Autumn 1999 (7.3)
Exile to Kazakhstan
Stalin's Repression of 1937
by Murtuz Sadikhli1
When the author Murtuz Sadikhli1 (1929-1997) [pronounced mur-TOOZ sa-digh-LI] was eight years old, life as he knew it was turned absolutely upside-down.
Photo: Murtuz Sadikhli (sitting on the floor to the right) with his family, one month before they were exiled to Kazakhstan, 1937.
He, along with other members of his family, was exiled to Kazakhstan from their home in Nakhchivan.
Their crime? Nothing really. That year - 1937 - is often referred to as "Stalin's Repression". It was among the first of several organized deportations in which anyone Stalin suspected of not embracing the new Soviet system was either executed or banished. Many deportees were never heard from again.
During Stalin's rule (1924 to 1953), millions of people living in Soviet territory were exiled to labor or political prison camps, thus providing a huge pool of cheap labor for building major projects throughout the vast Soviet territory, which spanned 11 time zones.
Many of the exiles were sent to sparsely populated regions, especially Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. [See article on Meskhseti Turks, Spring 1997, AI 5.1, p. 62]. More than 300,000 Azerbaijanis were among these deportees; 100,000 of them were sent to Kazakhstan. An estimated 30,000 of these exiles came from the Nakhchivan region [pronounced NAHKH-chi-vahn] - the non-contiguous region separated from western Azerbaijan by a strip of Armenian territory. Documents indicate that during the 10-day period between August 5-15, there were 1,957 people in Nakhchivan arrested and exiled. Murtuz and his family, who lived in the Nus-Nus village in the Ordubad region of Nakhchivan, were among these unfortunate victims.
The following section from Murtuz Sadikhli's memoir "Memory of Blood" is taken from the introduction and first chapter, "Road to Nowhere". Based on the diary that Murtuz kept while he was in exile, the book was published in Russian in Baku in 1991. It was the first book published in Azerbaijan that talked about exiles; before that time, anyone who wrote on such a topic would have been arrested. Later, other books were published, including Ziya Bunyadov's "Red Terror".
Map of the route that the Sadikhli family traveled for 39 days from Nakhchivan, Azerbaijan to Kazakhstan during Stalin's Repression in 1937.
In 1953, after Stalin's death, the family returned to Azerbaijan, again in a cattlecar as it was the cheapest mode of travel. They were not allowed to return to the village that they had come from, so they settled near Georgia.
Road to Nowhere
My mind wanders back again and again to that tragic day in May 1937, when the shrill wails of distraught women echoed from the mountains. I remember my grandmother taking off her chador [veil] and pulling her hair in anguish, as if she were attending a funeral.
"Why? Tell me, why? Why are you doing this to us?" she agonized, screaming at her village neighbors. "Didn't my husband protect you, your wives and your children from death and disgrace during the hard times? Didn't we lend a helping hand to those who were disabled and weak? Why are you so silent? Tell me, why have you destroyed my home?"2
The house was surrounded. Everything had been ransacked and turned upside down. In the middle of the room, they had made a hole in the floor, searching for guns. Books were scattered all over the place. Some of them had been thrown on a pile in the yard, having already been opened and shaken to see if anything might have been stashed away between the pages.
The barn had been cleared out after being carefully searched. Neighbors were running back and forth from our place, bringing and fetching things as we had only been given two hours to pack up our belongings and leave.
"Take more bread," the respected "aghsaggal"3 of our village kept saying. "The commander says, 'Take enough for two to three months.'" Nobody would have guessed that within two to three days, we would be shoved into cattle cars to a destiny unknown.
On the evening of May 17, 1937, our family4 was escorted by soldiers and loaded into cattle cars-several families into each one. There were five families in our compartment. The grownups quickly set about arranging their packages on the shelves.
Women were sobbing as they took the supplies out of their bags and placed on the shelves the things that they thought they would need most - kettles, plates and glasses. We children climbed up onto the upper bunk beds, which were made of planks, and settled ourselves in. There were no blankets, no pillows, no mattresses.
I remember that suddenly it became very quiet. A man in a military uniform appeared in the middle of our train compartment. Two others stood behind him, close to the exit. The one in the middle gave some instructions in Russian and then left. The other two followed. We would see that threesome often, as they had been assigned to guard us en route to our destination.
Sultan, a young man in our car, translated what had been said: "When the train stops at the station, you are forbidden to go to the bathroom or lean out of the windows and talk to others. Also, you aren't allowed to drink any water that hasn't been boiled. Once every 24 hours, we will be bringing you boiled water and hot food."
