Baku, the capital of Soviet Azerbaijan, lying on the west coast of the Caspian, embodies many suggestive contrasts with other areas of the Soviet Union and with the neighboring countries of Iran and Turkey. On the esplanade running along the seashore, restaurants sell kebabs, local pancakes (kutab) and Azerbaijani sweets; there are the colored lights, smells and sounds of outdoor eating places further south. The mustachioed young men, the gestures of greeting, the pace of the crowd suggest other Middle Eastern cities. In the icheri sheher, the inner city, glass-paned balconies lean over the first floors of the houses, as they do in Turkey. Three centuries of Persian rule have also left their mark on the literature and art of this region.

The visitor is, however, unmistakably in the Soviet Union. The shops appear to be better stocked, the queues shorter, the streets more full of cars than in Moscow. The restaurants appear even slower, the bands noisier. But its politics and economics are dictated from the center. Azerbaijan has an apparently bilingual official culture: Slogans and publicly displayed newspapers are in both Russian and Azerbaijani (a Turkish language now written in a modified Cyrillic script). The city library is both Biblioteka and Ketabkhane. In the center of town, black and gold plaques flank an official building: Dvorets Truda and Emek Sarai — the Palace of Labor.

Baku has been the focus of many momentous events over the past two centuries. In 1806 the Czarist forces drove out the Qajar rulers of Iran and permanently annexed the southern Caucasus to Russia. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, a nationalist intelligentsia developed, influenced by pan-Turkism. At the same time, Baku became the center of the booming Russian oil industry: The population rose from under 8,000 in 1850 to 250,000 in 1907. Workers flocked in from other parts of the Caucasus, and from Iran, and the first Iranian socialist groups were organized among migrant workers in the oil industry. During the revolution itself the city changed hands several times. The Bolsheviks staged a successful uprising late in 1917, but disputes between the Armenian workers, who comprised much of the militia, and the Azerbaijani Turkish population opened the door to Turkish and British occupations, which backed an independent Azerbaijani state. Bolshevik rule was only decisively established in 1920.

During World War II, Baku still produced over half of Russia’s oil, and the Nazis made it a target of their offensive. They never succeeded.

In the post-war years Baku and the Azerbaijani countryside have gone through a major economic reorganization. Oil output has fallen to only around 3 percent of the Soviet total. The hundreds of derricks and pumps that dot the suburbs of the city can make little contribution now. Instead, new industries have sprung up, in electronics and light engineering. Azerbaijani peasants have been quick to take advantage of the openings for free market sales in major Russian cities.

With a population of 1.6 million, Baku is now one of the largest cities in the USSR. About three quarters of the population are Azerbaijani Turks, about 10 percent Russians, and another 10 percent Armenians. The language is close to Turkish and there are many cultural links with that country. But historically it is Persian culture that has been dominant, and Azerbaijani museums make much of their contribution to Persian culture. The manuscripts of Nizami Ganjavi and Khaqani Shirvani are proudly displayed, as is the work of Mir Ali Tabrizi, the inventor of the nastaliq style of writing.

The city’s checkered history is evident in the distinct areas and architectural styles. Medieval Baku sits on a hill overlooking the Caspian, with the eight-floor high Maiden’s Tower dating from the twelfth century, and the fifteenth century palace of Shirvanshah Khalil Ullah, one of the last independent Azerbaijani rulers. The oil boom led to an architectural explosion and produced buildings in all the styles of the late nineteenth century — neo-classical, neo-Gothic, “maghrebi” North African and rococo. The main railway station, built in 1884, is in what is known as “Cairo style.” The art nouveau Mailov Brothers’ Theater was built as an opera house in 1910: it was the site, in September 1920, of the famous Baku Congress of the peoples of the East, through which the Bolsheviks hoped to extend their revolution to Iran and the Arab world. It was on his way back from this congress that John Reed caught cholera, after eating a melon on the train, and died.

Post-1917 architecture has gone through many changes, reflecting the aesthetic whims of the leadership, and these are evident in Baku. The Amernikend model village, begun in 1925, provided flats for 10,000 workers in the oil industry. The buildings were especially designed to shield their inhabitants from the winds that blow during much of the year, and the front door steps were raised to keep sand out of the hallways. The experimental Constructivists made their contribution, soon to be replaced by the Stalin Gothic, evident in the grotesque Government House on the sea front. Many other more recent buildings fuse traditional Azerbaijani and Islamic themes, as in the subway stations or the Museum of Azerbaijan.

