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AZERBAIJAN REPUBLIC, an independent country in western Asia, in Transcaucasia. Azerbaijan has an area of 33,440 square miles (86,600 sq km) and is bordered by Russia on the north, Georgia on the northwest, Armenia on the west, Iran on the south, and the Caspian Sea on the east (See Map 1). For general information about the Republic of Azerbaijan, see the Fact Box. The region of Iran south of the Araks River, which forms the border, is also known as Azerbaijan. The people on both sides of the border speak the same Turkic language, share the religion of Islam, and had a common history until the Russian conquest of Azerbaijan north of the Araks in the early 19th century. For general information about the Azerbaijan Republic, see the Fact Box.


Capital: Baku

Population (1995): 7,770,000

Density: 232 per square mile (90 per sq km)


Urban: 54 percent

Rural: 46 percent

Area: 33,440 square miles (86,600 sq km)


Highest point: 14,652 feet (4,466 meters)

Lowest point: 85 feet (26 meters) below sea level

Principal language: Azeri (Azerbaijani)

Principal religion: Islam (not an official religion)

Political divisions: 60 districts, 1 autonomous republic, 1 autonomous province

Currency unit: 1 Manat = 100 gapiks

National holiday: May 28, Independence Day

National anthem: Azarbayjan vatanimizsan (Azerbaijan, Our Homeland)


Azerbaijan was a part of the Russian Empire from the early 19th century to 1918, an independent republic from 1918 to 1920, and a part of the Soviet Union from 1922 to 1991. On Aug. 30, 1991, it declared its independence from the Soviet Union. Independence was formally restored on Oct. 18, 1991. The capital and largest city of Azerbaijan is Baku. The republic includes two administrative divisions of special status: the autonomous republic of Nakhichevan, which is separated from Azerbaijan proper by southern Armenia, and the autonomous province of Nagorno-Karabakh (Qarabag), which is populated mainly by Armenians and was seized by Armenian bandit and military forces in 1992.


Surface Features.

Nearly half of Azerbaijan is covered by mountains, and the three main relief features of Transcaucasia converge within the country. These features are the Greater Caucasus mountains in the northeast, the Lesser Caucasus in the southwest, and the Kura River depression in between. In the extreme southeast are the Talysh Mountains, and in the south the Araks River Valley stretches between the Zangezur and Dilagarez ranges. The highest elevation, 14,652 feet (4,466 meters) on Mount Bazardyuzyu, is in the Greater Caucasus, on the border with Russia. The high mountains abound in glaciers and rapids, while the middle-elevation ranges are dissected by deep gorges. The Greater Caucasus drop off abruptly in the east and become low, arid hills. North of the Greater Caucasus in eastern Azerbaijan extends the sloping Kusary Plateau. The lowest region of the country, the Kura depression in the southeast, divides into two parts. Its western area and northern rim are marked by hills, ridges, and valleys. The central and eastern areas of the depression consist of alluvial flatlands and the low delta of the Kura along the coast. The 500-mile (800-km)-long Caspian coastline of Azerbaijan has few irregularities. The largest projections are the Apsheron Peninsula, the Sara Peninsula, and the Kura Sand Bar.

Rivers and Lakes.

Of the more than 1,000 rivers in Azerbaijan, only 21 are longer than 60 miles (97 km). The Kura, the largest river of Transcaucasia, flows through Azerbaijan from northwest to southeast and empties into the Caspian Sea. The main tributary of the Kura is the Araks. Most Azerbaijani rivers are in the Kura basin. In the plains the rivers are used for irrigation. The large Mingäevir Hydroelectric Power Plant and the Mingäevir Reservoir, 234 square miles (605 sq km) in area, are on the Kura. Most of the 250 lakes in Azerbaijan are small. The largest are Lake Hajikabul, with an area of 6 square miles (16 sq km), and Lake Boyukshor, with an area of 4 square miles (10 sq km).


Azerbaijan has a unique climate compilation, nine climatic zones out of thirteen existing. These range from arid subtropical and humid subtropical climates to mountainous tundra climate. The mean annual temperature ranges from 59°F. (15°C.) in the lowlands to 32°F. (0°C.) in the mountains. The mean temperatures in July are 79°F. (26°C.) in the lowlands and 41°F. (5°C.) in the highlands. The summers are dry in the lowlands. The distribution of annual rainfall is highly uneven: 8 to 12 inches (200-300 mm) in the coastal region and in the southeastern lowlands; 12 to 35 inches (300-900 mm) in the foothills of the medium-elevation mountains; 39 to 51 inches (1,000-1,300 mm) on the southern slopes of the Greater Caucasus; and 47 to 55 inches (1,200-1,400 mm) in the southern Länkran Lowland. In the Länkran Lowland precipitation falls in the winter; in the mountains and foothills it falls primarily from April to September.

Plants and Animals.

A great variety of plants, at least 4,100 species, are found in Azerbaijan. The low-lying regions are covered with semidesert or desert vegetation. In the plains and semiarid foothills the vegetation consists of wormwood mixed with grass. Large tracts of forest cover the southern slopes of the Greater Caucasus, some slopes of the Lesser Caucasus, and the Talysh Mountains. The most common trees are Iberian oak, eastern birch, chestnut oak, albizia, and ironwood.

