Autumn in Baku

This photo was taken on September 6, 1989 on the main square of Baku which at that time still was named after Lenin. The word “Democracy” written on the banner can be also understood without any knowledge of Azerbaijani (the country changed back for Latin script only after the following independence), and the complete slogan says: “hарадасан, аj Демократиjа” – “Where are you, democracy?” The inscription of the smaller white placard in the background is: “АХЧ-нин Меhдиабад дайаг дəстəси” “The Mehdiabad support group of the Popular Front of Azerbaijan”. Well then, the question is: what does this photo represent?

The reader, at least the Eastern European reader who still remembers the events of the period of 1989-90 beginning with manifestations and leading through the fall of the Berlin Wall to the collapse of the Communist system, would suggest even without a closer knowledge of the modern history of Azerbaijan: a demonstration against the Communist regime in Baku.

However, the Hungarian photo agency “profimedia”, on whose site (saved) this photo was found, has a different opinion. They provided it with the following caption: “Anti-Armenian meeting in Baku. Multi-thousand-strong Anti-Armenian meeting in Lenin Square, Baku, Azerbaijan as a Soviet republic.”

Araz, having discovered the photo some months ago, sent the following e-mail to the agency:

Dear profimedia team,
I came across your website and liked your photo collection very much. Browsing the photos from Azerbaijan I noticed an unfortunate misinformation - a set of photos entitled “Anti-Armenian Meeting in Baku”. But even reading the slogans depicted in the photos one can understand that it was an anti-Soviet demonstration… I hope that this small but yet very sensitive issue will be corrected as soon as possible.
Sincerely yours, Araz Yusubov

An administrator of profimedia immediately replied:

Dear Mr. Yusubov,
Thank you for your remark and we are very sorry for the mistake. As we are an imegebank we are just taking over the photos from our suppliers so we are not writing the news and captions of the images. We will inform our supplier about this mistake and we hope they will correct it as soon as possible.
Sincerely, Süle Tímea

We do not know whether they informed the supplier or not. We only know that the caption has not changed since then.

When Araz mentioned to me this issue just incidentally, in connection with something different – not attributing great importance to it, for, he said, similar errors are published almost monthly on Azerbaijan in the Western press, for example recently the Guardian published an incorrect map of the country (withdrawn from the online version on the second request of Araz) –, I became curious of the identity of the “well-informed” supplier of profimedia. I just did a search for the text of the subcaption “Multi-thousand-strong Anti-Armenian meeting” , and I found the same photo series on the pages of the former Soviet and now Russian photo agency RIA Novosti. Here they also included the name of the photographer, modestly withheld by the Hungarian agency: D. Kalinin, a skillful press photographer of the 80s.

I have sent the URL to Araz by proposing him to request a correction of the Russian agency. But while he was reading the e-mail, the caption of the pictures of this series changed for the following: “Rally in Baku. Thousands of demonstrators converge on Lenin Square in Baku, the Azerbaijani SSR, a Soviet republic.” Obviously, the administrator of the Russian agency discovered my search in their web statistics, and as a Russian, in a much more intelligent way than his or her Hungarian colleague, immediately changed the politically sensitive caption. Nevertheless, the Google cache still has the old version (also saved here for the case when it will disappear from there). Now we hope that a next letter to the Hungarian agency, backed by a reference to their supplier, will finally result in a change of the false captions on that site as well.

These photos are part of a series of ten pictures, which on the Russian site (here, saved, cache, saved cache) originally all had the caption “Anti-Armenian meeting in Baku”. In the reality all of them were taken in the months of the anti-Communist demonstrations of the autumn of 1989, eventually after two years resulting in the revival of Azerbaijan as an independent state.

Source: profimedia (saved)

Araz helps us to understand the little known historical background of this process by recalling these months full of excitement, tension, hopes and tragedies:

17 November was declared a public holiday in Republic of Azerbaijan in 1992, one year after it regained its independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union. On that memorable day back in 1988 ten thousands of people went through the streets of Baku towards the Lenin Square – the main square of the city in front of the DomSovet government building with a giant Lenin monument overlooking the boulevard at the Caspian Sea.

Source: profimedia (saved)

People gathered there not for some communist party parade by an order from above, but by the will of heart. The most popular slogans chanted by the crowd consisting mainly of the university students and workers of Baku factories on strike was “Azadlyg” – “Freedom” – as the same square (but without Lenin’s statue) is called today: Freedom Square. “Meydan Harakaty” – the Square Movement –, the first permanent rally, an open national liberation movement in Azerbaijan had begun.

