Nariman Narimanov, who was born 150 years ago this April, was a patriotic, humanistic Bolshevik. He was also the major figure who facilitated the Bolshevization of the Republic of Azerbaijan, which began around this time in the same month 100 ago.
It may seem strange to some readers to commemorate these two events. After all, the Bolshevik system rotted from within and collapsed about a generation ago and the era of nationalism returned with a vengeance to the Southern Caucasus and many other areas frozen in the Stalinist ice age.
Assisting in the Bolshevizing of one’s country is not likely to win someone many plaudits in the former countries of the Soviet Union today. However, history is made by those who work within the events that confront them and should be assessed in the light of what is achieved in the circumstances. It is not about anticipating how the world might look a century later and keeping on the “right side of history”. It is not about being judged on alternative courses of events that were never realistic propositions at the time.
Nariman Narimanov’s giant statue still commands the heights over Baku, a generation after the Soviet system came down and Gorbachev’s senseless massacre of more than a hundred civilians in the city during Black January 1990. Alone among his comrades, Nariman Narimanov still takes a place of honour overlooking the city in which he lived and which he served. And that takes some explaining.
Before the cataclysm of 1914 the world lived in the age of Empires and there was no reason to suggest that this age was coming to an end. In fact, all the indications were that the future of the world was Imperial and all parts of the globe were to be taken in hand by the great Empires and that is where the destinies of all peoples lay. The age of nations seemed to be ending. That is what most of the Imperial literature said prior to 1914.
And then came the Great War.
The greatest Empire of all, in 1914, the British Empire, unexpectedly declared the beginning of a new era in the course of its Great War on Germany. It said that it was fighting for an ideal world in its great Millenarian war for civilization. This was a “war for small nations” and “democracy” against Prussian autocracy etc.
It was all propaganda, of course, to salve the consciences of the Liberals who became drawn into this latest British Balance of Power war for world predominance, and to entice smaller powers into the ranks of the Triple Entente, who might tip the balance against Germany and the Ottomans. But the trumpeted morality of the new world being heard, was acted upon and nothing was ever the same again. The Age of Empire was over – or if there were empires afterwards, they were nothing like what had been before 1914.
Between 1914 and 1918 there was a paradigm shift in the world.
Azerbaijan (or the “Tartars” as the people of this territory were called then) did not respond to Britain’s new world in 1914. The Moslems of the Southern Caucasus had been under Tsarist authority then for nearly a century. It would be an exaggeration to say they were content, but their politics suggested that discontent was largely a product of being second-class citizens in the Russian Empire, rather than anything of a separatist disposition. Any serious discontent or trouble nearly always occurred in relation to Armenian activity, as in 1905-06, rather than being directed at the state itself.
There was a small national movement with a maximum demand for cultural autonomy but the Russian Empire was largely its horizon (with cultural rights connected to Azerbaijan’s Turkish and Persian influences to the forefront). The same was true in Georgia and to an extent among the Armenians (although the Dashnaks had developed other ideas!)
In any case, Britain’s new world was not meant for the peoples of its own Empire, or its allies – Russia and France. It was only meant for peoples who could play a part in the weakening the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman states – the enemy. The Moslems of the Caucasus, despite the presence of their Turkish brothers in the ranks of the enemy, remained loyal to the Russian Empire which had ruled them for a century. Their only problem with the Tsar was that they, unlike the Armenians and Georgians, were not permitted to fight for Russia. They were expected to remain passive objects of history whilst everyone around them was becoming militarized in the course of the Tsar’s war.
And then the Tsarist State, under the pressure of the War it had catastrophically taken on, began to collapse. More accurately, it went into collapse as a result of Britain’s refusal to let it stop fighting the War, in order to preserve itself. It was driven to destruction by the blood sacrifice that was required of it in the war against the Germans. And that process of self-destruction was engaged in by the Provisional Government that had overthrown the Tsar in the February Revolution, no less than the regime it replaced. In fact, even more so. And its Allies were very pleased at the Russian Revolution that would enable the new democratic Russia to engage in war more vigorously than the Tsarist slackers who had put the brakes on the Russian Steamroller.
The collapse of the Russian State in 1917, under the pressure of war, was what changed the course of history for the peoples of the Southern Caucasus. All three of the main peoples – Georgians, Armenians and Azeris, at first attempted to run with the February Revolution and develop as part of a democratized and decentralized Russian State. They were prevented from doing so by what happened at the centre of the Empire. When the Bolsheviks took power in October the Georgians, Armenians and Azerbaijanis attempted to preserve Transcaucasia as an island of the February development, awaiting a return to the ideals of the original Revolution, as that Revolution showed itself to be unable to govern the state.
