Azerbaijan International

Summer 2001 (9.2)
Pages 40-42

High up on the crest of Baku's highest hill there used to stand a tall imposing statue of Sergey Kirov. One of the most influential Bolshevik leaders, Kirov was responsible for leading the Red Army to capture Baku in 1920 and establish a Soviet government. The statue no longer stands today, as it was dismantled shortly after Azerbaijan gained its independence nearly a decade ago.

Today if you go to the site, which provides a spectacular view overlooking Baku and the bay, there's not even a trace of the statue's pedestal that once featured scenes of workers extracting oil.
Sergey Mironovich Kirov (his real last name was Kostrikov) (1886-1934) was born in Urzhum, Russia. He came to the Caucasus in 1910 to work as a Communist Party organizer.

Eventually, he helped organize the Red Army's entry into the Caucasus; they drove out the White Guards in 1920 and subsequently set up three socialist republics in the region-Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. In Azerbaijan, this meant that the fledgling government, Azerbaijan's first experiment with independence - the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic - was squelched after only 23 months (1918-1920). When the Bolsheviks took over, the majority of oil entrepreneurs fled the country. Those who remained lost their lives and their families were exiled to Central Asia.


Above: The Kirov statue's pedestal once featured scenes of Azerbaijani workers extracting oil and harvesting grapes for wine. Photos: National Archives.

In 1921 Kirov was appointed by Lenin and the Politburo to be the Secretary of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan. They were especially concerned about the oil industry that was faltering, as previously it had consisted of 250 privately owned enterprises before it was consolidated under Soviet control.

Kirov played an important role in helping to deliver Baku's oil to Soviet Russia. Although he assumed that his assignment in Baku would last a few short months, he remained four and a half years. Kirov's wife, Maria Lvovna, is said to have taken quite an active role in the social and educational development at the time by organizing a woman's society, the goal of which was to free women from having to wear the veil and whose slogan was "Down with the Chador".

In 1926, Kirov was transferred to Leningrad to replace one of Stalin's chief rivals, Gregory Zinovyev. In 1930, because of his unwavering support for Stalin, Kirov became a full member of the Politburo, the highest decision-making body in the Soviet Union.

Mysterious murder
But his rise to power was short-lived. On December 1, 1934, Kirov was assassinated. A young Party member named Leonid Nikolayev shot Kirov point-blank in the hallway of the Communist Party headquarters in Leningrad.

Nikolayev and 13 suspected accomplices were immediately arrested, accused of terrorism and shot. However, the circumstances surrounding Kirov's murder were rather murky. The official story was that terrorists - enemies of Socialism - had killed Kirov. But people who knew the situation best had their doubts.

However, the assassination gave Stalin an excuse to start the Great Purge of 1934-38 when anyone critical of the State (and even many who were not) were arrested, imprisoned, sent into exile to work in labor camps or shot to death. Hundreds of thousands of people throughout the Soviet Union, many of thom intellectuals, writers, scientists, educators, students and medical professionals, were silenced by Stalin's repressions. [See the account by Ismikhan Rahimov,
"To Siberia and Back, Life as Political Prisoner SH-971" in AI 7.3, Autumn 1999.]

Today, in Azerbaijan, as elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, its not hard to find many who can still recall firsthand the nightmare of those early morning arrests when family members, relatives or friends were banished, never to be seen again. [See Anar's "The Morning of That Night", AI 7.1, Spring 1999.]

Even though Stalin claimed that he had uncovered a conspiracy to overthrow Communist leaders, he is the one who most suspect of having ordered Kirov's murder in the first place. In 1934 Kirov had collected more votes than Stalin in the election for Secretary of the Communist Party. At the time, Kirov had refused to replace Stalin in this post, saying that the residents of Leningrad needed him to remain there. But perhaps Kirov's gesture was not enough to pacify Stalin.

Evidence of the plot to murder Kirov would seem to point the finger at Stalin. [See the book, "Who Killed Kirov? The Kremlin's Greatest Mystery" by Amy Knight. New York: Hill and Wang, 1999.]

In any case, Kirov's assasination made him a martyr for the Communist cause. In Azerbaijan, Soviet authorities credited Kirov for rescuing Azerbaijan from difficulties and working hard for its development. But, in fact, he had masterminded the destruction of the fledgling government of Azerbaijan's Democratic Republic (1918-1920) and had executed those who had sought Azerbaijan's independence and resisted the Bolsheviks.

