Azerbaijan International

Winter 2005 (13.4)
Pages 64-67

Aydin Vahidov
In Search of Goodness:
Even in the Deep Freeze of a Siberian Labor Camp
by Aydin Vahidov, in exile for 7 years

Aydin Vahidov (1925- ) was a victim of Stalinist Repressions more than half a century ago. Arrested in 1948, he served seven years in prison camps in exile. The charges against the group were trumped up, exaggerated and carried severe punishment. Somehow, he survived.

The truth was that Aydin was involved with Ildirim, a group of students, who were advocating a wider official use of the Azerbaijani language in a society that was fast gravitating towards the prestigious Russian language of the Soviet Union.

That's all. And these would-be-activists really didn't succeed at doing anything because the atmosphere was so repressive that they felt compelled to disband the group - four years before their arrest.

Though Aydin readily admits that nothing they did would ever go down in the annals of cultural history in Azerbaijan, he remains convinced of the integrity of the group's convictions. "We were on the right track," he insists. "And we proved that Azerbaijani youth could fight for their rights."

We found one of the distinguishing characteristics of Aydin's life to be his persistence in living in the present, not the past; and concentrating on the positive, not the pain. Perhaps, it was merely a survival technique but it stood him in good stead. Today, he reflects upon his experience in exile, both personally and professionally, as the foundation for his career in engineering in which he continued to be active until age 79 when he retired.

We interviewed Aydin in his home in November 2005. He was ill at the time. He shared his memories with us from his bed, too weak to raise his voice above a whisper. His mind was strong. His memories, vivid. His approach, pragmatic. A realist, Aydin didn't gloss over the harshness of exile, but neither did he romanticize it.
The more he realized that we really were keen to know his story, the more he kept remembering anecdotes that illustrated the multi-dimensional aspects of life in exile.

Of particular note was the time when he had just arrived in one of the camps and was feeling the heavy burden of his loneliness. It was in such a needy moment that he overheard another prisoner singing an Azerbaijani folksong. He knew the tune, and picked up on it, whistling back the melody; thus, enabling the two prisoners to meet.

Deep appreciation goes to Aydin's wife Zoya and daughter Gultakin for facilitating our interview. Of the seven Ildirim members who were arrested in 1948, only Aydin and Gulhusein Huseinoghlu [Abdullayev] were still living in late 2005 and early 2006 when we were researching people who had personally witnessed the impact of the Stalin's Repressions.

Both Aydin Vahidov (left) and Kamal Aliyev were members of the Ildirim group. In 1944 as students, they wrote to the poet Samad Vurghun for support for more widespread official usage of Azeri. Vurghun turned the letter over to the KGB and the Ildirim members were arrested in 1948. Aydin and Kamal were each sentenced 10 years of hard labor in Siberian camps. Photo: Courtesy of family of Aydin Vahidov.I was born on July 11, 1925, in Baku to a family of government workers. After finishing secondary school, I was accepted at Azerbaijan Institute of Oil and Chemistry where I was always an "A" student. I graduated from Faculty of Mechanical Engineering.

Left: Both Aydin Vahidov (left) and Kamal Aliyev were members of the Ildirim group. In 1944 as students, they wrote to the poet Samad Vurghun for support for more widespread official usage of Azeri. Vurghun turned the letter over to the KGB and the Ildirim members were arrested in 1948. Aydin and Kamal were each sentenced 10 years of hard labor in Siberian camps. Photo: Courtesy of family of Aydin Vahidov.

In 1944, I joined a student group called "Ildirim" (Lightning), which had just been established. In those years the situation among students was very tense.

There were anti-Soviet, anti-government sentiments seething under the surface everywhere. But those who opposed the government were not able to unite and act. Students needed an organization so that they could formulate their ideas and plan for action.

At that time, Gulhusein Huseinoghlu [Abdullayev] and Ismikhan Rahimov were studying at Azerbaijan State University and undertook to establish such an organization.

As students, we felt that government workers, intellectuals - artists and writers - shared our ideas, but everyone was too paralyzed with fear of the repressions of the 1920s and 1930s to do anything.

