Azerbaijan International

Spring 1999 (7.1)
Pages 30-33

Stalin's Oppression in Azerbaijan

Oppressive measures were used to control dissent immediately after the Bolsheviks took over in 1920; Stalin was already a leading party figure at the time. After Lenin's death in 1924, Stalin became head of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union until his death in 1953.

Left: Political cartoon depicting fear to speak openly. Political cartoonist: Gunduz.

Though Stalin is credited with many reforms, especially in the industrial and agricultural realms, he created a very repressive atmosphere. According to archival sources, from 4 to 5.5 million people in the USSR were arrested in 1937-1938 and from 800,000-900,000 of them received the death penalty. The others, in nearly all cases, went to prisons or labor camps from which few ever returned.

Jalil Mammadguluzade

Maybe They'll Give It All Back
(late 1920s)

A Short Story

This story tells the plight of a rather pathetic group of old men whose tremendous wealth was seized when the Bolsheviks captured Baku in 1920. Each day these men gather and scour the newspaper for any sign or indication suggesting that the imposed foreign government will soon be toppled. They cling to the hope that, perhaps someday and hopefully soon, they will regain a portion of the land and property that was confiscated.1 They constantly reassure each other of the possibility that someday "they'll give it all back." See Oil Barons - Architecture in AI 6.4.

The author seems to be teasing his fellow compatriots as well as sympathizing with them. Mammadguluzade [pronounced mam-mad-gu-lu-ZAH-de] was the editor of the highly influential journal "
Molla Nasraddin" (1906-1931) which was esteemed for its political and social satire. Mammadguluzade also wrote "The Postbox" in this issue, which pokes fun at the modernization process.

Baku Oil Barons_____
Four or five years ago, while strolling along the Boulevard
2 in summer, I often came across the following scene: four Moslem 3 men sitting beneath the trees in an obscure place on the Boulevard near Seaside [Sabil] Street. One of them would be reading the newspaper while the other three listened intently. One thing piqued my curiosity: these guys always seemed to be looking around suspiciously as if they were criminals, guilty of something, or as if they were afraid of someone or waiting for somebody. Then I got acquainted with them and found out what was going on.

One day, I can even remember the date-June 12, 1923-I was looking for a well-known Azerbaijani actor named Balagardash 4 [pronounced bah-lah-gar-DASH]. I called at his home but couldn't find him. Then I went to the Boulevard, hoping to find him there. As it was a workday, there were only a few people there. I was walking along the shore for quite some time, when I turned toward Tram Street. In the distance, I could see those four men that I had seen before, sitting there in their customary place. I wanted to turn back. To tell the truth, I was suspicious of them.

Right: Typical turn-of-the-century architecture built during the Oil Baron period.

But Balagardash had seen me from a distance and came up to me. Before we started talking, I pointed to those four guys and asked whether he knew them. After looking at them carefully, he laughed and said, "Aha... Uncle Molla, let me introduce you."

But I balked, "I don't want that."

Balagardash looked at me steadily and said, "I assure you, they're worth it. You should get to know them."
At first I hesitated, but my actor friend pulled me by the arm. We went up to them. One of them got up and called Balagardash by name. We greeted one another, then they all stood up and offered their seats to us. We sat down.
Balagardash introduced me: "This is my dear old friend Uncle Molla Nasraddin. I'm sure you've seen his humorous magazine and smiled while reading it."

They all looked at me attentively and said, "Yes, of course."

One or two years ago, these friends sitting here were all men of property, but now they're in search of pennies just to buy cigarettes.

-Jalil Mammadguluzade (1920s)

Then Balagardash turned to me and introduced them in the same way: "Molla, you rascal, just look at the treachery of this world. One or two years ago, these friends sitting here were all men of property. But the Soviet government has taken everything away from them. Now these poor guys are in search of pennies just to buy cigarettes. Oh, what a wretched world this is!"

Balagardash introduced these "poor guys" one by one: "Haji Hasan from Baku used to own 14 caravanserai
5 and 137 buildings before the October Revolution, 6 but the government has taken all these from him and he's living in a very bad situation now.