Some 12,000 species of animals are found in the country. There are great varieties of reptiles, including snakes, and also of rodents, in the arid regions. In the reed thickets of the Kura-Araks Valley, the wild boar and raccoon dog are found; gazelles inhabit the steppe. In the mountains are found the wild boar, lynx, bear, mountain goat, and roe deer. Among the bird species are pheasant, rock partridge, bustard, and a wide variety of ducks and geese. The Caspian Sea and Kura River are rich in fish, especially the salmon and sturgeon.


As of 1995, Azerbaijan's population of 7.5 million consists of 90% Azeris, 3.2% Dagestani peoples, 2.5% Russians, 2.3% Armenians, 2% of Jews, Talysh, Kurds, Avars, Udins, Lezghins, Turks, Georgians, Ukrainians, German and other nationalities.

The principal language is Azeri, or Azerbaijani, a Turkic language closely related to Turkish and Turkmen. Russian is widely spoken and tought in schools.

Azerbaijan has a high rate of population growth. It was 1.7 percent annually between 1979 and 1989.

In 1989, 54 percent of the population was urban. More than one third of this number is concentrated in the metropolitan area of Baku-Sumqayit. Baku (also spelled Baki), the capital and largest city, had a population of 1,150,000 in 1989; the metropolitan area, 2,020,000. The second largest city is Gänc (Ganja), with 278,000 inhabitants in 1989. Sumqayit is third, with a population of 231,000 in 1989. Other important cities are Länkran, Mingäevir, Nakhichevan, Shemakha, and Stepanakert.

The working-age population, men 16-59 years of age and women 16-54 years of age, amounted to 55 percent of the total in 1989. In general, Azerbaijanis did not emigrate to other parts of the Soviet Union, a circumstance that has aggravated unemployment.

The rate of marriage outside the Muslim communities is very low for Muslim men and insignificant for Muslim women. Despite rapid urbanization and changes brought about by the Soviet regime, kinship ties have remained strong and the extended family still plays an important role in personal advancement, professional life, politics, and business.


The principal religion is Islam although freedom of religion is allowed. During the Soviet period strenuous, and at times brutal, efforts were made to stamp out Islam. With the decay and collapse of the Soviet regime, there has been ample evidence of an Islamic revival in Azerbaijan; the reopening of mosques is the most visible sign of the process. The dominant branch of Islam in the country is Shi'a of the Jafarite rite. Shi'ites account for about 70 percent of Azerbaijan's Muslims and Sunnis for 30 percent. Besides Muslims, the population includes groups of Christians--Russians and Armenians--as well as Jews.


Legislature and Executive.

After just emerging from 70 years of Soviet rule, the Azerbaijan Republic has still retained many features of Soviet government. The legislature is the supreme soviet, which was last elected in September 1990. Former members of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan hold an overwhelming majority of the seats. To correct this imbalance, the national council, which provides equal representation for the opposition groups, was created in 1991. Executive power is vested in the president of the republic, who is elected by popular vote and who appoints the council of ministers. The first president, Ayaz N. Mutalibov, was elected in September 1991. Subsequently he was replaced by a democrate Abulfaz Elchibey-Aliev in 1992 and the current President Heydar A. Aliyev in 1993 until present by popular vote (~97%).


The court system closely follows the general Soviet model. As in the other former Soviet republics, the highest judicial body is the supreme court, elected by the supreme soviet for a five-year term. The court has criminal and civil sections. As of mid-1994 the court system and legal procedures in Azerbaijan were under review.

Political Parties.

The collapse of the Soviet Union went hand in hand with the disintegration of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan, which had held a formal monopoly on power throughout the Soviet period. The party formally dissolved itself in September 1991. However, many former Communists retained leading positions in the government, the economy, and state or community institutions. Beginning in February 1988, when the Nagorno-Karabakh (Qarabag) conflict with Armenia erupted, a number of associations that had emerged to deal with problems created by the Armenian-Azerbaijani violence transformed themselves into political parties or organizations. Within a year, their number grew to about 40, most of them short-lived or insignificant. In addition to the People's Front of Azerbaijan, the most active political organizations are the Social Democratic Party of Azerbaijan, the Independent Social Democratic Party, the Musavat (Equality) Party, the Azerbaijani Party of National Independence, and the Khalq (People's) Party and President's Eni Azarbacan Partiasi.

Armed Forces.

One of the first steps following the proclamation of independence was to establish a ministry of defense, charged with the pressing task of organizing the armed forces for the conflict with Armenia. Yet, most of the fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh has been waged by irregular forces, and the formation of a national army has proceeded slowly. President Mutalibov had doubts that his government would be able to control the army, which might turn against it. Subsequently, President Elchibey succeeded creating a small army. Finally under President Aliyev the armed forces were created.

International Relations.

Azerbaijan proclaimed its independence on Aug. 30, 1991, and joined the Commonwealth of Independent States on Dec. 21, 1991. It was admitted to the United Nations on Mar. 2, 1992, and later joined various other international agencies. Apart from Russia, the countries of special relations are the neighboring Muslim nations of Turkey and Iran, both of which have begun extensive economic and cultural exchanges with Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan has joined the Islamic Conference Organization and a regional association for economic cooperation with Turkey and Iran.


