The Obscure Events in Sumgait of February 1988

The Obscure Events in Sumgait of February 1988

One of the great myths of the first Karabakh war is that the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict started as a result of the tragic events that occurred in Sumgait (Sumqayit), Azerbaijan, in late February, 1988. This belief, which has become something of an article of faith was referred to fairly recently by Vladimir Putin when he said:

“It all started in the year of 1988, when ethnic clashes took place in the Azerbaijani city of Sumgait. Armenian civilians fell victim to these events, and later it spread to Nagorno-Karabakh. And since Soviet Union’s leaders did not react duly to these events… these are sensitive issues, and I do not want to side with anyone or decide who was right or wrong. It is no longer possible to determine this now, but it was necessary to put things in order and protect civilians, and this was not done. At that point, the Armenians themselves took up arms, and this protracted conflict, a conflict building for many years broke out. Eventually, it led to a declaration of independence, sovereignty and self-reliance by Karabakh in 1991.”

Misinformation has been perpetrated for years about the obscure events that took place in Sumgait in 1988. It is not only the Russian President who has the opinion that this was the start of the conflict over Karabakh but it is also routinely stated in the West.

War and Peace in the Caucasus by Vicken Cheterian is on the surface a soberly, academic account of the ethnic/national conflicts that have occurred in the post-Soviet space (Karabakh, Georgia, Chechnya) since the late 1980s. Cheterian devotes 15 pages of his book to what he calls Sumgait: the birth of the Karabakh conflict. In comparison, the Armenian massacre of Azerbaijanis at Khojaly in February 1992 is given just a few lines, although 30 times as many people died in this event. He gives 1 line to Gorbachev’s administrative massacre in Baku in January 1990 which claimed the lives of 5 times more than at Sumgait. Cheterian is, of course, a diaspora Armenia, but Western academia and media are all too willing to unquestionably accept the Armenian narrative as truth.

What happened in Sumgait was a serious incident in the escalation of inter-ethnic conflict between Azerbaijanis and Armenians. However, it was not the origin of this conflict, in its recent phase. That conflict came about as a consequence of the Armenian secessionist movement born out of Gorbachev’s bungled reform of the USSR in the late 1980s which encouraged a great destabilisation of political structures and consequent civil disorder that ultimately developed into war.

The Armenian narrative depends on presenting Sumgait as a kind of violence watershed. It is suggested that before Sumgait there was nothing but peaceful Armenian protests, requesting a just territorial change that involved returning a part of Armenia back to Armenia, but the Azerbaijanis brought violence into the conflict with what they did to Armenians at Sumgait.

Vicken Cheterian says something interesting in War and Peace in the Caucasus about Armenian attitudes to Azerbaijanis before Sumgait in relation to taking Karabakh from Azerbaijan:

“During the start of the movement the Armenian militants were making demands on Moscow, not Baku, for the rectification of a political error under Stalin – as they saw it at the time. The centre of power of the Soviet state was in Moscow, and any change had to come from there. They thought that once Moscow accepted the idea of change, there would be very little resistance from the Azerbaijani side… It took several months for the leaders of the Karabakh Movement to realise that Azerbaijan was an independent political factor. They started seeing Azerbaijan as an independent player in the Karabakh conflict from November 1988, after the emergence of a popular movement in Azerbaijan itself, well after the Sumgait pogroms.” (p.143)

This passage speaks volumes about Armenian nationalism and its false propagandist premises that caricature the Azerbaijanis. Armenian nationalism sees Azerbaijan as having little national will and of being of no political or social consequence at all. Azerbaijan was entirely the product of Stalin, went the belief, and the Soviets and it would meekly accept what Moscow dictated to it, giving up its territory without a struggle, since Russia was the alpha and omega of its existence.

That viewpoint, that still persists today within Armenian nationalism, has led it to indulge in serious provocations against its neighbour in the belief that a people lacking in national substance would never strike back even when its territory was being taken from it. It led to it taking advantage of Gorbachev’s misguided policy whilst ignoring its neighbour – a fellow Union republic with the same national rights as itself – as if it didn’t exist. Sumgayit was one consequence of this delusional attitude in Armenian nationalism and the catastrophic defeat of 2020 by Azerbaijan was its crowning glory.

