Azerbaijani Press in Tbilisi /XIX Century/

DOI: 10.55804/jtsuSPEKALI-17-4


From the 20s of the 19th century, articles depicting the economic and cultural life of Azerbaijan were presented in Russian-language newspapers and published in Tbilisi (“Тифлисские ведомости”, “Закавказский вестник”, “Кавказ”, “Новое обозрение”, etc.). “Тифлисские ведомости” (“Tiflisskiye Vedomosti” - 1828-1833) was the first Russian government newspaper in Transcaucasia and its editor was P. S. Sankovsky (1798-1832). The newspaper published government decrees and announcements, reports on the Russo-Iranian (1826-1828) and Russo-Ottoman (1828-1829) wars, various news that should have been “interesting to this part of the world” and, in general, all reports that had been agreed with the authorities in advance. The newspaper also had some additions: it was published in the Georgian language from 1829, in the Persian (Farsi) language - from 1830, and only from 1832, instead of Persian - in the Azerbaijani language (Tiflis əxbarı). The weekly supplement of the newspaper published in Azerbaijani language was called “Tatar xeberleri”  (“Tatar Reports”) [АКАК, VIII, 14]. Its editor was the Azerbaijani scholar and writer, Abbasgulu Agha Bakikhanov (1794-1846) and it had a circulation of 300 copies [Qasımzadə, 1974:114]. It was read not only in Transcaucasia, but also in the Ottoman Empire and Iran of Qajar dynasty.

Not a single copy of “Tatar xeberleri” was preserved, but the National Archives of Georgia keep the materials related to this edition [CHA, 1831/1833: 1-35]. The archive case begins with the official letter of Consul General of Russia in the Iranian city of Tabriz, N. P. Bezak to the diplomatic chancellery, which is a request to be provided with the “regular delivery” of the newspaper “in the Tatar language“. The archival materials of December 30, 1831 briefly describe the history of the “Tatar xeberleri” with the letter of the glavnoupravlyayushchiy (the High Commissioner of the Caucasus), Baron Rosen (Son of Grigol Vladimir, Rosen (1831-1837), sent to the Minister of Public Education of the Russian Empire, K. A. Lieven. The letter reads as follows:

According to the decree of my predecessor, His Eminence the Prince of Warsaw and the Count of Yerevan (Ivane Paskevich - N.G.) made a decision to publish the “Tiflisskiye Vedomosti” in the Farsi (Persian) language. Upon commencing my duties, this publication had already been discontinued because it did not have the required number of signatories.

This shortcoming stemmed from two reasons: on the one hand, it is true that the "Tatars" are quite inquisitive by nature, and they were rather glad to have a newspaper published especially for them, but they were content with a very small number of copies; on the other hand, the Persian language was less spoken not only in Transcaucasian countries inhabited by "Tatars", but also in Azerbaijan per se.

… The future benefits of this edition convinced me to renew the publication, but not in the Farsi language, but in the "Tatar" language instead. … It is my duty to further inform your Excellency that the articles included in this edition will bear the same very content as the ones in the Persian language newspapers printed before 1831, that is, the articles will be of the following content: a) the highest awards granted to Transcaucasian Muslims; (b) local and foreign news, which will be intelligible and important to Asians, and (c) various articles, which may encourage the natives to pursue European education and European form of industry.

Sincerely....Baron Rosen.

The High Commissioner of the Caucasus, Baron Rosen sent letters of similar content to the head of the Asian Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, K. K. Rodofinikin (December 31, 1831, No. 660), to the head of the main unit, E. I. V. Chernyshev (December 31, 1831, No. 661). He also informed the heads of the subordinate agencies about his decision to publish the newspaper (January 2, 1832). Radofinikin’s response was the following [CHA, 1831/1833, 1-35]:

“Merciful Ruler, Son of Baron Grigor Vladimir,

In response to your Excellency’s letter (#660) sent to Rodofinikin on December 31 of the last year regarding the Tatar language publication of “Tiflisskiye Vedomosti”, I consider myself obliged to reply that with this publication, we will promote the correct perception of various matters, the dissemination of our noble intentions and interesting news, which will undoubtedly bring substantial benefits to our Transcaucasian subjects as well as in Persia and Turkey;

At the same time, however, exercise utmost caution to ensure that the articles published in the newspaper contain nothing against the governments of Persia and Turkey, the religion prevailing in these countries, and their officials.