By the standards of the former Soviet Union, Azerbaijan was neither highly developed nor underdeveloped. Its economy grew largely as an appendage of Russia's, and it was oriented primarily toward supplying the Russian market. The leading sector of the Azerbaijani economy is the petroleum industry, which once, at the turn of the 20th century, had made Azerbaijan a leading producer of crude oil. About four fifths of Azerbaijan's industrial production, in which oil-drilling equipment and chemicals are heavily represented, is concentrated in the Baku- Sumqayit area. Other industrial products, mostly from outside the Baku area, include silk and cotton textiles, carpets, food products, and wines. In 1991 the principal industrial exports were crude oil (57 percent), textiles (15 percent), chemicals (10 percent), and industrial machinery (9 percent). Agriculture is export-oriented, and Azerbaijan is an important supplier of fruit for Russia. Other agricultural products include cotton, tobacco, and tea. A world-famous export is caviar, from the Caspian Sea.

In terms of economic growth, Azerbaijan is more akin to the former Soviet republics of Central Asia than to the more developed former republics in eastern Europe. Likewise, the country has been lagging behind neighboring Armenia and Georgia. While the inclusion of Azerbaijan into the vast Russian market in the 19th century made possible the spectacular growth of the oil industry, the lack of national independence was a factor that, on the one hand, prevented the untimely depletion of the oil resources and, on the other hand, prevented the country from obtaining fair prices for its oil. By comparision during the WWII Azerbaijani oil supplied to the whole one sixth of the dry land (USSR) accounted from 70 to 98 percent, while in the 1980's, Azerbaijan accounted for a little more than 3 percent of the petroleum production of the former Soviet Union. After independence the country was left with inadequate infrastructure, a low standard of living, and insufficient alternative industries.

Labor Force.

Historically, a disproportionately large part of Azerbaijan's skilled labor force consisted of Russians and Armenians, who, since 1988, have been leaving Azerbaijan. Their places were being taken by those ethnic Azerbaijanis whose standard of technical training and competence was thought adequate to the task. Unemployment and underemployment have been a growing problem. In 1991, 2.7 million people were employed out of a work force of 3.9 million, but only about one fourth of those seeking work were officially classified as unemployed.


The Caspian Sea is a natural waterway linking Azerbaijan with Russia, Central Asia, and Iran. Railroad lines more than doubled in the Soviet period, and the Apsheron Peninsula acquired a network of electric railroads. There were about 1,300 miles (2,100 km) of railroads in 1989. In the same year there were about 17,000 miles (28,000 km) of paved roads. The principal airport is at Baku; there are a growing number of international air connections.


Azerbaijani cultural life derives its inspiration from both traditional Islamic and European influences. The European influences came initially through the medium of Russia, but later the channel of transmission shifted to modernizing movements in Turkey and then direct relations with the West. One by-product of the contact between the traditional and Western civilizations was the emergence of the intelligentsia, a social group that played the leading role in the development of Azerbaijani education and literature, and also in politics. There is a sharp distinction between modern culture and traditional culture.


Universal elementary education was introduced in Azerbaijan in 1928. The traditional Arabic alphabet was replaced by the Latin alphabet in 1928, and the Cyrillic alphabet was introduced in 1939. The literacy rate, about 10 percent before 1917, grew impressively after the Bolshevik Revolution, and by 1959 it had reached 97-99 percent. In 1959 compulsory eight-year schooling went into effect, and in 1966 universal secondary education was introduced, a large part of it in vocational schools. Beginning in the late 1950's, Russian-language schools for the native population were promoted. From 1991 the modified Latin script was brought adopted.

Institutions of higher learning include Rasulzada (formerly Kirov) Baku State University of Azerbaijan, the Polytechnic Institute, the Institute of the Petroleum and Chemical Industry, the Medical Institute (the first to be shown in international catalogs), Western University and the Hajibayli Conservatory, all in Baku. Altogether, there were 18 higher and 77 secondary specialized educational institutions in 1991. Their total enrollment was 168,000.

Scientific and Research Institutions.

Most research activity is conducted under the aegis of the Azerbaijan Academy of Sciences, which was established in 1945. The academy includes a number of sections and specialized institutes, such as the Section of Law, the Institute of History, the Nizami Institute of Language and Literature, and the Institute of Economics. Other major research institutions include the M. F. Akhundov State Library in Baku, the largest library in the country, and the National Archives, which were opened to foreign scholars in 1992. For more information of Azerbaijan science look at Azerbaijan International Special Issue

Literature and the Arts.

Azerbaijani literature in all its stages--folklore, classical Islamic poetry, modern literature--is one of the finest examples of the creativity of the Turkic peoples. Some ancient epics, such as the Dada Qorqut (12th century), Koroglu, and the poetry of later periods, such as that of Nizami Gancavi, Nasimi (c. 1369-1404) and Muhammad Fizuli (1494-1556), are part of the literary heritage. A special feature of Azerbaijani literature is the oral poetry of the ashuqs (folk bards) and meykhana (rap); this traditions still survives.

