Azerbaijan International

Autumn 2001 (9.3)
Pages 40-49

Writing Azerbaijan's History
Digging for the Truth

by Farid Alakbarov
Photos: Archives of Baku's Institute of Manuscripts

In terms of remembering their own history, Azerbaijanis are suffering from a collective case of amnesia - but much of it really isn't their own fault. Throughout 70 years of Soviet rule, Azerbaijani history was twisted and manipulated to suit the needs of the Communist regime. Today it is extremely frustrating and difficult to track down even basic information related to specific names, dates or figures - especially if they relate to pre-Soviet eras like the turn-of-the-century Oil Boom and Azerbaijan's brief period of independence (1918-1920)
Even earlier eras have been completely distorted.

I believe that someday a comprehensive, objective, non-ideological history of Azerbaijan will be written, but not today. It will take time to cultivate a culture of calm, rational scientific debate. Science must be free of ideology.

Azerbaijani historians are now sorting through the confusion, working to unravel the threads and clues deliberately squelched by "historians" of the Soviet era. Here Farid Alakbarov leads us through the specifics of how Azerbaijani history is being rewritten, now that it no longer has to be viewed through the lens of Soviet ideology.

The history of Azerbaijan has been written and rewritten numerous times - both before and after Azerbaijan gained its independence in late 1991. In every case, this process of reconstructing the past has been influenced, or even dictated, by political ideology.

Above: The map of ADR (Azerbaijan Democratic Republic) issued in Russian in 1920 by Ministry of Foreign Affairs of ADR. During the Soviet period, this map was hidden in secret archives, so Azerbaijani historians were not able to learn about the territorial boundaries of ADR (1918-1920). After independence in 1991, Azerbaijan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs published this map.

Above: The map of the Republic of Armenia issued in Paris in1919. Note that it reflects the wishful thinking for territorial claims of Armenia and includes such Azerbaijani territories as Karabakh, Nakhchivan, and Zangazur (territory given to Armenia by Stalin in 1920s that separates mainland Azerbaijan from Nakhchivan); the Georgian provinces of Akhalkalak and Borchali; and the Turkish provinces of Kars. Armenians fought with Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey during this period (1918-1920) in an attempt to capture these territories but they did not succeed. Historical documents in all of these countries, including Armenia, indicate that Armenia never controlled these territories at this time.

When the Bolsheviks took over Baku in April 1920, they succeeded in carrying out what Azerbaijan had failed to do during the Tsarist Russia (early-19th century to 1918) period and the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (ADR) period, which lasted for a brief 23 months between May 28, 1918 and April 28, 1920.

The Bolsheviks encouraged the study of history. They opened numerous schools and universities where history was taught and established many academic institutions for carrying out historical research. However, all books and articles had to be written from the ideological position of the so-called "working-class point-of-view" based on Marxist-Leninist theory. At best, Soviet historical works were a mixture of true facts wrongly interpreted. At worst, even well-known historical facts were obscured, denied or distorted.

Left: The police record of Narimanov at the Gendarme Department of Tiflis (Tbilisi), where he was arrested as a Bolshevik in 1909. Narimanov became the future Chairman of the Central Executive Committee of the Russian Communist Party. Such photos were rarely published in Soviet historical books. Rather, Bolsheviks were depicted as martyrs and innocent victims of the Czar's regime.

Soviet historians had the tendency to describe the negative sides of the rich and the positive sides of the poor. Kings were identified as tyrants. Poor people were pawns exploited by the rich.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, when Azerbaijan gained its independence, much of Azerbaijan's history has been revised. Historians have been poring over the documents that were preserved in numerous archives. For example, the Institute of Manuscripts of the Azerbaijan Academy of Sciences, where I work, has one of the country's richest historical collections. It houses manuscripts from medieval historians from as far back as the 10th century, edicts signed by Azerbaijani khans in the 18th century, letters and notebooks by Azerbaijani intellectuals of the 19th and 20th centuries, newspapers and magazines issued 100 years ago, and decrees of the fledgling government of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic. Analysis of these sources is helping today's historians write a more objective history of Azerbaijan.

History of Azerbaijan
Soviet-era Azerbaijani history books are only of limited use to us today. One familiar work, the "History of Azerbaijan", is an apt example of a flawed, Soviet-authorized version of Azerbaijani history. This volume, prepared by the Azerbaijan Academy of Sciences, was first published in the 1950s and then again in the 1960s. Many historians, including Huseynov, Tokarzhevski, Aliyev and Sumbatzade, participated in the major effort that went into preparing this book. It was the first of its kind: a serious academic and official history of Azerbaijan.

Above: A painting of Azerbaijani Bolsheviks Narimanov, Azizbeyov and Afandiyev in an "Hummat" editorial (artist T. Taghizade). Such paintings were a type of Soviet propaganda meant to glorify and idealize famous Bolsheviks.

The first edition of "History of Azerbaijan" consisted of a single volume (really more of an outline); the second edition included three volumes. The first of these volumes covered ancient and medieval Azerbaijani history up until Azerbaijan was absorbed by the Russian Empire in the early 19th century.

The second volume took the reader from the Russian colonization period up to the beginning of the 20th century. The final volume covered 20th-century history, including the Bolshevik Revolution, World War II and the building of socialism in Azerbaijan.

These books were published in both Azeri and Russian
- that is, there were two identical versions in the two languages. "History of Azerbaijan" was written for a wide range of readers, not just for academics. The book was taught in high schools, university history departments and pedagogical institutes.

One useful aspect of this book was that, for the first time, Azerbaijanis were described as a separate nation with their own country, language and history. They were not considered part of the Persian people, part of the Turkish (Osmanli) nation or as Tatars of Russia. This book described the Azerbaijani people as having their own state in this territory as far back as the 9th century BC.

