From Baluchastan to Baku:
The Significance of the Struggle for Central Asia

By Edwin E. Slosson

[The Independent, August 31, 1918]

The arrival of a small British force from India at the Caucasian port of Baku may prove to be one of the most important moves of the war, for it means that the tri-continental Pan-Islamic belt has been cut thru in the middle. If the British can hold this line of communications the gigantic scheme for a Turanian Central Asia to rival and complement the Teutonic Central Europe will be blasted in the bud. The fate of Eurasia is dependent, as it has been many times before in the world's history, upon the possession of the mountain barrier that stretches between the Black Sea and the Caspian. This ancient stronghold is now garrisoned by the remnants of two Christian races, Georgians and Armenians, beleaguered on all sides by the anti-Christian forces of Tatars, Turks and Teutons. If this, the traditional homeland of our Caucasian race, is lost it means that the hereditary enemies of that race, ofttimes the destroyer of its civilization, will as in the days of Genghis Khan have a clean sweep from the Black Sea to the Yellow Sea, from the Danube to the Amur. France is now the cynosure of all eyes, but whether from the point of view of race, religion, language, territorial control or natural resources there is more, at stake in the Caucasus. A few hundred men there just now can do more to win the war than as many thousand in France.

For it is in the Caucasus that the two most portentous movements of our time, Pan-Germanism and Pan-Turanianism, meet and merge. It is thru this region that the Berlin-Bombay railroad is planned to run and it is thru this region that the Mohammedans of the south hope to join hands with their brethren of the north. This little isolated group of Christian peoples is a block, to both ambitions and that is why Turks under German officers have been engaged in exterminating them. Nothing that Nero did can compare with the doings of the Committee of Union and Progress of Constantinople with connivance of His Most Christian Majesty of Berlin. A million Armenians, men and women and children, have been slaughtered within the last four years to clear the Caucasus for Islam and Kultur.

Besides its unique strategic importance the Caucasus is one of the richest regions of the globe. The land to which Jason and the Argonauts came in search of the Golden Fleece has proved a modern El Dorado. The Fountains of Eternal Fire that the Zoroastrians used to worship have been the making of the Moslem millionaire. A single tract ten miles square at Baku produced for some years half the world's supply of petroleum and even yet keeps Russia next to the United States in output. The Caucasus is rich in copper and manganese, the metals that Germany most needs for her munitions. The Trans-Caucasian and Trans-Caspian plains may grow the cotton that she wants for her mills and munitions.

The Caucasus is the key to a territory larger than the United States and having now a population a third as great. The isthmus itself is somewhat larger than California and has about 12,000,000 inhabitants. Divided into a dozen religions and fifty races they lived side by side from time immemorial, rarely mixing and often quarreling. We need here, however, to consider only the leading racial groups, which I will venture to characterize briefly below. But in a case of such complexity to simplify means to falsify and I have no doubt exception could rightly foe taken to every statement in the following summary:

1. Russians. Chiefly Cossacks. 2,400,000.
Russian language. Orthodox religion. Monarchists and pro-German.

2. Mountaineers. 1,300,000. Circassians, Lesgians, etc. Primitive tribesmen. Various dialects. Fanatical Mohammedans of Sunnite sect.

3. Georgians. 3,000,000. Georgian language. Same religion as Hessians but distinct church. Mostly peasants. Over 85 per cent literate.

4. Armenians. 1,600,000 and 250,000 refugees from Turkey. Partly peasants, partly tradesmen. Armenian language. Gregorian Christians.

5. Tartars. 2,000,000. Primitive nomads but recently caught in the oil boom and made wealthy or workmen. Language Turkish. Religion Sunnite Mohammedan.

