The Forgotten Revolution: The May Uprising of 1920 in Armenia

Pietro A. Shakarian


2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution of 1917, a highly consequential event for both Russian and world history. Unsurprisingly, in the decades following the revolution, its historical interpretation became a matter of intense debate among scholars of Russian and Soviet history.  Those academics of the “authoritarian” school, such as Martin Malia, characterized “Red October” as a coup financed by German money.  By contrast, academics of the “revisionist” school, most notably Alexander Rabinowitch, characterized October 1917 as a genuine revolution, with real popular support. Such debates continue into the present day.  Some historians, notably Michael David-Fox have sought to move beyond such debates and examine the October Revolution through an entirely new perspective, notably in the form of life-cycles.

Illustrations of the May Uprising in Aleksandropol
(later Leninakan, today Gyumri, Armenia)
by Gevorg Brutyan (1888-1952).
Source: The National Gallery of Armenia.

Classical accounts of the October Revolution, such as Rabinowitch’s The Bolsheviks Come to Power, focus on the revolutionary developments in Petrograd in 1917.  However, other studies have taken slightly different perspectives, by examining the revolution as it unfolded in other parts of the Russian Empire.  In The Baku Commune, the eminent Ronald Grigor Suny studied the Bolshevik Revolution in Baku in 1918 led by the Armenian Bolshevik Stepan Shahumyan, also known as the “Lenin of the Caucasus.”  In his work, Suny critically examined the relationship between class and nationality in this episode of the revolution.

Another distinguished historian, Donald J. Raleigh, examined the revolution in Saratov in his Revolution on the Volga.  His account was the first English-language study to observe the events of 1917 specifically in the Russian heartland.  In his Making War, Forging Revolution, Peter Holquist, another prominent Russia scholar, examined the revolution in the Don region.  He used the study to argue that the revolutionary events of 1917 and the Civil War formed part of a “continuum of crisis” that also encompassed Russia’s participation in World War I.

In addition to these localized episodes, there were others that demonstrated the complex ways in which revolutionary events of 1917 were shaping developments elsewhere in the former tsarist empire.  One such case was the Armenian Bolshevik Uprising in the city of Aleksandropol (today Gyumri, Armenia), an event whose interpretation remains a matter of dispute in post-Soviet Armenia.

Russian Transcaucasia on the eve of the Russian Revolution,
from The Great Encyclopedia, Vol. 10,edited by Sergey Yuzhakov
(St. Petersburg: Prosveshcheniye, 1902). (Courtesy of the
Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.)

The Uprising

Following the Bolshevik Revolution and the start of the Russian Civil War, Russian authority in Transcaucasia collapsed.  A short-lived Transcaucasian Federation was declared in April 1918, but it quickly dissolved into three tenuously independent republics in May—Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia.

Of all three states, independent Armenia was in the most precarious position.  Its very existence was constantly under military threat from Ottoman Turkey.  The latter initiated a genocide of its Armenian populace beginning in 1915, in which 1.5 million Armenians died.  The Armenian Republic also faced territorial disputes with its new neighbors Georgia and especially Azerbaijan.  The dispute over Mountainous (or Nagorno) Karabakh with the latter was particularly contentious.

1919 map of the Armenian Republic in the Caucasus,
put forward by the Armenian delegation at the Paris Peace Conference.
Source: Historic Maps of Armenia: The Cartographic Heritage
by Rouben Galichian (London: I.B. Tauris, 2004).

In addition, the Armenian Republic was beset by a large number of refugees who had fled from the genocide in Turkey, and it lacked the modern infrastructure necessary to accommodate them.  The capital city, Yerevan, still maintained the feel of a dusty Persian frontier town.  Poverty, misery, starvation, disease, and death were widespread.

The Armenian Republic was governed by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, also known as the Dashnaktsutyun or the Dashnaks, an Armenian nationalist and socialist party founded in Tiflis (Tbilisi, Georgia) in 1890.  The Dashnaks were the dominant party in Armenia, but there was also a vocal minority of Armenian Bolsheviks.  By Spring 1920, these Armenian Bolsheviks became stronger as a result of the deteriorating social situation in Armenia.  Moreover, the tide of the Russian Civil War had turned in the favor of the Bolsheviks.  In April, the Red Army invaded the short-lived Azerbaijan Republic and took the capital Baku.  This event greatly encouraged the Bolsheviks in Armenia, who hoped for the establishment of an Armenian Soviet Republic and who decided to demonstrate their strength in the May Day celebrations of 1920.

On May Day 1920, the Bolsheviks of Armenia organized demonstrations throughout the country.  These demonstrations erupted into clashes with the ruling Dashnaks.  To the surprise of even the Armenian Bolsheviks, the situation resulted in a Bolshevik uprising in Aleksandropol. Playing upon the population’s feelings regarding privations, the Armenian Bolsheviks managed to gain a popular following.  The revolt soon expanded to include dissatisfied troops from the Armenian army as well as railway workers and the armored train “Vartan Zoravar” commanded by Sargis Musayelyan.  Soon the revolt spread to the cities of Kars and Sarikamish (both in present-day northeastern Turkey), as well as to the town of Novo-Bayazet (Gavar) near Lake Sevan.  It also extended to Dilijan, Ijevan, and other parts of the forested region of Tavush in northeastern Armenia where pro-Soviet sentiments among the local Armenian population were strong.

Illustrations of the May Uprising in Aleksandropol
by Gevorg Brutyan (1888-1952).
Source: The National Gallery of Armenia.

