On the Zangezur Question – Part Two

On the Zangezur Question – Part Two

As 1919 gave way to 1920 the Government of the Azerbaijan Republic faced the same old problem in Zangezur, with the infiltration of Armenian armed gangs.

On January 24th, 1920, it was reported that:

“Four days ago, Armenian guerrillas, helped by regular troops, began an offensive in the Zangazur area with the assistance of cannons and machine guns. There was a huge number of victims… The Turkish population is fleeing in panic while asking for assistance… The tens of thousands of women and children who are refugees from Zangazur are now at Cebrail without any shelter. The district of Zangazur has been entirely destroyed by those who came from Erivan armed with hundreds of cannons and machine guns. More than ten thousand Armenians are attacking. From the hills between Hocagane and Zebuh, the Armenians have destroyed all the villages…”[1]

This report is contained in Admiral Bristol’s information to the U.S. Secretary of State, about events during January/February 1920. A further report adds that,

“… the Armenian Government has carried out an offensive in the Zangazur district against the Tartars, destroying forty villages, and are continuing their offensive. Further that, the Armenian Government attacked ten or more Tartar villages in the Kards district destroying these villages, pillaging the houses and carried off all the cattle. The villages were bombarded by artillery and part of the population killed while a large number of those remaining died of exposure and cold. Further it is claimed that the Armenian Government is carrying on a policy of extermination towards the Tartar population in the district of Kars and the Armenian troops are proceeding to a final extermination of the Tartars in this district.”[2]

It should be noted that the Kards area referred to in these reports, is not Kars, in present day Turkey, but Kard, in Zangezur, now the “Kajaran” district of present-day Armenia, close to the border with Nakhichevan. Armenian sources are quite frank about what the Dashnak forces were aiming to do, from late 1918, and ultimately succeeded in doing, to the area. For instance, Andranik – Armenian Hero states:

“Antranig Chalabian wrote that, ‘without the presence of General Andranik and his Special Striking Division, what is now the Zangezur district of Armenia would be part of Azerbaijan today…’ Andranik’s activities in Zangezur were protested by Ottoman General Halil Pasha, who threatened the Dashnak government with retaliation for Andranik’s actions. Armenia’s Prime Minister Hovhannes said he had no control over Andranik and his forces.”

During the period from the British evacuation until April 1920 hundreds of reports of Dashnak atrocities came from the Ottoman Army as well as from British and U.S. Intelligence Officers. One such report from British Military Intelligence from April 1920 is typical:

“From various reports which have been received it would appear that the aggressive action of the Armenians against the Tartar inhabitants has been on a much larger scale than was at first imagined… It would appear that after the surrender of approximately 24 Tartar villages, the Armenian troops shelled and opened rifle fire on the houses, causing considerable loss of life. A large number of villagers have fled to the hills… The responsibility for the hostilities at present in progress in the Karabagh and Zangezur districts must be largely laid on the shoulders of Armenia, as they were due directly to the oppression of Moslems both in the Kards and Nakhichevan districts… The ill feeling which has been gradually growing between Tartars and Armenians reached a point when fighting became inevitable. For some weeks past Azerbaijan has been sending detachments of troops to the Karabagh district. On the night of the 19th March the Armenians attacked the Tartar troops in the vicinity of Shousha but were driven back by a counter-attack. Ever since this date fighting has continued with little advantage to either side… A small massacre of Armenians is reported to have taken place in the vicinity of Gandja, and much anxiety is noticeable among the Armenian inhabitants of Baku. The responsibility for the commencement of massacres lies largely with the Armenians themselves, for the ill-feeling between Moslem and Christian in this part of the Caucasus was brought to a head by the murder of Tartars in the Kards province…”[3]

J.R. McDonnell, an officer for the Caucasus in the British Foreign Office, concluded from reading the incoming reports from a number of years, and making an assessment of them, that the Armenians were definitely the aggressors in the developing conflict with the Azerbaijanis:

