The organization and management of collective memory by political agents in which the past is selectively remembered and recorded or forgotten and discarded constitutes the politics of memory. Political agents may not produce explicit policies on the organization and management of collective memory, yet their politics of memory is implicitly manifested in the various representations of the past – history textbooks and museums, monuments and memorials, holidays and commemoration days, various rituals and practices through which memory is sustained. It should also be noted that a strict boundary between the political agents that organize and manage the politics of memory and the larger societies that these policies affect is nowhere to be drawn. Memory is bound with power, and both are produced and reproduced – dispersed throughout the social and political tissue.

Contemporary nationalist ideologies together with decades-long lingering armed or otherwise violent conflicts in the South Caucasus and Turkey have a powerful influence on the content and form of the official politics of memory in the countries of this region. The principles of event selection, the content of memory discourses, the reconstruction of seemingly half-forgotten victories and tragedies point to the specifics of relations with neighbors and the unwavering presence of the enemy images. In this review, we have aimed to discuss the commemoration practices – days of remembrance, mourning, or celebration – within the politics of memory in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey.

Within the framework of a single review, it is impossible to present a comprehensive analysis of the commemoration practices in all three countries or even discuss all the events selected by the authorities as suitable for commemoration. For that reason, as the authors of this review, we did not set such a goal. Instead, we sought to show how modern conflicts lead to the revision of the narratives of past events within the politics of memory, as well as to demonstrate the destructive potential that the memory politics of recent decades in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey has on conflict perpetuation.

For each of the countries, we selected three events. This allowed a relative diversity in the critical discussion of contemporary traditions and practices of commemoration, as well as a comparative review of memory politics in the three neighboring countries.

Heroism and Victimhood, Denial and Acknowledgment in the Memory Politics of Turkey

By Aykan Sever

In Turkey, the basis of the official memory politics has been the ethnic Turkish identity since the establishment of the Republic of Turkey. With regards to the relations with the South Caucasus states though, two more elements have been crucial – the denial of the Armenian Genocide and the solidarity with Azerbaijan for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the Khojaly Massacre. These elements of the official memory politics have become much more visible during the last decade because of the ruling party’s increasing power. During the parliamentary elections in Turkey in 2002, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) won the ballot, and it has monopolized the official politics of memory for the last 16 years. Alternating themes of heroism and victimhood, denial and acknowledgement characterize the politics of memory in Turkey.

The Tragedy of Sarikamish: Who Was to Blame for it?

In the depictions of Turkish victimhood, the battle of Sarikamish comes to match the Massacre of Khojaly in the depictions of Azerbaijani victimhood. The tragedy happened during the First World War when the Russian and Ottoman Empires were at war in East Anatolia. The battle of Sarikamish took place between December 22 of 1914 and January 17 of 1915. At the time, Enver Pasha, leading the Ottoman army, was aiming to launch a surprise attack against the troops of the Russian Empire. In his quest for this maneuver, he led the Ottoman army through a shortcut in the Allahuekber Mountains in the northeast of today’s Turkey. The soldiers of the Ottoman army, unprepared for the conditions of the severe winter and with scarce nutrition and unfit clothes, faced a calamity. Many of them just froze amidst the mountain snow. The exact number of victims is unknown with the official toll of the Turkish government being at 60,000.

For a long time, the Tragedy of Sarikamish was included in the Turkish history textbooks only as a small note. During the last ten years, it was “dusted out” from the depth of history to serve its role in the new politics of memory[1]. Nowadays, the Tragedy of Sarikamish is almost an epic in popular culture. Even though there is no particular official day of mourning for the Tragedy of Sarikamish, for a few years now, the Ministry of Youth and Sports organizes a march for young people. Every winter, within this and other initiatives, thousands of people walk in the snow to commemorate this event. Monuments to the Tragedy of Sarikamish have been built in various parts of Turkey.

Caucasus Edition

The memorial to the Tragedy of Sarikamish in Kars. Photo Credits: Aykan Özener.

Caucasus Edition

The memorial to the Tragedy of Sarikamish in Kars. Photo Credits: Aykan Özener.

Caucasus Edition

The memorial to the Tragedy of Sarikamish in Kars. Photo Credits: Aykan Özener.

Caucasus Edition

The memorial to the Tragedy of Sarikamish in Kars. Photo Credits: Aykan Özener.

Caucasus Edition

The memorial to the Tragedy of Sarikamish in Kars. Photo Credits: Aykan Özener.

Who bore the responsibility for this tragedy? According to one of the theories, Enver Pasha blamed the defeat on Armenians, as some Armenian volunteer troops were participating in the battle on the side of the Russian Empire. The battle and the tragedy are, thus, claimed to have served as a prelude to the Armenian Genocide (Balakian 2003).

Especially in popular culture, there is no questioning about Enver Pasha’s or other Ottoman leaders’ unwise and disastrous choices during the whole war as well as specifically ignoring the weather conditions in the winter of the Anatolian mountains. The Tragedy of Sarikamish has played as another “opportune misfortune” for instilling a sense of collective suffering among masses of Turkish citizens.

