Azerbaijan in the First World War.
The Russian Empire included Azerbaijan from the late eighteenth century to 1918. Often people simply say Russia when referring to that time period and they mean all the countries that had been absorbed by Russia such as Azerbaijan.
In 1914 a huge war broke out that became known as the First World War. On one side were the Allies: France, the United Kingdom, Russia, Serbia, Belgium and others. On the other side were the Central Powers: Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire (based around Turkey) and Bulgaria.
At that time most of Africa and Asia were colonies of European countries. France and the United Kingdom ruled many colonies around the world but Germany, Belgium, Italy and Portugal also had overseas colonies. Even some Caribbean islands were colonies of France, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.
AZERBAIJAN BEFORE THE FIRST WORLD WAR.
Most Azeris did not like Russian rule. The Russian Government emphasised that Christianity, especially the Orthodox Church, was central to Russian identity. Most people in Russia could not read and write. Most people in Azerbaijan could not speak Russian and so they were denied government jobs. Azeris tended to take their Islamic faith very seriously at the time. The vodka drinking, pork-eating habits of the Russians horrified some of the more religious Azeris. It was also common for Azeri women to wear a veil. The Russian Government had little respect for Islam.
Azerbaijan was not considered very important for Russia until the 1850s. Until that time Azerbaijan was just seen as some territory for Russia to get so that the Ottoman Empire did not get it. The Ottoman Empire and Russia were deadly enemies who went to war against each other seven times in 200 years. The Azeri language has a lot in common with Turkish. Although 90% of Azeri Muslims are SHia Muslims and Turkish Muslims are 99% Sunni both nationalities are at least Muslim. They have that much in common. Surely Azeris and Turks have a lot more in common with each other than Azeris have in common with the Russians.
Russians were inclined to see Turks as enemies but Azeris were not.
In the 1850s oil was discovered in Azerbaijan. This was not incredibly important at first because coal was more important. Coal was used for burning to heat houses, for burning to turn water into steam to make ships and trains run. Coal was also used to power factories. However, some machinery began to switch over to oil. In 1885 a German named Otto Benz invented the car and it needed oil. At first cars were extraordinarily expensive and almost nobody had them. Gradually more cars, buses and trucks were built. Oil became more important. Some ships changed from using coal to using oil. By 1914 oil was almost as important as coal as a fuel source. Azerbaijan had strategic value.
If you look at fine buildings in Baku you will see the dates on them. Many date from the years shortly before the First World War. Baku was undergoing and oil boom. Until the 1850s Baku had been a small port and was not the capital. It assumed great importance because of oil. Russians flooded into the city and Baku expanded rapidly. The oil workers, railwaymen, factory workers and government officials were almost all Russian or Ukrainian. People tended not to distinguish between Russians and Ukrainians at the time because the Ukraine was simply regarded as part of Russia.
Mammad Amin Rasulzade was an Azeri nationalist activist before the First World War. Rasulzade wanted Azerbaijan to break away from Russia which he saw as totally foreign. He founded a political party called the Musavat Party. This political party was illegal and existed secretly. The Musavat Party wanted Azerbaijan to unite with Turkey and all other countries that spoke a language similar to Turkish. The Musavat Party was a secular party. That means it believed that religion should be a private matter. A secularist says that everyone can believe in any religion they want and that the government should not support or oppose any religion. Secularism was quite a daring idea at the time. Almost every country had a government that supported a particular religion. In Russian Orthodox Christianity was the state religion and the Orthodox Church was given special privileges. Orthodox Christians were more trusted than people who belonged to other types of Christianity or indeed who were Muslims or Jews. In the Ottoman Empire Islam was the state religion and the law was based on the Qu’ran which is the holy book of the Muslims.
The Tsar of Russia at the time was Nicholas II. He was not a man who was born with great leadership skills. It is hard to find a historian who praises him. The country was not ready for a war. Within a month of going to war Russia suffered a heavy defeat by the German Army at the Battle of Tannenberg.