I remember looking around the train car. Opposite the door, someone had elevated some planks and cut a hole in the center. That was the toilet. We were only allowed to use it when the train was moving. Next to the toilet stood a little barrel, sometimes used for water; other times, for garbage.
It got dark. The doors of the cattle cars were locked, then the train began to move. "Farewell, native land. Farewell, Motherland." One woman burst out crying; my Granny couldn't keep from sobbing as well. Mom tried to calm her down. My three brothers and I huddled together in silence, not knowing whether to feel happy or sad.
In the morning, we were awakened by the sound of a sharp, blunt instrument banging against the side of the cattle car. It was time to get up. Later, I learned that they used this method to check the trains to see if any planks had been sawed or shaken loose.
When we arrived at the next station, we could see a tiny house through the window. The grownups said we would arrive soon in Baku. Soldiers opened the door, and the military guy and his two assistants appeared again. Again, they spoke Russian and quickly left again; Sultan translated their words. Two men got off the train with buckets and soon came back with water. We guessed that soon there would be tea. We kids wanted to go to the bathroom, but Mother warned us not to go while the train was stopped.
We used to eat our breakfast on the upper bunk as it was more comfortable, and we didn't have to worry about hitting our heads against the planks of any beds above us. The other bunks had a much narrower allocation of space: there wasn't enough space to sit up in them. For breakfast we ate lavash [flatbread], butter and cheese.
I noticed that Mom and Granny were refusing to eat or drink anything for several days. When we asked, "Mom, why don't you eat something?" she would answer: "We've already had something."
But I could see that Mom was getting weaker and paler day by day. Afterward, she admitted that she had not eaten or drunk anything simply because she did not want to have to use the bathroom in the presence of her father-in-law and the other men. Such a thing was considered shameful for a Moslem woman.
Later, I learned that we Azerbaijanis who were exiled in 1937 were the lucky ones. At least we had a toilet in our compartment. In 1944, the trains transporting masses of Chechens, Ingushs, Tatars, Balkars and Meskheti Turks to Central Asia had nothing at all. Women who had been brought up according to strict Islamic traditions of respect for men and the elderly couldn't go to the toilet because they were so ashamed. Most people became ill; some even died of ruptured bladders on the train.
After breakfast, everybody would return to their places: children to the upper plank beds, some of the men to the lower beds and others to sit directly on the floor. I remember once that the train slowed down and stopped at one of the stations. For an hour or two, the doors remained closed. They told us it was Baku.
Finally, the train started moving, only to stop again that evening. They opened the door and the same threesome entered our compartment. Sultan translated: "There's a hot meal at the station." But no one moved. Everyone refused the hot meal. The men picked up empty buckets in an effort to get some water, but they were not allowed to do so since the people had refused to eat. The doors were slammed and bolted shut again, and the train continued on its way.
I remember how we were allowed to wash ourselves only once during the entire journey. It was in Rostov. I also remember how one woman gave birth to a baby right in our car. Nor will I ever forget the rantings of an old man whose mind had gone stark mad because he could not cope with what was happening.
The following story is still vivid in my mind even though I witnessed it when I was only eight years old. Once, at a small station where our train had stopped, people were walking along the platform. We could see them through our little window. My grandmother was sitting next to the window, crying.
A woman on the platform noticed her and tried to come up to our window, but a sentry stopped her. She said something to him, trying to convince him, but the guy kept telling her: "It is forbidden!" "Forbidden" was a word that we got used to hearing a lot.
Realizing that there was no use talking to the sentry, the woman called to a little girl sitting on the bench, thrust a roll into her hand and pointed to my grandmother. The girl approached our window and held out the roll to my grandmother, who gestured that she didn't want it. The little girl burst into tears.
My Granny felt sorry that she had hurt the little girl's feelings by refusing the roll. How could that child have known that the true reason for Granny's tears was not hunger but something much deeper-the loss of her home and her Motherland?
After Rostov, the train stopped for a while. The same threesome came to our car. Sultan translated: "They're letting us get out for a while." The women decided to stay in the car, but the men got out and we children followed. Oh, how wonderful it was to be out in the fresh air!
But it seemed something had happened. The men gathered near another cattle car and we could hear someone crying. Someone had died, and the men were carrying the body, which had been wrapped in a white sheet. At the door of the cattle car, a woman was tearing out her hair and weeping. The men began to bury the person who had died. I returned to our car, climbed up on my bed and burst into tears. Exhausted, I fell asleep.
Those were bitter tears. I was crying out of pity for myself realizing that I, too, could die en route. And if I did, they would have to bury me in the middle of the steppe, where I would lie alone, all by myself. Maybe thousands of other people would end up this way, too. The next morning I was told that just the previous day, a girl my age had been buried that way on the steppe.
