Zangezur, 1918-1921 – Struggle For The Right To Remain Armenians

The battle for Zangezur in 1918-1921 is known in Armenian history as “Գոյամարտ” – “Goyamart” or “struggle for existence” in Armenian. And it indeed was a battle for the right to exist, for land, for the right to remain Armenians.

Sisian was the decisive link in the battle for Zangezur. In historical works, Sisian has long been considered one of the most difficult areas for enemy encroachments. The events of 1918-1921 were no exception to this rule.

In Sisian, there were many ordinary soldiers and officers who were serving or had served in the tsarist army and had the experience of career military men. Discipline and command were also part of Sisian’s strength.

There was one more circumstance as well. The inhabitants of Sisian had repeatedly met the Turko-Tatars in battles and knew of their insidiousness and where their villainy could lead them.

Curiously, the people of Sisians (Sisiantsis) were inseparable from their weapons. The tradition of buying weapons remained in the city since the battles of 1905-1906. People would sacrifice everything for weaponry, and the very habit of holding weapons was considered sacred among them.

Perhaps this was the reason that there were no large human losses in any clashes in this region.

Side by side with the Sisiantsis battled Keri (Arshak Gafavyan), Dro, Andranik, Zakar Ter-Ghazaryan, and Poghos Ter-Davtyan. The latter is known as the “hero admired by the people”. Recalling Poghos Ter-Davtyan, Sisiantsis call him “Lieutenant Davityan”.

Poghos Ter-Davtyan was born in the village of Verin Khotanan (Վերին Խոտանան), Kapan. He was a career officer in the tsarist army.

Ter-Davtyan appeared in Zangezur at the most decisive moment of the struggle, the instigator of which, according to Ter-Davtyan’s bodyguard and devoted soldier Arto Balyan (Արտո Բալյան) from the Brnakot village of the Sisian region, was the Baku commissar Stepan Shahumyan (Ստեփան Շահումյան).

After Andranik entered Brnakot (Բռնակոթ), Poghos organized exercises for the newly formed units. Andranik, having made sure that Poghos does his job better than others, kissed him on the forehead, which was one of the few such cases in the life of the commander.

In April 1920, Azerbaijan became a Soviet republic. This was followed by fighting in Artsakh, which would drive local Armenians away within two months. After resisting in Artsakh for some time, Dro left as well on May 24 due to pressure. Encouraged by its success, Azerbaijan set out to make Zangezur Soviet too.

On July 4, the 32nd Red Division crossed the Zabugh (Զաբուղ) River and easily occupied the border villages of Tegh (Տեղ), Khndzoresk (Խնձորեսկ), and Karashen (Քարաշեն). The Armenian forces were forced to retreat to Goris.

On the night of July 5, the Red Army entered Goris, and Zangezur was declared Soviet. Communists who had fled from the region to Azerbaijan returned to Goris together with the Reds. Goris met them well, but there were also many dissatisfied with their return.

Nzhdeh, who had spent some time in Goris before its capture, left for the mines of Kapan, while Dro moved towards Sisian. On his way to Sisian, a riot broke out against him in the roadside villages.

We can’t say unequivocally that the Sisian Bolsheviks had serious anti-Armenian sentiments since Drastamat Kanayan was well received in Brnakot. Probably, this was due to the fact that they remembered the battles of 1905-1906 fought by Keri and the very young Dro.

Thanks to these commanders’ efforts, the population of this area was saved from the Tatar massacre, giving Dro fame. Nevertheless, the easy surrender of Goris, Tatev, and a number of Sisian villages worried Nzhdeh.

Along with the planned campaign to Zangezur, in July 1920, a so-called “Islamic army” began to be formed in Baku under the command of Halil Pasha who had arrived in Baku from Moscow.

This new army included Turkish soldiers who had appeared in Transcaucasia at the beginning of the 20th century and settled there for various reasons. The Turkish soldiers were a wild rabble that became a misfortune for the whole Zangezur, especially for Sisian. This rabble called itself the “Wild Division”.

Once, this rabble accompanied Halil Pasha along the Zangezur-Nakhichevan road to ensure the safe delivery of his cargo to the destination. This cargo, as you may know, was the very 500 kilograms of gold that Russia had gifted Turkey to “help the Turkish revolution.” The “gold” was supposed to cross the Goris-Sisian road and enter Nakhichevan along the Bichanag (Sisian) (Բիչանագի լեռնանցք) mountain range.

The supervisors of the Sovietization of Transcaucasia during those years, including the People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs Chicherin, were very concerned about the entry of the particularly “wild division” into the Armenian-populated areas of Zangezur.

The military commanders were specially warned to prevent the participation of the Turkish division in the event of battles, especially in the Armenian-populated villages of Sisian, and in every possible way to avoid clashes with the locals.

Having received information about the “golden” cargo, Dro launched an attack from Daralagyaz (Դարալագյազ), captured the village of Bazarchay (Բազարչայ), entered Angeghakot (Անգեղակոթ), and seized 200.6 kilograms of gold.

The communists of Angeghakot managed to hide the rest of the gold in a haystack outside the village. Later, the gold would be returned to the Reds and taken to Turkey.

