Azerbaijan International

Winter 2005 (13.4)
Pages 18-20

Remembering Stalin
by Betty Blair

It was my first trip to the Soviet Union - August 1976. I had signed up for a 10-day package tour with Cook's Travel, along with 30 Greek dentists from Athens where I was living at the time. Our itinerary included the usual tourist sites in Moscow and Leningrad. The tour guide, a rather pleasant, middle-aged Russian woman, spoke quite good English.

One day I decided to broach the subject of Solzhenitsyn, author of "Gulag Archipelago", who only a few years earlier had shocked the Western public with his sensational description of the Gulag prison camps, as a vast network which spread across the 12 time zones of the Soviet Union.

"Solzhenitsyn?" she asked. There was a pause. "All lies! All lies!" she declared dismissively. I don't know why I expected her to say anything differently.

By the 1970s, Stalin, whose crazed mind had perpetrated such a heinous system had been dead more than 20 years - his deeds exposed, his reputation challenged, and his statues razed. And the camps - allegedly more than a thousand of them - had mostly been abandoned.












But yet, secrecy still pervaded the society and the Soviet Union had yet to admit internationally the corruption and evil of those hellish camps and Stalin's purges. What atrocities had been committed! Typically civilians were arrested in the wee hours of the morning, dragged from their beds at 2 or 3 a.m. Dazed and psychologically disorientated, they rarely offered any resistance. Such nightly visits also reduced the possibility of concerned neighbors being able to witness or offer any help.

Families often had no clue where their loved ones were being hauled off to, or under what conditions they were being kept, or when - or even if - "sentencing" would take place. Most prisoners were innocent civilians but when tortured, they readily admitted to counter - revolutionary activities, even naming "accomplices".

Stories abound of families who didn't learn what happened to their loved ones until years later. Guards at the jails frequently chased inquirers away, threatening that they would share the same fate as the prisoners if they asked too many questions. And so began an era of silence as families unwittingly cooperated with the system's barbarianism and tyranny.

Exiled prisoners were usually granted permission to write home eventually, but communication was severely restricted, often to one letter per year. Obviously, little substance could be conveyed in those infrequent notes, except for the hope that the sender was still alive.

Too often, loved ones never saw each other ever again after the arrest. There are countless examples when victims were shot and families didn't learn about it until years later. For example, the Salahovs - Tahir and Zarifa - learned 18 years later that their father had been killed immediately after being sentenced (page 80).

That was then. But here we are today: 30 years later after my initial trip to the Soviet Union. The Iron Curtain, which quite effectively cut off the flow of information between the Soviet Union and the outside world, is slowly disappearing, thanks to modern technology, especially the Internet. But, still, when it comes to the horrific experiences of Azerbaijanis under Stalin's regime, it's very difficult to find anything in English. Information is virtually non-existent.

We hope to begin to address this problem in our magazine: "Remembering Stalin" in Winter 2005 (AI 13.4), and "Azerbaijani Literature of Repression" in Spring 2006 (AI 14.1).

Youth Don't know
Perhaps, even more troubling than the fact that foreigners don't know much about Stalin's repressions in Azerbaijan, is the startling realization that most Azerbaijani youth are equally ill informed, especially those who have grown up since the collapse of the Soviet Union (late 1991).

Of the 20 or so families that we interviewed for this issue, all were absolutely convinced that it was essential to share their experiences. They expressed their deepest concern about Azerbaijani youth. "Our youth should know these things. They should know what we went through. They should know that some of us as young people tried to resist and protest, and that we're proud of it. They should know that we did try to gain independence - the independence that they now enjoy!"

So often, even youth, who were descended from families who had been repressed, knew surprisingly little about their grandparents' generation. For example, television photojournalist Chingiz Mustafayev (1960-1992), who was killed while filming the Karabakh War, came across the details of the fate of the elder Chingiz (1924-1943) in the newspaper. Academician Ziya Bunyadov had written some scathing articles beginning in 1990 after gaining access to the KGB files. The younger Chingiz knew that his uncle (for whom he had been named), had been killed during Stalin's Repressions, but he didn't know the details. He wasn't aware, for example, that as a 19-year old student, his uncle had been tortured 15 times before signing the incriminating statements that they demanded. In the end, the KGB agents brutalized him so badly that they didn't even bother to ship him off to Siberia. They simply sent him home to die (page 68). Why didn't the younger Chingiz know these things? "It just wasn't something that family members talked about," his brothers tried to explain to us.