“The present situation is the result of many regrettable incidents on both sides, but more especially owing to the attitude of the Armenians to the Mohametan population within their boundaries and in the disputed areas of Nakhchivan, Karabagh and Zangezur. Both the Armenian and Azerbaijanian governments have… signed an agreement whereby both republics undertook to submit all disputes to arbitration. Yet there is evidence that points to the fact that in many instances the Armenians have taken the initiative in aggressive action and oppression, and that the present Government is entirely unable to control its armed forces which, for the most part, seem to be led by the extremists of the Dachnaksutium party, Dro, Hamazas, and Gulhandanian, being the chief offenders. It will be seen from the appended comparative statement that since the signing of the agreement of November 23rd the balance of aggression, as far as very incomplete evidence can show, has been on the side of the Armenians…”[4]

The American High Commissioner, Admiral Mark Bristol, who complained bitterly about the anti-Muslim propaganda that the Armenians and U.S. Protestant missionaries were saturating the America with, noted in his War Diary:

“In Armenia the Armenians have perpetrated atrocities upon the Moslem races… I know from reports by my own officers who served with General Dro that defenceless villages were bombarded and then occupied, and any inhabitants that had not run away were brutally killed, the village pillaged, and all the livestock confiscated, and then the village burned. This was carried on as a regular systematic getting-rid of the Moslems. A district forty verrsts (about 40 kilometres) on each side of the railway from Erivan to Djulfa, which is on the Araxes river, was cleared of all Tartars and their villages destroyed. The inhabitants that did not flee into exile were killed. Our own people have seen camps along the Araxes River where thousands of Moslems were living in dug outs dying of starvation or disease. These were some of the exiles that the Armenians had driven out of their country.”[5]

At this point Britain was attempting to persuade the U.S. to take responsibility for ‘Armenia’ having tired of the Armenian territorial demands itself. So Britain was determined to either stop the Armenians committing excesses or covering up reports of them. The British Foreign Secretary, Lord Curzon, was made aware of the negative effect such activities were generating in the U.S, where the effect of them would be to increase opposition to the country taking a Mandate for the Armenians. He summoned an Armenian delegation including Boghos Nubar, the Archbishop of Erivan and Aharonian in April to his office and,

“… spoke to them in the strongest possible manner about the foolish and indefensible conduct of their compatriots on the northeast frontiers of Armenia. I read out the detailed list of outrages committed since beginning of year by Armenians on one hand and Tartars (Azerbaijanis) on the other, showing a heavy balance against Armenians, and told them that we were not at all keen about giving them arms to fight Turks which they would almost certainly use to fight Azerbaijan. I said that there was very little chance of League of Nations or anyone else consenting to look after Armenia in future if they showed such complete instability and love of disorder, and that their only chance was to stop these proceedings and carry out the agreement of November last.”[6]

To pacify the British Foreign Secretary Boghos Nubar showed Curzon a telegram he said he was intending to send to Erivan, criticising these activities and demanding the dismissal of those responsible. The British did not trust the Armenians and intercepted their wire, finding that their suspicions had been justified – criticism had been toned down as well as the demand for the sacking of military leaders removed. Curzon, who needed the Armenians at this point against the Red Army did nothing.[7]

One of the few British journalists who publicised the attacks on Azerbaijanis was Robert Liddell Scotland, who had served with the Tsar’s Army during the War and knew the Transcaucasus well. He reported for The Graphic on December 6th, 1919, about the “148,000 Musselman refugees in Azerbaidjan” in an article entitled “People Who Have to Eat Grass.” Liddell revealed to the British public that “great refugee camps have been established” in Elisavetpol/Ganje but “the large majority of the refugees are still in remote and almost inaccessible villages in the South Caucasus, where they live in stables and mud shelters and… even like animals, in the open air.” The British journalist had witnessed a famine in which “thousands of starving and nearly naked people who were existing in most distressing circumstances” and reported that “disease is claiming hundreds of victims; weak with dysentery and typhus the wretched people are dying in ditches by the wayside from which they have no strength to crawl.”

