This year marks the centennial of the establishment of the First Armenian Republic in May of 1918 as well as the end of the Great War later that year, two important historical turning points that shaped much of the political trajectory of the Armenians in the twentieth century. Wrapped up in both of these events was the province of Kars (under Ottoman rule since the sixteenth century and Russian rule since 1878). The province of Kars can be seen as a microcosm of the larger political, military and social processes that unfolded in the Caucasus during and after the Great War. This was a period when new political forces such as ethnic nationalism and Bolshevik communism gained momentum throughout the Caucasus, as new states were created, and borders were demarcated often through violence, expulsion and demographic engineering. With its polyethnic population of Armenians, Turks, Kurds, Russians, and others, Kars, along with other regions in the Caucasus, became an epicenter of ethnic violence, Muslim-nationalist resistance, and Great Power diplomacy. While the newborn and vulnerable Armenian Republic tried to integrate this challenging region into its administrative control, Kemalist forces and Bolshevik authorities turned it into a bargaining chip that was used in the ultimate settlement of what was left of the Ottoman Empire’s Caucasian border. In this process, concepts such as sovereignty, legitimacy, and political opposition were transformed in a way that would have lasting legacies in the regional politics of the twenty-first century.
In this interview, Alexander Balistreri (Princeton University, University of Basel) reflects on some of the larger historical and historiographical problems pertinent to the region around Kars in this time period and sheds light on the political and military developments that shaped the policies of the Armenian government on the one hand, and those of the larger regional powers on the other.
Alexander Balistreri is a research associate at the University of Basel's Department of Near and Middle Eastern Studies, where he teaches courses on Turkish, Caucasian, and Near Eastern history. He is simultaneously a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University’s Near Eastern Studies Department. In his dissertation, Balistreri examines the modern history of Kars and the Anatolian-Caucasian border region.
Varak Ketsemanian: Please describe your dissertation project, the larger questions you are trying to answer as well as the various sources you make use of. What is the most important collection of sources in Armenia that you use in your dissertation?
Alexander Balistreri: My dissertation is a pretty straightforward political history of the Kars region as a borderland between Anatolia and the Caucasus. I look at the way the borderland region around Kars was ruled by various states in the modern period, starting with the late Ottoman Empire in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and going through the Republic of Turkey in the middle of the twentieth century.
This dissertation encompasses a great number of states—the Ottoman Empire, the Russian Empire, the Ottoman Empire again, British occupation, the Southwest Caucasian Republic, the Republic of Armenia, the Republic of Georgia, and the Republic of Turkey. I show how the relationship that each of these states established with borderland society rested on a persistent but evolving logic of the borderland; in other words, there are more similarities in the ways that, say, the Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Armenia ruled Kars than might be obvious at first glance. And I argue this has to do with a kind of autonomy of the borderland, that the regional society as such had its own dynamics and was never a periphery that simply bent to the whims of various state centers.
The newspaper Ashkhatavori Dzayn, issue 4 (1920), published in Kars.
As someone researching state-society relations, I rely necessarily in large part on state archives. I have collected archive material from Turkey, Russia, the United Kingdom, and all of the South Caucasian republics. In terms of sources from Armenia or from Armenians, four major types of sources have been useful for me. Most important are the National Archives of Armenia, which house the files of the First Republic of Armenia. And the most important archive collections or fonds for my project at the National Archives are the files of the foreign and interior ministries between 1918 and 1920. Second, the National Library of Armenia has created a fantastic website with access to digital versions of many rare newspapers published in Kars and Aleksandropol’ between 1917 and 1921. Third, there are a number of memoirs about the Armenian Republic period in Kars, both in book form or as articles in diaspora periodicals. These mainly cover the “crises” in Kars under Armenian rule, including the May 1920 workers’ uprising and the Turkish takeover later that year. So the memoirs are generally less useful than the other sources in trying to figure out the mechanics of Armenian rule.
VK: What was the significance of the province of Kars in the Russo-Ottoman conflict from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries?
AB: From a lot of perspectives, Kars actually doesn’t seem like that important of a place. Compare the city with other population centers in the region: It was smaller than its neighbors Erzurum and Akhaltsikhe, and it was not as economically important as Batumi. For Armenians, Kars was not as symbolically or historically as important as Ani, which was right next door, too. Both Kars’ symbolic and geopolitical significance derive rather from its fortified position on an inter-imperial, and later inter-national, border. Anyone who has been to Kars sees right away how impressive its fortress is. This fortified position made Kars an object of desire for the Persian, Ottoman, and Russian Empires, all of whom took over the city at some point over the centuries. The treaties between these empires, for example, often had conditions related to the fortress. The original treaty establishing the Ottoman-Persian border in 1555 stipulated that the Ottomans were not allowed to fortify Kars, since it was too close to the Safavid realm.