Source: profimedia (saved)

After decades of oppressive regime with the declaration of “Perestroyka (Reformation), Glasnost (Openness) and Pluralism” in the Soviet Union, the genius of Freedom was released from the jug. But the last straw in the growing popular discontent was the inability of the servile republic government in Azerbaijan and seemingly anti-Azerbaijani position of the central government in Moscow during the ethnic conflict flaming up shortly before, which started with separatist activities in the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan supported by nationalistic movement in the neighboring Armenia and backed up by a powerful Armenian diaspora in Europe and America. The first Azeri refugees arrived from Armenia as early as the winter of 1987-1988 through the frost of mountain passes, the number of refugees from both sides had already run to thousands, and the first blood was already shed. For the end of the year of 1988 all the 200 thousand strong ethnic Azeri population of Armenia was almost completely driven out, and the situation in Karabakh became more and more dangerous. So the other most popular slogan was “Garabagh” calling for urgent action to stop militant separatism.

Source: profimedia (saved)

The Popular Front of Azerbaijan (PFA) founded in summer of 1988 by group of academicians and intellectuals was trying to start democratic changes in the society, as well as take initiative for solving burning problems (such as collecting old clothes and shoes for refugees). PFA activist were the main organizers of massive rallies in many cities. I was a little boy when my father brought me to the Freedom Square.

Source: profimedia (saved)

More than half a million people were gathering there every day. The speeches were often interrupted by cheers of approval from the crowd. I remember one speech in Russian by a delegate from the Popular Front of one of the Baltic countries: “Azerbaijan is at the front-line of the freedom movement in the Soviet Union”, but the central Soviet press in Moscow was blind and deaf. The mass meeting continued till the night and people did not go away. There were several tents built in the center of the square, where people were taking a rest by turns. People from neighboring houses brought them something to eat, some others brought food by cars. There were even rumors that the bosses of the criminal underground declared a moratorium on theft as an expression of solidarity with the movement. I don’t know if this was true or not, but at that time there was a real feeling of solidarity and freedom among the people.

Large inscription: “Азəрбайчан Халг Чəбhəси əтрафында билəшин!” – “Unite around the Popular Front of
Azerbaijan!” There are a few small tables with “АХЧ [...] район шо'бəcи” – “PFA [...] district division”.
A strange slogan on the far right says “Сиjамəкə азадлыг!” – “Freedom to Siyamek (?)” who
might be an activist arrested. Source: profimedia (saved) and RIA cache (saved)

On 24 November the state of emergency was declared in Baku, but the permanent rally at the square that started on 17 November continued without a break over 17 nights till 5 December. Special forces of the soviet Ministry of Internal Affairs that surrounded the square closed down their circle on that night – 547 people were arrested, two were killed.

Inscriptions: “Халгын сəрвəтини халга гайтарын!” – “Give back people’s riches to the people!”; “Рəдд олсун, халгын сечмəдийи депутатлар!” – “Down with the delegates not elected by people!” Source: profimedia (saved)

But after several months in summer 1989 massive rallies started again at the Freedom Square. “Istefa” – “Resignation” was another slogan, demanding resignation of the unpopular government and democratic elections. This would be the end of the totalitarian soviet regime and beginning of the long-awaited Freedom. It took two more long years full of bloody terror and bitter struggle.

The KGB, using the tensions engendered by the Karabakh issue as a base, organized provocations to thereby
force Gorbachev to use military force. They included the bloody pogroms against the Armenian population
of Sumgayit in February 1988 with 31 killed and of Baku in January 1990 with 50 to 90 victims that the
local Soviet troops let pass without any intervention. A week after this latter, on the “black
January 20” of 1990 the entering Soviet army killed more than 130 civilians
and injuried 700 more in Baku. Source: RFE

Now after more than two decades Azerbaijan is an independent state, but Freedom House, an international watchdog organization lists the country as “not free” in its annual Freedom in the World survey, and 17 November is not a  holiday anymore. For me the question is – what would I sacrifice to get back that feeling of freedom inside at the Square back in 1988?

Source: profimedia (saved)

6 comentarios:

Araz dijo...

Thank you, Studiolum!

languagehat dijo...

I hate to wade into these contentious issues, but I feel this presentation of events is so one-sided it represents a distortion of history. From this post, it would seem that the "anti-Armenian" label is pure slander and that the Azerbaijanis were doing nothing more than striving for independence. In fact, in the words of the article on Azerbaijan in The Nationalities Question in the Post-Soviet States (Longman, 2nd ed. 1996):

"From 13 to 15 January 1990, roving bands started to raid Armenian homes and commit atrocities. Inexplicably, large numbers of former prisoners had been released just before, and, at the same time, the forces of law and order abstained entirely from taking any action during the three days of violence. Alleged perpetrators of violence who were brought to the police stations and army stations were immediately released."

