In English

Santiago de Baku

I was thinking of writing this post for almost half a year, but besides of being rather a lazy writer, I had also a very busy time with moving back to my hometown Baku from the United States after living there for one year. Santiago de Chile and Baku are separated by 14,769 kilometres of steppes, mountains and deserts, lakes, rivers, seas and vast waters of Atlantics, different countries and cultures, but the title of this post suggests that there are things, more than we would imagine, that connect these two distant capital cities. I would like to thank those who encouraged me to write it, especially my father and my friend from Hungary, who always inspires me to “write much, much more”.

White Caucasian

A year ago, in November 2009, while in the United States I applied for a state identification card at the Maryland state Motor Vehicle Administration. The office clerk – a kind black lady, filling out my personal file on her computer after taking my photo, quickly guessed aloud “Hispanic/Latino” when we have reached the field called “race”. Hearing her suspicious “are you sure not Hispanic?” after my objection and claim that I am “White/Caucasian”, I had to explain that I actually came from the country in the Caucasus region, which gave its name to the Caucasus race. In fact, German Anthropologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840) named the concept of Caucasian race after the “Mount Caucasus, both because its neighborhood, and especially its southern slope, produces the most beautiful race of men, I mean the Georgian; and because all physiological reasons converge to this, that in that region, if anywhere, it seems we ought with the greatest probability to place the autochthones (birth place) of mankind” at the page 303 of his famous De Generis Humani Varietate Nativa (On the Natural Varieties of Mankind), published in 1795.

The title-page of the On the Natural Varieties of Mankind by Blumenbach The page 303 of the On the Natural Varieties of Mankind by Blumenbach

The title-page and page 303 of the On the Natural Varieties of Mankind by Blumenbach, published in 1795. Source:

I personally find this official terminology quite confusing, besides many Caucasians do not look like stereotypical Europeans. Many times during our stay in the United States I and my wife were approached by Hispanic Americans thinking that we are also Latinos and speaking to us in Spanish. This was probably also the reason why Chilean film director Sebastián Alarcón (1949) while in exile chose Baku to shoot his movies about his homeland.

Santiago de Baku

Sebastián Alarcón entered the film school at the University of Chile in 1968, at the age 19. In 1970 through a state scholarship programme he was sent to continue his education at the All-Union State Institute of Cinematography in Moscow, Soviet Union. While he was studying there, in 1973 the infamous military junta headed by General Augusto Pinochet (1915-2006) overthrown the democratically elected President of Chile Salvador Allende (1908-1973) and dissolved his socialist Unidad Popular (Popular Unity) government with a CIA-backed coup. The military dictatorship established in Chile after the coup, which took place ironically on 11 September, lasted till 1990. Accompanied by systematic suppression of all political dissidence it lives in memories with tens of thousands of arrested and tortured, many hundreds of killed or “disappeared”.

Inspired by the socialist Unidad Popular as many other representatives of Chilean youth Sebastián Alarcón could not return to his homeland, but his creative life was almost completely captured by those tragic events in Chile. His first feature film – the Night over Chile (Ночь над Чили) telling the story of Manuel, an architect arrested on suspicion and falsely accused, his passage through the nightmares of abuse, intimidation and tortures, was awarded a special prize for the best director’s debut at the 10th Moscow International Film Festival in 1977, the year I was born.

Ночь над Чили (1977)

Night over Chile (1977) movie poster.
Night over Chile (1977) movie poster.

Any dweller of Baku even now can easily recognise native streets seen from the first frames of this film “dedicated to the courageous people of Chile”, shot in journalistic, documentary style. And native faces: Giuli Chokhonelidze (1928-2008), National Artist of Georgia, known to our audience from such Azerbaijani Soviet movies as Morning (1960), Our Street (1961) and A Very Boring Story (1988), plays a part of the leader of workers, Baadur Tsuladze (1935), now President of the Guild of Film Actors of Georgia plays a simple family man. The artless old Chilean peasant was played by Sadyq Huseynov (1924-2003), with his long career in Azerbaijani cinema and theatre, also known to all children of 1980-90s as Savalan Baba i.e. Grandpa Savalan from popular evening television programs. By the way, it turned out that a famous Russian photographer Gueorgui Pinkhassov (1952) also was in Baku back in 1976 as a member of the film crew.

I would never learn all these about Alarcón and the Night over Chile, if some months ago I did not recall another movie shot back in 1980s in Baku, in the school I studied in. There were talks that our school is filmed as a military garrison, I remembered a papier-mache statue of some general they put at our school yard and the title – Jaguar.

Santa Nina de Baku

Our school would be a good model for a garrison with a large courtyard looking as a parade-ground, bars on windows at the ground floor and a boiler-house with a big black metallic steam-heat pipe. This historical building was housing actually two schools – Russian public school No.134 was housed in the north wing, while Azerbaijani public school No.132 named after Huseyn Javid (1882-1941) – a famous Azerbaijani poet and playwright, wasted in camps of Siberia during the Stalinist repressions, was occupying the rest of the building.

Panorama photos of Icheri Sheher Subway Station on
Panorama photos of Icheri Sheher Subway Station on

We all knew that our school was a gymnasium for girls in pre-soviet times, and for a long time I was thinking that it was the first secular school for Muslim girls, build thanks to persistent efforts of Haji Zeynalabdin Taghiyev (1823-1924) , famous Azerbaijani oil baron, industrial magnate and philanthropist, who is also remembered for funding the construction of Theatre of Opera and Ballet , the laying of Shollar water supply pipeline and many other developments in Baku. In fact, the first school for Azerbaijani girls, opened in 1901, was another building, now housing the Institute of Manuscripts of the Academy of Sciences, down the Communist street, called Nikolayevskaya (Nikolay’s in Russian) back then and İstiqlaliyyət (Independence in Azerbaijani) nowadays.

