From the second half of the 18th century, the policy of Panah Khan and his successors artificially increased the number of Turkish and Kurdish Muslims in Shushi. According to a census carried out by the Russian Empire in 1823, there were 8,290 inhabitants, of whom 3,350 were Armenians (40.3%), 4,670 Tatars (56.2%) and 270 Kurds (3.5%).

However, in the second half of the 19th century, the demographic situation of Shushi started to recover. In 1886, the Russian authorities carried out a more detailed census of the population, according to which the Armenians were already in the majority – 56.6% (15,100), the Tatars were 43.3% (11,000). In 1897, when the first Russian census was conducted, the picture remained virtually unchanged: the city had 25,800 inhabitants, 55.8% of whom were Armenians.

This relationship was maintained with minor changes until March 1920, when Azerbaijani troops under the command of Khosrov Bey Sultanov, who was appointed Governor General of Artsakh with British assistance, burned the Armenian quarter of Shushi and carried out a massacre of the Armenian population. According to various estimates, between 6,000 and 10,000 Armenians fell victim to the massacre and the burning, while the rest fled the city. In 1921, 9,200 people remained in Shushi, of whom only 290 were Armenians. The Turkish policy of genocide, pursued by Azerbaijan, led to the transformation of the city from Armenian to “Azerbaijani”, and the whole of Artsakh was taken over by Soviet Azerbaijan.

Today, Azerbaijan is increasingly turning to history, obviously distorting and falsifying the facts. At the same time, one of the main theses of Azerbaijani propaganda is the claim that “Artsakh has always been a part of Azerbaijan”.

Meanwhile, it is common knowledge that the state called Azerbaijan was created in May 1918, first declaring Ganja (Gandzak, under the Russian Empire – Elizavetpol) as its capital. At that time, Baku was not yet under Tatar control and it was only on 15 September 1918 that it was captured by Turkish troops. Over the next two months, Turkish-Tatar forces carried out mass pogroms against the Armenians of Baku, killing about 20,000 people.

Even before the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan in mid-1917, the formation of Armenian self-governing and self-defense bodies began in Artsakh. There was also an Armenian-Tatar council to overcome disagreements with the local Tatar population. In the Armenian districts, the authority was the Bureau, whose members were elected as early as December 1917, and the Council of Commissioners operated under the authority of the Bureau. According to the decree of the latter, the first Artsakh Congress was held on 22 July 1918, with two representatives from 21 Armenian villages and eight deputies from Shushi. The total number of deputies was 60.

The congress adopted a number of important resolutions, including those on taxation, the establishment of courts and the establishment of foreign relations. With regard to foreign relations, it was declared that “Artsakh is part of the Ararat (Armenian) Republic”. The Congress also elects the People’s Government of Artsakh.

Before and after the occupation of Baku, Turkish troops and Azerbaijan repeatedly issued an ultimatum to the Armenian structures in Artsakh, demanding their submission to Azerbaijan. However, at subsequent Artsakh Armenian congresses, these demands were rejected. For a brief period, Turkish forces managed to capture Artsakh, but Turkey’s defeat on other fronts in the First World War forced Ankara to withdraw from the Caucasus.

In January 1919, Khosrov bey Sultanov was appointed Governor General of Artsakh, with the active help of the British, who had come to replace the Turkish forces. But the National Council of Artsakh Armenians did not recognise his authority. The decision of the 5th Congress of Artsakh Armenians in April 1919 and the letter sent to Sultanov after the Congress, which stated:

“The Congress of Artsakh Armenians brings to your attention that after its unanimous and categorical reply to General Chatelworth on the unacceptability to the Congress of the power of the Azerbaijani government in any form, we consider your proposal to the Congress for the joint discussion of certain issues to be unacceptable.”

The decision of the 5th Congress states that Artsakh has never accepted and will never accept Azerbaijani rule. Unwilling to accept this situation, Sultanov, with the help of the Turkish army, began to strengthen the Azerbaijani military presence in Artsakh. On 4 and 5 June 1919, pogroms were organized against Armenians in Shusha and neighbouring villages, resulting in 500-600 victims. The village of Gaibalu suffered the most, as it was practically destroyed and most of its inhabitants killed. (M. Harutyunyan Artsakh in 1918-1921, Yerevan, 1996).

The head of the Karabakh diocese, Bishop Vahan, informs the Catholicos of all Armenians, Gevorg the Fifth, that the Tatars also massacred part of the villagers of Krkjan, Paylur and Jamilu, while in the villages of Karintak and Dadushen the self-defence forces managed to avoid a large number of victims. In Shushi itself, there were few casualties – only a few dozen people. However, the political result was much worse: under British pressure, a number of Artsakh Leaders were forced to leave the region.

