The Araz River wall falls, final path to Black January

By | Rachel Brooks

February 6, 2021

Image credit: Martyrs’ Lane 2nd anniversary of Bloody January a year and a half after Azerbaijan’s Independence.
Photo by Ilgar Jafarov, Source: CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

At the fall of the Soviet Union, the world sang with Germany as the Berlin Wall fell, and freedom reigned once more. Forgotten by western history, another wall came down at the end of the Soviet Union. This was the Araz River wall that separated the Azerbaijani people of the north from the ethnic Azerbaijani of Southern Azerbaijan (a.k.a. northern Iran.) This reunification did not merit praise, and was a stepping stone that led at last to the blood drenched days of Black January 1990 in Baku. 

In this fourth and final part of our interview with Abol Bahadori, our guest recalls how the pressures built and led to sanguineous finale of that one darkest winter in recent Azerbaijani history. Lessons remain for the political atmosphere of the Caucasus and for those who would defend the freedom of speech. 

At the occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh by the Communist Party’s Central Committee (Moscow) which took over the Azerbaijani administration, the Azerbaijani Communist Party members raised their voice and pushed back. This response by the Soviet appointed leaders showed a shift in Azerbaijan. The nation was Azerbaijani first and always. Bahadori then recalled the nation’s bitter struggle for independence that ultimately passed through the bloody corridor of Black January 1990. 

“This was a turning point for Azerbaijan. Their walking into Bloody January. It was a turning point for me too because I actually decided that what was being written by the western media was so off and so wrong that somebody had to do something,” said Bahadori, highlighting how he embarked on an on-the-side career in journalism to combat the media bias about his country. He was discovered by Voice of America and worked for Voice of America and Radio Free Europe during the years of the described events reporting the truth about Azerbaijan’s brutal struggle. 

A truth misinterpreted 

Bahadori described the day when the walls of the Soviet Union were finally torn down. For a moment, the people of Southern Azerbaijan were united with their brothers in the north, as the divider fences that separated Soviet Azerbaijan- from the Azerbaijani territory in Iran came down. The fences stood along the Araz River, the natural border of the region. 

The tearing down of the Araz River wall is today celebrated in Azerbaijan every year on New Year’s Eve as “Solidarity Day.” Yet, there would be no worldwide celebration of the fall of the Araz divider, unlike the celebrations made for the fall of the Berlin wall. 

“We temporarily reunited with our brothers and sisters in the North. It’s very unfortunate that there were no (worldwide) celebrations for this. The whole world turned against us!,” said Bahadori. He then presented a clipping from the Chicago Tribune printed on January 18, 1990. From correspondence in Nicosia, Cyprus, the Chicago Tribune reported how the “violence in Azerbaijan” threatened to spread to Iran’s “northwestern provinces.” 

“This was not a celebration. It was a warning as if the geopolitics of the entire Middle East was going to turn upside down. I noticed first-hand that U.S. foreign policy ever since I’ve known has been concerned with Iran’s territorial integrity. Iran’s territorial integrity for the U.S. is a top priority. Under no circumstances has the U.S. played a foreign policy to disintegrate Iran, ever. That kinda goes for Iraq too, but that was more pressure from Turkey that did not allow them to declare an independent Kurdistan, otherwise, they would have done that,” said Bahadori. 

See the Caucasus Journalist Black January Baku Rememberance event recap for more information. 

 

Bahadori noted that, due to these political policies and the western bias toward the regime, the western media did not see the reunification of Soviet Azerbaijan with Southern Azerbaijan as a reason for celebration. Rather, the rhetoric was one of severe civil unrest to come. 

“There’s a danger that the Soviet Azerbaijanis engage Soviet troops, and use Iranian Azerbaijan as a sanctuary…” the Chicago Tribune quoted the political analyst Shahram Chubin. The report then went on to say that the nationalists in Soviet Azerbaijan were demanding the establishment of a “Greater Azerbaijan” which would bring about 20 million Azerbaijanis on both sides of the border together in one independent, oil-rich state.” At this date, the Azerbaijani population of the Azerbaijani Republic and Southern Azerbaijan, or Tabriz, is likely closer to 40+million. 

