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The 26 Commissars Memorial in Baku before its demolition in January 2009.

The 26 Baku Commissars were Bolshevik and Left Socialist Revolutionary (SR) members of the Baku Soviet Commune that was established in the city of Baku (the capital of the briefly independent pre-Soviet Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (28 May 1918 - 28 April, 1920), now the Republic of Azerbaijan) after the October Revolution. The commune, led by Stepan Shahumyan, existed until 26 July 1918 when the Bolsheviks were forced out of power by a coalition of Dashnaks, Right SRs and Mensheviks. After their overthrow, the Baku commissars attempted to leave Baku but were captured by the Centrocaspian Dictatorship and imprisoned. On 14 September 1918, during the fall of Baku to Ottoman forces, Red Army soldiers broke into their prison and freed the commissars; they then boarded a ship to Krasnovodsk, where they were promptly arrested by local authorities and, on the night of 20 September 1918, executed by a firing squad between the stations of Pereval and Akhcha-Kuyma on the Transcaspian Railway.

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Baku Commune

The Baku Commune was a short-lived political entity which lasted from 13 April to 25 July, 1918. It came to power after the bloody confrontation with the Muslim population, known as the March Days in Baku. During its brief existence the Commune had to face several problems: from the shortage of food and supplies to the threat of a strong Ottoman Empire Army who wanted to attack Baku. Despite the difficult conditions, the Commune managed to make several social reform, such as the nationalisation of the oil industry. This is how the Trotskyist writer Victor Serge described the situation in May, June and July and the state of the small Red Army of Baku:[1]

In May, June and July the inhabitants could be given only minute rations of nuts and sunflower seed; the small quantities of corn that the Soviet managed to bring in by sea were reserved for the troops. Attempts at requisitioning were made by the small Red Army of Baku, a poorly disciplined, poorly officered body composed largely of Armenians who were alien to the revolutionary spirit of the proletariat. These drank in excess and plundered the Moslem peasants, causing disaffection among them.

On 5 June, the Baku Red Army repulsed victoriously an assault of overwhelming Ottoman troops but later it launched an unsuccessful assault on Ganja, the headquarters of the Ottoman Army of Islam, and was obliged to retreat to Baku.[2] At this point, Dashanaks, Right SRs and Mensheviks started to negotiate with General Dunsterville, the commander of the British troops in Persia, inviting his troops to Baku in order to defend the city from an imminent Ottoman attack. The Bolsheviks and their leftist allies were opposed to it but on 25 July the majority of the Soviet voted to call in the British and the Bolsheviks resigned. The Baku Commune ended its existence and was replaced by the Centralcaspian Dictatorship.

Contrarly to what happened in many parts of Russia, where the Bolsheviks earned a reputation for ruthlessness executing those who didn't support them, Bolsheviks of Baku were not so strict. Cheka in Baku executed only two persons, they were members of the Soviet who were caught in embezzling public funds: the Commissar for Finance, Aleksandr Kireev, and the commissar of the steamship Meve, Sergei Pokrovskii.[1][2]

The executions

Stepan Shahumyan, the leader of the 26 commisars.

After the fall of the Baku Soviet, the Bolshevik leaders and some loyal troops tried to reach Astrakhan by sea. However, their ship was intercepted by the military vessels of the Caspian fleet and after undergoing an hour's bombardment in mid-sea they surrendered and returned to Baku. Most of the Bolshevik militants were arrested and remained in prison until, after the fall of Baku to the Turks, a commando unit led by Anastas Mikoyan freed them from their prison.

Shahumyan, Dzhaparidze, Azizbekov, and their comrades, along with Mikoyan, then boarded the ship Turkmen, intending to reach Astrakhan, the only Caspian port still in Bolshevik hands. According to recent historians, the sailors chose instead to sail to Krasnovodsk for fear of being arrested in Astrakhan. At Krasnovodsk the commissars were arrested by the town's commandant who requested further orders from the "Ashkhabad Committee", led by the Socialist Revolutionary Fyodor Funtikov, about what should be done with them. Three days later, British Major-General Wilfrid Malleson, on hearing of their arrest, contacted Britain's liaison-officer in Ashkhabad, Captain Reginald Teague-Jones, to suggest that the commissars be handed over to British forces to be used as hostages in exchange for British citizens held by the Soviets. That same day, Teague-Jones attended the Committee's meeting in Ashkabad which had the task of deciding the fate of the Commissars. For some reason Teague-Jones did not communicate Malleson's request to the Committee, and claimed he left before a decision was made.[3] He further claimed that next day he discovered the committee had eventually decided to issue orders that the commissars should be executed. According to historian Richard H. Ullman, Teague-Jones could stop the executions if he wanted since the Ashkabad Committee was dependent on British support and could not refuse a request from its powerful ally, but he decided not to do so.[4]

