From Royalty to Republics through the Eyes of Ahmet Agaoglu
Ahmet Agaoglu, well remembered in Azerbaijan and Turkiye, was instrumental in the founding of not one, but two republics. Pictured here with Şükrü Saracoğlu və Mahmud Əsəd Bozqurd. Image: Aydin Balayev/Wikimedia Commons
The wars and revolutions of the early twentieth century changed the Caspian region and its surroundings. Monarchic empires fell, and republics replaced them, perhaps most notably the Soviet Union, but also Turkey/Turkiye and the short-lived Azerbaijan Democratic Republic.
The life of Ahmet Agaoglu, a Turkish-Azerbaijani politician, educator and journalist, neatly overlays the collapse of the Russian and Ottoman Empires to the birth of the latter two.
Early Life in Shusha and Education
Ahmet was born in 1869 to an upper-class Muslim family in Shusha, Azerbaijan, then in the Russian Empire. Times were changing. Between the 1850s-80s, Russia tightened its grip in the Caucasus after a period of looser rule, depriving many Azerbaijanis of their government positions.
Armenians and Russians were encouraged to migrate to the region, creating greater competition for farmland and jobs. Christians then came to enjoy the lion’s share of official posts, to the disadvantage of their Muslim neighbours. By 1878 when Baku's local government assembly opened, Muslims, too, faced overt discrimination and were not allowed to take up more than half of the seats. It became difficult for Muslims to enter the civil service altogether.
But a Russian education also brought opportunities. With this in mind, Ahmet’s mother arranged for him to learn Russian, and he attended state schools in Shusha and Tbilisi. He was one of few Azerbaijanis in his classes, sometimes the only one. He continued his studies in St Petersburg before heading to Paris for university.
Revolution Reaches the Caucasus
Afterwards, Ahmet married Sitare Hanim, with whom he would have five children, moving to Baku to work as a teacher. He was also becoming politically active. By 1903 he had been elected into Baku’s local government and was working to alleviate the poor conditions of his fellow Azerbaijanis. He travelled the Caucasus, promoting education and helping to open schools.
However, these were tumultuous times. In 1905 came the first Russian Revolution with widespread unrest against Tsar Nicholas II. Workers, students, peasants and military personnel across the empire staged strikes, protests, riots and even mutinies to demand change. Under intense pressure, the Tsar agreed – at least initially – to a new parliament, a multi-party system and greater political freedoms, but these would not come without bloodshed. The Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin once called 1905 the “dress rehearsal” for the 1917 October Revolution that helped bring about the Soviet Union. These changes had significant implications for Azerbaijan too.
Agaoglu made use of the post-revolutionary window of political freedom. He started editing at Hayat (Life), Baku’s first Azerbaijani-language daily newspaper, which published its first issue in June, 1905. He advocated equal rights for Muslims in his articles. He supported the cause nationally as well, co-founding the Muslim Union party, which officially started the next year and campaigned across the empire.
Violence Breaks Out
But 1905 had cast a deep shadow in the Caucasus, with the region racked with widespread bouts of intercommunal violence that started spiralling out of control from February onward. As with other such tragedies, it’s hard to unpick exactly how things started. Some accounts claim that the trigger for the first riots in Baku was when an Azerbaijani died during a dispute with an Armenian. Whatever the reason, fighting between Armenians and Azerbaijanis quickly spread beyond Baku, leaving thousands dead.
Representatives from both sides attempted peace-making efforts - with Islamic and Christian religious leaders walking Baku’s streets together, calling for calm. Ahmet played a role by representing Azerbaijanis on a mixed committee that aimed to stabilize community relations in the city after a second outbreak of violence in May.
The Azerbaijani Delegation to Armenia for peace talks in 1906. Tbilisi. Image: Wikimedia Commons
But, with trust low, in the latter half of the year, he also secretly coordinated an illegal armed organization to respond to Armenian paramilitaries where necessary. Such groups fought each other and assassinated Russian officials they considered to be working “for the other side.” Unsurprisingly, a Tsarist crackdown followed, seizing fighters and sending them to internal exile.
Flight to Istanbul and the Birth of a Democratic Republic
Upon learning that he was liable to be caught and deported, Ahmet left pre-emptively for Istanbul in 1908. His wife and children stayed behind until he was settled, joining him sometime in 1910.
In Istanbul, Agaoglu worked as a school inspector and history lecturer, but he was well-connected and rapidly entered the Ottoman Parliament.
