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Soviet Baku, year unknown. Photo: DerWolF / Wikipedia
Soviet Baku, year unknown. Photo: DerWolF / Wikipedia

After the dissolution of the Russian empire in 1917 and during the ensuing civil war Azerbaijan became an independent state the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (ADR). Throughout its brief existence from 1918 to 1920, the young state found itself at war with neighbouring Armenia and under assault. In 1920, the Bolsheviks took control in Azerbaijan. The Soviet Union was created in 1922.

Initially part of the so-called "Transcaucasian Federation" within the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan gained the status of a full-right Union republic in 1936. Soviet rule in Azerbaijan lasted for nearly seven decades until, on 30 August 1991, Azerbaijan declared independence from the crumbling Soviet Union, following the example of several other Soviet republics.

Azerbaijanis' identity has long been complex. In Tsarist Russia, Muslim inhabitants of the Caucasus were often referred to as 'Tatars' or simply 'Muslims'. By the end of the 19th century a growing number of Azerbaijanis defined themselves as 'Turks' or 'Azerbaijani Turks.' Although their language is very similar to Anatolian Turkish, Azerbaijanis have never lived under Ottoman rule. Unlike the majority of (Sunni) Turks, most practice Shia Islam, something they share with more than twenty million ethnic Azeris living south of the Araks river in the northwest of Iran. In 1916 62 percent of Muslims in Azerbaijan were Shiite and 38 percent were Sunni.

In the 1920's the Soviet authorities pursued a policy of korenizatsiya, or nativization. It consisted of promoting natives to positions of responsibility in the government and the communist party and instituting the equality of Russian and local languages in the public sphere. The aim was to provide legitimacy for Soviet rule.[1] In Azerbaijani universities this resulted in a substantial increase in the number of Azeri students and instructors. Non-native speakers were required to learn the local language.[2] While Azeri intellectuals and political activists which resisted Soviet rule were sent to prison camps, others supported what they saw as a modernization project, complete with literacy campaigns, building of new schools, women's emancipation, and the development of a literary language.[3] A cultural revival took place in early Soviet Azerbaijan as a number of theaters, clubs and musical companies sprung up.

In 1924, the old Arabic alphabet used for the Azerbaijani language was officially replaced with a Latin script (this was the first of the three alphabet changes that would take place in Azerbaijan in the course of less than 70 years). Within just a few years, literacy rates more than doubled: from 25 percent in 1926 to 51 percent in 1933.[4] Azerbaijani national culture was officially celebrated, in particular those aspects that had to do with loving one's homeland and fighting against the privileged. As Tadeusz Swietochowski, a Western historian of Azerbaijan, described it,

"In return for the acceptance of and cooperation with the Soviet regime, the nationalities received the guarantees of the right to develop their distinct cultures, to use freely and develop their languages, and to train and employ native cadres in their republics. The legacy of the Russian rule of the past, with its imperialism, chauvinism and Russification, was to be explicitly rejected."[5]

Stalin promoting indigenization. Photo: Brokenworld Wikispace
Stalin promoting indigenization. Photo: Brokenworld Wikispace

The korenizatsiya policy came under criticism in the late 1920's and early 1930's, however. The Russian language was increasingly presented as an essential means to share in the accomplishments of the "more advanced" Russian culture. The requirement for non-Azeri officials and public servants to speak the local language was gradually dropped. In 1936, the Soviet Union adopted a new constitution known as the "Stalin constitution", which introduced significant administrative changes to the USSR. The new constitution granted full Union republic status to the three South Caucasus members of the Transcaucasian Federation, including Azerbaijan. As described by Swietochowski,

"This was the crowning act in the Stalinist policy of promoting local particularisms by splitting cultural, linguistic, or regional entities. From now on, only vertical relations with the center would be allowed, rather than horizontal links among the national republics, a prelude to the process of forging a new Soviet nation, and it would go hand in hand with Russification."[6]

In Azerbaijan, the attempt was reinforced to create an Azerbaijani identity that would be cleared of any associations with Turkishness or Islam. It was then that the official name of the language was changed from Turkish to Azerbaijani. An accusation of following a Pan-Turkist or Pan-Islamist or "bourgeois nationalist" ideology was sufficient to warrant deportation or even execution. A significant number of Azerbaijani intellectuals, both within and outside of the communist party, fell victim to the Stalinist purges.

In 1940, Cyrillic was adopted as the official alphabet in Azerbaijan.[7] Gradually, Russian, officially designated as the "language of interethnic communication" in the Soviet Union, started taking over and in many cases displaced local languages in importance. With growing rates of urbanization and increasing levels of education after World War II, many Soviet citizens viewed sending their children to Russian-speaking schools as a precondition for a good career. In Azerbaijan (and particularly in the capital city Baku) this led to the emergence of a group of educated Azeris who preferred using Russian to their native language, especially in the urban academic and professional environments.

