Black January

Black January
Azerbaijani: Qara Yanvar
Part of Azerbaijani national independence movement
DateJanuary 19–20, 1990
LocationBaku, Azerbaijan SSR, Soviet Union
Azerbaijan Popular Front of Azerbaijan

Transcaucasian Military District

 Azerbaijan SSR
Commanders and leaders
Azerbaijan Abulfaz Elchibey Alexander Lebed
26,000 troops
Casualties and losses
131–170 civilians killed
700-800 injured
21–29 soldiers killed
90 injured

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

General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party Mikhail Gorbachev and Defence Minister Dmitry Yazov asserted that military law was necessary to stop the violence against the Armenian population and to thwart efforts by the Azerbaijani independence movement to overthrow the Soviet Azerbaijani government. According to official estimates between 133 and 137 Azerbaijani civilians died, 800 people were injured and 5 persons went missing. However unofficial number put the number of victims at 300 dead. Later on, in 1995 Gorbachev apologised to Azerbaijan by stating: "The declaration of a state emergency in Baku was the biggest mistake of my political career."

In a resolution of January 22, 1990, the Supreme Soviet of Azerbaijan SSR declared that the decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR of January 19, used to impose emergency rule in Baku and military deployment, constituted an act of aggression.[1] Black January is seen as the rebirth of the Azerbaijan Republic.


In December 1989, Azerbaijanis living in regions bordering Iran ripped down border fences, demanding closer ties with ethnic Azerbaijanis living in Iran. The local authorities in Jalilabad surrendered to rioters, turning over administration to the Popular Front of Azerbaijan. This was followed by a non-violent turnover of the Lankaran administration to the Popular Front two weeks later.[2]

On January 9, 1990, the Supreme Soviet of the Armenian SSR voted to include Nagorno-Karabakh in its budget and allowed its inhabitants to vote in Armenian elections, thus disregarding Soviet authority and Azerbaijani jurisdiction and causing rage throughout Azerbaijan.[3] 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 organised a national defence committee with branches in factories and offices in Baku to mobilise people for battle with Armenians.[2]

Maneuvers of the Soviet Army in Baku, 20 January 1990.

Local Azerbaijani authorities were unable to restore order because of internal quarreling and divisions that paralyzed their ability to act.[5] Azerbaijani authorities also ordered the 12,000-strong Interior Ministry troops to abstain from intervening in the Baku riots[6] and numerous Soviet army and fleet units of the Baku garrison and Caspian Flotilla did not intervene to stop the riots, claiming that they had no orders from Moscow authorities.[2] On 13 January, massive anti-Armenian pogroms started which resulted in ninety deaths, while thousands fled or were evacuated by the Soviet military.[7]

On January 15, the authorities declared states of emergency in other parts of Azerbaijan (but not in Baku). 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 posts in the outskirts of the city where Soviet Minister of Defence Dmitry Yazov and Interior Minister Vadim Bakatin were positioned.[2]

On 19 January, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR approved the decree signed by M. Gorbachev, introducing state of emergency in Baku and some other places in the Azerbaijani SSR. The decree stated:

″In connection with dramatic escalation of the situation in the city of Baku, attempts of criminal extremist forces to remove from power by organizing mass unrest legally acting state authorities and in the interests of the protection and security of citizens, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, guided by point 14 of the article 119 of the Constitution of the USSR, decrees: To declare since 20 January 1990 state of emergency in the city of Baku, by extending to its territory the effect of the Decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR from 15 January 1990.″

[8] The decree contravened legal acts in force at the time, which provided that the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the AzSSR would have to turn to the central government with the relevant plea.[9]

Late at night on January 19, 1990, after demolition of the central television station and termination of phone and radio lines by Soviet special forces, 26,000 Soviet troops entered Baku, smashing through the barricades in order to crush the Popular Front.[3] As claimed by Mikhail Gorbachev, gunmen of the Azerbaijani National Front opened fire on the soldiers;[10] however, findings of the Moscow-based non-governmental organisation Shield found no evidence of "armed combatants of Azerbaijani Popular Front", which was used as a motive to crush the civilian population on January 20.[11]

The independent Shield organisation which consists of a group of lawyers and officers in reserve, observed human rights violations in the army and its military operations,[12] concluded that the army waged a war on its civilians and demanded to start a criminal investigation against the Minister of Defence, Dmitry Yazov, who had personally led the operation.[7] The Azerbaijani Interior Ministry officials helped Popular Front activists in stirring disorder by providing them with weapons, technical facilities, and informing them about the movement of army units.[13]

The troops attacked the protesters, firing into the crowds. The shooting continued for three days. They acted pursuant to a state of emergency, which continued for more than four months afterward, declared by the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, signed by President Mikhail Gorbachev. The state of emergency was, however, disclosed to the Azerbaijani public only several hours[4] after the beginning of the offensive, when many citizens already lay dead or wounded in the streets, hospitals and morgues of Baku.

