The Karabagh File

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Pre-Soviet History of Karabakh
© 1988, This is from "The Karabakh File" of the Zoryan Institute. Edited by Gerard Libaridian ISBN 0916431266


Karabagh (Gharabagh, in Armenian) is known in official Soviet parlance as Nagorno-Karabagh or, "Mountainous Karabagh Autonomous District." It is a region of 1,699 square miles with a current population of approximately 153,000 people, of whom 80 percent are Armenian. Its name means "black garden." The area is known for its rugged beauty, its wild mountains, and its inaccessibility to the rest of the Caucasus.

In ancient times, the region of Karabagh and most of eastern Transcaucasia was inhabited by a people called Albanians, not to be confused with the people of the same name now living in the Balkans. According to the Greek geographer Strabo (1st C. B.C.), Karabagh, which then encompassed both the mountainous Nagorno-Karabagh of today and the larger lowlands, surrounding it, had a highly developed economy and was famous for its cavalry. Caucasian Albanians maintained close contacts with the Armenians. In the fifth century, shortly after the Armenians converted to Christianity, the Albanians too adopted the Armenian brand of Christianity. The first church established in Karabagh, in the region now known as Martuni, was established by Gregory the Illuminator, first Catholicos of Armenia. Tradition has it that Mesrob Mashtotz, the monk who created the Armenian alphabet, founded the first school in Karabagh.

Given the centrality of religion to social life during that period, it is not surprising that in the following two centuries the Albanians merged with the Armenians. The nobilitv intermarried, the region's bishops were often Armenians, and by the seventh century the separate identity of the Albanians was lost.

The territories of both Mountainous Karabagh and the larger surrounding lowlands became parts of the Armenian provinces of Utik, Sunik and Artsakh. In the seventh and eighth centuries much of this area was conquered by Arabs, who converted a portion of the population to Islam. In Karabagh, only a very small minority was converted. The situation of Karabagh changed radically in the eleventh century when the ethnic Turkish invasions began. The Turks had emerged from Central Asia, had conquered Iran, and founded the Seljuk Turkish dynasty, which first raided, then invaded Armenia. From 1020 on, these invasions destroyed much of Armenia, and Karabagh, especially its lowlands, suffercd greatly. By the mid-eleventh century, the Armenian kingdom was destroyed. But the feudal principality of Sunik, which occupied the mountainous territory in the southeast of today's Soviet Armenia and Mountainous Karabagh survived and became beacons to the rest of Armenia. In the following centuries, thousands of Armenians found refuge in Karabagh, under the protection of native lords.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Karabagh gave rise to the pioneers of the Armenian emancipatory struggle. Representatives of the region attempted to interest the monarchs of Russia and other European powers in embarking on a "crusade" to liberate the Armenian plateau, the eastern portions of which were occupied by the Ottoman Turkish and Persian Fmpires. During the 1720's, the rebellion of the Armenians ofSunik and Karabagh, led by David Beg, achieved notable though temporary success. The Russian Empire, expanding southwards in the Transcaucasus, annexed the territory of Karabagh in 1805.

The Russian annexation of Karabagh was officially recognized by Persia in the Treaty of Gulistan in 1813. Thus Karabagh came into the Russian Empire earlier than the areas of Yerevan and Nakhichevan, which were ceded to Russia by Persia in the Treaty of Turkmenchai in 1828. This earlier annexation benefited Karabagh in some ways, but also created a major problem for the future. Because of the time it came into the Russian empire, Karabagh was made part of Elizavetpol Province, which later became Azerbaijan. Administratively, then, Karabagh could not be joined in 1813 to the as-yet un-annexed Armenian territories of which its history and population made it a natural part. Yerevan and Nakhichevan, when they were attached to the Tzarist empire in 1828, were organized in the Armianskoy region, later the Yerevan province. Here, as in other empires, decisions made by colonial administrators laid the foundations for future difficulties.


