This book review is from Volume 8 of the Journal of the Society for Armenian Studies (1995), pp. 199-201. The original pagination has not been kept intact and the paragraphing has been altered for web use. This web edition © 2001 Dennis R. Papazian.


Manoog J. Somakian. Empires in Conflict: Armenia and the Great Powers, 1895-1920. London and New York, I.B. Tauris Publishers, 1995. Pp. xi + 276.


The Armenian Genocide carried out by the Young Turk government of the Ottoman Empire, like the Jewish Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis in Germany only a generation later, refuses to go away. Over the past dozen years a plethora of books have been published dealing with the Eastern Question, the Armenian Question, the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire, the Armenian Genocide, and the complex role played by the European Powers in these issues.

Some books, like Christopher Walker's Armenia: The Survival of a Nation (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990), attempt to ensure objectivity by including German and Austrian sources, states allied with the Ottoman Empire during World War One. Other books, like Richard Hovannisian's trailblazing study, Armenia on the Road to Independence, 1918 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969), introduce us to Armenian archival materials. Still others, such as Vahakn Dadrian's encyclopedic History of the Armenian Genocide: Ethnic Conflict from the Balkans to Anatolia to the Caucasus (Providence and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 1995), have utilized rare Turkish and Ottoman archival materials. Somakian, in his present work, has used not only the customary European archives but adds new Greek, Vatican, and Russian materials.

Manoog J. Somakian received his Ph.D. from the University of London and has written widely, and knowledgeably, on the history of the Near East, Russia, and the Caucasus. His present work deals with the emergence of the Armenian Question, the conflicting aims of Great Britain and Russia, the advent of the Young Turks, Russia's revitalized interest in eastern Anatolia, Russian policy toward the Armenians from 1914-1916, Pan-Turanism (pan-Turkism), and the search of the post-war Armenian Republic for security.

The Armenian Question, historically, was a subsidiary of the Eastern Question, namely what should the European Powers do with a degenerating and politically unstable Ottoman Empire. Each of the Powers, as long understood, had designs on Ottoman territories. These designs, as would be expected, were generally in conflict. The result was a general European policy of attempting to reform and preserve the Ottoman Empire while at the same time completing for political, commercial, and territorial advantages within it. The reform policy consisted chiefly of attempts to persuade the Ottoman government to give its woefully oppressed Christian minorities, chiefly the Armenians, civil and human rights equal to those of the dominant Muslims. Such reforms would allay the periodic massacres of Christians and remove justification for interference in Ottoman affairs by individual Christian powers which, more often than not, used altruism as a cover for self-interest.

Somakian's book depends heavily on the British archives and gives us one of the best expositions available of British diplomacy vis-à-vis the Armenian Question. This more detailed exposition is of some interest, but it adds nothing new in interpretation. Likewise the Greek and Vatican materials present us with new details, but these new facets do not change the overall picture. The book's contribution to significant new scholarship is its use of new and revealing materials from the Russian archives. Somakian shows that the Russians, although they frequently made promises of autonomy to the Armenians, had decided at the highest levels, before and after the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1916, to clear eastern Anatolia (historic Armenia) of the Armenians. The Russians chose rather to support the fragmented Muslim Kurdish tribes, as a more numerous and more manipulatable ally, and then to direct them in Russia's interest against the Turks. The Russians, as the British, had numerous Muslims in their empire, and the tsars were typically more concerned with placating the Muslim population in Central Asia and the Caucasus than in protecting the Christians on their Transcaucasian flank.

When the Russian armies occupied historic Armenia in eastern Anatolia in mid-1916, Armenian refugees who had fled the Turks attempted to return to their homes behind the advancing Russian armies. Contrary to their expectations, they were brutally treated by the Russian authorities. The Armenian were prohibited from resettling in certain Armenian districts for which the Russians had secret plans to colonize with Cossacks (p. 245). Furthermore, the Armenians were disarmed while the Kurds were encouraged to keep their weapons. It seems clear from the evidence that the Russians wanted as few Armenians as possible in the conquered territories so as to frustrate Armenian claims to autonomy and to make it easier to annex the region to the Russian Empire (p. 102). Certainly Nicholas II was obfuscating when he told the Armenians at the beginning of the war that a "brilliant future" (p. 78), presumably under Russian auspices, awaited them.

Even the Provisional Government, which replaced the Tsar in March 1917, refused requests for the transfer of Armenian troops from the Eastern Front to the Caucasus until pressured by the British. It, too, argues Somakian, was more interested in Armenian territory than in the Armenians.

The Bolsheviks, in like manner, were more concerned with the Muslim revolts in Central Asia and the stability of the Caucasus than in the welfare of the Armenians, argues Somakian. Furthermore, Lenin's men saw cooperation with the Turkish Nationalists as an anti-imperialist move and a possible first step in the sovietization of Turkey. Both interest superseded a concern for the Armenians. This solicitude on the part of the Bolsheviks for the Turkish Nationalists went so far as to impel them to provide Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) with arms, munitions, and money.

Somakian's final chapter, "Armenia: In search of stability and territorial integrity," explores the limited, and indeed specious, choices facing the government of the first Armenian Republic. Rapprochement with Turkey was an illusion, the Allies were preoccupied with the threat of Bolshevism and a lust for oil, and the Bolsheviks unstoppable. Once Armenia was sovietized, argues Somakian, the West lost all interest in the Armenian Question.

This well-written and carefully researched book not only gives a dependable overview of many complex issues, but it also makes a new contribution to scholarship in its analysis of Russo-Armenian relations. It is worth reading by scholars for this reason alone.

The University of Michigan-Dearborn
Dennis R. Papazian

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