By Austin Clayton
As part of events dedicated to the 100-year anniversary of the border protection of Azerbaijan, the State Border Service has established the Museum of Victims of Political Repression in Baku. The museum, dedicated to the memory of the victims of Soviet repression, is located inside the State Border Service’s administrative building, which once served as KGB headquarters, the same place where many of these victims were interrogated, tortured, or killed.
Azerbaijan became the first Soviet republic in the Caucasus in 1920, and for many years, the country was ruled from Moscow by non-Azerbaijanis. From the foundation of the republic, political repressions became common as a result of loss of independence and dissatisfaction with the rule of the center.
The Soviet repression policy intensified in the 1930s, and tens of thousands of Azerbaijanis were deported or killed during the period of 1930-1938, at a time when the population of Azerbaijan barely exceeded 3 million.
Azerbaijanis from all parts of society were targeted by these repressions, however a large number of victims belonged to the Azerbaijani army and the intelligentsia – poets, writers, scientists, and academics. This was, of course, hugely destructive of Azerbaijani culture and heritage.
During this period, it was common for people to be labeled as ‘enemies of the nation’ for no particular reason, and no one was exempt from arbitrary punishment.
Deputy Chief of the State Border Service of Azerbaijan, Farhad Taghizada, recounted a childhood memory. He described his surprise while finding his grandparents’ photo album with their graduation photos. In some of the photos, the faces were neatly cut. These faceless figures were group mates that had been subjected to repression, and erasing their faces meant erasing relations with the victims in an attempt to avoid persecution themselves.
Family members, friends, acquaintances, and colleagues of the victims were the first to be persecuted first. The wives of the ‘enemies of the nation’ were exiled with 8 years of imprisonment. Special labor camp - ALZhIR, Akmol Labour Camp for Wives of Traitors of the Motherland, was established in the steppes of Kazakhstan for their sentence.
The initiative for creating a museum was originally put forward by Colonel General Elchin Guliyev, and it was supported by President Ilham Aliyev. In the museum, former cells have been restored to provide an authentic recreation of where many of these atrocities took place. A research group was established to collect information on these victims at the museums and archives.
Inside the museum, there are exhibits dedicated to different categories of victims. For example, one of the spaces is dedicated to victims that were studying in Europe with scholarships from the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic. These students, considered intellectual elite, were targeted, and their deaths had a severe impact on the future of Azerbaijan.
Another section is dedicated to the Azerbaijanis deported from their homes in what is now Armenia. On the order of Moscow, between 1948 and 1950, hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis had to leave the native lands where they lived for centuries, and were moved to unfavorable places for living, with many dying along the way, others in a new settlements. This represented ethnic cleansing and another form of repression within the region. This section of the museum offers documentation and testimonies describing this forced resettlement.
Although this is not the first museum dedicated to the topic of state-backed repression, it presents information in a very different manner from other exhibits. All presented information is fact-based, and does not pursue any political conjuncture.
Although the museum is not fully operational, the efforts have already proven to be a success. In addition to the creation of a platform of learning for future generations, the museum and its resources have already helped some find closure and answers to unresolved questions.
Lieutenant General Taghizada described one case where the children, now in their 80s, of two women from ALZhIR were able to uncover details about their mothers. While they were previously scared to discuss the Soviet repressions, coming forward and using the resources of the museum allowed them to recover the memories of their mothers.
Currently, the State Border Service is in the process of recruiting museum staff so working hours are not regular, however, requests to visit can be easily arranged.
Open to the public, the primary intention of the museum is raising awareness, especially for the youth of the country. The museum is working with tour companies to arrange visits for international visitors as well.
To this day, the topic of Soviet repression in Azerbaijan is a sensitive matter. Management of State Border Service hopes that this museum will bring light to this topic, and that the current and future generations can achieve a better understanding of the tragedy that Azerbaijan faced during 20-50s of the last century.