During the first months of the Russian revolution of 1917, the situation in Karabagh was relatively calm. The Russian army had penetrated deep into the Ottoman Empire, and there was no Turkish threat to Karabagh. But by the end of 1917 the Russian army had disintegrated, and in February 1918 the Ottoman Turkish army moved into Armenia. The Ottoman Turks threatened Yerevan and made a desperate drive to oil-rich Baku, then held by a multi-ethnic coalition of Bolsheviks (headed by the Armenian Stepan Shaumian) and small Armenian military forcas. While this struggle went on, representatives of the Armenians, Georgians and Azeris met and formed a short-lived Transcaucasian Federation. By May, 1918 this federation failed and three separate, independent republics were proclaimed: Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia formed the cores of today's Soviet republics in the same region. The capital of the Azerbaijani Republic was at Elizavetpol (Ganja). The new government, indifferent to the wishes of its Armenian inhabitants, claimed Karabagh, as part of the territory of the new republic. The commander of Ottoman Turkish forces, Nun Pasha (brother of the Minister Enver Fasha), ordered the Armenians of Karabagh to submit to the new government of its ethnic ally, Azerbaijan.

In August 1918, the Armenians of Karabagh formed their own national assembly, called the First Assembly of Karabagh Armenians, which then elected a People's Government of Karabagh. This government rejected the demand that Turkish troops be permitted to enter theft capital of Shushi. By the end of the summer, on September 15, the Turks took Baku. With the ethnic Azerbaijani Turks at their side, they carried out a systematic massacre of the Armenians in the city, during which it is estimated that 15,000 to 20,000 Armenians died. when the news of that massacre came to Karabagh, Armenians understood they too were incapable of resisting successfully the regular troops of the Ottoman Turkish army. On September 25, they submitted to the Turks and 5,000 Turkish soldiers entered Shushi. Within a week, 60 prominent Armenians had been arrested, the townspeople disarmed, and gallows ominously erected in the central square of the town. There is no telling what would have happened had the Turks stayed much longer.

Faced with this Turkish occupation, the Karabagh Armenians were looking for aid from armed Armenians outside their borders. The newly-founded Armenian Republic around Yerevan was much too weak to help. The only force of any consequence was the independent command of General Andranik, an ingenious guerrilla fighter and military leader, in Zangezur. General Andranik decided to help and he moved toward Shushi. This advance, however, was hindered by Muslim resistance and by lengthy discussions among Armenians, which resulted in a fatal delay. Before Andranik could reach Shushi (he got within 26 miles), the First World War ended and Turkey, along with Germany and Austria-Hungary, surrendered to the Allies.

The British occupation forces would now play the key role in eastern Transcaucasia. The British ordered Andranik to stop all further military advances and to await the solution of the Armenian Question at the Paris Peace Conference. Andranik, not wanting to antagonize the British, retreated to Goris in Zangezur. Thus the Armenians placed the fate of Karabagh in the hands of the British and the Western Allies. The Armenians had every reason to expect that they would be treated well by the British; after all, Armenians had fought with the Allies and had been the victims of their enemy, the Ottoman Turks. President Wilson had pledged support for the Armenians. At the same time, the Azerbaijanis had been allies of the Turks in 1918. Despite all this, within a few rnonths the British shifted their support In eastern Transcaucasia to the Azerbaijanis, motivated both by a traditional Turkophilia and by their geopolitical assumption that they needed to favor and dominate emerging Muslim entities in the Middle East, between the Suez and India, particularly those controlling petroleum reserves.

The Armenians of Karabagh could expect help from no one, and so, on August 22, 1919, their leaders signed an agreement with the Republic of Azerbaijan, accepting its authority until the final decision on Mountainous Karabagh was made at the Paris Peace Conference. By this agreement, the Armenians of Karabagh were granted cultural autonomy. This agreement established an important precedent concerning the relations of Mountainous or Nagorno-Karabagh and Azerbaijan.

In the same month, August 1919, the British began their withdrawal from Azerbaijan. But thc effects of their short stay in that region are felt to the present day. It is as a result of British support of the Azeri-Turkish position on Karabagb, despite the predominant Armenian majority in the area, that this region was included in the independent Republic of Azerbaijan.

© 1988- Zoryan Institute & Gerard Libaridian.