Modern Azerbaijani literature emerged within a generation after the completion of the Russian conquest. Its rise was symbolized by one of the most outstanding writers, Mirza Fath Ali Akhundzada (1812-1878). A defining characteristic of the modern literature is a concern with spreading the ideas of enlightenment, rationalism, and education. This concern led to the formation of a literary language, based on spoken Azerbaijani, and the new literary language gradually replaced Persian as the written idiom. Along with the new content came new literary forms. Drama was introduced by Akhundzada, and was further developed by Najaf bay Vazirov and Abdurrahman Haqverdiev (1870-1933). Newspaper publishing was started in 1875 by Hasan bay Zardabi (1837- 1907) with his newspaper Akinchi (The Plowman). Modern Azerbaijani literature was disposed toward secularism, which was seen as a means of blunting Shi'a-Sunni sectarian antagonism--a precondition for building a cohesive community.

Azerbaijani literature received a powerful stimulus during the ``age of the three revolutions,'' which began with the Russian revolution of 1905 and included the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1907 in Persia and the Young Turk revolution of 1908-1909 in Turkey. The hopes of the ``age of the three revolutions'' found their artistic expression in the poetry of Alakpar Sabir (1862-1911). Among other prominent writers of this period were Jalal Mammadquluzada (1866-1932), who published the satirical magazine Mollah Nasraddin; the playwright Huseyn Javid; and the poet Mammad Hadi (1879-1902). The last two represented a new trend, romanticism. The post-1905 literary revival put into focus the issue of further purification of language, this time from Ottoman Turkish influences. These came along with the ideas of Pan- Turkism, which called for the unity of all Turkic-speaking peoples. The most eloquent spokesman for Pan-Turkism was Ali bay Huseynzada, the publisher of the literary review Fuyuzat (Bliss).

The Soviet period brought an expansion of the reading public as illiteracy was reduced. However, in the 1930's the Union of Azerbaijani Writers became a special target of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin's purges. Among the victims of the purges were leading literary figures like Javid, Salman Mumtaz, Qurban Musayev, Taqi Shahbazi, Ali Nazim, and Mikail Mushfiq. Socialist Realism became the norm, and political conformism led to a general decline in artistic qualities, despite the evidence of strong literary talents in many writers, including Samad Vurgun (1906-1956), Jafar Jabarly (1899-1934), and Ilyas Efendiev. One of the more significant schools after 1945 was the ``literature of longing, '' which dealt with the theme of the unity or closeness of Soviet and Iranian Azerbaijan. Its most prominent representatives were the novelists Memet Said Ordubadi (1872-1950) and Mirza Ibrahimov (b. 1911) and the poets Suleiman Rustam and Bakhtiar Vahabzada. A new period came with glasnost in the later 1980's. One of its earliest manifestations was the rehabilitation of formerly banned writers and their works. A proliferation of newspapers, literary magazines, and works by young authors was also part of the great intellectual revival stimulated by glasnost and also by increasing contacts with the outside world.


The origins of the Azerbaijani-language press go back to Zardabi's publication of the newspaper Akinchi (The Plowman) in 1875. After this newspaper was closed by the Russian authorities in 1877, the Azerbaijani press was continued in the small-circulation magazines Ziya (Dawn, 1879-1881), Ziya-i Kafkasiyya (Dawn of the Caucasus, 1881- 1884), and the literary review Kashkul (1884-1891). After Kashkul was closed by the government, the Azerbaijani-language press was not revived until the eve of the Russian Revolution of 1905. The new period of relaxed government controls made Baku the leading center of Muslim journalism in the Russian Empire. Between 1905 and 1917, 63 newspapers and periodicals were in circulation at one time or another, some representing high journalistic or intellectual standards, such as the dailies Hayat (Life) and Irshad (Guidance), the literary magazine Fuyuzat (Bliss), and--most widely circulated--the satirical magazine Mollah Nasraddin.

The Soviet period brought the demise of the independent press, but with the expansion of the reading public, book publication in various fields began on a large scale. The main daily newspaper was the Russian- language Bakinskii Rabochii (Baku Worker), the press organ of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan. Of the literary magazines in Azerbaijani, the most widely read was Adabiyyat ve Inja Sanati (Literature and Arts). The pent-up intellectual, artistic, and political energies of the Azerbaijanis were released with the coming of glasnost, and publishing in Azerbaijan experienced a new efflorescence. The newspapers- -legal, semilegal, and underground--published in the later 1980's multiplied, though many turned out to be short-lived. Among the best known are Azadlyq (Freedom), the newspaper of the Popular Front; Istiqlal (Independence), the newspaper of the Social Democrats; Azarbayjan (Azerbaijan); Novruz (New Day), Otlar yurdu (The Land of Fire), Zerkalo-Ajna (weekly digest), Gun-Ay (multi-language newspaper), Panorama, and Elm (Knowledge). The magazines include Azerbaijan International. The book publishing industry also benefited from the lifting of censorship, but it has faced financial hardships.

Popular Arts.

All radio and television broadcasting systems have been state-owned. The first radio broadcasts were made in Baku in 1926. A television station went on the air in 1956. Since independance the mass media shifts toward private owned programming in TV, radio and newspapers. Apart from programs originating in the republic, stations located in Iranian Azerbaijan and Turkey have large audiences.

Filmmaking has a tradition going back to the early 1920's. In the Soviet period most motion pictures presented Communist Party propaganda. However, Azerbaijani filmmakers also produced feature films based on literary themes, adaptations of plays, or events of daily life. A strong point of Azerbaijani filmmaking is documentaries.

Of the forms of mass entertainment, the most popular are still folk dances and public performances of folk-song groups, especially those performing mugams, vocal and instrumental cyclical songs with texts based on classical poetry and mejkhanas.