Left and below: Once the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991 and Azerbaijan gained its independence, the Kirov statue and other monuments honoring heroes of the Soviet regime such as Lenin, were promptly dismantled. Photos: Rauf Umud. Monuments to Stalin had already been dismantled after his death
in 1953.

For children of the Soviet period, Kirov was touted as one of their greatest heroes. They were taught that "Kirov was a close friend of the leader of the Soviet Communist Party, that he had been Lenin's associate and had worked together with him to free the poor from the oppression of the rich." He was said to have been brave and courageous, never afraid of anything and ready to sacrifice his life for the sake of the poor. And naturally, schoolchildren believed all this, since it was written in their textbooks.

In 1939, a huge statue of Kirov in granite and bronze was erected in Baku's Dagustu (Highland) Park. Pinkhos Sabsay was the sculptor and L. Ilyin, the architect. Many dignitaries took part in the opening ceremony, including Mirjafar Baghirov, Azerbaijan's Communist Party Secretary at the time. In his speech, Baghirov praised Kirov as a great hero of Azerbaijan. The statue depicted Kirov as a strong leader, dressed in his army uniform, with his right arm raised as if pointing the way for the troops or, perhaps, it was anticipating the future - the stylized pose used for so many statues of the Soviet period, starting with Lenin.

Other memorials were set up as well. For example, the ancient city of Ganja, which has roots back to the 5th or 6th century, was renamed Kirovabad in 1935, a name it retained until Azerbaijan gained its independence in 1991. A Home Museum for Kirov was opened in 1938. Today, it is closed.

Kirov's statue was erected at the top of the hill area that had served as a cemetery to the victims slaughtered by a movement led by Bolsheviks and Armenians in 1918, when thousands of Azerbaijanis were killed. The Communist leaders are believed to have erected the prominent statue of Kirov to erase the people's memory of the evidence of brutal events that had occurred little more than two decades earlier.

During the Soviet period, Dagustu Park (Highland Park) became a popular entertainment spot for families, as it was developed into an attractive city park. In the evening, Baku residents enjoyed the park with their children.

From time to time, concerts were held there, and every year on May 9, known as Victory Day (referring to the Soviet Union's victory in World War II), from that high vantage point, residents viewed the fireworks that were set off over the Caspian.

After the Black January massacre of January 20, 1990, the victims were buried on the hill, which became known as Shahidlar Khiyabani (Martyrs' Lane), and the wooded hillside gained back its earlier honor of serving as a commemorative graveyard once again. Since then, some of the victims of the Nagorno-Karabakh war have also been buried there. Today Azerbaijanis, families, relatives and friends visit the site to show their respect for the memories of those who sacrificed their lives for the sake of Azerbaijan. Foreign dignitaries also pay homage to the site; the most recent prominent visitors included Russia's President, Vladimir Putin, on January 9, 2001.

Dismantling the Statue
And whatever happened to Kirov's statue? On August 26, 1991, the Executive Power of Baku ordered the dismantling of the statues of Lenin, Kirov, Felix Dzerzhinski and Ivan Fioletov (all revolutionaries involved with establishing the Soviet government in Azerbaijan) and the 11th Army, which invaded Baku in 1920. This declaration preceded Azerbaijan's declaration of independence on October 18, 1991 and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union on December 7, 1991.



Baku's Sahar newspaper published the announcement of the statue's removal on January 5, 1992. Although the article did not mention the actual date of its dismantling, Sahar's editor presumes it must have taken place a day or two earlier, since they were publishing daily at the time. The bronze used in the statue was turned over as scrap metal to the Baku City Industrial Center.

Despite the euphoria surrounding Azerbaijan's independence during those days, it's quite evident that the country was stunned and confused about the Soviet Union's collapse. After publishing that the Kirov statue had been dismantled, the Sahar newspaper was officially closed for nine or ten days, according to its editor.

Faig Karimov, Yagub Karimov and AI Staff member Arzu Aghayeva contributed to this article.

Azerbaijan International (9.2) Summer 2001.
© Azerbaijan International 2001. All rights reserved.

Back to Index AI 9.2 (Summer 2001)
AI Home
| Magazine Choice | Topics | Store | Contact us