6. Persians, Greeks, Kurds, Jews, Germans, Lithuanians, and other races too numerous to mention.

The Russian empire in its glacier movement toward the southern seas began to absorb this region in 1723, when Peter the Great captured Baku, and after many ebbs and flows reached its farthest limits at Trebizond, Erzerum and Tiflis in 1917. Then came the great collapse and none of the subjugated nationalities rejoiced more at the overthrow of the Czar than those of the Caucasus, for none had suffered more from his tyranny. They were so glad that they actually shook hands. Armenians and Tatars, who in 1905 were engaged in mutual massacres, called each other brothers. Priests of the rival Mohammedan sects, Sunnite and Shiite, who hate one another as much as Catholic and Protestant in their worst days, embraced upon the public platform. Oil magnates and Bolsheviki joined in the work of liberation and reconstruction.

Georgians, Armenians and Tatars united to form a Caucasian federal republic with a capital at Tiflis.

But this era of good feeling did not last long. The old enmities revived and new rivalries emerged. Perhaps Caucasia as well as Russia proper might have worked out its own salvation if it had been let alone, but outside pressure is added to internal strain.

The Caucasus is divided geographically into two parts by the lofty range that runs slantingly across the isthmus, dividing the waters and also forming a political line of cleavage. On the northern slope are most of the Russian Cossacks and Mohammedan mountaineers. On the southern are most of the Georgians, Armenians, Tatars and Persians.

The Mohammedan mountaineers at the outbreak of the revolution united with the Kuban Cossacks to the north in the formation of a joint republic, but the two parties soon quarreled over the land question and have been fighting ever since. The Mohammedans in December, 1917, set up a separate republic called the "Union of the Independent States of the Mountaineers of the Caucasus" with Vladikavkas as its capital and Colonel Tchermoev, a liberal minded Lesgian, as its president. The Lesgians are the people who in the nineteenth century, under Samuel the High Priest fought the Russians twenty years to maintain their independence and doubtless their only wish now is to regain it. The Kuban Cossacks, who also claim the territory north of the Caucasian range, have set up a republic with General Krasnov as its head and Ekaterinodar as its capital.

Still farther north are the Don Cossacks with a capital at Rostov. Both the Don and Kuban Cossacks have called in German aid to maintain their "independence" against Great Russia and the Ukraine.

So much for the country north of the Caucasian range. Let us now consider the southern side. Here a Trans-Caucasian Federation was formed at Tiflis and declared its independence April 27. It was at first composed of Georgians, Armenians and Tatars. Three members of each race constituted the cabinet. But when it came to a conflict with the Turks, the Tatars went over to the enemy. Later it appears the Georgians and Armenians separated on account of a dispute over boundaries. An independent Georgian republic was formed May 26. The Diet meets at Tiflis and the Prime Minister is Ramishvili, a member of the first Russian Duma.

The Georgians, who outnumber the Danes or Norwegians, claim independence on racial and historic grounds. The Georgian kingdom lasted over two thousand years from 323 B. C., when it was conquered by Alexander of Macedonia to 1801 A. D., when it was confiscated by Alexander of Russia. The Georgians thus have been in subjection to Russia only a little over a century and we ought to count out of that the period 1836-1864, when they were in revolt. By the treaty of 1783 Georgia came under the "protection" of Russia and it was stipulated "that the Georgians should retain their king, that they should have self-government, that their church should be independent, that no more than 6000 Russian troops should be' quartered there, that Georgians should not be conscripted for the Russian army and that the Georgian language should be used in schools and administration. Needless to say the Russian Government kept none of these promises. Georgia lost its Mug. It was ruled by the Russian bureaucracy. The Georgian church was brought under the "Holy Synod of St. Petersburg and its property, amounting to $350,000,000, -was confiscated. There were 180,000 Russian troops quartered, on the people before the war. The Georgians were forced to serve in the Russian army. The Georgian schools were supprest and the language denied official recognition. Under Nicholas II, the late unlamented Czar, the Russian troops pillaged their country, destroyed their crops, burnt their villages and distributed their women and girls among the Cossacks.