The Battle of Dardanelles: Not Always a Victim…

If the Tragedy of Sarikamish is used to build a narrative of victimhood, the Battle of Dardanelles, also known as the Battle of Gallipoli or the Battle of Çanakkale, is the act of “collective heroism” in Turkey. There has been a renewed interest in the battle during the last decade. The Battle of Dardanelles was a campaign of the First World War that took place on the Gallipoli peninsula between February 19 of 1915 and January 9 of 1916. This battle has played a role of founding importance regarding Turkey’s history since it is the cornerstone to providing or rather saving the national unity of Turkey. In official discourses as well as in popular culture, all groups and minorities – Kurds, Caucasian peoples, Arabs, etc. (except Armenians) – are said to have fought alongside Turks against its enemies. These discourses omit or choose not to “remember” the Armenians who participated in the battle such as Sarkis Torossian who was an Ottoman captain of Armenian origin.

Caucasus Edition

The memorial to the soldiers of the Battles of Dardanelles on the Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey, commemorating the soldiers who participated at the Battle of Gallipoli. Photo Credits: Aykan Özener.

Caucasus Edition

The memorial to the soldiers of the Battles of Dardanelles on the Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey, commemorating the soldiers who participated at the Battle of Gallipoli. Photo Credits: Aykan Özener.

Caucasus Edition

The memorial to the soldiers of the Battles of Dardanelles on the Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey, commemorating the soldiers who participated at the Battle of Gallipoli. Photo Credits: Aykan Özener.

The celebration of the outcome of the Battle of Dardanelles has been significant not only as national exultation but also as a counter-memory: The AKP government changed the commemoration date twice. Initially, it was on March 18 – the day when the naval part of the war ended. However, in 2015, the government decided to shift the date to April 24 – the day of the commemoration of the Armenian Genocide. With the centennial of the commemoration of passing by, in 2016 another decision changed the commemoration date of the Battle of Dardanelles back to March 18.

The Khojaly Massacre: “A Kin’s Loss is My Loss”

In the past decade, the Khojaly Massacre has served as a source for a new course of memory politics. Preceding the war and in the first year or two of the war, Turkey facilitated the transit of humanitarian aid, specifically wheat, from Europe and Syria to Armenia (De Waal 2013). The Khojaly Massacre at first did not seem to signal any worsening of relationships between Turkey and Armenia. Roughly a year after the Massacre, on April 30 of 1993, Turkey severed the diplomatic relationship with Armenia and closed the border.

Both at the time when the border was closed and in the decades following the war, the Khojaly Massacre did not make part of any formal politics of memory; it seemed that it had long been forgotten as a crime against humanity. The first monument dedicated to the Khojaly Massacre was erected in 2005 by the Keçiören municipality of Ankara, the capital of Turkey. By 2018, there are at least seven monuments and museums about the Khojaly Massacre in different cities.

At least once a year, around February 26, the day of the commemoration, people meet around these monuments for commemoration ceremonies. The speeches during these ceremonies have an intense anti-Armenian and anti-Armenia coloring. Their messages boil down to claiming that since Armenians committed the Khojaly Massacre, it is them who are perpetrators, Turks are victims, and the Armenian Genocide is a lie. There is a sort of an “appropriation” of the victimhood of the people who died in the Khojaly Massacre coupled with an essentialization of “Armenians as perpetrators”.

Caucasus Edition

The memorial to the Khojaly Massacre in Ankara. Photo Credits: Nuray Türkmen.

Caucasus Edition

The memorial to the Khojaly Massacre in Ankara. Photo Credits: Nuray Türkmen.

Following Hrant Dink’s assassination in January 2009, the instrumentalization of the Khojaly Massacre for creating a victim image for Turks intensified. Not only in official discourses but also in popular culture, a proliferation of references to Khojaly in the key of self-victimization has been on the surge since then. The tragedy “supplies” a source for rewriting at least some part of Turkish history, constructing a narrative of innocence, and building nationalist zeal – all convenient for the government.

Conflated Victories, “Enemies”, and Victimhood in the Memory Politics of Armenia

By Christina Soloyan

In the memory politics of Armenia, the most prominent feature is the conflation of themes and actors of various events. The “enemies” of the past and present are fused into one and reinforce either the sense of victimhood or that of victory. The coincidence of dates and memorial sites reinforce this fusion in the commemorative practices. Another feature of the memory politics in Armenia is the combination of the Soviet and the post-Soviet in the ceremonies, rituals, monuments and architecture of commemoration. The conflict of Nagorno-Karabakh as well as the complexity of relations and the absence of official ones with Turkey impact the politics of memory, while the latter reinforces enemy images and obstacles conflict transformation and resolution.

The Battles of Sardarapat and Bash-Aparan: Independence Through Self-Reliant Victories

The current politics of memory in Armenia frames the battles that took place in May 1918 as the “heroic battles of May”. “Turkish troops that won in Gallipoli were crushed in Sardarapat and Bash-Aparan by Armenian forces” – this statement symbolizes the reduced narrative line central to the current commemoration narrative. It extracts these battles from the larger context of the confrontation within the Caucasus Campaign of the First World War. These battles took place within a larger series of collisions between the Ottoman army, on the one side, and the Russian Empire, followed by the forces of the disintegrating Transcaucasian Sejm followed by the Georgian and Armenian troops separately, on the other side.

