By Kelsey Rice
In 1806, the city of Baku was a sleepy port town of about 3,000-5,000 Turkic and Persian Muslims, governed by a local Khan who swore fealty to the Qajar state. Compared to the cities of Shamakha to the north and Shusha to the west, it was a relative cultural and political backwater, notable only as home to one of the few ports on the western coast of the Caspian Sea. That year Baku’s status would begin to change, however, as the Russian Empire continued its bid to conquer the South Caucasus by laying siege to Baku. The local leader, Huseyn Qoli Khan, responded by assassinating the Russian General Pavel Tsitsianov under the pretense of meeting to surrender. That brief victory met with swift reprisal, however, and Baku fell to the Russians four months later. With the Treaty of Gulistan in 1813 and the Treaty of Turkmanchay in 1828, Baku and the other surrounding Khanates comprising the modern-day territories of Azerbaijan and Armenia came under Russian rule.
Now part of a vast multiethnic empire, the once homogenous city of Baku began to change. In the 1860s, Baku became the new capital of the governorate, leading to the population more than doubling to 13,000. Within a decade of Baku’s promotion to regional capital, the rich reserves of oil in the area, where oil literally seeped out of the ground and formed pools on the surface, suddenly became attractive to more than just local traders who scooped it from shallow wells and sold it as lubricant and ointment. Baku’s oil boom, which birthed the world’s first major petroleum industry, emerged in the 1870’s and continued apace until World War I. Diverse populations streamed into the city to seek their fortunes in oil. By 1897, when Russia conducted its first empire-wide census, the population of Baku was 111,904. By 1913 it had nearly doubled again, to 214,672. The formerly homogenous city of Turks and Persians had transformed into a cosmopolitan boomtown with a population of Russians, Azeris, Iranians (most of whom were also ethnic Azeris), Armenians, and smaller populations of Germans, Jews, and Georgians. Russians replaced Azeris as the largest group in the city, comprising 38 percent of the population, compared to the latter’s 33 percent. With the addition of a large Armenian population, Baku went from a majority-Muslim city to majority-Christian.
Such a massive population growth hardly occurred in an orderly fashion, and the majority of the population increase came from the arrival of unskilled workers from throughout the Caucasus and Iran. The role of labor migration in increasing the city’s population gave it a dramatically uneven gender ratio, and in 1913 Baku’s population was 55-60 percent male. Baku was a place where some men went to become millionaires, but many more were answering the rising demand for cheap labor and toiled in abject poverty. With a large population of single young men, a dramatically uneven distribution of wealth, and a new cosmopolitanism that stoked simmering ethnic tension, Baku was a dynamic city where violence constantly threatened to surface. In newspapers of the era, reviews of opera performances were published side-by-side with crime reports of bodies found in allies, stories of daring prison breaks by Bolshevik agitators, and descriptions of robberies by armed bandits. As historian Audrey Altstadt puts it, “It was as if the industry of Pittsburgh and the frontier lawlessness of Dodge City had been superimposed on Baghdad.”
Arriving in this chaotic city of opportunity in 1906, a young schoolteacher, Uzeyir Hajibeyov, sought his fortune. Hailing from a noble family from Shusha, Hajibeyov had grown up immersed in classical Azeri and Persian music and poetry. A graduate of the Gori Pedagogical Seminary, where he learned to play the violin, he was a member of a small but growing class of secularly educated young men who moved to Baku and began clamoring for social and cultural reform. The men extolled the values of the “progressive path,” a route of social and cultural progress along European lines that would uplift Muslim populations. Following the Russian Revolution of 1905, laws monitoring the press and associational life loosened, and they began organizing into voluntary associations, founding schools, publishing Azeri-language periodicals, and staging plays. Hajibeyov quickly became an integral figure in this community of reformists, sealing his place as one of their greatest artists at the age of twenty-three when he composed and staged the first opera ever produced in a Muslim culture, Leyli and Majnun, in 1908. Following the success of his debut, Hajibeyov went on to almost singlehandedly create Azeri opera culture. He wrote eight more operas and operettas that were staged regularly throughout the imperial and Soviet eras.
Like his contemporary playwrights, Hajibeyov tended to set his works either in the epic past or in generalized provincial settings. Although Azeri theater of the era was primarily both written and staged in Baku, urban life was rarely depicted. The exception to this trend is Hajibeyov’s four act comic operetta If Not That One, Then This One, written in 1910. This piece, one of Hajibeyov’s most popular, grappled with the social challenges and violence presented by urbanization through a combination of biting satire and catchy tunes. The operetta tells the tale of two young lovers, Sarvar and Gulnaz, whose desire to form a love match is threatened by Gulnaz’s father, who hopes to settle his gambling debts by selling her into marriage to a rich and much older bazaar merchant named Meshedi Ibad. The father, Rustam bey, is joined by four friends in celebrating the coming nuptials, who each represent a caricatured version of typical figures encountered in Baku society. As the mutually beneficial deal between Rustam bey and Meshedi Ibad begins to derail, these men manipulate the hapless merchant into giving them increasingly more money for services never rendered. Finally, the young lovers trick him into agreeing to marry the maid instead. Meshedi Ibad reasons, with women, “if not that one, then this one,” and everyone gets what they want in the end.
