Gorbachev’s Administrative Massacre: Black January, Baku 1990

It is the 30th anniversary of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It is a pertinent time, therefore, to ask the question: Was there ever a more pointless and extravagant waste of life than General Secretary Gorbachev’s administrative massacre of over 130 civilians in Baku on the night of 19/20 January 1990?

Vladimir Zubok’s recent book ‘Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union’ says the following about Gorbachev’s motivation in sending in the paratroopers:

“The (Communist) Party there (in Azerbaijan) had disintegrated, and nationalists of “the people’s front,” many of them from the ‘national’ intelligentsia, had taken over. The Soviet border with Iran, where ethnic Azeris had lived for centuries, was breached by a jubilant mob, echoing the opening of the Berlin Wall the previous year. This time, however, Soviet motorized and airborne divisions crushed the Azeris’ desire for ‘sovereignty’ and restored the state border of the USSR. In Baku over a hundred locals and up to twenty military personnel were killed. The crackdown in Azerbaijan, of course, was not a solution, it was just a means to buy time (soiuz mozhno bylo sokhranit). Raisa (Gorbachev) recalled that she barely recognized her husband the day after the military operation in Baku. His face was gray, he had aged visibly, as if he suffered “a split in his soul.” This was yet another instance of Gorbachev’s visceral aversion to the use of force. An admirable moral quality in an individual, this was a huge political flaw in the leader of a country with a tragic history and facing a rising wave of toxic nationalism. In January 1990, the Kremlin leader faced a dilemma: to use force and keep the existing state intact or continue on his course of devolving power to the republics. Ultimately Gorbachev chose the second path.” (pp.104-5)

Remarkably, less than a fortnight after his forces had massacred over a hundred people in Baku, General Secretary Gorbachev informed the Politburo that he had come to the conclusion that the Communist Party could only reform itself after rescinding its monopoly on political power across the USSR. He now wanted the “popular fronts” that his own policies had brought into existence across the USSR, and onto the streets of Baku, to provide the opposition necessary to democratise the Leninist system he wished to invigorate.

At the time of the 70th Anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1987 Gorbachev had immersed himself in the unreleased Stalin-criticism literature of the Khrushchev era. The gist of this was that the USSR of Stalin had been a murderous deviation from Leninist socialist democracy. Gorbachev, a devout Leninist, was of the opinion that democratising the USSR would make it more socialist and he determined to dismantle the system of government Stalin had built. Unlike Andropov, who saw the main Soviet problem as being economic, Gorbachev, who did not understand economics, decided to concentrate his reforms on Constitutional and Legal aspects of the system, where he felt more comfortable. His radical ambition was to take the Soviet Union back to year zero and reroute the revolution in the direction of democracy by unleashing long-repressed popular energy. At the special Party Conference he called for during June 1988 the resolution “On the democratisation of Soviet society and the reform of the political system” was adopted and it was indicated to the people across the USSR, through live TV, that fundamental changes were to be made to the Constitution and a new political system implemented by the fall of 1989.

Gorbachev decided to annul Article 6 of the 1977 Brezhnev Constitution which established the Communist Party of the USSR as the sole legitimate political party of the State:

“The leading and guiding force of Soviet society and the nucleus of its political system, of all state organizations and public organizations, is the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The C.P.S.U. exists for the people and serves the people. The Communist Party, armed with Marxism-Leninism, determines the general perspectives of the development of society and the course of the domestic and foreign policy of the U.S.S.R., directs the great constructive work of the Soviet people, and imparts a planned, systematic and theoretically substantiated character to their struggle for the victory of communism.

Of course, Brezhnev’s Constitution only stated the obvious about the Leninist system which Gorbachev now sought to reform in order to prolong and enhance in the general interests of mankind, as he saw it.

Gorbachev proposed several specific constitutional amendments to the Politburo: on the exit of republics from the Soviet Union; on the sovereignty of autonomous territories; on the creation of a Presidential Council and on the right of a President to issue decrees. These changes, approved by the Politburo, would be adopted at an extraordinary Congress of People’s Deputies in March, without referendum. A new Union Treaty, which laid out a proposed compact between the centre and the republics would be launched. In February 1990 Gorbachev packed the Party Plenum with 500 guests to drive through his programme.

