Saturday, January 20, 2018

Black January in Baku – When Gorbachev Made the Survival of the USSR Impossible

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 20 – Mikhail Gorbachev’s murderous attacks in Tbilisi, Vilnius, and Riga are certainly better known; but the Soviet leader’s dispatch 28 years ago of several divisions of the Soviet army to the Azerbaijani capital of Baku more than any of the others made the survival of the USSR in any form absolutely impossible.

            And just as was the case of those other actions, Gorbachev justified his moves against Azerbaijan as a means of saving the Soviet Union by suppressing challenges to the Soviet system. But paradoxically, his moves unified that nation and made clear that after that date there would be no turning back from the dissolution of the Soviet empire.

            The only question left open was whether the disintegration of the Moscow-centered empire would be violent or peaceful.  Fortunately, it was largely the latter; but that happened not because Gorbachev voluntarily changed his approach but because Boris Yeltsin, especially in the wake of the August 1991 coup, made the Soviet leader irrelevant.

            Twenty-eight years ago, Moscow sent large units of the Soviet army into the Azerbaijani capital in the name of blocking moves by people there to achieve independence. But the Soviet troops in fact engaged in an act of unrestricted state terror in which more than 170 people were killed and 400 wounded, including many women, children and older people.

            In a press release yesterday, the Azerbaijani embassy in Moscow declared that “in January 1990, having lost control over the situation in the country, the Soviet government decided on a pitiless act of reprisal against the peaceful population of Baku. In violation of the Soviet and Azerbaijani SSR constitutions and without declaring an emergency situation, soldiers … armed with heavy weapon” attacked the city (

                “As a result, hundreds of innocent people were killed and wounded,” it continued. “Among the dead were children, women, old people, invalids and representatives of various nationalities and religious faiths.”  To prevent Baku from telling the world what was happening, the Soviet forces blew up the power station so that the republic’s radio went off the air.

            The embassy added: “On January 21, 1990, the outstanding politician Heydar Aliyev in the very building where the embassy of Azerbaijan now condemned the organizers of the tragedy, called their actions anti-human, anti-democratic, and illegal which will lead to the most serious consequences.”

            “From his mouth, the world community first learned the truth about the tragedy and heard a principled position of condemning the crimes committed by the leaders of the USSR at that time.” But the embassy noted that Moscow’s actions of “force and bloody terror did not achieve their goals.” The Azerbaijanis instead became recommitted to their national rights.

            Polal Byulbyul, Azerbaijan’s ambassador to Moscow, added that “in the fate of every people and every country, there are tragic papers which the people will never forget.” For Azerbaijanis, among those dates was and remains January 20, 1990. 

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