Whom we are proud of and whom we blame?
A steel door leads one from the street right into a room. A huge table takes up the whole interior space. If one wants to cross to the other side of the room to get into the ‘kitchenette‘, they will have to squeeze behind the backs of those who are seated. There are about five WWII veterans at the table. The rest of those sitting are members of the ‘Commonwealth’ [the Public Union of Solidarity of the Peoples of Azerbaijan], men the of pen from the “Luch (Ray) Association of the Commonwealth; a pale girl with a violin and a man whose task is to liven up the guest with entertainment, as well as the volunteers who organized this very event.
It should be noted that the ‘Commonwealth’ merely provided the venue. Aida Aliyeva, a well-known activist, who is also in charge of a children’s shelter and some other charity projects, decided to congratulate the veterans on Victory Day, on May 9. Her companion volunteers and she bought biscuits for a tea-party and wrapped their gifts, which consisted of packages with the products: buckwheat, pasta, sugar.
Tofig Yagubovich Ahmedov, a veteran, is among the guests. He holds himself upright, demonstrating his numerous orders (decorations). “I lived in Moscow for 25 years. People there called me Anatoly Yakovlevich,” he says chuckling. Tofig Yagubovich claims he was awarded the gold star of Maecenas. After that he lived in New York for two years. On a side note, they were all indigenous Bakuvians there. No one from the countryside was to be found. “I am a Stalinist. I have always loved Stalin, who did everything to achieve victory over fascism and to get industries running, Tofig Yagubovich says proudly. “You may not know it, but as soon as the war finished, he started cutting down the prices of products.”
On the whole, the happy soviet times were often recalled at the table. The thing is that those, who deal with the veterans’ problems in Azerbaijan are mostly the representatives of the Russian community and the relevant organizations: Russian Information and Cultural Center and the Russian community. The volunteers and the church, especially Archangel Michael Russian Orthodox Church (Baku’s most ancient church), also render assistance. The ‘Commonwealth’ that is closely cooperating with the Russian Embassy, as well as small literary circles and associations, are, by and large, the outskirts of the Russian-language information space. There is an atmosphere of nostalgia for the Soviet era and the aspirations for everything Russian. Therefore, during the feast, the the Second World War was several times referred to as the Great Patriotic War, as is customary in Russia.
Another veteran, Valentin Yefimovich Kononov, DoB 1928, worked behind the lines during the war. “I worked for the Caspian Shipping Company. We delivered oil to Astrakhan to supply the army with fuel. We had to occasionally had to shoot at the Germans in retaliation to their gunfire.
“Sometimes the “Junkers” swooped down on us. We were going along and there was a tugboat full of fuel following in the rear. At this moment, they would fly overhead, and we had nowhere to maneuver. We were just a target for the Germans.
I’ve never been particularly scared. However, one time there was an incident, one that few people have ever seen, but one that everyone could imagine-the sight of the sea burning. The Germans had bombed a factory and fuel spilled and caught fire. The wind blew the burning water in our direction, and when it was some two hundred meters away, the wind suddenly changed direction and drove the fire away from us.”
According to Valentin Yefimovich, his father served in the ‘SMERSH’ organization and live to be 93. Not many young people know that “SMERSH” was a legendary organization that was directly subordinate to Stalin and responsible for the “cleansing” of the Soviet army. In other words, it was an organization that quelled Stalinist reprisals.
After the ceremonial speeches, it came time for amateur performances: songs were sung accompanied by piano and guitar and the violin was played etc. In short, everyone tried the best they could. Tea was poured from a large electric Samovar (a container used to boil tea) in the kitchen, which was cluttered with unnecessary furniture. On the whole, the event was a success, if a minor incident, following the distribution of the gifts, is not taken into account: it turned out that someone had taken two packages and other had been left without gifts.
