Studies in modern and contemporary history of Azerbaijan are too sporadic, and most often limited to a couple of chapters in more general works on Transcaucasia; they had been lent credibility by the first publication of this key monograph, now a classic, reedited in pocket format some twenty years later. The historical narrative proposed by the author begins in 1905 with the first affirmations of a modern national identity, concomitant with the first revolution of Russia; it ends fifteen years later with the suppression of the ephemeral Republic of Azerbaijan in 1920. Although the work focuses on this very short period of time, it nevertheless provides a captivating decoding of the country’s further evolution through the twentieth century. Having skimmed at large through a rich archive material, and the Soviet historical literature, the author shows how these fatal years showed decisive for the emergence and the articulation of modern national ideas, in the building up of the contemporary Azerbaijani identity, and in the invention of a political role and destiny by a young intelligentsia hungry for modernity and independence. Before 1905 collective identities used to be expressed through reference to lineage, local and regional solidarities (‘asabiyya-s), to Twelver Shiite Islam, and more largely to the Muslims of the Russian Empire—remaining alien to the idea of a nation-state for Azerbaijanis. It is in the very first years of the twentieth century, after the return of a first generation of students from Western Europe, and in the immediate aftermath of the first revolution of Russia that a nascent secular intelligentsia elaborated a philosophy of the nation clearly inspired by European models (on Ağaoğlu’s intellectual debt toward Renan and Le Bon, see a recent paper by A. H. Shissler, “A Student abroad in Late Ottoman Times: Ahmet Agaoglu and French Paradigms in Turkish Thought,” in Rudi Mathee & Beth Baron, eds., Iran and Beyond: Essays in Middle Eastern History in Honour of Nikki R. Keddie, Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Publishers, 2000: 35-55). Very soon these young intellectuals embarked on an overall questioning of the relations of Transcaucasia with Russia—the source of inspiration for numerous liberal thinkers and activists, a vector of economic modernisation, but also a foreign dominant power. Through the minute narrative, day after day, sometimes even hour after hour, of the local impact of the three revolutions of Russia, of the revolutions of 1906 in Iran and 1908 in Turkey, of the short-lived Transcaucasian Federation and of the first Republic of Azerbaijan, the reader follows the intellectual progression of varied trends bearing the definition of a new national identity. The author provides a first tentative identification of the protagonists, and of the influences that conditioned the development of each. The reader is invited to witness the debates between pro-Russian liberals, Jadid reformists, Islamists, and the first Islamist, then Turkist people of the Musavvat, without omitting the Bolsheviks, Georgian Mensheviks and the Armenian Dashnaksutiun (the index showing very useful, in this matter, for possible transversal readings). Conversely, the author also shows how the development of ideas and the whole region’s political transformation have been hampered by the durable discrepancy between Europeanised urban intellectual elites and the traditionalism of the remaining part of the social body. In all this work has indisputably marked a date in the progression of studies in modern history of the Southern Caucasus — even if one has every right to deplore the Hegelian vision of a continuous, gradual and parallel development of nations, quite common in studies on modernism in Central Eurasian lands, and to regret the essentialist vision of the Azerbaijani nation — a characteristic of the collection on the nationalities of the USSR in which this pioneering monograph has been initially published.
Bayram Balci, French Institute of Central Asian Studies, Tashkent