At the end of the First World War, in 1917, Bolsheviks took over the power in Russia and officially went out of the war and withdrew their troops from the periphery of the Russian Empire, including the Caucasus front. Only several months later, in February 1918, the Ottoman army launched a new attack towards the Caucasus. In the Armenian historical discourse, Russian protection is intermittently described as a necessary factor for defense and survival; thus, the victory of the Armenian troops in Sardarapat and Bash-Aparan over the Ottoman Empire’s advancement into the Armenian provinces is commemorated as particularly significant for being a solely Armenian victory – without any external support.

Caucasus Edition

Republic Day celebration at Sardarapat in 2017. Photo Credits: Obtained from Photolure News Agency.

Besides depicting these battles in an isolated Armenian-Turkish format, these battles are also deemed instrumental in the formation of the First Republic of Armenia. Thus, the commemoration of the May battles happens on “Republic Day” on May 28 – the day the First Republic of Armenia is celebrated. Linking the battles to the formation of a state, they are also commemorated as part of the national liberation struggle. In the commemorative discourse, Armenia is said to have gained or restored independence, and this is again extracted from the larger regional context as all three republics – Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia – came into being in the liminal space between the fall of the Russian Empire, the disintegration of the Transcaucasian Sejm, and the failed advance of the Ottoman army.

While Sardarapat and Bash-Aparan are celebrated as victories, a third battle, that of Gharakilisa, is also sometimes part of the commemoration of victory ( 2017) although it was a defeat․

The current discourse of memory politics integrates all wars, victories, and failures into one continuous narrative about the Armenian struggle for national liberation, survival, and peace. The most recent April 2016 escalation in the region of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has also been incorporated into the commemorative practice and its discourse. During the 2016 commemoration of the May battles of 1918, the third president of Armenia Serj Sargsyan mention the April 2016 escalation in the region of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, referenced to as “April War” in political and public discourses, and said: “We will not have another Sardarapat”, recalling it as a war of desperation in which Armenians had to battle the invasion not even knowing what they were fighting for ( 2016). By undermining the Sardarapat battle, Sargsyan, presumably, attempted to boost the value put on the modern army of Armenia, which, according to him, consists of the young independence generation that know what they are fighting for. It could be argued that comparing Sardarapat with April 2016 was an attempt to justify the shortcomings of security infrastructure and corruption in the defense system that Sargsyan’s administration was harshly criticized for.

May 9: One Day, Two “Enemies”, Three Celebrations

Officially called the “Day of Victory and Peace”, May 9 is celebrated in Armenia as a triple holiday. Officially it is the celebration of the victory over the Fascist regime in 1945 and the takeover of Shushi/Shusha (officially termed “Liberation of Shushi”) in 1992. Two victories – one of socialist Armenia and another of independent Armenia – are unofficially supplemented with a third celebration – the “Day of the formation of the Defense Army of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic”. It is debatable, whether May 9 is primarily acclaimed for the 1945 victory or the 1992 Shushi/Shusha battle. Usually, the greetings are addressed to the veterans of both, without any specifications.

The operation leading to the takeover of Shushi/Shusha bore the name “Wedding in the Mountains” and took place on May 8-9 of 1992. It is considered to be another, equally important victory as is the victory of the Soviet army over the Fascist regime.

The coincidence of the days has become a point of conflation of “enemies” and victories over them. The fight against fascism is discursively continued in the fight against Azerbaijanis (who in the public discourse are often referred to as “Turks”) for existence and survival in the Nagorno-Karabakh war. The official discourse of the recent years, illustrated for example in the official messages of the then-president of Armenia Serj Sargsyan, puts an accent on the continuity of the struggle of the Armenian people – against fascism in the First World War (referred to in the speeches also as the Great Patriotic War), against the Azerbaijani army in 1992, and most recently also in the “April War” of 2016 ( 2016).

The continuous discourse about the two equally essential victories brought to a point, when the Shushi/Shusha takeover is even labeled as the second Stalingrad with such allusions sometimes being used in the media (GALA TV 2011).

While during the May 9 ceremonies, heads of government visit the Yerablur military cemetery – the burial place of the soldiers that died in the Nagorno-Karabakh war, the celebration of the takeover of Shushi/Shusha is usually celebrated in Victory Park together with the victory in the Great Patriotic War to which the park’s name is dedicated. The area is informally referred to as “monument” since the times Stalin’s statue was put in the park. In 1967, it was replaced by the “Mother Armenia” statue followed by the opening of the military museum dedicated to the Great Patriotic War․ On May 9, veterans and heads of government lay flowers near the eternal flame on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The commemoration ceremony is also accompanied by music and dances with Soviet/Russian motives.

Caucasus Edition

The Mother Armenia Stature, the Military Museum, and the eternal flame to the Unknown Soldier in the Victory Park of Yerevan. Photo Credits: Maria Karapetyan.

Caucasus Edition

The plate with the names of the soldiers who died in April 2016 located in the Victory Park of Yerevan. Photo Credits: Maria Karapetyan.

