“Black January”

“Black January” (Azerbaijani: Qara Yanvar), also known as Black Saturday or the January Massacre, was a violent crackdown in Baku on 19–20 January 1990, pursuant to a state of emergency during the dissolution of the Soviet Union. General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party Mikhail Gorbachev and Defence Minister Dmitry Yazov asserted that military law was necessary to stop the violence against the Armenian population and to thwart efforts by the Azerbaijani independence movement to overthrow the Soviet Azerbaijani government. According to official estimates between 133 and 137 Azerbaijani civilians died, 800 people were injured and 5 persons went missing. However unofficial number put the number of victims at 300 dead. Later on, in 1995 Gorbachev apologised to Azerbaijan by stating: "The declaration of a state emergency in Baku was the biggest mistake of my political career."[citation needed]

In a resolution of 22 January 1990, the Supreme Soviet of Azerbaijan SSR declared that the decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR of 19 January, used to impose emergency rule in Baku and military deployment, constituted an act of aggression. Black January is seen as the rebirth of the Azerbaijan Republic.
In December 1989, Azerbaijanis living in regions bordering Iran ripped down border fences, demanding closer ties with ethnic Azerbaijanis living in Iran. The local authorities in Jalilabad surrendered to rioters, turning over administration to the Popular Front of Azerbaijan. This was followed by a non-violent turnover of the Lankaran administration to the Popular Front two weeks later. On 9 January 1990, the Supreme Soviet of the Armenian SSR voted to include Nagorno-Karabakh in its budget and allowed its inhabitants to vote in Armenian elections, thus disregarding Soviet authority and Azerbaijani jurisdiction and causing rage throughout Azerbaijan. This led to demonstrations which demanded the ousting of Azerbaijani communist officials and called for independence from the Soviet Union. Their rhetoric was, according to a Human Rights Watch report, "heavily anti-Armenian". On 12 January, the Popular Front organised a national defence committee with branches in factories and offices in Baku to mobilise people for battle with Armenians.

Maneuvers of the Soviet Army in Baku, 20 January 1990

On 15 January, the authorities declared states of emergency in other parts of Azerbaijan (but not in Baku). At the same time, fearing an intervention of the central Soviet authorities, Popular Front activists began a blockade of military barracks. They had already taken de facto control in a number of Azerbaijani regions. On 18 January, the Popular Front ordered supporters to barricade the main access routes into Baku using hundreds of cars, trucks and buses. The next day, Soviet authorities evacuated its representatives and local officials, moving them to military command posts in the outskirts of the city where Soviet Minister of Defence Dmitry Yazov and Interior Minister Vadim Bakatin were positioned. On 19 January, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR approved the decree signed by M. Gorbachev, introducing state of emergency in Baku and some other places in the Azerbaijani SSR. The decree stated: ″In connection with dramatic escalation of the situation in the city of Baku, attempts of criminal extremist forces to remove from power by organizing mass unrest legally acting state authorities and in the interests of the protection and security of citizens, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, guided by point 14 of the article 119 of the Constitution of the USSR, decrees: To declare since 20 January 1990 state of emergency in the city of Baku, by extending to its territory the effect of the Decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR from 15 January 1990.″
The independent Shield organisation which consists of a group of lawyers and officers in reserve, observed human rights violations in the army and its military operations,  concluded that the army waged a war on its civilians and demanded to start a criminal investigation against the Minister of Defence, Dmitry Yazov, who had personally led the operation. The Azerbaijani Interior Ministry officials helped Popular Front activists in stirring disorder by providing them with weapons, technical facilities, and informing them about the movement of army units. The troops attacked the protesters, firing into the crowds. The shooting continued for three days. They acted pursuant to a state of emergency, which continued for more than four months afterward, declared by the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, signed by President Mikhail Gorbachev. The state of emergency was, however, disclosed to the Azerbaijani public only several hours after the beginning of the offensive, when many citizens already lay dead or wounded in the streets, hospitals and morgues of Baku. Almost the whole population of Baku turned out to bury the dead on the third day, 22 January. For another 40 days, the country stayed away from work as a sign of mourning and mass protest.