The fact that these actions were an organic continuation of the Turkish policy of genocide is recorded in the accounts of certain American personalities of the time. The documents in the US National Archives are particularly valuable in this context. In particular, the High Commissioner of the Allied Forces in the Caucasus J. Ruane notes in his report that “Sultanov pursued a policy of extermination of Armenians, attacks on the Tatars were allowed, if not supported by the governor, with the permission of the British. [Makhmuryan G., Shushi 1919-1920 in the documents of the US State Department and the National Archives of Armenia].

After the June pogroms, Azerbaijan and Britain increased their pressure, forcing the participants of the 7th Armenian Congress of Artsakh on 22 August to make concessions and temporarily recognize Artsakh as part of Azerbaijan, pending a final decision at the Peace Conference (1919). This is particularly important, as the Azerbaijani side will then start to manipulate the facts in an attempt to prove that, since no decision was taken at the Paris Peace Conference, Artsakh is definitely subordinate to Azerbaijan.

Meanwhile, the treaty did not specifically and solely refer to the Paris Conference. Paragraph 5 of the 26-point document stipulates that a council of Armenian and Muslim representatives, three of each, shall be established under the Governor General, without whose decision inter-ethnic issues cannot be resolved (paragraph 7). Clauses 10 and 11 stipulate that an Armenian assistant to the Governor General will be appointed on the proposal of the Armenian National Council, and that Armenians will also have cultural autonomy. Clause 15 is extremely important. It stipulates that troops are to be stationed in Khankendi (Varakn, later Stepanakert) and Shushi and that their strength is to be similar to that of peacetime. Any movement of troops into Armenian areas was to be approved by a vote of the ⅔ of the council under the direction of the Governor-General (16th item). These and other points were blatantly violated by Azerbaijan in the following months. Azerbaijan moved troops into Zangezur without the council’s approval to carry out military operations and disarmed the Armenians, thus violating the 19th clause of the treaty.

In February 1920, the Azerbaijani side issued an ultimatum to the National Council of Artsakh Armenians, demanding recognition of Azerbaijan’s supremacy, in clear violation of Clause 1 of the Treaty. The 8th Congress of Karabakh Armenians is held in the village of Shosh, whose deputies reject these demands in view of all the violations of the decisions of the 7th Congress.

Having been refused, Azerbaijan continued to concentrate troops in Artsakh in order to resolve the issue by force. On the morning of 23 March 1920, an attack on the Armenian quarter of Shushi began. Pogroms took place for three days, burning Armenian houses, churches, cultural and educational buildings. On 15 May, Shushi Consistory member Karapet Vardapetyants and secretary Mirza Ter-Sargsyan sent a report to the Catholicos of All Armenians, in which it is mentioned that about 4000 of the 12-13 thousand Armenians were killed, about 3000 Armenians were taken prisoner, most of them were executed, including the president of the Artsakh diocese. Some women were detained by Sultanovian and Tatar officers. About 6000-6700 people fled Shushi.

Thus, according to these sources, some 6,000 Armenian residents were killed during the pogroms and in the following days in Shushi. Other sources report more victims. Source: National Archives of the Republic of Armenia.

On 16 April 1920, the Tbilisi newspaper “Slovo” reported pogroms in Shushi and wrote: “Not a single stone was left in the city”.

After the pogroms, there are hardly any Armenians left in Shushi. Due to the genocidal Azerbaijani policy, Shushi became a so-called “Azerbaijani” city. The Russian poet Osip Mandelshtam and his wife, who visited the city in 1930, described the situation thus: “The city began with an endless cemetery, then a tiny marketplace, where the ruined city streets go down. We had already seen villages abandoned by their inhabitants, consisting of a few dilapidated houses, but in this once apparently wealthy and well-to-do town, the picture of disaster and carnage was horribly vivid.”

In the 1960s, the authorities of the already Soviet Azerbaijan tried to erase the last traces of the town’s Armenian origin and the evidence of the pogroms. The ruins of Armenian houses, churches and most cultural monuments were demolished.

On 9 May 1992, Shushi was liberated from Azerbaijani occupation and returned to its original owners.

The authorities of the Republic of Artsakh had made efforts to preserve and reconstruct Armenian and Muslim cultural monuments, as evidenced by the restoration of the Gevkharagha Upper Mosque in Shushi.   

Taron Hovhannesian is an expert at the Orbeli Analysis Center.