Santiago de Baku

1. White Caucasian
2. Santiago de Baku
3. Santa Nina de Baku
4. Jaguar in Baku
5. Winds of Change over
   the City of Winds

6. Night over Baku
7. Instead of an epilogue
Acknowledgements and links
I was thinking of writing this post for almost half a year, but besides of being a rather lazy writer, I had also a very busy time with moving back to my hometown Baku from the United States after living there for one year. Santiago de Chile and Baku are separated by 14,769 kilometres of steppes, mountains and deserts, lakes, rivers, seas and vast waters of the Atlantics, various countries and cultures, but the title of this post suggests that there are things, more than we would imagine, that connect these two distant capital cities. I would like to thank those who encouraged me to write it, especially my father and my friend from Hungary, who always inspires me to “write much, much more”.

1. White Caucasian

A year ago, in November 2009, while in the United States I applied for a state identification card at the Maryland state Motor Vehicle Administration. The office clerk – a kind black lady – filling out my personal file on her computer, after taking my photo, quickly guessed aloud “Hispanic/Latino” when we reached the field “race”. On hearing her suspicious “are you sure not Hispanic?” after my objection and claim that I am “White/Caucasian”, I had to explain that I actually came from a country in the Caucasus region, which gave its name to the Caucasian race. In fact, the German anthropologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840) named the Caucasian race after the “Mount Caucasus, both because its neighborhood, and especially its southern slope, produces the most beautiful race of men, I mean the Georgian; and because all physiological reasons converge to this, that in that region, if anywhere, it seems we ought with the greatest probability to place the autochthones (birth place) of mankind” on page 303 of his renowned De Generis Humani Varietate Nativa (On the Natural Varieties of Mankind), published in 1795.

The title-page of the On the Natural Varieties of Mankind by BlumenbachThe page 303 of the On the Natural Varieties of Mankind by BlumenbachThe title-page and page 303 of the On the Natural Varieties of Mankind by Blumenbach,
published in 1795. Source:

I personally find this official terminology quite confusing, and moreover many Caucasians do not look like stereotypical Europeans. Many times during our stay in the United States me and my wife were approached by Hispanic Americans thinking that we also are Latinos, and speaking to us in Spanish. This was probably also the reason why the Chilean film director Sebastián Alarcón (1949), while in exile chose Baku to shoot his movies about his homeland.

2. Santiago de Baku

Sebastián Alarcón entered the film school at the University of Chile in 1968, at the age of 19. In 1970 he was sent by way of a a state scholarship program to continue his education at the All-Union State Institute of Cinematography in Moscow. While he was studying there, in 1973 the infamous military junta headed by General Augusto Pinochet (1915-2006) overthrew the democratically elected President of Chile Salvador Allende (1908-1973) and dissolved his socialist Unidad Popular government with a CIA-backed coup. The military dictatorship established in Chile after the coup, which took place ironically on 11 September, lasted till 1990. Accompanied by systematic suppression of all political dissidence it has left the memory of tens of thousands of arrested and tortured as well as many hundreds of killed or “disappeared”.

Inspired by the socialist Unidad Popular as many other representatives of Chilean youth, Sebastián Alarcón could not return to his homeland, but his creative life was almost completely captured by those tragic events in Chile. His first feature film – Night over Chile (Ночь над Чили) – telling the story of Manuel, an architect arrested on suspicion and falsely accused, his passage through the nightmares of abuse, intimidation and tortures, was awarded a special prize for the best director’s debut at the 10th Moscow International Film Festival in 1977, the year I was born.

Any dweller of Baku even now can easily recognise native streets seen from the first frames of this film “dedicated to the courageous people of Chile”, shot in journalistic, documentary style.

Night over Chile (1977) movie poster.
And also native faces: Giuli Chokhonelidze (1928-2008), National Artist of Georgia, known to our audience from such Azerbaijani Soviet movies as Morning (1960), Our Street (1961) and A Very Boring Story (1988), plays a part of the leader of workers, Baadur Tsuladze (1935), now President of the Guild of Film Actors of Georgia plays a simple family man. The artless old Chilean peasant was played by Sadyq Huseynov (1924-2003), with his long career in Azerbaijani cinema and theatre, also known to all children of 1980-90s as Savalan Baba i.e. Grandpa Savalan from popular evening television programs. By the way, it turned out that a famous Russian photographer Gueorgui Pinkhassov (1952) also was in Baku back in 1976 as a member of the film crew.

I would have never learned all this about Alarcón and the Night over Chile if some months ago I did not recall another movie shot back in the 1980s in Baku, in the school where I studied. There were talks that our school is being filmed as a military garrison, and I remembered a papier-mache statue of some general they put at our school yard as well as the title of the film – Jaguar.

3. Santa Nina de Baku

Our school would be indeed a good model for a garrison with a large courtyard looking as a parade-ground, bars on the windows at the ground floor and a boiler-house with a big black metallic steam-heat pipe. This historical building actually housed two schools: the Russian public school No.134 was in the north wing, while the Azerbaijani public school No.132, named after Huseyn Javid (1882-1941) – a famous Azerbaijani poet and playwright, wasted in the camps of Siberia during the Stalinist repressions – occupied the rest of the building.

Panorama photos of the Icheri Sheher Subway Station on 360cities.netPanorama photos of Icheri Sheher Subway Station on

We all knew that our school was a gymnasium for girls in pre-Soviet times, and I thought for a long time that it had been the first secular school for Muslim girls, built thanks to persistent efforts of Haji Zeynalabdin Taghiyev (1823-1924), a famous Azerbaijani oil baron, industrial magnate and philanthropist, who is also remembered for funding the construction of the Theatre of Opera and Ballet, laying the Shollar water supply pipeline and for many other developments in Baku. But in the reality the first school for Azerbaijani girls, opened in 1901, was in another building, now housing the Institute of Manuscripts of the Academy of Sciences, down the Communist street, called Nikolayevskaya (Nikolay’s in Russian) back then and İstiqlaliyyət (Independence in Azerbaijani) nowadays.