On the night of 20 September, three days after being arrested, twenty-six of the commissars were executed by a firing squad between the stations of Pereval and Akhcha-Kuyma on the Trans-Caspian railway. How Anastas Mikoyan, who was part of the group, managed to survive is still uncertain, as is the reason why his life was spared. In 1922, V. Chaikin, a Socialist Revolutionary journalist, published a description of the moments before the execution.[5]

At around 6 A.M. [relates a witness], the twenty-six commissars were told of the fate awaiting them while they were in the train. They were taken out in groups of eight or nine men. They were obviously shocked, and kept a tense silence. One sailor shouted: `I'm not afraid, I'm dying for liberty.' One of the executioners replied that `We too will die for liberty sooner or later, but we mean it in a different way from you.' The first group of commissars, led from the train in the semi-darkness, was dispatched with a single salvo. The second batch tried to run away but was mown down after several volleys. The third resigned itself to its fate ...

Impact of the executions

Isaak Brodsky's The Execution of the Twenty Six Baku Commissars depicting the Soviet view of the execution.

Soviet officials later blamed the executions on British agents acting in the Baku area at the time.[6][7][8] When Soviet rule was established in the whole Caspian area, Funtikov, the head of the Ashkhabad 'Directorate' responsible for the executions, was imprisoned. Funtikov put all blame for the executions onto Britain, and in particular Teague-Jones who, he claimed, had ordered him to have the commissars shot. Funtikov was tried and shot in Baku in 1926. Britain denied involvement in the incident, saying it was done by local officials without any knowledge of the British.

This accusation caused a further souring of relations between Britain and the fledgling Soviet government and helped lead to the confrontational attitude of both sides in the coming years.

According to Soviet historiography two British officers onboard the commissars' ship ordered it to sail to Krasnovodsk instead of Astrakhan, where they found a government led by SRs and British officers who immediately ordered the arrest of the commissars. The Soviets would later immortalize the death of the 26 commissars through, among other things, movies,[9] artwork,[10] stamps,[11] and public works including the 26 Commissars Memorial in Baku. In Isaak Brodsky's famous painting, British officers are incorrectly depicted as being present at the executions.[12]

According to B.Sennikov, the 26 where decapitated and not shot and the executioner was a Turkmen.[13]

Baku, 2005. The wall of the house of the Baku Commissariat (1918)

The Commissars

The twenty-six "Baku Commissars" were not all commissars and were not all Bolsheviks; some of them were Left SRs and Dashnaks. There were many different nationalities among them: Jewish, Russian, Georgian, Armenian and Azerbaijani.

The 26 "commissars" were:[14]
Stepan Shahumyan- Chairman of the Baku Council of the People's Commissars, Commissar Extraordinary for the Caucasus
Meshadi Azizbekov - Deputy People's Commissar of Internal Affairs, gubernial commissar for Baku
Prokopius Dzhaparidze - Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Baku Soviet
Ivan Fioletov - Chairman of the Soviet of National Economy
Mir-Hasan Vazirov - People's Commissar for Agriculture
Grigory Korganov - People's Commissar for Military and Navy Affairs
Yakov Zevin - People's Commissar for Labor
Grigory Petrov - Military Commissar of the Baku region from the Sovnarkom of the Russian SFSF
Ivan Malygin - Deputy Chairman of the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Caucasian Army
Arsen Amiryan - Chief Editor of Baku Worker newspaper
Meyer Basin - member of the Military Revolutionary Committee
Suren Osepyan - Chief Editor of Izvestia of the Baku Council newspaper
Eigen Berg - sailor
Vladimir Polukhin - Collegiate Commissar for Military and Navy Affairs of the Russian SFSR
Fyodor Solntsev - member of the military
Armenak Boriyan - journalist
Ivan Gabyshev - political commissar of a brigade
Mark Koganov - member of the Military Revolutionary Committee
Bagdasar Avakyan - Military Commandant of Baku
Irakly Metaksa - Shahumyan's bodyguard
Ivan Nikolayshvili - Dzhaparidze's bodyguard
Aram Kostandyan - Deputy People's Commissar for Agriculture
Solomon Bogdanov - member of the Military Revolutionary Committee
Anatoly Bogdanov - clerk
Isay Mishne - secretary of the Military Revolutionary Committee
Tatevos Amirov - commander of a cavalry unit, member of Dashnaktsutiun[15]