The first secular school for Muslim girls. Baku, 1911 

The writing on the blackboard in this photo taken in 1911 says “Первая женская татарская школа” i.e. the First Tatar Girls School in Russian. Tatars is how today’s Azerbaijanis were referred to officially in the Russian Empire among other terms like Muslims, Persians or Turks.

Both buildings are visible on this unique aerial photo of central Baku taken in 1918 by Victor Lvovich-Ludvigovich Korvin-Kerber (1894-1970), famous Russian naval aircraft designer, who was then serving as instructor at the Naval Aviation Officers School in Baku.

Aerial photo of central Baku by Victor Korvin-Kerber. 1918

Group of small buildings at the right side of the photo, surrounded by old city walls, is Icheri Sheher old inner city. The Summer Centre for Public Gatherings at the bottom right corner, opened in 1912 as a club for wealthy Baku elite, was architecturally inspired by l’Opéra de Monte-Carlo , and now houses the Azerbaijan State Philharmonic Hall named after Muslum Magomayev (1885-1937) – famous Azerbaijani and Soviet composer and conductor.

Aerial photo of central Baku taken from Google Map

So in fact, the gymnasium for girls housed in our school building was Baku Saint Nina Girls’ Institution , financed through the Baku branch of the Charitable Women Society in Honour of Equal to the Apostles Saint Nina, enlightener of Georgia, founded in Tiflis (Tbilisi, Georgia) by Elizaveta Xavierevna Branicka-Vorontsova (1792-1880), berhymed once in poems by great Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin (1799-1837) himself, wife of then Russian viceroy of Caucasus Prince Mikhail Semyonovich Vorontsov (1782-1856) , in 1846. The Baku branch was opened in 1861 following the transfer of administrative centre of Shamakhi Governorate from Shamakhi city, where the society was active since 1848, to Baku after the devastating earthquake of 1859.

Old photo of central Baku, 1905Old postcard with photo of central Baku, 1914Old photo of Saint Nina Girls' School, 1905Old photo of central Baku, 1905

An interesting coincidence is that the school building was initially a military field hospital and it was given to the girls’ institution only in 1888, when the hospital moved to a new building in Bail settlement of Baku. Later in 1895 the institution got a status of gymnasium, and it existed many years till the Russian Bolshevik invasion of short-living Azerbaijan Democratic Republic in 1920. All these years the Saint Nina Christian girls’ school was active thanks to generous donations of Baku citizens, including quite a number of Azerbaijanis, and there were Muslim girls among its students. Famous scholar of history of Baku and the State of Shirvanshahs , whose family was persecuted and father was shot during the Stalinist repressions, Dr. Sara Ashurbeyli (1906-2001) also studied at this school.

Certificate of successful completion of the junior preparatory course, given to Sara Ashurbeyli in 1913 Sara Ashurbeyli during her studentship at Azerbaijan State University, end of the 1920s 

Left: Certificate of successful completion of the junior preparatory course at the Saint Nina institution for girls in Baku, given to Sara Ashurbeyli in 1913. Right: Sara Ashurbeyli during her studentship at the department of oriental studies of Azerbaijan State University, end of the 1920s.

By the way, Saint Nina School served as a prototype for the fictional Lyceum of the Holy Queen Tamar for Girls in Baku, where Nino Kipiani, the heroine of the popular Ali and Nino novel studied. This famous romance first published in Vienna in 1937, authorship of which is still disputed, tells the story of passionate love between two young Baku citizens – a Muslim Azerbaijani gentleman and a Christian Georgian lady during the turbulent times of the early 20th century. The tragic end of the novel echoes the fate of many – Ali is killed, while defending Genje city from invading Bolshevik army, Nino flees to Georgia with their child.

Jaguar in Baku

Jaguar (1986) movie poster.
Jaguar (1986) movie poster.

Sebastián Alarcón was back in Baku a decade after the success of the Night over Chile to shoot another film, telling the story of a young cadet, nicknamed Jaguar for his independent and unflinching character, who eventually turns against the regime he has been trained to serve. This 1986 movie was based on the famous novel published in 1963 La ciudad y los perros (The City and the Dogs) by Mario Vargas Llosa (1936), who was awarded 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature this October, while I was thinking about writing this post. The first novel published by Vargas Llosa, it is based on the author’s personal experience at the Leoncio Prado Military Academy in Lima, but Alarcón transferred the plot to Chile and skilfully added a political dimension to the story.

Looking for footage from the movie I first found a short clip that combines the video-sequences from the Jaguar with an iconic song of the Chilean resistance against the Pinochet regime El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido (The people united will never be defeated), which was written in 1973 by Sergio Ortega (1938-2003) and a popular folk music group Quilapayún as an anthem of Unidad Popular.

Ночь над Чили (1977)

El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido,
El pueblo unido jamás será vencido… 

De pie, cantar que vamos a triunfar.
Avanzan ya banderas de unidad.
Y tú vendrás marchando junto a mí
y así verás tu canto y tu bandera florecer,
la luz de un rojo amanecer
anuncia ya la vida que vendrá.

