Research in Progress: Imperial Russia and Armenian Refugees on the Caucasus Front of the Great War 1914-1917
By Asya Darbinian
While Russian and Ottoman imperial troops fought on the Caucasus front of World War I, hundreds of thousands of Armenian subjects of the Ottoman Empire were targeted by Turkish authorities as a potential “strategic threat.” Justifying their actions as a military necessity, Ottomans massacred the Armenians or deported them to the deserts of Mesopotamia. Those who did not fall victim became refugees on the Russian-Ottoman frontline. My dissertation research focuses on Imperial Russia’s reaction to the Armenian Genocide and traces the actions taken on behalf of Armenian refugees and internally displaced people by Russian authorities, as well as by various state-sponsored and non-governmental (public) organizations.
By spring-summer 1915 Russian Empire’s southwest - Transcaucasia - was already flooded with tens of thousands of Armenian refugees and internally displaced people who had been forced to abandon their homes in the bordering regions (Kars, Ardahan, Olti, Ardvin, Alashkert, Basen, and other towns) as a result of war between the two empires. New waves of genocide refugees from various parts of the Ottoman Empire were expected every day. This situation was tragic for the Armenian people, and it was highly problematic for the Russian civil and especially military authorities, whose first and major goal was to win the war. To reduce the flow of refugees at its source, Russian political and public figures protested against Ottoman violence.
Condemning the horrifying developments both in the Ottoman Empire and on the Caucasus front, Russia issued a joint declaration with Great Britain and France in May 1915 calling the treatment of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire “new crimes of Turkey against humanity.” Perhaps the best known of the documents of the time, series of undertakings followed this statement, as both officials and the public pressed for relief work to begin.
Humanitarian activity and financial matters pertaining to assistance to the refugees fell to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and were to be implemented by the Special Council for Refugees (Osoboe soveshchanie po ustroistvu bezhentsev) in Moscow. All individuals identified as refugees were issued a refugee card or book, which accorded them privileges (access to soup kitchens, and financial and medical assistance). At the same time, the authorities also recorded the travel routes and workplace changes of the male or female head of refugee households. A number of committees and organizations were engaged in this intensive relief effort, among them the Committee of Her Highness Grand Duchess Tatiana Nikolaevna (Tatiana Committee), All-Russian Union of Zemstvos, and All-Russian Union of Towns. These organizations, the Russian Society of the Red Cross, and national committees, including various Armenian benevolent organizations, participated in refugee assistance on the Caucasus frontline.
My dissertation explores how the recognition of an emergency situation transformed the political and public reaction into action: organized and efficiently implemented Armenian relief work began in fall 1914 in the Russian Empire. As many as 120,000 to 150,000refugees passed through the Ottoman-Russian border in summer and fall 1915. Etchmiadzin, the Armenians’ religious center, became a major refugee town for the Caucasus. The number and condition of refugees were alarming and the need for assistance urgent. “Number of refugees [in Etchmiadzin] is 30,000; [daily] death toll is above 300. Five hundred corpses remain not buried. Healthy refugees are scattered in panic,” reported (29 August 1915) Khatisov, the head of the Caucasus Department of All Russian Union of Towns. The Department opened meal and tea stations, as well as medical stations on the Igdir – Etchmiadzin – Erivan – Yelenovka – Dilidjan - Aghstev route for refugees coming from Turkey. These efforts on behalf of Armenian refugees in the Caucasus, as well as for refugees and orphans in the Ottoman territories occupied by the Russian forces, continued for years.
Exploring Russian responses to this crisis is key for analyzing the process of refugee movement as a result of genocide of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire and the warfare on Caucasus front of the Great War, and for scrutinizing the dynamics of refugee crisis by addressing core questions of motivation, decision-making, and implementation of humanitarian assistance and relief work by Russian civil and military authorities.
The Russian government defined the category “refugee” by law and assigned aid accordingly. The law, however, was adopted only in August 1915, months after the flow of refugees into the empire’s interior, and the efficiency of assistance during that initial period as well as the influence of the new regulations on relief work afterwards calls for more research and analysis. Then too, the relationship between the relief agencies and the government, as well as between various agencies yearns further study. The Tatiana Committee, supported by the government circles and the nobility, appears to have enjoyed great advantages. Yet, the All-Russian Union of Towns and the All-Russian Union of Zemstvos, operating in the military zones, developed trusting relations with the military authorities. Scrutinizing these relations will provide a new perspective on the peculiarities of relief work on the Caucasus front. And finally, regarding the question of motivations for Russian authorities to launch such intensive humanitarian and relief work for Armenian refugees, Canadian academic and former politician Michael Ignatieff holds, “Humanitarian action is not unmasked if it is shown to be the instrument of imperial power. Motives are not discredited just because they are shown to be mixed.” Russian Empire had complex motivations for assisting Armenian refugees on the Caucasus front line. Because of a variety of actors engaged, there were a variety of agendas. My preliminary research suggests that besides humanitarian sentiments and compassion in Russian governmental circles as well as among ordinary people, many other factors obtained: the need to resolve the emergency caused by the refugee crisis in order to secure Russian military success; adherence to the policy towards other ethnic-religious groups in the empire during war; historic ties between Russians and Armenians; and the self-perception of the Russian Empire as the protector of all Christians in the region.
The Great War itself was a challenge to humanitarianism. The early years of the last century were a period marked by economic changes. New sources of capital investment in philanthropy shift the contemporary understanding of philanthropy and humanitarianism. No longer only emergency relief, philanthropy and humanitarianism also offered cure and rehabilitation. The concept of charity evolved to philanthropy, and emergency relief became long-term development programs. Elucidating complexity of Russian humanitarianism during the Great War based on primary sources housed in archives and libraries in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Tbilisi, and Yerevan, will prompts us to recontextualize the Russian Empire’s policy and will shed new light on the meaning and nature of humanitarianism at the beginning of the 20th century.
Asya Darbinyan is a PhD candidate at Clark University’s Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Her dissertation, directed by Prof. Taner Akçam, explores the Russian response to the Armenian Genocide, focusing on the condition and the treatment of the Armenian refugees during WWI. Previously, Darbinyan worked at the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute, Yerevan, first as a senior research fellow, and later as the Deputy Director of the museum (2008-2013). She was awarded Calouste Gulbenkian Short Term Research Grant in Armenian Studies for her research in archives and libraries in Moscow (April-June 2016), a European Holocaust Research Infrastructure (EHRI) Fellowship at Shoah Memorial, Paris(spring 2013), and a Carnegie Research Fellowship at the University of California, Los Angeles (fall semester, 2011-12). Darbinyan received her B.A. (2007) and M.A. (2009) in International Relations from Yerevan State University.
 Although the Armenian society was patriarchal, during the genocide most of the male heads of households did not survive the arrests, deportations, and massacres, and women refugees took their place and duties.  Kratkie svedeniia o polozhenii bezhentsev na Kavkaze i okazannoi im Soiuzom gorodov pomoshchi za vremia s 20 sentiabria po 1 noyabria 1915g. (Tiflis, 1915), 11.  Ignatieff, Michael, Empire Lite: Nation Building in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan, (London: Vintage, 2003), 23.