Winter 2005 (13.4)
Hardships Endured At Home:
When the Men Were Sent to Siberian Labor Camps
Fatma Alasgarova, wife
Fatma Alasgarova (1926- ) was the wife
of Azer Alasgarov (1926- 1995), a member of "Ildirim"
(Lightning), a student group that advocated the broader official
usage of their mother tongue - Azeri. This group sought to take
an active role in the development of Azerbaijan after World War
II, but actually they didn't manage to succeed because the government
was so repressive.
Fatma was only 22 years old and had only been married four months
when her husband was arrested in 1948. She was totally oblivious
to the fact that he had been a member of any political group.
His arrest came as a total shock to her. He was sentenced to
10 years of hard labor in Siberia.
Fatma's story provides a perspective on the trauma that women
faced when their loved ones - husbands, fathers, and brothers
- were arrested. We often focus on the accused victim, forgetting
other family members whose lives were also turned upside down.
Women were often stripped of their economic source. Invariably,
they were encouraged by family members to seek divorce. In Fatma's
case, which was very typical, she was branded as a wife of an
"Enemy of the People" which prevented her from enrolling
in graduate studies and getting a job. Even when she divorced
her husband who was in exile, the stigma did not go away.
Fatma's husband was one of the lucky ones who survived the harsh
years of exile. He received a 10-year sentence in 1948. Azer
returned home in 1955 - seven years later. Stalin's death in
1953, led to his being released before finishing out his sentence.
The couple reconciled and married again. But those seven years
of separation were incredibly difficult. Here Fatma reflects
upon the incredible obstacles and uncertainties that they faced.
I had no idea that my husband
had been involved in any kind of political activities. Thus it
came as a total shock when NKVD agents knocked on the door in
the wee hours of the morning and took my husband away. [NKVD
in Russian means Narodniy Komitet Vnutrennix Del, which translates
as the People's Committee for Internal Affairs. This state mechanism
was the forerunner of the KGB]. We had only been married four
I was born on April 27, 1926, in Shaki - a picturesque town located
in the foothills of the Caucasus in northwestern Azerbaijan.
My father worked for the government but had died at the age of
45 during the Azerbaijan Democratic Movement in Iran. Mir Jafar
Baghirov, First Secretary of the Communist Party in Azerbaijan
had sent him there. I was lucky that mother was alive.
graduating from high school in 1943, I was accepted at Baku State
University in the Philology Faculty where I enrolled in Oriental
Studies with a concentration in Persian language studies.
Left: Fatma with her husband Azer Alasgarov.
Photo: Family of Azer Alasgarov.
I graduated in 1948.
Actually, my husband Azer and I had studied together for five
After graduating, we married a few weeks later on July 7th. But
in the early morning hours on November 6th, the NKVD was pounding
on the door. They had come to arrest Azer.
A few days earlier, Gulhusein Huseinoghlu [Abdullayev], who also
had studied with us, came over to the house on two occasions,
looking for Azer. I had no idea what they talked about, but when
Azer came back to the house, I noticed that he was looking miserable.
I asked him what had happened, but he wouldn't tell me. For days,
he wouldn't eat and he seemed so depressed.
A few days passed. Gulhusein, again, stopped by to see Azer.
Again, I had no clue what they talked about. Again he became
very pale and wouldn't eat anything. He started losing weight.
I didn't understand why he was so pre - occupied. He wouldn't
tell me. At that time we were living in the apartment of Azer's
grandfather. We were on the third floor; they occupied the second.
Azer's father had passed away when he was young. He had been
arrested and died in prison four years later. They were five
boys and two girls in his family. The sisters had married. Since
the older one had died, Azer's mother and grandmother were taking
care of her two children. Azer's mother also worked as a cook.
The uncles took care of them financially. With his mother working
all day long, there really was no one to raise the children.
None of Azer's brothers had gone on to get a higher education,
but Azer himself had always loved to study.
that we ourselves are to blame for much of this evil that befell
us. People betrayed one another. If someone didn't like you,
he would go and report you. The next day you could be arrested.
Betraying others is still part of our psychology today."
- -Fatma Alasgarova,
whose husband was arrested and spent seven years in prison camps.
