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Black January
Azerbaijani: Qara Yanvar
Part of Azerbaijani national independence movement
Date January 19-20, 1990
Location Baku, Azerbaijan, Soviet Union
Result Invasion of Baku and massacre of civilians
 Azerbaijan  Soviet Union
26,000 troops
Casualties and losses
133-137 civilians killed
More than 800 injured

Black January (Azerbaijani: Qara Yanvar), also known as Black Saturday or the January Massacre was a violent crackdown of the Azerbaijani independence movement in Baku on January 19–20, 1990, pursuant to a state of emergency during the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

The Memorial Society and Helsinki Watch reported that they had found compelling evidence that the imposition of the state of emergency had led to an unwarranted breach of civil liberties and that Soviet troops had used unjustified force resulting in many deaths.[1] This includes the usage of armoured vehicles, bayonets and firing on clearly marked ambulances.[1] In the resolution of January 22, 1990 the Supreme Soviet of the Azerbaijan SSR declared that the decree of the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet of January 19, used to impose emergency rule in Baku and military deployment, constituted an act of aggression.[2] Black January is seen as the rebirth of the Azerbaijan Republic.



Victims of Black January.

In December 1989, Azerbaijanis living in regions bordering Iran ripped down the border fences demanding closer ties with ethnic Azerbaijanis living in Iran. Local government of Jalilabad surrendered to rioters turning over the administration to Popular Front of Azerbaijan. This was followed by a non-violent turnover of Lankaran administration to Popular Front two week later.[3] On January 10, 1990, the parliament of Armenia voted to include Nagorno-Karabakh in its budget and allowed its inhabitants vote in Armenian elections thus disregarding Soviet authority and Azerbaijani jurisdiction and causing rage throughout Azerbaijan. This led to demonstrations which demanded the ousting of Azerbaijani communist officials and called for independence from the Soviet Union. Their rhetoric was, according to a Human Rights Watch report, "heavily anti-Armenian".[4] On January 12, the Popular Front organized a national defense committee with branches in factories and offices in Baku to mobilize people for battle with Armenians.[3]

Beginning on January 13, 1990, a repetition of the pogroms of Sumgait was carried out in Baku against Armenians. Armenians were thrown to their deaths from the balconies of upper-story apartments. Around 90 Armenians were murdered in the pogroms. The Popular Front of Azerbaijan claimed that the pogroms were the result of "Armenian aggression." [5] The Popular Front instigated the attacks and local authorities did nothing to stop the violence. These attacks were mainly done by young Azerbaijani refugees from Armenia.[3] Baku's 300,000 Armenians hastily escaped.[6]

The 12,000 strong MVD internal troops and numerous Soviet army and fleet units of Baku garrison and Caspian Flotilla did not intervene to stop riots, claiming that they had no orders from Moscow authorities. On January 15, the authorities declared states of emergency in other parts of Azerbaijan (but not in Baku), and the pogrom activity began to subside. At the same time, fearing an intervention of the central Soviet authorities, Popular Front activists began a blockade of military barracks.[4] They had already taken de facto control in a number of Azerbaijani regions.[4] On January 18, the Popular Front ordered supporters to barricade the main access routes into Baku using hundreds of cars, trucks and buses. The next day, Soviet authorities evacuated its representatives and local officials moving them to military command post on the outskirts of the city where Soviet Minister of Defense, Dmitry Yazov and Interior Minister Vadim Bakatin positioned.[3]

Late at night on January 19, 1990, 26,000 Soviet troops stormed Baku in order to crush the Popular Front. In the course of the storming, the troops attacked the protesters, firing in the crowds. The shooting continued for three days. They acted pursuant to a state of emergency (which continued on for more than 4 months) declared by the USSR Supreme Soviet Presidium, signed by President Gorbachev. The state of emergency was, however, disclosed to the Azerbaijani public only several hours[4] after the beginning of the storming, when many citizens already lay wounded or dead in the streets, hospitals and morgues of Baku.

According to official data, between 133[7] and 137[8] people died with unofficial number reaching 300.[9] Up to 800 were injured and 5 went missing.[10] An additional 26 people were killed in Neftchala and Lankaran regions of the country.[11] The Soviet army soldiers used 5.45 mm caliber bullets with a shifted center of gravity designed to sheer after entering the body thus causing an excessive physical damage to the body.[12][13]. January 20 is marked as the Day of the Nationwide Sorrow in Azerbaijan.[14]

State of Emergency

According to Human Rights Watch, "while the Kremlin's ostensible reason for the military action was to safeguard the Armenian population, most evidence simply does not support this contention. For example, documents of the military procurator's office in Baku examined by Human Rights Watch/Helsinki indicate that the military action was being planned even before the January 13, 1990 pogroms".[4]

The Soviet army was trying to rescue the authoritarian regime, the rule of Communist Party and Soviet Union.

Almost the whole population of Baku turned out to bury the dead on the third day - January 22. For another 40 days, the country stayed away from work in a sign of mourning and mass protest.

Then Soviet Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov stated that the use of force in Baku was intended to prevent a de facto overthrow of local government by the non-communist opposition, namely the Popular Front of Azerbaijan (PFA), to prevent their victory in the upcoming elections scheduled for March 1990, and to destroy them as a political force, ensuring that the Communist government remained in power.[15][16]

A special session of the Supreme Council (Parliament) of Azerbaijan SSR held on January 22, 1990 at the request of public and by initiative of the group of MPs tried to initially assess the January 20 events and adopted some documents condemning the crackdown operation by Soviet army.

