On January 20, 1990, Soviet troops entered Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, with tanks and artillery under the direct orders of President Mikhail Gorbachev. By declaring a state of emergency and sending in the armed forces, Gorbachev was engaging in a last-ditch effort to keep the country in the Soviet Union. But it proved to be a doomed attempt. Instead of silencing dissenters, the attack only brought them closer together, ultimately resulting in Azerbaijan’s independence from the USSR.
By 1988, independence-minded Azerbaijanis had formed political groupings like the Popular Front as a result of their clashes with Soviet leadership and the neighboring Soviet Republic of Armenia. Leading up to 1990, the Front had organized demonstrations against communist officials and in favor of Azerbaijan’s independence from the Soviet Union. Finally on January 15, the Popular Front and other dissenters took over many areas of Azerbaijan, ousting communist officials. Foreseeing an attempt to regain control by the Kremlin, on January 18 the Popular Front barricaded the main access routes into Baku.
To prevent further disturbances and to end the efforts of the independence movement to overthrow the communist regime, President Gorbachev and Defense Minister Yazov declared a state of emergency in Baku and deployed the Red Army–a decision Gorbachev would later call “the biggest mistake of his political career.”
The night of January 18th, Soviet special forces stormed into Baku. They destroyed the central television station, blew up broadcast transmitters, cut the phone lines, and cut off the power grid. More than 26,000 troops entered the city, killing innocent people in their attempt to crush the opposition. The Soviet Union later claimed that the Azerbaijani Popular Front opened fire first, but no evidence was ever found to support this claim.
Pro-independence sympathizers were arrested, imprisoned, and tortured. More than 130 people died during the attack, 800 were injured, 841 were arrested, and many others went missing—including women and children. Soviet soldiers attacked ambulances and hospitals and burnt more than 200 houses and 80 cars. The fighting continued for three days, and Baku remained in a state of emergency for four more months.
By destroying the TV station and cutting off power, Soviet authorities managed to stop nearly all news of the attack from reaching the rest of Azerbaijan and the international community. The only station remaining was Radio Liberty. Through its efforts, dissenters were able to organize against the Soviet invasion.
In the end, however, all of the Soviet efforts to keep Azerbaijan under Soviet rule proved worthless. The Soviet Union’s attack on Baku had the opposite effect. Instead of suppressing dissidents and eliminating the independence movement, it further encouraged Azerbaijanis in their drive for freedom from communist rule.
Two months after these dreadful events, Azerbaijan declared its independence. And in December 1991—almost two years later—Azerbaijan officially became independent with the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
These dreadful events have become known as Black January, and January 20th has become a day of commemoration for the victims of the Soviet invasion. It is the day in which hundreds of Azerbaijanis stood up to communist rule and gave their last full measure of devotion to the cause of freedom.