It was heartwarming when government also decided to congratulate the veterans: this year they were given 1,000 AZN ($670 US), whereas the widows of veterans were paid 500 AZN ($335 US). Last year that sum amounted to 500 and 300 AZN, respectively.
The other 364 days
According to official data, there are about 1,200 WWII veterans in Azerbaijan. Veterans are not only those who were on the battlefield, but also those who served behind the lines, immigrants from Nazi-occupied areas, ‘campers’ and labor veterans. There is the Veterans’ Council in charge of the veterans’ concerns.
How do the veterans live the other 364 days besides V-Day? They are provided different amounts of pension. According to Alexander Antropov, the Chairman of the War Veterans’ Council of the Baku Air Defense District and Head of the Social Service at St. Michael Church, the benefits are as follows: pilots may receive over 1,000 AZN ($669 US), privates 160 AZN ($107 US) as minimal compensation, all the way up to 300-380 AZN ($200-255 US).
In regards to legislation, on December 3, 1992, based principles supported at the 46th session of UN General Assembly, Azerbaijan passed a law determined the categories of individuals eligible for these benefits, as well as regulated the activity of the Veterans’ Council.
The law was amended in 2006 and the benefits were replaced by the lump-sum payments to veterans.
It should be noted that under Article 12 of this law, the executive authorities must provide veterans with the necessary amount of money to cover utility and telephone costs. They should be paid allowances for medical treatment, to obtain prosthetics and medications, as well as for visits to resorts and sanatoriums. Although, according Alexander Antropov, there are no benefits for veterans; they must cover utility costs themselves and also have to pay for medical treatment: “If you have money, you undergo treatment and buy medications. If not, you just kick up your heels and die!”
However, the government does makes some grand gestures from time to time. For example, in 2012, 695 veterans were awarded NAZ-Lifan cars [domestically produced vehicles], and 45 others got new apartments.
Single veterans, who do not have families, live from pension payment to pension payment and from one volunteers’ visit to another. Along with this problem, they suffer not only from material poverty, but also from loneliness. Therefore, despite their age, illness and fatigue, they eagerly attend all the activities organized for them.
For Adelya Heydarovna Agakishiyeva, it’s getting more and more difficult to come to the holiday celebrations. She is 87. She lives in a small, badly furnished apartment in the Bayil district, not far from Baku’s center. Adelya Heydarovna suffers from foot pains, she walks with a cane and can hardly take care of herself. However, a single glance at her dark eyes is enough to realize that the years have not deprived her of sharp wits.
Adelya hanum (or Aunt Ada, as everybody calls her) is from Nakhichevan. In 1941, she graduated from a vocational school, where attended nurse practitioner training courses and was the Komsomol Committee’s secretary. “In 1942, we were summoned to the Komsomol Regional Committee (The Secretary of the Regional Committee of the Communist Party) and orders from Stalin were read to us about engaging all combat-ready youths in the military exercises.
“Let me tell you something. There are many people nowadays who say, “I went there voluntarily!” Do not believe them! No one went there voluntarily. everyone was forced to write an application. That’s how it was at that time. They just called upon men and everyone was gathered! Today it’s no longer like this. Everything is mixed up. They are fighting with each other. It is a pity that Stalin is no longer alive.”
In 1942, Adelya was sent to the front as a nurse: “Mammad, a doctor, and Hajar, a nurse, also travelled with us. The doctor took care of us, tried to protect us the whole time.”
It was hard for Adelya, who was compassionate, to work as a nurse: “Once they brought us two pilots with burns on their backs. The doctor gave me scissors and tweezers and told me: “Go on, cut the burned skin.” I was cutting it with tears showering from my eyes. Then the doctor reprimanded me. “Don’t you understand that you are at war? You shouldn’t cry here! You need to get used to it!”
