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Reviewed by:
  • Azerbaidzhan: 1953–1956 gg. Pervye gody “ottepeli”
  • Maike Lehmann
El′dar Rafik ogly Ismailov, Azerbaidzhan: 1953–1956 gg. Pervye gody “ottepeli ” [Azerbaijan, 1953–56: The First Years of the “Thaw”].369 pp. Baku: Izdatel′stvo Adil′ogly, 2006. No ISBN.

Whether the Soviet Union was an empire, how it should be characterized, and to what extent it is comparable to its Western counterparts has been subject to discussion over the last 15 years.1 Interestingly, most contributions to this debate choose Moscow as a point of departure. While referring to studies on Western empires, inquiries into the Soviet case rarely apply the methodological approaches offered in these works: only a few attempt to “provincialize” Moscow—as post-colonial studies did, for example, with the British empire in order to analyze not just the metropole’s domination over the colonies but also the influence of the colonial periphery on the imperial center.2 At the same time, studies of Soviet nationalities in the 1920s and 1930s propose far-reaching conclusions regarding the coherence and the ultimate collapse of the Soviet system.3 Considering the scope of these arguments, there are surprisingly few publications that would support or provide nuance to such claims for the decades after Stalin’s death. A rare insight is offered in the seminal work of Nikolai Mitrokhin on the “Russian nationalist party” and its influence. This work, however, deals only with the Russian “core” of the Soviet Union.4 Works that look at non-Slavic nationalities are even harder [End Page 694] to find for this period. An exception to this is the comparative analysis of Caucasian identity politics by the anthropologist Victor Shnirelman, which looks at changing theories of ethnogenesis in the Caucasus.5 Another option is to look for histories written in former, non-Russian republics, if one is interested in how center and periphery were constitutive of each other and how this affected coherence and change in the Soviet Union after 1953.

The book under review here by the Azeri historian El′dar Rafik ogly Ismailov attempts an analysis of the “events linked to the establishment of the new political situation” in Azerbaijan after the death of Stalin (7), with the ultimate goal of understanding the roots of the system’s later collapse. Similar questions are often posed in Western publications and thus suggest a common ground. But while Ismailov occasionally refers to Russian publications on the Great Terror and the Thaw, he does not consider approaches or methodologies prevalent in Western scholarship. Thus his work will not satisfy readers on the lookout for new paradigms or a “constructionist” approach to issues of nationality. Ismailov’s mission is to correct “wrong views on the true essence of the system” (1). This system, he argues, was shaped first and foremost by Stalin, his personality, and the fear he inspired; it was taken over after 1953 by an uncontrollable party apparatus whose Stalinist mentality and unchanged belief in socialism were decisive for early Thaw politics. This unsurprising conclusion is presented in a conventional—if not to say positivist—account, mainly of political events in Azerbaijan between 1953 and 1956.

The author is, above all, concerned with the decisions, behavior, and mindset of the Azerbaijani party elite. Thus the book will primarily be of interest to historians of Soviet political culture, the relationship between center and periphery, and the mentality present at the higher echelons of different party organizations. Despite the reservations raised in this review about Ismailov’s methodology and interpretation, his description of the first Thaw years contains a number of interesting points. In particular, the study’s exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) use of material from Azerbaijani and Russian archives provides a good point for comparison for studies on other non-Russian republics in this period.

The Azerbaijani party elite had quite some difficulty in interpreting the divergent messages from Moscow, especially after the fall of Beriia. How confusing the situation must have been is shown by the fate of Mir Dzhafar Abas ogly Bagirov, Azerbaijan’s first secretary since 1933. He rose to candidateship in the Central Committee Presidium after Stalin’s death and thereby enhanced his position of power outside his...


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