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26 Baku commissars


In March 1918 a group of Bolshevik commissars seized power in Baku. Their 'Baku Commune' was an immediate disaster, during the 'March Days' which followed thousands of ethnic Azeris died in the worst inter-communal violence since 1905. And even their allies soon turned against them as they proceeded to give away Baku oil to Russia.

By the summer they'd been ousted and the 26 leaders were languishing in jail when 'liberating' Turkish troops finally reached Baku and started a siege. The new Menshvik 'People's Dictatorship' (also communists), who had taken control invited in British troops. But instead of the rescue force they had hoped only the tiny Dunster force arrived. The Brits patently failed to add any fighting spirit to the mutually-loathing coalition of defenders (Menshviks, Bolsheviks, White Russians and Dashnak Armenians), and managed to slip quietly out of port just before it was too late. In the chaos the 26 Bolshevik commissars escaped from jail and somehow got aboard the good ship 'Turkmen'. Full of evacuating Russians and Armenians fleeing the coming bloodbath, the 'Turkmen' was supposedly bound for 'red'-controlled Astrakhan. However, the hated commissars' faces were recognized and once the captain discovered their presence aboard, he changed course. The ship headed instead for Krasnovodsk (now Turkmenbashi in Turkmenistan), tenuously controlled by anti-Bolshevik Transcaspian Government.

The 26 discovered the new course and an eminently cinematic struggle ensued, They finally overpowered the crew and, with a gun to his head, the captain was forced to change course for Astrakhan once again. Commissars, however, aren't always good at reading quadrants and by a series of navigational tricks the ship arrived before dawn in Krasnovodsk, not Astrakhan after all. By the time they realized they'd been fooled the commissars had been arrested. Within a few days their bullet-riddled corpses lay gathering flies in an isolated spot in the Turkmen desert. Summarily executed. But by whom? We may never know.

The commissars' arrival was certainly a headache for the authonties in Krasnovodsk who had reason to fear Bolsheviks stirring up trouble against them. Their arrival was reported to Ashgabat where the Transcaspian government was working with Reginald Teague-Jones of the British secret service.

A real-life 007, Teague-Jones was a shadowy gentleman spy who had spent much of the past few years flitting about Central Asia single-handedly trying to prevent the region failing under Bolshevik influence.

Ostensibly the British wanted to get hold of the Commissars as bargaining chips for dealing with Moscow. However, the Bolsheviks later blamed Teague-Jones himself for ordering their execution. Once Bolshevik power had taken a firm grip over Russia and its empire the 26 Commissars' atrocious management record in Baku was forgotten. They became heroes of the communist cause, celebrated right across the USSR until its demise in 1991.

Meanwhile, Teague-Jones became the Salman Rushdie of his day, hounded with death threats till he was forced to assume a new name and altogether new life - the spy who quite literally disappeared. Given the years of propaganda, as well as some discrepancies in Teague-Jones' various accounts of events, it is unlikely that the truth will ever be known.

Azerbaijan's independence in 1991 required a new philosophical compromise. The Baku memorial dominating '26 Commissars Square' had remained until 2007 but names and any explanation of its significance have been removed. Around the country, statues of some commissars have been toppled and roads bearing their names changed. Most notably effaced is all trace of the much despised commune leader, Stepen Shaumian, whose name was once given to the Baku street now called Azerbaijan Ave, even though he was an ethnic Armenian

In contrast, however, the powerful busts of ethnic Azeri commissars still stand, like that of Mammadierov which proudly welcomes visitors to the Absheron town of Mashtaga.

In 2007 the monument to 26 commisars has been destroyed and replaced with vulgar but politically neutral fountain vase.


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