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  • Writer's pictureLeo Torosian

The Curious Case of a Russian Ambush on Armenian Fedayis

Updated: Dec 12, 2023

Intriguing 1904 pictures of Russian Cossacks holding POWs hostage and displaying an Armenian flag reveal a terrifying story of inhumanity and revenge

Fortunate enough to have had access to the Armenian Revolutionary Federation archives during a trip to Watertown, Massachusetts, I was able to compile an extensive catalogue of photographic evidence of flags from the Armenian Revolutionary Movement. This is the story behind one of the most intriguing set of photographs (shown below).

The photograph above depicts a group of soldiers dressed in white displaying what appears to be a captured flag, which reads Հ. Յ. ԴԱՇՆԱԿՑՈՒԹԻՒՆ [A.R. FEDERATION] 1904. Above the coat of arms of the A.R.F., six barely-discernable stars. The presence of six stars is a recurring theme in Armenian battle flags, representing the six Armenian populated Vilayets of the Ottoman Empire. Sitting on the floor, tired and demoralized, seem to be around 13 captured men.

Luckily, another photograph, taken seconds later, has also been preserved in the archives, in a different box. The soldiers seemingly turned the flag around and took another snapshot with the reverse showing. The writing reads "ՄԱՀ ԿԱՄ ԱԶԱՏՈՒԹԻՒՆ" [DEATH OR LIBERTY]. It is clear that both photographs were taken within moments of each other: the facial expression of the POWs has not changed, and only the officers holding the flag have moved.

Until now, the context of these pictures was unknown. However, two precious historical sources contributed to uncovering the story behind these photographs.

June 30th 1904: The Group of Fedayis Assembles

From Pro Armenia, September 1, 1904, translated from French

On the 30th of June, brave fedayis, to the number of 51, who had come from all parts of Armenia and gathered together, awaited the final decisions of the Military Council. While the two revolutionary leaders Vorsort and Torkom busied themselves with numbering and distributing their men, Ter Ghazar, the fifty-year-old battalion priest, preparing the wafer with youthful ardour. A mass was going to be celebrated in the evening and the fedayis were going to take communion.

At midnight the divine office began. The brave fedayis gathered in small groups at the church and lined up in front of the altar. The flags of the company [one of which can be seen in the pictures above] were placed on the altar to be anointed after Mass.

The celebrant fedayi priest represented devotion personified in the modest village church. There reigned in this sacred enclosure a mystical silence. After the mass, the flags were anointed with holy oil, the fedayis received communion and swore on the flags".

July 15, 1904: The Group is Ambushed

From Dro: Armenia's First Defense Minister of the Modern Era, Andranik Chalabian

"During the night of July 15, 1904, a 61-member band of ARF fedayis crossed the Russo-Turkish border to lend a hand to Sassun, which was in a crisis. A life-and-death struggle was in progress, with the Armenians under the command of fedayi chieftain Andranik. It was the second uprising of Sassun.

Why "uprising"? Because the knife had reached the bone and the government had demanded taxes for the prior seven years from the poor peasants. Using that pretext, the Turkish army had surrounded the province of Sassun, and, with the help of thousands of Kurds who had assembled to massacre and loot, had resolved to destroy the "eagles' nests" of Sassun. Thus, the people of Sassun had no choice but to die fighting, rather than be slaughtered like sheep.

Torkom (Tuman Tumiants)

After crossing the border by night and barely advancing a few kilometers, the fedayis became engaged in fighting with Turkish soldiers. Receiving reinforcements, the enemy started pressing the Armenians, who continued to fight for half a day against at least 300 Turks, suffering only two wounded.

Suddenly, in the most heated period of the battle, the Armenians were showered with bullets from behind. They came from Russian Cossacks, who were attacking the Armenians mercilessly. Trapped by the fire of enemy units from the front and the back, the Armenians had more than ten casualties within a half hour. The whole band was in danger of being annihilated. Surrounded on all sides, there was no escape route left.

The Armenians naively assumed that the Russian forces were mistakenly subjecting them to friendly fire. A sergeant in the band, Levon Kalantarian, went to the Russians to explain their goal of rushing aid to Sassun. The Russians arrested the delegate and continued firing at the Armenians.

A second delegate, Russian army officer Anushavan Dilanian, presented himself to the Russian commander and tried to explain: "We are not against the Russians; as you saw, we did not aim a single bullet at you; our struggle is only against the Turks; thus, we request that you cease fire."