The Bolsheviks, who had no intention of driving the Russian Steamroller to destruction to assist the Imperialist war, attempted to trump the British Imperialist propaganda about small nations and freedom, which was at that point being amplified by President Wilson and the U.S. entry into the War, with their own “rights to self-determination.” The problem for Britain, with this, is that the Bolsheviks seemed to be making it a universal principle and therefore a weapon to be applied within the empires of the Entente as well as the Central Powers and Ottoman enemy. That would be hugely disabling to the Allied War effort and it was a very unwelcome development indeed.
All of this propaganda about nations and peoples becoming free had inevitable repercussions in the Southern Caucasus as nations began to emerge out of the catastrophe of war and the collapse of empire.
The Caucasian Moslem/Azerbaijani national movement was centred around the Musavat party. The Musavat originally aimed at autonomy for Transcaucasia, but under pressure of events a fully fledged independence movement began to develop. Chief amongst the events that provoked a national awakening were the British financing and arming of the Armenians as a substitute to replace the dissolving Russian front, which had been disorganized by Lenin’s invitation to the peasants to take their land. Then there were the massacres of Moslems in Baku and Quba in March 1918 when the Armenians availed of an attack by the forces of the Baku Soviet on the Musavat to carry out an ethnic war on the “Tartars”. All this led to the May 28, 1918 declaration of Azerbaijani independence, the day after the Georgian Mensheviks had done likewise, under German protection.
The new Azerbaijani national forces managed to capture Baku in late 1918 in conjunction with an Ottoman army that unexpectedly found its way clear to the East after the dissolution of the Russian lines. It took the city from a combined force of Red and White Russians, British Imperialists of the Dunsterforce and Armenian Dashnaks. This was an event that had a galvanizing effect on the Azerbaijani national movement, despite the short duration of its success.
The Great War and consequent collapse of the Russian State had put everything in flux in the Southern Caucasus. Although the Moslems of the region had developed some of the features of a national movement prior to this catastrophic event, the very complexity of the people of the territory that became Azerbaijan, and their historical experience under the Tsarist State, required a jolt to kick-start the process of nation building. What happened between February and 1917 and March 1918 provided this jolt. No longer would the “Tatars” remain in the role that the Russian Empire expected of them, remaining largely inert as passive objects of history.
(It is sometimes asserted by Armenian propagandists that Azerbaijan is a “fake nation” created by Stalin. Stalin certainly knew what a nation was, being the Bolshevik’s expert on the subject, and he had no desire to create nations where there were none. So he took Azerbaijan as being a nation, just like Armenia and Georgia, and treated it accordingly, with a national territory, including Karabakh. The problem for Azerbaijani nation building was not the non-existence of a nation but the complexity of the nation, which did not neatly fit into the narrow parameters of Armenian nationalism. Azerbaijan had a wider Moslem world beyond it, in Russia, Iran and Turkey, to which it was very much attached in a historical, linguistic, religious and social way, and a richer heritage which impeded the simplicity of the type of nation building that the Armenians engaged in – the mere sorting out of territory with the expulsion of all who did not conform to the Armenian racial construct.)
A few weeks after the battle of Baku the Turks were forced out of Azerbaijan by the terms of the Mudros Armistice, when Istanbul suffered defeat in the Great War, and the Musavat accepted the British occupation as a second opportunity for national development, rather than as a defeat of the Republic proclaimed on May 28th.
The impetus of events, and in particular the capture of the capital by national forces, meant that the Azerbaijani national movement was a force that had to be taken into account by the British occupation that began in November 1918. And this was particularly the case because whilst the British occupation of Transcaucasia seemed to be a great victory, not only in the Great War on Germany and Ottoman Turkey but also a strategic triumph in the Great Game against Russia, all was not what it seemed.
This is the context in which Nariman Narimanov operated from 1917 to 1920.
Nariman was born in 1870 into an Azeri family in multi-ethnic Tiflis/Tbilisi. He was the son of a merchant who also was a travelling musician singing in Armenian and Georgian, as well as the Azerbaijani language. The family was not wealthy, but were able to send Nariman to a teacher’s seminary at Gori. He was one of only five Azerbaijanis there (Lilana Riga, The Bolsheviks and the Russian Empire, p.198). Nariman, became a teacher and a trained physician in Odessa and he went on to write a number of books, including the novel Bahadur and Suna as well as being the translator of Nikolai Gogol’s Inspector General into Azeri.
He was a humanistic socialist both in personal life and in his politics. Although Narimanov benefited, unlike most “Tatars” in the Russian Empire, from receiving a good education, he had to support 11 family members, the children of his brothers and sisters, for a period of nearly 30 years, until he was able to give the last girl away for marriage. And he even felt some guilt for not having helped improved the lot of wider humanity earlier, because of his domestic responsibilities (Azerbaijan International, Winter 2004, 13.4. pp.32-5).
