Transcaucasia

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

Formerly a part of the tsarist empire, the mountainous isthmus between the Black and Caspian Seas that Russians call Transcaucasia proved resistant to the spread of Soviet power until 1920. The only exception was the Baku Commune, set up in April 1918 by local Bolsheviks. It survived for four months before succumbing to Azerbaijani nationalists backed by Ottoman Turkish troops. From 1918 until 1920, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia existed as independent states. Whereas the Menshevik government in Georgia enjoyed widespread popular support, the nationalist government in Azerbaijan relied on Ottoman Turkish and then British military protection, while the fragile Armenian nationalist (Dashnak) government looked to the Entente powers for protection, primarily against the claims of Turkey.

The withdrawal of this protection in the aftermath of the Versailles settlement and the winding down of the Russian civil war left these states vulnerable to invasion. In the case of Azerbaijan, the government could count on neither the peasantry which exhibited only a weak nationalist consciousness nor the multi-ethnic population of Baku which was not unsympathetic to the Bolsheviks. In April 1920, the Red Army, meeting little resistance, marched into Baku and an Azerbaijan Soviet government was organized under the guidance of the Caucasian Bureau (Kavbiuro) of the Russian Communist Party. The Armenian government, faced with invasion by the Turkish army, reluctantly concluded an agreement with Soviet Russia in December 1920 that led to the effective division of historic Armenian lands between Turkey and a Soviet Republic of Armenia. In February 1921, after the Red Army left Armenia for Georgia, the Dashnaks seized the capital, Erevan, but in April they were driven into the mountains and across the border into Persia by returning units of the Red Army. After the occupation of Armenia, the Kavbiuro under Sergo Ordzhonikidze turned its attention to Georgia. However, Lenin, mindful of the Georgian Mensheviks’ popularity and fearful of adverse international reaction, turned down several requests from Ordzhonikidze to launch an invasion. Only after the outbreak of a Communist-led uprising, did he relent and on February 14, 1921 he authorized the invasion.

Even then, Lenin insisted on “special concessions towards Georgian intellectuals and petty traders” and a “compromise” with elements of the Georgian Mensheviks. Ordzonikidze’s failure to abide by these strictures over the next two years led to a complete rupture between the Kavbiuro and the Georgian Communists and a showdown between Lenin and Stalin over the latter’s support for Ordzonikidze’s ruthlessness. In March 1922, the three nominally independent Soviet republics of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia were amalgamated into a Transcaucasian Federation. They became fully fledged union republics in 1936.

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