In a secret vote, on 13 March, 1990, the Congress of Peoples Deputies made Gorbachev President of the USSR. The First Secretary now presided over the Politburo, the Presidential Council and Council of Federation. He used his extraordinary new gained authority to dismantle the Party Secretariat, beginning the liquidation of the thing which held the USSR together – the Communist Party.

Gorbachev was a true believing Marxist-Leninist who, seeking to improve the Leninist state, inadvertently liquidated the Soviet system through his misguided attempt to democratise what could not be democratised. In seeking to democratise the Communist Party of the Union, and prevent an expected roll-back of his reforms by the Party, Gorbachev instead disorganised the state into anarchy.

It appears that the administrative massacre in Baku was all about buying First Secretary Gorbachev a few weeks to manoeuvre in order to end the power of the Communist Party of the USSR and to go on to dissolve the State itself. Gorbachev achieved in the end the same objective held by those his forces went about killing in Baku. Around 130 people were therefore massacred for absolutely nothing.

The disintegration of authority in the USSR ushered in a period of flux in which nationalist forces, long since curtailed in the Soviet State, were let loose. Andropov and the KGB had suspected that national Party cadres and the national intelligentsias developed by the USSR could someday become the nucleus of national movements in the republics. He ordered schemes to be presented by his advisors that broke up the national units and which could head off such a development. Upon examining them all Andropov shelved all alternatives as unworkable. Gorbachev set out to rescue the USSR from Stalin’s nationalities policy by engaging the national intelligentsias in his Perestroika program.

The Armenian nationalist move to capture Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory that was part of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic, emerged through the taking advantage of the reform program of the new Soviet leader.

The Soviet system had successfully kept in check the irredentism of Armenian nationalism and diverted its energies into internal effort within its allocated territory, which was clearly defined by the Constitution of the USSR. Under Stalin Armenian nationalism was almost entirely subdued, but when Khrushchev came to power it was clear that much of the fundamental impulses of Armenian nationalism remained and were prepared to assert themselves again, although they did so in a devious fashion because the Soviet structures still held firm.

But it was Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika and Glasnost which encouraged the full release of a new nationalist movement, which the debilitated Union structures struggled to control.

The USSR was a kind of empire of nation states with the hierarchy and structures of the Communist Party being vital to its integrity. Since it was the Party, which actually held the Union together, loosening this cement led on to the disintegration of the USSR. So, by sabotaging the Party Secretariat, Gorbachev began to inadvertently dismantle the Communist Party structures that were the most important foundation and superstructure of the USSR. It was the Communist Party structures which negated the local tendencies that made up the Union (making it a centralised union under party control). In eliminating the cohesiveness of the Party, Gorbachev undermined the Union by making it into a federation, in which the right to secede was encouraged and inevitably followed.

In the dispersal of power within the Union the Supreme Soviets of the Republics began to act in accordance with the logic of Gorbachev’s reforms. And the Armenians were the first people to notice this and to test its application in practice in relation to Karabakh.

For good or ill the Soviet authority in the South Caucasus established in 1920 and the settlement/delineation of territory led to the suppressing of national conflicts in the area. A passage from a 1930s Soviet publication cannot be doubted on this:

“The entire population of whole towns used to be slaughtered; and hundreds of thousands of Armenians and Azerbaijanians perished in mutual hostilities… As a result of the internecine slaughter of that period, from 70-90% of the population perished in some districts of the Transcaucasus. The ruins of ancient Shusha, one of the most highly cultured cities of the Transcaucasian Middle Ages, which was destroyed in 1920, are still to be seen.

The national problem of the Transcaucasus was solved forever by the Soviet power. The principles of Soviet autonomy have been put into practice and have done away with all controversial questions. Those who profited by dissensions between the peoples are no more. The Soviet Transcaucasus has forgotten about national antagonism: this most difficult problem has been solved by the Socialist Revolution, on the basis of the teachings of Lenin and Stalin on the national question.