In another example: a college student became aware - during the course of our interview with her grandmother - that her very own great grandmother had been the inspiration for Mehdi Husein's novel, "Underground Rivers Flow to the Sea" (1966). This was one of the earliest works ever to be published in the Soviet Union that exposed the labor camps. It even preceded the publication of Solzhenitsyn's "Gulag".

Again this young woman knew that her family had suffered during Stalin's repressions but was not aware of the profoundly personal, historical and literary ties. "Our family just didn't talk about these things," she explained.

Another example: Fatma Alasgarova admitted that after her husband Azer returned from exile in 1955, they rarely talked about what had happened during the previous seven years of their separation. It was too painful for them both. However, towards the end of his life, 50 years later, Azer used to share some of his memories with their young grandson. Lying together on the bed, he would talk about the harsh conditions of the labor camps but describe them as if they had happened to someone else - not to him.

We're convinced there are other reasons that must be factored in as well to explain why Azerbaijani youth are not well informed.

(1) Underlying Fear
Families did not tell their children basically because they were afraid. Parents didn't want to risk telling them that family members had been shot, imprisoned, or exiled. They feared the day might come when the child might inadvertently say something - some place, sometime - which would plunge the family into troubles all over again. Their fears were not unfounded.

Most citizens who were arrested were totally innocent of criminal behavior - and were certainly not involved in counter - revolutionary activities, for which they were often made to confess under torture. They had simply been targeted by mere association - a friend, a relative, a child, a wife - of someone who had been branded (again, often wrongly) as an "Enemy of the People".

Anar, one of Azerbaijan's most distinguished writers, conveys the extent of this fear in his short story entitled "Morning of that Night" [Search at]. One couple, lying in bed in the wee hours of the morning, detect the sound of the engine of one of those notorious "Black Raven" cars, which the KGB used to arrest people, pulling up outside their apartment.

Lying in wait, they wrack their brains trying to figure out why the KGB might be targeting them. Suddenly, it dawns on one of the couples that their six - year old daughter Rana had been singing a little tune that had been taught to her by a composer who just happened to have been arrested himself.

The chilling atmosphere of fear did not totally disappear with Stalin's death in 1953. It continued to Gorbachev's rule [1985-1991]. Even while we were conducting interviews 15 years after Azerbaijan's independence, some people were uneasy about our taping the sessions. One elderly woman reached a point in her narrative and motioned for us to turn off the recorder. Whispering in the interpreter's ear, she confessed: "I'm still very afraid. They might come and get me." Her father had been shot 70 years earlier.

Clearly one of the State's most effective strategies was to induce fear in the society, so that people were afraid to talk about these things. And that's one of the main reasons why these narratives are so important today. As Seyfulla Mustafayev of ANS Group observed: "If we had known earlier about the information held in the KGB archives that Ziya Bunyadov published, we could have begun our struggle for democracy much earlier. Knowledge would have empowered our efforts."

(2) Long Ago
These repressions took place mostly between the late 1920s to mid - 1950s. For a young person, that's "long ago" and it's true: not many survivors are still alive to tell their stories.

In fact, we're late - so very late - at the magazine to document these narratives. These stories should have been collected half a century ago. Even a mere decade ago would have produced more narratives.

In our own research, we managed to find only four survivors who had outlived the horrors of the Gulag camps. All of them were in their 80s - Ogtay Sadigzade, Gulhusein Huseinoghlu, Aydin Vahidov and Ismikhan Rahimov, who passed away in December 2004 [Search at]. And in most cases, the people whom we interviewed who knew their parents stories as second - hand experiences - were already in their 60s and 70s.

(3) Too Painful
We observed that survivors themselves often tried to push these memories out of their minds, finding them too painful to dwell upon. Too much time had lapsed, and life had its own demanding pre-occupations and struggles. Gulhusein Huseinoghlu, 82, a writer by profession, has been intending to write his memoirs for decades. He admits that he really does want to write them, but he struggles. "If I write these memories, then I have to relive them all over again, and I need strength for that. I would have to live that horror all over again."