During the 1890s, Nariman involved himself in various cultural nationalist pursuits, being an activist in promoting literature in the Azeri language. But he was a complex character, like most of the new national intelligentsia – a secularized Moslem, assimilated Russian “Tatar” who admired Peter the Great, linguistically Turkish/Azeri and ethnically Azerbaijani, from a background in ethnically diverse Tiflis, the capital of Transcaucasia. He was, in many ways, an assimilated Azerbaijani, whose progressive politics came from the European influences within the Russian State (Lilana Riga, The Bolsheviks and the Russian Empire, p.203).
Nariman came to Baku around 1905 (the year of the terrible violence in the city) and joined the Hummet, which was a local political party connected to the Russian Social Democrats. The Hummet in Baku, was the world’s first socialist party of and for a Moslem population. It led Azerbaijani and Persian oil and fishery workers in strikes and went on to play an important role in revolutionary activity. But it was not an entirely Moslem organisation, having an ethnically mixed leadership. A young Joseph Stalin, then living in Baku, and a Bolshevik Social Democrat, certainly associated himself with it, during his political activities in the city. Narimanov translated the RSDLP programme into Azerbaijani. At this point most elected Azerbaijanis were aligned with the Kadets in the Dumas of 1906 and 1907 and Narimanov was part of only a small minority of socialists.
When the Persian Revolution broke out in December 1905 it provoked great interest in Baku with the close links. Nariman Narimanov, set up the Social Democrat organisation in Iran and the insurgents in Tabriz were supplied with arms from Baku. Nearly a thousand men from North of the Araxes river, which separated the Azerbaijani population between the Russian Empire and Iran, fought in the rising in Tabriz in 1908 (Tadeusz Swietochowski, National Consciousness and Political Orientations in Azerbaijan, 1905-1920, pp.9-10).
Narimanov, now under surveillance from the police. was arrested after a search of his apartment in Tiflis, and after some months of imprisonment was sentenced, by the Tsarist authorities, to 5 years in exile at Astrakhan. After banishment Narimanov returned to Baku in 1913 and became a leading figure in the Hummet.
When the Bolsheviks later excluded the Hummet from association with the RSDLP because of its nationalist tendencies, Narimanov joined the Bolsheviks. The RSDLP tended toward Bolshevism in Baku whereas in Tiflis/Georgia and the regions it was predominantly Menshevik. After the 1917 October coup, the Bolsheviks issued their decree proclaiming the rights of nations to self-determination. The implication of this was that any nation within the region of the territory of the Russian Empire could secede from it and form its own national state. This declaration impressed Narimanov and increased his involvement with the Bolsheviks, as respecters of national rights.
It was really in 1919/20 that Nariman Narimanov, the Azerbaijani Communist, and former Commissar in the Baku Commune, became a key figure in the course of events in Transcaucasia. But first, he had had involvement will the ill-fated Baku Soviet.
The Baku Soviet that had taken power in the city in 1917/18 was not a wholly Russian/Armenian affair. A number of Azerbaijanis held important positions on the Soviet of People’s Commissars, including Nariman Narimanov, who occupied the city’s Economic portfolio, and Mirhasan Vezirov and Meshhedi Azizbeyov, who served under their Armenian leader, Stephan Shaumyan (Adalet Tahirzade and Dilgam Ahmed, The Republic of Azerbaijan (1918-1920), p.40).
In early 1918 tensions rose between the Baku Soviet and the Musavat, who the communists saw as the main barrier to their control of the city. Narimanov, seeing the dangerous progression of events, attempted a desperate last-minute intervention with Shaumyan to prevent the attack of the largely Armenian forces of the Baku Soviet on the Musavat, that he knew would spark off inter-ethnic killing, like in 1905-06 (Tadeusz Swietochowski, The Himmat Party: Socialism and the National Question in Russian Azerbaijan, 1904-1920, in Cahiers du Monde Russe, 1978, 19. p.125). But to no avail. After the Soviet shelling of the Moslem quarters of the city, the Armenians forgot about class solidarity and reverted to ethnic type and began a fierce massacre of Moslem civilians in the city that left about 12,000 dead during the “March Days” of 1918.