But I think we also have to look beyond the strategic significance of Kars as a physical location. The population of the borderland region is and was significant, too. The region has always been a polyethnic space. But particularly during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the period you asked about, ethnicity as a concept began to take on new connotations, ones more related to security. In the early nineteenth century, for example, the Ottoman Empire actually didn’t want Armenians to migrate away from Kars after the wars with the Russian Empire. Population was population, and the more the merrier. By the end of that century, however, empires became much more interested in ethnicity. The Russian Empire’s comprehensive census of 1897 is a perfect example of this. And ethnic categories began to be strongly associated with security and loyalty. This culminated in the early twentieth century with blanket punishments of borderland ethnic groups by states, and also with de facto population exchanges across the border. So Kars is a significant example of what partition can do to populations, and how polyethnic populations do or do not get along when states get involved.
VK: How did the Armenian Republic react to the creation of a provisional Kars Republic in 1918-1919? What were some of the measures that were taken to integrate it into the larger Armenian Republic?
AB: I think we have to first take a step back, to ask how this sort-of-republic in Kars came to be founded.
Toward the end of World War I, there were two competing international visions for what to do with the Caucasus, including Kars. One vision—let’s call it the Brest-Litovsk vision—was the agreement between the Ottoman Empire and the Bolsheviks in 1918. According to this agreement, Kars would basically go to the Ottoman Empire. Actually, the treaty does not say that Kars will go to the Ottoman Empire—it only says that Russian troops should leave. But everybody knew that once Russian troops left, the Ottoman army would do whatever it wanted in Kars. Interestingly, you have some Armenians in the South Caucasus at the time who actually accepted Brest-Litovsk, albeit reluctantly. Hovhannes Kachaznuni, who soon would become the Republic of Armenia’s prime minister, argued Brest-Litovsk was the least of all evils. It was impossible to stop the Ottoman Empire from doing what it wanted anyway, he argued, so cooperating with them on this one issue would at least prevent a devastating war in the short term and might even give the South Caucasus more leverage in the long term. Of course, Kachaznuni was a bit too optimistic in his appraisal of Ottoman policy in the South Caucasus.
Anyway, the second vision for Kars was developed in the year following the Brest-Litovsk treaty. This was the Paris vision. It was supported by France, Britain, the United States with Woodrow Wilson, and the Western and Eastern Armenians. According to the Paris vision, Kars, and much more, would become a part of a large Republic of Armenia, a hypothetical territory known as “Wilsonian Armenia.”
When the war ended, World War I, Britain was assigned to kick the Ottoman administration out of Kars. The Ottoman Empire, being the losing side in the war, had no choice but to follow British orders. The local population of Kars, however, was not bound to the same rules. Local Muslims in Kars and Unionist activists from the Ottoman Empire decided that they would set up their own administration in Kars after the Ottoman Empire left.
Remember that both the Brest-Litovsk and the Paris visions of what to do with Kars relied on the notion of self-determination—that a people should decide what state their territory should belong to. But each vision’s criteria for how to determine self-determination were different. The Brest-Litovsk vision was supposedly a more “democratic” one, calling for a direct plebiscite of residents. The problem with that was that the residents of Kars were constantly changing, especially in 1918, when practically all urban Armenians had left Kars. The Paris vision said self-determination should be determined by historical claims. But this was a completely arbitrary standard.
So when the Ottoman army leaves Kars and the British army is about to arrive, you have this group of Muslim activists in Kars saying they represent the local population and thus are the relevant people to consult about self-determination. They established a provisional local government out of their Muslim national associations, a government which they later began to refer to as a republic, the Southwest Caucasian Republic. This was to prove to the British occupiers that the local population was capable of governing itself. Also, it was successful in preventing the return of Armenian refugees to Kars and preventing Armenian officials from traveling to set up their own government in Kars.
VK: But what about the Armenian Republic at this time?
AB: Right, the Armenian Republic. The British occupying forces, like everywhere in the Middle East after World War I, promised a lot of things to a lot of people, and they promised that Armenians would be allowed to set up their institutions in Kars. The British promised that the Armenians could take Kars over, but they also were reluctant to use force to get rid of the Muslim-led government. So they kept the Armenians waiting, which infuriated the Armenians, because the city and fortress of Kars housed a lot of food and ammunition that the republic could use. They were also desperate to acquire more territory to help relieve the pressure of having 150 thousand refugees in such a small and poor republic.
In April 1919, the British finally followed through on their promise to the Armenians. Their Nepali and Sikh footsoldiers stormed the government of the Southwest Caucasian Republic and arrested most of its members, sending them off to prisoner of war camps. In late April and early May, the Armenian army and administrative officials were allowed to set up shop in Kars.
Still, the British continued to interfere in Armenian rule in Kars. They were displeased with the Armenians’ appointment of Stepan Ghorghanyan as civilian governor of Kars and tried to get him replaced. They insulted him as old and inept. For his part, Ghorghanyan also complained that the British weren’t letting him govern the way he wanted to.
