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Stephen Badalyan Riegg, Russia’s Entangled Embrace: The Tsarist Empire and the Armenians, 1801-1914

Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2020, xiv-314 pages, $45,95 (hardcover)/ $29,99 (ebook)
Asya Darbinyan
p. 255-260
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Stephen Badalyan Riegg, Russia’s Entangled Embrace: The Tsarist Empire and the Armenians, 1801-1914, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2020, 328 pages, hardcover $45.95, ebook $29.99.

Texte intégral

1Stephen Badalyan Riegg’s Russia’s Entangled Embrace: The Tsarist Empire and the Armenians, 1801-1914 illustrates the complexity of the Russo-Armenian relationship in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by exploring tsarist “strategies of imperialism” (p. 2). Riegg masterfully exposes imperial authorities, at times contrasting perceptions of the Armenians – their political, religious, and economic potential – and the power of the Armenian diaspora’s trans-imperial links which greatly influenced the Romanov policies towards Armenians in the Caucasus and elsewhere.

2Based on extensive research in archival repositories in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and Yerevan, Russia’s Entangled Embrace addresses such key questions as: Why did the Russian state regard the Armenians as allies when advancing into the South Caucasus? How did the tsarist attitude towards its Armenian subjects evolve and change throughout the nineteenth century? And what led to the brief yet radical decay of the long-standing relative symbiosis at the turn of the twentieth century? The book examines these critical issues predominantly through the Russian official correspondence, military reports, royal decrees, and other state documents, presenting a carefully researched and clearly written “story of tsarist governance” (p. 9). More importantly, it reassesses our understanding of how the fluctuating geopolitical interests of regional and world powers in the Caucasus and elsewhere influenced Russian domestic and foreign policies, including its encounters with the Armenians, just as they do today.

3The book’s narrative arc develops chronologically over six chapters and follows the dynamics and the evolution of Russo-Armenian encounters from before the incorporation of Eastern Armenia into the Russian imperial territories up until the eve of the Great War. Riegg starts the first chapter by highlighting major incentives for Russia’s “embrace” of Armenians as allies and later as loyal subjects. From the tsarist perspective, Armenians were politically reliable and economically active. The Armenians’ vigorous involvement in trade networks from Europe to Persia and India and their almost mythologized economic acumen, motivated the tsarist state to absorb Armenians from neighboring empires and grant them advantageous trade rates. The strong links between the Armenian Apostolic and the Russian Orthodox Churches, despite their dogmatic differences, provided opportunities for cooperation. Recognizing and sometimes overrating the Catholicos’s ecumenical and political influence over the Armenians of the Russian, Persian, and Ottoman Empires, and of the diaspora, tsarist authorities with the assistance of Armenians sought to access countries and societies that Russia’s agents had not been able to infiltrate.

4Exploring the fluctuating tsarist perceptions of Armenians, in the second chapter, Riegg delves into the intricacies of the categorization of Armenians – a product of Russian authorities’ political imagination. Depending on various socio-economic, geographic, and political factors, some statesmen saw Armenians as “political allies”, “faithful comrades”, or “privileged brokers”, while others deemed them “greedy minorities” (p. 51), “threatening to the social hierarchy of the southern territories” of the empire (p. 87). Riegg exposes the complexity of the Russians’ social and political standpoint with regards to the Armenians through the examples of the Lazarev family’s mediating role between the empire, the Armenian communities, and Ejmiatsin, and through the tsarist policies towards the Armenians in the Caucasus and the southern Russian cities. The founders of the Lazarev Institute of Oriental Languages, the Lazarevs had become one of the most prominent Armenian families in Russia. Riegg believes that the tsarist state exhibited the necessary environment for this aristocrat family to integrate rather than assimilate into the socio-political and economic networks of the empire and then thrive. This chapter indicates that since the Romanov state had “rendered Armenians key to tsarist imperialism” (p. 10), it displayed “inconsistent and tailored responses” (p. 51) to their needs. For instance, the state supported the Armenian communities in the Caucasus, yet cancelled the earlier-established tax exemptions for the long-settled Armenian groups elsewhere. Riegg concludes the chapter by emphasizing that the Russian statesmen characterized Armenian immigrants from Persia and the Ottoman Empire as more diligent and resourceful than their Georgian, Muslim, and even Russian neighbors, because “portraying them as such was in the government’s interest” at that point in time (p. 87).

5The third chapter tackles Tsar Nicholas I’s efforts to establish economic and cultural control over Russia’s Armenian and other subjects. Exploring the diverse strategies that imperial authorities adopted to integrate Armenians into the Russia’s socio-political life, Riegg underscores the distinct methods employed by the state against its Jewish and Polish populations. If in the case of its Armenian subjects, most tsarist statesmen “chose accommodation over acculturation”, throughout the nineteenth century Russia’s Jews were targeted for conversion, and after the Polish uprising of 1830-1831, all local bureaucrats of Polish heritage were to be replaced with ethnic Russian officials as part of the empire’s Russification campaign (p. 90). Tsar’s ministers debated about the status and the future of the South Caucasus as well. They, however, came to agree that the region should be incorporated into rather than be colonized by Russia. This chapter also demonstrates how the empire’s foreign policy concerns – especially with regards to its neighbor and rival Ottoman state – determined the tsar’s attitude towards Armenians and the Armenian Church, recognizing they were more likely to be conduits of Russian interests abroad than any other group associated with the empire. Strangely enough, the acknowledgement of this circumstance led to the adoption of the polozhenie of 1836, which formally subordinated Ejmiatsin to the tsar, allowing him to exert control over the religious life of Russia’s Armenians.

