In ancient and early medieval times, eastern Transcaucasia was populated by Iranian speakers, nomadic Turkic tribes, Kurds, and the Caucasian Albanians, who converted to Christianity in the 4th century and came under the cultural influence of the Armenians. After Arab incursions in the 7th century, Islamic polities were established under local rulers called shāhanshāhs. The Seljuq invasions in the 11th century changed the composition of the local population and resulted in the linguistic dominance of Oghuz Turkic languages. But, unlike the Ottoman Turks who came to dominate Anatolia, the Caucasian Muslims of Azerbaijan in the early 16th century became Shīʿite, rather than Sunni, Muslims, and they continued to develop under Persian social and cultural influence. Persian-ruled khanates in Shirvan (Şamaxı), Baku, Ganja (Gäncä), Karabakh, and Yerevan dominated this frontier of Ṣafavid Iran.
After a series of wars between the Russian Empire and Iran, the treaties of Golestān (Gulistan; 1813) and Turkmenchay (Torkmānchāy; 1828) established a new border between the empires. Russia acquired Baku, Shirvan, Ganja, Nakhichevan (Naxçıvan), and Yerevan. Henceforth the Azerbaijani Turks of Caucasia were separated from the majority of their linguistic and religious compatriots, who remained in Iran. Azerbaijanis on both sides of the border remained largely rural, though a small merchant class and working class appeared in the second half of the 19th century. As Baku became the major source of oil for Russia, tens of thousands of Iranian, Armenian, and Russian workers streamed to the Abşeron Peninsula in search of employment, and Russian economic and political influence could be felt in both parts of Azerbaijan. As the source of employment and the home of the nascent Azerbaijani intelligentsia and revolutionary movement, Baku radiated its influence in Iranian Azerbaijan as well as north of the Aras (Araz) River. No specifically Azerbaijani state existed before 1918, and, rather than seeing themselves as part of a continuous national tradition, like the Georgians and Armenians, the Muslims of Transcaucasia saw themselves as part of the larger Muslim world, the ummah. They were referred to as “Tatars” by the Russians; the ethnonym Azerbaijani (azarbayjanli) came into use in the prerevolutionary decades at first among urban nationalist intellectuals. Only in the Soviet period did it become the official and widely accepted name for this people.
Incorporation into the Russian Empire provided a new outlet for educated Azerbaijanis, some of whom turned from their religious upbringing to a more secular outlook. Prominent among the early scholars and publicists who began the study of the Azerbaijani language were ʿAbbās Qolī Āghā Bāqıkhānlı (Bakikhanov), who wrote poetry as well as histories of the region, and Mīrzā Fatḥ ʿAlī Ākhūndzādeh (Akhundov), author of the first Azerbaijani plays. Though eventually these figures would be incorporated into a national narrative as predecessors of the Turkic revival, a variety of conflicting impulses stimulated early Azerbaijani intellectuals—loyalty to the tsarist empire, the continuing influence of Persian culture, and a longing for Western learning. Although no single coherent ideology or movement characterized the Azerbaijani intelligentsia, by 1905 a growing number of writers and journalists adopted the program of the nationalist intellectual ʿAlī Bay Huseynzadeh: “Turkify, Islamicize, Europeanize” (“Turklashtirmak, Islamlashtirmak, Avrupalashtirmak”).
The town of Baku, which by 1901 produced more than half of the world’s output of petroleum, was complexly segregated, with Russians and Armenians in the central part of the town and Muslims clustered in distinct districts. As social resentments festered, particularly in times of political uncertainty, ethnic and religious differences defined the battle lines; bloody clashes between Azerbaijanis and local Armenians took place in 1905 and 1918. A hierarchy of skills, education, and wages placed Muslims on the bottom and Christians at the top. By virtue of a quota on non-Christian representation and a system of suffrage based on property holdings, the Baku city duma (legislative council) remained in the hands of wealthy Armenians and Russians. Azerbaijanis remained on the fringe of the labour movement and were indifferent to or ignorant of the aspirations of both their socialist and nationalist intellectuals. None of the small parties and political groups that arose after 1905 commanded much of a following beyond the intelligentsia, though Musavat (“Equality”), founded in 1911 and led by Mehmed Emin Rasulzadeh, proved most enduring. Anxiety about the Armenian “threat,” a perception of their own distance from and hostility to this privileged element within their midst, and a feeling that Azerbaijanis were connected in important ways to other Muslims, particularly Turks, became part of an Azerbaijani sense of self.
With the Bolshevik victory in the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the withdrawal of Russian troops from the Caucasian front during World War I (1914–18), Azerbaijani leaders joined Armenians and Georgians in a brief experiment in Transcaucasian autonomy (February to April 1918). An even briefer attempt at unity in an independent federative republic of Transcaucasia (April to May) fell apart, and finally three separate independent republics were established. Azerbaijan was declared an independent state on May 28, 1918, but Baku remained in the hands of a communist government, assisted by local Armenian soldiers, who had put down a Muslim revolt in March.
With the end of World War I, the Turks withdrew; they were replaced by the British, who remained until August 1919. The fragile republic received de facto recognition from the Allies on January 15, 1920, but when the Red Army marched into Baku in April 1920 there was little resistance.
The Soviet and post-Soviet periods
The Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic lasted 71 years. It was part of the Transcaucasian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic from 1922 until 1936 and, like Georgia and Armenia, it experienced considerable economic development, urbanization, and industrialization. Although education in Azerbaijan was promoted and Azerbaijanis were placed in positions of power, the republic was tightly controlled by Moscow, especially during the years of Joseph Stalin’s rule (1928–53) when M.A. Bagirov headed the Azerbaijani Communist Party. Becoming a more urban, educated, and socially mobile society, Azerbaijan was divided between more traditional, underdeveloped rural areas and the cosmopolitan city of Baku. After the death of Stalin, the republic enjoyed somewhat greater autonomy, and the national political and intellectual elites flourished.