Iran and Turkey
Of course, "History of Azerbaijan" had many shortcomings, since it was written from the Communist ideological position. All historical processes were analyzed on the basis of Marxist-Leninist theory. For instance, during the Soviet period, Turkey and Iran were considered to be historical enemies of Azerbaijan. Therefore, "History of Azerbaijan" includes statements such as: "In the 17th century, Turkish troops completely destroyed and devastated Tabriz and other places of Azerbaijan... In this period Azerbaijan turned into a military theater of bloody wars between Iran and Turkey...Thousands of people were killed and turned into slaves...Azerbaijani people suffered very much!"

Left: Late Ziya Bunyadov, Historian, Orientalist and Vice President of Azerbaijan's Academy of Sciences, on the occasion of LUKoil's publishing of Bunyadov's translation of the medieval manuscripts of Jalal al Din Mankburna, last Sultan of the Dynasty of Anushtegenids. Bunyadov, a controversial figure because of his historical research and a member of Parliament, was mysteriously murdered in 1997. He is buried in Baku's "Fakri Khiyabani" (Cemetery of the Honored Ones). Photo: 1996.

All wars are bloody. But what conclusion did the Soviet ideologists draw? "So, both Iran and Turkey are your enemies!" Many Azerbaijani readers did not agree with this idea. They knew that many countries of the world had fought against each other at various times. For instance, consider the various European countries that fought against each other in the past century but are not enemies today.

Besides, in the medieval period, wars were fought between dynasties, shahs and sultans
- not between nations. Russia itself invaded Azerbaijan in the 18th century, and General Zubov killed hundreds of civilians in Baku. "Why aren't the Russians considered our enemies?" many Azerbaijanis wondered.

Describing Turkey as anything other than an enemy was dangerous for Soviet-era historians, who were afraid of being labeled as "Pan-Turkists". Soviet propagandists branded some poets and intellectuals from the late 19th century and early 20th century as "Pan-Turkists" with severe consequences. For example, Ahmad Javad (1892-1937), a poet who lived during the ADR period, praised the independence of Azerbaijan in his poems and is remembered, among other things, for writing the lyrics to Azerbaijan's National Anthem. Javad was declared a Nationalist and Pan-Turkist and then shot. Salman Mumtaz was labeled as a Pan-Turkist because he wrote about Azerbaijani literature as being a part of Turkic literature. He was killed in prison by the KGB in 1938. His collection of rare ancient manuscripts that had been gathered from all over Azerbaijan was confiscated. Today these books are archived in the Institute of Manuscripts and are called the "Salman Mumtaz Collection".

Above: Ali Agha Shikhlinski was known as the "God of Artillery" in the Russian Army. During the Soviet period, the truth about his achievements was hidden. Rather, Azerbaijan was portrayed as never having its own distinguished generals before Soviet rule. After independence in 1991, it became known that Shikhlinski was one of the most famous generals of the Tsar's Russian army and had been honored with the highest military orders of the Russian Empire-Hero of the Russian-Japanese War in 1905 and Hero of the Russian-German War in 1914.

Shikhlinski wrote textbooks on artillery for the Russian military academies.

When Azerbaijan gained its independence in 1918, he was appointed an Assistant of the Defense Ministry. When the Bolsheviks took control of the country in 1920, Narimanov is credited for saving Shikhlinski from being killed or imprisoned. Information about him was removed from historical research and textbooks.

Husein Javid (1882-1944), another intellectual who was accused of being a pan-Turkist, was a talented dramatist often called "the Shakespeare of Azerbaijan". He was arrested in 1937 and never again seen by his family. He was sent off to a Siberian labor camp, where he died and was buried. During Perestroika, in the mid-1980s, his remains were brought to Azerbaijan. Now a large monument has been raised in his honor in Nakhchivan. Recently, one of Baku's central avenues was named after him (Husein Javid Prospect). [See "The Night Father Was Arrested" by his daughter Turan Javid, in AI 4.1, p. 24, Spring 1996. See also "Aliyev Memorialized Literary Giant" in AI 4.4, p. 37, Winter 1996.]

Despite this danger, some Azerbaijani dissidents dared to object. One of them was Abulfaz Aliyev (1938-2000). More familiarly known as Elchibey [and later to become Azerbaijan's President from 1992-1993], he taught history at Azerbaijan State University. He told his students that all Turkic peoples were brothers and that Russia had conquered Azerbaijan and divided it into two parts: the northern, which was joined to Russia, and the southern, which was joined to Iran. As a result, Elchibey was arrested in the 1970s and imprisoned for two years. After Azerbaijan gained its independence in 1991, Elchibey was able to actively promote changes in historical research.

Today, Turkey is no longer considered to be Azerbaijan's enemy. In 1991, Aydin Balayev and others wrote about Turkey's important role in helping the Azerbaijani people survive the genocide by Armenians and Bolsheviks. From 1918 to 1920, the Turkish Army of General Nuri Pasha entered Azerbaijan in an attempt to stop the murders of Azerbaijanis by Armenians. They helped the Azerbaijani government regain control of Baku and the entire territory of Azerbaijan. To reveal these facts, many historical documents were analyzed, including the official documentation of the ADR government, which had been hidden in secret archives during the Soviet period.

Once Azerbaijanis learned about Turkey's service to their country, they erected a memorial to honor the Turkish soldiers who had defended Azerbaijan. The monument, located in Baku's Shahidlar Khiyabani (Martyr's Alley), was dedicated on October 10, 1998.

