How do comrades treat each other when the empire breaks apart?

Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets has a lot of material on the conflicts that befell the former Soviet republics after the empire broke up. The conflicts include the Nagorno-Karabakh War (1988-1994) and the Abkhaz–Georgian conflict (1989-present).

“… In Baku… We lived in a nine-story building. One morning, they took all the Armenian families out into the courtyard… Everyone gathered around them, and every single person there went up to us and hit us with something. A little boy—five years old—came up to me and hit me with a toy shovel. An old Azerbaijani woman patted him on the head…” “… Our Azerbaijani friends hid us in their basement. They covered us in junk and boxes. At night, they’d bring us food…” “… I was running to work one morning, and I saw dead bodies lying there on the street. Just lying there or leaning against the wall—sitting there, propped up as though they were alive. Some had been covered in tablecloths, others hadn’t. There hadn’t been time. The majority of them were naked… both the men and the women… The ones who were sitting up hadn’t been undressed—it must have been too hard to move them…” “… I used to think that Tajiks were like little kids, totally harmless. In a matter of just six months, maybe even less than that, Dushanbe became unrecognizable, and so did the people. The morgues were filled to capacity. In the mornings, before they were absorbed into the asphalt, there’d be puddles of coagulated blood… like gelatin…” “… For days, people walked by our house carrying posters that read, ‘Death to the Armenians! Death!’ Men and women. A furious mob, not a single human face among them. The newspapers were filled with ads: ‘Trading a three-bedroom apartment in Baku for any apartment in any Russian city…’ We sold our apartment for three hundred dollars. Like it was a refrigerator. And if we hadn’t sold it that cheap, they could have killed us…”

‘Be afraid, you Russian bastards! Your tanks won’t help you!’ on the wall of the building across from ours. Russians were being removed from administrative positions… They’d shoot you from around the corner… The city quickly grew as filthy as a kishlak.* 13 It became a foreign city. No longer Soviet…” “… They could kill you for anything… If you hadn’t been born in the right place, if you didn’t speak the right language. If someone with a machine gun simply didn’t like the looks of you… How had we lived before then? On holidays, our first toast had always been, ‘To friendship,’ and ‘es kes sirum em’ (‘ I love you’ in Armenian). Or ‘Man sani seviram’ (‘ I love you’ in Azerbaijani). We’d lived happily side by side…”

I’m Russian. I was born in Abkhazia and lived there for a long time. In Sukhumi. Until I was twenty-two. Until 1992, when the war broke out. If the water catches fire, how do you put it out? That’s what Abkhazians say about war… Everyone took the bus together, went to the same schools, read the same books, lived in the same country, and all learned the same language, Russian. Then suddenly they were all killing each other: Neighbor killing neighbor, classmate killing classmate. Brother killing sister! And they were warring right there, right in front of their own homes… How long ago had it been? Only a year before that, two… We’d been living like brothers, everyone was in the Komsomol and a communist.

Men are always talking about war, they like weapons—young and old alike… while women like to remember love stories. Old women tell stories of how they were young and beautiful. Women never talk about war… They just pray for their men. My mother would go see the neighbors and every time, she’d come home petrified. “They burned a stadium full of Georgians in Gagra.” “Mama!” “I also heard that the Georgians have been castrating Abkhazians.” “Mama!” “They bombed the monkey house… Then, one night, the Georgians were chasing someone thinking it was an Abkhazian. They wounded him and heard him scream. Then the Abkhazians stumbled upon him and thought it was a Georgian. So they started chasing him and shot at him. Finally, when it started getting light out, they realized that all along, it had been a wounded monkey. So then all of them—the Georgians and the Abkhazians—declared a ceasefire and rushed over to save it. If it had been a human, they would have killed him…”

Today, everyone knows about Sumgait… it’s only thirty kilometers outside of Baku… The first pogrom happened there. One of the girls we worked with was from there. One day, after everyone had gone home, she started staying at the telegraph office. She’d spend the night in the storeroom. She walked around in tears, wouldn’t even look out the window, and didn’t speak to anyone. We asked her what was wrong, she wouldn’t say. And when she finally opened her mouth and started telling us… I wished I’d never heard… I didn’t want to hear about those things! I didn’t want to hear anything! What was going on! What is this—how could they! “What happened to your house?” “It was looted.” “What happened to your parents?” “They took my mother out into the courtyard, stripped her naked, and threw her on the fire! And then they forced my pregnant sister to dance around the fire… Then, after they killed her, they dug the baby out of her with metal rods…” “Shut up! Shut up!” “My father was hacked to pieces with an ax… My relatives only recognized him by his shoes…” “Stop! I’m begging you!” “Men, young and old, in groups of twenty or thirty, got together and started breaking into the houses where Armenian families lived. They killed and raped daughters in front of their fathers, wives in front of husbands…”

…Men or teenagers… I was too terrified to remember… were beating—murdering—a woman with a fence post. Where had they found them in the city? She lay on the ground not making a sound. When passersby saw what was happening, they’d turn the corner and walk down another street. Where were the police? The police had disappeared…

The bloodbath in Baku went on for several weeks. Or at least that’s what some people say, others say it was longer… They didn’t just kill Armenians, they also killed the people who hid them. My Azerbaijani friend hid me, she had a husband and two kids. One day… I swear! I’ll come back to Baku and bring my daughter to their house: “This is your second mother, daughter.” They had these thick drapes… thick as a coat… They’d had them sewn especially for me. At night, I would come down from the attic for an hour or two…

…We never leave the house at night! If my daughter or husband are late, I take valerian. I beg my daughter not to wear too much makeup or flashy dresses. They killed an Armenian boy, they stabbed a Tajik girl to death… they stabbed an Azerbaijani. We used to all be Soviet, but now we have a new nationality: “person of Caucasian descent.” In the morning, I run to work. I never look young men in the eye because I have dark eyes and black hair. On Sundays, if we leave the house, we’ll stroll through our own neighborhood, not straying far from our house. “Mama, I want to go to the Arbat. I want to walk around on Red Square.” “We can’t go there, daughter. That’s where the skinheads hang out. With swastikas. Their Russia is for Russians. Not for us.” [She falls silent.] No one knows how many times I’ve wanted to die.

More: read Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets


One thought on “How do comrades treat each other when the empire breaks apart?

  1. If anyone among your Facebook friends feel oppressed by a Nazist/racist/sexist regime of Trumpenfuhrer, maybe they would consider an exchange? I know of a few ethnic families who would readily trade places.

    How’s your your friend Abraham doing? The one who was so scared of Trump-inspired pogroms in Massachusetts. Would he consider moving to a totally non-anti-Semitic (meaning, no Jews live there) sunny town of Sumgait?

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