Black January

Azerbaijani stamp with photos of Black January

The Human Rights Watch report entitled "Black January in Azerbaijan" states: "Indeed, the violence used by the Soviet Army on the night of January 19–20 was so out of proportion to the resistance offered by Azerbaijanis as to constitute an exercise in collective punishment. Since Soviet officials have stated publicly that the purpose of the intervention of Soviet troops was to prevent the ouster of the Communist-dominated government of the Republic of Azerbaijan by the nationalist-minded, noncommunist opposition, the punishment inflicted on Baku by Soviet soldiers may have been intended as a warning to nationalists, not only in Azerbaijan, but in the other Republics of the Soviet Union."

"The subsequent events in the Baltic Republics - where, in a remarkable parallel to the events in Baku, alleged civil disorder was cited as justification for violent intervention by Soviet troops -further confirms that the Soviet Government has demonstrated that it will deal harshly with nationalist movements," continues the Human Rights Watch report.

During the Black January crackdown, the Soviets managed to suppress all efforts to disseminate news from Azerbaijan to the local population and the international community. On the eve of the Soviet military invasion in Baku, one of leaders of Popular Front, Ekhtibar Mamedov proposed to Kremlin officials to appear on Azerbaijani TV at 8 PM announcing First Secretary of Azerbaijani Communist Party, Abdurrahman Vazirov would be leaving and no troops would invade Baku which would restore the order.[3] Instead, an energy supply source to Azerbaijani TV and State Radio was blown up by intelligence officers at 7:15 PM in order to cut off the population from any source of information. TV and radio was silent and all print media was banned.[10] But Mirza Khazar and his staff at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty succeeded in broadcasting daily reports from Baku,[17] making it the only source of news to Azerbaijanis within and outside of the country for several days. The Kremlin leadership tried hard to keep the outside world and the population inside Azerbaijan unaware of the military invasion, but Mirza Khazar and his staff foiled this attempt. Thanks to Mirza Khazar and his staff at Radio Liberty, Azerbaijanis in and outside Azerbaijan, as well as the international community, learned about the Soviet invasion and gained a chance to organize protest actions. Shocked by this "surprising" development, the government of the USSR complained officially to the United States about Radio Liberty's[18] coverage of the military invasion of Azerbaijan. The January 20, 1990, broadcasts turned Mirza Khazar into a legend among Azerbaijanis in and outside Azerbaijan. Malahat Aghajanqizi, a well-known Azerbaijani poetess and writer, described Mirza Khazar’s appearance on radio at the time of the Soviet military invasion as follows: “On January 20, Mirza Khazar with his God-given divine voice, gave hope to the dying Azerbaijani people.”[19]

The Wall Street Journal editorial of January 4, 1995 claimed that Gorbachev chose to use violence against "independence-seeking Azerbaijan."

A Memorial dedicated to all victims of March Days and Black January.


On October 18, 1991, the Parliament of Azerbaijan restored the country's independence. Gorbachev later apologized to Azerbaijan by stating: "The declaration of a state emergency in Baku was the biggest mistake of my political career". In 1994, the National Assembly of Azerbaijan adopted a full political and legal evaluation of the Black January events. According to the decree of the President of Azerbaijan Heydar Aliyev from December 16, 1999, all victims of the crackdown were awarded an honorary title of the "Martyr of January 20" (Azerbaijani: 20 yanvar şəhidi).

See also

Notes and references

  1. ^ a b Robert Kushen, Aryeh Neier. Conflict in the Soviet Union: Black January in Azerbaidzhan, Human Rights Watch, 1991, p. 3
  2. ^ Kushen, Neier, p. 45
  3. ^ a b c d e Bill Keller (1990-01-28). "UPHEAVAL IN THE EAST: SOVIET UNION; Force as a Last Resort: Armed Power Salvages Moscow's Facing Authority". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-01-20. 
  4. ^ a b c d e Human Rights Watch. “Playing the "Communal Card": Communal Violence and Human Rights”
  5. ^ Black Garden By Thomas De Waal
  6. ^ Highlanders By Yo'av Karny
  7. ^ 20 January
  8. ^ Elchin Khalilov (2001-08-15). "Eyewitness: A republic loses faith". BBC News. Retrieved 2010-01-20. 
  9. ^ "Black January: Baku (1990). Behind the Scenes - A Photojournalist's Perspective". Azerbaijan International. 2001-08-15. pp. 33–37. Retrieved 2010-01-20. 
  10. ^ a b Shamkhal Abilov (2010-01-9). "20 January 1990: Black Face of the Red Terror in Azerbaijan". Turkish Weekly. Retrieved 2010-01-20. 
  11. ^ "Azerbaijan commemorates the anniversary of 20th January tragedy". 2010-01-20. Retrieved 2010-01-20. 
  12. ^ Embassy of Azerbaijan Republic in Kazakhstan (January 17, 2006). "20 January Tragedy Monstrous Crime Against Azerbaijani People Humanism and Humanity". Press release. Retrieved 20 January 2010. 
  13. ^ "20 января – день печали и надменности [20 January - Day of sorrow and disdain]". 525-ci qazet. 2010-01-20. Retrieved 2010-01-20. 
  14. ^ President of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan. Bloody Memories
  15. ^ Michael Dobbs (1990-01-27). "Soviets Say Troops Used To Avert Coup in Baku;Nationalists Said to Plan Seizure of Power". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2010-03-05. 
  16. ^ Svante Cornell (1999). "The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict". Department of East European Studies (Uppsala University) 46. Retrieved 2010-03-05. 
  17. ^ "Black January 1990". Azerbaijan International. Retrieved 2009-02-26. 
  18. ^ Soviet Officials Charge Voice of America, Radio Liberty Fueled Riots
  19. ^ Article on Mirza Khazar

External links

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