Saturday August 20, 2022

Transcaucasia, personally - Part I

October 11, 2020

When recently Pakistan clarified that no Pakistani soldier was fighting in Azerbaijan against Armenia, suddenly some people became curious about what Pakistan had to do with this conflict. Looking at history, we realize that Azerbaijan and Pakistan are not total strangers to each other.

Even I had an opportunity to live in Baku, the capital of Soviet Azerbaijan, for one year in the mid-1980s. This is a 35-year-old story – when I was a student in the erstwhile Soviet Union. After living for two years in Moscow and learning the Russian language, I went to Baku to study at the Azerbaijan Polytechnic Institute. It was a long journey stretching over 2,500 km of train line. By then, my only acquaintance with Azerbaijan was through just one name: Heydar Aliyev who was deputy premier of the Soviet government in Moscow that ruled over 15 provinces, or republics as they were officially called.

Azerbaijan and Armenia were two of the 15 soviet republics. To get a better understanding of the Soviet politics of that time, perhaps a brief orientation about some key names and terms would be helpful. The PM was head of the government but not necessarily the head of the Soviet Communist Party. Sometimes one person held both offices; for example, Stalin and Khrushchev held both. After the removal of Khrushchev by the party itself in 1964, the senior leadership decided to keep the two offices apart. Though the ceremonial head of state and head of the party did become one in 1977 when Brezhnev held these two offices.

Each of the 15 Soviet republics had its own party organization, but Moscow decided who would be the party head in the republics. In Azerbaijan, Heydar Aliyev was head of the communist party from 1969 to 1982. In 1976, he had also become a candidate member of the Soviet Politburo in Moscow. After Brezhnev’s death in 1982 the new Soviet leader Andropov made him a full member of the Politburo, and also deputy PM under the premier Tikhonov. It was a major achievement for Aliyev and when Andropov and his successor Chernenko died in quick succession, Aliyev’s name also emerged as a possible Soviet leader in Moscow in March 1985.

But Aliyev’s star waned in the last years of the USSR as Gorbachev removed him from both positions in 1987. So, in 1986 when I was travelling from Moscow to Baku, Aliyev was a well-known name in Moscow power circles. When I left Moscow in 1986, little did I know that Gorbachev would remove Aliyev – tho­­ugh as a 22-year old foreign student there was nothing much that I could do. The train journey from Moscow to Baku was spectacular and it still remains the longest and most interesting train journey I have ever taken.

It was the summer of 1986 and in the coupe with me there were two families: one Karachay and the other Azeri. As you move south of Moscow, not only the landscape but also the ethnic and linguistic composition of the regions you cross become diversified. Though almost everyone speaks Russian, they take pride in their own languages too. North Caucasus is a patchwork of communities from Balkarians and Chechens to Karachays and Ossetians. Both families were hospitable and kind; they kept asking me why on earth I was taking that journey thousands of kilometres away from my home not knowing when I would see my family again.

They shared their food with me, not allowing me to spend a single kopeck. The Karachays reminded me of my own city Karachi as till then I didn’t know there was a nationality with almost the same name far away in the North Caucasus. Interestingly, most of the nationalities in that region and in Central Asia take their roots from a Turkic origin. The Karachays have been living in the North Caucasus for centuries and I distinctly remember the family narrating to me how in the 14th century Taimur’s armies invaded the region and converted the locals to Islam.

During WWII, Nazi Germany occupied North Caucasia. When the Red Army liberated this region, the Soviet authorities accused the Karachay people of collaborating with the Nazis. Stalin ordered the deportation of thousands of the Karachay people to Central Asia and Siberia. In the 1970s, many families managed to come back to their ancestral home and the family I was traveling with was one of them. In that family there was a teenage boy Nazaket, who was studying English as a foreign language at school and wanted to become my pen friend to communicate in English.

I remember the town of Mozdok where that Karachay family alighted; after reaching Baku I did write to them but the pen friendship could not last long. The Azeri family had Yildirim in their names and they were even more gracious as they helped me locate my hostel on Sharifzaday Street in Baku, late at night. The first thing that struck me in Baku was its extremely windy weather. Baku is a beautiful city with heavy winds blowing across the city to and from the Caspian Sea. The hostels were a disappointment for me in comparison with Moscow but the people were pretty helpful.

There were only two Pakistanis in the city with over a million people. The other Pakistani was a Kashmiri student Shaukat Noor who studied at another institute in Baku. I met him after 30 years recently when he was terminally ill with cancer and came back to Kashmir for his last days. Sadly, he is no more. In the Azerbaijan Polytechnic Institute, the students and the faculty were all happy to have a Pakistani ‘Muslim’ student with them. All teachers paid special attention to me and some even invited me to their homes.

I can’t recount how many home dinners I attended there and they embraced me with open arms everywhere. The Yildirim family with whom I had travelled was from Shirvan and kept visiting me in the hostel for one year that I stayed in Baku. Many people from that Azeri city of Shirvan over the centuries have settled in the Indian subcontinent and still keep their surname as Shirvani. In the 19th century, the present-day Azerbaijan was under the Qajar dynasty of Iran but then the Russians expelled them from northern Azerbaijan which became part of the Russian empire. Southern Azerbaijan remained under the Persian control.

A major city of Iranian Azerbaijan is Tabriz and again in Pakistan you find many Tabrizis. At the time of the Soviet Revolution in 1917, when the Russian empire collapsed the communists occupied Baku whereas in Ganja, the second largest city in western Azerbaijan, a short-lived democratic republic was announced. As an aside, Ganja is the city of Nizami Ganjavi, the famous Persian poet of the 12th century whose ‘Khamsa-e-Nizami’ or ‘Panj Ganj’ (Five treasures) include ‘Makhzan-ol-Asrar’ (The Treasury or Storehouse of Mysteries), ‘Khosrow o Shirin’, ‘Leyli o Majnun’, ‘Eskandar-Nameh’ (The Book of Alexander), and ‘Haft Peykar’ (The Seven Beauties).

Politically speaking, the tumult started when in December 1986, Gorbachev took a major step by removing the Communist Party chief in Kazakhstan. His name was Dinmukhamed (Deen Muhammad) Kunaev who had been the party chief in Kazakhstan for 22 years since 1964. Gorbachev removed him and appointed Gennady Kolbin as the new chief. Kolbin was a Russian and had never lived or worked in Kazakhstan. Since Gorbachev had initiated his democratization in the Soviet Union, the people in Kazakhstan took advantage of that and protested against Kolbin and did not welcome an outsider.

That became significant news in Azerbaijan too, I remember discussing its implications on Azerbaijan. Suddenly the Azeri people too started complaining against the Soviet highhandedness and the way Moscow had been imposing its decisions on federating units.

(To be continued)

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.