Respectfully and faithfully, Nesselrode”.

The newspaper soon attracted the attention of the “Defender of Order in the Empire”, the head of Gendarmes, Graf von Benckendorff (1782-1844). Accordingly, in 1832, a special decree was issued, which made it obligatory for all printing houses to send a copy to Third Section of the Imperial Chancellery prior to distribution in order to obtain permission to print individual issues of all magazines and almanacs published in the Empire. This process took about 40-50 days, which made it difficult to publish the newspaper. Furthermore, on October 19, 1832, P. S. Sankovsky, who laid the foundations of the periodical press in the Caucasus, passed away unexpectedly. The publication of the newspaper, including the edition in the Azerbaijani language, must have been ceased by the beginning of 1833 [Şahverdiyev, 2006:7].

In 1841, the Azerbaijani writer-educator, Mirza Fatali Akhundov (1812-1878) and the Azerbaijani poet, Mirza Shafi Vazehi (1794-1852) had an attempt to open a printing house in Tbilisi, but they could not obtain an approval from the Russian authorities and could not succeed with their initiative. In 1845, the editors of the Russian-language government newspaper “Закавказский вестник” (Zakavkazski vestnik, 1837-1855) published a supplement in the Azerbaijani language with the name - “Qafqazın bu tərəfinin xəbəri” (News from this part of the Caucasus). They soon stopped the publishing of the newspaper, probably in 1846, due to the limited number of signatories (in 1844, this supplement had 14 signatories, and in 1845 - 5) [Керимов, 2011: 89-92].

These editions - supplements of Russian newspapers - cannot be considered as the first examples of an independent Azerbaijani periodical press, as they lacked authenticity and published materials translated into Azerbaijani from the same newspapers only.

In 1871, Giorgi Tsereteli, the editor of “Sasoplo Gazeti”, submitted an application to the industrial society in order to get permission to publish the same newspaper “in Tatar language” for “Tatars of Tiflis Governorate”. In his statement, Tsereteli justified the necessity and benefits of such a newspaper for the Tatars of Tiflis Governorate [Droeba, 1871:2]. However, as it was noted in the newspaper, Droeba, the industrial society did not accept Tsereteli’s proposal, on the one hand, due to lack of finances, and on the other hand, due to the fact that local Tatars “were not used to reading, and therefore the newspaper would not necessarily benefit them”. When reacting on the above statement, Prince Kalantarov stated in the newspaper, “Kavkaz” that if there had been no money, nothing should have been said about it, but the statement that local Tatars were not used to reading was utterly without foundation: if they were not accustomed to reading yet, they would get used to it – it was definitely worth trying. In his opinion, those 900 Manats that the Caucasus Economic Society had to allocate for the newspaper on an annual basis would not go to waste, and after a while, that investment would bring large profit (Droeba, 1871:2].

It was the scholar-publicist Hasan bey Zardabi (1842-1907) who fulfilled the historical mission of establishing the Azerbaijani typography and periodical press – he believed in the “right word of the press” to be an important ideological tool and overcame all obstacles to publish the first Azerbaijani newspaper “Ekinchi” (in Azerbaijani language “Ekinçi” means a sower) in 1875. Hasan bey Zardabi brought a special Arabic typographic font from Istanbul to Baku, and typographic equipment from Tbilisi and other cities. On July 22, 1875, he was allowed to publish the first issue of “Ekinchi”  in the Baku Governorate printing house, thus laying the foundation for the national press of Azerbaijan. The newspaper was published twice a month, with a circulation of 300-400 copies [Swietochowski, 1995: 175-183].

