The course I took on Ottoman history was 2-3 years ago and relatively short, so please correct any and all inaccurate statements I make. Also, I want to emphasize that neither genocide nor ethnic cleansing is ever justified.

EDIT: I want to emphasize that the Armenian genocide should not be equated with the other instances of ethnic cleansing mentioned below. The people who are ultimately responsible for the Armenian genocide are and always will be the people who orchestrated it and implemented it. There was no justifiable excuse for those actions. The number of mass killings and systematic race- and religion-based murders was, to the best of my knowledge, at that time unprecedented. The Armenian genocide cannot itself be considered a "population transfer" inasmuch as the vast majority of Armenians were brutally and unjustifiably killed, rather than displaced. What I was trying to ask is whether the Young Turk government used, in part, Russian expansionism as a rationalization for their atrocities. Russia conquering the Ottoman empire still would have been a better outcome than what actually happened, namely the Ottoman government senselessly and brutally murdering millions of its own citizens. Rationalizations rarely, if ever, amount to legitimate excuses or justifications of the actions in question, and I believe that this case is no different. /EDIT

As I recall, after the Russian Empire's Caucasus War in the late 19th century, the Muslim Circassians were almost entirely displaced from the Caucasus, with the Ottoman Empire absorbing the majority of refugees.

1. Did the architects of the Armenian Genocide during World War I plan their actions in part as a reciprocal population transfer (i.e. to force Russia to absorb the Christian Armenians the same way Russia forced the Ottomans to absorb the Muslim Circassians)?

I remember reading that during World War I, all Armenians, even those loyal to the Ottoman Empire, were under suspicion by the government for being a "fifth column" supporting Russia. This paranoia was exacerbated by the participation of Russian Armenians in the War in the Caucasus Front.

The Armenian Genocide, by killing millions of people, vastly diminished the presence of Armenians in eastern Anatolia and caused their modern-day concentration in the Caucasus. This is the opposite of the effect of the Russian ethnic cleansing of the Circassians, which effectively removed the Circassians from the Caucasus and displaced them to Anatolia. Thus, combining the two events, it seems possible that it was another instance of reciprocal ethnic cleansing (euphemistically referred to as "population transfers") which occurred between the Ottoman Empire and its Christian neighbors (and former subjects) during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

2. To what extent can the reciprocal ethnic cleansings between the Ottoman Empire and Greece and Bulgaria, respectively, be traced to Russian influence?

I know that during this time period the Russian Empire wanted to project itself worldwide as the leader of all Orthodox Christians and all Slavic peoples, in part to justify their expansion at the expense of the Ottoman Empire.

It is well established that imperial Russia was one of the most fervent supporters of the Greek independence movement, with Catherine the Great trying to install her grandson as the King of Greece, and if I remember correctly Russian intervention playing a decisive role in a crucial naval battle.

Was the movement to oust Muslims from the newly independent Greece in part spurred on by imperial Russia wanting a client state more pliable to its claims of moral leadership of Orthodox Christians, which would have been undermined by a religiously diverse Greece?

Also I remember reading that Bulgarian nationalism was relatively non-existent outside of intellectual circles, and that as a result the political impetus for Bulgarian independence came primarily from Russian expansionism and concomitant military and political support for Slavic nationalist movements.

Was the reciprocal population transfer in Bulgaria also motivated by Russian desires for a more homogeneously Slavic and Orthodox Christian client state, i.e. so as to more effectively exert influence?

I remember being confused during the course about why ethnic tensions suddenly flared up in the Ottoman empire during this time period and why such extreme episodes of ethnic cleansing were suddenly acceptable to people who only centuries or decades before had seemingly very little to no sense of ethnic identity, much less nationalism.

Only recently did it occur to me that the sudden development of such "us vs. them" mentalities could have been provoked by the existential threat the expansion of the Russian empire posed to the Ottomans at the time (the dream of the former being to capture Istanbul/Constantinople and justify their claim of being the "Second Byzantium").

Of course Russian expansion at the expense of the Ottomans had been nothing new, with the Crimean Khanate being lost and the establishment of a Russian Black Sea fleet already occurring as early as the 18th century (I think), but only during the late 19th and early 20th centuries were the Russians really on the cusp of conquering Istanbul and Anatolia itself, with the only force preventing this from occurring being the interventions of the British.

(Although there was also the time when the Egyptian province almost conquered Istanbul, advancing all the way into Anatolia, and forcing the sultan to beg the Russians to intervene, since the British refused -- so at the point the Russians probably could have taken Istanbul under the guise of protecting it from the Egyptians but stopped short of doing so for unclear reasons.)

Only recently did it occur to me that there might be a connection between all of this and the Russian War in the Caucasus and the subsequent ethnic cleansing of the Circassians, prompting me to ask this question.

