Sumgayit and the path to Bloody January, with special guest Bahadori

Azerbaijani Struggle for Independence: part 2, Sumgayit and the path to Bloody January

Interview with Abol Bahadori 

By | Rachel Brooks

February 1, 2021 

Image credits: “On the outskirts of Sumgayit” by bbcworldservice is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0. See Section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Act, for more information on press usage and share of images for fair use illustration.

In 1980, Tabriz had faced its uprising. Our special guest Abol Bahadori was a witness to the uprising of the region, noting that even his own father was arrested during the uprising against the government. The days of the uprising, and the start of the war between Iran and Iraq, awakened a sense of national identity in Bahadori. He became vigilant for the rights and identity of his Azerbaijani people. 

Read more about the uprising against the Iranian regime in 1979, in Bahadori’s words, in part I of this interview. 

“The revolution itself had a lot of ethnic elements in it. For the first time (in Iran), Azerbaijani people wanted to read and write in their language,” Bahadori noted that the Azerbaijani republic had preserved the language and the culture of the people. Azerbaijan was able to take a brief command of its cultural trajectory immediately following the Second World War. However, the Iranian Azerbaijan only managed to establish institutions for modern cultural education in the Azerbaijani language when it gained a short-lived independence from November 1945 to December 1946. The path of the  Azerbaijan People’s Government’s establishment and demise were a precursor to the Cold War.

With Stalin’s help, Southern Azerbaijan (Tabriz) gained its independence. Then, the liberal regime became too liberal for Stalin and he arranged for the assassination of the Azerbaijani leader Pishevari. Bahadori noted that the north always presented a sense of nostalgia for the Azerbaijani people living in Tabriz. 

“Azerbaijani music played a huge role in my liking of our culture. We always looked for any recordings of Azerbaijani music from the north. We had our own musicians too, but they were so much limited under Persian chauvinism. Tabriz’ radio sometimes had Azerbaijani programs, but they were so intentionally convoluted with Persian, that all our national identity was preserved in the north, under the Soviet Union, believe it or not.”

Bahadori’s self-reflection regarding Iran 

“When I left Iran, as soon as the Iran-Iraq war started, I had to have this honest conversation with myself. ‘What is my role here? This is a war that has been imposed upon us by Khomeini.’ Because he didn’t get along with Saddam Hussein.”

Bahadori reflected on how even his father, who was devoted in his academic role at the Tabriz University, had shifted his devotion, advising his children in a new way. 

“My father was the head of the Tabriz University for the longest time, he would have never (even though he had done his education in France) he would have not let us go to schools outside because he was very proud of Tabriz University, it was one of the best universities in Iran. But at this time he said ‘I can’t just let you stay here.’” 

Bahadori noted that he and his brother were sent away for their safety, as others of his peers perished in the conflict. 

“I lost four friends to the Iran-Iraq war, four classmates. So, me and my brother were sent to England. So, my Diaspora life started. From 1980 to 1988 I was a student at Manchester University. I was also an artist, my subjects were very much aligned with art…”

He then described how received a master’s degree in computer-aided textile design and technology. He is now a graphic designer.

“During these years, I was really thirsty for anything about Azerbaijan. The internal politics of Soviet Azerbaijan, their cultural events. Sometimes they would send Azerbaijani dancers and musicians to Europe. No matter what city they were performing, I would have bought a ticket. I went to Germany once, Holland once. 

There was this Soviet bookstore in London that brought some Azerbaijani material. You know, I was a student, I didn’t have much budget, I wasn’t getting much money from Iran, the regime had limited what parents could send to their children, it was wartime. But I saved my money, and I worked behind bars and restaurants, to go to London and just to go to this bookstore. It was called Collet’s. I don’t know if it still exists, but I was collecting anything about Azerbaijan.”

Unlocking culture from a history preserved in Cyrillic

From this cultural deepening, Bahadori recalled how he practiced his art skills on the folk figures of Azerbaijan. He displayed a sketch he’d created of a man with traditional Azerbaijani tea, and various other drawings he’d done, reflecting on his native people and their place in the world. He sketched them from the books he purchased at Collet’s books. Sketch art became a great hobby. Likewise, with some fellow students of common Azerbaijani ethnic background, he formed a folk group within University, an Azerbaijani club to promote their culture, dress in traditional clothing, and perform cultural dances.

Within the Gorbachev era time frame, the Soviets started expanding their western student exchanges. For Bahadori, finding a fellow Azerbaijani student who just so happened to be from Baku was a miracle. This was someone who could serve as a gateway to the culture of the northern Azerbaijan, which he did.

Bahadori was taught by the northern Azerbaijani student to read the Cyrillic alphabet, which the Azerbaijani had adopted during the Soviet Union, which had been imposed by Stalin. 