6In the fourth chapter, Riegg examines how during the reign of Alexander II, Russia sought to be acknowledged as the patron of all Armenians – including the Ottoman Armenians, and the Armenian Church – while concurrently struggling to “prevent Armenians from placing their national allegiances above their duties as civil subjects of the tsarist empire” (p. 125). On the one hand, despite the opposition from several of his ministers, the tsar embraced Gavril Aivazovskii’s idea to establish the Khalibov Armenian Academy of Feodosia: a short-lived academic institution that focused on secular Armenian education. Alexander II also backed Ejmiatsin in its battle against the American and European proselytizers and supported the immigration and resettlement of Ottoman Armenians into Russian imperial territories after the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-1878. On the other hand, Saint Petersburg blocked the operation of any private national Armenian organizations and banned such un-sanctioned initiatives as, for instance, the collection of donations in support of Ottoman Armenians, seeing them as a potential threat to the autocracy and integrity of the state.

7The Romanovs’ disapproval of any forms of Armenian political and cultural activism became more prominent in the late nineteenth century. The fifth chapter of Russia’s Entangled Embrace scrutinizes the Russo-Armenian tensions following the assassination of Alexander II. The new Tsar Alexander III sought to restore the glory of his autocratic empire by centralizing the governance and reinforcing Russification. From the dissolution of the Caucasus viceroyalty in 1883 intending to reinstate direct rule over the South Caucasus to Russia’s abandonment of Ottoman Armenians during the Hamidian massacres of the 1890s, this chapter demonstrates how once the patron of all Armenians was evolving into “another heavy-handed imperial overlord” (p. 174).While most of the tsarist statesmen struggled to disentangle the complexities of “the Armenian nationalism” they were combatting, the state chose to revisit the imperial policies towards its once-reliable Armenian subjects by shutting down hundreds of schools, exiling and imprisoning the Armenian clergy, and interfering into the elections of the Catholicos in Ejmiatsin.

8In the last chapter of the book, Riegg reflects on what he calls “the greatest crisis of Russo-Armenian ties in the modern era” (p. 199). He emphasizes the major causes that paved the way for the complete deterioration of the already strained relations at this stage. The Caucasus high commissioner Grigorii Golitsyn, who had “earned” the reputation of an “Armenophobe” (p. 205), did not trust Ejmiatsin and was suspicious of any social-cultural activities of Russia’s Armenian subjects. This view was soon shared by most of the officials both in the capital and in the Caucasus because of the internal social instability throughout the vast empire. And despite the rivalry between the Russian and Ottoman states, the Armenians felt like they could not expect any support from the Tsar. The 1903 confiscation of the land and property of the Armenian Church by the state aggravated the tensions and resulted in disorders and bloodshed. Even though following the disasters of the Russo-Japanese War and Bloody Sunday the imperial government restored the Caucasus Viceroyalty and the possessions of Ejmiatsin to ameliorate the situation, on the eve of the Great War, as Riegg rightly concludes, “Armenians remained too small a factor for the Romanov Empire to adjust its terminal course. The Armenian Question received no Russian answer” (p. 236).

9Russia’s Entangled Embrace provides an elegantly narrated overview of the Romanov state’s encounters with the Armenians that is both accessible and thought-provoking. The use of a wide variety of official state documents and correspondence allows the author to uncover the significant supporting role Armenians played in the tsarist effort to expand and consolidate the empire. This narrative would have greatly benefitted from incorporating and investigating the voices of Armenians and their perspectives on the Russian policies of the period largely unaddressed in the book. Riegg’s prompt acknowledgement of the absence of Armenian responses, however, invites future studies on the Armenians as agents and active participants who navigated the complex interplay between imperial demands, local aspirations, and trans-imperial connections.

10Refraining from the simplistic question of whether Russia was a friend or foe to Armenians, Riegg’s work successfully highlights how shifting geopolitical landscapes, internal reforms, and societal changes influenced the empire’s policies towards Armenians. It demonstrates that those policies were not uniform or unambiguous but rather a convergence of “messy realities” (p. 7). Geopolitical interests of regional powers in the Caucasus and imperial rivalries impacted those realities in the past just as they continue to shape Eurasian affairs today.

11Finally, this book does an admirable job of underscoring that because of the empire’s complex structure, Russia’s treatment of Armenians was multilayered, similar to its policies towards other ethnic and religious groups of the empire. Russo-Armenian cultural familiarity and Armenian diasporic presence across regional and imperial borders were central to the tsarist strategic thinking with regards to Armenians. The Tsar’s statesmen exhibited fluctuating responses to the Armenians, yet rarely aimed at coercively assimilating and subjugating them: practices observed systematically and recurrently in the government’s attitude towards Jews and Muslims of the empire. Russia’s Entangled Embrace challenges its readers to take a multifaceted view of interactions between the empire’s center and periphery, between the Tsar and his subjects, hence contributing significantly to our understanding of the broader complexities of imperial governance.

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Asya Darbinyan, « Stephen Badalyan Riegg, Russia’s Entangled Embrace: The Tsarist Empire and the Armenians, 1801-1914 »Études arméniennes contemporaines, 15 | 2023, 255-260.

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Asya Darbinyan, « Stephen Badalyan Riegg, Russia’s Entangled Embrace: The Tsarist Empire and the Armenians, 1801-1914 »Études arméniennes contemporaines [En ligne], 15 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 avril 2024, consulté le 25 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Asya Darbinyan

Center for Holocaust, Human Rights, and Genocide Education (Chhange) at Brookdale Community College

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