Vol. 3, No. 16-17 (September 01, 2010)

The formation of contemporary Azerbaijani society: The role of the Russian conquest in the rise of a new elite

Altay Goyushov, Visiting Professor, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)
Naomi Caffee, PhD candidate, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)
Robert Denis, PhD candidate, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)

To understand contemporary Azerbaijan, one has to understand the rise of the native secularly educated intelligentsia that came into being after the Russian conquest and that has been the driving force behind every crucial ideological transformation in Azerbaijani society.  Not surprisingly, this has become a subject of particular debate in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the restoration of the Republic of Azerbaijan.

There is an intense debate about who were the first messengers of the drastic changes that emerged after the Russian conquest.  Some argue that poets and thinkers like Gasimbay Zakir, Mirza Shafi Vazeh or Seyyid Azim Shirvani introduced a new strand of critical thought, while others view them as part of an insignificant transitional episode.  But it is not disputed that in comparison with these purely “Muslim-educated” literati, those who received a mixed Islamic and secular Russian or European education had a greater impact on Azerbaijani society than their predecessors and can be called the true founding fathers of a new kind of local elite.   

For the first generation of Russified Azerbaijani intellectuals, Russian Imperial culture, the Russian language, and Russian schools were gateways to Western culture more generally.  Having learned Russian, these new elites had access to Russian and Western culture.  They became enamored of democracy, social justice, and the development of a secular national identity.  They served as conduits of progressive thought.

Abbasgulu aga Bakikhanov, a descendant of the ruling dynasty and a nephew of the last khan of Baku, became the first representative of this new Westernized Azerbaijani intelligentsia.  His mission of enlightenment was informed by both the traditional cultural values of the Muslim world and socially progressive European and Russian ideas, which is demonstrated by his choice of languages.  In Bakikhanov’s time, knowledge of Arabic and Persian were still considered crucial to a good education, but he chose to write some of his works in Russian and Azerbaijani (Aghayev and Hashimov 1989, pp. 187-188), thus symbolically taking the first step in the process of Westernization and national awakening.

Moreover, Bakikhanov wrote the first proposal for a Russian-style Azerbaijani school.  Classes would be conducted in Russian, Azerbaijani and Persian.  A Russian teacher would teach Russian, arithmetic, rhetoric, geography and history, while the Azerbaijani teachers would teach Persian and be responsible for religious education.  Bakikhanov himself offered to teach a final fourth class, which would be devoted entirely to Arabic and “should be created only in order to show the people the government’s goal to preserve in its purity Muslim law” (Aghayev and Hashimov 1989, p. 199).  This strategy of making progressive ideas palatable to the general population by tying them to traditional elements of culture is one that the Azerbaijani intelligentsia has repeatedly employed.

The Azerbaijani intellectuals who followed Bakikhanov were much more radical reformers.  Mirza Kazimbay studied Arabic, philosophy and Islamic law with the best teachers available; but already as a young man, he was attracted by Western currents of progressive thought.  In 1823, he converted to Christianity, a step which sets him apart from all other Azerbaijani “enlighteners.”  He considered himself a member of Russian society and called for Russia to play a special role in civilizing the Muslim world (Kazimbäy 1985, pp. 380-381).

The key figure in the modernization and Westernization movement within Azerbaijan, however, was clearly Mirza Fatali Akhundzade (1812-1878).  Born to a religious family in Shaki, Akhundzade spent his youth under the tutelage of Shia clerics.  In 1834, he accepted a position with the Russian chancellery in Tiflis as the chief translator of Oriental languages and remained with the Russian Imperial Army as a professor and translator of Oriental languages until his death.

Akhundzade’s career had a wide-ranging influence on the Azerbaijani intelligentsia.  His work was “an attack on… traditional customs and beliefs, arbitrary power, irrationalism, superstition, and [traditional] gender relationships” (Kia 1998, p. 5).  His writings feature a clear dichotomy between reason and religion, as in his mid-century comedies—the first plays ever written in Azerbaijani—which focus on figures from traditional Islamic society failing to adapt to modernity.  The focus of Akhundzade’s satire are traditional Islamic practice and the social order it supports, one he characterized as being marked by backwardness, inequality, stagnation, and superstition.  In contrast, Akhundzade begins his most important philosophical statement, Three Letters, [1] with a utopian vision of pre-Islamic Iran.  He imagines it as a constitutional monarchy which was just and economically thriving and goes on to lament the loss of these great progressive achievements while railing against Islam and Oriental despotism, which pushed Iran into backwardness (Akhundzade 2005, p. 23).

