Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

Between Turkey, Russia, and Persia: Perceptions of National Identity in Azerbaijan and Armenia at the Turn of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

Between Turkey, Russia, and Persia: Perceptions of National Identity in Azerbaijan and Armenia at the Turn of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

Article excerpt

The ethnic conflicts that have dominated the political landscape of the South Caucasus- a historical crossroads of many civilizations, empires, cultures, and peoples-since the years following the Soviet Union's collapse have generated strong ethno-nationalisms. They have played a crucial role in determining interethnic, and to a certain degree also inter-state, relations in this post-Soviet area. Given the strategic location of the South Caucasus-with its small populace historically sandwiched between great powers-local ethnonationalisms have been considerably affected by the perceptions of neighboring states. These states once used to be empires encompassing what are now Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia. In fact, modern nationalisms of contemporary Azerbaijanis and Armenians have been significantly shaped in a complex historical context of the second half of the nineteenth century and the first two decades of the twentieth century. This reflects the way local elites interpreted the ethnolinguistic, cultural, and political legacy of three major empires-Turkey, Persia (Iran), and Russia, of which Azerbaijan and Armenia had been part for centuries.

Focusing on the historical context, this article seeks to highlight the evolution of perceptions toward Russia and the Russians, Turkey and the Turks, Persia and the Persians. They developed themselves in the milieu of Azerbaijani and Armenian intellectuals, as these perceptions helped shape modern ethnic consciousness of the two South Caucasian nations. The article hence focuses on the period of the second half of the nineteenth century, tracing the developments up until 1920/1921. This was when the two-year intermezzo of Armenian and Azerbaijani independence came to an end following the occupation of these territories by Communist Russia.


A Historical Perspective of Relations with Persia and Persians or Turks and Turkey

Since the eleventh century, when Oghuz nomads entered the picture, Iran's history can be regarded as a Persian-Turkic symbiosis, taking cultural influences from both of these civilizations. Following a coup d'état in 1925, the Pahlaví Dynasty, the first purely Persian dynasty in Persia, was founded. Its power was not limited to the borders of historical Persia. From the eleventh century1 until that point, tribes and clans of Turkic origin had ruled over Persian lands, Azerbaijan, and the surrounding areas.2 For nearly ten centuries, Iran represented a peculiar conglomerate of Iranian and Turkic nations; until relatively recently, the actual toponym "Iran" carried much greater semantic weight than it does today.

In the beginning of the sixteenth century, the Safavid ruler Shah Isma'il I made Shi'i Islam the state religion. The spreading and strengthening of his hold on the region rested on the military elite of the Qizilbash3 tribal union, which brought together the Turkic tribes of Persia and the southern Caucasus. The majority of Azerbaijanis and Persians adopted Shi'i Islam at that time. This strengthened the devotion of Turkic tribes to the idea of Iranian statehood and particularly intensified the Persianization of the tribal elite. The new religion was a powerful impulse for territorial expansion. Decades of so-called Persian-Turkish or Shi'i-Sunni wars followed. The fortunes of war alternated, favoring one side then the other. From the sixteenth century through the first third of the nineteenth century, the khanates of northern and southern Azerbaijan were either an integral part of Persia or were in a state of war against Tabriz/Isfahan/Teheran. Successful attempts to gain emancipation from its domination were, however, not uncommon.4

A definitive change did not arrive until the two Russo-Persian wars, in which St. Petersburg was more successful. According to the peace treaties of Gülistan (1813) and Türkmäncay (1828) the territory of the north- Azerbaijani khanates (north of the border on the river Arax) was handed over to the Romanovs. …

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