Azerbaijan | “States and ethnicities influenced by the Russian history” series

Alin Dosoftei
17 min readDec 2, 2021


This article is part of the series “States and ethnicities influenced by vicissitudes in the Russian history”. State and ethnic boundaries in areas affected by Russian expansion may appear nowadays as a given, with a reality of their own, but lots of them were shaped, trimmed, sprinkled, disjointed or mixed and melted together as a result of Russian influence. This influence derives both from intentional decisions of Russian authorities and from unexpected unintentional twists in the Russian history.

The contemporary state of Azerbaijan and the Azerbaijani people are one of these cases. The concept of the Azerbaijani people itself is a fairly recent one, becoming increasingly formalized in the first half of the 20th century. Previously they were simply identifying as Turks, also as Muslims, when in contrast with other religions, or as a specific tribe or clan. They are part of a continuum of Turkish populations stretching from the Balkans to the Caspian Sea, all of them belonging to the same Oghuz Turkic branch.

The historical path of the contemporary Azerbaijanis was strongly influenced by the ascension of the Safavid dynasty in the 16th century, which emerged amongst them and grew into a large empire. Although they had a similar ethnic background to that of the Ottoman dynasty, these two political entities ended up in a major rivalry, grinding each other’s resources in a conflict that neither side was able to win decisively.

It was not only about too little land for too much military prowess, but also about different ideological approaches. They had in fact lots of aspects in common, like for example a rather meritocratic system, when compared to other political structures of those times. But there was an aspect where they went in opposite directions.

The Ottomans were not invested in the universal “truth” of a specific religion and were open to manage and work with a variety of religious identities. The Safavids were invested in a specific religious sense of meaning and order and they sought to convert everyone else to it. Initially they were a religious order deemed as too heterodox by the mainstream Islam, mostly focused on the charisma of the leader. And they also had lots of followers among the Anatolian Turks nominally under the Ottoman rule.

When the Safavids conquered Tabriz and it was clear they were turning into a political power that has to provide administration and organization for the people they rule, they realized that they don’t have specific books with a clear ideology and they imported Shia clerics from Lebanon. Thus that initial heterodox religious movement turned towards a rather mainstream Shia direction, albeit with some specific nuances providing authority and organization.

The original Shia Islam can be too much about an underdog perspective of a perpetual contender that feels wronged and just revolves around the abyss of assuming power. All the contemporary states with Shia majority, namely Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan and Bahrain, owe this feat specifically to the Safavid dynasty. The Safavids were the opposite of the Ottomans, they were very motivated to forcefully convert the population to their specific set of beliefs.

As the Safavids were not able to conquer Anatolia from the Ottomans, the Anatolian Turks inspired by this religious movement were not affected by its subsequent veering towards mainstream Shia Islam. In a syncretism with even older heterodox Anatolian Turkish religiosity, it grew among them what is now the contemporary Alevi religion. Its ethos is not really Muslim, not even Abrahamic, it has a rather Altaic shamanistic mindset at its core.

Besides sliding towards a more mainstream Shia Islam, the Safavids also adopted Persian bureaucracy for the practical administration of the empire and thus the Persian culture and ethnic element became increasingly important in the new state. This had some similarities to the Ottoman taking over and assumption of the Byzantine Greek structure, only that in this case the Ottomans managed to keep a larger overall perspective in the background of the mind, as a result of the fact that they were not so invested in a specific self-centered “truth”. Thus they did not seek to convert the Greeks en masse to Sunni Islam, the Ottoman state continued with a Turkish background structure and, in the subsequent age of nationalism, this turned directly into a bloody divorce between the ethnicities that contributed to the Ottoman organization.

On the other hand, the Safavids in their pursuit of the belief in an ultimate truth did not have such a larger perspective in the background and they converted the Persians en masse to Shia Islam. They were not forced like the Ottomans to keep providing the overall background sense of organization for such a multicultural political structure. They were instead forcing the Persians and other populations to assume the same belief tenets. As the Persian element was forced into the same religious allegiance, they simply assumed this new structure as their own. Persian became the language of the administration, while Turkish continued to be the language of the army. This situation continued with the subsequent Afshar and Qajar dynasties that also had Turkish background and simply took over the earlier Safavid structures.