VK: How would you characterize the First Armenian Republic’s rule in Kars? What are some of its understudied aspects?
Armenian soldiers parading down Aleksandrovskaya Ulitsa (today Atatürk Caddesi) in 1919. They are stills from a film taken by the Harbord Commission. The film is in the U.S. National Archives.
AB: If we were to look at a map of Armenia’s borders in late 1919 or early 1920, we would see a clear boundary enclosing most of the old Kars oblast’ of the Russian Empire. The reality was much more complicated than this: Armenians were really only able to rule in the military, urban centers and along the strategic railway running between Sarıkamış and Aleksandropol’. The rest of the territory was embroiled in a civil war. So Armenian rule in Kars was characterized mostly by the attempt to fill out its administrative authority, to project legitimate authority, within the borders of the province.
In this respect, Armenian administrators faced a major security dilemma. To be able to rule the Muslim countryside around Kars legitimately, they had to prove they didn’t use violence against the Muslim population. But Armenian rule could never really be established until they used violence to put down several Muslim uprisings happening around the province. Disarming the Muslim population or forcing Muslims to vacate territory meant for Armenian refugees would be difficult without recourse to violence.
This dilemma was also reflected in the Armenian administration itself, in the conflictual relations between Armenia’s civilian and military authorities in Kars. Civil-military relations were very tense under Armenian rule. Ghorghanyan, the civilian governor, said that emotional policies based on military force would never establish legitimate rule in the long term. He was definitely a liberal in his approach to rule of law. The Armenian military commanders in the region, Daniel Bek Pirumyan and Harutyun Hovsepyants, however, rejected what they saw as weak policies and advocated a rule by force. My impression is that the military commanders had significant leeway to implement their version of policies, that they were not really constrained by the civilian government.
We really have too black-and-white a picture of interethnic relations in Kars under the Armenian administration, one that is polarized by violence. And while interethnic violence is definitely one of the defining features of Armenian rule in Kars, we should also not forget about the complexities and alternatives that also existed alongside the violence. On the Armenian side, you had a whole range of policies applied to the Muslim population, from peaceful penetration, to neglect, all the way to attempts at violently clearing certain districts of Muslims. This wide array of policies was a direct result of the lack of civil-military coordination in ruling Kars.
But this is true—this complexity is valid—for the other side as well. What is not really discussed is that the establishment of the Armenian Republic also created a kind of crisis for the Muslim inhabitants of Kars. That is to say, aside from the nationalist leaders, there were different reactions about how to deal with the new administration out of Yerevan, too. There were local Muslims who were definitely willing to accommodate the Armenian administration, at least up to a certain point. There are even instances of members of the Muslim community working as agents of the Armenian government, as spies among the country’s Muslim population, so to speak.
The Armenian Republic’s relations with the other Christian communities in Kars, the Greek Orthodox and Molokan communities, were also not straightforward. And nor were relations among Armenians themselves. Dashnaktsutyun and Bolshevik party members also entered into violent confrontations in Kars.
All of this goes to show that interethnic violence is not the only category of analysis we should use when describing the rule of the Armenian Republic in Kars. Interethnic violence was indeed a central facet of Armenian rule, but don’t let that cloud over the complexities.
VK: How did the rule of the Armenian Republic in Kars end? What is its legacy?
AB: Remember the two visions of post-war Kars? Brest-Litovsk versus Paris? Essentially the same configuration repeated itself two years later. This time, it was the Turkish Republic and Bolshevik Russia with their treaty in Moscow, on the one side, and the Allies and Armenians in Sèvres outside Paris, on the other. For various reasons—including the strength of the Turkish nationalist forces, the direction that the Russian Civil War, and the half-heartedness of the Allies—this time, the revisionist Moscow approach won out over the Sèvres approach. Without the British presence in the region to stop them, the Turkish Army was easily able to take Kars in October 1920. Turkish sovereignty over Kars was then confirmed in the treaty of Moscow in 1921.
The First Armenian Republic did not leave a physical legacy in Kars—no buildings or monuments. This is not that surprising, considering the administration was so poor it couldn’t even afford to buy new, sturdy chairs for the Kars courthouse.
The Armenian Republic’s rule did have more direct effects on the population. Violence was traumatizing and radicalizing for all communities in the Kars region. It was during Armenian rule that most of the region’s Greek Orthodox people migrated away to Greece. During Armenian rule, fissures opened among the Muslim population that would be difficult or impossible to repair after the Turkish government arrived. And of course, the sixteen months that the Armenian Republic administered Kars represent a failed opportunity to provide Armenian refugees with needed support. Some Armenians have since sought another chance at administering Kars. I’m thinking especially of arguments to extend Soviet Armenian rule over Kars after World War II as well as continued calls through today to revoke the treaties of 1921.