Pre-Soviet History of Karabakh

Pre-Soviet History of Karabakh

© 1988, This is from "The Karabakh File" of the Zoryan Institute. Edited by Gerard Libaridian


Karabagh (Gharabagh, in Armenian) is known in official Soviet parlance as Nagorno-Karabagh or, "Mountainous Karabagh Autonomous District." It is a region of 1,699 square miles with a current population of approximately 153,000 people, of whom 80 percent are Armenian. Its name means "black garden." The area is known for its rugged beauty, its wild mountains, and its inaccessibility to the rest of the Caucasus.

In ancient times, the region of Karabagh and most of eastern Transcaucasia was inhabited by a people called Albanians, not to be confused with the people of the same name now living in the Balkans. According to the Greek geographer Strabo (1st C. B.C.), Karabagh, which then encompassed both the mountainous Nagorno-Karabagh of today and the larger lowlands, surrounding it, had a highly developed economy and was famous for its cavalry. Caucasian Albanians maintained close contacts with the Armenians. In the fifth century, shortly after the Armenians converted to Christianity, the Albanians too adopted the Armenian brand of Christianity. The first church established in Karabagh, in the region now known as Martuni, was established by Gregory the Illuminator, first Catholicos of Armenia. Tradition has it that Mesrob Mashtotz, the monk who created the Armenian alphabet, founded the first school in Karabagh.

Given the centrality of religion to social life during that period, it is not surprising that in the following two centuries the Albanians merged with the Armenians. The nobilitv intermarried, the region's bishops were often Armenians, and by the seventh century the separate identity of the Albanians was lost.

The territories of both Mountainous Karabagh and the larger surrounding lowlands became parts of the Armenian provinces of Utik, Sunik and Artsakh. In the seventh and eighth centuries much of this area was conquered by Arabs, who converted a portion of the population to Islam. In Karabagh, only a very small minority was converted. The situation of Karabagh changed radically in the eleventh century when the ethnic Turkish invasions began. The Turks had emerged from Central Asia, had conquered Iran, and founded the Seljuk Turkish dynasty, which first raided, then invaded Armenia. From 1020 on, these invasions destroyed much of Armenia, and Karabagh, especially its lowlands, suffercd greatly. By the mid-eleventh century, the Armenian kingdom was destroyed. But the feudal principality of Sunik, which occupied the mountainous territory in the southeast of today's Soviet Armenia and Mountainous Karabagh survived and became beacons to the rest of Armenia. In the following centuries, thousands of Armenians found refuge in Karabagh, under the protection of native lords.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Karabagh gave rise to the pioneers of the Armenian emancipatory struggle. Representatives of the region attempted to interest the monarchs of Russia and other European powers in embarking on a "crusade" to liberate the Armenian plateau, the eastern portions of which were occupied by the Ottoman Turkish and Persian Fmpires. During the 1720's, the rebellion of the Armenians ofSunik and Karabagh, led by David Beg, achieved notable though temporary success. The Russian Empire, expanding southwards in the Transcaucasus, annexed the territory of Karabagh in 1805.

The Russian annexation of Karabagh was officially recognized by Persia in the Treaty of Gulistan in 1813. Thus Karabagh came into the Russian Empire earlier than the areas of Yerevan and Nakhichevan, which were ceded to Russia by Persia in the Treaty of Turkmenchai in 1828. This earlier annexation benefited Karabagh in some ways, but also created a major problem for the future. Because of the time it came into the Russian empire, Karabagh was made part of Elizavetpol Province, which later became Azerbaijan. Administratively, then, Karabagh could not be joined in 1813 to the as-yet un-annexed Armenian territories of which its history and population made it a natural part. Yerevan and Nakhichevan, when they were attached to the Tzarist empire in 1828, were organized in the Armianskoy region, later the Yerevan province. Here, as in other empires, decisions made by colonial administrators laid the foundations for future difficulties.


