Massacres of Turks and other Nationalities. The Massacres in Baku
The declaration of independence in 1918 enabled Azerbaijan to investigate crimes against Turks and other Muslim population in their own homeland. One of the significant decisions of the newly formed government was the establishment of an Extraordinary Investigation Commission on June 15, 1918, to investigate crimes committed by Dashnak gangs.
M. H. Hajinski, the minister of foreign affairs, noted, in his speech at the meeting of the government, that for four months, Armenian extorters had been committing atrocities against the civilian Muslim population, taking their lives and belongings. Hajinski stated that as a result of misinformation, nations of Europe had a wrong image of the ongoing processes and that these factors necessitated the establishment of a special commission. He argued that the entity should be vested with extraordinary authorities. Documents to be collected by the commission should be translated into the Azerbaijani, Russian, English, French, and German languages.86 Lawyer Alakbar Khasmammadov was appointed the chairman of the investigation commission (later the chairman of the Azerbaijani Chamber of Appeals), Ismayil Shahmaliyev and Andrey Novatsky became members of the Ganja District Court, Nasreddin Sefikurdski was appointed the assistant public prosecutor of the Ganja District Court, and Nikolay Mikhailov and Mirza Javad Akhunzade from the Ganja Migration Office were also included in the Commission.
Though the Extraordinary Investigation Commission was formed within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the commission was attached to the Ministry of Justice by the decision of Prime Minister Khoyski on September 22, 1918. The assistant public prosecutor of Baku District Court Alexander Kluge, the member of the grand jury Mammadkhan Tekinski, the investigator for particularly important cases of the Ganja District Court Mehiyeddin Shahmaliyev, the member of the Baku Guberniya District Court Hidayet Sutanov, members of the grand jury Aley Litovsky, Cheslav Klossovsky, lawyer Abbasali Haji Irzayev, and the member of Baku District Court B. Yusifbeyov sat on the commission at various times.
The Extraordinary Investigation Commission exerted its best efforts to investigate grievous crimes of Dashnak gangs till April 1920. Hundreds of survivors were interrogated; numerous material evidences and photo-documents were collected. An information sheet drawn up by a member of the commission, Klossovsky, on August 27, 1919, confirmed that the documented evidence of crimes committed by the Armenians against the Turks and other Muslims comprised thirty-six volumes on 3,500 sheets. The documents that proved the violence against the Muslim population of Baku and its suburbs filled six volumes (740 sheets in total). Four volumes (or 340 sheets) of evidence were collected on atrocities in Kurdemir and other villages of the Goychay uyezd, seven volumes (or 925 sheets) on the Armenian crimes in the town and uyezd of Shamakhi, two volumes (or 80 sheets) on the destroyed villages of the Zangezur uyezd, and three volumes (or 45 sheets) of documents on massacres in the town and uyezd of Guba.
The bourgeois-democratic revolution in Russia dethroned the house of Romanov on February 17, 1917, and led to the establishment of a provisional government. The provisional government appealed to all nations of Russia and declared that with the end of the Great War, it would consider the issue of national self-determination. However, due to the Bolshevik takeover of the power in October 1917, the plan never materialized. Bolsheviks began restoration of the former empire under the ideology of the establishment of worker-peasant authority.
In late 1917 to early 1918, Baku became an arena of the open fight of Dashnak-Bolshevik groups against the Azerbaijani leaders. In December 1917, Stepan Shaumian, who was appointed an Extraordinary Commissar of the Caucasus by Vladimir Lenin, chairman of the Russian Council of People’s Commissars, arrived in Baku from Tiflis together with Grigory Korganov’s Military Revolutionary Committee. Shaumian was fervent in keeping soldiers, returning from the Caucasus Front, in Baku instead of sending them to Russia. All these issues yet more escalated the situation in the city. Joint Bolshevik-Dashnak forces, fearing the increasing influence of the Musavat that was at the head of the Azerbaijani national movement, declared Baku the heart of the struggle between revolution and counterrevolution. The Baku Soviet, dominated by the Bolsheviks and Dashnaks, had twenty thousand troops called Red Army in its disposal.
The Massacres in Baku
The political situation in Baku was very strained in March 1918. The victory of the Musavat in the elections to the Baku Soviet seriously dismayed both Bolsheviks and Dashnaks. The Musavat came out as the most influential political party in the South Caucasus and began to struggle for the political authority and territorial sovereignty of Azerbaijan. Bolsheviks, under the leadership of Shaumian and together with the leaders of the Armenian National Council and the Dashnaktsutiun, launched a hostile campaign against the Musavat. Shaumian obtained information on the poorly armed and outnumbered Azerbaijani national movement in Baku and commenced preparations for a massacre “to teach a lesson to the Muslims.”
On March 29, 1918, Bolsheviks disarmed a small Muslim crew onboard the steamship Evelina in Baku; the incident was exploited to start an ethnic massacre against Azerbaijanis. Earlier that month, on March 17, a small group from the Muslim Division—forty-eight servicemen—had brought the body of Mahammad Taghiyev (son of an oil baron, Haji Zeynalabdin Taghiyev), who died from negligent handling of a weapon, to Baku. The arrival of the armed soldiers caused atir among the Bolsheviks. The group was planning to return to Lankaran on the Evelina after the funeral. Upon departure of the steamship, it was held back by the armed Bolsheviks who requested everyone onboard to disarm. When the soldiers onboard refused to surrender, the Bolsheviks fired rifles and machine guns on the vessel. The incident ended with the disarming of the Azerbaijani servicemen by the Bolsheviks.