The late Ismikhan Rahimov told us that when BBC started airing Solzhenitsyn in the 1970s, he used to turn the radio off. He didn't want to relive the nightmares. "It's been a tough life," he told us. "I still get worked up whenever I think about those days. When I learned that Solzhenitsyn's book, 'The Gulag Archipelago,' was being read on BBC, I didn't want to listen. I don't want to remember those difficult days. I just want to live. Even now, I don't want to remember. Life is too short. I'd rather concentrate on the good things."

(4) Few Publications
Perhaps, the greatest obstacle that Azerbaijani young people face when trying to understand this period is that so little has been written. Prior to independence, few Azerbaijanis dared to pen their memoirs. With Gorbachev's presidency, there was a flourish of activities. A few articles and books about the repressions started to appear in print, no doubt spurred on by the bold research of the late Academician Ziya Bunyadov, who was the first person to gain access to the KGB files and write about his findings. He came out with "Red Terror" in 1993 (Girmizi Terror, Azernashr, Baku, Azeri Cyrillic).

However, in 1997, Bunyadov, a Member of Parliament and 73 at the time, was stabbed to death as he was returning home after attending a Parliamentary session. The public was stunned. Most people still consider the circumstances surrounding his death to be unresolved.

In this issue, we have published some of Bunyadov's research that relates to youth groups - or what might be called "wanna-be activists" - who, though desperate to throw off the totalitarian system, were crushed by Stalin before they could get started. See articles related to the Ildirim Group (pages 50-67) and Chingiz Mustafayev (pages 68-75).

The few personal memoirs that exist have been published privately on a limited basis - usually 200-500 copies. Often, copies were not even sold, but presented to friends. And now, merely a decade later, these books, usually published in the Cyrillic script, are quite difficult to find.

We don't see much activity going on in regard to publishing any memoirs. There seems to be fewer than a dozen personal memoirs that Azerbaijanis have published - despite the fact that tens of thousands passed through the Gulag gates of terror.

(5) Economic System Changed
The political system also deters youth from delving into the history of Stalin's era. Since independence, the economic rules of society have changed and there has been no referee to explain the rules of the new game. Youth have had to figure them out by themselves, which is a very time - consuming process. Russian is no longer the prestigious language that guarantees career advancement; now English had to be mastered as well. Economic survival is at stake, not just for the youth but for the older members in society as well. Everyone has been forced to turn their attention to immediate needs, and so the realities of the Gulag have fallen through the cracks.

Gulag and the West
One also should inquire why so little is known about Stalin's purges in the West - not just from an Azerbaijani perspective but from a Soviet point of view, in general. How is it that Stalin could cannibalize his own nation and the average foreigner know so little about it? Most historians conclude that Stalin's crimes were even more heinous than Hitler's. Whereas Hitler murdered those he considered "other", such as Jews, gays, and others; Stalin preyed mostly upon his own (with the exception of countless prisoners of war).

Though the death rates are not known with any certainty for either dictator, no one doubts that the murders perpetrated by Stalin's policies far exceed those of Hitler's. If six to eight million people were killed by Hitler, then Stalin killed at least 20-22 million. Some historians even venture to suggest that 40 million is a truer figure. Tragically, no one will ever know.

This issue, entitled "Remembering Stalin" is our attempt to put a face on some of these unknown statistics - to attend to some of the stories that Azerbaijanis have to tell. The format that we follow here is based on Oral History - straight interviews (that have been edited to provide readable format). We felt that the emotional impact of first person narratives can best serve to capture the immediacy, as well as the trauma of the events that people have lived through. Hopefully, these stories will capture the reality of their experiences.

One wonders whether the Gulag could have continued all those decades if people had had access to self-publishing technology as we do today - Websites, Blogs, ListServs and e-mail. Would it have made a difference if these tools had been available half a century earlier? One hopes the answer would be a resounding "yes", but one should be cautious and not take the Internet for granted as its power to counter oppressive governments seems to be in a state of flux and transition.

