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Crime and Politics in Baku: The Development of the Qochu Criminal Class
Baku’s oil boom, which commenced in the 1870’s, transformed the formally small city into one of the Russian Empire’s wealthiest and largest industrial centers. Its chaotic growth created an urban landscape replete with both opportunity and danger. From this landscape emerged a social group unique to Baku, the qochus. Displaced rural Muslim men who were armed and employed as security by the city’s elite, the qochus engaged in organized crime with relative impunity, benefiting from their connection to the powerful industrialists who ran the city. Often associated with prominent conservative members of the ulama, they also policed the streets of Muslim neighborhoods to enforce traditional social norms, targeting Muslim women who ventured out in public unveiled and the growing coterie of radical Muslim activists, artists, and intellectuals. The qochus served as something of a collective bête noire for Muslim reformers, who frequently depicted them as progress’s primary antagonists in their writings. Yet, as this paper will demonstrate, the qochus were an inherently modern social group, a product of the rapid industrialization and urbanization of Baku who sought to influence how their society would navigate the challenges of modernity. Drawing on reformist writings including memoirs and press coverage that can be read against the grain, this paper will argue that the qochus played an important role in the development of the politics of Baku’s Muslim population in the late imperial era, a role that scholarship has largely neglected due to the continued influence of Soviet historiography on the field.
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