A Review of the European Azerbaijan Society’s Armenian Question in the Caucasus

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The editor, compilers and commentators of this three-volume set are all members of The European Azerbaijan Society (TEAS), launched in November 2008 from what had been initially established four years earlier as the London Azerbaijan Society. According to their web site, the Society’s objective “is to promote Azerbaijan to international audiences and create a sense of community for expatriate Azerbaijanis. There are hundreds of TEAS members and the society regularly organizes events across Europe in order to raise awareness of the unique, rich and varied culture of the region. TEAS also operates as a networking forum, focusing on areas such as business development, diplomatic relations, culture and education to promote greater understanding and cooperation between Europe and Azerbaijan.”

After I examined the above-mentioned three volumes, however, it becomes clear that the main objective of the Society is to copy the regime in Baku and to vilify the Armenians for all of Baku’s own ills and shortcomings. The editor, compilers and commentators, as far as I know, are not affiliated with any academic institution. In addition, Ithaca Press is a non-peer-reviewed press, which provides printing and editing services for individuals and organizations that have the funds to print books on the Middle East.

The collection contains numerous documents from various Russian archives dealing with the Armenians. Contrary to the editor’s claim that these documents were kept secret and are being published for the first time, most of them have been published and some have even been translated into English in my two-volume Armenians and Russia, 1626-1796: A Documentary Record (2001) and Russia and the Armenians of Transcaucasia, 1797-1889: A Documentary Record (1998), as well as various volumes published in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Yerevan between 1833 and 1990.

In the poorly written English introductions and comments, the editor, compilers and commentators repeat the false notion of the existence of an Azerbaijan prior to the 20th century. Any historian worth the name of scholar is aware that the area of the present-day Azerbaijan Republic was composed of numerous khanates under Iranian suzerainty from the early 1500s to the early 1800s. They did not form a single entity, had no single national identity and were constantly at war with each other. Following the Russian conquest of the region, the area was divided into various guberniias, such as Baku, Shemakha and Elisavetpol. The Muslims of the region were called Tatars. Most of the common people spoke Torki — a local Turco-Iranian dialect, while the intellectuals and the Middle class spoke and wrote in Russian or Persian. It is only after Sovietization (1920) that the Soviets, in order to give a national identity to the Muslims of Transcaucasia [for the Armenians and Georgians had such an identity, historic kingdoms, alphabets, and literature], soon created a Cyrillic-Latin alphabet for the Torki dialect, which became known as Azeri, and named the region Azerbaijan with an eye to expanding their influence in the Iranian province of Azarbaijan. The Soviets, and especially Stalin, “encouraged” the “Azeris” to ignore their Iranian past by creating a fictional “Azerbaijani” history in eastern Transcaucasia. The great Iranian poet Nezami became the national poet of Azerbaijan. The Soviets even unsuccessfully tried to occupy the Iranian province of Azarbaijan. Following the fall of the USSR, Azeris have continued this policy and have the audacity to refer to the Iranian Province of Azarbaijan as “Southern Azerbaijan.”

Despite the fact that the “Azeri” historians accepted an Armenia during the Soviet era, following the demise of the USSR and the Karabaghi Armenian demands for self-determination, the official Azeri view, led by the late Ziya Buniatov and his students, asserted that there were no Armenians in Transcaucasia and that Yerevan, Nakhichevan and Karabagh were part of what they term as Azerbaijan. This notion is echoed in the three volumes under review.

It is true that Armenians formed a minority in the Yerevan and Nakhichevan regions until thousands of Armenians emigrated from Iran following the Turkmenchay Treaty. What the Azeris ignore to mention is that these Armenians were forcibly deported from their homeland by Shah `Abbas between 1604-1608 and returned home some 200 years later, when a Christian power conquered the region and created favorable conditions for their return. In fact, the Armenians had been looking for a Christian power to aid them against Muslim domination since the late 1690s. As far as Karabagh is concerned, the document included in the collection (Vol. I, p. 8) clearly states that only those Armenians who resided near the southern border of Karabagh emigrated to Karabagh. Only some 200 families left Iran for Karabagh, while according to the Russian Survey conducted in Karabagh in 1823—five years prior to the Turkmenchay agreement—97% of the villages and inhabitants in the five mahals, which constitute the present-day Nagorno-Karabakh, were Armenians while only 3% were Tatars (Azeris).

The numerous Russian documents in the collection are incomplete, lack clarification, or are explained erroneously in the introduction and comments. For example, in Vol. I (p. 3), when Peter the Great did not honor his promise to the Armenians and Georgians to liberate them from Muslim rule, he asked some of their leaders and armed followers to immigrate to Russia. They did, and they formed Armenian and Georgian squadrons in the Russian army. The editors of this collection, however, do not mention the Georgians, and claim that these Armenians settled in what they refer to as Azerbaijan. The Armenians were from Karabagh and they settled not in Transcaucasia, but in Russia.

In the second volume, referring to the “atrocities” committed by the Armenians during the 1905-1906 Armeno-Tatar clashes, the editors have a document (p. 73), which clearly indicates that a Tatar mob attacked Armenians and Russians while they were walking on a street in Baku. In fact, all the documents in volume II indicate that both sides killed, burned and looted. According to Luigi Villari’s eyewitness account, Fire and Sword in the Caucasus (London, 1906), the Armenians, especially in Nakhichevan, actually suffered more from these clashes.

The third volume ends at 1914 and hence avoids the 1918 Armenian massacres in Baku. It is also not in my era of expertise.

Despite its obvious non-scholarly and false introductions and comments, the above three-volume set is proof that the Azeris are winning the propaganda war. These beautifully bound volumes, which must have cost a great deal to produce and which were probably financed and approved by Baku, will undoubtedly be used and quoted by the pro-Azeri scholars in the West or even historians who cannot read Russian or do not have access to all the original documents. Journalists and others will also use the notes as facts, as they have done before. It is sad that Armenian scholars have to beg Armenians to help them translate and produce books which challenge and negate such Azeri lies.

The European Azerbaijan Society: The Armenian Question in the Caucasus: Russian Archive Documents and Publications, Ithaca Press, Reading, UK, 2011. Hardcover $275. 3 volumes in cardboard slipcase: editor Tale Heydarov.

Vol. I: 1724-1904, xix+713 Pp; Vol. II: 1905-1906, vi+614 Pp.; Vol. III: 1906-1914, vi+345 Pp.