Republic of Artsakh

Nagorno Karabakh, or Artsakh, is a disputed territory in the southern Caucasus. While officially part of Azerbaijan, it has self-governed since 1994. Its ethnic Armenian population contest Azerbaijani rule. In October 2020 Azerbaijan mobilized to retake the region. Neighbouring Armenia supports Nagorno-Karabakh while Turkey supports Azerbaijan. The Second Nagorno-Karabakh War is the first international conflict of the 2020s.

Nestled in the Caucasus Mountains, between Russia and the Middle East, Nagorno-Karabakh is a green and mountainous land home to over 4,000 ancient monasteries and forts. Its name roughly means ‘Upper Karabakh. While Christian Armenians have the oldest presence in the region, Arabs, Persians, Turks, Azeris and Russians have also ruled. Both Azerbaijan and Armenia claim it as their own.


  • < 180: Indigenous states
  • 180 – 387: Great Armenia
  • 387 – 600s: Sassanian Empire (Persian)
  • 600s – 821: Arab Caliphates
  • 821 – 1261: Kingdom of Artsakh (Armenian)
  • 1261 – 1500s: Principality of Khachen (Armenian)
  • 1500s – 1806: Five Melikdoms (Armenian governors ruling under Persian and Turkic overlords)
  • 1806 – 1918: Russian Empire
  • 1918 – 1991: Soviet Union
  • 1991 – 1994: Disputed between Azerbaijan and Armenia
  • 1994: Republic of Artsakh (de facto)

The Soviets ended fighting between Armenians and Azeris in Nagorno-Karabakh when they took over in the 1920s. To divide-and-rule, they made Nagorno-Karabakh a part of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. By 1991 Nagorno-Karabakh was 25% Azeri and 75% Armenian. 

In 1988, Nagorno-Karabakh voted to join Armenia, then still a part of the Soviet Union. Both Azerbaijan and the Soviet Union rejected the move and when the latter collapsed in 1991 both Azerbaijan and separatists took arms. Armenia backed the rebels and a bloody war ensued. Both sides committed atrocities and over 40,000 died. In 1994 they called a ceasefire. Azerbaijani forces withdrew from Nagorno-Karabakh, leaving it under rebel control but officially Azerbaijani. Low-level conflict continued for the next 25 years.

On September 27th 2020 Azerbaijani dictator Ilham Aliyev launched a surprise rocket attack on Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia retaliated and immediately called the draft. President Erdogan of Turkey promised to aid Azerbaijan by whatever means necessary. For the past nine days, Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh exchanged rocket fire with Azerbaijan. Civilians have been the main victims and both sides have used cluster bombs, which international law prohibits.

Armenia is not without allies of its own. As a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), Russia is its greatest ally. Said nation has pushed for a peace settlement but has allegedly deployed mercenaries to Armenia’s aide. Russia does not recognize Nagorno-Karabakh however and therefore will likely only intervene if Armenia itself is attacked.

Turkey is already engaged in proxy conflicts with Russia in Syria and Libya and is pushing territorial claims against Greece and Cyprus. They have deployed Syrian Jihadi mercenaries to Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkey shares an old rivalry with Russia and a bitter relationship with Armenia ever since the genocide of 1916. Kurdish militias in Iraq and Syria have also rallied to Armenia’s side. Israel supplies weapons to Azerbaijan, including high-tech ‘kamikaze drones’.

Iran is pulled by both sides. On one hand, Iran has 2 million Azeri citizens and Azerbaijan is a fellow Shia Muslim country while Armenia is Christian. On the other hand, Iran and Armenia have long been close while ally Russia backs Armenia and rivals Turkey and Israel back Azerbaijan. At worst, this conflict could spin out of control and put regional powers Turkey and Russia into direct confrontation. 

Nagorno-Karabakh dispute: Armenia, Azerbaijan standoff ...

No countries officially recognize Nagorno-Karabakh’s statehood except the fellow Caucasian disputed territories of Abkhazia, South Transnistria and North Ossetia. It shares close ties to Armenia and animosity with Azerbaijan.

Karabakh Armenians plead their right to self-determination. Azerbaijanis, meanwhile view Artsakh as an illegitimate rebel state who unlawfully displaced its Azeri inhabitants in the 1990s. As the international community sees Nagorno-Karabakh as an Azerbaijani province, they have every right to take it back. While this may be a repeat of the first Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, both sides now have stronger militaries and regional politics are far more fraught.

