A Cold, Harsh Reality

In this short history of the long-troubled city of Kars, the controversial academic Norman Stone has some words of advice for the Armenians.

Orhan Pamuk’s Snow – in Turkish, Kar – begins with a dramatically claustrophobic bus journey to the town in northeastern Turkey where the novel is set, Kars. It is a depressing novel, centred on the suicide of religiously cramped girls, and snow does not help, but the town’s name has nothing to do with it: it is very old, probably from a Georgian root meaning “gate”. Still, in Kars the snow sometimes immobilises the place, and in the not-too-distant past the inhabitants were forced to live some way underground. There, ten years ago, they heated themselves with bricks of straw and animal dung, which give out a low calorific heat that keeps body and soul together.

In Kars today, use of natural gas is spreading, and a considerable effort has been put into improvements: a proper park, a decent hotel, a campaign to put archaeology on the tourist map. A pipeline carries oil from Baku on the Caspian towards the Mediterranean, and a railway is planned to Tbilisi in Georgia and to Baku. But back in 1990 poor old Kars made the guidebooks – Diana Darke’s classic Eastern Turkey, for instance – as “disinviting”. She says it has the two worst hotels in the world: a place to go only because of the extraordinary ruins of the old Armenian capital, Ani, which was just on the Cold War border, and which you could visit only with military permission. Those ruins are indeed extraordinary. You drive from Kars for about an hour through flat countryside, towards what is now the Armenian border, on the Arpaçay river, and you find a long line of huge walls, with a swastika dating from the sixth century. Then you see the ruins of churches, a vast cathedral, and, down by the river, a Church of the Virgin that has survived the devastations and the earthquakes better than the other buildings, and still contains recognisable biblical fresco scenes.

An Armenian composer, a Khatchatchurian, might well write a symphonic poem about the tragedy of Ani, capital of a might-have-been Greater Armenia. If you go to a Kars hotel in the summer – the Karabağ Hotel is decent – you will find French Armenians explaining, in Armenian, to resentful small boys and their bored French mothers that, once, Armenia was an empire, with a worthy capital. However, on the Armenian side of the river, they have set up a quarry, dynamiting rock for yet more concrete somewhere or other, the explosions not being helpful to the ruins’ survival. It is a sorry reminder of the absurdity of the whole relationship between Turks and Armenians. Kars was once an Armenian city. The Armenians in 1919 bit off a great deal more than they could chew, and had fantasies of restoring Greater Armenia, including the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Kars would have been its capital. It ended in tears, and now, until the Armenian diaspora recognise that it is strongly in their interest to have co-operation from Turkey, relations across the border will consist of booms and bangs signifying nothing. For a long time, Kars languished on this dead border of the Cold War, but now things are moving again.

The immediately striking thing about Kars is that it is quite unlike any other town in Turkey, because the streets are built on a grid pattern that you find in the Baltic, and the houses, stoutly built in the local stone, over one or two floors, with double-glazing in carefully sited windows, proceed, rank upon rather dull rank, down hundreds of yards. There are eight principal roads, off which lesser roads go, at right angles, and on the major ones there are larger buildings with balconies and elaborate pediments. Nowadays, much of it is run-down, but the grander buildings were not so long ago the official buildings of a Russian province: an officers’ club, complete with theatre; an opera in the professional classes’ club (now a specialist hospital). Today’s Cumhurriyet Caddesi was Aleksandrovka, and Faik Bey Sokak was Garnizonskaya. The headquarters of a Russian garrison was acquired by a rich Azeri, then leased out; Orhan Pamuk admits that he took some licence and allotted it to a clergy-training school, but its present-day function is secular, and anyway Kars is not notably pious – there are very few chadors, and you only hear one call to prayer at a time, as against Erzurum’s bombardment. A Russian girls’ school (very imposing) became the municipality.

These buildings ran down, and for a good reason: almost the entire population that had built Kars fled in 1920. The Turkish military and professional classes had to pick up the pieces, and there were complications. They were solidly secularist-republican, and when, in 1950, there was a free election, their party lost. They then did not get any money. Money went to Erzurum and Rize, which had voted for the opposition; Erzurum got the new university, Rize got subsidies for tea. Kars got nothing for years, and languished until the Soviet Union collapsed, in which period it also got its university, named Caucasus, which concentrates sensibly on animal husbandry and archaeology, and tries to connect over the border. It is sad that the obvious connection, with Armenia, works only in fits and starts.