In the 1870s-1890s, three brothers - Said, Jalal and Kamal Unsizades - moved from Shamakhi to Tbilisi to further their education, and went on to become the first successors of Hasan bey Zardabi, the founder of the Azerbaijani press, and published newspapers and magazines such as “Ziya”, “Ziyayi-Qafqaziyyə”, “Keshkul”.

Newspaper “Ziya”

After the closing of the newspaper “Ekinchi”, on December 4, 1878, the Azerbaijani educator and religious figure Haji Said Unsizade applied to the head of the Main Division of the Caucasus Viceroyalty to get permission on publishing the newspaper Ziya (Ziya - light) in the Azerbaijani language. As a rationale, he noted that the people of the East strived for education and the truth as much as the people of the West. He described the mission and purpose of the Ziya and emphasized that the publication aimed to provide its readers with information on current events in the country and abroad.

The text of the request reads as follows [CHA, 1878:1-37]:

“I would like to issue a weekly newspaper in the Azerbaijani language under the title -Light in my lithography or typography, in Tbilisi and I am humbly asking for your highness's support with the publication of the above-mentioned newspaper from January 1, 1879, according to the attached program. Let me also note that the price of subscription to the newspaper will be 6 Rubles per year with forwarding. I will be responsible for editing and publishing the Light. My current address is Tbilisi, part 6, Vorontsov Street, the house of Karbalai Lafiti. I am attaching: 1. the program of the Light; 2. the rationale for publishing the newspaper; 3. a certified copy of my work experience.”

This letter was forwarded to the Caucasus Censorship Committee[1] that concluded that the newspaper would promote the policy of Tsarism among the Caucasian Muslims, and on January 1, 1879, the committee sent the following reply to the Chief of the Main Division of the Caucasus Viceroyalty [“Ziya”, 2015; Vəliyev, 2009:28]:

“The Censorship Committee reviewed the compliance of Haji Said Unsizade’s request with the Press Law as well as the program of the newspaper Ziya ("The Light") and concluded that it met all requirements. Because of this, and considering that the publication of the newspaper in Azerbaijani language may bring special benefits, it was decided to move to your Excellency on accepting Haji Said Effendi Unsizade’s request.”

The first issue of the newspaper was published in Tbilisi on January 16, 1879. The newspaper was published lithographically on a weekly basis, with a volume of 4 to 8 pages. The newspaper published articles by young intellectuals on reforming the education system, information on textbooks of the Azerbaijani language and new methods of teaching this language, classical and modern literary works, etc.

Azerbaijani poet and educator Seyid Azim Shirvani (1835-1888) wrote a special note on the publication of Ziya and called it “religious education” and “source of scholarly education” [Ширвани, 2005:65-67].

Said Unsizade and his newspaper also had opponents. Many scholars who had received a secular education in Russia (such as H. Zardab, N. Vezirov, M. Alizadeh, etc.) did not share Said Unsizade’s religious views and the ideas that his newspaper supported and claimed that the Ziya hardly played any role in the cultural development of the Azerbaijani people. They believed that the newspaper had chosen the wrong path from the beginning – as they noted, instead of educating the Caucasian Azerbaijanis, the newspaper was more inclined to perpetuating the darkness that reigned at that time. Some newspapers of that period as well indicated that the editor himself did not have proper command of the Russian language, but also of the Azerbaijani language. Consequently, there were many inaccuracies in the newspaper. However, some believed that the newspaper was liberal by nature and it published scholarly and journalistic pieces of writing, and it was not focused solely on Islam [Şahverdiyev,  2006: 20].

The official censor of the “Ziya” was Solomon Melik-Megrabov, who signed the permission to have the newspaper printed, but the censorship control was fully undertaken by the chief censor of the Caucasus Censorship Committee (Oriental and local languages), V. Bezobrazov - he had the right to remove materials, replace them with other publications, control employees, etc. He claimed that the Azerbaijani press was rather “obsolete” and deemed the work of intellectuals such as Said Unsizade “unnecessary” and “useless”. The “Ziya”  was often censored by the freelance censor (of Azerbaijani, Persian and Arabic languages) of the committee, “Nadvorni Sovetnik” - Mirza Mustafa Akhundov. It is noteworthy to discuss M. Akhundov’s letter to the Censorship Committee sent on July 20, 1879. In the letter, he informed the committee about the inaccuracies that were made in the translation of an article related to Shakhtakhtinsky’s Arabic alphabet (the article was taken from the Russian newspaper - “Тифлисские ведомости”). The original article was attached to the letter, as well as Mirza Fatali Akhundov’s publications regarding the reformation of the Arabic alphabet. Consequently, a significant part of the materials of this issue of the newspaper was not printed in full [CHA, 1879:10].

