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The Sovietization of Azerbaijan: The South Caucasus in the Triangle of Russia, Turkey and Iran, 1920-1922

The Sovietization of Azerbaijan is a political history of the occupation of the sovereign Azerbaijan state in 1920 by Soviet Russia, and of the establishment of Soviet bureaucratic and administrative control and structure in the country thereafter.


The Sovietization of Azerbaijan is a political history of the occupation of the sovereign Azerbaijan state in 1920 by Soviet Russia, and of the establishment of Soviet bureaucratic and administrative control and structure in the country thereafter. The book, however, offers more than that –it provides an elaborate history of the Sovietization of Georgia and Armenia, Soviet Russia’s East policy, its efforts in northern Iran for the establishment of a Soviet regime, the diplomatic victories of the national movement in Anatolia, the Treaties of Kars and Moscow, and the implications of these treaties for the South Caucasus states.

The book starts with a section on the history of the political geography of Azerbaijan since the early 18th century, particularly focusing on the early 1900s. The section principally highlights the burgeoning of the sentiments and political organization for an independent Azerbaijan, and the role that Armenian aggression and oil politics played in this. Here, Hasanli clearly explicates the intricacies of regional politics, particularly after World War I, among the Ottomans, the Azeris, the Russians and the British regarding Baku oil and the Armenian claims for territorial control and statehood in the southern Caucasus. The discussion on how independent Azerbaijan came to be occupied by the Red Army in late April 1920, and the national parliament’s handing over of the government to the Muslim communists (the Communist Party of Azerbaijan) is exemplary, and elegantly portrays the establishment of the Soviet regime in Azerbaijan thereafter.

The subsequent discussion details the USSR’s efforts to consolidate the Soviet regime in Azerbaijan, and how Soviet Russia oversaw Soviet Azerbaijan’s relations with independent Georgia and Armenia. The book eloquently demonstrates the local dynamics at play in the transformation of Azerbaijan’s existing administrative and socio-economic structure into a communist-party-ruled administrative, political and socio-economic order, and the conflicting communication taking place between the center (Soviet Russia) and the periphery (Soviet Azerbaijan) in fortifying communist rule in the country. Hasanli provides valuable examples of the everyday influences and manifestations of Sovietization in the country, for instance in the uprisings in Ganja or Barda initiated by local peasants, or the confiscation of the properties of the bourgeoisie –including their very personal items such as earrings (pp. 43, 49-51, 76). The author also demonstrates the use of Georgia-Azerbaijan relations –more precisely of Georgia’s military offensive in some of Azerbaijan’s border areas, and Soviet Russia’s arbitration activities in solving the diplomatic crises –in making sure the communist party in Georgia became legalized and its members received amnesty. These moves facilitated the eventual occupation of the country by the Red Army in February 1921 (p. 61).

As subsequent discussions reveal, Azerbaijan’s Sovietization was accompanied by Soviet Russia’s further Sovietization plans along the shoreline of the Caspian Sea as part of its East policy. Accordingly, Soviet Russia utilized a variety of means for territorially extending the Bolshevik expansion into northern Iran. This involved initiating revolts, and forming a communist army, revolutionary council, government, and finally a Soviet Republic of Iran in Gilan, Azerbaijan, in collaboration with the Iranian Communist Party (p. 84). The role of the Azerbaijani Bolsheviks in organizing the communist revolution in Iran is made boldly apparent by the author. Thus, The Sovietization of Azerbaijan not only depicts the ways in which Soviet rule expanded, but also the societal reach and access Azerbaijan long held in Iran –something to be boldly expressed by Azerbaijan after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

