The people of Nagorno Karabakh, fearing that history was repeating itself and that Azerbaijan's strategy would eventually result in their destruction if met with no resistance, protested by organizing peaceful rallies. They confronted Azerbaijan’s oppression with the first peaceful, pro-democracy movement in the Soviet Union, setting an example for the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost. The Nagorno Karabakh Freedom Movement was endorsed by all Soviet human rights activists (e.g. Andrei Sakharov), both inside and outside the USSR. That marked the beginning of the end of the Soviet Empire. It was also supported by analogous freedom movements in the USSR’s Baltic republics.
In an unprecedented example of direct democracy, in February 1988, Nagorno Karabakh’s regional parliament, which for 70 years functioned as a powerless "rubber stamp," officially appealed to Baku and Yerevan to consider the possibility of reunifying their homeland with the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic. This grassroots initiative stunned the Kremlin, reversing the normal top-down pattern of the Soviet system and its totalitarian Communist Party.
Azerbaijan’s reaction to Nagorno Karabakh’s nonviolent and constitutional measures was totally unexpected and shocking. Instead of responding to Nagorno Karabakh's appeal by launching a constitutional dialogue, the Azerbaijani leadership organized a series of pogroms and massacres of unsuspecting ethnic Armenian civilians living in remote corners of Azerbaijan. This campaign of violence began in February 1988 in the country’s principal city of Sumgait, located hundreds of miles away from Nagorno Karabakh, and continued in Kirovabad (November 1988), Baku (January 1990), and other Azerbaijani cities and towns.
The carefully planned anti-Armenian acts of mass public sadism that defined Soviet Azerbaijan between 1988 and 1991 were unprecedented in the entire history of the USSR and totally incomprehensible by its leadership and ordinary Soviet citizens.