What stands out in Kars is the fortress. Like Van, it has a huge rock, ideal for the construction of a fortress; and from the ancient kingdom of Urartu onwards, local rulers concentrated on building one that would dominate the plains all around. Kars occupied one of the essential strategic places, connecting Anatolia with the Caucasus, and invaders – Urartian, Armenian, Byzantine, Ottoman – had to have it. Today’s fortress was properly built up, in modern times, by the 16th-century Turks, in the course of their wars with Persia, but in the 19th century the British took a hand. They had decided to support Ottoman Turkey against Russia, which had been taking over the Caucasus and threatened to take over Anatolia as well, including Constantinople. Liberal opinion detested Tsarist Russia, the heartland of reactionary empire, and in any case a Russia athwart Anatolia could threaten British connections with India. War resulted, fought in the Crimea (1853–56), with a sideshow in the Caucasus when the Russians besieged Kars. A British general, Sir William Williams (1800–83), was sent with a team of officers, medical and other, to help, and in 1855 made a great name for himself.

It was an episode that showed the worst and the best of the Turks. The men fought a defensive action with extraordinary courage, only giving in when they were too weak even to hold their rifles straight. But the generals suffered from infighting and prudence, so that capitulation became unavoidable. (It was managed with great humanity. Some of the officers fighting for the Turks were Hungarian, having fled to Turkey after defeat in their war of independence in 1849. Had they been captured by Russians, they might have been sent back for execution. Williams and the Russian commander, Muravyov, arranged for them to go back to Erzurum.) When peace came, in 1856, Kars was handed back to the Turks, and the British designed more elaborate fortifications. However, come the next Russo–Turkish war, in 1877, there was another siege, and this time round there was no direct British help. The fortress fell to a surprise attack. Russia annexed the three Trans-Caucasian provinces of northeastern Turkey, and held them for 40 years.

Kars then changed utterly. An English traveller in 1826 had described how “the majestic appearance of the place when seen at a distance, from the imposing aspect of its citadel and the extent of its walls, the houses being several storeys high and built mostly of stone, gives it an air of peculiar magnificence”. But “the moment we entered the southern gate, the illusion vanished. I found long environs, dismal enough to be passages to a prison… dirt, ruin and neglect sat in the corner of the streets… Every porch and alley swarmed with hundreds of skeleton dogs, to which their masters will neither give food, shelter, nor merciful death…”. When there was a first Russian siege, in 1828, many Armenians collaborated; after peace, in 1829, they took refuge over the border, where, eventually, in the Russian province of Yerevan (at the time, two-thirds Muslim), today’s Armenia began to take shape. In 1878, when Kars fell to the Russians, it was the Muslims’ turn to flee.

The world now hears, again and again (and again), about what happened to the Armenians in 1915. It has heard a great deal less about what happened to the million and a half Muslims from the Caucasus who were “ethnically cleansed” in the later 19th century, losing a third of their numbers from disease and depredations, as was to happen in 1915 with the Armenians of eastern Anatolia. Their descendants do not lobby all manner of public bodies, from Montevideo to Edinburgh, for recognition of their ancestors’ fate as “genocide”, and do not have the hand out at modern Russia for “compensation”. Some of us might regard this as a matter of dignity.

At any rate, Kars became Russian, and by 1910 it was overwhelmingly Armenian. The Tsar came on a visit just after war broke out in 1914, to inspect his troops and, though guardedly, Russia supported the cause of a Greater Armenia. Four Armenian brigades were attached to the Russian army when it invaded, although the commander complained that Cossacks had to save Muslims from their attentions, that they stole the diaspora’s money, and that they should be disbanded. Nevertheless, Kars in the Russian period became something of a model town. When it was connected by rail to Tiflis (Tbilisi), the seat of the vice-royalty of the Caucasus, it boomed. In that climate, booming is not easy, but there was a considerable cultural and educational life, with over 20,000 schoolchildren, many of them girls, and there was an interesting immigration.

Armenians were all around, taking over the professions and trade (though the ancient Armenian church on the hill below the citadel, the Apostles, was taken over for the Orthodox garrison: it has survived, in sorry state). But around Kars there were Russian villages given to a sect called the Milk-Drinkers who were crypto-Protestants and were good at food-processing. There were Greek villages, set up originally by men from the Pontus whom the Turks had used for their fortifications a century before; and even German villages, looking quite like the 18th-century Swabian ones that formed the model. There were also Swiss who set up dairies and made a version of emmental, now well known as Kars gravyeri. There was even a place called Novo Estonskoye, with Estonian emigrants, also Protestant, whom everyone admired, though they were thought to drink too much. Today’s airport is not far from the site of Estonka, as it was known. There was still a small Russian colony in Kars in the 1980s, and nowadays Turkish television shows films of these poor old Milk-Drinkers, though they mainly emigrated to Canada.

