Vol. 1, No. 18 (15 October 2008)

March 1918: A defining moment for Azerbaijan

Aydin Balayev, Dr.
Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography
Azerbaijan National Academy of Sciences

Editorial Note:  The events of March 1918, in which some 30,000 Azerbaijanis died at the hands of the Bolsheviks and the Dashnakcutun, were a defining moment for Azerbaijan.  Below is an excerpted version of Dr. Balayev's new archivally based study, “The March Events of 1918 in Azerbaijan" (Moscow: Flinta, 2008).
Until the collapse of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijani historians had few opportunities to launch an objective study into the causes, character and consequences of the events of March 1918.  But now, with the archives open and ideological controls lifted, it is possible to do so and thus dispel some of the myths that have surrounded those events which cost the lives of 30,000 Azerbaijanis. 

To understand these events, it is critical to remember that Azerbaijani national forces led by the Musavat Party were calling for national-territorial autonomy within Soviet Russia, an appeal that for all their differences both the Armenian Dashnaks and the Bolshevik Party were completely against. 
For the Dashnaks, the establishment of an Azerbaijani autonomous formation would contradict their geo-strategic interests.  The leaders of the Dashnaktсutun party believed that the historically Azerbaijani lands in the Transcaucasus, including the territory of Baku and Elisavetpol (Ganja) gubernia should be included within the so-called “Greater Armenia” which was to extend “from sea to sea” and have an entirely Armenian population.
For the Bolsheviks, the creation of an Azerbaijani entity would create a major obstacle to the extension of Moscow’s rule across not only Azerbaijani areas but the entire Transcaucasus.  Moreover, their ideology based on the ideas of class struggle considered the national program of the Musavatists as a factor which was disorganizing and disorienting the toiling masses.
Thus it was no accident that the completely justified demand of Musavat for an Azerbaijani national-territorial autonomy was described by Stepan Shaumyan, who was both an Armenian and a Bolshevik as “the dream of Azerbaijani nationalists” to make Baku “the capital of an Azerbaijani khanate.”  He considered that any manifestation of nationalism as something that could not but lead to tragedy for the working class.
Thus, the March events of 1918 reflected the basic division between the Bolshevik-Dashnak alliance, on the one hand, and the Musavat Party, on the other.
Not surprisingly, the conflict between these two forces began in Baku.  First, as M.E. Rasulzade (1990, p. 33) has stressed, “Baku was the center of the Azerbaijani national movement,” in the destruction of which both the Dashnaks and the Bolsheviks had an interest.  Second, the oil fields in and around Baku were a prize that both these opponents of the Azerbaijani national movement wanted to have for themselves.  And third, the Bolsheviks in particular viewed the city as a jumping off point for the spread of their power throughout the Transcaucasus.  Indeed, they believed that the question of the life and death of Bolshevik power in that region would be decided.
The March events were triggered by the incident with the steamship “Evelina,” on which the soldiers and officers of the Azerbaijani cavalry regiment led by general Talyshinski arrived in Baku from Lankaran on March 15 (27) to attend the funeral of their fellow-soldier Mamed Tagiyev and were not subsequently allowed to sail back by the Bolsheviks who demanded that they disarm, which they did early in the morning of March 18 (30).  Given the presence in Baku of thousands of armed Armenian units, the Azerbaijani population protested demanding the return of the seized arms or a similar disarmament of Armenian formations.  Though the negotiations that followed on the same day between the Musavat leader Rasulzade and the leader of the Baku Council Shaumyan resulted in the preliminary agreement on the return of the seized arms to the Azerbaijani soldiers, the subsequent events showed that the Bolsheviks intended this simply as a feint to keep the Azerbaijani national movement from taking any preemptive action against the representatives of the Moscow party.
At the very moment on March 18 (30) when the Azerbaijani leaders appeared at the Baku Council to settle the details of the agreed-upon arrangement, word came that a cavalry detachment of the Red Army had been attacked on the city’s Shemakha Street.  Invoking this incident as a justification, the Dashnaks and the Bolsheviks broke off talks and ignored all appeals by the Azerbaijani side on the need to continue consultations in order to avoid a serious bloodletting.