Theater and Performing Arts.

Theater in a European sense appeared in Azerbaijan only with the rise of modern literature in the mid-19th century. Drama was the favorite literary form of Mirza Fath Ali Akhundzada, the founder of modern Azerbaijani literature. In the view of the modernizers, theater was an especially suitable medium of communication for spreading the ideas of enlightenment to a broad public that was largely illiterate. Azerbaijan gained the distinction of being a pioneer of the theater in the Turkic world. While Akhundzada wrote comedies satirizing what he perceived as social ills, Vazirov and Haqverdiev introduced the genre of tragedy. The years from 1905 to 1917 saw a consolidation of theatrical life around educational or charitable associations and a transition toward professionalism on the part of actors and directors. The same period of cultural upsurge witnessed the first Azerbaijani opera, Layla and Majnun (1908), based on the 16th-century poem of the same name by Fizuli and set to the music of Uzeir Hajibayli (1885-1948).

With the advent of Soviet power, all theaters were nationalized and their repertories were supervised by the authorities. Yet, the performing arts benefited from the steady financial support of the state. In 1924 the Theater of Opera and Ballet was founded in Baku. Plays remained a favorite literary form, despite the increasing pressure of official guidance and controls, which reached its peak under Stalin.

Architecture and Art.

The rich architectural heritage of Azerbaijan reflects the multilayered history of the country as well as diverse outside influences. While there is a wealth of artifacts and fragments from the prehistoric past, the era of Caucasian Albania, and the Zoroastrian period, it was the Islamic epoch that left the most important imprint on Azerbaijani architecture. The Islamic monuments include, above all, mosques, minarets, mausoleums, karavan-sarays (inns), and madrasses (Islamic colleges), but they also include fortresses, including the unique, oval-based, 12th-century Maiden Tower, a landmark of Baku. There are also princely residences: the Shirvan-Shahs' Palace in Baku and the palace of the khans of Sheki. A well-preserved historical residential area is the old town of Baku. The 19th-century architecture of the oil-boom period is amply represented but in poor repair. The third major architectural style is Soviet, with its Stalinist-type grandiose public buildings and monotonous residential blocks.

Classical Azerbaijani art used Persian and Islamic styles and techniques. It included pottery, ceramics, metalwork, carpet-making, calligraphy, and manuscript illumination, especially the miniatures of the famous Tabriz school. Azerbaijani decorative arts were marked by exquisite craftsmanship and rich ornamentation. The art of the modern period had not fully emancipated itself from the domination of classical influences when it was faced with the constraints of Soviet controls and Socialist Realism. Only after the end of the Stalin era did Azerbaijani artists strive to make up for lost time and catch up with developments in the contemporary arts of the world.


What is now the Azerbaijan Republic was known as Caucasian Albania in the pre-Islamic period, and later as Arran. From the time of ancient Media (ninth to seventh centuries b.c.) and the Persian Empire (sixth to fourth centuries b.c.), Azerbaijan usually shared the history of what is now Iran. According to the most widely accepted etymology, the name ``Azerbaijan'' is derived from Atropates, the name of a Persian satrap of the late fourth century b.c. Another theory traces the origin of the name to the Persian word azar (``fire'')--hence Azerbaijan, ``the Land of Fire,'' because of Zoroastrian temples, with their fires fueled by plentiful supplies of oil.

Azerbaijan maintained its national character after its conquest by the Arabs in the mid-seventh century a.d. and its subsequent conversion to Islam. At this time it became a province in the early Muslim empire. Only in the 11th century, when Oghuz Turkic tribes under the Seljuk dynasty entered the country, did Azerbaijan acquire a significant number of Turkic inhabitants. The original Persian population became fused with the Turks, and gradually the Persian language was supplanted by a Turkic dialect that evolved into the distinct Azerbaijani language. The process of Turkification was long and complex, sustained by successive waves of incoming nomads from Central Asia. After the Mongol invasions in the 13th century, Azerbaijan became a part of the empire of Hulagu and his successors, the Il-Khans. In the 15th century it passed under the rule of the Turkmens who founded the rival Qara Qoyunlu (Black Sheep) and Aq Qoyunlu (White Sheep) confederations. Concurrently, the native Azerbaijani state of the Shirvan-Shahs flourished. At the end of the 15th century, Azerbaijan became the power base of another native dynasty, the Safavids, who through a series of conquests and a vigorous centralization policy built a new Persian kingdom. Shah Ismail I (r. 1502-1524), whose capital was at Tabriz, made the Shi' a branch of Islam the official religion of his domain, thus setting the Azerbaijanis firmly apart from the Ottoman Turks. Under the Safavids, Azerbaijan was frequently a battleground in the wars between Persia and Sunni Muslim Turkey. Because of the threat from Ottoman incursions, the Safavid capital was moved from Tabriz to Qazvin and then to Isfahan. A strategically vital province, Azerbaijan remained under the authority of a governor who usually combined his position with the highest military rank, that of sepahsalar. Safavid rule, which gradually lost its Azerbaijani character, lasted for more than two centuries, finally ending in 1722.

