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Evgenija Markaryan

An Armenian Family Story. A Lesson for Ukraine

In February 2013, 25 years have passed since the event that many seem to have forgotten.The memories of year 1988 and the massacre of Armenians, which took place in Sumgait, and then, two years later, was repeated in Baku, have been suppressed  for a long time. The Sumgait pogrom was the first inter-ethnic conflict in the territory of the USSR. Perhaps the knowledge about those events could help to prevent something similar happening in Ukraine…

Peace, author: Quinn Dombrowski, source: Flickr

Peace, author: Quinn Dombrowski, source: Flickr

Sumgait, the Azerbaijan SSR

It was the year 1988. In February, a senior lieutenant of the Soviet army, being on leave, was going to visit his relatives in Sumgait (today in Azerbaijan) to show them his two-year-old daughter. His wife with their baby son stayed at a military base… It took a long flight to Moscow, from there – to Baku, and then half an hour to Sumgait. Everything went according to the plan, and the man was happy to see his family home. His mother was happy to see the officer, and his father doted on the beautiful granddaughter. Neighbors, relatives, school friends… What else is needed for happiness?

On the morning of the third day, the officer saw APCs in the wide streets of Sumgait. His father called from work and asked the son to stay at home. The son was at a loss, but a father’s word is law. A neighbor came and asked if everything was all right. She shared the latest news, adding that the atmosphere in the town was tense, and large aggressive groups of young people were walking around the town. The officer’s father and brother did not return from work. The officer, with his daughter and his mother, stayed that night in their neighbor’s house. Next morning all the Armenians of the town were to gather near the city’s Palace of Culture. The family packed up and went there: first the officer with his women – the small and the old – later  joined by his father, so far hiding at his director’s – an Azerbaijani – house, and his brother, who spent the night at work.

During the following three days, the Armenians of Sumgait were staying in the Palace of Culture. Neighbors, friends of different nationalities, including Azerbaijanis, were stealthily bringing them food, beddings, and warm clothes. For the officer’s family such a guardian angel was a Russian neighbor – Aunt Valya. She brought thermoses with tea and soup for the baby, and clean diapers (there were no Pampers at that time). The young grandmother, overcoming her fear, secretly went home to take the most necessary things for the family. She managed to escape just because she was a Russian.

On the fourth day, the Armenians began to be slowly taken out of the town, and later left the region. Some of them went to relatives in Russia, some – to Armenia others – to Ukraine. The young officer was sent back to his military base in the Ivanovo region. He and his little daughter went to the Baku Airport by APC with a convoy of armed guards and fled to Moscow. The rest of the journey was no challenge. In Baku, 30 kilometers from Sumgait, people remained oblivious to the events tking place in Sumgait.

The Sumgait pogrom (also known as the Sumgait Massacre or February Events) was a pogrom that targeted the Armenian population of the seaside town of Sumgait in Soviet Azerbaijan during February 1988. On February 27, 1988, mobs made up largely of ethnic Azeris formed into groups that went on to attack and kill Armenians both on the streets and in their apartments; widespread looting and a general lack of concern from police officers allowed the situation to worsen. The violence in Sumgait was unprecedented in scope in the Soviet Union and received heavy coverage in the Western media. A number of international and Soviet sources described the events as genocide of the Armenian population.

Source: Wkipedia [en]

Сумгаитский погром — беспорядки на этнической почве в городе Сумгаит Азербайджанской ССР 27 — 29 февраля 1988 г., сопровождавшиеся массовым насилием в отношении армянского населения, грабежами, убийствами, поджогами и уничтожением имущества.
По выражению британского журналиста Тома де Ваала, выпустившего в 2005 году художественно-документальную книгу «Чёрный сад» об истории карабахского конфликта, эти события стали «первой в современной советской истории вспышкой массового насилия».
Сумгаитский погром явился знаковым событием и поворотным пунктом в обострении межнационального конфликта в Закавказье, вызвавшим первые потоки армянских беженцев из Сумгаита в Степанакерт (НКАО) и Армению.

Source: Wikipedia [ru]

Ivanovo region, USSR, February 1988.

The officer’s young wife with her baby son was doing household chores, preparing for exams and waiting for news from her husband. Suddenly the doorbell rang – it was Aunt Anna, mother of the husband’s fellow officer and a friend. She, in turn, had come from Sumgait to see her grandchildren and help her young daughter-in-law. By pure coincidence, the two friends from the same school, an Armenian and a Russian, entered together a high military school and were assignment to the same military unit.
“Have you seen today’s Pravda?” asked Aunt Anna.
“No”, replied the young woman, “What’s there?”
“Have a look, read…”
A small paragraph, just six lines, that in Sumgait, the Azerbaijani SSR, some minor riots took place and the situation was tense.
“We have to get in touch with ours in Sumgait, we need to find out what’s going on there”, decided Aunt Anna.
“Why?” asked the young woman.
“I feel we should. There must have a good reason to mention it… There’s something happening there”.
They went together to make a call at the post office (as mobile phones did not exist and landline phones were a rarity, one had to book a call).
They were waiting three day, all in vain: there was no connection, neither with Sumgait nor with Baku. Only on the fourth day they were able to get through to the husband’s brother, who said that everything’s all right, all members of the family were alive…

Kharkiv, Ukraine, two years later.