The first person to step forward publicly was Samad Vurghun. We could sense this from a speech he made to the Writers' Union in 1943. So Gulhusein and Ismikhan wrote Samad a letter, requesting his help. But he betrayed us and took our letter and passed it to Mir Jafar [Baghirov, Stalin's "right hand man" in Azerbaijan in his position as First Secretary of Central Committee of Azerbaijan SSR Communist Party]. In turn, Mir Jafar gave the order and the officials came looking for us.

Aydin Vahidov (lower left corner) with a group of Azerbaijani friends in a Siberian labor camp in 1951. Aydin worked there as an engineer. Photo: Family of Aydin Vahidov.
We yearned for the development of Azerbaijan. We wanted to be able to use our language freely under all circumstances. At that time, everything was in Russian.

Left: Aydin Vahidov (lower left corner) with a group of Azerbaijani friends in a Siberian labor camp in 1951. Aydin worked there as an engineer. Photo: Family of Aydin Vahidov.

Children were being taught Russian, and many were unable to speak their own mother tongue. Russian had already become the prestigious language of choice in our country.

I myself knew the Russian language and Russian literature very well. But I was concerned about uneducated people who didn't know it and, therefore, could not stand up for their rights and could not advance in their careers.

Back in the 1930s, we were using a modified Latin alphabet in Azerbaijan much like the one we have adopted since independence [1991].

Azerbaijanis had opted to replace the Arabic script, which we had used for hundreds of years, with Latin. I'm glad I've lived long enough to see the alphabet of my youth readopted as the official script of the country. These were the things we were pushing for as university students more than half a century ago. These were the ideas that landed us in prison and for which we suffered unbearably.

The Ildirim group - actually, we weren't against the Soviet government. Actually, we weren't even involved in politics. All we wanted was freedom to use our language officially.

Ildirim Meetings
We used to meet in the Saadat Sarayi [Wedding Palace]. Back then in the 1940s, this building [which had been the palatial residence of Oil Baron Murtuza Mukhtarov] was used as a university. I think it housed the Institute of Foreign Languages. Our group would meet there in the afternoons around 5:00 or 6:00 o'clock when everyone had gone home. We also used to gather at some of the homes of our relatives. We wanted so much to publish a newspaper in Azeri to promote the use of our language. Keep in mind that in 1946, the efforts in Southern Azerbaijan [Iran] in trying to gain independence influenced us. Just as Pishavari wanted freedom for the Azeri language there, Ildirim wanted the same in Northern Azerbaijan. Without a doubt, the events in Southern Azerbaijan had a strong impact on the thinking of the youth in Baku.

But those were dangerous times. We were afraid to confide in others about our plans and ideas. Young people were scared to do anything to counter the Soviet government. Keep in mind that hundreds of thousands of people had already been arrested, starting in the late 1920s. Then there were the Stalin purges of 1937-1939.

Basically, the only thing that Ildirim ever did was to write a letter to Samad Vurghun. And that small gesture was exactly what got us all arrested. The letter that we wrote to him in 1944 somehow managed to end up with the KGB in 1948. Who knows why it took so long.

But our activities didn't last very long. Back in 1944, after we didn't receive any reply of support from Vurghun, we got very disappointed and disbanded the group. Looking back on our efforts, I admit that our activities did not impact the cultural development of our country, but we did prove that Azerbaijani youth could fight for their rights.

In those days it was very difficult to trust other people. If there were three people working together in one room, you could be sure that one of them was an agent. It's hard to imagine the tortures that were done to people. There was no end to rumors that were circulating - stories about victims being thrown into the sea off Nargin Island weighted down with rocks tied around their necks.

Shortly before I was arrested, I could sense that I was being followed. Finally on November 5, 1948, they arrested me.

I remember it so clearly - that night I was arrested - even though it was more than 50 years ago. It was after midnight - around 4 a.m. I was with my wife. We had only a one-room apartment. They showed me the order for my arrest and then shoved me up against the wall. They searched everywhere - three of them. And then they confiscated everything.

The trial didn't take place for five months while we all languished in the KGB prison - a five-storied building hidden inside the courtyard of the KGB building down by the sea. There was a prison inside there. That's where we were kept. Myself, I wasn't tortured.