Bahadori found it interesting that the western press continued to echo Moscow’s rhetoric in the wake of these events. The western media believed that Gorbachev was pushing for democracy in Russia, and this was reflected in their coverage of his leadership. 

“By the time the Berlin wall came down, Gorbachev had gained so much popularity not only among the western reporters, because they truly believed that he was establishing liberal democracy, fighting censorships, etc., etc… It was also the western leaders, they were just kissing his hands…” 

He then noted that western leadership such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher had full trust in Gorbachev after the Berlin wall came down and he allowed three former Baltic republics of the Soviet Union to become independent without bloodshed. Perhaps otherwise, he could not move on to his Muslim population without condemnation from the western leadership. Now to further justify his actions, Gorbachev claimed that these Muslims have the potential to become fundamentalists, even though, Bahadori argued, there was really “nothing there” that could trend toward that outcome. The western media bought that with no fact check and printed it right out of Itar Tass and Gorbachev’s mouth. 

“Even though, there was really nothing there so far as Azerbaijan’s tendency to establish another Islamic Republic. These were just Russia and Gorbachev’s rhetoric that to really just shut us down and to shut us up, telling the western media and the western leaders that ‘you know these guys are not the Baltic republics, these are Shia Muslims,” said Bahadori. 

He then detailed how multiple mosques were built following the nearing end of the Soviet Union. This was the result of the greater religious tolerance under Gorbachev and had nothing to do with the desire to secede from the Soviet Union or an Islamist uprising. The Soviet Union had promoted the secession of Karabakh from Azerbaijan and separatist tendencies among its Armenian population but had limited the opportunities of the Azerbaijani independence struggle. The Central Communist party, therefore, had to find excuses to justify the discrimination against Muslim-majority Azerbaijan. Bahadori attributed this echoed rhetoric in the western press to the press’s tendency to quote the Soviet outlets directly without proper journalistic research. 

Bahadori then produced a clip from The Guardian, Thursday, January 4, 1990, which stated rhetoric that made the Azerbaijani independence appear like an uprising. 

“In a kind of chaotic repetition of the breaching of the Berlin wall, tens of thousands have camped on the border for several days,” wrote The Guardian. The Guardian then cited its source, which was the Soviet media.

“First of all, why was it more chaotic than removing that wall? Breaching that wall was more chaotic than removing some fences?” said Bahadori, drawing attention to the irony in this statement as he read the clipping aloud. The events of taking down the Araz River fence took roughly three consecutive days. 

The Araz wall comes down, at the dissolution of the Soviet Union, reuniting Northern and Southern Azerbaijanis. Image courtesy of the Azerbaijani Diaspora Community, fair use, see U.S. Copyright Act Section 107. 

Compare to “Fall of the Berlin Wall”  gallery by Tom Stoddart for reference.

“Initial Soviet press reports accused hooligans of being drunk and drugged,..” wrote The Guardian, which then continued by stating that other sources had stated the Azerbaijani wanted to “link up with the Turkish speaking minority in northern Iran,” Bahadori noted that this desire to link the two groups of Azerbaijani was exactly true, but the rhetoric was misconstrued. The press rhetoric made it appear as a pan-Turkic movement when in reality it was just the end of a separation of a historically ethnic Turkic region of Iran. 

There is a fundamental problem with the rhetoric found in this clipping for The Guardian on January 4, 1990. One that Bahadori noted with a sense of ironic humor. The narrative of the Soviet press had been leading with was that Azerbaijanis were riotous Shia Muslims. Shia Muslim fundamentalists under no circumstances would appear in gatherings of public intoxication, as fundamentalists are radicalized zealots of Islam, and Islam forbids alcoholic consumption. 

“How many drunk Muslim fundamentalists have you seen in your life? Okay, so they may drink some Vodka or get drunk in their own houses, but if they are Muslim fundamentalists, if they were to show their Islamic sentiments, you know alcohol is forbidden. They won’t come out drunk. Make up your mind, guys! Are these Muslim fundamentalists or are they drunk?” said Bahadori, laughing. 