De pie, luchar el pueblo va a triunfar.
Será major la vida que vendrá
a conquistar nuestra felicidad
y en un clamor
mil voces de combate se alzarán
dirán canción de libertad
con decision la patria vencerá.

Y ahora el pueblo que se alza en la lucha
con voz de gigante gritando: ¡adelante!

El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido,
El pueblo unido jamás será vencido…

La patria está forjando la unidad
de norte a sur se movilizará
desde el salar ardiente y mineral
al bosque austral
unidos en la lucha y el trabajo
irán, la patria cubrirán,
su paso ya anuncia el porvenir.

De pie, cantar el pueblo va a triunfar
millones ya, imponen la verdad,
de acero son ardiente batallón
sus manos van llevando la justicia y la razón
mujer, con fuego y con valor
ya estás aquí junto al trabajador.


The people united will never be defeated,
The people united will never be defeated… 

Stand up and sing, as we are going to win.
Flags of unity are now advancing.
And you will come marching together with me,
And so you’ll see your song and your flag blossom. The light of a red dawn Already announces the life to come.

Stand up and fight, the people is going to win.
The life to come will be better.
To conquer our happiness.
And in one shouting
a thousand fighting voices will rise,
telling a song of freedom.
With determination the fatherland will win.

And now the people, who are rising in struggle
With a giant’s voice crying out: Forward!

The people united will never be defeated,
The people united will never be defeated…

The fatherland is forging unity,
From north to south they’re mobilizing.
From the dry salt mines
to the southern forests.
United in struggle and labor
they will go, will cover the fatherland,
their steps already announce the future.

Stand up and sing, the people are going to win.
Millions now are imposing the truth.
They are a fiery battalion of steel,
their hands bringing justice and reason.
Woman with fire and courage
You are also here alongside the worker.

Translation: Mitch Abidor. Revision: Tamás Sajó

An interesting fact is that the same song was sung with Persian lyrics Barpakhiz, az ja kan, banaye kakh-e doshman (بر پا خیز، از جا کن، بنای کاخ دشمن – Arise, demolish the foundations of the enemy’s palace) by leftist groups during the 1979 Islamic revolution against the monarchy in Iran.

This song was not played in the Jaguar, but Alarcón had used in the Night over Chile the soulful music composed and performed on traditional instruments by one of the former Quilapayún members Patricio Castillo (1946) . They first met and made friends with each-other during the group’s tour of the Soviet Union back in 1970. In the Jaguar the guitar part of the soundtrack is performed by Alarcón himself.

Ягуар (1986)

Any graduate of Baku school No.132 would recognize the place seen in the beginning of the movie. This is our – the south-east part of schoolyard, where on some days the students were lined up form-by-form before going to classes.

Baku public school No.132 courtyard, 1984.

This photo is taken in front of the south wall of our schoolyard in 1984 before our form – the 2в went to the ceremony of initiation into the OctiabriatLittle Octobrists organization at the nearby house-museum of Nariman Narimanov (1870-1925) , a prominent Azerbaijani intellectual and politician, sometimes called the Lenin of the East, who was invited to head the government of Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic, declared after the Bolshevik invasion, later worked in the central government of the Soviet Union in Moscow, and died there under suspicious circumstances. Colour photos were not so common then and photographers were called on special occasions. The lady second from the right behind us is our first primary school teacher and form-master Rahima Mammadova.

Baku public school No.132 courtyard, 1986

Here is our form together with Rahima muallima (teacher, schoolmistress in Azerbaijani) again in 1986. This photo was probably taken on the first day of a new academic year. Everybody brought some flowers and we wear red Pioneer ties. The wall behind must be the east wall of the schoolyard.

Baku public school No.132 courtyard, 1986

The south-east corner of our schoolyard is well visible on this 1986 photo taken during a Physical Education class in my brother’s form. You can see the markings behind, on the ground, determining the sectors for different forms.

It is interesting whether Alarcón knew that the building, they were filming as Jaguar’s cadet school, was housing in 1928 the Trans-Caucasian Military Cadet School of the Red Army, which was established in 1921 as the first Azerbaijani military school for teenagers and prototype of the Suvorov Military Boarding Schools.

Old photo of central Baku, 1920s

This old photo showing the building from a different perspective was probably taken during those years. It was only in 1937 when our school No.132 together with the Russian school No.134 were disposed in the same building, and the third floor was probably built at that time.

When recently, in summer 2009 the schools were closed and the building was surrounded by fencing many were really concerned about its fate. Fortunately our school escaped the tragic end of the Governor’s House, destroyed to free the area for construction of a new nine store hotel or of the beautiful building presented by Zeynalabdin Taghiyev, mentioned above, to his daughter-in-law and many other victims of continuing culpable historico-architectural negligence in Baku. The schools were reopened after a major reconstruction completed in September last year. Now the building looks quite different with the fourth floor being added and the characteristic archway with a balcony over the main entrance being removed. The courtyard is also very different now, so one would not guess that it is Jaguar’s cadet school.