“I started reading Azerbaijani because before, we had no literacy in our language (in Iran.) But you know, it was my mother tongue, I picked it. Then, he (the classmate) connected me with Soviet Azerbaijan’s Friendship Society in Baku, this was an official government agency. Later, I found out that Azerbaijanis had really fought to have such a cultural attache within the Soviet Union. Armenians and Georgians had it before Azerbaijan. But they just sent me loads and loads of Azerbaijani literature from Baku. I didn’t have a car. I remember that I had to walk to the post office three times just to be able to carry them all. I still have these books.” 

Invitation to Baku 

He noted then that, finally, after Gorbachev loosened the Cold War borders, he got an invitation from the newly established Soviet Azerbaijan Diaspora Committee. It was the parent of the current organization. The then-organization sent him a ticket to Baku, and they flew him there. He then met with a lot of good writers, reporters, and Azerbaijani musicians there. 

“It was really awesome, but you know, things had already gone bad. Armenians had already started asking for Karabakh to be joined with Armenia. They hadn’t officially applied for it, but it was already at the point of huge immigrations of Azerbaijanis from Armenia. The number of Azerbaijanis that were then living in Armenia was probably more than the entire Armenian population of Karabakh. This is something that is almost ignored, almost forgotten now, and even at the time. Because Azerbaijanis of Armenia were forced to leave Armenia (and some of this happened in 1987 when I was in Baku) they had nowhere to go. They had this mass exodus from Armenia of Azerbaijanis, and it left the country in chaos.”

Bahadori noted the media bias and political bias against these incidents. 

“What is upsetting me right now is that nobody is talking about them. No Russian quote-unquote peacekeepers were sent to Armenia to make sure that Azerbaijani refugees could go back to their homes too, the way that they were safeguarding Armenians in Karabakh, completely serving them their comfort. Making sure they had food and constant open traffic to Armenia.”

He stated that the refugee influx of ethnic Azerbaijani fleeing Armenia, coupled with the at least 1million people who were internally displaced, created an extreme crisis within the country. He stated that the numbers are likely higher now as this is the third generation. 

Bahadori also noted how disturbing he found it that the international community has insisted ethnic Armenians be granted self-determination in Karabakh, but they have not insisted ethnic Azerbaijani who previously lived in Armenia be allowed to return. 

“Why aren’t Azerbaijani displaced people returning to Karabakh and the other five regions that our brave soldiers liberated? The answer is usually ‘they have to clean the mines first’ but there are no mines in Armenia, and so Azerbaijani refugees (of Armenia) could return there. Nobody has even brought this up. That is just really bothering me. I have asked this so many times, and there is no answer.” 

He then went into detail regarding Armenian rhetoric spread by Armenia, the western media, and the Russian media concerning the Sumgayit events, a series of bloody killings of Armenians in Azerbaijan. The events, while occurring in Azerbaijan and being pinned on Azerbaijani people, were traced in fact to a false flag attack executed by the KGB. Please see this interview republished by Republic Underground for more. The interview, published in four parts, was originally conducted by Akper Hasanov, speaking with Aslan Ismayilov for 

Bahadori noted that the Sumgayit events were not the trigger for Armenia to expel ethnic Azerbaijanis from their country. Many ethnic Azerbaijanis lived in the eastern region of Armenia, in townships such as Jil, Armenia, which is near to the Karabakh, a region that is legally and historically recognized as part of Azerbaijan proper. See our interview with Mehriban Aliyeva, a survivor of the ethnic Azerbaijani cleansing from eastern Armenia, for more information regarding this.  Aliyeva likewise directly witnessed the events of Black January 1990. 

“This (the Sumgayit event trigger) is so far from the truth because the Azerbaijani refugees of Armenia came first (before Sumgayit.)” 

Bahadori then noted the true background of the Sumgayit events. 

“It is very evident that it was all plotted by the KGB. It wasn’t Azerbaijanis who were killing Armenians, it was an Armenian gang that initiated that. I’m giving this background of how this whole thing led to Bloody January (1990).” 

Bahadori visited Baku for a month in 1987. He then returned to Manchester, United Kingdom. Upon his return, he noticed that the press, particularly The Guardian, was publishing many slanted articles regarding the increasing hostilities in the Azerbaijan region. He referred to clippings regarding the Sumgayit events, which called Azerbaijani people out as “Muslim hooligans” at the time of the events. 

The narrative of the Armenian rhetoric regarding the Sumgayit events and other violent uprisings in the regions was used as a tool for Armenia’s demand of the seceding of Karabakh to Armenia. 

As this false rhetoric and establishing of political catalyst began to take roots, Bahadori felt compelled to pursue journalism and to present the Azerbaijani side of these events.