The guards were very punctual. They came directly to our apartment
at exactly 3 a.m. - October 23, 1948. Azer opened the door. They
showed him some paper, which I learned later, was the order for
his arrest. There were four of them. Two from the NKVD. The third
was our neighbor who served as a "witness"; the fourth
person was from the MIS [Apartment Operation Office which manages
the properties in any particular region].
Azer told me that they had come to take him
and that I should get up and get dressed. I tried to slip out
of the room and run downstairs to tell Azer's brother that they
were taking Azer away, but one of the NKVD officers blocked the
doorway and wouldn't let me leave the room.
they started searching the house. Since we had only recently
married, we didn't have much furniture.
Left: Azer with his son and grandson (1980s).
Photo: Family of Azer Alasgarov.
Azer had told them that he didn't have anything. They searched
the whole house until six o'clock that morning. They couldn't
find anything except some notes that I had taken from my Persian
Seems they thought Persian was really Arabic [of which they were
highly suspicious because the Koran is written in Arabic].
At the university we had had a teacher - Mubariz Alizade - who
lectured in Persian. His literature classes were so wonderful;
we never tired of them. Naturally, I took notes in Persian. The
NKVD found these notebooks and confiscated them. They also found
some of Azer's personal photos and took them, too. They wrote
down the basic items that we had in our apartment but, really,
they didn't take much else.
It seems that Azer used to organize meetings at his parents'
apartment especially when they weren't at home. I later learned
that sometimes even when his mom was there, he and his friends
would gather, but she didn't have a clue as to what was going
All this had taken place before we were married. A small group
of guys had formed a group they called "Ildirim" (Lightning),
but they had not continued their activities after we got married.
In 1944, they had sent a letter to the well - known poet Samad
Vurghun, asking for his support. But when they didn't hear anything
from him, they suspended their activities. That was four years
earlier. That explains why I didn't know anything about this
Actually, it wasn't until half a century later - that I found
out much about this group called Ildirim. Academician Ziya Bunyadov
gained access to the KGB archives after Azerbaijan became independent
and wrote the book "Red Terror"  which included
the text of the trial of the members of this group. Ildirim was
a group of guys advocating the wider official usage of the Azeri
language as opposed to Russian. That's all. The group had never
really succeeded in its goals. Just talk.
During the trial, the judges exaggerated everything and brought
serious charges against the members of Ildirim, alleging that
they were trying to separate Azerbaijan from the Soviet Union.
There were so many lies: they accused the Ildirim members of
having organized underground tunnels and of close ties to Turkey.
But these things weren't true.
These young guys were simply hoping for some leadership from
Samad Vurghun. They wanted him to head their organization. The
letter they had written him dated May 11, 1944, somehow ended
up with the NKVD four years later exposing the group. All seven
guys were arrested.
After the NKVD left with Azer, I ran downstairs and told his
family what had happened. They thought that some mistake had
been made. "Azer would never have done anything to get arrested,"
they insisted. "He was educated and smart. He wasn't a criminal.
There has to be some kind of mistake." I later learned that
even Azer's family didn't know anything about Ildirim and that
Gulhusein, too, had been arrested that same day.
Then I went to my aunt's place. My father had a friend - Colonel
Padarov, who worked
as the head of the Political Issues Investigation Department
at the Committee for Government Security (KGB). Since my father
himself also had worked for the government, we had often visited
this official because they were family friends. So my aunt, her
husband, and I went to see them. We told Padarov about Azer.
He started to cry. Then he kissed my forehead but he didn't say
and my aunt's husband stepped into another room and started talking.
When we left, Padarov hugged me and told me not to worry. On
the way home, my aunt's husband told me that since Azer's arrest
was a political case and related to political activities, Padarov
would not be able to help. Such cases were outside his jurisdiction.
Besides, those who assisted political prisoners could run into
The only thing that Padarov could do was to prevent the NKVD
from interrogating me as well. Actually, that was very important
because many wives of political prisoners were also later arrested
and sent into exile. It didn't matter that they had committed
no crime. So many women had to cope with such tragic situations.
Then we broke the news to my mom in Shaki. She came and took
me back home with her. That was November. I got a job there,
working as a teacher of Azerbaijani language and literature.