Naturally, then, the Georgians have no love for Russia. They took part in the abortive revolution of 1905 and the successful revolution of 1917. Two Georgians, Tcheidze and Tseretelli, were members of the provisional government. The Georgian leaders are largely socialists, but opposed to the Bolsheviki. Crushed, between the Turks on the south and the Germans on the north they are now helpless. A deputation of Georgians visiting Constantinople on June 19 is said to have agreed to the cession of Batum to the Turks and the acceptance of a German prince for a king. But if the Georgians can get arms and aid from the Allies they may renew their resistance. In order to secure their cooperation, however, it would be necessary for the Allies to make it perfectly clear that they do not intend to favor or permit the restoration of the Czar or any interference with the independence of Georgia. By the secret agreement made between Russia, Great Britain and France in the spring of 1916 and published by the Bolsheviki Russia is .granted Turkish territory as far as Erzerum by the Georgians, The British Government has recently declared that all these, agreements still hold regardless of changed conditions and so long as this attitude is maintained it will be difficult to get the "hearty cooperation of peoples liberated from the Russian yoke.

As soon as the revolution of 1917 set them free the Georgians set about the task of developing the national life which the Romanovs had supprest. The first step was to regain their spiritual freedom. The Georgians demanded ecclesiastical autocephaly of the Provisional Government and when that was not conceded they proceeded to declare their independence of the Russian Holy Synod and in September, 1917, elected Bishop Kyrion as Catholicos of the Georgian Church. In January a national university was organized at Tiflis with a faculty of twenty-seven professors to teach all subjects in the Georgian tongue. The Georgian nobility not only renounced all their ranks and titles but with unparalleled generosity surrendered all their lands to endow a national system of education. A national army of 250,000 was enrolled and such part of it as could be armed and organized was sent against the Turks in cooperation with the Armenians.

For the Bolsheviki in this case as in others showed themselves fair in promises but treacherous in performance. On January 16, 1918, Nicholai Lenine signed a decree declaring that the Soviet Government would support the right of the Armenians to complete independence both in Russia and Turkey. But a month later he assented to the treaty of Brest-Litovsk which consigned to the tender mercies of the Turk that part of the Armenian race that had hitherto escaped massacre. The Brest-Litovsk treaty gave back to Turkey not only the territory taken by Russia in the present war extending as far as Erzerum and Trebizond but also that taken by Russia in the war of 1878, namely, the districts of Batum. Ardahan and Kars on the southwestern side of Trans-Caucasia. Now Batum and Ardahan are chiefly inhabited by Georgians and Kars by Armenians. The Georgians also claim the country as far as Trebizond and Erzerum on the grounds that it was included in the realm of the Georgian queen Tamara, in the twelfth century, and that it is largely peopled by Georgians who, tho mostly Mohammedanized will, it is believed, be glad to unite with the Christian branch of their race in founding a new Georgian state.

So the Georgians and Armenians joined in an effort to prevent the Turks from getting the territory conceded to them by the Bolsheviki. They fought valiantly but for lack of ammunition were forced to fall back. In March we heard that the Turks had regained Erzerum and murdered the remaining Armenians. In April the Turks had taken Kars and Ardahan. In May they had captured Alexandropol and Erivan with heavy slaughter. In June the Georgians were forced to send deputations to Constantinople and Berlin to sue for peace. In July the Turks had captured Tabriz and pillaged the American consulate and hospital. The appetite of the Turks had grown with what it fed upon. Not content with the generous concessions made to them at Brest-Litovsk they had pushed beyond these limits. They had carried their conquests to the foot of the Caucasus mountains. They had swept over northwestern Persia and seemed likely to capture the Caspian ports of Enzeli and Baku.

But now it appears that the advance of the Turks was halted by a curious combination of forces. The British got to Enzeli before they did. The Armenians and Bolsheviki are defending Baku. The Georgians put up a stiff fight. The Pope is using his influence to prevent the extension of Moslem territory. And the Germans have blocked the northward movement of the Turks. For the new Ottoman ambitions are causing a great deal of trouble to their allies. "When the Dobrudja at the mouth of the Danube was taken from Rumania it could not be given to Bulgaria because Turkey objected and demanded in compensation a large slice of Bulgarian Thrace. Both the Dobrudja and Thrace, they contend not without reason, contain more Turks than Bulgars and why not settle it by ethnic principles. They lay claim also to Caucasia and Crimea on historic and racial grounds. Evidently the Asiatics are picking up European catchwords with, disconcerting rapidity. They, too, are arguing for the self-determination of nationalities and the recognition of racial rights. They, too, are talking of a Terra Irredenta, an Unredeemed Land, and they are listening for the cry of opprest brethren beyond the mountains and the seas.

