03 June 2006

733) The Role of the Echiyazin Church in Russian Eastern Anatolia Policies (1828-1915)

Russia had always aimed to undermine the Ottoman Empire to reach the 'hot seas' (Mediterranean). One of the important columns of this grand strategy was to occupy the Caucasus and Eastern Anatolia and finally the Iskenderun Gulf. The Ottoman and the Persian Armenians and the Armenian church played a crucial role in implementing this policy during the XIXth and the first quarter of the XXth century.

The Russian Czar I.Pedro, as early as XVIII century had planned to use the Armenians to maximise the Russian trade interests in the East, and he invited the Armenians into his territories declaring he was ready to grant them some religious and social privileges in Russia. When the Persians lost the first Iran-Russia War in 1804, the Russians and the Echmiyazin became neighbours while Iran's influence was diminished as a result of the Russian victory.

Russia aimed to unite all Armenians and to form a homogeneous Armenian province in Caucasia and the Eastern Ottoman territories since the XVIIIth century. It further promote Armenian Christianity in the region for its own political interests. The Russian Bible Society for instance published and delivered 15,000 bibles in Armenian language in 1815. When the Society understood that the majority of the Ottoman Armenians could not speak Armenian language but Turkish, it published thousands of Turkish bibles and distributed them to the Ottoman Armenians. The religious activity was the first step to annex the Armenians to Russia, and the Russian anti Ottoman activities followed them at the end of the XIXth century.

When the Persian Armenians declared their wish to be under the Russian protection this led to the occupation of Yerevan and Echmiyazin city, which was a holy land for the Armenians. Although the occupied territories were declared as an independent Armenian country, the region would be annexed to the Russian Empire by Nikola I on 21 March 1828, and the Czar became the King of Armenia. The Türkmençay Agreement was signed on 5 March 1828 by Russia and Iran. Thus Russia gained the Echmiyazin Church and its religious influence over the Armenians. It can be argued that the Armenians betrayed their country (Iran) in this war, and helped the Russians. Thanks to the Armenian strategic assistance, the Russian armies occupied a huge Iranian territory including Urmiye and Erdebil. After the war, Russia encouraged and sometimes forced the 40,000 Iranian Armenians to move to the Yerevan region. The immigrant Armenians were re-settled in Russia's dominantly Muslim populated regions as witnessed in the Yerevan case. Russian initiative aimed to unite the Armenians to increase the Russian influence over the Gregorian Ottoman Armenians and to cut the connection between the Ottoman Turks and the Central Asian Turks. Maintaining control over the Echmiyazin Church was the first and most important step to realise all these aims.

Russia in the following years tried to gain the ordinary Armenians by accepting many Armenians to the Russian army as officer and offering scholarships to the Armenians students. The Armenian institutions did not resist the Russian state authority since the Armenians had no sovereign state and the religious solidarity with the Russians helped to improve the relations.

While the Russians used Pan-Slavism in the Balkans to expand their authority in the Eastern Europe they perceived the Armenians as a 'useful card' to undermine the Ottoman Empire and Iran. When the Russian armies occupied the Erzurum province of the Ottoman Empire the Armenians gave a clear support to the Russian occupiers and in the following days many Armenian joined the Russian army as soldier. The Ottomans had to leave some Eastern provinces at the end of the war. Thousands of Armenians moved from the Kars and Erzurum provinces to the Yerevan region after the war.

The Russian policy to unite all the Armenians against the Turks and the Iranians continued in the 1930s and 1940s and the Russian armies encouraged the Ottoman Armenians to resettle in Yerevan and Revan provinces and Ah�ska region in the 1930s.

The Czarist Russia officially recognised the Armenian religious institutions in 1836 and issued a new bill named as Pologenia to control the Echmiyazin Church. On the other hand the Czar made efforts to increase the Echmiyazin Church's influence on the Ottoman Armenians. The Czar's dream was to be a protector of the Christian Armenians in the Ottoman Empire while the British and French were de facto advocating in favor of the other Ottoman Christians. In other words the Russians tried to counterbalance the other European powers in the Ottoman borders.

According to the new law the Echmiyazin Church became like a Russian institution; the election result of the church had to be approved by the Russian Czar and czar had representatives in the church, which means that, the church was not able to issue any important decision without the czar's approbation. Thus the Echmiyazin Church was transformed into a Russian instrument against the Ottoman Empire. Russia was very successful in this implementary policy; the Echmiyazin Church abetted the radical nationalist in the uprisings and further called the Gregoryian Church to riot against the Ottoman Empire. However, when the head of the Church refused this demand he was murdered and the Armenian monastery was burnt by the pro-Russian Armenian nationalists.

The Echmiyazin Church increased its influence in the Ottoman Empire and Iran in these years. Ironically Russia made maximum efforts to weaken the Armenian church in its own country. Russia, moreover, forced the immigrant Armenians to change their nationality from 'Armenian' to 'Russian' in its territories. Russia also prevented establishing an independent Armenian state in the region. In summary, when the Russians realised their aims of balancing the Muslim population with the Armenian immigrants and of undermining the Persian and Ottoman Empires by using the Echmiyazin church's influence on the Armenians, Russia tried to control Armenians under its sovereignty and did not allow them to establish their own state.

Asst. Prof. Dr. Davut KILIÇ*
* F�rat University -
- Armenian Studies, Issue 2, June-July-August 2001

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