Dashnak Committee) was ruled by an oligarchy, for whom the particular interests of the party came before the interests of the people and nation.. They (the Dashnaks) made collections among the bourgeoisie and the great merchants. At the end, when these means were exhausted, they resorted to terrorism, after the teachings of the Russian revolutionaries that the end justifies the means”6

The same policy was described by the Dashnak ideologist Varandian, in History of the Dashnakzoutune (Paris, 1932).

Thus as Armenian writers themselves have freely admitted, the goal of their revolutionary societies was to stir revolution, and their method was terror. They lost no time in putting their programs into operation, stirring a number of revolt efforts within a short time, with the Hunchaks taking the lead at first, and then the Dashnaks pursuing, planning and organizing their efforts outside the Ottoman Empire before carrying them out within the boundaries of the Ottoman country.

The first revolt came at Erzurum in 1890. It was followed by the Kumkapi riots in Istanbul the same year, and then risings in Kayseri, Yozgat, Corum and Merzifon in 1892 -1893, in Sasun in 1894, the Zeytun revolt and the Armenian raid on the Sublime Porte in 1895, the Van revolt and occupation of the Ottoman Bank in Istanbul in 1896, the Second Sasun revolt in 1903, the attempted assassination of Sultan Abdulhamid II in 1905, and the Adana revolt in 1909. All these revolts and riots were presented by the Armenian revolutionary societies in Europe and America as the killing of Armenians by Turks, and with this sort of propaganda message they stirred considerable emotional reactions among Christian peoples. The missionaries and consular representatives sent by the Powers to Anatolia played major roles in spreading this propaganda in the western press, thus carrying out the aims of the western powers to turn public opinion against Muslims and Turks to gain the necessary support to break up the Ottoman Empire.

There were many honest western diplomatic and consular representatives who reported what actually was happening, that it was the Armenian revolutionary societies that were doing the revolting and slaughtering and massacring to secure European intervention in their behalf. In 1876, the British Ambassador in Istanbul reported that the Armenian Patriarch had said to him:

“If revolution is necessary to attract the attention and intervention of Europe, it would not be hard to do so.”7

On 28 March 1894 the British Ambassador in Istanbul, Currie reported to the Foreign Office:

“The aim of the Armenian revolutionaries is to stir disturbances, to get the Ottomans to react to violence, and thus get the foreign Powers to intervene.”8

On 28 January 1895 the British Consul in Erzurum, Graves reported to the British Ambassador in Istanbul:

“The aims of the revolutionary committees are to stir up general discontent and to get the Turkish government and people to react with violence, thus attracting the attention of the foreign powers to the imagined sufferings of the Armenian people, and getting them to act to correct the situation.”9

Graves also told New York Herald reporter Sydney Whitman that:

“If no Armenian revolutionary had come to this country, if they had not stirred Armenian revolution, would these clashes have occurred “, answering “Of course not. I doubt if a single Armenian would have been killed.”10

The British Vice-Consul Williams wrote from Van on 4 March 1896:

“The Dashnaks and Hunchaks have terrorized their own countrymen, they have stirred up the Muslim people with their thefts and insanities, and have paralyzed all efforts made to carry out reforms; all the events that have taken place in Anatolia are the responsibility of the crimes committed by the Armenian revolutionary committees.”11

British Consul General in Adana, Doughty Wily, wrote in 1909:

“The Armenians are working to secure foreign intervention.”12

Russian Consul General in Bitlis and Van, General Mayewski, reported in 1912:

“In 1895 and 1896 the Armenian revolutionary committees created such suspicion between the Armenians and the native population that it became impossible to implement any sort of reform in these districts. The Armenian priests paid no attention to religious education, but instead concentrated on spreading nationalist ideas, which were affixed to the walls of monasteries, and in place of performing their religious duties they concentrated on stirring Christian enmity against Muslims. The revolts that took place in many provinces of Turkey during 1895 and 1896 were caused neither by any great poverty among the Armenian villages nor because of Muslim attacks against them. In fact these villagers were considerably richer and more prosperous than their neighbors. Rather, the Armenian revolts came from three causes:

  1. Their increasing maturity in political subjects;
  2. The spread of ideas of nationality, liberation, and independence within the Armenian community;
  3. Support of these ideas by the western governments, and their encouragement through the efforts of the Armenian priests.”13

In another report in December 1912, Mayewski wrote that:

“The Dashnak revolutionary society is working to stir up a situation in which Muslims and Armenians will attack each other, and to thus pave the way for Russian intervention. “14

Finally, the Dashnak ideologue Varandian admits that the society “wanted to assure European intervention,15 while Papazian stated that “the aims of their revolts was to assure that the European powers would interfere in Ottoman internal affairs16 At each of their armed revolts the Armenian terrorist committees have always propagated that European intervention would immediately follow. Even some of the committee members believed in this propaganda. In fact, during the occupation of the Ottoman Bank in Istanbul the Armenian terrorist Armen Aknomi committed suicide after having waited in desperation the arrival of the British fleet. It can be seen thus that the basis for the Armenian revolts was not poverty, nor was it oppression or the desire for reform; rather, it was simply the result of a joint effort on the part of the Armenian revolutionary committees and the Armenian church, in conjunction with the Western Powers and Russia, to provide the basis to break up the Ottoman Empire.