The first secular school for Muslim girls. Baku, 1911The text on the blackboard in this photo taken in 1911 says “Первая женская татарская
” i.e. the First Tatar Girls School in Russian. Tatars is how today’s Azerbaijanis
were referred to officially in the Russian Empire among other
terms like Muslims, Persians or Turks.

Both buildings are visible on this unique aerial photo of central Baku taken in 1918 by Victor Lvovich-Ludvigovich Korvin-Kerber (1894-1970), a famous Russian naval aircraft designer, who was then serving as instructor at the Naval Aviation Officers School in Baku.

Aerial photo of central Baku by Victor Korvin-Kerber. 1918
A group of small buildings at the right side of the photo, surrounded by old city walls, is Icheri Sheher, the old inner city. The Summer Centre for Public Gatherings at the bottom right corner, opened in 1912 as a club for the wealthy Baku elite, was architecturally inspired by l’Opéra de Monte-Carlo, and now houses the Azerbaijan State Philharmonic Hall named after Muslum Magomayev (1885-1937), a renowned Azerbaijani and Soviet composer and conductor.

Aerial photo of central Baku taken from Google MapAerial photo of central Baku taken from Google Map

So in fact, the gymnasium for girls housed in our school building was Baku Saint Nina Girls’ Institution, financed through the Baku branch of the Charitable Women Society in Honour of Equal to the Apostles Saint Nina, enlightener of Georgia, founded in Tiflis (Tbilisi, Georgia) by Elizaveta Xavierevna Branicka-Vorontsova (1792-1880), berhymed in poems by the great Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin (1799-1837) himself, the wife of the Russian viceroy of Caucasus Prince Mikhail Semyonovich Vorontsov (1782-1856). The Baku branch was opened in 1861 following the transfer of administrative centre of Shamakhi Governorate from Shamakhi city – where the society was active since 1848 – to Baku after the devastating earthquake of 1859.

Old photo of central Baku, 1905
Old photo of central Baku, 1905

An interesting coincidence is that the school building was initially a military field hospital and it was given over to the girls’ institution only in 1888, when the hospital moved to a new building in Bail settlement of Baku. Later in 1895 the institution received the status of a gymnasium, and it existed for many years until the Russian Bolshevik invasion of the short-living Azerbaijan Democratic Republic in 1920. During all these years the Saint Nina Christian girls’ school was active thanks to generous donations of Baku citizens, including quite a number of Azerbaijanis, and among its students there were also Muslim girls. The famous scholar of history of Baku and the State of the Shirvanshahs, whose family was persecuted and whose father was executed during the Stalinist repressions, Dr. Sara Ashurbeyli (1906-2001) also studied in this school.

Certificate of successful completion of the junior preparatory course, given to Sara Ashurbeyli in 1913 / Sara Ashurbeyli during her studentship at Azerbaijan State University, end of the 1920sLeft: Certificate of successful completion of the junior preparatory course at the Saint Nina
institution for girls in Baku, given to Sara Ashurbeyli in 1913. Right: Sara Ashurbeyli
during her studentship at the department of oriental studies of
the Azerbaijan State University, end of the 1920s.

By the way, the Saint Nina School served as a prototype for the fictional Lyceum of the Holy Queen Tamar for Girls in Baku, where Nino Kipiani, the heroine of the popular Ali and Nino novel studied. This famous romance first published in Vienna in 1937, and the authorship of which is still disputed, tells the story of a passionate love between two young Baku citizens – a Muslim Azerbaijani gentleman and a Christian Georgian lady during the turbulent times of the early 20th century. The tragic end of the novel echoes the fate of many others – Ali is killed while defending the city of Genje from the invading Bolshevik army, while Nino flees to Georgia with their child.

4. Jaguar in Baku

Jaguar (1986) movie poster.
Jaguar (1986) movie poster.
Sebastián Alarcón was back in Baku a decade after the success of the Night over Chile to shoot another film, telling the story of a young cadet nicknamed Jaguar for his independent and unflinching character, who eventually turns against the regime he has been trained to serve. This 1986 movie was based on the famous novel published in 1963 La ciudad y los perros (The City and the Dogs) by Mario Vargas Llosa (1936) who was awarded 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature this October while I was thinking about writing this post. The first novel published by Vargas Llosa, it is based on the author’s personal experience at the Leoncio Prado Military Academy in Lima, but Alarcón transferred the plot to Chile and skilfully added a political dimension to the story.

Looking for footage from the movie, I first found a short clip that combines the video-sequences from Jaguar with an iconic song of the Chilean resistance against the Pinochet regime El pueblo unido jamás será vencido, which was written in 1973 by Sergio Ortega (1938-2003) and the popular folk music group Quilapayún as an anthem of Unidad Popular.

El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido,
El pueblo unido jamás será vencido…

De pie, cantar que vamos a triunfar.
Avanzan ya banderas de unidad.
Y tú vendrás marchando junto a mí
y así verás tu canto y tu bandera florecer,
la luz de un rojo amanecer
anuncia ya la vida que vendrá.

De pie, luchar el pueblo va a triunfar.
Será mejor la vida que vendrá
a conquistar nuestra felicidad
y en un clamor
mil voces de combate se alzarán
dirán canción de libertad
con decisión la patria vencerá.

Y ahora el pueblo que se alza en la lucha
con voz de gigante gritando: ¡adelante!

El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido,
El pueblo unido jamás será vencido…

La patria está forjando la unidad
de norte a sur se movilizará
desde el salar ardiente y mineral
al bosque austral
unidos en la lucha y el trabajo
irán, la patria cubrirán,
su paso ya anuncia el porvenir.

De pie, cantar el pueblo va a triunfar
millones ya, imponen la verdad,
de acero son ardiente batallón
sus manos van llevando la justicia y la razón
mujer, con fuego y con valor
ya estás aquí junto al trabajador.

The people united will never be defeated,
The people united will never be defeated…

Stand up and sing, as we are going to win.
Flags of unity are now advancing.
And you will come marching together with me,
And so you'll see your song and your flag blossom.
The light of a red dawn
Already announces the life to come.

Stand up and fight, the people is going to win.
The life to come will be better.
To conquer our happiness.
And in one shouting
a thousand fighting voices will rise,
telling a song of freedom.
With determination the fatherland will win.

