A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Vanished States: the One-Month Life of the Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic (1918)

Transcaucasian Ruble, 1918, with
Armenian, Georgian and Azeri text, 917
A few years back, I started a series on "Vanished States," short-lived entities in the 20th century Middle East; I did posts on the Republic of Hatay (1938-39), the Syrian Arab Kingdom under Faisal (four months in 1920), the Hashemite Kingdom of the Hejaz (1916-1925), and the Rifian Republic (1921-1926) With this post, I'm returning to the theme.

The last two years of World War I and the several years following it were a time of the breaking of empires. The first of the transnational empires was that of Tsarist Russia, beginning March 8, 1917, the "February Revolution" (Russia was on the Julian calendar).

The Provisional Government in Petrograd soon appointed a "Special Transcaucasian Committee," responsible for the areas south of the ridgeline of the Caucasus, comprising the modern states of Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan.

At the time of the February Revolution, bear in mind that Russian forces were actively engaged against the Ottomans on the Armenian front, as well as operating in northwestern Persia.With the Revolution, there were widespread desertions on all fronts.
Areas occupied Sept. 1917

The Special Transcaucasian Committee took over administration in Transcaucasia and in Turkish territory that had been occupied during the war, This occupied zone was governed by local Armenian councils and referred to as Western Armenia and other terms.

The representatives on the Transcaucasus Committee were Mensheviks, members of the non-Leninist wing of the Social Democratic Party, who dominated the Provisional Government.

Evgeni Gegechkori
Then came the October Revolution on November 7 of the new calendar, when Lenin and the Bolsheviks seized power in Petrograd. On November 11, 1917, at Tbilisi, a Transcaucasian Commissariat was proclaimed, making the Transccaucasus nominally independent of Petrograd. It was chaired by the Georgian Menshevik Evgeni Gegechkori.

In January 1918, in an attempt to strengthen the tentative union, it was decided to create a Sejm or Parliament. In December, the Armistice of Erzincan with Turkey was endorsed by the Commissariat.

The Sejm was led by Nikolay Chkeidze, another Georgian.

On March 3, 1918, the Russian Government signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. This called for the return to Turkey of its conquered territories. In negotiations in Trabzon, a delegation from the Sejm agreed to accept Brest-Litovsk as a basis for settlement, but this was rejected by the main Sejm in Tbilisi. Instead, on April 22, 1918, they declared the full independence of the Democratic Federative Republic of Transcaucasia, and also declared that it remained in a state of war with the Ottoman Empire.

The Flag
Unfortunately, the Democratic Federative Republic of Transcaucasia's name was longer than its duration as an independent state. With the collapse of the Russian Caucasus Army and Brest-Litovsk, the Transcaucasus cobbled together a Military Council of Nationalities of Armenian volunteers and Georgian and Azerbaijani troops. These untrained levies were no match for the Ottoman Third Army, which retook Kars and Erzurum and continued to advance on the Armenian front.

Anyone who has followed the Caucasus since the fall of the Soviet Union will not be surprised by what happened after the fall of Tsarist Russia. The existence of enclaves of one ethnicity within the boundaries of another (Nagorno-Karabakh, Nakhichevan) was explosive then as now.

Remember, too, that in April-May 1918, World War I was very much still under way, and Germany and the Ottomans were very much still allies.

As the Ottoman Third Army advanced against Armenia and began to demand Tbilisi, Georgia negotiated a treaty with Germany, promising protection. Azerbaijan, meanwhile, chose to ally with its Turkic cousins in the Ottoman Empire.

On May 26, Georgia declared independence as the Democratic Republic of Georgia and proceeded to sign its treaty with Germany. Two days later, Armenia followed suit (the First Armenian Republic) and so did Azerbaijan. The Democratic Federative Republic had lasted from April 22 to May 28, 1918. Except for imposed entities under Soviet rule, the only real attempt at a Transcaucasian federation was virtually stillborn. Soon the three nationalities would be fighting each other, and the Bolsheviks, and Armenia would be fighting the Turks. There would be British intervention as well. But that is another story.


Anonymous said...

And now comes a film version of the romantic novel "Nino and Ali" set in just this area in the WWI era and beyond. It is a love story between a Georgian girl and an Azeri young man who are caught up in the violence in their city of Baku. Written by someone with the pen name Kurban Said" the true identity of the novelist has been as intriguing as the story itself.

The film was shot between Azerbaijan and Turkey and stars Palestinian actor Omar Bakri and a Spanish actress, with well-known Turkish and Azerbaijani stars and mostly Azerbaijani extras. It is available for screening on Amazon and perhaps Netflix. It will be interesting to see whether the film, which opened last year, is as burdened as the novel with Orientalist tropes.

Dorothy Marschak said...

My former father-in-law, Jacob Marschak, was Minister of Labor in the Menshevik Transcaucasis Government at the age of 18 between the Feb and October revolutions. He escaped to Germany when the Bolsheviks took over.