The next day, on March 31, at four in the afternoon, a delegation from several Azerbaijani parties appeared before the Executive Committee of the Soviet and asked for arms for the Muslims. Prokofy Japaridze, the chairman of the Executive Committee of the Baku Soviet, asked if this request could be considered an ultimatum, and the delegation declared that they had no other interest than to cool the passions of the Azerbaijani masses. Japaridze assured the Muslim leaders that he would take the matter to the Military-Revolutionary Committee of the Caucasian Army and support the granting of arms to the Muslims.
The following day, Armenian soldiers appeared in the southern part of the city. They began digging trenches and erecting barricades from sand and stones. The same day, the former mayor of Baku, Ter-Mikaelian, came to the meeting of Azerbaijani parties held in the building of the Muslim Charity and declared on behalf of the Armenian National Council and the Dashnaktsutiun Party that in case of a Muslim uprising against the Bolsheviks, Armenians would join Azerbaijanis in dislodging the Bolsheviks from the city. Yet on March 31, early in the morning, the Muslim quarters of the city underwent attacks. The Muslims had been betrayed by the Armenian leaders. On the eve of the carnage, all Armenians who lived in the Muslim neighborhoods had moved to the Armenian quarters of the city. However, other Christian residents, namely Russians and Georgians, stayed in the Muslim quarters.
The slaughters in Baku had been elaborated by the Dashnaktsutiun and the Armenian National Council at the end of 1917. The Armenian leadership made repeated attempts to instigate Azerbaijanis to an armed confrontation with Bolsheviks; the goal was to physically annihilate the Muslim population. Killings and wrecking in the Muslim quarters were committed by the organized Armenian military units in a prearranged and coordinated manner. On January 6-9, 1918, Azerbaijani troops disarmed Russian detachments returning from the Caucasus Front at Shamkir railroad station near Ganja. Despite the fact that the Azerbaijani troops were guided
by a special directive of the Transcaucasian Commissariat, the detachment commanders refused to surrender their weapons under the influence of Bolshevik propaganda. The confrontation escalated to a clash of arms with dead and injured on both sides. The incident was utilized by Shaumian, who laid the entire guilt on the Azerbaijani troops and attempted a mass slaughter. However, he was forced to forgo the idea in the view of unfavourable balance of forces.
In the early evening of March 31, a Revolutionary Defense Committee was formed to coordinate the operations against the Azerbaijanis. The committee’s membership included Shaumian, Japaridze, Korganov, Sukhartsev, Sahakian, Melik-Eolchian, and Dr. Narimanov. In its first proclamation, the committee declared itself “the highest military-political organ” in Baku, accountable only to the Soviet. As soon as the conflict between the Soviet forces and the Muslims began, the Armenian community declared its neutral position in this confrontation. Clearly, the side that could win the Armenian military units over to its cause would have the preponderance of strength and could be assured of victory.
Tactically, the Dashnaktsutiun Party and the Armenian National Council rejected alliance with the Musavat. The Armenian National Council held negotiations with the Soviet leaders and drew their forces to the Armenian quarters of the city. Involvement of the Armenian military units initiated by Shaumian, the head of the Baku Soviet, yet more widened the scope of the massacre. Under the pretext of protection of the Bolsheviks, Armenian military units began to slaughter the Azerbaijani population. It is noteworthy that both the Baku Soviet troops consisted of Armenians. The Dashnaks in the Soviet, Sako Sahakian, Arakelian, and others flatly opposed the admittance of Muslim workers to the Bolshevik detachments. While they prevented the Azerbaijanis from forming a national army, the Dashnaks conducted their Armenian nationalist policy under the veil of the Soviet ideology and prepared for massacres against the Azerbaijani population of Baku, Shamakhi, and other provinces of Azerbaijan. The Armenian National Council had a special role in these atrocities. The February Revolution of 1917 enabled Armenian political organizations to establish Armenian National Councils driven with anti-Azerbaijani agenda in Baku, Ganja, Shusha, Nakhchivan, Julfa, Ordubad, and Zangezur. These councils were utilized as a political tool to propagandize and mobilize the Armenian population.
The right wing of the Armenian National Council in Baku published a twice-weekly newspaper Nashe Vremya with financial support of the Armenian bourgeois class. The newspaper was notable for its extreme chauvinistic position, slanderous and subversive campaigns against the Muslim population, and justifying the crimes committed by the Dashnak gangs.
In early March 1918, the Armenian National Council in Baku issued an appeal “to Armenian fighters” where it called the zinvors (i.e., members of Armenian terrorist groups) for armed struggle against the “eternal foe,” referring to Turkic population. When the ethnic conflict ignited in Baku, the Armenian National Council initially announced its neutrality and noninvolvement. However, when the situation changed in favor of the Baku Soviet, the council transferred its troops at the command of the Revolutionary Defense Committee. Azerbaijanis underwent attacks and lootings in Shamakhi, Goychay, Ganja, Nukha, Gazakh, Lankaran, Salyan—in short, in all provinces of Azerbaijan.
