May 28, 1918 was the date on which the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan (Azərbaycan Xalq Cümhuriyyəti) with its capital in Bakı was proclaimed. This state, the very first Western-style democracy in the Muslim world, survived only 23 months, but in its short life the Republic accomplished conspicuous social and political achievements. For example, a law passed in 1919 guaranteed universal suffrage, notably the right of women to vote, making Azerbaijan the first Muslim nation to grant women equal political rights with men. In fact, Azerbaijan granted women the right to vote earlier than many Western countries, including the United States. In October 1919, the New York Times reported: “The Azerbaijan Parliament is composed of 120 members elected by universal suffrage, this being apparently the first time that Moslem women have taken an open part in choosing public officials.”
In addition, the Arabic alphabet was replaced with the Latin alphabet, a truly revolutionary act that gave Azerbaijanis access to Western science and technology. The first institution of higher education in Bakı – Bakı State University – was founded at this time. A land reform program was implemented and a multi-ethnic government was formed that reflected the parliament, which was made up of many different national groups (including 24 seats for the Armenian ethnic minority) and a number of different political parties.
Politicians like Mahammad Amin Rasulzade, Fatalikhan Khoylu, Alimardan bey Topchubashov, Mammadhasan Hajinski and others played leading roles in the nation-building process at that time. The international community, including the United States, recognized the sovereignty of the new country. At the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson met with the delegation of Azerbaijan. President Wilson later remarked that the Azerbaijanis he met “talked the same language that I did in respect of ideas, in respect of conceptions of liberty, in respect of conceptions of right and justice.”
However, on April 28, 1920 the Soviet Russia invaded the young Republic and overthrew the democratic government. But Azerbaijanis did not surrender their brief independence quickly or easily. As many as 20,000 Azerbaijanis died resisting the Bolshevist invasion in different parts of the country.
From 1922 to 1936 Azerbaijan was a member of the Transcaucasian Federative Socialist Republic of the Soviet Union. In 1936 the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic became one of the constituent republics of the Soviet Union.
After the Soviet invasion of Northern Azerbaijan, Sheykh Khiyabani in Iranian Azerbaijan proclaimed the Azerbaijani state of Azadistan (Land of the Free), which perished after only six months.
Azerbaijan had mixed experiences as one of the Soviet republics. Its riches were entirely at the disposal of Moscow, which led to the ruthless exploitation of Azerbaijan and its natural resources. During Stalin’s dictatorship (1926-53), Azerbaijan suffered from forced collectivization and far-reaching purges. The regime suppressed the Azerbaijani intellectuals who sought to defy the Communist party line and manifest the Azerbaijani ethnic identity. Particularly during Stalin’s purges of the 1930s, many Azerbaijani writers and intellectuals were murdered or deported to Siberia, and ruthless attempts were made to erase evidence of their lives and work from historical records. Numerous cultural monuments, libraries, mosques, and archives were destroyed.
Yet, Azerbaijan also achieved significant gains in industrialization and literacy levels that were impressive in comparison with those of other Muslim states of the Middle East or Central Asia at that time. The post-Stalin era was marked in Azerbaijan by better education and welfare conditions as well as rapid urbanization and industrialization.
During the first years of the Soviet occupation Zəngəzur, a part of Naxçıvan, and other areas of Azerbaijan were arbitrarily removed from Azerbaijan and added to the neighboring Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic. As a result, Azerbaijan’s territory, which at the time of the first Republic had been 114,000 square kilometers, was reduced to 86,600 square kilometers by 1921.
Bakı remained the most important source of oil for the entire Soviet Union up until the 1960s. During World War II Bakı supplied about 76% of the Red Army’s fuel and more than 90% of its aviation gasoline, thus hugely contributing to the victory over Nazi Germany. Approximately 681,000 people from Azerbaijan, with over 100,000 of them women, went to the front, while the total population of the republic was 3.4 million at the time. Some 250,000 people from Azerbaijan were killed on the front. More than 130 Azerbaijanis were named “Heroes of the Soviet Union”.