Azerbaijan: Black January

This post is part of our special coverage Caucasus Conflict Voices.

As much of the world celebrated the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States, Azerbaijan mourned the 19th anniversary of an event which ultimately led to its independence from the former Soviet Union. With Moscow's power over its satellites weakened, ethnic tensions in the South Caucasus would soon erupt into war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh.

Many among Armenia's ethnic Azerbaijani population had already fled or been forced to leave the country in 1988 and continued to do so over the next year, and clashes in Nagorno Karabakh which left 2 Azeris dead and 50 Armenians wounded stoked existing tensions. Three days later, anti-Armenian pogroms in the Azerbaijani city of Sumgait resulted in the deaths of at least 6 Azeris and 26 ethnic Armenians.

As stories of mutual violence between the two ethnic groups continued to circulate, the situation quickly escalated, and on 13 January 1990 another anti-Armenian pogram broke out in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku. Figures vary, but anywhere between 48 and 66 — or possibly more — ethnic Armenians were killed.

By 19 January, most of the city's Armenian minority had fled, and the next day Soviet tanks and thousands of soldiers had already moved in ostensibly to stem the ethnic violence which had reportedly subsided. Until this day, questions linger as to why it took so long for Moscow to react, but Human Rights Watch alleges that the military incursion had been planned long before.

Indeed, the international human rights organization and other independent observers conclude that the intervention was staged not to protect ethnic Armenians, but to prevent the victory of pro-independence political forces in elections scheduled the following month. At least 130 people were killed and 700 wounded in what is now known as “Black January.”

Presently on a short visit to Azerbaijan, Anna Takes a Trip comments.

Although today was a joyful day for the U.S., it was a sad day of mourning and remembrance here in Baku. On the 20th of January (“Black January”) they remember the day in 1990 when after rumblings of possible independence Soviet troops rolled in and killed dozens of innocent civilian protestors. The entire city goes up to “Martyr’s Avenue,” an absolutely stunning and beautiful monument that ends with a perpetual fire overlooking the city and the Caspian Sea. You could actually feel the sadness in the air. In 1991 Azerbaijan successfully declared its independence from the USSR.

Learning to Walk in Stilettos also remarks on the day, coming as it did as Obama was sworn into office, while “Side-tALKS” Azerbaijan reflects on what the anniversary means for the country nearly two decades later.

Its now 19 years since the sons and daughters of Azerbaijan gave their life for freedom. These martyrs were victims of the then Kremlin aggression. A defeat on human freedom was a typical characteristic of the communism ideology. Therefore on every hint on the people’s inclination to emancipation, Kremlin had acted with severe military actions.

On that faithful, the 20th of January 1990, the Azerbaijan population woke up to witness a great number of the Russia army in their capital Baku. The direct order wasn’t exact but the consequences of the day was so clear –there were hundreds of innocent civilians -men, women and children killed particularly in the center of the capital city. There were fathers went to work and never returned; children went to school, bidding their parents good bye without realizing that that was the last good bye they will ever wish them. Women went to market and never returned; wives and husbands were separated by death prematurely.

Sheki, Azerbaijan comments from a local perspective.

USSR era ended for Azerbaijan with last massacre Soviet Army has brought upon it on 19-20 January, 1990…

In short Azerbaijan Republic had declared independence and Soviet Army entered on tanks and with Kalashnikovs in their hands to show power and who was in charge… Although USSR government knew that USSR was collapsing and Republics were going independent, government didn’t want to give away the last chance of showing its deep hatred toward free minds and people I must say in general…


I will neither go into details of wildness when tanks were going over armless people and soldiers were shooting to every window they saw light in…


I am a woman, mother, spouse and sister and I don’t believe into wars and revenge. To me the most valuable thing on planet Earth is a life of a person, of any person…We had two explosions in Baku tube during last ten years…The country is in ceasefire but now and then coffins of some young guys go back to their homes and ruin lives of their families…I am following the news from places like Gaza, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, civil wars in Africa and it is unfortunate to see what people are doing… […]

20 January is the day Azerbaijanis pay tribute to those who gave their lives for the country's independence…

Sapanov [RU], the blog of a Russian living in Baku, remembers events as they happened.

