Monday, February 19, 2007

Baku, February 19, 1905

Entrepreneurs are often valued for their creativity and contribution to economic growth and prosperity. But at times, and in some countries, minority entrepreneurs pay a very high price for their success. Examples of this include the attacks on Chinese owned shops and businesses in Indonesia , the fire bombings of fishing boats and homes of Vietnamese refugees in Texas, and the treatment of Jews throughout the middle ages.

The contribution of Armenians to the economic development of Baku well over a century ago is another build-and-destroy chapter in history, albeit perhaps an extreme example, where economic success is met with a massive violent reaction. As told by Luigi Villari, an Italian historian and diplomat, who travelled throughout the Caucasus region in 1905 (Fire and Sword in the Caucasus, London, T. F. Unwin, 1906), "... To the Armenians above all is the development of Baku due, for they were the first to work the oil-fields on a large scale and on modern lines; they perform a large part of the skilled labour, and among them most of the managers, engineers, as well as many capitalists, are to be found." (page 187).

The Armenians began to arrive in Baku in the late 18th century as their ancestral lands were being divided between the Persian and Ottoman Empires. Their numbers increased with the rush to develop the oil industry after the control of Baku changed hands from Persia to Tsarist Russia. The first refinery was founded by Melikoff (Melikian) in 1863. Notable Armenian firms included Mantasheff, the Caspian Co., the Moscow and Caucasian Co., and Aramazd who competed head on with the Nobel Brothers and the Rothschild's, as well as Russian, British, and Dutch firms. (page 185-6)

By 1905 Armenians accounted for about a third of the the oil industry. They also accounted for 25,000 of the population; there were 74,000 Russians, 56,000 Tartars (this is what today's Azerbaijanis were called then), 18,000 Persians, plus about 20,000 other nationalities. (page 186) Many of the buildings they commissioned are present in today's Baku, with the church on the fashionable Fountain Square being the most visible.

February 19, 1905, was the date that much of the tremendous wealth and infrastructure that the Armenian community had contributed to Baku came under severe attack by the Tartars (Azerbaijanis). The oil facilities were set ablaze along with homes in the Armenian quarter, as well as a number of the wealthiest Armenians were killed (e.g., Adamoff, Lalaieff -- page 195).

With impunity, the Tartars committed other pogroms in Nakhichevan, Shusha (Shushi), Elizavetpol (Ganja), among others. How were the Tartars able to commit these pogroms and not risk the intervention of the Russian military or incur the wrath of the Cossacks?

Tsarist Russia's policy towards Armenians may explain quite a bit. In the 1880's the Russians suppressed all 500 Armenian schools in the Caucasus. (page 152-3). In an another example, in 1894, Russia protected Turkey from western interference during the Hamidian massacres where over 100,000 Armenians were killed. It feared an autonomous Armenia in Turkey would lead to similar outcome in Russian or Eastern Armenia (page 154). Indeed, and according to Villari (page 154) Prince Lobanoff is reported to have said, "Nous voulons l’Arménie sans les Arméniens," i.e. Russia desires Armenia without the Armenians.

The Russian government weeded out Armenians from public service (page 155). In addition, in 1903, all Armenian church property was confiscated, including Etchmiadzin the seat of the Holy See -- the Armenian Pope (page 156). Prince Golytzin is reported to have said "In a short time there will be no Armenians left in the Caucasus, save a few specimens for the museum." (page (157) It should come as no surprise that the Governor of Baku, Georgian Prince Nakashidze, was seen "openly encouraging the Tartars" (page 195). Indeed, Russia favored the Tartars (Azerbaijanis) who represented the only element that could be relied upon in the Caucasus (pages 170 and 158).

In Villari's words “... In the Caucasus it is popularly said that it takes ten Jews to cheat an Armenian, just as in England it is said that it takes many Jews to cheat a Scotsman.” (page 163) Other authors have used the less loaded term "outwit." I suspect these racial overtones have set deep roots in the Caucasus and the region!

Villari's book is an excellent source on the economic contribution of Armenians to Baku and Tiflis (Tbilisi). It contains beautiful pictures of Georgia, the destruction in Baku, and very sad and disturbing pictures taken in Nakhichevan.

Armenian church in Baku -- picture (L) taken in 1988. More recent picture (R) showing crosses above front door and on top of steeple missing.

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