Almost the whole population of Baku turned out to bury the dead on the third day, January 22.[3] For another 40 days, the country stayed away from work as a sign of mourning and mass protest.[4]

Death toll

Victims of Black January in Martyrs' Lane, Baku.

According to one report, 93 Azerbaijanis and 29 Soviet soldiers were killed in the street skirmishes. Other reports state that 21 soldiers were killed and 90 wounded in the fighting.[14][15] However, how the soldiers died is still disputed. The soldiers' death toll was claimed by Soviet authorities to have resulted from armed resistance, although some of the soldiers could have been victims of friendly fire.[7]

Other estimates indicate that between 133[16] and 137[17] civilians died with unofficial number reaching 300.[18] Up to 800 were injured and 5 went missing.[19] An additional 26 people were killed in Neftchala and Lankaran regions of the country.[20]

State of emergency

President Gorbachev and other officials asserted that it was necessary to stop pogroms and violence against the Armenian population and to thwart efforts by extremists to overthrow the Azerbaijani government. The government's decree said: "Extremist groups are organizing mass disorders fanning national enmity. They are committing bold criminal acts, mining roads and bridges, shelling settlements, taking hostages." [21]

Defence Minister Yazov also said that nationalists were plotting a coup d'état in Azerbaijan: "A meeting was planned at which it was proposed to declare the transfer of power into the hands of the People's Front." He noted how the "Popular Front" declared its own state of emergency in Baku before the action was taken and how Soviet state organs "ceased to control the situation."[22][23][24][25]

News coverage

Azerbaijani stamp with photos of Black January

During the Black January crackdown, Soviet authorities managed to suppress all efforts to disseminate news from Azerbaijan to the local population and the international community. On the eve of the military intervention, 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.[2]

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.[19] But Mirza Khazar and his staff at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty succeeded in broadcasting daily reports from Baku,[26] 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 intervention, 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 actions of the Soviet Army and was able to organise a protest.

Shocked by this "surprising" development, the government of the USSR complained officially to the United States about Radio Liberty's[27] coverage of the military's intervention in Azerbaijan. The January 20, 1990 broadcasts turned Mirza Khazar into a legend among Azerbaijanis in and outside Azerbaijan. Malahat Aghajanqizi, a well-known Azerbaijani poet and writer, described Mirza Khazar's appearance on radio at the time of the Soviet military action as follows: "On January 20, Mirza Khazar with his God-given divine voice, gave hope to the dying Azerbaijani people."[28]


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

The Memorial Society and Helsinki Watch reported in May 1991 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.[29] This includes the usage of armoured vehicles, bayonets and firing on clearly marked ambulances.[29]

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.

The Wall Street Journal editorial of January 4, 1995 claimed that Gorbachev chose to use violence against "independence-seeking Azerbaijan." When a year later the world press criticized Gorbachev for violent massacres of civilians in Lithuania and Latvia, Azerbaijani public was embittered for the silence of the world media on Gorbachev's orders a year earlier, during Black January.[30]


On October 18, 1991, the Azerbaijan parliament restored the country's independence. On February 14, 1992, the Azerbaijani General Prosecutor's Office instituted a lawsuit targeted at the individuals involved in the massacre.[31] In March 2003, the same lawsuit was targeted at the ex-Soviet president Gorbachev for violating the article 119 of the Soviet Constitution and article 71 of the Constitution of the Azerbaijani SSR. Gorbachev later apologised to Azerbaijan in 1995 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).

January 20 is marked as Martyrs' Day (or literally, "the Day of the Nationwide Sorrow") in Azerbaijan.[32][33]


In January 2010, a Memorial for the Black January victims was erected in the Yasamal district of Baku. The monument was designed by Javanshir Dadashov and Azad Agayed, and architect Adalat Mammadov. The opening of the monument took place on 20 January 2010. The President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev and the head of the presidential administration Ramiz Mehdiyev, chief executive of Yasamal Ibrahim Mehdiyev and families of the victims of the tragedy attended the ceremony. The total area of the complex is 1,500 km ². The height of the monument and pedestal is 8m.. The memorial depicts a group of people who are determined not to miss armed troops into the city, some of them had already fallen.[34][35][36]

This event is commemorated as a public holiday on January 20 in Azerbaijan.