Shortly before our arrival at the last station, a baby boy was born in our compartment. At one of the stations, the men in our car started banging on the door to get the attention of the others. But nobody came to unlock the door. Then my grandfather, who was 74 years old at the time, said something to the other men. They cleared out one corner of the car and set up a kind of curtain to separate that corner from the rest of the car.
Only the woman giving birth and a few other women stayed behind the curtain. Some organized towels and water for the mother. The men laid face-down on the floor - we children were ordered to do the same. Soon, the woman gave birth to her baby-a child whose first glimpse of the world was the dark ceiling of a cattle car. They called him Eldar. It turns out that many of the children born in that tragic year of 1937 grew up to become mature, responsible people. Eldar became a colonel in the Air Force and is currently serving in Uzbekistan.
A New Ordeal
On the 39th day, we arrived at a small station called Ushtope in Kazakhstan. The doors of the cattle cars opened, and we were told to get out. Everyone felt weak. We were all trembling and aching all over. Mom had become pale; Granny couldn't walk by herself and had to be lifted onto my uncle's back.
Some military servicemen came up to us - this time it was a different group. Again Sultan translated. We saw a lot of cars parked close by. They were to take us to our final destination - where that was, we didn't exactly know. The cars started their motors, and we began running towards them to a new unknown destiny.
It turns out that the train's final destination was the Taldi - Kurgan area of the Kirov region in Kazakhstan. All of the families got off the trains and were taken to barracks, where each family was given a single room to live in. Within two to three days, everyone was forced to go and work in the fields, cultivating sugar beets.
Everyone in the family had to work. Only Granny was allowed to stay behind and look after little Sadikh, who was only three years old. Even 100-year-old men worked. All women had to work until they were 65 years old.
My parents had several more children while living in Kazakhstan - Razi (born in 1941 and died at age 3), Fatma (1942-1999), Rezagulu (1944- ), Rashid (1947- ) and Solmaz (1951- ). When Rezagulu was six years old, he and our sister Fatma used to carry water to the workers in the fields, which were located about 7 km from the barracks. In 1947, the Soviet government gave us land there and allowed us to build mud brick houses for ourselves.
In 1953, Stalin died. Exiles were allowed to return to their land of origin, but not to the city or village that they had come from. So, in 1953, our family returned to Azerbaijan and settled in the region of Balakan in the northwestern corner, near Georgia. The return trip was made by cattle car again, since the tickets were much cheaper.
1 The author's last name is Sadikhov (Sadikhli since independence) (Sadikh was the first name of Murtuz' great-grandfather). However, when the family was deported to Kazakhstan, the Soviets assigned a new family name to their passports - in this case, Taghiyev. (Taghi happened to be the first name of Murtuz' great-great-grandfather). Some people suspect these name changes were made deliberately to confuse and humiliate those who had been exiled. Without a doubt, it made it incredibly more difficult to locate any lost relatives.
2 During the Massacre of Azerbaijanis in 1918, which occurred in Baku and other places throughout the countryside, the Armenian terrorist Andronik organized an attack on the family's village. Murtuz's grandfather, Rezagulu, organized a strong defense and thwarted the Armenian attack, basically saving the village. Later, when the Bolsheviks took over, they called Rezagulu an "Enemy of the People." The villagers, fearing for their own lives, did not come to his assistance but aided the Bolsheviks in sending the family into exile instead. The grandmother was incredulous that the villagers could forget how her family had saved them just a few years earlier.
3 Aghsaggal Literally, "white sideburns", referring to a village elder who is respected for his wisdom and experience.
4 Murtuz' family members who were exiled included his grandfather Rezagulu (1863-1941), his grandmother Gulsum (1867-1966), his uncle Hamid (1918-1989), his father Zeynal (1903-1991), his mother Firuza (1906-1987), his older brother Yusif (1925-1998), himself-Murtuz (1929-1995), and his younger brothers Sadikh (1934- ) and Razi (1937-1937).
Photo: Murtuz Sadikhli
Farida Sadikhova, Editorial Assistant at Azerbaijan International magazine, translated this passage from her uncle's eyewitness account as documented in his book, "Memory of Blood" (in Russian, Baku, 1991). His memoirs of exile were the first to be published in Azerbaijan. Farida's father, Rezagulu, was born in exile in Kazakhstan in 1944 and returned with his family to Azerbaijan in 1953 shortly after Stalin's death that year.
From Azerbaijan International (7.3) Autumn 1999.
© Azerbaijan International 1998. All rights reserved.
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