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Russia versus Turkey

The end of the Byzantine Empire came in 1453 when the Ottomans took Constantinople (Istanbul). Further Ottoman aggression saw Armenia itself conquered and taken from the White Sheep, who were now ruling it, by the 1530s. Yet again Armenia became a battleground as hostility grew between the Ottomans and Persia, until in 1639 the two powers agreed that western Armenia would be controlled by Turkey and eastern Armenia by Persia. A further wave of emigration from the Persian territories began around 1700 because of taxation and persecution; this time many went to India. A local rebellion in southern Armenia led by David Bek, together with invasion in 1722 by Russian forces under Peter the Great, saw Persian rule largely end and in 1724 most Persian territory was divided between the Ottomans and Russia although Persia retained Nagorno Karabagh. David Bek died in 1728 and in 1730 his successor Mkhitar Sparapet was betrayed by Armenian villagers as a result of Turkish threats. That same year David Bek's territory, centred at Tatev, fell to Turkey. Russian expansionism in the area restarted under Catherine the Great. In the conquered lands, largely Muslim, Russian policy was to encourage Christians to settle and Muslims to leave. Starting in 1796 the Russians began a further series of campaigns conquering the west Caucasian khanates. These khanates were effectively autonomous Turkish principalities (although nominally vassals of the Persians under the 1724 treaty) and they occupied an area roughly equivalent to present-day Armenia and Azerbaijan.

At that time Armenians, having been subject to so many varieties of foreign rule, and often persecution, for so long, were scattered throughout the Caucasus and eastern Anatolia rather than concentrated in the Armenian heartland. However, in 1826 Russia began a forced exchange of population which resulted ultimately in the creation of an Armenian-dominated state in the khanate of Yerevan. Russia gained dominance in the south Caucasus by defeating Persia in the war of 1826-28 and the Ottomans in the war of 1828-29 and these victories further encouraged Armenians to migrate into Russian-controlled areas of Armenia while they simultaneously continued to encourage Turks to leave. Conditions in Ottoman-controlled regions were certainly difficult for Christians. Muslim courts did not even allow testimony from them until 1854 and even after that it was usually discounted. Christians paid higher taxes than Muslims, and they were not allowed to bear arms to defend themselves whereas Muslims were. The conditions within Ottoman-controlled Armenia became known in the West through exiles, travellers' publications and official reports, and started to cause wide concern.

Britain and Turkey were on the opposite side to Russia in the Crimean War. The treaty which ended the war in 1856 required Russia to evacuate some Armenian areas which it had occupied during the war. Although this was put into effect, British officers on the spot, especially in the 1870s, were still stressing the risk to the trade routes across the Ottoman Empire which they believed were threatened by Russia's renewed interest in southerly expansion. In 1877, the British ambassador in Constantinople went so far as to write (considerably exaggerating) that in the event of a Russian conquest of Armenia: 'The consequence would be the greatest blow ever struck at the British Empire.' Britain therefore supported Turkey against Russia though there was a simultaneous British realisation that Turkey's chance of retaining Armenia would be greater if it treated the native Armenian population better. The British government's concern, however, was with who controlled Armenia and hence the trade routes. It was not with the Armenian people except insofar as their support for Russia would weaken Turkey's hold on the region.

Russia again defeated the Ottomans in 1877-78, thereby gaining control of eastern Anatolia. The three treaties of 1878 are crucial to understanding subsequent British concern over Armenia. The first was signed between Russia and Turkey in March. In it Turkey ceded large areas to Russia and this, of course, increased British concern about the threat to trade routes. In the second, signed in June, Britain promised to defend Turkey against further Russian aggression in exchange for two commitments by Turkey: one was to hand Cyprus over to Britain; and the other was to agree with Britain reforms which would improve the lot of Christians in the Ottoman territories - principally Armenia. The third treaty, signed in July, restored to Turkey large areas which had been ceded in March. In it Turkey also promised to introduce reforms to improve the lot of the Armenians. Crucially those reforms no longer had to be agreed with Britain, and Russia was to evacuate the specified areas even before the reforms had been introduced. What had been in June 1878 Britain's responsibility to enforce became in July nobody's. Moreover in July the sultan lost any real threat of action being taken if he did not comply, as the power best able to make him do so, Russia, was the last which Britain wished to see involved. It was this crucial abandonment of British influence on the plight of the Armenians, together with the increasingly harsh and cruel treatment of the Christian Armenians by the Muslim Turks and Kurds, which led the devoutly Christian and humane Gladstone to make the Armenians' plight the subject of the last major speech of his career in 1896. His speech to an audience of 6,000 in his home city of Liverpool led to the resignation of the leader of his party, Lord Rosebery, a fortnight later. There is no doubt that the removal of pressure on the sultan by Britain between June and July 1878 led to the disastrous consequences culminating in the genocide of 1915.

The Muslim Ottoman government saw Christian Armenians as likely supporters of the Christian Russian conquerors: other Christian parts of the Ottoman Empire such as Greece and Bulgaria had already experienced revolution with foreign support. The Armenians meanwhile saw the Ottomans as oppressors of their increasingly nationalistic feelings just as the Greeks and Bulgarians already had. Consequently the migration of both Christian Armenians and Muslim Turks increased after the Russian victory in 1878. Demonstrations by Armenians for greater autonomy and against the imposition of tribute demanded by local Kurds were violently suppressed (over 1,000 demonstrators were massacred on one occasion) and a refusal to pay the tribute demanded by the Kurds in addition to government taxes led to weeks of slaughter. Western ambassadors protested about the excessive violence used against the demonstrators but took no other action, not even when 300,000 Armenians died in the pogroms of 1894-96. Conditions grew even worse when the Young Turk movement, which had previously promulgated a programme of reform and courted the Armenian population, changed tack and adopted in 1909 a policy of Turkisation of all Ottoman subjects. This was strengthened by a growing pro-Islam movement. Twenty thousand were massacred among the Armenian community in Cilicia that year, ostensibly to prevent an Armenian uprising.

Meanwhile in the Russian-controlled areas, the climate of liberalism was in recession. The Russian government was no more enthusiastic about Armenian nationalism than the Ottoman, and a policy of Russification, similar to that adopted at the time in other parts of the Russian Empire such as Finland, came into being. Armenian schools, societies and libraries were closed. References in print to the Armenian nation or people were banned and Armenian Church property was taken over by the Tsar. Not surprisingly many Armenians emigrated, principally to the USA.


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