Fragile Normality: Armenians Living in Baku

by Melanie Krebs

Melanie Krebs“To Yerevan?” Sitting in her small kitchen in one of the few remaining Soviet apartment blocks in the center of Baku, my friend Alena (name changed) looked at me as if this was the most stupid, even offensive, idea she ever heard. “I would rather die than go there!” She had already demonstrated that this was no mere figure of speech, being one of the Armenians who stayed in Baku after January 1990 when − after a nationalist rally about the Karabakh-question − pogroms against the Armenian minority broke out in Baku, injuring and killing a still unknown number of people and destroying Armenian houses. Over the course of a few days, the better part of the third largest ethnic group in Baku (many of them living in the city for more than three generations) fled the city, leaving behind everything they had. Only a few stayed behind, refusing to leave the city they considered  theirs, or as Alena put it: “Where should I have gone to? And why? This is my city. It doesn’t belong only to these lunatics!” The ones who left came to a country that was supposed to be their “homeland” but turned out to be a foreign country: Most Baku Armenians had no connection to the Armenian church anymore and after the last Armenian school in Baku was closed in the 1960s most had only moderate knowledge of the Armenian language. As part of the “cosmopolitan dream” that is often used to describe the Baku of the 1960s and ‘70s, the Armenian community and its demise came up quite often during my research on urban changes in Baku.

Nobody knows how many Armenians like Alena still live in Baku and the estimations vary considerably – from a few hundred to several thousand, most of them Armenian women married to Azerbaijani men together with their children and grandchildren. Interestingly, the members of this group as well as many elderly Azerbaijanis estimate their number − despite all official statistics and even claims that there are no Armenians left at all − as still quite high.

The fact that most members of this group are from mixed families makes the question difficult. Who can be counted as Armenian when language, religion, passport and origin fail as a clear marker: Alena, Russian-speaking and married to an Azerbaijani man for more than 40 years (neither of them being religious) who makes clear that she “was born in Baku and doesn’t want to be buried anywhere else”? Her daughter, member of the Russian-Orthodox church for several years, carrying a French passport and with no intention of learning either Armenian or Azeri? The young man with Russian-Armenian parents who left for Russia, while he stayed behind because of a job and an Azeri girlfriend? They all feel close to the city by the Caspian Sea, but none of them call Azerbaijan their country. Their families and friends are spread all over the world, causing old social contacts to dissolve. This often leads to economic difficulties, when salaries and pensions are too small to live on without the help of more prosperous family members and with social services too weak to support the elderly. Apart from these economic issues, loneliness and isolation are also mentioned as frequent problems.

Especially for elderly people, these issues are often considered more problematic than actual anti-Armenian attitudes in Azerbaijan. “All of my relatives and old friends have left. (…) It is hard to keep in touch. (…) My Azerbaijani neighbors help with shopping or drive me to the doctor without asking for money. I think they know I am Armenian, some have lived long enough in this block to know me from back then, but we don’t talk about it.” Except for the problem of staying behind all alone, two further points are regularly mentioned: the reference to the “old times” during the Soviet Union, when it was not problematic to be known as Armenian, because “nationality was not important, we were all the same”, as one of my interviewees recalled. The other point is that nobody talks about the difficult question of nationality. This is something that also comes up quite often when Azerbaijanis talk about Armenians still living in Baku: then they do not know how to mention that they are aware that the other is Armenian, and sometimes do not even know how to address them, because they do not want to use the other’s suspiciously Armenian (or at least obviously non-Azerbaijani) name.

It is a fragile normality in which Baku-Armenians live now: officially not existing anymore, but still often recognized by their neighbors as Armenians. Anxiously observing the possibility of a new war over Karabakh, but with no sympathy for any of the fighting parties. Loyal to the city, often even thankful towards their Azerbaijani neighbors with whom they share a common history, but cautious towards a community that challenges their feelings of belonging.

Previous versions of this article have been published on BBC Kyrgyz and BBC Uzbek.

About the author:

Melanie Krebs received her PhD in Central Asian Studies in 2010 at Humboldt-University (Berlin) and is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at the Collaborative Research Centre’s “Changing Representations of Social Orders” project (in the sub-project “Identity Politics in the South Caucasus”).