Beginning of the 20th Century and Establishment of Soviet Rule

Beginning of the 20th Century and Establishment of Soviet Rule

Events of such regional and world scale, as the First World War and the Russian Revolution, that changed the course of history in the first decades of the twentieth century, played a crucial role in the fate of Artsakh as well, and two factors changed Armenian history for the worse, for a significant period of time. The first was the annihilation by Ottoman Turkey of over a million and a half Armenians in the first genocide of the 20th century (the Genocide of Armenians) in Western Armenia, which was under Turkey’s control and later the outright war against the newly independent Republic of Armenia. The second was the change of regime in Russia and its later sovietization, followed by re-occupation of the territories that the Russian Empire had formerly controlled.

In the first months of 1917, when the Russian army had penetrated deep into the Ottoman Empire, there was no direct Turkish threat to Karabakh. The situation changed after the Bolshevik revolution when the Russian army in fact disintegrated.

In February 1918 the Ottoman Turkish army moved into Armenia. They threatened Yerevan and tried to get to Baku as well, which was then held by a multi-ethnic coalition of Bolsheviks (It was headed by an Armenian, Stepan Shahumyan. Stepanakert, the capital city of Nagorno Karabakh is named after Stepan Shahumyan).

After the demise of the Russian Empire, on February 10, 1918 the Transcaucasian seim (assembly) was convened in Tiflis by the representatives of the Armenians, Georgians and Tatars (the name Azeri was not used until 1936) which on April 9 of the same year declared the secession of Transcaucasia from Russia and proclaimed the Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic. 

The Transcaucasian Federation was short-lived and did not survive past May 26th. A new offensive of the Turkish troops after the withdrawal of the regular Russian army accelerated the break-up of Transcaucasia and three separate, independent republics were proclaimed: Armenia, Azerbaijan (with capital at Elizavetpol (Ganja)), and Georgia. The government of Azerbaijan claimed Karabakh and Zangezur, another region of Armenia as part of the territory of their new republic. The commander of Ottoman Turkish forces, Nuru-Pasha ordered the Armenians of Karabakh to submit to this new government of its ethnic ally, Azerbaijan. Although Karabakh had been a part of the Yelizavetpol Gubernya (Province) of the Russian Empire, administrative territorial division in the Tsarist Russia was carried out not according to the ethnic origins of the inhabitants, and there was no title nation able to claim the territory of the province as its own. A variety of tribes lived in the region where for the first time in history a republic called “Azerbaijan’ was to be formed.

The actions of Azerbaijan were based on the sad reality that after the 1915 Genocide of Armenians in Turkey, Armenia not only suffered an appalling loss of human lives and a major portion of its territories. It was under attack by the Turkish army, had to face numerous problems of state-building, and address the needs of many thousand starving and homeless refugees who had fled the annihilation campaign by the Turks. Armenia was clearly not in a position to defend Karabakh. 

Naturally, neither the Armenians of Karabakh, nor those of Zangezur complied with an imposed government: in July, 1918 the First Assembly (Congress) of the Armenians of Karabakh (95 percent of the population of Karabakh was Armenian) was convened, which proclaimed Nagorno Karabakh an independent administrative-political unit, and elected a National Council and a seven-member People's Government. A Declaration of the People's Government of Karabakh was adopted, setting forth the objectives of the newly established state authority.

The Government of Azerbaijan enlisted the help of the Turkish armed forces whose commander, Nuru Pasha issued an ultimatum to the National Council of Karabakh demanding submission to the government of the newly created Azerbaijan. The Second Assembly of the Armenians of Karabakh, convened on September 6, rejected this ultimatum of the Turkish forces and the government of Azerbaijan.

On September 15, 1918 the Turks entered Baku and, with the help of the ethnic Azerbaijani Turks, carried out a systematic massacre of the Armenians in the city, killing thirty thousand Armenians.  Hundreds of Armenian villages in the Baku and Elizavetpol Provinces were looted and destroyed.  The headquarters of Turkish armed forces issued another ultimatum to the Karabakh People’s Government demanding disarmament, acceptance of Azerbaijani rule, and passage of Turkish and Azeri armed forces into Shushi, the biggest town of Karabakh. 

Faced with the prospect of a war with the regular Turkish army, the Third Assembly of the Armenians was convened to discuss the ultimatum in September, 1918, and rejected the demands of disarmament and subordination to Azerbaijan. The Turks agreed to drop the demand of general disarmament of the people, and agreed not to insist on recognition of Azerbaijan’s authority and to preserve the status quo of Karabakh. But they were firm on bringing their troops into Shushi. Realizing that the defeat of Germany in World War I was only a matter of days, the People’s Government of Karabakh finally agreed to Turkey’s demand to let their troops enter Shushi. However, the people of Karabakh were extremely unhappy about this decision and resisted the presence of the Turkish forces. 

5,000 Turkish soldiers entered Shushi. Arrests of prominent Armenians and prosecutions followed immediately, prompting the annulment of the decision of the Third Assembly and preparation for a resistance. Clearly, the consequences would have been much graver had the World War not ended and had the Turks not surrendered to the Allied Powers in October. 