Armenian nationalists have always thought they knew better than Stalin: Armenia was “eternal” but the Soviet State was not. But the Bolshevik Commissar for Nationalities knew a thing or two about nations and he was proved right by history in retaining Karabakh within Azerbaijan, which has proved to be the more substantial state in the long run, and better fitted to develop the territory for the benefit of all its inhabitants.

It is frankly ridiculous to claim that 2 wars, over a period of 30 years, resulting in the deaths of over 30,000 people and the ethnic cleansing of more than a million, originated in an isolated incidence of sudden mob violence. If that is to taken as truth we have to suspend belief that there was ever a separatist campaign to wrest control of Karabakh by Armenians until 26 Armenians died tragically in Sumgait. And we have to completely remove the laws of cause and effect from the study of historical events.

What happened before Sumgait has to be examined in order to understand why the tragic events of late February 1988 took place at all. Chronology, cause and consequence are vital to a historian’s understanding of historical events. Without these intrinsic facets, history is reduced to the crude ahistoric sociology of “genocide studies” and other careerist academic pastimes of little value to historical knowledge.

The Background to Sumgait

So, what happened before Sumgait?

Stephen White, in the Cambridge University Soviet Paperbacks series from 1993 explains the background:

“The open conflict of early 1988 was precipitated, it appears, by the rejection by the central party authorities of an appeal for Nagorno-Karabakh to be returned to Armenia which had been signed by 75,000 Karabakh Armenians. Demonstrations began on 11 February in Stepanakert, the regional capital, and led to the adoption of a resolution by the regional soviet on 20 February which called for Nagorno-Karabakh to be transferred back to Armenia. Further demonstrations took place in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, to support the call for Nagorno-Karabakh’s reincorporation into the republic. Up to a million Armenians, by late February, were reported to be demonstrating daily in the city’s Opera Square. The demonstrations came temporarily to an end after a personal appeal by Gorbachev on 26 September, but a report that two Azerbaijanis had been killed the previous week led to an anti-Armenian riot in the oil town of Sumgait in which 32 people were killed and 197 were injured, including more than 100 police officers.” (After Gorbachev, p.163)

While the chronology in this account is correct and the statement that the events in Sumgait were indeed “precipitated” by serious political developments that directly threatened the territorial integrity of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan is accurate, some of the understanding of this Western academic is deeply flawed.

The academic uses the phrases “returned to Armenia”, “Karabakh’s reincorporation into the republic” and “Nagorno-Karabakh to be transferred back to Armenia” to describe the status of Karabakh. But these are Armenian historical falsehoods parroted by Prof. White who is, in fairness, not a historian. He is, rather significantly, “James Bryce Professor of Politics” at Glasgow University. James Bryce was the famous Armenophile, historian, Irish Secretary and Ambassador to the US, who lent his talents to the production of fierce anti-Turk propaganda during the Great War of 1914. Bryce would have disseminated such misinformation himself.

There has not been an Armenian state for nearly 2000 years in the Southern Caucasus, since Tigranes the Great (95-55 BC) briefly controlled lands from the Mediterranean to the Caucasus. This is the “Greater Armenia” hankered after by Armenian nationalists for the last century or so. The Karabakh region may or may not have been part of this “Greater Armenia”, and the people there may, or not, have been “Armenian” or become “Armenians” in the millennia since, but it is crazy to advocate the reconstruction of states, surrounded by mythology, that supposedly existed 2000 years ago, in opposition to all demographic, political and social events that have taken place since. And for most of the time before Karabakh was conquered by the Tsarist Russians in the 1820/30s it was part of the Muslim Arab, Ottoman or Persian empires or it was an independent Azerbaijani khanate.

The Armenian Republic came into existence on 28 May 1918 with the collapse of Tsarist Russia. It never contained the Karabakh region, which was part of the Republic of Azerbaijan, established on the same day. Karabakh remained a part of Azerbaijan until the British occupied it later in the year, treating it as Azerbaijani and appointing an Azerbaijani governor. When the British departed they left it with the Baku government and drew it on their maps as part of Azerbaijan. And when the Soviets took it they kept it as part of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic, giving the highland part of it autonomous status as the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast.

These are the historical facts of the matter as opposed to the Armenian myth-making which Western academics are all to gullible to swallow and parrot.

