The Russian Empire collapsed in the Russian Revolution of 1917 and militant socialist revolutionaries called Bolsheviks (later called Communists) seized power in Russia. This upheaval gave Azerbaijani nationalists the opportunity to assert control over local government and in May 1918 they declared Azerbaijan an independent republic. Bolshevik supporters (mainly Russians) resisted the nationalists in Baku and armed conflicts took place in the city in March and September 1918, resulting in thousands of deaths. In 1920 the Bolshevik Red Army invaded Azerbaijan and the rest of Transcaucasia, establishing Bolshevik control in the region. In December 1922 Azerbaijan was incorporated into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (‘USSR’) as part of the Transcaucasian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (‘SFSR’), which also included Georgia and Armenia. When the Transcaucasian SFSR was dissolved in 1936, Azerbaijan became the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic (‘SSR’) within the USSR.
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s the Soviet government created a Soviet Azerbaijan culture, fought illiteracy and promoted local people into state and party positions. At the same time the Soviets persecuted those Azerbaijani nationalists and intellectuals whom the government considered a threat to Communist rule. Many of these Azerbaijanis were deported to gulags (Soviet concentration camps) or simply executed. Religious leaders also suffered severe persecution and many mosques and religious centres were closed and in some instances destroyed.
During the early 1930s the Soviet regime began the forced collectivisation of agriculture, combining private holdings into large state-operated farms. Azerbaijani farmers rose up in protest, but they were brutally suppressed by Soviet troops. In the mid to late 1930s, Communist Party officials throughout the Soviet Union were purged and executed as part of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s campaign to wipe out all opposition to his rule (Great Purge). The Stalinist purges also came to include rank-and-file citizens and by 1940 an estimated 120,000 Azerbaijanis had died from Soviet acts of repression. The purges were directed in Azerbaijan by first secretary of the Azerbaijan Communist Party, Mir Jafar Bagirov, who was arrested and executed after Stalin’s death in 1953.
Azerbaijan developed economically and became more industrialised under the Soviet planned economy, especially after World War II (1939-1945). It remained one of the least urbanised republics of the USSR, however, and agriculture continued to be an important part of the local economy. The further development of local oil reserves was put on hold in the 1960s when larger deposits were discovered in the Russian region of Siberia.
In 1969 Heydar Aliyev, chief of the Soviet secret police in Nakhchivan, was appointed first secretary of the Azerbaijan Communist Party. He became the most influential of the republic’s Communist leaders in the period after World War II. However, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev dismissed Aliyev in 1987 following an investigation into charges of widespread corruption in Aliyev’s administration.
In February 1988 a conflict surfaced in Azerbaijan’s autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabakh, where ethnic Armenians had long constituted a majority of the population. The Armenian-dominated regional council requested that the territory be transferred to Armenia, but the Soviet authorities in Moscow ultimately rejected the request. Armenians staged massive demonstrations in the region and in the Armenian capital of Yerevan. In Sumgait, an industrial city in eastern Azerbaijan, organised attacks against Armenians took place. Armed conflicts between Armenians and Azerbaijanis in Nagorno-Karabakh triggered a large-scale exodus of Azerbaijanis from Armenia and Armenians from Azerbaijan. In early 1989 some 5,000 Soviet troops were sent into Nagorno-Karabakh and the Soviet government assumed direct control of the region through most of the year; nevertheless, the situation remained highly volatile. Later that year Azerbaijan imposed a rail blockade of Armenia, followed by a full economic blockade in 1990.
Beginning in the late 1980s, meanwhile, the Soviet government allowed political groups other than the Communist Party to function openly for the first time. The Communist Party leadership in Azerbaijan was reluctant to observe this political liberalisation. The Communist-controlled Azerbaijan Supreme Soviet (national legislature) conceded official recognition to the newly formed nationalist group called the Popular Front of Azerbaijan (‘PFA’) only after the PFA organised a national strike in September 1989.
The PFA sought to maintain Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, which made the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh even more bitter. Interethnic tensions continued to increase and violent riots targeting ethnic Armenians erupted in Baku in January 1990. The PFA effectively took control of the city, leading the government to declare a state of emergency. The city’s Armenian inhabitants were hastily evacuated. The Soviet government immediately dispatched troops to Baku in an attempt to reestablish government control. During the intervention of Soviet troops, more than 100 people were killed and more than 700 injured, according to official reports. To enforce the state of emergency, the government banned all public demonstrations, outlawed radical nationalist organisations and arrested leading PFA members. Because of the Azerbaijan Communist Party’s failure to maintain stability, the Soviet government dismissed the head of the party, Abdul Vezirov, and appointed Ayaz Mutalibov in his place.
Relative order was restored in Azerbaijan by the end of January. Elections to the Supreme Soviet, originally scheduled for February, were postponed until September. Although they were the republic’s first multiparty elections, the continued state of emergency limited campaigning by opposition groups and Communist Party candidates won a majority of seats.
In August 1991 Communist hardliners attempted to seize control of the Soviet government in Moscow. Although the coup attempt failed, it instigated large demonstrations in Azerbaijan calling for the republic’s independence. Demonstrators also called for an end to the state of emergency, the resignation of Mutalibov and the postponement of presidential elections scheduled for September. The elections were held as scheduled, however, and Mutalibov won as the only candidate because the PFA and other opposition groups boycotted the elections.
On August 30, meanwhile, the Azerbaijan Supreme Soviet voted in favor of independence and Azerbaijan’s status as an independent republic was formalised in October. A new 50-member legislature, the Milli Majlis (National Assembly), subsequently replaced the Supreme Soviet. In December the USSR officially collapsed.