See ELENAFILATOVA.com - Excursion to Gulag
Photos below show part of
the Gulag system, a vast network of thousands of camps that extended
across the entire Soviet Union and which flourished under Stalin's
Many camps were located in Central Asia and Siberia and provided
free labor to develop wilderness areas, especially the natural
resources such as timber and gold. Now these camps are abandoned,
overgrown and accessible only by helicopter.
1. Poster says: "I fulfilled my quota, did you?" Meeting
the daily quota was rewarded with an extra ladle of broth.
2-4. One of the camps in the vast forests (taiga) of Eastern
5. One of the bridges built with prison labor which was never
used as Stalin died before its completion (1953).
6. Abandoned and rusted out steam locomotive.
7. To connect the two towns of Igarka and Salechard required
1,263 kms of tracks. Only 900 kms were completed. An estimated
300,000 convicts died while building these tracks between the
years 1949 - 1953. Now these tracks lead to nowhere.
8. Barbed wire. It was nearly impossible to escape the camps
because they were surrounded by barbed wire, watched by guard
dogs and located so far from any other settlements.
9. Bottle of vodka. Guards often sold vodka illegally to prisoners.
10. Typical pan that prisoners used to receive their food. The
prisoners kept these pans with them.
11. Spy hole so the guards could always look in on the prisoners.
12. The barracks held two layers of plank beds which could accommodate
13. Steps leading to one of the prison barracks.
After a while, we learned that Azer and other members of the
Ildirim group would be put on trial in March the following year
- 1949. But they didn't tell us the exact date. It turned out
that Azer and his friends were trialed on March 21-22 (Novruz,
First Day of Spring), but we missed it all. We arrived in Baku
a day or two later because we didn't know. The trial had already
ended. Azer was sentenced to 10 years in exile. Actually, even
if we had been there, we would not have been allowed to be with
him during the trial. No one was allowed in. No one witnessed
We didn't even know where Azer and his friends were being kept
all those months. Perhaps, it was the KGB prison in central Baku,
but we didn't know for sure.
People told us that after the trial, Azer and the other members
of Ildirim were hauled away in an open truck. A large crowd had
gathered. There were many young people and students. Since it
was Novruz holiday, people were trying to pass them baked pastries
like pakhlavas (baklava) and shakarburas by tossing them into
the truck. The Ildirim members were handcuffed to each other.
They said that Ismikhan Rahimov had stood up and with a raised
fist, shouted to the crowd, "Long Live Azerbaijan".
And then the truck had disappeared out of sight.
After Azer left for exile, I didn't hear from him for a while.
They were allowed to write letters to their families only twice
a year. We loved each other so much. We had been so close but
he never addressed any of his letters to me, except once. Perhaps
he was afraid that his letters would get me into trouble. He
used to write to his mother and so I read those letters. Frankly
speaking, he didn't say anything of importance in his letters.
What could he say? He used to write: "I'm here. I'm working."
Things like that. Once he wrote a joke, intended for me: "There
are no 'marfushas' here" (meaning no Russian women). I'm
sure he didn't want me to be worried or get jealous. It was a
joke. I knew what labor camps were like.
During those seven years of his exile, I only received one letter
from Azer. Unfortunately, it got lost while we were moving from
one house to another. He wrote that he was sorry that he had
made me so unhappy, and he apologized to my mother for what had
Those days when Azer was in exile were so difficult for me, too.
Keep in mind that I was only 22 years old. It was so hard to
bear Azer's absence from my life. In addition to all the unknowns
about his whereabouts and his situation, I also felt that I was
being followed - that someone was constantly watching me. And
people shunned me so much. That was the hardest part.
Once, I remember having to take a philosophy exam. Many students
were waiting in line. Finally, my turn came. I stepped inside
the classroom only to hear the assistant announce: "Professor,
do you know who this is? She's the wife of an 'Enemy of the People'
- just to let you know." I ran out of the room and burst
into tears. I couldn't stop crying. I wasn't allowed to take
the exam. Those days were so stressful. I couldn't sleep at night.
The next day I went to the Scientific Research and Pedagogy Institute
and spoke to the director about the situation. Finally, I was
allowed to take my exam.
