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  • Abdürrezzak BedirhanOttoman Kurd and Russophile in the Twilight of Empire
  • Michael A. Reynolds (bio)

In a January 1914 article in the London journal The National Review, Walter Guinness described the situation in Ottoman eastern Anatolia.1 Events in that distant region were topical, even for a British audience. The Ottoman Empire had long served as a barrier to Russia's southern expansion, but now it was reeling from the catastrophic defeats of the Balkan wars and its breakdown and final partition appeared imminent. Ottoman eastern Anatolia, just across Russia's Caucasian border, was heating up as a site of great-power competition. Russia had been locking horns with Germany for more than a year over a scheme for the future reform of the region's administration, ostensibly for providing greater security to the region's Armenians against the more numerous Kurds. In "Impressions of Armenia and Kurdistan" Guinness called attention to the incapacity of the Ottoman administration to maintain order, the precarious position of the region's Armenians, and the "shadow of Russian military power … thrown across the Caucasian frontier." The region's Armenian minority, Guinness noted, traditionally had regarded the prospect of Russian rule with ambivalence. But because of the region's chronic and sometimes violent disorder, Russia's recent tack away from repression of its own Armenians in domestic policy, and skillful Russian propaganda, it now seemed that eastern Anatolia's Armenians looked [End Page 411] with favor at the prospect of Russian rule. What Guinness could not fathom, however, was "the liking which Kurds show for Russia." Unlike the beleaguered Armenians, the Kurds dominated local politics, were "very free of any form of Turkish interference," and had no obvious reason to wish to break from Istanbul. Yet, Guinness discovered, many Kurds indeed not only welcomed the prospect of Russian rule but were even carrying rifles supplied by Russia.2

For a European correspondent in 1914 the notion that imperial Russia could hold appeal for Muslim tribesmen was difficult to comprehend. After all, as Guinness laid out, even the Ottoman Armenians' affinity for Russia was conditional, more the product of alienation from Ottoman administration than attraction toward Russia. That Russia could command fear and demand respect was understandable, but what of positive value could Russia offer? Historians of the Near East have by and large missed this question for three sets of reasons: their starting assumptions about imperial Russian policy in the region, limited access to sources, and a polarization of the historiography. Typically, historians of the Near East have reduced Russia's impact on the region to the projection of unidimensional military and diplomatic power, overlooking such things as the impact of Baku's oil industry on migration patterns in Iran and the wider influence of socialist movements in the Caucasus.3 Moreover, when they do discuss Russia's influence in the region at the beginning of the 20th century, they operate within a narrative framework constrained by nationalist teleology and restrict their focus to Russian sponsorship of Christians in general and Armenians in particular, all but ignoring Russia's relationship with the Kurds.

In addition to these conceptual assumptions about the nature of Russia's interaction with the Middle East, linguistic barriers endemic to "transregional" research spanning Russia and its non-European borderlands, coupled with earlier obstacles to obtaining access to Russian and Ottoman archives alike, also help explain why scholars have left Russia's relationship with the Kurds in obscurity. Nonetheless, formerly restricted access to sources can provide only part of the explanation. Contemporary observers from Europe and America, including diplomats, missionaries, and journalists such as Guinness, were aware of Russia's dealings with the Kurds and informed both their governments and their publics about them. [End Page 412]

Perhaps the largest part of the explanation stems from the polarization of what might be termed "Anatolian historiography" but, in reflection of the underlying problem, is instead known as separate Turkish, Armenian, and Kurdish historiographies. Two linked questions have preoccupied this tripartite historiography: the destruction of Anatolia's Christian communities, especially the Armenian, and the creation of the Turkish Republic. Until quite recently, the three branches have differed radically in their evaluation of these...