Напрямую меня те страшные события не коснулись. Но беда была вокруг. У соседского сотрудника погибла 12-летняя дочь Лариса. Погиб врач скорой помощи Александр Мархевка, выехавший к раненым… Страшная была ночь. Да и вообще времена жуткие. До сих пор помню патрульные БТР, гоняющие под окнами, военные палатки на Московском проспекте и автоматчиков, исподлобья поглядывающих на любопытных и мало что понимающих детишек.

Those terrible events didn’t effect me directly, but the evil was everywhere. Neighbor’s 12 years old daughter, Larisa was killed. Alexander Markhevka, ambulance doctor who drove out to help wounded was also killed… It was a terrible night. Even today I recall armored vehicles patrolling the streets, military tents in Moscow Avenue and soldiers with submachine guns – kids frowning at the curious and hardly understanding anything.

Meanwhile, Doctor Ziya [AZ], posts photographs of American journalist Thomas Goltz being interviewed by the Azadliq Azeri service of RFE/RL. It also quotes the well-known specialist on Azerbaijan who likens the day to 4 July in the United States.

«Əlbəttə, həmin günlərdə ölənlərə görə məyusam, kədərlənirəm. Amma nəticədə axı siz müstəqilliyi əldə etdiniz. Bu tarix sizin üçün ABŞ-da qeyd olunan Müstəqillik Günü kimi, 4 İyul kimi olmalıdır. Buna fəxrlə yanaşmaq lazımdır, ağlamaq yox».

Of course I am sorry for people perished those days. However, as a result you acquired independence. This date should be to you as the Independence Day in US. You should be proud, not to mourn.

Now that its broadcasts have been banned in the country, Azadliq continues to use its website to disseminate news and images, including a photo slide show of images from that fateful day.

This post is part of our special coverage Caucasus Conflict Voices.


  • […] Global Voices Online, which consistently turns out insightful posts about the Caucuses, offers a short description of the day. As many around the world celebrated the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the […]

  • […] The full post where comments can be left is available on Global Voices Online. […]

  • The slaughter of Armenians living in Baku by Azerbaijani people/police started on 13th of January and lasted for about a week, dozens of Armenians were murdered by insane crowd. I wonder whether Azerbaijani Turks currently “mourning” on the day of Soviet forces entered Baku and stopped the slaughter of Armenian, whether they remember also those Armenians murdered by themselves while mourning.
    It is interesting, that Armenians have no mourning day ceremonies concerning Baku slaughter, because Armenians have numerous such slaughters, starting from the start of 20th century, when the complete population of Shushi, 40 thousands of Armenian were massacred, Baku slaughter of 1905, when hundreds were killed, and up to the 1988-1994 Artsakh liberation movement and slaughters of Armenians in Sumgait, Maragha, Baku, Getashen, Martunashen, Kirovabad (Gandzak), etc.
    They imagined a mourning day in Baku and pseudo slaughter in Khojaly to oppose something to insane massacres implemented by them for many times.

  • Sedrak,

    Firstly, your use of the term “Azerbaijani Turk” is pretty much a racist and nationalist term and I personally wish Armenians would cease from using it. It is only nationalist elements here and in the Diaspora that use it to try to promote continued conflict.

    Secondly, massacres and ethnic cleansing by Azerbaijanis of Armenians and vice-versa are mutual. Armenians and Russians, for example, massacred up to 10,000 Azerbaijanis in Baku in 1918 as well. Ethnic Azerbaijanis have suffered and so too have ethnic Armenians in both countries.

    Both sides allege the other started something first, while we all forget that Azerbaijanis helped ethnic Armenians survive the pogroms and escape, and Armenians helped ethnic Azerbaijanis here and in Karabakh. In both cases, it was nationalism that provoked the violence and I hope that this mentality will disappear from the region.

    As for Khodjali, the massacre happened and independent observers such as Human Rights Watch and others back this up. It is also sad that just as Armenians decry the denial of attrocities by Azerbaijanis and Turks, they do the same when it comes to cases such as this.

    Interestingly, both the President of Armenia, Serge Sargsyan, and the brother of Monte Melkonian back such claims up as do many Karabakh Armenians I’ve personally spoken to. Unfortunately, however, the Armenian media and nationalist activists engage in a process of denial and revisionism every February.