In response, the Dashnak government cast the rebels as “Turkish agents,” causing a loss in the Bolsheviks’ popular support.  The uprising was ultimately crushed by the government and the participants were executed.  In addition, the government banned the Armenian Communist Party.  Nevertheless, in Tavush, where popular support for the Armenian Bolsheviks was strongest, the local Armenian villagers resisted the government.  Their resistance lasted until the end of June 1920 when they were finally defeated by Dashnak forces.  However, the Dashnak government itself only lasted a few more months.  In December, it fell to an advancing Red Army and Armenia was officially proclaimed a Soviet republic.

Historiography Contested

From the outset, the interpretation of the May Uprising was contested by those associated with the respective sides of the conflict, betraying their political biases.  To the Soviet Armenian government, the uprising was a valiant, albeit failed, effort to establish Soviet power in the country.  To exiled Dashnaks in the Armenian Diaspora, the uprising was an act of treason against the Armenian state.  These differences only intensified with the onset of the Cold War.

A good example of the Soviet interpretation of the May Uprising can be found in volume VII of the Armenian Soviet Encyclopedia (Հայկական սովետական հանրագիտարան, Haykakan sovetakan hanragitaran).  In this account, the uprising is predictably glorified and depicted in glowing, even romantic terms, declaring the attempt to establish a Soviet government “the will of the workers, peasants, and red troops of Armenia.”  Although overtly sympathetic, this account is also not uncritical and admonishes the Armenian Bolsheviks for their disorganization and lack of coordination in their attempt to establish Soviet rule.  It is therefore depicted as a “learnt lesson” for the Armenian Bolsheviks, preceding the Sovietization of Armenia.  Notably, earlier Soviet historians of the May Uprising emphasized the lack of a strong Armenian proletariat and the necessity of support from Soviet Russia.  By contrast, later Soviet historians emphasized that the objective conditions for a revolt did exist and that the issue was poor and uncoordinated leadership.

The Road to Victory, a Soviet political poster from the era of the
New Economic Policy (NEP) in the 1920s, depicting the establishment of
Soviet power in Armenia in a panel-by-panel, comic strip-style form.
Courtesy of the Sergo Grigorian Collection of Soviet Political Posters.

In English-language scholarship, the uprising is discussed by Firuz Kazemzadeh in his Struggle for Transcaucasia, one of the first English-language accounts of the Russian Revolution and Civil War in the Caucasus.  Born to an Iranian father and a Russian mother, Kazemzadeh’s interpretation is reasonably objective, albeit slightly sympathetic to the Bolshevik rebels.  Following Kazemzadeh, Volume III of Richard Hovannisian’s Republic of Armenia book series presents perhaps the more detailed account of the uprising in the English language.  However, Hovannisian’s account too is not free from bias.  It is clear that his sympathies are with the Dashnak government and not the Armenian Bolsheviks.  Nevertheless, his detailed account refrains from depicting the Armenian Bolsheviks in an entirely negative light.  In fact, he even highlights their positive attributes, such as the “heroically romantic” valor of Hovhannes Sarukhanyan, the Armenian Bolshevik leader from Novo-Bayazet who “faced the firing squad” of the Dashnaks “bravely.”

Legacy in Post-Soviet Armenia

Since the independence of Armenia from the USSR in 1991, the May Uprising has become a controversial subject.  Many Armenians, especially those nostalgic for the Soviet past, still regard the rebels as heroic revolutionaries, while others contend that they were traitors to the cause of Armenian independence.  This tension of the politics of history and memory between Soviet-era nostalgia and post-Soviet nationalism can also be observed in the debates about Anastas Mikoyan or street signs named after Soviet figures.  In turn, these debates reflect broader discussions on the Soviet past in the post-Soviet space generally, especially in Russia, Ukraine, and Georgia. Notably, in post-Soviet Armenian school textbooks, the language used to describe the May Uprising is neutral, allowing students to reach their own conclusions.

1924 Armenian-language Soviet map of the Armenian SSR
within the Transcaucasian SFSR after Sovietization,
from the personal collection of the author.

The debate over the legacy of the May Uprising in Armenia is further complicated by the status of certain historical Armenian territories.  At the end of 1920, Kemalist Turkey invaded the Armenian Republic and managed to secure military control over a significant portion of eastern Armenia before the Red Army gained control of most of it.  The Turkish-occupied area included the regions of Kars, Ardahan, and Surmali. The latter territory was particularly significant to Armenians as the location of Mount Ararat, the spiritual and national symbol of the Armenian people.  Turkey’s control of these areas was later formalized in the treaties of Moscow and Kars.  Some Armenian scholars and politicians, including Armenia’s first post-Soviet president, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, contend that if the Dashnaks had ceded power to the Armenian Bolsheviks in May 1920, Armenia might have retained these territories that were later lost to Turkey.

Significantly, it was a Soviet-era Armenian film that best illustrated this complex and controversial history.  The Saroyan Brothers (1968) depicts the tragic conflict between two brothers, Hayk and Gevorg, who find themselves on opposite sides of the political conflict in Armenia during the Russian Civil War (Gevorg is a Dashnak and Hayk is a Bolshevik).  Directed by Khoren Abrahamyan and Arkady Hayrapetyan and starring Abrahamyan and Frunze Dovlatyan, the film depicts the civil war era as a time of national tragedy for all Armenians. This is perhaps the best way to remember this difficult chapter in the history of Armenia and the Caucasus.


The Saroyan Brothers (1968).
Full film (Russian-language version) from Armenfilm.

Further Reading

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Pietro Shakarian is a PhD candidate in History at The Ohio State University. His main interest is 19th and 20th century Russian and Eurasian history, with a focus on the history of the Caucasus region, particularly Armenia and Georgia.


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