And now the people, who are rising in struggle
With a giant’s voice crying out: Forward!

The people united will never be defeated,
The people united will never be defeated…

The fatherland is forging unity,
From north to south they're mobilizing.
From the dry salt mines
to the southern forests.
United in struggle and labor
they will go, will cover the fatherland,
their steps already announce the future.

Stand up and sing, the people are going to win.
Millions now are imposing the truth.
They are a fiery battalion of steel,
their hands bringing justice and reason.
Woman with fire and courage
You are also here alongside the worker.

Translation: Mitch Abidor. Revision: Tamás Sajó

An interesting fact is that the same song was sung with Persian lyrics Bar pâ khiz, az jâ kan, banâye kâkh-e doshman (بر پا خیز، از جا کن، بنای کاخ دشمن – Arise, demolish the foundations of the enemy’s palace) by leftist groups during the 1979 Islamic revolution against the monarchy in Iran.

This song was not played in Jaguar, but Alarcón had used in Night over Chile the soulful music composed and performed on traditional instruments by one of the former Quilapayún members Patricio Castillo (1946). They first met and made friends during the group’s tour in the Soviet Union back in 1970. In Jaguar the guitar part of the soundtrack is performed by Alarcón himself.

Any graduate of Baku school No.132 would recognize the place seen in the beginning of the movie. This is the south-eastern part of our schoolyard, where once the students were lined up class by class before going to the classrooms.

Baku public school No.132 courtyard, 1984.
This photo is taken in front of the southern wall of our schoolyard in 1984 before our class, the 2в went to the ceremony of initiation into the OctiabriatLittle Octobrists organization at the nearby house-museum of Nariman Narimanov (1870-1925), a prominent Azerbaijani intellectual and politician, sometimes called the Lenin of the East, who was invited to head the government of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic declared after the Bolshevik invasion. He later worked in the central government of the Soviet Union in Moscow, and died there under suspicious circumstances. Color photos were not so common at that time, and photographers were called on special occasions. The lady second from the right behind us is our first primary school teacher and class headmaster Rahima Mammadova.

Baku public school No.132 courtyard, 1986
Here is our class together with Rahima muallima (teacher, schoolmistress in Azerbaijani) again in 1986. This photo was probably taken on the first day of a new academic year. Everybody brought flowers and we wear red pioneer ties. The wall behind us is probably the eastern wall of the schoolyard.

Baku public school No.132 courtyard, 1986
The south-eastern corner of our schoolyard is well visible on this 1986 photo taken during physical education in my brother’s class. You can see the markings on the ground, determining the sectors for different classes.

It is interesting whether Alarcón knew that the building they were filming as Jaguar’s cadet school was housing in 1928 the Trans-Caucasian Military Cadet School of the Red Army, which was established in 1921 as the first Azerbaijani military school for teenagers and was the prototype of the Suvorov Military Boarding Schools.

Old photo of central Baku, 1920s
This old photo showing the building from a different perspective was probably taken during those years. It was only in 1937 when our school No.132 together with the Russian school No.134 were disposed in the same building, and the third floor was probably built at that time.

When recently, in the summer of 2009 the schools were closed and the building was surrounded by a fence, many people were deeply concerned about its fate. Fortunately our school escaped the tragic end of the Governor’s House which was destroyed to free the area for the construction of a new nine-store hotel or of the beautiful building given by the above mentioned Zeynalabdin Taghiyev as a present to his daughter-in-law as well as many other victims of the ongoing criminal historico-architectural negligence in Baku. The schools were reopened after a major reconstruction completed in September last year. Now the building looks quite different with the fourth floor being added and the characteristic archway with a balcony over the main entrance being removed. The courtyard is also very different now, so one would not guess that it is Jaguar’s cadet school.

Baku Educational Complex No.132-134 after a major reconstruction in 2009-2010Baku Educational Complex No.132-134 after a major reconstruction in 2009-2010

A few actors from the Night over Chile also featured in Jaguar. The narrow-minded sergeant is played again by Islam Kaziyev (1938). One of the arrested activists in Night over Chile, Mayak Karimov (1944) played this time a supporting role of an officer-instructor. Alarcón also invited a few Armenian actors, most of whom were – perhaps coincidentally – related to Baku. The National Artist of Russia Vladimir Tatosov (1926), who played an episodic role of the warden of the cadet school, spent his childhood here. Baku-born National Artist of Russia Nina Ter-Osipyan (1909-2002) played her usual theatrical character of a witty old lady. The popular Soviet and Russian actor Sergey Gazarov (1958), who played the leading role of Lieutenant Gamboa, was also born in Baku.

It is unlikely that citizens of Baku, acting in the crowd scenes of the Jaguar as Chileans on strike and demonstrations, shouting out anti-government slogans, waving flags and confronting the punitive forces of anti-popular regime, would imagine that something like this would happen within couple of years to them right in their native city.

5. Winds of change over the City of Winds

We already wrote briefly about the beginning of an open independence movement in Azerbaijan back in 1988. The ideas of freedom and the forbidden history of independence were coming to light with the perestroyka and glasnost – the new policies of liberalisation and openness in the Soviet Union launched by the General Secretary of the Communist Party (the supreme leader of the USSR) Mikhail Gorbachev (1931) in 1986. But these processes in Azerbaijan detonated with the separatist activities in the Mountainous Garabagh region (widely known under its Russian transliteration Nagorno-Karabakh), fueled by nationalistic movements in the neighboring Armenia. A statement supporting the annexation of Garabagh from Azerbaijan to Armenia by Abel Aganbegyan (1932) – Gorbachev’s Armenian chief adviser on economic policy, at a reception organized by the large Armenian diaspora in France back in November 1987, was a signal for an active separatist activity in the region.

