Azerbaijani multiculturalism during soviet period

Before examining the role of multiculturalism in Azerbaijan during Soviet period, I think that it is necessary to explain what multiculturalism means. The traditional definition of multiculturalism is the preservation of different cultures (where culture includes racial, religious, or cultural groups and is manifested in customary behaviours, cultural assumptions and values, patterns of thinking and communicative styles) or cultural identities within a unified society, as a state or nation.

Furthermore, multiculturalism was intended to create a more tolerant society, in which everyone, regardless of colour, creed or culture, felt at home.

We can distinguish between multiculturalism of the 1950s, called “live and let live multiculturalism”, which supposed that if people could keep the most important aspects of their culture, they would choose to integrate in their own way; the 1980s’ multiculturalism, called “soft multiculturalism”, which encourages tolerance and rights; and the more recent multiculturalism, so-called “hard”, based on the promotion of religious and ethnic identities.

In this framework we can collocate Azerbaijan, one of the states that is positioning itself as a promoter of multiculturalism, also because the composition of its population is characterized by ethnical and religious differences.

During the Soviet era, Azerbaijan already was a multicultural state, inhabited by different ethnic and religious groups, such as Talishs, Lezghins, Udins, Ingiloys, Krizes, Hilalugs, Budugs, Tats. Historically, these groups have no other native lands except Azerbaijan, for this reason they can be considered members of the Azerbaijani modern polyethnical nation. In Azerbaijan live also other groups, such as Russians, Germans, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Kurds, Jews, Greeks. Conversely, these second groups have their own native land, so they can be considered allochthonic ethnic minorities living in Azerbaijan.

    After 1920, Azerbaijan was invaded and conquered by Red Army and sovietised. Moreover, in 1922, Moscow applied pressure in order to create the Transcaucasian SFSR, which embraced Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. In the same year the republic became a member of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, together with Russian, Ukraine and Byelorussia. In this period the number of Russians living in the Azerbaijani territory quickly increased.

The presence of Kurds in Azerbaijan dates back to the 9th century, at the beginning of the 19th century they began to inhabit the regions of Karabakh and Zangezur. During the Soviet era there were about 41.000 Kurds living in Azerbaijani territory. They had a relatively good relation with the Azerbaijani majority, having a newspaper, schools where was possible to learn the Kurdish culture, even if only a small number of families made an effort to teach their mother tongue to the children. Kurds had their own region in the western part of Karabakh, the Red Kurdistan, until 1930, when it was abolished and Kurds were recognized as Azerbaijani. In the period of Stalin’s persecution the authorities deported the majority of the Kurdish population of Azerbaijan to Kazakhstan and some of them became victims of the purges in 1944. Over the years the number of Kurds in Azerbaijan is decreased. The census of 1926 shows that in Azerbaijan lived more than 41,000 Kurds (1,8% of the population), in 1939 6005 (0,2%), in 1959 only 1487. At the date of the last census were revealed in Azerbaijan 6,100 Kurds (0,07% of the actual population).

Also the Talysh groups were strongly suppressed during Soviet period. At the beginning of the Soviet period the situation was moderately good for the Talysh component, there were Talysh schools, was permitted to publish books in Talysh language, but, as in the case of Kurds, in the 1930s the Talysh identity was not recognized and they were classified as Azerbaijani. Analysing the census in 1926 and in 1939, we can notice that was present in Azerbaijan a numerous group of Talysh (77,000 in 1926 and 85,000 in 1939). In the 1960s and 1970s they were not recognized and the result of the census was that there were not Talysh in the Azerbaijani territory. Now Azerbaijan counts 112,000 Talysh.

During the Soviet era lived in Caucasus also German people, the so called Caucasus Germans. They migrated to north and south Caucasus in the XIX century, but starting from 1941 they were deported to Siberia and to remote regions of Kazakhstan during Stalin’s persecution. At the beginning, they were well-integrated in Azerbaijan, the Soviet government showed more tolerance and do not prevent the multiculturalism: for example, German was also one of the languages of instruction in some schools and in Azerbaijan lived about 23,000 Germans. But in the 1930s and during the second World War Moscow inverted the trends, impeding the diffusion of the German culture and changing all German-sounding names. According to the census in 1939 Germans constituted the 0,7% of the population, falling to the 0,01% in 1989.

Jewish people too faced problems because after sovietisation all Zionism-related activities were prohibited, Azerbaijan’s Jewish population significantly decreased between 1926 and 1939 and after the second World War resided in Azerbaijan about 41,000 Jews; between 1939 and 1989 this number rested more or less constant but after the fall of Communism, most of them moved to Israel looking for stabler conditions. Actually Azerbaijan counts about 9,000 Jews and their situation is certainly improved because of the tolerance between the different religions. In fact, although in Azerbaijan the majority of the population is Shia, the coexistence of many religions do not result in conflicts. President Aliyev declared in a conference:


The multinational, multiconfessional society is one of our assets. All nationalities see their religion respected. This contributes to the building of a civil society.”


Historically, Baku can be considered an international city. Sometimes it was described as having been the most international city, sometimes the most cosmopolitan one, sometimes of the whole Caucasus, sometimes of the whole USSR. An Azerbaijani citizen said in an interview:

When we talk about Baku in the 1970s, what can you say? […] We were quite free, and in a sense internationalism has something to do with this. […] There would be all different kinds of peoples. Someone would have just arrived from Daghestan; Armenians would sit there and remind you about why Ararat was theirs, and we would all laugh. The Russians would be there – you didn’t even think about who was who. Someone made rice this way, rather than that way. You wouldn’t even think that it was international; it was just the way it was. You know who came from what background, and there was a physical factor, some people looked a little different. Of course. But it didn’t lead to conflict. It just wasn’t in question.”

Reading this interview we can understand that Baku was, also in the past, an important place, where different cultures converged. On the other hand, one Soviet-era proverb said one doesn’t choose one’s parents or homeland, it means also that is better to create a pleasant atmosphere with the neighbours rather than living in conflict with other components of the population.  
In the Soviet Union the concept of ‘international’ was differently interpreted from ‘cosmopolitan’. The idea of ‘international’ was linked to the Marxist-Leninist utopia based on a universally shared class-consciousness, instead ‘cosmopolitan’ made clear that not all forms of universality were desirable.  Marxism–Leninism might have urged proletarians of the world to unite and to shed the fetters of false consciousness that bound them to place, race, language, and religion. But Stalinist policy made it clear that not all ties that bind, especially the territorial ones, should be shed.


Considering the political troubles in the 1980s and the chaotic 1990s, we can understand the transformations that have taken place over the 30 years’ time. With rates of urbanisation everywhere in USSR, Baku has doubled in size since 1979, when its population was just over a million. Census shows the remarkably declining numbers of Russians, Ukrainians, and Armenians who once figured among the city’s elites, in particular decreased Armenians, whose numbers once reached half a million across the country before the battles with Azerbaijanis and who now officially account for only 1.5% of the federal population.
An other important demographic front is represented by influxes of Iranian second-home buyers, Chinese traders, Iraqi war refugees, a fleeing Afghan middle class, and Chechens, Lezgins, and Avars. On the other hand a sizeable Azeri diaspora is building: in fact, 1 million Azerbaijanis are not allowed to come back to their homeland.

Martina Mannocchi 


Participant of International Multiculturalism Winter School "Multiculturalism as a liestyle in Azerbaijan:Learn, Explore, Share"


Download File

If you want write comment, please login or register.