Now back to reality…

On February 20th 1988, the Armenian Deputies of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast officially requested from Moscow miatsum/union with Armenia. A wide spectrum of Karabakh Armenians participated in the convention in Khankendi/Stepanakert that requested the transfer of the territory from the Azerbaijan SSR to the Armenian SSR. This had all the character of a mass movement. The next day 50,000 Armenians appeared on the streets of Yerevan in support of the demand. On the platform academics like Rafael Kazaryan and Viktor Hambardzumyan, from the Academy of Sciences, welcomed the “excellent opportunity to cleanse Armenia” of Azerbaijanis. Alexander Yakovlev, the Secretary of the Central Committee of the CPSU, told the crowds that the secessionist movement was “a national-liberation struggle.” (Aslan Ismayilov, Sumgayit, An Armenian Agitator and the Beginning of the Collapse of the USSR, Footnotes 94 and 96)

That was not the end of it however. Delegations from Stepanakert and Yerevan took turns to go to Moscow to lobby for the transfer of Karabakh to Armenia. Edmond Keoseyan carried a petition signed by 100,000 Armenians in January 1988 to the USSR leadership. On 12 February a delegation from Karabakh flew to Moscow and presented the Kremlin with a 60,000 petition. Between November 1987 and the events in Sumgait 3 further Armenian delegations visited Moscow. Cheterian notes that they received “a warm reception” and “really thought they had won… celebrating their victory” upon return. (p.93) In an interview with L’Humanite, in Paris, the economic advisor to Gorbachev, Abel Aganbegyan, expressed the opinion that the joining of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, was advantageous from an economic point of view, and that a special commission was working on the issue.

The number of high-ranking Armenians who had a strong influence in the corridors of power in Moscow was never as large as under Gorbachev. The Armenian academic, Georgy Shakhnazarov, who had similar reformist beliefs and ideas as his General Secretary, had a special status in Gorbachev’s inner circle, and exerted a strong influence on the formation and execution of his policy. In the early 1960s Yuri Andropov had invited Shakhnazarov to speak to him in candour about how the Communist system might be improved. Shakhnazarov proposed to Andropov a new system in which the Party/State would be dismantled in favour of ‘socialist democracy”. Andropov, the realist, rejected such a utopian fantasy. Shakhnazarov was, therefore, a kindred spirit of Gorbachev, along with other Armenians who shared a belief in the freeing up of the system. Their influence grew day by day as Gorbachev floundered and sought out alternative ideas.

As Armenian influence in Moscow dramatically increased and Gorbachev’s policies created newfound toleration for bourgeois nationalism and revanchism the position of Azerbaijan in terms of lobbying was dramatically weakened by the dismissal of Heydar Aliyev from his post. He was member of the Politburo, the first deputy chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers, who, for a long time, had great authority among the Soviet party leadership.

Gorbachev, in recklessly unleashing popular energy to drive his reform programme, therefore, built up Armenian hopes to a crescendo whilst creating panic and despair in Azerbaijan.

Despite Gorbachev’s encouragement of these dangerous and destabilising tendencies the Armenian mass movement was denounced as illegal by Moscow. The Azerbaijan SSR, whose territory a neighbouring republic was now demanding, was, of course, horrified. This was, after all, an illegal act of subversion of the Union, which had taken great care in the past to direct all effort toward the stability of the state and friendly relations between nationalities.

The Azerbaijani government quickly rejected the request on the basis of the USSR Constitution of 1977, Article 78, which provided that “the territory of Union Republics may be altered by mutual agreement of the Republics concerned, subject to ratification by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.”

At this point, to understand the seriousness of this situation and the threat such a movement represented to Azerbaijan and its people, as well as inter-ethnic and inter-state relations, one has to journey back to the Soviet world, which, despite what happened subsequently under Gorbachev’s leadership, was very much alive and the established order of things in early 1988.

The Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic naturally supported the (1936) Constitution of the USSR and expected the First Secretary of the USSR to defend it. That was, after all, what the Union stood for and what it required all its citizens to believe in and uphold:

“ARTICLE 18. The territory of a Union Republic may not be altered without its consent. ARTICLE 19. The laws of the U.S.S.R. have the same force within the territory of every Union Republic. ARTICLE 20. In the event of a discrepancy between a law of a Union Republic and an all-Union law, the all-Union law prevails. ARTICLE 24. The Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic includes the Nakhichevan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic and the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region.”