Baku Educational Complex No.132-134 after a major reconstruction in 2009-2010
Baku Educational Complex No.132-134 after a major reconstruction in 2009-2010

Alarcón filmed few actors from the Night over Chile also in the Jaguar. The narrow-minded sergeant is played again by Islam Kaziyev (1938) . One of the arrested in the Night over Chile activists Mayak Karimov (1944) plays this time a supporting role of an officer-instructor. Alarcón also filmed few Armenian actors, most of whom are maybe coincidentally related to Baku. National Artist of Russia Vladimir Tatosov (1926) , who played an episodic role of the warden of the cadet school, spent his childhood here. Baku-born National Artist of Russia Nina Ter-Osipyan (1909-2002) plays her usual theatrical character of a humorous old lady. And a popular Soviet and Russian actor Sergey Gazarov (1958) , who played the leading role of Lieutenant Gamboa, was born in Baku.

It is unlikely that citizens of Baku, acting in the crowd scenes of the Jaguar as Chileans on strike and demonstrations, shouting out anti-government slogans, waving flags and confronting the punitive forces of anti-popular regime, would imagine that something like this will happen in couple of years to them right in their native city.

Winds of change over the City of Winds

We already wrote briefly about the beginning of an open independence movement in Azerbaijan back in 1988. The ideas of freedom and forbidden history of independence were coming to light with Perestroyka and Glasnost – new policies of liberalisation and openness in the Soviet Union launched by the General Secretary of the Communist Party (the supreme leader of the USSR) Mikhail Gorbachev (1931) in 1986. But these processes in Azerbaijan detonated with separatist activities in its Mountainous Garabagh region (widely known under its Russian transliteration Nagorno-Karabakh) flamed up by nationalistic movement in the neighbouring Armenia. A statement supporting annexation of Garabagh from Azerbaijan to Armenia by Abel Aganbegyan (1932)Gorbachev‘s Armenian chief adviser on economic policy, at a reception organized by the large Armenian diaspora in France back in November 1987 was a signal for active separatist activities in the region.

Out of a sudden, all the Armenian intelligentsia took up “arms” and stirred up their people for getting “historical lands” back. It was sudden for Azerbaijanis, but it is enough to glance over, for example, the book entitled Очаг (Hearth) by Armenian writer Zori Balayan (1935), which was published in 1981 and 1984 in Yerevan and Moscow, to see the roots of this outburst of ethnic intolerance. Dedicated to “the 150 years of joining of Eastern Armenia to Russia”, with a modest description “Essays about Armenia. For senior secondary school children age” this book as early as then creates an image of enemy – Turk-Azerbaijani, speaks about “native Armenian lands”, about “reunion”, “revival” of “Great Armenia”. The author, who became one of the leaders/orators of the Armenian popular movement back then and is receiving various awards till now, does not mention what should happen to many hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis (and other nations) living on these lands, but the first thousands of refugees from Armenia, driven out of their houses in the cold winter of 1987, and the rest of almost a million people, who became refugees till 1993, could tell you, those who were killed will not.

Massive rally at the Lenin Square of Baku, 1988.

Source: Azadlıq Radiosu (RFE/RL)

Soviet press, be it local or central Moscow, was blind and deaf about the tragedy of Azerbaijani refugees. The majority of these people were stationed in Sumgayit – an industrial city 30 kilometres from Baku, which was already in a disastrous social situation. Massive demonstration demanding Garabagh in Armenia, spontaneous demonstrations in Azerbaijan calling for urgent action to stop militant separatism were happening almost every day. The official news about two Azerbaijanis killed on 22 February 1988 in a confrontation in Garabagh further ignited the tensions. This culminated in a bloody provocation on 27 February in Sumgayit, which resulted in killing of 26 Armenian and 6 Azerbaijani citizens. Soviet forces of law and order reacted only after two days to end the disorders, but also to start an orderly deportation of Armenians from the city. Unfortunately Sumgayit Pogrom (Massacre), being a tragic black mark in the history of Azerbaijan, became the main trump card of the nationalistic propaganda, backed up also by the powerful Armenian diaspora in Europe and America. As a result many sources until now put it as the start point and initial cause of the conflict.

The Armenian separatist movement was supported also by many intellectuals, representing democratic circles in Moscow, including the “Soviet dissident No.1” Andrei Sakharov (1921-1989), accompanied everywhere by his wife – a Soviet human rights activist Elena Bonner (1923) , whose Armenian maiden name Alikhanyan is not widely known. Central government circles were also seemingly pro-Armenian, if not to say Armenian: apart from chief adviser on economic policy Aganbegyan there were also Georgy Shakhnazarov (1924-2001) chief adviser on foreign policy and Stepan Sitaryan (1930-2009) chief adviser on finance and planning to Gorbachev.

With an escalation of militant separatism and growing numbers of nationalistic attacks, it was apparent that neither the central Soviet Communist Party apparatus nor the servile local government in Azerbaijan is willing or able to defend the people. In a short time the Popular Front of Azerbaijan (PFA), founded by group of intellectuals using the model of Popular Fronts of Baltic countries in summer of 1988, gained an enormous popularity. On 17 November 1988 mass rallies at the major Lenin Square, now Freedom Square of Baku with more than half a million people grew into the Meydan Harakaty i.e. the Square Movement, the first permanent rally, an open national liberation movement in Azerbaijan. It was there when the forgotten tricolour flag of Azerbaijan Democratic Republic rose again as it was said by one of its founders Mammad Amin Rasulzade (1884-1955). On 24 November the state of emergency was declared in Baku and Special Forces of the soviet Ministry of Internal Affairs entered the city. But the permanent rally at the square continued without a break till the night of 5 December, when it was brutally broke up with two casualties. Of course there were many disillusions later, but the Square Movement was a slightly idealistic period of great hopes and devoted unity in the national liberation movement in Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijani literati support the public movement at the Lenin Square, 1988 

Source: Azadlıq Radiosu (RFE/RL) Azerbaijani literati support the public movement at the Lenin Square: poet and publicist Islam Sadyq is standing, others sitting in the front row are poet Qabil (1926-2007), writer Ismayil Shykhly (1919-1995) and poet Bakhtiyar Vahabzade (1925-2009) . The person behind, absorbed in his work, is poet Khalil Rza (1932-1994) well known as the author of the famous verses:

Azadlığı istəmirəm
Zərrə-zərrə, qram-qram
Qolumdakı zəncirləri qıram gərək
Qıram! Qıram!

