The Azeri (Azerbaijani) political leader and activist Mammad Rasulzade (1884–1955) was the president of the short-lived Republic of Azerbaijan between 1918 and 1920. During the first years of the 20th century, he inspired new feelings of nationalism among the Azeri people, and he is regarded in contemporary Azerbaijan as a national hero.
Mammad Amin Rasulzade was born in Novkhane, near the present Azeri capital of Baku, on January 31, 1884. The Azeri language at the time was written in the Persian alphabet, and his name has been transliterated into Latin lettering in several ways. For several centuries, what is now Azerbaijan had bounced between Iranian and Russian control, even though the Azeris themselves were a Turkic people.
Growing up in a religious household, Rasulzade attended a Russian-administered Islamic school and then moved on to Baku's Technical College. Even as a college student, he was interested in politics and began writing articles for magazines that tried to stir up opposition to Russian control. He worked as a printer's apprentice, gaining useful skills as he wrote for an edited a variety of publications that had a progressive Muslim slant.
Although it failed, the Russian Revolution of 1905 strengthened the nationalist movements fomenting at the periphery of the Russian empire. With renewed energy, Rasulzade threw himself into political activism and writing, in 1908 completing a play, The Light in the Darkness, that was performed in Baku. The following year, under pressure from Russian authorities, he fled Baku and allied himself with the ethnically Azeri Iranian revolutionary leader Sattar Khan. Rasulzade could speak and write Persian, and while in Iran he continued writing and founded a political party called New Iran. A Russian invasion of Iran in 1911 forced him to flee once again, however. This time he moved to Istanbul, Turkey, where he alternated writing with his work organizing Azeri progressive forces from afar. In 1913, during a Russian amnesty occasioned by the 300th anniversary of the Romanov dynasty, Rasulzade was allowed to return to Baku.
Back at home, Rasulzade worked to define an Azeri national consciousness. Although numbering in the tens of millions, the Azeris never had a country of their own. While their language is related to Turkish and is mutually intelligible with Turkish to a degree, they were dispersed among several different countries, and they had never been strongly defined as a specific ethnic group. (Even today, Iran is home to more Azeris than is Azerbaijan itself.) Rasulzade not only inspired Azeri national consciousness but actually gave the ethnic group its name. They had traditionally been known as Tatars (which was inaccurate), or were described simply as Muslims. Rasulzade called his people Azerbaijani Turks, which soon evolved into the present-day terms Azerbaijani and Azeri.
Rasulzade was elected as the chairman of Musavat in 1917, and the following year he became head of the Azerbaijan National Council, also known as Milli Shura. After the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the years of bloodshed leading to the end of World War I, borders in the area were fluid, and clashes between ethnic Azeris and Russian forces flared. In the so-called March Days at the end of March of 1918, several thousand Azeris lost their lives, and Rasulzade and his Azeri nationalist compatriots sensed that their time had come. In April the new Bolshevik government in Russia, beset by resistance on several fronts, tried to organize Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, and part of eastern Turkey into a new state called the Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic. Little more than month later, on May 28, 1918, Rasulzade, in his capacity as head of the National Council, declared Azerbaijan's independence. Although he had never held any governmental or legislative post, Rasuzade was the new country's clear leader. The new flag of the Republic of Azerbaijan was adopted on November 9, 1918, and it remains the flag of the modern country of Azerbaijan.
The speech Rasulzade gave on that occasion remains a founding document of the state of Azerbaijan, and its anniversary is celebrated annually there as National Flag Day.
“The banner of liberty once hoisted will never be lowered again,” Rasulzade thundered (as quoted in Azerbaijan International). The three-color flag, Rasulzade explained, symbolized “Turkic freedom, Islamic culture, and modernity,” as quoted by the Azer News of Baku. The flag's top blue stripe stood for the cultural connections between Azeris and other Turkic peoples; its central red stripe symbolized modernity and democracy; and its bottom green stripe indicated affiliation with Islam and Islamic civilization.