Although Akhundzade was pessimistic about the possibility of reforming Muslim society, he expended more energy and did more to bring about reform than anyone of his generation.  He introduced Western literary genres to Azerbaijan and Iran, was the first to propose alphabet reform, helped to open schools, and actively participated in public debate.  And his influence continued well into the following century.

If the first Azerbaijani intellectuals were primarily theorists of enlightenment, the next generation included practitioners.  Specifically, the latter generation set out to convince the Azerbaijani public of the advantages inherent in Western civilization over traditional Muslim civilization.  They created outlets for the dissemination of their views: a progressive education system, a national press, a national theater, etc.  Although they were enthralled by Western ideas, they were still well-versed in Islamic law and Muslim philosophy, a set of knowledge that gave them legitimacy and made them formidable ideological opponents of the conservative sections of Azerbaijani society.

One of the most prominent figures of the second generation was Hasanbay Zardabi.  Born in 1842, he received a traditional Muslim education and then in 1861, went to study the natural sciences in Moscow.  Upon his return to Azerbaijan, Zardabi began actively promoting Western science and progressive ideas.  He opened the first Azerbaijani theater, wrote the first Azerbaijani science textbook, helped to open several schools and, most crucially, and began publishing the first independent newspaper in Azerbaijani, Äkinçi (“The Ploughman”).  Founded in 1875, Äkinçi was written in a spoken dialect of Azerbaijani, not Ottoman Turkish.  The issues discussed in the pages of Äkinçi ranged from dairy production to Russian and Ottoman politics to the latest scientific discoveries in the West.  Zardabi published letters from his readers (including from Akhundzade), thereby creating the first forum for truly national debate on the most pressing issues of the time.  The paper was published for only two years, and its circulation was never large (Badalov 2007), but its publication nonetheless marked a major step forward for the Azerbaijani intelligentsia.

As soon as the tsarist censorship permitted, more new newspapers appeared in Azerbaijan.  Of these, the most impressive was the weekly satirical journal Molla Nasraddin, whose publisher and primary author was Mirza Jalil Mammadguluzade.  Mammadguluzade, born in 1866 in Nakhchivan, was one of the first graduates of the new Azerbaijani section of the Gori Pedagogical Seminary, which Akhundzade had helped to open and whose graduates included an entire generation of Azerbaijani enlighteners (Abdullayev 1966, p. 100).  Mammadguluzade’s weekly was dedicated more to agitation than education.  It mocked the ignorance, corruption and backwardness: The cover of the first issue shows several sleeping Muslims whom Molla Nasraddin tries in vain to wake them up.
When addressing his audience, Mammadguluzade always referred to them as “my Muslim brothers.”  Like the first generation of Azeri intelligentsia, Mammadguluzade saw Islam as the main component of his identity.  Bakikhanov, Kazimbay and Akhundzade all knew Azerbaijani and Persian equally well.  Their works were addressed equally to Caucasian Muslims, Iranians, and Ottoman Turks, who were all connected by a complex web of religious, cultural and linguistic ties.  Azerbaijanis were Shia like the Iranians, and educated Azerbaijanis knew Persian.  On the other hand, their native language was very closely related to Turkish, although Ottoman Turks were Sunni.

During this period of cultural and political awakening, identity issues were at the forefront of the intelligentsia’s ideological battles.  Influenced by European nationalist movements and particularly pan-Slavism, leading Azeri intellectuals began to see themselves as part of the wider Turkic-speaking world.  Considering the anti-clerical stance of nearly all Azeri intellectuals, pan-Turkism was able to quickly replace Islam as the main component of Azerbaijani identity.

This ideological shift is vividly illustrated by the life of Ahmadbay Aghaoglu.  After receiving a traditional Muslim education and then finishing a Russian gymnasium, Aghaoglu went to continue his studies in Paris.  Immersing himself in West European Oriental Studies, he became a frequent contributor to various Orientalist publications.  Aghaoglu “left Russian Azerbaijan with a religious-imperial identity, i.e. as a Rus Müsəlman,” [2] and forced to consider the question of his nationality by current intellectual trends in France, it was “easy to focus on Persia, the spiritual home of the religion which had always been one of his identifying affiliations” (Shissler 2003, p. 84).  Aghaoglu became one of the leading proponents of Shia Muslim, i.e. Persian, identity among the Azerbaijani intelligentsia.  Upon his return to the Caucasus, however, Aghaoglu began to reconsider this position.  Many factors spoke in favor of promoting an ethnic, Turkic element as the main constituent of national identity.

