02 October 2014, 13:26
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Revisiting A Critical Historical Moment

Oftentimes, we can better understand our present when we have a firm grasp of the past. Revisiting a critical moment in Soviet history, Yerevan Magazine writes of the memoirs of Stalin’s translator, Valentin Berezhkov, who recalls details of a newly printed post-war school map of USSR. Stalin pinned it to the wall and said with a degree of complacency: “Let’s see what we’ve done. Everything’s good in the North. Finland faulted us and we pushed the border further away from Leningrad. The Baltic nations are ours again. Byelorussians, Ukrainians, and Moldavians now live together. We took back the Kuril Islands and Sakhalin, too.” Finally, following along the Turkish-Armenian border with his pipe, he added: “This, this is where I don’t like our border…”

As early as the fall of 1944, Stalin gave orders to prepare legal justification for annexing the Armenian lands seized by Turkey to the Soviet Union. This was not as much an attempt to right a historic wrong, as it was a desire to punish Turkey for being a passive ally of Germany throughout the war.

An official document confirming the alliance between Berlin and Ankara was signed on June 18, 1941, just weeks before Germany invaded the USSR. The treaty had clear ties to Germany’s impending invasion of the Soviet Union. Furthermore, many historians claim that this agreement – just like the Soviet-German Pact of 1939 – included secret protocols containing timelines for the Turkish invasion of the USSR and ensuing division of the Transcaucasus.

Armenia: A Ever-Threatened Nation

Ankara, following dreams of forming a single Turkic state, had its eyes on Armenia and South-Western Georgia. Following the efforts of Azeri immigrant activists, a special committee devoted to pursuing the goal of  was formed in Erzerum. However, not everyone among the Fuhrer’s supporters approved of this scenario. Although the Nazis were eager to add Turkey to their military bloc, Berlin refused many of Ankara’s requests for territorial domination.

Turkish officials looked for other avenues to sway the Reich. In 1939, realizing that if the Fuhrer were to add Armenians as a targeted ethnic minority, the likelihood of stabilizing an agreement in their favor was drastically increased. Active underground work of the Turkish lobby in Berlin resulted in printing an anti-Armenian article in Der Volkischer Beobachter – the official publication of the Nazi party. The author claimed that Armenians originated from Jews and as a result, should share their fate.

Following this threat, Armenian communities in Germany made enormous efforts to convince Alfred Rosenberg, an influential Nazi ideologue, that the claims were unsubstantiated resulting in Rosenberg's approval for University of Berlin Professor, Artashes Abeghyan, to publish an article in the same paper demonstrating Armenians’ Aryan and Indo-European roots. Fortunately for Armenians, Hitler was not swayed by the Turkish allegations.  

A Failed Attempt Incurring Stalin’s Wrath

In early August of 1942, Turkish military forces approached the Armenian border and started large-scale maneuvers in the area. In his essay “Turkey Deals a Blow to Russia,” American historian John Gill writes that Marshall Chakmak, Chief of the Turkish General Staff at Ankara, was ready to attack in waves with the objective of occupying Armenia and Georgia. 

They were, however, unsuccessful and the victory of the Red Army at Stalingrad devastated Turkey’s plans for expansion. Following the attacks, Stalin was furious. The unforgiving Soviet dictator had no qualms about using Armenian’s recent trauma, the Genocide of 1915, as an excuse to exact his revenge.

Soviet Armenia’s administrators and organizations in the diaspora knew that this was a historic chance to win back some of the lost Armenian lands. At the end of 1944, the head of the newly established People’s Commissariat of Foreign Affairs in the Armenian SSR, Sahak Karapetyan, received a directive from Moscow asking him to prepare a historical survey of Western Armenia with legal justification for the Soviet Union’s claims on these territories. Karapetyan worked fast, and the document made it to Moscow within two months.

Karapetyan suggested three possible scenarios. In the first, only Kars and Ardahan – regions that made up the Russian Empire until 1914 – were to be returned to Armenia. In the second scenario, the border was to be drawn according to the 1878 Treaty of San Stefano. The third scenario presumed the return of Van, Erzerum, Mush, and Bitlis in addition to the regions listed above.

Historians, to this day, uncertain which plan Stalin approved.

