A Story of a Samovar

by Maria Karapetyan

This story is a retelling of the memories of a refugee family from Baku based on an interview with Lusik – an Armenian woman of about 70. She kindly told the story of her and her husband’s families as well as the bits and pieces of the lives of the people surrounding them. The order of the paragraphs doesn’t follow the order in which she narrated the events but is rather the result of editing and follows a more or less chronological order.

My father’s side is from Western Armenia. His parents were born in Mush and they were refugees from 1914, the year my father was born in Tbilisi. My mom’s side came to Tbilisi in the 30’s from the village Chrakhlu near Leninakan[1]. My grandpa died young and they had six children; life became difficult for my grandma and her children. The youngest was two and the oldest was twelve years old. She moved to Tbilisi upon her brother-in-law’s invitation. It was a risk for her. She worked in a bread factory and she took bread home secretly hiding it under her clothes against her belly.

My mom was the third child. She married my dad; they were neighbors in Tbilisi. My father was a policeman, a very honest and hardworking man. They lived in Havlabar[2] and were very wealthy. A few times, when he was on a night shift, they were robbed, but until 1941 they lived well. When the Second World War started, my dad had the right not to serve in the army, but in 1942 he decided to join the army. I wasn’t born then, my mom was expecting me. She wanted to get rid of me but my dad’s mother didn’t let her. When I was born, they sacrificed[3] a lamb for me.

My mom waited seven years for my dad to come back from the army. There was no news. Then she married a man from Leninakan and came to Baku in 1950. I still blame my mom for that marriage. My mom’s sister, a beautiful woman, lived in Baku with her Russian husband who was a crippled ex-soldier. They had moved to Baku earlier and slowly brought my mom’s family to Baku, too. I was 8 and had already gone to school for a year in Tbilisi, but I went to first grade again in Baku.

My husband’s name is Vardan. My husband was born in Baku in 1930, the fourteenth child but the only one that survived. His family was from the village Zargaran in Shamakhi[4] which was then the capital[5]. In 1918, there was a massacre in their village; all of the families gathered their carpets and silverware and put it into big holes in the floors of the houses. My husband’s mother put her samovar and other valuable kitchenware in the hole, and covered it. Their dog sat on the hole and was guarding it. They had two small children then, and together with them and the other women of the village, they were sent to Baku on wagons. She had a little sack; she kept the gold in it. There was an Armenian man who was supposed to take them to Baku. He said that in order to make it to Baku sagh-salamat[6] she needs to give the wallet to him. He took the gold and gave the wallet to her. I threw the wallet out this year [laughs].

After staying in Baku for a while, everyone wanted to go back to their homes in the village. My husband’s family came to find the hole in the ground open and without the dog. There was nothing in it, only the samovar with five coins of Tsar Nikolay. They didn’t take it.

In 1926, they went back to their village again and were fools enough to make a two-floor house in the place of the old one, a better one. They used the house as a residential summer house. My father-in-law was from there, his parents were from there, and it was like an Armenian village. Later a few Lezgin families came and started living there. They wrote their last names like Azerbaijanis. They were good people. All the villagers would go to Zargaran just for vacation. Even someone who hadn’t lived in the village for 30 years went back and renovated their homes.

When we went there in the 60’s, it was 6 hours to go, there was no electricity. When they built the Georgian Military Road, they paved the roads with asphalt, brought gas to the village and the trip would take 2.5 hours. Every year I took something there. We had a house full of things there. The only thing I didn’t have was an iron and one more thing, I forget now what it was. My husband went to the village in 1988 even though I told him not to go. He had renovated it, had gas lines taken to the house, and made an additional balcony. We were very smart, weren’t we [laughs with irony]?

Lusik and her husband Vardan lived in Anashkin Street in Baku. They had three children, Slavik, Mikhail, and Janna[7].

