Can Refugees Speak? Humanitarian Crisis at the Ottoman-Russian Border (1914-1917)

By Asya Darbinyan
Submitted to Session P4783 (Humanitarianism in the Ottoman Empire during World War I, 2017 Annual Meeting
Diaspora/Refugee Studies;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
Writing about the condition of refugees in the Russian Empire in 1916, Violetta Thurstan, a British nurse, lamented, “The English language lacks words to express the suffering that these people underwent, and nothing that we can imagine could be worse than the reality.” As many as 120,000 to 150,000 refugees passed through the Ottoman-Russian border already in summer and fall 1915 as a result of the war and the genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman government against its own Armenian subjects. Exploring imperial Russia’s response to this refugee crisis on the Caucasus front of the Great War, my research project elucidates the complexity of humanitarianism at the beginning of the 20th century. To confront the emergency situation, imperial Russian authorities as well as non-governmental organizations were engaged in the Armenian relief effort in the Caucasus and elsewhere. Yet, were the voices of Armenian refugees heard or considered during the Russian relief work? Or were the refugees silenced and treated as another ‘wave’ of people ‘flooding’ the Russian Empire? Besides, what role did the objects of humanitarianism – refugees themselves – play? Drawing upon primary sources from Armenian, Georgian, and Russian archives for the first time, I address these core questions by analyzing the relief agencies’ reports, and the testimonies and memoirs of Armenian refugee-survivors forced back and forth the Ottoman-Russian borderline in 1914-1917.