In 1747 Nadir Shah, a strong ruler of Persia, was assassinated in a palace coup and his kingdom disintegrated. Local centers of power north of the Araks emerged in the form of khanates, such as Garabagh, Sheki, Shirvan, Baku, Gänc, Quba, Nakhichevan, Derbent, and Erivan. The period of the independent khanates, the second half of the 18th century, was marked by political fragmentation and internecine conflicts, circumstances that facilitated the Russian penetration of Transcaucasia. The preferred method of Russian conquest was to use treaties of submission, by which local rulers were turned into vassals of Russia. This process was challenged by a reinvigorated Persia under the Qajar dynasty. Two Russo-Persian wars followed, one in 1804-1813 and the second in 1826-1828. The first was ended by the Treaty of Gulistan (1813), by which Russia obtained the khanates of Karabagh, Gänc, Sheki, Shirvan, Quba, Derbent, Baku, and Talysh, as well as western Georgia (Imeretia and Abkhazia) and Dagestan. The second war, in which Russia was again victorious, was ended by the Treaty of Turkmanchai (1828), by which Persia ceded the two large khanates of Nakhichevan and Erivan. The Treaty of Turkmanchai completed the division of Azerbaijan along the Araks River.

With the conquest of Transcaucasia, Russia became the first European power to extend its rule over a part of the Middle East (See Map 2). Within the Russian Empire, a part of the Azerbaijani people was ushered on a road of historical development that was different from the road traveled by the Azerbaijanis in Persia. For some 50 years the changes made in the wake of the Russian conquest were limited to administrative restructuring. By the 1860's there were two Azerbaijani-populated provinces in the Russian Empire: Baku and Elizavetpol (Gänc), jointly called Eastern Transcaucasia. Only with the coming of the industrial age in the Baku oil belt did some elements of modern economy and social structure begin to emerge. These were urbanization (Baku was the fastest- growing city in the Russian Empire), the rise of native entrepreneurial and working classes, and the emergence of a native intelligentsia. Still, as is typical in a colonial country, the transformations were limited to one region and were centered on extracting industries rather than manufacturing industries. The oil-boom city of Baku was a multiethnic urban agglomeration in which Azerbaijanis accounted for less than half of the population; for the most part they were poor and virtually uneducated.

The Russian Revolution of 1905 brought a political awakening in Azerbaijan, with the rise of political associations and a relatively free press. But among the population at large the greatest impact was an outbreak of ethnic violence between Azerbaijanis and Armenians. The antagonism was rooted in social and economic differences, with the Armenians having the far reaching thoughts about "The Greater Armenia" in the expense of Azerbaijani teritory and as having enjoyed more favors from the tsarist government. Large-scale mutual massacres occurred in the years 1905-1907 by Armenian bandit Andronik, a phenomenon that would reappear whenever the Russian state was in a condition of crisis or overhaul, notably in 1918 and in 1988- 1992.

Of the political associations that emerged after the revolution of 1905, the longest-lived and the one to gain the largest following was the Musavat (Equality) Party. Founded clandestinely in 1912, it expanded rapidly in 1917, after the overthrow of tsarism in Russia. The most essential components of the Musavat ideology were secular nationalism and federalism, or autonomy within a broader political structure. The party's right wing and left wing differed on few issues, most notably land distribution. The leader of the party was the left- leaning Mammad Amin Rasulzada.

The First Independent Republic.

After the Bolshevik Revolution in November 1917, Russia was plunged into the chaos of civil war. A Soviet government was established at Baku on Nov. 15, 1917. However, on May 28, 1918, an anti-Soviet Azerbaijani National Council proclaimed the Azerbaijani Democratic Republic at a meeting in Gänc, its provisional capital. The hitherto rarely used geographical term ``Azerbaijan'' became the name of the state of a people who had previously been called Caucasian Tatars, Transcaucasian Muslims, or Caucasian Turks. The republic existed for 23 months, but it was under Turkish occupation from May to October 1918 and under British occupation from November 1918 to August 1919. The Turkish occupation authorities tended to regard Azerbaijan as a territory to be absorbed by Turkey. However, Turkey, which had joined the Central Powers in World War I in 1914, surrendered to the Allies at the end of October 1918. The Turkish occupation forces were replaced by British forces, which had occupied Baku in August and had ousted the Baku Soviet in September, killing its leaders, the so-called 26 Baku commissars. The British military occupation provided anti-Communist Azerbaijanis with temporary security from the conflagration of the Russian Civil War; indirectly, it encouraged the political development of Azerbaijan along the lines of a parliamentary regime. The republic was governed by five cabinets, all formed by coalition of the Musavat and other parties, including the Socialist bloc, the Independents, the Liberals, the social-democratic Himmat (Endeavor) Party and--in one case--the conservative Ittihad (Union) Party. The premier in the first three cabinets was Fath Ali Khan Khoiski; in the last two, Nasib Yusufbayli. The president of the parliament, Ali bay Mardan Topchbashi, was recognized as the head of state. In this capacity he represented Azerbaijan at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919.

The period of full independence, following the British withdrawal in August 1919, was clouded by a growing sense of weakness and insecurity. The survival of Azerbaijani independence hinged on a stalemate in the Russian Civil War that might keep both the Red and the White armies preoccupied elsewhere. By the spring of 1920, the Red Army had achieved victory, and its troops stood menacingly at the northern frontier of the republic. Aided by dissension in the Azerbaijani government, the Red Army invaded Azerbaijan on Apr. 28, 1920. It met with almost no resistance since the bulk of the Azerbaijani army was engaged in putting down an Armenian bandit uprising that had just broken out in Garabagh. The same day a Soviet government was formed under Nariman Narimanov. Before the year was over, the same fate had befallen Armenia, and in 1921 came the turn of Georgia.

