March Days: A Historical Overview of a Forgotten Tragedy
Azerbaijan's history is riddled with pages of tragedy. One of the worst is referred to as "March Days." Image: Wikimedia Commons
Between March 30 and April 2, 1918, over 12000 Azerbaijani and other Muslim civilians were slaughtered in the city of Baku, Azerbaijan. Their attackers were Bolsheviks and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutiun). The backdrop of tensions culminating in the widespread massacres took place through a power struggle between the two aforementioned parties against the early Musavat Party, the oldest existing political party of today’s Azerbaijan.
Founded in 1911 by prominent Azerbaijani statesman and scholar Mahammad Amin Rasulzade as a secret organization, Musavat would become a legal political party following the February Revolution in imperial Russia. The Musavat Party envisioned a functioning democratic republic that guaranteed the rights of Muslims within the Federative Transcaucasian Committee. Musavat would also later become the leading party of the briefly established Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (ADR) in May 1918.
However, late March of 1918 tells a very different story of betrayal and bloodshed. Through a false narrative of Muslim revolt spun by the Bolsheviks and the ARF as a pretext for domination, the short-lived “Baku Commune” was established that ultimately oversaw the murder of thousands of civilians in the area of the Baku Governorate alone. Azerbaijan’s history is riddled with pages of tragedy. March 31, declared a day of national remembrance and mourning by the late president Heydar Aliyev in 1998, was chosen to encompass the systemic and widespread mass killings,
The Transcaucasian Commissariat was staunchly opposed to Bolshevism and sought the gradual separation of Transcaucasia from the grips of Bolshevik Russia.
Following the October Revolution of 1917 in Russia, the Transcaucasian Commissariat (or Sejm) was founded in Tbilisi to bolster an Armenian-Azerbaijani-Georgian union republic. This was viewed as a significant threat to Bolshevik influence in the Caucasus. The Transcaucasian Commissariat was staunchly opposed to Bolshevism and sought the gradual separation of Transcaucasia from the grips of Bolshevik Russia. To prevent this reality, Bolshevik representatives and supporting party members of the Left Socialist-Revolutionaries (SR) proclaimed the Baku Soviet as a governing body overseeing the Baku Governorate, headed by ethnic-Armenian Bolshevik Stepan Shahumyan.
Shahumyan kept close contact with the Armenian Revolutionary Front and its co-founder Stepan Zorian. Under Shahumyan’s oversight, the Armenian Military Committee of Petrograd’s General Bagradouni sounded calls to all ethnic Armenian military personnel scattered throughout Russia to mobilize on the Caucasian front. By early March of 1918, an overwhelming number of armed Armenians had accompanied the already existing 200 trained officers under General Bagradouni and Stepan Zorian, co-founder of the ARF, in Baku.
Stepan Shahumyan was the leader of the Baku Soviet at the time of the massacre. Image: Wikipedia
Despite local Azerbaijanis in the area constituting the largest demographic group of natives to the city and owning most of the oil fields, it increasingly seemed that all leadership and military power rested in tandem between the Bolsheviks and Dashnak sympathizers. This prompted much worry and suspicion regarding the true intentions of Stepan Shahumyan, who conspired on the part of the Bolsheviks with the Dashnaks for securing dominant influence in Baku. Increasingly concerned about the emerging possibility of a Transcaucasian Federation, the Bolsheviks - via the hands of Stepan Shahumyan and the Dashnaks - sought to instill domination over the largest city of Transcaucasia by force.
By late evening on March 30, 1918, Baku streets were overwhelmed with conflict and bloodshed. Attempting to mediate the carnage, the Azerbaijani Bolshevik Organization, Hümmet, requested Shahumyan take over weapons from the Native Caucasian Cavalry Division to quell the violence, which was agreed to. However, upon arriving at the Baku Soviet to carry out the task, the Bolsheviks, in tandem with the ARF, had already instigated full hostilities, and the deal was not carried out. Later, Stepan Shahumyan openly admitted that the Bolsheviks and the ARF deliberately used the false pretext of a political war, supposedly launched by Musavat, to ensure a military response.
