Slogans from the Karabakh Movement: "Artsakh is an inseparable part of Armenia," "We believe in you comrade Gorbachev." Also, Soviet slogans: "The will of nations and nationalities," "There is strength in unity."

Who is to Blame: Did the Soviet System Help Prevent the Conflict?

Today, three decades after the events that marked the beginning of the Karabakh conflict, people are still arguing about its causes. Probably the most common view is what can be described as the “historical enmity” theory. According to this view, the conflict that started in 1988 is a continuation of the “historical enmity” of Armenians and Azerbaijanis, which goes back at least to the beginning of the 20th century, or even further. According to this narrative the Soviet years were simply a break in this never-ending story of violence between the two peoples. The Soviets, in this view “froze” the conflict, and when the USSR started to disintegrate, the conflict simply “unfroze.” Thus, the Soviet years appear to be a benign break from the unending strife of two “savage” peoples.  

Obviously, the “historical enmity” perspective is not completely unfounded: there were at least two major instances of Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict that predated the Soviet period: the clashes of 1905-1906 and the events of 1918-1920. It is impossible to ignore the role that memories of these events played in the unfolding of the modern conflict. Indeed, the arrival of the Bolsheviks brought an end to fierce conflict in the 1920s, and throughout most of the Soviet period the region remained peaceful. However, the “historical enmity” view is overly simplistic, as it ignores the complexity of the process that led to the eruption of the conflict in 1988. In fact, while “Sovietization” did put an end to the conflict in 1920, it did not remove the social and political preconditions for violent ethnic conflict. Moreover, the process of ethno-national consolidation in both Armenia and Azerbaijan, which led to the explosion of 1988, developed under the direct influence of Soviet policies and practices. So, the role that the Soviet system played is not black and white.

The most obvious contribution of the Soviets to the development of the conflict was the territorial and political arrangements that were set up in the early 1920s. A lot has been written about how the imposed solution to the conflict brought about by the Bolsheviks in the early 1920s planted the seeds of the future conflict. In hindsight, the creation of an autonomous unit with an ethnic Armenian majority within the borders of Azerbaijan seems to have been a time-bomb, planted by Moscow. It is a common view among some Armenians and Azerbaijanis, as well as some Westerners, that Bolsheviks created this time-bomb intentionally, and this was a twisted cynical move in the spirit of a “divide and rule” principle, employed by all empires. Obviously, the sides differ in their assessment as to where exactly the injustice lay: Armenians believe the region should have been a part of Armenia, while Azerbaijanis believe it should not have received the status of autonomy. In my personal view, this setup was not so much a result of a deliberate evil plan carried out by the Bolsheviks, but rather a clumsy compromise, determined by the political calculations the Bolsheviks had at the time. They had to please their Turkish Kemalist allies, and Azerbaijan was strategically more important due to its oil reserves, while at the same time they did not want to alienate Armenians completely. But whatever the calculations that the Bolshevik Party leaders had in mind in the early 1920s, it ultimately ended up creating a time-bomb that detonated decades later. 

In spite of the explicitly anti-nationalist nature of official Communist ideology and brutal suppression of explicit nationalist movements, the Soviet regime paradoxically provided fertile ground for ethnically defined nation-building processes in Soviet republics, which could ultimately lead to ethnic conflict. 

However, it would still be simplistic to explain the emergence of the conflict in 1988 simply by the way the Soviets treated the problem in the early 1920s. After all, Armenians and Azerbaijanis lived as citizens of the same state for 70 years, and by the end of the 1980s the events of the early 1920s were ancient history. And yet the conflict between Armenians and Azerbaijanis did not wither away, and by the end of the 1980s led to an explosion that rocked the whole region. In order to understand why in 1988 the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict erupted with such intensity one needs to look at how the Soviet Union tried to solve the problem of inter-ethnic relations, i.e. the Soviet “nationalities policy.” In fact, in spite of the explicitly anti-nationalist nature of official Communist ideology and brutal suppression of explicit nationalist movements, the Soviet regime paradoxically provided fertile ground for ethnically defined nation-building processes in Soviet republics, which could ultimately lead to ethnic conflict. 


