Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan (1918-20): Origins, Milestones and Legacy

Undoubtedly the emergence of the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan (ADR) was the by-product of a broad range of processes and dynamics in and around of the Caucasus, the developments in the Tsarist Russia as well as in the neighbouring countries of the Russian Caucasus, the Ottoman Empire and Persia. The elites of the ADR, both of Muslim and of non-Muslim faith were socialized in the late Romanov period. Azərbaycan dilində

Born in 1870-80s and educated to a large extent at Russian schools and universities, many of them became fierce Socialists. Along with initial sympathy towards Socialism, Azerbaijani intelligentsia started to criticize russification measures launched by the Tsarist authorities and promoted the idea of Latinization of the Arabic-Persian script that was used for Azerbaijani language. Benefiting from certain liberalization in the Russian Empire after 1905, Baku- and Tiflis-based Azerbaijani intellectuals began to publish newspapers and journals in Azerbaijani and Russian for this purpose. Looking back on the developments at the eve of the foundation of the ADR in May 1918, it is important to notice three aspects:

  1. Azerbaijani intelligentsia both of Shia and Sunni background launched intensive discourses on nation, language and social issues. Its representatives travelled throughout the Caucasus, to the Ottoman Istanbul, visited Persia and started to think on issues like modernization, social reforms, women emancipation and beyond. Baku-, Tiflis-, and Shusha-based intellectuals obtained the possibility to observe Georgian and particularly Armenian national aspirations, political emancipation and other processes. The chief of state of the ADR Mahammad Amin Rəsulzadə (1884-1955) spent several years in exile in Teheran and in Istanbul. ADR’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire and writer Yusif Vəzir Çəmənzəminli (1887-1943) studied in Kiev. ADR’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Əlimərdan Bey Topçubaşev (1865-1934) was a graduate of the University of St. Petersburg. The mobility within the late Tsarist Empire brought Azerbaijani intellectuals closer to the urban spaces being centers of vital political life.
  2. The Caucasus in general and Azerbaijan in particular was important borderland between Russia, Ottoman Turkey and Persia as well as a space of rivalry between Great Britain, Russia, the Ottomans and Germany. Baku’s oil played a crucial role in this regard. During the 23-month-long statehood of the ADR, Baku witnessed Ottoman troops, then British troops and finally the Red Army.
  3. During the political turmoil of the 1917 in Russia, Azerbaijani political elites promoted the idea of autonomy. The idea of national and state independence developed rapidly but later in 1918. Two days after Georgia, both Azerbaijan and Armenia declared independence. Tbilisi became the place where the ADR was proclaimed before the Azerbaijani government moved to Ganja.

Striving for modernity and progress

Azerbaijani elites of the ADR mirrored the multi-ethnic and multi-confessional structure of the Eastern Caucasus. Lead by Shias, also Sunnis, Polish Catholics, Armenians, Russians were represented in the Parliament. The ADR was a secular parliamentary democracy and announced the right of women to vote in 1918. The establishment of a university was initiated by the young government that moved to Baku in the fall of 1918.

Compared with neighbouring Georgia and Armenia, Azerbaijan was the least-prepared with regard to state-building. Azerbaijani Muslims and Jews were not allowed to carry out military service in the Tsarist Army. As result, the ADR lacked skilled military personnel and was forced to invite Ottoman officers and Polish Tatars. Maciej Sulkiewicz (1865-1920), a high-rank Polish Tatar military expert stands as an example for this kind of transfer within the borders of the former Empire. He moved to Baku after the Crimean state was overrun by the Russians and contributed significantly to the army-building in the ADR. The short-lived republic generally lacked personnel. Many of the cadres working for different state agencies and ministries sympathized even with Bolshevik Russia. The situation of the Azerbaijani secret services was more deplorable. The government in Baku failed to prevent Bolshevik infiltration and intelligence activity in the country.

The ADR’s political establishment, particularly the elites around the 1911-founded political party of Müsavat (Equality) were much more preoccupied with foreign policy and especially with the issue of the international recognition of ADR than internal affairs of the country. Baku sent a delegation headed by Topçubaşov to Paris to take part at the Peace Conference in 1919. The ADR also managed to establish several diplomatic missions abroad, mostly in the neighbouring countries and  hosted foreign diplomats. The ADR’s foreign policy reached its targets partly. At the start of 1920, the de-facto recognition of the ADR followed. The Entente powers backed the White Russian opponents of Bolsheviks and rejected to recognize the Azerbaijani nation-state de-jure which  made the framework for Azerbaijani diplomatic actions abroad more complicated. Despite the fact that Topçubaşov and his associate Ceyhun Hacıbəyli (1891-1962) were brilliantly educated, were fluent in French and launched a large-scale activity while meeting numerous diplomats and publishing booklets on Azerbaijan’s economic potential and historical development in Paris, they failed to convince international public represented in Paris to support Azerbaijan’s aspirations for full recognition. In contrast to the Georgian Mensheviks, Musavatist politicians were less known on the international stage and had rare personal contacts with European political circles at that time.

In spite of the diplomatic debacles, the ADR’s main achievement was the foundation of the University of Baku. In the fall of 1919, lectures on several faculties started. Russian was  the language of instruction.  Its first rector Vasilii I. Razumovskii (1857-1935) was invited from the University of Saratov. Rəsulzadə and his entourage were pushing the idea of national university for a longer period of time. They managed to attract professors from Central Russia, purchase academic books, and supported the university.

