Sent to the Gulag for nothing: Ogtay Sadigzade, son of an “Enemy of the People”

Ogtay Sadigzade was an Azerbaijani portrait painter sent to the Gulag because his father Seyid Husein was close relative of Mammad Amin Rasulzade. Rasulzade was a prominant leader of the Musavat Party that established the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (ADR) in May 28, 1918. 

This post is an abidged version of Targeting the Arts: Son of an “Enemy of the People”, first published in Azerbaijan International Magazine in Spring 2006 (14.1 pp.34-39)

Ogtay Sadigzade (born 1921), distinguished portrait artist, is one of very few Azerbaijanis who are still alive today who survived imprisonment in Stalin’s Gulag labor camps. In 1941, at the age of 20, he was exiled to South Central Russia for five years. His only crime: being the son of an “Enemy of the People”.

He wasn’t the only member of his family to suffer. His father Seyid Husein, a writer and member of Azerbaijan’s intelligentsia, was executed in 1938. His mother Ummugulsum was exiled for seven-and-a-half years (1938-1945) and returned home so weak that she died shortly afterwards. His brother Jighatay was sent into exile as a battalion worker to Dagestan. He got tuberculosis and also we sent home where he soon died at the age of 24.

“When [my father] was arrested for the third time in 1937, I was 16 years old. Actually, I wasn’t home when it happened. I was in Novkhani, one of Baku’s suburbs at the “bagh” (Azeri for “summer-house”) of Mammad Amin Rasulzade. They had just arrested Rasulzade’s son, Rasul, there. He was only 18 years old. So I returned to the city to tell my family. Father was at our summer-house in Shuvalan, another suburb by the sea. At the time, he was 50 years old. They said that they were taking him to some meeting. My sister Gumral was five years old at the time but she remembers that our brother Toghrul asked Father when he would return. “The day after tomorrow”, he had replied. At first they believed him. Mother wasn’t at home at the time. My aunt, who was there with the children, started to cry and said that he would never come back. She was right, I never saw my father again. Two years later they told us that father had been given a 10-year sentence but it wasn’t true. It seems they had already shot him, almost immediately after they arrested him although we never learned the specific circumstances around his death.

And then four months later, they came after mother. We were afraid that might happen as the agents had already come for some of the wives of other prominent writers. So we made plans that my aunt, Mammad Amin’s wife, would come and stay with us in case mother was taken. That way we four children wouldn’t be left alone. But before we could arrange anything, the NKVD arrested my aunt and exiled her along with her entire family to Kazakhstan.

Left: Portraits of some of Azerbaijan’s well-known writers who were executed by Stalin. Clockwise from bottom center: Prisoner No. 1113: Husein Javid (1882-1941); No. 1286: Seyid Husein, the artist’s father (1887-1937); No. 11??: Mikayil Mushfig (1908-1937); No. 2369: Idris Akhundzade (dates unknown); No. 2109: Abbas Mirza Sharifzade (1893-1938); No. 1280: Panah Gasimov (1881-1939); No. 169. Yusif Vazir Chamanzaminly (1887-1943); and No. 1112: Ahmad Javad (1892-1937). Portrait oil painting by Ogtay Sadigzade. Ogtay and his mother Ummugulsum together spent 13 years in exile in prison camps. Ogtay’s father Seyid Husein was executed. This painting is on display at the Husein Javid Home Museum, inside Baku’s Institute of Manuscripts. Picture curtesy of Azrtbaijan International

After they took mother, I only saw her again – but just once. They kept her in Bayil prison for a while. After several months, she had visitation rights so we were able to go and visit her one time for half an hour. I think it was in May. We waited outside the prison for such a long time. There were so many people.

