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Armenians in Central Asia
by David Zenian
Armenians are no strangers to Central Asia where they have lived on and off for hundreds of years, well before many of today's republics were born.
According to old historical records, Armenian warriors and traders once moved freely in many parts of the region, often fighting alongside local warlords in exchange of trading privileges.
They were particularly active during the glorious days of the early Persian Empire, which once spanned its influence along the legendary Silk Road that stretched across Central Asia.
During the 14th century, several Armenian communities were in existence as far east as the Chinese border where they built a monastery named after Saint Matthew.
But for the most part, these were transient communities, and many were annihilated during regional wars while others moved on to escape power struggles.
During the reign of Timour the Great, or Tamerlane, Armenian prisoners were taken to Samarkand in the late 1300's only to drop of sight and vanish.
For the centuries that followed, there was little mention of Armenians in Central Asia. But this began changing dramatically during the second half of the 1800's with the expansion of the Russian Empire into the region.
Armenian and Russian research materials indicate that in 1890 more than 4,000 Armenians lived in Central Asia, many in what is today's Uzbekistan and its neighboring countries.
This figure climbed to 5,000 in 1897 and to more that 25,000 in 1917, according to the same sources. The main Armenian communities were in the Uzbek cities of Bukhara, Khiva, Andizhan, Kokand and Tashkent.
Starting with commerce and trade, Armenians were soon active in the oil and coal industries, agriculture, and mining.
According to available archival records, during the second half to the late 1800's, leading businessmen like Ter Haroutiunov, Ter Hovhannesov, and Papayan were not only the driving forces but also the founding fathers of some of the main industrial complexes in the region.
Ter Hovhannesov owned and operated one of the region's largest salt mines and processing plants which had an annual output of more than 12 tons of table salt.
In agriculture, an Armenian by the name of Avakov is credited for the improvements he introduced to Uzbekistan's vast cotton plantations, including modern technology, especially in the Kokand region. The same records indicate that Avakov owned and cultivated hundreds of acres of cotton fields. Another Armenian businessman by the name of Ter Mgrditchian was one of the leading cotton producers in the Kokand region.
In construction work, the names of prominent Armenians like Asatourov, Gasbarov, Hagopov are linked with the building of train stations, bridges and major cotton storage depots.
Names ending with "ov" instead of the familiar "ian" indicate the strength of the Russian influence on the Armenians of the region, who, in the most part, were sent by Tsarist Russia to help energize and build local industries and improve agriculture.
Among them was a graduate of the Moscow school of agriculture A. Shahnazarov who in 1908 published an in-depth study of the agricultural potentials of the region including not only Uzbekistan but also its surrounding regions which cover what is now known as the Central Asian republics.
Along with Shahnazarov, an Armenian expert from Russia by the name of S. Melik-Sarkissian was sent from Moscow to see how to improve the cultivation of cotton production which today is the backbone of the Uzbek economy.
Melik-Sarkissian's authoritative study on cotton production has helped generations of farmers. Along with their contribution of agriculture, Armenians were also active in several other professions. At the turn of the century, the only two pharmacies in Tashkent were owned by Armenians. In Kokand, Armenians owned and operated furniture stores, textile factories and flour mills.
As their numbers grew, Armenians became better organized as a community. They had their own humanitarian programs, especially in Tashkent, Samarkand and Kokand where historical records show that the Armenians of the region were active in helping fellow Armenians, especially the survivors of the 1915 Genocide in Ottoman Turkey.
Early in the 20th century, there were eight Armenian churches which financed schools in Central Asia, including at least two in Samarkand.
While most Armenians were involved in trade and agriculture, many others, including scientists, also played key roles in other fields.
Names like K. Hakopchanov, H. Sarkispegov and A. Asriyev are often mentioned in old Russian publications on the industrial evolution of the region. Asriyev is said to have built and operated the first electric power station in Ashkhabad, the capital of present-day Turkmenistan, while S. Koulishamparov has written 65 scientific articles between 1874-1913 on the mineral contents of the region's water resources.
There were also many Armenians associated with the arts and theater along with the cultural life of the region.
In 1900, Andranik and Azniv Soghomonian established a roving theater group which performed Armenian plays across Central Asia. During the same time period, A. Vrouyr was active in the Armenian theater where actors and actresses like Hovhannes Apelian, Siranoush and Armen Armenian were invited to perform to enthusiastic audiences in Samarkand and Kokand.
With the birth of the communist movement and the establishment of the Soviet Union, many Armenians were involved in government and management, especially after the 1920-1922 uprisings and the October Revolution.
It was in this era that Armenian communist functionaries began playing a key role in the consolidation of Moscow's rule over Central Asia. Names like A. Sarkisov, K. Kaprieliantz, A. Tavitiantz, and A. Ayroumiantz often appear in early Soviet publications as communist officials who were dispatched from Moscow to take charge of local administrations.
Also mentioned are Armenians like K. Arzoumanian, L. Morkolian and Rouben Baghirov who were killed while fighting "in defense of the socialist ideology" in the region.
With the entrenchment of communism and the birth of the USSR, dozens of Armenians were appointed not only to lead the political life of the region but also the cultural expression of communist ideology. Tamara Petrossian, also known as Tamara Khanoum, led the Uzbekistan National Dance group for many years, choreographing not only Uzbek and Armenian dance routines, but also dances from more than 80 other nationalities.
In music, the name of composer S. Balassanian repeatedly appears in connection with the cultural life of Tajikistan. He is credited with the composition of the first Tajik-language opera in 1939.
In the cinema, Hamo Beknazarian is often mentioned in Soviet literary publications as the man who played a key role in the birth of the movie industry of the region along with the production of a number of Uzbek and Tajik-language films.
In the arts, painters H. Tatevossian and V. Yeremian gained prominence in the 1920's. From agriculture to the arts, from science to industry, from politics to economy, Armenians have been involved in the ever-changing life of Central Asia, paving the way for the tens of thousands of Armenians who now call the region home.