“The reality is quite plain: the ‘end of the era of nationalism,’ so long prophesied, is not remotely in sight. Indeed, nation-ness is the most universally legitimate value in the political life of our time … Theorists of nationalism have often been perplexed … by … [t]he ‘political’ power of nationalisms vs. their philosophical poverty and even incoherence. In other words, unlike most other isms, nationalism has never produced its own grand thinkers: no Hobbeses, Tocquevilles, Marxes, or Webers.”
— Benedict Anderson
Ernest Gellner writes that “nationalism is not the awakening of nations to their self-consciousness; it invents nations where they do not exist.” These words are applicable to the case of Azerbaijan: it is quite obvious that Azerbaijani nationalism, founded by local elites, gave birth to the Azerbaijani nation and not the other way around. Yet, as Anderson suggests, Gellner also “implies that ‘true’ communities exist which can be advantageously juxtaposed to nations.” It is clear that the local Muslim elites of the South Caucasus who emerged after the Russian conquest had substantial raw material to fuel their nationalism and conceive the Azerbaijani nation.
Benedict Anderson, in his cerebral work Imagined Communities, writes that “from the start the nation was conceived in language, not in blood,” and that “[m]uch the most important thing about language is its capacity for generating imagined communities, building in effect particular solidarities.” The Azerbaijani nation fits well the concept of an imagined community as described by Anderson. The multi-ethnic Muslims of the South Caucasus who served as the raw material for the construction of this nation were already connected by language — the local vernacular Turkic dialect. For the majority of the Muslim population of the South Caucasus, this vernacular was their mother tongue, for others it served as a lingua-franca.
Anderson further writes that “communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined.” One of the founding fathers of Azerbaijani nationalism, Ahmet Ağaoğlu, described this style in the following way: “Western life in its entirety has conquered the entirety of our life. Therefore, if we want to be saved, to live, to continue our existence, we must adapt our life in its entirety, not only our clothing, but also our mind, our heart, our way of thinking, and our mentality. Otherwise, there is no salvation.” There is no doubt that the origins of Azerbaijani nationalism are firmly linked to the process of modernization/westernization led by the newly emerged intelligentsia and its revolt against the traditional elite. In this article I am going to describe the complex developments and transformations of Azerbaijani nationalism in chronological order from its inception in the mid 19th century to today. To begin, however, I would like to make a very brief introduction to the raw material used to construct the Turkic Azerbaijani nation.
Since the establishment by Oghuz Turks of the Seljuk Empire in the 11th century, Turkic dynasties have been the major ruling elite of the region in question. They continued to play a significant political role when the area became part of the wider Mongol Empire in the 13th and 14th centuries, and they restored their ruling status in the early 15th century. Even after the re-emergence of the Persian Empire under the Safavid dynasty one hundred years later in the early 16th century, Shi’i Turkic tribes called by the generalized name qızılbaş (redhead due to their distinctive red turbans commemorating the twelve Shi’i Imams) were the actual ruling and military elite of the Empire. Although the ethnic roots of the Safavid dynasty itself are disputed, by the time when the Empire was established, as Roger Savory notes, “the qizilbash normally spoke their Azeri brand of Turkish at court, as did Safavid shahs themselves.” Moreover, the Afshar and Qajar dynasties which followed the Safavids on the Persian throne were undisputedly Turkic, although they nevertheless considered themselves Iranians.
In 1919 after the emergence of the first Azerbaijani Republic, the new government sent its first official delegation to the Iranian court. The delegation consisted of two members of the Qajar family, who were to formally announce the emergence of the Azerbaijani Republic to their relatives who ruled Iran. During the meeting, the Iranian Qajar Shah asked the Azerbaijani envoy Ismail Khan Ziadkhanov-Qajar whether he spoke Persian. Ismail Khan, replied that yes, he spoke a couple of foreign languages, including French, Persian and Russian. Then Ismail Khan switched to Azerbaijani Turkic and added that to his best knowledge his majesty the Shah also was fluent in their native language (implying Azerbaijani Turkic). To which the Shah smiled. This incident happened decades after the inception of the Azerbaijani nationalist movement, which at that point had passed through multiple stages before taking a definite shape.
Emergence: Empowering Language
Anderson writes that “the birth of the imagined community of the nation can best be seen if we consider the basic structure of two forms of imagining which first flowered in Europe in the eighteenth century: the novel and the newspaper.” The process in Azerbaijan started with the novel and the newspaper as well. The late professor Tadeusz Swietochowski wrote that “in a stroke of good fortune, the Azerbaijani intelligentsia produced in its early stage a man of brilliance and intellectual accomplishment who in his writings set forth what were to be this group’s chief concerns for the future. Mirza Fath Ali Akhundzadeh, a translator in the Chancellery of the viceroy of the Caucasus, gained fame primarily as the author of the first plays in the European style in the Azerbaijani language.” Akhundzadeh made a major pioneering contribution to the formation of the modern Azerbaijani nation by empowering the local Azerbaijani Turkic vernacular. As Robert Denis writes, “in 1857, Mirza Fath Ali Akhundzadeh first proposed linguistic reforms in Azerbaijan, kicking off a century of intense efforts to transform the hybrid written language of the time, equal parts Arabic, Persian, and Turkic, into the standardized written language as it exists in Azerbaijan today.”