In reaction to these revolts, the Ottomans did what other states did in such circumstances, sending armed forces against the rebels to restore order, and for the most part succeeding quickly since very few of the Armenian populace supported or helped the rebels or the revolutionary societies. However for the press and public of Europe, stirred by tales spread by the missionaries and the revolutionary societies themselves, every Ottoman restoration of order was automatically considered a “massacre” of Christians, with the thousands of slaughtered Muslims being ignored and Christian claims against Muslims automatically accepted. In many cases, the European states not only intervened to prevent the Ottomans from restoring order, but also secured the release of many captured terrorists, including those involved in the Zeytun revolt, the occupation of the Ottoman Bank, and the attempted assassination of Sultan Abdulhamid. While most of these were expelled from the Ottoman Empire, with the cooperation of their European sponsors, it did not take long for them to secure forged passports and other documents and to return to Ottoman territory to resume their terrorist activities. Whatever were the claims of the Armenian revolutionary societies and whatever the ambitions of the imperial powers of Europe, there was one major fact which they simply could not ignore. The Armenians comprised a very small minority of the population in the territories being claimed in their name, namely the six eastern districts claimed as “historic Armenia” (Erzurum, Bitlis, Van, Elaziz, Diyarbakir and Sivas), the two provinces claimed to comprise “Armenian Cilicia” (Aleppo and Adana) and finally Trabzon which was later claimed to have an outlet to the Black Sea coast. Even the French Yellow Book, which among western sources made the largest Armenian population claims, still showed them in a sizeable minority:

  Total Population Gregorian Armenian Population Armenian Percent of Total Population
Erzurum 645,702 134,167 20.90
Bitlis 398,625 131,390 32.96
Van 430,000 79,998 18.79
Elazi 578,814 69,718 12.04
Diyarbakir 471,462 79,129 16.78
Sivas 1,086,015 170,433 15.68
Adana 403,539 97,450 24.14
Aleppo 995,758 37,999 3.81
Trabzon 1,047,700 47,200 4.50

Armenian Population

Thus, even by these extreme claims, the Armenians still constituted no more than one third of the provinces’ population. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica of 1910, the Armenians were only 15 percent of the area’s population as a whole, making it very unlikely that they could in fact achieve independence in any part of the Ottoman Empire without the massive foreign assistance that would have been required to push out the Turkish majorities and replace them with Armenian emigrants.

Russia in fact was using the Armenians only for its own ends. It had no real intention of establishing Armenian independence, either within its own dominions or in Ottoman territory. Almost as soon as the Russians took over the Caucasus, they adopted a policy of Russifying the Armenians as well as establishing their own control over the Armenian Gregorian church in their territory. By virtue of the  Polijenia Law of 1836, the powers and duties of the Catholicos of Etchmiadzin were restricted, while his appointment was to be made by the Czar. In 1882 all Armenian newspapers and schools in the Russian Empire were closed, and in 1903 the state took direct control of all the financial resources of the Armenian Church as well as Armenian establishments and schools. At the same time Russian Foreign Minister Lobanov-Rostowsky adopted his famous goal of “An Armenia without Armenians“, a slogan which has been deliberately attributed to the Ottoman administration by some Armenian propagandists and writers in recent years. Whatever the reason, Russian oppression of the Armenians was severe. The Armenian historian Vartanian relates in his History of the Armenian Movement that “Ottoman Armenia was completely free in its traditions, religion, culture and language in comparison to Russian Armenia under the Czars.” Edgar Granville writes, “The Ottoman Empire was the Armenians’ only shelter against Russian oppression.

That Russian intentions were to use the Armenians to annex Eastern Anatolia and not to create an independent Armenia is shown by what happened during World War I. In the secret agreements made among the Entente powers to divide the Ottoman Empire, the territory which the Russians had promised to the Armenians as an autonomous or independent territory was summarily divided between Russia and France without any mention of the Armenians, while the Czar replied to the protests of the Catholicos of Etchmiadzin only that “Russia has no Armenian problem.” The Armenian writer Borian thus concludes:

“Czarist Russia at no time wanted to assure Armenian autonomy. For this reason one must consider the Armenians who were working for Armenian autonomy as no more than agents of the Czar to attach Eastern Anatolia to Russia.”

The Russians thus have deceived the Armenians for years; and as a result the Armenians have been left with nothing more than an empty dream.

1 URAS, Esat,Tarihte Ermeniler ve Ermeni Meselesi, 2nd Edition, Istanbul, 1976, pp. 212 – 215.
2 URAS, Esat, op. cit., pp. 250 – 251.
3 SCHEMSI, Kara, op. cit, pp. 20 – 21.
4 NALBANDIAN, Louise, Armenian Revolutionary Movement, University of California Press, 1963, pp. 110-111.
5 PAPAZIAN, K. S., Patriotism Perverted, Boston, Baker Press, 1934, pp.14-15.
6 LORIS-MELIKOFF, Dr. Jean, la Revolution Russe et les Nouvelles Republiques Transcaucasiennes, Paris, 1920, p.81.
7 URAS, Esat; op. cit, p. 188.
8 British Blue Book, Nr. 6 (1894), p. S7.
9 British Blue Book, Nr. 6 (1894), pp. 222 – 223.
10 URAS, Esat, op. cit., p. 426.
11 British Blue Book, Nr. 8 (1896), p.108.
12 SCHEMSI, Kara, op. cit., p.l 1.
13 General MAYEWSKI, Statistique des Provinces de Van et de Bitlis, pp.11-13, Petersburg, 1916.
14 SCHEMSI, Kara, op. cit, p.lI.
15 VARANDIAN, Mikayel, History of the Dashnagtzoutune, Paris, 1932, p. 302.
16 PAPAZIAN, K. S., op. cit, p. 19.