In January, late in the evening, a phone rang in the Kharkiv apartment: “Hello dear, it’s me, Lily, and it’s Tamara with me. Could you take us in, please…?” That’s how the young woman, wife of the officer who returned alive from Sumgait with their daughter, went to welcome his aunts, who had been taken out  from Baku, sent by ferry across the Caspian Sea, then – to Moscow, and at last – to Kharkiv. On this windy and cold January day, they were standing outside, in autumn coats and robes, in home slippers. That was all what they could take with them.

Later, they were joined by Lily’s husband and Tamara’s adopted son, both Russians. All together, they went to their elder brother, the father of the young officer, who earlier – with the help of his Ukrainian mother-in law – had managed to find a job and been given accommodation at one of the farms close to Kharkiv.

This is the story of how a large Armenian family settled in Ukraine. They escaped from Sumgait and Baku, they left everything behind: apartments, villas, simple household goods, but kept the main thing – their lives and memories. They remembered their native land: the always noisy Caspian Sea, poplars, rustling under strong south winds, friends and graves of loved ones. Other Armenians were less fortunate – many were killed.

Ukraine. Kyiv region, 2013

I am sitting and drinking a 25-year-old Armenian cognac, presented to me and my husband by our children on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of our wedding… The story I just told is my own story. I am the young wife of the officer, a Ukrainian who was waiting for her husband and her girl, bearing the surname of her father, an Armenian. I was waiting for them with my baby son, praying to God for their safe return. It was me who met the frightened Armenian women, my husband’s aunts, who could not believe that they had succeeded in escaping from Baku, and did not know what to do, whom to trust, and how to live. And at that time I was thanking God that all of them were alive and healthy.

I want to say that usually I do not accept such a soul bearing. Only our close friends and relatives knew the story of my multi-ethnic family. There is just one reason why I’m telling it now – I want to give a warning to Ukrainians: think before taking any action!

That rise of nationalism, xenophobia and intolerance, recently observed in Ukraine, is alarming to people who know first-hand what a “murder on the basis of nationality” is. The absolutely crazy rhetoric of “fighters for welfare of Ukrainians” is just horrifying, and it could be a source of an epidemic of intolerance and contempt against people of other nationalities, and an adoption of the “friend or foe” rule.

My dear Ukrainians, if you choose your greed instead of your heart – stop! Do not think that a “vyshivanka” [traditional Ukrainian embroidery] will become your pass to a better world. There is nothing worse than nationalism, whatever mask it takes. Thanks God that for the last 20 years in Ukraine we have not experienced such a massacre like in Sumgait or Baku. But if we continue to support the nationalist spirit in our society, there is no guarantee that one day somebody will come to your house and ask: “Why do you have a wife/husband of a different nationality? Give her/him up, otherwise we will kill you and your whole family!”, as it happened in Baku to my relatives, their neighbors, friends, and many others.


“З далекого краю лелеки летіли, та й в одного лелеченька крилонька зомліли
Ізсушила силу чужина проклята! Візьміть мене, лелеченьки, на свої крилята
Тільки «кру-кру-кру», в чужині умру
Заки море море перелечу – крилонька зітру.”

A Ukrainian folk song

No one kept statistics, no one kept tracks of how long the refugees from Azerbaijan – Armenians, Russians, Ukrainians – lived abroad. I have my own, personal statistics.

Aunt Tamara (Armenian) – died in 1998
Sergey (Russian), adopted son of Aunt Tamara – died in 1999
Aunt Lily (Armenian) – died in 1999
Shreds (Russian), husband of Aunt Lily – died in 2001
Mother (Russian) – died in 1999.
Father (Armenian) – died in 2007.

The parents of the officer’s friend, who moved to live with their son in Russia after the events in Sumgait:
Mother  (Russian) – the year of death: 1993.
Father (Russian) – the year of death: 1995

That brother officer slightly outlived his parents and died at the age of 41 of a heart attack.

The sound of weeping zurna can be heard over Armenian graves in Ukraine. Willows gently drop their leaves over Orthodox crosses. Leaves of viburnum are reddening, looking like red drops of blood. The panpipe is echoing the zurna over Ukrainian graves in foreign lands – Italy, Turkey, Spain, Canada… There one can hear the quiet whisper of olive trees, maples, and cypresses. How many died prematurely, in a strange land, for they could not live longer after the separation from their home…

Translated by MA

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Евгения Маркарян - журналист, редактор, PR-щик. В профессии - более восемнадцати лет. Занималась разработкой концепции, созданием, позиционированием и выводом на рынок нескольких всеукраинских изданий, затрагивающих разные сегменты рынка: Работала редактором отделов в деловых изданиях, посвященных маркетингу, рекламе, PR, HR-консалтингу, бизнес-коммуникациям, здравоохранению и фармакологии. Работала пресс-секретарем и начальником отдела PR в крупных страховых компаниях. В настоящее время - независимый журналист

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