The simplified language of Akhundzadeh was taken up and developed by Hasan bek Zardabi, who became the founder of independent print media in Azerbaijani Turkic. In line with Anderson’s theory of the imagined community, Alexander Benningsen wrote that “in 1875 an interesting and rich Azeri press was born and flourished.” The language of Zardabi’s newspaper, Əkinçi (Ploughman), had the advantage of being practical and it could be mastered by the general population relatively easily. Zardabi’s newspaper appeared at the stage during the tanzimat reform period in the Ottoman Empire. Gratified by the idea of progressive reforms the newspaper provided a great amount of space to the news and analyses of events in the Ottoman realm, openly expressing its admiration for the reformers.
However, despite their enormous pioneering contributions to the formation of Azerbaijani nation, the cases of Akhundzadeh and Zardabi are not that simple. They never espoused anything like the modern Azerbaijani identity. They empowered critical thinking and introduced progressive thought to the local audience, yet their modernization efforts were driven primarily by their Muslim identity and their concerns about the overall decline of the Islamic world. They thought of themselves as representatives of the wider Muslim world and aimed their critique at the Islamic world as a whole. This Islamic identity would prevail for quite some time among early generations of the emerging nationalist elite of Azerbaijan. Unlike Akhundzadeh, many representatives of this early generation of local reformers not only considered themselves Muslims, they cherished their Muslim identity and did not blame Islam itself for the decline of Muslim world. They saw the reformation of Islam — which they conceived of as the restoration of true Islam — as a way forward. The primary target of their criticism was the religious class, i.e. clerics — the traditional elite — who, along with despotic monarchs, were responsible for the plight of the Muslim world according to Azerbaijani modernizers. This kind of reasoning was probably expressed most directly in the play The Tragedy of Fakhreddin, authored by Najaf bek Vezirov, a prominent Azerbaijani writer of the late 19th – early 20th centuries. The plot is similar to that of Prosper Mérimée’s classic novel Colombo. Vezirov’s protagonist, young European-educated Fakhraddin, is faced with a vendetta after returning to his native land. Fakhraddin tries to stop the blood feud between the two families, however, he eventually falls victim to it. In one of his monologues, Fakhraddin expresses the ideology of the modernizers of his generation in the following words:
There should not be any place in the world for a tribe as savage as we are… Mullahs have brought our end. I feel sorry for the beautiful Sharia. I feel sorry for you, oh beautiful Islam that we became savage people and we do not comprehend your value!
This kind of Islamism was never abandoned by some Azerbaijani modernizers as their primary political ideology. Vezirov, for example, became one of the leaders of an Islamic political party during the first Republic. Yet, due to the development and deepening of the secularization of the modernization movement, as well as the influences of pan-Germanism and particularly pan-Slavism, Islamic identity faded away as the core value behind Azerbaijani nationalism and the search for a new secular identity gained ground. Akhundzadeh and his ideas had laid the groundwork for others that followed.
As Denis notes in his article on language reform, Akhundzadeh extensively wrote in Persian. Some Iranian scholars even call him the founder of Iranian nationalism, for which there is a strong case. Akhundzadeh actually attacks Islam, contrasting it and its saints with ancient Iran, giving clear preference to the latter and smearing the former. There is no mystery in the fact that many Azerbaijani modernizers, while switching from an Islamic nationalism to a secular-ethnic version, first turned their gaze to Iran. As indicated above, for centuries Azerbaijanis were part of the Iranian realm, connected to it through politics, culture, and religion, as well as language. Azerbaijan was also the homeland of a sizable Iranian-speaking population. Moreover, while Azerbaijani Turkic was the spoken lingua franca among Muslims of the South Caucasus, Persian was the primary language of elite education. As a descendant of the former rulers of Baku, the famous 19th century intellectual Abbaskuli Agha Bakikhanov put it, “the written correspondence of the residents of our region is carried out in Persian. People know this language and they can write in Persian, although not completely correctly, while Turkic is their spoken language.” Or for instance, in 1875 in Əkinçi a writer suggested that in order to be better informed about the tanzimat reforms in the Ottoman Empire, newspapers published in Istanbul should be brought to the Caucasus. The author added, however, that while the Ottoman language is too difficult to comprehend, bringing the Istanbul newspapers published in Persian would be much more helpful, because “the Persian language is widely used in our lands.”
This phenomenon is probably expressed best by Chicago University professor Ada Holly Shissler in her dissertation and subsequent book about one of the aforementioned founding fathers of Azerbaijani nationalism Ahmet Ağaoğlu. She writes that “in the course of his career Ağaoğlu characterizes himself in a number of ways. Early in his career he seemed to think of himself as a Persian but later on he was definitely prepared to say that he was a Turk.” While studying in Paris Ağaoğlu wrote for some French periodicals, including a series of essays about his native region entitled Persian Society.
