By Yusif Babanly
The night of January 19 into the following day, often referred to as Black January, is the bitter experience of every Azerbaijani citizen. That frostbitten night, as many awoke from the sounds of the tank caterpillars and continuous gunfire, the entire nation would awake from the calls to break free.
The Black January massacre, considered the gateway event to the independence of Azerbaijan, traces its roots to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. If we look back at how Azerbaijan was brutally integrated into the Soviet empire, we’ll find that history, often forgotten by Azerbaijanis, does repeat itself. After the dissolution of the Transcaucasian Sejm and subsequent birth of the first Azerbaijani Democratic Republic (ADR) on May 28, 1918, the country became entangled in territorial disputes with Armenian Dashnaks and saw an influx of external pressure from the Russian Bolsheviks, who eventually made their way into Azerbaijan.
The bitter truth about the 11th Red Army marching through the northern regions of the ADR and perpetuating atrocities in its capital Baku upon the occupation of Absheron peninsula in April 1920 was soon forgotten. Or was it? During the next two decades, outspoken Azerbaijani critics of the Soviet system were systematically silenced, and most were completely removed from Azerbaijan during the Great Purge of 1937. Once the immediate threat to Soviet rule was tamed, mistreatment of Azerbaijani Turks was re-executed on a more massive scale. Although the mountainous part of Karabakh had already been carved out to form the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast within the Azerbaijan SSR in 1921, and Zangezur Uyezd was previously awarded to the Armenian SSR in 1920 at the behest of Armenian nationalists, the territorial claims on Azerbaijani lands did not stop. Shortly after World War II, Stalin signed two executive decrees of Soviet Union’s Council of Ministers No. 4083 and No. 754 on December 23, 1947 and March 10, 1948, respectively, initiating forced relocation of up to one hundred thousand Azerbaijanis from Armenia to southeastern Azerbaijan, with the objective of creating living space for Armenians who were subsequently moved there from Lebanon, Iran, and Syria. In the late 1960s, several villages of Nakhchivan and Gazakh of Azerbaijan SSR were transferred to the Armenian SSR. Silent enough, the Azerbaijani leadership succumbed to unjust Moscow’s territorial policies. Although Armenians did instigate protests in Armenia demanding the transfer of Nagorno-Karabakh itself to the Armenian SSR, their efforts did not fall through.
A more organized agenda was put forth after a row of Armenian terrorist attacks on Turkish diplomatic missions and civilian targets in Europe and the United States from 1975-1982, which provided for an assertive ultra-nationalist awakening among Armenians. Many of those terrorists would later be glorified by the Republic of Armenia after it gained its independence in 1991.
Fast forward to February 1988, when an ongoing three months of brutal expulsion of thousands of Azerbaijanis from Armenia that originated in its Masis and Gugark districts in November 1987 back to back with significant incidents in the central parts of Yerevan and Khankendi, prompted the Sumgait events – ironically led by three ethnic Armenians. Within the next twenty months, Azerbaijan was forced to restrain the ill-advised ideology of the “friendship of peoples,” all the while the country was being terrorized by a mass exodus of Azerbaijanis from their homes, attacks on buses, trains, and other civilian targets. Repeated calls to prevent atrocities and the burning of Azerbaijani villages in Karabakh went in vain.
The national awakening movement, literary referring to the awakening of Azerbaijani people from the seventy-year-old nightmare of unjust territorial transfers, forced population migrations, and the mishandling of the Nagorno-Karabakh issue by the Soviet regime, was in acceleration mode.
The meticulous plan of invasion of Baku foresaw instilling terror into the republic, intending to break the momentum of a popular movement. By the time the information blockade was enforced on Azerbaijan by blowing up the central television transmission block and main telephone network of Baku at 19:00 hours from January 19 into the early morning of January 20, as many as 137 civilians laid dead, many from sporadic fire on crowds, others by gunfire into buildings as tanks rolled through the streets of the city, and some by individual beatings and point blank executions in various locations of the town. Selective shootouts resulting in more deaths would continue through January 22. The autopsies identified the main utilized arsenal of the special forces as the infamous 5.45 mm caliber bullet with a shifted center of gravity, which upon entering a body – unlike conventional bullets – travels in sporadic movements spiraling through the organs causing excessive pain and internal bleeding, thus increasing the chances of death.
As reports of the massacre leaked to international press and the world wondered how and why the bullets with a shifted center of gravity were used, Azerbaijanis had questions of their own: What caused the center of the Soviet leadership’s gravity to shift, to commit the massacre of innocent civilians? Fables about the glorious Soviet army fighting for the greater good of the Soviet man were suddenly gone, and the true nature of the Red Army was revealed. The Bolshevik regime was established in Azerbaijan with the brutal invasion of Baku by the 11th Red Army on April 28, 1920. Ironically from January 19-20, 1990, as the monument to the Bolshevik invaders depicting three Red Army soldiers overlooked the 11th Red Army Square, the Soviet army opened fire on Azerbaijani civilians at the same Baku entrance and with the same brutality as seventy years ago. The Soviet regime had forced Azerbaijan to celebrate the former event for 70 years while the latter event ensured the regime’s eventual departure.
As a sign of protest on the dawn of January 20, the plants and factories of Sumgait and the ships and vessels in Baku Bay simultaneously blew their horns for hours – so loud that the sounds could be heard beyond the Absheron peninsula where Baku is located. But their noise couldn’t have been louder than the cries of mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers whose mourning could be heard farther away. Black January would become a tacit realization that the republic did not belong to the Soviet Union and that it would serve as a springboard for the independence of all fifteen republics. It was the occurrence which wobbled the Soviet regime, and the event that would eventually cause its collapse.
Yusif Babanly is the co-founder of U.S. Azeris Network (USAN)