Nagorno Karabakh: 1921-1988

On July 5, 1921, by the decision of the Caucasus Bureau of the Central Committee of the Russian Communist (Bolshevik) Party (CC RC(b)P), Nagorno Karabakh – within its historical and geographic borders – was handed over to Azerbaijan SSR, providing a “broad regional autonomy” with “Shushi as its administrative centre”.

However, only after two years of procrastination and under the pressure of the leadership of the Trans-caucasian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic (TSFSR)1, the authorities of Azerbaijan SSR undertook steps towards creating the autonomy of Nagorno Karabakh.

On July 7, 1923, the Central Executive Committee (CEC) of Azerbaijan proclaimed autonomy for the “Armenian part of Nagorno Karabakh”, the borders of which were afterwards drawn in such a way that a considerable part of the territory of Nagorno Karabakh was left outside. Only Shahumyan district was preserved as a separate administrative unit, whereas the boundaries of other territories populated by Armenians were repeatedly redrawn: by 1988 they were included in various administrative regions of Azerbaijan SSR. Moreover, the authorities of Azerbaijan SSR decided to turn the Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (Region) into an enclave and, for that purpose, the Kurdish province (“Red Kurdistan”) was created between the Armenian SSR and the Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO), with the administrative centre of Lachin (Berdzor). 6 years later, in 1929, the Kurdish province was duly dissolved and its territories formed separate administrative units of Azerbaijan SSR.

In the Soviet era, the counteraction to the Azerbaijani authorities’ policy aimed at the gradual cleansing of the Autonomous Region of its Armenian population2 was the main driving force behind the processes taking place in the Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (Region). The NKAO had been formed as an Armenian region which was also mentioned in Azerbaijan’s Central Executive Committee’s decree of July 7, 1923, on the formation of autonomous region. However, as a result of the targeted policy of the Azerbaijani authorities the Armenian population was decreasing.

On average, annually 2,000 Armenians emigrated from the Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Region between 1926 and 1979, whereas the Azerbaijani population increased nearly by 1,000 persons annually starting from the 1950s. The absolute increase of the Armenian population of the NKAO in the period between the censuses of 1970 and 1979 equaled only 2,000 persons; during those years only one out of 10 Armenians born here remained, while the 9 were forced to emigrate.

On the whole, from 1926 to 1979, Armenian population of the NKAO increased from 111.7 to only 123.1 thousand, while the Azerbaijani population increased from 12.6 thousand to 37.2 thousand. During the period between 1926 and 1980 the number of Armenian settlements in NKAO decreased by 85 (27%)3.

The constant outflow of the Armenian population was characteristic not only for the NKAO but of the Azerbaijan SSR in general4. Only in the period between the censuses of 1970 and 1979, the number of Armenian population of Azerbaijan SSR fell from 483.5 to 475.5 thousand. Practically every year more than 10 thousand Armenians were leaving Azerbaijan5.

The demographic changes, in general, reflected the situation in the social, economic and cultural spheres, which was a continuation of the policy of the Azerbaijani authorities for infringement of the interests of the Armenian people and "ousting" them from the region.

In the 1950s, the capital investments per capita in NKAO were ten times less than the average indicator of Azerbaijan. In 1969, after Heydar Aliev6 came to power in the Azerbaijan SSR, the social and economic policy underwent certain changes: while before his appointment there were no capital investments in Karabakh, during his rule the development of Azerbaijani settlements in the NKAO was boosted, which resulted in the aforementioned demographic shift. However, even under such conditions the per capita investment in NKAO was more than two times less than the average in Azerbaijan for the period of 1981-1985, and more than 2.7 times less from after 19867.

Along with this policy, the leadership of Baku had embarked on a course of dissolving the economy of the NKAO into the infrastructure of adjacent Azerbaijani regions8. The Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast had been consistently turned into a supplier of raw materials with an extremely underdeveloped infrastructure. The NKAO and the surrounding Armenian regions had no single industry producing end products.

Yet, it was the segregation in the national and cultural sphere that most acutely echoed in the mass consciousness of Armenians. Out of the numerous Armenian churches on the territory of NKAO none was functioning9, whereas mosques operated in order to meet the spiritual needs of the Azerbaijani population.

Armenian, as a language, had practically been ousted from official use - a fact that was reflected even in the Azerbaijan SSR law “On NKAO” (law on the Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast) where there was not a single mention of the word “Armenian”.

The number of Armenian schools was reduced on a yearly basis, there were practically no textbooks in Armenian since it was forbidden to use textbooks published in Armenia, whereas in Azerbaijan they were published in very limited numbers. The textbooks of history – particularly of Armenian history – compiled by Azerbaijani authors, contained distorted narratives offending the feelings of national identity of Armenians10.

The falsification of history, as it usually happens, pursued quite obvious political goals. The attempts of the Azerbaijani propaganda to present Armenians as non-indigenous and newcomers to Karabakh from elsewhere had quite definite underlying political objectives. Consequently, cultural and historical factors had a stronger impact than the economic ones: the Armenian population saw in those factors a threat to its existence and a justification for its anxieties11.

In this situation, the protest of Armenians living in the NKAO had taken the form of a never-ending movement for secession from Azerbaijan and re-unification with Armenia. The people of Nagorno Karabakh considered that as the only guarantee of their safe future and the possibility of avoiding the fate of Nakhijevan, another autonomous republic within Azerbaijani state. By 1979, less than 2% of the indigenous Armenians remained there.

The struggle of the Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh for the restoration of historical justice has taken various forms and methods, despite the Azerbaijani side’s attempts to suppress it. Already in the 20s the Central Committee of Azerbaijan Communist Party had often been forced to discuss issues related to the Karabakh movement. In the 20s and 30s, a number of leaders of Oblast’s and regional administrations subjected to repression on the charges of nationalism, and some Party structures of Karabakh were dissolved.