Timeline of Karabakh History

APPENDIX D of the Karabagh File



Beginning -7th Century A.D.

Slow fusion of Armenians and Caucasian Albanians leads to the creation of Armenian principality of Artsakh, which includes both today's Mountainous Karabagh and the plains of Karabagh.

8th Century

Arabs complete the conquest of Transcaucasia, including Artsakh. Beginning of conversion of a minority of the plains population to Islam.

11th Century

Seljuk Turks, having emerged from central Asia and conquered Iran, conquer Artsakh and Armenia, extend Islamization and begin Turkification.

13-15th Centuries

Invasion by Genghiz Khan's troops. Later, Turkic invasions by Tamurlane's armies increase the "Tatar" element (a variant of central Asian Turks), ancestors of Azeri or Azerbaijani Turks. Armenians increasingly restricted to safe pockets above all mountains.

Early 16th Century

Ottoman Turks conquer region. Armenians take tentative, ineffective steps towards liberation.


Shah of Persia and Ottoman Empire agree to cede Karabagh to the Khanate of Ganja, a tributory of Persia.


Israel Ori, born in Karabagh, labors for Western, ultimately Russian intervention to free Armenia of alien rule. He informs Peter the Great of conditions in Armenia. Gets paper promises only.


Armenians of the whole of historic Karabagh and the neighboring district of Sunik rise against the Khans and the Ottoman Empire under the leadership of David Bey hoping for assistance from Peter the Great, Tzar of Russia. They receive no help.


Prince Tsitsianov of Tzarist Russia secures Karabagh for the Russian Empire before being assassinated on his way to capture Baku. Karabagh is annexed to the Russian empire.


Russia signs Treaty of Gulistan with Persia, keeps Karabagh and most territories currently part of present-day Azerbaijani S.S.R.


Instigated by local overlords, racial violence breaks out between Tartars or "Azeris" and Armenians throughout Transcaucasia. Tzarist officials, hoping to curb Armenian activism, do not intervene. Armenians put up sustained resistance but are massacred in areas where Tartars form a majority.


Karabagh is occupied by Russian troops who remain until fall of Tzarist regime.


January Tzarist census shows greater Karabagh population to be 317,000 Armenians (72%) and 120,000 Tartars.


Russian Revolution end of tzarist regime. Departure of troops leave Karabagh in state of disarray. Inter-party Bureau organized, consisting of Armenians and Tartars Regional Central Executive appointed to run administration of united Karabagh-Zangezur region. Harmony and cooperation exist.



Trancaucasian Confederation (with Armenian, Azeri, and Georgian states) proclaims itself an independent, multi-ethnic republic.

Ottoman Turkish victories in Baku. Armenians of Shushi submit to invading Ottoman armies, however rest of Karabagh resists.


Transcaucasian Confederation dissolves. Complete evacuation of Russian armies leaves a void in disputed areas.

In the fact of Ottoman Turkish penetration into Transcaucasia, Bolsheviks and Dashnaktsakans join forces and set up the Baku Commune to resist invasion.

Republic of Azerbaijan declared on May 27. Republic of Armenia declared on May 28.

Treaty of Batum signed between Ottoman Turkey and Armenia. Armenia forced to cede large territories to neighboring Turkey, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. Nakhichevan and Karabagh are given status of autonomous districts under the protectorate of Azerbaijan.


British forces enter Transcaucasia. Fall of Baku Commune.

First Assembly of Karabagh Armenians formed. Elects a People's Government of Karabagh. Rejects demands that Turkish troops be permitted to enter Shushi.


To avoid further Turkish massacres, Second and Third Pan-Karabagh Assemblies decide to keep status-quo under Azerbaijani rule.

Turks and Azerbaijarlis carry out systematic massacre of Armenians. 15,000-20,000 die.

Karabagh Armenians submit to Turks; 5,000 Turkish soldiers enter Shushi.


Turkish massacres intensify in Karabagh. Shushi resists the Turco-Tartar attackers, calls for help from General Andranik and his Armenian volunteer units.