Our families were not able to visit us while we were in prison but they were allowed to bring parcels. I was married and had a daughter. I also had four brothers and three sisters. All of the members of Ildirim were together in prison. There were other political prisoners, too, but I didn't know them.

They finally scheduled the court session for the following spring on March 21 and 22 [which happened to be Novruz, a day that is traditionally one of joy]. Our family members were not allowed to be present. It was a closed, secret trial. The government provided us with a lawyer, but he offered no defense. It was a farce.
Papers had already been prepared for us at the trial and we had no choice but to sign them, alleging our guilt. They made us admit to being members of an anti-Soviet organization. They further accused us having relationships with Turkey, which wasn't true - as if we were trying to separate Azerbaijan from the Soviet Union and unite with Turkey. I was sentenced to 10 years of hard labor.

Aydin Vahidov with his family: his wife Zoya and two daughters Gultakin (older) and Mehriban. 1971. Photo: Family of Aydin Vahidov.
On the Train into Exile
At first, the members of Ildirim were sent to Rostov in Russia where we stayed for four days.

Left: Aydin Vahidov with his family: his wife Zoya and two daughters Gultakin (older) and Mehriban. 1971. Photo: Family of Aydin Vahidov.

Then we were separated and I was sent across Central Asia to the city of Magadan [a port city in Eastern Siberia on the Pacific coast near Japan, which served as a major transit center for prisoners being sent to labor camps]. It was extremely cold there but I like that weather.

It was such a long journey from Azerbaijan to Magadan on the Pacific coast by train. Eight of us had been together in the same compartment. A ninth person accompanied us. It was clear to us that he was a spy.

I worked as an engineer there and so, unlike many others, I was relatively free. Once a month we had to register with one of the committees. They wanted to make sure that we were still at the camp. I worked in a factory and developed very good construction skills. I was sent to some of the largest labor camps in the Soviet Union - Mordovia [southeast of Moscow in the Central Volga Region].

I worked in Potma as a mechanical engineer. Yes. I worked night and day with all my strength. And I continued to do so all of my life. I was 79 years old before I retired. Throughout the years, I've been involved in the construction of so many buildings. I never hated the Soviet Union. Even after coming back from exile, I was very active in the community and became the director of a machine factory.

The Right Thing
Still despite everything I had to endure during those horrendous years, I never had any regrets about joining Ildirim. We were doing the right thing. We wanted Azeri to be spoken in all offices, and for all official correspondence to be carried out in Azerbaijan's own language. We were on the right path. Under the same circumstances, I would do it again.

Even during those times when Stalin's portraits and statues were all over the country, I used to predict that the day would come when Stalin would be disgraced. And that's exactly what happened.

There's an expression: "You can rob a nation of its money and its land. You can even kill its people, and the nation will still live on. But if you take away its language, it will die."

In the 1930s and 1940s, not many Azerbaijanis knew Russian very well. And those who weren't fluent in Russian were not able to demand their rights, get good jobs, or progress in their careers. Ildirim wanted people to have a chance to better their lives. That's why we demanded freedom for our language. You might say that the Ildirim group fought for moral freedom, not political freedom - moral freedom from the Soviets. I really was never against the Soviet government itself.

Hardships in the Camps
When I think back on the camps - I really don't like to focus on the bad memories. It's so painful for me. Why talk about bad memories? One of the biggest problems we faced in the camp was that we didn't have enough food. There was never enough bread.

There were times when we couldn't even think about the future. We lost all hope that we would ever be released. There were times when we didn't even know if we could make it through the day. People who had been branded as "Enemy of the People" were being shot all the time. We were all just waiting to die.

There were many Japanese and Englishmen there who worked in the same city. They were very intelligent people. I learned some English so that I could converse with them. I also learned some German but then I was assigned to another labor camp.

Professional Engineer
The most significant thing that happened to me during my years of exile was that I became a professional in my field. In labor camps there was nothing else to do but work. You have to use such opportunities. You have to obey the rules. Those labor camps gave me both life and work experience as an engineer in the camps.

