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Restoring the Ledger of History

  • Wednesday, February 19, 2014

ARARAT Magazine
February 23, 2012.

George Bournoutian’s series of translations of primary sources from Russian, Armenian, and Iranian, including his most recent, The 1823 Russian Survey of the Karabagh Province: A Primary Source on the Demography and Economy of Karabagh in the Early 19th Century, can only be described as linguistic tours de force requiring knowledge in a wider range of languages than the ones just listed in order to unravel the historical information embedded in these long-overlooked records from the 17th through the 19th centuries. In sum, his 20 publications, more than half of which constitute these translated sources, have created a new basis for understanding history and society, not to mention war, politics, diplomacy, religion, economy, and a sundry other topics, for the region called the Transcaucasus, in the period of Iranian and Russian imperial rule.
The 1823 survey was prompted by the decision of Alexei Ermolov, the Russian commander-in-chief of Georgia, to annex the khanate of Karabagh. Formerly a semi-independent principality in the northeastern reaches of the Iranian state, the khanate had submitted to Romanov rule in 1805. Continued tensions with Qajar Iran as Russia pressed its expansion into the Transcaucasus embroiled the region, and Ermolov ended the vacillation of the khans by bringing the protectorate under direct military rule. To acquaint himself with the administrative structure of the former khanate and to redirect its revenues from Shushi to Tiflis, Ermolov ordered the preparation of the survey.

Since the khanate’s administrative system was still intact, Russian officials relied upon the services of the chief secretary of the khan’s chancery, and the process started with the delivery of the khanate’s tax rolls. On the basis of these records and on-site inspection under the guidance of local Muslim officials, the Russian government succeeded in gathering a remarkably detailed survey that could elicit the envy of any census preparer. The resulting compilation of 34 registers accounted for virtually everyone, individually or collectively.  The compilation created both a very precise record for the treasury and a reliable demographic profile of the new province.

As the survey was prepared for purely administrative purposes, it did not appear in print until 1866 and then in a very limited edition issued in the regional capital of Tiflis, likely again for the use of officialdom alone. That is where Dr. Bournoutian’s detective work began, for having been made aware of its existence through prior exploration into the Russian administrative records for the Transcaucasus, his search for a complete original version of the survey led to his recent unearthing of the single intact copy in the Russian State Library in Moscow.
The central purpose of the survey was the determination of the amounts and types of revenue customarily collected. At the same time, the comprehensive tally also created a fairly complete picture of the economy of the region, as every piece of useful financial information was recorded, starting with the tabulation of professions practiced by town dwellers to the listing of the types of produce grown in fields, farms, and orchards.  Six forms of land tenure are identified, including Khasseh or crown lands which, since 1805, had passed from the hands of the Qajar dynasty; Divani lands, whose revenues belonged to the khan and his family; Mulk or private property; Tiyul, or a type of un-inheritable fief, whose revenue went to cover the services of various officials; Yeylaq and qeshlaq or nomadic pastures; and Vaqf, or charitable trust belonging to a religious institution.

This system of land tenure, with 32 different types of taxes and duties counted and a considerable amount delivered in kind, leaves the impression that Karabagh was still in the throes of feudalism. The catalogue of payments with assessments noted down to the kopek, on the other hand, also indicates that the region was fast transitioning to a money economy where a sizable portion of the revenue was paid in cash. More than hinting at the climatic condition upon the high elevation of the promontory of Shushi, the obligatory delivery of firewood to the khan’s troops stationed in its fortress is a notable example among the requirements of numerous villages for payment in kind.
If, by chance, the responsibility of supplying firewood was equitably divided among Muslim and Christian villages, Bournoutian calculates that the brunt of taxation was hoisted on the Armenian population, which paid 52.85% of the revenue, while the Tatars and the nomads paid 47.15% of the total in kind and cash. Remarkably, nearly half the population of both groups was tax-exempt, re-enforcing the privileges of the well-connected and the burdens of the ordinary peasantry, regardless of religion and ethnicity. How onerously the tribute fell upon the shoulders of the Armenian peasantry becomes clearer when the ethnic composition of the population is considered.

The survey makes a very precise distinction between the nomadic and sedentary portions of the population, revealing that it was evenly divided. It is also clear from the survey that the persons, families, or groups, under the nomadic designation were all members of Muslim tribes, primarily Turkic and Caucasian, and some even Kurdish, all identified under the Tatar designation by the Russian authorities. In sum, Bournoutian calculates 8,584 nomad families (45.66%), 5,209 Armenian families (27.71%), and 5,005 Tatar families (26.63%) at the time of annexation.

