What was the ethnic composition of Nagorno-Karabakh during the Soviet era?

In order to get precise information about the ethnic composition of the Nagorno-Karabakh region during the Soviet era, it is essential to understand the ethnic and political situation in the region before the establishment of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast on July 7, 1923. According to the Tsarist Empire’s 1916 census, there were 171,954 people in the Shusha uyezd, 77,189 of them were ethnic Azerbaijanis, and the remaining 94.785 were ethnic Armenians.[1] However, the number of ethnic Azerbaijanis declined in the following years due to Armenian terrorism against the local Muslim population in the region. Thus, when Vladimir Ilich Lenin withdrew Russia from the First World War after the Bolshevik Revolution in October 1917, the Armenian military units that were released from the Tsarist Empire’s military forces began to attack Azerbaijan, as well as Karabakh, to wipe out the Azerbaijani population in the region and annex it to the newly created ‘Ararat Republic.’ As a result, Armenia completely wiped out the population of the 150 Azerbaijani villages in the Karabakh region between 1918-1919.[2]

In those times of hardship, the military support provided by the Ottoman Empire made it possible to prevent Armenian atrocities in some regions of Azerbaijan. The Islamic Army of the Caucasus, formed from the joint military forces of the Ottoman Empire and Azerbaijan, liberated all territories of Azerbaijan as it marched from Ganja to Baku. On September 15, Baku was liberated from the Dashnak-Bolshevik forces. By October, Shusha and the whole of Karabakh were entirely in the hands of the Islamic Army of the Caucasus.[3] Although this army managed to take control of the region, many ethnic Azerbaijanis in Karabakh were either deported or killed by Armenians at that time.

After the Red Army occupied Azerbaijan in April 1920, the territorial claims over Azerbaijan by Armenian nationalists took on a new form. The pro-Armenian policy of Sergei Mironovich Kirov, First Secretary to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan between 1921-1925, inspired Armenians and changed the administrative and political situation in the region. For the first time in the history of Karabakh, the notions of Upper (Mountain/Nagorno) Karabakh and Lower Karabakh were used. Thus, Kavbureau CC RCP (b) decided to give Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous status within the Azerbaijan SSR. As a result, on July 7, 1923, the Azerbaijan Central Executive Soviet Committee passed a decree authorizing the establishment of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) as a constituent part of the Azerbaijan SSR. The formation of the NKAO paved the way for further settlement of Armenians in the region. As a result, the number of Armenians in the region thus rose. This new settlement changed the demographic situation in favor of Armenians in the region. Hence, according to the Soviet Union population census of 1926, the NKAO had a total population of 125,300, 111,700 (89%) of whom were ethnic Armenians, and 12,600 (11%) were ethnic Azerbaijanis.[4] With this demographic change, the national-cultural values of the region were absorbed; names of historical places were replaced with Armenian ones; and the headquarters of the NKAO was moved from Shusha to Khankendi, which was renamed Stepanakert in honor of Stefan Schaumian.

Coming to the ethnic composition of Nagorno-Karabakh during the first two decades of the Soviet era, the Armenian population had risen by 2.6% by 1939 due to anti-Azerbaijan activities and campaigns by those Armenians who were appointed to many high-level government posts in Azerbaijan SSR by the Soviet leadership. Thus, since the Soviet leadership distrusted the Azerbaijani population because of their ethnic kinship with Turkey, as relations between Turkey and the Soviet Union escalated in the late 1930s, hundreds of Azerbaijani families were displaced from Nagorno-Karabakh in 1937-1938, and Armenian families from the Armenian SSR were settled in the region.[5]

During the Second World War, the population of Azerbaijan and the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh declined due to the destructive nature of the war. According to the 1959 population census, the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh fell to 86% (121,000), while the Azerbaijani population rose to 14%. The changing demographic situation in the region continued in the following two decades as well, in favor of ethnic Azerbaijanis. Thus, according to the 1979 census, the population of Nagorno-Karabakh consisted of 75% ethnic Armenians, 23% ethnic Azerbaijanis, and 2% other ethnic groups.[6] As can be seen from these statistics, the Azerbaijani population of Nagorno-Karabakh had increased to a certain extent, based on the population censuses conducted between 1939 and 1979. However, the number of ethnic Armenians increased yet again towards the end of the Soviet era, since the make-up of the Nagorno-Karabakh population in 1989 was 76.9% (145,500) ethnic Armenians, 21.5% (40,688) ethnic Azerbaijanis, and 1% (1.99) other ethnic groups.[7]

[1] Mahmudov, Ceyhun, “Karabağ’ın Etnik Yapısının Oluşumuna Tarihsel ve Demografik Bakış,” in Yılmaz, Reha (ed.), Qarabağ bildiklərimiz və bilmədiklərimiz (Qafqaz Universiteti, 2010), p. 566.

[2] Uçarol, Siyasi Tarih (1789-1994), p. 485-491. See also: Erməni terroru və quldur birləşmələrinin bəşəriyyətə qarşı cinayətləri (XIX-XX), pp. 42-100.

[3] Osmanlı Belgelerinde Karabağ, pp. 240-241. See also: “Karabağ,” Meydan- Larousse, p. 917. See also: Süleymanov, Qafqaz İslam Ordusu və Azərbaycan, pp. 72-83-139. See also: Ağayev and Əhmədov, İstiqlal Yürüşü-1918, pp. 109-167.

[4] Бахышов, Ч. А., “Название: Изменение этнического состава населения Азербайджанской ССР (по данным переписей 1897-1979 гг.),” Советская этнография, No. 5, 1982, pp. 66-67.

[5] Qasımlı, Musa, “Ermənilərin Azərbaycan torpaqlarına yerləşdirilməsi və Dağlıq Qarabağa əsassız iddiaları,” in Yılmaz, Reha (ed.), Qarabağ bildiklərimiz və bilmədiklərimiz (Qafqaz Universiteti, 2010), p. 7.

[6] Бахышов, “Название: Изменение этнического состава населения Азербайджанской ССР,” pp. 68-71.

[7] Baguirov, Adil, “Nagorno-Karabakh: Basis and Reality of Soviet-era Legal and Economic Claims used to Justify the Armenia-Azerbaijan War,” Caucasian Review of International Affairs, Vol. 2, No. 1, 2008, pp. 13-14.