World War I changed things once again. In 1917, revolutions had returned to Russia. Tsar Nicholas abdicated, leaving the former empire engulfed by civil war. Amid the chaos, an unstable Transcaucasian Federation was established in April 1918 that briefly governed parts of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.
Internal tensions alongside hostilities with the Ottomans, whose armies were advancing eastwards, rapidly split up the federation. The Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (ADR) was declared on 28 May 1918, initially with Ganja as the capital since Baku remained for a while under Bolshevik control.
The Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (ADR) was declared on 28 May 1918, with Ganja as the capital, and this building as its administrative centre. Image: Wikimedia Commons
Days before the announcement, the Ottoman general Nuri Pasha had arrived in Ganja with an army of Ottoman and Caucasus Muslim troops to sure up the Azerbaijanis, hoping to use the burgeoning state as a buffer against Russia. Ahmet supported the army as an advisor.
In mid-September, this force eventually took control of Baku from a curious mixture of Armenian, Bolshevik-Russian and British defenders. After that, Baku became the ADR’s capital, but as World War I ended, the Ottoman forces had to withdraw.
British occupation followed, and Ahmet led a delegation on behalf of the ADR to negotiate terms with British forces based in northern Iran. Like the Ottomans, Britain also feared Russia and agreed to strategic concessions, including a British military presence, but left the ADR mostly free to govern. Agaoglu was elected to the Azerbaijani parliament.
With the ‘Great War’ finally over, the victorious nations (including Britain, France, Italy and America) convened the 1919 Paris Peace Conference to decide peace terms and redraw Europe and Eurasia's map. Naturally, the ADR hoped to gain recognition for itself and to underline its territorial claims, and in March, Agaoglu set off to represent Azerbaijan at the conference. However, he never arrived. En route, he was arrested by the British and detained in Malta, where he was held for over two years, accused of war crimes against Baku’s Armenian population during the 1918 campaign. However, specific charges were never brought against him, nor did a trial take place, and he was eventually released in April 1921 as part of a prisoner swap.
Ahmet’s Second Republic
By this time, the ADR had ceased to exist – having been absorbed by the Soviet Union after just 23 months of independence. So, rather than return to Baku, Ahmet travelled to Ankara. There, he would become an important figure in the Turkish National Movement which, led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, refused to accept the Paris Conference’s proposed carving up of the Ottoman Empire. While Atatürk led the fight for Turkish independence, Ahmet ran Hakimiyet-i Milliye (National Sovereignty), a newspaper that trumpeted the resistance’s message.
In 1922 the Turkish forces won their war and declared the Republic of Turkey/Turkiye. The Ottoman Sultanate was abolished, and the republic was internationally recognized by another treaty signed the following year in Lausanne, Switzerland. Ahmet’s political career continued in Turkiye. He became a member of the new Turkish parliament, appropriately representing Kars, a northeastern city with a Russian Imperial past and a significant Azerbaijani population. Kars city had notably been Agaoglu’s base of operations during the independence war.
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Mahmut Soydan, Ahmet Ağaoğlu, Yakup Kadri Karaosmanoğlu and Ziya Gevher Etili at the opening of the Hakimiyet-i Milliye newspaper's new building in Ankara.
Ahmet continued to be active in Turkish political life for years to come as a member of both government and opposition parties. He played a part in drafting Turkiye’s 1924 Constitution and sat on the parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee. After seeing out his parliamentary term, he moved back to Istanbul, where he worked as a law professor and continued his journalistic work. In 1933, he opened Akın (The Torrent), another newspaper, but it was shut down by the authorities the same year after incurring the government’s displeasure for its critical coverage. He lost his professorship in a purge but remained an active writer for the rest of his life.
By his death in 1939, Ahmet had entered three national parliaments, worked to found two states, and written fluently in five languages (French, Farsi, Russian, Azerbaijani and Turkish). Read about him in more detail here or with Holly Shissler’s 2002 book, Between Two Empires: Ahmet Agaoglu and the New Turkey.
 Azerbaijanis are believed to have first settled in Kars in the sixteenth-century when the city came under the rule of the Azerbaijani-Iranian Safavid dynasty. These communities also included long standing populations of Karapapakhs whose Oguz-Turkish language is closely related to Azerbaijani, and more recent Azerbaijani arrivals who had fled from the Russian Empire and Armenia.