Then my family put pressure on me to divorce Azer. Everywhere
I went I was known as the wife of an "Enemy of the People".
I couldn't advance in my work. I couldn't get accepted in graduate
studies. Always the doors were slammed in my face just because
of my association with Azer.
I didn't want to get a divorce. I was so crushed and depressed.
But, what to do? Azer's sentence was for 10 years and who knew
what would happen. So many people never returned from those camps.
Finally, I yielded to my family's wishes. I didn't know what
else to do. And so, I officially divorced him just to be able
to continue my studies.
In those times whenever you got divorced, you had to give public
notice in the newspaper. I really didn't want to do this, so
I had our announcement published in one of the Armenian newspapers
so that none of our friends could read it. I didn't want people
to know about it. I was so deeply broken and confused about it.
Divorce seemed so wrong since we loved each other so much.
had problems getting accepted into post-graduate studies even
the third year after the divorce had gone through. Finally, I
was able to continue my studies in 1952.
Poet Bakhtiyar Vahabzade
pinning an honorary medal on Azer Alasgarov. Azer received two
distinguished awards in his lifetime: The "Gizil Galam"
or Golden Pen (1986) and "Honored Journalist of the Republic"
(1989). after returning from seven years in a Siberian labor
camp (1955), Azer worked in publications and became Editor-in-Chief
of the Azerbaijan Telegraph Agency (Azertaj). Photo: Family of
I hoped that Azer would
understand that the only reason I had divorced him was to continue
Another time when I was elected head of our Komsomol, someone
reported me, and the next day I lost the position simply because
my husband was an "Enemy of the People". It didn't
matter that we were already divorced. I was active, educated,
young and so full of enthusiasm to work and to create something.
But whenever I tried to do anything and move forward in my career,
the association with Azer always stood in the way.
There were many occasions when even my professors would pretend
not to see me. The same with students. But every time someone
didn't return my hello, it was a huge psychological blow to me.
I'll never forget one of my teachers - Ali Azeri - who taught
Persian. I was a good student and he liked me. A rather handsome
man and a bit elderly, he spoke with an Iranian accent. Once
I was passing him, and I lowered my head and didn't greet him,
afraid that he would ignore me like the other teachers did.
But he stopped me: "Aren't you Fatma?" he asked.
"Yes," I replied.
"Isn't your last name Khalilova?"
"Didn't I teach you?"
"Then why don't you say 'hello' to your teacher?"
I couldn't hold back the tears. I confessed that I had been afraid
that he wouldn't acknowledge my hello, and that would leave me
so disappointed. He tried to console me by asking if I had seen
his new Persian language book. And then he took me to a nearby
bookstore and bought it for me and signed it. I have kept that
book to this day and treasure it so much.
Once I saw Bakhtiyar Vahabzade heading my direction [Vahabzade
is now one of Azerbaijan's distinguished poets]. He was a year
ahead of Azer and me at the university. Since he, too, was from
Shaki, we knew each other although we had never spoken. Azer
was the jealous type and didn't like when I talked with other
guys. I saw Bakhtiyar coming so I turned towards the window,
pretending to look outside. I thought that he would ignore me,
too, just like the others.
But Bakhtiyar approached and asked me if I knew why Azer had
been arrested. I lowered my head and didn't answer. Bakhtiyar
added: "He wanted freedom and independence for our country
- our Homeland. He fought for the independence of our mother
language." I didn't reply, but his words quieted my heart.
"It was such a
miserable period. Even brothers were afraid to share secrets
with each other. Fathers didn't trust their sons. Cousins didn't
trust one another. Those were the times we lived in. I don't
blame those people. They had no choice."
Even Azer's cousins had to report that their relative had been
arrested by the NKVD. If they ignored the situation and someone
found out, they were afraid they would lose their Communist Party
privileges and be fired from work.
And another time, I was in Shaki and wrote my girlfriend in Baku.
She was a Party member. She got so scared that she took my letter
and showed it to one of the officials.
