Letters from Azerbaidzhani Public, Political
and Government Figures (1904-1937)


Compiled by Salavat M. Iskhakov

This collection contains letters, previously unknown and unavailable, from the personal archives of a number of the most prominent Muslim politicians of Azerbaidzhani background of the first third of the 20th century. The letters, which represent a multidimensional historical source, deal with issues related to the history of Russia, the Caucasus and Azerbaidzhan, and the changes that occurred at the beginning of the 20th century. One of the letter writers was A. M. Topchibashev, who, as one of the most European-educated Muslim intellectuals in the empire at the time, became the soul of the overall Muslim movement. He was the perennial chairman of all of the general Muslim congresses in Russia until 1917 and was an active participant in the movement for the civil and political rights of the Muslim population. Topchibashev cofounded the Union of Russian Muslims, which encompassed the entire empire and was later changed into the Muslim Party, which existed right up until the February Revolution of 1917. His letters (before 1917) reflect one of the major issues in the life of the Muslim population of the empire at the time – the question of the fundamental reorganization of Muslim religious boards, which at that point were archaic and bureaucratic institutions. Religious institutions for Russia’s Muslims were more social and political than purely religious bodies.

The Russian government, aware of the significance of religious institutions, did everything to weaken their influence and minimize them in the eyes of the Muslims. Entire oblasts with predominantly Muslim populations did not have religious institutions, and the governance of Muslims’ religious affairs was entrusted directly to the Russian administration. Topchibashev’s letters afford an opportunity to follow what he, as the leader of the Muslim movement, was proposing as a draft law on behalf of the Muslim group in the State Duma of the Russian Empire. In the spring of 1908 he wrote to an associate that the difference “between Sunnism and Shiism, as it is now understood by the best Islamic scholars, is purely political and has now lost all meaning; it is blown up only by the fiery fantasy of the Persians, who have introduced into Islam much from the religion” of Zarathustra (GAAR,f.3172,op.1,d.6,l.27-30). These musings on Muslim problems, on the conflicts between Shiites and Sunnis and on the religious and political aspects of Muslim life, were certainly not intended to be aired in public. These and other letters contain candid testimony about how the Muslim communities perceived political and public life in tsarist Russia at the beginning of the 20th century, the Russian government and its attitude toward Islam and tens of millions of Muslims. In all of their appeals to the government the Muslims cited the abnormal status of their religious structure, but these grievances fell on deaf ears right up until the fall of the autocracy.

The next set of letters deals with the period of the independent Republic of Azerbaidzhan, which was cofounded by A. M. Topchibashev (proclaimed 28 May 1918). As chairman of its parliament from 1918 to 1920, its foreign minister (from 20 August 1918 on) and ambassador extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary from 23 August on, he headed up a diplomatic delegation from Azerbaidzhan on 28 December 1918 at the Paris Peace Conference. In May 1919 Topchibashev arrived in Paris at the head of the delegation in order to represent the interests of the Republic of Azerbaidzhan there. After the republic fell as a result of the invasion of the Red Army in April 1920, he remained in France.

While in France, Topchibashev built up a large personal archive, which among other things preserved correspondence with the most influential Azerbaidzhani political émigrés of the time. The correspondence, which was confidential and secret, was known only to a handful of their closest associates. The content of the letters shed light on many secrets from the life not only of émigrés from Azerbaidzhan, the Caucasus and other Muslim areas during the 1920s, but offers a new look at many aspects of the history of Azerbaidzhan, the Caucasus and international relations of the first quarter of the 20th century in Europe and the East and at interethnic and interfaith problems of the time. A distinctive feature of this epistolary legacy is the fact that correspondence from both sides has survived: the original copies of letters from people who wrote to Topchibashev and copies of letters from Topchibashev that he (or his son) made for his personal archive.

These Muslim politicians, however, were not unified. The letters show a deep split among Azerbaidzhani public figures. Many of them were waging a nearly continuous battle with one another. A whole host of letters describe in detail the reasons for the major and minor disagreements and the lack of unity among the Azerbaidzhani political émigrés who settled in various countries. The letters significantly expand the accurate conception of the adversarial activities of many well-known politicians and little-known émigrés, of the motivations for their work, their lifestyle, their attitude toward Islam, their conflicts, their relationships, etc. “I regard with horror the general orgy of unbridled passions that are corrupting everybody and everything, the intrigues that are undermining the common cause and the trends of destruction and egotistical ambitions!!” Topchibashev wrote on 5 November 1929 to the Azerbaidzhani political émigré Kh. Sultanov about what was taking place among Azerbaidzhani émigrés. “…My closest associates, even among those who are now around me, do not shrink from launching psychological attacks on me…” (Le Centre d'études des mondes russe, caucasien et centre-européen, l'École des hautes études en sciences sociales (Paris). Archives d’Ali Mardan-bey Toptchibachi. Сarton n° 6-2,l.[75-77]).

The set includes letters from Topchibashev’s personal collection, which is now in the Center for the Study of Russia, the Caucasus and Central Europe at the Higher School of Social Science Research in Paris (Le Centre d'études des mondes russe, caucasien et centre-européen, l'École des hautes études en sciences socials), as well as from several collections at the State Archives of the Republic of Azerbaidzhan (GAAR), the State Archives of the Literature and Arts of the Republic of Azerbaidzhan (GALIAR), the Russian State Military Archives (RGVA) and the archive of the Azerbaidzhani political émigré A. Husein-zade at Ege University in Turkey (Hüseyinzade Ali Turan Arşivi // Ege Üniversitesi, Edebiyat Fakültesi, Türk Dili ve Edebiatı Bölümü Arşivi).


  • Salavat M. Iskhakov