Incensed by the massacres of Moslem civilians in Baku by the Armenians fighting with the Baku Soviet forces, Narimanov, began agitating during 1919, with Lenin and Stalin, for a different Bolshevik approach to the Caucasian Moslems. Narimanov did not have the same view of the March events as more recent interpretations. He later told Stalin, in a memorandum, that he believed the class war had metamorphosed into an ethnic war in the space of a day:
“Since we didn’t have enough resources, in the time of need comrade Shahumuyan agreed that Armenian forces would act in defence of Soviet power. The right civil war had been proceeding as planned until noon the following day, but that afternoon I began to get reports that the war was turning into an ethnic massacre. A lot of characteristic scenes followed, but I shall remain silent on this subject… Finally, a Moslem delegation comes to me, and they ask to stop the war admitting their defeat. I call comrade Dzhaparidze right away. He promises to send deputies. At this very moment the Dashnaks hit on my apartment. I go into hiding. They take my brother. In an hour my family and I are rescued from the Dashnak “defenders of Soviet power” by comrade Shahumuyan. After that the Dashnaks ran wild in the city of Baku for three days. Those “defenders of Soviet power” took a lot of Muslim women with children hostage.” (Nariman Narimanov, K Istorii Nashey Revolyutsii v Okrainakh, pp. 59-60).
In a speech given not long after the fall of the Baku Commune, Narimanov blamed the collapse of Soviet power on the Bolsheviks’ single-minded desire for the control of the oil city (Sara Brinegar, The Oil Deal: Nariman Narimanov and the Sovietization of Azerbaijan, Slavic Review, Number 2, Summer 2017, p. 378. Izbrannye Narimanov, “Vzgliad na zakhvat kavkaza,” 2, pp.185–96, and Izbrannye Narimanov, “S kakim lozungom my idem na Kavkaz,” 2, pp.176–85).
He argued that the prioritizing of capturing and holding oil production, no matter what the consequences for the local population, was a deeply flawed policy. This was the primary reason for the demise of the Soviet stronghold, Narimanov suggested, since it had alienated the local population and brought them back with the Ottomans to expel the Baku Soviet. Socialists in future needed to have a policy for constructing an Azerbaijani Communist state, with the active participation of local Moslems, if they were going to succeed in expanding Bolshevism into Transcaucasia, contended Narimanov (Izbrannye Narimanov, Vzgliad na zakhvat kavkaza, 2, pp. 85–96).
In January, 1919 a Commissariat of Transcaucasian Moslems came into being at Astrakhan led by prominent local Moslems including Narimanov, Effendiev, Sultanov, and Musabekov. The Astrakhan Department’s aim was to prepare, through agitation and propaganda in the Azeri language, the ground for the Bolshevization of Azerbaijan. However, first the Bolsheviks had to see of the White guard armies of Kolchak, Denikin etc. that Britain was actively supporting with arms, ammunition and training, in order to secure regime change in Russia.
Narimanov emerged as the foremost proponent among the Bolsheviks for the occupation of all of the Azerbaijan Republic, arguing that Baku could never be safely held by the Communists without authority being exerted over the rest of the country, as the failure in 1918 had demonstrated. He wanted the Azerbaijani heartland to be fully integrated with the economy of Baku, making the peasants and Proletariat co-dependent. Furthermore, he argued that a Moslem-led committee within the Bolshevik Party was essential to the implementation of any future Sovietization (Sara Brinegar, The Oil Deal: Nariman Narimanov and the Sovietization of Azerbaijan, Slavic Review, Number 2, Summer 2017, p. 379). Narimanov was also in favour of the spread of Soviet power into Iran.
With this objective in mind, Narimanov worked for the incorporation of the Hummet Party into the Bolshevik Party. In late July 1919, Narimanov attended a conference in Moscow on the nationalities question and met with Lenin and the Russian Foreign Minister, G.V. Chicherin. Upon Narimanov’s request the Politburo agreed that the Hummet should be an autonomous Moslem committee of the Bolsheviks (Sara Brinegar, The Oil Deal: Nariman Narimanov and the Sovietization of Azerbaijan, Slavic Review, Number 2, Summer 2017, p. 379).
When the Azeri Bolsheviks had fled Baku with the collapse of the Commune, nearly all of them had become members of the Commissariat for the Affairs of the Moslem Caucasus within the Commissariat of Foreign Affairs (NKID). They thereafter worked to carry out revolution in Azerbaijan from North of the Caucasus in Bolshevik-held territory, in Astrakhan, where Narimanov had been in exile a decade earlier. In July 1919, Narimanov, acting as the Azerbaijani Communist Chairman of the Public Education Department of the Astrakhan Governorate, sent a letter to Nesib Bey Yusifbeyli, representing the Azerbaijan government in Baku. At that point the British had declared their intention to withdraw from the Southern Caucasus to shore up their territorial gains elsewhere.