"The one sitting next to him is Umudbeyov
7 from Sabunchu 8 - you may have heard about him; there's hardly a man in Baku who doesn't know him. His annual income from oil alone was half a million.

"The one sitting here reading the newspaper is the well-known son of the millionaire flour merchant Talafkhanbey.
9 You may have heard of him as well. His father owned steamships and flour mills in every major Russian city."

I had seen him down at the docks.

"And the one sitting here next to me is my old friend. He's the same Ganja
10 land owner Haji Sultan who was 'roaring' like a lion during Nikolai's 11 reign, and who lashed Martinov, the top city police official, in the street so hard that the crack of his whip was heard all the way to St. Petersburg. Even after that event, they haven't been able to subdue Haji Sultan. You must have heard about him."

Molla Nasraddin staff - Alaskandar Jafarzade, Jalil Mammadguluzade (editor), Aladdin Afandizade, Soltan Majid Ganizade, Olmar Faig Nemanzade and Gurbanali SharifovBalagardash finished his speech and then addressed himself to those who were sitting near him, whispering to one of them: "Haji Hasan Agha,
12 don't be overcome by grief. I assure you, they won't be able to keep it, they'll give it back."

I asked Balagardash what he meant by saying, "They won't be able to keep it. Just who wouldn't be able to keep what?"

My actor friend replied, "Uncle Molla,
13 what date is it today? Isn't it June 12? Remember, but just between us (he lowered his voice). It seems 'our friends'14 are in trouble. The English have been very aggressive these days. They've put Chicherin 15 in a very awkward situation and are telling him that either he must pay back his debts or step aside!"

Above: Staff of "Molla Nasraddin", a journal of political and social satire, 1906-1931; (l-r) Alaskandar Jafarzade, Jalil Mammadguluzade (editor), Aladdin Afandizade, Soltan Majid Ganizade, Olmar Faig Nemanzade and Gurbanali Sharifov. National Archives.

I saw that my new acquaintances were obviously delighted with Balagardash's words; it was as if he had brought wonderful news. I kept silent as I had just been introduced.

Balagardash addressed them again, "Mr. Talafkhanbeyzade!
16 You seem to have something new! I see that you are looking very attentively at that newspaper. Tell us what you know and don't worry about Uncle Molla. Read to us, please, what is new there?"

After looking around, Talafkhanbey asked me carefully, "Uncle Molla, have you heard today's news?"

I asked, "What news?"

He said, "Aren't you aware of the note that the English government has sent to Moscow?"

"No, I didn't know about it."

Talafkhanbey again took a crumpled newspaper out of his pocket. It was the Baku local newspaper "Rabochi" (Worker).

Balagardash went over to Talafkhanbey and whispered, "Don't be afraid, there's no one to be afraid of around here. Read the news!"

Talafkhanbey started reading the newspaper: "In the English Parliament, one of Lord Curzon's representatives named Matrush inquired of the Lord, 'How is the English-Soviet relationship developing these days?'

"And Lord Curzon had answered, 'Until the Soviet government reaches a satisfactory conclusion about the Czar's debts to the English government, the hope that the tensions in English-Soviet relations will be eased seems very remote."

One of them remarked cheerfully, "Did you hear that? I tell you, it won't last long!"

Balagardash was speaking in a poetic way just as he used to do on stage, "I bet it will last 'til the second month of autumn. Won't last more than that."

All of them agreed, repeating in a low voice, "InshallahGod willing, God willing!"

We sat there for about half an hour, and after discussing some questions of this nature, we said goodbye to one another, repeating, "Inshallah, God willing."

In this way, I became friends with those four counter-revolutionaries. As they knew that the government had taken 4,000 dessiatinas
18 of land from my family, they took me to be their fellow sufferer. That's why they didn't keep any secrets or news from me. Sometimes when I happened to meet them on the Boulevard, they would greet me with great affection, offer me a seat and we would have a friendly chat.

I can't say that I was particularly fond of their company, but I was amused by the strange and fascinating news they always came up with. For example: The troops of the Polish government have overstepped the Soviet boundaries and occupied some Soviet cities. The English battleships have reached Arkhangelsk.
19 The Entente Alliance 20 is pressuring the Soviets. There are large secret riots going on in Moscow itself...

