Azerbaijan: Outcry at Commissars' Reburial

Armenia furious over move as some of the communists were Armenians.

Azerbaijan: Outcry at Commissars' Reburial

Armenia furious over move as some of the communists were Armenians.

Friday, 13 February, 2009
The Baku authorities’ removal of a monument commemorating 26 murdered communists, who included Armenians, and the reburial of their remains, has sparked fury in Armenia.

The 26 Baku commissars were honoured as martyrs by the Soviet government, which reburied them in a central Baku park in 1920, having brought them back from Central Asia where they were murdered by the Bolsheviks’ British-backed rivals.

But independent Azerbaijan has had an ambiguous relationship to the commissars, only two of whom were Azeri, and many blame them for involvement in Armenian pogroms against their ethnic kin in 1918.

They were reburied for the second time on January 26 with Jewish, Muslim and Christian religious leaders in attendance.

“Having a monument to the 26 commissars, who were mainly Armenians in the very centre of Baku is the same as if there was a monument to the SS in the middle of Tel Aviv,” said Khikmet Gadzhizade, a former ambassador to Russia and a senior member of the Musavat party, which is in opposition to the government but which supported the removal.

“The people who were buried there were participants in terror against the population of the country, and guilty of the death of thousands of Azerbiajanis,” he said.

In fact, only eight of the commissars were Armenians, the rest being Georgians, Jews, Latvians and Greeks, besides two Azeris. But their leader Stepan Shahumian, a communist legend and ally of Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin, was Armenian, casting an ethnic light on the group as a whole.

They ruled Baku between March and September 1918, when the city was taken over by the communists’ political enemies, forcing Shaumian and his colleagues to flee. They headed to Astrakhan in southern Russia but were diverted to what is now Turkmenistan where they were shot.

Armenia and Azerbaijan, as independent states, have tense relations largely because of the status of the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, a majority Armenian part of Azerbaijan, which has unilaterally declared independence.

“Shahumian…. gave his life in the first place for today’s Azerbaijan. And now this degradation of his memory is complete madness,” said Ruben Tovmasian, first secretary of Armenia’s communist party.

“We see this act as the worst kind of vandalism from Azerbaijan. They are trying to destroy everything connected to Armenia. And what’s more, now they are even starting to destroy the remains of Bolshevism.”

Tovmasian said he had spoken to Azerbaijan’s communists about the reburial to register his protest, and they shared his anger.

“The Azerbaijan communist party did not hide its indignation,” he said.

His view that the reburial was anti-Armenian is widely held in Yerevan, and Khachatur Dadaian, author of a book called “Armenians in Baku”, said the fact that Shahumian was a Bolshevik was just an excuse for the Baku authorities to remove the monument.

He said that Shahumian was not even an Armenian nationalist, since his Bolshevik movement was attempting to represent the international proletariat.

“All the same he is taken as part of Armenia. He is a son of the Armenian nation, as well as part of both Azerbaijan’s and our history,” the writer, who is also an expert from Armenia’s Noravank think tank, said.

And another scandal may well be brewing over the affair. According to the Azerbaijani online newspaper, only 23 bodies were found buried in the park, raising questions about the location of the other three.

According to the paper, Shahumian and two other Armenian commissars managed to escape their murderers and hide out in the desert, whence the British occupying force sent them to India.

The story caused a stir of interest in Azerbaijan, although it was quashed by Shahumian’s granddaughter Tatyana, now living in Moscow, who told the Russian daily Kommersant it was nonsense.

“It is impossible to believe that they weren’t all buried. There is a film in the archives of 26 bodies being buried,” she was quoted as saying. “Apart from this, my grandmother was present at the reburial.”

Most historians agree with her, saying that the local Armenian community in India would have noticed Shahumian if he had been sent there. They add that the British, who were at the time trying to smash the nascent Bolshevik state, would hardly have gone to so much trouble to save their political enemy anyway.

“Why on earth would the English release Shahumian, the most important communist, and shoot the rest? On what grounds?” asked Historian Yuri Hovespian.

Another commissar’s descendant was more concerned with protesting the decision to remove their remains. Aslan Azizbekov said he and his relatives had many times appealed to the government asking them not to do this.

“In parliament now, they say a lot of bad things about the commissars. But if my ancestor Mashadi Azizbekov is an enemy, then why is his name still used for a metro station, a street and a region, and why does he have his own museum?” he asked.

But he did not gain much support on the streets of Baku, where passers-by agreed with the city government’s decision.

“No one can be certain that none of the commissars had relations to the bloody events of 1918, which means the monument had to be removed,” said 64-year-old pensioner Aliaga Mamedov.

Rustam, a 25-year-old lawyer, agreed. “There should be no place in the middle of our city for a monument to people who conducted communist terror. It is just strange that it wasn’t taken away before,” he said.

Magerram Zeinalov is an independent journalist. Gegham Vardanian is an Internews editor.
Support our journalists