(This is just the first book I pulled off the shelf; I have quite a few books on the period and could provide similar citations from any of them. This is not anti-Azeri disinformation, it's history.)

As a result of this and similar acts of violence, the entire Armenian population of Baku, and most of Azerbaijan, was forced to flee. Of course, the Azeris were also forced to flee from Armenia; the situation is as tragic as the forcible "exchange of populations" between Turkey and Greece 70 years earlier. There are no good guys and bad guys here, and the situation should not be presented as if the Azeris were simply involved in a noble struggle for independence.

Studiolum dijo...

Language, I think nobody wanted to present the situation so one-sided as you consider it, the least I who abundantly wrote on the other side of the coin as well, and I am sorry if the post was suitable to be misunderstood like this. I have no pro-Azeri bias, just like I have no pro-Armenian bias as I was reproached when writing about the crimes committed against them. My studies, travels and personal encounters taught me to deeply appreciate both people, and I feel sorry for the tragical situation and hatred in which they find themselves entangled against each other.

Exactly because the situation in the Caucasus is so complex, because there are no perfectly good guys and perfectly bad guys, that’s why it is important to call each thing in each case by their names. Calling an obviously anti-Communist demonstration an “anti-Armenian meeting” as the image banks sell their pictures is a gross distortion of history that must be corrected. This was the only purpose of this post, and not any general whitewashing of one side from the crimes in fact committed. I am sorry if the post could be interpreted like that.

languagehat dijo...

Oh, I don't feel you're biased at all, and I'm sorry you took it that way. I was talking about the commentary provided by Araz, which seemed to me to give only one side of the picture, so I thought I'd present the other. Your link to the previous post does an even better job, so thanks for that!

Araz dijo...

I feel like I need to make few remarks about what languagehat said:

First about books and history - we, especially those from the former soviet/USSR countries, perfectly know how tricky history books can be - almost everything we were taught for 70 years turned out to be just propagandist lies.

Can't agree more with almost everything written above - yes, there are no bad nations or good nations, but I think that there are always bad guys and good guys.

Please search your shelf for books by Zori Balayan, for example "Очаг" (Hearth) published in 1981 and 1984 in Yerevan and Moscow. Dedicated to "the 150 years of joining of Eastern Armenia to Russia" with a modest description "Essays about Armenia. For senior secondary school children age" this book as early as then creates an image of enemy - Turk-Azeri, speaks about "native Armenian lands", about "reunion", "revival" of "Great Armenia". The author, who became one of the leaders/orators of the Armenian popular movement back then (and receiving various awards till now), does not mention what should happen to many hundreds of thousands of Azeris (and others) living on these lands, but the first thousands of refugees from Armenia, driven out of their houses in the cold winter of 1987, and the rest of more than a million Azeri refugees could tell you... those who were killed will not.

You will not find any similar writing by any Azeri intellectual of that time.

My writing may not be complete/unbiased also because I tried hard to keep it short and focused. I don't know how much unbiased back then were Grigoryants - editor-in-chief of the "Glastnost" magazine a reliable source of Western media on issues in the USSR, Sitaryan - chief adviser on finance and planning, Shakhnazarov - chief adviser on foreign policy, Aganbegyan - chief adviser on economic policy (all Armenians) of the Secretary General Gorbachov (the supreme leader of the USSR), but the statement of the latter supporting annexation of Karabakh from Azerbaijan to Armenia at a reception organized by the powerful Armenian diaspora in France back in November 1987 was a signal for active separatist activities in the region.

Of course Armenian pogroms killing 50/90 in Baku in January 1990 and 31 in Sumgayit earlier in February 1989 are black marks in the history of Azerbaijan. But shouldn't the fact that soviet leadership having all the means to prevent them did not do anything for that give some food for thought? Shouldn't the fact that just before them in January 1990, while there virtually were not any Azeri left in Armenia, there were still hundreds of thousands of Armenians living in Baku ring a bell? So "it is important to call each thing in each case by their names". The Square Movement never had a nationalistic anti-Armenian slant, but unfortunately there were outbreaks of anti-Armenian sentiments outside of it.

So, of course, Azeris were not simply involved in a noble struggle for independence. They were drawn into a struggle for survival, naively expecting help from the soviet regime. Very soon people understood that it is time to decide their own fate. The Square was the place where we heard the forbidden history of struggle, the ideas of freedom brought to us through sufferings in undergrounds of KGB and camps of Siberia by different generations of intellectuals. Simple discontent had grown into a movement.

Of course there were many disillusions later, but these images represent the slightly idealistic period of great hopes and devoted unity in the national liberation movement in Azerbaijan.

Araz dijo...

Finally, profimedia has changed the captions of rally photos on my request of 7 September with a reference to this article. Thank you again, Studiolum!