The Role of Islam
Since Communism is an atheistic ideology, Soviet historians wrote that Islam played a negative role in Azerbaijan. "History of Azerbaijan" states: "Islam, similar to other religions, taught peasants and poor people in villages to be humble and peaceful as slaves. This religion declares that the poor people's dependence on the ruling class is established by God...The Muslim clergy called for patience and temperance, but themselves gained great wealth by severely exploiting the poor. The Muslim conquerors burned Zoroastrian and Christian manuscripts, destroyed churches and other religious monuments and forced the people to hate all non-Muslims" (vol. 1, p.108).

Left: Training of Azerbaijani Soldiers for the Red Army in 1925 under leadership of the Russian General Frunze.

Stalin prohibited Azerbaijani historians from writing objectively about Islam. Many of the people who objected were executed or exiled to Siberia. During the Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras, the Soviet authorities and the KGB would call any historian who favored Islam a "Pan-Islamist" or an "anti-Soviet element".

That person would not always be arrested right away. The first stage was to invite the historian in for what might be called a "preventive talk". During this conversation, the KGB authority would say: "You are wrong in your historical research. Did you forget that you are a Soviet citizen? We forgive you today, but you have to be reasonable and must not repeat this mistake. Go home, friend. Starting today, we will be watching you carefully." A famous historian and friend of mine told me he had had one such "chat" in 1984.

After such a threatening conversation, most historians were less vocal, recalling Stalin's Repressions of the 1930s, when hundreds of thousands of intellectuals and civilians throughout the Soviet Union were arrested, exiled to Siberia or shot to death. However, there were some courageous academics in Azerbaijan, like Professor Rustam Aliyev, a famous researcher of Nizami Ganjavi (1141-1209), who was called a Pan-Islamist but still continued his research.

After Azerbaijan gained its independence, the situation changed. Azerbaijani academics were no longer tormented by KGB officials. Today, you don't find such bitter and unjust criticism of Islam. As a rule, Islam is described more objectively.

For instance, Professors S. Aliyarli and M. Ismailov write that Islam united all Azerbaijanis (the Christians in the north and the Zoroastrians in the south) within the framework of a common religion and promoted the consolidation of the Azerbaijani nation. Modern historians also write about the moral and ethical values that Islam has brought to Azerbaijan. Books about the life and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad have appeared, as well as various editions, translations and commentaries on the Koran. The Irshad Center of Islamic Research has been founded.

Above: The government of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (ADR) did have military forces during its short-lived period of 23 months from May 1918 to April 1920. However, the Bolshevik army proved too powerful and Azerbaijan lost its independence. Photo shows the military orchestra of the Azerbaijani Army in Ganja (1918).

Some historical research in modern Azerbaijan is sponsored by a number of national and foreign Islamic organizations and philanthropic funds, especially from Iran, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Some of the books that they issue tend to be theological rather than scientific. Of course, some of these studies are not completely free of ideology and politics. But this is to be expected in the climate of religious and political freedom that is now found in modern Azerbaijan.

Medieval Revolutionaries
In Soviet Azerbaijan, history
- even medieval history - was seen in the light of the class struggle between the poor and the rich. Historians looked for revolutionary movements of "oppressed people" and compared them to the Bolshevik Revolution.

Left: Gunners of the Azerbaijani Army in 1919. During the Soviet period, historians were not allowed to use and analyze such photos as they described the Musavat regime. Soviet history books suggested that the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (1918-1920) never had its own regular army and completely relied on "Turkish occupants". Photos of ADR soldiers and generals were hidden in various archives.

For example, we read in "History of Azerbaijan" (vol. 1, p.90): "In the 5th century AD, the life of people in Azerbaijan became even harder.Taxes increased and peasants were severely exploited by the state and landowners.As a result, a great rebellion of people was raised under the leadership of Mazdak Bamdadan (5th century AD)...who said: 'It is necessary to deprive the rich of their property and share it with the poor people'.Even though 80,000 Mazdakites were killed and the movement was defeated...this rebellion deeply influenced the further struggle of Azerbaijani people against the yoke of feudal oppression. In 488 AD he led a rebellion and advocated an ideology of equality for all people."

Except for its ideological and emotional accents, the information above is basically correct. However, it's not the whole truth. Soviet historians purposefully did not mention that most Azerbaijanis opposed Mazdak because he called for a "community of wives" and tried to demolish traditional morals. He said that all women belonged to all men, and that each man could have sexual relations not only with his own wife, but also with the wives of all other men.

Eleventh-century writer Nizam al-Mulk severely criticized Mazdak for declaring: "My followers! Wives are also your common property. Every woman belongs to each of you, for nobody would be deprived of the World's pleasures." After the collapse of the Soviet system, Azerbaijani historians were no longer forced to idealize Mazdakism and other "revolutionary teachings" of the Middle Ages. Today it is possible to objectively estimate their role in history.

Today's Azerbaijani students learn that the military leader Babak (795 or 798-837) fought for the independence of Azerbaijani people, not for a class struggle against the rich. He is known for saying, "It is better to live a single day as a free human being than 40 years as a slave." Azerbaijanis considered Babak as a symbol of courage and the struggle for independence. Bolsheviks tried to capitalize on his popularity and depict him as an "early Bolshevik".

Independence also allows us to say that early-20th-century Azerbaijani hero Gachag Nabi (1894-1986) never sympathized with the Bolsheviks and Marxist-Leninist theory, despite the fact that the Soviets glorified his struggle against Russian occupation and the oppression of the Tsarist regime in Azerbaijan.

