[Jacob Lassin]

When asked about his nationality, chess Grandmaster Garry Kasparov, a Jewish Armenian, states that he is a Bakinets (plural Bakintsy), a native of Baku – the capital of the former Azerbaijan SSR and the present day state of Azerbaijan (“The Caucasus”, 16). This idiosyncratic answer highlights the tendency of the city’s residents to identify primarily with the city and their fellow cohabitants rather than with their ethnicity. The Bakinets identity that Kasparov and many other Bakintsy profess draws on Baku’s popular, multicultural experience during the Soviet period. However, this is not the only cosmopolitan Bakinets identity which is part of Baku’s heritage. To understand the meaning of Bakinets identity as part of a transnational experience it is important to look to both the cultural Bakinets experience, the term I use for the vision of Bakinets identity from the Soviet period, and the commercial Bakinets, a term I use for the identity stemming from the oil boom and foreign investors and visitors who streamed in to Baku during the turn of the last century. It is crucial to understand both aspects of Baku’s past, their histories, and their relationship with one another, in order to understand the diversity of experience which constitutes Bakinets identity and how that identity has developed and continues to develop today.

Understanding Baku’s early history as a cosmopolitan city is crucial to understanding how any type of Bakinets identity emerged and how the past informs current conceptions of life as a Bakinets. Baku’s transformation from a sleepy, mostly Azeri provincial town into a well-known urban center occurred over the course of a few generations. In 1809, 95% of the population was Azeri, but by the end of the 19th century, the population was only 36% Azeri (35% Russian and 17% Armenian) (Badalov). This change was due to the industrial boom in Russia, fueled and sustained in large part by Baku’s oil. The oil industry and the businesses that served it provided opportunities for a massive influx of internal immigrants and brought in many foreigners, changing the city’s demographics seemingly overnight.

Oil was and continues to be a necessity throughout the world, and international firms came to Baku to gain access to the precious commodity. Famous families of the early 20th century like the Nobels owned oil fields in Baku and with these families were employees and hangers-on who introduced new European tastes and manners to the city (Goltz, 16). As a result, Baku became a transnational city where the native Azeri population was joined by immigrants from around the Russian Empire – mostly Russians, Armenians, and Jews, as well as representatives from European capitals. The result was an ethnically and religiously diverse society in a city politically dominated and nearly colonized by the Russian state and foreign commercial interests. This time in Baku was the model for the commercial Bakinets identity of today’s Baku, an exciting time of growth, moneymaking, and foreign exchange, but this life was and is limited to a select few.

The Western petroleum industry’s dominance over the city invariably exploited much of the labor force while only enriching a minority. However, this group also generated the wealth needed to change the landscape of Baku, distinguishing the city from its neighbors in the Caucasus and developing the distinct commercial Bakinets identity. Walking through Baku’s streets one sees many buildings like banks and train stations built in a European style, reminders of the Western elites who once held authority over the city ( In addition to these monuments to Western progress, the new populations in Baku took to a building project of their own adding their unique architectural touches to the city. Lutheran, Catholic, Russian Orthodox, and Armenian churches stood beside synagogues, mosques, and Muslim cemeteries ( The presence of so many different religious sites underscores that commercial Baku, cultural Baku has always been present. While today the two identities seem incompatible, one must remember that they are still based on the same city and history and cannot be separated totally from one another.

The Russian Empire’s demise signaled the end of the overtly commercial Bakinets identity, beginning a time of predominance for cultural Bakinets identity. Baku’s experience after the October Revolution there was much political experimentation in Azerbaijan, with a short-lived Bolshevik commune in Baku, the establishment of a secular, democratic Azerbaijani state, and finally with Bolshevik domination over Azerbaijan and its incorporation into the Soviet Union (de Waal, 62-4). The final victory of the Bolsheviks ensured that Bolshevik ideals and policies were a major factor in shaping Bakinets identity during the twentieth century. Most importantly for this development, perhaps, was the removal (both forced and voluntary) of the Western oil companies from Baku. This act effectively ended the rarefied world of the oilmen and their cohorts and with it life in the commercial Baku. Moreover, there was a reimagining of national identity in the Soviet Union. This question was not easily solved, and the official policy on nationality changed countless times in the early years of Soviet rule, more or less settling with the ratification of Stalin’s constitution in 1936. Soviet propaganda and popular culture relayed a constant trope of Soviet nationality policy, the frequently mentioned “friendship of the peoples” (druzhba narodov), which propagated the notion that there was a lack of any ethnic strife in the Soviet Union.

The notion of a “friendship of nations” may be an oversimplified view of ethnic relations in the Soviet Union, but in the case of Soviet Baku it often reflected something close to its reality. Thomas de Waal writes that Baku was the Soviet Union’s “most cosmopolitan city,” where it was considered bad form to inquire about a person’s nationality, mixed marriages were common occurrences, and the lingua franca was Russian (“The Caucasus,” 90). Baku residents lived lives that often transcended conventional ethnic boundaries to the point that these boundaries were rarely mentioned or given much thought in everyday life.