    […] some Armenian sources admitted the guilt of the Armenian side. According to Markar Melkonian, the brother of the Armenian military leader Monte Melkonian, “Khojaly had been a strategic goal, but it had also been an act of revenge.” The date of the massacre in Khojaly had a special significance: it was the run-up to the fourth anniversary of the anti-Armenian pogrom in the city of Sumgait. Melkonian particularly mentions the role of the fighters of two Armenian military detachments called the Arabo and Aramo, who stabbed to death many Azeri civilians.[13]

    According to Serge Sarkisian, long-time Defense Minister and Chairman of Security Council of Armenia who is the current president of Armenia, “A lot was exaggerated” in the casualties, and the fleeing Azerbaijanis had put up armed resistance. At the same time he stated: “before Khojali, the Azerbaijanis thought that they were joking with us, they thought that the Armenians were people who could not raise their hand against the civilian population. We were able to break that [stereotype]. And that’s what happened. And we should also take into account that amongst those boys were people who had fled from Baku and Sumgait”.[6]

    What is more a matter of dispute is the casualty figure. As for commemorating such events, Armenians instead commemorate Sumgait and tie in Baku to that day. Not sure why, but anyway, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation and youth groups have tried although few people participated.

    Anyway, both sides live with their own perceptions of history as one where only they suffered. This isn’t the case and ethnic nationalism was the cause in all cases. Although this is going off the subject of this entry, my personal hope that nationalism will die out in the region and give way to tolerance.

    The omens are not good. On each side, a whole generation of schoolchildren is growing up completely isolated from the other, and reading textbooks that present a nationalistic and distorted version of the tragic history of the Karabakh conflict.

    Back to the post and questions linger as to why the Soviet army took so long to intervene in Baku. Many would argue that the pogroms were used as a pretext to crush the growing independence movement in Azerbaijan. Ultimately, however, I do not condone the deaths of any innocent civilian regardless of their ethnicity.

  • Nevertheless, I do agree that Azerbaijanis should own up to the pogroms as the responsibility of nationalist elements among them instead of trying to put the blame on Russians or even Armenians themselves. However, I am also against the denial of what happened in Khodjali and elsewhere.

    Neither is right, but yes, I also understand that this dynamic of both sides believing they were the innocent victims is the prevalent one. As I said, I deplore any atrocity committed against civilians. One day I hope Armenians and Azerbaijanis will openly do so too.

  • Onnik,
    I suppose you are not aware of the Azerbaijani Turks term, and what you say firstly is depleted of sense. So I would like to introduce it to you a bit: “Azerbaijani Turks” is a scientific term, which the absolute majority of Azerbaijani Republic population is called. Look here:
    The Azerbaijani Turks: Power and Identity Under Russian Rule
    Hoover Institution Press Publication
    Audrey L. Altstadt

    I think when pseudo-liberal elements try to avoid using Azerbaijani Turks term, it is to put it mildly lack of khowledge :)

  • Mikemur

    Sedrak, I understand your good intentions. You are trying to make equal both sides. But if you ignore crimes it will become acceptable. The problem with azery nationalists is that they started pure anti-armenian and pro violence propaganda from day one. They were openly calling to kill all armenian civilians living in Azerbaijan, 99% of which had nothing to do with karabagh movement. Karabagh movement in other hand was exclusively political. The demands and methods were only political. And not a single azeri was killed in entire armenia during that time. While horrific pogroms were taking place in many azeri cities for almost two years. And also pogrom is not a war, it’s a massacre of defenseless civilians.
    The strange thing is that every time there is a talk about those events there is always a talk about Khogali. It’s like Khogalli is used to silence those crimes. How can you compare these events? Khojalli happened long after those pogroms, in the middle of war that azeries themselves started to kill all karabagh armenians, after there was no Armenians left to kill in other azeri cities. The azeri opposition forces were using Kojalli civilians as human shield and was shelling armenian cities for 2 years before Armenians were force to capture the city to stop terrorists. Even Russians army which was truly neutral until that were forced to help to stop the shelling. And by the way how can you be sure what happened when there are still many questions about the events themselves. Do you know the details? Why azeri media is silence about the exact location were civilians were killed? Why there were 20 miles away from khojalli, inside azeri controlled territory, were there were no armenian forces. Why international and azeri journalists found same bodies mutilated one day after they took pictures? Why the azri journalist that reported that was latter killed in mysterious circumstances? Many journalist and also the former azeri president said that it has been done by azeri opposition to oust the azeri president from power.
    The biggest difference between two sides is that to this day many azeries even some of there intellectuals are calling to kill all armenians. While armenians had never made any such calls. It was always about freedom and justice. Even the azeri president now is threatening to restart the war again, the goal of which will be killing and cleansing of all karabagh armenians.
    Until people don’t start condemning crimes the violence it will not stop.