Medieval Poetry
Soviet historians tried to show great Eastern poets as "strugglers for the rights of oppressed people." According to "History of Azerbaijan" (vol. 1, p.165), "The verses by Khagani Shirvani (1120-1199) reveal with great strength the rebellious soul of the poet, his angry attack on the tyranny of the ruling class, the hypocrisy of priests and social injustice." In fact, Khagani was a traditional Muslim who believed in God and served as a court poet of the Shirvanshahs. As to the "rebellious soul" of Khagani, he was a man of difficult character and often quarreled with relatives and friends, but he never participated in any social movement.

It's difficult to believe it today, but Soviet historians liked to criticize medieval poets for their poor understanding and comprehension of Marxist theory (even though it wasn't even formed until hundreds of years later). For example, we read in the "History of Azerbaijan" (vol. 1, p.216): "Nizami Ganjavi (1141-1209) did not understand the class nature of the feudal state and tried to influence rulers with his truthful, inspired words; he hoped to convince them to stop oppressing the people. Nizami also believed that a ruler who devastated his country should be sentenced to death." Soviet ideologists tried to show this great thinker and poet as a cruel revolutionary who longed to shed the blood of the ruling class. It was not so easy: Nizami was too great and humane a philosopher.

Historians also took 15th-century poet Imadaddin Nasimi (killed in 1417) to task for the "pessimistic and naive" character of his verses: "The legacy of Nasimi is complicated and contradictory.Sometimes he was doubtful about the victory of justice. Oppression and bloodshed reigned in the feudal community; he could not find the inner strength for struggle." Of course, "History of Azerbaijan" did not describe the rich philosophical and mystical content of Nasimi's verses, but only that he was "a pessimist and a mystic." During the Soviet period, all philosophy that wasn't Marxist-Leninist was considered outdated, naive and harmful from an ideological point of view. Today, Azerbaijani poets are talked about as poets, not as naive, early revolutionaries.

Fear of Pan-Turkism
You won't find anything about the Turkic roots of Azerbaijani people in Soviet history books. Instead, they say that the Turks conquered Azerbaijan in the 11th-13th centuries, and that the native residents of Azerbaijan gradually switched from their ancient languages of Caucasian and Persian origin to a Turkic language. Azerbaijanis supposedly kept their blood pure and did not become Turks. Let's open "History of Azerbaijan" again (vol. 1, p.172): "The same things took place in Central Asia, where the native languages of Kharezm, Sogdiana, Baktriana and Parthea were replaced by Turkic languages.Similarly in Azerbaijan the native languages were substituted with Turkic."

Why were Soviet historians so biased against Turks? Stalin believed that Turkey would try to unite all of the Turkic nations of the world under its leadership. More than half of the territory of the USSR, including Siberia, was inhabited by various Turkic peoples, so the Soviet leaders considered Pan-Turkism to be a major threat. To prevent the Turkic peoples from uniting, Stalin ordered historians to prove that they were completely unrelated to one another, that all of them had different blood, religions and traditions. According to Soviet scholars, those peoples who spoke Turkic languages (for instance, Azerbaijanis, Uzbeks, Turkmen, and Turks) were Turkic speaking (Turkophone), but not of Turkic blood.

Beginning in 1937, the huge machine of Soviet propaganda, including history books, novels, newspapers, radio, schools and universities, spread these ideas. To be arrested as a Pan-Turkist, one had only to say "Turkic people" instead of "Azerbaijani people". Even the seventh-century Azerbaijani epic "Dada Gorgud" (The Book of my Father Gorgud) was forbidden because it was branded as Pan-Turkist literature.

Now that Azerbaijan is independent, Azerbaijanis may freely speak about their Turkic roots. Documents of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic that have now been published show that Azerbaijanis once officially called themselves Turks. For example, the chairman of the Azerbaijani Parliament, Hasan-bey Aghayev, said during the celebration of the first year of independence in 1919: "The Turkic people gained freedom by their blood and will never give up this freedom.A free Azerbaijan is an ideal that lives in the hearts of all Turkic people, from intellectuals to workers and peasants."

The debate about the role of Turkic tribes in Azerbaijan's history continues to this day. Some extreme researchers, so-called "historian-patriots", have even started to exaggerate the role of the Turks and completely deny the role of other nations, such as the Arabs, Persians and Caucasian tribes. Perhaps this is only a temporary tendency. Each historian has a right to his or her own opinion, but ideological blinders should not prevent us from seeing the real facts.

Georgia as Ally
If you open any Soviet history book, you will read that Azerbaijanis, Armenians and Georgians are brothers who have always struggled together against Persians, Arabs and Turks. According to Soviet historians, the Caucasus is like a little island surrounded by the huge ocean of the terrible Muslim world. For example, we read in "History of Azerbaijan" (vol. 1, p.120): "The hero of Azerbaijan, Babak, set up relations with Armenians who raised a rebellion. Babak helped the Armenians and overcame the Arabic troops near Sunik.The struggle of the Azerbaijanis, Georgians and Armenians against the Arabs continued even after the death of Babak.Peoples of these countries fought heroically against the enemy."

In this way, history books suggested that the Caucasian peoples of the USSR (Armenians, Georgians, as well as Lezgins and Tats) were closer to Azerbaijanis than the Arabs, Persians and Turks were. Now that Azerbaijan is independent, history has become more objective. The Caucasian friendship is not disclaimed. Yet, Azerbaijan is not a typical Caucasian state - geographically, ethnically or linguistically. Azerbaijan's scope has always extended beyond the Caucasus. Southern Azerbaijan is situated in Iran. The ethnic brothers of Azerbaijanis (such as the Turks, Turkmens and Uzbeks) also live outside the Caucasus in the waste territories of Eurasia.