In his letter of July 16th 1919, Comrade Narimanov accused Nesib Bey and the Musavat of betraying the interests of the Proletariat and the Socialist State that had been established in Russia, which Nariman believed would inevitably recapture Baku and be a progressive force in Azerbaijan and across the Moslem world:
“I have always spoken strictly against the supporters of inviting the Turks to the Caucasus… While you developed your ideas of panturkism and panislamism, I was resolutely against you as a communist… Turkey came with “victory” and left you shamefully… The main thing that has forced you to speak against Soviet power with foam from the mouth are the interests of a group of rich men – the interest of the Baku millionaires…
Kolchak has been smashed. Denikin will soon come to an end, too. The strong arms and hands of Soviet Russia will be opened. If you are as deaf and blind as you were before, if now you still do not see or hear what is happening across the world, especially after the Versailles Peace, then you are not scared of Soviet Russia… For your entire policy, the reckoning with is coming, when you will face the Court of Transcaucasian Moslem workers and farmers… Did you not understand that Azerbaijan, together with Baku, was of special importance to Soviet Russia? Soviet Russia’s relations with Armenia and Georgia do not have such a special place, but Baku is the life source for Soviet Russia… You cannot play with the life of an entire nation, but you are criminally playing… Let Soviet rule be established in all Islamic states and peoples. Then they will do in ten years the things they could not do in a hundred years…
You need brave honesty to confess this: “We did not understand the essence of the Russian revolution, we did not take into consideration all the consequences of the devastating Imperialist war, we are leaving the arena and let it be Soviet power in Azerbaijan!” (Adalet Tahirzade and Dilgam Ahmed, The Republic of Azerbaijan (1918-1920), pp.108-90).
The Caucasus Republics could not, of course, respond to the Bolshevik appeals, even if they had wanted to, because of their dependence on the British Occupation. This British protection, while it remained, enabled them to dismiss Narimanov’s criticism out of hand. This was the point at which the White guard General Denikin was moving forward on Moscow and the Bolsheviks looked more likely to be pinned back by the Whites than to move forward to Baku. The Musavat government therefore, could afford to ignore Bolshevik communications, be glad that Denikin was moving North, having his hands full with his war on the Soviets, and hope that the British would see to it he did not come South in the future.
The Musavat had taken in earnest the new world proclaimed by Britain during the Great War and this was the main reason for their collaboration with Britain’s military governors, and the peaceful acceptance of the British occupation during late 1918 to mid-1919. The belief was that the Azerbaijan Republic, which had been ended by the Ottoman defeat, would be nurtured into a new existence by British power, in an orderly and stable region presided over by the predominant empire in the world, that had been vastly expanded through its victory in the Great War. The culmination of this would be recognition of statehood by the new League of Nations established by the Allies at the Paris Peace Conference.
There was some reason to believe this would indeed be the case. At the end of the Great War British forces had flooded into the Southern Caucasus and established a new frontier against the old enemy of the Great Game. that stretched from Istanbul eastwards to the Indian Empire. Britain had defeated its enemies – Germany, Austro-Hungary and the Ottomans – and had begun absorbing their territories, partitioning their states and re-ordering the world. in conjunction with its allies. at Paris.
But all was not as it seemed. In winning its Great War and gaining a large amount of new territory for its empire Britain had over-extended itself. Germany and Ottoman Turkey had proved impossible to defeat with its original allies and one – Russia – had collapsed in the course of the War. Other allies accumulated on the way, like Italy and Greece, had proved incapable of tipping the balance and it was only U.S. finance and finally, manpower that staved off the unthinkable – having to conclude a negotiated peace.
After the Great War Britain was in financial hock to the United States and had to take into account its emerging power in both the conclusion of a settlement and further Imperialist activities. Britain was also handicapped by the democracy which the Great War had brought into being through the necessity of conscripting the masses and making it a popular war. Concluding the settlement and conducting policy in the old way was impossible.
So Britain’s will to power in the world was something of an illusion and its staying power in Transcaucasia, as a new frontier in the Great Game against Russia, was transient. And to exacerbate everything it just couldn’t make up its mind about what to do against Russia. In the end it financed and helped organise the White guard element in the Civil War but baulked at Churchill’s demand that it commit itself to a full scale war to destroy Bolshevism.
The other major problem was British policy toward Ottoman Turkey. Churchill made the suggestion that a speedy and honourable settlement be made with the Turks (and Germans) in order that they could be turned against the Bolsheviks, and provide the forces Britain was incapable of supplying to defend the Caucasus front. But the British Prime Minister, Lloyd George, would have none of it. He pursued the policy of using the Greeks (and Armenians) as cats paws to bring Istanbul to heel and impose a harsh treaty upon the Turks which would have confined then to an Anatolian wasteland.