  • I suppose you are not aware of the Azerbaijani Turks term, and what you say firstly is depleted of sense. So I would like to introduce it to you a bit: “Azerbaijani Turks” is a scientific term, which the absolute majority of Azerbaijani Republic population is called.


    Not ONE credible media outlet in the world would use the term “Azerbaijani Turk.” Moreover, the country pages of various sites such as CIA Factbook, Wikipeda and official Azerbaijani government sites don’t either.

    Now, it might be used by some pan-Turkic nationalists in Azerbaijan as well as many Armenians, but otherwise, no, it’s not a correct term and in the case of the latter is used derogatorily.

    In the Armenian context, use of the word “Azerbaijani Turk” is simply to play into and perpetuate the historical conflict between the two countries by associating them with Turkey.

    Basically, it’s a nationalist term plain and simple. Still, we can agree to differ, but independent journalists, writers, academics and thinkers would use “Azeri” or “Azerbaijani.”

  • I brought example of using Azerbaijani Turk not by an Armenian, nor by Turk, but independent US scholar, and the term didn’t contain any abusive or admiring sense. You seem not to want to take it into consideration.
    I don’t know what “NO ONE outlet in the world” you mean, but scientific researchers use it, sure you may refuse to see it. And if you are actually for naming the people living in some area with the name of that area, and you and some media outlet want to call all the native peoples of Azerbaijan – Avarians, Udins, Talishes, Tats, Lezgins, mountain Jews and others, as well as absolute majority of Azerbaijan Altai Turks – ethnic Azerbaijanis, you need to call also for instance all people living in Russian – including Turks, Chechens, Dagestanis, Tatars, Jews, Komians, Osetinians, Crimean Tatars etc. – ethnic Russians. But I doubt ANY media outlet in the world would call them all Russians.
    Good luck! :)

  • Adil Baguirov

    Thank you for this interesting compilation. Mindful that positions and opinions of two sides don’t change easily, I nevertheless just wanted to add one thought. The Armenian population of Baku c. 1990 was probably around 300,000 — that’s in a city of about 1,8 million people, majority of whom (about one million) were Azerbaijanis. By January 13, 1990, there were already over 200,000 Azerbaijani refugees from Armenian SSR, overwhelming majority of them chaotically reaching and settling in Baku (without much government assistance, although government was already collapsing anyway). These refugees were obviously not happy and lucky people, they were very disgruntled, some have lost relatives (about 216 Azerbaijanis were killed in Armenia in those times). Anyhow, had all, or majority, or even sizable minority of Azerbaijanis of Baku decided to suddenly kill Armenians, that would have resulted in much more than ~60-70 Armenian dead. Instead, majority of Azerbaijanis were protecting their Armenian neighbors. That is precisely why about 20,000 Armenians still live in Baku today (I personally know several, as do any long-term Baku residents). Some of these Armenians, as well as their children and grandchildren, occupy very good positions throughout the society, from academia to business to journalism to government.

    A quick glance at the Alley of Martyrs in Baku, where the victims of Black January are buried, will quickly prove that simply way too many innocent civilians were killed. “By February 1, 1990, 706 people had applied for medical assistance to medical facilities of Baku. The court medical bureau had accepted 84 persons. 73 of them with gunshot wounds (16 in their backs), smashed by APCs 8, bayoneted wounds 2. By February 9, 1990, 170 people, including 6 Russians, 7 Jews, Tatars and Lezgins, had died. Among the dead are six women and 9 children and teenagers. 370 people were wounded. 321 people disappeared.” Source: “Black January: Baku 1990, Documents and Materials”, AzerNeshr, Baku, 1990, p. 287, with a reference to the Ministry of Health of Azerbaijan SSR.

Join the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.