Part II – The Sumgait Account

Sumgait 1988. A typical Soviet town in Azerbaijan. Industrial. Diverse. Also the site of the most barbaric inter-ethnic pogrom in Soviet History. But how may both Armenians and Azerbaijanis come to terms with what happened in the days of 27 – 29 February 1988?

For a few months the issue of Karabakh’s future status had emerged in the Armenian consciousness. Rallies were held, speeches were given, committees were formed: a variety of different activities all pushing towards a joining of Karabakh to Soviet Armenia. This was done to repudiate the decision of Stalin in 1923 to award the land to Azerbaijan thereby appeasing the rising Turkish nationalism. But the political feud had also taken on a nationalistic character, one which would ultimately involve the normal working class citizens of both Armenia and Azerbaijan.

From the 12th February, there had been an increase in the demands of Armenian claims for Karabakh and an increase in the number of rallies raising awareness of these demands. A greater urgency was galvanised in the lead up to the vote by the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast to leave Azerbaijan on the 20th. In the meanwhile, many Azerbaijani villagers were being violently expelled from their native villages in southern Armenia, specifically the Kafan district. This, along with the growing importance of the “Karabakh question”, conjured an atmosphere of mistrust and racial tension throughout urban centres of both Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Baku was a city not immune to this. The large Armenian minority living in the port city began to feel the effects of the clash of nationalities, and backlashes against them. One example epitomises the threat Armenians felt: a ripped piece of paper from a school notebook was pushed through an Armenian letterbox with the writing “Pogosian supporters (the new Armenian leader of the Karabakh) get out of Baku while you are still alive.”

However, due to a combination of governmental action and police intervention, Baku remained relatively stable. The same could not be said for the industrial town of Sumgait. Unlike Baku, where city authorities (in fear of potential pogroms) organised people’s volunteer groups to keep watch of the Armenian quarters and restricted access to the city to stop the tensions escalating, Sumgait was left alone. These precautionary steps taken by Fuad Musayev (Baku’s local Communist Party head) were key in preventing any pogroms starting, but inadvertently spread the trouble away to Sumgait.

Sumgait was a typical Soviet town plagued by many problems: a large population of poorly housed and disgruntled working class citizens, high levels of pollution, an average age of 25 and a high proportion of criminals – with one in five inhabitants possessing a criminal record.

On February 26th there was a small demonstration of around 50 students and refugees at Lenin Square in Sumgait. Their complaints? Karabakh. Reports say speakers at the demonstration exclaimed that 100,000 Azerbaijanis were ready to rush into Karabagh and carry out a slaughter. This militant tone of voice only got stronger.

On the 27th, the demonstration had expanded to several hundred protesters with even more blood-curling stories of forced expulsion and violence directed at the Azerbaijani peoples by the Armenians. This fuelled the mood, especially as many of the protesters were made up of refugees from the Kafan regions that had faced expulsion themselves. But this also came with an increasing threatening tone directed towards the Armenians with slogans of “death to Armenians” and the shouting of the word Karabakh endlessly through the night. Threats were sung over the loudspeakers about breaking into Armenian houses, torching their apartments, raping their women, and killing their children.
The spark to ignite the flame of the already building ethnic tension was delivered by Alexander Katusev’s radio announcement of the death of two Azerbaijani teenagers in Agdam. This extra wound inflicted on the demonstrators ensured that the next day, they would come in the thousands. Ironically, Katusev failed to mention that one of the teenagers was killed by an Azerbaijani police officer, a mistake that had profound implications.

The next day began the violence. On the 28th February, again Lenin Square was filled with demonstrators, now in the thousands. Such hysteria emerged that party figures who tried to calm the crowd and dispel some of the more outlandish refugee stories were all heckled, serving to agitate the crowd further. Around 18:30, Sumgait’s first secretary, Jahangir Muslimzade, spoke to the crowd begging them to allow Armenians to leave the city freely, but requests fell on deaf ears. Then in a turn of events, Muslimzade was handed a Soviet Azerbaijani flag, and personally led the crowd down the main road. The crowds dispersed, and split off into small sized gangs in search of ways to vent their anger, specifically seeking out Armenians, many of whose names and addresses had been made publicly known at the rally.

The roaming gangs, ranging from sizes of a dozen to fifty each, were armed with makeshift weapons such as iron rods, hatches, knives, broken bottles, rocks, gas tanks and shared pieces of metal casing. Such improvised weapons clearly from factories implied that many involved had time to prepare weapons with the intention of violence at the forefront of their minds.

