How an Armenian Family Survived a Pogrom in Baku

My Mom Tatyana Shahnazarova and me, Baku, 1987a
The author and her mom Tatyana Shahnazarova in Baku, 1987

The author and her mom Tatyana Shahnazarova in Baku, 1987

BY YULIA SHAHNAZAROVA

“Life is a like parachute; it keeps you waiting until it opens up, and all the way through you are filled with hope!”

I was a five year-old girl at the time and I didn’t understand the irreversible life changing events that were on their way. I never imagined that I was to become part of a very critical and political reversal of fate. And it all began quite unexpectedly…

We lived in Baku then, in a household that witnessed the tragic fate of ethnic persecution for two generations, just for being born Armenian. A descendant from Artsakh, Shushi, kin of the Meliks, my great-grandfather settled in Baku with his family back in 1890s.

But he had to flee with his family from Baku to escape the waves of the Armenian Genocide that reached Baku in 1918. It was the Baku Armenians’ turn to survive the massacres. After my grandfather was born, my great-grandfather died of typhus leaving his wife alone with four children. My grandfather, a child in exile, was brought up in hunger and poverty in Astrakhan. In 1920 my great-grandmother re-settled in the then Soviet Baku to start life anew. To this day, I vividly remember my grandfather, a man of word and deed and a veteran of World War II. He was a respected professor at the State University in Baku. We were close. He used to tell me: “Yulia jan, whatever happens, keep your faith and hope strong!”

The author's great grandmother Astghik and great grandfather Grigor Melik-Shahnazaryants, survivors of Genocide

The author’s great grandmother Astghik and great grandfather Grigor Melik-Shahnazaryants, survivors of Genocide

It was an ordinary working day in early spring, 1989. I was playing with my toys and my grandfather was sitting on the sofa and telling me fairy tales I always loved to hear him tell me. We were waiting for my mother who was always on time from work. This time she was late. At first we thought the reason was heavy traffic but when she was two hours late, we became nervous. Our anxiety was magnified when our neighbor came in and said that the city was seized with disturbances, roads were closed, and that the agitated crowds were targeting Armenians. My grandfather, usually reserved and calm, showed traces of unrest. My heart sank. Though I did not realize the full meaning of our neighbor’s words, I felt that they meant something awful. I still remember this ugly feeling of fear that lives deep inside.

The author's  grandfather Grigori Shakhnazarov

The author’s grandfather Grigori Shakhnazarov

Chaos overwhelmed both our hearts and the streets of the city. Hearing about the cruelty and brutality committed against Armenians a horrible thought came to my mind: “What if I never see my Mommy again?” But I drove the thought away and deep inside hoped for the better. At last I heard the noise of the key turning in the key-hole and I saw my mother. I didn’t recognize her at first. She was suddenly a different person, wild, frightened and at the same time determined. She did not say a word. She hugged me and my grandfather. Later I heard bits and pieces of the terrible truth my mother was telling my grandfather. The truth about the ruthless acts against Armenians, assaults on women and children in the streets, in their homes, the truth about violence and harassment, blood and suffering, infringed dignity and outrageous cruelty. All I could comprehend and feel was terror, despair, frustration and fear. Mass ethnic cleansing of Armenians began in Baku.

Several months prior to this life-changing event, my uncle had to flee the massacres of Armenians in Sumgait, a neighboring city. Leaving all possessions behind, but having saved the most precious possession, his life, he came to our door in the middle of the night. Something that he had never forgotten from that escape was what one of the Azerbaijani thugs said to his neighbor, a respected Armenian professor at the university, when they completely burned down his home library with a large collection of Armenian books.

“You, Armenians, have no history, write your history anew,” they laughed, setting the library ablaze.

Tortured to near death, my uncle’s neighbor, the professor, was able to flee to the railway station, carrying his empty briefcase and a grieving heart from irreparable loss.

The 1988 Sumgait massacres had normalized the anti-Armenian culture that before the pogroms such hate-filled attacks had become commonplace in Azerbaijan. The incident that took place that day was a precursor to a larger, government-sactioned, pogroms in Baku in 1990.