Russian Kars ended in terrible tears. After the Revolution in 1917, and the Turks’ defeat in 1918, an independent Armenia came into existence, and its leaders wanted to re-establish ancient Armenia, claiming everything in sight. Their first act was to attack Georgia over Christmas 1918. Then they had a go at everyone else, claiming British support. This period has been chronicled by an Armenian–American historian, Richard Hovannisian, in four volumes, and by volume IV even he is losing patience. He quotes with evident relish a note that the British Foreign Office made, saying that “what we want to see now is concrete evidence of some constructive and administrative ability at home instead of a purely external policy based on propaganda and mendicancy”, to which the contemporary observer can only say amen.

Kars was stuffed with guns and men. The Turks, for good reason fearing what would happen if Greater Armenia took over Erzurum and points north, mustered troops. In October 1920, the Armenians of Kars just ran away, and the Turks’ chief difficulty, as they entered the citadel, was to find the room where the Armenian generals were skulking. Then they marched almost to Yerevan, where a deal was done with Moscow: Turkey gave up claims to Azerbaijan, and in return got back eastern Anatolia.

It is a nasty and sad episode, and you wonder why a people as intelligent as the Armenians ended up with a Paraguay rather than an Israel. I have written to Professor Hovannisian, asking whether people of good will on both sides cannot sort things out. He must know better than I do that the “propaganda and mendicancy” line, in this case claims of “genocide”, needs severe qualification, that today’s Armenia desperately needs connections with Turkey before, poor and land-locked, it loses its entire population. No answer.

Post-Russian Kars went through a bad couple of generations. However, as with Izmir, something of the old fertility did survive. The officers and civil servants of Atatürk’s Turkey who went there kept the schools and the theatre going: to this day, Kars is more go-ahead in a republican sense than Trabzon or Erzurum, and has its own little diaspora in western Turkey.

One of my most admired friends is a Kurd from one of the old Greek villages who, leaving school early, got himself via this and that to Lokal, one of the nicest restaurants at the end of İstıklâl Caddesi in Istanbul. He used me intelligently to get good English, on top of a 12-hour day, and is now the wine waiter in a posh place over the Bosphorus, corresponding with the FT’s Jancis Robinson, whose husband I also used to teach.

That is the spirit of Kars, and if the Armenian diaspora can ever be persuaded to see sense, it would be Armenia’s future as well.

Norman Stone is professor of history at Bilkent University. His new book, The Atlantic and Its Enemies 1945–1999, will be published next year by Penguin

Other Highlights from Cornucopia 42
  • The Flutterby Ball

    The Kaçkar Mountains are heaven for butterflies, as the butterfly book author and photographer Ahmet Baytaş, economist by trade, ecologist by nature, discovered when he returned to Yaylalar, the village of his birth

  • Mother of the Uighurs

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  • Gorgeous Georgian

    Robert Ousterhout is agog at the remarkable Georgian churches of the Tao-Klarjeti, the two medieval Georgian principalities between Kars and the Kaçkars

  • Water Over the Bridge

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  • Heat and Dust

    Leo Gough grew up in the hothouse atmosphere of Cold War Ankara, where his father was director of the British Institute of Archaeology. He recalls tales of derring-do from the larger-than-life visitors and scholars who passed through the institute’s doors

  • Four Walks in the Kaçkars

    Kate Clow, pioneering waymarker and author of two walking guides to the Taurus Mountains, has now created a guide to trekking in the Kaçkars. Here she describes four breathtaking one-day walks.

  • A Day on Black Rock Pasture

    By whatever name it is known – whether Karataş Yayla (Black Rock Pasture) or ÇaGrankaya (Singing Rock) – this spur of the Kaçkars is full of drama. Andrew Byfield battled rain and fog to reach its riches

  • Wrestling with Life in the Mountains

    High in the apparently empty Kaçkars, the way of life is as old as the hills. Michael Hornsby joins in the fun at a village festival in remote summer pastures. Photographs by Giulio Rubino

  • Portrait of the Artists

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