The Looting of the Holy See of Echmiadzin by Russian Troops in 1804-1805

In June 1804, Russian troops under the command of General Tsitsianov occupied the Ararat Valley with the goal of taking the Yerevan Fortress from the Persians. This was the Russian army’s first Yerevan campaign. The Armenian people, believing in generous promises to restore Armenian statehood, provided significant assistance to the imperial forces.

Separated from their supply lines, the Russian troops were in desperate need of provisions to continue their military campaign. They received considerable help from the Armenian Church. Volunteer cavalry units were also formed, which participated in military operations, fighting in the front lines of Tsitsianov’s army.

On June 30, 1804, on the approaches to Echmiadzin, Russian forces defeated the army of Abbas Mirza, heir to the Persian Shah Fath Ali, after which they approached Yerevan. The siege of the fortress lasted for two months, from July 2 to September 2. The Russians were unable to break the Persian resistance, so Tsitsianov was forced to retreat to Tiflis. On their way back, the Russian troops looted the Echmiadzin Monastery.

Catholicos Daniel I Surmaretzi (Դանիել Ա Սուրմառեցի (1801-1808)) wrote about this: “Եւ այն ինչ մտաք աստ այնպես տապալեալ եւ քայքայեալ, որ տեսողաց ամենից զսոսկումն եւ զդառնադառն կսկիծ եւ մորմոք առ բերեր ի սիրտս” (translated from Old Armenian: “they looted and destroyed everything so that it hurt to see it”).

Church doors were broken, floors and walls were dismantled in search of treasures, and holy relics were desecrated, turned into dust, and mixed with garbage.

Not only valuables, gold, and silver were looted but also food, clothing, and household goods. According to the Catholicos, “ոչ ուտելոյ բան էին թողեալ մեզ, ոչ նստելոյ եւ ոչ ագանելոյ” (they left us neither food, nor a place to sit, nor a place to sleep – translated from Old Armenian).

A few days after this robbery, fully aware of the sympathies of a significant part of the Armenian population towards the Russians, Persian Shah Fath Ali arrived in Echmiadzin.

During his three-day stay there, the Shah not only restored order in the church but, seeing the enormous damage caused by the Russian troops, issued a decree freeing the Catholicosate and Vagharshapat from taxes.

In March 1805, after the conquest of Shirak (Bambak and Shuragel regions), a detachment of Major-General Nesvetaev, a loyal follower of Prince Tsitsianov, entered Echmiadzin. During their three-day stay in the monastery, Russian soldiers found secret caches and looted their contents. This looting was reported in a letter from two Armenian monks addressed to Minas Lazaryan.

As a result of this robbery, ornaments, precious stones, church vessels, and vestments embroidered with gold thread were taken. The Armenian church had not been subjected to looting on this scale for a long time.

Lazaryan (Lazarev) Minas Lazarevich – Born on 17.10.1737 in St. Petersburg. Court counselor, prominent political figure, and nobleman of the era of Catherine the Great. Actively involved in the liberation of Armenia from Persian-Turkish oppression, a supporter of the pro-Russian orientation of Armenia and Georgia.

Tsitsianov, Pavel Dmitrievich, born in Moscow in 1754, died near Baku in 1806, a Russian military figure of Georgian origin (Tsitsishvili clan), one of the conquerors of Transcaucasia.

Nesvetaev, Petr Danilovich, died in 1808, Major-General, follower of Tsitsianov’s cause.

The Robbery of the Armenian Apostolic Church by the order of Nicholas II

A painting by Armenian artist Vardges Surenyants captured the Catholicos at the moment he received the royal decree on the confiscation of the Armenian church’s property (June 12, 1903). According to this decree, Armenian religious seminaries and schools were also banned.

The gray-haired Catholicos Mkrtich I Vanetzi-Khrimyan Hayrik (Մկրտիչ Ա Վանեցուն (Խրիմյան Հայրիկ)) threw the unopened letter on the floor at his feet, as its contents became known thanks to the person who delivered the letter – Vice-Governor Nakashidze, an agent of Prince Golitsyn (In 1892, Nakashidze was appointed Yerevan Vice-Governor and held this position until February 1904, when he was appointed Governor of Baku).

When Nakashidze left the Catholicos’s chambers, Catholicos Mkrtich I Vanetzi-Khrimyan Hayrik uttered his famous curse against the Russian monarchy: “May this god-displeasing and prison-filled empire perish.” “Թող կործանվի այս աստվածընդդեմ ու բանտածվար կայսրությունը”:

It should be particularly noted that one of the ardent opponents of the Catholicos was G. S. Golitsyn (1838–1907), the Commander-in-Chief of Russian military forces in the Caucasus. Another opponent was the Minister of Internal Affairs, V.K. von Plehve.

The decree of Nicholas II dated June 12 on the confiscation of church and school property was specifically lobbied by Minister Plehve and Prince Golitsyn.

1909 Portrait by Vardges Surenyants

Catholicos Mkrtich I Khrimyan forbade Armenian clergy from complying with the tsar’s decree, as well as with Stolypin’s directive that all ceremonies should be conducted in Russian.

Responding to the call of the Catholicos, the Armenian people rose up in resistance. In Armenian-populated regions of Transcaucasia, protest actions and armed clashes occurred.

In the Yerevan Governorate, at the very heart of Armenia, the campaign to rob the Armenian Apostolic Church was led by Yerevan Vice-Governor Mikhail Nakashidze, who was always distinguished by his arrogance and ruthless efficiency.

When the people rose up to defend their church, the protests were suppressed by force. There were numerous casualties. In October 1903, members of the “Gnchak” party near Tiflis on the Kodzhori highway attempted to assassinate Commander-in-Chief Golitsyn, as a result of which he was seriously wounded. In May 1905, in the central square of Baku, a young member of the Dashnaktsutyun party, Drastamat Kanayan, who was then 21 years old, skillfully threw a bomb into the carriage of Prince Nakashidze and killed him.

Thanks to the nationwide struggle of the Armenian people, the empire was forced to retreat, and by a decree of August 1, 1905, Nicholas II ordered the return of the confiscated property to the Armenian Apostolic Church. Armenian national schools were also permitted to be opened. However, even after the adoption of this law, dozens of boxes filled with looted priceless treasures, sent to Moscow and St. Petersburg, disappeared and were not returned to the Armenian church.

Author: Arshaluis Zurabyan
Translated by Vigen Avetisyan

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