National peace, which followed upon century-long hostility, meant the development of the cultures of each of the peoples of the Transcaucasus…” (Nicholas Mikhailov, Land of the Soviets: A Handbook of the U.S.S.R., p.240-1)

What was settled in the 1920s was seen as permanent. It represented a resolution of the ethnic and national conflicts that had plagued the region since the rise of nationalism – particularly its Armenian variety – a generation before. The settlement was enforced through Soviet power in which compromises were hammered out. Significantly, it is this settlement and delineation of national territories which now forms the basis of the new geopolitical reality of 2020. However, Gorbachev unravelled this carefully imposed settlement and power structures that kept the peace in the Southern Caucasus for 70 years.

Gorbachev encouraged a belief in Armenia that in the new openness, sacred aspects of the Union could be challenged and potentially over-turned. Therefore, the primary direction that his Perestroika took in Armenia was the creation of a great nationalist movement with an irredentist cause. Within this new nationalist movement developed a leadership which became known as the ‘Karabagh Committee’ who decided on strategy and tactics, and organised a program for action.

The nationalist deviation within the Armenian Communist Party which sought to put the status of Karabakh back on the table was soon complimented by a populist mass movement. Large demonstrations in the latter part of 1987, starting in thousands and reaching a million, began to appear in Yerevan, demanding the secession of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast from Azerbaijan and its unification with Armenia. These were the biggest demonstrations ever seen in the history of the Soviet Union. Many of the demonstrators carried Gorbachev portraits. The Soviet leader had encouraged the belief that he would right so-called “historic wrongs.” The biggest rightable wrong for the Armenians was the inclusion of Karabakh in Azerbaijan. A big petition drive was initiated within NKAO itself during the fall of 1987, with the petitions being sent to Moscow in January 1988. Gorbachev appealed for moderation from the Armenian leaders and pleaded with them not to raise the territorial issue, since this was not what he meant by Perestroika.

But the Armenians persisted and large scale ethnic cleansing took place during 1988, leading to refugees taking flight from both Armenia and Azerbaijan. In January 1989 Gorbachev had to declare martial law in Karabakh to suppress Armenian paramilitaries, gun-running and the intimidation of Azerbaijanis.

Gorbachev admitted the destabilising effect of his policies in his memoirs, when talking about the 1985-7 period: “In three years, the Central Committee received 500 letters about the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh. Perestroika set in motion large internal forces and opened chronic abscesses. National feelings and national extremism revived alongside.”

One Armenian eyewitness to the great million-strong demonstrations in Yerevan, noted: “The worldview that gradually coalesced among Soviet Armenians was demolished. The relative security that characterised seven decades of Soviet rule melted away, as did the constraints of the Soviet political system…” (Joseph Masih and Robert Krikorian, Armenia at the Crossroads, p.6.)

This is a very important point to understand in the tragic events which then unfolded involving the deaths of tens of thousands and the ethnic cleansing of over a million from their homes. What started as an attempt to provoke popular enthusiasm for “reform” and outflank opposition to it, instead stimulated movements for the dismantling of the Soviet State itself, when Gorbachev proved incapable of satisfying the demands he encouraged. This had a doubly destructive effect because inciting the masses in Armenia and Karabakh against the national settlement upon which the Union was constructed inevitably had greatly destabilising effects on neighbouring states. It was sheer and unadulterated madness on Gorbachev’s part which shattered the internationalism of the USSR.

The heading ‘Karabakh and the beginning of the end of the USSR’ in Thomas De Waal’s Black Garden book about the Karabakh conflict is not overstated. The Karabakh movement unleashed by Gorbachev turned into an anti-USSR force after Gorbachev failed to satisfy the irredentist demands of the Armenians. These events triggered large counter-demonstrations in Baku. A new form of street politics had been introduced into the Soviet Union by the activities of the Karabakh activists in Yerevan.

