Spring 2006 (14.1)
Seven Days in 1937:
The Trauma of Stalin's Early Repressions
To this day, 1937 is the year most that
most Azerbaijanis associate with Stalin's Purges because so many
people were arrested, executed, imprisoned or sent into exile.
The atmosphere of fear and suspicion permeated everywhere. Ahmad
Jafarzade was eight years old at the time and so he writes this
short piece from the perspective of a young boy. Here we see
the influence of his background in drama, as this work could
easily be adapted for stage. It is published here in English
for the first time.
It was a bit after midnight when I heard some screams. I ran
out into the yard. Our narrow alley was already full of people.
Everyone was looking into the street, horrified. But no one had
courage to step beyond the alley into the main street. I was
barely able to squeeze through the crowd to reach the other end.
Old man Asgar, who was standing at the end of our alley, wouldn't
let me pass into the main street. I barely managed to squeeze
into a position so I could see what was happening.
A short distance away - about 10-15 meters - a large car was
parked. It wasn't like an ordinary car. People used to call such
cars "Dog Cars" (To this day, police are still often
referred to as "dogs" in Azerbaijan; hence, "dog
cars") or "Black Ravens" (Vehicle used by the
secret police for transporting people who were arrested to the
central headquarters and prison).
Even though many people were watching from their doors and windows,
not a single person dared to go out into the main street.
Suddenly, we heard screams coming from one of the nearby courtyards.
Four men in uniform from the NKVD (Narodnyi Komissariat Vnutrennikh
Del - acronym for the dreaded People's Commissariat for Internal
Affairs. The NKVD would become the forerunner of the KGB - Komitet
Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti or State Security Committee) were
dragging our neighbor Sakina towards the car. She was a woman
who worked at some institute.
Sakina's mother-in-law Umleyla was running after her - barefoot
and with no head covering. Two little girls - ages 3 and 5 -
were hanging onto her skirt. The baby in her arms was screaming.
NKVD soldiers opened the back door of the car and shoved Sakina
in. When Umleyla saw this, she ran forward shouting: "People,
for God's sake! At least let her take her kids!"
When Sakina recognized Umleyla's voice, she turned back and tried
to jump out of the car. A soldier standing near the car door
struck Sakina in the chest with his rifle. Sakina fell back,
collapsing in the back seat of the car.
When Umleyla saw how they were treating her daughter-in-law,
she went out of her mind. She ran out, screaming: "Oh, my
God! Oh, my God! For God's sake, let me give her the kids. How
am I going to take care of this baby? What about the kids?!"
One of the soldiers pushed her away: "Von otsyuda!"
["Get out of here!" in Russian].
Holding the baby in one arm, Umleyla, grabbed onto the soldier's
sleeve: "For the sake of the severed arms of Hazrat Abbas
(Severed arms of Hazrat Abbas: Hazrat Abbas was one of the grandchildren
of the Prophet Muhammad. Along with 72 close family members and
friends, Abbas was killed near Kerbala [in present-day Iraq]
by the Sunnis. He was known particularly for being handsome and
very brave) let the girl take her kids with her."
The soldier jerked his arm away, punched her in the stomach and
shouted: "Otstan, suka!" ["Get out of here, bitch!"]
Umleyla fell. The child fell, too, screaming.
Ignoring her own pain and the baby's squalling, she crawled over
to another soldier, grabbed his feet, and pleaded: "Let
me kiss your feet!" ("May I kiss your feet!":
An expression of submission meaning that the person will do anything
The soldier pointed his rifle at her. But Umleyla would not yield
- maybe because she didn't know what would happen, or maybe she
was too frightened and confused to know what to do. She stood
up and grabbed the soldier's hand. The NKVD agents who were closing
the door of the car pushed the old woman away and started kicking
Umleyla lost consciousness. The baby, lying near her, was shrieking,
and the kids were screaming on the other side. Everyone in the
neighborhood - watching from their houses, yards, alleys, and
even from their rooftops - was terrified. They were too scared
to run to assist her.
Suddenly old Khadija, who lived in our apartment, ran out into
the street and started shouting: "God! Where are you? How
can You allow such injustice? May the world perish! What agony!