A. N. Kvasnik, a Jewish resident of Baku and an eyewitness of the events, testified during interrogation by the Investigation Committee: “The events in Baku on March 17 through March 21 [by Julian calendar] of this year can be described with a quiet conscience as a violent attempt upon Muslims committed by Armenians with the purpose to annihilate Muslims first of all in Baku, and then in other places, to loot their properties and to seize their belongings.”
The unbridled and savage Armenian gangs used the most brutal methods to kill Azerbaijani civilians. Alexander Kluge, member of the Extraordinary Investigation Commission, wrote in a report titled “On the Case of Violence against the Muslim Population of Baku,” “Well-armed and trained Armenian soldiers attacked using numerous machine-guns . . . Armenians were braking in the Muslims’ houses, killing and cutting them into pieces by swords and daggers, stabbing with bayonets, throwing children into burning houses, ruthlessly tossing up infants, whose parents had been already murdered, on the tips of bayonets; they killed all.” Besides killing the Muslims, the Armenian bashers ruined their properties and carried away valuable belongings. Later, fifty-seven corpses of Muslim women and girls were found commonly buried at one site alone; their ears and noses were cut, and abdomens were torn.
When the Armenians had no time to kill women, they tied them to one another by their braided hair and carried them away on carts, crippling the women by beating them with the butts of their rifles. Based on the documents of the investigation commission, approximately eleven thousand Azerbaijanis were killed in Baku in March of 1918. Bodies of many people were missing; according to witnesses’ testimonies, Armenians threw corpses into burning houses, the sea, and wells to cover up the crimes. Jewelry and possessions to the tune of four hundred million rubles were confiscated from the Azerbaijani population of Baku. Many shrines and historical sites were ruined. The Tezepir Mosque was damaged by long-range shellfire. The Ismailiyye Building, one of the finest examples of Muslim architecture in the city, was burnt down.
This barbarism is described in the papers of the investigation commission: “On March 18, 1918 [by the Julian calendar] an Armenian officer with three Armenian soldiers entered the building of the Ismailiyye Muslim Charity from the blind alley between the building and the editorial office of Kaspii. Soon fire and smoke appeared in the windows of the building. Ismailiyye, the pride of Baku Muslims and one of the most charming landmarks of the city, was destroyed by fire. There was nobody to put out the fire, because Muslims could not leave their houses due to the risk to be killed by machine-gun fire.” That officer responsible was a notorious leader of the Dashnaktsutiun Party, Tatevos Amirov.
Looters burned the buildings of the editorial office of Kaspii, the Dagestan hotel, and the Iskenderiyye and Ismailiyye buildings. Azerbaijanis were not the only people that were massacred; other Muslims of the Caucasus were abused as well. The Baku Muslim Charity and the Caucasus Muslim Committees were headquartered in the Ismailiyye building; all their funds and documents were kept there, and the building was also utilized as the place for meetings and assemblies of Muslims. The editorial office of Kaspii, besides its main function, also published books in the Azerbaijani language. Five thousand copies of the Quran had been kept in the building prior to the fire; they were burned to ashes along with the building.
Armenian intellectuals and youth were engaged in the March massacres side by side with the well-trained military units. This is witnessed in the documents compiled during the investigation: “Representatives of all classes of the Armenian people felt obliged to take part in this ‘war.’ Engineers, doctors, and clerks were among them; in short, all strata of the Armenian society were performing their ‘civic duty.’”
On March 24, ten armed sailors, led by the pilot Rozenblum, were sent to Kazim Akhundov, the second in command of the steamship Nikolai Buniatov, to solicit protection of the hillside quarters of Baku—Chenberekend. The next day, on March 25, Akhundov ordered the sailors to collect corpses from the Nikolayevskaya Street. They alone collected the bodies of 3 Muslim schoolboys and 11 schoolgirls, 1 Russian woman and 8 Russian men, 3 Muslim boys aged three to five, 19 female Persian nationals, and 67 Azerbaijanis of various trades who had been slaughtered with swords or stabbed with bayonets. In addition, 6,748 corpses of Azerbaijani men, women, and children were brought to the old quay of the Vulkan Company. Akhundov testified that he took his comrade, fitter Vladimir Sokolov, to a brickyard (Kerpich-khana) where they took three photos. The first photo was of a female corpse: the woman had a bullet wound on the head, five bayonet wounds on the body, and a sword wound on the right collarbone. There was a child on her right breast, still alive. The infant, who was trying to suck his mother, had a bayonet wound on the leg. In the second photo, a two-year-old child was nailed to the wall. It is clearly seen from the nail head that it had been hammered into the boy with a stone left nearby. The third photo was of the corpse of a teenage girl with clear marks of a group rape. At the entrance of the fourth house, Akhundov and Sokolov encountered a terrible sight: on the floor of a large room, there were corpses of a twenty-two- to twenty-three-year-old woman, two elderly women, a girl and a boy aged eight or nine, and an infant. The infant’s limbs had been chewed by dogs. Sokolov, deeply troubled by the scene, was not able to take any photos.
Looters had no pity even for the people they personally knew. For example, on March 20, Stepan Lalayev, with a group of Armenian soldiers, broke into the house of Dr. Beybala Sultanov and killed him with a handgun. Then Lalayev went down to the yard and shot a Muslim yard keeper, his wife, and his two-year-old son. A group of some thirty armed Armenians broke into the apartment of Mashadi Ahmed Rahim-Oghlu and took away valuables in the amount of 34,840 rubles. Mashadi Ahmed identified his neighbors—tailor Hayk and shopkeeper Yekhush—among the criminals.