It All Boiled Down: Poland vs. Armenia

On May 7, 1945, Moscow denounced the 1925 treaty of friendship and cooperation between the USSR and Turkey. The People’s Commissar of Foreign Affairs in the USSR, Vyacheslav Molotov, subsequently presented Turkey with official territorial demands.

It’s worth mentioning that despite his desire for new territory, Stalin did not want a new war and was convinced Turkey would peacefully accept the ultimatum. All he needed was agreement from the Allies, the United States and the United Kingdom. otsdam would be the best place to get approval from the United Kingdom and the United States.

This took place at an eleven-day conference from 17 July to 2 August 1945 in Potsdam. The Soviet Union and Turkey negotiated to repair the relationship between the two countries. The Armenian question was raised on the first day.

Soviets insisted that a treaty would be signed only after Ankara returned the illegally captured Kars and Ardahan. The rest of Armenian territories were not yet part of the discussion. During a preliminary meeting, Molotov said, “In 1921 the Turks took advantage of the Soviet Union’s weakness and captured a part of Soviet Armenia. Armenians feel offended. Therefore, the Soviet government raises the question of returning the territories that legally belong to us.”

Anthony Eden, the UK Foreign Secretary asked, “Do a lot of Armenians live in the Turkish territory?” Molotov replied, “There are around 400 thousand Armenians there, with over a million living outside Armenia. Once Armenia has more territory, they will all return to their homeland.” Then Molotov added, “Armenians are very capable and energetic people. Turks should turn Armenia over to us. It would be only fair…”

The discussion about Armenian territories continued during the sixth and seventh days of the conference. Winston Churchill – to Stalin’s surprise – assumed the role of the Turks’ defender, claiming that the USSR’s intimidation of Turkey was “impermissible” and decried the “constant verbal attacks and the concentration of Soviet troops at [the country’s] borders…”

In response, Stalin was adamant:

We are talking about restoring the pre-World War I border. The border in the Kars and Ardahan regions is incorrect, and we told Turkey that if they want a good relationship with the Soviet Union, the border must be corrected.

At the same time, however, negotions were being made over Poland and many at the conference felt that Moscow’s demands were excessive. They were ready to concede to Stalin on either the dispute over Poland, or over Turkey but not both. Stalin chose Poland and the request to push the Polish border back to the Oder and Neisse rivers was satisfied.

The ambitious dictator did not, however, give up the idea of taking Western Armenia back. He began to make plans to take Kars and Ardahan by military force, rather than diplomacy.

“Turks should forever thank the Japanese, who suffered instead of them…”

On August 6, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, decimating the city, killing thousands and demonstrating that the United States was a force to be reckoned with. Stalin was horrified. According to eyewitnesses, military historian and former spy, Igor Atamanenko, reproduced the General Secretary’s reaction.

Summoning the members of Politburo, Stalin said, ‘The march on Turkey is cancelled until better times. Turks should forever thank the Japanese, who suffered instead of them…’

But despite worsening conditions between Washington and Moscow, Stalin's ambitions to recpature Kars and Ardahan remained in place. His plan was to advance from three directions: Armenia, Georgia, and Iran, where eighteen Soviet divisions had been positioned since the beginning of the war. In Iran, American Consul General, Robert Rossow, wrote to Secretary of State James Byrnes on March 6, 1946 in a secret report, describing the shift in Soviet military command that had taken place. 

[General Hovhannes] Bagramyan came to Tebriz and took charge of the Soviet troops. The previous commander, general Glinsky, did not have a lot of experience, while Bagramyan is an expert in tank warfare… This indicates that the Soviets are preparing for large-scale operations.

Soviets Count their Territories Before They're Snatched

Simultaneously, work was being done to form a governing body that could be installed in the liberated territories right after the successful military operations. The entire infrastructure of Transcaucasia had to be reshaped for war. The region’s economy was being militarized. The first issue of the new “Red Kars” newspaper was even printed in Yerevan and scheduled to be handed out to the troops following the capture of the city. Armenians even gave Moscow possible candidacies for secretaries of Van and Erzerum regional committees.

Excessive enthusiasm on the part of Armenia fueled envy from the Georgian side, whose leaders thought that the developing situation could also be to their advantage. Tbilisi used its influence in Moscow to try to convince Politburo [communist executive committee] members that most of the land that Armenians claimed really should be part of Georgia.