Azerbaijan's economy also underwent a significant transformation during the Soviet period. Stalin's policies launched high-speed industrialization in the republic. During World War II, Azerbaijan also proved to be crucial to the Soviet war effort. Some estimates put Azerbaijan's wartime oil production at as high as 70 percent of the USSR's total.[8] During that time Baku also became one of the key military industrial centres in the entire Soviet Union.[9] Expanded factories produced steel and electrical motors. The canning and textile industries increased their range of production and took on the tasks of food processing and cotton production. [10]

The wartime economy would define the development of Azerbaijan's economy for the entire post-war period. There was large-scale food industry, as well as light industry and machine building. The city of Sumgait on the Caspian shore not far from Baku became a centre of metallurgical and petrochemical industry. The second city of Azerbaijan, Ganja, became a centre of food processing and textile production. [11] In the post-war period, agriculture remained in a prominent position in the republic's economy. The major cash crops were grapes, cotton, tobacco, citrus fruits and vegetables. [12] Nevertheless, throughout the whole Soviet era Azerbaijan lagged behind other republics in investment levels and living standards (later, during the openness encouraged by perestroika in the 1980's, the existing disparity between living standards in Azerbaijan and other Soviet republics would become a source of discontent).

Serebrovsky sea oil field in Azerbaijan, 1978. 
Photo: constructionphotography.com
Serebrovsky sea oil field in Azerbaijan, 1978.
Photo: constructionphotography.com

Azerbaijan's oil industry did not fare so well as time passed. Already during the war, fearing Baku's capture by the Nazis, Stalin had ordered plugging the oil wells with concrete. Baku's oil specialists were moved to oil-producing regions in Russia, primarily in the Volga basin region.[13] After the war ended, many oil wells proved unusable, while the remaining ones suffered from poor pumping methods. The bulk of the Soviet Union's oil production gradually moved to Russia's oil fields. To further develop Azerbaijan's oil production, the Soviet Union had to employ offshore drilling technology. However, such oil was more expensive to produce as compared to the abundant oil from the Volga-Ural and West Siberian oil fields. With the depletion of oil fields, production levels started falling from the late 1960s onwards. By the time the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, Azerbaijan's share in the Soviet Union's oil production was below two percent.[14] Instead, Azerbaijan was specializing primarily in oil refining and building oil machinery. By 1991, its share in this field stood at sixty percent of the Union's total. [15]

The 1960s marked a period of important changes in the political life of the republic. The Soviet leadership in Moscow was growing increasingly concerned with corruption and nepotism in the South Caucasus republics. In Azerbaijan, communist party secretary Veli Akhundov was retired after prolonged party criticisms for his "performance failures associated with corruption, matters of party discipline, and what were termed problems of 'localism' in the recruitment, placement, and functioning of cadres."[16] An ambitious secret police (KGB) major, Heydar Aliyev, replaced Akhundov in July 1969. By the end of the 1960's, the leadership of all three Caucasus republics had been changed.

In his 1991 book Patronage and Politics in the USSR, John P. Willerton, a researcher of patron-client networks in the Soviet Union, noted the "special buoyancy" of patronage networks in Azerbaijan:

"Azerbaidzhan has had an especially strong reputation for pervasive mafia-type networks. Azerbaidzhani patron-client relationships have been rooted in geographical and clan ties that transcended the political rivalries of the Soviet period. Local mafias flourished in Azerbaidzhan, seemingly removed from the direct influences of outside factors even though events in Baku were closely monitored by Moscow. Azerbaidzhan is an especially appropriate setting to consider the conduct and consequences of patronage politics".[17]

Immediately after his arrival, Heydar Aliyev implemented "extensive personnel turnover … within all leading party and state bodies, and at both the republic and regional levels … Within just two and a half years of Aliev's succession, the Azerbaijan communist party central committee Buro included only one Azerbaidzhani member not recruited by the new party boss."[18] The living standards in Azerbaijan rose under Aliyev's leadership, although they remained below average. In 1970 the per capita income in Azerbaijan stood at 63 percent of the Union-wide total, this increased to 80 percent by 1980.[19]

Heydar Aliyev carried out a balancing act between korenizatsia and remaining on good terms with the central authorities. He promoted Azeris to nearly all positions of authority. In a symbolic gesture, he brought back to Azerbaijan the remains of a writer, Javid Huseyn, who had died in Siberian exile in 1941 during the Stalinist purges. At the same time, Aliyev cultivated his relationship with Leonid Brezhnev, avoided confrontations with Moscow and in 1983 went on to become the first Muslim member of the Politburo, the Soviet Communist Party's all-powerful executive body.