The fusion of the commemoration ceremonies is paralleled also in the memorial landscape of the park. Now half of the military museum is dedicated to the Nagorno-Karabakh war. In the park, there is also a monument dedicated to the takeover of Shushi/Shusha. There are other monuments commemorating the soldiers of different wars, such as the one dedicated to the veterans of the Afghan war. Some of the monuments are put up through private efforts. Most recently, a plate with the names of the soldiers who died in April 2016 was put in the Heroes Alley of the park.

The third theme of celebration on May 9 is for the Defense Army of Nagorno-Karabakh that formed in 1992 out of the fedayi-volunteer troops fighting during the war. The formation of the defense army of Nagorno-Karabakh is celebrated only in Nagorno-Karabakh. While it is not an official celebration in Armenia, on that day, it is mentioned in almost all speeches of the representatives of the Armenian government.

Forget-me-not: Memory Politics and the Armenian Genocide

On July 17 of 2016, one of the Yerevan police stations was taken by the armed group called “Sasna Tsrer” (“Daredevils of Sassoun”). The attack was organized mostly by veterans of the Nagorno-Karabakh war, and the demands were related to the dissatisfaction with the government and the release of political prisoners. As on many other critical occasions, some members of parliament brought up a discourse which not once was already injected into society: “This is the biggest hit to Armenia as well as to Nagorno-Karabakh… Enemies surround us, this is not acceptable…”. Such and many other opinions were heard from officials and not only. Any civic awakening in Armenia or attempt to express dissatisfaction is indirectly pressured with the threat of being surrounded by enemies. The threat from neighbors is a cornerstone of Armenian political discourse, and official commemorations are opportune moments to recall collective memories about the “boundless cruelty” of neighbors.

In the number of atrocities done to Armenians, the Armenian Genocide has the strongest imprint in the memory of the people. The memory of the Genocide is not only strong by itself, but also influences any other memories of the past as well as the perception and the politics of the present.

The topic of the Genocide, which was a fresh wound for people that fled from the Ottoman Empire to Armenia (later Soviet Armenia), was not spoken out loud for a long time. The memories of atrocities and the homeland were remembered silently and chained with the fear of deportation within the Soviet Union. The memories broke free into the public and political sphere on April 24 of 1965.

In the early 1960s, during the Khrushchev Thaw period, with the gradually emerging freedom of expression, dissident movements started to appear. Armenian rebels began to speak up about the question of the Genocide and the return of lands. This movement was preceded with the “renaissance” of Armenian folk culture. The revival of the songs and dances had served not only to the preservation of the non-material heritage of Armenia but also brought up the repressed memories of the Genocide and the homeland left in Turkey.

The articulation of memories and the public discussions fermented into a colossal memory walk on April 24 of 1965, when thousands of people went to a remembrance march. The reason for such an unexpected huge number of people is explained through the term of Jan Assmann, communicative memory, that was not spoken publicly and was not visible from outside, but was preserved in each family (Assmann 2008).

Caucasus Edition

The first commemoration of the Armenian Genocide in Yerevan in 1965. Photo Credits: Hovik Charkchyan, taken fromթ-ապրիլի-24/.

Caucasus Edition

The first commemoration of the Armenian Genocide in Yerevan in 1965. Photo Credits: Hovik Charkchyan, taken fromթ-ապրիլի-24/.

The Soviet government confirmed the construction of the Memorial Complex Tsitsernakaberd dedicated to the victims of the Genocide. The memorial was officially opened on November 29, the day of the sovietization of Armenia.

The memorial consists of three components: a 100-meter memorial wall with the names of cities where the massacres occurred, a 44-meter high arrow-shaped monument, symbolizing survival and spiritual rebirth, and the round memorial sanctuary without a roof, with the eternal flame in the center. Later, in 1995, a museum and institute were constructed near the memorial complex. The Memorial Complex Tsitsernakaberd has become the location for the main commemoration event. People bring flowers to put near the eternal flame, as a sign of remembrance of Armenians exterminated during the Genocide.

Caucasus Edition

The Museum of Armenian Genocide in Yerevan. Photo Credits: Obtained from Photolure News Agency.

The period since the 1960s was the peak when memories of the Genocide began to be articulated publicly. This was the moment when the communicative memory about the Genocide started to flow into common knowledge. Due to the technological advances and the gradual entrance of the topic of the Armenian Genocide into the media and academic fields, the memory of the Genocide penetrated different types of media and got filtered by official discourses (with its positive and negative consequences) and has become a memory possessed by almost each Armenian.

Caucasus Edition

Armenian Genocide Commemoration of 2015 in Yerevan. Photo Credits: Obtained from Photolure News Agency.

2015 was the year of the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. That year the forget-me-not flower was introduced as the symbol of the Genocide. The phrase “We remember and demand” became a message to the local as well as the international audience. The purple flower with five petals means “remembrance” or “not forgetting” in many cultures and carries a strong message. However, because of the commercialization of the image, it quickly lost its emotional effect and the meaning that was initially put forth.

The component of demand in the famous phrase “We remember and demand” was unclear for many people. Though the Genocide has a significant role in the international affairs of Armenia, there are no precisely formulated demands from Turkey, except recognition.

As in the case of the May 9 commemoration, the discourse of the Genocide commemoration also weaves together various “threats” and “enemies”. Examples of that discourse during the centennial commemoration of the Genocide in 2015 were the posters portraying attributes representing the Ottoman Empire in juxtaposition with Fascist attributes.

