It seems that my blog has already fraternized with Poemas del río Wang – a fantastic blog by Dr Tamás Sajó from Hungary. Our recent correspondence around a photo of Baku taken in autumn of 1989 resulted in his interesting article about those turbulent times “full of excitement, tension, hopes and tragedies”:
Autumn in Baku
This photo was taken on September 6, 1989 on the main square of Baku which at that time still was named after Lenin. The word “Democracy” written on the banner can be also understood without any knowledge of Azerbaijani (the country changed back for Latin script only after the following independence), and the complete slogan says: “hарадасан, аj Демократиjа” – “Where are you, democracy?” The inscription of the smaller white placard in the background is: “АХЧ-нин Меhдиабад дайаг дəстəси” “The Mehdiabad support group of the Popular Front of Azerbaijan”.
Well then, the question is: what does this photo represent?The reader, at least the Eastern European reader who still remembers the events of the period of 1989-90 beginning with manifestations and leading through the fall of the Berlin Wall to the collapse of the Communist system, would suggest even without a closer knowledge of the modern history of Azerbaijan: a demonstration against the Communist regime in Baku.
However, the Hungarian photo agency “profimedia”, on whose site (saved) this photo was found, has a different opinion. They provided it with the following caption: “Anti-Armenian meeting in Baku. Multi-thousand-strong Anti-Armenian meeting in Lenin Square, Baku, Azerbaijan as a Soviet republic.”
Araz, having discovered the photo some months ago, sent the following e-mail to the agency:
Dear profimedia team,
I came across your website and liked your photo collection very much. Browsing the photos from Azerbaijan I noticed an unfortunate misinformation – a set of photos entitled “Anti-Armenian Meeting in Baku”. But even reading the slogans depicted in the photos one can understand that it was an anti-Soviet demonstration… I hope that this small but yet very sensitive issue will be corrected as soon as possible.
Sincerely yours, Araz Yusubov
Dear Mr. Yusubov,
Thank you for your remark and we are very sorry for the mistake. As we are an imegebank we are just taking over the photos from our suppliers so we are not writing the news and captions of the images. We will inform our supplier about this mistake and we hope they will correct it as soon as possible.
Sincerely, Süle Tímea
We do not know whether they informed the supplier or not. We only know that the caption has not changed since then.
When Araz mentioned to me this issue just incidentally, in connection with something different – not attributing great importance to it, for, he said, similar errors are published almost monthly on Azerbaijan in the Western press, for example recently the Guardian published an incorrect map of the country (withdrawn from the online version on the second request of Araz) –, I became curious of the identity of the “well-informed” supplier of profimedia. I just did a search for the text of the subcaption “Multi-thousand-strong Anti-Armenian meeting” , and I found the same photo series on the pages of the former Soviet and now Russian photo agency RIA Novosti. Here they also included the name of the photographer, modestly withheld by the Hungarian agency: D. Kalinin, a skillful press photographer of the 80s.
I have sent the URL to Araz by proposing him to request a correction of the Russian agency. But while he was reading the e-mail, the caption of the pictures of this series changed for the following: “Rally in Baku. Thousands of demonstrators converge on Lenin Square in Baku, the Azerbaijani SSR, a Soviet republic.” Obviously, the administrator of the Russian agency discovered my search in their web statistics, and as a Russian, in a much more intelligent way than his or her Hungarian colleague, immediately changed the politically sensitive caption. Nevertheless, the Google cache still has the old version (also saved here for the case when it will disappear from there). Now we hope that a next letter to the Hungarian agency, backed by a reference to their supplier, will finally result in a change of the false captions on that site as well.
These photos are part of a series of ten pictures, which on the Russian site (here, saved, cache, saved cache) originally all had the caption “Anti-Armenian meeting in Baku”. In the reality all of them were taken in the months of the anti-Communist demonstrations of the autumn of 1989, eventually after two years resulting in the revival of Azerbaijan as an independent state.
Araz helps us to understand the little known historical background of this process by recalling these months full of excitement, tension, hopes and tragedies:
People gathered there not for some communist party parade by an order from above, but by the will of heart. The most popular slogans chanted by the crowd consisting mainly of the university students and workers of Baku factories on strike was “Azadlyg” – “Freedom” – as the same square (but without Lenin’s statue) is called today: Freedom Square. “Meydan Harakaty” – the Square Movement –, the first permanent rally, an open national liberation movement in Azerbaijan had begun.
After decades of oppressive regime with the declaration of “Perestroyka (Reformation), Glasnost (Openness) and Pluralism” in the Soviet Union, the genius of Freedom was released from the jug. But the last straw in the growing popular discontent was the inability of the servile republic government in Azerbaijan and seemingly anti-Azerbaijani position of the central government in Moscow during the ethnic conflict flaming up shortly before, which started with separatist activities in the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan supported by nationalistic movement in the neighboring Armenia and backed up by a powerful Armenian diaspora in Europe and America. The first Azeri refugees arrived from Armenia as early as the winter of 1987-1988 through the frost of mountain passes, the number of refugees from both sides had already run to thousands, and the first blood was already shed. For the end of the year of 1988 all the 200 thousand strong ethnic Azeri population of Armenia was almost completely driven out, and the situation in Karabakh became more and more dangerous. So the other most popular slogan was “Garabagh” calling for urgent action to stop militant separatism.
The Popular Front of Azerbaijan (PFA) founded in summer of 1988 by group of academicians and intellectuals was trying to start democratic changes in the society, as well as take initiative for solving burning problems (such as collecting old clothes and shoes for refugees). PFA activist were the main organizers of massive rallies in many cities. I was a little boy when my father brought me to the Freedom Square.
More than half a million people were gathering there every day. The speeches were often interrupted by cheers of approval from the crowd. I remember one speech in Russian by a delegate from the Popular Front of one of the Baltic countries: “Azerbaijan is at the front-line of the freedom movement in the Soviet Union”, but the central Soviet press in Moscow was blind and deaf. The mass meeting continued till the night and people did not go away. There were several tents built in the center of the square, where people were taking a rest by turns. People from neighboring houses brought them something to eat, some others brought food by cars. There were even rumors that the bosses of the criminal underground declared a moratorium on theft as an expression of solidarity with the movement. I don’t know if this was true or not, but at that time there was a real feeling of solidarity and freedom among the people.
On 24 November the state of emergency was declared in Baku, but the permanent rally at the square that started on 17 November continued without a break over 17 nights till 5 December. Special forces of the soviet Ministry of Internal Affairs that surrounded the square closed down their circle on that night – 547 people were arrested, two were killed.
But after several months in summer 1989 massive rallies started again at the Freedom Square. “Istefa” – “Resignation” was another slogan, demanding resignation of the unpopular government and democratic elections. This would be the end of the totalitarian soviet regime and beginning of the long-awaited Freedom. It took two more long years full of bloody terror and bitter struggle.
Now after more than two decades Azerbaijan is an independent state, but Freedom House, an international watchdog organization lists the country as “not free” in its annual Freedom in the World survey, and 17 November is not a holiday anymore. For me the question is – what would I sacrifice to get back that feeling of freedom inside at the Square back in 1988?