General Andranik stopped by British High Commander of Caucasus, General Thompson. Thompson promises problem will be mediated by the Paris Peace Conference, declares military action wouId be unnecessary destruction. Andranik complies.


British military delegation arrives in Shushi to determine and oversee status of Karabagh.



Paris Peace Conference convenes; Armenia submits claims to historic lands including Karabagh.

Azerbaijan and Gen. Thompson appoint Dr. Khosrov Beg Sultanov, who was already suspected by Armenians as an instigator of massacres as Governor-General of Karabagh and Zangezur Appointment draws violent protests from Armenians in Karabagh.

Republic of Armenia protests; declares Karabagh and Zangezur to be inseparable parts of Armenia. Also protests appointment of Sultanov.


Fourth Pan-Karabagh Assembly declares Karabagh to be inseparable from Armenia, does not recognize Azeri rule. Elects a National Council to carry out decision.


Azerbaijan army and British troops dispatched to Karabagh to erforce Areri rule. Effort repulsed by Armenians.


British General Shuttleworth replaces Thompson as High Commander of the Caucasus, re-announces decision to allow Azeri rule over Karabagh; reiterates Thompson's plan of maintaining status quo until the Paris Peace Conference decides the final boundaries.

Republic of Armenia government once again protests, sends emissary to negotiate. Emissary is banished by British.

Fifth Pan-Karabagh Assembly meets, rejects Shuttleworth's plan. Its Congress accuses Azerbaijan of being an accomplice to Turkish goals of Pan-Turanism or Pan-Turkism, which aspired to unite all lands inhabited by ethnic Turks in Anatolia, old Tzarist Transcaucasia, Iran and Central Asia. British mission secretly advises Sultanov to enter Shushi with military force.


With British knowledge, more intensive attacks on Armenian villages in Karabagh. Sultanov ignores all protests, is suspected by Armenians of encauraging attacks


Unable to enforce law and order, British withdraw forces from Karabagh.

Armenian Catholicos in Etchmiadzin sends British a formal protest.

Massive demonstrations in Yerevan and Tbilisi. Hundreds of thousands participate, representing all patriotic, political and cultural organizations demanding that authors of the massacres be arrested and punished.

Sixth Pan-Karabagh Assembly agrees to negotiate with Azeri government in Baku.

Armenians compromise in negotiations but leave treaty unsigned.

British War Office announces withdrawal from entire region of Caucasus.


Sultanov presents Seventh Pan-Karabagh Assembly ultimatum to accept Baku agreement. Because agreement had been left open Sultanov changes terms more in favor of Azeri govermnent. Congress bows to inevitable, accepts Sultanov's terms. Representatives create temporary quasi-autonomous district of Karabagh under rule of Azerbaijan pending final determination of Paris Peace Conference.

Paris Peace Conference is still in progress. Armenian representatives stress that the region of Karabagh is Armenian in every detail.

Allied High Commissioner Haskell arrives in Yerevan.

Ninth world Congress of the Dashnaktsutiun (ARF) passes special resolution claiming Karabagh and Zangezur as integral parts of Armenian state.


Violence fares up in Karabagh once again.


Violence in Karabagh intensifies.


The Republic of Azerbaijan concludes treaty with Turkey at expense of Armenia.

Prime Ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan hold private discussion with U.S. Army Colonel Rhea concerning conflicts between the two republics. Discussions lead to agreement signed in Tbilisi reflecting desire to cease hoslilities.


Conference of Armenian and Azeri representatives in Baku produces no agreement.



Memorandum of Eighth Assembly of Pan-Karabagh Congress to the Allied Powers.


Red Army of the Soviet State rapidly conquers Azerbaijan, enters Baku as a first step in the reconquest of the Tzarist empire. Azerbaijan becomes a Soviet republic.


Republic of Armenia receives ultimatum from Soviet Azerbaijan and Soviet Russia to clear Armenian troops from pockets in Karabagh and Zangezur within three days.


Representatives of Armenian National Council in Karabagh leave for Moscow to demand annexation of Karabagh to Armenia.