Because of this the Turkish resistance was forced to seek out the only ally it could to facilitate a resurgence against the British Imperialists -the Bolsheviks. The Azerbaijan land bridge was indispensable to the alliance that enabled Ankara to fight the Imperialists. And this policy of the British Prime Minister sealed the fate of Transcaucasia.
In an ideal world Azerbaijan, and the other Transcaucasian Republics, could have developed into independent states in 1920 and taken their place among the nations of the world, with the imprimatur of the League of Nations. But Britain, which had declared the ideal world in its war, subverted it as soon as the war was over. It failed to follow through on what it had declared and encouraged others to believe in. It failed to help defend what it supposedly held in principle to be what it had fought its war for.
So where did that leave Azerbaijan? It could not proceed to independent statehood outside the hegemony of the victorious powers at Paris, as an isolated fragment, left to its own devices. For one thing it was not isolated, but had an aggressive neighbour (Armenia) mounting attacks on its territory to take that territory for itself.
It would inevitably fall within the embrace of Russia again. It was really a question of British Imperialist hegemony or Soviet hegemony. There really was no third course.
Britain also subverted the internal defence of Transcaucasia by leaving the territorial dimensions of an Armenian state undefined. Of course, the Armenians with their grandiose and unrealisable plans for state building on a vast scale, contributed much to such destabilisation. And the two things interacted to amplify the problem, with the British encouraging the Armenians to hold themselves aloof from territorial settlements with Georgia and Azerbaijan, and the common defence of the region, in the hope that they would gain something much more substantial from London than they could negotiate with neighbours at the conference table. So whilst Britain provided a degree of order and security through its occupation, it subverted this by leaving the question of Armenian territorial award open to destabilize everything in the region.
Nariman Narimanov had little faith in the British and knew that Azerbaijan, with the rest of the Caucasus would return to the Russian Empire after it revived itself. He therefore believed that the important thing to determine was which Russia – Socialist or White guard was to triumph?
In his assessment of the geopolitics of the situation Nariman Narimanov proved to be correct.
On August 16, 1919 Stalin, as Commissar for the Nationalities, wrote a letter to Chicherin on the necessity of removing Armenians from affairs affecting Azerbaijan and Turkey and putting Comrade Narimanov to the fore in order to implement the Sovietization of the Moslem countries of the Russian Empire. Stalin assured the Foreign Minister that Narimanov, who was known to be patriotic and independent-minded, would act as the Bolshevik’s “flag” to rally the Moslems of the Southern Caucasus, whilst the Central Committee retained overall control of policy (Adalet Tahirzade and Dilgam Ahmed, The Republic of Azerbaijan (1918-1920), p.110.)
A week after this letter Narimanov was appointed head of the Near East Department of the Commissariat for the Foreign Affairs of R.S.F.S.R (ibid).
When in September 1919 a delegation of Turkish nationalists arrived in Baku to enlist the support of the Azerbaijani Government, they were refused support by the Musavat Government, who, now heavily dependent on goodwill from London, probably feared British retaliation (particularly in relation to Armenian territorial demands). The Musavat who had bound themselves to Britain in their Azerbaijani nation-building project were to now suffer the consequences of their dependency on British Imperialism. It was the Hummet who took up the Turkish offer and “played the role of a bridge between the proletarian revolutionary Moscow and the revolutionary movement in Turkey.” (Firuz Kazemzadeh, The Struggle for Transcaucasia, p.232).
Narimanov convinced Lenin to adopt his policy with regard to a Soviet Azerbaijani Republic and Lenin sent him back to Azerbaijan with a specific mandate to facilitate the integration of the oil city of Baku with the Azerbaijani countryside, in a new Socialist nation-building project. As the Red Army prepared for invasion under cover of an “people’s uprising”, Narimanov was appointed Commissar for the Affairs of the Moslem Caucasus and his colleagues were ear-marked for posts in a future Soviet government in Azerbaijan. Narimanov, was to head, first, the Azerbaijan Revolutionary Committee and subsequently, the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic.
Narimanov, as an Azerbaijani Communist with a Soviet nation-building programme, provided the Bolshevik conquest with the required legitimacy among the majority Moslem population, to overcome the previous association with Russian control of the city and Armenian terror. So, Narimanov emerged as the critical intermediary between the Bolshevik Party and the wider population of Azerbaijan, to facilitate its Sovietization (Sara Brinegar, The Oil Deal: Nariman Narimanov and the Sovietization of Azerbaijan, Slavic Review, Number 2, Summer 2017, pp. 372-9).
Narimanov therefore occupied a pivotal position between safeguarding the interests of the Proletarian Revolution and those of the Azerbaijani people.