Or Muhammad Amin Rasulzadeh, for instance, the future head of the National Council which declared the independence of Azerbaijani Republic in 1918. In the preceding decade, he had played a major role in the Iranian constitutional movement. He was the chief editor of the first professionally edited Iranian revolutionary periodical printed in Persian (Iran-e-Nov). Despite the fact that he later became an ardent promoter of pan-Turkism, Rasulzadeh never fully abandoned his Iranian attachment. His book Siyavush of Our Time, written after the fall of the first Republic and dedicated to the idea of Azerbaijani nationhood, compared the country to the great Persian poet Ferdowsi’s hero Siyavush. According to Rasulzadeh, Siyavush represented the mixed blood of two nations — Persians and Turks.
It should not be surprising that the new elite which shaped Azerbaijani nationalism was staunchly anti-absolutist and anti-monarchic. Enamored with the ideas of the European Enlightenment and the French and American revolutions, Azerbaijani intellectuals considered themselves democrats who should fight against despotism and the regimes associated with it, i.e., monarchies, be they in Iran, the Ottoman Empire, or Russia. They actively participated in revolutionary and constitutional movements in all these countries. Any strengthening of absolutism in these countries was considered a reactionary development and resulted in alienation from the country where it occurred. Political developments could drive sympathies or antipathies towards these countries. Azerbaijani intellectuals sought opportunities in rising revolutionary movements and abandoned their sympathies once change efforts failed. This happened with the Azeri intelligentsia when the tanzimat reforms failed in the Ottoman Empire and Sultan Abdulhamid II became one of the most despised figures for Azerbaijani intellectuals. It happened again when the first Russian revolution failed, and it happened when the constitutional movement in Iran was halted and Iranian monarchs became frequent targets of Azerbaijani literati such as Mirza Alakbar Tahirzadeh (Sabir) and Mirza Jalil Mammadguluzadeh.
When les Jeunes-Turcs came to power in the Ottoman Empire, the new Azerbaijani elite was jubilant and immediately involved itself in Ottoman affairs. Many Azerbaijani elites like Ahmet Ağaoğlu, Ali bek Huseynzadeh, and Muhammad Amin Rasulzadeh moved to Turkey to be the part of the changes happening there. Most importantly these events resulted in the complete embrace of Turkic identity and an impressive expansion of pan-Turkist ideology among the young Azerbaijani intelligentsia as a core value of nation building. Moreover, Azerbaijanis and Russian pan-Turkists more generally were engaged in internal debates in Turkey between pan-Ottomanism and pan-Turkism, becoming devoted champions of the latter.
Eventually, as Alexander Benningsen writes, “culturally independent, economically prosperous but politically discriminated against, the Azeri community developed a strong national consciousness which became manifest in the early years of the 20th century in the emergence of a powerful and sophisticated national movement.” It was a movement primarily led by pan-Turkists. There is no doubt that among politically involved Azerbaijani intellectuals there were leftists as well as Islamists. Yet the pan-Turkist movement was by far the most influential one. This pan-Turkist mindset and ideology continued to dominate Azerbaijani public and political life throughout the Russian Revolution of 1917 and during the short-lived first Azerbaijani Republic (1918-1920) which declared Turkish the state language. As Rasulzadeh indicated in his book, The Republic of Azerbaijan, while he was in self-imposed exile in Istanbul, “if according to the official geography before WW1, the name Azerbaijan was applied to the city of Tabriz and its surroundings in northern Iran, after the war and the Great Russian Revolution, Azerbaijan is the name of the region in the South East of the Caucasus with its capital city Baku.”
Early Soviet Period
Many major trends set by the Azerbaijani nationalist elite before Sovietization were very much continued throughout the 1920s by the new communist regime. First of all, unlike the Soviet experiments in Central Asia, the Soviets did not invent a new name for the country and accepted the name Azerbaijan adopted by the pre-Soviet Republic. The pre-revolutionary Azerbaijani literati continued to dominate public life, some even returning from exile to participate in the nation-building which accelerated under the Soviet regime’s коренизация (nativization) policy. Elaborating in her PhD dissertation on the personality of Soviet Azerbaijan’s first People’s Commissar of Enlightenment Dadash Bunyadzadeh, whom she describes as “a leader in shaping early Soviet Azerbaijan,” Kelsey Rice writes that “he outlined a vision for educational reform in 1920 that did not differ greatly from the reformist visions of 1906,” i.e. Turkic reformists in the Russian Empire at the turn of the century. Soviet textbooks continued to call the local language of the majority of the population of Azerbaijan Türk dili (the Turkish language) and Soviet passports indicated their ethnicity as Turks.