Unfortunately, that appears exactly what those two organizations wanted, and they attacked not only Azerbaijani leaders and organizations but members of the civil population as well.  The result was a disaster.  Unlike in 1905-06 when in various regions of the Transcaucasus took place armed clashes between unorganized Azerbaijani and unorganized Armenian groups, this time around, the battle was between unorganized Azerbaijanis and regular Armenian military units supported by those of the Bolsheviks. 
The pogrom continued for three days, and it was only in the morning of March 21 (April 2) that the leadership of the Baku Council finally agreed to a ceasefire.  But despite that formal accord with Azerbaijani leaders, the killing of Azerbaijanis and the destruction of Azerbaijani property continued until March 24 (April 5).  During that period, more than 12,000 Azerbaijanis lost their lives in Baku, and another 18,000 lost them in clashes outside the city.
The Dashnak and Armenian Bolshevik detachments behaved with extreme brutality.  They did not permit the Azerbaijanis even to bury their murdered relatives and friends, despite the requirements of Muslim law that this be done on the same day as the death took place.  According to witnesses, after the end of the bloody action on the streets of Baku there lay hundreds of bodies of Azerbaijanis that had been disfigured by their murders.  The Dashnaks and Armenian Bolsheviks did not limit their violence to adult males and killed many women and children as well.  
As a result, the armed action which was launched under the pretext of a struggle with the Musavat party in fact rapidly took the form of an intentional destruction of the peaceful Azerbaijani population of the city and surrounding villages.  As the newspaper Azerbaijan put it at the time, “questions of class struggle” which the Bolsheviks talked so much about “took a back seat, and the struggle is now not among classes but with the Azerbaijani Turks, and on a social, but rather on a national or even religious basis.” [1]
Beyond any question, however, no one should accuse the entire Armenian population of Baku for the crimes committed in the course of these events against the Azerbaijanis there.  In certain cases, Azerbaijanis were saved from death precisely by their Armenian neighbors and friends even though the latter did so at a risk to their own lives.  But at the same time, it is clearly the case that a large part of the Armenian community of the city had become hostages of the Bolshevik-Dashnak leaders and followed them against the Azerbaijanis.
Subsequent events in the region showed that the mass destruction of peaceful Azerbaijanis in Baku and its surrounding villages by the Bolsheviks and Dashnaks was only a prelude to a broader operation to displace the Azerbaijanis from lands that had been theirs from time immemorial.  At the very lead, during this period, the Baku Council strove to reduce as much as possible the Azerbaijani population in Baku and Elisavetpol gubernias.
Moreover, it was precisely in the wake of these events, that Bolshevik leaders seriously considered plans to take Baku and several neighboring regions away from Azerbaijan and include them within the Russian Federation.  The Bolsheviks even prepared documents to provide an ideological justification of such an action.
Joseph Stalin, the Bolshevik’s leading specialist on the nationality question, said that in economic terms, Baku’s oil region had nothing in common with the rest of Azerbaijan, a view that was then echoed by Shaumyan and other Armenian and Bolshevik leaders in the Baku Council and by the Dashnaks more generally because such an arrangement would allow them to expand Armenia significantly. 
But nothing came of that or of plans by the Bolsheviks and Dashnaks to reduce the Azerbaijani share of the population in the region.  They did not succeed in decapitating the Azerbaijani national movement, and despite the blood shed at that time, Bolshevik leaders later said that they had “pursued with insufficient energy” the Musavatists on whom they placed all the blame for the March events. 
These events, however, did have a major impact on the thinking of Azerbaijanis.  They destroyed what authority the Bolsheviks had among Azerbaijanis and strengthened the social base of the national forces led by the Musavat Party.  In addition and despite all the suffering, the March 1918 events contributed to the consolidation of the Azerbaijan national movement and even the Azerbaijani nation, a development that provided the foundation for the emergence of the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan shortly thereafter and the recovery of Azerbaijani independence in 1991.


Rasulzade, M.E. (1990). The Azerbaijan Republic, Baku (in Azerbaijani).

Балаев, Айдын (2008). Февральская революция и национальные окраины: Мартовские события 1918 года в Азербайджане, Москва: «Флинта».  


[1] Azerbaijan newspaper (in Azerbaijani), 1918, December 8.