Out of a sudden, all the Armenian intelligentsia took up “arms” and stirred up their people to get these “historical lands” back. At least for Azerbaijanis it was sudden, but it is enough to browse through, for example, the book Очаг (Hearth) by the Armenian author Zori Balayan (1935), published in 1981 and 1984 in Yerevan and Moscow, to discover the roots of this outburst of ethnic intolerance. Dedicated to “the 150 years of joining of Eastern Armenia to Russia”, with a modest subtitle “Essays about Armenia. For senior secondary school children age”, this book as early as then created an image of the enemy: the Turk-Azerbaijani, speaking about “native Armenian lands”, “reunion”, and “revival” of “Great Armenia”. The author, however, who at that time became one of the leaders/orators of the Armenian popular movement and has been receiving various awards until how, did not mention what should happen to the many hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis (and other nations) living on those lands, but the first thousands of refugees from Armenia, driven out of their houses in the cold winter of 1987, and the rest of almost a million people who became refugees till 1993, as well as those killed on the spot – bore a clear witness of his untold intentions.

Soviet press, either local or central in Moscow, was blind and deaf about the tragedy of the Azerbaijani refugees. The majority of these people were stationed in Sumgayit – an industrial city 30 kilometres from Baku, which was already in a disastrous social situation. Massive demonstrations in Armenia demanding Garabagh as well as spontaneous demonstrations in Azerbaijan calling for urgent action to stop militant separatism were happening almost every day. The official news about two Azerbaijanis killed on 22 February 1988 in a confrontation in Garabagh further ignited the tensions. This culminated in a bloody provocation on 27 February in Sumgayit, which resulted in killing of 26 Armenian and 6 Azerbaijani citizens. The Soviet forces of law and order reacted only two days later to end the disorders, but also to start an orderly deportation of Armenians from the city. Unfortunately the Sumgayit pogrom/massacre which has remained a tragic black mark in the history of Azerbaijan, became the main trump card of the nationalistic propaganda, backed up also by the powerful Armenian diaspora in Europe and America. As a result, many sources until now regard it as the starting point and initial cause of the conflict.

The Armenian separatist movement was also supported by many intellectuals representing the democratic circles in Moscow, including the “Soviet dissident No.1” Andrei Sakharov (1921-1989), accompanied everywhere by his wife, a Soviet human rights activist Elena Bonner (1923), whose Armenian maiden name Alikhanyan is not widely known. The central government circles were also seemingly pro-Armenian, if not to say Armenian: apart from chief adviser on economic policy Aganbegyan there were also Georgy Shakhnazarov (1924-2001), Gorbachev’s chief adviser on foreign policy and Stepan Sitaryan (1930-2009), his chief adviser on finance and planning.

With an escalation of militant separatism and the growing number of nationalistic attacks, it was apparent that neither the central Soviet Communist Party apparatus nor the servile local government in Azerbaijan is willing or able to defend its own people. In a short time the Popular Front of Azerbaijan (PFA), founded by a group of intellectuals on the model of the Popular Fronts of the Baltic countries in the summer of 1988, gained an enormous popularity. On 17 November 1988 mass rallies on the major Lenin Square – now Freedom Square – of Baku, with more than half a million participants, grew into the Meydan Harakaty i.e. the Square Movement, the first permanent rally and an open national liberation movement in Azerbaijan. It was there that the forgotten tricolor flag of the suppressed Azerbaijan Democratic Republic rose again just as it was foretold by one of its founders, Mammad Amin Rasulzade (1884-1955). On 24 November the state of emergency was declared in Baku, and the special forces of the Soviet Ministry of Internal Affairs entered the city. But the permanent rally at the square continued without a break till the night of 5 December, when it was brutally broke up with two casualties.

In spite of the many disillusions coming later, the Square Movement was a slightly idealistic period of great hopes and of a devoted unity in the national liberation movement of Azerbaijan.

Aerial photo of central Baku by Victor Korvin-Kerber. 1918 Azadlıq Radiosu (RFE/RL): Azerbaijani literati support the public movement at Lenin Square.
Standing: poet and publicist Islam Sadyq. Sitting: poet Qabil (1926-2007), writer
Ismayil Shykhly (1919-1995) and poet Bakhtiyar Vahabzade (1925-2009).
The person in the background, absorbed in his work, is poet Khalil Rza
(1932-1994), well known as the author of these famous verses:

Azadlığı istəmirəm
Zərrə-zərrə, qram-qram
Qolumdakı zəncirləri qıram gərək
Qıram! Qıram!

Azadlığı istəmirəm
Bir həb kimi, dərman kimi
İstəyirəm səma kimi,
Günəş kimi, Cahan kimi.
I don’t want the Freedom
Grain-by-grain, gram-by-gram.
I should break, should break
The chains on my arm!

I don’t want the Freedom
As some pill, as a medicine.
I want it as the heavens,
As the Sun, As the Universe.

Those years also remain in my memory as a period of great enthusiasm and bursting creative energy. In 1988 the bilingual Gənclik/Молодость magazine (Youth, in Azerbaijani and Russian) came out in monthly 70,000 copies and gained a great popularity thanks to its interesting and sharp articles and new design. A satirical comedy film Yaramaz/Мерзавец (The Scoundrel), directed by now National Artist of Azerbaijan, Vagif Mustafayev (1953), won a sensational recognition in the Soviet Union and even abroad. It was also the moment of fame for the Georgian actor Mamuka Kikaleyshvili (1960-2000), who played the leading role of Hatam in the movie. Another satirical film, exposing the corrupted Soviet administrative-command party system, Lətifə/Анекдот (Anecdote-Funny Story), directed by the talented tandem of Yefim Abramov and Nizami Musayev, has not became so renowned. But the final scene was a prophetic picture with armed pioneers taking over all communications and announcing a military coup. Posing in a convict’s outfits with characteristic full-face and half-face photos in the end credits, it was also prophetic for Nizami Musayev, who was jailed in 1994 and left Azerbaijan afterwards. Anecdote was shot in 1989, while the state of emergency and curfew were in effect, and armed soldiers and armoured vehicles were patrolling the streets of Baku. I remember the film’s samizdat – self-published – black-and-white posters with a tagline mocking the casual warning on Soviet cigarette boxes: МВД и КГБ СССР предупреждают: Просмотр этого фильма вреден для вашего здоровья, the MVD (Ministry of Interior Affairs) and KGB (Committee for State Security) of the USSR warn you: watching this film is harmful to your health.