Soviets make first move to accommodate Turco-Soviet plan to carve up Armenia.


Treaty of Sevres in Paris makes provisions for final settlement of Armeno-Azeri boundary lines.

Khalil Pasha visits Yerevan to discuss Karabagh; outlines Soviet-Turkish plan to unite lands free of Armenian jurisdiction.


The government of the Armenian Republic, facing advancing Soviet and Turkish forces, transfers power to Bolsheviks, Armenia becomes a Soviet republic on December 2.

Telegram sent by Soviet Azerbaijani government to Snviet Armenian government cedes territories of Karabagh, Zangezur and Nakhichevan to new fraternal Soviet republic. Border disputes declared resolved.



Treaty of Moscow reverses earlier announcements, formalizes cession of Nakhichevan to Azerbaijan, thus helping to improve Soviet relations with Turkey.


Avis Nurichanian, the People's Military Commissar of Sonet Armenia, declares that Karabagh is an inseparable part of Armenia.


Soviet delegation in negotiations with local government of Karabagh agrees with Nurichanian, and promises Karabagh will be included in Armenian boundaries.


Once again based on agreements between the Soviet republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Soviet Armenia demands acquisifion of Karabagh.


Treaty of Kars signed between Turkey and the three Transcaucasian Soviet Republics. Policy set by Soviet government finalizing boundaries in the Caucasus.

July 1923

Karabagh proclaimed an autonomous region by decree or the Azerbaijan Central Committee, initiated by Moscow.

November 1927

Two rounds of leaflets distributed in Karabagh by the "Union of Karabagh for Armenia~. Numerous arrests follow.


Marked Pan-Turanic movements in Azerbaijan. Armenians of Karabagh express desire to join Armenia.

June 1935

Aghasi Khanjian, Secretary of Communist Party of Armenia, killed after submitting Armenian grievances to Stalin. Grievances include requests to return Karabagh and Nakhichevan to Armenia.

August 1960

False rumor spreads through the Armenian Diaspora that Karabagh and Nakhichevan will be reunited with Armenia on the occasion of Armenia's 40th anniversary of sovietization.

November 1960

Soviet government response to rumors states tbat central authorities have no right to reintegrate Nakhichevan and Karabagh in Soviet Armenian republic, but Azerbaijan could cede on its own.


Petition to Khrushchev signed by 2,500 representatives of 200,000 Armenians of all of Karabagh complaining of cultural oppression, economic sabotage, and enforced population shifts.


Khrushchev refuses to visit Armenia to discuss the Karabagh case.

Eighteen Armenians killed in Karabagh by Turks. Intellectuals at University of Yerevan protest; later arested.


National Unity Party is formed in Yerevan. While its main goal---the independence of Soviet Armenia, changes over time, the unification of Karabagh and Nakhichevan remains central concern.

August 1966

Soviet Armenia once again officially appeals to Moscow for Karabagh to be annexed to Soviet Armenia. Moscow says issue must be resolved between the two republics.

September 1967

Appeal by Armenian residents of Karabagh to the governrnent of Armenia describing intolerable conditions.

November 19l4

Anton Y. Kochinian Communist Party leader of Soviet Armenia, removed from post ostensibly for inability to halt nationalist agitation.


National Unity Party calls for general elections. Ukrainians, Russians, Jews, Lithuanians participate with NUP in hunger strikes.


Armenians of Karabagh rebuked; some imprisoned on charges of nationalist agitation, others removed from office and exiled.

October 1977

Sero Khanzatian, leading member of the Armenian Communist Party and the Soviet Writers Union, writes strong letter to Brezhnev arguing for the annexation of Karabagh to Armenia.

December 1977

Protest demonstrations at public events and pleas from Karabagh Armenians charge Azeris with cultural oppression and economic discrimination.


Mountainous Karabagh's new constitution adopted. Local officials' authority reduced to mere ratification and execution of Azerbaijan governnnnent decisions.

March 1986

350 Soviet Armenian intellectuals urge Gorbachev to close nuclear plant due to radiation.



Armenian Communist Party Central Committee Plenum singles out officials for criticism. Gorbachev publicly chastises Armenian party leaders for corruption.