The plot hinges on Meshedi Ibad, a character that would become the great comic role of Baku theater. He and Rustam bey, a nobleman drowning in debt and uninterested in his daughter beyond her use in a financial transaction, represent the old elites of Azeri society whom Hajibeyov and his contemporaries saw as holding back progress. Rustam bey’s urbanite friends, however, are held up for even more scorn than the lord and the merchant, who are presented as pitiable relics trying to stay afloat as they confront a modernizing society. Indeed, Meshedi Ibad argues to Gulnaz that his age is a benefit, noting “I swear by you both, the existing world has changed so much that today’s elders are thousands of times better than the young ones.”
After Rustam bey and Meshsedi Ibad agree to a bride price of 1,500 rubles for Gulnaz, Rustam bey’s friends arrive at his home to celebrate, singing about the coming nuptials, and overwhelming Meshedi Ibad with their self-importance. Hasanqulu bey, a self-declared nationalist, ruminates on the immorality of society, though his actions reveal him to be utterly self-interested rather than a servant of the people. He is followed by Asgar, a qochu, a particular brand of Baku criminal who hailed from a tradition of tribal chieftains but was functionally a bandit. Asgar recalls once trying to shoot Meshedi Ibad down in the street when he mistook him for an enemy, declaring himself glad he had not killed him, a humorous reference to the very serious violence that plagued the streets of Baku. Rza bey, a journalist, then asks permission to give a toast, but employs so much Ottoman vocabulary and grammar in his speech that his Azeri peers do not understand him and do not answer. Offended, he threatens to use his paper to attack them all the next day. Only then do the other men admit they hadn’t understood a word he had said. The guests are not to be spared a perplexing toast, however; Hasan bey, a self-styled intellectual, follows Rza bey with a barely comprehensible speech in a garbled mixture of Russian and Azeri, with the occasional French word thrown in for good measure. Beyond his modest grasp of Russian and French, however, Hasan bey reveals himself to be less of an intellectual than a drunken windbag.
Meshedi Ibad discovers Gulnaz’s desire to marry Sarvar the next day when he peaks over her garden wall, using a poor porter as a human stepping stool, and and spies the lovers rendezvousing. Meshedi Ibad rages at Sarvar, who cheerfully mocks him, as the porter, representative of the unskilled laborers populating Baku who have become so abased that they will agree to literally let rich men step on them for a pittance, protests that his back is breaking. Meshedi Ibad proceeds to approach each of Rustam bey’s friends with his dilemma, and they gleefully take his money with promises to solve his problem. Asgar tries to attack Sarvar with his gang, but the sight of the police scatters them immediately, an episode that celebrates the potential for urban order through policing. With violence no longer an option, Meshedi Ibad turns to Rza bey, who promises to defame Rustam bey in his newspaper, and Hasanqulu bey, who offers no real solution but still demands Meshedi Ibad give him money so that he can work on the problem. The porter, meanwhile, tags along begging for a second coin to make up for the pain inflicted on him, which Meshedi Ibad refuses to pay, despite handing out hundreds of rubles to the other men.
The critiques Hajibeyov directs to the nationalist, the journalist, and the intellectual, echo those written by the most powerful satirical voice of the era, that of Jalil Mammadguluzade. Mammadguluzade was the editor of Molla Nasreddin, an illustrated literary journal that spared no sector of Azeri society its sharp pen. Hajibeyov and Mammadguluzade were frequent collaborators, and shared similar sentiments on the failure of many supposedly progressive men to actually contribute meaningfully to progress. Journalists engaged in petty feuds in the pages of their journals, and accepted payment for character assassinations. “Intellectuals” mimicked European speech without really understanding what they were saying, and nationalists used the title in entirely self-serving manners. If Not That One, Then This One demanded better of Baku’s new urban society.
The operetta did not disappear following Sovietization; indeed, Hajibeyov was a leading cultural figure of Soviet Azerbaijan until his death in 1948. In 1956, it was turned into a popular film by the director Huseyn Seyidzadeh. The film remains mostly faithful to the source material, but Seyidzade inserts the real historical figures of Mammadguluzade, the artist Azim Azimzadeh, and the satirical poet Mirza Alakbar Sabir, to offer an idealistic counterpoint to the corrupted older men of the operetta. Recognizable cultural artifacts of the era pepper the film; poles are decorated with posters advertising other Hajibeyov operas such as Leyli and Majnun, Azim Azimzadeh shows the students a caricature he drew for Molla Nasreddin, and Mirza Alakbar Sabir recites one of his famous poems for Sarvar, who then recites it to Gulnaz. In 1956, the urgency of Hajibeyov’s social satire is less immediate. The characters of Rustam bey’s friends are played for humor, while the insertion of celebrated historical figures conveys a nostalgia for late imperial Baku that still exists to this day in Azerbaijan. The period is considered one of Azeri cultural renaissance, and the writers, actors, and intellectuals that came out of it continue to shape Azeri culture today. Street names, parks, institutions, and monuments throughout Baku commemorate these years, including quite a few dedicated to Hajibeyov. The corruption, violence, and hypocrisy of the past lies largely forgotten, while its melodies, words, and imagery continue to animate Azerbaijan’s national memory.
Featured image at top: [Left: Pouring benzine in cistern at an oil refinery in Baku; right: Oil towers (wells) in the Caspian Sea], 1954, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
Kelsey Rice is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at the University of Pennsylvania whose research is located at the intersection of Middle Eastern and Central Eurasian history. She is currently completing her dissertation, Forging the Progressive Path: Literary Assemblies and Enlightenment Societies in Azerbaijan, 1850-1928, which she will defend in April.
 Audrey Altstatd. “Baku: Transformation of a Muslim Town” in Hamm, Michael F., The City in Late Imperial Russia. Arts and Politics of the Every, 1986.