Baku public school No.132 courtyard, 1988
This last photo from my school album series was taken just few months before the Square Movement started, in the summer of 1988, while we had a break during the mathematics exam. We are together with our new class headmaster, the teacher of Arabic Fakhriyya Baghirova, who passed away unexpectedly in 1990. That year was a tragic one for our class – we also lost one of our class-mates, killed in a car accident. It was also a tragic year for my family, as we lost some close relatives including my grandfather; and it was for the whole nation – the year 1990 started for Azerbaijan with the Black January.

6. Night over Baku

To the end of 1989 the number of refugees from both sides had already run to thousands. Virtually no Azerbaijani was left in Armenia, and new waves of refugees were coming from Garabagh, where militant attacks of Armenian separatists got intensified. Rallies under the slogan of Istefa, demanding resignation of the unpopular local government, started again in Baku and in many other cities. The infamous Berlin Wall had already fallen in October and a ghost of Freedom was wandering all over Eastern Europe. The Popular Front of Azerbaijan gained unanimous support of the people and grew into a real political power, but there were also signs of a dissent within its leadership. In many regions the first secretaries of the local committees of the Communist Party, that is the local heads of Soviet administration were forced to leave their posts by the Front activists. A similar process on 29 December in Jalilabad, a district centre in the south-east of the country was accompanied by disturbances, damages in the administrative buildings and beatings of the local officials. A combined contingent of Soviet militsiya forces sent from the neighbouring districts quickly stopped the riots. Radical tendencies would culminate on 11 January 1990 with the overthrow of the Soviet rule by the Front activists in Lankaran and Neftchala regions neighbouring Jalilabad.

But what happened on the New Year’s Eve was unprecedented. On the night from 30 to 31 December 1989 the border posts on the Soviet Union frontier with Iran were burned down in Nakhchyvan. The next day, which is now celebrated as the Solidarity Day of Azerbaijanis of the World, people in few other regions started to destroy the Soviet border barriers separating them from their kinsmen living under another oppressive regime across the river Araz, in Iran. The largest ethnic “minority” making up more than 20 per cent of Iranian population, roughly 20 million Azerbaijani Turks are still denied a basic cultural right of formal education in their mother tongue. At that peak moment of the national morale it seemed that decades of oppression and painful separation came to an end, embodied by Yagub Zurufchu’s (1956) hugely popular performance of Ayrılıq (Separation in Azerbaijani), a song composed by Ali Salimi (1922-1997) back in 1956, which censorship permitted to publicly release only with a changed lyrics in 1958 on the Tehran radio, and which was sung by two generations of popular singers such as Rashid Behbudov (1915-1989) and Googoosh (Faiga Atashin) (1950) on both sides of the Araz river.

But the Sumgayit scenario recurred also in Baku in 13-15 January. While daily rallies were continuing in the central part of the city, on the Lenin Square and in front of the Central Committee building, organized attacks against Armenian citizens in other parts of the city resulted in an estimated 56 to 90 murders. The local militsia which for unknown reason was totally disarmed shortly before, remained inactive, and the 12 thousand strong Soviet troops quartered in Baku again remained observers, only collecting and deporting the refugees afterwards. The Nationalities Question in the Post-Soviet States published by Longman in 1996 gives further details:
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.
Unfortunately, this tragedy was also exploited by the Armenian nationalistic propaganda against Azerbaijan. Instead of manifestations of humanity and consciousness, the intelligentsia was carrying on the vicious circle of evil, with a few notable exceptions. Sergey Gazarov, mentioned above as one of the actors playing a leading role in Jaguar, and whose close family members suffered in this tragedy, never joined them and he has remembered Azerbaijanis who helped his family. It is not accidental, that he worked for several years in a Moscow theatre led by another popular Soviet and Russian actor of Armenian descent Armen Dzhigarkhanyan (1935), who has always condemned the propaganda of hatred.

But who stood behind the massacre?

“The KGB was behind the Armenian pogroms in Baku. The KGB set nations against each other” tells a witness and a victim of those events Garry Kasparov (1963), the 13th World Chess Champion born in Baku to an Armenian mother, now a Russian political activist. Yet the former KGB general Vyacheslav Shironin (1939) on his turn has accused foreign special services, while the former Front activist Zardusht Alizade (1946) the old Communist Party mafia.

A rally in front of the Central Committee building, Baku. Photo: Victoria IvlevaA rally in front of the Central Committee building, housing the Presidential Office
nowadays. The Russian inscriptions on the placards say “No to murderous
Perestroyka!” and “Armenian nationalists, get out of Karabakh!”
Photo: Victoria Ivleva. Source: FotoSoyuz

In a couple of days the state of emergency was declared all over Azerbaijan except Baku, and an estimated 26 thousand strong Soviet army was concentrated around the city. A permanent rally was going on since 17 January in front of the Central Committee building not far from our school. Improvised barricades using dump-trucks and buses were set on the approaches to Baku and around the army barracks in the city to not let the troops in. Representatives of Moscow, including Yevgeny Primakov (1929), a member of Gorbachev’s Presidential Council on their appearances on the local television and at the rally assured people that the army will not enter the city. Hardly anybody remembered then how back in 1956 Hungary Yuri Andropov (1914-1984), then Soviet ambassador, deceived the local government by assuring them that there was no order to attack, while the Soviet tanks were already on the move towards Budapest. On 19 January at around 19:30 a small group of Soviet special forces blew the energy block of the local state television-radio broadcast station up. All the country plunged into a darkness of informational vacuum, and in the midnight, under the cover of the darkness the Soviet troops started the operation codenamed “Strike”.

My father remembers that night in the Post Scriptum to his book Letter to my friend (Письмо Другу):
On that horrible night I myself was among the picketers near a military garrison, the infamous Salyan barracks, together with three neighbors. We went there by my car and parked the car in some distance. There were talks that the army is approaching the city and is preparing for an assault. But only a few would believe it, since literally a day ago the representatives of the Centre Mikhaylov* and of the local Central Committee Dashdamirov* appealed on TV and assured people unanimously that the army will not enter the city.

