Azerbaijan's Story of Independence

Bakus Flame towers with the Azerbaijan flag
Baku's Flame towers with the Azerbaijan flag | © Kisov Boris/Shutterstock
Sam Bedford

Azerbaijan declared independence twice in the 20th-century from the Russian Empire in 1918 and again in 1991 from the Soviet Union. Here’s a breakdown of the events including the successes and tragedies leading to the formation of the Republic of Azerbaijan.

The Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan

The Russian Empire fell after the 1917 Russian Revolution. Azerbaijan briefly became part of the Transcaucasian Republic along with both Georgia and Armenia. The declaration of the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan on May 28 1918 made Azerbaijan the first secular and democratic Islamic nation in the world.

For the modern-day visitor to Baku, the story of Azerbaijan’s independence is essential. For a start, Baku’s central transport hub boasts the name 28 May. Any visitor travelling to Azerbaijan will most likely encounter the date commemorating Azerbaijan’s independence in hotels, bars and shops. Republic Day on May 28 celebrates the formation of the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan. But, this was short lived lasting just 23 months.

One of the iconic buildings near 28 May station in Baku

Azerbaijan’s independence was lost on May 28 1920 as it became part of the Soviet Union for 71 years. Life was harsh. Largescale industrialisation and natural resource exploitation followed. The elegant styles of architecture and former mansions of the Russian elite gave way to bland and monotonous Stalinesque residential blocks.

The Soviets began to lose their tight grip on different republics throughout Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Caucasus in the 1980s. As the Azeris fought again for Azerbaijan independence, the nation experienced its most important and tragic event: Black January.

On January 19 and 20 1990 Soviet troops invaded Baku and started to shoot peaceful protestors. Accounts recall the army crushing cars with their tanks, firing at anyone they saw and bayonetting the wounded. According to official figures, 131 people died though the real number may be closer to 300. A memorial commemorates the victims in Martyrs Lane (also called Martyrs Alley) near Baku’s Eternal Flame.

A memorial for those killed by the Soviet army in Black January

Azerbaijan Independence

After seven decades of oppressive Soviet rule, Azerbaijan independence was restored following a parliamentary vote on August 30 1991. The Land of Fire once again was free from external powers and remains so to the present day. Azerbaijan’s economy boomed in what they called the ‘Contract of the Century’. The natural resources transformed the capital, Baku, into a modern 21st-century capital city.

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