Posts Tagged ‘Stepan Shahumian’

(Prepared by the Armenian National Education Committee [ANEC])

Execution of the 26 Baku Commissars
(September 20, 1918)

In the history and the mythology of the October Revolution and the Soviet civil war, the 26 Baku Commissars have played a role similar to the 300 Spartans in the history of ancient Greece. Their death would be immortalized in Soviet times through movies, books, artwork, stamps, and public works, and even cities and towns would be named after some of them.

After the Bolshevik revolution of October/November 1917, a Soviet (council) of workers, villagers, and soldiers was created in Baku. This council came to power from April 13 to July 25, 1918 and created an executive organ, the Council of Popular Commissars, formed by an alliance of Bolsheviks and leftist Socialist Revolutionaries, and presided by a famous Bolshevik revolutionary, the Armenian Stepan Shahumian. It was known as the Commune of Baku.

Isaak Brodsky's The Execution of the Twenty Six Baku Commissars (1925) depicting the Soviet view of the execution

Isaak Brodsky’s The Execution of the Twenty Six Baku Commissars (1925) depicting the Soviet view of the execution.

The Commune faced various problems, from the shortage of food and supplies to the threat posed by the invading Turks. The Red Army units hurriedly organized by the Commune were defeated by the Islamic Army of the Caucasus, an Ottoman army unit organized by order of Minister of War Enver Pasha on the basis of the local Tatar (Azerbaijani) population, and retreated to Baku in July 1918.

The military defeat provoked the rise of a coalition of rightist Socialist Revolutionaries, Social Democrats, and Armenian Revolutionary Federation members, which asked help from British forces stationed in Persia to counterbalance the Ottoman advance. The Commune transferred power to the new provisional government formed by the coalition, called the Centro-Caspian Dictatorship, and left Baku for Astrakhan, which was under Bolshevik control. However, the new authorities arrested the members of the Commune under charges of embezzlement and treason.

However, a new attack of the Ottoman forces over Baku prevented the trial of the military tribunal, and, according to Soviet historiography, on 14 September 1918, during the fall of Baku to the Turks, Red Army soldiers broke into their prison and freed the 26 prisoners; they then boarded a ship to Astrakhan, which changed its destination to Krasnovodsk, on the other side of the Caspian Sea. They were promptly arrested by local authorities of the Transcaspian provisional government, also anti-Soviet, on September 17, and three days later executed by a firing squad between the stations of Pereval and Akhcha-Kuyma on the Transcaspian Railway, apparently under British pressure.

Although they have been named as “commissars,” not all of them were officials and not all of them were Bolsheviks. Among the executed men, there were Russians, Jews, Armenians, Georgians, Azerbaijanis, Greeks, and Latvians.

Along with Shahumian, there were five other Armenians: Baghdasar Avagian, military commander of Baku; Aram Kostandian, deputy commissar for Agriculture; Suren Osipian, chief editor of the newspaper Izvestia of the Baku Commune; Arsen Amirian, chief editor of the newspaper Bakinski rabochi; and Tadeos Amirian, commander of a cavalry unit. Arsen and Tadeos Amirian were brothers, and this explains why the latter, a member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, had fought on the side of the Commune.

After the establishment of the Soviet regime, the authorities of Azerbaijan exhumed the bodies of the 26 victims and reburied them in Baku, at the square named after them, where a pantheon was built in 1968. The anti-Armenian hysteria in Azerbaijan has reached the point that, in January 2009 the pantheon was demolished, since the activity of the Baku Commune is considered an “Armenian conspiracy,” and the remnants were reburied at the Hovsan cemetery, reportedly “with the participation of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish clergy, and the corresponding rituals” (ironically, most of the commissars were atheists). Monuments and streets devoted to the commissars, whether Armenian, Russian, Georgian, or Azerbaijani, have also been demolished or renamed.

Meanwhile, the cities of Stepanakert (in Gharabagh) and Stepanavan (in Lori) continue to carry the name of Stepan Shahumian, whose statue in the proximities of Republic Square, in Yerevan, has been maintained. Amirian Street, an important street originating from the same square, has also kept its name.

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Prepared by the Armenian National Education Committee (ANEC)

Birth of Stepan Shahumian
October 13, 1878)

After the independence of Armenia and Karabagh, neither the city of Stepanavan, in the northern region of Lori, which was severely damaged during the earthquake of 1988, nor Stepanakert, the capital of the Republic of Mountainous (Nagorno) Karabagh, changed their names, even though they had been renamed after a famous communist revolutionary.

Stepan Shahumian was born in Tiflis to a working family. He studied at the Royal School in his hometown and then followed with university studies in St. Petersburg and Riga (1898-1902). He was attracted by Marxism in early 1900. He graduated from the philosophy department of Alexander Humboldt University in Germany in 1905, while being actively involved in politics following Shahoumianthe line of Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik fraction of the Russian Social Democratic Party.

Shahumian returned to the Caucasus in 1905 and became a leader first in Tiflis and then in Baku from 1907, both actively in the field and as an editor and polemicist. After being exiled to Astrakhan in 1912, he returned to Baku in 1914. He was arrested in March 1916 and exiled to Saratov, and liberated only after the February Revolution of 1917.

He returned to Baku once again, and led the Soviet of Workers and  Villagers, which in November 1917 took control of the city. Shahumian was designated Extraordinary Commissar for the Caucasus in December. The Turkish army expanded its military campaign on the Caucasian front in late March 1918; encouraged, the Azerbaijani Musavat Party stepped up its anti-Soviet work and attempted to seize Baku to establish its own regime. After the crushing of the revolt, the Soviets took full control of the city government and established an alliance of Bolsheviks, Left Socialist Revolutionaries, Mensheviks (Social Democrats), and Armenian Revolutionary Federation members, chaired by Shahumian, which was known as the Baku Commune.

The Bolsheviks clashed with the A.R.F. and the Mensheviks over the involvement of British forces, which the latter two welcomed. In either case, Shahumian was under direct orders from Moscow to refuse any and all aid offered by the British. However, in July the alliance broke and a new government replaced the Commune by the Central Caspian Dictatorship, with an alliance of Right Socialist Revolutionaries, Mensheviks, and A.R.F. members; British forces temporarily entered Baku to abandon it later.

On July 31, the 26 commissars attempted the evacuation of Bolshevik armed forces by sailing over to Astrakhan, but the ships were captured by the military vessels of the Dictatorship two weeks later. They were arrested and placed in Baku prison. The city fell to Turkish forces, despite the heroic resistance of the Armenian population, which executed the massacre of 15,000 to 20,000 Armenians.

Amidst the confusion, Shahumian and his fellow commissars either escaped or were released on September 14. They boarded a ship to Krasnovodsk, where upon arrival they were arrested by anti-Bolshevik elements. In the end, on the night of September 20, Stepan Shahumian and the other 25 Baku commissars were executed by a firing squad on a remote location on the Trans-Caspian railway. Together with Shahumian and various Azerbaijanis, Georgians, and Russians, six other Armenians perished: Arsen Amirian, Suren Hovsepian, Armenak Borian, Baghdasar Avakian, Aram Kostandian, and Tateos Amirian.


A statue of Stepan Shahumyan located in central Yerevan.

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