Sources: Ahval News, BBC, Lonely Planet, Mountainous Karabakh, The Nation, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

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Operation Nemesis and the Trial of Sogohmon Tehlirian

operation nemesis

Operation Nemesis was the plot to assassinate the masterminds of the Armenian Genocide. Between 1920 and 1922, the Armenian Revolutionary Army killed eight former Turkish officials and three ‘traitors’ in four different countries. The mission’s name comes from Nemesis, the Greek goddess of retribution and it proved one of the most efficient assassination plots in modern history.

Between 1915 and 1922 the Ottoman Empire’s Young Turk regime deported its Armenian population to Syria where over a million died. After their defeat in WW1, the genocide’s architects fled overseas and were sentenced to death in absentia.

Armenian genocide: a crime that Turkish nationalists and ...

With no one held accountable, a tight-knit group of survivors assumed the duty of revenge. Each member of Operation Nemesis had lost family members in the genocide. One, a 24-year-old engineering student named Soghomon Tehlirian, had lost 85. He would be their leading assassin.

Led by Shahan Natalie, the conspirators drew up a black-list of the two hundred Turkish officials and Armenian informants responsible for the genocide. Chief among them were the ‘Three Pashas’ who led Turkey in WW1 and oversaw the deportation and murder of its Christian minorities. Pasha is a title, not a surname.

djemel pasha

As governor of wartime Syria, Djemal ‘the Butcher’ Pasha (above) brutally suppressed the Arab Revolt and oversaw the massacres of Armenians and Assyrians. Three Armenians shot him in Baku, Azerbaijan on July 21st, 1920.

Enver Pasha: Hero or villain? - Daily SabahEnver Pasha (above) was the leader of the 1908 Young Turk Revolution and commander-in-chief of the Ottoman army in WW1. He organised the death squads who perpetrated the genocide. After the war, Enver fled to Central Asia, where he helped lead Turkic rebels against the Soviets. On August 5th, 1922 Red Army cavalry commanded by Hagop Melkumov of Operation Nemesis assailed Pasha’s position. Enver Pasha lost the ensuing fight and died by Melkumov’s hand.

Talat Pasha was the ‘number one” target. As minister of the interior, it was he who issued the resettlement order and proclaimed that for Turkey to prevail, the Armenians had to go. In 1920 he was living in Berlin under a different name.

Shahan Natalie told Tehlirian:

“You blow up the skull of the Number One nation-murderer and you don’t try to flee. You stand there, your foot on the corpse and surrender to the police, who will come and handcuff you.”

Talaat Pasha | Milwaukee ArmeniansThe plan was to make the trial publicise Talat’s crimes.

On March 21st, 1921 Tehlirian did as ordered. He approached Pasha in broad daylight, declared ‘this is for my mother’ and shot him dead. The police arrived immediately and arrested Tehlirian without resistance. When the judge asked if Tehlirian felt remorse, the accused replied:

“I do not consider myself guilty because my conscience is clear.  I have killed a man, but I am not a murderer.”

The trial explored whether Talat was responsible for the destruction of innocent Armenians as Tehlirian claimed. German officers present in Turkey during the war testified on his behalf. Tehlirian made a convincing case and within one hour the jury agreed. They acquitted him on grounds of temporary insanity.

Raphael Lemkin the man who invented 'Genocide'Enter Raphael Lemkin. A Polish-Jewish lawyer, he had studied historical atrocities and found their perpetrators were seldom punished. The case of Soghomon Tehlirian fascinated and inspired him. Lemkin coined the term ‘genocide’ in 1943 as his own family perished in the Holocaust.

In his view, Tehlirian’s actions were justified.  “Why is a man punished when he kills another man?” he asked. “Why is the killing of a million a lesser crime than the killing of a single individual?” In 1948, genocide made international law and was declared a crime against humanity.

Sources: Armenian, Beyond Genocide, First World, Milwaukee Armenians, New York Times (1922), Operation Nemesis

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Saparmurat Niyazov

The Craziest Dictators In Human HistorySaparmurat Niyazov ruled Turkmenistan from 1991 – 2006. Brutal, eccentric and narcissistic even for a dictator, he impoverished his oil-rich country and built one of the world’s most extensive cults of personality.

Turkmenistan was the least developed and least inhabited of the Soviet Republics. Oil and gas were discovered in the 1900s and when the Soviets took over they forced the nomadic Turkmens into cities along the desert’s edge, mainly to Ashgabat, the capital. Mikhail Gorbachev appointed Niyazov general secretary of the Turkmen Republic in 1985, and when the Soviet Union collapsed, he became its president.

