Saturday, December 29, 2012

Soviet Russia’s Decree on Turkish Armenia - December 29, 1917

The Russian October Revolution (October 25/November 7, 1917) introduced sweeping changes in the situation of Armenia. At that moment, Russian troops occupied part of Western Armenia, mostly emptied of its Armenian population due to the genocide. 
However, Vladimir Lenin, the head of the Bolshevik (Communist) party which had initiated the October Revolution, was against the imperialist process that had marked the “long nineteenth century.” He had already demanded the withdrawal of Russian armies from Western Armenia. The reason behind this demand was self-determination. However, if such a demand had been executed, it meant that Ottoman Turks would be allowed to re-enter the area and continue their genocidal campaign. Lenin’s hope that “an independent Armenian republic” would be established, as enunciated at the first All-Russian Congress of Soviets (22 June 1917), was equally illusory, given the menace of a powerful Turkish army against such a hypothetical republic. 

After the revolution, Communist policy was consistent with Lenin’s views. A decree, “On Turkish Armenia,” was issued on December 29 and published two days later in Pravda: it declared that Russia “defended the right of the Armenian people to free self-determination in Russian-occupied Turkish Armenia, including even total independence.” It also called for the withdrawal of Russian troops, the establishment of a local Armenian militia, and the return of refugees. However, it did not take into account the menace posed by the Ottoman Empire. 

It is important to mention that the decree had been drafted by poet Vahan Terian (1885-1920), who worked at the Commissariat for Armenian Issues. His draft included a temporary stay of Russian troops, which was actually left out of the final text because of the opposition of Joseph Stalin, Commissar for Nationalities and Terian’s superior. 

Stalin published an article in the same issue of Pravda where he scorned “the voracious diplomatic appetites of the West and the bloody administrative exercises of the East,” whose outcome had been “pogroms and massacres of Armenians, on the one hand, and the hypocritical ‘intercession’ of the diplomats of all countries as a screen for fresh massacres,” and “a blood-soaked, deceived, and enslaved Armenia as a result.” He assessed that “the old path of diplomatic scheming is not the path to the liberation of Armenia.” That path, Stalin assured, “lies through the workers’ revolution that was started in Russia in October,” which “has broken the chains of national oppression.” He concluded by writing that the decree was “particularly necessary today, when the German and Turkish authorities, true to their imperialist nature, make no secret of their desire forcibly to retain the occupied regions under their sway. Let the peoples of Russia know that the striving for conquest is alien to the Russian revolution and its government. Let everyone know that the Council of People's Commissars counters the imperialist policy of national oppression by the policy of complete liberation of the oppressed peoples.”

 Of course, this was just rhetoric: there was no mention of any practical means to counter “the imperialist policy of national oppression” that the Turks would soon unleash again over Western and Eastern Armenia. The call for Russian troops to withdraw from the Caucasus had already been issued. Less than three months later, on March 3, 1918, when Ottoman forces had already advanced and mostly overrun the Armenian resistance in Western Armenia, Soviet Russia would be forced to sign the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and cede, on behalf of the nationalities she no longer dominated, Batum, Kars, and Ardahan to Turkey. The theoretical “self-determination” of Western Armenia had been left on a piece of paper.