History is taught to us in silos. Though Pakistani history is linked to the destiny of Iran and the Central Asian republics, Pakistanis are not taught the history of Iran or of Central Asia. It is pedantic to see that separation of Azarbaijan from Iran by Tzarist Russia.
The Amu Darya separates Afghanistan from the Central Asian republics. While Russia moved towards Iran and snatched Azerbaijan, Lord Curzon first tried to extend the British empire to the Oxus (Amu darya) and but was forced to withdraw back by the fierce Afghans.
After the October revolution, Stalin dislocated all the Chechans and Tartars and sent them to Siberia. They returned and wanted to secede from Russia.
BOOK REVIEW: Russia’s conquest of Azerbaijan by Khaled Ahmed
On the Religious Frontier: Tsarist Russia and Islam in the Caucasus By Firouzeh Mostashari, IB Tauris 2006, Pp203; Price £45, Available in bookstores in Pakistan
The Brits did not come to settle in India. A few thousand ran India and got Indians to help them in administration, but in the Caucasus ordinary Russians migrated and became the ‘privileged’ lower classes over the local lower classes but not over the local elites. Thus when ‘revolution’ came to the region, it came with the Russians, and the Azerbaijani intelligentsia gravitated to it
The book is actually about how the Russians separated a part of Azerbaijan from Persia and later incorporated it into the Soviet Union. Under the tsars, the policy was to advance towards the Caucasus as a kind of civilising mission, a Toynbean formulation of acceptance of ‘challenge’ that raises nations to empires, which the Americans did too in regard to the Red Indians. In actual fact, it was Russia’s encounter with Islam because the varieties of Christian faith encountered in Armenia and Georgia were more easily subsumed in the Orthodox Church and their elites accepted into the Court in St Petersberg. There was also the long-drawn out war with Turkey with whom the Muslims of Caucasia identified.
Russia looked at its southern neighbourhood from a number of points of view. They saw the Caucasus as the border across which other Europeans were making their colonial encroachments. It also saw the ‘savage’ people living there as a challenge for the civilising spirit of a new Russia given birth by Peter the Great. Orientalists stoked the imagination as usual and the initial expertise on Muslim Asia was not very enlightened. For instance, they saw the Caucasian Muslims from the prism of their relations with Turkey, feeling threatened by them when the relations were bad and romanticising them when they were good.
Orientalist N Dubrovin for example thought that Sunnis were good because they believed they had to obey whoever was in power over them provided he let them practise shariat. The Shiites were rated ‘bad’ and as enemies by him because they wanted the tsar to be a Muslim before they could accept him. This applied to the Transcaucasian Azerbaijan where the khanates were Turkic but Shiite. The 19th century Russian orientalists dubbed the Muslims as Tatars, stereotyping them as lazy, dishonest and conniving. Dubrovin recalls early British assessment of the Afghan Pakhtun when he sees them ‘spending all their time idly when not stealing their neighbour’s horse’.
Just as the Americans grabbed land belonging to the Red Indians, Russians first diagnosed the Transcaucasus as ‘turbulent frontier’, then set about evolving policy to pacify it. The invasion began in 1804 and ended in 1828 leading to wars with Persia which owned the region and gave it the honour of deriving its Turkic crown prince from it. What they invaded were the khanates owing allegiance to the Persian Shah. The khanates made their job easy by pursuing internecine quarrels just like the Indian princes did when East India Company arrived in India. The Gulistan Treaty, which Russia signed with a defeated Persia in 1813, made over the khanates of Karabakh, Ganje, Sheki, Shirvan, Derbent and Kuba to Russia, precisely the region which is today known as Azerbaijan.
Generals ruled the region thereafter with General Ermolov becoming the virtual ruler, alternating policies of localism with those of extreme cruelty with great poets like Pushkin immortalising them in their poetry. The second Russo-Persian War (1826-28) ended in the Turkmanchai Treaty which gave Russia the khanates of Nakhichevan and Erevan (later to be the capital of Armenian Soviet Republic) to complete the laying down of Russia’s boundary with Persia. Defeated Persia paid war indemnities and gave Russians exclusive rights of navigation in the Caspian Sea. It also gave Russia the first extraterritorial rights on its soil, thus accepting its hegemony.
The next governor in the person of General Vorontsov in 1845 was a Russian hero of the Napoleonic wars. What the region got in the shape of administration was his gradualist assimilatory policy towards the conquered territory. His policy it was that sought to integrate the Caucasian elites into the Russian upper crust in St Petersberg. He gave land rights to the old elites and allowed landlords to become civil servants in the Russian government. This pattern became dominant in the decades to come till the rising Azerbaijani intelligentsia began to mimic everything Russian, only to become involved in the struggle for independence and rights later on, more or less in the same process that was followed by the intelligentsia in India.
The Brits did not come to settle in India. A few thousand ran India and got Indians to help them in administration, but in the Caucasus ordinary Russians migrated and became the ‘privileged’ lower classes over the local lower classes but not over the local elites. Thus when ‘revolution’ came to the region, it came with the Russians, and the Azerbaijani intelligentsia gravitated to it. All over Central Asia, the same kind of development among the local educated class took place with many sacrifices that the Soviet Union later celebrated. Hasan Beg Zardabi, HZA Taghiev, Nariman Narimanov and Ali Mardan Topchibashov led literary and social movements that finally joined the larger Soviet revolutionary stream in later times.
The anti-colonial backlash in Azerbaijan developed on the basis of the colonial experience, just as in India the anti-British reaction most effectively came from the westernised elite. The Russian intelligentsia was struggling against the tsarist regime for a long time and it often found itself in solidarity with the Muslims of the borderlands. The chemistry was bilateral as both wanted strength from each other. But the Azerbaijani intelligentsia lost its moorings in the Islamic roots as it advanced towards the modernist concept of human rights rather than the sharia. This had a long term consequence after 1991 when the Soviet Union broke up and Azerbaijan found itself a free republic.
The pan-Islamic vision came from the Caucasus and was centred on the Khilafat of Turkey, but the leaders who thought of a global Muslim community were from the Crimean Tatars who actually thought of pan-Turkism and were not clerical in their outlook. In India it appealed only to the clergy and Congress and it swayed all the Muslims. Today the people of Azerbaijan are spiritually separated from Iran by the weight of their modernist association with the Soviet Union even though the new Azeri nationalism is hardly nostalgic about Soviet days.
In 1905 the Muslims of the Caucasus were holding their first Congress to call for their rights together with the social-democrat Russians. Religion came to the fore but the rise of the Khilafat Movement kept Shia Azerbaijan away from it. In the First World War Russia was arrayed against Turkey and St Petersberg was convinced that the Caucasian Muslims would not be loyal as soldiers because of their pro-Turkish sentiments and kept them out of the army. The nationality policies of the Tsar and then of the Soviet Union under Stalin left a deep impression on the Muslim consciousness in these regions. Falling within the Russian Federation, they have not been freed as the other Muslims living in new republics. *