Azadlığı istəmirəm
Bir həb kimi, dərman kimi
İstəyirəm səma kimi,
Günəş kimi, Cahan kimi.

I don’t want the Freedom
Grain-by-grain, gram-by-gram.
I should brake, should brake
The chains on my arm!

I don’t want the Freedom
As some pill, as a medicine.
I want it as the heavens,
As the Sun, As the Universe.

Those years also remain in my memory as a period of great enthusiasm and bursting creative energy. In 1988 the bilingual Gənclik/Молодость (Youth in Azerbaijani/Russian) magazine came out with 70,000 copies printed monthly and gained a great popularity thanks to its interesting sharp articles and different artistic design. A satirical comedy film Yaramaz/Мерзавец (The Scoundrel), directed by now National Artist of Azerbaijan, Vagif Mustafayev (1953) , won a sensational recognition in the Soviet Union and even internationally. It was also the moment of fame for a Georgian actor Mamuka Kikaleyshvili (1960-2000) , who played the leading role of Hatam in the movie. Another satirical film, exposing corrupted soviet administrative-command party system, Lətifə/Анекдот (Anecdote-Funny Story), directed by talented tandem of Yefim Abramov and Nizami Musayev, is not so well-known. But it was a prophetical picture with the final scene of armed Pioneers taking over all communications and announcing a military coup. Posing in a convict’s outfits with characteristic full-face and half-face photos in the end credits, it was also prophetical for Nizami Musayev, who was jailed in 1994 and left Azerbaijan afterwards. Anecdote was shot in 1989, while a state of emergency and curfew were in effect, and armed soldiers and armoured vehicles were patrolling the streets of Baku. I remember its samizdat self-published black-and-white posters with a tagline mocking the casual warning on Soviet cigarette boxes: МВД и КГБ СССР предупреждают: Просмотр этого фильма вреден для вашего здоровья i.e. MVD (Ministry of Interior Affairs) and KGB (Committee for State Security) of the USSR warn you: watching this film is harmful to your health.

Baku public school No.132 courtyard, 1988

This last photo from my school album series was taken just few months before the Square Movement started, in the summer of 1988, while we had a break during the Mathematics exam. We are together with our new form-master, teacher of Arabic Fakhriyya Baghirova, who passed away unexpectedly in 1990. That year was a tragic one for our form – we lost also one of our class-mates, killed in a car accident. It was also a tragic year for my family – we lost few close relatives including my grandfather, and for the whole nation – the year 1990 started for Azerbaijan with the Black January.

Night over Baku

To the end of 1989 the number of refugees from both sides had already run to thousands, virtually no Azerbaijani was left in Armenia and new waves of refugees were coming from Garabagh, where militant attacks of Armenian separatists got intensified. Rallies under the slogan of Istefa, demanding resignation of the unpopular local government, started again in Baku and in many other cities. The infamous Berlin Wall had already fallen in October and a ghost of Freedom was wandering about the Eastern Europe. The Popular Front of Azerbaijan gained unanimous support of people and grew into a real political power, but there were also signs of a dissent within its leadership. In many regions the First Secretaries of the local Committee of the Communist Party (local heads of Soviet administration) were forced to leave their posts by the Front activists. A similar process on 29 December in Jalilabad, a district centre in the South-East of the country, was accompanied by disturbances, damaging of the administrative buildings and beatings of the local officials. A combined contingent of Soviet militsiya police forces sent from the neighbouring districts quickly stopped the riots. Radical tendencies would culminate on 11 January 1990 in overthrow of the Soviet rule by Front activists in Lankaran and Neftchala regions neighbouring Jalilabad.

But what happened on the New Year’s Eve was unprecedented: on the night from 30 to 31 December 1989 border posts on the Soviet Union frontier with Iran were burned down in Nakhchyvan . The next day, which is now celebrated as the Solidarity Day of Azerbaijanis of the World, people in few other regions started to destroy Soviet border barriers separating them from kinsmen living under another oppressive regime across the river Araz, in Iran. The largest ethnic “minority” making up more than 20 per cent of Iranian population, roughly 20 million Azerbaijani Turks are still denied a basic cultural right of formal education in their mother tongue. At that peak moment of the national morale it seemed that decades of oppression and painful separation incarnated those days by Yagub Zurufchu (1956) in his hugely popular performance of Ayrılıq (Separation in Azerbaijani), the song, composed by Ali Salimi (1922-1997) back in 1956, but because of censorship publicly released with changed lyrics only in 1958 on Tehran radio, sang by few generations of popular singers such as Rashid Behbudov (1915-1989) and Googoosh (Faiga Atashin) (1950) on both sides of Araz, came to the end.

