Vol. 3, No. 3 (February 01, 2010)

Black January as the Azerbaijani Fourth of July

Thomas Goltz
Adjunct Professor of Political Science
Montana State University

On the night that I agreed to write my analysis about the events of January 19/20 1990 in Baku, then capital of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan (AzSSR), I left my new Senior Political Science project class at Montana State University, walked to my car and reflected on the real and true level of international-awareness among my fourth-year “Capstone” graduating students, and sighed. 

January 19, 2010 was the first meeting of our first class, and although several of the students had previously subjected themselves to “Goltz’s Gulag”—meaning a crash course in the political geography of the post-Soviet space—the majority of those university seniors specializing in the discipline called ‘Political Science’ were largely clueless not only about the basic geopolitical space in question, but also the very geography of Eurasia.

Accordingly, as a professor of “arcane” international subjects, I have developed a thick skin.  I no longer expect my students to know where Russia is (or what it is) on a map on the first day of class, much less the real “where” and “what” of Azerbaijan.  But I know that by the end of my class sometime in early May, they will not only be able to whiz through an expanded map quiz of some 50 entities, but also be responsible for a vast amount of information that they were previously ignorant about for the very good reason that nobody had ever bothered to talk to them about the issues facing the post-Soviet states in general, and Azerbaijan in particular.

These were some of the thoughts running through my brain when I turned the key in the 1992 Cadillac given to me by Vahid, the Susha refugee/used car dealer in Billings (“for my services to Azerbaijan over the years”) and drove the 30 kilometers through a canyon and over an icy pass to my home outside Livingston, Montana (population around 7,000 souls) on the banks of the Yellowstone River, which has its headwaters in the world’s first national park by the same name.

What does any of this have to do with the concept of “Black January”? 

Believe me, I will eventually get to the point.

As intuited, the class I was teaching on January 19 is a senior thesis seminar in the department of Political Science.  Accordingly, the first order of business was for me to introduce myself and explain where my areas of self-perceived expertise lay, and where my self-perceived areas of weakness were/are. 

Not surprisingly, I extolled my accumulated knowledge on the Muslim world with a special focus on Turkey, and then on the post-Soviet world, with a special focus on the Caucasus, and an even narrower focus on Azerbaijan. 

And this was the personal story I told them:

I first showed up in the Azerbaijani part of the crumbling, moribund part of the then-USSR in the summer of 1991 on my way to then-Soviet Uzbekistan, and completely by accident, because sometimes things happen like that. 

The word in English is called “serendipity,” or less elegantly, “fate.”

The main point of the extended personal story to my students was that I was then as they were now essentially clueless about whatever that entity called the AzSSR part of the USSR was all about, but that I was a quick study because I had to be because I had the dubious privilege of arriving at exactly the time of the collapse of Soviet authority in Azerbaijan and the ensuing independence period. 

I continued the tale in the following vein: 

The weekly mass-meetings on Lenin (now renamed Freedom) Square resulted in the periodic “exclusive” interviews with people and personalities that the western media had no interest in knowing about, chief among them being a certain Heydar (“Gaidar”) Aliyev.  Among the post-Soviet personalities that ranked as worthy of western attention at the time were then-Azerbaijani (post) Communist Party boss Ayaz Mutallibov and Sheikh ul-Islam Allahshukhur Pashazade (whom we quickly and accurately if not exactly deferentially started to call “Thank-God, Son-of-a-General”). 

All this was very long ago, relatively speaking, and all summed up very nicely in my book about the chaotic period of 1991-94 (and maybe ’96), entitled Azerbaijan Diary: A Rogue Reporter’s Adventures in an Oil-Rich, War-Torn, Post-Soviet Republic. 

I never liked the title, although I stand by the book, I told my students.

(Weirdly, and while used by Azerbaijani diplomats as a “reality gift” item for their colleagues from Mexico to Vienna (and certainly London, Ottawa and Washington), it has yet to be published in Azerbaijani.  The translation is done; the book is set.  The best recommendation comes from my old friend, the Late Great Heydar Aliyev himself, who commanded that the book about the “difficult” rebirth of Azerbaijan be available in Azerbaijani almost a decade ago).

My point is this.

On the evening of January 19, 2010, when I surveyed my 25-odd students at Montana State University about what their general academic interests were and how we might find mutually interesting and challenging subjects for their respective “Capstones” (meaning senior thesis projects), the majority responded that they had selected me because they either had previously had classes with me or had heard about me through friends, and that they were all determined to experience what has deliciously been described as “Goltz’s Gulag,” meaning academic hell.


That means they know me, student/academic-wise.  That means they do not take my classes because they are easy.  They take them because they want to learn, actually learn something.


But what does any of this have to do with Black January?


Everyone at my university knows that in addition to the fact that I am a demanding professor with low toleration for nonsense, and one of the few on staff who is consistently asked to travel and pontificate on a range of different subjects.  But mainly, I am “Mister Azerbaijan.” 

In addition to my Montana classes, I have spoken on Azerbaijan-related subjects in London, DC, NYC, Brussels, Berkley and Ottawa (to name a few venues) and have invitations pending to Mexico, Prague, New Delhi and Tokyo. 

You might say that I have been lionized by certain sections of Azerbaijani society; you might also conclude that as a result of my high-profile status in Baku, that I have also been demonized by those who disagree with whatever message I convey. 

