The Mass Exodus and its Consequences for the Fate of Armenian Karabakh – 1806

The Mass Exodus and its Consequences

The process of changing the ethnic composition in historic Armenian territories affected Karabakh (Artsakh) later than other Armenian lands since the Karabakh meliks (princes) had retained their semi-independent position within the Persian state.

The attitude of Persia towards the Armenians was fundamentally different from that of the Ottoman authorities in Western Armenia and the newly-arrived Turks in the regions of the South Caucasus. The Persian Shahs, as continuers of the traditions of centuries-old Armenian-Persian relations, did not resort to expelling the Armenian population from the territories under their control. On the contrary, by all means, including even violence, they sought to keep the Armenians under their rule, or even resettled them to Persia from areas of historical Armenia that were under its control.

The forcible resettlement of Armenians from Nakhichevan and the Erivan region by Persia is testified by Russian archival documents.

The commander of the Saratov Musketeer Regiment General Nesvetaev, reporting to General Glasenapp on the advancement of the regiment towards Erivan on July 31, 1806, conveyed the fear that had engulfed the inhabitants of the city and region. This fear had been caused by the known intention of the Persians to move them to Persia.

The same General Nesvetaev reported to General Gudovich on September 10, 1806, that “a detachment of troops of up to six hundred people with four cannons from Karabakh could be moved to Nakhichevan so that the Persians do not take the inhabitants of the Erivan region to areas beyond Araks…”

On December 11, 1809, General Gudovich reported to Alexander I on the return of Armenians who had been driven to Persia to their places of residence. The general reported that a detachment under the command of Prince Orbelian had been sent “to Araks in order to cross the river to oppress the enemy and bring the Armenian local families back.” He wrote that in the old and new Nakhichevan fortress, “the inhabitants almost all had already returned and reengaged in trade…”

The Persian shahs sought to keep the Armenians under their subjection in order to develop their crafts, foreign trade, and strengthen the country’s defensive capabilities. They maintained the possessions of the Armenian meliks of Karabakh as a base against the centuries-old expansion of the Ottoman Empire into the territories of Persia.

The situation radically changed with the beginning of Russia’s territorial expansion into the Caspian and South Caucasus regions, with Persian territories involved. As a result, the Armenian meliks of Karabakh found themselves embroiled in a Russian-Persian confrontation, opposing both Turkish and Persian state interests.

Striving for the annexation of Karabakh and other areas of the South Caucasus, Russia supported the liberation movement of the Armenians of the region, promising to restore Armenian statehood under the supreme authority of the Russian Empire. Armenian meliks and the population of Karabakh, hoping for support, waged a selfless struggle for their freedom.

However, the Armenian leaders who laid the foundations for the pro-Russian orientation of the meliks of Karabakh neglected the foreign political realities and did not take into account the priorities of Russia’s foreign policy.

The Karabakh meliks, being in the wrong position of the “separatists”, lost the traditional favor of the Iranian Shahs. In order to counteract the meliks’ desire to reunite with Russia, the Shahs began to appoint governors of Karabakh from among the leaders of the Turkic nomadic tribe – Panah and then Ibrahim.

In this situation, Khan Ibrahim, who traditionally adhered to the Turkish orientation, began to seek to oust Armenians from Karabakh. The documents in this section show that he systematically and purposefully created intolerable living conditions for the Armenian population in its native land.

During the last decade of the 18th century, the exodus of Karabakh Armenians has acquired a mass character. For example, only out of the possessions of melik Abov, “five hundred families have fled” and moved to Shamkhor.

The Armenian refugees, of course, were forced to do so, but their exodus had disastrous consequences for the fate of Armenian Karabakh. Armenian meliks, realizing the dangers of such resettlement, for a long time rejected the proposals of Russian sovereigns on the resettlement of Armenians from Karabakh to the newly acquired lands of the Caspian Sea.

However, over time, the evolving situation eventually forced the meliks to request assistance for resettlement. Melik of Varand Jimshid and melik of Gulistan Fridon through chancellor A. Bezborodko requested Paul I to facilitate the resettlement to Russia “of up to 11,000 Armenian families since the hope of salvation had disappeared.” They also addressed such requests to Alexander I.

Although the meliks were able to take a certain part of the population of Karabakh with them, the majority of Karabakh Armenians refused to leave their homeland.

In this critical period, when the transition of this land to Russian rule prepared by the centuries-old struggle of the Armenians of Karabakh came to a practical level, when the rivalry between Russia, Persia, and the Ottoman Empire was approaching a denouement, the persistent attempts of some meliks who had moved to Georgia and Russia to move out the remaining Armenians from Karabakh objectively undermined the political positions of Armenians in the confrontation with Ibrahim Khan and potentially with the Turkish-Turkish expansion.

The mass exodus of the Armenian population of Arstakh headed by meliks themselves was a deeply erroneous act and had severe negative consequences. To some extent, it looked like desertion. Faced with a purposeful policy of survival and extrusion, the meliks conceded the battlefield to their adversaries and together with their people found themselves in exile.

It is also obvious that the Armenian political elite and, above all, the Archbishop Argutinsky along with other influential Russian Armenians bear historical responsibility for the disorientation of the liberation movement and for the generation of unrealistic hopes. They in every possible way promoted the emigration of Armenian meliks from Karabakh along with the population under their control during the most crucial period of the struggle when the issue of the accession of this Armenian region to Russia had moved to a practical plane.

Of course, in the issue of the resettlement of Karabakh Armenians, Archbishop Argutinsky was guided by Christian philanthropy and devotion to the interests of the Russian state, not imagining the political consequences of changing the ethnic appearance of these territories in favor of alien Turkic tribes.

At that time, other opinions were expressed in the circles of the Armenian political elite. In a note by Hovhannes Lazarev to General A. Suvorov on January 10, 1780, on the need for supporting Karabakh meliks to preserve and strengthen Karabakh’s independence, it was proposed to make the region the core of the future Armenian statehood:

“For many centuries, Armenia hasn’t had a leader and its own government. Many of its territories have been lost to Turks and Persians. The small part, that is, the people of Karabakh, still remain independent, but with the support of a leader from their nation, Armenia can easily recover and bring together a considerable number people in a short time…”

However, being in emigration and losing the political field to their opponent – Persian Khan Ibrahim – the meliks of Karabakh deprived themselves of a real opportunity to participate in the determination of the status of Nagorno-Karabakh when the question of its transition into the Russian Empire arose.

An excerpt from the book of Yu. Barsegov “Nagorno-Karabakh in international law and world politics”




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