Anything else was counter-revolutionary, bourgeois-nationalist deviation and there were places reserved for those who went down the wrong track in Siberian prison camps.

Armenian nationalism seems to have had such a degree of presumptuous privilege that it believed it could override all of this constitutional law that held a great state like the Soviet Union together, without encountering any resistance. It was very fortunate indeed, of course, that it had as an ally, witting or unwitting, in the last General Secretary.

General Secretary Gorbachev promised a review, and the Armenian nationalist deviants believed he was manoeuvring behind the scenes to revise things and concede independence to the NKAO. Perhaps he was. Who truly knew the senseless logic of Gorbachev’s mind? In an interview 2 decades later Gorbachev admitted that the Kremlin was ready, in early 1988, to take Karabakh out of Azerbaijan and give it the status of an autonomous republic and he was attempting to persuade the Azerbaijan Communist leadership to acquiesce in this decision. Of course, the Azerbaijani Communists knew such a thing would be fatal to them and hugely destabilising so they naturally opposed it. But this shows the General Secretary’s inexperience at handling the nationalities question. Such a policy if implemented would have been immensely destabilising right across the USSR, setting a very dangerous precedent.

Whatever happened, General Secretary Gorbachev thought better of this manoeuvre and beat a retreat. On 23 March the Supreme Soviet Presidium warned the Karabakh Committee that the calling for any redrawing of state boundaries by illegal groups would not be permitted and Pravda made it clear that the transfer of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia would be “a clearly anti-socialist solution”. (24.3.88, p.5 and 28.3.88 p.3) On 18 July a formal ruling was adopted rejecting any change in the constitutional status of the NKAO. The situation was temporarily stabilised.

However, in the meantime came the events in Sumgait, demonstrating the dangerous game General Secretary Gorbachev was playing which he thought he could pursue to success.

The State Prosecutor in the trial of those accused of the Sumgait events, Dr Aslan Ismayilov, later recalled what he said at the hearings in relation to the fatal effect on Armenians of Gorbachev’s policy and on the USSR in general:

“In my final speech I mentioned that the roots of the Sumgayit events were laid in the Autonomous Province of Nagorno-Karabakh, and the decision of the session of the Soviet of People’s Deputies of the Autonomous Province of the Nagorno-Karabakh dated February 20, 1988… was the manifestation of the signs of nationalistic sentiments in the Autonomous Province of the Nagorno-Karabakh… Ideas stated then about “the dynamite first laid beneath the foundations of internationalism of the USSR” had originated from the decision of the session of the Soviet of the People’s Deputies of the Autonomous Province of the Nagorno-Karabakh dated 20.02.88 and that it was this very decision which gave impetus to the break of shattering of internationalism in the USSR.”

What happened in Sumgait?

Now that it has been established that the conflict over Karabakh had begun well before the events in Sumgait what happened there should be explored. However, it soon becomes clear that what happened is most obscure and full of questions.

Sumgait, which is located about 30 km from Baku, was a multinational city with the local population made up of fifteen different nationalities. Of the overall population of 258,000 residents, about 18,000 were ethnic Armenians that had been living in peace with their Azerbaijani neighbours for decades. No noticeable ethnic tensions were recorded in Sumgait until February 1988.

Some Azerbaijani refugees had begun arriving from Armenia as early as late 1987, from the districts of Kapan/Gafan and Mehri in Zangezur. They were resettled mainly in Sumgait, an industrial city just north of Baku. The famous Russian writer Aleksandr Prokhanov, who visited the region many times as a reporter, noted:

“The people there had lived there together for centuries, but then they started to drive out Azeris from the area.  Armenians initiated the bloody conflict which continues to this day.  The Azeris who were ousted from Kapan started the journey through the mountain passes to Azerbaijan.  And this happened in the winter!  Children, women and elderly were dying on the trails.  The Kapan journey caused pain and hatred across Azerbaijan.  The Azeris who were expelled from Kapan arrived in Sumqayit, where eventually the notorious Sumqayit events took place.”