Interestingly, the book underlines how Azerbaijan’s becoming a Bolshevik-ruled political entity corresponded to the Karabagh’s emergence as a region of political contestation (section 5). Accordingly, Soviet control in the country paved the way for the furthering of Armenian claims and offensives in Karabagh and some other parts of Azerbaijan, although one would have expected the contrary as was seen in northern Iran earlier. Armenian claims on independent Azerbaijan territories were not a novelty, and the Soviet occupation in Armenia in November 1920 (more than six months after Azerbaijan was occupied) did not change this fact (p. 127-128). Soviet Armenia maintained its efforts for the Karabagh’s ceding to Armenia and drafted decrees and provisions to that end. In the meantime, under Moscow’s arbitration, the Azerbaijani and Armenian sides were brought together several times in attempts to reach a solution on the Karabagh issue (p. 138-140). The preferred “solution” was to grant autonomous status to Karabagh and recognize it as part of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. Here, the book demonstrates remarkably well the intra-state diplomacy among Moscow, Erivan and Baku, and why such diplomacy was, in fact, a failure and merely marked “the beginning of a future tragedy” (p. 157).

As The Sovietization of Azerbaijan makes apparent in sections 6, 7, and 8, Azerbaijan’s occupation by Soviet Russia, and the latter’s favoring stance toward the Armenians, generated great concerns among the Anatolian national movement regarding its eastern territories, and marked an important turning point in the fate of Turkey’s national movement. While Ankara made it clear that Turkey was willing to collaborate with Russia against the Entente, Soviet Russia needed the revolutionary government in Anatolia as a reference for generating mass liberation movements among ‘oppressed people of the East’ against the western imperialists (p. 176). This collaboration, in the eyes of the Armenians, particularly after the Dashnaks staged a coup against Soviet rule in the country (February 1921), was a form of ‘loyalty’ on the part of Soviet Russia toward Turkey (p. 189). Certainly, the Sovietization of Armenia in November 1920 had enabled the transition of Russian-Turkish relations toward a legal framework. In fact, the book dedicates two full chapters to the making of this legal framework, specifically the Moscow and Kars treaties, and elegantly illustrates the diplomatic endeavors and tides of political maneuvers over the course of the negotiations. The author shows an excellent command of the histories of Russia, the South Caucasus states and Turkey, and thus comparatively demonstrates the implications of the Moscow and Kars treaties for the respective states and for regional politics. Here, the author consistently highlights these two treaties as a historical mark for Turkey (pp. 236, 292), as these treaties recognized the National Pact of the Anatolian movement and defined Turkey’s borders with the Caucasus states, thus eliminating the realization of the Treaty of Sèvres –the moment also marks the crisis of the Versailles system in favor of Russia (p. 311). For Armenia, the treaties meant the end of the Great Armenia ideals; for Georgia, they became the legal ground upon which Batum became part of the country; and for Azerbaijan, Nakhichevan, against the Armenian claims, came to be recognized as a part of Azerbaijan, albeit an autonomous part. These treaties were also a historical mark for the completion of the Sovietization of the South Caucasus.

The book ends with a section on the international contestation and negotiations over Baku oil and shows the oil industry’s role in Soviet policy toward Azerbaijan. The section serves the important purpose of showing how the country’s oil reserves necessitated the Sovietization of Azerbaijan for Soviet Russia.

As an overarching critique, it should be emphasized that the book is in line with Azerbaijani national historiography writing and is, in certain instances, politically biased in favor of Azerbaijan. Yet it successfully shows the historical grounds of certain problems contemporary Azerbaijan continues to face.

To conclude, The Sovietization of Azerbaijan is definitely a valuable contribution to the political and diplomatic history of the South Caucasus, and the book successfully links the political and legal order set through regional politics to the individual states. It comparatively presents the consequences of regional politics in the South Caucasus for regional states. The book embodies an added value due to its extensive use of the state, military and diplomatic archives of Azerbaijan, Georgia, Russia, France and the U.S. Moreover, the book enriches the existing historical political accounts through its reflections on everyday events, as well as the effects of transnational politics in the Sovietization of the country, and in the making of the border regimes in the South Caucasus.



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