One day my friends saw me on the Boulevard and suggested that I join them: "Come on, Uncle Molla, maybe you have some news for us?"

I told them that I knew nothing except that which was written in the papers.

Umudbeyov wanted to say something but he looked about and said nothing. Three or four noisy schoolboys were passing by. After one more glance around, Umudbeyov asked me, "Uncle Molla, don't you detect any signs or innuendoes after reading those articles?"

"I don't know what you're talking about," I replied.

Umudbeyov took a crumpled newspaper out of his pocket-it was again from the Rabochi newspaper. He started reading: "Serebrovsky, the director of the Azerbaijan Oil Company, is leaving for America to buy some newly-invented drilling machinery to install here."

I told him that as far as I understood, there was no hidden message. Umudbeyov grinned and suggested the following: "Uncle Molla, Serebrovsky is not going to America to buy drilling machinery; he's going there to sell the Baku oil fields to the American millionaire Rockefeller."

His other three companions agreed with him and asked me, "What do you think about that?"

"Nothing," I said flatly.


I'll never forget my latest meeting with these four men who were always complaining about their fate. On that day my actor friend Balagardash and I decided to take a stroll down the Boulevard. We met in the alley and then walked awhile along the Boulevard and decided to sit down somewhere. In the distance, we saw those guys sitting in their usual secret place and talking about something. Balagardash laughed and coaxed me over to them. I complied. We went up, greeted one another as usual, and sat down.

The first item of news that day was that Lord Curzon had delivered a new ultimatum to Chicherin. The second was that English battleships were sailing to Batumi.
22 Supposedly, the ships would blockade Batumi and that's why the Batumi residents were already emigrating to Turkey.

After some talk of this kind, Balagardash and I got up to leave. We said goodbye to one another. Shaking my hand, Haji Hasan said, "God is merciful, maybe they'll give it all back."

Those words had become deeply embedded in my mind as they were the primary point of reference in our relationship. After we parted and turned up an alley off the Boulevard, my actor friend Balagardash started snapping his fingers, leaping up and down in the air, and singing just as he used to do on stage:
"Maybe they'll give it all back,
Maybe they'll give it all back."

We left the Boulevard and separated at Fountain Square,
23 smiling. Balagardash called back to me. I turned to look over my shoulder and heard him once more saying, "Maybe they'll give it all back." I went back to my apartment, grinning all the way home.

I have already lost hope, and everyone in a situation similar to mine is looking for a job. There were times when I and my four acquaintances were waiting impatiently, hoping that the 4,000 dessiatinas of my family's land would be given back along with the millions and the oil fields belonging to my four Boulevard acquaintances.

We've been waiting for a long time...but nothing has happened.

We meet every day to talk and discuss the items in the newspapers with the hope of discovering some slight hint or indication. We ask those who come from Europe and Turkey if they are going to help us solve these issues. "Wouldn't it be fair if Agha bey or Jahangir Khan got at least 1,000 dessiatinas of land back out of their 10,000? Or if Musa Naghiyev's heir
24 got 5 or 10 buildings of the 237 that the government had taken away from his grandfather? Then the poor heir who is not used to working would not be in so much trouble and so disgraced among his people."

To make a long story short, I often met with my associates. We had friendly chats together and cheered each other up by saying that hopefully one day we would achieve our goal. With God's help, we would all be given back the property that had been confiscated.

"Maybe they'll give it all back." Those were our daily words.

But today the Soviet government has still not been toppled. My four friends and I are already so disappointed that we are no longer waiting for our 4,000 dessiatinas of land, 117 buildings, 14 steamers and oil fields to be given back. Poets like Vahid
25 have memorialized our troubles in their verses, composers have written music, and singers perform the following song at every festivity:

"Maybe they'll give it all back,
Maybe they'll give it all back."

And the youth snap their fingers to keep the rhythm of the beat.