The news of the forced exiles was understandably suppressed by the Soviet authorities in Azerbaijan to avoid inter-ethnic tension. There is a long tradition of secrecy in the Russian system, even predating the Bolsheviks, and informing the population at large was always seen as a dangerous thing before Gorbachev proclaimed a belief in glasnost.

These first Azerbaijani refugees were joined by a new influx in late January and early February 1988 of around 4,000 people fleeing from both the NKAO and Armenia. (Vestnik Analitiki No.3, 2005. Aslan Ismayilov, Footnote 80). They had been subjected to intimidation by Armenian gangs who set fire to their houses at night and prevented them from travelling during the day to shops, hospitals and markets. They were boycotted by Armenian neighbours with posters displayed, warning them to get out. (Vestnik Analitiki No.3, 2005. Aslan Ismayilov, Footnote 82). They had to cross snow covered mountains in mid-winter with their few belongings. The violence perpetuated against the Azerbaijanis in Kapan is referred to in an article in the Washington Post of 24 February, so it received even international attention.

In January 1988, 2,000 further refugees arrived in Baku in freight trains, among them starving and naked children. Their bodies showed signs of physical abuse. 52 bodies were reported to have arrived in Baku in refrigerated railway carriages at this time from Yerevan. Photos of the bodies, shown to Party officials, revealed many of these people had been mutilated and killed in Armenia. They were instructed to keep quiet about what they saw according to an article by Lev Askerov, a member of the Union of Writers of the USSR and a former correspondent of Izvestia.

It could be argued, and has been by some Armenians, that these events either did not happen or were exaggerated. But whether wholly true or exaggerated it is a truism that if something is taken to be real it is real in its consequences. The 28 year conflict in the North of Ireland began when Protestant mobs burned out parts of Catholic Belfast after believing a Republican insurrection was taking place. The effect of this was to actually produce a Republican offensive.

The news of what was being reportedly done to Azerbaijanis by Armenians began to spread, and concern and anger mounted, raising tensions in Baku and other areas. The local Communist Party First Secretary, Fuad Musayev, concerned at the arrival of unknown agitators from outside the city who he saw as spreading dangerous rumours, ordered patrols around, and the defence of, the main Armenian quarter in Baku. He also restricted access to the city as a precaution. (Thomas De Waal, Black Garden, p.31) This also happened in other parts of Azerbaijan where there were Armenian populations.

News of the fate of Azerbaijanis resulted in demonstrations in Sumgait on 26th/27th February, which were addressed by 20 or so people from outside the city, claiming to be refugees, who worked up their audiences’ anger by suggesting that locals did not care about the fate of their countrymen. They were told of the carriage full of Azerbaijani corpses that had been repatriated from the clashes in Nagorno-Karabakh and female medical students were said to have been raped by groups of Armenians. (Suha Bolukbasi, Azerbaijan, A Political History, p.88) the night of 27th, the first casualties of the Karabakh conflict were officially and curiously announced by the Soviet authorities – two Azerbaijani youths, who were shot dead by Armenians on February 24th, near Askeran. 19 people were wounded. This announcement was unusual because up until this point the Soviet authorities had always suppressed news of ethnic violence.

Igor Nolyain, an Armenian writer, believed that the events in Sumgait were being organized and controlled by Moscow with Gorbachev’s knowledge, for political purposes. The Deputy Attorney General of the USSR’s announcement of the Azerbaijani deaths served as the trigger for a staged event he suggested:

“It divulges Moscow’s double ulterior aim: to calm the Armenians while bloodying them, and to leak that Azeris are moved by ‘ethnic hatred’ and not by KGB provocateurs.” (Moscow’s Initiation of the Azeri-Armenian ConflictCentral Asian Survey, 4, 1994, p.542)

This all had the effect of “putting a match to a tinderbox”, turning the demonstrators into a mob on 28th February.

Because the authorities in Soviet Azerbaijan were loath to report violence in Armenia and the NKAO against the Azerbaijani minority, rumour was the main conduit of information. Everyone was suspicious of official announcements so first-hand accounts or rumour acted as substitutes for official news. In fact, official news was so distrusted that the word of claimed witnesses to events, and rumour, were given greater authenticity. Refugees, with their stories of suffering, were therefore, the main conduit for news of what was happening in Armenia and Karabakh.