By the beginning of the 20th century, Islam lost out as the primary source of revivalist ideology to the secularizing ideology of Turkic nationalism.  Intellectuals like Alibäy Huseynzade still wanted to modernize their societies, but, unlike Akhundzade or Mirza Kazimbay, they were no longer content being ruled by Russia and assimilating to Russian or Western culture.  Instead, they made it their mission to awaken the Turkic-speaking peoples of the Russian and Ottoman Empires to their common identity (Huseynova 2006, pp. 12-13). 

In the 19th century, a newly formed generation of secularly educated individuals “evolved into the conscience of the nation” (Mostashari 1992, p. 129), overcoming initial resistance and ultimately defeating the Muslim clergy in the fight for moral leadership.  The newly formed local intelligentsia launched attacks on the mullahs and sheikhs, portraying them as a source of the ignorance and backwardness of the Muslim community.  By targeting the religious in popular mass media, plays and poetry, singling them out as a hindrance to education and development, intellectuals like Akhundzade, Zardabi, Sabir and Mammadguluzade completely compromised the “spiritual leadership” of the local Muslim community and fashioned a “cult of the secularly educated man.” 

They also succeeded in transforming former “Shia Iranians” into “newly secular Azerbaijanis.”  In 1918, after the fall of tsarist regime, Azerbaijan briefly became independent, and yesterday’s writers, doctors, teachers and lawyers became the new ruling political elite.  But Sovietization significantly damaged the intelligentsia’s moral authority, as it lost its previously undisputed independence in shaping its own agenda and democratic legacy.  But, and this is crucial for today, the Azerbaijani Soviet intelligentsia (ziyalilar in Azerbaijani) were able to preserve several crucial ideological traditions of its pre-Soviet predecessors, which formed the foundation of a “powerful and sophisticated national movement” (Bennigsen 1979, p. 4).  As a result, the Soviet Union’s demise was not the ideological catastrophe for Azerbaijani intellectuals some had expected.  Instead,  Azerbaijani historians, orientalists, philosophers and philologists quickly cut their ties with the Communist past and launched the ongoing reexamination of their earlier national rebirth.


Abdullayev, A. (1966) From History of Azerbaijani Language Teaching, Baku: Maarif Näşriyyatı. 

Aghaev, A. & A. Hashimov, eds. (1989) Anthology of Pedagogical Thought in the Azerbaijan SSR, in Russian, Moscow: Pedagogika.  

Akhundzade, Mirza Fatali (2005) Works, in Azerbaijani, Vol. II, Baku: Sharq-Garb. 

Badalov, Rahman (2007) “Zardabi,” 3 March, available at: http://kultura.az/articles.php?item_id=20080506090316030&sec_id=20 (accessed 10 August, 2010).

Bennigsen, Alexandre (1979) “Azerbaidzjhan,” Occasional Paper, No. 61, Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies, Wilson Center, May.

Huseynova, Sadagat (2006) “Fuzuyat” Magazine and language problems, in Azerbaijani, Baku: Elm.

Kazimbäy, Mirza (1985) Selected Works, in Russian, Baku: Elm.  

Kia, Mehrdad (1998) “Women, Islam and Modernity in Akhundzade's Plays and Unpublished Writings,” Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 34, No. 3, July. 

Mostashari, F. (1992) On the Religious Frontier: Tsarist Russia and Islam in the Caucasus, London & New York: I.B. Tauris.

Shissler, Holly (2003) Between Two Empires: Ahmet Agaoglu and the New Turkey, London & New York: I.B. Tauris. 


[1] The full title reads as follows: “Hindistan şahzadäsi Kämalüddövlänin öz dostu İran şahzadäsi Cälalüddövläyä farsi dilindä yazdığı üç mäktubun vä Cälalüddövlänin ona göndärdiyi cavabın türki dilindä tärcümäsi” [“An Azerbajani Translation of the Indian Prince Kamaluddovla’s Three Letters Written in Persian to His Friend the Iranian Prince Calaluddovla and Calaluddovla’s answer to them”). 

[2] Russian Muslim.