Vol. 1, No. 12 (July 15, 2008)

The evolution of Azerbaijani nationalism: Enlightenment, ADR, and Azerbaijanism

Etibar Najafov
Head of European Studies Department
Baku Slavic University

Mainstream theories of international relations have long ignored ideological factors in their attempts to explain international outcomes.  Reducing the history of international system to the history of class struggle (Marxism), or anarchy-induced global-level competition among major powers (Realism) resulted in missing the important role phenomenon such as nationalism played in the evolution of the international system.  

The collapse of the Soviet empire has only reinforced the primacy of nationalism in shaping major international events.  Nationalism has been a central factor in determining the content and direction of social development in post-Soviet states.  An analysis of the modern history of non-Russian peoples of the former Soviet Union from the perspective of nationalism reveals a new conception of their history as a national liberation movement.  This paper will analyze the history of the Azerbaijani people in the second half of the 19th century – early 20th century to demonstrate the importance of this methodological approach as the basis for a redefinition of the modern histories of non-Russian populations associated with the former Soviet empire.  
Cultural Nationalism.  Some scholars have historicized Eastern nationalist movements as passing through distinct cultural, political, and economic periods (Chavan 1973, p.448; Gokalp 1959, p. 65).  In line with this approach, Azerbaijani nationalism initially manifested itself as a cultural movement beginning in the second half of the 19th century.  At this time, Azerbaijan was a province of Tsarist Russia, which executed a policy of open Russification, discrimination and oppression of national minorities.  This experience shaped Azerbaijani nationalism as a struggle of the Azerbaijani people for national and cultural independence. 
Such prominent Azerbaijani artists, writers and philosophers like Jalil Mammadgulu-zadeh, Hasanbey Zardabi, Mirza Alakbar Sabir, Abdulhasan Hagverdiyev, Najaf Vesirov constituted the foundation of this cultural movement.  Drawing on Mirza Fath Ali Akhundov, they criticized the ignorance and religious fanaticism impeding greater progress and blamed Tsarist Russia for her national policy which they viewed as chauvinistic by nature.  

The activity of these intellectuals assumed a variety of forms.  They opened national schools espousing a new teaching methodology and secular education (Usul-u Cedid) (Saray 1987, p.12); they worked to reform the language and alphabet with the goal of forming the Azerbaijani literary language based on the living popular language (an idea first promoted by Akhundov in the first half of the 20th century); they opened national libraries and reading halls; they established charitable, cultural and public organizations, such as “Nijat”, “Safa”, “Edeb Yurdu”, and “Jamiyyeti-Kheyriyye” (Baykara 1992, p.55), sustained by contributions from wealthy patrons and providing support to national newspapers, magazines, and Azerbaijani students who studied in Europe; and they published newspapers and magazines, such as “Hayat”, “Yeni Hayat”, “Fuyuzat”, “Yeni Fuyuzat”, “Irshad”, “Tereggi”, viewed as an effective means for disseminating the burgeoning national and cultural renaissance.  

In addition, these activities promoted the awakening of an Azerbaijani national consciousness as Azerbaijanis increasingly perceived each other as united by cultural and ethnic bonds.  

Political nationalism.  The transformation of Azerbaijani nationalism from a cultural movement to a political one was rooted in scholarly and political activities of such prominent Azerbaijani intellectuals as Alibey Huseynzadeh, Ahmed Agaoglu, Ali Mardan bek Topchibashev, and Mammad Emin Rasulzadeh.  For the first time, these individuals began to assert the social-political rights of the Azerbaijani people using all means available within the realm of law.  Among their activities were writing petitions addressed to the Tsar and including demands for equal political, civil, religious, cultural, and property rights for Russian Muslims, as well as calls for the need to build a democratic society in Russia.  Other activities included meetings with high governmental officials, convening a Pan-Russian Congress of Muslims and the active participation in the Russian Duma.  

During this period, Pan-Islamism was viewed by representatives of the Azerbaijan intelligentsia as a major obstacle in the way of their national liberation movement.  Rasulzadeh, one of the leaders of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic, noted:
History has demonstrated that by promoting theocratic and clerical reactionary movements, on the one hand, and impeding the formation of the national ideology in the Muslim world, on the other hand, pan-Islamism does not allow for the Muslim peoples to be independent.  We should strengthen the process of the development of the national consciousness in the entire Muslim world because the formation of national identity is the real cause of social progress and the basis for national independence (Rasulzadeh 1985, p.58).

Initially, representatives of Azerbaijani nationalism advocated the idea of pan-Turkism and called for unification with Turkey (Keykurun 1964, pp. 57-79).  Yet the leaders of Azerbaijan’s first democratic republic eventually rejected this idea in favor of a new political concept of Azerbaijanism, which would reflect the unique social, economic, political, and cultural development the Azerbaijani people had gone through.  Also, it would unite Turkification, Islamization and modernization as three directions of social development.  First suggested by Alibey Huseynzadeh in 1905 (Heyd 1950, p. 150), the concept of Azerbaijanism turned into the official doctrine of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic and found its symbolic expression in the three-colored flag of the Republic.  

Until March 1918 proponents of Azerbaijanism adhered to federalism in their national liberation struggle and advocated national autonomy within the sovereign borders of Russia.  But the events of March 1918, when the Bolsheviks allied with the Armenian paramilitary forces massacred over 10,000 Azerbaijanis in Baku and Shamakhy, forced the leadership of the Azerbaijani nationalist movement to reject federalism in favor of political independence.  The result was the establishment of the first-ever Democratic Republic in the entire Muslim world on May 28, 1918.   

The establishment of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (ADR) was an important milestone in the evolution of Azerbaijani nationalism because it set the groundwork for the emergence of economic nationalism.  However, this stage did not materialize as the Bolshevik invasion and occupation of Azerbaijan on April 28, 1920 put an end to the ADR and interrupted the historical evolution of Azerbaijani nationalism, which would only begin to re-emerge in the late 1980s.     


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