But the Sumgayit scenario recurred this time in Baku from 13-15 January. While daily rallies were continuing in central part, at the Lenin Square and in front of the Central Committee building, organized attacks on Armenian citizens in other parts of the city resulted in estimated 56 to 90 killings. Local militsia, totally disarmed earlier for some reason, was inactive and 12 thousand strong Soviet troops quartered in Baku again remained as observers, just to collect and deport the refugees afterwards.

Unfortunately, this tragedy was also exploited by Armenian nationalistic propaganda flinging mud at Azerbaijan for years. Instead of being a manifestation of humanity and consciousness intelligentsia was leading this vicious circle of evil, but with few notable exceptions. Sergey Gazarov, mentioned above as the actor who played a leading role in the Jaguar, whose close family members suffered this tragedy, never joined them and he remembers Azerbaijanis, who helped his family then. This is no surprise that he worked for several years in a Moscow theatre lead by another popular Soviet and Russian actor of Armenian descent Armen Dzhigarkhanyan (1935), who always condemned the propaganda of hatred. But who was behind this massacre?

“The KGB was behind the Armenian pogroms in Baku. The KGB set nations against each other” says a witness and victim of those events Garry Kasparov (1963), the 13th World Chess Champion born in Baku to Armenian mother, now Russian political activist. Yet former KGB general Vyacheslav Shironin (1939) in his turn accuses foreign special services, and former Front activist Zardusht Alizade (1946) blames the old Communist Party mafia.

A rally in front of the Central Committee building, Baku. Photo: Victoria Ivleva. 

A rally in front of the Central Committee building, which houses the Presidential Office nowadays. Russian inscriptions on the placards say “No to murderous Perestroyka!” and “To Armenian nationalists, get out of Karabakh!”
Photo: Victoria Ivleva. Source: FotoSoyuz

In a couple of days emergency situation was declared all over Azerbaijan except Baku and estimated 26 thousand strong Soviet troops were concentrated around the city. A permanent rally was going on since 17 January in front of the Central Committee building not far from our school. Improvised barricades using dump-trucks and busses were set on approaches to Baku and around the army barracks in the city to not let the troops in. Representatives of Moscow including a member of Gorbachev’s Presidential Council Yevgeny Primakov (1929) assured people that army will not enter the city in their appearances on the local television and at the rally. Hardly anybody remembered then how back in 1956 Hungary Yuri Andropov (1914-1984) , then Soviet Ambassador, deceived the local government assuring them that there is no order to attack, while Soviet tanks were already on the move. On 19 January at around 19:30 a small group of Soviet Special Forces blew the energy block of the local state television-radio broadcast station up. All the country plunged into darkness of informational vacuum and in the midnight, under cover of the darkness the Soviet troops started operation codenamed “Strike”.

My father remembers that night in the Post Scriptum to his book Letter to Friend (Письмо Другу):

On that horrible night I myself was among the picketers near a military garrison, infamous Salyan barracks, together with my three fellow neighbours. We went there by my car and parked the car in some distance. There were talks that the army is approaching the city and prepares for an assault. But few would believe it, since literally a day ago the representatives of the Centre Mikhaylov* and of the local Central Committee Dashdamirov* appealed on TV and assured people unanimously that the army will not enter the city.

Around 11 in the night from positions of the barracks they started shooting into the air with tracer bullets. But the picketers took this shooting just as a clumsy joke. I did not see any armed people among the picketers. There was one truck, though, in the body of which there were bottles, I presume with flammable liquid. I also saw about ten young people wearing pea-jackets and armed with pieces of metallic bars. That is what the armament of the picketers was. But of course there were big trucks, tip-up lorries and busses blocking the barracks and the road.

When we were still there a rumour spread around that tanks from the barrack destroying the wall on the other side and tramping down under their caterpillar tracks automobiles, parked in the neighbouring parking area, went out to the street. Nobody believed this rumours, too. But later it turned out that this was indeed how things were happening. And those tanks heading towards the units assaulting from the North jointly arranged a deadly trap for the picketers at the North entrance of the city. So the highest death-tall was namely there, where by irony of the history a huge monument of the “heroic” 11th Red Army, which brought us “freedom” on 28 April 1920, was erected once…

Then everything happened like that. One of our companions had bad kidneys, he recently left the hospital. He asked me to drive him home to have some snacks, to get dressed warmly, and to return back after, maybe afoot. But we could not return, since after 1.5 hours the army already occupied the city. Children were sleeping at home and hearing around 3 o’clock in the night the heavy stalk of military machinery I went to the street and saw lots of armoured vehicles moving towards the Central Committee, where a rally demanding resignation of the government was continuing. The soldiers aboard were covering themselves with metallic shields, protecting themselves from non-existent bullets and stones. That is all my part in this dreadful story.

Morning of 20 January 1990, BakuMorning of 20 January 1990, BakuMorning of 20 January 1990, Baku

On the morning of 20 January 1990 the Soviet troops under the command of Minister of Defence Dmitriy Yazov (1924) and Minister of Internal Affairs Vadim Bakatin (1937) (both of them were in Baku on that night) had successfully carried the order out and dead bodies still were lying on the streets of Baku. Later the same year general Yazov received Marshal’s epaulets and the Supreme Commander-in-Chief Gorbachev received Noble Peace Prize. Now we know that more than 130 civilians including elder, women and children were killed, around 700 more were wounded on that night.

In a total informational darkness of those days the only pin of light was the voice of Mirza Khazar (Mikayilov) (1947), an Azerbaijani Jew, who immigrated to Israel in 1974, then leading the Azerbaijani Service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, whose team in Munich managed to broadcast live interviews and daily reports from Baku.