1a [Introduction] Robert C. Tucker, "Stalin in Power: The Revolution from Above, 1928-1941." (New York: Norton, 1992), 474. Up

1 [Story text] When the Bolsheviks came to power in Baku, all real estate property was confiscated. In most cases, the large mansions of the Oil Barons were split up into numerous small apartments. Only the most luxurious residences were converted into museums or preserved intact for governmental functions. Up

2 Boulevard refers to the wide walkway along the sea in downtown Baku. Today it is still one of the most popular places to relax, stroll and meet friends, especially in evenings. Up

3 At the turn of the last century, the term "Muslim" was often used to differentiate Azeris from Russians or foreigners. These days, the term "Azerbaijani" or "Azeri" is more likely to be used. Up

4 Balagardash in Azeri means "younger brother". The author has carefully chosen all the names of his characters in this story. Up

5 Caravanserais are similar to motels but with provision for pack animals (camels, mules and horses) to eat and rest in the enclosed courtyard at night. Up

6 October Revolution refers to October 24-25, 1917, when the Bolshevik Party seized power in Russia and set up the Soviet regime. Up

7 Umudbeyov is a name comprised of word roots that mean "hope" (umud) and "wealthy landowner" (bey) plus the Russian suffix (-ov) indicating "son of". Up

8 Sabunchu is one of the suburbs of Baku. Up

9 Talafkhanbey is made of root words that mean "talaf" (wasted), "khan" (ruler), "bey" (wealthy merchant or landowner). Later in the story, the suffix "-zade" is added which means "son of" in Azeri. Up

10 Ganja, an ancient city, is located in the north-central part of the country. Today, it is the third-largest city in Azerbaijan.Up

11 Nicholas II of Russia (1868-1918), the last Russian czar, was generally considered inept and autocratic. The Bolsheviks overthrew and killed him and his family in 1918. Up

12 The terms "Haji" and "Agha" are polite forms of address for men. "Haji" refers to someone who has made the holy pilgrimage to Mecca, where Mohammad the founder of Islam is buried. "Agha" means "Mr." and is usually followed by the first name among Azeris living in what is now the Republic of Azerbaijan. The tendency is to follow with last names among Azeris living in Iran. Up

13 Molla refers to the author, who edited a magazine called "Molla Nasraddin". The character Molla Nasraddin refers to the legendary sage believed to have lived in Turkey in the 13th century and who made humorous commentaries on fundamental issues relating to human nature such as social injustice, class privilege, selfishness, cowardliness, laziness, ignorance and narrow-mindedness. [See the article in AI's Folklore issue, "Molla Nasraddin, Comic Sage of the Ages," AI 4.3, Summer 1996]. Up

14 "Our friends" refers to the Soviet leaders. Up

15 Chicherin refers to Georgi Vasilievich Chicherin (1872-1936), the skillful Russian diplomat who conducted Soviet foreign policy with Europe from 1918-1928. Up

16 Talafkhanbeyzade would translate literally as "ruined son of a wealthy ruling land owner." Up

17 Rabochi - one of the most prominent Russian language newspapers in Baku. It is still in existence today, nearly 80 years after the story was written. Up

18 Dessiatina is a measure of land, slightly larger than a hectare. One dessiatina equals 2.7 acres. Up

19 Arkhangelsk is a Russian city located on the coast of the North Sea. Up

20 Entente was an Anglo-French alliance against Germany. Up

21 Rockefeller refers to John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937), U.S. industrialist and philanthropist, who founded the Standard Oil Company which monopolized the oil industry in the U.S. in the early 20th century. Up

22 Batumi is a major seaport in Georgia off the Black Sea. Up

23 Fountain Square, located a few blocks from the sea in downtown Baku, is still one of the main parks today. Up

24 Musa Naghiyev (1849-1919), was allegedly the wealthiest of all Oil Barons in Baku at the turn of the last century. He is remembered for constructing the extraordinarily ornate building which currently houses the Presidium of the Academy of Sciences. [See Oil Barons in the Architecture issue, AI 6.4, Winter 1998]. Up

25 Vahid (1895-1965), a famous poet, was known as the best Azeri ghazal-master of the 20th century. Ghazals are a form of poetry with a particular rhyming pattern. Up

Translated by Aynur Hajiyeva

From Azerbaijan International (7.1) Spring 1999.
© Azerbaijan International 1999. All rights reserved.

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