But it would never suit Germany to let the mines and oil fields of the Caucasus pass altogether into the hands of so uncertain an ally as Turkey. So 3000 German troops were landed last June at Poti just north of Batum and are now said to occupy Tiflis. This puts the Germans in control of the Black Sea end of the trans-isthmian railroad and pipeline. The other end, at Baku, where the oil wells are, is held by the Americans and Bolsheviki, and it is to; be hoped that the Allies from their more abundant forces have spared more than 3000 men to reinforce the defenders of the Caspian coast.

It illustrates our American ignorance of the Caucasian situation that last April when the news was received that the Armenians and Bolsheviki had killed a thousand Tatars at Baku, it was regarded at Washington as a mistake in cable transmission. The word "Bolsheviki," it was surmized, should read "Georgians." As we now know the Bolsheviki joined with the Armenians in the defense of Baku against the Tatars, and together held that port until now the British from Bagdad have come to their rescue. On the other hand the Georgians were at that time fighting against the Bolsheviki on the other side of the isthmus, for when the Georgians seized the Russian vessels in the Black Sea ports, the Bolsheviki warships bombarded Sukhurn, a port north of Batum that the Georgians were trying to hold and the Turks to get.

If the reader has ever been in an oil city or mining camp in the hight of its boom he will have some idea of the aspect of modern Baku. The millions of barrels of oil that have poured out of it and the millions of money that have poured into the sleepy old Tatar city have metamorphosed it unrecognizably. It has now all the modern improvements—nouveaux riches, bourgeoise, intelligentsia, proletariat; a literary movement, an art movement, a civic movement, a socialist movement, a nationalist movement, a feminist movement, a religious movement, and all the rest of them. In 1906 the first Tatar newspaper was issued at Baku. Now the Tatars publish twenty-eight dailies and weeklies as well as many books. Baku rivals Constantinople and Kazan as a center of the Islamic revival and Pan-Turanian propaganda.

The Armenians live intermingled with the Tatars in the Caspian Caucasus, and the new influx of wealth into this region has tended to increase the racial and religious rivalry. As in Mexico the managers of the oil wells and refineries have to pay tribute to the predatory bands of both sides, and sometimes this does not suffice to protect their property. In the race riots of 1904-5 two-thirds of the works were destroyed and hundreds of lives were lost.

The news of the advent of the British at Balm is a great relief, for the last we had heard from that region was discouraging. It was that the Turks by their advance into Persia had cut off the British from the Caucasus and forced them to retire over a hundred miles upon Bagdad. But somehow a body of British made their way from Mesopotamia across Persia thru Kermanshah and Hamadan to Resht, a distance of over four hundred miles in an airline from Bagdad. The Turks from Tabriz were also marching on Resht, less than two hundred miles east, but the British beat them to it. In Enzeli, the port of Resht on the Caspian, the British found vessels to convey them to the Caucasus. Last year a British force entered Enzeli but were expelled by the Bolsheviki and had to retire to Hamadan.

Simultaneous with this comes news of another move of equal strategic importance, the arrival of a British force in Turkestan. This means that the British have control of both coasts of the Caspian and have established at least two lines of communication from India to Russia crossing Persia from south to north. It means also that Germany's new route to India, north of the Caspian and down thru Turkestan, has been blocked by the British as they blocked the Bagdad route before. On the other side of the Caspian from Baku is the port of Krasnovodsk, from which the Russian railroad leads thru Turkestan to Meru, Bokhara and Samarkand to the Afghan frontier. This route, which caused such alarm to England in the nineties when it was opened up by the Russians, is now in the hands of the British.