In December British occupation forces replaced the retreating Ottoman troops and were now to play the key role in eastern Transcaucasia. While it was agreed that the fate of the disputable territories should be solved at the Peace Conference in Paris, and the British command publically endorsed that, it was believed to have done its best to de facto incorporate Karabakh into Azerbaijan long before the final resolution. The British support of Azerbaijan and Turkey, despite the fact that the British fought against the Turks in WW I, is said to have been motivated by their geopolitical assumption that they needed to favour and dominate emerging Muslim entities in the Middle East, between the Suez and India, especially those controlling petroleum reserves. That particularly applied to the supplies of the Baku oil. Evidently, a final secession of Transcaucasia from Russia could have been sought as well and Azerbaijan was supposed to play a pivotal role in that scheme, also preventing the sovietisation of the region. 

The Azerbaijani government continued putting pressure on Karabakh and the successive Assemblies (Congresses) of the Armenians decisively kept on insisting that they would never accept authority of Azerbaijan over them.

General William Thomson, head of the British Command, not only sanctioned the establishment of a government in Azerbaijan, but in February 1919 also approved of the appointment of Khosrov bek (bey) Sultanov, notorious for his anti-Armenian policies, as governor-general of Karabakh. Armenians declared that they would never accept the authority of Azerbaijan.

The British Command was blunt in its support of the Azerbaijani government’s policy of bringing Nagorno Karabakh under the latter’s rule. The Commander of the British armed forces in Baku, Colonel Shuttleworth, has been quoted to tell the Armenians of Karabakh: “Your roads are blocked, your dying people will not get bread, and we will not help you at all until you recognize the rule of Musavat Azerbaijan.” 

It was not surprising therefore that Azerbaijan would seek every opportunity to resort to action. When in June, 1919 the British troops withdrew from Nagorno Karabakh, Azerbaijani troops were given a free hand. The effects of the short stay of the British in that region are felt to the present day. The British support of the Azeri-Turkish position on Karabakh was to adversely affect the fates of many thousand indigenous habitants of the region for several decades. 

A Commission of the Assembly (Congress) established to decide whether Nagorno Karabakh would be able to defend its independence in case of war came to the conclusion that it was not feasible under the existing conditions.  Under the threat of military aggression from Azerbaijan, the Assembly was forced to begin negotiations. To win time and mobilize forces, on August 22, 1919 the Seventh Assembly of Armenians of Karabakh and the government of the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan concluded a provisional agreement on the status of Karabakh, agreeing that the problem of Karabakh should be considered at the Paris Peace Conference. The Agreement did not change the status of Nagorno Karabakh: the land still remained an independent political entity.  The fact that the government of Azerbaijan entered into an agreement with the Assembly of Armenians points to the fact that Karabakh was a separate legal entity. However, since Armenians did not lay down their arms and the Azerbaijani troops did not enter Nagorno Karabakh, Azerbaijan was not satisfied with the situation. In an ongoing struggle, the government of Azerbaijan pressed for incorporation of Nagorno Karabakh into Azerbaijan and the Assembly of Armenians continued to reject the demands and notified the diplomatic and military representatives of the Allied Entente powers that Azerbaijan’s policy was leading to the use of certain measures by Karabakh to defend itself. 

Fighting did break out in March. On March 23, 1920 Turkish forces along with Azeri military units burned and robbed Shushi, the most important town of Karabakh and at that time the fifth largest town in Transcaucasia in terms of its population size. About thirty Armenian villages shared that fate. The majority of the 35,000 Armenians of Shushi perished and the town was practically razed to the ground. 7,000 homes, a multitude of churches and other monuments of history and culture were destroyed or desecrated. Long after 1920, the ruins in Shushi reminded every visitor of the true aims of Azerbaijani policy in Karabakh.

Shushi after the destruction and pogroms in 1920 by Turkish-Azerbaijani forces.

(Source of the photos:

As help arrived from Armenia, Nagorno Karabakh was entirely liberated. In April 1920, the Ninth Assembly of the Karabakh Armenians considered the Agreement with Azerbaijan breached, by the organized assault of Azerbaijani armed forces on the peaceful population of Karabakh, and annihilation of the population of Shushi and surrounding villages, and proclaimed Nagorno Karabakh an inseparable part of Armenia. 

Nagorno Karabakh was not a part of Azerbaijan during any period of the formation of the three Republics of Transcaucasia or before the establishment of the Soviet power in Azerbaijan, and was independent, which is a fact also supported by the position of the League of Nations. On December 1, 1920, it unanimously decided against accepting the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic into the League of Nations, taking into account Azerbaijan's territorial claims against neighbouring States, the impossibility to determine its precise frontiers and the difficulty to ascertain the exact limits on which Azerbaijan exercised its authority. The League of Nations, before final resolution of the conflict, recognized Nagorno Karabakh as a disputed territory, to which all parties of the conflict, including Azerbaijan, agreed. Thus, during its emergence in 1918-1920 the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic did not have any sovereignty over Nagorno Karabakh.