The Ottoman Empire was then most of the Middle East. It comprised what we now call Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon and parts of Saudi Arabia. Turkish was the official language of this empire but most of its people spoke Arabic as their first language. About 90% of the people of the Ottoman Empire was Muslims and practically all the rest were Christians. The Ottoman Empire was neutral for the first few months. However, the Ottoman Navy bombarded the Russian Black Sea Coast. Russia declared war on the Ottoman Empire.
Soon there was fighting in the Caucasus. Ottoman troops fought against Russian troops. Many of the Russian soldiers were not really Russian. Many of them came from the non-Russian parts of the Russian Empire such as Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, eastern Poland, Kazakstan, Georgia and so on.
Some of Armenia was part of the Russian Empire and some of it was part of the Ottoman Empire. Armenians, being Christians, tended to look to Russia as their protector against the Ottomans. Armenians in the Ottoman Empire rebelled against Ottoman rule. The rebellion was defeated and many were killed. The Armenian civilians were forcibly moved to Syria. Many of them died along the way. This is one of the most controversial chapters in the First Word War. How many Armenian civilians died? Were they deliberately killed or was it accidental? Did Armenians kill Ottoman civilians in great numbers too? People argue hotly over this terrible episode even today.
Central Asian countries were part of the Russian Empire: Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. People in these countries were almost all Muslim and spoke Turkic languages. They had no natural connection to the Russian people. As the Russian military was busy fighting in the west people in Central Asia saw that this was a good opportunity for them to rebel. The rebellions in Central Asia were aimed at these countries becoming independent. The Russian Army was having a very hard time fighting in Europe. Millions of Russian soldiers had been killed, wounded or captured. Many Russian soldiers grew demoralised. They did not think that they could win and they did not think that their system of government was worth fighting for. Some Russian soldiers deserted.
The Bolsheviks were a political party in Russia. The Bolsheviks hated the Tsar and the whole political and economic system of Russia. The Bolsheviks thought that every government in the world was run to benefit a small number of rich people and this caused misery for the majority who were poor. The Bolsheviks based their beliefs on a books by a German thinker called Karl Marx. Marx died in 1883 but his ideas were still very influential in 1917. Karl Marx’s views are known as communism because of his most famous book, ”the Communist Manifesto.”.
The Bolsheviks disliked all religions believing that all religions were false. They said that religion was a way of the rich fooling the poor into being obedient. The Bolsheviks also disliked the whole idea of national pride.
Bolsheviks told soldiers and sailors that the war was not worth fighting. They encouraged soldiers to desert. The Bolsheviks said that the war was fought for the advantage of rich people on both sides. Ordinary working people on both sides were being slaughtered in their millions. The Bolsheviks pointed out that while civilians starved in the war and soldiers were shot some people were getting rich from the war. Those who owned the factories that made military uniforms or bullets did very well out of the war.
In Azerbaijan the Bolsheviks spread their ideas among Russian speaking oil workers. The Bolsheviks were active in Baku but hardly anywhere else. The Bolsheviks made their views known in cities but were not effective in the countryside.
In February 1917 protests began in St Petersburg which was then the Russian capital. These protests became known as the February Revolution. The protests became so massive that generals and admirals withdrew support for the Tsar. Nicholas II abdicated which means he gave up being the Tsar. There would be no more imperial family. Russia became a republic. A republic is not ruled by a king or queen but by an emperor.
A Provisional Government took over the Russian Empire, including Azerbaijan. The Provisional Government decided to continue the war. Germany and Austria-Hungary were still occupying a lot of Russian territory in the west. Germany and Austria-Hungary did not show any sign of giving up this land. Therefore Russia was going to have to fight to get it back. If Russia did not fight then the German Army and the Austro-Hungarian Army would only advance further east and take even more territory.
