What was the historical name of Stepanakert, the capital city of Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, and why was it changed?

The city of Khankendi differs from other Azerbaijan cities by being relatively young. According to archive records, the city was founded at the end of the eighteenth century as a resting place for the Karabakh khans. The city was established at the foot of the mountain, 10 kilometers from Shusha, the capital of the Karabakh Khanate, to provide the best conditions for the khans’ activities. In the early years, only the khan’s family and relatives lived in the settlement, which is why it was known as “Khanin kendi” (Khan’s village)  by the local people. After a short time, this became “Khankendi.” One reason why Ibrahimkhalil Khan chose Khankendi as his estate (mansion) was the suitable natural and geographical location of the village. The presence of a river in the upper part of the village and the thick forests around it affected the choice. Mirza Jamal Javanshir thus wrote that “six mansions (palaces) were left by the late Ibrahimkhalil Khan. One of them is Khan Bagi (Khan Garden), situated a short distance from Shusha.”[1]

The city of Khankendi, which covers 8 km2  of Azerbaijani territory and had 53,100 inhabitantd before the occupation, has been held by Armenian military forces since 1991. The name  ‘Khankendi’ can also be encountered in other regions of Azerbaijan, such as Ismayilli, Shamakhi, and Guba.[2]

After Tsarist Russia occupied the  Karabakh Khanate in 1805, the Tsarist Empire began to use Khankendi as a military camp. When the Karabakh Khanate was abolished in 1822,  the Tsarist Empire’s military garrison was based permanently in Khankendi, and the hospital, military barracks, church, and other administrative buildings were built there. From then on, Armenians who accepted the Tsarist Empire’s patronage began settling in Khankendi.[3]

After the Red Army occupied Azerbaijan in April 1920,  Armenia’s territorial claims against Azerbaijan took on a new form. The pro-Armenian policy of Sergei Mironovich Kirov, First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan from 1921 to 1925, inspired Armenia. The  Kavbureau CC RCP (b) (Caucasus Bureau of the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party of the Bolsheviks), therefore, decided to give Nagorno-Karabakh an autonomous status within the Azerbaijan SSR. On July 7, 1923, the Azerbaijan Central Executive Soviet Committee passed a decree authorizing the Autonomous Oblast of Nagorno-Karabakh (AONK) to be established as a constituent part of the Azerbaijan SSR, with its capital in Khankendi. The Kavbureau CC RCP (b) had determined that Shusha should be the capital of the new autonomous region. However, to assimilate the region into Armenia, Khankendi was chosen as the capital of the Autonomous Oblast of Nagorno-Karabakh instead of Shusha since half of the city was Armenian. On September 18, 1923, with the support of S.M.Kirov, the name of Khankendi was changed and named Stepanakert, in honor of Stepan Shaumian, in accordance with the “appeal” of the Armenian population of the Autonomous Oblast of Nagorno-Karabakh. The Azerbaijan Central Executive Soviet Committee ratified this decision on October 6, 1923.[4] It was much later, after 68 years, the historical name of Khankendi was restored in 1991.

During the Soviet era, Azerbaijani people continued to refer to the city informally by its historical name Khankendi. Later on, the historical evidence proved that the main aim of Moscow was not to protect the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan but to create such a center within the republic, which would serve the interests of Armenian nationalism and always be a problem for Azerbaijan. After the creation of the Autonomous Oblast of Nagorno-Karabakh in 1923 until its official abolishment in 1991, the authorities of Khankendi, as well as all small and large institutions in the region, were appointed among the ethnic Armenians. The history, cultural traditions, and ethnic composition of Khankendi and the whole autonomous region were cast aside, and the Armenian presence in the region was exaggerated.

Although Khankendi was established as a resting place for the khans of the Karabakh Khanate, it began to develop as a new Azerbaijani industrial and cultural center in the twentieth century. As a result of its rapid development, Khankendi was granted city status in May 1978, the city center was moved to the workers’ settlement of Askeran, and the Stepanakert region was called Askeran.[5]

[1] Qarabaği, Mirzə Camal Cavanşir, Qarabağ tarixi (Bakı, 1959), p. 48.

[2] Məmmədov, N., Azərbaycanın Xankəndi şəhərinin tarixi (Bakı, 2011), p. 35.

[3] Təkləli, Minaxanam, Türk Kitabı: Unudulan Tarix Dəyişdirilən Adlar (Bakı: Qafqaz Universiteti nəşri, 2009), pp. 12-13.

[4] Məmmədov, N., Azərbaycanın Xankəndi şəhərinin tarixi (Bakı, 2011), p. 51.

[5] “Stepanakert,” Azərbaycan Sovet Ensiklopediyası, Vol. 9, (Bakı, 1986), p. 34.