This modus vivendi started to unravel with the advent of the modern nationalism. The issue of nationalism became even more prominent after the rise to power of the Pahlavi dynasty in 1921, the first ethnic Persian dynasty in a long time. They inherited the multicultural structure created centuries earlier by the Safavids with a mixture of Turkish and Persian elements and, when facing the modern questions of identity, they increasingly veered towards a Persian-centric nationalism. This was in a context in which the Persians were only about half of the population of this state comprising what was left of the earlier Safavid territory. The Azerbaijani Turks were between a quarter and a third of the population, with the rest comprised by other minorities. The Turks were living compactly in the north-west, most of them not even knowing Persian.

The Pahlavis banned the development of a modern education and mass-media in Turkish, while heavily promoting the Persian language. They also promoted a disparaging image of Turks as primitive and barbarian, in order to justify such measures and keep them ashamed of themselves.

By this time, another important development regarding the modern identity of these Turks was unfolding further north. Earlier on, up to the beginning of the 19th century the Russians progressively conquered Caucasus from the Qajar dynasty. The conquests could not spread significantly beyond the Araz river, which became the long-term border between these two empires. As a result, the Turks north of this river ended up under a long-term Russian occupation. The majority of the people sharing the same ethnographic and dialectal nuances remained though south of the river, about double or triple the number of those of the north.

The newly conquered ones were called Tatars by the Russians, as this was the denomination they were used to regarding Turkic populations. When realizing that they need to be more specific, the Russian authorities developed a further level of classification as Caucasian Tatars. They suppressed too the development of a modern identity and use of language among these people, with an added layer of a significant religious difference. They sought a Russification and Christianization process, seeking to dislodge them from the Turkish-Persian cultural structure. This still could not prevent some local development of a modern sense of identity.

Then the 1917 October Revolution happened and the Russian Empire collapsed. The local nationalist elements proclaimed the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic, the first successful democratic republic in the Turkic and Muslim worlds, also the first Muslim-majority nation to grant women equal political rights with men.

The name of Azerbaijan that they adopted was not in fact that of the land north of Araz river where the republic was proclaimed. Up to that moment, it was the name of the land south of the river, inhabited compactly by the same Turkic population, but which was not conquered by the Russians. The idea was that the people on the both sides of the river will need to unify anyway. This was more about a territorial denomination and state building, not so much about ethnic identity, as they considered themselves Turks and Turkish was declared as state language.

The republic lasted only almost two years between 1918 and 1920, until being liquidated by the Bolsheviks, who instead proclaimed the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic as part of the Soviet Union. The Soviet authorities found useful the use of name of Azerbaijan, as it was opening ways to get involved in the neighboring Persia. Later on, when the relations with Atatürk cooled off, they found this denomination also useful to isolate the people from possible influence of the Turkish state.

The same as in the previous independent Azerbaijani stint, initially it was rather about a territorial denomination, with an eye on the neighboring Persia, as the language itself was called Turkish, included in 1922 as one of the six working languages of the Soviet Union. The situation changed as the relations with the Turkish Republic turned sour. In 1936–1937, the term “Turkish” was replaced by “Azerbaijani” in state and court documents. And then, in 1956, the official language in the Azerbaijani Soviet Republic (along Russian) was called Azerbaijani.

Around this linguistic topic, there is also the aspect of modern language systematization and standardization, since the Oghuz Turkish continuum from the Balkans to the Caspian Sea has some dialectal variation. The new Turkish Republic abandoned the Ottoman Turkish, a court language strongly influenced by Persian and Arabic and developed from the vernacular a modern Turkish language, with a focus on the Altaic vocabulary and grammar. This obviously does not answer to the dialectal diversity with Turkey itself and people simply use interchangeably the official variant and their dialectal nuances as they see fit.

As for the initial development of modern Turkish in the Soviet Azerbaijan, it grew with some focus on the local vernacular dialect, but also with some inspiration from the development of modern Turkish in Turkey. After the Soviet authorities decided to cultivate a separate Azerbaijani identity, the development of the newly minted Azerbaijani language was deliberately directed towards being as different as possible from the modern Turkish from Turkey.

