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The Baku Commune

The story of the Baku Commune’s leaders, who pursued power democratically and nonviolently, belies many of the myths of the Russian Revolution.

Mosque of the Shirvanshahs' Palace in Baku, circa 1910. Sergeĭ Mikhaĭlovich Prokudin-Gorskiĭ, / Library of Congress

Most accounts of the Russian Revolution tell the story of one city — Petrograd, where the Romanov regime collapsed in February and the Bolsheviks came to power in October. As decisive as the workers, women, and soldiers were in the capital, people all over Russia launched their own revolutionary movements throughout this revolutionary year.

Fifteen hundred miles to the southeast, in Baku, ethnicity, religion, and class divided the population, altering the course of history and influencing the decisions revolutionary leaders made. There, in a metropolis built on oil, October would arrive late.

When it did, the Caucasian Lenin, Stepan Shahumian, tried to win power for the people democratically and nonviolently. The story of the Baku Commune he built provides an important perspective on the Russian Revolution and the subsequent civil war.

City of Oil

Oil made Baku the largest city in the South Caucasus, a cosmopolitan workers’ oasis surrounded by largely Muslim peasant villages. At the turn of the twentieth century, it was producing more oil than the whole of the United States. Despite miserable living and working conditions, needy migrants flocked to the oil fields to find work.

Baku became the center not only of imperial Russia’s industrial revolution but also a crucible of the labor movement. Indeed, the first collective bargaining agreement between workers and industry was signed there in 1904, and the city served as a refuge for Social Democrats, particularly Bolsheviks like Joseph Stalin, when their organizations were crushed in other, less hospitable cities.

Class distinctions in Baku matched ethnic differences. Foreign investors and engineers sat at the top of the social hierarchy alongside Armenian and Russian industrialists and Azerbaijani ship owners. Russian and Armenian workers held the more skilled positions, and the unskilled work force consisted of Muslims. As the most transient and vulnerable workers, they ended up with the dirtiest jobs.

The empire’s exploitative relationship to Caucasia was nowhere more evident than in Baku, where accumulating oil revenue trumped all other concerns. The propertied elite — that is, Armenians and Russians — handled city governance, and welfare for the lower classes was largely left to private charity. Political institutions had very few non-Christian representatives, and the regime frequently proclaimed martial law and states of emergency, undermining confidence in the local government or the rule of law.

Both ordinary people and the ruling classes wanted reform, but the tsar offered virtually no institutional avenues to effect change. The situation demanded extralegal organization, and revolutionary activists, few as they were in number, provided the available leadership and direction.

Social Democrats and Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs) often noted that Baku’s workers, divided by skills, pay rate, and ethnicity, cared more about wages than politics. Fortunately, the oil companies were unusually willing to grant concessions in order to hold on to their workforce, particularly their skilled hands.

By focusing on economic benefits, the general strike of December 1904 won an eight-to-nine-hour working day and significant improvements in wages and sick pay — a contract so good, it earned the nickname the Crude-oil Constitution.

After Tsar Nicholas II issued his “October Manifesto” in 1905, granting limited civil rights and an elected duma to his people, Baku formed a Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, one of many such councils that articulated working people’s demands at the end of that revolutionary year.

But workers continued to focus on their economic interests and eschewed politics. Shahumian lamented:

In general the workers here are a terribly mercantilistic group. They are thinking and talking about a new economic strike in order to snatch another greasy piece and increase “bonuses.”

Despite relentless police efforts, revolutionaries maintained an underground presence even after 1905, when the tsarist regime repressed the labor movement and forced many radicals either out of politics or into exile. Their work culminated in a forty-thousand-worker-strong strike in 1914, just as Russia’s war machine was gearing up.

These successes masked the tension that simmered just under the surface. The Russian- and Armenian-majority skilled workers joined unions and took in the Social Democrats’ message while Muslims only reluctantly engaged in protests or strikes.

Observers referred condescendingly to the “Tatars,” as they were called, as temnye (dark) or nesoznatel’nye (politically unconscious). Many Muslim workers remained tied to their villages and religious leaders. Though a small number of Muslim intellectuals preached socialism and nationalism, most Muslims in Caucasia had no interest in politics.

Baku’s ethnic and religious divisions reached a head in February 1905, when the tensions between Armenians and Muslims erupted into riots and interethnic killing. Muslims, alarmed by rumors that Armenians were taking up weapons, attacked first. The police and soldiers sat idle.

The Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaks), a nationalist party formed a decade earlier to defend Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, used its soldiers to protect the community. Social Democrats and liberals denounced the government’s inaction, accusing officials of promoting a pogrom. After the violence ended, hostilities continued to smolder, and, on the eve of World War I, people feared that another outbreak of violence was imminent.

