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The Armenian Question

The Russian victory over the Persian Empire, around 1828, brought the territory of the modern-day Armenian republic under Christian rule, and Armenians began immigrating to the region. The tsarist authorities tried to break the Armenian Church’s independence, but conditions were still preferable to those in Ottoman Turkey, where many Armenians still lived. The European powers had talked often about the ‘Armenian Question’, considering the Armenians a fellow Christian people living within the Ottoman Empire.

During WWI some Ottoman Armenians sided with Russia in the hope of establishing their own nation state. A triumvirate of pashas who had wrested control of the Empire viewed these actions as disloyal, and ordered forced marches of all Armenian subjects into the Syrian deserts. What is less certain – and remains contentious to this day – is whether they also ordered pogroms and issued a decree for Armenians to be exterminated. Armenians today claim that there was a specific order to commit genocide; Turks strenuously deny this.

The first independent Armenian republic emerged in 1918, after the November 1917 Russian Revolution saw the departure of Russian troops from the battlefront with Ottoman Turkey. It immediately faced a wave of starving refugees, the 1918 influenza epidemic, and wars with surrounding Turkish, Azeri and Georgian forces. It fought off the invading Turks in 1918, and left the final demarcation of the frontier to Woodrow Wilson, the US president. Meanwhile, the Turks regrouped under Mustafa Kemal (later Kemal Ataturk) and overran parts of the Caucasus. Wilson’s map eventually arrived without troops or any international support, while Ataturk offered Lenin peace in exchange for half of the new Armenian republic. Beset by many other enemies, Lenin agreed.

The Armenian government, led by the Dashnaks, a party of Armenian independence fighters, capitulated to the Bolsheviks in 1921. They surrendered in order to preserve the last provinces of ancient Armenia. Forced from their homes, hundreds of thousands of survivors regrouped in the French-held regions of Syria and Lebanon, emigrating en masse to North America and France. Remarkably, the Armenians who stayed began to rebuild with what was left, laying out Yerevan starting in the 1920s. Armenia did well in the late Soviet era, with lots of technological industries and research institutes.

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