Azerbaijan, in the eastern Caucasus, was brought under Russian rule early in the nineteenth century and under Bolshevik control in 1920. Prized for the rich oil deposits around its capital, Baku, the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic was used thereafter as an economic colony of Russia, providing not only petroleum products but also Caspian Sea caviar, carpets, and silks for foreign export. Brutal political and cultural control, characterized by extensive attempts at russification, was imposed in the first decades of Soviet rule. In many respects Azerbaijan has yet to recover. Since the Brezhnev era, Azerbaijan has experienced a gradual weakening of Soviet control coupled with a tentative, uneven democratization. The republic's fitful journey toward political democracy, advanced with free elections in June 1992, was set back since a coup of June 1993 which unseated the elected president and paved the way for the return of a charismatic former communist leader who, to the end of 1996, still holds the presidency.
The deterioration of totalitarian control in Azerbaijan, a necessary prelude to later efforts to establish democracy, began in the cultural, not the political, realm. The process began in the 1970s, and an understanding of the nature of this process is essential to a clear analysis of the subsequent political events in Azerbaijan. Cultural changes were pioneered by and, in turn, facilitated the emergence of a democratically inclined intellectual elite. This group was soon thrust into the political arena by the force of events that were beyond its control.