Vol. 5, No. 3 (February 01, 2012)

How Black January united Azerbaijan, changed the West, and destroyed the USSR

Paul Goble
Publications Advisor
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy*

Moscow’s brutal application of force against the Azerbaijani people on January 19-20, 1990, an event Azerbaijanis commemorate each year as Black January, not only united Azerbaijanis around the conviction that they were not part of “the Soviet people” but must have an independent existence, but also changed the way the international community viewed the Soviet system and thus played a key role in destroying a regime, which had sought to keep itself in power by force alone. 

More than any other action by the Soviet regime under Mikhail Gorbachev, Moscow’s Baku operation was truly an indiscriminate use of force.  More than 60,000 rounds of ammunition were fired by ill-trained and poorly controlled Russian troops who killed more than 130 and wounded more than 1,000 Azerbaijanis, the vast majority of whom up to that point had little to do with the dissident or independence movements.  However, this action backfired, not least convincing Azerbaijanis that from Moscow’s perspective, they were all opponents of the Soviet regime, and that in fact Moscow by such actions had made them precisely that.

Even more, the Azerbaijanis, other nations within the borders of the USSR, and the West saw that the Soviet system for all its protestations to the contrary was based on an ethnic hierarchy and was prepared to play the ethnic card to keep itself in operation.  On the one hand, Moscow’s claims that it had to use force because Azerbaijanis were dismantling border posts with Iran that separated them from their co-ethnics to the south and to defend Soviet military installations in and around Baku are undercut by the Soviet government’s failure to make use of the more than 12,000 interior ministry troops in the Azerbaijani capital.  The reason was clear: Moscow wasn’t willing to take the risk that Azerbaijanis among those troops would refuse to fire on their own people.

And on the other hand, Moscow simultaneously brought in predominantly ethnic Russian troops from the RSFSR for the operation and sought to portray them as standing between the ethnic Azerbaijanis and ethnic Armenians.  This latter effort was transparently false, although it has garnered some success among Russian nationalists, some Armenian nationalists and some in the West as well.  All these groups should remember that former Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosyan has said that there was no basis for Moscow’s charges and that any conflicts between the two nations in the South Caucasus at that time were Soviet provocations. 

Another aspect of Black January that continues to resonate 22 years after the events is that Moscow’s claims notwithstanding, this Soviet police action in Baku was not a spasmodic response to events, but rather a carefully planned and cold blooded—if horrifically carried out—operation.  Obviously, governments sometimes respond to unexpected events in ugly ways that they have not fully considered.  But the Russian “Shield” military rights group has documented that the Soviet authorities planned their moves into Baku not in the days immediately preceding the application of force, but rather at least five months earlier—in August 1989!  Gorbachev’s efforts to suggest otherwise at the time simply are not credible.

Still, perhaps the most important event in the tragedy of Black January was one that took place not in Baku, but in Moscow.  On the day after the Soviet forces moved into the Azerbaijani capital, Heydar Aliyev, who had been communist party secretary in Azerbaijan, a member of the Soviet Politburo, and a senior security official, went to the offices of the permanent representation of the Azerbaijan SSR in the Soviet capital to cast his lot with the Azerbaijani people and thus against the Soviet regime of which he had until then been a part.  That action had three major consequences.

First, it lent legitimacy to the decision of many Communist Party members in Azerbaijan to tear up their party cards, an action that—however much some of them may have taken in the heat of the moment—represented a crossing of the Rubicon as far as Azerbaijani nationalism is concerned.

Second, Heydar Aliyev’s declaration at the time of Black January served as the basis both for his assumption of the presidency of an independent Azerbaijan several years later and for his defining role in the Azerbaijani political system to this day.  By putting himself on the side of the people rather than the police, he showed himself to be a true Azerbaijani and showed the way for many others to follow.

And third, Heydar Aliyev’s statement, coming as Moscow continued its brutal crackdown in Baku, had a profound impact on Western governments and Western public opinion.  Many in the West up to that point had maintained in their own minds a clear distinction between the situation in Eastern Europe and the three Baltic states, on the one hand, and the 12 republics of the Soviet Union, on the other.  Such observers in government and out by that time viewed the regimes in Eastern Europe and the Baltic countries as illegitimate, as kept in power only by the threat or application of Soviet force, but most of them viewed the rest of the USSR as somehow a single country, one that they hoped Mikhail Gorbachev would reform.

Black January demonstrated that this distinction was no longer valid, if indeed it had ever been, and as a result, more and more officials and citizens in the West recognized that what former President Ronald Reagan had called “the evil empire” was exactly that—both evil and an empire.  That shift in understanding opened the way for greater Western support of the Russian and the non-Russian peoples against the Soviet powers that be and thus opened the way to the demise of the USSR just under two years later.

Thus, Black January in Azerbaijan, a year before the much more widely publicized events in Vilnius, led people in the USSR and in the West to realize that the Soviet system was finished.  (Later the events in Baku compelled Mikhail Gorbachev to acknowledge that his use of military force in Azerbaijan was “the worst mistake” of his career, a confession and an indictment not only of the former Soviet president, but of the system and country he tried to save but ended by destroying.)

This January as they have every year since 1990, Azerbaijanis around the world have commemorated Black January, some of them like current President Ilham Aliyev visiting the Martyrs Lane in the center of Baku, and others assembling in Azerbaijani embassies around the world.  But there is no doubt that all of them would agree with the assessment Polad Bulbuloglu, Baku’s ambassador in Moscow, made in the Russian capital this year.  He noted that “of all the peoples of the former Soviet Union, the Azerbaijanis paid the very highest price for their freedom.” [1] 

* Remarks to a commemoration of Black January at the Embassy of the Republic of Azerbaijan in Washington, D.C., January 20, 2012.


[1] See http://news.day.az/politics/310675.html (accessed 25 January 2012).