What a disaster!"
Some of the men grabbed her and brought her back into the alley.
The car drove away.
It was almost morning. Loud screams awakened me. Mom had wrapped
her veil around her head and stepped out. I followed after her.
The door to the street was open. Neighbors were looking out into
the alley whispering to one another. Someone was screaming in
the house opposite ours. Then the door opened. Three NKVD workers
pushed old Khadija into the alley. She was crying, begging them.
She refused to budge. When the NKVD workers picked her up, Khadija
screamed even louder, and held onto the walls of the alleyway.
She started shrieking in such a strange high-pitched voice: "Holy
Hazrat Abbas! Holy Hazrat Abbas! Holy Hazrat Abbas!"
The NKVD soldiers started beating her arms with their rifles.
They tried to pull her hands off the rock walls.
Khadija's husband was standing nearby, weeping. He dared not
approach his wife though she was begging for help. Perhaps he
was embarrassed to go out into the street undressed or, else
too frightened by the NKVD agents.
Finally, Khadija weakened; her strength gave out. She fell back
onto the rocky pavement and hit her head. Blood splattered on
her white hair.
The NKVD agents grabbed the woman as she was crawling on the
ground. They shoved her into the black car parked nearby.
Although all the neighbors were crying and clawing at their faces
(Clawing their faces: This is a tradition of self-mutilation
among women associated with mourning, Scratching one's face to
draw blood has not been practiced much for the past 20-30 years,
but the practice may still exist in remote villages.) it's interesting
that no one ever stopped by to visit the household of old Khadija
to try to find out where they had taken her or why.
Evening. Our neighbor Uncle Karim gathered all the neighbors
together when he came home after work. A little later my mom
came home frightened and told my sister: "Hurry! Grab all
the books and take them into the yard and burn them."
My sister was confused: "What are you talking about, mom!"
she said. "Why burn the books?"
Mom walked straight to the bookshelf without replying.
"You're old enough to know! Haven't you heard that all the
writers, poets and scientists have been charged as "Enemies
of the People"? Should we risk being arrested for the sake
of these books?"
My sister pleaded: "Mom, they told us at school that only
five or six people have been identified as "Enemies of the
People". I'll just burn their books and everything will
be fine. There's no need to burn all these books."
My mother was an educated person. She knew that those who had
been identified as "Enemies of the People" had already
been killed. But Uncle Karim had warned her: "Stay out of
trouble. Just take the books and throw them outside."
My sister realized that there was no use to cry, but tears streaked
down her cheeks as she pulled the books down off the shelf.
A bonfire was blazing in the middle of the courtyard. Neighbors
were piling the books near Uncle Karim who, after checking the
first and last pages (First and last pages of the book: The first
page is the title page with book title and author. The last page
indicates the editor and various other professionals involved
with the preparation of the publication) was tossing them onto
Left: Ahmad (standing far right) in 1956 after returning
from prison in Siberia. Here he is with relatives from the village
of Taghli. His brother Mammad is standing second from left. Ahmad's
wife Zabita is the first woman seated on the left with little
boy on her lap. Mammad's wife Zerkhanum is seated beside her.
The children are from left to right: Gandaf, Narmina, Behruz,
Azer, Kamala and Seyyad.
My sister carried out
an armful of books to Uncle Karim. Occasionally, she would bend
down and say:
"Uncle Karim, but this is 'Shahname' by Firdowsi. Why do
we have to burn it?"
"Just throw it on the fire. Don't you see that one of the
translators is 'An Enemy of the People?'"
"What about the Koroghlu epic?"
"The compiler and editor is also 'An Enemy of the People.'"
"But," my sister protested, "the author is the
French writer Balzac."
"The writer of the preface has been arrested."
"These are the works of Sabir, Fuzuli, and Akhundov. Can
I keep them?"
Uncle Karim grabbed the books and threw them into the flames,
"The first book - editor, the second one - compiler, the
third one - writer of the preface. They are all 'Enemies of the
People'. Do you want them to take away sister Kablayi because
of these books?"