Around 11 in the night from positions of the barracks they started shooting into the air with tracer bullets. But the picketers took this shooting just as a clumsy joke. I did not see any armed people among the picketers. There was one truck, though, in the body of which there were bottles, I presume with flammable liquid. I also saw about ten young people wearing pea-jackets and armed with pieces of metallic bars. That was the only arms of the picketers. But of course there were big trucks, tip-up lorries and buses blocking the barracks and the road.

While we were still there, a rumour spread around that tanks from the barrack destroying the wall on the other side and tramping down under their caterpillar tracks the automobiles parking in the neighboring parking area, went out to the street. Nobody believed these rumors, either. But later it turned out that this was indeed how it happened. Those tanks heading towards the units assaulting from the north jointly arranged a deadly trap for the picketers at the northern entrance of the city. So the highest death toll was by the irony of history just there, where a huge monument of the “heroic” 11th Red Army, which had brought us “freedom” on 28 April 1920, was once erected…

One of our companions had bad kidneys, he had recently left the hospital. He asked me to drive him home to have some snacks, to get warmly dressed, and to return back later, maybe afoot. But we could not return, since 1.5 hours later the army already occupied the city. My children sleeping at home around 3 o’clock in the night heard the heavy stalk of military machinery. I went to the street and saw lots of armored vehicles moving towards the Central Committee, where a rally demanding the resignation of the government was continuing. The soldiers aboard were covering themselves with metallic shields, protecting themselves from non-existent bullets and stones. That is all my part in this dreadful story.

Morning of 20 January 1990, Baku

By the morning of 20 January 1990 the Soviet troops under the command of Minister of Defence Dmitriy Yazov (1924) and Minister of Internal Affairs Vadim Bakatin (1937) (both of them were in Baku on that night) had successfully executed the order, and dead bodies were lying all over the streets of Baku. Later the same year general Yazov received marshal’s epaulets, and the supreme Commander-in-Chief Gorbachev the Nobel Peace Prize. By now we already know that more than 130 civilians including elderly, women and children were killed, and around 700 more were wounded on that night.

In a total informational darkness of those days the only pin of light was the voice of Mirza Khazar (Mikayilov) (1947), an Azerbaijani Jew who immigrated to Israel in 1974 and later led the Azerbaijani Service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, whose team in Munich managed to broadcast live interviews and daily reports from Baku.

Baku citizens killed on the streets. Photo: Victoria IvlevaCitizens of Baku killed on the streets. Photo: Victoria Ivleva. Source: FotoSoyuz

Shooting civilians point-blank with extreme brutality, intentionally driving heavy armored vehicles against cars and killing the passengers, shooting at hospitals and ambulance cars, killing the wounded, bayoneting and looting are only some of the crimes documented at that time by independent military experts of the Moscow-based civil society organisation Shield (Щит). Reservists from Rostov, Stavropol and Krasnodar regions of Russia (with the largest Armenian diaspora) were also mobilized to staff the invading army and they in particular excelled in brutality. Those “partisans” are mentioned by former desantnik-paratroopers, who were then serving in the Soviet regular troops that entered Baku, in their reminiscences collected in a blog post by our compatriot Vyacheslav Sapunov.

Dead bodies in the city morgue. Photo: Victoria IvlevaDead bodies in the city morgue. Photo: Victoria Ivleva. Source: FotoSoyuz

I remember that grey Saturday morning of 20 January 1990. We went out for a short walk around with my little brother as usual. Right in front of the street-door, there was a large crimson spot on the ground lubberly covered with sand. Turning to the left at the corner of the main Husu Hajiyev Street I noticed a small coppery piece of metal. It was a bullet. We found one more on our way to the Fountains Square, down to the left from the corner of the Central Univermag Department Store. Then we turned to the right towards the Araz Movie Theatre, when suddenly an old lady appeared in one of the doors. “Who let you out? Go home quickly! Don’t you know that they killed people?” she exclaimed. Running along the same route back when we reached the Univermag the silence was broken by oncoming din of blades. A greenish-khaki military helicopter flew over our heads throwing out leaflets. I took one – it was saying that emergency situation was declared in the midnight with a long list of prohibited actions such as going out to the streets and gathering in groups of more than three.

Burial of the victims of the 20 January in Baku.

But two days later, on 22 January hundreds of thousands went out to the streets to see the shahids, the martyrs off to their final journey. This new word, which was heard then for the first time firmly entered people’s lexicon over the subsequent years of terror, war and occupation in Azerbaijan. Tens of new rows of graves appeared later next to the first one in the Shahidlar Khiyabany i.e. the Alley of Martyrs.

Passing in front of the long row of newly dug graves covered with thousands of red carnations, in a crowded dark procession of fellow citizens, through the nightmare of loud moan and weeping, I was still making efforts to prove that “boys never cry”; but broke into sobs at a grave with no name, bearing just a red pioneer tie over a black girl’s school uniform on it and school bag instead of a grave-mark. This was Larisa Mammadova, a girl of my age from the neighbouring school No.134.

The soldiers guarding the building of the Oblast Committee of the Communist Party. Baku, January 1990. Our school No.132 and school No.134 are visible in background. Photo: Victoria Ivleva. Source: FotoSoyuzThe soldiers guarding the building of the Oblast Committee of the Communist Party. Baku, January 1990. Our school No.132 and school No.134 are visible in background. Photo: Victoria Ivleva. Source: FotoSoyuz

The soldiers guarding the building of the Oblast Committee of the Communist Party. Baku, January 1990. Our school No.132 is visible in background. Photo: Victoria Ivleva. Source: FotoSoyuzThe soldiers guarding the building of the Oblast Committee of the Communist Party. Baku, January 1990. Our school No.132 is visible in background. Photo: Victoria Ivleva. Source: FotoSoyuz

In those black days of January 1990, in a total informational blackout, only a few voices of solidarity were heard, shouted down by the chorus of Soviet propaganda in the central Moscow media. A prominent Soviet Russian film director Stanislav Govorukhin (1936) arrived in Baku with his crew to shoot a journalistic documentary Так жить нельзя (We Can't Live Like This), which manifested the end of the Soviet Empire.