The war went from bad to worse for Russia. Russia continued to suffer terrible defeats and soldiers deserted at an alarming rate. Many peasants seized land from the rich. This had an effect on people in Azerbaijan too. The food situation in Russia grew worse and worse. Many farmers had gone off to war so not enough men were left to produce food. Trains were being used by the army. Trains and railways used to distribute food were not repaired enough during the war and many became unusable.
The Bolshevik Party spread its views assiduously. Lenin, the leader of the Bolsheviks, had been living abroad for years. He had spent most of his time in Switzerland. Lenin was determined to pull Russia out of the war. He saw this war as massacring the working classes of all countries just to make the rich even richer. The German Government hated Lenin’s revolutionary views but they thought that getting Russia out of the war was very good for Germany. The fewer enemies, the better.
The German Government put Lenin on a train from Switzerland through Germany and then on a boat to Finland – which was Russian territory.
Lenin arrived in St Petersburg in April 1917. He immediately began to spread his revolutionary views. Russia must withdraw from the war straightaway. The property of the rich must be taken away and shared by the poor. Then ordinary people would have enough to eat. His views became very popular.
In October 1917 the Bolsheviks in St Petersburg launched an attempt to seize power. This is called the October Revolution. The Bolsheviks took control of St Petersburg quite easily. However, in the rest of Russia they had much more difficulty. This caused the Russian Civil War to break out. The Bolsheviks were identified with the colour red. Those who were against the Bolsheviks were identified with the colour white. The Civil War was reds against whites.
The Russian Civil War was also fought between red and white factions in Azerbaijan. Many Azeris believed that the Russian Civil War was a Russian dispute and Azerbaijan should stay out of it. Some Azeris were inspired by the Central Asian rebellions. Kazakhs, Turkmens and Uzbeks fought for independence. Maybe Azerbaijan ought to do the same.
Lenin said that he would like non-Russian parts of the former Russian Empire to form a ”voluntary and honourable union. ” Poland, Finland, Latvia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and so on could remain united with Russia. Lenin promised that if they did so all religions and nationalities would be treated equally. Lenin said that if the people of these non-Russian countries wished to go independent then this wish would be respected.
The Whites in the Russian Civil War tended to believe that the Russian Empire must remain united – by force if necessary. Azerbaijan, Georgia, Estonia, Finland, Tajikistan – they must all stay with Russia. They must not be allowed the choice to be independent.
Because the Reds backed the principle of Azeri independence and the Whites opposed it this meant that for Azeri nationalists a Red victory would be better than a White victory. On the other hands the Reds were anti-religious. The Whites were Christians almost to a man but did not propose to ban Islam.
THE ARMY OF ISLAM.
The Sultan of the Ottoman Empire claimed to the Caliph. The Caliph is the successor to the Prophet Mohammad. Many Muslims looked up to the Ottoman Sultan for this reason.
Arabs during the First World War were encouraged to be aware of their Arab identity by the Allies. An Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire started. France and the United Kingdom supported this rebellion.
The Ottomans hit upon the idea of appealing to Muslims to unite with them. They especially hoped to win support from the Turkic peoples of Central Asia – Kazakhs, Turkmens, Tajiks and so on. They asked Azeris to support them too. As the Ottoman Empire in Arabia collapsed maybe a greater Turkey could be built in Central Asia.
The Army of Islam was formed. It proposed to help Azerbaijan win independence.
On 28 May 1918 a meeting of Azeri nationalists was held at Ganja. They declared Azerbaijan to be an independent democratic republic. They stated that Azerbaijan was a secular country. That means that people were free to practise any religion they wanted or to practise no religion at all. The government was not for or against any religion. The law of the land would not be based on any religious text. Women were given the right to vote – this was rather ahead of its time. Azerbaijan adopted the blue, red and green flag with the eight pointed white star and white crescent moon.
The 28 May metro station is named in honour of this significant event.
Baku was still in Russian hands. An uneasy truce was worked out between the Red and White factions in the city.