But looking back, I can't blame any of these people - Azer's
cousins, my girlfriend, my teachers, and the friends who didn't
return my hello. It was such a miserable period. Even brothers
were afraid to share secrets with each other. Fathers didn't
trust their sons. Cousins didn't trust one another. Those were
the times we lived in. I don't blame those people. They had no
Azer and I both suffered so much from this separation. Those
seven years were really difficult for both of us. If he had not
been arrested and sent into exile, we could have both done our
postgraduate studies together.
Released from Prison
Then, eventually, somehow they allowed him to return to Azerbaijan.
He was released in 1955 - seven years after his arrest. After
Stalin's death , he wrote that he had been released from
labor camp three years early.
I was in Moscow trying to finish my dissertation and doing research
at the Lenin Library. There were quite a few Azerbaijani youth
studying there. We used to hang around with each other when we
After Azer was released in May 1955, they returned him first
to Moscow. Of course, I didn't know anything about it. But one
day, Afiga, one of my Azerbaijani girlfriends, saw him standing
in front of the Lenin Library. They spoke together and Afiga
told him that I, too, was in Moscow. She was so excited that
she forgot to tell him that I was actually inside the library.
She just said: "Fatma is here".
Azer didn't ask her exactly where, thinking that I would be at
Moscow State University. He spent half of the money that he had
earned while working in exile to hire a taxi to drive around
Moscow looking for me. He went to so many places. But all the
while, I was sitting there in the Lenin Library, engrossed in
my dissertation. When he couldn't find me, he took the train,
three days to Baku. When I learned that Azer had returned from
exile, I was stunned. Some of my friends told me to leave Moscow
and head to Baku right away to meet him. Some suggested that
I send a telegram of congratulations. But I decided to finish
my dissertation and then to head back to Baku in late July or
When I went back, I didn't go to visit Azer. I returned home
to my mother in Shaki. Since I had divorced Azer, I was afraid
that his mother would never accept me despite the fact that I
had discussed everything with my brother-in-law before filing
for the divorce. This had made him so sad. Tears had welled up
in his eyes. My aunt told him that I had to continue my education.
Marrying All Over Again
I remained in Shaki for a while before coming to Baku. One day
I was passing near the Scientific Research Institute where I
was doing my post-graduate degree. Azer's parents' house was
close by. Suddenly, I ran into Azer and his brother walking down
the street. We greeted each other. I welcomed him home. I can't
describe the contradiction of feelings I had churning inside
me. There we were in the middle of the street and I couldn't
hug him or anything. I felt like a stranger because I had divorced
him, and I was so afraid that he would feel the same way about
me. His brother wanted us to have the chance to talk together
and so he left us alone. Azer took me to their house. My mother
- in - law hugged me and cried. We all sat down and talked a
while. Everyone was all over both of us. Azer wanted to get away
from the crowd and talk to me privately, so he told everybody
that he was taking me out for a walk. And that was that. A couple
of days later, we went to register our marriage. We decided to
get married all over again.
While in exile, Azer had been sent to the city of Magadan and
then on to Kolyma - remote camps with harsh winter climates in
northwestern Siberia near the Pacific. Azer used to say that
the prisoners were transported in train boxcars like sacks of
potatoes. Whenever he and other group members like his dear friend
Ismikhan spoke about their experiences in exile, it was so painful
to listen to what they had endured. They would talk about the
miserable conditions related to food and hard labor. Whenever
they did anything wrong, officials would beat them.
Azer said that he always tried to close his eyes to those things.
He worked very hard. He loved to read. Whenever he had free time,
he would read. They had a library there. When he came back, I
was amazed how knowledgeable he had become about the literary
classics of the world. He had read so many books in exile. He
used to read in the dark at night by candlelight. He would read
whatever he could find.
Nobody would hire Azer when he came back - not until he received
his rehabilitation papers . After many efforts, he started
working as a translator on a non-official basis. He still had
this big blot on his record - "Enemy of the People".
The day after he received his rehabilitation papers, he started
to work officially as a translator. Eventually, he was appointed
as Editor-in-Chief of the Azerbaijan Telegraph Agency (Azertaj).
Azer was very responsible about his work. He worked there for
more than 30 years and received the title of Honorary Journalist,
as well as the Golden Pen award (1986).