Caucasus Edition

Poster from the Armenian Genocide Commemoration of 2015, reading “By condemning the previous, we could have prevented the following. International Struggle Memory Acknowledgement Rebirth”. Photo Credits: Doping Creative Advertising, taken from

The same discourse was possible to observe in the speech of Serj Sargsyan during the commemoration ceremony on April 24 of 2015. He referred to his own speech of a few years back when he had visited the Armenian church of Der Zor in Syria that contains the graves of Genocide victims. Then as he spoke about the blowing up of the church in 2014 during the current war in Syria, he said, “Some cannot leave in peace the bones and remnants of our victims” and that “that’s the relevance of the problem for today” (Azatutyun (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty) 2015).

The spread of constant fear by the official discourse and the entrenching hatred towards “Turks” sometimes comes up in unexpected situations and plays against the mechanisms that perpetuate such fear. Gayane Shagoyan, a senior researcher at the Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, remembers, how during the March 1 protests in 2008, people were addressing the soldiers standing against them as Turks (Shagoyan 2017).

Most recently, attempts have been made at various levels to transform the narrative of victimhood into a narrative of survival. For example, the Aurora Prize initiative suggests a shift in the discourse on the Armenian Genocide. The now annual international humanitarian award – the Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity proposes a new perspective on history. Although the government of Armenia is not the author of the initiative, it gives support to the initiative. Since 2016, the award is presented in a huge event gathering in Armenia prominent representatives of many fields related to humanitarian work worldwide and not only.

The well-organized event together with the other components of the initiative, such as public discussions called “Aurora Dialogues”, are dedicated to rethinking the legacy of the Armenian Genocide and remembering its victims through preserving human life and advancing humanitarian causes. This new discourse can hardly be called mainstream. Still, it provides a healthy alternative that liberates from the psychology of a victim.

Competing Genocides, Imperial and Nationalist “Enemies” in the Memory Politics of Azerbaijan

The commemorative practices and monuments in Azerbaijan also bear the imprint of the Soviet legacy although the content often comes into stark opposition with the Soviet past. After independence, the government has pursued a politics of memory reviving the memory of the violent past of the region of the South Caucasus, selecting the instances of that past that would support the new politics, and tying them to the current context of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

March 1918 – A Century Later

By Sevil Huseynova

Since the end of the 1980s, Azerbaijani historiography, media, and political discourses tend to historicize the contemporary Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. There is a trend of “finding the roots and causes” of modern events in the distant past. Historians and ideologists line up in one single causal chain conflicts that occurred in very different social-political context across a long span of time. Such an approach is called to prove that conflicts that “started in times immemorial” are continuous and carry on to our days. In this reference system, the opposing side becomes the “historic enemy”.

The memory about the events of March 1918, that became relevant again in the 1990s, is one of the most interesting examples in this trend. A hundred years ago, when at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century Baku was the oil capital of the Russian Empire, a fight between the Bolsheviks, who enlisted the support of the Armenian nationalists – the Dashnaks, on the one hand, and those who were usually called Muslims, Turks, or “bourgeois nationalists”, on the other hand, was unfolding in Baku. The clashes ended with the complete defeat of the latter. The March clashes ended with a brutal massacre and pogroms of the civilian Muslim population for which the Dashnaks, who had joined the Bolsheviks, were blamed (Shahumyan 1978, 463).

The most prominent protagonists of these events (and in the future Soviet version of the tribute paid to these events as well) were the famous Bolsheviks Stepan Shahumyan, Alyosha Dzhaparidze, and others. As part of the Soviet memory politics, the myth about the “26 Baku Commissars” was created. The story of the life, struggle, and most importantly the death of the so-called “26 Baku Commissars” became the central site of memory (lieu de mémoire) in Soviet Azerbaijan. The key element in the Soviet commemoration, of course, were not the March events themselves, but the death of the commissars in Krasnovodsk in September of the same year.

Nevertheless, the modern reconstruction of the 1918 events is linked to the March fighting. The story of the tragic death of thousands of Muslims is placed in the center of the commemoration. In this narrative, the Baku Bolsheviks, and in particular, their ethnically Armenian leader Stepan Shahumyan, become radical nationalists and the “enemy” of everything Turkic.

The official ideological seal of this version of events became the then-president Heydar Aliyev’s decree issued on March 26 of 1998, in which March 31 was proclaimed as the Day of Genocide of the Azerbaijanis ( 1998). Along this decision, there emerged various narratives framing these events as facts supporting the Armenian aggression against Azerbaijanis that continuously carries on to our days from the very distant past[2].

“Black January” of 1990 as a Site of Memory

By Sevil Huseynova

In the constructed history of this “century-long confrontation”, the events of January 1990 have a special place. Multiple key plots and ideological discourses have been created around this site of memory. This includes the discourse of national independence as the highest value, for which “martyrs have shed their blood”, and the plot about the confrontation with the “historic enemy” – the Armenians. In those tragic events, the nationalists from the Popular Front of Azerbaijan (PFA) see the story of “uneven and courageous confrontation” with the Soviet Empire and “the Armenians of the world”. Azerbaijan’s 3rd president Heydar Aliyev’s image as the architect of the modern Azerbaijani political system, among many other things, is constructed around a plot that if he was the leader of the republic then, he would have never allowed this bloodshed to happen unlike the “negligent” representatives of the PFA. It was the January events that brought Heydar Aliyev back to the political arena from his forced retirement when he participated in the protests organized by ethnic Azerbaijanis in Moscow.