However, in this 1990 film the images of those killed by Soviet troops already illustrate the narrative about the victims of Armenian pogrom. Govorukhin was influenced by the Armenian diaspora in Russia, which most probably provided these photos, just as in a similar case during the last year the diaspora’s news agency in the United States published the photo of the dead body of a Jewish Baku citizen Vera Bessantina (1973-1990), killed on 19 January, as that of an Armenian girl killed by Azerbaijanis. Govorukhin arrived in Baku with a negative stance “taking the deployment of troops in Baku with understanding, just as all the world community”, but this completely changed after seeing the facts with his own eyes.

It seems that a similar transformation happened to Kasparov, mentioned above, who earlier actively promoted the “Armenian cause” and the “truth about Sumgayit” in the course of his international journeys. I doubt whether anybody remembers his appeal published in Azadlyq newspaper of the Popular Front on the first anniversary of 20 January along with other telegrams of support.

Azadlyq newspaper, 24 January 1991, issue No.4 (34). Courtesy of Azerbaijan National LibraryAzadlyq newspaper, 24 January 1991, issue No.4 (34). Courtesy of Azerbaijan National Library

I, Garry Kasparov, your former countryman, forced to leave Baku in the dreadful days of January 1990, send my condolences to families of those killed as a result of the felonious use of Soviet Army troops against the peaceful population in the night from 19 to 20 January 1990.
I ask you to accept my modest financial contribution in the amount of 5,000 dollars and distribute it as required.
Today it is already not a secret to anybody that the Baku tragedy, which did not get proper coverage neither in our country nor abroad, was in reality a rehearsal of the last attack of the agonising totalitarianism.
On this moment of mourning, remembering those killed, who become the victims of the “Black January”, we should not let the insanity covering our eyes to hide the real culprit of our calamity – the Communist dictatorship.
Only by joining our efforts and not falling under constant provocations we will be able to protect our honour, dignity and save our future.

7. Instead of an epilogue

While looking for illustrations to the post you are reading now, I came across this photo. It was taken in 1990 on the Alley of Martyrs, but what would you think is the caption added by the photo agency?

Alley of Martyrs in Baku, 1990. Photo: Oleg LastochkinPhoto: Oleg Lastochkin. Source: RIA Novosti

It seems that the conspiracy around falsified captions at RIA Novosti continues, but my message of 17 November 2010 is still left without any reaction either from the Russian agency, or from the Embassy of Azerbaijan to Russia to whom I sent a copy:
Dear Sir/Madam,

For many years RIA-Novosti earned a reputation of a serious news agency and its photo archive is an invaluable source of documented history. Unfortunately once again RIA-Novosti has become a tool for falsifications. The following photos from the RIA-Novosti online photo archive I have come across have got obviously false captions: Armenians killed in Baku as a result of the January 19-22, 1990 inter-ethnic conflict. This photo shows a meeting in Baku’s Central Park where the conflict’s Armenian victims are buried.”

This photo actually depicts the procession right after the burial of the victims of the invasion of the Soviet army to Baku on 19-20 January 1990 (see at today’s Alley of Martyrs. in Nagorny Karabakh / A cemetery where the victims of the conflict with Azerbaijan are buried.

This photo is actually from the Alley of Martyrs in Baku, where the victims of 20 January, as well as those who died in a war against Armenian separatist forces are buried. The photo was taken by our compatriot, the well known professional Oleg Litvin, and it is impossible that he provided his photo with a false caption.

Considering all these I hope very much that you would correct the captions with incorrect information as soon as possible. Furthermore I urge you to investigate the case and suppress possible future falsifications.

While finishing this post on such a sad note I suddenly recalled a radiant project back from 2002 bringing together musical traditions of Azerbaijan and South America. It turned out that the Latin-American folk music group Altiplano taking part in this cooperation is considered as Chilean and consists of musicians from Chile and Ecuador. After nine years, on 11 March they were back in Baku with a concert called “Salam-Hola” that we immediately decided to attended.

Lead by Siyavush Karimi and Mauricio Vicencio, this amazing partnership resulted in a beautiful synthesis of music from Caucasus and Andes, a mix of mystical sounds of Azerbaijani Mugham and bright energy of Patagonian tunes, which once again reminds that the common spirit of humanity connects us all despite the distances and differences.


Most of the old photos of Baku and historical material were taken from the Parapet virtual society on the history of Baku and Bakuvians at Baku Pages and Our Baku virtual encyclopaedia on the history of the city

I would like to thank Mr.Ramil Alakbarov from for providing brief biographic data about the popular Azerbaijani Soviet actor Sadyq Huseynov, as no information even about his date of birth was available on the internet.

Other interesting links

The Ali and Nino Walking Tour by Fuad Akhundov and Betty Blair, featured in the summer 2004 issue of the Azerbaijan International magazine: and republished again in a recent 2011 issue completely dedicated to this novel:

Older aerial photos of Baku from 1917-18, as well as more information on their authors and the Korvin-Kerber family can be found at the Forum of the graduates of the Yeysk Higher Military Aviation School Farid Zeynalov recently wrote about these photos in his blog post in Azerbaijani Google Earth, 1917-1918, Bakı:

La ciudad y los perros (1985) a Peruvian film adaptation of the novel of the same name by Mario Vargas Llosa, directed by Francisco J. Lombardi:

Almost all the movies and animations of Soviet times including some Azerbaijani films can be downloaded from the Archive by ArjLover:

El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido – an iconic song of the Chilean resistance performed by the authors, a popular folk music group Quilapayún in 1973 and after three decades:

Yaramaz/Мерзавец (The Scoundrel), an award-winning 1988 Azerbaijani movie directed by Vagif Mustafayev is a satirical comedy about Soviet Perestroyka times (dubbed in Russian):

Эхо Сумгаита (Echo of Sumgayit) the first from the series of documentary films in Russian, journalistic investigation, directed by Davud Imanov (1945-2002), that tries to destroy the myths created by anti-Azerbaijani propaganda:

The only more or less comprehensive videos on the tragic events of 20 January I could find on the internet are a short 1990 documentary and a video compiled by Mirafgan Sultanov: Viewer discretion is advised.

