Levon Mirzoyan.
Levon Mirzoyan.

It may be hard to imagine today, but from 1926 to 1929 Soviet Azerbaijan had an ethnic Armenian leader, Levon Mirzoyan. In fact, from 1920 to 1933 of the first 11 Soviet Azerbaijani leaders, only two were ethnic Azerbaijanis. Others included ethnic Georgians, Jews, Russians and one other Armenian, Ruben Rubenov, who had a brief tenure lasting several months.

Starting in 1933, and reflecting the Soviet policy of promotion of “native” cadres, all of the republic’s subsequent leaders were ethnic Azerbaijanis.

Mirzoyan was born in 1897 in Ashan, then part of the Shusha Uezd of Yelisavetopol Governorate and more recently part of Nagorno Karabakh’s Martuni district. As many other Karabakh Armenians of the time, Mirzoyan moved to the growing industrial center of Baku to find work. In 1917, amid the revolutionary changes, he joined the Bolsheviks.

In August 1921 Mirzoyan was in Karabakh, advocating for its autonomy inside Azerbaijan, decided by the Bolsheviks the previous month. Subsequently, Mirzoyan is credited with formally establishing the Karabakh autonomy in 1923 over reluctance of Karabakh Armenians.

In the 1920s Baku, Mirzoyan was remembered for clamping down on overt signs of religiosity, such as Ashura ceremonies, something also done by the Aliyev regime of today. Mirzoyan also mediated tensions on language issues: in Baku most Russians and Armenians, including those in senior positions, did not speak Azerbaijani and refused to learn it, while Azerbaijani speaker felt shut out of most of the better paid jobs that required knowledge of Russian. To this day, education in the Russian language remains more prestigious in the Azerbaijani capital.

After being dismissed from his Azerbaijan job, Mirzoyan headed the Perm Okrug in Russia’s Urals and from 1933 to 1938 was the leader of Soviet Kazakhstan, until he fell victim to Stalinist purges. In this latter position, he is credited with alleviating hunger and overseeing Kazakhstan’s transition from an autonomy to a full-fledged Soviet republic. There was also a minor cult of personality with one town and two district of Kazakhstan carrying Mirzoyan’s name while he was still in charge.

While Mirzoyan is virtually unknown in Azerbaijan, his legacy in Kazakhstan is mixed, since he is also blamed for taking part in the Stalinist purges, before himself falling victim to them. In recent years, streets named after Mirzoyan in Kazakhstan’s cities have been renamed.

In his native Ashan, in Karabakh, a small bust dedicated to the once famous native son stands overshadowed by the local war memorial.