IN SEPTEMBER 1920, Baku was the place to be for any revolutionary from what today would be called the Global South. Lenin’s Third International (the Comintern), just getting underway, had gathered in Moscow the previous month for its second congress. There delegates, largely from Europe, had hammered out the organizational forms that the struggle for world communism would take, but left unresolved the pressing issues of emancipation from colonialism ignored by the Second International. This would furnish the agenda of a further gathering, the Congress of the Peoples of the East, summoned one month later to the shores of the Caspian.
At the time, travel to the Absheron Peninsula was no light undertaking. Counterrevolutionary White Guards, still fighting for parts of the Ukraine and the Caucasus, derailed trains from Moscow. British gunboats fired on delegates crossing the Black Sea. The Armenian and Georgian governments blocked land transit. Yet over 2,000 representatives from Turkey, Persia, India, Afghanistan, Kirghizia, and elsewhere as far as Japan, crossed the anti-Bolshevik cordon sanitaire to organize against the greatest menace of the time: imperialism. The goal, in the words of Congress Chairman Grigory Zinoviev, was no less than “a single union of the working people not only of Asia and Europe but of the entire world, so as to put an end to capitalism and build a new and better life.”
For the opening rally, the Jugendstil splendor of the Opera House, packed full, offered standing room only for those who waited well past midnight for the proceedings to begin. On the stage, leading spokesmen of the spreading communist movement — Nariman Narimanov, Karl Radek, and John Reed — issued rousing calls for workers’ unity to the cheers of the audience, which included M. N. Roy, the founder of both the Indian and Mexican Communist Parties, and Mirsaid Sultan-Galiev, the Tatar architect of Islamic socialism. Translators amplified the din with rough and ready interpretations in Russian, Turkish, Persian, and English, interrupted by the orchestra, which struck up “The Internationale” over 20 times.
Outside the sessions, a festive atmosphere swept the city. Processions overwhelmed the streets, women’s liberation groups paraded down boulevards, and devotees dedicated a monument to Marx. The location couldn’t have been more provocative. Baku, the world’s first boomtown fueled by black gold, was an ornament of oil wealth and capitalist expansion. Tar puddles and flaming crevices had long been a common sight in the region, but they served largely as venues for Zoroastrian fire rituals until Edward Butler developed an internal combustion engine that could run on petroleum. Oil became not a fuel merely for lamps but for transport and production. Around Baku, derricks shot up, and by 1900, the city was producing half of the world’s supply.
The investment rush came at a time when new wealth was still expressed with aesthetic refinement, or at least a fascination with Paris, which served as the model for urban planning. Outside the medieval walled city, broad Haussmannesque boulevards were installed and lined with Lutetian limestone buildings ornamented with ironwork balconies and topped by zinc mansard roofs. The elegant belle époque facades bore Islamic accents, reminders that the Hexagon was elsewhere.
These would outlive the revolutionary movement, though this was hardly a foregone conclusion. The conference stoked anti-imperial struggles in Iran, Egypt, Syria, and India in the years that followed. Its immediate accomplishment, however, was a vigorous manifesto calling for nothing short of
a holy war for the liberation of the peoples of the East, for the ending of the division of humanity into oppressor peoples and oppressed peoples, for complete equality of all peoples and races, whatever language they may speak, whatever the color of their skin, and whatever the religion they profess.
The conclusion pulled no punches. “May the holy war of the peoples of the East and the toilers of the entire world against imperialist Britain burn with unquenchable fire!”
This April, nearly a century later, Baku welcomed another congress: the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations. Initiated a decade ago when assorted pundits were warning that differences between East and West might spark World War III, the UNAOC set out to prove, contra Samuel Huntington, that civilizations can indeed get along. Terrorism, not imperialism, was the menace to be combated. The Baku meeting was its seventh Global Forum, organized to address “the crisis of violent extremism” through three days of discussion and musical performances under the banner “Living Together in Inclusive Societies: A Challenge and a Goal.”
Once again, the delegates were greeted by belle époque facades, but a second oil boom had produced a skyline overtopping them with po-mo starchitecture. The most ostentatious expression can be found in the Flame Towers, a $350-million-dollar twisted triplet designed to resemble the country’s icon: fire. Those who don’t catch the resemblance immediately can watch the show at night. The buildings’ edifices double as video screens that project huge images of snapping flames and Azeri flags in every direction. More elegant is Zaha Hadid’s objet, the Heydar Aliyev Center, an undulating wave that seems to have curled itself up from the plaza surrounding it. The Möbius quality continues to the interior, where the coiling surface unrolls into walkways and balconies encasing a concert hall that is hard not to see as a womb. Connecting the trophies of oil wealth, old and new, lie miles of public parks and an elegant seafront promenade lined with topiary trees. They offer a verdant alternative to the streets abandoned to cars and boulevards that are impossible to cross (one must search out rare underground passages, elegantly lined with marble). Down the roads hurtle spotless Audis and Porsches, blowing past the Soviet-era Ladas that still creak along.
