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Why did the Russian Tsarist Empire increase the role of the Armenians when they started to occupy the Caucasus?

In the early eighteenth century, the Russian Tsarist Empire set out to be one of the most powerful states in the world. It planned to capture Persia and the Middle East in order to have access to and control over the trade routes that passed through the region.[1] In order to achieve this goal, the Tsarist Empire initially planned to control the Caucasus. The military forces of the Tsarist Empire therefore occupied the provinces of Azerbaijan on the Caspian Sea coast, from Darband in the north to Gilan in the south, in 1722.[2] The first cooperation between Russians and Armenians occurred during this period. For instance, Peter the Great [Peter I] (1696-1725) used Armenians in the wars with the Safavid Empire, which was on the verge of collapse. Furthermore, in order to improve relations between Russians and Armenians, Peter I issued a decree on November 10, 1724 relating to the settlement of Armenians in the territory of Tsarist Empire under the patronage of Russia.[3] The leading Armenian families that met with Peter I were therefore invited to live in Petersburg, the capital city of the Tsarist Empire. Later, an Armenian quarter was also built in Petersburg.[4] The Russian Tsar, who planned to occupy the whole Caucasus, Persia, and the Ottoman Empire, thus took a first step by using Armenians living in these regions to further the political interests of Tsarist Russia.

This policy of Peter I was continued by his successors. The famous Lazaryev (Lazaryan) family that served in the Russian army was among the Armenian families that settled in Petersburg during that time. When this family settled in Russia, it created a favourable environment for future Russian-Armenian relations to develop. In the last quarter of the eighteenth century, the Tsarist Empire decided to occupy the whole Caucasus. After signing the Treaty of Georgievsk, which consisted of 13 articles, with Georgia on July 24, 1783, the Tsarist Empire deployed 3,000 Russian soldiers to Tiflis (Tbilisi).[5] This time, the Tsarist Empire defended its intervention by arguing that it intended to protect the interests of the Christian population in the Caucasus. Hence, Russian-Armenian relations thence gained important character since that time. In order to use Armenians for the occupation of the Caucasus Russia promised them it would create an Armenian state in the Caucasus.[6] In the Russian intervention in the Caucasus, Armenia in general, and the Lazaryev family in particular, therefore played a special role in the late eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries.

The Tsarist Empire’s Caucasus occupation plan for the end of the eighteenth century was temporarily prevented by the Azerbaijani Khanates that were getting support from the Persian and Ottoman empires.[7] However, the Tsarist Empire did not give up its occupation plan and sent 30,000 Russian soldiers to the Caucasus, under the command of Russian general Velerian Aleksandrovich Zubov. They were accompanied by priests, as if to give the impression it was carrying out a ‘crusade’. Armenian priest Iyosif Stepan Davidov met the Russian army that reached the city of Derbend on May 10, 1796 and guided them into the Caucasus.[8] The Tsarist Empire managed to occupy a large part of the northern territories of Azerbaijan, such as the Khanates of Guba (June 6), Baku (June 13), Salyan and Ganja (October), with the support of Armenians. However, this occupation plan fell through, due to the death of Russian empress Catherine II (Yekaterina Alekseyevna) in November 1796.[9] When General Zubov went back to Russia after the death of Catherine II, he took many Armenian children with him so they could be educated and used to further expand of the Tsarist Empire towards the Caucasus. Additionally, the opening of Armenian schools in Russia from the beginning of the nineteenth century and the opening of the Lazaryan Institute in Moscow in 1816 played a crucial role in attempting to attract Armenians to this plan.[10] After these events, a start was made on implementing the joint Russian-Armenian action plan in the South Caucasus. After a while, Armenians that were living in neighbouring countries were also invited to be part of this process. There were therefore many Armenian officers, such as Larazarev, Yohannes, Madatov, Ivan Korganov, Jamshid Shahnazar and Vasili Behudov, who served in the Russian army during the wars between the Russian-Persian and Russian-Ottoman empires.[11]

In order to strengthen the influence of the Armenians in the South Caucasus, along the migration of Armenians into the region after the occupation of Azerbaijan, Tsarist Empire took also the policy of the destruction of the Albanian Church and the Christian monuments of Azerbaijan. Therefore, after the placing the Albanian Church under the jurisdiction of the Armenian Church by the Russian Synod in 1836 Armenians began to attack the Albanian heritage systematically, erased the Earlier inscriptions, destroyed the monuments or Armenianized them. In this regard it was elucidated, “If Islamic monuments are subjected to a policy of terrorism, the other part of Azerbaijani cultural heritage – the Christian architectural inheritance of Caucasian Albania – is being destroyed or Armenianized. Christian churches and temples, built by Albanian princes and part of the history of Caucasian Albania, are becoming “Armenian”. Armenian scholars carry out so-called “restoration” work on these monuments in order to Armenianize them. This work is illegal as it is being carried out on foreign monuments in occupied territories and without the participation of scientists from Azerbaijan. The traces of their connection to Albanian culture are being erased. Under the guise of “restoration” work, they are falsifying and destroying the characteristic features of Albanian Karabakh architecture”.[12]