The author's great-grandmother Valentina Ter-Avanesyan

The author’s great-grandmother Valentina Ter-Avanesyan

The day my mother rushed home, barely surviving, was when the family made the final decision to escape death. We felt that no one would protect us at the expense of their lives. We were in our own house, but it was not our castle. The bricks on our house were shaking with every threat of Azerbaijani neighbors with whom we co-existed on friendly terms for over 70 years. They were determined to kills us, level our dwellings to the ground. Every day we heard of Armenians being tortured and dying. As we were making preparations to leave, a bloody cross appeared on the door of our apartment at night. We realized death is close – there would be no mercy to us the next morning. The marking of a cross drawn with blood meant that Armenians living in that particular apartment will be mercilessly killed soon. Were these the same neighbors and friends who just a couple of months earlier comforted our family to at the funeral of my grandmother? Was that a final point when an atrocity collides with the human face of war? History repeats itself. My family was a step away from death like my great-grandparents were during the Genocide of 1915.

With tears in our eyes and heartbroken, my mother, my grandfather and I parted with the house and memories of the entire lifetime. It was November of 1989. My grandfather’s mind and body refused to believe it until the last minute it was happening. He was already sick at the time and went into stupor. Standing in the doorway, he was unable to move. He didn’t want to believe the reality and did not want to leave the walls that house his history of 70 years.

The author's great-grandfather Hovhannes Ter-Hovhannisyan and great grandmother Parandzem, survivors of Genocide

The author’s great-grandfather Hovhannes Ter-Hovhannisyan and great grandmother Parandzem, survivors of Genocide

From there began our long story as refugees to Armenia – our historical, ancestral land. 27 years have passed since that day with many ups and downs, hardships of being a refugee. That gnawing feeling of anxiety and fear of losing my mother accompanied me for years after we fled. Every time my mother was late from work, I started crying thinking she would not be back. Eventually, together we overcame these fears. During the first few years in Armenia we experienced isolation, language barrier, unemployment, hunger and poverty, years of economic blockade with no electricity, gas. Yet we had a strong determination to survive and grow. I owe a lot to my mother – she is a very strong woman. Through these difficult years she is a light and beacon to me, helping to overcome the challenges of settling in Armenia and starting all anew, living in awful conditions, protecting my safety, struggling as the only breadwinner and boldly accepting life’s blows. She practically brought me up alone, paved her way as a professional and person, and stood firm on her feet, serving as a role model to me.

The author and her mother, Tatyana Shahnazarova, in Yerevan in 2017

The author and her mother, Tatyana Shahnazarova, in Yerevan in 2017

A proud citizen of Armenia now, with many personal and professional accomplishments behind me and with many more ahead, I often recall those days that are carved into my heart forever. Despite them, I am blessed with the biggest gift – life, life to create, spread light and humanity with the ultimate purpose of alleviating sufferings of people and children going through hardships, sharing hope and helping people experience happiness.

Authors

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10 Comments

  1. Sophia Vartanova said:

    Dear Yulia,
    I read your story till end and then I saw your photo and realize who you are.
    The story touched my heart and soul.
    You did not change sins I last sow you, you have the same beautiful smile.
    I hope you doing well.

    With best regards,

    Sopia Vartanova

    • Yulia said:

      Дорогая т. София,
      Спасибо огромное за отзыв и Ваши теплые слова…Я тоже тронута…Надеюсь у вас все хорошо!
      С теплыми пожеланиями,
      Юля

    • Yulia said:

      Dear t. Sofia,
      I replied in Russian a while ago, but somehow the response did not appear. So, I am replying in English now.
      Thanks for your warm words, I am deeply touched…
      Hope all is well with you!
      Best regards,
      Yulia

  2. Helen Avetisyan said:

    What a powerful story, Yulia jan. I hope your mother is in a good health and is proudly enjoying your brightness.

    • Yulia said:

      Helen jan, thank you so much! Mom is doing fine, will pass on your warm words to her!

  3. Yulia Shahnazarova said:

    Дорогая т. София,
    Спасибо огромное за Ваш отзыв и теплые слова…Я тронута…Надеюсь у вас все хорошо!
    С теплыми пожеланиями,
    Юля

  4. anoush said:

    Yulik jan, what a story, I realized the abyss of fear, when no help no protection is around and happy to see you now, when you are so strong, so self reliant and so positive. An anthem of survival, prove that life stronger than anything else – through the prism of life story of a small girl. Great!

  5. Serge Kesisian said:

    Thank you for sharing your touching story. As my great aunt Nina used to say, “ah it’s just a typical Armenian life story!”

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