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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


[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