Scotland Liddell reported on the Muslims who were left to die in Armenia, whilst the Western Powers sent their entire relief to the Erivan Republic. Believing that Muslim lives mattered as much as those of Christians, the British journalist was appalled at a situation where “very much is being done for the Armenians” but “practically nothing is being done for the Musselmans, who have themselves suffered innocently at Armenian hands.” Liddell wrote that he had “appealed several times for help for the suffering Musselmans, who have been far more sinned against than they themselves have sinned.” Whilst noting that “the Musselman refugee children are mostly all orphans, and the Musselman refugee women are nearly all widows” Liddell described the situation as “very unjust” in which “a great deal of use is made of the word “Christian” for the purposes of propaganda.”[8]

A few months later Scotland Liddell found he had to counter Armenian propaganda published in The Graphic, via a letter from Tiflis. His reply is very interesting with regard to Armenian disinformation so is worth quoting at length. The British reporter wrote:

“In The Graphic of February 21, an article is published under the heading, “The Armenians of Karabagh.” The information, you state, was furnished by Mr. Tigron Nazarian, an Armenian, of course, so that one is not surprised to find it Armenian propaganda. And, alas! One is not surprised to find this propaganda false. As regards the history, geography and natural riches of Karabagh I have nothing to say. But, as Nazarian’s visit to London is in order that he can urge on the Peace Conference the Armenian request that Karabagh be included politically in the Armenian and not in the Azerbaijan Republic, and as the figures he gives regarding the population of Karabagh are of vital importance in this respect, I must point out that they are grossly untrue…

Today the Armenian regular troops are carrying on a war against Mussulman partisans in Karabagh. For the bloodshed that, is taking place, even as I write, the Armenians, and the Armenians alone, are to blame. Although the province of Karabagh was placed under Azerbaijan administration by the British authorities until such a time as the future status of the province would be decided by the Peace Conference, the Armenian leaders and agitators for a long time refused to acknowledge Mussulman rule and strove in every way to incite the peaceful Armenian population against the Azerbaijan Government.

 This constant agitation and this provocation led on several occasions to fighting. In November of last year an agreement was signed in Tiflis between the Azerbaijan and Armenian Governments. By this it was arranged that all fighting would cease and that both sides would await in peace the Conference’s decree. The Azerbaijan Republic faithfully kept to this agreement. The Azerbaijan troops were withdrawn from Zangezour, but no sooner had this been done than the Armenians very treacherously attacked the Mussulman villages, massacred hundreds of innocent peasants, and within a few weeks had succeeded in destroying over forty Mussulman villages.

Azerbaijan has been very patient and long-suffering. But there is a limit to a Government’s patience. War has for long seemed inevitable. Now, on March 22, the Armenians, taking advantage of the Mussulman festival of Nowruz Bairam, and the fact that there were only insignificant Azerbaijan troops for the purpose of keeping order in Karabagh, have again launched attacks on many Mussulman villages in the province. So far, only partisan troops have opposed them, but I hear on good authority that the Azerbaijan Government is despatching regular troops to the assistance of the unfortunate Mussulman population of the country, who are faced with the threat of complete extirpation at the hands of their Christian neighbours. Armenian propaganda is excellent. Doubtless the many propagandists in England, France and America will take advantage of their losses in the present clash to further their pleas and greedy territorial claims. But we in Trans-Caucasia know what the truth actually is. Surely it is time that the British public knew it too.”[9]

There is an eye-witness account, from the autobiography of one of Admiral Bristol’s officers, Robert Steed Dunn, who acted as the U.S. High Commissioner’s eyes and ears in the Caucasus, of the type of activity the Dashnaks were engaging in against Azerbaijanis. The information assisted Admiral Bristol in forming his negative opinion about American intervention and consequently the U.S. having serious doubts about what the Armenian cause actually represented, along with the decision not to have anything further to do with them. Lieutenant Dunn observed at first hand General Dro’s military activities in the Nakhchivan, Zangezur and Karabakh regions. “My troops have freed forty-five infidel villages in Zangezour,” Dro told Lieutenant Dunn.[10]

On February 29th Oliver Wardrop relayed the following information to the British Foreign Office from Tiflis:

“Azerbaijan Minister for Foreign Affairs continues acting in strict conformity with agreement of November 23rd and has not (undecipherable) advanced against Zangezur or elsewhere. But since November 23nl Armenian troops in that district have destroyed about twenty Mussulman villages and from January 19th Armenian troops with irregulars were marching to Shusha destroying villages. Azerbaijan Government are sending small force to prevent further destruction of life and property and restore state of things existing before November 23rd.”[11]

Wardrop warned the Foreign Office on March 4th that:

“Action of Armenian troops against civil Mussulman population… is rousing very strong feeling in Azerbaijan. I consider presence of Allied officers in regions affected matter of urgency. I believe Azerbaijan Government wish loyally to carry out agreement of November 23rd. They ask for immediate appointment of Allied Commission to enquire and act locally.”[12]

The Soviet Period

In the Spring of 2020, with the Red Army assembling on the northern border of Azerbaijan, the Dashnaks saw their chance of grabbing Zangezur and Karabakh. They broke an agreement with the Azerbaijanis, which was brokered in order to assist the common defence of the Southern Caucasus, and began an uprising against Baku’s authority in Zangezur and Karabakh. On the night of the Nowruz holiday of 22-23rd March, the Armenians mounted a large-scale armed uprising against the Azerbaijani government in Karabakh. Azerbaijanis were suddenly attacked in a number of places. Around the same time regular Armenian army units attacked Zangezur. Although the Azerbaijani national army had managed to defeat the Dashnak thrust into Karabagh and press into Zangezur they did so by having to concentrate their territorial defence to the west, leaving the road to Baku open to the Red Army.

Professor Malcolm Yapp of the London School of Oriental and African Studies has written the following summation of Dashnak activities in 1920 in Zangezur and Karabakh, in his review of Richard Hovannisian third volume of ‘The Republic of Armenia’:

“Ethnic cleansing was a term not then used but its practice was everywhere. The Armenians of the Republic wanted to dominate Karabagh and to clear the Moslems out of the Arras valley and resettle the region with Armenians: the majority of Armenians of Nagorno Karabagh saw the dangers and advocated a much more moderate line of compromise… It is also clear that Armenian adventures in Karabagh and along the Arras contributed to the breakdown of government in Azerbaijan, the establishment of Soviet power in that Republic in April 1920 and eventually the subversion of Armenia itself.”[13]

The Armenians were not finished in Zangezur, however. In late 1920, Garegin Nzhdeh brought his bands into Zangezur and mounted armed resistance against both Soviet Azerbaijani and Bolshevik forces. His intention was to keep Zangezur out of Soviet control and to totally Armenianize it. In this pursuit Nzhdeh’s forces engaged in extensive ethnic cleansing of the local Azerbaijanis in Zangezur. Because Azerbaijan was in the process of being subdued by the Bolsheviks and the Soviets were otherwise engaged in an important war against Poland Nzhdeh enjoyed considerable space to pursue his activities in Zangezur.

Nzhdeh and his supporters only ended resistance and fled to Iran in July 1921 after the Red Army regathered its forces in the Southern Caucasus and the Bolsheviks assured Nzhdeh that the region would not be incorporated into Soviet Azerbaijan. Nzhdeh went on to offer his services, along with General Dro, to Hitler and he fought with a large Armenian Legion for the Nazis during the Second World War in Crimea.

After the Armenians had enabled the Bolsheviks to conquer Azerbaijan (along with the whole of the Southern Caucasus) by disabling its common defence, the settlement imposed by Stalin involved Zangezur being taken out of Azerbaijan and granted to Armenia as a barrier between Azerbaijan’s Nakhchivan and Karabakh.  For Azerbaijan, the loss of Zangezur was a bitter blow, although it was reluctantly accepted by the Azerbaijan Communists as the price for retaining Karabakh and achieving a functional settlement of a dispute that had plagued relations in the region. The Karabakh, Zangezur and Nakhchivan decisions were trade-offs based on Stalin’s nationality policy and the Azerbaijanis accepted the situation as the basis of a permanent settlement.