Adelya hanum says she still cries when watching the Victory Parade on TV. “My sister’s husband died in the hostilities. She was young and was left alone with her child. She mourned for her husband till the last day of her life; she would pile his letters from the front before her and would cry. I also read a couple of letters, but I couldn’t take more. My heart was grief-stricken…”
Adelya hanum’s private life was kept a secret. “My family was very strict. My father was not even told that I had gone to the war. My mother lied to him, saying I had left in order to study to become a nurse, that I would work in a region. In the beginning, before I was sent to the Ukrainian front in 1943, I often visited home. My mother was continuously telling me, “Don’t come home in the uniform.” Many men in the army, mostly Russians, wanted to marry me, but I refused, saying I would like to continue my studies. Though, I simply did not want to marry a Russian man. Once, as I was sitting with our nurse, Hajar, she told me: “Let’s not tell anyone that we were on the front or we will be treated like whores.”
Adelya hanum was on both the Ukrainian and Belarusian fronts. She also was stationed in Czechoslovakia and Poland. On May 8, her unit was in Dresden, then on May 9 it was sent to Berlin. “I remember when upon hearing that we had won, I just sat on the ground, stretched my legs and started crying. Everyone around me was crying: the soldiers, the officers, guys, the girls. Then we went to Reichstag. I was rather small, so I was raised up and told, “Hey, you should also write your name on the stairs!” But I did not do that. I did not want my name to be on the enemy’s land,” says Adelya Aliyeva.
Adelya hanum says she doesn’t have financial problems. She receives a pension of 300 AZN ($200 US) and a ‘presidential pension’ which totals 100 AZN ($67 US). It’s not her difficulties, but rather the officials’ domineering attitude that annoys her most. “In a statement of disability, issued by the Social Security Fund, they indicated general disability, whereas they should have written ‘a veteran of the Great Patriotic War.’ They did not even answer my questions.”
The issue of “The Vechernyaya Moskva” (Evening Moscow) newspaper, dated May 9, 1945. ‘Hitler’s Germany defeated’
It’s not that easy to reanalyze the developments of the World War II. The official version in Azerbaijani school textbooks is that World War II is one of the most glorious victories of our people. Nevertheless, as many as 600,000 residents of Soviet Azerbaijan participated in the war and at least 300,000 were killed. And that very oil that was brought by 14-year-old Valentin Kononov from Baku to Astrakhan, played a crucial role in providing the Soviet army with fuel.
Social media unfailingly bring up this on May 9 and occasionally, at other points during the year. Although, WWII serves as an argument in the dispute in this context. In such disputes, one can learn some curious facts that are not available in the school textbooks, like for instance, the fact that until 1941, the Soviet Union had been successfully supplying Azerbaijani oil to Germany, which was its ally at that time.
There is another version that absolutely differs from the official one. It concerns a certain liberation movement: the intelligentsia that escaped overseas, descendants of the First Republic of Azerbaijan, who dreamt about reestablishment of its independence from Russia, and who quite consciously collaborated with the Third Reich. “It turns out that those who fought for the Soviet regime, which was directly responsible for numerous atrocities against the Azerbaijani people, automatically become heroes. Whereas the “true” patriots, who raised arms against the regime, guilty of the death of thousands and thousands of Azerbaijanis and of elimination of the nation’s elite during the reprisals of the 30s, are the real traitors to the motherland!” reads an article by Aydin Balayev, D.Sc..
One Azerbaijani user made the following comment under a touching story about a man who defended the Brest Fortress: “There is nothing heroic about becoming a cannon fodder in a squabble between empires.” In 2016, V-Day passed surprisingly quietly on social media: people seemed to be tired of the geopolitical debates and tried to outdo each other in publishing touching stories of their battle-front veteran grandpas (there is one in every Azerbaijani family). However, when the issue of greatness of the Russian Empire becomes on the agenda from time to time, the people in Azerbaijan start reflecting on what the country lost and what it gained as a colony of Soviet Russia.
