What changes were made to Karabakh’s administrative-territorial divisions after it was occupied by Tsarist Russia?

The khanates of northern Azerbaijan were gradually abolished and converted into provinces and districts (ayalat and daire in the Azerbaijani language) after their annexation to the Tsarist Empire at the beginning of the 19th century. At that time, six provinces, namely Baku (1808), Guba (1810), Shaki (1819), Shirvan (1820), Karabakh (1822), and Talysh (1826), plus two okrugs (districts), Yelizavetpol (1804) and Jar-Balakan, and two distantsiyas (smaller districts or distances) Kazakh (1812) and Shamshadil (1812) were established in Azerbaijan. Commandants mainly governed these provinces and districts. Officers ranked major and higher were usually assigned to this position. This administrative government system, which continued until 1841, was described as a commandant administrative system or simply a commandant system. By establishing a commandant system, the Tsarist Empire sought to remove Azerbaijan’s pre-existing tradition of statehood.

It should be stressed that in the 1830s, there were numerous uprisings and rebellions against this commandant system in Azerbaijan, which also set out to suppress the Tsarist Empire’s policies in the region. Although these uprisings were brutally put down by the Tsarist Empire, the socio-economic and political reasons that paved the way for these uprisings were persisting. Therefore, to prevent further uprisings, the Tsarist Empire set a plan in the late 1830s to replace the commandant system with a civil imperial administration. Thus, on April 10, 1840, Tsar Nikolas I agreed to pass an administrative reform law for Transcaucasia, which would take effect on January 1, 1841. As a result, the South Caucasus was divided into a Georgian-Imeretian guberniya (province) based in Tiflis (Tbilisi) and a Caspian oblast (region) with its center in Shamakhi. Moreover, the Georgian-Imeretian guberniya and the Caspian oblast were divided into uyezds and okrugs. This ‘reform’ by the Tsarist Empire was called “The establishment of the administration of the Transcaucasian region.” It set out to end the commandant system by establishing courts in guberniyas (provinces, new administrative division after a law of 1840) and magistrates’ courts in uyezds, okrugs, oblasts, and in the centers of guberniyas and by putting the region under the common civil imperial administration. Furthermore, the line between Georgian-Imeretian guberniya and Caspian oblast was drawn for putting Yelizavetpol (Ganja) and Nakhchivan within the Georgian guberniya.

Further administrative changes and consolidations were made to the Tsarist Empire’s administrative legal system in December 1846, when new administrative boundaries were drawn in the South Caucasus and four guberniyas were formed, namely: Tiflis, Kutaisi, Shamakhi, and Darband. Based on these divisions, Tiflis guberniya administered Ganja and Nakhchivan. A new Iravan guberniya was created in 1849, which included Nakhchivan. In 1859, an earthquake destroyed the city of Shamakhi. Therefore, Baku became the new center of the guberniya, and its name changed to Baku guberniya. None of these new administrative divisions of the South Caucasus took into account historical precedents, ethnic composition, or the wishes of the people living in the region.[1] During this period, most of north Azerbaijan came under the jurisdiction of the Caspian oblast, which consisted of seven uyezd, namely Shirvan, Shusha (Karabakh), Shaki, Talish (Lankaran), Baku, Darband, and Guba.

As stated previously, according to the new administrative divisions, Shusha uyezd was established in 1841 as a separate administrative unit within the Caspian Oblast, which covered all territory that belonged to the former Karabakh Khanate. The city of Shusha was the center of the Uyezd. Shusha uyezd was also divided into Javanshir, Jabrayil, and Zangazur sub-regions. In 1846, Shusha uyezd became part of the Shamakhi guberniya. When the Shamakhi guberniya moved to Baku after the 1859 earthquake, Shusha uyezd became part of Baku guberniya, and in 1868 it was incorporated into Ganja guberniya. After this, four uyezds were formed in the territory of the Shusha uyezd: Shusha, Zangazur (1874), Javanshir (1883), and Jabrayil (later called Garyagin-1883), which covered the historical territory of Karabakh.[2] This administrative division almost matched Karabakh’s historical territories located south of the river Kura during the Caucasian Albanian era in the early Middle Ages. Thus, the Shusha, Zangazur, Javanshir, and Jabrayil uyezds that were created in the historical territory of Karabakh during the Tsarist Empire were replaced respectively by the Arsak, Sunik, Uti, and Paytakaran regions of the Caucasus Albania. One of the eye-catching issues is the Armenian’s tendency mainly to Shusha uyezd. The Shusha uyezd covered an area of 4,900 km2 and included the current territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. By 1886, Armenians represented 58 percent of the population of Shusha uyezd as a result of the Tsarist Empire’s migration policy, when the figure had been less than 10 percent of the entire population of Karabakh at the beginning of the 19th century.[3]

[1] Altstadt, Audrey, The Azerbaijani Turks: Power and Identity under the Russian Rule (Hoover Institution Press, 1992), p. 59.

[2] Azərbaycan tarixi, Vol. 4, (Bakı: Elm, 2007), pp. 118-126, 211-212.

[3] Mahmudov, Ceyhun, “Karabağ’ın Etnik Yapısının Oluşumuna Tarihsel ve Demografik Bakış,” in Yılmaz, Reha (ed.), Qarabağ bildiklərimiz və bilmədiklərimiz (Qafqaz Universiteti, 2010), p. 564.