Wiping her tears, my sister asked: "But isn't it a pity
to throw away the books by ashugs (Itinerant minstrels who compose
verse, and memorize and perform long epics in song, accompanying
themselves on the traditional stringed instrument called saz.
) and people's poets?" (The most revered writers in the
Soviet Union were acknowledged with the title of "People's
writer". With the honor came stipends and certain privileges.
However, honors were not necessarily bestowed upon the most capable
"You, little girl, just get out of here! Do you even know
who these people are who edited, compiled, wrote the prefaces
of these books?"
My sister didn't ask any more questions. Sobbing, she just took
the books and threw them into the flames, It was already dark.
But it seemed like afternoon in our neighborhood. Light from
the flames had lit up every yard.
In the beginning of the second period, teacher Aisha - the Class
Party Chairman of the Faculty stepped into our classroom and
told our teacher: "We have an important event. Stop the
class and quietly take the children to the sports hall downstairs."
Our teacher gathered the books on the table, lined us up in a
row and escorted us to the sports hall. Teacher Aisha made us
sit in the front row. Students in higher classes sat in the rows
behind us. A little later, the school director - Teacher Ilyas
- entered with several people and sat down at the table, which
was covered with a red cloth. The director began to speak about
the Socialist system and the struggles against its enemies. He
asked us to be watchful and to denounce any Class Enemies.
Left: Boyukkhanim Jafarzade visiting her son at Kislovodsk
(Russia, close to Chechnya) during their holiday in 1960 after
he was released prison camp. Ahmad had very good friends there
as he had worked in a medical capacity in the camps and been
able to prescribe less work for some of them so that they could
prepare concerts, instead of cutting trees in minus 30-40 C degree
weather. They called him Uncle Afgan ("Afgan" in Arabic
In conclusion, he told
us: "Children, you are the happiest young people in the
world. Nowhere in the world are children so joyful as you. Do
your best to preserve this beautiful life, to protect and maintain
this society that the proletariat has created. Now you are going
to meet a Pioneer who has proven by his actions that he is a
true Soviet child.
The director stood up and turned towards the door and started
applauding. The teachers and students took their cues from him:
they stood up and applauded as well. The door opened. A young
boy of about 11 or 12 years of age walked in like a soldier and
approached the table. He was wearing a red Pioneer tie around
We continued to applaud until the director motioned for us to
stop. Everybody sat down. Someone we didn't know stood up and
said: "Dear children, this Pioneer standing in front of
you is a true hero. He has done a great service for the Bolshevik
party and the Soviet government by denouncing an 'Enemy of the
People', who had been carrying out acts of sabotage for many
years. Follow his example. Be vigilant like he is. Now let's
listen to our Pioneer hero Salim Mikayilov. He'll tell you how
he denounced the enemy."
We all became so curious. We were wondering how this young boy
could denounce the enemy?
After the applause died down, the Pioneer Hero stepped up to
the front and with a high-pitched strained voice said: "I
am a Soviet Pioneer. My father is the Bolshevik Party and my
mother is the Soviet land. I am ready to sacrifice my life for
them. My slogan for life is: "Always be vigilant" -
words of the Pioneer group leader. I've been a Pioneer for two
years. I always look for Class Enemies everywhere. In these past
two years, I have informed the authorities about people who fast
(Fast: A Muslim religious practice during the month of Ramadan
when followers abstain from eating and drinking during the daylight
hours), perform 'namaz' (To perform "namaz", means
to pray. Devotees of Islam follow prescribed formulaic prayers
at five specific times of the day), read the Quran, visit religious
sites, invite guests into their homes, and who buy lots of products
in stores. But my greatest act of courage was when I turned in
my own father as "An Enemy of the People".
Our director stood up when he heard these words, started applauding,
and motioned for us all to start clapping as well.
The Pioneer Hero continued his speech, gaining in self confidence
as he continued: "I started noticing that a number of people
were visiting my father. They used to come and close the door
and start talking about something or other. I thought that if
they were good people, they would not carry on in secret. That
meant that my father was not a good person. When I found out
that one of my father's guests was the former director of a high
school, and the other one was a member of a khan's family, I
understood that my father was really an 'Enemy of the People'.