The Sumgait mob violence seemed not to be an organised event in any way. Certainly, no Azerbaijani political party or organised grouping was behind it. It had all the appearance of a sporadic outburst of anger stirred by refugees from Armenia, and taken up by the lumpen proletariat of Sumgait and some criminal elements of the industrial city, who had been sent to serve sentences in the local industrial plants. All these coalesced with heated feelings toward what was heard to be happening to Azerbaijanis to produce an explosive mix. (Audrey Altstadt, The Azerbaijani Turks, p.197)

Thomas De Waal comments in his book Black Garden that the only surprise was there were so few attacks on Armenians in Azerbaijan given what was starting to take place in Karabakh and Armenia. Whatever the case, at the crux of it all was the Armenian drive to take over territory in Karabakh and elsewhere and what the consequences were for the Azerbaijani population of the affected areas. (Black Garden, pp. 43-4)

The Criminal Case

The Bill of Indictment of those accused of what happened in Sumgait (criminal case No. 18/55461-8) on February 28th/29th 1988 states:

“In the process of investigation it was established that on February 27-29, 1988, in the town of Sumgayit of the Azerbaijan SSR, a group of rowdy and violent persons organized mass disorders, as a result of which 32 persons were killed, over 400 persons got physical injuries of various degrees, about 200 flats were subjected to attacks and plunders, over 50 cultural and social premises were destroyed, and more than 40 vehicles of various types were damaged, part of which were burnt. The state was inflicted by the material damage of approximately seven million rubles. Due to the events armed troops were brought into the city and a curfew was imposed… Hundreds of citizens were involved in the perpetrated crimes. Groups of rowdy, violent and unbridled hooligans committed plunder of flats, arsons, rapes and murdered people. A part of them has been identified by the investigation, arrested and criminal charges have been instigated against them.”

The State Prosecutor, Dr Aslan Ismayilov, who was involved in the trial of those accused of the violence, became convinced by some curious things he encountered in his investigations that Sumgait was not a random act of mob violence but an orchestrated event. He suggested in his book, Sumgayit: The Beginning of the Collapse of the USSR (Visible Press, London) that there were some important indications that this was not a random outburst of anger and there were strong suspicions of agent provocateur involvement.

The State Prosecutor noted that the leader of the violence, which led to the deaths of 26 Armenians and 6 Azerbaijanis, was curiously an ethnic Armenian, Eduard Grigoryan. Ismayilov demanded the death penalty for Grigoryan, who was found guilty of multiple rapes and murders by the court. However, he was given only “a slap on the wrist” for these offences – 12 years imprisonment, instead of the recommended death sentence. The judge went out of his way to relegate Grigoryan’s role to that of mere participant, rather than leader, and to conceal information indicating the organised nature of the events. Grigoryan and his gang of Azerbaijani followers, who seemed to be both transfixed and terrified of their leader, withdrawing statements at his command, indulged in enormous cruelty to their victims. Grigoryan was apparently in possession of lists of Armenian addresses supplied by mysterious strangers known as “blockheads” in black raincoats. Shortly after imprisonment in Azerbaijan he was transferred to Russia, and on to Armenia, where he disappeared. It was reported that he later went to Moscow.

The security forces stood idly by watching events in Sumgait without interfering. A small force that intervened early would undoubtedly have prevented subsequent events, as actually was the case in other flash points elsewhere. But in Sumgait only local Azerbaijanis helped to save Armenians from being victims of the gangs. Many of the local political and intelligence leadership had been mysteriously removed from the city just before the events. Russian, Armenian and even international media were flown into Sumgait the day before and were there to actually film the immediate aftermath of the violence. There was no earthly reason they should have been there unless something was known to be happening. The Soviet Union was still a largely closed society with journalists directed specifically to locations by the authorities.

The Soviet media then presented the previously quiescent Azerbaijanis as barbarians and the authorities were keen to associate the entire nation with the crimes of a mob (led by an Armenian psychopath, probably under direction from persons unknown). A powerful blow was struck by the media campaign against the Azerbaijan and it was broadcast around the world. Gorbachev attributed the violence to “hooligans.” The Azerbaijani Communist leadership acquiesced in the presentation of the event to ingratiate themselves with Moscow.