Rising and Falling Support

Like most of Russia, Baku enjoyed a brief honeymoon period in February and March. The bourgeois Executive Committee of Public Organizations (IKOO) collaborated with the newly elected workers’ soviet and its chairman, the Bolshevik Shahumian. With the Russian army advancing through Ottoman Anatolia, unity on the home front seemed essential, but the previous social and ethnic hostilities continued to threaten the city’s peace.

As in Petrograd, so in Baku: two centers of government — the IKOO and the Baku Soviet — competed for influence among the population and for control of the city. The IKOO consisted of professionals — lawyers, civil servants, and liberal intellectuals — while revolutionaries from the Social Democrats (Bolsheviks and Mensheviks), SRs, and the Dashnaks led the Soviet. Russian workers and soldiers supported the Soviet alongside a segment of the Armenian community, but Muslims were generally excluded until the summer of 1917.

The IKOO’s liberals and professionals saw the Bolsheviks as the enemies of law and order, the harbingers of anarchy. The Baku Soviet’s SR majority supported the Petrograd Soviet’s moderate positions on the war and social peace: they called for unity of “all the vital forces of the nation” and a democratic peace without annexations or reparation.

Most Bolsheviks went along with these policies through the spring, but Shahumian had more radical ideas. He believed that February’s bourgeois-democratic revolution was “the prelude to the social revolution in Europe under whose influence it will gradually turn into a social revolution.”

Furthermore, Shahumian’s staunch antiwar position was an anathema to the soldiers in Baku. The Dashnaks, who feared that a retreat would endanger Ottoman Armenians and even lead to a Turkish invasion of Caucasia, rejected the Bolshevik line. In response, Russian soldiers who backed the SRs removed Shahumian as chairman of the Soviet in May.

However, as in the northern capitals and at the various fronts, the revolution in Baku moved leftward in the late spring and summer of 1917. Economic conditions worsened, and Alexander Kerensky’s ill-conceived June Offensive alienated soldiers.

In Petrograd, radical workers and sailors attempted to stage an insurrection in early July in hopes of forcing the Soviet to take power. Not only did they fail, but they also turned both the Baku and Petrograd Soviets briefly against the Bolsheviks, who seemed complicit in the abortive revolution.

Lenin went into hiding in Finland, and the newly minted Bolshevik Trotsky was arrested. Shahumian and his lieutenant, Alesha Japaridze, defended their comrades, but the events in the capital damaged the Bolsheviks, who now seemed like irresponsible adventurists.

This sentiment quickly reversed in August when the counterrevolutionary General Lavr Kornilov attempted a coup against the Petrograd Soviet. Meanwhile, hunger stalked Baku, particularly affecting poor Muslims. Workers organized a massive strike, and the oil barons reluctantly capitulated, though they dragged their feet when pressed to sign the contract.

The local Bolsheviks, riding the wave of discontent, called for a peaceful transfer of power to the soviets. While Lenin was desperately urging his comrades to seize power by force, Shahumian deftly managed to arrange new elections to the Baku Soviet, increasing Bolshevik representation. While his party did not win a majority, the soviet agreed to eliminate the IKOO and declare itself sovereign.

The SR-dominated Baku Soviet refused to back Lenin’s government. October had shown that the Bolsheviks were the leading, if not hegemonic, party in Baku, but many feared that an attempt to seize power would spark a civil and ethnic war.

The Soviet had not achieved undisputed power in the city. It still faced challenges from the city duma, and the moderate socialists called for a return to an all-class coalition government.

With no one group in charge of the city and the government disintegrating across the country, a sense of crisis descended on the city. Soldiers began voting with their feet, fleeing the Caucasian front and opening the way for an Ottoman invasion.

Power to the Soviet

National elections in the last months of 1917 demonstrated the growing power of ethnonational identification. The Georgian Mensheviks won overwhelmingly in the Georgian provinces, while the leading Muslim party, Musavat, and the Dashnaks won handily in and around Baku. The revolution in the South Caucasus was transforming from a class struggle into an ethnic and religious conflict.

With no Russian army standing between them and the Ottoman Empire, Baku’s Armenian, Georgian, and Muslim communities began forming their own military units. The Soviet belatedly founded its own multinational Red Guard.

Muslims disarmed deserting soldiers, and, in a singularly tragic confrontation at Shamkhor in January 1918, they killed a thousand Russians. This event proved that Muslims had the single most effective military force in the region, and their potential Ottoman allies began moving toward the prewar border. Despite Shahumian’s effort to stage a peaceful revolution, armed men would soon decide who ruled Baku.

Within the city, the Armenian forces and the Muslim units outmatched the Red Guards. The Soviet forces formed a tactical alliance with the Dashnaks against the Muslims, who appeared to many as a counterrevolutionary threat.