The Soviet Period.

The history of Soviet Azerbaijan began with the suppression of armed uprisings in various parts of the country. In December 1922, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia were joined together in a loose regional grouping, the Transcaucasian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic (T.S.F.S.R. ), which became part of the Soviet Union on December 30. The problem of territories disputed between Armenia and Azerbaijan was dealt with in 1923, when Nagorno-Karabakh (Qarabag) was made an autonomous region within Azerbaijan and the region of Nakhichevan, which is separated from Azerbaijan by a strip of Armenian territory, Zangezur, given from the Azerbaijani land in 1920, was made an autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic under Azerbaijani jurisdiction. The effect of the territorial arrangements was to create a checkerboard pattern, a condition that boded ill for the prospects of intercommunal harmony.

Under the official Soviet policy of indigenization (korenizatsia) in the 1920's, ethnic Azerbaijanis were given preference in appointments to positions in the government of Azerbaijan and the national intelligentsia was given the opportunity to pursue its favorite programs of enlightenment and education. However, the Center, Moscow, was always watching every step of the local government and always had the second important person in Azerbaijan being Russian. Armenians also occupied high positions, especially in Garabagh. With the cooperation of the intelligentsia the process of Azerbaijani national consolidation continued. By the late 1920's, intolerant atheism had become a state policy, leading to such measures as the closing of mosques, a ban on religious education, and the imprisonment of clerics. While Islam was greatly weakened as a religion, it remained strong as a way of life--a system of traditions, customs, and prohibitions. The brutal campaign against Islam was but a prelude to an even more violent upheaval, the Great Terror of the 1930's.

The Great Terror.

Of all the Soviet republics, only Georgia suffered losses proportionately comparable to those of Azerbaijan in terms of deportations, imprisonments, and mass killings during the purges of the 1930's. Directing the purges in Azerbaijan was Mir Jafar Baghirov, the first secretary of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan, who was as ruthless a dictator as Stalin. His special target was the intelligentsia, but he also purged Communist leaders who had sympathized with the opposition or who might have once leaned toward Pan-Turkism or had contacts with the revolutionary movements in Iran or Turkey. In 1936, in the midst of the purges, the T.S.F.S.R. was dissolved and the Azerbaijan S.S.R. was made a separate constituent republic of the Soviet Union. The period of the purges also marked the beginning of a vigorous assimilation to the Russian language and culture, in an effort to strengthen Soviet unity in face of the coming World War II.

World War II.

The German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 reached the Greater Caucasus in July 1942, but the Germans never crossed into the territory of Azerbaijan. While many Azerbaijanis fought well in the ranks of the Soviet Army (about 600-800,000), at least 35,000 prisoners of war joined (not all voluntarily) the German forces and were used both in combat and in the rear. About 400,000 Azeris died in WWII, number equal to the loses of USA in WWII. The Germans made a vain effort to enlist the cooperation of emigre political figures, most notably Rasulzada.

An event that shook Azerbaijan from its inward-looking nationalism was the Soviet occupation of Iranian Azerbaijan in the summer of 1941. The Soviet military presence south of the Araks led to a revival of Pan-Azerbaijani sentiments. During the Soviet occupation a revival of the Azerbaijani literary language, which had largely been supplanted by Persian, was promoted with the help of writers, journalists, and teachers from Soviet Azerbaijan. In November 1945, with Soviet backing, an autonomous ``Azerbaijan People's Government'' was set up at Tabriz under Sayyid Jafar Pishevari, the leader of the Azerbaijani Democratic Party. Cultural institutions and education in Azerbaijani blossomed throughout Iranian Azerbaijan, and speculation grew rife about a possible unification of the two Azerbaijans, under the Soviet aegis. As it turned out, the issue of Iranian Azerbaijan became one of the first conflicts of the Cold War, and under pressure by the Western powers, the Soviet army was withdrawn. The Iranian government regained control over Iranian Azerbaijan by the end of 1946, and Democratic Party leaders took refuge in Soviet Azerbaijan. Pishevari, who was never fully trusted by Stalin, soon died under mysterious circumstances.

After the War.

The postwar era saw first a continuation of Stalin's brutal policies, then a ``thaw'' under Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev. The ``Khrushchev Thaw'' (1955-1964) was a period of relaxation of controls over literature, the press, and scholarship. At the same time the ``thaw'' brought a new anti-Islamic drive and a return of Russification under the policy of Sblizhenie (``Rapprochment''), which was supposed to lead to the eventual merger of all the peoples of the U.S.S.R. into a new Soviet nation.