The tragic events in Baku caused serious damage to the city. The outbreak of an epidemic killed thousands of people, and water and food supplies were interrupted. Grocery stores and bazaars were empty. All the remaining food was taken away by looters. Press headlines—Population Suffers from Hunger—clearly depicted the situation.
The first book on the 1918 massacres of Azerbaijanis was written by Mahammad Muradzade and published in 1919 in Baku. Muradzade himself was an eyewitness and a survivor of Armenian savageries. The author described the massacres, using his family as an example, and gave a clear picture of Armenian vandalism and ferocity in Baku and in provinces of Azerbaijan. The author writes, “A heartbreaking scene, which I witnessed, still continues to arise in my mind. That day I saw several men carrying a short ladder on their shoulders with a corpse wrapped in a colorful carpet. That corpse was my poor father’s—the figurative victim of the March days. During those days even this sight was envied by many. The bodies of many martyrs were missing after the massacre. Mothers and sisters were bitterly grieving. That day more than half of Baku was mourning. Many families were slaughtered with poisoned daggers without mercy even for infants. There was no house where cry and wail were not heard.”
help. As a matter of fact, the Jewish population gave a helping hand and saved the lives of thousands of Muslims during the massacre in Baku. The majority of witnesses who testified before the investigation committee were Jews. The author, sheltered by a Jewish family by his father’s request, gives the following description of the events: “It was nearly one o’clock. A clatter and then several shots sounded on the roof. At this point I saw my younger brother running towards us and shouting. Suddenly someone furiously knocked at the door and windows, and then I heard several rifle-shots. My father’s voice no longer came through.” The Dashnak detachments besieged the Muslim quarter and began to slaughter the population without any distinction. Not only men but also women were taken hostage.
By doing this, the Dashnaks openly expressed hatred toward Azerbaijanis: “The thugs led away two female hostages like an animal flock. Then the other mobsters ransacked and looted the houses and the yards. They questioned the Jews about the Muslim abodes and attempted to enter into the house. The Jews refused to let them in and said the house belonged to them and there were no Muslims inside; they said that Muslims had lived next door, pointing at our house, but all of them had been killed an hour ago. Our abandoned house, which had already been looted once, was plundered again by these gangsters.”
Besides slaughtering Muslims, the Dashnak-Bolshevik gangs herded those whom they had not been able to kill into public buildings and abused them. According to the author, on the third day of the massacre, Jewish children began to scurry through the quarters to find out who was still alive. When they returned, they described what they had seen. News spread that “martyrs lied in bloody deathbeds, scattered along streets like fish dumped on the shore.
Vampires of the neighboring nation [Armenians] searched, found and killed Turkic-Muslim children, who had been hiding in nooks. They intruded into Russian and Jewish dwellings and forced the inhabitants to surrender Muslims on pain of death.” The author has a description of the role of the Jewish youth in sheltering of Azerbaijanis: “Several Jewish youngsters, formerly enlisted in the old Russian army, took up arms and claimed that there were no Muslims in the neighborhood and that they had been appointed by the commander to defend several houses from criminal intrusion; they kept alert against any infringement. These young men defended their families from assaults and rescued us from the arms of death.”
The Bolshevik-Dashnak alliance led by Shaumian claimed that the total death toll during the March events was only three thousand. According to Muradzade, all streets of Baku were packed with bodies: “Rumble of carts, rushing to clean the streets from countless corpses after the 2-day war, set the city in anxiety.”
After the Bolshevik invasion in 1920, not only was this tragedy forgotten, but it was also described as a civil war where nationalists were viewed as the main culprits of the hostilities.
Shaumian and other bloodthirsty authors of the massacre were proclaimed national heroes; the central streets of Baku, where the majority of Azerbaijanis had been slaughtered, were named
in the honor of these criminals.
Another eyewitness of the events, Boris Baikov, who lived in
Baku from 1895 to 1919 prior to emigrating to Berlin, described
the March massacres in his Memories of the Revolution in
Transcaucasia. In his book, Baikov expressed his position on the
situation in the South Caucasus prior to the March events and
wrote that the collapse of czarism in February 1917 cleared the
way for independence of the South Caucasian nations. At that
time, Armenians, Georgians, and Azerbaijanis sought self-rule
within the borders of Russia. On the other hand, every political
force in Russia had its own distinct view on the problem of
independence of these nations. The Bolsheviks’ declaration on
granting rights to nations for their self-determination remained
only a slogan. In reality, the Bolsheviks struggled to preserve
the former Russian borders and fill them with a new content.
The October Revolution cleared all doubts and confirmed the
Bolsheviks’ intentions. Baikov wrote, “The entire oil [supply]
in Czarist Russia was supplied from Baku. The main bulk of
the oil was forwarded by sea and through the Volga River to the
Russian cities. Trade ships resumed operations in the middle
of March, when it began thawing. The Bolsheviks’ primary
concern was to occupy Baku in the short run.”