We have heard even less about Turkestan than about Caucasia. At the beginning of this year Turkestan, following the fashion of the times, declared itself an independent republic. In March the papers incidentally mentioned 20,000 casualties as having occurred in the "fierce battles" between the Bolsheviki and "the natives," tho what they were fighting about was not explained. Then we heard of pogroms; of 350 Jews murdered and thousands plundered in Khokand, tho who were the murderers we were not told. Now we hear that the British are welcomed by the Turcomans, the Bokharans and the Social Revolutionists who are fighting the Bolsheviki. So it seems that on the east side of the Caspian the British and Bolsheviki are foes and on the west side they are friends.

Since the British expedition to Turkestan entered Persia from India by way of Baluchistan it shows that the native risings reported in Baluchistan last March must have been quelled and the broken lines of railroad and telegraph restored.

The railroad running from the Indus River thru Baluchistan, which formerly reached only to Chaman on the Afghan frontier opposite Kandahar, has probably been extended considerably westward, possibly well into Persia. The next step would be to connect it with the Russian Trans-Caspian line and then the British would have Afghanistan almost encircled by rail. This would obviate the danger that the Emir of Afghanistan might he seduced from his British allegiance by German agents or Pan-Islamic propaganda and make a raid on India.

What the Turco-Teutonic schemes in this direction are appeared in the course of the Brest-Litovsk negotiations. The first draft of the treaty imposed upon Russia specified the independence of Persia; the second draft, which was signed, added the independence of Afghanistan. It will be remembered that the agreement of 1907 between Russia and Great Britain recognized the exclusive rights of Great Britain over Afghanistan and divided Persia into Russian (northern) and British (southern) ''spheres of influence" with a "neutral zone" between. But during the war the British made considerable inroads into the neutral zone in order to secure the oil fields lying north of the Persian Gulf. But it seems that Russia sought compensation; for in one of the secret papers published from the Russian archives published by Trotzky, it appeared that on March 22, 1915, the Czar's Government asked for the transfer from the neutral to the Russian zone of a small area on the Afghan frontier. To this note the British Government returned no reply. But the Emir of Afghanistan was assured by the British Government "that no proposal affecting the interests of his country would be made or agreed to at the Peace Conference." Evidently, however, it is the intention of Germany and Turkey to raise the question of the status of Persia and Afghanistan at the Peace Conference. The Emir was wrathful when he learned that Russia and England had disposed of his country without his knowledge or consent. He has never recognized the agreement of 1907 and doubtless hopes to have the case reopened.

The Anglo-Russian bargain of 1907 was obliterated by the revolution ten years later, for the Soviet republic repudiated all imperialistic aims. By the recent movements the British have gained control of the neutral zone and most of the Russian zone of Persia as well as Cis-Caspian and Trans-Caspian territory formerly held by Russia. It is to be hoped that they can hold on to it not only for strategic advantage in the present war, but for the benefit of the peoples concerned. They are not likely to get any government better than British administration for a long time to come nor one' more willing to give them opportunity for development. Certainly it would be preferable to the possible alternatives—the rule of Russia, Germany, or Turkey. The partition of Persia in 1907, tho intended as an amiable compromise, was irksome to both parties and injurious to the country. British Liberals were shocked that their government should become the accomplice of Russia in what Shuster called "The Strangling of Persia," and was obliged to condone whatever Russia did in Tabriz and Teheran.

The advance of the British from the Arabian Sea to the Caspian has a double importance. It frustrates two schemes for the expansion of Turkey. The first was the Pan-Islam plan, which aimed to join those of a common faith in an interoceanic chain whose links would be Morocco, Tunis, Algeria, Tripoli, Egypt, Arabia, Turkey, Persia and India. The second was the Pan-Turanian plan, which aimed to join all those of common blood—Turks, Tatars, Turcomans, Mongols, Manchus, Finns, Lapps, Esths, Bulgars, and mayhap Magyars. Such are the dreams which ambition inspires in brains inflamed with ethnological and linguistic speculation. It is a question which is the more dangerous to the peace of the world—Imperialism or Irredentism. Turkey has both forms of megalomania at the same time.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



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