The Russian officer and bandits responded, "You are revolutionaries and we will mercilessly massacre you all.” The Turks, emboldened by the Russians' favorable position, began to press the Armenians further. Father Ghazar, displaying a piece of white fabric and holding aloft his cross, headed toward the Russians.

The bullets, however, felled both the priest and the cross; the poor cleric was the recipient of contempt, insults, and curses. The fedayis dead soon numbered twenty-seven, plus six wounded. The Russians nabbed fourteen, addition to those sent to negotiate. Twelve fedayis succeeded in finding refuge in nearby forests.

The band that was formed in response to Hrair-Dzhoghk's appeals and had rushed to the aid of Sassun tragedy was cruelly decimated. The commander of the Russian border guards in the Olti region, Brigadier Brikov, ordered the Cossacks to dispatch [kill] with their swords the six wounded first, and then the fourteen prisoners [seen in the pictures above]. The order was carried out.

Most disturbing, however, was that the slaying of the Armenian wounded and prisoners was carried out in the presence of Turkish officers who had come to witness the heart-rending execution at the invitation of Brigadier Brikov."

Brigadier Brikov can be seen standing on the right side. Source:"Pro Armenia". September 15, 1904

The French biweekly "Pro Armenia" reports that in order to prove to his superiors in the central government his marvelous achievement, Brigadier Brikov ordererd to photograph the cadavers of the dead fedayis (pictured above). Two weeks after reporting this massacre, Pro Armenia publishes the news of Brigadier Brikov's sudden assasination.

August 31, 1904: Brikov is killed by the A.R.F.

From Dro: Armenia's First Defense Minister of the Modern Era, Andranik Chalabian

"The ARF Kars Central Committee sentenced Brigadier Brikov to death. To carry out the just assassination, there was no dearth of self-sacrificing fighters in the revolutionary organization; however, a nonpartisan young man named Hamo Djanpolatian, who previously had neither carried out assassinations nor revolutionary activities, nominated himself for the role.

Around that time, on behalf of Tbilisi's ARF Eastern Bureau, Sako of Sevkar came to Kars to arrange the assassination of Brikov. Hearing about Sako of Sevkar, a young man called Hamo rushed to him, begging and pleading to be entrusted with the duty of carrying out Brikov's assassination. Sako instinctively understood that this budding young man was sincere in his wish, and so, as fully authorized by the Bureau, decided to assign the task to him despite his youth and inexperience. Hamo Dianpolatian, with expertise unexpected from him, explored and examined Brikov's movements in terms of time and place.

Brigadier Brikov

The very evening of the massacre, Brikov, self-confident and with calm conscience, had drunk cognac with his assistants and Turkish officers and got inebriated. To take the revelry to its peak, Brikov had collected the corpses of the fedayis fallen on Russian soil and was photographed standing behind them with Turkish officers, so as to send historic photos of his "heroism" to Kars, Tbilisi, and Petersburg.

Before long, Brikov began to realize that the Armenian fedayis could be vengeful. Thus, he limited his promenades to nearby places only and did not venture far from his workplace and home and the nearby club, which he frequented to play cards or to drink. He instituted strict surveillance of all roads leading to that small area.

But Hamo, proving shrewder, thwarted the sentries' wary surveillance. Wearing a wretched painter's clothes, he started circulating house to house looking for work, "pitiful in appearance, his hair disheveled, his face unwashed. His hat, jacket, pants and shoes worn out, patched up, stained with paint and soot. " This ruse allowed "painter" Hamo to verify the hours when Brikov would leave his house heading to the club.

And thus one evening, on the way to the club, Hamo shot the Brigadier with a hunting rifle. The bullet met its target directly and Brikov fell lifeless to the ground. Hamo did not flee. Instead, he ran to the corpse, put a few more bullets into its chest with his revolver, and then fled to the nearby woods. Soldiers, guards, gendarmes, all were in a frenzy, but failed to find any trace of the assassin. The ferocious brigadier was killed on August 31, 1904, precisely one-and-a-half months after the massacre of the fedayis."



Chalabian, Antranig. Dro (Drastamat Kanayan): Armenia's First Defense Minister of the Modern Era. Indo-European Publishing, 2010.



Armenian Revolutionary Federation archives:





Original texts have been modified for readability and spelling consistency between sources.

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