By late evening on March 30, 1918, Baku streets were overwhelmed with conflict and bloodshed.
“We needed to give a rebuff, and we exploited the opportunity of the first attempt at an armed assault on our cavalry unit and began an attack on the whole front. Due to the efforts of both the local Soviet and the Military-revolutionary committee of the Caucasus Army, we already had armed forces – about 6,000 strong. Dashnaktsutiun also had 3,000 – 4,000 strong national forces, which were at our disposal…” - Stepan Shahumyan
Following the initial skirmishes in the streets of Baku, the Dashnaks - under the oversight of Stepan Shahumyan - proceeded to initiate a full-scale coordinated and indiscriminate massacre of Muslim civilians in both Baku and the surrounding countryside. Witnesses claimed widespread looting and burning of private and public property, as well as merciless killings of civilian men, women and children in all Muslim residential quarters of Baku and surrounding settlements by Dashnak forces. Reports of mass killings of Muslim Azerbaijanis and Jews also emerged from the provinces of Shamakhi, Quba, Lankaran, Salyan, Irevan, Zangezur, Karabakh and Nakhchivan. Most accredited estimates put the number of casualties at around 12,000 killed, almost all Muslim Azerbaijanis, with no distinction between age, sex or status. Russian born American historian Firuz Kazemzadeh describes the weeks of indiscriminate killings:
“Enormous crowds roamed the streets, burning houses, killing every passer-by who was identified as an enemy, many innocent persons suffering death at the hands of both the Armenians and the Azerbaijanis. The struggle which had begun as a political contest between Musavat and the Soviet assumed the character of a gigantic race riot…” - Firuz Kazemzadeh
Witnesses claimed the killings of civilian men, women and children in Muslim residential quarters of Baku and surrounding settlements by Dashnak forces. Image: Wikimedia Commons
The Armenian perspective on the March 1918 events was later documented in a letter sent by Archbishop Bagrat of the Armenian Apostolic Church to General Harbord, the head of a US delegation known as the Harbord Commission, in the fall of 1919. The letter accused Azerbaijani Muslims of being the disciples of the Turks and the Germans, who were people who could not be trusted and thus served as an understandable motivation for the killings. Simultaneously, the letter also employs Shahumyan's admitted false ploy that Musavat was solely behind the escalations in Baku from late March to early April, reporting that only seven hundred Muslim Azerbaijanis were killed in the violence.
Following the massacres, Stepan Shahumyan proclaimed the intention of nationalizing Baku’s oil fields under the Baku Soviet and initiated the creation of the Red Army of Baku, consisting mainly of ethnic Armenian recruits. As a result, the Baku Soviet cemented itself as a product of Bolshevik-ARF collusion in the psyche of Azerbaijanis until this very day.
Soon after these events, “Nagorno Karabakh” was born - a newly created autonomous region gerrymandered to create an Armenian-majority territory within the Azerbaijan SSR. In 1923, the town of Khankendi was renamed ‘Stepanakert.’ The Soviet Government took the decision to honour Stepan Shahumyan for his devotion to cementing the Soviet cause, ignoring the atrocities he committed against the civilian Azerbaijani Muslim population. Considered a national hero in Armenia, three statues in his name were erected in Armenia’s capital city Yerevan: in the Kentron district (1931), on Mashtots Avenue (1957) and in the Malatia-Sebastia district (1970). His legacy remains widely uncondemned both in Armenia and abroad, as decade after decade passes after one of the bloodiest periods of inter-ethnic strife between Armenians and Azerbaijanis.
Akif Aliyev, an American-Azerbaijani graduate student based in The Hague, received his Bachelor of International Studies (with a specialization in Russia and Eurasia) from Leiden University. Akif’s research interests include geopolitics, the Karabakh conflict and future peace-building measures for Caucasus integration.