As a result, it is possible to conclude that the Russian-Armenian relations that were forged in the seventeenth century only for trade purposes began to acquire political motives and significance from the beginning of the eighteenth century. The Tsarist Empire’s main aim when forging this kind of relations was to use Armenians in the South Caucasus occupation process, to gain a foothold in order to strengthen Russia’s position after the occupation, to increase the percentage of Armenians that were subordinated to the Tsarist Empire, to reduce the number of local Muslims and to place the historical heritage of Christian Albania under the jurisdiction of Armenia.

[1] Mouravief, Boris, Deli Petro’nun Vasiyetnamesi (tərcümə edən Özdek, Refik) (İstanbul, 1966), p. 60. See also: Kocabaş, Süleyman, Tarihte Türk-Rus Mücadelesi (İstanbul: Vatan yayınları, 1989), p. 92.

[2] Azərbaycan tarixi, Vol. 3, (1999), pp. 360-362. See also: Ibid, Kocabaş, Tarihte Türk-Rus Mücadelesi, p. 93.

[3] Мехтиев, Рамиз, Нагорный Карабах: история, прочитанная по источникам (Москва, 2014), pp. 90-92. See also: “I Pyotrun erməni xalqına ali fərmanı”, in Mahmudov and Şükürov (eds.), Azərbaycan beynəlxalq münasibətlər və diplomatiya tarixi (1639-1828), pp. 141-147. See also: “Rus çarı I Pyotrun erməni xalqına fərmanı. 10 noyabr 1724-cü il”, in T.K.Heydərov, T.R.Bağırov, K.K.Şükürov, (eds.), Qafqazda “erməni məsələsi”. Rusiya arxiv sənədləri və nəşrləri üzrə, (Three Volume), Vol. 1, (Bakı: “Elm” nəşriyyatı, 2010), pp. 51-54.

[4] Qlinka, S.N., Azərbaycan ermənilərinin Rusya hududlarına kömürülməsinin təsviri (Bakı: Azərbaycan nəşriyyatı, 1995), pp. 8-9. See also: Demirel, Muammer, “Ermeni Meselesi ve Rusya”, 8. Askeri Tarih Semineri (24-26 Ekim 2001-İstanbul) (Ankara, 2003), pp. 339-340.

[5] BOA. HH. Nr., 110; 324-G. See also: “Georqiyevsk müqaviləsi”, in Mahmudov and Şükürov (eds.), Azərbaycan beynəlxalq münasibətlər və diplomatiya tarixi (1639-1828), pp. 269-276.

[6] Yüksel, İbrahim, “Çarlık Rusya’nın Azerbaycan’ı İstilası ve Osmanlı Devleti’nin Tutumu”, Kafkas Araştırmalar, No. 1, 1988, p. 51. See also: Nəcəfli, Güntəkin, “XVIII yüzillikdə ermənilərin Qarabağ ərazisində dövlət yaratmaq cəhdləri”, in Yılmaz, Reha (ed.), Qarabağ bildiklərimiz və bilmədiklərimiz (Qafqaz Universiteti, 2010), pp. 98-106.

[7] BOA, Name-i Hümayun Defteri, Nr. 7, pp. 78-82.

[8] Barthold, W., “Derbent”, İslam Ansiklopedisi, Vol. 3, (İstanbul, 1988), p. 538. See also: Yüksel, “Çarlık Rusya’nın Azerbaycan’ı İstilası ve Osmanlı Devleti’nin Tutumu”, pp. 58-59. See also: Мамедова, Гехар, О роходе В. Зубова в Азервайджан 1796 г. (Баку: Elm, 2003), pp. 14-18-22.

[9] Bakıxanov, Abbasqulu Ağa, Gülüstani İrəm (Bakı, 1951), p. 184. See also: Adıgözəl bəy, Mirzə, “Qarabağnamə”, in Akif Fərzəliyev (ed.), Qarabağnamələr (Bakı: Yazıçı, 1989), pp. 54-55.

[10] Demirel, “Ermeni Meselesi ve Rusya”, p. 340.

[11] Dedeyev, Bilal, “19. Yüzyıl Ermeni Milliyetçiliğinin Yapılanmasında Rusyanın Rolü”, Erciyez Üniversitesi-Nevşehir Üniversitesi II. Uluslar arası Sosyal Araştırmalar Sempozyumu (EUSAS-II), Mayıs 22-24, 2008, (Kayseri, 2009), pp. 335-349.

[12] Mehdiyev, Ramiz, Gorus-2010: Season of Theater of Absurd (Universal, 2010) p. 57.