As Sara Brinegar has noted of Narimanov:
“His goals were threefold. First, to shape Bolshevik modernizing policies in Azerbaijan among the Muslim population. Second, to mitigate the use of violence against the wider population, preventing a re-occurrence of the Baku Commune. Third and finally, to expand the revolution into Persia… Narimanov… understood that the Red Army was not simply going to walk away from Baku. It was too vital to the winning of the Civil War. In fact, he viewed a Bolshevik takeover, in some form or another, as both inevitable and ultimately desirable because he believed the Soviets were a modernizing force that would benefit Azerbaijan. Instead, he argued that for a renewed invasion of Baku to succeed in the long term, the Bolsheviks would have to maintain regional stability and avoid the violence of 1918 that bookended the Baku Commune… Narimanov agreed to do what he could to help supply Soviet Russia with oil and Lenin put Narimanov in charge of the Soviet government of Azerbaijan (Sovnarkom) with the understanding that he would be granted significant leeway in cultural policies. In other words, Narimanov promised to provide the political and social stability in Azerbaijan necessary to maintain Soviet power and assure Russian access to Baku’s critical oil reserves. Narimanov believed that Azerbaijan could walk a line where it was tightly bound to Russia out of both ideological affinity and economic necessity while maintaining a degree of independence in local and cultural affairs… Lenin, for his part, maintained that Narimanov was Moscow’s only real link to the Muslim peasantry of the south Caucasus and that he was, at least initially, indispensable. The implication was clear: access to Baku’s oil was an overriding concern to the stability of Soviet Russia. If the Bolsheviks took Baku, they would have to take all of formally Russian Azerbaijan.” (Sara Brinegar, The Oil Deal: Nariman Narimanov and the Sovietization of Azerbaijan, Slavic Review, Number 2, Summer 2017, pp. 373-4).
On September 1st 1920, the Bolsheviks convened the famous Congress of the Peoples of the East at Baku, broadcasting the message that the Soviet State stood with the oppressed Moslems against Western Imperialism. It was opened by Nariman Narimanov. The largest delegation to it came to the capital of Soviet Azerbaijan from Turkey. According to Bolshevik sources, nearly 2,000 delegates attended, representing a wide range of Asian countries and movements. There was a much greater attendance in Baku than had attended the first All-Russian Congress of Moslems in November 1918. (S. White, ‘Communism and the East: The Baku Congress, 1920’, Slavic Review, Vol. 33, No. 3, 1974, pp. 492-3). In his address, Zinoviev, Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Comintern launched an appeal to the peoples of the Tsarist Empire in Central Asia and the Caucasus, to join the Russian revolution and wage war against British Imperialism (Touraj Atabaki and Solmaz Rustamova-Towhidi, The Making of Collective Memory; The Politics of Archive in Soviet Azerbaijan, p.320).
Narimanov’s influence at this juncture probably had a strong bearing on preventing Karabakh being detached from Azerbaijan by the Soviet power. Stalin insisted that it remain a part of the country when many of the Bolsheviks were willing to cede it to Armenia. Narimanov was less happy with the hand over of Zangezur to the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic and wrote to Lenin on the matter when he was one of the chairmen of the Union Council of the Trans-Caucasus Soviet Federated Socialist Republics. He was convinced that Armenian intrigues were responsible for the poor treatment of Azerbaijan:
“Azerbaijan has proclaimed its resources to be the resources of the Soviet republic and has proved this in practice. Azerbaijan has renounced its territories in favour of Armenia, even when at one time it was considered impossible for political considerations… The Centre has given as a concession undisputed Azerbaijani territory to Armenia and it is an historical mistake impossible to rectify; Armenia, which has always protected Denikin, gains independence and additionally gets Azerbaijani land, while Azerbaijan, which of all the Trans-Caucasus republics first embraced Soviet Russia’s authority, loses both its independence and territories, and the expression ‘independent Azerbaijan´ is never been heard on the lips; Azerbaijan is now in such a situation that the Mirzoyans decide its fate without any hindrance.”
Narimanov also had an influence on saving Nakhchivan for Azerbaijan. In January 1921, Ordzhonikidze and Kirov cabled the Central Committee of the Bolsheviks and argued, on behalf of the Armenians, that “the Turks could create in Nakhchivan their own buffer zone; they want to establish their own khanate here. Then the railroad will be in their hands, they will cut us off from Tabriz and Iran and dismember Armenia.”