Shahumian now faced armed struggle on three sides: against the anti-Soviet forces within Baku; in Tiflis, where the Mensheviks had declared the South Caucasus independent of Bolshevik Russia; and in Elizavetpol, a primarily Muslim city where fighting was preventing food supplies from reaching Baku.

When a ship arrived at the end of March with the Muslim Savage Division aboard, the city exploded into war. The Soviet and Armenian forces fought the city’s Muslim population, and then the Red Guards turned their artillery on the Muslim quarter. What had begun as a Muslim-Soviet conflict metastasized into an indiscriminate anti-Muslim pogrom.

In the wake of the battle, Muslims fled the city, and Armenians protested that the Soviet had treated the Muslims with too much leniency. The Bolsheviks were appalled by these consequences, but they could exalt that the city was now in their hands. “Our influence, that of the Bolsheviks, was great before, but now we are the bosses of the situation in the full sense of the word,” Shahumian informed Moscow.

Though Soviet power depended on the armed Dashnaks, the Baku Bolsheviks formed a new government exclusively of its members and their Left SR supporters, excluding the Right SRs, Mensheviks, and Dashnaks. The Baku Commune, complete with its own Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarkom) and Commissariat of Foreign Affairs, was now in position to radically transform life in Baku.

The Baku Commune

The experiment lasted only ninety-seven days, from April to July 1918. The Bolsheviks envisioned the Soviet and its Sovnarkom as a combined executive and legislative body, following Marx’s vision of the Paris Commune of 1871.

The commune nationalized the oil industry, attempted to reform education and the judiciary — despite resistance from the professional classes — and believed they could govern the city without turning to state terror, even as they shut down oppositional newspapers.

In June, Shahumian launched an offensive to forestall an attack by Muslims from Elisavetpol. The city’s leadership discussed moving further toward Tiflis, but, when Baku’s forces approached the Kura River, Muslim, Georgian, and Ottoman fighters drove them back.

The city desperately sought allies to prevent an Ottoman takeover. Shahumian negotiated with Cossacks and the British, but Moscow forbade him from allowing General Dunsterville’s troops, stationed nearby, to enter the city.

Unable to increase the food supply, and with limited support among Baku workers and the peasants outside the city, the Bolsheviks’ base narrowed. On July 25, the Soviet voted 259 to 236 to invite in the British.

Shahumian declared: “You have not yet found England, but you have lost the central Russian government. You have not yet found England, but you have lost us.” His government resigned, a non-Bolshevik government was formed, and the British arrived.

In mid-September, with the Ottomans about to take the city, the leaders of the Baku Commune decided to leave, but their ship was diverted from safe harbor in Astrakhan to Krasnovodsk, where Turkmen SRs arrested the former commissars.

Twenty-six of the Baku revolutionaries, most of them Bolsheviks, were taken into the desert and executed. In 1920, their remains were exhumed, and they were reburied as Soviet martyrs in a central square in Baku. There they remained for the next seventy years, until the post-Soviet Azerbaijani government destroyed the monument to the Baku Commissars.

Revolutionary Defeat

The story of the Baku revolution belies several of the myths surrounding the events of 1917. The Baku Bolsheviks were not deracinated conspirators hungry for power but long-time socialist activists with deep roots in the city’s workers’ movement. They acted as democrats, seeking a nonviolent path to power, and, when they lost a crucial vote in the Soviet, they left their government posts peacefully. Though they only won control of the city thanks to the bloody March Days, the Baku Bolsheviks did not employ terror against their enemies while in power.

Ultimately, they could not overcome the working class’s ethnic and social divisions, solve the food crisis, or find the support to wage a successful campaign against their enemies.

Shahumian tried to end the counterrevolution throughout Caucasia while also transforming Baku. He refused to include the more moderate socialist parties in his government until they recognized the Soviet government in Moscow. His base was simply too narrow, and the commune fell once the Bolsheviks lost the workers whose demands they could not satisfy.

The fate of the twenty-six Baku commissars is ironic: moderate, democratic, and largely nonviolent, Shahumian, Japaridze, and the others fell victim to opponents in the civil war who were far more ruthless.

In sharp contrast, by late summer 1918, Russian Bolsheviks and their White opponents had already adopted the logic of war, abandoning the ideals of democratic governance and employing state terror to defeat their enemies. The hope that democratic and socialist Soviets would triumph died in that vicious struggle.

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About the Author

Ronald Suny is the William H. Sewell Jr. Distinguished University Professor of History at the University of Michigan, Emeritus Professor of Political Science and History at the University of Chicago, and Senior Researcher at the National Research University – Higher School of Economics in Saint Petersburg, Russia. He is the author of The Baku Commune, 1917-1918: Class and Nationality in the Russian Revolution (Princeton University Press, 1972), among many other works.