Azerbaijan was taken by surprise by these developments, and particularly by the sudden appearance of a mass nationalist movement within the Soviet Union, demanding a part of its territory. History has shown the Azerbaijanis to be a people who are generally loyal to stable, lawful authority, from whatever source it comes. Lives were lived within Tsarist Russia without incidents of any note (aside from those of 1905-06 provoked by Armenian revolutionary groups), the British occupation of 1918-19 was embraced for its stability, and the Bolshevik era was entirely peaceful after some initial resistance.

In 1987-8 the Azerbaijanis really had one requirement of the Soviet Union – that it defend the settlement it had imposed in the 1920s, and put down the separatist movement in the accepted fashion. That was a very reasonable request to make of the Soviet leadership, who had shown every willingness to engage in such vigorous defence of state structures in the past. Azerbaijan was part of the USSR and had no army to defend its territories against the Armenian separatists, itself. It relied totally on the Union of which it and Armenia formed part, and trusted it to defend its territory and citizens in Karabakh.

While the Armenians were pretty certain of what they wanted during the 1988-90 period, the Azerbaijanis, on the other hand, displayed great uncertainty within the general confusion brought about by Gorbachev. Their problem stemmed from the fact that the Soviet Union had a more profound effect on them. It had contributed greatly to the national development of Azerbaijan and when it began to fracture, they were greatly divided about what to do about it. The Azerbaijani Communist Party was one of the most loyal and dependable of the Union’s components and there was still considerable support in the society for the existing system. As the Soviet Union began to become incoherent under Gorbachev’s leadership the Azerbaijanis continued to base their arguments on Soviet principles of nationality and cited Article 78 of the Brezhnev Constitution, which barred territorial changes without the consent of Republics concerned, in defence of territorial integrity. The Armenians simply asserted their claim over Karabakh.

Azerbaijan stuck to the letter of the 1936 Constitution of the USSR and expected the First Secretary of the USSR to defend it:

“ARTICLE 18. The territory of a Union Republic may not be altered without its consent.

ARTICLE 19. The laws of the U.S.S.R. have the same force within the territory of every Union Republic.

ARTICLE 20. In the event of a discrepancy between a law of a Union Republic and an all-Union law, the all-Union law prevails.

ARTICLE 24. The Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic includes the, Nakhichevan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic and the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region.”

The demonstrations in Lenin Square in Baku that began in 1988 were motivated primarily by the secessionist movement in Karabakh, what was happening to Azerbaijanis in Armenia and Karabakh, the Soviet authorities failure to stop it and what was thought to be the one-sided approach of Moscow to events. It was felt that Azerbaijanis were being judged against strict Soviet standards while the Armenians were pursuing nationalist aggression with seeming impunity. Before the massacre in Baku the following political events in Armenia and Karabakh greatly alarmed people in Azerbaijan and put them on the streets to demonstrate against the seeming impotence of the Azerbaijan Communist Party to act:

  • On 13 February, 1988, first demonstration in Khankendi/Stepanakert. Traditionally considered the start of the separatist movement.
  • On February 20, 1988, the NKAO Supreme Council issued a request to transfer the region to Soviet Armenia.
  • On 15 June, 1988, the Armenian SSR Supreme Soviet [highest legislative organ of the Republic] passed an (illegal) resolution granting the (illegal) request of the Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) to unite the NKAO with Armenia.
  • On December 1, 1989, Parliament of Armenian SSR issued decree on unification of NKAO as well as Shaumyan (currently Goranboy) and Khanlar districts (not part of NKAO) to Armenia, thus infringing Azerbaijan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity once more.
  • On January 9, 1990, the Armenian SSR Parliament adopted a budget for both Armenia and Karabakh (NKAO) in the financial plan.

It was this last provocative act of the Yerevan government which prompted the Popular Front in Azerbaijan to set up committees for “the defence of the nation”.

Azerbaijani Communist officials were unable to gain control of the deteriorating situation, and directed the 12,000 troops of the Interior Ministry to stay in their barracks in case their appearance sparked further violence. That led to a breakdown in public order and attacks on Armenians in Baku by mobs of angry people frustrated at the lack of action against the separatists who were driving Azerbaijanis out of Armenia and Karabakh.

