South Caucasus: Transcaucasia

The South Caucasus, consisting of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, used to be known as Transcaucasia. The word “Transcaucasia” was coined as a translation of the Russian Zakavkazie (Закавказье), meaning “the far side of the Caucasus”. Far from what, you ask? From Russia, of course. From about 1800 until the collapse of the Soviet Union, the South Caucasus was dominated by Russians, and “Transcaucasia” connotes that time period and that domination.

So if neutrality is desired in nomenclature, then clearly “Transcaucasia” should be abandoned in favor of “South Caucasus”.*** But the biased term is not all bad, for it also carries with it the memory of a South Caucasus far more ethnically mixed than it is today. It even recalls a brief time when the South Caucasus was independent and politically united.

transcaucasian sfsr

Transcaucasia in early Soviet times

Russian control of Transcaucasia began around 1800 and was completed by 1830. Over the course of those thirty or so years, the Russians fought wars against both the Persians and the Ottomans. With the former, the Treaties of Gulistan and Turkmenchay secured Russian control over the various khanates covering modern-day Azerbaijan and Armenia; with the latter, the Treaty of Adrianople secured Russian control of Georgia and Abkhazia. Thenceforward, Transcaucasia was organized into several Russian governorates. The exact borders of the governorates shifted frequently, but they were typically centered around cities like Tiflis, Erivan, and Elisabethpol (to use terminology in the spirit of “Transcaucasia”).

transcaucasian governorates

“Elisabethpol” is nowadays called “Ganja”, and of course “Tiflis” and “Erivan” are old spellings of “Tbilisi” and “Yerevan”.

Things went along smoothly until the Russian Revolution. The Provisional Government that resulted from the February Revolution (N.S. March Revolution) made little effort to exert control over Transcaucasia. The ethereal idea of independence began to float around, but for the most part the Transcaucasians still thought of themselves of as Russian subjects, and patiently awaited further direction. Nominal-but-impotent governing bodies at this time included the Ozakom (a contraction of the Russian for “Special Transcaucasian Committee”) and the Transcaucasian Commissariat.

When the Bolsheviks seized power in the October Revolution (N.S. November Revolution), they had even less of a hold on the South Caucasus. This did not stop them from sending Transcaucasia up shit creek. In an effort to extricate itself from the (First) World War at any cost, Soviet Russia signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the Central Powers. Aside from giving up a huge swath of Eastern Europe to Germany, the Bolsheviks also granted the Ottomans control over the territories of Kars, Ardahan, and Batum.

ottoman brest litovsk

This came as a shock to the Transcaucasians (especially the Georgians and Armenians) because they had not been involved at all in the agreement, and were still vigorously defending the territories in question. By that time a new governing council called the Sejm had been formed, and it attempted to enter into negotiations with the Ottomans. The Ottomans pointed out that they didn’t owe the Trancaucasians anything, since they were still a part of Russia, and indeed couldn’t legally sign any sort of treaty with them for the same reason.

This prompted the Sejm to declare the creation of a new country, known variously as the Republic of Transcaucasia, the Transcaucasian Confederative Republic, and the Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic. The Ottomans officially recognized the republic, but then went ahead and seized the Brest-Litovsk lands anyway. They even made further territorial demands, including the Akhaltsikhe district and much of the Erivan governorate.

Panicked, the Georgians appealed to the Germans to mediate. The German mediator tried to help them, but came to the conclusion that, as before, he couldn’t legally deal with the Georgians in particular unless they declared independence. They promptly did, and Armenia and Azerbaijan followed suit two days later. United Transcaucasia lasted only a month.

brest litovsk cartoon


In reality, though, there never was any unity. None of the Transcaucasian peoples ever had any affinity for each other, and the Armenians and Azerbaijanis actively hated each other. Furthermore, while the Georgians and Armenians were resisting Turkish invasion, the Azerbaijanis welcomed it. Besides being Turks themselves, Azerbaijan needed help overthrowing the Bolshevik Baku Commune that had taken over its capital. So they were all at cross purposes, and only stuck together out of a vague sense of still being part of Russia.

The countries of Transcaucasia enjoyed a few years of independence (during which time each country had territorial conflicts with each other country) before being invaded by the Soviets. They were organized into yet another confederation, the Transcaucasian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (TSFSR). Engineered by the semi-Russianized Georgian Sergo Ordzhonikidze, the TSFSR was mainly a tool for quashing local Bolshevik authority, especially in Georgia. It was disbanded in 1936.

Although it has no information about why it was created or dissovled, about a third of the English Wikipedia article on the TSFSR is devoted (at the time of this writing) to “Stamps and Postal History”. This state of affairs is utterly baffling, but it must be said that the TSFSR’s stamps were pretty cool, featuring four completely different scripts. (Recall that in the early 1920s, Azeri was still written in Arabic)

transcaucasia stamp

After 1936, the Transcaucasian countries went about their ways as separate SSRs. After the Soviet Union collapsed, Armenia and Azerbaijan engaged in the lengthy and still-unresolved Nagorno Karabakh War, while Georgia fought its wars against Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Unity in the South Caucasus today is unthinkable, even as a diplomatic technicality or a pretext for suppression of dissent. This is an important characteristic that sets “the South Caucasus” apart from “Transcaucasia”, and so we can mark the end of the Soviet Union as the end of Transcaucasia.