Caucasus Edition

The January issue of the newspaper Bakinskiy Rabochiy. Photo of the newspaper clipping taken by Sevil Huseynova.

The January events lead to the creation of the first non-Soviet site of memory – the Alley of Martyrs (Şəhidlər Xiyabanı), which currently serves as the main location for all kinds of commemoration events. In addition, the commemoration of the January events is not only an example of the construction of new memory sites, rituals, traditions, and discourses of tribute to national heroes and victims but also an example of displacement and oblivion of events that do not fit into the official discourse.

Caucasus Edition

The Alley of Martyrs in Baku. Photo Credits: Sevil Huseynova․

If we look back three decades, we shall acknowledge that by winter 1989 the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict had reached a point of no return. At that point, virtually all ethnic Azerbaijanis and the majority of ethnic Armenians had been forced to leave the Republic of Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan, respectively. The pogroms of the Armenian population in Sumgait, the satellite town of the capital city Baku, had already taken place. The Azerbaijani authorities had no effective control over the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region. A hundred thousand people were marching in protests and rallies in Baku. In July 1989, the first congress of the PFA – a political movement that united all those who were unhappy not only with the development of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict but also with the Soviet regime, took place. This movement brought together both the moderates and the radicals. However, the first congress showed that this was the time of the radicals. A nationalist and follower of the pan-Turkic ideology – Ablufaz Elchibey was elected as the chairman of the PFA.

By December 1989, the radicals were practically in full control of the movement, and by the end of the month, the country started to get out of the Soviet control. The first incidents happened outside of Baku. At the end of the month, the radicals seized the building of the city party committee in the city of Jalilabad and then destroyed several kilometers of the fence on the border with Iran in the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic. On January 11 of 1990, government buildings were seized in Lenkoran.

The anti-Armenian pogroms in Baku followed starting from January 13 of 1990. The exact number of victims of these pogroms is unknown. Estimates on the number of causalities range from 56 to 88 people. The Soviet authorities completely lost control over Baku and decided to resort to the use of military force. On the night of January 19-20 of 1990, a military operation begins in Baku, leaving 132 people dead and more than seven hundred injured, according to official data. On January 22, public funerals took place in Baku in the now former Nagorny Park of Culture and Recreation named after the famous Bolshevik Sergey Kirov. And it is these events that the Alley or Martyrs commemorates since 1990. On October 10 of 1998, the inauguration ceremony of the “Eternal Flame” memorial took place.

In the following years of independence, the commemoration of this event has taken place in a contradictory context. On one hand, it has been a remembrance of the “innocent victims” (martyrs); on the other hand, it has been a tribute to heroes and fighters for independence and the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. Meanwhile, the Armenian pogroms were pushed to the periphery of the official discourse. These events, if remembered at all, are largely explained by theories of conspiracy. In the context of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the popularity of enemy images, the memory of the hundreds and thousands of Armenians that were saved through the help of their Azerbaijani neighbors, colleagues, and relatives also remains completely untapped.

The “Blood Memory” of Khojaly Massacre in Azerbaijan

By Namiq Abdullayev

The massacre that happened in the small town of Khojaly on February 26 of 1992 has become a focal point in the memory politics of Azerbaijan. Over years, this event has come to occupy a solid place in the textbooks, literature, and commemorative practices. Collective memory played a crucial role in this particular clash between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, one of the researchers of the politics of Azerbaijan and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Svante Cornell notes about the Khojaly Tragedy, “The attack was timed, in all likelihood not coincidentally, to occur on the anniversary of the Sumgait killings of Armenians four years earlier” (Cornell 2011, 62). The Khojaly Massacre is commemorated and narrativized in textbooks and literature as “blood memory” (qan yaddaşı).

According to official information on the Khojaly Massacre, 613 people were killed, out of which 63 were children and 70 were elderly people. 1275 people were taken hostage; 487 were maimed. Six families were wiped out, while 26 children lost both parents, and 130 children lost one of their parents (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Azerbaijan n.d.).

Over the course of years, Azerbaijan has pursued a politics of memory through the narrativization and commemoration of the victims of the Khojaly Tragedy. Moreover, the government of Azerbaijan has been greatly static since 1993, with the hegemony of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party (Yeni Azərbaycan Partiyası), and this has emboldened the sustainability and strong orientation of memory politics as well. This review considers the narrativization of the Khojaly Massacre on two levels – for the inside and the outside. It is important to note that this is not a categorization based on the content or methodology of narrativization but its social and political consequences. In other words, while the targets of “inside” and “outside” narrativization are likely to differ, there is little difference between these two “sides” in terms of the storytelling and methods of commemoration.

Narrativization for the Inside

The Khojaly Massacre is one of if not the most tragic and painful focal element of the moral drama in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and this has been reflected in the internal narrativization and commemoration. As Azerbaijanis tend to view their homeland as a territory (Garagezov 2013), the politics of memory has empowered the narration of the Khojaly Tragedy as an unjust, violent, and barbarian result of the “occupation”, and this notion possesses the strong support of the masses.