Modern historical texts do stress that Georgia was a traditional ally of Azerbaijan. For example, in 1991, Aydin Balayev wrote that Georgia was a military ally of Azerbaijan during the ADR period of 1918-1920. This fact was never mentioned during the Soviet period. Besides, historians have noted that during the Middle Ages, Georgia was an ally of the Shirvanshahs in Northern Azerbaijan. The Shirvanshahs and Georgian rulers often intermarried and struggled together against various invaders.

Azerbaijani historians are also exposing some negative facts about Azerbaijan's relationship with Georgia. For example, in the 12th century, after the earthquake in Ganja, Georgians attacked and completely destroyed the city. The Azerbaijanis who had survived the earthquake were either killed or taken as slaves. During the Soviet period, only academician Ziya Bunyadov dared mention this fact; most other historians were afraid and kept silent.

Conflicts - Armenia
Even though official Soviet ideology tried to depict Armenians and Azerbaijanis as friends, some Armenian historians wrote that the Azerbaijani state had never existed and that almost all of Azerbaijan was really part of Armenia. They issued maps of historical Armenia, showing that their country included all of Azerbaijan's territories.

During the Soviet period, most Azerbaijani historians were afraid to object to the Armenians because they were protected by the Soviet regime. But the Azerbaijani people were very upset that our historians and professors kept quiet. I remember well that atmosphere of anger.

The bravest Azerbaijani dissident to oppose the Armenians was Professor Ziya Bunyadov (1923-1997), a huge figure in the study of Azerbaijani history. In his book "Azerbaijan in the 7th-9th Centuries AD", Bunyadov proved that no part of Azerbaijan was considered part of Armenia in ancient times. He also wrote about the independent Azerbaijani states of Shirvan and Aran (Caucasian Albania), which covered the territory of Northern Azerbaijan and some other territories. Many Armenian historians were enraged by Bunyadov's books, calling him a "chauvinist" and the "No. 1 Enemy" of Armenia.

But Bunyadov was not a chauvinist. His mother had Russian blood, he spoke Russian fluently and knew some Armenian and Georgian as well. He liked the Georgian people and sometimes even used to wear the national Georgian hat. Bunyadov had many friends among Russians, Georgians and even Armenians, and never criticized Armenians or any another nation for its ethnic origin. He simply wrote the history of Azerbaijan and tried to write it correctly.

Bunyadov could dare to do this because he was decorated as a hero of World War II and had been honored with the highest military orders of the USSR. In addition, he was very famous in the academic world. Brezhnev was not as vicious as Stalin
- he didn't want the entire world to talk about a repression against famous intellectuals in the USSR. Less distinguished historians, such as Abulfaz Aliyev [Elchibey], could be arrested, but academicians generally were not touched. Ironically, Bunyadov's death came at the hands of terrorists in independent, democratic Azerbaijan - after the collapse of the USSR, when he was entering his own apartment complex on the way home from Parliament. The Azerbaijani courts have declared that they have found and convicted the killers, who are now in prison.

Another contemporary scientist who has dared to object to the Armenians is Farida Mammadova, the author of "The Political History and Historical Geography of Caucasian Albania." Mammadova proved that from the 4th century BC until the 7th century AD, Caucasian Albania (modern Northern Azerbaijan) was an independent state and never part of "Greater Armenia". Russian and Armenian scholars criticized Mammadova, but her work has been highly valued by European scholars. After Azerbaijan became independent, her doctoral work was also approved by the High Attestation Commission in Baku.

Now that Azerbaijani historians have the freedom to write about controversial historical events, the heated arguments between Azerbaijani and Armenian historians continue. For the first time, Azerbaijani historians are writing about the thousands of Azerbaijanis who were killed by Armenians in Baku and other places in Azerbaijan in 1918. Suleyman Aliyarov and Bakhtiyar Vahabzade (1925- ) have written about the deportation and genocide of hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis in Armenia during the 19th century.

Now that old documents and maps from Azerbaijan's archives are being published, we are learning about historical facts that were kept hidden for decades. For instance, a map prepared by the government of the ADR was released from the secret archives in 1990. This map had been prepared in 1920 by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, showing that the ADR in those times included all of the territories of the modern Azerbaijan Republic, plus Zangezur, which is now part of Armenia. This province, which was populated mainly by Azerbaijanis and Kurds, was given to Armenia after the establishment of Soviet rule in Azerbaijan in the 1920s.

In 1919, Armenia issued its own map, which didn't represent reality, but rather expressed the territorial claims of the Armenian Dashnak government. On this map, Armenia is shown as including the Azerbaijani territories of Nakhchivan and Karabakh (and Zangezur, of course), the Georgian provinces of Akhalkalak and Borchali as well as the Turkish Kars.

In reality, these territories never belonged to the Republic of Armenia. In 1919-1920, Armenia was at war with Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey. In 1919, a military pact between the ADR and Georgia was signed, and Azerbaijan helped Georgia with weapons. As a result, Armenia could not capture Akhalkalak in Georgia and was stopped in Karabakh. In turn, Turkish troops moved into Armenia and forced it to capitulate. Only the invasion of the Bolshevik Red Army in 1920 helped Armenia save its territory and sovereignty.

Joining Russia
Soviet historians were forced to stress the "great historical importance" of joining to Russia. They stated that in the 18th century, Azerbaijan was devastated by the Iranian army, and khanates sent messages to the Russian tsar asking him to join Azerbaijan to Russia. So the Russian army came, defeated Iran and rescued the Azerbaijani people. As a result of the Gulistan (1813) and Turkmanchay (1828) treaties, Azerbaijan was divided into Northern (Russian) Azerbaijan and Southern (Iranian) Azerbaijan.

In the second volume of "History of Azerbaijan" (1960, p.47) we read: "The joining of Azerbaijan to Russia rescued the Azerbaijani people from the danger of enslavement by the backward Iran and Turkey.Even though Russia was ruled in those times by the despotic tsar and landowners...joining to Russia promoted the political, economic and cultural development of Azerbaijan."