The author continued, “The Bolsheviks did not keep back
their intentions. They began to accumulate military units
and arms from Transcaucasia in one place. The Caspian Fleet was controlled by the Bolsheviks.”Baikov argued that the Bolsheviks possessed enough force to seize power in Baku, but this task would be hampered if Dashnaks joined forces with the
Musavat. However, the Bolsheviks were sure that the Dashnaks
would not support the Musavat on the issue of power. Baikov
writes, “The sitting of the city Duma was held on March 24, in
the evening. At 7 p.m. the meeting was disrupted by the news
that the Bolsheviks’ attempt to disarm the steamship Evelina
at its departure for Lankaran led to a skirmish. At 11 p.m. the Muslim troops on the ship surrendered their arms to the
A few days before the massacre, the Armenian National
Council officially declared that in case of a conflict between
Muslims and Bolsheviks, Armenians would maintain neutrality.
But on the next day, when Bolsheviks refused to return the
arms to Muslims, the dubious behavior of the Armenians gave
rise to a concern. The author wrote, “I lived in the downtown,
therefore no action escaped my notice. On March 24 at 4
p.m. the Bolsheviks and the Musavatists began negotiations
on return of arms. We thought that the talks took a normal
course. But an hour later, at 5 p.m., the Muslim quarters on
the hill-side underwent shell-fire from the sea. Terrible fights
started in the city.”
As the author describes, “The city went through hell during those four days. On the first day the
Muslims overpowered [their attackers], but on the next day, the
Bolsheviks outbalanced them and began an unequal battle.”
Baikov emphasizes the critical moment in the fighting: “The
Armenian National Council tried to protect the Armenian
population from the battle. But the Dashnaktsutiun Party
rendered a decision on engagement of the Armenian troops
on the Bolsheviks’ side. On the second day the course of the
battles changed and the majority of Armenians began to fight
According to the author, there was a confrontation between the Armenian National Council and the Dashnaktsutiun Party on the issue of involvement in the massacre. Except Baikov,
none of the authors who wrote on the subject paid attention
to this issue. The author described the hostilities: “Fire was
everywhere. Artillery of the Bolsheviks reduced the city to the
ruins. The Juma mosque was damaged, the Ismailiyya building
was set on fire, the printing house of the Kaspii newspaper was
destroyed. The Muslims fled the city en masse. The helpless
Muslims left their homes and tried to hide in back streets
and alleys to stay alive. But none of them could survive the
Baikov brought further facts not described by other authors: “The crimes against the Muslim population had a great influence on the personnel of the two Russian infantry
regiments [at that time deployed in Baku], which numbered
roughly 8,000. The Bolsheviks kept these regiments in Baku
by force. The regiment commander demanded from Shaumian
and other Bolsheviks to stop fighting that day [on April 1],
otherwise they threatened to engage on the Muslims’ side.
Baikov did not disclose his thoughts in regard to Shaumian’s Bolshevik government formed after the massacre but noted that a warrant officer, Avakian, appointed the city commandant,
was a drug addict and mentally deviant. According to Soviet
historians S. Sef and Y. Ratgauzer, Avakian demonstrated
particular brutality toward the Muslim population of Baku,
confiscated property of well-to-do townsmen, and spent day
after day in drunkenness.
Another appealing account of the March days is given by a
French historian, Henry Barby. According to Barby, “7,000 Muslims and 3,000 Bolsheviks and Armenians were killed in
the March massacre of 1918.”123 Although his death toll for
Muslims is not fully accurate, it only slightly deviates from the
real figures. From Barby’s description of the subsequent events,
it is seen that the author had done quite an extensive research
on the subject: “The Bolshevik leaders Shaumian, Fioletov,
Japaridze were arrested [in late July to early August 1918]. 80
million rubles in gold coins were found on the ship among
An American historian, Firuz Kazemzadeh, also conducted a comprehensive study on the 1918 genocide of Azerbaijanis. The 345-page work published in 1951125 is distinguished by an
abundance of sources. Kazemzadeh looked predominantly into the essence of the
tragedy and wrote that no matter who started shooting first, it
was the biggest tragedy of the period. At the time of publication
of the book, Soviet historians claimed that there had been a
civil war in Baku in 1918 but avoided to give any figures on
human losses. They refused to confess that thousands of elderly,
youth, and children had undergone fiendish tortures and been
In the chapter devoted to the massacres of Muslims in Baku, the author writes, “On 9th March, 1918, there arrived in Baku the staff of the Azerbaijani Savage Division. Its
Commander, General Taleshinskii, was arrested by the Soviet.
The Muslim masses were excited. Meetings were held in the
mosques, in which orators called on the people to offer armed
resistance to the Soviet. Shaumian could have prevented
much bloodshed, had he been less impulsive and stubborn.
Only a few days before the arrival of General Taleshinskii
and his staff, he had received a telegram from Lenin . . . The
telegram shows that Lenin, with his genius for appreciating
people, felt the rashness of Shaumian. Lenin’s advice about
diplomacy was nothing but a warning to be more careful and
According to Kazemzadeh, the release of Talyshinski might have closed the incident. Kazemzadeh describes the situation
in Baku on the eve of the events: “Trenches were being dug,
barricades erected, and preparations made for real warfare.
For a few hours the city was quiet, as nature often is before a
storm. When the Soviet realized that a fully fledged civil war was
approaching, it looked around for allies, knowing full well that
its own forces were insufficient against the Azerbaijani masses
led by the Musavat.” Suny, Swietochowski, Baikov, and other
foreign historians argued that without alliance, the Soviet would
certainly lose in the confrontation with the Musavat, which, at
that time, enjoyed wide popular support. The leader of the Baku
Mensheviks, Aiollo, declared that they would support the Soviet.