Usually and not surprisingly, my critics tend to be of the Armenian persuasion.  Very specifically, they have declared me to be a stooge, a fraud, a paid-flunky for everyone from the CIA to Mossad and generally a pathological or at least well-trained liar.

The list is long.

As might be imagined, over the years I have developed a skin of steel about these nasty accusations and character-destroying fabrications.

Which brings me back to the point.

As a typical (?!) American student in the late 1970s and early 1980s, if I had heard anything about Baku and Azerbaijan, almost all of it was negative.

Not only was Azerbaijan a part of generic “Russia,” but in addition to being a bastion of communism, it apparently was the next place to embrace Islamic fundamentalism, and of the virulent Shiite Muslim variety.

Indeed.  How could Mr. Glasnost and Perestroika Mikhail Gorbachev not send in government troops to subdue this Islamic (and most likely, Iranian/Ayatollah Khomeini-based!) sedition?

That, my friends, is the way that the events of January 19/20, 1990 were seen in most of the world—at least by greenhorns like me. 

Perched in Ankara, Turkey at the time, I recall the words of the late Turkish President, Turgut Ozal, on state TV.  This is a paraphrase, but it captures the essence: Shiite Muslims gone mad!  Put them down, now!


Today, that knee-jerk response to the events of Black January seems utterly ridiculous, insulting to the victims of the brutal killings of that night, and an absolute disgrace to media reporting of the events and subsequent analysis of how and why January 19/20, 1990 occurred.

But at the time, it was normal: a Moscow-based, maybe lil’-bit Russian-speaking correspondent of the New York Times or Washington Post, rightly focused on Kremlin intrigue, gets a call from that pesky “stringer” in the Caucasus, detailing anti-Armenian acts of violence and brutality in Baku—and all described in “religious” terms: Ancient Christians versus Insane Shiite Muslims, etc.

I can only speculate about the motives of those first reporters relating data about the events of January 20, 1990, because I was not there at the time, and only showed up some 18 months later.  But I do speculate about such things now, after some twenty years of reflection and on-the-ground-experience, because so much of the long-distance “western” reporting on Black January seems so totally skewed (Shiites versus Christians) that one has to wonder not only about the accuracy of the original press reports, but also the neutrality of the reporters. 

Veracity, in a word.

My suspicion is tha…Ah, well. We shall not go there.

(The last thing I need right now is a libel suite; I nearly got hit up by one last year by suggesting that some Armenian natives of Karabakh are famous for growing garlic (which I do, too).  This was turned into my having made some ethno-national-“racist” slur, with concomitant demands that I apologize to the Armenian nation, etc.)


But back to the point. 

What everyone seems to agree upon is that Black January was a seminal event in Azerbaijani history, and one that paved the way for the demand for Azerbaijani independence from the USSR upon its collapse/implosion some 18 months later.

Now, having danced around the point for several essay hours in this missive, allow me to go for the throat.

January 19/20, 1990, was a watershed for the AzSSR. 

It created an independence movement that ultimately resulted in the collapse of the superstructure called the USSR itself, and thus the independence of the AzSSR.  And if the collapse of the superstructure—the USSR—is regarded as an absolute desirable, then how can the events of January 19/20, 1990 not be regarded as an absolutely necessary part of that process of the independence of the (now former) AzSSR?

IE: No January 20; no Independent Azerbaijan.

Let me take a hard, theoretical line:

Mourning the event—not the victims!—means the mourner wants to return to Day Zero, in this case, January 18, 1990. 

That was the day when everything (relatively speaking) was fine in the bad-old USSR, the Cold War was still on (relatively speaking) and nobody had ever heard of the chunk of turf called Azerbaijan (like me then, or my current students, now).

A return to Day Zero, January 18, 1990…Is that what the citizens of the proud, reborn Republic of Azerbaijan want?

Maybe—and that is up to you.

If you mourn the passing of the USSR, mourn January 19/20, 1990.

If you celebrate Azerbaijani independence, then honor the martyrs of Black January not as victims, but as leaders of a much larger cause.

Thus, if the convoluted events of the late Soviet period culminating in Black January (with echoes in Georgia, Lithuania, etc) appear to have pre-determined the demise of the USSR, then why not celebrate? 

Fourth-of-July American-style fireworks aside (I personally loath this aspect of celebrating American independence because I really, really hate war, and fireworks are an idiot’s facsimile thereof), the bottom line is this: 

Throughout history, those states/nations/transnational entities who have chosen to break from a distant, central power have most often done so at the price of local blood. 

To reiterate: whether you like it or not, if there had been no traumatic late Soviet Azerbaijani experience, there would be little or no awareness in Montana (or elsewhere in core-USA) of anything academically related to post-Soviet Azerbaijan…

Hard truths, but true. 


Lastly and very weirdly and horribly, I would like to return to the top of this missive: my driving home to my little community in the mountains of Montana in the relative middle of beautiful nowhere.

A certain Professor Goltz is doing so very specifically because in 1991, a relatively small chunk of “Russia” that no one had ever heard about that called itself “Azerbaijan” had just declared itself independent of the thing known generically as “Russia,” meaning the USSR.

Then came war, confusion and chaos—but that small, eagle-shaped thing called “Azerbaijan” managed to put itself on the map. 

No pain, no gain, as they cynically say.

Thus, while it behooves all friends of Azerbaijan to remember the victims of Black January, let us shift the focus from disconsolate mourning to sober celebration.