The Azerbaijan Popular Front took control in many regions and on January 18, it called on residents of Baku to block the main access routes into the Azerbaijani capital in order to block any Soviet forces that might be sent against them and its activists. That led Soviet officials in Baku to pull back forces to the outskirts of the city where they established a new command post to direct their response. That response was not long in coming. On January 19, Gorbachev signed a decree calling for the introduction of forces to restore order and counter the actions of the Popular Front. USSR Defence Minister, Dimitri Yazov, stated that the use of force in Baku was intended to prevent the de facto takeover of the Azerbaijani government by the non-Communist opposition.

On January 19, 1990, energy supplies in Baku and communications were blown up by units of Soviet intelligence. In the evening hours, the Soviet army of 26,000 troops with armoured vehicles entered Baku from five directions. The assault was led by the elite Tula paratroop division commanded by General Alexandr Lebed, regarded as one of the USSR’s toughest military and most ruthless commanders. The Soviet army entered the city shooting indiscriminately at unarmed civilians who opposed them or who just happened to be there. Tanks and heavy armoured vehicles were driven over people, while paratroopers fired at ambulances and buses. That night, 130 civilians lost their lives in Baku. Others probably died too, because relatives buried bodies privately in many cases in fear of retribution from the authorities. More than 744 others were wounded. 841 civilians were arrested in Baku and other cities and regions of the republic, 112 of whom were sent to prisons in different cities of the USSR. 

There was, therefore, great shock on January 20 1990, after the massacre on the excuse of restoring order in the city. This was particularly the case because any disorder that was occurring in Baku was entirely the product of Gorbachev’s own policies and the separatist campaign that it had unleashed against a powerless Azerbaijan government.

The former Politburo member, Heydar Aliyev, was in retirement in Moscow when the news of the tragic events of Black January reached him. He had been sidelined by Gorbachev a few years earlier, as an obstacle to Perestroika, along with some senior Armenian Communists who he might have been able to work with to resolve the dispute over Karabakh. Aliyev was prevented from going to Baku to convey his condolences to the Azerbaijani people, but told representatives in Moscow that he considered the Soviet actions “illegal, hostile to democracy and totally contradictory to the principles of human rights and a legitimate nation [USSR].” Aliyev blamed the tragedy on the Communist Party’s failure to deal with the Karabakh issue when it arose and letting it drift, through weak leadership. The Party had become disconnected from the people with the result that its army dealt with them through a massacre:

“Two years should have been sufficient time… to settle this problem and to put an end to internal and national conflicts, and to create conditions for independent life in the USSR for every citizen regardless of their nationality. If, in the early stages of Karabakh problem, party leaders… had taken appropriate steps, the tension would not have escalated. . . and the parties would not have suffered so many casualties. What is more important is that there would not have been this massacre of January 19-20, 1990…

Unfortunately, Azerbaijan government leaders as well as the Supreme Political leaders did not use such opportunities. It would have been possible to stop the encroachment of our borders had it been done in time. Three months ago, the people put forward their demands regarding the borders. But nobody wanted to meet with them, to take their problem seriously… Let me repeat. It would have been possible to calm the people down. If the question of strengthening the party leaders of Azerbaijan had been considered, the situation would not have become tense, and it would not have been necessary for the army to enter. I think that there were many chances to control the situation from a political point of view. But these chances were not taken, and the Soviet Army and a large contingent of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the USSR invaded Baku.

The result is obvious. We are all aware of the tragedies that have resulted. I consider this a political error. Yes, a political blunder has been committed. Authorities simply could not evaluate the real political situation in the Republic. Nor did they know the psychology of the Azerbaijani people, as there were weak relations with various strata of the population. It seems that they did not realize that this would result in tragedy… The army invaded the city and innocent people died. . . . All those who were involved in wreaking this havoc on our country must be brought to justice.” (Gatiyyatin Tantanasi, Triumph of Determination, pp. 31-4. Azerbaijan International (7.4) Winter 1999, p.18.)