When the first massacres took place in Sumgait in 1988, lots of Azerbaijanis were helping people, taking them out of the city, keeping them in the wardrobes in their houses. Then, they figured out that Azerbaijanis were helping them, so the second time they had found out how many Armenians lived and where. New lists were put on the apartment buildings telling who lives there. Armenians took the list and threw them away because they knew what they were for.

It was the Feb 14 in 1988, it was Lyuda’s son’s birthday party. Lyuda was my husband’s cousin. Her husband was from Karbakh. A woman at the party started telling that their director asked them over and started talking with a rude tone. He said, “Your Armenians are demanding Karabakh.” There was nothing in the news yet. 14 days later Sumgait started. The mayor of Baku was Vezirov and one day we saw that there are boys outside with ribbons on their heads calling “Ve-zir-yan, Ve-zir-yan.” They were doing so to protest that he wasn’t moving Armenians out. No one, no one could have imagined that they would be able to take almost half a million Armenians.

To speak the truth, we didn’t know what had happened it Sumgait. I was a tailor and had Azerbaijani and Armenian clients for clothes. One of them had relatives in Sumgait. One day she came and asked whether we have heard of the massacres. My husband also came back from work with the news. In the evening there was a small report about a little hooliganism. Bits and pieces were coming from here and there. Our neighbor Viktor’s Russian sister-in-law who had an Azerbaijani husband lived in Sumgait, she was saying that blood was streaming there. My husband’s colleague went to find out about his relatives who lived in Sumgait. His car was burnt down on the way and he had to run away; his family had all been killed. People started to live in fear. The Soviets were still in place; a few days later Gorbachev as if brought everyone in order. A little time later, there was news again this time from a district in Baku—Khutor. Everyone was Armenian there, all private houses and there was news of many attacks on Armenians from there. An Armenian police officer lived there and he was attacked. He shot with his hunting gun, and he was arrested. They were accusing him of shooting an Azerbaijani.

We also lived in an Armenian neighborhood. In 1988, my younger son, Mikhail, was in the army, the older, Slavik, was in Tashkent on practical work after his degree in Chemistry at the University and Janna was married and lived in Armenia.

We had a neighbor, Anya. One day in early March, their Armenian friend, Vova, came to their place and said to her husband, “Why are you sitting here? Take your wife and daughter and go away!” He said that his Azerbaijani friends have warned him that there’s going to be a massacre; that the Azerbaijanis have decided to organize ‘a March 8th’ for all Armenian families. Anya told me about this at 10 o’clock a.m. I couldn’t eat the whole day, I was trembling and I waited until Vardan came home, had dinner, and then I told him what Vova had said. Then, Vardan brought out some acid in a bottle and some gunpowder and put it into a container and said that if they come when he is not at home I could protect myself with it. We had a hunting gun, and he was showing me how to shoot with it in the dark behind closed doors. I was laughing with a hysterical laugh, I couldn’t help it, and I was saying “God, I am begging you, if only this year passes and a day comes when I will be truly laughing at this.”

After this there was a government curfew, there were tanks in our streets and young Russian boys. We were gathering cookies and taking them to the soldiers. When the tanks were moved in town we were a little calmer but still on the watch especially at night. Where could we run? After that lots of people started to swap houses. Janna, my daughter, was calling and asking how it was there. I was saying that it is a suspicious silence. Once I went to the market and saw Azerbaijanis that had run away from Armenia. I was waiting in a line and one of them was saying to the young vendor, “Don’t sell anything to the Armenian. They beat us. They didn’t feed us,” and the guy turned to him and said, “I don’t care; a man is man, let him be Azerbaijani or Armenian.”