He then continued to read other clips of the contradictory and defaming rhetoric. The Chicago Tribune posted an article on January 18, 1990, that called the Azerbaijani demonstrations “savages” and stated that they marked “Soviet ethnic fighting.” 

“There’s really nothing here in this article that is sympathetic or empathetic to this nation that also has the right to its independence. They have treated us just like the Soviet media has. Everything was built up to this moment, a lot of KGB plots. Plot after plot after plot. Killing some Armenians, spreading hatred among Armenians and Azerbaijanis, to the extent that they now had the excuse to completely occupy Baku,” said Bahadori. He then noticed that 26,000 or so special military Soviet troops along with a huge arsenal of tanks were brought to Baku. The occupation came to Baku on January 19, 1990. 

The Soviet Union then went on a spree. They murdered and killed, driving over many of the citizens. Republic Underground news likewise has an eyewitness account of these events, see our interview with Mehriban Aliyeva. 

“We had witnessed Tiananmen Square. It was pretty much around the same time. You know, the whole world reacted to that so badly. They put sanctions on China and everything. Tiananmen Square was nothing compared to what happened on January 20 (1990) in Baku,” said Bahadori. 

He then showed a series of historical photographs that he had on the archive from the Radio Free Europe account of those days. Photos showed cars riddled with bullet holes, windows smashed out, and so much more. 

“They had even crushed school buses. It was chaotic, and a lot of the civilians they had killed were thrown into the Caspian. Some of the people were never found.” 

He then shared a dramatic photograph of a man holding his hands, praying for mercy to the sky, beneath the statue of Lenin, stating that the shot was caught completely by accident. Bahadori gave the photographers and journalists of that hour in history praise. 

At the Presidential Palace, the Azerbaijani people raise their voice demanding their freedom. This image has been preserved by the Azerbaijani Diaspora Community. See the full archive at Diaspora.gov.az. 

Full photo credits: “People burned their Communist Party IDs in the days following the January 20, 1990
Photo by Mirnayib Hasanoghlu,” Source: Azerbaijan Government Archives, Online Album created by the
Diaspora Committee

“The biggest heroes of the time were photographers and journalists. They really struggled to manage to get these photos and videos out of the country. Some of the heroics that they did need at least five, six articles, just about how they confiscated the evidence videos and photos out of the country,” he said. 

“There was an Azerbaijani doctor who had taken pictures of the injured and dead when they were brought to the hospital. He had a colleague in Lithuania…it was either Latvia or Lithuania…He had given them to him, and he had put them in his suitcase. Just by luck, he managed to take them out of the country, and that’s when the news got out.” 

Bahadori noted that Radio Free Europe compiled an archive of the photos that were taken at the time, devoting a tribute to the events of tragic days. 

Bahadori noted the bloody events of January 1990 just went on for days and days. Finally, by January 22, half a million people stepped outside despite the warning of the Soviets of an intense curfew punishable by death, to host a national funeral for those slaughtered on the days of the massacre event. Photos of Lenin Square, now called Freedom Square, emerged showing how the people spilled into the square despite the fact of thousands of soldiers and tanks still in the area. 

“People were brave, they didn’t care. They went out of their house just to be killed. With the intention that, ‘if they are going to shoot me then I want to be killed,’ because this desire for freedom was very, very strong among Azerbaijanis. A lot of republics just because the Soviet Union dissolved they became independent, but Azerbaijanis really fought for their independence,” said Bahadori. 

The Azerbaijani people devoted the Martyrs’ Boulevard, as it is called today, to the numerous dead that were slaughtered during the events of Black January. These were ordinary people that were gunned down in the streets. This entire street is considered a cemetery for the victims. 

“Soon after, the Russians realized the animosity that they had created among Azerbaijanis may actually danger their soldiers, their military personnel’s families, because some of them had come with their families, with their children and wives. They made sure that they left (the women and children). They couldn’t stay with their husbands in the military, so the Soviets took them out of Baku. 