Most probably, the narrativization of the tragedy at the national level serves to the political interests of Azerbaijan for sustaining the aggression against the occupation. As Azerbaijan is not satisfied with the present status-quo in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, an aggressive public opinion may help the state to efficiently use the direct, hard power to “solve” the problem. Thus, the President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev persistently expresses the possibility of activating military actions, in case diplomatic negotiations are not fruitful.

Narrativization for the Outside

The narrativization of the Khojaly Massacre for the outside is for the international audience. Azerbaijan pursues the recognition of the Khojaly Massacre by the international community as a genocide ( 2013). Turkey, Pakistan, Mexico, and Colombia, as well as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the Czech Republic, Romania, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and several states of the USA have passed resolutions on the Khojaly Tragedy so far. The Republic of Djibouti followed suit, with the recent adoption of a resolution on the recognition of the Khojaly Tragedy as a genocide ( 2017).

Journalist and writer Thomas De Wall considers that the Khojaly commemoration not only depicts Azerbaijan as a “victim of aggression”, but also has become the countering idea against the “Armenian Genocide” narration (Kucera 2013). In other words, the “Khojaly Genocide” narration of Azerbaijan competes with the “Armenian Genocide” in the field of victimization.

So, the narrativization for the outside mainly seeks the approval from the international community that Azerbaijan is a “victim of aggression”.

The Commemoration of the Tragedy at Home and Abroad

The monument that symbolizes the Khojaly Tragedy – “The Scream of the Mother” replaced the older one in Baku in 2008. The monument is a female figure – a mother holding a dead child in her hands, and the names of the victims of the massacre are written on a plate at the base of the monument. Memorials dedicated to the Khojaly Massacre have so far been installed also in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Turkey, Germany, Israel, Mexico, Serbia, and the Netherlands.

Caucasus Edition

The Khojaly Massacre Memorial in Baku. Photo Credits: Saadat Abdullazade.

Caucasus Edition

The Khojaly Massacre Memorial in Baku. Photo Credits: Saadat Abdullazade.

Since 1994, February 26 is the mourning day, as the “Day of the Khojaly Genocide”. On this day, mourning ceremonies are organized in front of the memorials in almost every corner of Azerbaijan ( 2016). The national TV channels do not broadcast entertainment programs and music that could contradict mourning. Often, they broadcast films about the Nagorno-Karabakh war. One of such films is “The Cry” (“Fəryad”), the fictional life story of an Azerbaijani soldier who survived through captivity.

The campaign led by the daughter of the president Leyla Aliyeva – “Justice for Khojaly” claims to be the cultural vanguard of the expected recognition process of the “Khojaly Genocide”. The website[3] of the campaign gives comprehensive information about memorials to the Khojaly Massacre across the globe, as well as examples of art and in particular filmography about the event.

Commemoration ceremonies are also held beyond Azerbaijan. In 2014, an impressive piece composed by the French composer Pierre Thilloy – “Khojaly 613” was performed during the Khojaly commemoration concert in Paris, organized by the French office of the European Azerbaijan Society (TEAS).

The most massive demonstration related to the Khojaly Massacre held outside of Azerbaijan has been the mass rally with approximately 100,000 people, organized on the 20th anniversary of the tragedy in Taksim Square in Istanbul. Another action was conducted by the Azerbaijan America Alliance in Washington DC in February 2013. During the campaign posters with the writing “Khojaly… A Human Tragedy Against Azerbaijan” appeared in nine local subway stations (Karčić 2016).


Without aiming to come anywhere close a comprehensive examination of the commemoration practices in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey, this review discussed a selection of commemoration and celebration days, aiming to demonstrate that the politics of memory is bound with a selective approach towards the past, building of continuities (often retrospectively) between the past and the present, and the contemporary conflicts.

This review allows us to draw a few parallels and find commonalities in the memory politics of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey.

One common feature of the politics of memory in these countries is the selectiveness in what and how to commemorate. The narratives around specific events are thinned down to either ultimate victory or ultimate victimhood, often leaving out the other side or the larger context of the story. In this way, the larger context of the South Caucasus is left out in the commemoration of the May 1918 battles in Armenia, the Armenian pogroms are pushed to the periphery in the official discourse around January 1990 in Azerbaijan, and the mistakes of the military leadership in the Tragedy of the Sarikamish are “forgotten” in commemoration narratives in Turkey.

The shifting politics of memory depending on the political context of the time is also comparable in the three countries. The memory of the Tragedy of Sarikamish and the Khojaly Massacre in Turkey, the commemoration of the Armenian Genocide in Armenia, and the March 1918 clashes in Azerbaijan entered the realm of official memory politics only at the time political necessity or opportunity.

The past and the present are often fused in commemorative practices – creating links between stories of animosity and giving old “roots” to new conflicts. The May 9 commemoration in Armenia illustrates how this conflation happens both through the coincidence of dates but also through the choice of locations of commemorative rituals and sites, as well as discourses. A similar phenomenon in Azerbaijan is the Alley of Martyrs that is the burial place of the victims of the March 1918 events, the Black January of 1990, and the Nagorno-Karabakh war.