This story happened after Sumgait. We had a friend Erik. He was an engineer and the wife was an accountant. My husband had lots of Azerbaijani friends, good ones. They were going to weddings on both sides, restaurants, they were very close, but in the back of his mind he was full of mistrust. When my husband was saying, “We still don’t know what will happen. They are still Turks.” Erik was always saying, “No, Vardan. Why are you saying that? They aren’t doing anything to us. Everything will be ok.” One day my husband came from work and told us that Erik wanted to be promoted because there was a vacancy in his workplace, but his Azeri friend came and said that he won’t get the job even though he is a good worker because he is Armenian. They would let you work, but there was no promotion. Erik was still saying everything would be ok. One day their 14-year-old son that had light hair and skin was stopped in the street. Azerbaijani young men had asked him to say ‘fındıq’[8], and they let him go. He was so scared, almost sick, and after that they left, the first and the fastest.

At first, they fired all Armenian workers. They had to write that they are leaving their jobs by their own will. My husband, uncle, everyone was made to leave. I used to ask my husband every day, “Aren’t they telling you to leave?” He said no. One day he left for work and came back at 11 a.m. I said laughing, “What? Finally?” He said, “No, I wasn’t fired, I left myself.” he didn’t want to accept it, [laughs] “The director had a meeting with the Armenians and Azerbaijanis separately. He said, ‘Whoever isn’t afraid, let him go and work, whoever is afraid, let him go.’ How else could he make it clear? He was also given an order. I went and took my working book, and a Jewish woman was working at the workers department. She said, ‘Go and come back later. I don’t have time now.’ but an Azeri came and said, ‘Write it immediately and let him go, there’s no need for him to come another time.’” It was the month of March of 1988. A month later they asked everyone to come back. They would go from house to house and ask people to return to work. The Soviets had probably told them to do that so that no one would know that people had been fired. But nobody went back. Everyone was thinking about moving. Some went to Armenia, others to Russia. My husband went back to work. We were stupid to stay; it was just because it all calmed down and became quite.

I still had my clients. I had a few clients that had higher education. Two of my Azerbaijani clients were at our place one day. One of them was a university lecturer another one was an institute worker. I said, “For god’s sake, who needs Karabakh?” The university lecturer said, “We don’t want Karabakh either, let them have it.” “Why,” said the science institute worker, “It is our land. Why would we give it away? Let them give it.” There were different opinions even among the intelligentsia, maybe because of different roots, relatives, different histories.

I didn’t want to move, I didn’t want to live in the village and we couldn’t get a house in the city. The village house was also expensive. A Kurd wanted our house in Baku and 14,000 by the money of that time and we had the money but I still didn’t want to. My aunt, my mom, my uncle and we were the only ones left from our relatives. It was in January in 1989. My husband was in Armenia trying to find a house for us. There were many that helped us. My husband wasn’t in Baku anymore. I had a client, a young Azerbaijani teacher, she had many Armenian friends, she would ask me, “Tell me what you need, I will get it for you. It is a bit dangerous to go out.” I stayed at my uncle’s for new years. I wasn’t going home, and my fish died from cold. My aunt ate the lent dolma and wasn’t feeling well. The ambulance took her to the Semashka hospital. She had an ulcer, and she was begging the young surgeons not to harm her. They were saying, “Don’t worry auntie, we will cure you and send you home.”

That winter was very snowy in Baku that year. My aunt’s friend and I were on the tram, we were supposed to stop at my aunt’s house, take something for her and go to my uncle’s. The tram stopped at the stop. We were sitting in the back of the tram. A man and a woman and five young people got on the tram. The tram moved. The couple was speaking Russian; they were Armenian. Then came a slamming sound on the face, and one of the boys separated from the group and told the driver stop the tram, and they sent the couple off the tram. They turned pale as a white wall. They told them to be thankful that they didn’t beat them. They told the driver that they had been treated the same way in Armenia.

My aunt’s friend started talking Russian to me. I was trying to motion to her to stop talking but she wasn’t getting it. I pulled my head cover over. I was a little like an Azerbaijani. I was trembling with fear and we came off earlier than our stop. My aunt’s friend insisted that call the curfew officer and tell what we had seen. The officer told us that they know about that there is a group of bandits that is breaking the discipline, He said, “We will take it into consideration and take measures.”

