Geography of the Soviet Union:

The region that I am calling the "Trans-Caucasus," or Transcaucasia (sometimes referred to as the South Caucasus), derives its name from the Russian word "Закавказье" (zakavkaz), meaning "beyond the Caucasus Mountains." This applies to Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan; countries that border Iran and Turkey to the south and Russia to the north. The Black Sea is to the West, and the Caspian Sea to the east.


Located between Iran (Persia), Turkey (the Ottoman Empire) and Russia, the region has experienced political, military, religious and cultural rivalry for centuries. For most of its history, the area was part of the Persian and Turkish empires until the Russian Empire incorporated some of the Trans-Caucasus in the course of the nineteenth century. There is still serious unrest in the area in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh (see the Caucasus).

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Azerbaijan borders the Caspian Sea with the Caucasus Mountains to the north--about half of the country is mountainous. The interior of the country is mostly flatlands. The climate varies from nicely temperate along the Caspian Sea, to dry in the central highlands, to cold in the mountains. (see Baku).

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Georgia is a small country, very mountainous, bordered on the east by the Black Sea and in the north by Russia. Because of the mountainous terrain and the poorly developed transportation infrastructure, many mountain villages are virtually isolated during the winter. Earthquakes and landslides are common, often with devastating results. Georgia has over twenty thousand rivers; most of which flow into the Black Sea.


In general, Georgia enjoys a relatively mild climate. The Caucasus Mountains serve as a barrier against cold air from the north. Warm, moist air from the Black Sea provides a sub-tropical climate in the coastal lowlands with a high annual rate of precipitation. In eastern Georgia, the plains are located in a drier, more moderate, continental climate. On many of the mountains to the north and throughout the country, snow and ice are present year-round.

Tbilisi (თბილისი aka Tiflis) is the capital and largest city of Georgia, lying on the banks of the Mtkvari (Kura) River with the foothills of the Caucasus in the background. According to legend the city became the capital of medieval Georgia in the sixth century CE.

Tbilisi and the Mtkvari River

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Armenia (Հայաստանի)--presently about the size of Maryland, but before World War I Armenia comprised almost the entire eastern half of what is now Turkey--is a particularly old land, bordered by Turkey to the west, Georgia to the north, Azerbaijan to the east, and Iran to the south.

The terrain is mostly mountainous and flat--the Armenian Plateau--with fast flowing rivers and few forests. The climate is highland continental with hot summers and cold winters. Part of the Caucasus Mountain range runs from northern Armenia to the southeast towards Iran, which makes travel from north to south difficult. Armenia is the locale of frequent devastating earthquakes, such as the one that struck Leninakan (Gyumri), the second largest city in December 1988, killing more than 25,000 people.

Armenia has been around as an organized society since ancient times, with the first real political state dating to the second century BCE and reaching its peak in the early first century BCE. It later became part of the Roman Empire and was the first kingdom to adopt Christianity as a state religion in 301 CE. (The Armenian Orthodox Apostolic Church is independent of both Catholic and Orthodox churches.)

With the fall of the Roman Empire, Armenia was conquered and ruled, in succession, by Persians, Byzantines, Arabs, Mongols and then Ottoman Turks. It then became part of the Russian Empire. During World War I, the Russian Army succeeded in occupying much of the part of Armenia that was in the Ottoman Empire, but with the Bolshevik Revolution and ensuing Civil War, those territorial gains were wiped out as part of the Treaty of Kars (1921). In the midst of this turmoil, Armenia first became independent and then "rejoined" Russia as part of the Trans-Caucasian Soviet Socialist Republic.

The Armenian Genocide

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Monument to the Armenian Genocide in Tsitsernakaberd (Swallow’s Fortress) Park on a hill overlooking Yerevan.

There is much information on the web about what happened in Armenia between 1915 and 1917 during World War I (a good starting point for further research is Wikipedia). This is the simplified account from the Wikipedia entry for Armenia.

