Winter 2005 (13.4)
Even in the Deep Freeze of a Siberian Labor Camp
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
On the Train into Exile
At first, the members of Ildirim were sent to Rostov in Russia
where we stayed for four days.
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
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
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.
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.
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 .
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
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.
thing that we gained from Stalin was our thirst for freedom."
who spent seven years in Siberian labor camp.
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
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
How can I not love your beautiful
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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AI 13.4 (Winter 2005)
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