Vol. 3, No. 19 (October 01, 2010)

Ethnic relations in the schools of Azerbaijan during the crises of 1905 and 1918

Parvin Ahanchi, PhD
Leading Research Fellow

Institute of History

Azerbaijan National Academy of Sciences

The political crises of 1905 and 1918 affected all institutions of Azerbaijani society, none more than the schools, as recently opened materials in the Azerbaijan National Archive show.  In both years, students met, organized, staged protests and submitted petitions calling for “freedom of thought” and “freedom of assembly within the walls of the school.”  And those protests in turn had an impact not only on the quality of education the students at that time were receiving but also on the emergence of a distinctly Azerbaijani elite, one that viewed its own culture and identity as very different from the Russian conquerors who had organized the schools there and from their Armenian fellow students.

In both of these years, conflicts spread to the schools from the oil fields and the fishing fleets and significantly interrupted the educational process.  In 1905, many schools were closed because of students’ demands for an overhaul of their curricula and because officials could see that social democratic activists were increasingly turning their attention to the students in order to challenge the officials of Imperial Russia. 

The director of the Commercial College reported that “due to the bloody clashes between the Armenian and Tatar population which began in Baku on August 20 [1905] and which have paralyzed all public institutions, all educational institutions are closed. [1] And he noted that his predecessor had asked the Russian governor general to send guards to the college because of “rumors that Armenians are planning to burn [the school] which is located in the house of a Tatar." [2] Nine days later, the archives show, the college director made a personal appeal to the Governor General for guards, but that official first sent only five soldiers to patrol the schools and then suggested postponing the opening of the school year and allowing teachers and their families to remain outside Baku until September 15.  But by early September, it had become clear that the situation would not be calmed by those steps alone.

Other sources in the archives show that some of the forces of order, including the Cossacks, were taking sides in the ethnic disputes rather than simply enforcing order, a shift that exacerbated the ethnic feelings and activism of the various groups.  And that was true even though in most protests, the students acted together rather than along ethnic lines, just as workers were doing.  As the tsarist government required, the teachers were monitoring the students to detect and block any revolutionary activity.  But by mid-September, ethnic tensions were increasing, even as the students’ multi-national board at the Commercial College collectively rejected the director’s call for them to begin the school year.  Denouncing the leadership’s call as the work of a “colonial” government, the activism of the students led to the closure of the college for another six months.  During that time, Muslim students demanded the introduction of Turkish language courses alongside the program mandated by the tsarist authorities.

By mid-November, the students were advancing even more political demands, noting that “the abnormal situation in Baku is not the result of local conditions but rather of the political regime in Russia.  The bureaucracy is not doing anything to calm the situation but rather, by its repressive acts, is dissolving the ties among the various strata of the society…”. [3]

A similar pattern, in which forces outside the school invaded its precincts, could be seen in 1918.  Educators in Baku initially tried to calm tensions between the Azerbaijanis and the Armenians, but the steps they took in the name of “saving the students, the best part of society,” were insufficient by that time.  And the police structures were increasingly unable to control even the teaching staff. [4] And the new Azerbaijani authorities replaced many of them, naming Ali Iskandar-Zade a teacher of the Turkic language on September 11, 1919. [5] (Subsequently, Soviet investigations found that many of these new teachers never in fact appeared at the schools). [6]
Sometimes parents were behind the school closings because they feared that their children would not be safe, but the students came increasingly under the influence of the workers.  Indeed, they often referred to workers as “role models” and accepted many of their ideas, although the workers in their demands typically remained more internationalist than the students were becoming.  In any case, student radicalism and demands for a more national school system with courses in the language of the students kept the schools closed longer than might otherwise have been the case and even with courses in Islam rather than Russian Orthodox Christianity.  

In this way, as the archives make clear, the schools and especially their students played a far more significant role in the conflicts of these two revolutionary years and in the formation of an Azerbaijani national consciousness than is generally recognized in the literature. 


[1] ARHA, f. 316, list 1, rec. 21, commerce school, on school break in 1905/06, p. 7.

[2] Ibid, p. 3. 

[3] ARHA, f. 316, list 1, rec. 21, commerce school, on school break in 1905/06, p. 7. 

[4] ARHA, f. 396, list 1, rec. 1, p. 3.

[5] ARHA, f. 396, list 1, rec. 1, pp. 1-2.

[6] ARHA, f. 396, list 1, rec. 1, p. 3.