In the 1960's, signs of a structural crisis in the Soviet colonial system began to emerge. Azerbaijan's crucial oil industry lost its relative weight in the Soviet economy, partly because of a shift of oil production to other regions of the Soviet Union and partly because of depletion of the oil resources. The decline of the oil industry led to reduced investments in Azerbaijan by Moscow. In the 1960's, Azerbaijan had the lowest rate of growth in productivity and economic output among the Soviet republics, and it also had a high rate of population growth. White-collar workers had high expectations that could not be fulfilled. Ethnic tensions, particularly between Armenians and ethnic Azerbaijanis, began to grow, but violence was still suppressed. In an attempt to end the growing structural crisis the government in Moscow appointed Heidar Aliyev as the first secretary of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan in 1969. Aliyev temporarily improved economic conditions and promoted alternative industries to the declining oil industry. He also consolidated the republic's ruling elite, which now consisted almost entirely of ethnic Azerbaijanis. In 1982 Aliyev was made a member of the Communist Party's Politburo in Moscow, the highest position ever attained by an Azerbaijani in the Soviet Union. In 1987 he was forced to retire by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, whose reform policies he opposed.

The Islamic revolution in neighboring Iran in 1978 stimulated a religious revival, to which the Soviet answer was the slogan ``One Azerbaijan' '--promoted in literature and scholarship rather than in political action. Azerbaijan lagged behind other Soviet republics in the development of a dissident movement. A political awakening, comparable to that of the 1905-1907 period, came in February 1988 with the renewal of the ethnic conflict, which centered on Armenia's demands for the unification of Nagorno-Karabakh (Qarabag) with Armenia. The ethnic strife revealed the weakness of the Communist Party as a champion of national interests, and, in the spirit of glasnost, independent publications and political organizations began to emerge. Of these organizations, by far the strongest was the People's Front of Azerbaijan (PFA), which by the fall of 1989 seemed to be poised to take power from the Communist Party. The PFA soon experienced a split between a conservative-Islamic wing and a moderate wing. The split was followed by an outbreak of anti-Armenian violence in Baku and intervention by Soviet troops in January 1990. (More information on this subject is to be included).
The January Days deepened the disarray within the PFA, especially after many of its leaders were arrested. The Communist Party seemed to be reviving; in elections held in September 1990 the Communists won close to 90 percent of the votes in some contests, leading to accusations of rigged elections. After the failed conservative coup of Aug. 19-21, 1991, in Moscow, the Communist-dominated supreme soviet proclaimed Azerbaijan an independent republic on Aug. 30, 1991. The declaration of independence was followed by the dissolution of the Communist Party, although its members usually retained their positions in the government or the economy. The last party chief, Ayaz N. Mutalibov, was elected president of the republic in September 1991, and the supreme soviet formally implemented the declaration of independence on October 18. Meanwhile, the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh (Garabagh) continued despite efforts to negotiate a settlement. Early in 1992 the region' s Armenian leaders proclaimed an independent republic. In what was now a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the Armenians gained the upper hand because of their better training from the Soviet Army, which had used Azerbaijanis mostly in construction battalions. Mutalibov' s failure to build up an adequate army, over which he feared he would not have had enough control, brought about his downfall. In March 1992 the supreme court forced him to resign. New presidential elections were held in June 1992. The former Communist power elite failed to present a viable candidate, and Abulfaz Elchibay, the leader of the PFA and a former dissident and political prisoner, was elected president with more than 60 percent of the vote. His program included opposition to Azerbaijan's membership in the Commonwealth of Independent States, close relations with Turkey, and a desire for extended links with the Azerbaijanis in Iran.

Heydar Aliyev, who had been prevented from running for president by an age limit of 65, was doing well in Nakhichevan. He had to contend with an Armenian blockade of Nakhichevan. In turn, Armenia suffered when Azerbaijan halted all rail traffic into and out of Armenia, cutting most of its land links with the outside world. The economic effects of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict have confirmed the interdependence of the Transcaucasian nations.

Within a year after his election, President Elchibay came to face the same situation that had led to the downfall of Mutalibov. The fighting in and around Nagorno-Karabakh (Qarabag) turned steadily to the advantage of the Armenians, who seized around one fifth of Azerbaijan's territory, creating more than a million refugees. A military rebellion against Elchibay broke out in early June 1993 in Gänc under the leadership of Colonel Surat Huseynov. Elchibay, who found himself without political support in the face of the setbacks in the war, a steadily deteriorating economy, and opposition from groups outside the PFA, took refuge in his native village. However, he refused to resign. In Baku, Aliyev seized the reigns of power and quickly consolidated his position. A referendum in August deprived Elchibay of his post. In October a presidential election was held, and Aliyev won overwhelmingly.


  • CIA World Factbook 1996

  • Swietochowski, Tadeusz, AZERBAIJAN, REPUBLIC OF,., Vol. 3, Colliers Encyclopedia CD-ROM, 02-28-1996.

    History Professor, Dr. Tadeusz Swietochowski, a Fulbright scholar, has received two National Endowment for the Humanities Grants. His first was for organizing and cataloging documents housed at the Joseph Pilsudski Institute of America, one of the most important repositories of Polish records outside Poland. The second NEH grant was for an annotated translation into English from Azerbaijani Turkish of a religious and intellectual history written by the leading 19th Century Moslem writer in the Soviet Union. Dr. Swietochowski is an authority on Azerbaijan, the former Soviet Republic, and has done research there on numerous occasions.

    Modified and updated version copyrighted © 1996-7 by Adil Baguirov.

    Virtual Azerbaijan Republic Website

    Order Tadeusz Swietochowski's Russia and Azerbaijan. A Borderland in Transition Columbia Univercity Press

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