Baku is full of ghosts. Shades from previous ages haunt the streets of a city that rose from obscurity, to become the centre of the world’s oil industry in the early 1900’s. It went on to become a jewel in the crown of the Soviet Union, a disregarded backwater after the Second World war until finally coming to world prominence as an oil and gas producer in the late 1990’s.
I came face to face with one of Baku’s ghosts yesterday, Sergei Kirov.
Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, Kirov fought in the Russian Civil War until 1920. Simon Sebag Montefiore writes: “During the Civil War, Kirov was one of the swashbuckling commissars in the North Caucasus. In Astrakhan he enforced Bolshevik power in March 1919 with liberal blood-letting: over four thousand were killed. When a bourgeois was caught hiding his own furniture, Kirov ordered him shot.”
In an article published by Azerbaijan International magazine in 2001, it was noted that “in 1921 Kirov was appointed by Lenin and the Politburo to be the Secretary of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan. He played an important role in helping to deliver Baku’s oil to Soviet Russia. Although he assumed that his assignment in Baku would last a few short months, he remained four and a half years.
In 1926, Kirov was transferred to Leningrad to replace one of Stalin’s chief rivals, Gregory Zinovyev. In 1930, because of his unwavering support for Stalin, Kirov became a full member of the Politburo, the highest decision-making body in the Soviet Union.
But his rise to power was short-lived. On December 1, 1934, Kirov was assassinated. A young Party member named Leonid Nikolayev shot Kirov point-blank in the hallway of the Communist Party headquarters in Leningrad”. http://azer.com/aiweb/categories/magazine/92_folder/92_articles/92_kirov.html
He was probably shot on Stalin’s orders as a potential rival. Stalin then used his murder as an excuse to begin waves of denunciations, purges and forced migrations that lasted until Hitler declared war on Russian in 1941.
Stalin is reputed to have said that dead heroes are best kind and to that end, in 1939 a huge statue of Kirov in granite and bronze was erected on the headland overlooking Baku. At the opening ceremony Mirjafar Baghirov, Azerbaijan’s Communist Party Secretary praised Kirov as a great hero of Azerbaijan. The statue depicted Kirov as a strong leader, dressed in his army uniform, with his right arm raised in the stylized pose used for many statues of the Soviet period.
With the collapse of communism, Kirov went the same way as the great statue of Lenin outside the Soviet seat of government and communist inspired monuments everywhere across the country. The statue was demolished and today, you could walk across the platform where he stood and not even know he ever existed. However, I have a curious mind and though I had visited the site before, decided to have a good look around.
Immediately below the place where Kirov once stood is a huge, decrepit undercoft reached by a pair of curving staircases. You are greeted by a huge face of Lenin, mutilated by stones and hammer blows, looking eyelessly towards you. On the other three sides of the pillar are three freizes, depicting scenes from Communist history and prominent comrades.
Inside the building is utter devastation, plaster torn form the walls, doors gone, windows crudely blocked, light fitting removed but the marble columns are still in place as is the ornamental flooring. Outside, the wreck of the performance area is in place and up above, the teashop that must date back to 1939 is still open.
It is an oddly depressing place, that looks as if it belongs to an entirely different age. It reminded me more than anything of the mortuary temple of Rameses II on the West bank of the Nile at Luxor. Of that place Percy Shelly wrote Ozymandias.
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed,
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.