Demolition of the 26 Commissars Memorial and Reburial

On January 2009, the Baku authorities’ demolition of the 26 Commissars Memorial commemorating 26 Commisars began and was soon completed.[16] The park itself was fenced in July 2008.[16] The dismantling was opposed by some local left-wingers and by the Azerbaijan Communist Party (1993) in particular.[16] The remains of the commissars were reburied at Hovsan Cemetery on 26 January 2009, with participation of Muslim, Jewish and Christian clergy, who conducted religious ceremonies.[17] During exhumation only 21 bodies were discovered, out of expected 26. One of those whose remains were missing from the grave was the leader of the Baku Commune Stepan Shahumyan and four other Armenian commissars Tatevos Amirov, Bagdasar Avakyan, Armenak Boriyan and Aram Kostandyan.[18][19][20]

Trivia

Russian alternative music band WOMBA named one of its albums The 27th Baku Commissar.

Italian prominent writer Tiziano Terzani wrote about the Baku Commissars in his book 'Buonanotte, signor Lenin' (Goodnight, Mr Lenin: A Journey Through the End of the Soviet Empire, 1992).

Notes

  1. ^ a b Year One of the Russian Revolution | Chpt. 6
  2. ^ a b http://www.pjsymes.com.au/articles/az-baku.htm
  3. ^ C. Dobson & J. Miller The Day We Almost Bombed Moscow Hodder and Stoughton, 1986. p94-95.
  4. ^ Richard H. Ullman Anglo-Soviet Relations 1917-21. Vol. I. Intervention and the War Princeton, N.J., 1961 p. 324.
  5. ^ , On the History of the Russian Revolution (K Istorii Rossi skoi Revoliutsii) (Moscow, 1922)
  6. ^ Reginald Teague-Jones, The Spy Who Disappeared: Diary of a Secret Mission to Russian and Central Asia in 1918 Gollancz, 1990.
  7. ^ The Shooting of the Twenty-Six Baku Comrades
  8. ^ File Not Found at www.marxists.org
  9. ^ Dvadtsat shest komissarov (1933) at the Internet Movie Database
  10. ^ Художники-баталисты Свободной России
  11. ^ [1] at home.nestor.minsk.by
  12. ^ C. Dobson & J. Miller The Day We Almost Bombed Moscow Hodder and Stoughton, 1986. p96
  13. ^ B. Sennikov, Tambovskoe vosstanie 1918-1921 gg. i raskrest'janivanie Rossii 1929-1933 gg., Moskva, 2004
  14. ^ Peter Hopkirk, Like Hidden Fire Kodansha, 1995.
  15. ^ «Российский исторический журнал». Расстрел бакинских комиссаров: 80 лет спустя.
  16. ^ a b c (Russian)Фаик Меджид. "В Азербайджане против демонтажа мемориала 26 Бакинских комиссаров протестуют только левые". kavkaz-uzel.ru. http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/148040. Retrieved 17 January 2009.  
  17. ^ (Russian)Мурсал Алиев. "Продолжается демонтаж мемориала 26 Бакинских комиссаров в Баку". 1news.az. http://1news.az/society/20090114012021504.html. Retrieved 17 January 2009.  
  18. ^ Remains of Baku commissars uncovered in centre of Azerbaijani capital re-buried
  19. ^ Day.Az — Во время раскопок могилы 26 бакинских комиссаров в Баку не были обнаружены останки трех человек
  20. ^ Ъ — Бакинцы недосчитались комиссаров







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