Remembering Black January, with Mariya Khan-Khoyskaya Martignoli

Remembering Black January

By | Mariya Khan-Khoyskaya Martignoli, Swiss Azerbaijanis Coordination Council member, Geneva

January 23, 2021 

Image credit: “File:RedArmy Paratroops Baku 1990.jpg” by K. Martens is licensed under CC BY 3.0

“We lived in the happiest country on the Earth”, starts my mom her story about the events that preceded the Black January events. “We won over the Hitlerian Nazis, our Army was glorious and indestructible, we were the happiest people on Earth, we had no unemployment. Or so we were told”, adds she sarcastically. While the part about winning over the Nazi was 100% true, the rest of that sentence was, mildly put, a lie, as the situation was far from being perfect: high deficiency with food and other products created tensions among people, there were rumors that the USSR would start a war with the USA and they were only growing after the death of Brezhnev. 

Then in 1985 Gorbachev came to power and shortly after his arrival things started to worsen. First, the Chernobyl catastrophe of 1986 and all the untold truth about it that would be revealed only years after. And then, where it all started – the Karabakh conflict.

My family is from Ganja and thankfully they were spared the tragic fate of the victims of 1990 in Baku, but they witnessed the tensions that preceded the Black January: the waves of Azerbaijani refugees fleeing Armenia, Armenians who, seeing that, grew restless and also started to leave Azerbaijan.

Mom recalls that all the Armenians that she knew in Ganja did not go to Armenia but were headed to Russia, namely to Krasnodar and Stavropol regions. “We don’t want to go to Armenia”, they’d say, “they don’t like us there. They say that we are too “Azeri”, we don’t speak Armenian like them, we have Azeri accent and therefore, they “don’t understand” us and don’t make us feel really welcome there”. These Armenians were not too eager to leave Azerbaijan, as most admitted life was good for them. 

As we know, the Soviet troops entered Baku in the dead of the night from 19 to 20 January. The decision to invade it was made without informing the local government and people found out about the extraordinary situation only hours after it started. Here is what my mom’s friend who witnessed those events told her later.

“Tanks…tanks are everywhere! And so many soldiers, in black masks, in camouflage just shooting randomly at people, wounding, killing them! We are afraid to approach our windows, we have to shut them tightly, turn off the electricity as they also shoot at the windows where they see the light. I had to cook the porridge for my baby practically lying on the floor in our kitchen so that they don’t see us through the windows. We are so horrified; we don’t understand what’s happening.”

Just imagine those common folks. For years they’ve been told that their Army protects them, that their police protect them. They’ve never seen anything like black-masked heavily armed men – it’s not the modern world where we see all kinds of stuff on TV. Plus, the communications were cut – the troops “strategically” shot the Baku TV tower, so people in Ganja, for instance, couldn’t even see on the news what was happening. Mom said they’d caught a TV channel from Shusha that was trying to show some news, but it was very scarce: “We’d get a very poor image on TV that’d last for like 2 seconds, then again, blackness. Then a few minutes later again some pieces of footage with distorted feeble quality images and again, all would go black”. Phones were not working either – people could not call their family in Baku and take the news. My mom managed somehow to call from a phone station in Ganja to check the news from her friend who told her the story above. How sick is that? 

These bloody pages were the last tragic ones of the history of Soviet Azerbaijan. 

The Soviet government on one side just turned a blind eye to the pre-history of this conflict, the Karabakh escalation, and on the other hand, just wanted to crush the uprising of the national independence movement. To say that Azerbaijan felt betrayed would be an understatement: on one side, the Soviet government did nothing to calm the things with Armenia, on the other side, the “glorious and protective” Army turned the muzzle of its tanks and the points of their bayonets against unarmed civilians. The operation that was executed in order to “calm people down” turned out to be a merciless bloodbath. Thomas de Waal in his book “Black Garden” wrote:

“Shortly after midnight, troops had come out of their barracks and tanks had started rumbling toward the city. Most of the troops who approached from the south were from local garrisons and did not fight their way into the city, but the troops who approached from the north entered Baku as if it were a city under enemy occupation. Tanks rolled over barricades, crushing cars and even ambulances. Witnesses spoke of soldiers firing at people who fled and of soldiers stabbing and shooting the wounded. A bus full of civilians was hit by a volley of bullets and many of its passengers, including a fourteen-year-old girl, were killed.”

It was the first time when the Soviet Army took one of its own cities by force, but not for long. That bloody night Soviet Moscow lost Azerbaijan as then after the mass funerals that followed the tragic events, thousands of Communist Party members were publicly burning their Party membership cards and declaring their will for the “Azadlıq” – “Liberty”. That was the last drop that ended the confidence of the Azerbaijanis in the Soviet administration. And at the same time, it was an important turning point for Azerbaijan, which definitely strengthened the nation’s call for independence.