“The South Caucasus” is also demographically distinct from “Transcaucasia”. Here are some facts:

  •  In 1970, one third of the population of Georgia was not Georgian. Today, almost 90% are Georgian.
  • In 1939, non-Azeris made up almost half the population of Azerbaijan. Today, more than 90% are Azeri.
  • In 1939, Armenia was 10% Azeri, and in 1979, Nagorno Karabakh was almost one quarter Azeri. Today there are almost no Azeris in either place.
  • Armenians outnumbered Georgians in Tiflis (Tbilisi) until well into the twentieth century. Georgians didn’t constitute a majority there until the 1960s.
  • In 1959, there were more Russians than Azeris in Baku, and almost as many Armenians as Azeris. Baku didn’t become majority-Azeri until almost 1980.

Unlike “the South Caucasus”, “Transcaucasia” was home to  Russians, Jews, Greeks, Ukranians, and others. With the end of the Soviet Union, almost all of these people fled and returned to their homelands. More dramatically, all Armenians were expelled from Azerbaijan (or killed) and vice versa. Armenians and Azeris alike left Georgia (though not in such dramatic numbers). The result of all this is that while “Transcaucasia” was an ethnic hodgepodge, the peoples of “the South Caucasus” are neatly partitioned into nation-states.

tsfsr population map

“Transcaucasia” is more than just a geographical term. It also refers to a specific cultural milieu — brought about mostly by Russian conquest — wherein peoples of the South Caucasus and elsewhere commingled. In this sense, Transcaucasia no longer exists. The modern states of the South Caucasus are independent and their cultures are discrete. Can something like Transcaucasia come about again? If so, can it happen without the catalyst of foreign conquest?

soviet transcaucasia

*** The Georgian word for the region is also geographically biased, but in the other direction: Amierkavkasia (ამიერკავკასია) means “this side of the Caucasus”. Regarding the Armenian Andrkovkas (Անդրկովկաս), which also refers to the South Caucasus, a commenter says: “«Անդր» in Armenian means “on the other side”. Many other words are formed with this root: Անդրաշխարհ (“Andrashkharh” meaning “The other world”), Անդրեփրատ (“Andr-Eprat”: The other side of Euphrates) etc.

The North Caucasus, by the way, used to be called Ciscaucasia, translated from the Russian Predkavkazie (Предкавказье) meaning “before the Caucasus”. Both words are dated and neither ever really caught on.

tsfsr emblem

Famous Transcaucasians:

  • Sergei Parajanov – Tbilisi-born Russified Armenian
  • Sayat-Nova – Armenian who lived in Georgia and wrote mostly in Azeri [Actually, “Transcaucasia” as I’ve characterized it is defined in large part by Russian influence, which didn’t begin until the end of his life. Nevertheless, he certainly embodied, perhaps more than anyone, a sense of South Caucasian cultural unity.]

12 thoughts on “South Caucasus: Transcaucasia

  1. Pingback: Flags of Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, etc | georgiasomethingyouknowwhatever

  2. Pingback: Sergei Parajanov | georgiasomethingyouknowwhatever

  3. Huge fan of your blog! To answer the question of what Անդրկովկաս means, I’m 95% percent certain it’s a a transliteration of the english “under” combined with the Armenian word for Caucasus.

  4. Pingback: Sayat-Nova | georgiasomethingyouknowwhatever

  5. Pingback: The Georgian Alphabet and the Arabic Alphabet | georgiasomethingyouknowwhatever

  6. Hi. You bring up the term Amierkavkasia (ამიერკავკასია) and then Ciscaucasia and Predkavkazie (Предкавказье), so I wanted to make sure that you were also aware of the existence of the term Imierkavkasia (იმიერკავკასია). It is the Georgian word for Predkavkazie (Предкавказье) in the same way that Amierkavkasia is the Georgian word for Transcaucasia (Закавказье). იმიერ means the opposite of ამიერ in the Georgian language.

    You are correct to note that Transcaucasia (as well as its Russian and Georgian equivalents Закавказье and ამიერკავკასია) and Ciscaucasia (also Предкавказье and იმიერკავკასია) are both dated. However, much like you aptly demonstrate how the use of the term Transcaucasia still serves a purpose in the political and cultural historiography of the region, the use of Ciscaucasia too (though with less incidence) may serve a purpose in disciplines such as geography and zoology. So for instance, you have იმიერკავკასიის ვაკე/ Предкавказская равнина (Ciscaucasian plain? maybe…) which was still used in geography textbooks as recently as about 12-13 years ago when I was in middle school.

    • To clarify, which of იმიერ and ამიერ corresponds to trans and which to cis? I can’t remember if I was ever able to figure that out, but if I did I’ve forgotten.

      Unrelated to Transcaucasia, the word ველი is used in mathematics to refer to a structure known in English as a field (see Turkish Money for details).

  7. Hello. Vexillologist here. Someone posted a flag-pin they found, on another blog, and I am investigating its possible origins. it appears to be dominated with a field of green,have the United Transcaucasia flag on the side, and some kind of eagle symbol above the United Transcaucasia flag. I have a pic, not sure how to post it here. wondering if anyone has some ideas. Very interesting article above, by-the-way. Lots of history in this world we Americans get none of. 🙂 lol.

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