In 1926, the Soviets held the first Turkological Conference in Baku which focused above all on the change of the script from Arabic to Latin. One of the leading foreign dignitaries of the conference was the aforementioned Ali bek Huseynzadeh, an Azerbaijani intellectual, journalist and publisher who was one of the founding fathers of Azerbaijani pan-Turkism. In the early 20th century, he was the editor-in-chief of the journal called Füyuzat (Enlightenment). As Leah Feldman writes, “[w]ith the prominent pan-Turkic thinker Hüseynzade[h] as its editor, Enlightenment fostered a common ethno-linguistic identity among the journal’s international Turkic readership. In his poem ‘Turan’ Hüseynzade[h] refers to the community of pan-Turkic peoples across Hungary, the Ottoman empire, and Central Asia … In this model, the shared Turkic linguistic origin of Turanians offers a united front against the common enemy of Russian imperial rule. Tracing the linguistic and cultural ties of Turan, Hüseynzade[h] outlines the journal’s reformist objectives to ‘Turkify, Islamicize, and Europeanize,’ elaborating that ‘It follows that our system of thought seeks guidance from Turkic life and from the worship of Islam. It also calls for acquiring the benefits of civilization from contemporary Europe.”” Ali bek left Russia for the Ottoman Empire to join the presidium of the governing Committee of Union and Progress after the Jeunes-Turcs came to power. The entry on the Azerbaijani language in the first version of the Stalinist Encyclopedia of 1920s names pan-Turkist Ali bek Huseynzadeh first among the most renowned representatives of the new Azerbaijani literature. Yet, decades later, at the time when the Soviet Union collapsed, only a few experts knew who he was. His legacy was abandoned and forgotten after the drastic transformation implemented by Stalin in the second part of the 1930s.
Azerbaijani Ethnicity Invented
This transformation included the official change of the language’s name from Turkish to Azerbaijani, as well as the exact same change in the ethnic identity entry in Soviet passports. Subsequently, the alphabet used for writing the language was changed from Latin to Cyrillic, too. In the 1930s, particularly during the Great Terror, the pre-revolutionary Azerbaijani intelligentsia was almost completely eliminated. A sizable portion of pre-revolutionary Azerbaijani literature was banned as pan-Turkist bourgeois culture. The South Caucasian Soviet Socialist Federation, which included Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, was divided and all three became separate republics of the USSR. All of these changes launched the building of an ethnic Azerbaijani nation guided by Soviet leadership and based on territorial and geographic principles. This new stage of ethnic nationalism, which could be called Azerbaijanism, replaced the ethnic pan-Turkic nationalism led by the nascent intelligentsia with its origins in pre-revolutionary times.
Krista Goff explains that “with Moscow and Ankara’s relationship worsening these sorts of muddled ethnic boundaries were increasingly undesirable. Thus, although the idea of an Azerbaijani nation can be traced to the local intelligentsia in the late imperial period, theirs was generally an expansionist vision that included pan-Turkish elements and linked Azerbaijanis in the Russian Empire to Azeris in Iran. In contrast, the Bolshevik definition of the Azerbaijani nationality in the late 1930s looked inward, seeking to root Turks-cum-Azerbaijanis in the USSR and isolate them from the Turco-Persian world that extended beyond its borders. During the Great Terror, many historians, linguists, and writers associated with pre-Bolshevik or Turco-Persian understandings of Azerbaijani nationhood were repressed as the party standardized its definition of the Soviet Azerbaijani nation.”
The Second World War brought an unexpected boost to Azerbaijani nationalism. Goff writes that “in many republics, wartime experiences empowered local leaders and emboldened national particularism.” The Azerbaijani case took a particularly twisted turn when suddenly Stalin himself became a promoter of pan-Azerbaijani nationalism. In 1941, Soviet troops entered the northern part of Iran and Stalin sent many young Azerbaijani writers and journalists, who had been shaped by the first 20 years of Soviet rule and fiercely criticized the pan-Turkist legacy of the pre-revolutionary intelligentsia, to promote the old nationalism and separatism among Azerbaijani Turks in northern Iran. Literature which was prohibited in the Soviet Union was now being published in the Arabic script once more to be distributed in Iran. Young Soviet Azerbaijani writers now had to promote the same literature and discourses which they had been criticizing and attacking in the Soviet Union.
In 1945, the Azerbaijani National Government was formed in Iran. For a year there were two Azerbaijani autonomies. One in the Soviet Union and the second in Iran with the capital in Tabriz. Stalin created the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad in northern Iran as well. However, in 1946, after reaching an agreement with the Western powers and the central Iranian government, Stalin decided to pull out of Iran and the central Iranian government swiftly put an end to the Azerbaijani National Government. Thousands of Iranian Turks and Kurds fled to the USSR. The head of the Azerbaijani National Government in Iran, Seyyid Jafar Pishavari, died the following year in a suspicious car accident in Soviet Azerbaijan. His second-in-command Mohammed Biriya spent 20 years in Soviet prisons before returning to Iran after the Islamic Revolution where he again became the subject of persecution.
The Soviet Azerbaijani writers and journalists who were sent to promote nationalism in Iran, however, were operating there in a relatively free environment and immensely contributed to the revival of national sentiments in Soviet Azerbaijan itself when they returned. After the death of Stalin, during the Khrushchev Thaw, they were able to ascend to leadership positions in Soviet Azerbaijan. The nationalist intellectuals were in power again. It was at precisely this time that the term “South Azerbaijan,” referring to northern Iran, entered the lexicon of Soviet Azerbaijanis. A draft of the first post-war Azerbaijani history textbook, prepared in 1954 by the National Academy of Sciences, included a special chapter called “South Azerbaijan in the 19th century after the Turkmenchay Treaty.” However, when the book was eventually published in 1960 this chapter was not included. In 1956, the Azerbaijani Supreme Soviet adopted a law naming Azerbaijani the state language of Soviet Azerbaijan alongside Russian. Until 1989, Azerbaijan was the only Muslim Soviet Republic where this was the case. Another indication of rising nationalism was the quite noticeable expansion of Turkic/Turkish first names given to newborn children instead of Arabic or Persian ones.