I remember the terrible stench. The smell was so bad. We met with mother in the corridor. It was such a difficult moment for us children and for her as well. Gumral, my little sister, was only five years old. Mother couldn’t recognize her because she had lost so much weight. Of course, mother told us not to worry about her and that she was fine. We also told that we were fine. None of us could say what we really felt. How could we? What could we do for each other when our hearts were so heavy? And later when we wrote each other, it was much the same. We wrote about general things. The letters were censored so we couldn’t write much. Naturally, we didn’t want to worry each other.

On June 9, the NKVD [forerunner of KGB] came for me. I was 20 years old at the time.

I received a notice to go to the army. I didn’t go to the military office; they came for me the next day. I was working at the Nizami Museum of Literature at that time, showing some of my work. They came and took me right in the middle of my evaluation – right in the middle of the day. They told me that they were taking me to the military service but I soon learned that they were shipping me out to a hard labor camp. I was the son of an “Enemy of the People”. It didn’t matter that they had already killed my father and that they had already sent my mother to exile in Central Asia.

We had to work all day under the blazing sun. Our job was to crush stone and mix it with cement. We used to work 18 hours a day – from the dawn to dusk.

After that, they sent us to Georgia, to Kabuleti near Batumi for three months (September to November 1941). There we built trenches so that tanks couldn’t pass. At the end of November, they sent us to Sochi [Georgia]. Again, we were assigned to digging trenches

Eventually, we reached Tashkent (Tashkent is the current capital of Uzbekistan). They let us bathe there. I wish they hadn’t. After leaving the bathhouse, I realized that I was full of lice. It seems all the clothes were piled together and that’s how my clothes got infected. It was a situation which plagued me for four years. I never could get rid of the lice.

As it was wartime, our greatest problem was lack of food. We stayed hungry all the time. I constantly craved bread. Hunger has a way of changing a person psychologically. When you’re hungry, you can think of nothing except food. You forget about all the greater goals and principles that you have been taught. You are consumed with only one thought – food. And even when we had enough food, even when our stomachs were full, we were never satisfied.

So many people in my family suffered because of Stalin. My father was killed, and my mother was arrested, my brother died in exile, cousins were arrested and killed, my aunt’s family and my uncle’s family were sent into exile.

No one was able to stop Stalin from doing all these evil things because his organization was so strong. Nobody could counter him. Ninety percent of those millions of people who were arrested were totally innocent. There was no reason to arrest them. But nobody dared to say anything because everything – the army, guns, and power – were in his hands. The system was based on denouncing others and spying on them. The system was so false; it had to collapse in on itself – to implode. And that’s exactly what happened. The system rotted from inside.

Stalin’s repressions (1920s to 1950s) were such an absurd period in our history – not just in Azerbaijan, but the entire Soviet Union. The atrocities that were carried out can’t even be compared to Hitler’s. They were a lot worse. Hitler went after his political enemies, but Stalin destroyed his own intelligentsia”.

When you read this story of tragedy and cruelty, remember that it was replicated 20,000,000 times over a twenty-year period… 



About stevehollier

Steve Hollier is the editor of AZ Magazine, an English language lifestyle magazine based in Baku, Azerbaijan. He began his career working for a firm of stockbrokers in the City of London then went on to attend the University of Essex where he was awarded an MA in Sociology in 1984. After a career in arts and cultural development work, he became a freelance arts consultant, writer and photographer.
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One Response to Sent to the Gulag for nothing: Ogtay Sadigzade, son of an “Enemy of the People”

  1. hugh paxton says:

    Powerful posts, Hollier. Horrible, horrible but powerful and important. And well researched , well written and well done. Keep the spotlight on the Stalin abomination.

    Not so much a case of ‘lest we forget’, more of a case of ‘in case we never knew’.

    As one of my Namibian friends might say “Fok Stalin! The fokkin bastaard. Where’s he living? I’ll kick his fokking head in.”

    “Stalin’s dead, Billy.”

    “Ach, man. Shame. I knew that. I would have love to have killed that asshole. What an asshole! I’d have killed him properly. ”

    There we have it.




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