Independent Armenia Under Bolshevik Rule – the first months, 1920-1921

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The removal of the ARF government from Armenia did not in itself mean the loss of the country’s independence. For two years, from December 1920 until December 1922, Soviet Armenia was independent, though only nominally. In May 1920, the Armenian communists had attempted an unsuccessful armed coup against the ARF government. In February 1921, the Dashnaks, who some months previously had handed over authority without any gunfire, rebelled against the communists.

The reason for the rebellion was the harassment and violence employed by the Bolsheviks against the military, the intellectuals, and the members of the ARF. About 1,500 Armenian officers were driven into Azerbaijan and Russia and more than 2,000 people were imprisoned. In turn, the Turks were looting the poor villages in Shirak. The disappointment in, and disgust of, the Turks andBolsheviks was absolute. After the December 1920 Armenian-Turkish Treaty of Alexandrapol, Turkish forces stayed in Alexandrapol until April 21, 1921, continuing to raid and loot Armenians.

“Inviting all Armenian officers under the pretext of registration, the Red Army soldiers surrounded the entire building and imprisoned more than 1,500 officers, including generals Nazarbekyan, Silikyan, and Hakhverdyan. Then they drove them all to Russia on foot in the cold of winter, without warm clothing. Many of them died from the cold. There were also some incidences of suicide. After disarming the Armenians this way, the Bolsheviks began looting the citizens’ possessions: clothes, food, furniture, and money. After all this, the executions by firing squad began. Every night in February the executioners entered the prison and calling one or the other out, they took them and shot or hacked them to death. At night the prisoners, the majority of whom were prominent Armenian figures, waited in terror for them to come and take them to be executed. After witnessing all these horrors, the entire population of Armenia, regardless of gender or age, hardened against the Bolshevik criminals,” writes Gyulkhandanyan.

On the other hand, the Kemalists were looting the starving villages in Shirak and the disappointment and disgust towards the Turks and Bolsheviks was absolute.

“At the request of the Committee of the ARF in Armenia, I held several meetings with Kasyan and Atarbekyan, the Head of the Cheka, whom I tried to convince in every way to put an end to this blind policy,” wrote Vratsyan, who, though against the rebellion, became nonetheless head of the Committee for the Salvation of the Fatherland (Salvation Committee).

According to Karo Sasuni, a member of the ARF, “Vratsyan and several other comrades were against the uprising. The fanatical harassments and secret executions in the beginning of February forced them to become supporters of starting a revolution.”

In the early morning of February 10, more than 200 Dashnaks were arrested. This incident was the straw that broke the camel’s back and led to an explosion of national anger. A summit took place in Zar village during which it was decided to launch a rebellion.

A non-partisan officer, Kuro Tarkhanyan, was appointed to head the rebel forces.

On February 18, the rebels occupied Yerevan. The Salvation Committee was formed, headed by Vratsyan. The Revkom left for the Ghamarlu-Vedi region. “Yerevan was decorated with tricolour flags,” recalled Vratsyan. “The moment was especially emotional when the doors of the bloody prison of the Bolsheviks and Cheka fell under the force of the nation’s rage, and thousands of prisoners came out onto the streets, decorated with tricolour flags, greeted with the anthem Our Fatherland. Unfortunately, Hamazasp, Banvor Sergo, and heroes like Colonel Gorghanyan and others were not amongst them. They had died under the hatchets of the Bolsheviks.”

“The speeches continued, and we entered the government house. We had just entered, when the envoys of foreign states and the delegations of political parties and public organisations approached and congratulated us one after the other. In particular, Ankara’s envoy, Behaeddin, who hurried to be the first to congratulate us and seemed very disappointed that the Persian envoy and Americans had already congratulated us before him, expressed intense happiness,” writes Vratsyan.

In Gyulkhandanyan’s words, the new government thought it necessary to send telegrams abroad to Moscow, Tehran, Ankara, and Tiflis, announcing the revolution in Armenia. “At that time, when the Bolshevik yoke in Armenia foundered, battles had begun on the borders of Georgia and the Bolsheviks were threatening Tiflis. On February 21, the Foreign Affairs Minister of Georgia congratulated the revolution and suggested signing a military treaty against the Bolsheviks. However, that was a belated suggestion, because three days later Tiflis was in the hands of the Bolsheviks.”