Goff writes that “after Khrushchev’s secret speech in 1956, however, that a cluster of elite-driven nationalizing politics and popular nationalisms entered the public sphere, blurring the line between acceptably communist national behaviors and inappropriately nationalist ideas and identifications. Azerbaijan was one of the republics where the republican leadership tested—and found—the limits of Moscow’s willingness to let republics chart their own path. At the close of the decade, the top leadership in the republic was ousted amidst allegations of nationalist deviations.”
When the social conflicts in the post-war West escalated and leftists and liberals rebelled against the bureaucracy and the establishment, resulting in the Civil Rights movement in the US and the 1968 events in Europe, in the Soviet Union and the wider socialist world rising nationalism became the primary opponent of the ruling communist ideology. While in the 1960s in the West a new generation of young and left-oriented scholars were entering universities and academia and particularly Soviet and East European Studies, in the socialist world nationalist intellectuals became the most popular force in educational and scientific institutions. The fact that the adoption of the local language as a state language in Azerbaijan and the bloody events in Hungary both occurred in the same year — 1956 — is no mere coincidence. They were signs of rising anti-Soviet sentiments based on nationalism within the socialist world. The Soviet leadership’s backlash against rising nationalism in Azerbaijan mentioned by Professor Goff could be seen as reverse McCarthyism. While McCarthyism was a response to the rising leftist sentiments in the US, the Soviet leadership’s backlash against local Azerbaijani leaders and intellectuals was a response to the rising sentiment of nationalism among them.
The high point of this rising Azerbaijani nationalism was in the spring of 1967, the year before another bloody event in Europe, namely the 1968 uprising in Czechoslovakia. Thanks to the lobbying of writer and theater director Shikhali Gurbanov who had become Secretary of the Azerbaijani Communist Party, Azerbaijanis were officially allowed to celebrate Nowruz — an Azerbaijani traditional holiday of Iranian origin — in the streets of Baku. Nowruz, which was dubbed a religious holiday by the Soviets, had been prohibited since the 1930s. Now, rumors were circulating that the very popular Gurbanov would be elevated to the post of First Secretary of the Azerbaijani Communist Party. However, the same year of 1967, forty-two year old Gurbanov suddenly died while visiting his dentist. Anaphylactic shock caused by anesthesia is cited as an official cause for his death.
Effects of Soviet-promoted Azerbaijani nationalism
When the Soviet leadership decided to change the course of Azerbaijani nationalism and to neutralize its potential pan-Turkic ramification, it paved the way for a couple of developments I would like to briefly elaborate on.
Assimilation primarily affected Azerbaijani non-Turkic Muslim minorities. As Goff writes: “When non-titular minorities were expunged from the census in 1939, they often were folded into the titular nationality of the republic in which they lived. People who might have been categorized as Tats in 1926 census, for example, would now be Azerbaijani (and not Russian) in 1939” Basically, this meant a transformation from pan-Turkic nationalism into Azerbaijani nationalism. The idea to invent a new distinct ethnic Azerbaijani nation in fact accelerated the gradual assimilation of the non-Turkic Muslim ethnic minorities of Azerbaijan. For the Turkic majority, the invention of a Soviet Azerbaijani nation meant only a change in the name of their ethnicity along with language reforms aimed to distance them from their ethnic brethren, particularly in Turkey. For Muslim non-Turkic minorities, however, it meant assimilation into the titular nation of the republic, i.e. Turkic Azerbaijanis, with all the consequences that entailed.
However, this is just part of the picture. Another assimilation, namely the gradual top-down Russification of the Azerbaijani population, was also going on, acquiring particularly rapid speed in the 1970s and 1980s. This period was marked by the expansion of Russian secondary schools into the different regions of the Azerbaijani republic. Unlike the Georgian capital Tbilisi, in Baku the Russian language firmly positioned itself as a dominant language of the local political and cultural elite, with the exception of the literati. More and more people preferred to send their kids to Russian schools and, most importantly, Russian became the language of interaction within the families of local elites. In the 1970s and 1980s, speaking Azerbaijani in downtown Baku was regarded as a sign of cultural underdevelopment. In Soviet and even post-Soviet Azerbaijan, many high-ranking officials and cultural elites could not speak their native language or spoke it poorly. All of these changes were happening very fast, within a single lifetime.
b) Rift within historians
Another important consequence of Soviet-promoted Azerbaijani nationalism was the rift it caused among Azerbaijani intellectuals, particularly among local historians. Azerbaijani nationalist historians were divided into two competing camps. The first group wrote history based on a geographical approach, embracing all the states and nations which existed on the territory of modern-day Azerbaijan before its Turkification as part of the Azerbaijani legacy. A second group emerged, however – an influential group of pan-Turkists who tried to prove that the people and nations which dwelt in the territory of Azerbaijan were of ancient Turkic origins. A majority of the literati supported the latter camp, which grew more and more anti-Soviet and anti-establishment while gradually gaining the tacit support of the wider public.