The words of Nariman Narimanov (1870-1925) were quoted so often that they became a slogan: "The eternal happiness of Azerbaijan is associated with Russia!" Narimanov was Chairman of the Central Executive Committee of the Russian Communist Party in 1925.

Azerbaijani historians also quoted Mirza Fatali Akhundov (1812-1878), who wrote: "Owing to the patronage of the Russian state, we were rescued from endless invasions and the robbery of conquerors and found peace at last." Of course, this was not the opinion of all Azerbaijani people; Narimanov was a Communist and Akhundov had been a Russian military officer.

Soviet authorities persecuted those who did not agree with the idea that "the eternal happiness of Azerbaijan is associated with Russia." Famous academician Heydar Huseynov did not agree. He studied the anti-Russian movement of Sheikh Shamil (1798-1871) in the North Caucasus and revealed the crimes of the Russian army during this war. Tragically, the academician later hung himself in his countryside home. In the post-Stalin period, the Soviets avoided arresting famous dissidents, but perhaps there were other ways to get rid of them. Not all professors were like Ziya Bunyadov, who was strong enough to bear the psychological pressure of the Soviet system.

Now Azerbaijani historians may write the truth about the so-called "voluntary joining" of Azerbaijan to Russia. Even schoolchildren now know that Azerbaijan was conquered by Russia and did not choose to be under its rule.

History textbooks now tell about the Azerbaijani people's resistance to Russia's aggression. For example, in 1803, Javad khan, the ruler of the Ganja khanate, refused to let the Russian army, commanded by General Tsitsianov, into his city. In response to the General's threats, he said: "Your guns are long, but my guns are longer!" The khan and his warriors were killed on the walls of Ganja while fighting against the Russian troops.

In 1804, Huseyn Gulu khan of Baku suddenly attacked the Russian military detachment, defeated it and killed General Tsitsianov. In 1806, Salim khan of Shaki raised a rebellion against the Russians. His tiny army was defeated, but the people of Shaki continued to resist. They surrounded the walls of the city with fuel and burned it when the Russian soldiers tried to climb up. Even though Shaki was captured, rebellions were sparked in Talish and other khanates. On the basis of these and other facts, modern historians in Azerbaijan have proved that "joining" Russia was hardly voluntary.

However, the question about Russia's role in the history of Azerbaijan is still not completely settled. Some historians still believe that Russia played a positive role, saying: "In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Azerbaijani khanates were too weak. We would have been annexed by Iran if Russia had not conquered us. It was better to be ruled by Russia than Iran. Through the Russian influence, we were able to adopt European culture and develop our national intellectuals such as Akhundov, Bakikhanov, Sabir and Mammad Amin Rasulzade. If all of Azerbaijan (Southern and Northern) had remained under Iranian rule, we would gradually have been assimilated."

Their opponents argue that Russia separated Azerbaijanis from their traditional way of life and religion and forced them to follow Russian customs. They also maintain that the Russians severely exploited Azerbaijan's natural resources without proper compensation.

Coming of Bolsheviks
Soviet historians also painted a skewed picture of the revolutionary movement in Azerbaijan during the late 19th century and early 20th century. According to "History of Azerbaijan" (vol. 1, p.297): "The worker movement in Azerbaijan began in the 1870s and 1880s as a part of the struggle of the Russian worker class." Soviet books describe a succession of economic strikes and meetings that took place in Baku and other cities in Azerbaijan. About 1,000 pages of the second volume of "History of Azerbaijan" are devoted to this era, whereas the first volume, which is devoted to the ancient and medieval period, contains fewer than 400 pages!

After independence, Azerbaijani historians found out that in the early 1900s, more than 90 percent of the Socialists and Bolsheviks in Baku were Russians, Armenians and peoples of other nationalities, not Azerbaijanis. To attract more Azerbaijanis to the movement, the Russian Social-Democratic Party founded a special branch of the party (Hummat) for the Muslim workers. Soviet historians exaggerated the role of Hummat in Azerbaijan. Modern research has proven that this terrorist organization, financed by the Russian Bolsheviks, was actually not very popular among Azerbaijani workers.

Much of the recent historical research in Azerbaijan has been devoted to learning more about the Musavat Party, Azerbaijan's first major political party, which was founded in 1911. Soviet leaders tried to hide the facts about the Musavat Party and its leaders, so books written by Mammad Amin Rasulzade (1884-1955), the leader of the Party, were prohibited. After Azerbaijan gained its independence, these books and articles by Rasulzade were issued, revealing a real treasury of political thought. For 70 years, Azerbaijani readers were deprived of the right to read books by the founder of independent Azerbaijan.

Now we have learned the truth about the collaboration between Bolsheviks and Armenian nationalists in Baku. For example, the official documents and newspapers of those times inform us that in 1918, Bolsheviks and Dashnaks killed several thousand Azerbaijani civilians in Baku, including elderly persons, women and children. These facts were hidden during the Soviet period.

Soviet historians praised the 26 Baku Commissars as "internationalists" and denounced the legitimate government leaders of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic as "chauvinists". Modern publications reveal that the Musavat Party and the Azerbaijani government were never chauvinists. Just consider the composition of the Azerbaijani Parliament in 1918. About 30 percent of the members were national minorities: there were 7 Armenian Dashnaks, 7 Armenians, 7 Russians and 13 Bolsheviks. There were also Jews, Germans, Poles, Lezgins, Tats, and Georgians. In regard to the 26 Baku Commissars, who Azerbaijanis view as traitors to their country, only two of them - Azizbekov and Vazirov - were Azerbaijanis.