I reported this issue to the NKVD. My father was denounced as
'An Enemy of the People.' I invite all of you to be patriotic
and watchful like me."
The Director motioned for all of us to applaud. We continued
for quite a while. One of the guests stood up and said: "Children,
all of you are living in the old neighborhood of the city. There
were a lot of seyids, mullahs, dervishes, hajis, karbalais, mashadis
(Seyid: Holy descendent of prophet Muhammad of Islam; Mullah:
Islamic clergy; Dervish: Member of a Sufi Muslim ascetic religious
fraternity, known for their extreme poverty and austerity. They
live as hermits, completely isolated from the world; Haji: Muslim
who has been on a pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia; Karbalai:
Pilgrim who has visited the holy shrines in Karbala, Iraq; Mashadi:
Pilgrim to Mashad, Iran.), and other charlatans who used to live
in this neighborhood. Many of them still live in our society
pretending to be someone else. None of them can ever be a friend
of the Soviet government. Your honorable duty is to be like this
Pioneer Hero and expose these Class Enemies."
On the opposite side of our school there was a one-store building
that was used as a police station. People said that the basement
could hold up to a couple hundred people. People who were arrested
in the streets or in bazaars were brought there. Then that black
car would come and haul those people away somewhere else. Lately,
I had noticed that a lot of people were being brought there.
Most of them were rather decent-looking people who wore good
clothing. Whenever we would hear a noise outside, us kids would
climb up on our desks and peer out of the window to see what
was going on. Our teacher would threaten us, but we paid no attention
During the break today, one of the boys shouted: "Hey guys,
hurry, come outside, the police are bringing a group of people
from "Hamshari Palani" (a neighborhood community).
We ran outside. The street was full of people. A group of people
was walking down the middle of the street towards the police
station. They were surrounded by a couple of police officers,
an NKVD agent and four Komsomols (Komsomol: Syllabic abbreviation
for the Russian KOMmunisticheski SOyuz MOLodiozhi, or Communist
Union of Youth which was established in 1918. Becoming a Komsomol
is the final stage for youth to gain membership into the Communist
Party - Octobrists, Pioneers, then Komsomols). Most of the people
were old men. The Komsomols gave the signal for the group to
stop in front of the school. Since most of the arrested people
lived in the neighborhood, the kids were pointing and whispering
in surprise and fear: "Hey, do you see Mir Salah Agha?"
(Agha: Literally a "leader", "ruler" or "chief".
Here it means "Mr.")
"Oh, they arrested Seyid Mahammad Agha, too!"
"Oh my God, Haji Rasul is there, too"
"Hey, Hamza, there's our neighbor Karbalai Iman."
"Oh my, look what has happened to Mir (Mir: Synonym of "Seyid"
which indicates a holy descendent of the Prophet Muhammad in
the Muslim tradition) Asadulla. May I be sacrificed for his sacred
spirit." ("May I be sacrificed for his sacred spirit":
People introduce this phrase when they are speaking about someone
whom they consider to be holy)
The Komsomols were pulling the beards of these seyids, mullahs,
hajis, karbalais, mashadis and slapping their faces, spitting
on them, and beating them on their heads. The NKVD workers were
beating them with rubber truncheons.
One of the Komsomols turned towards the crowd and announced:
"Citizens, for many years, you have been kissing the hands
of these scoundrels, rascals, liars, grafters, traitors, immoral
seyids, mullahs, hajis, karbalais, and mashadis. You thought
they were devout and honest people. They've been living off your
money and lying to you for a very long time. There's no place
for such people in a Socialist society."
Another Komsomol continued: "They're drug addicts, gamblers
and immoral people. See, this seyid personally taught me how
to use narcotic drugs and insulted me. I spit on him, you spit
on him, too! All of them are rascals."
The third Komsomol kicked Haji Rasul in the back. The old man
fell down and hurt his head. He could barely stand up. The Komsomol
said: "I was a servant of this Haji. Spit on him! Hit him!"
The people in the street were throwing stones at them. No one
said anything. They took the group into the basement and beat
them. Then the bell rang.
A new movie was playing
at the October Movie Theater (Many things were given the name
October. It refers to the month when the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution
took place. ) near the bazaar above the Hamshari Palani.
