The Jewish Story of Baku

Jewish population of Baku consists mainly of Ashkenazi Jews, who started arriving in Baku in 1832. They are believed to be soldier-cantonists, underage sons of Russian conscripts, who from 1721 were educated in special “canton schools” for future military service. These schools were called garrison schools in the 18th century) and those who left the Pale of Settlement (the western region of Imperial Russia with varying borders that existed from 1791 to 1917, in which permanent residency by Jews was allowed and beyond which Jewish residency was mostly forbidden). The industrialization of Baku as a result of the oil boom attracted many qualified immigrants, including Ashkenazi Jews. In 1913, the population of Jews was 9,689 people or 4.5% and this number was constantly increasing. 

Jews played an important role in the intellectual and artistic life of Baku. For example, 75 out of 238 lawyers, and 69 out of 185 doctors for Jews in the late 19-early 20th centuries. There were Jewish schools, religious schools for learning Torah, Talmud and Mishna, private musical and girls’ schools, and libraries. In 1910, there was a Jewish Cultural Society “Palestine”. They played an important role in the development of the oil industry in Azerbaijan. For example, the construction of the Baku-Batumi oil pipeline was predominantly funded by the Rothschilds. Baku-born engineer David Landau and his wife doctor Lyubov Veniaminovna Landau contributed to the scientific life of Baku. Their son Lev became one of the most prominent scientists of the 20th century and got nominated for the Nobel Prize in Physics. 

Apart from the Ashkenazi, a small group of Georgian Jews had also emerged in Baku. They had moved to Baku from different cities of Georgia in late 19-early 20th centuries and emigrated to Baku for economic reasons. They spoke Georgian language and kept all Georgian traditions including food but strictly followed Jewish religious rule.  

The fall of the Tsar Russia in 1917 was greeted with enthusiasm among the Jews of Baku as it meant elimination of many anti-Jewish rules. The establishment of Azerbaijan Democratic Republic in 1918 granted equal rights to all nationalities living in the territories of Azerbaijan. Jewish population of Azerbaijan contributed to the political life of the young republic. Moisey Gukhman was the first Jewish parliamentarian. The Minister of Health was E. Hindes, deputy Minister of Finance and the Chairman of the State Bank was M. Abeshaus. 

With the establishment of the Soviet Union, the Jewish population of Baku was increasing due to the persecutions in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus and the outcomes of the civil war in the country, which made people look for better life elsewhere. The Soviet policy on fighting illiteracy facilitated opening of schools for Mountain Jews, clubs and libraries. However, schools in Jewish languages were being shut down by the Stalin regime of the 1930’s, as well as the synagogues, religious schools and other religious buildings. As a result of the mass propaganda of proletarian internationalism mixed marriages were increasing and Jews were increasingly assimilating with other ethnic and religious groups. Many lost their identity, language and traditions. The processes resulted in the formation of the phenomenon known as “Bakuvian” (бакинец) – an interesting symbiosis of cultures of different ethnic groups, in which the Jewish population of Baku was an integral part. 

Jews joined the Soviet army, even participated in World War II. Many veterans recall stories when Jewish and Azeri people were held captive in the war and Azeri people saved the lives of their Jewish comrades saying they were Azeris. Jews of Azerbaijan also fought for the independence of Azerbaijan in the 1990’s. Among them Albert Agarunov became a national hero of Azerbaijan. However, the Jewish population of Baku and Azerbaijan in general has been decreasing even since it gained independence.