This modern Azerbaijani language did not have significant influence on the people south of Araz who remained part of the Persian state, as the borders were tightly closed for most of the Soviet period. As I mentioned before, on the other side of the border, with the advent of the Pahlavi dynasty in 1921, the use of the non-Persian languages was heavily suppressed. And the Soviet hope to spread the Communist ideology in Persia, or Iran, after the name change in 1935, did not materialize.

In the context of the Second World War, the Soviets occupied Iranian Azerbaijan in the years 1941–1945 and they promoted the use of the Azerbaijani language, with an influx of intellectuals from the Soviet Azerbaijan. When the war ended, the other major victorious powers pressured Stalin to retreat from Iran. All he could do was to install a puppet regime in the Iranian Azerbaijan, but it was quickly obliterated by the Iranian army after the Soviet retreat from the area. After that, the repression of the Turkish identity and language in the Iranian Azerbaijan turned even harsher.

The specific approach of the Pahlavi dynasty to the modern concept of identity set in motion new historical chapters for the specific political organization and psychological structure inaugurated by the Safavids. In the past, the Safavids really developed a sense of political identity that continued to feel relevant while integrating the Turkish and Persian cultural elements, plus other cultures (marginally) included on the way. At its core, it really provided some fulfilling psychological depth that continued to be relevant and sustain some structure for the subsequent dynasties of Turkish origin.

The popular reaction to the Persian-centric nationalism of the Pahlavis was not so much a counterpart growth of other disgruntled nationalisms. At least, this did not get much popular traction in those decades. The fear of modernity and the desire to fall back on the simple clarity of the more traditional past did not turn either into the mess of a myriad of modern Islamist ideologies going in all kinds of disparate directions that pretend representing the true essence of Islam.

Instead, the public discontent with the direction the country was going in fell back on that Safavid political and organizational clarity of the mind that provided a relevant profound sense of organization. This deflated much of those tendencies of modern Muslims that go in all kinds of disparate directions, each convinced of their truth and turning everything into an organizational mess. The problem with the way Khomeini hijacked the situation and provided his own nuances in what followed the 1979 Iranian Revolution was that he just squandered this Safavid inheritance. He was like a moth attracted to the light bulb of modernity and hating himself for being too much in a position of a psychological satellite to that.

It was like a landlord who spent some time in the modern world and, when feeling that environment too corrosive for his worldview, he returned to his estate to do something about the situation. Here he has something to fall back on, but his mind continues to be consumed by the internal conflict between the attraction of modernity and the way this rubs his ego the wrong way in some aspects.

He does not pay attention to the estate itself, he has no respect for that, the only thing that he respects is that modern world that disrupted too much his sense of self. He just sees that estate as a material resource to get back at that modern world in a way that would make his self-centered views about it victorious. He is enthused by all kinds of grandiose plans to achieve that and he just sells assets and plots of land until he squanders everything.

As for those plans, they don’t have real success chances because they are badly conceived in the first place. They are just some narrow-minded revanchist plans of a moth seeking to find a way to control the source of energy of the light bulb, they don’t have a detached overall broader view of the situation. The sense of self is too disrupted.

The ideology and political structure developed by Khomeini is so dependant on those it professes boundless hatred for, while it is so devoid of substance of its own. All the energy and motivation is provided by so-called Satanic governments and enemies of God. On the surface, they hate them boundlessly, in reality they have too much respect for them, like a moth disrupted from its own sense of self. In this process, Khomeini fell back on the Safavid sense of religious organization, but he just found it useful as a cultural asset, without paying attention to its substance. He used it for some other purposes and it got squandered along the way.

Nowadays, the younger Iranian generations are among the least religious in the world, because the Islamist regime progressively turned religion into a joke without any real substance. The substance of the regime is United States, Israel and other targets of overt hatred and subconscious respect.

This unraveling of the sense of organization set in motion by the Safavids poses serious questions about the future for the constituent parts. Those among the younger generations of the Persian element that are concerned about the overall direction in life seek to discover a substance specifically in the Persian ethos, especially with a hope to find something in the pre-Islamic times of the Persian history. The non-Turkic minorities, like the Kurds, the Baluchi and the Arabs increasingly find the solution in the separatist nationalism.