Left: Ahmad with other prisoners at Kolyma
prison camp in Siberia, 1956. It seems that prisoners dressed
up for formal photos. Ahmad is seated on the first row, second
from right, with his arm on his knee. This was the year that
Ahmad was released following. Hundreds of thousands of prisoners
were released that year - three years after Stalin's death.
It was called "Onuchlar" (Thirteen). It was impossible
to get tickets. It took us two days. The kids in our neighborhood
had barely been able to buy any tickets at all that day. After
begging them, they gave me a ticket, too.
We arrived at the theater half an hour before the movie started.
There were no empty seats; people were even sitting on the stairs
between the rows.
The lights went off. But instead of the movie, an announcement
was made over the loudspeakers: "Dear movie goers! Before
the movie is shown, we would like to conduct a brief session
with our poets. They will recite some of their new poems for
Someone started clapping. Everyone joined in. Five men and one
woman went up on the stage. The director of the theater introduced
them and then went backstage.
The poets started:
We have understood the mullahs'
We have burned the demons and evil ones.
We have broken the luck of the fortune tellers,
And torn up their books and notebooks.
Open your eyes to the world
Mullahs are cuckolds, seyids are bastards.
Karbalai are swindlers, Hajis are evil,
Mashadi are liars, rascals, and child - perverts."
"We have a new Atagha, sister Masma in Baku,
Her sweat, dirt, breath is a cure for all your sorrows.
[Atagha: Literally "flesh man" referring to Mir Movsum
Agha (1883-1950) who was sought out in popular religion because
of his own alleged abilities in faith healing. His grave is in
Shuvalan, a town on the Absheron Peninsula, not far from Baku.
He is still popular today more than 50 years after his death.
During the Soviet period, faith healing was a taboo. Here the
poem refers to new medicine to take the place of what the Soviets
viewed as superstitious behavior].
My homeland is in peace now,
Every day is a festival,
Smiles appear on the people's faces.
Our meadow changes color every day.
Strings on the saz of the ashug smile.
People are free, tongues are free.
Flowers are free in the free gardens.
Communism is our soul,
The Party is our faith.
Stalin is our leader
We are moving towards progress.
The poets were applauding after
every section of the poem and the audience was joining them.
Then one of them asked the audience: "Who is our enemy?"
Voices from the audience replied: "The bourgeois, khans,
beys, landowners, kulaks!" (Kulaks: the wealthiest strata
of peasants, criticized by the Bolsheviks)
"Members of Musavat party who have been exposed as "Enemies
of the People", scientists, poets, and writers who were
One of the poets raised his hand and said: "Death to the
Enemies of Socialism, Death to the 'Enemies of our People!'"
The lights went off, the movie began.
Mother started making preparations last night. They were going
to take Aunt Zubeyda's daughter Nasiba to the "pir"-a
sacred place called Rahima Khatun in Nardaran (historical town
on the Absheron Peninsula near Baku.). Many women and children
go there. My mom agreed to take me, too, after I begged her many
Around 7 a.m. about 20 women and children boarded the electric
train at the train station in Sabunchu (town as well as a district
on the Absheron Peninsula). Around 9 a.m. we arrived at Mashtagha
(Settlement on Absheron Peninsula). We rented two carts (pulled
by horse or donkey) and headed off to the little town. When we
arrived, we discovered that there was a big lock on the door
of the sacred place, and a Komsomol was standing beside the door
with a rifle in hand.
Even though Aunt Zubeyda begged the Komsomol to let us in because
her little girl had a heart problem and even though she promised
to give alms, the Komsomol wouldn't listen to her. Finally, the
Komsomol cursed the sacred place, Aunt Zubeyda and us. My mom
couldn't stand it, so she took the group back and told those
in the cart: "Brothers, we have come such a long way here,
we don't want to return not being able to have accomplished anything.
We'll pay you just take us to the town mosque so we perform "namaz
"(Islamic prayers) for this girl.
"I am a Soviet Pioneer.