I can't say that I noticed much change in Azer's character after
he returned, except that everything put him on edge and made
him nervous. Before he was sent into exile, he was a very calm
and patient person. After he returned, he became so anxious about
everything. I suspect this is normal for someone who has lived
under such stressful conditions for seven years. But he always
knew how to control himself.
He still was a very social person. We used to attend concerts
and other social events in the city. Fortunately, he never got
ill upon his return.
In my opinion, Azer was a rather handsome man. I sensed that
some of the girls in our group were jealous because he had fallen
in love with me. Maybe they thought I wasn't pretty enough for
him. He had come from a poor family, but he always dressed neatly
and he was clean. He was smart and studied hard. And he was very
active. He was the head of the student union and used to help
students get shoes, clothes and food, especially during the difficult
As a husband, he was a family man. He was very respectful and
very loyal to our family and me. After Azer returned from exile,
we had one son - Farrokh - who was born in 1956. He's an artist
Azer never regretted being a member of Ildirim. Never. A few
days before he died in 1995, he gave an interview to Voice of
America. They asked him that same question: "Did you ever
regret joining Ildirim?" He replied: "Absolutely not,
I have no regrets." He loved Azerbaijan and was proud of
having tried to do something for the Homeland and his mother
Azer kept in touch with the other six members of Ildirim. They
often met, especially Ismikhan, Gulhusein and Aydin Vahidov.
He was especially close with Ismikhan Rahimov. In fact, we attended
Ismikhan's wedding when he married Zarifa.
What is Stalin's legacy as author of this terrible period of
repressions? Stalin was incredibly brutal. Our great, great writers,
art workers, actors, educated people were repressed. We lost
so many thinkers. So many intellectuals.
But Stalin won the Great War. Soldiers loved him for that. When
the commander said: "For Stalin! For our Homeland!"
the soldiers fought even harder. That's why many people still
hold Stalin in high regard today - despite the millions of lives
But I can't help thinking that much of the responsibility for
all these evil things falls upon us. People betrayed one another.
If someone didn't like you, he would go and report you. The next
day you could be arrested. Betraying others is still part of
the psychology of our people today.
And what about Baghirov? Stalin and Mir Jafar Baghirov were very
close friends. My uncle always used to say: "If Baghirov
dies before Stalin, then Stalin will change Azerbaijan's name
to Jafarabad (city of Jafar). But if Stalin dies before Baghirov
does, then Baghirov will be crucified." And that's exactly
And Baghirov? Well, in my opinion, Baghirov was a very honest
and serious person. I think he played a major role in Azerbaijan's
development. In his personal life, he was rather simple. We would
always see him in the same suit walking down the street with
his hands behind his back, and there was only one bodyguard following
him. We would greet him and he would return the greeting. But
everyone was scared of him. I think Baghirov in real life was
very different from the Baghirov in politics.
I had a friend who was Baghirov's niece. She used to tell us:
When Baghirov's son died, many people came to the funeral. He
told his relatives that his son wasn't different from any others
who had died, and that his funeral should not be any different
from his peers. Then he went to his room, laid face down on his
bed and cried bitterly. That's what they say.
On October 13, 1995, Bakhtiyar Vahabzade was celebrating his
70th Jubilee [Bakhtiyar was actually born on August 16, 1925].
He invited us to his party. Azer wasn't feeling well at the time
as he had diabetes but he didn't want to go to doctor. I told
him about Bakhtiyar's invitation and suggested that maybe we
But Azer said that if Bakhtiyar had invited us, then we had to
go. And so we went. We had a lot of fun that night at the party.
We met our old teachers from University and we shared a lot of
memories and laughed a lot. After the party, Azer felt very tired.
He told me that I had been right. Maybe it would have been better
if we hadn't gone. The next day Azer passed away.
There is saying that if you laugh a lot, something bad will happen.
But I'm glad that Azer spent his last day in good company and
enjoyed his time. When I die, I want to have my photo along with
Azer's on my gravestone. I want everyone to know that I was the
wife of such a great person. He was a man who stood up for what
he believed, despite tremendous cost. I'm so proud to have been
Fatma Alasgarova has been teaching
at the Pedagogical Department of Baku State University since
1962 where she is a docent there. She was interviewed by Aysel
Mustafayeva in November 2005.
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