“Crimes Against Humanity: The Russian Empire and the Entente Note of May 24, 1915”


The First Hague Convention, 1899.  Wikipedia Commons.

By Jake Beard

Dr. Peter Holquist is an associate professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Holquist received his B.A. from Indiana University Bloomington, an M.A. and a M.Phil. at Columbia University as well as a Ph.D. in History from Columbia University. Dr. Holquist is the founder of the academic journal Kritika and author of Making War, Forging Revolution: Russia’s Continuum of Crisis, 1914-1921. His current project, titled By Right of War, centers on the development of international law in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Dr. Holquist gave a lecture on 20 October 2016 entitled “Crimes Against Humanity: The Russian Empire and the Entente Note of May 24, 1915,” as part of the Havighurst Colloquium series on Russia in World War One and the revolutionary era that followed.

Russia is often believed to be an international actor who stands in the way of the development of humanitarian laws. Presuppositions, including seemingly timeless and nearly world-wide conceptualizations of Russia as a house of despotism and backwardness, feed into the idea that Russia could not be a key agent in the realm of humanitarianism. However, it was the purpose of Dr. Peter Holquist’s lecture, at least in part, to provide evidence that counters these narratives. By way of analyzing the Entente Note, a document sent from the powers of Britain, France, and Russia during World War One to the Ottoman Empire, Holquist set out to demonstratively prove that Russia was one of the most important proponents of the development of the humane treatment of subjects and citizens by the governments who are responsible for them.

Russian involvement in fostering international humanitarian laws predates the Entente Note and Holquist posited that Russia’s seemingly anomalous place in the development of these laws, before and after the 1915 note, is best contextualized by analyzing Russia’s humanitarian efforts from Catherine the Great moving forwards rather than from Nicholas II moving backwards. In either case,  Holquist posited that Russia, like Prussia, made sense as a strong candidate for taking the lead in the development of international laws. Unlike the United States or Great Britain, Russia did not participate in a customary law system and, instead, their administrative legal approach prepared them well for the style of international law making. The Russian Empire used its strength in this regard to foster, and actively lead, many developments in the realm of humanitarian law.

As early as 1868 Russia was a bit of a trailblazer,Holquist suggested, for the Empire hosted talks to foreswear a new development in the world of munitions – the exploding bullet. The Russian Empire, despite inventing the technology, agreed to ban the use of these new bullets citing that they “violated the laws of humanity.”  Again in 1874, Russia took the helm as they hosted the Brussels Conference as a response to the conduct of Prussians in the Franco-Prussian War. And again at the Hague Conventions (1899 and 1907), Russia was a key player, if not the primary force, in the formal development and codification of a treaty establishing rules of conduct in land warfare.

During the course of World War I, however, the Russian government placed itself again at the forefront of international humanitarianism as it was one of the key actors in the efforts to alleviate the suffering of the Armenian population under Ottoman rule. The Ottoman Empire, a longstanding subject of international humanitarian debate because of its large number of Christian minorities, had been accused of massacres against the Armenian Orthodox Christian populations in their Eastern expanses. Treated as a fifth column, the Ottoman government systematically targeted and removed Armenians so as to ‘Turkify’ the provinces and quell civil unrest throughout their wartime empire. The Russian Empire responded to the Ottoman treatment of Armenians largely at the behest of the Armenian Catholicos in the Imperial capital. At the same time, the Russians, despite their leading role in the attempted mitigation of what became the Armenian Genocide, were not innocent of their own crimes against humanity. Russians during World War I committed quite violent acts against peripheral subjects such as the Kurds of Kurdistan. The treatment of the Kurds by Russians, their rape and murder at the hands of Russian soldiers, is recounted by Commissar Viktor Shklovskii as some of the worst in the war. He writes, in a document Holquist interprets in his recent article, “I have seen Galicia [during the war], and I have seen Poland [during the war] – but that was all paradise compared to Kurdistan.”[1] This clearly demonstrates that while Russia was leading the charge to oversee ethical treatment of Armenians as Turkish subjects, their relationship with international humanitarianism was a tenuous one at best.

The Entente Note itself, Holquist remarked, proposed reforms that were primarily concerned with international oversight in order to alleviate the sufferings of the Armenian populations of the Ottoman Empire. Though this oversight did not prevent the Armenian genocide the note, by labeling the violence against the Armenians as a “crime against humanity,” shows again that Russia had a long-standing, though problematic, role in the development of international human rights laws. Though Russia was forced, for a multitude of reasons, to concede defeat in the First World War earlier than her cobelligerents, the role of the Russian Empire in championing of human rights laws, particularly in identifying crimes against humanity in the Ottoman Empire, should not be lost to the shadow of war, defeat, and revolution.

Jake Beard is a second-year M.A. student in History.

[1] Peter Holquist, “Forms of Violence During the Russian Occupation of Ottoman Territory and in Northern Persia (Urmia and Astrabad)” in Omer Bartov and Eric Weitz, eds., Shatterzone of Empires: Coexistence and Violence in the German, Habsburg, Russian, and Ottoman Borderlands (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013), p. 352.

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