I have informed the authorities about people who fast, perform
'namaz', read the Quran, visit religious sites, invite guests
into their homes, and who buy lots of products in stores. But
my greatest act of courage was when I turned in my own father
as "An Enemy of the People".
"Seven Days in 1938" describing the speech of a young
Pioneer which the school authorities praised
The cart drivers replied: "Sister, what are you talking
about! All the mosques around here have been converted into clubs,
movie theaters, restaurants, or shops now. We thought that you
had come out here to see the village. Otherwise, we would have
told you not to bother."
We returned to the city disappointed. When the women and children
got off the train back at Sabunchu, we heard that there was a
new tower near the seaside. People could climb up there and jump
off it with a parachute. We wanted to go and see. We started
walking towards the sea. After a bit, we suddenly came upon thousands
of people standing near the bridge. People were crying, screaming
and carrying on. Policemen were sending the people away. My mom
went forward. I grabbed her hand. It was a horrible scene: men
were standing on one side, women and children on the other side.
Everybody was crying. They were all trying to say something back
and forth to each other, but it was so loud that you couldn't
Left: Turan Ibrahimov, Ahmad Jafarzade's nephew, is
the person responsible for making his uncle's work known. He
has the collection of Ahmad's literary works and is preparing
several of his works for publication such as "Unfinished
Diary" and "Unnamed Heroes" (Adsiz Qehramanlar)
about life in Azerbaijani villages during Stalin's repressions.
Turan is the son of the late Aziza Jafarzade.
It turned out that these
people had been brought from villages in Karabakh (Garabagh [Alternative
spelling: Karabakh via Russian] is a region in western Azerbaijan
which has been under occupation by Armenians since 1992), Lankaran
(a town in the south of Azerbaijan close to the border with Iran),
and Mughan (A region of Kur-Araz river lowland in central Azerbaijan.
). They had been forced to leave their houses in a hurry at night.
They were promised: "according to Stalin's decree, you will
be given a very good place to live in Kazakhstan." They
had been brought to Baku in cargo trains. Now they were separating
the families, putting women and children were put in the same
cars, and men in different cars.
That's why everybody was making such fuss. These people were
innocent, everyone was being deported, including Bolsheviks,
Pioneers, Stakhanovites (in Soviet Union, a person who followed
the example of Aleksei Grigorievich Stakhanov, who worked so
hard as an overachiever on the job), strikers, old and young
alike, both men and women.
A hushed silence descended on the neighborhood. Mashadi Ganbar's
daughter-in-law had been sent into exile yesterday, and his four
grandchildren were hauled off to an orphanage. Only a month ago,
his son had been denounced as an "Enemy of the People".
The old man begged so many times to let the mother take her children
with her, or let them stay with him, but the NKVD agents wouldn't
After they left, the old man went into the kitchen and killed
himself with an axe. His wife couldn't bear what she saw and
she took the cord used for hanging out the clothes, tied it to
the window and hung herself.
The dead bodies were washed (It is a tradition in Islam that
before burial, the body of the deceased is ceremonially washed)
and placed next to each other in the middle of the yard. No one
could be found to recite the funeral prayers. The ones who knew
how to do it were afraid to say anything. There was no choice
but to bury the bodies without any ritual prayers.
Forty to fifty women gathered in a circle in the middle of the
yard. Nanabaji came forward screaming: "This is disaster,
All the women replied:
"What a disaster!"
"We lost the only son in the family!"
"What a disaster!"
"We lost the young bride!"
"What a disaster!"
"We lost the infant babies!"
"What a disaster!"
"We lost Mashadi Gambar!"
"What a disaster!"
"We lost Durnisa khanum!"
"What a disaster!"
One of the women started shrieking
in a very high-pitched voice:
"The land cries, the rocks
The ones who witness this pain
Cry with bloody tears."
Sobbing, Nanabaji started over:
"This is a disaster, disaster!" When she said this,
it felt like the whole world had united together - not just those
women in the yard. And like the women, the whole world was saying
in chorus: "What a disaster!"
Back to Index AI 14.1 (Spring
| Search | Magazine
| AI Store | Contact us
Other Web sites
created by Azerbaijan International
AZgallery.org | AZERI.org | HAJIBEYOV.com