Vol. 5, No. 6 (March 15, 2012)

Yerevan sought expulsion of Azerbaijanis and control of Karabakh in late 1940s: Documents show

Paul Goble
Publications Advisor
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy
Following the end of World War II, Joseph Stalin played the Armenian card both to attract ethnic Armenians from abroad to help make up for the Soviet Union’s losses during the war and to set the stage for territorial claims on Turkey.  In response, Yerevan called for the expulsion of ethnic Azerbaijanis from that republic in order to “make room” for returning Armenians and for the transfer of Nagorno-Karabakh from the Azerbaijan SSR to the Armenian SSR, according to documents from the archives described by Baku historian I. Niftaliyev.

While these appeals failed—ethnic Azerbaijanis then living in Armenia resisted being moved, Moscow refused to redraw the borders between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and Turkey and the West successfully blocked Stalin’s plans for extending Soviet control into Turkey—they link the demands Armenians made in the 1920s and those they attempted to realize in the 1990s and provide a key to understanding the sources of Armenian efforts in this area in the intervening period.  They also call attention both to expectations that republic borders could be changed during Soviet times and to the ways in which both republic governments and ethnic communities both exploited and resisted Moscow’s policies even under Stalin.

As Niftaliyev noted, Stalin’s desire for “a massive repatriation” of Armenians “gave the leadership of the Armenian SSR a suitable occasion to count on the expansion of the borders of the republic not only with regard to the territory of Turkey, but also of neighboring Azerbaijan.” [1] 

In November 1945, G. Arutinov, first secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Armenia, sent a letter to Stalin calling for “pulling Nagorno-Karabakh out of Azerbaijan and including it within the Soviet Armenia.” M. Baghirov, first secretary of the Central Committee of the Community Party of Azerbaijan, not surprisingly opposed this, and, Niftaliyev continues, the issue was thus removed from discussion (see Goble 1990).  However, that hardly ended the way in which Arutinov sought to use Stalin’s repatriation policy.

Arguing that Yerevan had nowhere to put Armenians returning from abroad—Moscow expected as many as 400,000, but in fact only 90,000 did return—Arutinov, the documents show, called on Moscow to “resettle the Azerbaijani population from Armenia to Azerbaijan.”  And the Azerbaijani writer continues with the observation that “that the initiative of this project originated from the Armenian leadership and was [then] supported by Moscow is beyond doubt.”

In the archives, Niftaliyev notes, there is the December 3, 1947 draft of a letter that apparently was to be sent jointly by G. Arutinov and M. Baghirov, a letter that outlines Yerevan’s justification of “the necessity of resettling 130,000 members of the Azerbaijani population from Armenia and Azerbaijan,” including the need to provide space for returning Armenians in Armenia, as well as additional workers for certain agricultural districts in Azerbaijan.

Although the draft calls for the leaders of both republics to sign, the document in the archives does not include Baghirov’s signature and the date is “only on the Armenian copy,” a pattern that Niftaliyev suggests probably indicates that this was a Yerevan initiative.

“However that may be,” the Azerbaijani writer continues, on December 23, 1947, Stalin signed a decree of the USSR Council of Ministers “On the Resettlement of Collective Farmers and the Remaining Azerbaijani Population from the Armenian SSR to the Kura-Araks in Lowlands of the Azerbaijan SSR.”  According to the decree, 10,000 Azerbaijanis were to be shifted in 1948, 40,000 in 1949, and 50,000 in 1950.  This decree was amplified by an additional one of the USSR Council of Ministers on March 10, 1948.  To realize its provisions, a resettlement administration was set up in the Azerbaijan SSR, and a special plenipotentiary representative of Azerbaijan, Mursad Mammadov, was dispatched to Yerevan.
According to the Moscow plan, “not a single Azerbaijani” was to remain in the Echmiadzin, Oktemberyan and Beriya districts by the end of 1948.  But large numbers of the Azerbaijanis slated for being moved refused to go or returned after being sent.  According to a secret Azerbaijan interior ministry report, “there were many cases when Azerbaijanis spoke about their lack of a desire to move to a new place of residence and the visit by some of them of cemeteries where they cried over the graves of relatives and prayed that they would not be resettled.”
As a result, this “resettlement program” failed.  According to Niftaliyev, only 37,387 Azerbaijanis had been shifted instead of the planned 100,000.  Their resistance was justified: Those who were moved were not provided with housing, and many fell victims to malaria.  As a result, hundreds of those who had been “deported” to Azerbaijan returned to their homes, a pattern that prompted Moscow to reduce its plans for resettlement by half in 1952.

However, as Niftaliyev notes, “even when the resettlement campaign lost its impulse, the gradual and slow exodus of Azerbaijanis who felt to the full extent their second-class status in Armenia became inevitable and gradually took the form of a continuing trend right up to the time of the collapse of the USSR.”  He concludes that even though what happened to the Azerbaijanis of Armenia “is difficult to compare” with the deportation of the Chechens, Ingush, Balkars and other North Caucasus peoples at roughly the same time, “all the same, this was a deportation to the extent it was carried out against the will and desire of the majority of those resettled and broke the customary rhythm of life of tens of thousands of people by forcing them to adapt to new conditions, a new way of life, and new occupations.”


Goble, Paul (1990) “Can Republic Borders Be Changed?” RFE/RL Report on the USSR, 28 September.


[1] See http://news.day.az/politics/320274.html (accessed 14 March 2012).