As for the Turkic minorities, they are in a haze and they increasingly need to deal with that. They really were involved in the Iranian statehood for centuries and identified with that, especially the Azerbaijani Turks. Sometimes they are more nationalistic about the Iranian statehood than the Persians themselves. Unlike the other minorities, they are significantly represented in economy, administration and politics, except the administration of the provinces they live compactly in, where their access is forbidden because of the Persians’ suspicions of secession.

But, as the psychological structure put in motion by the Safavids unravels, they need to deal with the new situation. Older generations and parts of the rural population less in touch with what is going on can continue to live in the past and revolve around Shia Islam as the substance that gives meaning to the Iranian statehood. For many of them the Sunni Anatolian Turks can rather be seen as enemy infidels. Some of those with strong personal involvement in the economy, administration and politics of the state seek to identify with the Persian element. The answer of all these groups is that it is rather the Republic of Azerbaijan that should unite back with Iran, as part of the Iranian patrimony.

And then there is the rest of the Azerbaijani Turks, who went through the process of unraveling of the Safavid psychological structure and who also don’t feel personally invested in the functioning of the Iranian state in the Persian-centric limits imposed by the authorities. Things changed considerably for them in the recent decades as a result of increased contacts with Turkey. Increased travel, as well as work and education in Turkey changed dramatically their worldview. Turkey is so modern and developed when compared to Iran and all the Persian disparaging image about supposedly backward Turks falls apart.

Additionally, the Turkish TV channels became a huge hit. Formally, they are banned in Iran, but the authorities do not seek to enforce this anymore, since they realize that this would cause serious unrest and can really set the powder keg on fire. They have to tread carefully and live with this informal reality, while they continue the enforcement of formal restrictions that can be controlled inside Iran, like the ban on education in Turkish and severe restrictions on local mass-media in Turkish.

The independence of the Republic of Azerbaijan in 1991 was also an important turning point that determined waves among the Azerbaijani Turks. Not necessarily in outwardly secessionist directions, but the central Iranian authorities again acted in bad faith and clumsily and unraveled the situation even more. So much for their professed championing of Islam, they started to support the Christian Armenians in their conflict with Azerbaijan. They colonized Kurds at the border with Azerbaijan, they sought to stoke more tensions between Azerbaijani Turks and the Kurds to the west and they increased the repression and central control inside Iranian Azerbaijan.

However, in the recent years, it looks like the Iranian Azerbaijani Turks are increasingly in touch with Turkey rather than with Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan is plagued by too much corruption, you need to bribe your way at every step inside the country. Things don’t work well, the dictatorial regime of the Aliev dynasty stunts too much the social development. The regime is basically lucky with fossil fuels to keep some appearance of a developed state with some modern buildings in Baku and PR campaigns abroad.

Turkey has the soft cultural power and this is valid for the people in the Republic of Azerbaijan itself. They are glued too to the Turkish TV channels. In both the Republic of Azerbaijan and in the Iranian Azerbaijan knowledge of the modern standardized Turkish developed in Turkey became widespread and lots of words and expressions entered in the local speech. It looks like turning into a situation similar to that in Turkey itself, with knowledge of both the standardized variant and the local dialect.

The modern standardized Azerbaijani language failed to produce a significant cultural environment in the republic, while in Iran there was no such cultivation in the first place. It is the vernacular and the soft power of the standardized Turkish from Turkey, which increasingly turn into a continuum.

It remains to be seen how the situation with evolve. Regarding the Russian engineering of the Azerbaijani nationality, those from Iran who belong to the same ethnographic and dialectal group never grew to identify as an Azerbaijani ethnicity. In the first place, their identity was and continues to be heavily repressed. They just continued to call themselves Turks, the Persians call them Turks and when necessary they add the adjective Azerbaijani Turks.

The Soviet approach had some similarities to another stunt they performed with the interwar Moldavian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. This was established on the left bank of the Dniester river, which was not part of the historical Moldavian territory. Moldavia was on the right bank, while the left bank was Tatar territory for centuries. When the Russians occupied the area, they performed a genocidal ethnic cleansing against the Tatars and brought other people, including Moldavian Romanians from nearby.