In the fall of 1945, the People’s Commissar of Foreign Affairs of the Georgian SSR, Georgy Kiknadze, presented two report notes stating that the Georgian administration required at least 13 thousand of the 26 thousand square kilometers that would be liberated from Turkey, conflicting with Moscow’s original plan to give Georgia only the North of Ardahan. Reads one of the notes:

Aside from the Southern sectors of former Batum and Artvin regions, in our opinion, the Georgian SSR should also get its historic provinces – Ardahan and Oltin regions.

The efforts of the influential Georgian lobby in the Kremlin soon increased Tbilisi’s appetite and on December 20, 1945, an article by Djanashia and Berdzenishvili was published in the daily newspaper, Izvestiya. Authors recounted historical figures to claim that not only Kars, but also Erzerum, were historic Georgian territories and Armenia should receive only a small Southern portion of the Kars Region.

Turks reacted snidely and Turkey’s Prime Minister, Sukri Saracoglu, told Soviet Ambassador Vinogradov, “First figure out your internal disagreements, and only then present your pretences to us.”

Foreshadowing repopulation and development needs in the soon-to-be liberated regions, First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Armenia, Grigoriy Arutyunov, convinced Stalin that repatriation should be put into action immediately and the best place to start was with all the Armenians in the West and Middle East. 

On November 21, 1946, the Council of People’s Commissars of the USSR passed a resolution entitled “Activities and Events with the Goal of Returning Armenians from Abroad to Soviet Armenia”. Committees for repatriation were formed in 12 countries, including the United States, France, Romania, Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria. About 360 thousand Armenians stated their desire to return to their homeland. In December, the first ship with Armenians from France arrived in Batumi. Only a few months later the number of repatriates was already in the tens of thousands. Armenia welcomed everyone with open arms, but could not provide them with suitable living conditions. The repatriates were housed in basements and barns, and were consoled with promises that the Red Army would soon liberate Western Armenia, and they would be given houses and land. 


The Armenian repatriation effort ended two years later in 1948. The military operation had been postponed several times. It was clear that the international climate was less and less favorable for Stalin to start a new war. With the question of Western Armenia still unresolved, Stalin was busy dividing Iran, where in 1946 a puppet pro-Soviet “Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan” was declared in the Northern regions.

Officials in the US and UK began to realize they could not sit idly as the Soviet Union expanded unmonitered. Great Britain moved much of its navy into the Persian Gulf and Eastern Mediterranean in the summer of 1946, while the United States stated their plans to send a fleet that included the new USS Franklin Roosevelt to the shores of Turkey. On March 21, President Truman gave a written ultimatum to the Soviet Union, stating that if the USSR did not evacuate Iran within 48 hours, the United States would use the atomic bomb on USSR.

Cold War Heats Up and Tensions Tide with Turkey

Thus, the Cold War began, creating a very unfavorable climate for the efforts of reuniting Western and Eastern Armenias. Yerevan started to realize that there would be no military operations. The Soviet Union soon left Iran. The excess of Soviet troops was moved out of Armenia and Georgia.


Formally, Moscow did never renounced its territorial demands until after Stalin’s death in 1953. It was Nikita Khrushchev, who sanctioned rebuilding a friendly relationship between Turkey and the Soviet Union. On July 19, Pravda published the Soviet Foreign Ministry’s note to their Turkish counterparts:

In the name of preserving a good relationship with their neighbors and strengthening of peace and security, Armenia and Georgia considered it possible to renounce their territorial demands. Thus, the Soviet government states that it has no territorial conflicts with Turkey.

Commenting on his decision, Khrushchev declared at a Central Committee plenary meeting:

Turks are our comrades and friends. Yet we went and spat in their face. That was stupid. As a result, we lost a friendly Turkey.

Even after this implicit apology the relationship between Turkey and the Soviet Union remained chilly. It was under Brezhnev that a bilateral agreement confirming the absence of territorial demands was signed between the two countries. On August 22, 1978, Turkish Premier, Bulent Ecevit, and Head of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, Aleksei Kosygin, signed a document, which put an end to the hopes that the communist regime would be able to solve the Armenian question.


Adapted from Yerevan Magazine, Winter, N3, 2008

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