The SRs pledged themselves to fight against Pan-Islamism and
the “socialists a l’orientale.” Even the Cadets (right-wing liberals)
promised to support the Bolsheviks as the champions of the
“Russian cause.” Therein, the plans of the Dashnaktsutiun
Party and the Bolsheviks complemented each other.
Kazemzadeh continues, “In that bloodthirsty episode, which
had such fatal effects upon the Muslims, the principal part was
played by the Armenians, who were then in Baku, clustering as
elsewhere around their nationalist party [Dashnaktsutiun] . . .
The truth is that the Armenians, under the guise of Bolshevism,
rushed on the Muslims and massacred during a few frightful
days more than twelve thousand people, many of whom were
old men, women, and children.”
As confirmed also by the evidences collected by the Extraordinary Investigation Commission, “the March Events, as this episode became known to history, touched off a series
of massacres all over Azerbaijan. The brutalities continued for
weeks. No quarter was given by either side: neither age nor sex
was respected. Enormous crowds roamed the streets, burning
houses, killing every passer-by who was identified as an enemy;
many innocent persons suffering death at the hands of both
the Armenians and the Azerbaijanis. The struggle which had
begun as a political contest between the Musavat and the Soviet
assumed the character of a gigantic race riot.”
After the massacre, all parties tried to justify themselves.
The Armenian archbishop Bagrat denied involvement of
Armenians in the March incidents in the document presented
to General Harbord, the head of a U.S. delegation (the
American Military Missions to Armenia, known as the Harbord
Commission) that visited Baku in fall 1919. Bagrat eclipsed
Shaumian, claiming that three hundred Armenians and only
seven hundred Muslims were killed during the massacres in
Baku. “Bagrat stated that the battle was waged by the Musavat
and the Soviet, while the Armenians remained neutral. It is
true, he continued, that some Armenian soldiers took part in
the fighting, but those were only isolated individuals for whom
the Armenian National Council could not be held responsible.
The Archbishop placed the entire guilt upon the Musavat,
which, according to the letter, was a helper of the Turks.”
Seyid Jafar Pishavari, the chairman of the 1945-46 National Government of South Azerbaijan and an eyewitness of the clashes, wrote in his memoirs, “I saw the savageries of
the Dashnaks, who killed and burned many innocent people,
and especially neutral South Azerbaijanis in the caravanserais
on March 18, 1918 [Julian calendar]. The crimes, committed
by the Dashnaks without any reason and only because of spite
and hatred, distressed everyone. All streets, shops, houses—the
entire city was in blood and had been looted. The Armenians
murdered Azerbaijani Turks and took women as prisoners.”
After getting hold of absolute power in Baku and a
number of uyezds, the Bolsheviks started the process of
general nationalization to strengthen their positions. The
Bolsheviks achieved integration of the Armenian troops to
avoid confrontation with the Armenian National Council and
the Dashnaktsutiun Party. On the other hand, the Armenian
leaders, exhausted in the struggle with the Musavat and fearing
the approach of the Ottoman forces, agreed to incorporate
their forces into the Red Army. The Armenians, thus united
by the Soviets, guaranteed their claim for power and prepared
for further linkage with Andranik’s detachments banished from
the Ottoman territory. On April 25, 1918, the Bolsheviks
formed the Baku Soviet of People’s Commissars to formalize the
monopoly of power. The Soviet was composed of the Bolsheviks
and their supporters and declared itself the single authority over
the entire region of Baku and its population of one million.
The Baku Soviet spent a portion of the fifty million mantas that had been extorted from local tycoons for development of the oil industry. During the period in power from April 25 to
July 31, 1918, the Bolsheviks arranged shipping of tons of oil
from Baku to Russia.
The period of the Azerbaijani history between 1917 and
1920 was researched by another American historian, Ronald
Grigor Suny. His book, The Baku Commune 1917-1918,133
provides a comprehensive insight into the March events.
The author describes the Dashnaktsutiun politics prior
to the March massacres: “The Dashnaks . . . denied that the
Armenians were conspiring against the Moslems in league with
any third group. As late as March 23, just a week before the
‘March Days,’ the central committee of the Dashnaktsutiun
threatened to take the disciplining of such rumormongers into
his own hands. The proclamation was indicative of the tense
atmosphere in which the population of Baku lied, cut off as
it was by Moslems from Tiflis and the north the Caucasus.
Unexplained shootings occurred daily; and a duel between
the Moslem forces, still weak and underequipped, and the
well-armed soviet and Dashnak forces was expected to break
out at any moment . . . The Armenians knew that their national
hero, General Andranik had evacuated Erzurum on March 11 ” and was preparing to attack Karabakh.
Suny’s account of the bombing of the Muslim quarters is different from other versions: “At ten in the morning on April 1 the Committee of Revolutionary Defense sitting in the Hotel Astoria on Morskaia Street, decided that the situation called
for the use artillery against the Moslem quarter. A leaflet was
issued: In view of fact that the counterrevolutionary party
Musavat declared war on the Soviet of Workers’, Soldiers’ and
Sailors’ Deputies in the city of Baku and thus threatened the
existence of the government of the revolutionary democracy,
Baku is declared to be in a state of siege. Bombing of the
Azerbaijanis’ quarter was begun immediately. The Moslems
had not expected the heavy guns to be used and with them
against them the rebels could not hold out for long.”