During the first months of the Russian revolution of 1917, the situation in Karabagh was relatively calm. The Russian army had penetrated deep into the Ottoman Empire, and there was no Turkish threat to Karabagh. But by the end of 1917 the Russian army had disintegrated, and in February 1918 the Ottoman Turkish army moved into Armenia. The Ottoman Turks threatened Yerevan and made a desperate drive to oil-rich Baku, then held by a multi-ethnic coalition of Bolsheviks (headed by the Armenian Stepan Shaumian) and small Armenian military forcas. While this struggle went on, representatives of the Armenians, Georgians and Azeris met and formed a short-lived Transcaucasian Federation. By May, 1918 this federation failed and three separate, independent republics were proclaimed: Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia formed the cores of today's Soviet republics in the same region. The capital of the Azerbaijani Republic was at Elizavetpol (Ganja). The new government, indifferent to the wishes of its Armenian inhabitants, claimed Karabagh, as part of the territory of the new republic. The commander of Ottoman Turkish forces, Nun Pasha (brother of the Minister Enver Fasha), ordered the Armenians of Karabagh to submit to the new government of its ethnic ally, Azerbaijan.

In August 1918, the Armenians of Karabagh formed their own national assembly, called the First Assembly of Karabagh Armenians, which then elected a People's Government of Karabagh. This government rejected the demand that Turkish troops be permitted to enter theft capital of Shushi. By the end of the summer, on September 15, the Turks took Baku. With the ethnic Azerbaijani Turks at their side, they carried out a systematic massacre of the Armenians in the city, during which it is estimated that 15,000 to 20,000 Armenians died. when the news of that massacre came to Karabagh, Armenians understood they too were incapable of resisting successfully the regular troops of the Ottoman Turkish army. On September 25, they submitted to the Turks and 5,000 Turkish soldiers entered Shushi. Within a week, 60 prominent Armenians had been arrested, the townspeople disarmed, and gallows ominously erected in the central square of the town. There is no telling what would have happened had the Turks stayed much longer.

Faced with this Turkish occupation, the Karabagh Armenians were looking for aid from armed Armenians outside their borders. The newly-founded Armenian Republic around Yerevan was much too weak to help. The only force of any consequence was the independent command of General Andranik, an ingenious guerrilla fighter and military leader, in Zangezur. General Andranik decided to help and he moved toward Shushi. This advance, however, was hindered by Muslim resistance and by lengthy discussions among Armenians, which resulted in a fatal delay. Before Andranik could reach Shushi (he got within 26 miles), the First World War ended and Turkey, along with Germany and Austria-Hungary, surrendered to the Allies.

The British occupation forces would now play the key role in eastern Transcaucasia. The British ordered Andranik to stop all further military advances and to await the solution of the Armenian Question at the Paris Peace Conference. Andranik, not wanting to antagonize the British, retreated to Goris in Zangezur. Thus the Armenians placed the fate of Karabagh in the hands of the British and the Western Allies. The Armenians had every reason to expect that they would be treated well by the British; after all, Armenians had fought with the Allies and had been the victims of their enemy, the Ottoman Turks. President Wilson had pledged support for the Armenians. At the same time, the Azerbaijanis had been allies of the Turks in 1918. Despite all this, within a few rnonths the British shifted their support In eastern Transcaucasia to the Azerbaijanis, motivated both by a traditional Turkophilia and by their geopolitical assumption that they needed to favor and dominate emerging Muslim entities in the Middle East, between the Suez and India, particularly those controlling petroleum reserves.

The Armenians of Karabagh could expect help from no one, and so, on August 22, 1919, their leaders signed an agreement with the Republic of Azerbaijan, accepting its authority until the final decision on Mountainous Karabagh was made at the Paris Peace Conference. By this agreement, the Armenians of Karabagh were granted cultural autonomy. This agreement established an important precedent concerning the relations of Mountainous or Nagorno-Karabagh and Azerbaijan.

In the same month, August 1919, the British began their withdrawal from Azerbaijan. But thc effects of their short stay in that region are felt to the present day. It is as a result of British support of the Azeri-Turkish position on Karabagb, despite the predominant Armenian majority in the area, that this region was included in the independent Republic of Azerbaijan.

© 1988- Zoryan Institute & Gerard Libaridian.

[ Karabakh | Main Armenia Page ] © Raffi Kojian
This page added March, 1998