Petition for annexation or Karabagh to Armenia signed by 100,000. Other sources place number between 75,000 and 400,000.


Violence directed by Azerbaijani officials against Armenians in Karabagh.

While visiting Boston, Sergei Mikoyan says glasnost creates favorable conditions for discussion of Karabagh question.

Two demonstrations in Yerevan demanding closure of nuclear power plant and defense of Armenian national rights.

Haidar Aliev, Azerbaijani official, is removed from Politburo and loses other federal functions.

Clashes between Armenian and Tartar viIlagers in Chardaklu, Mountainous Karabagh.


Turkish newspaper Hurriet reports Armenians provoked over Karabagh.

Soviet central government endorses calls for removal of First Secretary of Armenian Communist Party.



Petition with 100,000 Karabagh Armenians' signatures sent to Moscow asking for referendum to be held in Karabagh on the status of the region. Gorbachev appoints a special commission. Commission receives 13 delegates from Karabagh and 4 from Moscow.


Zori Balayan, journalist from Soviet Armenia, declares at a Washington D.C. press conference that Glasnost will benefit Armenia.

February 13

Demonstrations held in Stepanakert, capital of Karabagh.

February 18

Gorbachev proposes to hold a special Central Committee meeting to discuss Soviet policy toward nationalities within the Soviet Union. Calls for free development of national cultures.

February 19

Protest rally held at Yerevan Opera House, in front of Council of Minsters' Building. No intervention by police.

February 20

Soviet of People's Deputies of Karabagh holds special session in Stepanakert; votes to intercede with Supreme Soviet of the U.S.S.R. for the transfer of Mountainons Karabagh from Azerbaijan to Armenia.

February 22

Mr. Razumovsky, representative of U.S.S.R Central Party Central Committee in Stepanakert, states that any attempt to break Karabagh away from Azerbaijan is unnacceptabIe.

Thousands of Azerbaijanis march toward Stepanakert, burning buildings on their way.

February 22-27

During an entire week, close to a million demonstrators take part in peaceful demonstrations in Yerevan to protest Politburo's decision not to return Karabagh to Armenia. No incidents reported.

February 24

Tass reports that Henrig ["Genrikh"] Pogosyan is named by the regional party committee to replace Boris Kevorkov as party head of Karabagh.

February 25

Demonstrations in Paris in support of demonstrations in Yerevan.

Alexander Katonsev, Assistant Attorney General of U.S.S.R., denies rumors of massacres of Armenians by Azeris.

Authorities in Moscow move to limit flow of information from Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Kremlin formally installs Genrikh Pogosyan as Communist Party Chief in Karabagh.

Red army troops arrive in Yerevan.

Four Armenian deaths reported in Karabagh.

February 26

A. Mutalibov, Vice-Premier of Azerbaijan reports to Tass that relations between Armenians and Azeris are tense. Gorbachev calls for calm, reaffirrns friendship between two peoples.

Writers Zori Balayan and Sylva Kaputikian meet with Gorbachev to discuss the case of Karabagh. Gorbachev promises to review the problem during the next 30 days and at next meeting of Central Committee.

Armenians demonstrate in San Francisco, Hollywood, Montreal, Toronto, and New York showing support of Armenian Diaspora in US. and Canada; telegrams of support sent to Gorbachev.

Rioting in Sumgait, Azerbaijan; attacks on Armenian individuals, homes, and businesses. Fighting between Armenians and Azeris in Mountainous Karabagh, Tass reports 31 dead.


Gorbachev summons party leaders of Soviet Armenia and Azerbaijan to Moscow, orders "profound and all-round" study of grievances in Karabagh.

March 11

As of this date, Western sources estimate 300 Armenians dead in Azerbaijan as a result of what Azeris call "punitive expeditions"; some Armenian sources accept a much higher number of casualties.

March 14

During a state visit to Yugoslavia, Secretary Gorbachev blames predecessors for situation and asserts he will consider grievances of Armenians.

© 1988- Zoryan Institute & Gerard Libaridian.