Ordzhonikidze’s argument was challenged by Narimanov who cabled Lenin in mid-February saying that in his view, “there is no doubt that the Ankara government sincerely wants to connect its fate with us against England.” This was food for thought because handing the Azeri majority region of Nakhchivan would have undermined everything the Soviet objectives of defeating British Imperialism and spreading the revolution into the Moslem East. It came at a crucial point because at that moment a Turkish delegation was about to travel to Moscow to negotiate a peace treaty that would cement the alliance between Ankara and the Bolsheviks against the Imperialists. The Turkish delegation went to Moscow via Baku, where Narimanov gave them advice on how they should deal with the Soviets. He told the Turkish delegates that Chicherin, the Soviet Foreign Affairs commissar, was not the man to do business with. He was on the wrong side of many issues in the East and the Turks should do everything possible to deal directly with Lenin or “if this was not achieved, to turn to Stalin for help.” It was good advice and led to a functional deal that paid dividends in the Turkish war of independence.
During the first years of Soviet Azerbaijan, Narimanov found himself increasingly at odds with the leaders of the Transcaucasian party who had been drafted in by Moscow, especially Sergo Ordzhonikidze. Narimanov’s opposition to the centre’s policies, especially the merging of the three Republics into a Transcaucasian Federation, led to his removal from Baku in 1922, with a “promotion” to Moscow.
Despite this Narimanov wrote a famous 1925 treatise “Lenin and the East” (Lenin i vostok), which honoured Lenin a year after his death. It praised the Soviet leader for having helped liberate Azerbaijan, Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan from Imperialist oppression. The essay was reprinted in 1970 as a pamphlet, and was popular in the homes of the last generation of Soviet Azerbaijanis (Leah Feldman, Red Jihad, p.232 and Nariman Narimanov, Lenin i vostok, p.37 ).
Narimanov lived to be disappointed with the Sovietization he had helped facilitate. He struggled hard to minimize the forcefulness of the Bolshevization of his country and the repression unleashed on those who resisted the process. In this he undoubtedly saved lives. The early years of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic were fruitful to the populace in many respects, after the instability of the previous few years. But the inhumanity Narimanov saw in the system inevitably distressed him.
Nearly five years on from the Red Army’s capture of Baku, during February 1925, when he was Chairman of the Soviet of People’s Commissars, he wrote a letter to his young son, Najaf, detailing his fears for the future, which centred around his belief that Bolshevism was proceeding down the wrong path, to self-destruction. Nariman told his son that although the ruthless pursuit of power of state had been absolutely essential in the circumstances of 1917-20, it was now necessary to pursue more humanistic ideals, or the moral emptiness of Bolshevism would ultimately result in its demise:
“I was a Social Democrat, but these days, more and more, I discern that they are abandoning their goals. I used to have confidence in the agenda of the Bolsheviks and envisioned my own goals being fulfilled through them. I thought slavery would be abolished in the world this way.
Maybe Bolshevism won’t exist by the time you read these lines. But if that be the case, it doesn’t mean that we don’t need Bolshevism. It means that we were not able to save it, that we underestimated it, and that our attitude towards these goals was shortsighted.
We must say it openly: we became so arrogant with power that we occupied ourselves with meaningless issues and arguments, and we forgot about the real work we had to do.
Power destroys most people. And thus it has happened: power has spoiled most of our outstanding leaders. They decided to take control of the fate of a great state and become dictators… It was necessary at the beginning. But to continue this path today will cause Bolshevism to collapse.
Now, as I write these lines to you, the situation is that the Communists can’t even talk among themselves about our major mistakes that have been caused by those carelessly ruling the government who have declared themselves as “the heirs of Lenin” after his death.
You’ll understand more fully about these issues from the extensive speech that I have written for the Central Committee. You’ll become aware of many things through that speech. You’ll understand that your father was not afraid of saying things that most others didn’t have the courage to say, or did not want to risk saying, out of fear of losing their position and power.” (Azerbaijan International,Winter 2005, 13.4. pp. 32-5 for details and the, unfortunately uncompleted, letter).
Less than 6 weeks later, after an argument with Stalin, Narimanov died in suspicious circumstances, claimed to have been a heart attack. He was only 55. His fate was far from unique among Bolsheviks who fell out with Stalin. After his sudden death Narimanov was cremated, given a full state funeral and was laid to rest in the Kremlin wall.
His son, Najaf, went on to join the Communist Party and commanded a tank division in the great patriotic war. He was decorated for his valour at Stalingrad, dying in battle with the Red Army defending the city of Volnokakha, in Ukraine, from the Germans and their allies.
Because Britain abandoned Transcaucasia in 1919-20 the national development of Azerbaijan had to take place within the Soviet system. That system lasted far longer than Nariman Narimanov thought it would, but it indeed collapsed, as he had predicted it would.
What lives on, however, is the Azerbaijan Republic, born in the collapse of the Tsarist State, and developed over two generations within the Soviet Union and reborn at its demise, with Nariman Narimanov watching over it all, high above Baku.