In the Square of the 26 Commissars, the site of the original rising in support of the Bolsheviks in 1917 by the local workers, sailors and soldiers, there stands the monument to the 26 Baku commissars executed in the desert on the eastern side of the Caspian in September 1918 by Social-Revolutionary forces. Soviet authorities insist that this execution was carried out with the agreement of the British military now in Iran. The “twenty-seventh commissar,” one who escaped, was Anastas Mikoyan, later president of the USSR.

In another square stands a tall pillar with the statue of a woman tearing off her chadra, or veil, in commemoration of campaigns of the 1920s and 1930s to emancipate women. One of the first Bolshevik decrees proclaimed the equality of men and women: though no specific decree banned the chadra, campaigns were conducted to draw women into economic activity and political work.

The headquarters of the local Islamic authorities are at the Taza Pir mosque, built by a local merchant in 1905. It is the site of the Muslim Board of Transcaucasia, one of the four governing bodies of Soviet Muslims. The state closed mosques and destroyed shrines in the interwar period, but since religion was tolerated again in World War II, the situation has eased. The day we visited the Taza Pir, there were men, and a separate group of women, at prayer. On the carpeted floor lay the turba, the prayer stones from Karbala and Najaf. Few Azerbaijanis attend the mosque regularly, but they retain Muslim names and most turn to the imam or mullah when a relative dies. Most corpses are washed according to religious stipulations. The two great festivals of the year are the Qurban-i-Bairam, the Feast of the Sacrifice, and Nowruz, the pre-Islamic Iranian celebration of new year.

Azerbaijanis are well aware of this neighbor to the south. Prior to 1917, Iranian pilgrims used to visit the shrine of Rarfima Khanom, the sister of Imam Reza, who was buried near Baku. With Karbala and Mashhad, it was one of the major Shi‘i shrines. Until World War II, the quickest way from Tehran to Europe was by boat to Baku and then on by train. Today people seem informed, and alarmed, by events in Iran. Officials in Moscow are reticent on this subject, and give the impression that they hope Khomeini will sooner or later “come to his senses.” In Baku, people were privately much more critical about what they saw as the steps backward in Iran. Several said they thought that continuation of the war with Iraq was evil and unnecessary. “We in the Soviet Union know what war is,” one scientist commented. “It is criminal for Khomeini to send droves of teenage boys to their deaths.” Azerbaijanis also know that the leader of the Azerbaijanis in Iran, Ayatollah Shariatmadari, has been under house arrest for some years. Tudeh, the Iranian communist party, broadcasts its National Voice of Iran from Baku.

The evidence of the streets hardly suggests that there has been a major upsurge in fundamentalism since the Iranian revolution. A few old women can be seen in chadras, and there has been greater interest in Islam among some young people. But Azerbaijan has been integrated with the USSR for nearly two centuries, and the prosperity which the area has enjoyed suggests that its links with other parts of the USSR may be quite enduring. If Azerbaijanis are well aware that ultimate political control rests with Moscow, they also know that the boom that the republic has enjoyed depends on their being part of the wider Soviet economy. If Azerbaijanis remain largely Muslims, and culturally distinct in several respects, this is not a separate identity that finds overt political expression.

Azerbaijan is not Central Asia: It has a much longer history of integration with the rest of Russia and, because of oil, it has enjoyed an unusually high standard of living. Superficial evidence suggests better living conditions than in Moscow itself. At the same time, there are serious problems in Azerbaijan, ones mirrored, it would appear from the press, in Central Asia too. These concern lags in production, bribery, increased crime and theft of official property. During a visit to Baku in September 1982, Leonid Brezhnev castigated the oil industry for its failure to meet its targets. Such reprimands by party leaders are common, despite the fact that a major economic reorganization of the republic seems to have taken place in the past ten to 15 years.

The man responsible in official eyes for this transformation is Geidar Aliyev, long head of the Azerbaijan Communist Party and since 1982 a member of the Soviet Politburo. Most foreign commentary has seen Aliyev as someone owing his rise to his knowledge of Iran and to the growing importance of the Islamic factor in Soviet foreign policy. Aliyev, who worked for many years in the KGB, must be aware of the situation in Iran, but his reputation inside the USSR rests upon his abilities as an organizer and a fighter against corruption. In this sense, he is someone in the troubleshooting post-Brezhnev mold.

Aliyev would certainly not be someone to permit any talk of Azerbaijan seceding from the USSR, but this seems to be a remote possibility. Azerbaijanis in Iran have shown strikingly little interest in full secession during the post-Shah upheavals, and some of the same factors, of integration within a broader system, may well apply in the Soviet counterpart. With one eye on the economic benefits of integration with the USSR and another on the events in Iran, a standard reply was: “Don’t you think we are well enough off as we are now?”

How to cite this article:

Maxine Molyneux, Fred Halliday "Letter from Baku," Middle East Report 138 (January/February 1986).
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