The geographic distribution of the demography of the Karabagh khanate reveals, however, another pattern whose significance reverberates to this very day, and that has to do with the non-nomadic and non-Muslim portion of the population. Regarding this matter, the registers are a treasure trove of data, for by tabulating village by village per each of the 20 mahals or districts, the registers also pinpoint the areas of Armenian concentration. Bournoutian reveals that “the survey clearly demonstrates that the Armenians formed the overwhelming majority in the five mahals that later formed Mountainous Karabagh. They were the sole inhabitants of all the villages of Golestan, Khachen, and Jraberd mahals. In addition, the Varanda and Dizak mahals had only one Tatar village each, while the Armenians inhabited the remaining villages.” In effect, in 1823, Armenians constituted 96.67% of the population of Mountainous Karabagh.
Nor are the registers confined to the modern understanding of lower and upper Karabagh, as the khanate extended into parts of current-day southern Armenia, and thus the demography and ethnography of places such as Sisian, Bargushat, Tatev, and other adjacent districts in the Zangezur region are included in the survey.

Because the administrator of each village is named, the survey also reveals a considerable amount of information about the system of local governance. Although the khan ruled from Shushi, the Muslim chieftains doubtless commanded the tribes and the Tatar notables lorded over the villages, a remarkable number of the Armenian settlements were still overseen by Armenian meliks, the highland princes of sorts descended from the ancient ruling families of eastern Armenia. Register 4 of the survey notes that Melik Tangi administered Sisian mahal. Minbashi Melik Poghos administered the Armenian villages of Tatev, Shinatag, Shinger, Khot, Halidzor, and Lor. While it was unlikely that Melik Poghos commanded a thousand men at any time, the title of Minbashi, much as that of Yuzbashi, for the commander of a hundred, had passed down certain lineages dating from the era of Davit Bek a century before and possibly to that of Shah Abbas another century earlier still.

The list of Armenian administrators continues.  In Golestan mahal, the village of Karachinar was held in fief by Melik Yusef (Hovsep), where Melik Minas, the son of Melik Abov, also resided. The six villages of Kuypara mahal in Zangezur were held in fief by Minbashi Melik Parsadan. In Khachen mahal, the village of Khanderestan was administered by Melik Kahraman, identified by Bournoutian as the son of the last titular melik of Jraberd of the Allahverdian house. The Armenian village of Viankhli is recorded as the mulk, corrected to vaqf by Bournoutian, of Gandzasar monastery, “administered by the Armenian Archbishop Sargis for his nephew, Qoli Beg Hasan-Jalalov,” the direct descendants of the Hasan-Jalalian princely family, which also contributed a line of catholicoses at Gandzasar when it was a separate see.
Not only does the survey thereby confirm the existence of settlements entirely Armenian populated, but the residence of the highland chieftains further attests to a remarkable continuity in social and political organization among Armenians sustained despite the pressures and disturbances regularly testing the capacity and durability of those isolated communities. It is evident that the upper echelon of the one-time five Armenian melikdoms of Karabagh, along with their attendant military structure, had broken down. Yet, the remaining cohesiveness of the social organization persisted.  Moreover, this remarkable institution preserving local administrative authority among the Armenian notables was exceptional to Karabagh and Zangezur. Nowhere else across Armenia was a similar institution preserved, save for that of the four Armenian ishkhans, or titular princes, of Zeytun on the summit of the Cilician Mountains.

The cadastre is replete with every sort of interesting detail, some even attesting to a certain interdependence among the two religious communities despite the competition for land and resources apparent from the division of labor revealed by the segregation of the various ethnic groups, at least as far as the distinction between the agricultural and pastoral sectors of the economy was concerned. About the village of Khot, the survey even leaves a record of wine production and drinking habits among Christians and Muslims. In lieu of payment of the tax on the orchards of Khot, Singer, and Halidzor, Melik Poghos and his brother had been awarded the right to 100 jugs of wine and 25 jugs of vodka, and in exchange the khan received all the wine and vokda he desired, or the vineyards produced.

Above and beyond its self-evident value as a historical record containing a mass of useful data, another reason impelled Bournoutian to prepare this careful translation of the Russian survey. In the current context of the conflict between Armenians and Azeris over Mountainous Karabagh, it turns out that not even a nearly 200-year-old record was spared misuse by parties manufacturing a falsified history of the region. Bournoutian reports that an adulterated version of the same was published in Baku in 2003, designed to minimize the historic presence of Armenians in Karabagh in order to strengthen the mendacious case for their late arrival in the region presumably under Russian tutelage.
To wit, Bournoutian’s translation reveals for scholarly uses the limitless possibilities of mining the immense wealth of information recorded in the Russian survey, for the document is no less an inventory of the many antecedent populations from whose diverse backgrounds the modern Azeri nation was forged, and of the Armenians whose historical presence in the mountains of Karabagh makes them a native population whose rights were far less disputed then than now. As such, this instrument of imperial administration appears to have been misplaced in circulation a decade ago as a new tool for seemingly retroactive colonization. Bournoutian’s translation restores the survey to its proper use as the record of a specific time and of a place still scarred by the legacy of imperial policies and colonial objectives.

George A. Bournoutian’s
The 1823 Russian Survey of the Karabagh Province: A Primary Source on the Demography and Economy of Karabagh in the Early 19th Century (Mazda Publishers, Costa Mesa, 2011) is available at Mazda Publishers and other online booksellers.

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