Armenian pogroms in Azerbaijan 1988-1990

The aspiration of the Armenians of Artsakh (Nagorno Karabakh) to realize their right to self-determination was responded to by a growing wave of Armenian massacres in Azerbaijan: unprecedentedly brutal murders, violence and plunder.

The first victims of Azerbaijan’s policy to suppress the free expression of the will of the people of Nagorno Karabakh by force were the Armenians of the Azerbaijani city of Sumgait located several hundred kilometers away from Nagorno Karabakh. The pogroms in Sumgait1 lasted 3 days, from 27 to 29 February, 1988.

The second wave of the Armenian massacres in Azerbaijan commenced in November 1988. The largest ones occurred in Kirovabad, Shamakhi, Shamkir, and Mingachevir. During the same period, in November and December 1988, 50 Armenian settlements were displaced from the hilly and mountainous parts of Artsakh: Khanlar, Dashkesan, Shamkhor and Getabek, including 48,000 Armenians of Kirovabad. The pogroms, murders, violence and persecution of the Armenian population in Azerbaijan culminated in mass murders and the eventual displacement of Armenians from Baku in January 1990.

The massacre of Armenians in Sumgait

On February 26, 1988, the Municipal Committee of Azerbaijan`s Communist Party organized a rally in Sumgait led by the second secretary of the Municipal Committee Melek Bayramova. Under anti-Armenian slogans, it continued through the next day. A large number of speakers, among them persons well-known in the city, called for punishment of Armenians and demanded strict measures: “Kill and expel them from Sumgait and from Azerbaijan in general”. Almost each speech was followed by the chanting of a slogan “Death to Armenians”.

In order to inflame the anti-Armenian hysteria to the boiling point in Sumgait, specially trained provocateurs pretending to be refugees from Kapan disseminated stories about alleged mass crimes against Azerbaijanis in Armenia2.

In the evening of February 27, public speeches grew into violence. According to the facts ascertained by investigation after the events, hundreds of Azerbaijanis from Sumgait, aroused by the calls for violence and freely distributed drugs and alcoholic drinks, started an unobstructed demolishing of apartments, mass beatings, killings and rapes of Armenians living in Sumgait. Government, party and law enforcement authorities of the city and the republic did not take any measures against the unprecedented disorder and public violence occurring in the city.

In addition, evidence shows that law enforcement authorities provoked and assisted the slaughterers. Many Armenians from Sumgait also testify that the telephones in their apartments were disconnected at that time; the pogrom-makers had lists of apartments of Armenians, compiled by the housing agencies, and that municipal and law enforcement authorities and medical establishments refused assistance (these facts are documented in criminal investigation and court records). The local paper “Communist of Sumgait” later wrote that weapons for the pogrom-makers were made in advance in the factories of Sumgait.

February 28, a greater number of pogrom-makers, inspired by the absence of any reaction by the authorities to the violence towards Armenians, took to the streets. Most of them were already armed with special iron rods with sharpened tips, hammers, axes and other self-made tools. Breaking into groups of several dozen persons each, the pogrom-makers invaded Armenian apartments marked in advance. People were murdered in their own houses, although more often they were taken out to the street or the courtyard to be publicly abused.

In the evening of February 28 alone, almost two days after the start of the anti-Armenian hysteria and massacres, army subdivisions were deployed in Sumgait. However, the army took no control of the city immediately, since they had no orders to use force and weapons against the pogrom-makers. The pogroms and murders of Armenians continued. The inactivity of the troops and their leniency towards the pogrom-makers led to attacks of the mob against the servicemen, resulting in 270 casualties among the latter. Only in the evening of February 29, the army subdivisions took decisive actions and the Armenian massacres were stopped3.

According to the data officially released by the Soviet authorities, 26 citizens of Armenian descent were murdered, hundreds were wounded and became handicapped, and many went missing during the 3-day pogroms. Hundreds of apartments belonging to Armenians were destroyed. Yet, the real scale of the tragedy is still unknown. There is ample evidence which proves that the number of victims was considerably higher. Thus, many Armenians from Sumgait who were looking for the bodies of their relatives in the morgues of Azerbaijan, insisted on having seen two different lists of dead persons, one official and one non-official, and the latter one was considerably longer. It is noteworthy that the filmmaker Andrei Konchalovsky in his film titled “Burden of Power: Heydar Aliyev”, commissioned by Azerbaijan, attests that “Only during one night, more than 100 Armenians were murdered in the industrial centre of Sumgait”.