Along with certain successes in the field of education and culture policies, Baku’s economic policy was doomed. Baku’s oil stayed untouched in the full reservoirs, and several currencies were in use throughout the country. Additional problematic issues  were regarding the unsolved questions of state borders: Baku contested with Russia the city of Derbent because of its large Azerbaijani population. Furthermore, while the Azerbaijani-Georgian border was a topic for several bilateral meetings since 1918, a low-intensity warfare between Armenia and the ADR continued until the ADR’s occupation by the Red Army. And the fact that most troops of the Azerbaijani army were deployed in the Karabakh region, and not on the Azerbaijani-Russian border, accelerated the Bolshevik offensive on April 27, 1920. On April 28, the ADR fell. The Red Army took Baku, many representatives of the Azerbaijani establishment and Musavatist elites moved to neighbouring Georgia, the Ottoman Empire or Persia. Rəsulzadə himself withdrew from politics and escaped to the mountainous village of Lahıc in the north of Azerbaijan. He accepted the job proposal of the Bolsheviks and joined the Orient Institute in Petrograd.

Fall of the ADR

After the take-over, Bolsheviks started with ideological cleansing. In summer 1920, a group of Müsavat party members and Azerbaijani militaries organized an anti-Bolshevik uprising in Ganja. Bolsheviks crashed it down and punished the activists. The failed uprising and Bolshevik repressions caused the next wave of political emigration from Soviet Azerbaijan.

Rəsulzadə decided to emigrate from Soviet Russia in 1922, crossed the Soviet-Finnish border and found himself in the fall of the same year in late Ottoman Istanbul. Along with Paris-based exile diplomats Topçubaşev and Hacıbəyli,  Rəsulzadə founded an important center of Azerbaijani exile anti-Bolshevik activities in Istanbul. Azerbaijani political emigration in the interwar period was located in Paris, Warsaw, Istanbul, and throughout Persia. ADR has been intensively commemorated in these emigrant milieus, particularly in Turkey which was the main center of Azerbaijani political emigration after the World War II. In the Sovietized Azerbaijan, the date of the Bolshevik intrusion on 28 April was marked as the state holiday, namely as the “Day of the Establishment of the Soviet Power”. And the date of the proclamation of the ADR, May 28, had to sink into oblivion. It was known among historians only and officially depicted as a bourgeoisie-backed coup. One of the subway stations in downtown Baku was named after 28 April. Key intellectuals and politicians of the ADR were treated as “agents of imperialist countries, traitors and exploiters”.

While Topçbaşov died in Parisian exile in 1934, Çəmənzəminli decided to return to the Soviet Azerbaijan in the middle of 1920s, ended up in a labour camp and died there in 1943. Rəsulzadə died in Ankara in 1955, and was buried there with the help of the local Azerbaijani emigrants. Around thirty years later, the things started to change in the Soviet Azerbaijan. Gorbachev’s perestroika caused certain liberalization processes and the Baku-based historians began to deal with Azerbaijan’s history leaving the official ideological bias aside. The 23-month-lived ADR, its origins, its domestic and foreign policy and its key personalities started to ‘return’ on the bookstore shelves of Baku, they invaded the pages of the local journals and newspapers. The writer Əzizǝ Cǝfǝrzadǝ (1921-2003), the young historians, journalists and philologists like Cəmil Həsənli, Vilayət Quliyev, Nəsib Nəsibli, Nəsiman Yaqublu and other intellectuals re-discovered the ADR and tried to re-construct its milestones in the country-wide discourse.

Comeback of memory?

In the early 1990s, the ADR was integrated into the history curriculum in schools and at universities. Rəsulzadə’s face appeared on the Azerbaijani national currency Manat. A monument of him was erected in his native village Novxanı close to Baku and the Baku State University was named after him. During the one-year-long presidency of Abulfaz Elchibey from the Popular Front Party between 1992 and 1993, the ADR was perceived as the source of inspiration for the post-Soviet state-building. The Popular Front insisted on the fact that Azerbaijani regained its sovereignty after the fall of the Soviet Union. Zardüşt  Əlizadə, one of the key activists of the anti-Communist forces at the end of the 1980s and in the beginning of the 1990s, titled his memoirs “The End of the Second Republic”.

After the comeback of Heydər Əliyev (1923-2003) in 1993, but particularly after the  handover of power to his son Ilham ten years later  and the following fifteen years until today, the preoccupation with the ADR underwent a radical transformation. While many academics and journalists have been elaborating the ADR’s two-year long history, Azerbaijani officials demonstrate distinct reluctance with regard to any commemorations of the ADR’s key personalities. There are no monuments, subway stations or bigger parks named after Rəsulzadə in Baku, and the Baku State University left behind its Rəsulzadə-link as well. His face disappeared also from the banknotes. An obelisk devoted to the ADR was erected in Baku several years ago. However, neither this obelisk nor the Rəsulzadə-monument in Novxanı can be compared with state-backed commemoration of the former President Heydər Əliyev.

While the history of ADR and of Musavat Party merged somehow into the grand narrative on Azerbaijani history of the twentieth century, the Musavat Party nowadays due to a range of reasons became an intellectual club opposing the official authority and ceased to be a political party. It underwent severe fragmentations, suffered from continuous persecutions and lost a huge part of its members. Nevertheless, Müsavat and historians close to the Party are important voices with regard to commemoration of ADR: In 1918-1920, Müsavat enjoyed its longest period in office…