After Khrushchev’s Thaw in the 60s, certain liberalization of the social life made new forms of the movement of re-unification possible: signatures were collected for letters and petitions addressed to the highest state and party authorities of the Soviet Union. In 1963, a letter asking for “The re-unification of Nagorno Karabakh and all the adjacent Armenian regions with the Armenian SSR or their inclusion in the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic”, addressed to Nikita Khrushchev, was signed by 2,5 thousand people, mostly by representatives of the local intelligentsia (intellectuals).

In spite of all the obstacles created by the Azerbaijani authorities, this movement strengthened and expanded, and in 1965 a similar petition letter was signed by 45 thousand persons. Acknowledging the gravity of the situation, the Secretariat of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union adopted a special decision whereby it instructed the leaders of the communist parties of Armenia and Azerbaijan to elaborate joint proposals in regard to the status of the NKAO. However, the only “result” of it was a new wave of repression and detentions, as well as expelling the most prominent intellectuals from NKAO.

A new surge of social activeness became possible in 1977 when nationwide discussions of the new constitution of the USSR were initiated. During that period, the appeals and letters by NKAO citizens, collectives and organizations addressed to the CPSU and to the Council of Ministers of the USSR repeatedly raised the issue of the re-unification of Nagorno Karabakh with Armenia.

All this comes to prove that “the idea of re-unification, as a response to discrimination, was present in the consciousness of the population of NKAO and any chance of articulating it would immediately take the form of a mass movement, which was legal and peaceful in nature”.12




1. On November 4, 1921, March 20 and September 18, 1922, the Transcaucasian Regional Commission of the All-Union Communist (Bolshevik) Party drew the attention of Azerbaijan SSR on the necessity of enacting the decision regarding the formation of Nagorno Karabakh autonomy. On December 14, 1922, the Transcaucasian Regional Committee passed a new special decision about the implementation of the decision regarding the formation of Nagorno Karabakh autonomy. On December 22, 1922, the Union Council of the Transcaucasian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic issued a decree on the acceleration of the establishment of Nagorno Karabakh autonomy. On March 10, 1923, the Transcaucasian Regional Committee demanded once again that the Azerbaijan SSR authorities immediately solved the issue of NK autonomy, with Shushi as its centre. (А.Мелик-Шахназарян. Факты против лжи. Москва. Волшебный фонарь, 2009 (A. Melik –Shahnazatyan. Facts against Lies. Moscow, Volshebni Fonar, 2009, pp.57-58))

2. On July 22, 2002, during his meeting with a number of mass media representatives of Azerbaijan, Heydar Aliev referring to his own policy in the 1970s towards the NKAO, announced the following: “By this and by other means I was trying to increase the number of Azerbaijanis in Nagorno Karabakh and to decrease the number of the Armenians”. «Зеркало», July 23, 2002

3. Б.Мирзоян. Нагорный Карабах. Размышление над статистикой. «Вестник публичных наук» Академии наук Армянской ССР, N7. 1988 (B. Mirzoyan. Nagorno Karabakh. Thoughts over the Statistics. Herald of Social Sciences, Academy of Sciences of Armenian SSR. N7. 1988)

4. As a result of the demographic policy of the Azerbaijani authorities the non-Azeri population of the republic decreased from 37% (as of the data from the 1926 census) to 17% (as of the data from the 1989 census)

5. Нагорный Карабах. Историческая справка. Академия Наук Армянской ССР. Ереван, 1988 г. (Nagorno Karabakh: Historic Reference. Academy of Sciences of Armenian SSR. Yerevan, 1988)

6. Heydar Aliev (10.05.1923 – 12.12.2003) was a Soviet and Azerbaijani state official and Communist Party and political figure in Soviet Azerbaijan, President of the Committee for State Security (KGB) adjacent to the Council of Ministers of Azerbaijan SSR (1966-1969), First Secretary of the Central Committee of Azerbaijani Communist Party (1969-1982), member of Politburo of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (since 1982), First Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the USSR, Major-General of the Committee for State Security. Returning to Azerbaijan in July 1990, he was first elected a deputy to the Supreme Soviet of Azerbaijan SSR, Chairman of the Supreme Mejlis of Nakhijevan (Nakhchivan) Autonomous Republic (1991-1993), and then President of Azerbaijan (1993-2003).

7. People’s Economy of Azerbaijan SSR towards the 70th Anniversary of Great October. A compilation of materials. Quoted in S. Zolyan’s Nagorno Karabakh: the Problem and the Conflict. Yerevan, ‘Lingva’ Publishing «Лингва», 2001 (Rus.)

8. The main roads were constructed in a way that to reach Stepanakert from any regional centre one had to drive through the neighbouring Azerbaijani regions. Moreover, there were practically no asphalted roads in NKAO. The navigation services of Stepanakert Airport were located in Aghdam. Sarsang hydro-electric power plant and reservoir that were completely within the territory of Martakert region were controlled from the town of Mir-Bashir in Azerbaijan, where the water distribution was decided (nearly all water reserves, 87% of those, were directed to the irrigation of AzSSR regions neighbouring the NKAO).

9. 118 churches were closed down in the 1930s.

10. In the textbooks of history written by Azerbaijani authors, 1828 was mentioned as the year of the emergence of Armenians in Karabakh. All the Christian cultural and educational monuments were declared to be of Albanian-Azerbaijani heritage.

11. С. Золян. Нагорный Карабах: Проблема и конфликт. - Ереван. Издательство «Лингва», 2001 (S. Zolyan. Nagorno Karabakh: the Problem and the Conflict. Yerevan, ‘Lingva’ Publishing, 2001)

12. Ibid. 

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