The first incarnation of the Republic of Azerbaijan lasted just under two years, but it accomplished innovations on several fronts. The country was the first secular democracy in the Muslim world, and the first to allow women to vote. In 1919, while putting together funding from Azeri oil executives, Rasulzade was responsible for establishing Baku State University, the first modern, Western-style university in the eastern Muslim world. In his time free from governing, he found time to teach courses in Ottoman literature at the university.
In April of 1920, after consolidating its control of Russia, the Soviet Union's Red Army invaded the Republic of Azerbaijan. The Azeris put up stiff resistance, with some 20,000 losing their lives, but they were ultimately defeated and Azerbaijan was incorporated into a revived Transcaucasian Republic. It later became the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic within U.S.S.R. Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin stated explicitly that Azerbaijan's rich petroleum resources were the motivation for the invasion.
Rasulzade fled to the mountain village of Lahij, Azerbaijan, where he hid out but was betrayed when a letter to Baku written by one of his friends was intercepted. Taken into custody, he was examined by Soviet soldiers, who noted that his soft hands revealed that he was not the local peasant he claimed to be. Rasulzade was arrested, taken to Baku and put in prison, and interrogated.
The fact that Rasulzade was now in Soviet prison did not bode well for his future. Fortunately, a friend from the past, Josef Stalin, learned of his arrest and came to Baku; one day, Rasulzade entered an interrogation room to find Stalin sitting on the other side of the table. The Russian official warned Rasulzade that the local Communist Party wanted him executed, but that he would arrange safe passage for him to Moscow. Rasulzade accepted, but once in Moscow he continued to agitate on behalf of Azeri independence. He briefly took a job as a press attaché and then another as a professor of the history of Eastern literature at Moscow State University. After he turned down several positions, according to an article by Rasulzade's grandson, Stalin is reported to have quipped: “What a strange guy this Mammad Amin is. He turns down all the positions I offer him.”
Once more a political fugitive, Rasulzade went to Poland, returning to Turkey in the late 1930s. He was recruited by German chancellor Adolf Hitler as his country's ambassador to the Azerbaijan region, and he met with Hitler in 1940 but refused the dictator's proposition on the grounds that Hitler would not agree to the establishment of an independent Azerbaijan. Told to leave Germany within 24 hours, he fled to Romania. During World War II Rasulzade attempted to persuade Azeri prisoners of war to join the German cause against Russia, but had little success.
In 1947 Rasulzade returned to Turkey and settled in Ankara, where he lived for the rest of his life. He wrote voluminously on Azeri history and literature, especially in later life, and published a total of 17 books, including two in Persian, two in German, one each in Polish and Russian, and several in Turkish. Apparently none has ever been translated into English, and in the words of a contributor to Azerbaijan International, “His literary legacy still calls for sound analysis and thorough evaluation.”
Tragically, Rasulzade's family suffered in Azerbaijan following his escape. Many, including Rasulzade's first wife, Umbul Banu, and his daughter Khalida, were exiled to Kazakhstan by Stalin. Khalida fled, went underground, and met an unknown fate. Another daughter, Latifa, froze to death in a small village in Kazakhstan and was discovered by her school-aged daughter. Latifa's daughter Sona disappeared from a Russian sanatorium and was never seen again. In 1938 Rasulzade met Polish leader Josef Pilsudski and then married Pilsudski's niece Vanda. He died in Ankara on March 6, 1955, long before his dream of Azeri independence was made possible by the fall of the U.S.S.R. in 1991. In modern Azerbaijan, Rasulzade's portrait is widely reproduced, and his Flag Day speech is a part of the common fund of historical knowledge.
Goltz, Thomas, Azerbaijan Diary, Routledge, 1998.
Azerbaijan International, autumn 1999, “Mamman Amin Rasulzade: Founding Father of the First Republic”; spring 1998, “Mammad Amin Rasulzade—Statesman.”
Azer News (Baku, Azerbaijan), November 9, 2016.❑