Growing nationalism in the Soviet and wider socialist space was certainly a serious concern for the Soviet leadership, which responded by appointing people with security and law enforcement backgrounds to key positions. In May 1967, Yuri Andropov became head of the KGB and a month later his protégé Heydar Aliyev became head of the local KGB branch in the Azerbaijani SSR. Two years later, Aliyev became head of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan, a position which since 1954 had been held by academics. The official pretext for this change was the need to fight corruption, but the main reason was clearly an attempt to fight rising nationalism. In 1971, Aliyev lashed out at Azerbaijani historians for their nationalism. Four years later in 1975, Azerbaijani Soviet authorities arrested the pan-Turkist nationalist professor of Middle Eastern Studies Abulfaz Aliyev, who would later adopt the nickname Elchibey. About fifteen years after his arrest, with popular support, Elchibey would oust the last Communist leader of Azerbaijan to become the short-lived second president of independent Azerbaijan.
As for the purported fight against corruption, during Aliyev’s rule corruption reached its highest levels ever in Soviet Azerbaijan. As Professor Jamil Hasanli writes, in the Russian State Archive of Modern History (РГАНИ) there were four folders, 400 pages of documentation concerning Aliyev’s involvement in corruption during his rule of Soviet Azerbaijan. In his diary, former Russian president and Soviet politburo member Boris Yeltsin wrote that he took one of the folders to Gorbachev and urged him to fire the deeply corrupt Aliyev from the politburo. The corruption resulted in Azerbaijan’s underdevelopment in comparison with its neighbors, despite the fact that Azerbaijan was the most resource-rich republic of the South Caucasus. As Sara Crombach puts it in her dissertation, “the AzSSR was the poorest republic in the region, and although NKAO was relatively well-off within Azerbaijan, the region was still much poorer than the average of the Armenia SSR.” The economic underdevelopment of Azerbaijan was one of the arguments used by Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians to justify their separatism.
Most importantly, Aliyev raised the traditional regionalism of Soviet Azerbaijani leaders to extreme levels, which undoubtedly was a serious blow to the rising Azerbaijani nationalism. As Hannes Meissner writes, “when Moscow appointed Heydar Aliyev as the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan in 1969, he immediately began to purge the party and administrative apparatus… recruited new people according to local and personal criteria… He mainly drew on relatives and friends from his home region Nakhchivan and Armenia. By doing so, Aliyev became the unchallenged head of a patronage network that pervaded the entire republic.” Aliyev’s favoritism extended to academia as well, including but not limited to major leadership positions in the republic’s Academy of Sciences and universities. It was a top-down policy aimed at creating a new elite from natives of Nakhichevan and Azerbaijanis from Armenia. Aliyev’s favoritism was not limited to his relatives and friends — Nakhchivanis and Azerbaijanis from Armenia suddenly became distinctly privileged people. Such, at least, was public perception, which resulted in multiple jokes on the matter. One of these jokes, for instance, tells of a Nakhchivani who arrives in Baku. He goes to see his relative, who holds a ministerial position in the republic’s government, and asks for an appointment as deputy minister. When his relative answers that there are no vacancies, the Nakhchivani turns to the deputy minister and asks which region he is from. The deputy names a region which is neither Nakhichevan nor Armenia, and the Nakhchivani turns to the minster and rebukes him, saying, “You just said there are no vacancies, but this deputy minister post is vacant.”
The Moscow leadership obviously knew about Aliyev’s extreme corruption and regional favoritism but tolerated it. Documents in the Soviet archives reveal that the bribery practices used by Aliyev during the Soviet era to buy the loyalty of influential people and institutions in Moscow were very similar to the ”caviar diplomacy” employed by the post-Soviet Aliyev regime to buy off influential people and institutions in the West so that they turn a blind eye or even support Azerbaijan’s gross human rights violations. I maintain, however, that this was not the only reason behind Moscow’s tolerance of Aliyev’s corruption. There is no doubt that Moscow could see that the corruption weakened Azerbaijani nationalism by causing rifts and extreme animosity among Azerbaijanis. It is no coincidence that when Aliyev and his protégé and successor in Baku — Kamran Baghirov (an Azerbaijani from Armenia and a distant relative of Aliyev) — were dismissed, Moscow appointed the next leaders, Vezirov and Mutallibov, from rival clans — Karabakh and Shirvan — despised by Aliyev’s regional faction. Moscow’s calculated divide et impera rationale was very hard to disguise. Both Vezirov and Mutallibov launched massive crackdowns against Aliyev’s network and also engaged in favoritism, relying on people from their own regions. However, their goal of uprooting Aliyev’s regional network failed.
Azerbaijan and the region entered a new era when a development occurred that would bring new impulses to Azerbaijani nationalism and accelerate the collapse of the socialist world. The Armenians of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast launched a movement demanding secession from the Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic. Vicken Cheterian rightfully points out that “they [Armenians] also could not imagine that their mobilization was going to trigger a symmetrical mobilization in Azerbaijan, and that the problem of Nagorno-Karabakh was going to evolve to become the cornerstone of modern Azerbaijani national identity.” The old ethnic conflict with the Armenians, which was a trigger of national mobilization in the late imperial period but survived in the post-WWII era only among a few historians, had been reignited.
