Armenia’s First Republic

Armenia became independent in 1918 following five centuries of absence of own statehood. Albeit short-lived, that independence left a deep impact on the fate of Armenia, having its implications also in the current history of the country.

Text: Tigran Zakaryan 


It would have been an exaggeration to say that the Armenian people and even its intellectual and political elites were ready for that independence by 1918. The Armenian political parties, which were preoccupied with national issues, spoke of a “free” rather than an “independent” Armenia. After the 1917 February revolution in Russia Armenian leaders started to think about autonomy under the protection of a democratic Russia which would defend Armenians against an imminent threat in case of a Turkish incursion into the Caucasus.

However the course of history went a different way. The Armenian leaders, or, more it would be more correct to say the ARF leaders in Tiflis (today Tbilisi) – who undoubtedly enjoyed the support of the majority of the Armenians in the Caucasus – had to declare independence taking into consideration of the perspective of a division of the Armenian-populated areas between the newly independent states of Georgia and Azerbaijan. However, some Armenian politicians, mostly left-wing, were utterly dissatisfied with the decision, some even going so far as calling it a “betrayal”. Such a position would seem quite absurd from today’s viewpoint, however the opponents of Armenia’s independence (or, at least, a certain part of them) believed that Armenia’s future was within a democratic soviet Russia which would defend Armenians from Ottoman

Turkey as well as will prevent conflicts with other neighbors, which were becoming increasingly clear. The so-called Baku commune (in fact composed of Armenian soldiers, formerly in Russian imperial service, who were blocked there on their way home) and even the renowned military figure Andranik Ozanyan, who was defending Armenian civilians from possible attacks on the part of Turks or Caucasian Tatars, declared on their loyalty to the soviet Russian government with a hope that they could support Armenians in a more effective way that the Armenian authorities in Yerevan.
Meanwhile Eastern Armenia and its centre Yerevan with the utmost stretch of their forces were able to repel a Turkish attack on the heartland of Armenia in the battle of Sardarabad and became de-facto independent even before a formal declaration.
It was to fall following two and a half years, not only under the external blows, delivered by Soviet Russia and Kemalist Turkey, but also to large degree, due to internal moral bankruptcy in the eyes of a large part of its own citizens, who in 1920 that Russia was to defend Armenians against Turks and that it was pointless to lead a war against Turkey if Russia was not an ally. A contemporary’s memoir convey the spirit of time, describing how a group of MPs were singing the Russian empire’s anthem inside the parliament building as the prevailing mood in the last days was that Russians, red or others, will ultimately take over the Caucasus.
All the more so, it is hard to overestimate the role of the first Armenian republic the leaders of which yielded their power to the soviet regime through a formal agreement signed on 2 December 1920. The existence of an independent Armenia and its agreement with Soviet Russia became legal foundations for the existence of the smallest Soviet republic, Armenia. The 1921 February rebellion was for many people a complete break with the set pattern, as it was hard to imagine that Armenians, threatened and occupied by three of the four neighbors, experiencing hunger and shortage of everything, could rebel against its historic “saviors”. This was a sort of an answer to all those, who excluded such an option in view of the Turkish threat. Dreams of independence versus Realpolitik? The ideological centre of the Armenian independence following 1921 moved to diaspora for quite obvious reasons, which, for its turn, was still in its formative years.
Armenian renowned writer and political figure Levon Shant in his article penned in 1920’s was calling Armenians worldwide not to drop the idea of independence. In one of them entitled “Independence as a matter of national existence” urged not to be discouraged by the greatness and strength of Russia. He suggested that the independent spirit of revolt rather than docility would enable Armenians to achieve some concessions from Moscow as well as its friendship. “Why would the Russians ever make an effort to win ‘friendly’ – i.e. loyal Armenians, who already have lost their will and linked their future to the protection of the Russian arms?”

A serious controversy erupted since 1920 in diaspora over the legitimization of Soviet Armenia. Meanwhile not all of the supporters of Soviet Armenian were communists or socialists in their political views.
It was Garegin Nzhdeh, an ideologist of Armenian hardline nationalism, who broke off from the ARF and founded his own party to combat against those who were ready to make compromises in the idea of independence. The idea was so dear to Nzhdeh that he went so far as to cooperate with the Nazi regime, which had real chances of invading southern parts of the USSR, including Armenia. It was also Nzhdeh’s preoccupation with the future of an Armenian statehood that forced him to offer an uncomfortable alliance with Stalinist Russia. Meanwhile the Second World War and the emergence of the Soviet Union as a nuclear superpower changed the balance of forces inside diaspora too. While a significant part of them, predominantly from Eastern Europe and Middle East took the decision of “repatriation” to Soviet Armenia, where almost no ancestors of them lived, the propaganda against soviet Armenia became less efficient as few believed in a possibility of an independent Armenia. The USSR’s antagonism with Turkey, a NATO member, cooled down the anti-Soviet fervor of diaspora politicians, who believed that the incorporation of Western Armenia was a far plausible option rather than a secession from the Soviet Union with an imminent threat of a Turkish invasion.