Clearly, the strength of the World Wide Web to propagate news is double-edged. Governments complain that the new technology makes their job more difficult but, in fact, digital technology has vastly augmented their powers. More information is readily available to government investigators than ever before. Certainly before the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center, individuals had more personal freedom on the Internet. Since then, more sophistical software has since been developed and repressive regimes have implemented policies that read e-mails, block access to specific Websites and remove blogs that are deemed suspect.

But, one would hope that no matter how restrictive the Web might ever become in the future, that those who are committed to truth, will always find a way to express their views. No doubt had there been the phenomenon of Internet during Stalin's day, the atmosphere of disbelief and skepticism would have permeated through the population at a much quicker pace.

For example, we interviewed individuals whose parents had been executed in 1938. They admitted to us that they genuinely wept for Stalin when he died 15 years later. They simply did not make any correlation between the tragedy in their own lives and Stalin as their supreme ruler. They did not identify him with what had happened to their own family. And this was not a rare phenomenon.

Many people described the enormous effort they made to try to explain their situation to Stalin, convinced that he would settle everything justly. People perceived that the abuse of power existed on lower levels. Even today, many Azerbaijanis praise Stalin - both for his achievements in crushing the Fascists and in creating a world power out of the Soviet Union within such a short period. Many, it seems, have reached the conclusion that the end does justify the means - regardless of the cost.

Yet, history shows that self-publishing did contribute to breaking down the system. In Russian, they called it "samizdat". Manuscripts were typed or painstakingly copied by hand and within time, literally thousands of secret editions began to circulate. Truth, secretly spreading through the society was a major reason why Soviet totalitarianism collapsed. Literary experts also claim that Solzhenitsyn's works made their way to Western publishers this way as well.

Relevance Today
Why focus on such a tragic period of Soviet history? What relevance does it have for today? Anne Applebaum, who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2004 for her passionate and scholarly work entitled "Gulag: A History of the Soviet Camps" concluded that it is imperative that we understand the nature of totalitarianism. How did it operate in the Soviet Union just a short time ago? And how does it inform our own history? She argues that if we do not know what happened in the Soviet Union, we will not understand our own Western history as a response to it.

What would Solzhenitsyn say to the relevance of that period to today? Despite how enormously successful his books were all over the world, he has never been under the illusion that his works will prevent future Gulags from occurring. The recluse author cautions that one should never think that such terrors can never be repeated. "History will repeat itself", Solzhenitsyn warns emphatically.

He appeals to his readers to understand the nature of totalitarianism. He insists that people of conscience must resist and that the bar for truth must be raised higher. "Today those who have continued to live on in comfort scold those who suffered. Yes, resistance should have begun right there, at the moment of the arrest itself. But it did not begin. And so they are leading youYou aren't gagged. You really can - and you really ought to cry out - to cry out that you are being arrested! That villains in disguise are deceiving people! That arrests are being made on the strength of false denunciations! That millions are being subjected to silent reprisal!

"If many such outcries had been heard all over the city in the course of a day, would not our fellow citizens, perhaps, have begun to bristle and would arrests, perhaps, no longer have been so easy? Instead, not one sound comes from your parched lips, and that passing crowd naively believes that you and your executioners are friends out for a stroll" [Solzhenitsyn, "The Gulag Archipelago: 1918-1956", New York: Westview Press, 1976, pp. 15-16].

So by reading these narratives, we catch a glimpse of the nature of totalitarian systems, which reveals the character of man under severest conditions - his capacity to torture, to betray and in some cases, the ability to resist and eventually, slowly, even to reverse such evil.

At the same time, such stories also make us conscious of man's capacity for goodness - to understand how emotionally powerful a single gesture of kindness can be, how a well-placed word of advice can become fixed in one's memory for the rest of one's life. How a knowing glance of acknowledgement can energize, and how the whistling of a simple folk tune can uplift even in the midst of an ocean of despair.

Fortunate, indeed, were those who could hold onto their belief in mankind in the midst of that hell. And even more impressive are those who did not allow disbelief to destroy their children. Perhaps, this is the greatest miracle of all. For without hope, there can be no human civilization. It is only the capacity of man to truly believe in humanity that will enable us to survive. Otherwise, will we not all perish?

Back to Index AI 13.4 (Winter 2005)
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