Soviet books also lie about the collapse of the Democratic Republic in 1920, when the Red Army occupied Azerbaijan. They write that the workers in Baku raised a rebellion and asked the Russians to help them. As a result, the Musavat government was overthrown by the Azerbaijani Bolsheviks with the help of their brothers, the Great Russian People. Actually, the Russian troops were already in Baku when the Azerbaijani Bolsheviks decided to forward their letter to Moscow asking for military help.

With this message, they only wanted to show that the Azerbaijani government was overthrown not by foreigners, but by the Azerbaijani people themselves. However, the Azerbaijani Parliament had already been occupied by the Bolsheviks on April 27, not on April 29 when the letter was sent to Moscow. Soviet historians tried to hide this fact.

Consider also that the Azerbaijani army only had about 20,000 soldiers, and not many weapons. Russia, on the other hand, had the ability to send several hundred thousand soldiers into Azerbaijan. Nevertheless, Azerbaijani generals like Mehmandarov (1856-1931) and Shikhlinski (1863-1943) were not afraid; they were ready to fight against Russia. But the Azerbaijani Parliament, at the request of Turkey, decided not to show resistance, and the Azerbaijani army was forced to fulfill the
government's decision.

In today's climate of independence, our historians may now analyze why the Azerbaijani army did not resist the Bolsheviks. In fact, the Azerbaijani government knew that their tiny national army would not be able to stop the invasion of the huge Red Army. Also, Turkey, Azerbaijan's closest ally, had decided to include the Caucasus in the Russian sphere of influence. Ataturk, the Turkish leader, needed Russia's help in his struggle against the European countries. In turn, Russia promised to help Turkey with weapons. Therefore, Turkey refused to help the Azerbaijan Republic against Russia. Furthermore, the Turks asked Azerbaijan not to show resistance to the Red Army, because this army was coming to help the Turkish people. It was under these conditions that the Musavat government left its post to prevent bloodshed in Azerbaijan.

Nor did Soviet historians ever mention the conditions under which the Musavat Parliament agreed to transfer power to the Bolsheviks: (1) The Russian army will not enter Baku but will go directly to Turkey to help Ataturk, (2) the independence and territorial integrity of Azerbaijan will be secured, (3) the Azerbaijani army will be preserved, (4) political freedom for all political parties will be ensured, (5) the former governmental authorities will not be victimized and employees will not be discharged, and (6) the final form of political system in Azerbaijan will be appointed by the High Legislative Organ, which shall be newly elected in the democratic way. Of course, all of these promises were immediately broken by the Bolsheviks.

Communist Leaders
During the Soviet period, historians apologized for Communist leaders like Kirov, Shaumian and Azizbekov. The cult of Stalin was demolished after his death in 1953. Mirjafar Baghirov, the Communist leader of Azerbaijan during the Stalinist period, was executed as a "people's enemy". Soviet historians found that they could criticize certain leaders like Stalin, Beriya or Baghirov, or historical periods like the Stalinist era, but they never dared criticize the Soviet system, Marxist ideology or the cult of Vladimir Lenin. These were holy things for Soviet ideology and history.

New information about Nariman Narimanov (1870-1925), the first Communist leader of Azerbaijan, began to appear in historical works. His unpublished letter to Radek (the Communist leader) was edited for the first time during Perestroika. It turns out that Narimanov was against the chauvinistic politics of the Russian authorities in Azerbaijan. He sent letters to Moscow complaining about Russian emissaries who infringed upon the rights and interests of the Azerbaijan Republic, used Azerbaijani oil and other natural resources without paying and offended national employees.

Narimanov was a very famous figure who was sometimes called the "Lenin of the East". He tried to lead an independent policy in Azerbaijan. Lenin himself was very sick during this period and Stalin was not yet very strong. Narimanov was invited to Moscow and appointed to a higher governmental post in the Soviet Union. He became one of several members of the Central Executive Committee. After a short time, in 1925, he suddenly died of a heart attack. Sergey Kirov was sent from Moscow to replace Narimanov as the leader of Azerbaijan.

After Soviet Perestroika (which began in 1985) and Independence, the lists of Azerbaijani intellectuals who were imprisoned and executed during the Stalinist Repression (1937-38) were published in the newspapers. The KGB of Azerbaijan was transformed into the Ministry of National Security (MNS), which says it wants to reveal all of the crimes of the Stalinist period. The names that were published included scholars like Vali Khuluflu and Salman Mumtaz and poets like Mikayil Mushvig and Huseyn Javid. The names of killers from the NKVD - Narodni Kommisariat Vnutrenikh Del (The People's Ministry of Internal Affairs), the forerunner to the KGB during the Stalinist period
- were also revealed, including Grigorian, Markarian, Topuridze and Atakishiyev.

The NKVD assassins all worked under the supervision of Mirjafar Baghirov, who ordered them to kill the best representatives of the Azerbaijani people. Baghirov's last words at his trial were published as well. He said: "Yes, I am guilty, but if I am the only guilty one, it is insufficient to shoot me, it is necessary to cut me into a thousand pieces." Baghirov wanted to say that thousands of other Soviet authorities and the Soviet system as a whole were guilty as well, but they were not punished at that time.

After Azerbaijan gained its independence, some new historical works about Baghirov were published, characterizing him as a bloody tyrant who used to beat and kill arrested individuals in his own office.

However, Baghirov did some positive things as well. For example, before World War II, Stalin wanted to round up all of the Azerbaijani people and resettle them in Central Asia. He was afraid that the Azerbaijanis would help neighboring Turkey, the ally of Germany at that time. Baghirov called Stalin and said: "Comrade Stalin! Don't do it. I promise that you will not have problems with these people."