What happened next had never been experienced before in Soviet History.
Natevan Tagieve, upon setting her eyes on the crowd, noted “you look at their eyes and you see that they are absolutely switched off from everything, like zombies”. Gangs, whilst smashing windows and burning cars, were above all looking for Armenians to attack. In this atmosphere, they continued to commit acts of horror: houses were looted; apartments ransacked; bodies were mutilated by axes to the point of being unidentifiable; women were stripped naked, raped multiple times and set on fire.

Such violence was also able to be committed due to the important factor of police involvement, or rather, the lack of it. With telephone lines disconnected, electricity shut down, the Armenians and their apartments, shops and kiosks were at the mercy of the crowd. The ethnic aspect must not be overlooked: gangs would stop people on the street and make them say the word ‘hazelnut’ in Azeri (‘fundukh’), which the Armenians had a reputation for pronouncing with a ‘p’ sound instead of the ‘f’. This was often enough evidence for the gangs to begin their abuse. The Freudian idea of “narcissism of minor differences”, where opposing ethnicities need to find almost non-existent differences to be sure of their own national self-identity, caused the first violent fission of the ‘Soviet’ identity.
The 29th witnessed the arrival of the Soviet military which ordered a martial law and become the focus of a crowd led attack. Still on this day a family of five were murdered indicating the lack of effective demand by the Soviet troops.

Officially, 26-32 people (including six Azerbaijanis as a result of Armenian defence and the Soviet military) were killed in the few days, but unofficially, Armenian sources cite from 53 – 100 Armenian deaths. The events sent ripples throughout the Armenian population of Azerbaijan. Almost the entire Armenian population of Sumgait (14,000) fled to Russia and Armenia, and the Armenians of Baku and Kirovabad followed suit so that by 1991, 350,000 Armenians had fled Azerbaijan as refugees.

The most aggravating part of the pogrom for the Armenians in Armenia and the diaspora was the labelling of the pogrom as mere hooliganism, completely white-washing the ethnic paradigm. In order to control the situation, the Soviet Union suppressed all information about the events, and the lack of coverage by Soviet media highlighted the shortcomings of Gorbachev’s Glasnost. As a result, only 80 faced trial for the pogroms (far less than the actual amount of perpetrators) and only one, Akhmed Akhmedov, was sentenced to execution.

However, it must also be understood that Sumgait was a catastrophe through the lens of Azerbaijani eyes, an embarrassment and a pain that their minority citizens had been killed and scared into fleeing. Imagine comparing your nation’s murderous outburst to a political problem in contrast to the peaceful urban demonstrations of your neighbour. Such a confusing comparison turned many who were unable to believe something like this could happen towards conspiracy theories, and some cases, to extreme nationalism. Conspiracies included attempts to explain the events at Sumgait stating that the Armenians were killing themselves to make the Azerbaijani nation look bad.

The truth is needed for both sides. It is important also to note the humanity which existed in the situation. Ethnic neighbours who had lived side-by-side in peace for centuries undoubtedly showed humanity to their ethnically different counterparts. There are heart-warming stories of Azerbaijani families and individuals who protected their Armenian neighbours, from small actions like ensuring they left their home lights on (an undercover sign that one was Azerbaijani) to actually bringing families into houses and setting up people’s watches:


“Members of the local young Communist organization, the Komsomol, went out in small teams and ferried Armenians to the safety of the Palace of Culture in the central square. A Mrs. Ismailova was briefly made into a hero by the Soviet media for protecting several families in her apartment. The doctor’s wife, Natevan Tagieva, remarked, “We lived in a fourteen-story building with lots of Armenians in it. There were Armenians on the fourteenth floor and we hid them, none of them spent the night at home. In the hospital, people formed vigilante groups, every patient was guarded.”(de Waal, 2012, p. 36).


It is within this context that surprisingly, many more Armenians didn’t fall victim to the hate-filled gangs, especially when the police and military did very little.

With the centenary of the Armenian Genocide fast approaching, one can draw many parallels with the pogroms where those in charge of keeping order did nothing, citizens were purposefully sought out for their ethnicity and there existed a charged raped culture. Indeed, these links were propagated by the population of Armenia and the diaspora upon discovering the nature of the pogroms. Twin placards bearing the twin dates of 1915 and 1988 were disseminated. However, the link is a tenuous one as the Sumgait pogroms were not so much centrally planned on a governmental level. Some deep comparisons, rather than furthering the case of the victims of Sumgait, actually go some way in discrediting the application of the word genocide to the Armenian Genocide in 1915. The far-fetched links are exactly what the nationalists of Azerbaijan want, as they ultimately discredit the enormously greater tragedy suffered by the Ottoman Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians at the hands of the Young Turks.

Watch a Conspiracy based documentary here.
Watch an Armenian account of events here.

— Raphael Gregorian

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