Aside from the mix of cultures and ethnicities populating Baku, cultural Bakinets identity was also developed through the unique music scene in the city. Jazz has been a key element of Baku culture since the 1930s (Duncan). While often the object of official scorn in the Soviet Union, jazz remained popular in Baku. Into the 1970s, a period often termed stagnation [zastoi] by the West, when the Soviet economy was faltering and the adherence to traditional political ideology was waning, jazz returned as a popular favorite. Baku’s jazz musicians combined traditionally Azeri folk music elements with jazz in a form called jazz mugam (Duncan). Aside from the new sound created in Baku, residents also identified with the sometimes chaotic structure of jazz compositions and the rough, nonconformist lifestyle of many jazz musicians resonated with many in Baku, especially its intelligentsia, and has since become an indelible part of the cultural Bakinets identity (“The Caucasus,” 91). Jazz culture lives on in Baku, and in 2005 the first Baku International Jazz Festival was held to celebrate the city’s unique contribution to world music (Duncan). Cosmopolitan jazz culture’s persistence in contemporary Baku stands as one of the few traces of a vibrant cultural Baku, showing the connections between commercial and cultural Bakinets identity.

Unfortunately, while cultural Bakinets identity was quite strong and well developed, it could not survive the end of the Soviet Union unscathed. Cultural Bakinets identity would follow the same path as the commercial Bakinets identity after the Russian Civil War. In the waning days of the Soviet Union, cultural Bakinets identity appeared to be faltering, replaced with a noticeable increase in Azeri nationalist sentiments and activities in Baku. This sentiment was bolstered by Azeri refugees streaming into Baku after uprisings in the predominantly Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh located in Azerbaijan beginning in the late 1980s (“The Caucasus,” 109). This was compounded by the founding of the Azerbaijani Popular Front in 1988, which advocated for Azerbaijani sovereignty and was becoming ever more radical in its positions and tactics (“The Caucasus,” 112). Eventually, the tensions proved too great and in January 1990, pogroms began against Armenians in Baku, which the government did little to stop. This led to a mass evacuation and eventual emigration of many of the city’s Armenians, followed by Jews and Russians (“Black Garden,” 105).

The situation only worsened with the finalcollapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Debate over Azeri and Armenian nationalism and the underlying tensions concerning Nagorno-Karabakh developed into a full-fledged war. The war ended in a stalemate, and to this day there has been no real resolution of the issue, with Nagorno-Karabakh declaring independence and existing effectively as a province of Armenia, but it has brought very real, severe consequences in its wake (“The Caucasus,” 127). The nationalist propaganda espoused by the Azerbaijani government made the remaining Armenians living in Azerbaijan feel unwelcome, contributing to a massive emigration of Armenians from the country generally and from Baku in particular. Moreover, the war did severe damage to the infrastructure and economy of Azerbaijan, causing unemployment and leaving many Baku residents searching elsewhere for opportunities. As a result, Baku has effectively homogenized, closing the book on cultural Bakinets identity in the city itself.

The end of the Nagorno-Karabakh War and the emergence of a relatively stable Azerbaijan have made it safe once more for Western oil companies to set up shop in Baku. For a select few Bakintsy, this has provided them with opportunities which were unheard of in the Soviet period: travel and education abroad, cars and luxury goods, and hobnobbing with Americans and other foreigners (“Black Garden,” 106). From the destruction of the Civil War and the end of the transnational city life which typified cultural Bakinets identity, there has been a reemergence of the elite, commercial Bakinets identity. A new cadre in Baku, centered around the president and his administration, in many ways reenacts the lives of the Russian aristocrats and European businessmen who controlled all of the wealth in the city during the initial oil boom, getting rich while great poverty abounded throughout the city and the country (“Black Garden,” 107). The resulting inequality has angered many in Azerbaijan and could boil over into social strife again, as during the Russian Revolution. However, those with power in Baku have found ways to quell discontent in the capital and around the country. The new commercial Bakintsy should not be seen as having abandoned all aspects of cultural Bakinets identity. For example, they have reinvigorated the local jazz scene with their patronage of the international festival. Nevertheless, it is the international aspect of the festival that is stressed and not the focus on Baku artists, taking cultural Bakinets identity and adapting it to the realities of commercial Bakinets life.

On the other side of the equation, cultural Bakinets identity has not entirely disappeared. There have been attempts by former Bakintsy to maintain a connection to their native city. One of the biggest boons to this preservation has been the Internet. The global nature of the Web makes it exceedingly simple for Bakintsy to connect with one another and reminisce about life in Baku. One website,, presents a forum where site users can share their memories about the city, post pictures of the city and city life, and simply celebrate being from Baku and the unique experience of life in one of the most diverse, cosmopolitan urban areas of the Soviet Union. does not only celebrate Soviet Baku, it also explores the late imperial, oil boom Baku as well. Its pictures and articles detailing the early developments of the oil industry, the building of new homes, churches, and other community buildings, and the descriptions of the city at the end of the nineteenth century all give a window into the nascent stages of a multicultural Baku ( This decision to extend the reminiscences on the site to the pre-revolutionary days parallels how commercial Bakinets identity incorporates elements of cultural Bakinets identity in the present day. In this case the opposite is occurring, with cultural Bakinets identity making mention of the commercial Bakinets past as a means of speaking of the cultural and social diversity in the city – not as a means of celebrating the commercial Baku but as a way to widen the view of the cultural richness of Baku and make a case that ethnic strife is not Baku’s only heritage.


Works Cited:

Thomas de Waal, Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through Peace and War (New York: New York University Press, 2003).

______, The Caucasus: An Introduction, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

Thomas Goltz, Azerbaijan Diary: A Rogue Reporter’s Adventures in an Oil-Rich, War-Torn, Post-Soviet Republic (Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 1998)., 2012.

Ishhad Duncan, “The Baku Jazz Festival: Reviving a Tradition in Azerbaijan,”, 27 Apr. 2005.