After having released 30 issues of the newspaper, on June 26, 1880, the publication of the “Ziya” was terminated due to material and technical problems. On November 29, 1880, in accordance with the statutes of the Caucasian Censorship Committee, Said Unsizade acknowledged the following responsibility [CHA, 1881: 25]:

“I, signatory of this statement, resident of Shamakhi, Haji Said Effendi Unsizade, the editor-publisher of the newspaper, “Ziya”  (“Light”), give this acknowledgement to the Supervisor of Unit 6 of Vorontsov, Mr. Machavarian stating that, according to the order of (Mr.) Tiflis Police Chief, I have no right to publish the above-mentioned newspaper without passing the censorship and proper permission of the management. Otherwise, I will be held strictly responsible, which I give my content on with my signature”.

Newspaper “Ziyayi-Qafqaziyiye”

From December 6, 1880, the newspaper Ziya was published under the name - Ziyayi-Qafqaziyiye – “Light of the Caucasus”. According to Said Unsizade, the newspaper was given this name by the sculptor who developed the stereotype.

This change meant that the newspaper would carry the name - The light of the Caucasus [CHA,  1872: No. 330]. At the front page of the newspaper, Said Unsizade wrote the following: This newspaper is published once in two weeks in Tbilisi in the Turkish Azerbaijani language (türkü azərbaycan dili) and provides information on various matters [Эфендиев, 1959: 355; Karimov, 2020:1719-1721].

There were 7 sections in the newspaper: state decrees (Dövlət sərəncamları); telegrams of international agencies (Beynəlxalq agentliklərin teleqramları); international news (Xarici xəbərlər); local matters (Daxili xəbərlər); local news (Yerli xəbərlər); informative indicators and announcements (Məlumat göstəricisi və elanlar); satirical news (Felyetonlar) [Vəliyev, 2009:17-19].

The Russian press published in Tbilisi bitterly criticized the editor, Said Effendi Unsizade for his poor command of the Russian language and the errors (inaccurate translation, incorrect transcription of European and Russian words, grammatical and spelling errors) made in the publication of articles in the Tatar/Azerbaijani language; for example, at the request of the Kavkaz editorial staff, the representative of the Caucasus Censorship Committee, V. Bezobrazov reviewed the articles of 5 issues of the newspaper and made the following comment on the editor of the newspaper: “In every way, he is totally unprepared for the job he has taken the responsibility for.” In an article published in the Kavkaz, he emphasized that anyone who was theoretically and practically familiar with oriental languages and dialects, would agree with his assessment. According to Bezobrazov, the editor who had to publish a newspaper in the Azerbaijani language in Russia, had to know the Russian language. His article ended like this [Безобразов,1881:3-4]:

“It would be better to study the grammar of the language first and then act as a newspaper editor, and most importantly, it would not be proper to learn some editorial techniques and study typography to avoid writing the letter at the beginning of a word, which is used only in the middle of a word and not the other way around.”

The “Kavkaz” also published a letter from the representative of the Armenian newspapers (Mshak), Abram Amirkhaniants (an Armenian-Gregorian who accepted Lutheranism), in which he criticized V. Bezobrazov and emphasized the following [Амирханянц, 1881:2-3]:

“There may be people who know both Eastern languages and Russian very well, but for a Muslim, it is preferable to have a Tatar newspaper published by a Muslim and at the same time, a religious person; in addition, that person should be a literature pundit. And all this is incorporatd in Said Effendi – with his lifestyle and experience, he is well aware of the requirements and peculiarities of his co-religionists, and perfectly knows how to show them the way to education without discouraging their religious beliefs”.