The Russian Civil War was raging. The western Allies were desperate to keep Russia in the war against Germany. The western Allies needed all the help they could get to beat Germany. Allied countries sent soldiers to help the Whites. These were British, American, Canadian, Australian, Serbian, Italian, French and Japanese. These were not large numbers of troops. Their role was supposed to be to train the Whites and not to fight for them.
British soldiers arrived in Baku under General Dunsterville.
Armenia also declared independence. There was a large Armenian population in Azerbaijan especially in Baku. Armenians in Azerbaijan formed armed groups partly for self-protection. However, some of them murdered Azeri civilians.
In August 1918 the Army of Islam entered Azerbaijan with the intent of helping the Azeri independence fighters win control of Baku.
THE BATTLE OF BAKU
Baku was garrisoned by a bizarre mixture of British troops, White Russians, Red Russians and Armenian nationalists. This rag tag army was called Dunsterforce because it was commanded by Gen Dunsterville.
The Army of Islam attacked Baku in August 1918. By September 1918 Dunsterforce was defeated. Dunsterville and his men escaped in a ship across the Caspian.
The Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan was now a reality. It controlled all the territory of modern day Azerbaijan. However, Azerbaijan was in a very dangerous situation. The White Russians would like to regain Azerbaijan. For the moment the Whites were engaged in a civil war against the Reds. The Reds, at that time, said they wished independent Azerbaijan well. The Army of Islam was there to supposedly help the Azeris. There was a suspicion in the minds of some Azeris that the Army of Islam was intended to force Azerbaijan to unite with Turkey. The Army of Islam was perhaps using the name ‘Islam’ to hide its true purpose – Turkish expansionism.
Many Azeris looked back to the time when north-west Iran was part of Azerbaijan. The Azeris of Iran comrpise around a third of the population of Iran. Tabriz, now in Iran, was once the capital of Greater Azerbaijan. Iran viewed Azeri independence as a threat.
Azerbaijan’s main export earner was oil. International trade had all but stopped owing to the world war. Trade with Russia was almost impossible because of the horrendous civil war there. Most people in Azerbaijan had been reduced to dire poverty.
In November 1918 the First World War ended. The Allies then met in Paris to decide what terms to impose on the defeated Central Powers countries. Azerbaijan sent a delegation.
The Ottoman Empire lost all of its territory outside modern Turkey. Some Turkish leaders went to Central Asia to try and create a massive Turkic State there.
In 1919 The Allies withdrew their soldiers from Russia. The Reds were already winning the Civil War. The fact that foreign troops were no longer supporting the Whites meant that the White slide toward defeat became even faster.
Lenin was the ruler of Russia under the Reds. He did not use the title Prime Minister although in fact his position was roughly the same as Prime Minister. Lenin’s title was Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars. Lenin was plainly the dictator. His image was everywhere.
Lenin decided that allowing independence to non-Russian parts of the former Russian Empire had been a mistake. It had at least helped the Reds win the Civil War when they said non-Russian countries could become independent if they wished. These countries were then eager for Red victory.
Lenin tried to reconquer Poland and failed. He did not bother with Finland, Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania. Moldova united with Romania in 1918. Again, Lenin did not order the Red Army to attempt to reconquer Moldova.
Lenin was especially keen to reconquer Azerbaijan because of its oil wealth. In 1920 the Red Army entered Azerbaijan. The Azeri Army fought the Red Army but to little avail. The Reds were better equipped that the Azeri Army. The Red Army had strong discipline reinforced by a great willingness to brutalise backsliders and indeed to execute them. Many Russians in Azerbaijan supported the Reds. There were some ethnic Azeris who welcomed the Red Army because they said that the Reds wanted to help the poor and stop exploitation by the rich.
On 28 April 1920 the Red Army entered Baku. There was later a metro station called 28 April station (it is now 28 May station). The Red Army said they were liberating Azerbaijan from the rule of a few rich men who oppressed ordinary people.
In 1919 the Bolsheviks had officially changed their name to the Communist Party. However, people continued to use the word ‘Bolshevik’ and ‘Communist’ interchangeably for many years.