Nation-Building Without Nationalists: The Paradoxes of Soviet Nationalities Policies

When it came to issues of nationalism and national identities, the policies of the Soviet government were equivocal, if not schizophrenic. Though open manifestations of nationalism were strictly prohibited in the USSR, the Soviet system offered the ethnocratic elites in the Soviet Republics tools of nation-building on ethnic terms. On the one hand, virtually all Soviet governments, from Lenin to Brezhnev and Andropov, persecuted nationalist movements. Even loyal members of the Communist Party who were accused of harboring nationalist views could end up in a GULAG, not to mention members of pre-Soviet “bourgeois nationalist” parties (e.g. Dashnaktsutyun) or underground nationalist groups. But at the same time, in practice the Soviet Union in many ways promoted nationalism in the wider meaning of the term, as defined by Ernest Gellner, probably the most famous scholar of nationalism, “a political principle, which holds that the political and national unit should be congruent.”


Not only was the ethno-territorial structure of the Soviet Union based on institutionalized nationhood, so were too it’s civic and cultural practices. It is enough to remember Soviet passports, which included “nationality,” understood in ethnic terms (it was removed from passports when Armenia became independent, but for some reason the Armenian government has recently reintroduced this category into the internal ID cards). Soviet republics, though strictly subjected to Moscow, not only had the symbolic attributes of a nation-state, such as a flag and an anthem, but also commanded a system of education and a state apparatus that operated in the national language (though the level of use of national languages differed from one case to another). Even the way cultural and academic life functioned in the Soviet Union was based on the principle of distinct ethno-national cultures based on distinct national territories: each Soviet republic had its academy of sciences as well as cultural organizations, such as the Unions of Writers, Composers, Painters, etc.

When the Armenian-Azerbaijani “war of memory” began it focused on antiquity and the Middle Ages. Though it may seem odd to an outsider that discussions concerning ancient history had so much political significance, it was perfectly natural within the logic of the Soviet system.

The ethno-federal structure of the Soviet Union was based on the idea that each territorial unit had a “titular nationality,” i.e. an ethnic group, which constituted a majority within that unit and gave it its title (in this sense, both Nakhijevan and Nagorno-Karabakh were exceptions to the rule, though not the only ones in the USSR). In practice the status of “titular nationality” meant ownership, it meant that the members of the “titular” ethnic group were entitled to hold power within the given territorial unit. Using this position, representatives of the “titular” group engaged in ethnic nation-building practices in “their” Soviet republics, often at the expense of the “non-titular” minorities. When the minorities had “their own” autonomous units, they were more likely to resist the pressure of the “titular” group, so it made the conflict more likely. And in the case of Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenians could also rely on the support of their ethnic kin from Armenia. Add the historical memories of ethnic strife, and it seems that conflict was inevitable. 

“Memory War” and Signs of the Coming Storm

Long before the first rallies and clashes, there were several signs of the coming storm. One of these came in the form of what Russian researcher Viktor Shnirelman called “war of memory,” waged not by soldiers, but by history professors and school teachers. Open political dispute over the fate of a certain territory or ethnic group was unimaginable in the Soviet Union, so, the dispute moved into the sphere of historiography. While open articulation of nationalist political claims was unimaginable, political discussions were replaced by academic or “pseudo-academic” debates that had far-reaching political implications. While the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh often came up in internal discussions, as was the case with numerous letters to the authorities in Moscow that raised the question of transferring the region to Armenia, it was virtually impossible to discuss this issue within the public realm. The Communist Party bosses continued to use the language of “friendship of peoples” and the issue remained a taboo for any kind of public discussions. Yet, historians were already involved in the fight over the question “who did Karabakh belong to?” Events of the 20th century were closed for discussion, particularly the Armenian-Azerbaijani ethnic clashes of 1905-1907 and the events of 1918-1920. Hence, when the Armenian-Azerbaijani “war of memory” began it focused on antiquity and the Middle Ages. Though it may seem odd to an outsider that discussions concerning ancient history had so much political significance, it was perfectly natural within the logic of the Soviet system. 

The main battlefield was the semi-mythical historical land of “Caucasian Albania.” Most of the territory of the modern Republic of Azerbaijan was known in antiquity and the early Middle Ages as “Albania” (Aghvank in Armenian). There is little known about this mysterious kingdom and its people. The scholarly consensus about Caucasian Albanians is that there never was a homogenous “Albanian” people in an ethnic sense, but the population of the kingdom of Caucasian Albania consisted of various ethnic groups, probably related to the contemporary peoples of the North Caucasus. However, starting from the 1960s Azerbaijani scholars sought to justify the status of the Armenian-inhabited Karabakh within Azerbaijan by claims that Karabakh had always been a part of Caucasian Albania, and its population had been "Albanian." It goes without saying that within this narrative “Albanians” were presented as the ancestors of modern Azerbaijanis, so Armenians who lived on the territory of the Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic were nothing but "Armenianized Albanians." 