Turkmenistan – Central Asia Education Platform (CAEP)Niyazov was born in 1940.  His father died in the Second World War and an earthquake killed his mother when he was seven. After a lonely childhood, he studied engineering in Leningrad and joined the Communist Party in the 60s, where he demonstrated a flair for intrigue and a lust for power.

As president, Niyazov ruled with an iron fist. He called himself ‘Turkmenbashi’, father of all Turkmens, and a declared himself a ‘national prophet’. Turkmenistan’s natural gas reserves – which produced $3billion a year in a country of 5 million, was mainly funnelled to Niyazov’s offshore accounts. His constructions included a 75m high gold statue of himself that rotated to the face the sun, Central Asia’s biggest mosque, dedicated to himself, a 130-foot pyramid and a giant manmade lake. Niyazov claimed that all he wanted was a small and cosy house and only built his marble palace because ‘the people demanded it’. Though citizens received free power, internet access and contact with the outside world was forbidden.

For thirty years Niyazov controlled every fibre of Turkmen society. There were elections but his ‘Democratic Party’ was the only party allowed to stand with him the only candidate. Niyazov’s many decrees and proscriptions were mainly based on megalomania and personal grudges. These included:

  • renaming all days of the week and months of the year, including one month after himself and another after his mother
  • giving years names instead of numbers
  • banning opera and ballet
  • banning lip-syncing
  • banning car radios
  • banning beards and long hair on men
  • banishing all dogs from the capital
  • reducing high school to one year (to keep the people uneducated and compliant)
  • closing all hospitals outside the capital

The Ruhnama was Niyazov’s bible. Meaning ‘Book of the Soul’, it contains a romanticised account of Turkmen history and Niyazov’s life, spiritual musings, poetry and life advice including a passage on the virtues of smiling. Aside from the Koran, all other books were banned. To gain a government position or driver’s license one had to take a 16-hour Ruhnama course and recite passages by heart.  Reading it three times, Niyazov claimed, would guarantee access to heaven.

Arto Kevin and Book statue

Though Niyazov had been by a hardline communist before 1991, as president he replaced the ideology with his brand of Turkmen Nationalism. On the world stage, he was strictly neutral. World powers ignored his human rights record for access to Turkmen oil and gas.

Like most dictatorships, state torture, arbitrary arrest and disappearances were common and speaking ill of the leader a crime. Under Niyazov, homelessness and drug abuse abounded. He often bulldozed entire neighbourhoods in Asghabat without recompense and replaced them with pristine apartments of Italian marble that no one could afford.

Niyazov died of heart failure in 2006. His successor Berdamuhamedov, curbed the most ridiculous aspects of Turkmenbashi’s reign and extended high school to two years, but maintained his grip on power. According to Freedom House, Turkmenistan is one of the most unfree places on earth. Only Eritrea and North Korea surpass it.

Sources: Crisis Group, Freedom House, The Guardian, Global Witness, The Independent, The New Yorker

Crimean Tatars

Crimean Tatars leave peninsula because of unprecedented ...

Crimean Tatars live in the Black Sea region of Russia, Ukraine and Romania. Their homeland in the warm and strategic Crimean peninsula is contested by Russia and Ukraine.  Turkic by language and Muslim by faith, Tatars claim descent from the Mongol Horde.

The Mongols invaded Russia in the 13th century, slaughtering hundreds of thousands.  The Europeans called them ‘Tatars’ and the name stuck. The Tartars of Crimea descend from those Mongols, the Kipchaks who fought with them, and the Turks, Scythians and Goths who came before. They have been Sunni Muslims since the 1400s and are close cousins of the Volga, Nogai and Siberian Tatars of Russia and the Lipka Tatars of Lithuania.

Crimean Tatars are well integrated in Turkey and a protected minority in Romania. In the Crimea itself, where most live, they are not so lucky.

crimean tatars pdfThe Crimean Khanate, founded by a descendant of Genghis Khan, ruled Crimea and the Ukraine from 1478 to 1783 and provided cavalry and slaves for their allies the Ottoman Empire. Russian settlement began after Catherine the Great conquered Crimea in 1783. Since then, the Tatar population has fallen from 83 to 15%.