See also

Notes and references

  1. Kushen, Neier, p. 45
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 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.
  3. 1 2 3 Michael P., Croissant (1998). The Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict: causes and implications. United States of America: Praeger Publishers. pp. 36, 37. ISBN 0-275-96241-5.
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 Human Rights Watch. “Playing the "Communal Card": Communal Violence and Human Rights”
  5. On My Country and the World, Mikhail Gorbachev
  6. Anita Inder, Singh (2001). Democracy, ethnic diversity, and security in post-communist Europe. Berlin: Praeger Publishers. p. 61. ISBN 0-275-97258-5.
  7. 1 2 3 Thomas, De Waal (2003). Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through peace and war. New York and London: New York University Press. pp. 90–93. ISBN 0-275-97258-5.
  8. Указ Пресидиума Верховного Совета СССР ′О введении чрезвычайного положения в городе Баку′ Archived May 24, 2013, at the Wayback Machine.
  10. On My Country and the World, By Mikhail Gorbachev
  11. "Report of "Shield" union". Moscow: Moscow News. August 12, 1990.
  12. Zverev, Alexei. "Этнические конфликты на Кавказе, 1988—1994 г." [Ethnic conflicts in Caucasus, 1988-1994]. Retrieved 25 March 2010.
  13. Washington Post, January 27, 1990, Michael Dobbs
  14. Remembrance and denial: the case of the Armenian genocide By Richard G. Hovannisian
  15. Nationalist mobilisation and the collapse of the Soviet State By Mark R. Beissinger
  16. 20 January
  17. Elchin Khalilov (2001-08-15). "Eyewitness: A republic loses faith". BBC News. Retrieved 2010-01-20.
  18. Reza; Blair, Betty (Spring 1998). "Black January: Baku (1990). Behind the Scenes - A Photojournalist's Perspective". Azerbaijan International. pp. 33–37. Retrieved 2010-01-20.
  19. 1 2 Shamkhal Abilov (2010-01-09). "20 January 1990: Black Face of the Red Terror in Azerbaijan". Turkish Weekly. Retrieved 2010-01-20.
  20. "Azerbaijan commemorates the anniversary of 20th January tragedy". 2010-01-20. Retrieved 2010-01-20.
  21. Austin American Statesman Jan 16, 1990
  22. San Francisco Chronicle. Jan 27, A.11
  23. 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.
  24. Svante Cornell (1999). "The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict" (PDF). Department of East European Studies. 46. Uppsala University. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2013-04-18. Retrieved 2010-03-05.
  25. Steven E., Lobell; Phillip, Mauceri (2004). Ethnic conflict and international politics: explaining diffusion and escalation. The United States: Palgrave MacMillan. p. 58. ISBN 1-4039-6355-X.
  26. "Black January 1990". Azerbaijan International. Retrieved 2009-02-26.
  27. Soviet Officials Charge Voice of America, Radio Liberty Fueled Riots
  28. Article on Mirza Khazar
  29. 1 2 Robert Kushen, Aryeh Neier (May 1991). Conflict in the Soviet Union: Black January in Azerbaidzhan. Human Rights Watch. p. 3. ISBN 978-1-56432-027-8.
  30. Audrey L., Altstadt (1992). The Azerbaijani Turks: power and identity under Russian rule. Stanford, California: Stanford University. Hoover Institution Press Publication. p. 224. ISBN 0-8179-9182-4.
  31. "For 25 years the general Prosecutor Office looks for the perpetrators of January 20". Retrieved 22 February 2016.
  32. President of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan. Bloody Memories Archived October 5, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.
  33. Esslemont, Tom (20 January 2010). "BBC News - Azerbaijan remembers Martyrs' Day". BBC Online. Retrieved 20 January 2012.
  34. В Баку открыт памятник «20 Января» // Azadlıq Radiosu. — 20 January 2010.
  35. Керимли, Дж. Алекперов. В Баку открыт Мемориальный комплекс «20 Января» // Salamnews. — 20 January 2010.
  36. Şəhidlərin xatirəsinə ucaldılmış memorial abidə kompleksi açıldı // Media forum. — 20 января 2010.
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