‘Black January’ became the starting point of Azerbaijan’s independence

Despite bloody events in Baku, the day of January 20, 1990, became a page of heroism in the history of the struggle for the independence and territorial integrity of Azerbaijan.

THE FLAME Towers in Baku are a symbol of the new and independent Azerbaijan. (photo credit: AZERTAC)
THE FLAME Towers in Baku are a symbol of the new and independent Azerbaijan.
(photo credit: AZERTAC)
Azerbaijanis call the massacre of civilians on January 19-20, 1990, “Black January,” when Soviet tanks and troops, with terrible cruelty, inhuman savagery and violence invaded the streets of Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan.
The main goal of the operation was to crush the makings of an independence movement in Azerbaijan. Officially, 131 people were killed; unofficially, the figures swelled to at least 300 and possibly more. Even to this day, more than 30 years later, the truth is unknown. Apparently most of the documents – 200 secret boxes, according to some accounts – were confiscated and sent to Moscow by the Soviet Army when the Soviet Union appeared on the verge of collapse.
Soviet Army soldiers shot civilians at point-blank range with special brutality; they carried out deliberate assaults with tanks and armored personnel carriers on cars; they bombarded hospitals, preventing medical personnel from treating the wounded. The 5.45-mm. bullets for a Kalashnikov rifle, with a displaced center of gravity, do not just take a person out of action, but repeatedly increased suffering and made death inevitable.
Baku at dawn on January 20 presented a terrible sight: bloodstained streets and city squares, the remains of mutilated corpses, crushed cars, bullet-riddled houses and asphalt. That night, the whole population of the capital of Azerbaijan experienced a tragic shock. I was then 15-years old, we lived in multicultural Baku, and I remember sitting up all night with my parents and sister unable to sleep.
Then I, like many others in my city – for the first time in my life – heard shots from tanks and machine guns. This terrible night was disgustingly long. I remember that there were a lot of stars, but these stars could tell us nothing, as if they had lost their warmth and affection and, it seems to me, they were forced to remain silent, frightened by these terrible shots. The bloody massacre that occurred in Baku in January 1990, showed the inhuman and bloody essence of the totalitarian Soviet Empire regime under the leadership of Gorbachev, when the Soviet armed forces were, once again, used not against foreign aggression, but against their own people.
My Jewish friend and photographer, now Israeli citizen Boris Dobin, reminded me about “Black January”: “It cannot be forgotten. The events of January 20, 1990, are an open wound for me, which will never cease to cause pain. Sometimes the pain becomes less, sometimes stronger, but it’s always here. I remember the development of these days in details. For many decades people of various nationalities have been living in Baku in peace. I am Jew and was raised among Azerbaijanis, I speak Azerbaijani fluently, and the pain of the Azerbaijan people is my pain. I read about similar events only in books about fascism. It was fascism what the Soviet army has done on January 19-20, 1990, in Baku. The pain and confusion, which the Baku residents felt that day cannot be forgotten. I continued to photo[graph] that and the next day when funerals were organized,” Dobin said.
British journalist Tomas de Waal wrote in his Black Garden about bloody “Black January”: “Tanks rolled over barricades, crushing cars and even ambulances. Witnesses spoke of soldiers firing at people who fled and of soldiers stabbing and shooting the wounded. A volley of bullets hit a bus full of civilians and many of its passengers, including a fourteen-year-old girl, were killed. Some one hundred thirty citizens of Baku have been killed and several hundred were wounded on the night of 19–20 January.”
An independent military investigation group known as “Shield” later concluded that the Soviet army had waged war on one of its own cities and called for criminal proceedings against Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov, who had personally commanded the operation”.
Famous Russian film director Stanislav Govorukhin wrote about the intervention of Soviet troops in Baku: “The Soviet Army invaded the Soviet city... Baku… like an army of invaders: under the cover of night, on tanks and armored cars, clearing its way with fire and sword”.
Azerbaijan people buried their sons and daughters, who, according to Gorbachev, were “Islamic fundamentalists” on January 21, 1990. Is Farida one – a girl who married three months earlier, and then killed herself after hearing about the death of a loved one? Is not Rashad, who was 15 years old? Jewish representatives of Baku: Vera Besantina, Jan Meerovich, ambulance doctor Sasha Marchevka – Were they all “Islamic fundamentalists?”
The roots of the January tragedy were in the continuing aggression of Armenia against Azerbaijan for over two years. An analysis of the events of 1988-1990 clearly shows that Armenia, with the full support of the central Soviet government – especially Mikhail Gorbachev – intended to occupy part of the territory of the neighboring republic. These were the final convulsions of the obsolete Soviet empire. Azerbaijani patriots, a Jewish girl, a Russian doctor and an Azerbaijani child buried in a mass grave; this is all a terrible and unbearable tragedy and the pain of Azerbaijan.
“Black January” turned out to be the beginning of the end of both Soviet rule in Azerbaijan and of the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Communist Party members – who had devoted their lives to serving the interests of the USSR – were appalled to find the system turning against them; stories abound of Party members setting fire to their membership ID cards.
The national leader of Azerbaijan Heydar Aliyev, a former member of the Soviet Politburo and former first deputy of prime minister of the USSR, accused Mikhail Gorbachev of masterminding this heinous crime of bloody “Black January” in Baku. Heydar Aliyev was living in Moscow and he came to Azerbaijan’s permanent representation there and presented his condolences to the people of Azerbaijan. In a speech, he emphasized that the initiators of the tragedy were the then political leaders of the USSR and Azerbaijan and said that they had done nothing to calm down the people.
“In the end, however, all of the Soviet efforts to keep Azerbaijan under Soviet rule proved worthless. The Soviet Union’s attack on Baku had the opposite effect. Instead of suppressing dissidents and eliminating the independence movement, it further encouraged Azerbaijanis in their drive for freedom from communist rule” – wrote Liberty radio correspondent Katarina Hall.
Despite bloody events in Baku, the day of January 20, 1990, became a page of heroism in the history of the struggle for the independence and territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. The sons and daughters of Azerbaijan perished on January 20, 1990, while defending Azerbaijan’s freedom and independence. Their bravery became vivid history in the heroism chronicles of Azerbaijan. Today, 30 years have passed since the tragedy of “Black January.” The sacred Azerbaijani place of worship – Shehidler Khiyabani (Martyrs Alley) – is visited daily, scarlet carnations are laid on the martyrs’ graves, the “Eternal Flame” memorial, symbol of the “the land of lights” (from “Azeri” flame), remains lit.