The Azerbaijani Independence Fight: Part I- A Revolution in Tabriz

By | Rachel Brooks

January 29, 2021

Image: “File:Blue Mosque, Tabriz, Iran.jpg” by Navid Alizadeh Sadighi is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

For centuries, the city of Tabriz stood watchful as the capital of the Southern Azerbaijani or Iranian Azerbaijani influence over the Caucasus region. As the Middle Ages gave way to modern history, the shifting sands would see wars and revolutions that completely changed this region from one of prime influence to one of bondage. 

Our special guest from the Caucasus Journalist Network’s “Remembering Black January” event sheds some light on the Soviet era, and the dramatic changes Azerbaijan saw in recent history. Our guest witnessed, from afar, as a member of the Azerbaijani diaspora, the struggle for independence and the soul of the nation that the Azerbaijani people waged. In a sense, this struggle goes on, with the odds stacked in favor of the opponent, as the propaganda of the Soviet days continues to hold a major influence. 

Our guest collected and kept an archive of British and American newspapers from the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the Karabakh conflict era. This archive serves as an illustration of a continued bias within the media against the Azerbaijani people and their nation, influenced by the lingering weight of the Soviet ideology. 

In this four-part interview, our guest recalls how he witnessed Azerbaijan’s recent historical to present day struggle to attain independence as a nation and a people group. This witness begins in his teen years in Tabriz, during the uprising years of what is known in the western world as “the Islamic revolution.”

The distant witness  

Abol Bahadori was born in Tabriz in the height of the Cold War, during the Cuban missile crisis. The border of Iran and the Soviet Union was locked down entirely, in a rigid regional limitation that reminds the current spectator of the border between North and South Korea. 

“It was a very “Iron Wall”,’ said Bahadori,

“It was more of an Iron Wall, I’d say, than the Berlin wall itself. People were banned from traveling to the North (Azerbaijan) and I don’t think that any Azerbaijani Soviet citizens could come to Iran unless they were working in the Embassy. This is how it was in the time of the Shah.” 

A western broadcast regarding the events of the Tabriz clash between Khomeini and Shariat Madari. Western coverage of the events of this era were sometimes skewed by biases and the influence of regional propaganda.

He then recalled the period of the Shah and the Soviet Union’s clash. 

“You know, these two people groups were enemies_Iran and the Soviet Union were big enemies. The Shah was an agent of the United States, he was a puppet dictator put in power by the United States after the big revolution of the 50s, where he (the Shah) was kicked out of the country. The U.S. practically pretty much made a coup to put him in power.” He described the Shah as an autocrat with no openness. He also recalled the fact that the Shah and his father established a policy of pan-Persian racism in Iran, similar to the rhetoric of the Aryan Nazis in its behavior, denying all national rights of the non-Persian ethnics in Iran. 

An uprising in Tabriz

Bahadori recalled growing up in Tabriz and seeing the Islamic revolution in his late teenage years.   

“There was a very little “Islamic” thing about it, in the beginning. I would say it was more of an anti-western leftist movement. It was immediately confiscated by Khomeini because the liberal operation in Iran was destroyed by the Shah, but he dared to limit the clergy. So the clergy had an open-hand to do their own propaganda—and that’s how Khomeini came to power.” 

He then highlighted where the Azerbaijani population stood in those days. 

“The Azerbaijan population of Iran were following Ayatollah Shariat Madari, who was fairly secular in thought, even though he was a Shia leader, his doctrine was secular. And as soon as Khomeini put him in house arrest, and fighting Ayatollah Shariat Madari, Azerbaijan revolted again. 

So, in 1980, Tabriz had another uprising. Secular Southern Azerbaijan revolted against Khomeini.”

He then recalled his account of events. 

“Of course, repressions and arrests and many executions followed. My own father was arrested at the time because he was one of the supporters of Shariat Madari. He was released later. But he was the head of the Red Crescent (local chapter of the Red Cross) in Tabriz and he decided to resign. 

“Then, immediately after—this was when I graduated from highschool—the Iran-Iraq war started, and both the revolution and the starting of this war really awakened my ethnicity in my mind, my identity. I was realizing…First of all, the revolution itself had a lot of ethnic elements in it. Azerbaijanis for the first time wanted to read and write in their own language…”

Azerbaijani culture salvaged amid Soviet Union backdrop 

Bahadori noted that, in Soviet Azerbaijan, to the north of Tabriz, the Azerbaijani language was official and the Azerbaijani people had much more cultural freedom than Southern Azerbaijanis. Bahadori cited the earlier independence of Southern Azerbaijan, of Tabriz, noting that, with the ironic support of Stalin, Southern Azerbaijan had gained independence right after the Second World War. Stalin then proceeded to do away with the regime in Southern Azerbaijan, due to the movement and its leader Pishevari’s intolerably liberal way of thinking. Bahadori recalled how Stalin had  Pishevari assassinated in a mysterious car accident. 

Bahadori noted that because of the greater freedom of the Azerbaijani to the North, the North was the preservation of the Azerbaijani culture. Music and recordings, especially, he noted, were freely flowing from Soviet Northern Azerbaijan, because the Azerbaijani music and culture in Tabriz were fully persified. 

“All of our national identity was preserved in the North, under the Soviet Union, believe it or not.”

Bahadori stated that the uprising against the regime in Tabriz, the start of a war between the Iraq and Iran, elicited his own awakening to his national culture, and prompted him to closely follow the fight for independence Azerbaijan would undergo for the next decade of conflicts with the Soviet Union, war with Armenia, and combating the information bias warfare from the western press.