Revival of pan-Turkism
In 1988, the Azerbaijani people poured into the streets to oppose the secession demands of the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians. Soon out of these protests there emerged a major informal organization called the Popular Front, which undisputedly enjoyed massive popular support. The aforementioned pan-Turkist dissident and orientalist scholar Elchibey became leader of the organization. As Thomas de Wall indicates, “in 1988, Azerbaijan was still one of the most conservative republics in the Soviet Union, and almost no political dissent was tolerated. In Armenia, large sections of the Party hierarchy proved willing to work with the new nationalist movement, and it took power relatively smoothly; in Azerbaijan, there was no basis for the authorities and opposition to strike a deal and no consensus about what the future held.” Thus the Popular Front became the fiercest rival of the ruling Party nomenklatura.
In January 1990, Soviet troops entered Baku in order — as Soviet Defense Minister Yazov reportedly claimed — to prevent a nationalist mass movement from seizing power from the Communist Party. More than one hundred civilians were killed. The Communist Party leader of Azerbaijan Vazirov fled to Moscow, and Ayaz Mutallibov was appointed to replace him. The events of January 1990, however, had completely bankrupted Soviet rule in the eyes of the local public and talk of independence could be heard on the street. Although the local Party nomenklatura continued to resist the nationalist movement, it was split. Internal regional rivalries fueled confrontations. Heydar Aliyev loyalists joined forces with the Popular Front against Mutallibov. The Popular Front defended Aliyev from attacks launched by Mutallibov who aimed to prevent Aliyev from re-entering the political life of the republic. In 1990, elections to the Azerbaijani Soviet legislature were held. Despite irregularities and the administrative dominance of the Communist Party, for the first time since the inception of Soviet rule in Azerbaijan 70 years earlier, a sizeable opposition gained seats. A majority of the newly elected opposition legislators were loyal to the Popular Front and became the voice of the street in the parliament. Unlike Georgia and Armenia, however, and despite fierce opposition from the Popular Front, the Communist majority in the Azerbaijani Supreme Soviet voted to participate in Gorbachov’s referendum on the fate of the Soviet Union. Held in the spring of 1991, Mutallibov reported the results of the rigged poll to Moscow, according to which more than 90% of Azerbaijanis voted to stay in the USSR. However, Mutallibov’s support of the putsch in Moscow in August 1991 weakened his position further. The Soviet Union broke up in 1991 and although Mutallibov was elected the first president of the country in rigged elections, several months later the Popular Front overthrew him. Soon after, Elchibey became president of the republic. In fact, across the South Caucasus, dissident nationalist professors ascended to power. Earlier in Georgia, professor of literature and writer Zviad Gamsakhurdia had become president, as had professor of Middle Eastern studies Ter-Petrosyan in Armenia.
One of the first initiatives of pan-Turkist Elchibey’s rule was to rename the country’s state language from Azerbaijani to Turkish. Pan-Turkist nationalism was enjoying its heyday. With enormous public support, it ascended to power after 70 years of Communist rule. Meanwhile, in September 1991, Heydar Aliyev returned to power in his native Nakhchivani Autonomous Republic and started running the region as a political entity separate from Baku. Aliyev resisted any interference to his reign both from Mutallibov’’s government and then from Elchibey’s. Elchibey’s presidency did not last long. He was ousted in a military coup in 1993 and, seizing the opportunity, Heydar Aliyev took over in Baku with massive public support. The old Communist Party elite restored the dominance it had briefly lost. In fact, all the democratically elected former nationalist dissidents who had become presidents in the newly independent South Caucasus republics were forced to either flee or resign.
Dynastic nationalism/New Azerbaijanism
Becoming the third president of Azerbaijan in 1993, Heydar Aliyev had a broad coalition. The former nomenklatura had once supported Mutallibov’s suppression of Aliyev’s political aspirations and deeply resented people from the street, i.e. the Popular Front, but now they became Aliyev’s supporters. Aliyev’s regionalist loyalists, who had once joined the Popular Front against Mutallibov, now turned against Elchibey’s government as well. In addition, Elchibey’s pan-Turkism was resented by ethnic minorities. This was openly expressed by the semi-official leader of Azerbaijani Muslims Sheikh-ul Islam Allahshukur Pashazadeh. From the Talysh minority himself, in his speech at the Azerbaijani legislature Pashazadeh lashed out at the Popular Front government, alleging that they pursued a policy which declared that “there are no friends of Turks except for Turks themselves.”
As expected, Aliyev restored the name of the state language from Turkish to Azerbaijani. In 1994, he organized and chaired a discussion, broadcast for the public, where intellectuals from the pan-Turkist camp and champions of Soviet-style Azerbaijani nationalism clashed over the name of the language. Subsequently, the new constitution adopted in 1995 restored Azerbaijani as the name of the state language.
Aliyev named his political party New Azerbaijan. In opposition to Elchibey’s overtly pan-Turkist version of nationalism, Aliyev was reviving Soviet-style ethnic Azerbaijani nationalism. However, Aliyev’s new Azerbaijanism included crucial new elements as well. À la Napoleon, he was aiming to build a nationalist monarchy and designated his son as his successor. In 2003, Aliyev’s son finally succeeded him in highly contested and controversial elections which led to violent protests and crackdowns. The son, Ilham Aliyev, took the idea of dynastic nationalism further, building a cult around his father’s personality in Soviet Stalinist style. Heydar Aliyev was now portrayed as the founder of the Azerbaijani nation.