As early as 1883, the typography and editorial office of the newspaper were transferred to Shamakhi (Azerbaijan), as confirmed in one of the documents issued to Said Unsizade by the Censorship Committee. The newspaper was not published on a regular basis - instead of 52 issues per year, there were 43 and then, 30 issues and finally, in 1884, 11 issues got published in Shamakhi.

In total, 76 issues were released under the name of Ziya, and 107 issues - under the name of “Ziyayi-Qafqaziyiye.” In 1884, the newspaper was closed due to financial problems. A few years later (1890), Said Unsizade tried to get permission from the Censorship Committee on resuming the publication of  “Ziyayi-Qafqaziyiye” in Baku, but his attempts did not yield any results.

Newspaper “Keshkul”[2]

In 1882, when the publication of “Ziyayi-Qafqaziyiye” was still underway, Jalil Effendi Unsizade (in the materials of the Caucasus Censorship Committee, he is described as a rather business-like person who knew Arabic, Persian and Russian languages) appealed to the Caucasus Censorship Committee to publish the monthly magazine, “Keshkul” in Azerbaijani, Persian and Arabic languages [CHA, 1882:1-2]. Jalil Effendi Unsizade was granted the permission to publish the “Keshkul” (Keşkül) on October 20, 1882. On January 31, 1883, the first issue of the “Keshkul”  was printed in the Ziya printing house (circulation of the newspaper - 160 copies).

After the release of 11 issues of the magazine, “Keshkul”  served  as a newspaper (from March 22, 1884). Initially, the circulation of the newspaper was approximately 430 copies. The newspaper attracted young generation, who were educated in the central cities of the Russian Empire, the Gori Seminary (Georgia), etc. Among others, Seyed Azim Shirvan, Firidun Beg Kocharli, M. Shakhtakhtinsky, A. Gaibov actively cooperated with the newspaper.

There was no fundamental difference between a magazine and a newspaper. They both had the following sections (columns): Internal department (Daxili şöbə); Historical and Political Department (Tarixi və siyasi şöbə); Criticism and Review of Printed Editions (Tənqid və mətbuat xülasəsi); Pedagogy (pedagogika); Doctor’s recommendations (Həkim məsləhəti); Poetry Department (Şer şöbəsi); Calendar (Təqvim); Various materials (Müxtəlif materiallar); Announcements (Elanlar).

The content of the columns show that the “Keshkul”  aimed to cover all areas and provide various information to its readers. The newspaper wrote about economic, political, cultural and social events; it introduced the works of the classic writers of Azerbaijani literature (A. Bakikhanov, M. F. Akhundov, S. A. Shirvan, etc.) and modern young authors. The paper also published Western European and Russian (A.S. Pushkin, M. Lermontov, N. Nekrasov, I. Krylov, I. Turgenev, V. Hugo, I. F. Schiller, etc.), Armenian and Georgian (I. Chavchavadze, D. Eristavi, G. Aghaiani) authors’ works. However, the censorship strictly controlled the newspaper content. For example, they did not print the poem - Spring by Georgian poet, I. Chavchavadze translated into Azerbaijani language, because the censor did not like the end of the poem: “O when wilt thou, my native land,

In all thy glory stand revealed?” [Kəşkül, 1887].

J. Unsizade planned to publish articles in Arabic, Persian and Russian languages as well, and to send his correspondents to Russia, the Ottoman Empire, Iran of Qajar dynasty and Egypt to provide accurate information to the readers. However, the editor of the newspaper could not fulfil this plan and only a few articles were published in Arabic and Russian languages. After 52 issues of the newspaper, most articles were printed in Persian language only.

The newspaper “Keshkul”  was the first to put forward the problem of ethnic identity and introduce the term -Azerbaijani, which was not commonly used at that time. Azerbaijanis called themselves “Muslim” ("müsəlman"), “Turk” (“türk”) and “Azerbaijani Turks” (“azərbaycan türkü”).

