March 31, 1918 was a dark night in the oil hub Baku, Azerbaijan.
For but a few, the forgotten history
After the 1917 October Revolution, also called Bolshevik Revolution, in Russia, the idea of losing the oil-rich Baku would have been catastrophic for Russia. In fact, at the beginning of the 20th century, Baku was accountable for 50% of the global oil production and 95% in the Russian Empire.
Vladimir Lenin, the Bolsheviks’ leader, once famously said that Soviet Russia would not survive without Baku oil.
In order to achieve full control of Baku and its oil, Bolsheviks, led by Armenian Stepan Shahumyan, and Armenian Dashnaks (members of the radical Armenian nationalist and socialist party ‘Armenian Revolutionary Federation’ [ARF], which is also known as Dashnaktsutyun, in a short form, Dashnaks) created an alliance against Baku’s Azerbaijani Muslim population, who were opposed to Azerbaijan’s subjugation by the Bolsheviks and Dashnaks.
The last days of March 1918 turned out to be some of the most tragic for the people of Azerbaijan who became subjected to unprecedented brutality. These events, known as ‘March Genocide’ opened a dark page in the history of Azerbaijan. Armenian Dashnaks, supported by the Bolsheviks, committed pogroms all across Azerbaijan, targeting thousands of Azerbaijani Muslim civilians, as well as many members of the ancient Mountain Jewish community in the Quba region.
The events that led to the massacre and how Bolshevik leaders sought to play down its significance
Azerbaijan is gifted with black gold, fossil fuel, oil.
There are instances when black oil in the ground and fossil fuel in abundance could become your worst enemy not your blessing. This has been proven when Baku was an oil hub that attracted many different nationalities.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries the oil industry in Baku developed rapidly, and attracted Armenian migration to the city. The Armenians, as obedient subjects of the Russian Empire, were used by the Russians as a tool in their Eastern expansionism policy. The Armenians were able to gain privileges from the Russian government and in the early 20th century, the numbers of Armenian entrepreneurs and workers increased considerably and they became active in Baku´s emerging revolutionary and socialist movements.
Stepan Shahumyan, the Lenin appointee commissar to the Transcaucasia, was a Baku Armenian-Dashnak masquerading as a Bolshevik. After the collapse of the Russian Empire, he seized absolute power in Baku, known to be an international proletarian city. Shahumyan used his position to take advantage of Armenian officers and soldiers fighting amongst the Russian troops, who were returning from the front to Azerbaijan, using them as a tool in his anti-Azerbaijani campaign.
On March 30, 1918, Haik Ter-Mikaelyan, a former Baku officer, declared on behalf of the Armenian Council and the Dashnaktsutyun Party that if the Azerbaijanis were to oppose the Bolsheviks, the Armenians would help to oust them from Baku.
On March 31, while the Azerbaijanis were still asleep, the Armenians attacked them. Caught by surprise, the Azerbaijanis could not understand what was going on being attacked by Armenian soldiers. With Armenian incitement claiming that Azerbaijanis were slaughtering Russians in the city, Russian war ships, docked in the Baku Caspian Sea Bay, started to shell the Azerbaijani-populated part of Baku only to stop when the Russian sailors found out that the Azerbaijanis had not touched one Russian.
Over 4000 well-trained and well-armed Armenian soldiers attacked Azerbaijani houses in Baku’s Azerbaijani-populated areas, killing the inhabitants, stabbing and bayoneting them, including children, burning their houses and throwing the children into the fire. Eyewitnesses said that Armenians beat women with sticks, cut off their hair and drove them out into the streets unveiled and barefoot. In the report issued by the commission established to investigate the massacre, it stated that it was difficult to identify the number of murdered Azerbaijanis, because the Armenians killed entire families in most of the houses and there was nobody left to give the names of the dead.
On April 13, 1918, in a letter to the Soviet of Peoples’ Commissars in Moscow, Stepan Shahumyan attempted to justify the Armenians’ March attacks on the Azerbaijani population. He claimed that the attacks were the result of the Armenians’ loyalty to the Soviet government and not of their national prejudice. But the truth is that Shaumyan concealed his Armenian nationalist Dashnak nature in the cloak of Bolshevism, describing the slaughter of Azerbaijanis as a struggle for Soviet government.
The atrocities against Azerbaijani residents of Baku, within just a few days of March 1918, were a horrific genocide. Over 12,000 Azerbaijani Muslims, many of them women and children were victims. One in five Azerbaijanis living then in Baku at that time was murdered by Armenian Dashnaks, with Bolsheviks’ assistance, while the unarmed Azerbaijani civilian population of Baku had no chance to defend itself against the heavily armed 10,000-strong Dashnak-Bolshevik forces.
That was an act of genocide that is barely remembered.
In an investigation by the first Republic of Azerbaijan of 1918-1920, it was revealed that many Jews living in Baku did whatever they could to save Azerbaijani Muslims from this slaughter.
The ‘March Genocide’ tragic events in Baku did not stay in Baku
During 1918 there were also mass killings of Mountain Jews in Azerbaijan’s Quba region, some 200 km distance north of Baku, committed by Bolshevik-led Armenians.
According to witnesses and some documents, together with Azerbaijanis more than 3000 Jews were killed on 19th Iyar, 5679.
What was the reason for this massacre of Mountain Jews by Armenians?
The Quba Jews were slaughtered by the Armenians because they rejected a proposal to join the Dashnaks’ brigade and go against the Muslim population. More so, they tried preventing bloodshed. The Jewish envoy was brutally murdered and the mass killings began.
Just as the mass killings of Jews were committed during the Holocaust in Babiy Yar, it was committed in Quba.
A mass grave unearthed confirms the brutal truth
In 2007, workers building a stadium in Quba near the Jewish Red Town, which is one of the largest all-Jewish towns outside Israel, unearthed a mass grave. This mass grave of bones and skulls is of thousands of Jews and Muslims who had died together in 1918 for no greater crime than their peacefulness, loyalty, and love for freedom.
Let us hope that the horrific ‘March Genocide’ teaches the international community that ethnicity and religion are no obstacle to harmony of coexistence.
Let us hope that with Azerbaijan being a world leader in ethnic and religious coexistence, the future and the Jews of Azerbaijan will be trouble-free.
It is astonishing that Armenia that claims the genocide of 1.5 million of its population in 1915 in the Ottoman Empire has totally set aside and deliberately denies its hands in the 1918 ‘March Genocide’ Armenians perpetrated in Azerbaijan.