Victims of Black January in Martyrs' Lane, Baku.

According to one report, 93 Azerbaijanis and 29 Soviet soldiers were killed in the street skirmishes. Other reports state that 21 soldiers were killed and 90 wounded in the fighting. However, how the soldiers died is still disputed. The soldiers' death toll was claimed by Soviet authorities to have resulted from armed resistance, although some of the soldiers could have been victims of friendly fire. Other estimates indicate that between 133 and 137 civilians died with unofficial number reaching 300. Up to 800 were injured and 5 went missing. An additional 26 people were killed in Neftchala and Lankaran regions of the country.

Azerbaijani stamp with photos of Black January

During the Black January crackdown, Soviet authorities managed to suppress all efforts to disseminate news from Azerbaijan to the local population and the international community. Instead, an energy supply source to Azerbaijani TV and State Radio was blown up by intelligence officers at 7:15 PM in order to cut off the population from any source of information. TV and radio was silent and all print media was banned.[20] But Mirza Khazar and his staff at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty succeeded in broadcasting daily reports from Baku, making it the only source of news to Azerbaijanis within and outside of the country for several days. The Kremlin leadership tried hard to keep the outside world and the population inside Azerbaijan unaware of the intervention, but Mirza Khazar and his staff foiled this attempt. Thanks to Mirza Khazar and his staff at Radio Liberty, Azerbaijanis in and outside Azerbaijan, as well as the international community, learned about the actions of the Soviet Army and was able to organise a protest. Shocked by this "surprising" development, the government of the USSR complained officially to the United States about Radio Liberty's coverage of the military's intervention in Azerbaijan. The 20 January 1990 broadcasts turned Mirza Khazar into a legend among Azerbaijanis in and outside Azerbaijan. Malahat Aghajanqizi, a well-known Azerbaijani poet and writer, described Mirza Khazar's appearance on radio at the time of the Soviet military action as follows: "On January 20, Mirza Khazar with his God-given divine voice, gave hope to the dying Azerbaijani people."


A special session of the Supreme Soviet of the Azerbaijan SSR was held on 22 January 1990 at the request of the public and by initiative of a group of MPs. It tried to initially assess the 20 January events and adopted some documents condemning the crackdown operation by Soviet army. The Memorial Society and Helsinki Watch reported in May 1991 that they had found compelling evidence that the imposition of the state of emergency had led to an unwarranted breach of civil liberties and that Soviet troops had used unjustified force resulting in many deaths. This includes the usage of armoured vehicles, bayonets and firing on clearly marked ambulances. The Human Rights Watch report entitled "Black January in Azerbaijan" states: "Indeed, the violence used by the Soviet Army on the night of January 19–20 was so out of proportion to the resistance offered by Azerbaijanis as to constitute an exercise in collective punishment. Since Soviet officials have stated publicly that the purpose of the intervention of Soviet troops was to prevent the ouster of the Communist-dominated government of the Republic of Azerbaijan by the nationalist-minded, noncommunist opposition, the punishment inflicted on Baku by Soviet soldiers may have been intended as a warning to nationalists, not only in Azerbaijan, but in the other Republics of the Soviet Union." "The subsequent events in the Baltic Republics – where, in a remarkable parallel to the events in Baku, alleged civil disorder was cited as justification for violent intervention by Soviet troops – further confirms that the Soviet Government has demonstrated that it will deal harshly with nationalist movements", continues the Human Rights Watch report. The Wall Street Journal editorial of 4 January 1995 claimed that Gorbachev chose to use violence against "independence-seeking Azerbaijan." When a year later the world press criticized Gorbachev for violent massacres of civilians in Lithuania and Latvia, Azerbaijani public was embittered for the silence of the world media on Gorbachev's orders a year earlier, during Black January.


On 18 October 1991, the Azerbaijan parliament restored the country's independence. On 14 February 1992, the Azerbaijani General Prosecutor's Office instituted a lawsuit targeted at the individuals involved in the massacre.[32] In March 2003, the same lawsuit was targeted at the ex-Soviet president Gorbachev for violating the article 119 of the Soviet Constitution and article 71 of the Constitution of the Azerbaijani SSR.