In 1856 after losing the Crimean War, the Tsars imposed Russian as Crimea’s official language and replaced Tatar place names with Russian ones. Many Tatars emigrated to Turkey and Romania.

The Crimean Tartars suffered under Communism. The White Army made its final stand at Crimea, and the Soviets subsequently deemed the Tatars a ‘suspect nationality’, whose way of life threatened the revolution. The Soviets converted Crimean mosques into cinemas and ‘atheist museums’ and sent 40,000 intellectuals to the Gulag. 75,000 Tatars starved to death in the 1930s.

The history of Crimean Tatar National Struggle against ...Such was their hatred for Stalin and the USSR, some Tatars collaborated with the Nazis in WW2. When Stalin retook Crimea in 1944, he held the entire people accountable, even Red Army officers. The Soviets bound all the Crimean Tatars in freight trains and deported them to Central Asia. 20% died on the way and Stalin forbade anyone in Crimea from mentioning its lost inhabitants. The Tatars mourn the event every year on the 18th of May.

Return was not possible until the 1980s, when 280,000 resettled en masse without compensation. When Ukraine gained independence, Crimean Tatars were afforded equal rights for the first time.

Annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation - Wikipedia

Blue – Russia, green – Ukraine, black – Crimea

The honeymoon did not last. In 2014 Crimea voted to leave Ukraine and join Russia. The Tatars were opposed and Russian authorities took note. Upon annexation, although granting it official status, Russia closed Tatar language television stations, newspapers and schools to prompt assimilation.  On charges of inciting separatism or Islamist terror, Tatar activists were detained, tortured and imprisoned while skinheads desecrated Tatar graves. Despite the charges, there has been no political violence, only peaceful protest. In 2014 the UN declared the Crimea referendum a sham and Russia’s annexation a breach of international law. No government or body, however, was willing to challenge it.

crimean tatars.jpgThe Crimean Tatar language is related to Turkish, derived from the language of the Kipchaks, a people who once lived in the region. Before the Russian Revolution, the entire peninsular – Tatars, Russians and Jews alike, spoke it. According to UNESCO, it is now critically endangered.

Sources: Al Jazeera, Crimea Dekoder, Foreign Policy, Human Rights Watch, National Geographic, Open Democracy, UNESCO, United Nations, Washington Post

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The Murder of the Romanovs

File:Russian Imperial Family 1913.jpg

On the 16th of July 1918, Russia’s Imperial family were gunned down by leftist revolutionaries. The execution occurred in a house in Yekaterinburg where the prisoners spent their final months. In one fell swoop the dynasty which ruled Russia for three centuries was ended forever. The story of their demise is grimmer than fiction.

The dead consisted of:

  • Tsar Nicholas II, 50 years old
  • Tsarina Alexandra Feodovrona, 46, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria

Their children:

  • Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaevna, 23
  • Grand Duchess Tatiana Nikolaevna, 21
  • Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna, 19
  • Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna, 17
  • Tsarevich Alexei Nikolaevich, 14

And the loyal servants who accompanied Romanovs into exile:

  • Alexei Trupp, 62, a Latvian born housekeeper
  • Eugene Botkin, 53, Court Physician, treated the Tsarevich’s haemophelia
  • Ivan Kharitonov, 46, a cook
  • Anna Demidovna, 40, a maid

The picture above is from 1913

romanov servants.png

Tsar Nicholas Alexandrovich Romanov, Russia’s all powerful emperor, abdicated when the 1917 February Revolution brought the Provisional Government to power. In November the Bolsheviks overthrew the Provisional Government. Vladimir Lenin, their leader, transferred Nicholas and his family to the Ipatiev house in Yekaterinburg.

The Russian Civil War erupted soon after. Opposing the Bolshevik ‘Red Army’, was the counterrevolutionary ‘White Army’, a broad coalition that included supporters of the Tsar.

In 1918 the White Army was winning. When the Czechoslovak Legion threatened Yekatarinburg Lenin approved the ‘liquidation’ of Nicholas his family.  A potential rescue was too risky.

Yurovsky.jpgFearing the local guards had grown sympathetic, the local command dispatched nine Bolshevik agents, under command of Peter Yermakov, to assist the execution. Non-ethnic Russians were deliberately chosen for the deed: Yakov Yurovsky  (pictured), the commandant at Ipatiev, was of Jewish extraction and Yermakov’s men were mainly Latvians and Hungarians.

