Azerbaijan Under Russian Control

by Jamie Trexler, May 2000


As a result of years of oppression, current Azeri-Russian relations are almost nonexistent.  Today the population of Azerbaijan (in order of size) consists of Azeri, Dagestani, Russian, Armenian, and other nationalities including Iranian.  The purpose of this essay is to enumerate the impact of Russian imperial rule on these various ethnic groups.  Discrimination according to religious affiliation, language, and race, was common throughout this time period;  dating from the start of the empire, throughout WWII, and the reconstruction.  

Azerbaijan (before Russian control) was primarily populated by different Turkish Muslim tribes, and divided into Khanates or small "states" (i.e. Baku, Kuba, Sheki, Shemakhi, Karabagh, Nakhijivan and Erevan).  One Khan governed each state, and power between states was constantly disputed.  In response to years of fighting within the Khanates (and fear of Muslim expansion), both the Christian populations of Armenia and Georgia propositioned Russia to invade Iran, overthrow the Khan rule, and take control over the Caucasian states.  Both Iran (Aga Muhammad Khan/Islam) and Russia (Catherine the Great/Russian Orthodox) would take land in Azerbaijan by conquest.  In 1796 both forces came together and fought a series of Russian-Iranian wars, the outcome being Russian domination over the Khanates (Altstadt, pg- 8).   

After the success of the Russian conquest, Tsarist military forces ruled Azerbaijan.  The former Khanates were divided in Russian provinces and one army officer, or commandant, was given the jurisdiction of each territory. Many of these Russian viceroys gave little consideration to the native Azeri customs and religious law, and immediately impressed Russian imperial rule on the local inhabitants.  As a direct result, the power of Azeri religious figures was significantly diminished (Altstadt, pg- 18).  

When Russia gained Azerbaijan as one of its many satellite territories, roughly 80-85 percent of the population was of Iranian/Turkish lineage, with Muslim being the predominant religion.  Under Russian control, Azerbaijan was forced into a cultural transformation.  Russian Orthodox became the "national" faith, as Islam and even Armenian Orthodox practices fell prey to its influence.  Religious discrimination became the norm in all provinces. 

Christian religious leaders had full jurisdiction over the censorship involved within their religion and their congregations.  In contrast, Muslim leaders were not empowered and were subjected to stringent regulation.  In response to the Islamic law that governed much of the Azerbaijani population, two Ecclesiastical boards were appointed to regulate the practices of non-Christians (One representative of each of the Sunni and Shi'i Muslim groups were appointed).  To counteract the power of these boards, many viceroys enforced "anti-Muslim, anti-Turkish" laws that were strictly biased against this population (Altstadt, pg-18-19).   

Prejudicial practices continued in Azerbaijan, and non-Christians continuously lost more and more political power as Russian rule was enforced, i.e. non-Christians were restricted, if not forbidden, to hold office or participate in city administration.  In 1908 the Turks finally were represented in city and state legislature.   

As in politics, inequality plagued the Azerbaijani educational system. Although the installation of a primary school system was pursued before Russian rule, native Azerbaijani children were not successfully merged into the new Russian schools. Only at the turn of the century, were there institutions for tartar speaking children.  One fourth of all schools catered to "minority" populations like Tatar and Persian.  (In actuality these ethnic groups were the majority by number, minority in political power)  All higher education was taught in Russian, and therefore diminished the value of traditional religious curriculums.  With traditional education becoming obsolete, the "russification" of Azerbaijani-Turkish society was beginning.  Although reform of the educational system was needed, bilingual education and education for women came years later (Altstadt, pg-54-56).

Throughout this time period, more and more Russian citizens immigrated into Azerbaijan (Altstadt, pg- 27).  Russia also put restrictions on the imports to Azerbaijan, selling Russian cars, farm/industrial equipment, and other technology to Azeri manufacturers at inflated prices. Domination of the exports soon followed.   The motherland extracted much of the revenue from Azeri oil, natural gas, and cotton producers, by forcing the country to sell these resources to Russia for a fraction of the market value.  

With the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, the republics of Transcaucasia viewed this internal unrest as a prime opportunity to separate from Russia.  Armenia and Georgia declared independence soon after, and in 1918 Azerbaijan became the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (ASR).  This independence was unfortunately short-lived, as the Bolsheviks pushed in and administered an ultimatum to surrender in 1920.  The Bolsheviks had been trying to spread communism throughout Transcaucasia, but England and France aided Georgia and Armenia to help prevent the expansion. (These countries did not provide financial or military aid to Azerbaijan, so as a result, the Azeri force was the first to fall.)  Armenia and Georgia soon retreated under Bolshevik control due a shortage of food and oil, which otherwise would have been supplied by Russia and Azerbaijan (Altstadt, pg-114).    

With the communist party now present in all of Transcaucasia, Lenin demanded that the entire region of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan be consolidated into one oblast, to promote the unification of the republics and Soviet Russia (Altstadt, pg-114).  Azerbaijan was skeptical of this union, knowing that now Russia, Georgia, and Armenian would have access to the Azeri oil fields.  More conflict arose when territorial borders were redrawn.  Armenia claimed the Nagorno-Karabagh region in Azerbaijan as part of Armenia.  This marred future relations between the Azeri and Armenian peoples, as Azerbaijan did not want to relinquish the territory (Altstadt, pg-117).  In this dispute, Stalin rendered the Nagorno-Karabagh region as part of Azerbaijan.  The battle continued when Armenia appealed the decision, and began to attack Azeri cities.  In an effort to ease tension between these ethnic groups, Russia made the Nagorno-Karabagh region its own autonomous oblast (NKAO).  Neither group was content with this decision.   

Land disputes, along with Bolshevik control led to Azeri rebellion. This period between 1920-1941 is known as the "Great Terror."  Many Azeri men and women were prosecuted for conspiracy against the motherland. False accusations and exaggerated crimes resulted in many Azeris being exiled, imprisoned or executed (Altstadt, pg-131).  In 1937-38 alone, approximately 120,000 Azeris perished (pg- 150).  The "Great Terror" was yet another way to enforce Russian law and weaken any opposition posed by Azerbaijan.   

 By 1941, Russia was involved in World War II.  Soviet propaganda for the war was nationality specific.  Russia campaigned heavily in Azerbaijan for support, stressing that the Jews were not the only ethnic group targeted, many Turks as well as Armenians would be prosecuted in the same manner. Although the Armenians were Christian, the Nazis labeled them as "racially inferior because of their.parasitic trading practices". 

Georgians meanwhile were classified as part of the Aryan race, and were given incentives to fight with Germany. [ i.e. they were guaranteed a dominant position in society if the Germans won the territory (Altstadt, pg-156)]. Regardless of this campaign, most Azeris could not identify with their "Russianess," and contemplated the intentions of their "elder brother"(Altstadt, pg-154).  As a result, the Azeri support spilt between Soviet Russian and Germany.   

When the war ended, and Germany was defeated, little recognition was given to the country of Azerbaijan.  The Azeri population contributed many military units used in the war, but the men in these units were "relatively rarely decorated" as compared to other nationalities.  When Soviet Russia did not acknowledge the importance of Azeris, World War II became yet another reason for Azeri-Russian relations to weaken (Altstadt, pg-155).    

Works Cited 1). Altstadt, Audrey.  The Azerbaijani Turks: Power and Identity under Russian Rule. Hoover Institution Press, Stanford University.1992.       



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