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Under the Soviet system

 From 1921 Lenin made overtures to the new Turkish government, led by Ataturk, which was under attack by Greek forces, Turkey having reneged on its promise to return historic Greek lands in Asia Minor in return for Greek support during the war. By 1921, Greek troops were approaching Ankara. Soviet Russia initially helped Turkey, Lenin still believing that Ataturk was intent on building a socialist state on the Soviet model. Lenin also agreed with Turkey that Nagorno Karabagh, Nakhichevan, Syunik and Zangezur would be incorporated into Azerbaijan. However, Lenin eventually came to realise that Ataturk had no intention of building a socialist state and withdrew support. Meanwhile, led by Garegin Nzhdeh, an Armenian who had fought successful guerrilla campaigns against the Turks during Bulgaria's struggle for independence, Armenian forces fought a successful campaign in Syunik and Zangezur (southern Armenia) against the Red Army and the Turks simultaneously. Stalemate developed and Nzhdeh forced Lenin to compromise and accept his terms that Syunik and Zangezur would be incorporated into the Republic of Armenia rather than into Azerbaijan. He can thus be seen as the person who saved the south of Armenia for the country. Subsequently he went into exile and, after Hitler's coming to power, pursued fruitless negotiations with Nazi Germany in an attempt to regain for Armenia the lands occupied by Turkey. He died in a Soviet prison in 1955 but his remains were secretly returned to Armenia in 1983. He is buried at beautiful (but little-visited) Spitakavor Monastery in Vayots Dzor province.

Between 1921 and 1924 Armenia witnessed a resurgence of intellectual and cultural life and Armenian intellectuals, believing that they at last had a homeland, came from abroad, notably the architect Alexander Tamanian who had drawn up ambitious plans for the creation of a fine capital for the First Republic and who returned to complete his plans. These resulted in the creation of the buildings around Republic Square, possibly the finest of all Soviet architectural ensembles, admittedly not a field in which the competition is stiff. He also planned green belts, gardens and residential areas for a city capable of housing a then unimaginable population of 150,000. Yerevan State University was also constructed and professors were recruited from the West. This was also the era of Lenin's New Economic Policy, forced on him by the failure of communist orthodoxy to deliver material benefit, and limited private enterprise was consequently tolerated.

In 1923, Stalin, who was then Commissar for Nationalities, adopted a divide and rule policy which led to Nagorno Karabagh (whose population was largely Armenian, according to most sources, although this is disputed by Azerbaijan) and Nakhichevan (which had a substantial Armenian minority) being placed in Azerbaijan. Additionally the new Soviet republics were created in such a way that they did not have continuous boundaries: for example, isolated villages deep inside Armenia were designated part of Azerbaijan. This was a deliberate, conscious attempt by Stalin to encourage ethnic tensions between Armenians and Azeris so as to discourage them from uniting together against Soviet rule. The Transcaucasian Federation was abolished in 1936 and Armenia became a Soviet republic in its own right though still with the artificial 1923 boundaries.

Economic growth was impressive but the abolition of the New Economic Policy caused considerable resentment, especially among farmers. Although Armenia did not suffer deliberate mass starvation during the forced collectivisation of agriculture in the same way as Ukraine did in 1932-33, it did suffer along with other parts of the Soviet Union during Stalin's purges between 1934 and 1939. At least 100,000 Armenians were victims. Persecution of Christians also reached a height in the mid to late 1930s and all churches except Ejmiatsin were closed by 1935. The head of the Church was murdered in 1938 and the entire Armenian political leadership along with most intellectuals was condemned to death for the crime of bourgeois nationalism (ie: being perceived by Stalin as a threat to himself).

Stalin's pact with Hitler in August 1939 did not save the Soviet Union from attack for long and Germany invaded on 22 June 1941. German troops never reached Armenia: they approached no closer than the north Caucasus where the oilfields around Grozny were a principal objective as Hitler simultaneously wanted to secure their output for Germany and to deprive the Soviet Union. About 630,000 Armenians out of a then population of two million fought during World War II (or the Great Patriotic War as it is called throughout the former Soviet Union) of whom about half died.

Armenia experienced rapid growth after 1945 with Yerevan's population increasing from 50,000 to 1.3 million. Huge chemical plants were established in Yerevan, Leninakan (Gyumri) and Kirovakan (Vanadzor) and Armenia became one of the most highly educated and most industrialised of the Soviet republics. By contrast, a new wave of repression began in 1947 with the deportees being exiled to the infamous gulag camps of Siberia. After Stalin's death, probably by poisoning at the instigation of the secret police chief Lavrentii Beria, conditions relaxed and during the Brezhnev era (1964-82) dissenters were merely certified insane and kept among the genuinely mentally ill in mental hospitals.

Under the Soviet system, many industries were set up in Armenia to manufacture goods for other Soviet republics. Likewise, the precious metals mined in Armenia were used in other Soviet republics. Unfortunately, this buildup in production gave few benefits to the Armenians and resulted in the pollution of their land and rivers. The Soviet government also encouraged development of agriculture in Armenia, however, with disastrous long-term effects. To make much of the land usable, the managers of the state-owned farms had to use large amounts of fertilizers and pesticides that eventually leached into the drinking water.

In the meantime, another hardship had hit Armenia in 1988. An earthquake centered near Spitak in the northern part of the country left more than 35,000 people dead and more than 400,000 people homeless. As the small country of Armenia neared the end of Soviet rule and once again looked inward for its governance, it faced many problems: hostile neighbors and hostility toward its neighbors, polluted land, and an industrial system unsuited for its role as an independent country.

The coming to power of Gorbachev in 1985 saw an upsurge in Armenian nationalism, especially over the question of the enclave of Nagorno Karabagh. Gorbachev refused to allow its transfer from Azerbaijan to Armenia. There were demonstrations in both republics and, especially following Soviet government inaction after the killing of 30 (or some estimates claim up to 120) Armenians by their Azeri neighbours at Sumgait, an industrial city north of Baku, in February 1988 many Armenians fled from Azerbaijan to Armenia while at the same time many Azeris fled in the opposite direction. This unprecedented killing shocked the Soviet Union; the perpetrators were tried and sentenced in Moscow. Thereafter ethnic tensions continued to rise and during the fighting over Nagorno Karabagh. There were civilian deaths on both sides. Perhaps the incident which gained most international notice and condemnation was the deaths of 161-613 (numbers are disputed) Azeri civilians, fired on by Armenian forces in February 1992, as they tried to leave Khojaly, near Aghdam, as it was about to be occupied by Armenian forces, (Khojaly was used as a military base by the Azeris to shell Stepanakert.) In July

1988, Nagorno Karabagh declared its secession from Azerbaijan and in December the pressure group known as the Karabagh Committee, which had meanwhile broadened its objectives to include democratic change within Armenia itself, was arrested and held in Moscow without trial for six months. In early 1989, Moscow imposed direct rule on Nagorno Karabagh and rebellion broke out. In November that year Armenia declared that Nagorno Karabagh was a part of Armenia (a claim it no longer makes) as a result of which Turkey and Azerbaijan closed their borders with Armenia and imposed an economic blockade: the problems this caused were greatly exacerbated because of the closure, as a precautionary measure, of Metsamor nuclear power station following the major earthquake in December 1988.


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