"Are you ready to be responsible?" asked Stalin after a long pause.

"Yes," replied Baghirov. As a result, Azerbaijanis were not dislocated.

We have also recently learned about another episode that was kept secret during the Soviet period. Armenian leader Arutinov sent a message to Stalin saying that he wanted Nagorno-Karabakh to be joined to Armenia. In turn, Stalin sent this message to Baghirov and asked for his opinion. Baghirov replied that he was ready for this to happen, but first, Armenia should cede Zangezur to Azerbaijan and give autonomy for Azerbaijanis in the remaining territory of Armenia. Arutinov did not agree, so Karabakh remained in Azerbaijan.

Even famous Azerbaijani geneticists were tormented by the KGB during the Stalinist period. Genetics was considered a "capitalist science" and all geneticists were declared "enemies of the people". The founders of genetics
- Johann Gregor Mendel, Thomas Hunt Morgan and August Weisman - were declared "agents of capitalism". Newspapers have revealed that the famous Azerbaijani geneticist, professor Mirali Akhundov, jumped out of his window when the KGB authorities came knocking at his door. For a long time, he hid himself in a mountainous village near Shaki.

After Azerbaijan became independent, many scientists came forward to tell the truth about the Stalinist Repression. My grandfather, professor Aghakhan Aghabeyli, was a geneticist who published a genetics textbook in the 1930s and therefore was invited to the KGB.

"Are you a Mendelist?" the KGB officer grilled him.

"I am a geneticist," he replied.

"So, are you a Morganist or a Weismanist?" the officer demanded angrily.

"As I already said, I am a geneticist and nothing more," he replied again.

"Well," the officer said suddenly. "Go home. We will call you tomorrow."

My grandfather feared the KGB. He and his family lost a lot of sleep worrying that he would be arrested or executed. He even prepared a small bag with some clothes and necessities in case he was taken away. Fortunately, the KGB never called again. Maybe they were simply trying to frighten him, or perhaps they just forgot about him. Who knows?

Rewriting History
As soon as Azerbaijan gained its independence 10 years ago, Azerbaijanis began re-exploring their history. We have found that so many facts were confused, hidden or changed by Soviet propaganda that it has been difficult to clear up all of the details. Many items remain unclear and questionable.

Azerbaijanis have a right to know what really happened. But what is the truth, and how do we write an objective history? Even though Azerbaijani history textbooks are already being rewritten, there is still controversy over certain areas of history.

For instance, there are bitter arguments going on amongst the Azerbaijani scientists who study ancient history. Some of them, such as academician Igrar Aliyev, believe that Azerbaijanis in ancient times (more than 1,500 years ago) spoke ancient languages of Caucasian and Iranian origin, but not Turkic. Other scientists believe that Azerbaijanis have almost always spoken a Turkic language. Some of them suggest that ancient peoples such as the Medeans, Sumerians, Caucasian Albanians and others were Turks and that the Near East is an ancient motherland of Turkic tribes.

The antagonism between these two sides rages on. I say "antagonism" rather than "debate" because, unfortunately, the culture of debate does not yet exist in Azerbaijan. Under Soviet rule, we were never allowed to carry on debates about official history. The official slogan was: "A person who does not agree with us is our enemy."

Unfortunately, we have yet to rid ourselves completely of that Bolshevik psychology. Instead of normal scientific discussion, there is antagonism and name-calling. Some scientists, especially from the older generation, blame others and call them "predators", or even accuse them of being Russian, Turkish, Persian or Armenian spies! Because of this, some of the younger scientists are afraid to express their own views on questionable topics because they don't want to be targeted.

In addition, one should not forget that many of the historians who are now in high-ranking positions were once members of the Communist Party and cannot be expected to be completely objective. If they criticize the Soviet system, they would also be incriminating themselves. Therefore, most of them prefer to remain silent about these events.

Today there is a trend among some of our scholars to idealize the Soviet period. Ramiz Akhmadov, the leader of the modern Azerbaijan Communist party, says: "Before Soviet rule, almost all Azerbaijanis were illiterate and did not have their own universities. There were few physicians, teachers and scientists in pre-Soviet Azerbaijan. Thanks to the Bolsheviks, almost all of our people became literate, scores of universities and academies were founded, medical care became free of charge and people became sufficiently well off. You couldn't find a homeless or jobless person in all of Azerbaijan. And what about today? Many Azerbaijanis have become poor and illiterate again!"

His opponents, the historians who ascribe to democratic ideology, usually say: "But all of this success was achieved through bloody repressions and the infringement of human rights. The best intellectuals were shot. We were deprived of our religion, our alphabet and our traditions. During the Brezhnev period, the morals of the people deteriorated, and corruption spread throughout all layers. Our products were cheap but of inferior quality, and our medical care was poor. Today, we are a free nation. As for recent hardships, they are temporary."

I believe that someday a comprehensive, objective, non-ideological history of Azerbaijan will be written, but not today. The possibility is there, but it will take time to sift through all of the material and cultivate a culture of calm, rational scientific debate. Science must be free of ideology.

Farid Alakbarov, a frequent contributor to Azerbaijan International, has worked at Baku's Institute of Manuscripts since 1987. He is now chief scientific officer for the Department of Arabic Manuscripts at the Institute. He holds a Doctorate of Sciences in History (1998) and a Candidate of Sciences in Biology (1992).

For more information about Baku's Institute of Manuscripts, see
"Voices from the Ages," in AI 8.2 (Summer 2000). To read other articles by Alakbarov, SEARCH at Many of his articles are also available in Azeri (Latin script) at

Azerbaijan International (9.3) Autumn 2001.
© Azerbaijan International 2001. All rights reserved.

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