As the Ottoman Empire began to collapse, the Young Turks overthrew the government of Sultan Hamid. Armenians living in the empire hoped that the Young Turk revolution would change their second-class status. However, with onslaught of World War I and the Ottoman Empire's assault on the Russian Empire, the new government began to look on the Armenians with distrust and suspicion. This was due to the fact that the Russian army contained a contingent of Armenian volunteers. On April 24, 1915, Armenian intellectuals were arrested by Ottoman authorities, and with the Tehcir Law, eventually a large proportion of Armenians living in Anatolia perished in what has become known as the Armenian Genocide. There was local Armenian resistance in the region, developed against the activities of the Ottoman Empire. The events of 1915 to 1917 are regarded by Armenians and the vast majority of Western historians to have been state-sponsored mass killings, or genocide. Despite overwhelming evidence of genocidal intent, Turkish authorities maintain that the deaths were the result of a civil war coupled with disease and famine, with casualties incurred by both sides. Most estimates for the number of Armenians killed range from 650,000 to 1.5 million. Armenia and the Armenian diaspora have been campaigning for official recognition of the events as genocide for over 30 years. These events are traditionally commemorated yearly on April 24, the Armenian Martyr Day, or the Day of the Armenian Genocide.

Erevan (Երևան sometimes Yerevan) is the largest city and capital of Armenia. It is situated on the Hrazdan River about 36 miles from the border with Turkey, and its origin dates to the founding of a fortress in the eighth century BCE. The first Christian church, the church of St. Peter and Paul, was built in the fifth century CE.

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Mount Ararat

Mount Ararat (16,854 ft.) is a dormant volcano currently located in Eastern Turkey on the border with Iran and Armenia. It may be the most massive volcano in the world, and, according to the Old Testament, this mountain was the landing point for Noah's Ark. Per the provisions of the Treaty of Kars (1921) between Turkey and the Soviet Union, the boundary between the two countries was drawn in such a way that Ararat fell within Turkish--and not Armenian--territory.

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Mount Ararat and Little Ararat (both in Turkey) are both visible beyond Erevan.

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Lake Sevan (Սևանա լիճ), located about seventy miles north of Erevan, is the largest lake in Armenia and one of the largest high-altitude lakes in the world. It is fed by twenty-eight rivers and streams, but little actually drains from the lake; most of the lake's water evaporates.

Lake Sevan
Lake Sevan

The lake has suffered much as a result of human activity. At the start of the twentieth century, the lake was 95 metres deep, covered an area of 1,360 km (5% of Armenia's entire area), had a volume of 58 km3 and a perimeter of 260 km. The lake surface was at an altitude of 1,950 m above sea level.

Under Stalin, it was decided to reduce the water level and use the water outflow for irrigation and the generation of electricity. Trees were to be planted along the new shoreline, and some new fish species would be introduced in the lake.

What followed is truly amazing and fit nicely with Stalin's grand plans for the transformation of nature.

The river bed of the Hrazdan was deepened and construction of a tunnel 40 metres below the original water level started. The work was delayed due to World War II and was only finished in 1949. The water level then began to fall by more than one metre per year.

The only thing that prevented a repeat of the Aral Sea catastrophe was the death of Stalin and the de-Stalinization era ushered in by Khrushchev, which stopped the process.

To try and re-raise the level of the lake, look what happened next.

In 1981, a 49 km tunnel was constructed, diverting water from the Arpa river (from a reservoir near Kechut) to the lake near Artsvanist. The water level in the lake rose only 1.5 metres, so another 22 km tunnel was begun from Vorotan River (further south from Kechut). 18 km were constructed before the collapse of the Soviet Union, but in 1988 Azerbaijan imposed an economic blockade on Armenia due to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the work had to be stopped.

The tunnel was eventually finished. Then due to rainfall and the water delivered to the lake via the tunnels, the water level began to slowly rise. Sounds good, but what of some of the ecological consequences of this micro-management of Mother Nature?

  1. When the water level fell (about 60 feet or so), the changes in temperature and oxygen supply depleted the fish in the lake. Several species vanished while others became almost extinct. Birds also abandoned the area as the shoreline receded. The lake was also used as a waste dump.
  2. Scientists had predicted that it would take thirty years to bring the lake back up to its intended level, but with water pouring in faster than expected, it is now estimated that it will take only fifteen years. Ecologists now fear another kind of environmental disaster as buildings, resorts, farmland and forest are rapidly disappearing under water. Already more than one thousand acres of land have gone under water. Environmentalists fear that all of this human material, combined with the rotting of the flooded forests, will poison the lake.

Some links for further study

Lake Sevan; source is
Lake Sevan; photo courtesy Lindsay Fincher