Then, they sent special troops to start arresting average citizens. It was just like in Stalin’s time. They’d just knock on your door and take you out under the slightest suspicion of someone being against the Soviet Union, and everybody was against the Soviet Union at that time…” said Bahadori. 

Bahadori stated that, due to the fact that there were no courts of trials for those under government suspicion, many of those arrested disappeared without a trace. Most of them were young men. If they were found in the street, they were arrested, and sometimes the soldiers would come during the night and remove civilians from homes. 

“There was no room for the dead. There were still more and more bodies being found, and they were not allowing for burial. Except for the little window of time when they were letting people go and bury their dead, the rest of the time they had to put them in places like their balcony. Because Muslims have to bury right away, so they struggled even with their burials,” said Bahadori, noting that late into January the Soviet troops were still patrolling. Bahadori believed that the Soviets remained in Baku until Azerbaijan was able to seize full independence. Once Azerbaijan got independence, the troop departure was negotiated. 

From this time of KGB patrol, Bahadori remembered how many people would be killed just bullets being fired at random through the windows of their homes. 

On the Presidential Palace in Azerbaijan, a famous graffiti was painted, denouncing the Soviet presence in Azerbaijan. As bloody as it was, and filled with overwhelming tragedy, the Soviet Union was broken at last. 

“So that was the end of the Soviet Union. Not many western reporters, or westerners period, are aware of the fact that Azerbaijan broke the Soviet Union down. The Baltic republics had already exited from the Soviet Union. They didn’t cause the Soviet Union to come down. It was Azerbaijan. The Baku event was the last stab in the back of the Soviet Union, and it was caused by the wrong decisions of the Soviet Union itself, of course,” said Bahadori, remembering how the Azerbaijani people were stirred to action by the Kremlin’s assault. They piled their Communist Party membership books in big heaps and burned them after the funeral of the citizens who were slaughtered in the Black January. 

TASS Russian News Agency told a completely different version of this event. The agency has archive photographs of the Azerbaijani burning their Communist Party membership books, and have labeled the picture as being a shot of the victims of an Armenian massacre being buried. The victims of the massacre in Baku in January 1990 were not Armenian but were rather Azerbaijani citizens. No burials are visible in this image, as we can see it was taken in the middle of Baku. 

“So, Gorbachev throughout this time justified his murderous actions by calling us, Muslim fundamentalists. The Soviet Union, by the way, 100 percent supported and backed Khomeini and helped him stay in power. But now that they were referring to Azerbaijanis as Muslim fundamentalists was just wrong, and not true,” said Bahadori. 

Further rhetoric from the Russian state-owned outlet referred to the Azerbaijani citizens who burned their Communist party membership books as “extremists” continuing the rhetoric, even to the present, that the innocents slaughtered in the Baku occupation were Islamists. 

“Later, in 1995, Gorbachev apologized to Azerbaijan, stating that ‘the declaration of a state emergency in Baku was the biggest mistake of my political career’. No kidding, but you know what, he could say whatever he wanted to after getting the Nobel Peace Prize. He did not deserve the Nobel Peace Prize. The fact that he got a Nobel Peace Prize was good evidence that our story was not told, and is still not told…” 

Bahadori then turned his attention to the present time, noting that all Azerbaijanis wonder how they could possibly trust the Russians now. He showed maps of the Russian peacekeeper presence in Azerbaijan in 2020. The maps show the pathway of Russian peacekeepers in the days that followed the Second Karabakh conflict. Russian peacekeepers have had a heavy presence, based on these maps, have increased their presence in the region. 

This heavy presence causes Azerbaijani to look on with great concern, with the history of a dark winter in 1990 looming still in every heart and mind. 

As we compiled this article from our video conference interview, Bahadori went on looking for more photos for this article and that was when we found even more horrible “journalistic” atrocities; true informational crimes against the Azerbaijani nation by the Russian media—unashamedly added to Itar Tass’s current online photo archives, obviously after the establishment of the internet as we know it. He called me and asked me to add these to this article and went on gathering attention for the removal of such shocking fake captions.