My family tells me that sometimes at night I talk in my sleep about things that happened in Magadan. Sometimes, I even mention the names of some of the people who lived there with me. Once I was under heavy medication, and it seems it affected a certain part of my brain, which brought back so vividly the painful memories of my exile. When I'm ill, memories of that period of my life come back to haunt me.

Aydin's wife Zoya on the occasion of her 70th Jubilee. 2004. Photo: Family of Aydin Vahidov.
Secrets in the Family
My wife and I didn't even tell our daughters that I had been a member of an anti-Soviet organization and denounced as an "Enemy of the People".

Left: Aydin's wife Zoya on the occasion of her 70th Jubilee. 2004. Photo: Family of Aydin Vahidov.

We never talked to our children about these experiences until after independence [1991].

Sure, my children knew that I had been arrested. But they didn't know the reason. They told me later that it had been very difficult for them to understand how such an honest person was capable of carrying out a crime and getting arrested. Simply, they didn't know why I had been arrested. We hid the documents related to my arrest. When we sat down with our children to talk about these things, they were shocked.

They knew that Ismikhan and I were good friends, but they didn't know the history of our friendship. He also was sentenced to hard labor.

We were afraid that if we told our children about these things, they might casually mention them to their friends, and it would get them into trouble. Even though my [second] wife and I didn't get married until 1960, which was seven years after Stalin's death, we were still frightened that something could happen to our children because of me. The greatest difficulty during exile was being away from family and friends. I wasn't able to write them, nor could they write me. My wife divorced me. We had one daughter. It was my parents who took care of her for me.

Souvenir from seven years of exile? Yes (laughing), I still have a few photos. But mostly I have only my memories and nothing else. Upon my return, I enrolled in the university. I was rehabilitated in 1956 and remarried in 1960.

Actually, my wife's family was against our marriage but her brother Tofig Hasanov used to work for the KGB and he managed to get hold of my trial papers and read them. He was convinced of my innocence and so her family agreed and that's how I married Zoya. In fact, today we celebrated our 45th anniversary. We were married on November 10, 1960.

"The greatest thing that we gained from Stalin was our thirst for freedom. We suffered indescribably." After those many years of repression, Azerbaijan started moving towards freedom.

People hold varying opinions about Stalin. Undoubtedly, he was a smart man, but he took us down a wild, chaotic path. In the end, so many people died.

 "The greatest thing that we gained from Stalin was our thirst for freedom."

--Aydin Vahidov, who spent seven years in Siberian labor camp.

Stalin's Death
Concerning Stalin's death: I'll never forget the day that we learned that Stalin had died [in March 1953]. I was in a labor camp where political prisoners and criminals were mixed together. The political prisoners were relieved when they heard the news of his death. Curiously, the criminals were not. After all, Stalin was a criminal, too. Myself - I was happy. It was like I could again hope one day to be released. That's when I started making plans about what I would do when I got back home. I wanted so much to continue my education and work.

But the most important thing is for our own Azerbaijani people to learn about this period in our history. Our people should know that there were people who fought for the independence of our republic - for their independence. We always knew that Azerbaijan would be independent one day.

An Azeri Melody
Let me share with you one episode from those days that I've never forgotten. We were on the train traveling between Baku and Rostov, and then heading eastward to another camp where political prisoners were being kept. When we finally got off the train, I was separated from my friends. They put me in a car and took me to a labor camp.

They had a rule: we all had to pass one-month quarantine separated from the other prisoners so that if anyone had an illness it wouldn't spread like a contagion through the camp. All those people with me were, indeed, criminals. I was the only Azerbaijani. I felt so alone. Once while standing near the window of our hut, I heard someone singing a song that I knew so well in Azeri (Aydin sings):

How can I not love your beautiful face?
How can I not love the mole on your cheek?

Azeri version of the poem

I answered by whistling back the melody. I was so curious to find out who was singing this song. I soon discovered that it was my old friend - Musa Abdullayev - one of the members of our Ildirim group. All of us had been separated and sent to different camps years earlier. But here he was again. And we had found each other. I asked permission from the guards if we could speak together. They let us. And that's how Musa and I found each other in that camp and were able to enjoy each other's friendship for a while until I had to move on to another location. It was a memory that I would cherish for the rest of my life.

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