Throughout his incisive book, Ismayilov maintains that he was set up to fail by local Azerbaijani authorities on direct orders from Gorbachev’s Kremlin, which was populated by a long list of influential Armenian advisors. He writes:

“At the apex of the pyramid was of course (Georgi) Shakhnazarov himself, Assistant/Special Advisor to Secretary General/President Mikhail Gorbachev. Next came (Karen) Brutents, Deputy Head of the International Department; Mchedlov, Deputy Director of the Institute of Marxism-Leninism under the Central Committee; Karagozian, Director of the Ideological Department of the Central Committee and Onikov, Organizer in charge of the Ideological Department of the Central Committee. This hierarchical system at lower levels consisted of Arzumanyan G.G.—Director of the Section of Social Sciences of the Presidium of the USSR; Kuzachian L.S.—Deputy Director of the Institute of Scientific Information on Social Sciences; Momchian Kh.N.—President of the Sociological Association of the Soviet Union; Petrosian Y.A.—head of Leningrad branch of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, and chairman of the Research Board on Conferring Scientific Degrees. Shakhnazarov also had a well-organized team of academicians and associate members of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, who were all well connected…”

The official investigation process uncovered a large volume of information about what had happened but it did little to shed light to the truth about the Sumgayit events. Anyone who wanted to dig deeper into the events was told to let go and get on with their lives if they were sensible.

We should not be surprised in all this if we understand the role of law in the Soviet system. Gorbachev was a convinced and enthusiastic Marxist-Leninist. His intention was to reform the system in order to improve and enhance it. The fact that he liquidated it in attempting to preserve it is neither here nor there. If Vladislav Zubok’s mammoth Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union is anything to go by Gorbachev does not seem to have been interested in reforming the Soviet legal system. Like the Stalin-critic Roy Medvedev Gorbachev seems to have had no interest in Soviet Law and held the notion that total order was possible without coercion in a perfectly totalitarian state, while at the same time as releasing the energies of the people at large. Of course, nobody ever attempted such a ridiculous thing prior to Gorbachev. They knew better that it was mere phrase mongering. But Gorbachev put it to the test and destroyed the system in doing so.

Russia was a society formed by the state and in that respect Bolshevism only continued the Tsarist relationship of state and society. Russia built up its power as a state without laws so it is not surprising that an ideology of (bourgeois) law did not develop within a state in which law was merely imperial decree. The Leninist system constructed a closed society, ordered in all its parts by the state and the Party. Law within the Soviet system was reduced to policy: It was Party policy implemented through a pliable judicial facade. If it was anything else it was surely bourgeois and counter-revolutionary.

Aslan Ismayilov was outraged when he witnessed, as a participant, a Soviet court behave in a Soviet way in the interests of the Party and State rather than in the cause of justice. That was a rather “bourgeois” attitude, understanding law within the liberal democratic framework. Apparently Gorbachev refused an official investigation into the events at Sumgait, presumably because he could rely on a Soviet court and judge to do its duty by the Party and State, arranging the desired result for the betterment of all. Azerbaijan would take the hit.

Years later, Andrei Sakharov, the atomic physicist and famous dissident, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, was asked “if he thought the Sumqayit developments would ever be unravelled and disclosed. He paused for some time and then said slowly, ‘We shouldn’t allow that to happen’.” Sakharov had close Armenian family connections and was a strong advocate of the transfer of Nagorno-Karabagh to Armenia. For a dissident he retained a very Leninist frame of mind, although Armenians are great chameleons.

Many Armenian writers and media sources also now conclude there was substantial centre USSR State/KGB involvement in what occurred in Sumgait, although the Armenian narrative twists this toward Russian use of Armenians or “Azerbaijani KGB” in looking to explain it. But Sumgait was an event in Soviet life rather than a local incident. Who remembers similar things and much greater casualties happening in Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan at the same time, for instance?


The Armenians quickly presented Sumgait as a massacre of Armenians in Azerbaijan and demanded that the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast should be immediately handed over to Armenia. The Sumgait events were therefore used to promote the idea that the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh, where Armenians and Azerbaijanis lived side-by-side in peace, could no longer be part of a “murderous” Azerbaijan. Sumgait 1988 was mentioned with 1915 in Armenian propaganda, leading to fatal consequences for the Azerbaijani Turks who stood in the way of the rejuvenated Armenian nationalism which sought to build a state with a homogeneous population.