Maps contained within the British archives have a bearing on the issue of the historical status of Zangezur.[14] These maps show the national boundaries in the Southern Caucasus as understood by the British and the Allied Powers. These are made from an original map drawn by the British in April 1907 on which subsequent maps were based. It is clear from these maps what the British took to be the national boundaries of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia. Azerbaijan’s national territory includes the regions of Karabakh, Zangezur and Nakhchivan on them. The lake that Armenians refer to as Sevan is called Goycha Lake on the British map, the old Azerbaijani name. A  July 1922 British map of Caucasia has the following note: “The frontiers shown on this map have been checked by Allied Headquarters, with the information in their possession and are in agreement with their information.”

The 1923 map was produced by the Geographical Section of the General Staff, British War Office. It records its sources for boundaries between Turkey, Persia, Iraq and Syria as the March 1921 Treaty of Moscow, the October 1921 Treaty of Kars, with regard to the boundaries of autonomous Nakhchivan. The British cartographers used Russian maps included with the Treaty of Kars for this purpose. It should be noted the Treaty of Sevres mentioned would soon be superseded by the Treaty of Lausanne, which was, at that moment, in the process of final negotiations between Britain and the Turkish Republic. There is a note, numbered 7 which states: “Frontiers other than those mentioned above are compiled from reports the accuracy of which is still in doubt.” Presumably this was because the other areas and boundaries in the Southern Caucasus were, at that time, subject to Soviet control and the decision making of the Bolsheviks.

So, whilst the British expected, on the basis of their evidence, information, and experience that Karabakh, Zangezur and Zakatali remained a part of Azerbaijan, they could not be sure of what the Bolsheviks might do, if Soviet Russia remained in permanent occupation of the Southern Caucasus.

These maps show definitively that Stalin never “gave Karabakh to Azerbaijan” as Armenians pretend. In fact, they back up the Soviet documents that describe Karabakh as having “remained” part of Azerbaijan. What the maps also show is that the Bolsheviks did give Zangezur, which the British and Allies saw as an integral part of Azerbaijan, to the Armenians, largely for geopolitical reasons.

However, the sequence of maps produced over a generation and obtained in the British archives, clearly show that both Zangezur and Karabakh were regarded as part of Azerbaijan by the Western democratic world.

The Armenians, with their unrelenting nationalist orientation, only accepted the settlement as a fait accompli achieved by Soviet power, that they could not challenge for the present. They waited patiently until the collapse of the Soviet state to resume their activities to occupy Karabakh and surrounding areas when Azerbaijan was in political turmoil.

However, in 2020 the occupation of Karabakh was ended and Azerbaijan restored its territorial integrity . It would be ironic if the Armenians have reopened the Zangezur question through their disrespect for long-standing borders and international law and attempting to prevent the Azerbaijanis utilizing the Zangezur corridor according to the peace statement of November.


[1] USDS Decimal File 867.00/1284, 19.04.1920, Admiral Bristol to Secretary of State, speech made to Azerbaijan Parliament by Vahid Sultanov, 24.01.1920.
[2] USDS Decimal File 867.00/1215, No. 279, 14.04.1920, Admiral Bristol to Secretary of State, Report from the Azerbaijani Government.
[3] FO 371/5167/E4346/262/44, Weekly Report No.63, 7.4.1920.
[4] FO 371/4954/E3056/134/58, Minute by McDonnell, 7.4.1920.
[5] USDS Decimal File 867.00/1540, Bristol War Diary.
[6] FO 371/4954/E3070, 11.4.1920, Curzon to Wardrop.
[7] Stanford Shaw, From Empire to Republic, Vol III, Part 2, p.1452.
[8] The Graphic, 24.1.1920.
[9] The Graphic, 8.5.1920.
[10] Robert Dunn, World Alive, p. 140.
[11] Mr. Wardrop, Tiflis, 29.2.1920, included in Nigar A. Maxwell, Azerbaijan Democratic Republic: Great Britain’s Archive Documents, p. 557.
[12] Mr. Wardrop, Tiflis, 4.3.1920, included in Nigar A. Maxwell, Azerbaijan Democratic Republic: Great Britain’s Archive Documents, p. 558.
[13] M. E. Yapp, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 60, No. 2 (1997), p. 371
[14] British Library. Caucasia, TSGS 2167. Great Britain. General Staff. Topographical Section. [London] : [TSGS, War Office], 1906.