Narimanov gives the following account: “At eleven in
the morning the influential Moslem Ismayil bey Safataliyev
telephoned Dr. Narimanov and pleaded with him to find a way
to stop the fighting, which threatened to destroy the Moslem
quarter and kill innocent bystanders. An hour later out of the
Moslem fortress in the center of the old city came Agu-Dzhafat
[or Aga-Javad] with a similar plea. N. Narimanov telephoned
Dzhaparidze and relayed the pleas of the Moslems. Dzhaparidze
was unwilling to stop the shelling of the Moslem quarter until
a delegation from the rebels appeared before the Committee of
Touching upon the question of the ultimatum by the Committee of Revolutionary Defense delivered to the Muslim delegation, Suny wrote that the head of the Baku Soviet was loath
to stop the massacre. In the afternoon on April 1, the Muslim delegation led by A. Topchubashov arrived at the Astoria. The committee presented them with an ultimatum and demanded
that representatives from all Muslim organizations sign the
document before the shelling stopped. After some discussion,
the Muslims decided to capitulate to the committee’s demands.
At about four o’clock, the protocol was signed and artillery
bombardment halted. Individual shooting continued, however,
during the negotiations.
Suny also described the events at the time of issuing of
the ultimatum: “Before the ultimatum was signed the Soviet
forces advanced slowly, aided by artillery-fire, along Armenian
Street, taking Vorontsov Street and the Metropole Hotel. By
midday the Moslem headquarters in the Ismailie Building on
Nikolaevskaia Street were captured, and Soviet trenches had
been advanced as far as Bazzar Street . . . The Armenian soldiers
became more brutal as resistance subsided. For a day and a half
they looted, killed, and burned in the Moslem quarter. They
were indiscriminate in their vengeance, killing even Moslems
who were pro-Bolshevik.”
That period of the history of Azerbaijan was studied by
a well-known Western scholar Audrey L. Altstadt. Her book,
The Azerbaijan Turks: Power and Identity under Russian Rule,
published in 1992, gets to the roots of the problem. Altstadt,
unlike most of other foreign authors, traveled to Azerbaijan both
in the Soviet times and when Azerbaijan became independent;
she was an eyewitness of many events and processes from the ground.
Altstadt also mentioned that besides disarming Russian
soldiers in Ganja, Azerbaijani Turks also disarmed Russian
troops in January 1918 at Shamkir station less than forty
kilometers west of Ganja. According to Naghi Keykurun
Sheykhzamanli, former minister of National Security of
Azerbaijani Democratic Republic, the Russian soldiers attacked
as one contingent, coming forward ostensibly to surrender
their weapons: “Our people’s forces seeing Russian treachery
counterattacked; fighting continued until nightfall . . . the
Russians started throwing their weapons and surrendering. The
next day, those Russians were put on trains and sent back to
Russia. The weapons were distributed to those who had none.
We were not jubilant because of causalities.”
Altstadt writes, “Numerous Russian causalities and mutual distrust between
the two communities contributed to the final rupture of
already strained relations between Musavatists and Bolsheviks.
It would be the Baku Azerbaijanis who would pay the price in
the ‘March days.’141 In January 1918 all political forces but the
Musavat desired to gather around the Soviet. The Dashnaks,
the Cadets, the Socialist-Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks,
who opposed the Musavat’s independence claims, supported
the idea that ‘the Bolshevik government is better than the
Musavat.’” For this reason the Azerbaijani National Council was losing power to the Soviet. Altstadt supported the conclusions of Suny and Swietochowski on the armed conflict: “The 6,000
men of the Baku Soviet faced an estimated 10,000 Azerbaijani
troops. The Dashnaks, with 4,000 well-armed and experienced
troops, joined to the Soviet force. The next day, on 19 March/1
April, Bolsheviks decided to use artillery against Azerbaijani
residential quarters. Shelling forced immediate capitulation and
the acceptance of Soviet’s ultimatum.” After the Azerbaijani
representatives accepted the terms, the Dashnaks took to
looting, burning, and killing in the Muslim sections of the city.
Thousands of Azerbaijani Turks fled the city.143 Those who
could not leave were doomed to be slaughtered. The British
vice-consul in Baku, Major Ranald MacDonell, wrote, “Not
a single Musulman of any importance remain[ed].”144 “The
exodus shifted the demographic picture even further in favor of
nonnative elements. The Baku branch of the National Council
was disbanded. The Azerbaijanis, from those ‘March Days’ until
the following August, would play no political role in Baku.
There was no obstacle to soviet control over Baku. On the 9
April, all ‘bourgeois’ newspapers were shut down. Armenians
had charge of trade, finance and food supplies.”
Altstadt also did not consider the March massacres as the
closing point of the events in the South Caucasus. She arrived at a conclusion that the Baku Soviet of People’s Commissars was extraneous to the Azerbaijani people. The author accepted
the formation of the Azerbaijani Democratic Republic in 1918 as a great political event.