Today, with the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to see that these debates were one of the symptoms of the serious contradictions that were developing beneath the facade of “socialist internationalism.”  

The most well-known champion of this theory was one of the most influential Azerbaijani historians of the time Ziya Buniyatov. In 1965 he published a book in Russian called "Azerbaijan in the 7th - 9th Centuries," in which he proposed his vision of the historical origins of the Azerbaijanis, as descendants of Albanians. Albania, in Buniyatov's view, stretched from Lake Sevan to the Caspian Sea, i.e. it included not only Nagorno-Karabakh, but also a portion of Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic. The population of the kingdom, according to Buniyatov, constituted a homogeneous ethnic group - "the Albanian people" [albanskaya narodnost], whom he considered direct ancestors of today's Azerbaijanis. In his view, although in the course of history they had changed their language from Albanian to Turkic, their religion from Christianity to Islam, and even their name, yet the Albanians and the Azerbaijani were essentially the same people, obviously understood in strictly ethnic terms.


The most politically explosive part of Buniyatov's theory concerned relations between Armenians and "Albanians." According to him, Christian Albanians throughout history were subjected to the assimilatory pressure of Armenians, led by the Armenian priesthood, and under this pressure they lost their original “Albanian” tongue and adopted the Armenian language. Moreover, Buniyatov claimed, Armenian priests with the support of the Arabs, who then dominated the region, translated into Armenian and then destroyed all "Albanian" literary texts. This is how Buniyatov dealt with the fact that today there are virtually no known examples of Albanian literature (the famous “History of Aghvank” by Movses Kaghankatvatsi, which Buniyatov considered “Albanian” was written in Armenian). Effectively, the implication of Buniyatov’s theories was that Armenians living on the territory of Soviet Azerbaijan, including Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh, were not in fact “real” Armenians, but the descendants of Caucasian Albanians, i.e. they are closer to Azerbaijanis than Armenians.


The reaction of Armenian historians was fierce. They argued that Buniyatov’s theory was not supported by any historical evidence, particularly his claims concerning the borders of Caucasian Albania and history of Armenian-Albanian relations. Buniyatov was also criticized by American scholar Robert Hewsen, who also discovered that Buniyatov had plagiarized some of his work. However, Buniyatov and his followers continued developing their theories. Thus, Buniyatov’s ideas about “Caucasian Albanians” were further developed by another Azerbaijani historian, Farida Mamedova, whose doctoral dissertation, “Political History and Historical Geography of Caucasian Albania” was published in 1986. Mamedova reproduced Buniyatov’s theory about “forced assimilation” of Caucasian Albanians, and even took it further. For example, claiming that Albanian “identity” had been preserved among “Armenianized Albanians” of Artsakh till the 18-19th centuries, even though she admitted that their language was Armenian. The row that followed, with Armenian historians criticizing Mamedova and Azerbaijani historians supporting her, had been developing during the late 1980s, a time when conflict was no longer confined to the realm of “memory wars.”


Obviously, today these debates may seem a minor footnote in the history of the conflict. But at the time, these fierce debates were a sign that something was happening. Obviously, I am very far from claiming that disagreements about medieval history were among the primary causes of the conflict. But today, with the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to see that these debates were one of the symptoms of the serious contradictions that were developing beneath the facade of “socialist internationalism.”


We can see how the Soviet policy of promoting nation-building in individual republics, while repressing open manifestations of nationalism, did not help to solve these contradictions, but rather made the situation worse, radicalizing both sides and leaving little space for constructive discussion. Obviously, many questions remain. Was there a chance for the political leaders of the time to recognize the dangerous trends and deal with them before things got out of control? Could these contradictions have been dealt with before they exploded into violent conflict? Where was the point of no return after which there could be no compromise? Probably, we shall never know the answers to these questions. 

EVN Report wishes to thank the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) for their cooperation and support.  


1- Robert Hewson, Professor Emeritus at Rowan University, author of “Armenia: A Historical Atlas.”


by the same author 

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