Trans Eurasia travel

Your virtual guide to Eurasia! Let's travel together!

Soviet period

Azeri independence

The Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (ADR) had a breathing space in which to prove itself to its people and to the world powers. Initially Westerners were very sceptical of Azeri self government and most were fundamentally anti-Turkic. However, General Thompson, the British commander in Baku was slowly won over to the educated and principled new Azeru leadership, of whom the best remembered is Mammad Rasulzade. At the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, US President Woodrow Wilson apparently remarked upon the 'very dignified and interesting gentlemen from Azerbaijan who talked the same language that I did in respect of ideals, conceptions of liberty and conceptions of right and justice'. However, the Muslim-socialist Musuvat government was slow to deal with land reform, allowing the initially discredited Bolsheviks to regroup as a champion of the rural poor.

Meanwhile, Lenin was starting to gain the upper hand in Russia. He had never forgotten the rest of the Russian empire - merely sacrificed it in the short term to install his revolutionary regime. Increasingly secure in Moscow, he turned his attention to stirring up trouble in the 'lost areas' starting with the sponsorship of a Lankaran-based Talysh Mugam Soviet Republic which survived three months, 25 April-28 Jul 1919. In August 1919 the Versailles agreement demanded British troops be withdrawn from Baku.

The Bolsheviks stepped up anti-Azeri propaganda, with false or exaggerated claims. By March 1920 visitors to Baku report prices spiralling out of control as people prepared for a Russian invasion which finally arrived in Baku on 28 April, and Lankaran on 3 May. Battles raged in Ganja and Zaqatala in June, but Turkey was in no position to help as it was itself on the verge of extinction following the carve up of the imploded Ottoman empire. Attaturk who would doubtlessly have lent a hand later, at the time needed all the support he could get to hold onto Turkey itself. By turning a blind eye to Moscow's invasion of the Caucasus he was able to secure the arms he desperately needed to reclaim Istanbul and Anatolia. Turkey thus acquiesed to the Soviet take-over in Azerbaijan and signed a friendship treaty with the new Baku regime in 1921.

In 1922 Azerbaijan was shuffled first into the TransCaucasian SSR (12 March) then, on 30 December, into a newly formed 'voluntary union' called the USSR.

Soviet era

One of the remarkable things about the early Soviet period is the persisting popularity of Azerbaijan's first long-term Communist leader, Nariman Narimanov, whose gigantic statue still towers above Baku, if increasingly obscured by apartment blocks. He used brutal force to snuff out anti-communist rebellions in Ganja, Sabirabad and Zaqatala, but is remembered as a writer, doctor and leader of genuine principle. Despite being a committed Bolshevik he bravely (if unsuccessfully) stood up against Lenin's plans to amalgamate the Caucasian countries. And he managed to persuade Stalin at the last minute to stop a planned transfer of Karabagh to Armenia in the early 1920s. But having proved too independent minded Narimanov was assassinated by poisoning in 1925. Similarly Stalin killed off Kirov, the vastly popular but now disgraced Caucasian communist pioneer. In both cases the deed was covered up by developing an overblown posthumous personality cult. As Stalin had found with Lenin - dead men make very safe heroes. Stalin's redrawing of Azerbaijan's borders set the scene for future conflict by giving away much of the country's western flank (Zangezaur) to Armenia and resulted in Nakhchivan's total severance from the rest of the republic. This was a deliberate ploy, aimed to ensure that nationalists in Azerbaijan proper remained disconnected from any possible help from Turkey.

The 1930s were particularly harsh as a severe crackdown on religion brought a series of persecutions and demolitions. Collectivization resulted in famine as peasants killed their animals rather than hand them over to kolkhoz committees and whole villages that refused to co-operate were simply burnt'. Between 1936 and 1938 Stalin's paranoia reached intense proportions. With the apparently enthusiastic cooperation of Mir Jafar Bagirov in Azerbaijan, he reacted by killing or exiling much of the nation's elite whether communist party officials, WWI heroes, old democrats or simply distant relatives of the old khans. A glance at the dozens of memorial plaques on many buildings on Baku's Istiqlaliyat St gives an idea of just how many fine fellows happened to fall in front of passing cars between those years. By one estimate 120,000 from a population of 3 million'. Of course the army was equally purged, leaving the USSR dreadfully ill-prepared for WWII. And sending Azerbaijan's long-term ethnic German population into exile in Kazakhstan (October 1941) didn't help a bit.

World War II

In a famous home-movie clip, Hitler is pictured at his birthday party being served a cake in the shape of the Caspian Sea. With very intentional symbolism he bites into the slice marked Baku and removes the confectionery oil derrick. Following Stalin's purges, the Russian military had lost most of its best commanders and was not at all prepared for Hitler to tear up the August 1939 non-aggression treaty and send the Panzers east. The Fuhrer saw his chance.

Once it was clear that Hitler had set his sights on Azerbaijan's oilfields, Stalin summoned his commissioner of energy, Baibakov, with the following stark choice 'If Hitler gets a single drop of oil you'll be shot. If you destroy the oil wells unnecessarily we'll be left without oil. In which case you'll be shot. Now go to the Caucasus and save the war'. As it happens, Baibakov survived to tell the story to the BBC. The Germans never reached Azerbaijan proper, thanks to Hitler's obsession with Stalingrad.

Passing so close to Stalingrad (now Volgagrad), Hitler thought it would be a shame not to drop by. He reckoned that taking the city that held Stalin's name would be a psychological victory way beyond the mere military value of the place. However, the defenders saw it the same way and fought to the last bullet. The Germans' little detour got bogged down for months in the smouldering ruins of the city. Meanwhile, having divided the troops Hitler lacked the force to reach Azerbaijan so Baku went uncaptured.

In an ironic twist, captured German prisoners of war were later brought to Azerbaijan to work on the expansion of the railway system and to build several of the fine stone Stalinist buildings in Baku. Quite how many is uncertain amateur historians claim almost every building one sees was so constructed. Some prisoners didn't get home to Germany till 1950.

Azerbaijan didn't fare too well after the war. Although its oil facilities survived, their geographical vulnerability led the Soviet Union to develop more secure sources in Siberia. Baku's production dropped fiom 70% to 2% of the national total between 1940 and 1970.

The republic's prestige was salvaged in great part by Heydar Aliyev who rose through the ranks of the KGB to become the first Turkic member of the Politburo, the council ruling the USSR.