Memories of January 20: “We Knew the Army Would Enter Baku…”

Radio Azadliq interviewed a former leader of the National Movement, Nemat Panahli, and asked him for his memories of January 20.

This article was originally published in Russian on

Radio Azadliq.


… but nobody expected such savagery from the Soviet army” –

Nemat Panahli

27 years have passed since USSR troops, 40,000 strong, made their bloody incursion into Baku. The city was seized under the personal command of the Minister of Defense of the USSR, by troops from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the KGB, regular units of the Soviet army and the navy, using heavy military equipment, helicopters and warships.

According to official data, on that fateful night, from the 19


to 20


of January 1990, 134 people died, around 700 were wounded, and 4 people disappeared without a trace. Only at seven in the morning on January 20 was it officially announced that the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev, had declared a state of emergency and established a curfew. By that time, 82 people had been killed, and 21 fatally wounded (they died in the hospital). Though more than a quarter century has passed, much remains unexplained about the bloody events. Who is guilty for this tragedy, and could it have been avoided?

What might have happened if barricades had not been set up in Baku?

“January 20 might not have happened, but only in the case that the Azerbaijanis had not struggled against the Soviet empire, had presented it with a guarantee of their eternal slavery and not come out in opposition to the annexation of Karabakh to Armenia”, Nemat Panahli, one of the leaders of the National Movement from those years, told Radio Liberty.

“If we had continued to work as slaves in the factories, workshops and fields and fed the Soviets, then of course a state of emergency and military forces would not have been used against us, and the events of January 20 would not have taken place. But then there wouldn’t have been independence, either.

“January 20 is an important day in the history of the Azerbaijani people. The foundations of independence were laid out on the squares in 1988, and the events of January 20, 1990 were the culmination of this process. If, before January 20, there was someone who expected justice from Moscow, then after these events everyone unequivocally rose up on the path to independence.

“The National Liberation Movement made it its goal to achieve independence from the USSR for Azerbaijan, and the Soviet empire tried with all its might to hold on to Azerbaijan and put an end to our struggle. There is nothing unnatural in this. This struggle had to end in blood. There was no other option. However, today some traitors assert that the Soviet Union disintegrated of its own accord and Azerbaijan was gifted independence. They say that even had there been no struggle, Azeerbaiajn would have become independent, like Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, in which there was no national movement. This is a criminal thought. It is thanks to the national liberation movements, which started in Azerbaijan, Georgia, the Baltic, and Ukraine, that the USSR fell apart, and that those peoples who didn’t struggle received independence. They owe their freedom to us.

“Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Putin and others acknowledge that the decisive factor in the collapse of the Soviet Union was the Karabakh question. From the day of its founding, the Soviet Union declared its primary goal to be the elimination of capitalism and creation of socialism throughout the entire world. 50 million people died during World War II, but not only did the USSR not disintegrate, it got even stronger. And the ‘Cold War’ with the West didn’t defeat it either. I don’t deny the role of the USA and Europe in the disintegration of the USSR, but the decisive factor was the national movements that began in some of its republics.

“True, now we see numerous injustices from the government of Azerbaijan, world powers are trying to make our country part of their spheres of influence, but Azerbaijan is independent – we have our anthem, our currency, army, state borders, and Moscow doesn’t appoint our leadership.

“We were fooled, thought that again we’d be dispersed with clubs”

On January 20, 1990 we expected military intervention. On January 13 the National Defense Council was created and I declared that we would fight for national independence and against the Armenian aggressors. At that time they had even collected peoples hunting rifles, but they armed the Armenians to the teeth, we didn’t have any other option than to declare self-defense. Since the republic was being led by Moscow lapdogs who were busy forcing the people to their knees, the people decided to defend themselves. Then it was declared that over the ten days there would be created self-defense cohorts to be sent to Karabakh.

“The government of the USSR had long been searching for a reason to crush the national movement, but couldn’t make an outright invasion; at that time they imagined themselves to be democrats, spoke about perestroika [reconstruction –


]. So it was they who orchestrated provocations in the form of the Armenian pogroms. Usually around a million people took part in rallies, we could control them, and so provocations were orchestrated after the rally had concluded, when the crowd of people were dispersing throughout the city. The Armenian pogroms were orchestrated to give an excuse to enter Baku and save the ‘poor Armenians from the Azerbaijani savages’.

“On January 15 the Supreme Soviet of the USSR made the decision to declare a state of emergency in the territories between Armenia and Azerbaijan, declared that the state of emergency in Baku and Ganja would be turned over to the control of local authorities. In 1988 a state of emergency had also been declared and the rallies were dispersed with clubs. Because of this we knew that this time there would also be intervention. The entire course of events pointed to the fact that they would stifle the Movement. If a state of emergency was declared, then troops would be brought into the city. Because of this, the population, under our leadership, blockaded all the entrances and exits from the city, as well as the military bases within the city.

“On January 16-17 a delegation under the leadership of Primakov visited the city, trying to convince us that there would not be a state of emergency. However, during that period all of Azerbaijan was on its feet, people were cooperating with us, giving information about the situation in the military bases, the movements of armored vehicles. We knew that a state of emergency had been declared in the military bases, and military hardware had been mobilized outside Baku. Because of this the city was barricaded. But we didn’t expect such large-scale savagery, such cruelty from the Soviet soldiers. We thought that we would be beat with clubs, like in 1988, arrested at most. But we didn’t expect what the troops did on January 20, we didn’t expect it…”, remembers Nemat Panahli.

Salim Haqverdiyev

Ana səhifəNewsMemories of January 20: “We Knew the Army Would Enter Baku…”