A precise verification of the number of victims was also hindered by the fact that their corpses were taken to different mortuaries, including Baku and other places4.

The USSR Prosecutor’s office launched criminal investigations of the incidents that took place in Sumgait. The joint investigation group of USSR law enforcement bodies was led by V.S. Galkin, an investigator of the USSR Prosecutor's office on cases of special importance. The group was composed of 181 persons including 20 Azerbaijani investigators. However, out of the huge number of pogrom-makers from Sumgait only 90 were brought to justice- mostly teenagers and young people. They were accused of murder, rape, violence and other crimes, and in all cases their actions were qualified as “motivated by hooliganism”.

The Prosecutor’s office of the USSR, in coordination with the authorities of the country, decided not to hold one general trial. The “motivated by hooliganism” case was broken into 80 episodes. The division of the case into episodes and the way the entire process of the investigation was administered intentionally excluded the search for the real organizers and perpetrators of the crimes and prevented the court finding and holding them responsible. All the judicial proceedings with the exception of one, (in the Supreme Court of the USSR, Moscow) were held in Baku and Sumgait, although the proceedings were under the jurisdiction of the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic’s regional courts.

Only one of all the accused persons was sentenced to maximum penalty, however it is not known to this day whether the sentence was carried out or not. Most of the pogrom-makers were sentenced to short-term imprisonment and were released soon after.

It is noteworthy that during the several thousand strong anti-Armenian rallies in Baku in November 1988, the portraits of Sumgait’s murderers appeared accompanied by slogans “Glory to the heroes of Sumgait”.

Later, one of those accused of provoking massacres in Sumgait, Khidir Aloev (with the poetic nickname ‘Alovlu’, meaning “fiery”) was elected to Azerbaijan's Milli Mejlis (parliament) from the ruling “Yeni Azerbaijan” party.

Concealing the truth about the Sumgait massacres of Armenians, their scale and real motives, and the impunity of their genuine masterminds paved the way to a campaign of ethnic cleansing all over Azerbaijan, culminating in the gory massacres and displacement of Armenians of Baku in January 1990.

Armenian pogroms in Baku

Persecutions of Armenians started in Baku in the spring of 1988, immediately after the events in Sumgait, and continued until 1989. Armenians were illegally dismissed from work, and forcefully evicted from their apartments and houses. They were beaten, subjected to public mockery and murder. By January 1990, only 35-40 thousand out of the 250 thousand Armenian inhabitants remained in Baku. Most of them were old, lonely, sick or socially vulnerable people who did not want or were not able to leave their homes, as well as their relatives, who did not want to leave them alone.

On January 11, during a rally organized by the Popular Front of Azerbaijan (PFA) in Baku, calls were made for the eviction of the Armenians from Baku and for mass armed march on Karabakh5.

By January 13, Armenian massacres in Baku became systematized and comprehensive. In the evening of the same day, a crowd of 50 thousand people, chanting slogans "Glory to the heroes of Sumgait" and “Long live Baku without Armenians” gathered to rally at the Lenin Square. Then, divided into groups led by PFA activists, pogrom-makers embarked upon methodically “cleansing” the city of Armenians house by house. Evidence abounds on atrocities and murders committed with extreme cruelty.

Those who managed to escape death were subjected to forced deportation. Thousands of Armenians were brought to the port of Krasnovodsk city in Turkmen SSR by a ferry across the Caspian Sea, and were later sent to Armenia and Russia by airplanes.

According to the testimony of the Armenian refugees from Baku6, the pogrom-makers had a standard plan of action. In the beginning, a group of 10-20 people would break into an apartment and start the beatings. Then a PFA representative would appear with preliminarily drafted documents for the alleged sale or exchange of the apartment, ask the owners to leave the house immediately and go to the port.

They would allow people to take personal belongings but would confiscate money, jewellery and bankbooks for saving accounts. The Popular Front activists operated posts at the port, where they searched the refugees, often beat them again and only then deported.

The Armenian pogroms of Baku surpassed the massacres of Armenians of Sumgait in the number of victims, duration and the scale. The exact number of the murdered is still unknown. According to different sources, 150 to 300 people were killed7. The massacres continued for an entire week in the conditions of complete inactivity of Azerbaijani authorities, internal troops and Baku’s large garrison of the Soviet Army.