St. George ribbon, regarded by many as a symbol of aggression of Putin’s Russia, is a separate matter. There have been heated debates on where Putin’s PR experts got the ribbon for ‘rebranding’ the Second World War, and, most importantly, for what purpose. Those who support Putin’s policy, the idea of the revival of the empire and return of Azerbaijan as it’s ‘big bro’, are contemptuously referred to as ‘Hiwi’ (germ. Hilfswilliger), as Soviet citizens were called, who fought on the German side during the World War II.
Victory in the war can be also used as an argument to a political party’s benefit. For example, the Communist Party of Azerbaijan is pleased to congratulate the veterans on May 9 with jubilation, while at the same time, spreading their propaganda with the youth population.
This year, having gathered at the monument to the victory over fascism, Communist Party members were handing over St. George ribbons, waving flags and stating their positions to a couple of students, who came to congratulate the WWII veterans. As the event was coming to an end, the veterans were glad to have a heart-to-heart talk with reporters under the pretext of an interview, whereas from the Communist meeting one could catch the words, like : “capitalism”, “communism” and even “Zyuganov.” As it turned out, Zyuganov, the head of the Russian Communist Party, was referred to as an example to be followed
Gyulnisa Maksimova, the Head of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan
Colonel Suleyman Abbasov has remained loyal to his profession – he is teaching military science
Major Rafig Huseynov has 40 years of teaching experience, two higher education degrees and believes that one cannotsurvive without an academic degree in our times.
Agasamed Amirbekov asked his daughter to go to the celebration and put his medals if he was not able to show to Victory Day this year. She has carried out his wish.
The saddest story
Sophya Vasilyevna Sokolova’s story is probably the saddest of all the stories told by the veterans.
Her journey path from Russian Krutoye village in the Smolensk region took her to a tiny room in Baku, then to a Nazi camp, which she was forced to engage in heavy labor and and was declared an enemy of Stalinist Russia.
Her 17-year-old brother had been taken to the Nazi camp as a prisoner of war. And then, in 1943, the Fascists came for her. Sophya was 16 years old. “Many teens were taken from their homes then. Their mothers’ cry could be heard from the neighboring villages, from all corners of the village. Those who resisted, where dealt with simply: they were whacked in the teeth either with the butt of a gun or a stick.”
Ranks of prisoners of war marched to Byelorussia SSR. “We cleared the snow drifts on our way. Then, when we arrived, we immediately started earthworks, digging trenches and anti-tank bunkers.” Two splinter wounds–in her chest and leg, as well as a trauma of her right hand, are a reminiscence of the war for her.
“What we ate was just the bread that we baked with sawdust. As a result of that, everyone suffered from stomach and liver pains. Those who are still alive are all sick now. I have a special diet,” she says. It was particularly difficult in the forest in winter. They had to wear wooden shoes instead of boots. Their feet were freezing and it was impossible to warm them by fire because the wood would immediately start burning. The severe knee pain that Sokolova suffers today are a reminder of those wooden shoes.
Did life become easier after the victory? Sophya started working in the collective farm, where she found her brother. “There was a terrible famine, people got sick by the numbers. Sometimes, when I was absolutely exhausted, I laid down in a field and there was a sorrel growing nearby, so I slowly nibbled it.
There were no animals or cars, so the people carried the sacks with grains, dragged the carts and ploughed and harrowed the land themselves.”
She did not have any documents. Stalin declared all those who lived in occupied areas, to be enemies of the people: “What were we supposed to do? If the warriors, themselves, could not maintain the land, how could we, elderly, women and children, do that? ” Now, Sophya receives a pension of 170 AZN. Although the immigrants who were in the camps are regarded as veterans, she is unable to prove her status.
She lives dependent on volunteers. Surprisingly, this smiling woman does not complain about her life: “I am fine. Just foot pains.”
The tragic thing about this story is that the war did not just take away Sokolova’s youth and health, but also deprived her of a chance to hide from the war behind a heroic myth.