Refugees have been on a lot of people’s minds lately. First it was the waves upon waves of refugees escaping the horrors of the Syrian civil war. Then it was Donald Trump’s battering ram of a policy on Muslim immigration. Finally, we were again reminded of the horrors of the Armenian genocide and the flood of Christian refugees from Turkey over a hundred years ago. (Unfortunately, it seems Hollywood’s attempt to galvanize interest in the genocide has failed).
In my first novel, The Song of the Sirin, the question of accepting refugees of war is a central moral dilemma facing the main characters. Vasyllia, the ruling city in a coalition of city-states, has historically been the protector of its neighbors. As a result of this protection, the other cities willingly accept secondary status. Vasyllia itself seems to enjoy a sort of divine protection for its pains.
When Vasyllia refuses to accept a wave of women and children refugees when a neighbor city is razed by a mysterious enemy, things start going very wrong.
The king in my novel is unable to find the strength of will to force his city to accept the refugees. Interestingly, I recently found out that Nicholas II, who is often called “Bloody Nicholas”, actually did the opposite during the Armenian genocide.
The following is a translation of a short article written by Pavel Paganuzzi for a Russian-language periodical in the 90’s. The original can be found here.
Nicholas II and the Armenian Genocide
Although the Russians began World War I by losing terribly to the Germans, their battles against the Turks went much better. After several serious defeats, it seemed that Russia was on the cusp of freeing the Armenian people from the Turkish yoke. However, that’s not what happened. Seeing how badly they were losing, the Turks vented their frustration on the Armenian population. The genocide began.
Because of the failures on the Western Front, many troops were siphoned off from the war with Turkey. Despite this reduction, the Russians continued to advance on the Turks through 1914 and 1915. However, the reduced number of soldiers made it impossible for the Russians to prevent the genocide. It began on April 24, 1915.
The Open Border
As soon as the killings began, Nicholas II ordered his army to do everything possible to save the remaining Armenians. Of the roughly 1.65 million Armenians living in Turkey, 375,000 escaped into Russia. That’s almost 25% percent of the entire population.
According to G. Ter-Markarian’s seminal work “How it all happened,” this is how Nicholas II managed to rescue so many Armenians:
In the beginning of the disaster of 1915, the Russian-Turkish border was opened by order of the Russian Tsar. Massive crowds of refugees entered the Russian Empire. I heard eye-witness accounts of the extreme joy and tears of gratitude of the sufferers. They fell on Russian soil and kissed it. I heard that the stern, bearded Russian soldiers had to hide their own tears. They shared their food with Armenian children. Armenian mothers kissed the boots of Russian Cossacks who took two, sometimes three Armenian boys on their own saddles. Armenian priests blessed the Russian soldiers with crosses in their hands.
At the border, many tables were set up. Russian government workers accepted the Armenians without any papers. They gave each member of a family a single ruble and a special document that allowed them to travel anywhere in the entire Russian Empire for a year. The document even gave them free public transportation! Soup kitchen were set up nearby as well.
Russian doctors and nurses handed out free medicine. They were present to offer emergency services to the sick, wounded, and pregnant.
I’m not suggesting that any specific course of action is the best one in our own refugee crisis. I recognize that the war in Syria is far more complicated than the Armenian genocide. I also recognize that one-size-fits-all immigration approaches like Trump’s are problematic. But it’s important to remember that there have been people who set aside politics for the sake of loving one’s neighbor.
If you liked this post, and if you’d like to read more about Russian history and traditions, be sure to join my Readers’ Group. You’ll be the first to know when my first novel will be available for sale, and you’ll have a chance to win free copies and other gifts.