At 1am Yurovsky woke the Romanovs. They were relocating and would wait in the basement until transport arrived.  Without questions, the prisoners dressed and followed Yurovsky downstairs. The prisoners were lined up against the wall of the small brick room, some sources say for a photograph. Chairs were brought for Alexandra and Alexei who, owing to his haemophaelia, was too weak to stand.

Yurovsky planned for a swift execution: he assigned each of his nine man firing squad a  prisoner to shoot. Only Yermakov was tasked with two.  To make the deaths quick and to prevent an excess of blood he instructed his men to aim for the heart.

Two soldiers were unwilling to shoot the women. Yurovsky dismissed them for failing their ‘revolutionary duty’.

Yurovsky then gave the death sentence. The Tsar could only shout ‘what?’ before he shot him dead. The commandant’s men opened fire but, to their surprise, the bullets ricocheted off the walls and their targets, grazing an executioner by the hand. Yurovsky halted his men, and as the smoke cleared they found Anna Demidovna, Tsarina Alexandra and her children alive on the ground. Anna Demidova exclaimed ‘God has saved me!’ but Yermakov dispatched her with his bayonet and Yurovsky shot the young prince in the head.

After another round of gunfire the Tsarina and her daughters were somehow still alive. Yurovsky ordered his men to bayonet them instead, which also failed. At last they killed the women with bullets to the head. Only later was it revealed Alexandra and her children had sewn diamond jewelry into their clothes, which protected them from both the bullets and bayonets of their executioners’ guns. The ordeal took a total twenty minutes.

ipatiev house.jpg

The aftermath of the shootings

The disposal of the bodies was botched even further. First the truck broke down then the sunken mine shaft they’d chosen for a grave proved too shallow. To Yurovsky’s dismay, the thoroughly drunk Peter Yermakov, who had organized the burial, had only brought one shovel. After stripping the corpses they tried to collapse the mine with hand grenades but this was ineffective. The bodies floated in the muddy water.

The following night Yurovsky and his men returned to relocate the bodies to a deeper, and more discrete mineshaft. The truck broke down again in the muddy bog however so, with dawn approaching, the murderers resolved to bury them on the spot. A 60 centimetre grave was dug and, to fit the cadavers, Yurovsky’s men doused them in sulfuric acid, tried to burn them and used their rifle butts to crush the skulls into the pit. By 6AM the grave was sealed and the sordid affair complete.

porosenkov log.jpg

Porosenkov Log, where the Romanovs were buried

Was it justified? Nicholas II, despite being a family man, was an incompetent and tyrannical ruler with little regard for his subjects. His suppression of the 1905 Revolution and disastrous campaigns in the Russo-Japanese and First World wars cost thousands of Russian lives. Alexandra too was despised by the Russian people for her paranoia and connection with the mad monk Rasputin.

The children and servants however, were innocent.  None of the victims were given a trial.

Leon Trotsky, commander of the Red Army:  

The Tsar’s family was a victim of the principle that form the very axis of monarchy: dynastic inheritance, for which their deaths were a necessity”

Only by eliminating the Romanov family in its entirety could the Bolsheviks ensure the Tsars never reclaimed the throne. A lost heir would be a rallying point for enemies of the revolution and threaten the Soviet Union’s existence. All it would take would be for one of the Romanov daughters to wed a foreign prince for a foreign army to march on Moscow with local support.

There were precedents. When Oliver Cromwell and the forces of Parliament executed King Charles I of England, his son survived. The prince returned with an army and restored the monarchy with himself as Charles II. England’s Republican experiment only lasted 11 years.

After Napoleon’s fall, the brothers of Louis XVI reversed the French Revolution by reinstating the Bourbon Dynasty.

The Tsar’s children had to go. By killing the Alexei and his sisters, the Bolsheviks ensured a Tsarist restoration could never take place. In their eyes that would save thousands more innocent lives.

The bodies were excavated in 1991. DNA analysis confirmed all the prisoners at Ipatiev were buried there, disproving the various Anastasia pretenders who sprung up in the 1920s.

romanov saintsWhen the Soviet Union fell Russians were free to see the Romanovs in a different light. Boris Yeltsin denounced their murder and in 2000 the Russian Orthodox Church canonised the Romanovs and their servants. Today 60% of Russians view their execution as an ‘unjustified atrocity’.

Sources: Alexanderpalace, The Atlantic (1928 issue!), European Study Blog, Eyewitness History,, Russian News Agency, Russia Today, Unofficialroyalty

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