Later that day we were at my uncle’s house when my daughter called and I said everything was ok. She told me there was a Kurd that wanted both our house and the money in return for his village house in Armenia. It was on that day when I said, “Tell Dad we are leaving. Let him buy the house.”

In March 1989 we moved. One of my clients was telling me not to leave. I was saying, “Sevil, my sons will come back to Baku; they won’t be able to leave home.” A young neighbor was saying, “Why are you leaving?” We were saying, “We will go; other neighbors will come.” They were saying “No, there won’t be others like you.”

On March 29, 1989 we were in Armenia through Georgia with all our stuff. We now live in the Noramarg village of the Masis region. There are three villages in the Masis region: Ranchpar, Sis and Noramarg. Sis used to be Sarvanlar and Noramarg used to be Kalinino. The name of our street in Baku was Russian—Anashkin Street. They have probably changed it, and also the names of regions, streets, clubs. They destructed the 26 commissars park and all their statues—Shahumyan, Phialetov, Azizbekov.

The first years we lived very well in Armenia. My husband was working. My eldest son worked in the sphere of his profession in the village. Then the economic recession started. Then everyone didn’t live well. Our mistake was that we came to Armenia. We should have gone to Russia. It was very hard for my sons; they were Russian-speaking. It was very hard for them.

If only the Soviets collapsed, but we stayed in our places and there was no national fight. I would have been happy. I don’t want to consider Baku my home, but we lived there for 22 years. Still when I have dreams, they are in our house in Baku. I never see this house in my dreams. My heart doesn’t ‘stick’ here, but we live, like we lived.

Lusik stopped and made a comment about the taste of the tea. Janna laughs and jokes, “It’s from Baku.”

My husband had an Azerbaijani friend who said that they would buy our countryside house. On April 5, if I am not mistaken, my husband came to Baku to our yard and many people were still there. We lived in the center that’s why not everyone was in a rush to move; it was relatively safe. They went and found out that the village house was all raided. My father-in-law had made two safes, one for little things, one bigger for bedding. Both of them were open and empty. The chest with the silverware was gone altogether. Only the samovar was left. My husband said that if his Azerbaijani friend hadn’t been with him, he would have put the house on fire with the petroleum we had at home. The president of our village lived in another place, Tirjan village. They went and saw him; he showed a good reception to my husband and said “Vardan, go and be ‘arxayın’[9]; I will take care of everything.” Other Turks were thinking, “Is this Armenian guy crazy? Why has he risked coming here?”

My husband took the samovar and came back to Armenia. People would buy old things from us when we came here, pots and other kitchenware; they were gathering them for museums. I didn’t sell my things, I probably should have.

[1] Today Gyoumri, Armenia

[2] District in Tbilisi

[3] ‘Matagh’ is a ritual of sacrifice to God for avoiding a loss.

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shamakhi_Rayon

[5] Here Lusik is making a reference to the Shamakhi Governorate of the Russian Empire. In 1859 the capital of the province was moved to Baku. “You will have heard about the Queen of Shemakha,” says Lusik meaning one of the main heroes of “The Tale of the Golden Cockerel.” Later part of it including the village Zargaran was made part of the Ismayilli Rayon.

[6] Meaning ‘safe and sound’.

[7] Janna was 18 when they moved to Armenia. She was present at the interview, and shared her memories of Baku that were mainly connected with school. To my questions whether she learned the language she said, “They didn’t care very much about teaching us the language; 40-minute lessons twice week twice. The teachers treated us well and would give us good grades for just reading and translating.” Lusik added to this, “I was helping them with translations and homework. My husband always said to my sons, ‘Learn the language. What if they are walking behind you and talking in their language about attacking you; shouldn’t you understand?’ Slavik, my eldest son, was saying that beyond Baku [meaning beyond Azerbaijan] no one needs that language.”

[8] Lusik explained, “During the disturbances they would stop young people and have them say “fındıq” [Azerbaijani for hazel] to see whether they were Armenian.”

[9] Meaning ‘confident’.

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