Speaking out in Moscow was a brave move and it distinguished Aliyev from the Azerbaijani Communists who subserviently acquiesced to the massacre. Independent Azerbaijan gained the leader it needed to construct an independent state out of the ruins of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. Unfortunately for Azerbaijan it had to pass through more than 3 years of turmoil before Heydar Aliyev was able to assume control of the state in late 1993. By then the Karabakh war and large amounts of national territory was, to all intents and purposes, already lost.

Moscow justified its actions on the basis that there was inter-communal violence taking place in Baku with most of the victims being Armenian. This had been sparked off by the decision of Yerevan on January 10th to include NKAO in its budget and grant its citizens the right to vote in Armenian elections – a clear attempt at annexation. There were then reports of Azerbaijani villages in Shaumyan and Khanlar regions, which Yerevan were demanding to be incorporated into NKAO, being attacked by Armenian paramilitaries. Inter-ethnic conflict is inevitable when political structures collapse and authority is absent in restoring stability.

However, there was little connection between this inter-communal violence, which occurred, weeks earlier and had led to the evacuation of most Armenians from Baku, and the massive response from the Soviet forces. What occurred was what the British used to call an “administrative massacre” when it was practiced in India in places like Amritsar. An “administrative massacre” is where the state employs massive violence in a single event to intimidate a population into passivity. That is what Black January was.

In its report “Black January in Azerbaijan,” Human Rights Watch stated: “…the violence used by the Soviet Army on the night of January 19–20 was so out of proportion to the resistance offered by Azerbaijanis as to constitute an exercise in collective punishment. …the punishment inflicted on Baku by Soviet soldiers may have been intended as a warning to nationalists, not only in Azerbaijan but in the other republics of the Soviet Union.” The killing was conducted right across the city and indiscriminately.

The effect of this “administrative massacre” by Gorbachev’s forces, aimed at subduing the Azerbaijani masses, had precisely the opposite effect. It led to mass resistance to the Soviet curfew by around 750,000 of Azerbaijanis at the funerals of the victims in defiance of curfew and an irresistible movement toward independence. By stirring up Armenian nationalism and reopening the Karabakh issue, Gorbachev produced a reaction in Azerbaijan that resulted in Soviet authority crumbling across the region.

A photo-journalist later recalled the atmosphere he found in Baku after the massacre:

“I’ll never forget how sad everybody was. I’ve visited more than 85 countries in my lifetime, but I would have to admit that during those days, Baku was the saddest city I had ever seen in all my life. The people were in a daze, totally shocked and disoriented. It was incomprehensible to them that the Russians had orchestrated an attack on them and killed innocent people. After all, they had been taught for 70 years about the great brotherhood of the Soviet Union.

But in the midst of all this sadness, I detected another phenomenon. It seemed people realised that the Soviet Union was collapsing. An analogy could be made to living with a mate and finally reaching the decision that it was time to divorce. And this feeling of separation and desire for independence somehow seemed to give the nation dignity in the midst of its despair over the loss of so many friends and family members. It was like Azerbaijanis had made up their mind to move on. That they knew what to do. That the decision had been made.

During the early demonstrations, Azerbaijanis had sought better relations with the Soviets because they believed in the relationship. After Black January, they knew the relationship was over.”

A brutal and needless massacre like Black January was not likely to intimidate people in the way repression worked in the former days of the USSR. It was senseless in all senses of the word.

Black January in Baku briefly became headline news in the West and a propaganda weapon against Soviet repression. But the important thing for the U.S. was to keep Gorbachev in power while he proceeded to wreck the USSR. William Taubman, an academic from Amherst College, Massachusetts, went on to write a glorifying biography of the last Soviet leader, for which he won many academic accolades. Using Gorbachev’s personal archives he described the Baku massacre as a rescue mission conducted by Soviet forces to save Armenians who were being thrown out of apartments. It was all part of the propagandist disinformation produced in the West to whitewash the truth, in service of Gorbachev’s reputation. The man responsible for the massacre of 130 or more in Baku went on to win a Nobel Peace Prize in the same year as Black January and the tragic events of 1990 were quickly forgotten in the West.

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