But while the fighting was going on in Sisian, the Turkish-Musavat forces managed to Sovietize Nakhichevan.

This is how in July 1920, the territories of Karabakh and Nakhichevan, now considered to be “disputed”, were Sovietized, and Zangezur, it seemed, appeared on the brink of surrender. The Armenians huddled on a patch of land named Zangezur, waiting for the final blow to be dealt.

During 70 summer days, Zangezur passed from hand to hand. The sons of one nation and friends opposed each other, not understanding why and when it would stop.

Many suffered and died as well. In the Goris prison, Vahan Khureni (Վահան Խուրենի) and Arshak Shirinyan (Արշակ Շիրինյան) have been tortured, while Zakhar Ter-Ghazaryan (Զախար Տեր-Ղազարյան ), Mikael Aghamyan (Միքայել Աղամյան), and organizers of the self-defense of  Darbas and Dzorer Gaspar and David Ter-Mkrtchyans (Գասպար և Դավիթ Տեր-Մկրտչյաններ) were executed.

Dro arrived from Sisian, but he was late. He sent a telegram to Kirov in Tiflis about the Red Terror and other outrages he had witnessed.

In October-November 1920, the fighting intensified even more. The Red Army and Turkish regiment simultaneously entered Sisian. The closer they got to the border with Nakhichevan, the viler their actions became. Terrible robbery and plunder began in the villages of Goris.

Sisian, however, retained its positions. The terrible news from neighboring villages triggered the formation of new armed groups. Poghos Ter-Davtyan became the leader of the armed struggle in Sisian.

Having razed the village of Yaydzhi (Յայջի), the Turks attacked Uyts (Uz) in order to capture it and then move towards Sisian.

Terrified by the events in Yaydzhi, Armenian peasants wanted to flee. Poghos Ter-Davtyan stopped them and stood next to them. New help arrived in Sisian in the form of an armed detachment from the Chikmend village in Upper Vedi (Մեծ Վեդիի Չիքմենդ գյուղ), which found refuge in Goris. Thus, the fast march of the Red Army was thwarted.

November came in Sisian, bringing with it one of those terrible, tormenting winters. But this time, the people were happy about the winter because the enemy became stuck in the snow and blizzard.

The fighting was terrible, especially near the village of Uyts. The new peasant detachments together with horsemen surrounded the Turkish regiment. Suffocating from the cold and fog and from sudden attacks, the Turks eventually retreated, leaving more than a hundred dead on the battlefield.

During the fierce battles, the beloved commander of the people of Sisian, Poghos Ter-Davtyan, was seriously wounded in the head. A bullet hit him in the right eyebrow and pierced the bone. The soldiers took Ter-Davtyan to the regional first-aid post – unfortunately, he would die there after a two-week struggle for his life.

On November 20, the day of Ter-Davtyan’s death, the Brnakot soldiers from his detachment set off to the village of Verin Khotanan. They covered about 60 kilometers on foot, carrying the body of their commander on their shoulders.

The battle in Uyts, in the meantime, continued even more fiercely. The deceased Poghos Ter-Davtyan was replaced right on the spot by a peasant from Bazarchay Sargis Piliposyan (Սարգիս Փիլիպոսյան).

With his gigantic stature, audacity, and fearlessness, Sargis Piliposyan became the best role model for everyone. He was greatly assisted in this battle by a detachment from the village of Shaghat (Շաղատ) commanded by Zakar Zohrabyan (Զաքար Զոհրաբյան).

Thanks to the fog, the retreating Turks managed to escape and head towards the Aghudi-Goris road (Աղուդի-Գորիս). The Sisiantsis climbed the mountain slopes through ice and snow. Once they reached the peaks, they launched heavy fire on the enemy. Suffering heavy losses for the second time in a day, the Turks retreated to Yaydzhi.

Nzhdeh, who had been advancing from Kapan, liberated Goris and then moved to Sisian. On the way, he spoke to the peasants of Brnakot (Բռնակոթ), Shaghat (Շաղատ), and Mazra (Մազրա), and reached Angehakot (Անգեղակոթ).

To this day, the people of Brnakot retain the memory of how Nzhdeh addressed the people from the hanging balcony of the Zakaryan house in the center of the village. A luxurious carpet (which is now in the Sisian Museum) was hanging from the balcony.

Zangezur was completely freed from the Reds. But life here completely changed after the Soviet system was established in Armenia. In place of Poghos Ter-Davtyan, Nzhdeh appointed Captain Torosyan as commander and sent an appeal to the people of Sisian.

“From today on, I will hand over the orphaned military unit of Poghos to Staff Captain Torosyan who has already been ordered to arrive in Sisian. I am full of hope that you, the bravest people of Sisian, will become a support for your new commander.”

A tough life was lived not only by commander Poghos Ter-Davtyan, who passed away at the age of 40, unmarried and childless, but also by the stone on his grave. In Soviet times, in order to protect both the grave and the tombstone, the stone has been hidden twice. After all, you could not even talk about the heroes of the national liberation struggle of Zangezur back then.

Tsovinar Petrosyan,

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