Then the Soviets created that Moldavian Autonomous Republic as a stepping point into Romanian Moldavia. There they began to cultivate a separate Moldavian identity and language, even though the Moldavians are just a Romanian ethnographic subgroup. In the Azerbaijani case, the initial step was a local initiative of the people themselves, but limited to a territorial definition, not necessarily linguistic and ethnic. But when the Soviets took the initiative, they expanded the scope with further steps.

The initial situation was similar for both cases, with an ethnographic subgroup of an ethnicity that the Soviets wanted to turn into a separate nation. Only that in the Romanian case this subgroup already had a name as Moldavians and the Soviets sought to turn it into a separate nation. In the Turkish case, it was about an identifiable ethnographic subgroup, but without a specific denomination. The Soviets had to work to turn the territorial scope of Azerbaijan into an ethnic one.

Another important difference is that in the Moldavian case the part of the ethnographic subgroup that did not end up under Russian occupation had united with other Romanian subgroups and created the Romanian state. An equivalent case would have been if the Azerbaijani Turks had united with Turkey. Instead, they remain in a state that suppresses their identity.

In hindsight, the Russian occupation of those north of the Araz river inadvertently liberated them when later on the Soviet state imploded. The effects of Russian historical influences are not only about the intended pursuits of the authorities, but also about the unintended consequences resulting from the twists in their history. In this case, it is the same result as that of the Soviet occupation of Outer Mongolia that in hindsight inadvertently liberated them from the Chinese. Although in both cases, the chunks that make the contemporary independent states of Azerbaijan and Mongolia comprise only a small part of the population they are supposed to be the homeland of. There are much more Azerbaijan Turks in Iran than in Azerbaijan and also there are much more Mongols in China than in Mongolia.

Had the Russians conquered more, now there would be more free Azerbaijani Turks and Mongolians, considering how suppressed their identity is in Iran, respectively China. In the former case, they in fact occupied the proper Azerbaijan from Iran with its main city Tabriz, but they did not keep it in the peace negotiations. Instead they sought to expand along the shores of the Caspian Sea and they kept all the southern shores for a while. But this area is not populated by Turks. A part of that territory south of Araz remained long term under Russian occupation and now it is part of Azerbaijan. Towards the very south it is populated by the Talysh, an Iranian people.

And you should also keep in mind that there were also cases of partial occupation like that of Outer Manchuria, in which they performed an ethnic cleansing and colonized Russians instead. And, in the Azerbaijani case, there is also the thought that in case the Russian conquest did not occur, now the Azerbaijani Turks would have had an even more significant share in the population of Iran, making much more clear that it is a multi-ethnic state. This is not so much the case for the Mongols, who, with or without Outer Mongolia in China, do not increase significantly their share and that of minorities in general.

All these cases of partial Russian occupation of a population without being followed by decisive ethnic cleansing also determined some level of divergent evolutions for the people separated by the Russian and later Soviet border. In the case studied in this video, nowadays, those from Iran find those from Azerbaijan too irreligious. In fact, Azerbaijan is one of the most secular Muslim countries, while this nuance has begun to grow by this moment only among the younger Iranian Azerbaijani Turkish generations. On the other hand, those from Azerbaijan are shocked and dejected when they notice that those from Iran are in good terms with the Armenians and see no problem in visiting Armenia. On both sides, they need to put some effort and see what to do with the divergent nuances if they want a functional common ground.

Around the topic of this video, it is also interesting to think how the situation would have evolved for the Ottoman history if they took a religious turn like the Safavids. That would have meant a conversion en masse of the conquered people to their preferred branch of Islam. The Muslim Greeks would have played an important role, given the readily available administrative expertise they had. And given that they were converted en masse, not just a trickle, the Ottomans would just have found convenient to rely on the Greek ethos for that. They would not have been forced as in the real Ottoman history to continue to provide a background overall organizational structure. The age of nationalism would see them in a hazy state of mind because of the centuries-long identification with the Turkish-Greek political structure, while the Muslim Greeks would take over the overall control of the situation and heavily suppress the Turkish identity.