In the 1890s, Tsarism strengthened its censorship as well as the administrative and police supervision of typography. Melik-Megrabov, who acted as the chief censor of the Caucasus Censorship Committee was responsible for reviewing the “Keshkul”. In 1890 only, the “Keshkul”  had to go undergo 84 revisions [CHA, 1891].

The magazine and newspaper “Keshkul” had been published from 1883 to 1891 (price - 4 Rubles) on an irregular basis. A total of 123 issues were released. Strict government censorship and financial problems led to the significant decrease in the circulation of the newspaper. However, the main reason for closing the newspaper was a typographical error: Mustafa Sultanov’s article was printed in issue 121, and in the process of compiling, his surname was included in the column which should have indicated the editor’s surname.

After that glitch, only two issues of the newspaper were published. On October 11, 1891, acting governor of Tbilisi, A. Alimov’s issued a decree on having the publication of the “Keshkul” terminated. J. Unsizade attracted the attention of state authorities as an “unreliable” person and was eventually forced to move to Turkey [CHA, 1892].

The newspaper had a strong positive impact on the literary life of Tbilisi in general. After its closure, there were educational newspapers of similar content published in Russian, Georgian and Armenian languages in Tbilisi. However, after the Keshkul, not a single newspaper was published in the Azerbaijani language in Tbilisi. This restriction was related to forming the rigid colonial policy of the Tsarist government and its attempt to speed up the Russification process, being in effect until 1903. Therefore, at the end of the 19th century, despite the continuous attempts of the Azerbaijani intelligentsia, they failed to get permission from the Tsarist administration to publish newspapers and magazines in their native language. So, while at the end of the 19th century, 19 Armenian and Georgian newspapers were published in Russia, 2 million Azerbaijani Turks did not have the opportunity to receive information in their native language [Баберовски, 2010: 51].

In conclusion, it is important to note that from the second half of the 19th century, the culture of Azerbaijan and the formation of national identity were closely connected with the cultural life of Tbilisi and its Muslim community. There was the whole generation of Azerbaijani intellectuals living, working and taking an active part in the public and cultural life of Tbilisi, which for a long time had been the administrative and cultural centre of Transcaucasia (South Caucasus). It was the cultural and literary environment of Tbilisi that played an important role in the formation of the Azerbaijani press. The Azerbaijani Unsizade brothers founded several printing units (“Ziya”, “Ziyayi-Qafqaziyiye,” “Keshkul”) in Tbilisi, and printed scholarly, educational and artistic pieces of literature in their typography. The Azerbaijani-language press also contributed to the spread of this language among the local population.


[1]The Caucasus Censorship Committee, as an independent institution, was founded in 1849. On November 3, 1874, the new units of the main division of the Caucasus Viceroyalty and the administrative institutions of the Caucasus were approved. Accordingly, the Caucasus Censorship Committee included the chairman, senior censors (1 censor of Russian and European languages and 1 - of local and oriental languages) and junior censors (of local and oriental languages). One of the censors acted as a secretary (without remuneration). On November 24, 1881, the position of the viceroy of the Caucasus was abolished and the post of the glavnoupravlyayushchiy (the High Commissioner of the Caucasus), who had the rights of the governor-general, was established. According to the order of January 31, 1884, the staff of the Caucasus Censorship Committee joined the staff of the inspector of typography in Tbilisi (class VI - 2000 Rubles per year), secretary (class VIII - 1200 Rubles) and junior censor of local and oriental languages (class VI - 2000 Rubles). Office-related expenses also increased [РГИА, 1883-1903:39-42; Петрушева, 2013: 220-221].

[2]Pers. Kashkul  − The attribute of the Dervish, a special wear the dervishes have always with the weapons for self-defense.  One of the artifacts is preserved in the National Museum of Georgia. Arab.:  Qashqul – the bag of the beggar, a sack, in Azer.: “A big begging bowl, which was trimmed from coconut or from wood”. Also, supposed, that the name of the newspaper was conditioned from the fact, that in classical literature it was used by the meaning: “collection of poems, collection of literary works”.


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