Baku citizens killed on the streets. Photo: Victoria Ivleva

Photo: Victoria Ivleva. Source: FotoSoyuz

Baku citizens killed on the streets.

Shooting civilians point-blank with extreme brutality, driving heavy armoured vehicles on cars intentionally and killing the passengers, shooting at hospitals and ambulance cars, killing the wounded, bayoneting and looting are only few of the crimes documented then by independent military experts of the Moscow-based civil society organisation Shield (Щит). Reservists from Rostov, Stavropol and Krasnodar regions of Russia (interestingly with the largest Armenian diaspora) were also mobilized to staff the invading army and they in particular excelled in brutality. Those “partisans” are mentioned by former desantnik-paratroopers, who then were serving in the Soviet regular troops that entered Baku, in their reminiscences collected in a blog post by our compatriot Vyacheslav Sapunov.

Dead bodies in the city morgue. Photo: Victoria Ivleva

Photo: Victoria Ivleva. Source: FotoSoyuz

Dead bodies in the city morgue.

I remember that grey Saturday morning of 20 January 1990. We went out for a short walk around with my little brother as usual. Right in front of the street-door, there was a large crimson spot on the ground lubberly covered with sand. Turning to the left at the corner of the main Husu Hajiyev Street I noticed a small coppery piece of metal. It was a bullet. We found one more on our way to the Fountains Square, down to the left from the corner of the Central Univermag Department Store. Then we turned to the right towards the Araz Movie Theatre, when suddenly an old lady appeared in one of the doors. “Who let you out? Go home quickly! Don’t you know that they killed people?” she exclaimed. Running along the same route back when we reached the Univermag the silence was broken by oncoming din of blades. A greenish-khaki military helicopter flew over our heads throwing out leaflets. I took one – it was saying that emergency situation was declared in the midnight with a long list of prohibited actions such as going out to the streets and gathering in groups of more than three.

Burial of the victims of the 20 January in Baku.
Burial of the victims of the 20 January in Baku.Burial of the victims of the 20 January in Baku.Burial of the victims of the 20 January in Baku.

But two days later, on 22 January hundreds of thousands went out to the streets to see shahids the martyrs off to their final journey. This new word, we heard for the first time then, firmly entered people’s lexicon over the subsequent years of terror, war and occupation in Azerbaijan. Tens of new rows of greaves appeared later next to the first one in the Shahidlar Khiyabany i.e. Alley of Martyrs.

Passing in front of the long row of newly dug graves, covered with thousands of red carnations, in a crowded dark procession of fellow citizens, through the nightmare of laud moan and weeping, still I was making efforts to prove that “boys never cry”; but broke into sobs at a grave with no name, just with a red Pioneer tie over a black girl’s school uniform on it and school bag instead of a gravestone. This was Larisa Mammadova , a girl of my age from the neighbouring school No.134.

The soldiers guard the building of the Oblast Committee of the Communist Party. Baku, January 1990. Our school No.132 and school No.134 are visible in background. Photo: Victoria Ivleva. Source: FotoSoyuz

Photo: Victoria Ivleva. Source: FotoSoyuz

The soldiers guard the building of the Oblast Committee of the Communist Party. Baku, January 1990. Our school No.132 and school No.134 are visible in background.

The soldiers guard the building of the Oblast Committee of the Communist Party. Baku, January 1990. Our school No.132 is visible in background. Photo: Victoria Ivleva. Source: FotoSoyuz

Photo: Victoria Ivleva. Source: FotoSoyuz

The soldiers guard the building of the Oblast Committee of the Communist Party. Baku, January 1990. Our school No.132 is visible in background.

Those black days of January 1990, in a total informational blackout only few voices of solidarity were heard, shouted down by the chorus of soviet propaganda lies of the central Moscow media. A prominent Soviet Russian film director Stanislav Govorukhin (1936) arrived in Baku with his crew, while they were shooting a journalistic documentary Так жить нельзя (We Can’t Live Like This), which manifested the end of the Soviet Empire.

Even in this 1990 film the images of those killed by Soviet troops illustrate the narrative about the victims of Armenian pogrom. Govorukhin was influenced by Armenian diaspora in Russia, which most probably provided these photos, as in a similar case last year diaspora’s news agency in the United States was giving the photo of the dead body of a Jewish Baku citizen Vera Bessantina (1973-1990), killed on 19 January, out to be an Armenian girl killed by Azerbaijanis. Govorukhin arrived in Baku with a negative stance “taking the deployment of troops in Baku with understanding as all the world community”, but everything changed after seeing it with his own eyes.

It seems that a similar transformation happened to Kasparov, mentioned above, who was before actively promoting “Armenian cause” and “truth about Sumgayit” during his international travels. I doubt whether anybody remembers his appeal published in Azadlyq newspaper of the Popular Front on the first anniversary of 20 January along with other telegrams of support.

Azadlyq newspaper, 24 January 1991, issue No.4 (34). Courtesy of Azerbaijan National Library

Azadlyq newspaper, 24 January 1991, issue No.4 (34).
Courtesy of Azerbaijan National Library

I, Garry Kasparov, your former countryman, forced to leave Baku on the dreadful January days of year 1990, send my condolences to families of those killed as a result of the felonious use of Soviet Army troops against the peaceful population in the night from 19 to 20 January 1990.

