Staunton, April 16 – The conventional wisdom is that Stalin drew the borders in the Caucasus so that Turkey would not have a land route to Azerbaijan and beyond that to Central Asia. That is true as far as it goes, but it neglects the fact that Armenians in general and one Armenian in particular fought hard to make Syunik/Zengezur Armenian.
Because the issue of the corridor through that territory remains controversial, so too does anyone connected with it. One figure in particular, Garegin Nzhdeh, is a subject of debate, with Azerbaijanis insisting that he was involved with the Nazis during World War II and Armenians equally passionately denying that and arguing that he always remained an Armenian patriot.
Until a decade ago, Nzhdeh was known almost exclusively among historians. But in 2013, the Russians made a move about him that portrayed Nzhdeh as an Armenian Chapayev. Then in 2019, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev denounced him at a CIS meeting in Ashgabat as a Nazi collaborator (http://interfax.az/view/785445).
Vadim Arutyunov, a historian of Armenian background, has now undertaken an attempt to get at the facts. What he has found certainly makes Nzhdeh a more intriguing figure, but it is unlikely to calm the controversy of him and his role in ensuring Armenian control of the corridor between Azerbaijan and Nakhichevan (realtribune.ru/garegin-nzhde-groza-pantjurkizma-i-fashizma).
“At the beginning of the 20th year of the last century,” the Armenian historian says, “exactly one hundred years ago, the situation in Armenia was almost identical to the one now.” The Azerbaijanis and Moscow planned to seize Artsakh and Syunik from Armenia, areas known to Azerbaijanis as Qarabagh and Zengezur.
The Bolsheviks did hand over Artsakh (Qarabagh) to Azerbaijan, but Nzhde’s units fought against a similar fate for Syunik (Zengezur), Arutyunov says. At that time, a Georgian Social Democratic newspaper observed that the Bolsheviks had “once again” trampled on the principle of self-determination “since no one thought to ask the populations of Zengezur and Karabakh how they wanted to organize things.”
“Nzhdeh fought against the imposition of Bolshevism and pan-Turkism. And when Armenia became a Soviet republic, he had no choice but to leave the USSR without becoming the owner of a Soviet passport. His Armenia had been torn apart. His homeland, Nakhichevan, together with Karabakh, has been transferred to Azerbaijan,” the historian continues.
The Armenian fighter moved to Bulgaria where he showed himself a loyal citizen and a passionate opponent of Turkey. But his most important contribution was to convince the Nazis in Berlin that Armenians were not Semitic and thus secure the release of 20,000 of them who otherwise might have faced a genocide.
He did not form the Armenian legion the Germans organized. Instead, he worked as a journalist during World War II. But when the Soviet army arrived, he was arrested and sentenced to 25 years in the GULAG for his opposition to Soviet policies before the war. His health deteriorated and in December 1954, it was decided to release him.
But Nzhdeh did not live to escape from Vladimir Central Prison, the same prison where by the way V.V. Shulgin was incarcerated. Nzhdeh was buried in a local cemetery and then in 1983, his remains were reburied in Armenia. Had he been the Nazi collaborator some Azerbaijanis say, it is unlikely Moscow would have allowed that.
Artuyunov’s article does not address many aspects of Nzhdeh’s complicated biography, but it is a reminder of the complexities of conflicts in the South Caucasus, the way that history there is never completely in the past, and the difficulties all involved face in trying to come up with an adequate understanding of that past.