Richard Pipes also wrote on the 1918 massacre and drew
inference that the Bolsheviks intentionally accumulated the
soldiers who were returning from the Turkish and Persian fronts
in Baku to commit unseen crimes.146 The circumstances are also
described in The History of Azerbaijan’s Independence Struggle
by Huseyn Baykara: “Many groups of the armed Russian and
Armenian soldiers returning from Turkish and Persian frontlines
were billeted in Baku. First Shaumian used pro-Bolshevik Russian
soldiers, and then he drew in Armenian soldiers due to their
hatred of the Turks and Muslims.”
The UK National Archives hold enough records on the
1918 genocide of the Muslim Turks by the Armenian-Bolshevik
forces. Some striking examples are provided below.
It is a fact that many rich and influential Armenians who
lived outside of the southern Caucasus rendered support to the
massacres against the Muslim population. In one case, a group
of wealthy Armenians appealed to Charles Marling, the British
ambassador to Tehran, to render financial aid to Andranik, the
author of ferocities against the Muslim Turks in Nakhchivan,
Erivan, Zangezur, Karabakh, and in other provinces of Azerbaijan. Notwithstanding the numerous requests and
telegrams by the Armenians, the British headquarters refused to
aid Armenians directly but offered one million rubles through
The news of the British financial assistance to the Armenians
caused a great discontent among the Muslims in Ganja and
Baku. When the information about the next allocation in the
amount of two million rubles to the Armenians reached the
members of the Ganja branch of the Azerbaijani National
Committee, they arranged inspection of all trains from Baku
to Tbilisi to prevent the transfer of money. In many cases,
Fatali Khan Khoyski personally supervised such searches.
Upon receiving British aid, the Armenian regiment attacked
several Kurdish villages and slaughtered their population. After
this incident, Lieutenant Colonel Pike, the head of the British
mission in Tbilisi, put a veto on financial aid to the Armenian
detachments. During the 1918 March massacres of the
Muslim Turks, R. MacDonell, the former British vice-consul
in Tehran, was in Baku and witnessed the Armenian-Bolshevik
unification. According to MacDonell, the massacre “poured oil
on the flames” of hatred among the Caucasian Muslims toward
the British. MacDonell, a witness of the carnage, voiced his protest before the Armenian National Council and declared
that by uniting with the Bolsheviks (in fact, the majority of
the Bolsheviks were Armenians) against the Muslims, they
had made the biggest mistake in their history, and the entire
responsibility for the consequences should be born by the
On July 20, 1918, the commander in chief of the British
military in India confidentially reported to London that the
Armenians had undermined their work among Tatars (meaning
the Azerbaijani population). In the report, he noted that the
Tatars had become assured that the British had been pursuing
a deliberate anti-Muslim policy due to mass killing of Tatars by
The geography of the slaughters committed by the
Armenian military against the Muslim Turks was not limited to
the territories of Turkey and Azerbaijan. The classified telegram
sent on December 22, 1918, by Percy Cox, the British acting
minister in Tehran, to London confirms that the Council of the
Muslim Republics of the Caucasus, which functioned in Tabriz,
pleaded with the Spanish consul to inform the governments of
the Great Britain and the United States of the Armenian-led
massacres of the Caucasian Muslims.
An envoy of the British Foreign Office, who had been
an eyewitness of the massacres of the Azerbaijani Turks in
Baku, wrote in his “Memo on Situation in Baku” (dated June
11, 1918) that the Armenians joined with the better-armed Bolshevik troops and utilized them in the fight against Tatars
(Azerbaijanis). Baku became an arena of heavy battles. The
crews on the gunboats joined the Bolsheviks and fired on the
Muslim quarters of Baku. The Bolsheviks and the Armenians
eventually prevailed. In a report on the visit to Azerbaijan,
the British ambassador Oliver Wardrop wrote that Azerbaijanis
informed him that the local Armenians, supported by the
Bolsheviks, had murdered many Muslims. The ambassador
concluded that Shaumian was a pseudo-Bolshevik.
George Milne, the commander in chief of the British armies
in Salonica, reported to the chief of General Staff on April
6, 1919, “Before occupation of Baku [British troops entered
Baku on November 17, 1918] two Turkish regiments defended
Shusha from attacks of Andranik’s army. Now the Armenians
have captured the city and killed the Turks. The government
does its best to ensure law and order. One battalion of British
soldiers is required to enforce law. The Baku Armenians create a
particularly unpleasant situation. The impoverished Armenians
joined the Bolsheviks and the underground Dashnaktsutiun.
They have no other goal than to take revenge on the Tatars
On October 21, 1918, the Persian Ministry of Foreign
Affairs appealed to the British diplomatic in connection with the
massacres of the Muslim-Turkic population by the Armenians.
The appeal read, “The Armenians slaughtered and plundered
the Muslims of Erivan, Nakhchivan, Kars and other provinces.
Irrespective of their intentions, the Armenians committed all
kinds of crimes against Muslims. The Muslim families were
dispersed, innocent men and children were murdered, women
were humiliated, their belongings were taken away and the
villages were destroyed.” The Persian Foreign Ministry also
requested the British government to give instructions to restrain
the Armenians, to prevent crimes and violence, and to protect
Oliver Wardrop, the British commander in chief in the
Caucasus, also writes on the Armenian ferocities in his report
(1919): “The Armenians have recently destroyed 60 Muslim
villages in Yeni Beyazit, Alexandropol, and Erivan.”
Anar Isgenderli – Realities of Azerbaijan: 1917-1920
Printed in the United States of America (Foreword by Justin McCarthy).
First published in 2011.