But during the Forum, commuter traffic ground to a halt as police blocked the major arteries to allow motorcades of tour buses to ferry the 3,000 invited delegates about town. Youth leaders, social activists, country representatives, and experts of various sorts rocketed between high-end hotels and high-end conference centers, where they listened to earnest speeches (this time with simultaneous interpretation piped through headphones) on how to save the planet from violence and intolerance. Community activists networked with potential funders between breakout sessions addressing intercultural innovation, social media savvy, and religious understanding. Evening programs kept humanitarian adrenalin flowing with cultural performances echoing the Eurovision Song Contest while motivational speakers revved up the audience for a brighter tomorrow with the call-and-response chant “Inspiration!” On the final day, over a thousand packed into a cavernous performance center, a holdover from the Soviets, for a mass sing-along of Michael Jackson’s uplifting “Heal the World.”
For most delegates, however, it was the opening, rather than the closing session that was the main attraction. Ban Ki-moon Skyped in from New York to set off the proceedings. Former prime ministers from Europe, Spain’s José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and France’s Dominique de Villepin, added their thoughts on stage. But it was the host and his closest friend who dominated the occasion. The Azeri president Ilham Aliyev has ruled his country since 2003, when he inherited the throne from his father Heydar Aliyev, who headed the local KGB in Soviet times. Since then, the son’s principal activities have been crushing opposition and milking the economy for his personal enrichment. In the last national election, a government app released its results a day before the voters went to the poll. The Panama Papers reveal multiple offshore accounts and millions in London and Dubai real estate, on top of family holdings in nearly every sector of economic life at home. Addressing the audience in impeccable English, Aliyev pitched his land, which stood at the crossroads of the Ottoman, Russian, and Persian empires, as one of the great success stories of intercultural understanding. After announcing, TINA-style, that “Multiculturalism has no alternative,” he devoted much of his time to assailing Armenians for their “crime against humanity” in resisting Azeri claims to Nagorno-Karabakh, where border fighting had recently flared.
Not to be outdone was his leading ally in the region, the Turkish autocrat Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, one of the two “founding fathers” of the UNAOC, which he launched with Zapatero in Madrid in 2005. On that occasion, after telling his hearers that “we should act with the motto ‘we love the created, for the Creator’s sake’ and render peace, tolerance, love and respect available for all,” he went on to declare that it was now “generally accepted” that as “the only country which is a member of both the Organization for Islamic Conference and NATO,” and a candidate for the European Union, “Turkey represents the best panacea against ‘clash of civilizations’ theories.” Its entry into the European Union would therefore “significantly enhance the Alliance of Civilizations.”
Now, in Baku, for all Angela Merkel’s embrace of him, there was less talk of the EU. Lamenting that “malevolent circles commit themselves to inseminating hatred and causing separation,” and deploring “ethnic discrimination,” Erdoğan extolled the values of “tolerance, mutual understanding, and dialogue,” as slaughter of Kurds, torture of prisoners, jailing of reporters and academics, not to speak of traffic with the Islamic State, escalated under his rule. Those who failed to rally to the ideals of the Alliance of Civilizations, as he expounded them, condemned themselves: “Any contrary stance or declaration means support for terrorist organizations.” The punishments meted out after the attempted coup of July 15, 2016 — over 20,000 educators, 2,700 judges, and 9,000 police sacked or suspended, and travel bans imposed on those critical of the government — reveal what lies in store for anyone who refuses to toe the line.
The closing address to the conference came from the Qatari diplomat who now heads the UNAOC. Celebrating the great strides made over the preceding days, he singled out the tremendous contribution of sports, as a means of social inclusion, in furthering the goals of the Alliance. It was an appropriate finale, not only reminding delegates that Qatar would be hosting the next World Cup after gigantic bribes to secure the spectacle, but also that Baku itself would shortly supply the venue for another sporting competition. Formula One just completed its race around the grand boulevards: what could be more inclusive?
Sheltered from the boulevards, the old city, once the seat of the Shirvanshah dynasty, has survived as a lived district rather than a dry husk infested with tourists. It still houses a centuries-old hammam where a good scrubbing can be had for a song. Those attending this Forum might feel they needed it. Back in 1920, the harrowing journey to Baku would have left the Comintern delegates dirty and road weary. But at least the political air in the city was cleaner.
Kristin Surak is the Richard B. Fisher Member of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton and an associate professor of politics at SOAS, University of London who specializes in international migration, nationalism, culture, and political sociology.