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

Moscow was trying to save its empire, not Armenians, in January 1990

Vugar Seyidov
AzerTag, Berlin

Twenty years after the fact, the events of January 1990 remain a source of controversy especially since some groups are seeking to distort the record in order to promote their own narrow political agendas.  This year, for example, the Armenian media have insisted with one voice that the killing of more than 130 Azerbaijani civilians in Baku by the Soviet Army was justified because only by taking that step could Moscow hope “to finally stop the massacres of Christian Armenians in [the] mostly Muslim capital” (e.g. Gharibyan 2010). 

But if the Soviet forces truly had such a noble-sounding mission, how did it happen that this “humanitarian” effort ended with the deaths of so many and the saving of not even one life?  And that question in turn leads to other and more significant ones:  What was the real aim of those who introduced the Soviet military into Baku?  Was it to save something or to kill?  Or was the aim of Moscow “noble” but the actions of the generals “unprofessional” in that they killed more than a hundred peaceful people and did not engage in any search for those who supposedly needed help?

The answers to all these questions are provided by even the briefest review of what was taking place in Azerbaijan and in the Soviet capital in 1989.  By the end of that year, political power in Baku had passed into the hands of the Popular Front because the Communist Party had completely lost the trust of the people.  Party leaders controlled their own administrative offices and very little else.  Moscow recognized that party secretary Abdulrahman Vazirov and his associates were losing control of the situation and that in elections scheduled for February 1990, the Popular Front would likely win almost all of the seats.  In that event, the first act of the new parliament would be the declaration of Azerbaijan’s independence from the Soviet Union.

If some in Moscow were prepared to tolerate the possible loss of the three small Baltic countries – and far from all of the senior officials in the Soviet capital were – no one in the Kremlin was prepared to accept the loss of strategically important and energy rich Azerbaijan.  Indeed, people in Moscow concluded, that if Azerbaijan were to declare its independence, that step, far more than anything the Baltic nationalists might do, would trigger the destruction of the Soviet Union.  Consequently, Moscow decided to teach Azerbaijan a lesson by the use of force and thus send a message to all the other Soviet republics. 

We now know that hardliners in the KGB had begun planning a series of steps to prevent the Azerbaijani Popular Front from coming to power.  They wanted the February elections to be postponed indefinitely if not cancelled altogether.  But to do that, Moscow needed a pretext, and the KGB organized one: pogroms against the remaining Armenian residents in the Azerbaijani capital.  Most Armenians had already left, but the KGB organized attacks on the remaining ones, sending undercover agents to provoke Azerbaijanis who had been forced from their homes by the Armenian advance and occupation.

Beginning on January 13 and continuing until January 15, KGB-led crowds attacked Armenians in Baku.  By January 16, the Armenians who survived were evacuated to safer places not by Soviet officials but by Popular Front activists who could see that the Moscow-inspired pogroms were a provocation intended to justify a move against the independence movement.  Significantly, the 13,000 Soviet troops then stationed in the city did nothing to block the attacks against Armenians.  One soldier at the time told me that he and his comrades “had been given orders not to intervene but rather let the violence continue.”

So much for the notion that Moscow intervened to protect “the Christian Armenians” or anyone else!  In any case, by January 16, the KGB-inspired violence had stopped.  If Moscow was interested in protecting the Armenians, why did it wait until January 20 to send in troops?  The reason is that Moscow dispatched these forces not to save Armenians but to save the totalitarian empire.

And that reality, one that some Armenians and others now prefer to forget, is confirmed by something else.  When the Soviet forces came into Baku, they did not head to the neighborhoods where Armenians had lived.  Instead, they focused their attention on taking over government buildings and the headquarters of the Popular Front, blowing up the television station and closing newspapers, and killing anyone who evinced any curiosity in what they were doing.  None of this had anything to do with the Armenians.  Instead, the Soviet army was sent to kill Soviet citizens, not to save them.

That is something that Armenians and others must remember, however much they would like to exploit a different paradigm to explain what happened.  And it is something Azerbaijanis must remember as well, recognizing that the tragic events in Baku were something very different from the tragic events in Sumgayit earlier.  The latter were spontaneous; the former were Moscow ordered and KGB-organized, a classic example of a failing empire trying to save itself by killing its own people and as a result hastening its own demise.


Gharibyan, Ivan (2010) “January 20: Azeri Mass Media Let Imagination Run Wild”, News.am, 19 January, available at http://news.am/en/news/12490.html (accessed 22 January 2010).