Photos by Victoria Ivleva, award winner journalist and photographer and special correspondent of the Russian Novaya Gazeta newspaper, who witnessed and documented the tragic events in Azerbaijan, at FotoSoyuz agencyискать=ИВЛЕВА Виктория&newSearchFlag=1 Note that few of her January 1990 photos used in this post as well as the images of Azerbaijani civilians, killed in Khojaly massacre of 1992 in Garabagh do not appear in search results anymore.

9 comentarios:

Unknown dijo...

This is a wonderful post. The juxtaposition of the scene from Night over Chile with the story of your father's close escape on January 19 is very powerful; as I read your father's story, I thought, "No, go home, go home!" And thought of the many dead bodies of the past weeks, of people similarly resisting in the mildest way. Thank you for the source notes -- you've motivated me to learn something about Azerbaijan.

Studiolum dijo...

Thank you, Araz, for this epic saga on the history of a city, a people and an individual’s coming of age; the end of an empire, of illusions and of a childhood.

In Baku I have seen the end of so many worlds. I have seen the city center built in a beautiful Jugendstil and ruined during the decades of Communism as well as the traces of a very promising development which was broken in 1920. I have seen the Armenian church with walled up entrances and listened to the nostalgic stories of Bakuvians on the former warm coexistence of two communities. I have seen mementos of pre-1988 illusions unfinished and abandoned. But I have also experienced the warmth, creativity, intelligence and joy of life of your people in the middle of all physical, moral and political destruction, and the seeds of a new development which in many aspects is not less promising than the one broken with the fall of the first republic. I wish you to achieve it this time. And I also pray you could peacefully resolve the present tragical situation with your neighbors and mutually overpass all that had been committed, however impossible it seems now.

Studiolum dijo...

A comment to the Hungarian version of the post: “Thank you really very much that I could also get to know the Azerbaijani half of the story on Нагорный Карабах! O. H.” – My reply was: “This is how it becomes round. I wish there were only one story, and with a happy end at that.”

Effe dijo...

This post is a hand-woven carpet, with stories of different colors knotted together with great skill on the loom of history

MOCKBA dijo...

Different threads woven together is very nicely done, yes. But I have to disagree with other commenters about the merits of telling "the other side of the story". There are some stories of crimes so grave that telling just one side does them a great disservice.

We are talking here about a minority denied self-determination, mass-murdered, and then expelled from their ancestral homes under a hail of gunfire. Worse, not just the Armenians but the intellectuals, free-thinkers, and the whole cosmopolitan sophistication of life were in the crosshairs.

Of course the Azeris also suffered immensely, aspired so greatly, and lost so much. But to absolve the Azeri side for the sake of "just telling the other half of the story" borders on reprehensible IMHO.

And it's not like one could possibly miss the cracks of hatred on the facade of the pre-1988 Baku. A daughter of educated Azeris and a history major in the leading university in Baku told us, to my then-utter disbelief, that "Armenians must be slaughtered because they are too proud of themselves, but a few of them should be left alive because they are so damn skilled, the economy might collapse if they are all killed". A Talysh engineer in Sumgait mused that people from their region are thought to be too smart for their own good, but thankfully the Armenians are hated even more and so the Talysh are spared. And workers at the factory daydreamed about raping Christian and Jewish women. I don't even have to retell you any Azerbaijani Pushkin jokes, I hope?

The too-smart-to-live-here argument reverberate after the pogroms just as powerfully. My grand aunt, a blind, retired Swiss-born French teacher and poet who married into an Azeri family half a century prior, tried staying. She'd be stopped on a street by thugs who'd leaf through her passport, "yeah, Jewish? All of you smartass Armenians bought yourselves fake id's". She'd politely ask them to check with her neighbors, a Mountain Jewish family of menial laborers, and the Tats would vouch for her each time. "Now those are real Jews to be believed" with the subtext that mild-mannered people of letters may not be...

Studiolum dijo...

I translated the comment of the Hungarian reader so that Araz might understand it. But I think that he or she was not precise, or rather focused on what new he/she learned from the post. To me, this post does not tell just one side of the story. It also tells about the atrocities committed against the Armenians and calls them what they were: pogroms and massacres.

francesca dijo...

Thank you, Araz. I'd like to translate it in Italian, if you agree.

Araz dijo...

Thank you very much for your comments. Dear rosalie, I am really glad that you have learned something about Azerbaijan as a result. I am thankful to Studiolum for encouraging me to write, for nice words, and for connecting our worlds (sometimes through translating the comments). I would like to thank our Hungarian readers, too. Molte grazie, Effe, and thanks again for your recent post. Thank you, francesca, for such a generous gesture, I would be only privileged. Thank you, too, MOCKBA. We have a saying "actions are evaluated by their intentions". My intention in Santiago de Baku was to tell my story, but also tell the story of common humanity. My story goes across a bleeding conflict, and no noble cause or sacred "self-determination" can mask/justify a human tragedy, but the heroes I quote are those, who were able to rise above the vicious circle of hatred and became a Human. I could easily put a more grievous atrocity against any inhuman action brought here, but instead I believe I can put humanly stories, like this even back from 1905, against each and every of them. The first path would lead to the abode of evil, so I would take the second path.

Studiolum dijo...

We have surprisingly received a pleasant comment from the prominent Russian journalist whose photos were used in Santiago de Baku, Victoria Ivleva herself, posted at Araz’s blog. We would like to share its translation with you:

Hello, Aras!
I am Victoria Ivleva, whose pictures you have used in your marvellous article about Santiago de Baku. All my efforts to write something in the comments to the article were not successful - seems I am a complete and total technocratic idiot (dissident). However, I would like to ask you about a trifling matter: to change the spelling of my name – Victoria looks much nicer than Victoriya, I hope you’ll agree to this. The pictures from the website of FotoSoyuz were totally deliberately removed by me, and I am terribly sorry that I had given out the pictures with dead bodies. Speculations on my photos started immediately from both sides… You might be interested in reading my article in Novaya Gazeta about yet another sad episode of your unfortunate war, here is the link:
Thank you once again for Santiago, in your text there is a charm of an Eastern city, there is some wonderful spice in it and everything wrapped by a Turkish shawl…
Thanks once again.