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    Even though what you say is mostly correct. I would not ignore the effect of nationalism in the equation and the civil war in Russia stating on 1917. Because if we assume that during that civil war Russia was unable to influence beyond its frontiers, then the Greek ethnic cleansing in Anatolia was and independent phenomena of Russia. Besides, we must remember that the communism (the new philosophy in Russia) was against nationalism, because it was an international movement.
    – Santiago
    Commented Dec 5, 2016 at 12:29
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    IMO, the answer is "yes", the Russian colonial expansion can be seen as the source of these problems. IMO, the British Empire should receive even more blame. Neither of these groups were peacemakers, both sought to destroy the pluralism of the Ottoman empire though "raising national awareness" Commented Dec 5, 2016 at 14:33
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    @axsvl77 Except Europe had its own issues with rising nationalism with their own minorities in the 18-1900s. I don't doubt outside empires exploited this, but it is completely wrong to pin it solely on them. The Ottoman Empire was an EMPIRE, made up of many ethnic groups and religions. They always had issues, but were once strong enough to deal with them. The Ottos weakened, and started having internal interference from European powers. To me, the Genocide always seemed like what an empire in their position wanted to do, and WWI just gave them an opportunity to do it without interference. Commented Jun 13, 2017 at 14:57
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    Perhaps the idea of rationalization is unneeded. "Whenever a massacre of Armenians is reported from Asia Minor, everyone assumes that it has been carried out "under orders" from somewhere or another; no one seems to think that there are people who might like to kill their neighbors now and then." - Saki (H.H. Munro)
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jan 3, 2018 at 18:28

2 Answers 2


It is always difficult to name one reason for a complicated historical event. Usually there are many reasons. The point of view expressed in your question is defended at least by some historians. For example

Sean McMeekin, The Russian origins of the first world war, Harward UP, 2011

has a chapter (Chapter 6, p 141-174) on the role of Russian policies in the Armenian genocide.

  • 2
    This is a great reference, thank you! Also I apologize for making it sound like there is/was only one reason -- as you correctly point out any such statement is almost certainly too reductionistic. Commented Dec 5, 2016 at 15:15

This question can be very much opinable, but I want to address some points:

Did the architects of the Armenian Genocide during World War I plan their actions in part as a reciprocal population transfer.

Armenians were not expelled from their homes, they were exterminated. It was not a population transfer. If Armenians are now concentrated in the Caucasus and not in Eastern Anatolia, it is because the ones in Eastern Anatolia were killed en masse and the ones in the Caucasus were not, not because they moved from one area to the other.

I remember being confused during the course about why ethnic tensions suddenly flared up in the Ottoman empire during this time period.

One word: decadence. Racial and religious tensions were there1 but there was a strong power that kept the status quo (so minorities would not rebel, and Ottomans would not have to use heavy handed tactics to suppress them).

And it was not so sudden: check rebellions like the Migrations of the Serbs, the Orlov Revolt, etc. While fighting was not continuous, at no time I would call the situation "pacific".

Was the movement to oust Muslims from the newly independent Greece in part spurred on by imperial Russia.

First time I have heard about that.

Remember, Greek people were rebelling (again) on their own against Ottoman power and fought a pretty brutal war against them, so they likely had very little sympathy for anyone who could side with Istambul. And the reason that they were rebelling was because they wanted to live in a Greek state, under Greek law (and, at the time, law included religion).

It was the time when the ideal was the "nation state": a single, unified national identity under the same state.

Really, there is no need to look for2 external factors to explain that.

I remember reading that during World War I, all Armenians, even those loyal to the Ottoman Empire, were under suspicion by the government for being a "fifth column"

And with good reason. The Empire had lost almost all of its European territories to breakaway minorities (some of them supported by Russians), and the Armenians had their own.

On the other hand, an overlooked Russian (and Western) influence was the use of the rights of Christian minorities as an excuse to wage war against the Ottoman Empire. Any time a Christian power wanted a casus belli, an incident or a riot would be used to justify a new war, a new defeat of the Ottoman Empire, and new territorial losses and concessions.

This could have greatly increased the appeal3, to the Ottoman empire leadership, of building a Turkish only state.

TL/DR The initial situation of the Ottoman Empire was far from being as ideal as you describe it. While to some degrees the politics of the Porte may have been influenced by the actuation of foreign powers, adscribing all of what happened to Russian (or even all the combined foreign) influence without considering the internal situation of the Empire is too much of a stretch, unless there is solid documental evidence.

1 While more tolerant with minorities than others, the Ottoman Empire was always the Empire of Ottoman Turks over other, second-class citizens belonging to minorities.

2 Anyway, I will not claim that Russia did or did not have a hand at this. I only claim that, even if there were no foreign intervention, the process is not difficult to understand, so I would like to see some documentats that justify claiming that it was Russia fault.

3 Again, the nation state was already the ideal model.

  • The "nation state" model was also used to support the break up of Yugoslavia and the establishment of some new nation states ... which eventually came to pass Commented Dec 5, 2016 at 19:46
  • I like how everyone say the Ottomans were a tolerant empire, and talks about nationalism as anything new, forgetting that a large number of ethnical groups simply disappeared under the Turks and those people on Balkan were fighting with the Turks (Seljuks and Ottomans) for literally centuries.
    – Greg
    Commented Jul 2, 2021 at 0:37

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