THIS WEEK IN ARMENIAN HISTORY
(Prepared by the Armenian National Education Committee)
MASSACRE OF SHUSHI
MARCH 23-26, 1920
The city of Shushi, capital of Karabagh and the third Armenian center in the South Caucasus after Tiflis and Baku, had a population of 43,869 inhabitants, according to the Kavkaskii Kalendar (Caucasus Calendar) published in Tiflis in 1916. Fifty-three per cent of the population (23,396 people) was Armenian, while 44% was Tatar (later called Azerbaijani).
After the independence of Armenia, the situation of Karabagh remained in a sort of limbo due to the Azerbaijani pretentions over the region and the pro-Azerbaijani attitude of the British representatives in the region, interested in securing the oil of Baku. Clashes between Azerbaijanis and local Armenians in 1919, as well as Armenian massacres incited by Azerbaijani Governor-General Khosrov Bek-Sultanov, ended with a British-brokered temporary agreement on August 22, 1919 that lasted a few months.
Sultanov broke the terms of the agreement in the beginning of 1920 and tightened the Azerbaijani blockade around Karabagh. He gathered armed forces in strategically important locations and armed the local Turkish population. Well-aware that the Armenian population was much less armed, he made preparations for “the final resolution of the Nagorno Karabagh issue,” as he wrote in one dispatch to the Azerbaijani government. On February 19, 1920, Sultanov issued a demand to the Armenian National Council of Karabagh “to solve urgently the question of the final incorporation of Karabagh into Azerbaijan.” At their eighth congress held from 23 February to 4 March, the Armenians responded that Azerbaijan’s demand violated the terms of the temporary agreement of August 1919 and warned that “repetition of the events will compel the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabagh to turn to appropriate means for defense.”
The commanders of the Armenian self-defense tried to anticipate Sultanov’s movements. A small Armenian detachment entered Shushi in the early morning of March 23, 1920, when the Turkish population was celebrating the festivity of Novruz, and tried to take over the barrack, according to an uprising plan previously developed. The exchange of fire served as a signal for Shushi’s armed Turkish population, the Azeri army soldiers, and Kurdish gangs abounding in the town to attack the Armenian district, plunder and set everything on fire, and start a horrible massacre of the Armenian population. According to historian Richard Hovannisian, “Azerbajani troops, joined by the city’s Azerbaijani inhabitants, turned Armenian Shushi into an inferno. From March 23 to 26, some 2,000 structures were consumed in the flames, including the churches and consistory, cultural institutions, schools, libraries, the business section, and the grand homes of the merchant class. Bishop Vahan (Ter-Grigorian), long an advocate of accommodation with the Azerbaijani authorities, paid the price of retribution, as his tongue was torn out before his head was cut off and paraded through the streets on a spike. The chief of police, Avetis Ter-Ghukasian, was turned into a human torch, and many intellectuals, including Bolshevik Alexander Tsaturyan, were among the 500 Armenian victims.”
Much of the population fled, and the Armenian section of the city was completely destroyed. According to data of 1921, some 8,000 Azerbaijanis lived in Shushi, and the number of Armenians was about 300. The Armenian section remained in ruins for several decades.
The historical Armenian city became an Azerbaijani city during the Soviet period, until the Armenian forces of self-defense liberated Shushi on May 9, 1992, in one of the most crucial moments of the Karabagh war.