In relation to this, in September 1988, in an article Artsakh:  Wounds and hopes, Zori Balayan described what was said in his first meeting with Gorbachev:

“Already in 1988, immediately after the beginning of the Karabakh movement, Soviet Communist Party Central Committee General Secretary M.S. Gorbachev asked Silva Kaputikyan and me:  ‘Did you think about the future of 207,000 ethnic Armenians in Baku?’  I replied by asking him:  ‘And why exactly is there a need to think about the future of 207,000 ethnic Armenians in Baku?  We are a state, after all…

It is clear in this that whilst General Secretary Gorbachev was concerned about how his policies would play out if the Armenians persisted in testing them, the Armenian nationalists were really unconcerned with the future of their people in Azerbaijan. In fact, they did not want them to continue to live there at all. Sumgait was, therefore, a victory for Armenia.

A combination of events and interests most probably combined to produce what happened at Sumgait. If, as seems likely, the Gorbachev administration was involved, with the objective of chastening the Armenians, after recklessly encouraging them into activity, the operation proved extremely counter-productive. Armenians mobilised with greater vigour forcing the Soviets into military means to counteract the separatists who began to ready their forces for a future war, which had begun arming since the summer of 1986.

V. Ilyukhin, Deputy Head of the Chief Investigation Department under the USSR General Prosecutor’s Office, who led the investigatory committee of the Prosecutor’s Office on the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, referred to the skilful orchestration of the Sumgayit events by the Armenian nationalists in a later interview:

“The events in Sumgayit were provoked by Armenians. This proved to be beneficial for Armenia. They played the “Sumgayit card”… They played a grand performance on a great tragedy”

What happened in Sumgait utterly shocked Azerbaijan, momentarily paralysing people, at what had suddenly happened after 70 years of inter-communal peace in the country. It certainly had a debilitating effect on the population whose relationship with the State and Union was compromised.

It is this obscure event in Sumgait that is frequently cited to be the origin of the conflict. Certainly, the events in Sumgait, raised the stakes in the conflict up another notch and led to its escalation. However, if there had been a different Soviet leader than Gorbachev at the helm of the USSR in early 1988, or if he had been forced to change course, or been overthrown at that point, Sumgait would have only been a tragic incident in a mistaken policy that had been abandoned once its consequences were apparent. It would not have been part of a chain of events that led to war.

When the Presidium of the Supreme Council of the USSR held its plenum, which was broadcasted live on television, and the Presidium declared that Karabakh would remain part of Azerbaijan that should have been the end of the matter. In the USSR when the Kremlin spoke people obeyed. As the Armenian journalist who lived through the period, Mark Grigoryan notes“If one were to speak in purely political terms, then this should have put an end to Armenia’s demands as a clear decision had been made, and Moscow had no intention of stepping back from it.

But it wasn’t the end of the matter. The genie of Armenian nationalism had been let out of the bottle and Gorbachev persisted in his policies which disintegrated the Soviet State and Union. Armenia went on mass strike to protest the Moscow decision and separatists began to arm and train in Karabakh to put the Muslim population out and establish control. What happened in Sumgait was used to advance the Armenian nationalist dictum that Armenians and Azerbaijanis could not live together – one must go.

The terrible events in Sumgait were a consequence of the conflict over Karabakh, not a cause of it. The conflict clearly began when an illegal mass movement, accompanied by violence and the expulsion of sizeable numbers of Azerbaijanis from their homes, sought to override the established constitutional order and territorial settlement which had preserved the peace between peoples and states, and of the region, for 7 decades. This movement was generated and encouraged by a blundering and incompetent General Secretary who liquidated one of the most powerful states in history which was responsible for the peace and security of the region. The deaths of more than 30,000 people over 30 years, including those who perished in the Sumgait tragedy of February 1988, is an outworking of this.

May they Rest in Peace.


Dr Pat Walsh, Historian and Political Analyst. Author of ‘Great Britain against Russia in the Caucasus: Ottoman Turks, Armenians and Azerbaijanis caught up in Geopolitics, War and Revolution’.