In order to push this propaganda, the younger Aliyev frequently targets the two most memorable periods of Azerbaijani history, particularly cherished by the nation. First, of course, is the legacy of the first Azerbaijani Republic. At almost every possible occasion, Aliyev badmouths the First Republic, accusing it of giving Yerevan to Armenia, repeatedly calling this a crime. Aliyev assesses the first republic’s independence as a mere formality and tries to tarnish its image by saying that they even had to discuss the adaptation of Azerbaijani national symbols with foreign powers and generals. He urges not to exaggerate its importance and to write history books according to his version of history. The ruling party’s officials promote the idea that the first republic’s democratic system was a source of internal weakness which led to its eventual demise. With even harsher accusations Aliyev attacks the former Popular Front government. He calls them traitors who came to power in a coup, thereby enabling Armenian troops to capture Azerbaijani lands.
There is no doubt that Ilham Aliyev is now pursuing a policy aimed at further cementing dynastic rule and at securing in the future a smooth transition of power to his heir. By appointing his wife first vice-president in 2017, Aliyev clearly demonstrated that keeping power in the hands of his family takes utmost priority for him. While so far Aliyev has pursued this policy in an atmosphere where the general public resents it but cannot openly resist it for fear of repression, success in the Karabakh war earned Aliyev an enormous popularity which he never previously enjoyed. Victory has provided him with a chance to use nationalism to chase his goal of cementing a nationalist monarchy even more zealously and confidently. Mike Rapport writes that “European popular conservatism and nationalism were a means by which authoritarian governments could outflank and enfeeble the liberal opposition.” Aliyev is doing everything possible to keep the nationalistic fervor generated by the war from fading away. From time to time he personally reignites it with irredentist claims. He also stokes the fire indirectly but systematically by empowering his war propaganda machine, which includes state-controlled media, educational institutions, GONGOs inside and outside the country, pro-government diaspora organizations abroad, and a huge troll army on social media. His poorly disguised irredentist claims have become an irreplaceable and effective tool for igniting nationalistic sentiments to sustain the monarchy. Jubilant and increasingly self-confident after the resounding victory, the public has enthusiastically supported this irredentist vision/illusion based on pan-Azerbaijani/pan-Turkist sentiments. The vox populi has even begun to openly justify the aforementioned practices of bribing Western institutions and politicians to buy more friends for the Azerbaijani cause and to silence its foes.
Aliyev has won the competition over control of the nationalism discourse with the supposedly liberal-democratic opposition and civil society, which have been represented in recent decades primarily by the remnants of the pan-Turkist Popular Front government. Rapport, while explaining the reason behind the failure of the 1848 revolution in Germany, writes that “the German ‘forty-eighters’ were not merely idealists: they, too, were interested in power, and especially German power, as their debates on the future course of Germany revealed all too well. When forced to choose between national unity and political freedom, the liberals, with some exceptions, opted for the former. That, perhaps, was the deeper tragedy of 1848: even the liberals were all too ready to sacrifice freedom to power.” This can be applied to the contemporary Azerbaijani case as well. The liberal-democratic Azerbaijani opposition failed to abandon their inherent pan-Turkism and conservatism, and most importantly sacrificed liberal ideas to nationalism. By enlisting Turkey as an active partner in the recent Karabakh war, Aliyev showed that even in the pan-Turkist discourse he is more capable and cannier than the opposition. Attempts by the liberal-democratic opposition to tarnish Aliyev’s victory in Karabakh by resorting to even more radical populism can hardly buy them wide public support. In the competition to control the nationalist discourse, Aliyev is the clear and uncontested winner. How this is going to play out for the people of Azerbaijan remains to be seen.
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 For this period see: Həsənli, Cəmil [Hasanli, Jamil]. Azərbaycanda Sovet Liberalizmi: Hakimiyyət, ziyalılar, xalq (1959-1969) [The Soviet Liberalism in Azerbaijan: The Authorities, intellectuals, and the people (1959–1969)]. Baku: Qanun, 2019.
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 Aliyev, Ilham. “Sumqayıtda Qarabağ Müharibəsi Əlilləri və Şəhid Ailələri Üçün Tikilmiş Yaşayış Binasının Açılış Mərasimində İlham Əliyevin Nitqi [Speech by Ilham Aliyev at the Opening Ceremony of a Residential Building Built for the Disabled and Martyrs of the Karabakh War in Sumgayit],” December 24, 2012. https://president.az/articles/6974/print. [Accessed on 07.27.2021].
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 Omarov, Vahid. “Azərbaycan Xalq Cümhuriyyətinin süqutu [The Fall of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic].” Sesqazeti.az, November 19, 2012. https://sesqazeti.az/news/mia/321660.html. [Accessed on 07.27.2021].
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 Rapport, Mike. 1848: Year of Revolution. Reprint edition. New York; New York: Basic Books, 2010, 404.
 Ibid. 402.