Units of the Soviet Army were deployed to the capital of Azerbaijani SSR only in the night of 20 January 1990, and encountered fierce resistance by PFA armed groups8. The number of casualties among the servicemen also evidences to the serious armed resistance shown to the troops deployed in the city. As reported by different sources, the number of losses was between 259 and 3610.

It is obvious that the preparations for massacres of Armenians in Baku had started well before the 13th of January 1990. That is proved by the availability to pogrom-makers of detailed maps in which the city was divided into districts and regions and the locations of remaining compact Armenian settlements were marked11.

On the occasion of the massacres of Armenians in Baku and attacks on Getashen and other Armenian villages of Shahumyan region, on January 18 the European Parliament adopted a resolution titled “On the Situation in Armenia”, which called for the authorities of the USSR to "guarantee real protection for the Armenian people living in Azerbaijan by sending forces to intervene"12.

On 27 July 1990, an open letter addressed to the international community was published in the New York Times. The letter was signed by 133 prominent scholars and human rights advocates from Europe, Canada and the USA, who voiced their complaint against the killings and pogroms of Armenians in Baku. It stated, particularly, that “The crimes committed against Armenian minority have become a consistent practice in Soviet Azerbaijan, if not an official policy”13.




1. Sumgait is a large Azerbaijani city located 25 km to the north of Baku. Out of its 250,000 inhabitants, according to the 1988 census, 18,000 were Armenians. It was the third city in Azerbaijan by the size of population (after Baku and Kirovabad) and the second by its industrial significance (after Baku).

2. Лидия ГРАФОВА. «Без покаяния. Свобода убивать была провозглашена три года назад в Сумгаите». «Демократическая Россия», 22 марта 1991 г. (Lidiya Grafova. Not repenting. Freedom to Kill Was Declared Three Years Ago in Sumgait. “Democratic Russia”, March 22, 1991)

    О. Кулиш, Д. Меликов «Черным семенам не прорасти». «Социалистическая индустрия», 27 марта 1988 г.  (O. Kulish, D. Melikov. Black Seeds Will Not Sprout “Socialist Industry”, March 27, 1988)

3. Виктор Кривопусков, Мятежный Карабах. Издание второе, дополненное. — М.: Голос-Пресс, 2007 г. (Viktor Krivopuskov. Rebellious Karabakh. Second edition. Moscow. Golos Press 2007)

4. А.Мелик-Шахназаров. Факты против лжи. Москва. Волшебный фонарь, 2009 (A. Melik –Shahnazarov. Facts against Lies. Moscow, Volshebni Fonar, 2009), p. 263 

5. On January 12, 1990, the situation in Nagorno Karabakh sharply exacerbated because of the attacks of Azerbaijani gangs on Manashid village of Shahumyan region and on Azad and Kamo villages of Khanlar region.

6. Ирина Мосесова «Армяне Баку: бытие и исход». Ереван «Айастан». 1998 (Irina Mossessova. Armenians of Baku; Life and Exodus. Yerevan. 1998)

7. А.Мелик-Шахназаров. Факты против лжи. Москва. Волшебный фонарь, 2009 (A. Melik –Shahnazarov. Facts against Lies. Moscow, Volshebni Fonar, 2009), p. 474

8. Neimat Panahov, one of the leaders of PRA, would later call January 20 the PRA`s greatest victory and the death of 100-200 people not a big tragedy. (Вагиф Гусейнов. Больше чем одна жизнь. Книга вторая, Москва, 2013 г. (Vagif Huseynov. More than One Life. Book 2., Moscow 2013))

9. Conflict in the Soviet Union. Black January in Azerbaijan. 1991, by Robert Kushen of Human Rights Watch, with reference to USSR military prosecutor.

10. Виктор Кривопусков. Мятежный Карабах. Издание второе, дополненное – М.: Голос-Пресс, 2007 г. (Viktor Krivopuskov. Rebellious Karabakh. Second edition. Moscow. Golos Press 2007)

11. Rapporteur of Human Rights Watch, Robert Kushen points at the existence of lists of Armenians and their addresses in the hands of the pogrom-makers. Conflict in the Soviet Union. Black January in Azerbaijan.

12. European Parliament Joint Resolution on the situation in Armenia. Official Journal of the European Communities. Volume 33. 19 February 1990. No C 38/81, C  38/82. 

13. An Open Letter on Anti-Armenian Pogroms in the Soviet Union. Jacques Derrida, Isaiah Berlin, Alain Finkielkraut, Richard Rorty, and Adrian Lyttelton, et al.

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