The pre–Cold War history of Armenia and its strategic geographic position on the southern border of the Soviet Union conditioned its role during the Cold War. Although Armenia was not a direct theater of operations during World War II, Armenians were concerned with the possibility of Turkish intervention against the Soviet Union. When the war ended, Soviet leader Josef Stalin laid claims, on behalf of Armenia and Georgia, against Turkey for the return of the eastern Turkish provinces of Kars and Ardahan to Soviet jurisdiction. These claims were enthusiastically embraced by Armenians both in Soviet Armenia and in Armenian diaspora communities worldwide, largely because of the still-fresh memories of the massacres of Armenians by the Turkish government a generation before. Soviet pressure on Turkey combined with Soviet aid to communist guerrillas in Greece and the continuing Soviet occupation of northern Iran, however, prompted a strong response from the United States in the form of the Truman Doctrine, which called for extensive aid to Turkey and Greece in their struggle against communist aggression. While the attempt to reclaim Kars and Ardahan was not successful, it did lead to a large-scale repatriation of Armenians from around the world to Soviet Armenia.
Beginning with the death of Stalin in 1953 and continuing throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, Armenia saw significant economic, social, and political changes, including the rise of a new generation of intelligentsia to replace those killed in the 1930s during Stalin's Great Terror. In 1965, Armenian intellectuals raised the issue of commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the 1915 Armenian genocide in Turkey. Demonstrations took place but were dispersed with water cannon and repressive police actions. In response to this unprecedented action, Soviet authorities acquiesced to Armenian demands to acknowledge the genocide and agreed to erect a monument in Erevan to the victims of 1915.
These unsanctioned political activities in Armenia led to the formation of an organized Armenian dissident movement in the late 1960s and 1970s. Soviet authorities broke up several organizations advocating Armenian independence and imprisoned their members in gulags. The most prominent incident took place in 1977 when a bomb exploded in the Moscow subway. Although there was no clear evidence of their involvement, several Armenians were arrested, tried, and executed. Among those protesting this Soviet action was the human rights activist and dissident Andrei Sakharov. In 1978 when Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev suggested changes to the Soviet Armenian constitution that would have eliminated the protected status of the Armenian language, Armenians took to the streets in protest, and intellectuals decried the proposed measure. Brezhnev dropped the idea, and the Armenian language maintained its official status in Armenia.
Armenian political activism during the Brezhnev era took place within the context of improving standards of living and rising expectations. These expectations further increased when Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary of the Communist Party in 1985. Soon after assuming power, Gorbachev embarked on an ambitious program of rehabilitating Soviet society and the economy through his glasnost and perestroika reforms. By 1987 Armenians, fearful of a repetition of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident at the Armenian nuclear reactor located at the convergence of several fault lines, began to raise questions about the state of the environment.
Within a short period of time, however, environmental concerns were overshadowed by the struggle over Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnically Armenian enclave situated within the borders of the neighboring Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. In February 1988, the local legislature of Nagorno-Karabakh voted to secede from Azerbaijan and join Armenia, a move condemned by Moscow and Baku. A pogrom against Armenians in the Azerbaijani industrial city of Sumgait followed. For several days, mobs hunted down and killed Armenians until Soviet forces reestablished order. This led to escalating violence in and around Nagorno-Karabakh and to hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing from both republics.
The shock of Sumgait reverberated throughout Armenia, with massive protest demonstrations taking place in Erevan. These spontaneous demonstrations soon became coordinated and led by the Karabagh Committee, a group of intellectuals who articulated the Armenian people's dissatisfaction with the existing situation. The Karabagh Committee transformed itself into the Armenian National Movement (ANM) in 1989 and became a driving political force in the republic, challenging the hegemony of the Communist Party. In the Supreme Soviet elections of summer 1990, the ANM succeeded in dominating the legislature and in having its leading activist, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, elected to the chairmanship.
The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh was briefly overshadowed on 7 December 1988 when a massive earthquake struck northern Armenia, flattening the country's second largest city and killing between 25,000 and 50,000 people while leaving half a million homeless. Gorbachev, who was in the United States at the time, rushed back home and allowed foreign humanitarian assistance into the affected areas of Armenia. This marked the first time since World War II that such large amounts of Western aid were permitted inside the Soviet Union and was a major turning point in the Cold War.
By the end of 1990 democratic reforms had progressed considerably in Armenia to include agriculture, politics, and the economy. The Armenian Supreme Soviet decided not to participate in Gorbachev's March 1991 referendum on the future of the Soviet Union and instead scheduled a referendum on Armenia's political future for September 1991—all in accordance with the Soviet constitution. In the intervening time period, the August 1991 coup against Gorbachev failed, and when Armenia went ahead with its referendum on 21 September 1991, the result was an overwhelming vote for independence. Independence was declared two days later, and in October 1991 Levon Ter-Petrosyan was elected the first president of an independent Armenia.
Robert Owen Krikorian
Masih, Joseph, and Robert O. Krikorian. Armenia: At the Crossroads. London: Routledge, 1999.