Brigadier Commander of the Ghamarlu front, Smbat, was one of the first to suggest asking the Turks for help during the rebellion. In Vratsyan’s words, “That issue was on the mind of other people as well, even alert men like Kajaznuni. There was so much hatred towards the authority of the Revkom and Bolshevism, in general.”

Starting February 18, Kajaznuni participated in all of the activities of the Salvation Committee. Responsible steps such as negotiations with the Turks or the telegram sent to Chicherin, in which the direct participation of Alexander Bekzadyan in the Turkish-Bolshevik conference was announced, were carried out under Kajaznuni’s direct participation. The idea of the telegram was entirely his and it was drafted by him. He had taken on himself the position of the chairman of the committee set to go to Ankara.

In February 1921, this was how Kajaznuni thought: “In order to fight against Bolshevism and, in general, to restart peaceful life in our country, we greatly need the friendship, even support of neighbouring Turkey. Each step that is against the establishment of friendly relations between us and the Turks may be fateful for us. Our real situation demands peaceful and friendly conditions with our neighbour, Turkey.”

In Vratsyan’s words, the Salvation Committee was aiming “to place Armenian-Turkish relations on new foundations and resolve the border debates through bilateral agreement, even concessions,” since experience had shown that for an independent Armenia to exist, “first and foremost the goodwill of the Turkish government is necessary.” “Before the riot, the Turkish Consul in Yerevan had assured us that Turkish neutrality would be maintained. Even the Turkish command had ordered the Turks in Nakhijevan to maintain neutrality and not fight against the Armenians. The Turks in Yerevan were being friendly. We were afraid that the Turks might enter Yerevan under one pretext or another. We were trying to show our friendship towards the Turks in every way and to inspire their faith towards us. We even applied to the Turks asking for military aid against the Bolsheviks. For that purpose we sent a special officer to Igdir, to meet with the Turkish command. We knew that the Turks would not help, but by approaching them we were trying to emphasise our friendly attitude and inspire their trust towards us. We must understand once and for all that Turkey is a fateful force for independent Armenia.”

Soviet Armenian historians present things differently. In a letter sent to Behaeddin, the Kemalist representative in Yerevan, Vratsyan asks the government of Turkey’s Grand National Assembly, “Firstly, return the Armenian captives at the front back to Yerevan. Secondly, provide the Armenian army with ammunition under certain conditions. And thirdly, communicate whether the government of Turkey’s Grand National Assembly thinks it possible to provide military aid to Armenia and if so, what quantity and how.”

Askanaz Mravyan, the People’s Commissar of Foreign Affairs wrote in a note to Karabekir, the Commander of the Eastern Front,“Captain Behaeddin has visited the battle front several times and encouraged the armies of the Salvation Committee. While in Yerevan, he greeted the authority of the Committee and promised them assistance.”

Garo Sasuni writes that the Salvation Committee informed the world by radio about the revolution in Armenia: “A special radio-telegram was sent to Lenin, [in which] they expressed hope that Russia would halt hostile actions and extend a friendly hand to the workers in Armenia. The new government of Armenia maintained its friendly relations with Turkey. We were conscious of the Turkish danger and were using prudence to keep Turkey calm, at least temporarily. The Committee had no thoughts about calling the Turkish forces to Armenia, except to ask for ammunition. It would be very good if they could receive it. Without interfering in our internal issues, Turkey was awaiting the results of the battles.”

On April 2, 1921, with the help of the Russian army, the Revolutionary Committee returned to Yerevan and the revolt was supressed. Around ten thousand people, the Salvation Committee together with all its forces and almost all the intellectuals, reached Zangezur by foot, exhausted and drained. From there, a couple of months later they crossed the Araxes river and entered Persia.

From Tatul Hakobyan‘s book – ARMENIANS and TURKS

Image – Sargis Kasyan