Heydar Aliyev at the opening ceremony of the Narimanov Memorial 
Home Museum in 1977. Photo: National archives of Azerbaijan
Heydar Aliyev at the opening ceremony of the Narimanov Memorial
Home Museum in 1977. Photo: National archives of Azerbaijan

Aliyev's position was weakened after 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev became the Soviet Union's leader. Gorbachev was intent on reducing the dominance of the Brezhnev-era elite in the leading positions in the party and the government. In 1987, Aliyev was forced to resign from his position in Politburo, officially for health reasons, amidst allegations of corruption.

The impact of the seven decades of Soviet rule in Azerbaijan continues to be debated. Some, like Dutch journalist Charles van der Leeuw, who spent part of the 1990s living and working in Baku, pass a damning judgment on the Soviet attempts to re-write Azerbaijani history:

"The true, complete history of Azerbaijan under Soviet rule has never been written, and most probably will never be. Never in history, with the possible exception of southern Europe under the Catholic terror on the eve and during the early years of the Reformation, have events and backgrounds been distorted in such a systematic and shameless manner. Only the Fascist regimes of the 20th century such as those of Germany, Spain and Italy were to better the Soviets in turning chronicles into caricatures so grotesquely.

Even after independence, there has been little time for Azeri scholars to reflect upon their own 20th century history, turbulent as the situation remained. Throughout its domination over Azerbaijan, the Communist Kremlin, no matter how hard it pretended otherwise, has had one ultimate goal only: to deprive Azerbaijan of its right to national dignity and to its own place under the sun. The tone may have been different, the 'need' of 'imperial order' having been replaced by so-called workers' solidarity, but the final objective differed in no way from the previous Russian masters: looting the territory and enslaving the nation."[20]

Thomas de Waal, one of the leading Western experts on the Caucasus, presents a more nuanced view:

"It is tempting but misleading to see the seventy-year Soviet experiment as just a second Russian imperial project. Ultimate power resided in Moscow and Russia played the role of the big brother, but the Soviet Union was much more complex and contradictory. The Soviet state modernized, terrorized and Russified the Caucasus but also gave it new kinds of nationalism. It also went through radically different phases: from the Bolshevik would-be utopia of international class liberation to the Stalinist authoritarian state of the 1930s to the corrupt, Brezhnev-era multinational state. Modernization meant both the destruction of old traditions and emancipation for women and technological progress. Policy toward the nationalities veered from the implementation of a liberal "affirmative action empire," which gave new opportunities to non-Russian nations, to genocide. While some small ethnic groups benefited hugely from "nativization" programs, others were subjected to deportation and mass terror." [21]

"…Soviet Azerbaijanis had been entirely altered by the Soviet experiment. Millions of Azerbaijanis had served in the Soviet armed forces, learned to drink vodka, studied in universities or technical colleges, or worked in Russia and had never set foot inside a working mosque. Standards of health care and literacy were undoubtedly higher in Soviet Azerbaijan, and women had far greater opportunities, but they also lacked basic political and cultural freedoms."[22]


[1] Tadeusz Swietochowski, Russia and Azerbaijan: A Borderland in Transition, New York: Columbia University Press, 1995, p. 110.

[2] Swietochowski, p. 112.

[3] Swietochowski, p. 111.

[4] Swietochowski, p. 114.

[5] Tadeusz Swietochowski, Russia and Azerbaijan: A Borderland in Transition, New York: Columbia University Press, 1995, p. 110.

[6] Swietochowski, pp. 125-126.

[7] Swietochowski, p. 128.

[8] Library of Congress, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia: Country Studies, 1995, p. 118.

[9] Altstadt, p. 152.

[10] Library of Congress, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia: Country Studies, 1995, p. 119.

[11] Library of Congress, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia: Country Studies, 1995, p. 119.

[12] Library of Congress, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia: Country Studies, 1995, p. 117.

[13] Steven LeVine, The Oil and the Glory, Random House, 2007, p. 50.

[14] Library of Congress, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia: Country Studies, 1995, p. 120.

[15] Library of Congress, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia: Country Studies, 1995, p. 120.

[16] Willerton.

[17] John P. Willerton, Patronage and Politics in the USSR, Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 191.

[18] Willerton, p. 197.

[19] Svante Cornell, Azerbaijan Since Independence (London, M.E.Sharpe, 2011), p. 201.

[20] Charles van der Leeuw, Azerbaijan: A Quest for Identity. A Short History. St Martin's Press, 2000, p. 124.

[21] Thomas de Waal, The Caucasus: An Introduction (2010), p. 71.

[22] Thomas de Waal, The Caucasus: An Introduction (2010), p. 72.

March 2011

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15 March 2011, 00:00