Baku Days: Things Fall Apart [Part 1]

Since Azerbaijan’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, more than 200,000 ethnic Russians have left Baku. Like the once sizable Jewish community, families have migrated leaving dead generations behind. They now rest in peace within Baku’s main cemetery at the junction of Matbuat Prospect and Badamdar Highway. Or at least, they used to…

The cemetery stretches for the best part of a kilometer from North to South and half a kilometer at its widest part, East to West. Althought much of it is overgrown and crumbling, it is pleasantly shaded by Pine trees and unlike most of the world, here Jews, Muslims and Christians share in peace. Being a former communist country however, there is a good admxture of Athiests, identifiable by the five-pointed stars that frequently adorn their memorials.

The strange thing is, given that Azerbaijan was a Communist country for seventy years, so many of the grave markers erected in the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s display the Orthodox cross.

According to Wikipedia, the top beam represents the plaque bearing the inscription “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”. A popular view is that the slanted bottom beam is a foot rest, however there is no evidence of foot rests ever being used during crucifixion, and it has a deeper meaning. The bottom beam may represent a balance of justice.

This new memorial has been placed within the fence of an old family grave

Baku, like many cities in the world has seen considerable pressure on burying space and while politician argue about where new cemeteries are to be built, old graves [and some that are not so old] are reused in an ever quickening cycle. This family plot has recently been used for that purpose, as have many others in the Orthodox area of the cemetery.

In 2007, Baku City Chief ExecutiveHajibala Abutalibov established a commission on “cemetery improvement & new cemetery conformity to national & aesthetic requirements”. The Commission plans to “organize unification of tombs, abolition of too luxurious gravestones, unification of rules of allotting land plots for burial, creation of necessary burial agencies and an electronic list of the buried departed ”

While some of these objectives are laudable, I can’t help but think that as a result, many old and uniquely Soviet memorials will disappear. This is sad, not so much because they are easthetically pleasing [many are not] but they are a physical reminder of Azerbaijan’s often turbulent past.

Russians have been living in Azerbaijan since the 1820’s when the Czar’s forces occupied much of the country. More flooded in when Baku’s oil started to be exploited commercially from the 1860’s and of course, there was the Soviet period.

For many Azeris, this was a black time of oppression, exploitation and neglect. Indeed, the country is still in recovery, rebuilding both the physical environment and working through the psychological damage. Why then should any effort be made to preserve physical reminders of the Russian community that left such enduring marks on the community?

Well, there is the argument that every life is unique and with the passing of time, gravemarkers sometimes become the only reminder that a life has been lived. This is true of everyone but no more so than when a child dies. The most moving memorials I saw were to children.

The little boy memorialised here was eight when he died in 1947. Below the ugly, iron cross is a faded photograph. The image is barely discernable now and clearly, no one had been to tend the grave in some time. This then is the sort of memorial that may disappear very soon.

Sometimes “progress” isn’t all it seems and coming to an accommodation with the past is the better way to move forward.

Azerbaijan has spend twenty years in the process of  “de-Sovietisation”. The official language is now Azeri, not Russian, Soviet housing stock is gradually being replaced and Mercedes are suplanting Ladas on the roads.  All to the good perhaps but gradually removing the physical remains of people who lived and worked and died in a place won’t erase the fact that they had a place in the history of the country, even if they were Russian and died pitifully young.

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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