Taking the commemorative practices outside the national borders to fight for justice for own causes is also a common characteristic of the politics of memory. Monuments and rituals both for diasporic communities as well as the “international community” are set up and enacted worldwide.

Sometimes memory politics uses the elements of counter-memories such as the Khojaly Massacre in the memory politics of Turkey instrumentalized as a counter-claim of the Armenian Genocide or the temporary transfer of the Battle of Dardanelles commemoration day to April 24 in 2015. Similarly, the March 1918 clashes in Azerbaijan and the Khojaly Massacre “compete” with the Armenian Genocide as narratives of victimhood. In Armenia, May 9 celebration of the takeover of Shushi/Shusha, on the one hand reinforced by the celebration of the victory in the Great Patriotic War, competes with that very same Soviet memory.

This brief review of the memory politics in Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan leaves us with a grim conclusion. The emphasis on traumatic events, the depiction of relations with neighbors as a story of confrontation and losses further mobilizes the population in these countries to participate in conflicts. Such politics not only allows shifting attention from social problems, but also becomes a serious impediment for the peaceful transformation of conflicts that are currently dividing the region. The discourse of self-victimization and sharpening hatred towards “opponents” does not leave space for constructive dialogue. Only a few initiatives and NGOs still try to foster a dialogue between conflicting sides, which is still, a drop in the ocean of propaganda.

Bibliography 2017. “Armenians worldwide celebrate Republic Day on May 28.” Armenpress. May 28. Accessed June 7, 2018.

Assmann, Jan. 2008. “Communicative and Cultural Memory.” In Cultural Memory Studies: An International and Interdisciplinary Handbook, edited by Astrid Erll and Ansgar Nünning, 109-118. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

Azatutyun (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty). 2015. “Serge Sargsyan’s April 24 Speech on the Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day. Video.” (Սերժ Սարգսյանի՝ ապրիլի 24-ի ելույթը Ցեղասպանության զոհերի հիշատակի օրվա կապակցությամբ. տեսագրություն). April 24. Accessed June 8, 2018. 1998. “Decree of the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan About the Genocide of the Azerbaijanis.” (Указ президента Азербайджанской республики о геноциде азербайджанцев). March 26. Accessed June 8, 2018. 2013. Azerbaijan Thanks Countries Recognizing Khojaly Genocide. March 5. Accessed June 9, 2018. 2016. “Various events have been held in the regions related to the 24th anniversary of Khojaly tragedy.” (Xocalı faciəsinin 24-cü ildönümü ilə bağlı bölgələrdə müxtəlif tədbirlər keçirilib). February 2. Accessed June 9, 2018.

Balakian, Peter. 2003. The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response. New York: HarperCollins.

Cornell, Svante. 2011. Azerbaijan Since Independence. Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe.

De Waal, Thomas. 2013. Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through Peace and War. New York: New York University Press.

GALA TV. 2011. “It is a Triple Holiday in Armenia..” (Հայաստանում եռատոն է..). May 9. Accessed June 8, 2018.

Garagezov, Rauf. 2013. Collective Memory: How Collective Representations about the Past are Created, Stored, and Reproduced (Коллективная память: Как создаются, сохраняются и воспроизводятся коллективные представления о прошлом). Baku: Elm.

Karčić, Hamza. 2016. “Khojaly: The Worst Massacre in the Nagorno- Karabakh War and Azerbaijan’s Quest to Commemorate the Tragedy.” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 36 (4): 597-601.

Kucera, Joshua. 2013. Azerbaijan: Baku Presses Campaign for Khojaly Recognition. May 1. Accessed June 9, 2018.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Azerbaijan. n.d. Khojaly Genocide. Accessed June 9, 2018. 2016. “President Serj Sargsyan’s Address on Victory and Peace Day.” (Նախագահ Սերժ Սարգսյանի ուղերձը Հաղթանակի և խաղաղության տոնի առթիվ). May 9. Accessed June 10, 2018.

Shagoyan, Gayane, interview by Christina Soloyan. 2017. Interview with Senior Researcher at the Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology of the National Academy of Sciences of Armenia (August 8).

Shahumyan, Stepan. 1978. Selected Works (Избранные произведения). Vol. 2. Moscow: Political Literature (Политическая литература). 2017. Another Country Recognizes Khojaly Genocide. January 24. Accessed June 9, 2018. 2016. “There Won’t Be a New Sardarapat Because There is a State. Serj Sargsyan.” (Նոր Սարդարապատ չի լինելու, որովհետև կա պետություն. Սերժ Սարգսյան). May 28. Accessed June 9, 2018.


[1] For example, the 2008 film “120” tells the story of 120 children who died in 1915 carrying ammunition for the Battle of Sarikamish.

[2] See, for example, “Historical Geography of Western Azerbaijan” (Историческая география Западного Азербайджана) compiled by Sabir Adov under the scientific editorship of Budag Budagov, published by the publishing house “Azerbaijan” in 1998.

[3] See

* This story has been produced with support from the US Embassies in the South Caucasus. The opinions expressed in the publication reflect the point of the view of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the US Embassies.

** The cover photo of this story is a collage made by Davit Avetisyan․

Leave a Comment

What are your thoughts on the subject?