I ask you to accept my modest financial contribution in amount of 5,000 dollars and distribute it as required.

Today it is already not a secret to anybody that the Baku tragedy, which did not get proper coverage nor in our country neither abroad, was in reality a rehearsal of the last attack of the agonising totalitarianism.

On this moment of mourning, remembering those killed, who become the victims of “Black January”, we should not let the insanity covering our eyes to hide the real culprit of our calamity – the Communist dictatorship.

Only by joining our efforts and not falling under constant provocations we will be able to protect our honour, dignity and save our future.

Instead of epilogue

I came across this photo while looking for illustrations for the post you read now. It was taken in 1990 at the Alley of Martyrs, but what would you think is its caption put by the photo-agency?

Alley of Martyrs in Baku, 1990. Photo: Oleg Lastochkin
Photo: Oleg Lastochkin. Source: RIA Novosti

It seems that the conspiracy around falsified captions at RIA Novosti continues, but my message of 17 November 2010 is still left without any reaction nor from the Russian agency, neither from the Embassy of Azerbaijan to Russia that was on copy:

Dear Sir/Madam,

For many years RIA-Novosti earned a reputation of a serious news agency and its photo archive is an invaluable source of documented history. Unfortunately once again RIA-Novosti has become a tool for falsifications. The following photos from the RIA-Novosti online photo archive I have come across have got obviously false captions:* Remembering Armenians killed in Baku / Remembering Armenians killed in Baku as a result of the January 19-22, 1990 inter-ethnic conflict. This photo shows a meeting in Baku’s Central Park where the conflict’s Armenian victims are buried.

This photo actually depicts the procession right after the burial of the victims of soviet army invasion to Baku on 19-20 January 1990 (see at today’s Alley of Martyrs.* Cemetery in Nagorny Karabakh / A cemetery where the victims of the conflict with Azerbaijan are buried.

This photo is actually from the Alley of Martyrs in Baku, where the victims of 20 January, as well as those who died in a war against Armenian separatist forces are buried. The photo taken by our compatriot, well known professional Oleg Litvin, so it is impossible that he gave a false caption to his photo.

Considering all these I very much hope that you will correct the captions/info that contain incorrect information as soon as possible. Furthermore I urge you to investigate the case and suppress possible future falsifications.

While finishing this post on such a sad note I suddenly recalled a radiant project back from 2002 bringing together musical traditions of Azerbaijan and South America. It turned out that the Latin-American folk music group Altiplano taking part in this cooperation is considered as Chilean and consists of musicians from Chile and Ecuador. After nine years, on 11 March they were back in Baku with a concert called “Salam-Hola” that we immediately decided to attended.

Lead by Siyavush Karimi and Mauricio Vicencio this amazing partnership resulted in a beautiful synthesis of music from Caucasus and Andes, a mix of mystical sounds of Azerbaijani Mugham and bright energy of Patagonian tunes, which once again reminds that the common spirit of humanity connects us all despite the distances and differences.


Most of the old photos of Baku and historical material were taken from Parapet virtual society on the history of Baku and Bakuvians at Baku Pages and Our Baku virtual encyclopaedia on the history of the city

I would like to thank Mr.Ramil Alakbarov from Kinozal.Az for providing brief biographic data about a popular Azerbaijani Soviet actor Sadyq Huseynov. There was no information even about his date of birth on the Internet.

Other interesting links

The Ali and Nino Walking Tour by Fuad Akhundov and Betty Blair, featured in the summer 2004 issue of the Azerbaijan International magazine: and republished again in a recent 2011 issue completely dedicated to this novel:

More old aerial photos of Baku from 1917-18, as well as more information about their author and the Korvin-Kerber family can be found at the Forum of the graduates of the Yeysk Higher Military Aviation School Farid Zeynalov recently wrote about these photos in his blog post in Azerbaijani Google Earth, 1917-1918, Bakı:

La ciudad y los perros (1985) a Peruvian film adaptation of the novel of the same name by Mario Vargas Llosa, directed by Francisco J. Lombardi:

Almost all the movies and cartoons of Soviet times including some Azerbaijani films can be downloaded from the Archive by ArjLover:

El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido – an iconic song of the Chilean resistance performed by the authors, a popular folk music group Quilapayún in 1973 and after three decades:

Yaramaz/Мерзавец (The Scoundrel), an award-winning 1988 Azerbaijani movie directed by Vagif Mustafayev is a satirical comedy about Soviet Perestroyka times (dubbed in Russian):

Эхо Сумгаита (Echo of Sumgayit) the first from the series of documentary films in Russian, journalistic investigation, directed by Davud Imanov (1945-2002) , that tries to destroy the myths created by anti-Azerbaijani propaganda:

The only more or less comprehensive videos on tragic events of 20 January, I could find on the Internet are a short 1990 documentary and the video compiled by Mirafgan Sultanov: Viewer discretion is advised.

Photos by Victoria Ivleva, an award winning journalist and photographer, special correspondent of the Russian Novaya Gazeta newspaper, who witnessed and documented the tragic events in Azerbaijan, at FotoSoyuz agencyискать=ИВЛЕВА Виктория&newSearchFlag=1 Note that few of her January 1990 photos used in this post, as well as images of Azerbaijani civilians, killed in Khojaly massacre of 1992 in Garabagh do not appear in search results anymore.


6 thoughts on “Santiago de Baku

  1. It’s hard to come by educated people in this particular subject, however, you sound like
    you know what you’re talking about! Thanks

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