Another sad story - Red Kurdistan
June 05, 2006
By Nizameddin Rzayev
As a Kurd born in Red Kurdistan, the Kurdish area tucked away between Armenia and Azerbaijan and speaking very little Kurdish, ever since my childhood I became aware of our certain cultural differences from the rest of people-Azeris and Armenians around us. Although, I grew up speaking Azerbaijani, a branch of Turkic languages and some broken Russian, we still had a lot of strange-sounding, different words in our everyday language which were not used by Azeris. Afterwards I found out that these words were borrowed from Kurmanci which was our original language before being assimilated into speaking Azerbaijani. Some of the oldest community members were still able to speak Kurdish but since they belonged to the past that Soviet citizens had to dispense with in order to absorb “progressive” cosmopolitan communist ideals, they were in no position to pass on our cultural heritage and native language to us. Later my Mom told me that whenever her father and aunt did not want the children and outsiders to understand what they were talking about they switched from Azeri to Kurdish. All this knowledge further inflamed my insatiable, childish curiosity to delve into the mysterious past of my small part of Greater Kurdistan.
When we went to other parts of Azerbaijan and Armenia the locals called us Kurds or “Mountaineers” interchangeably. They sometimes sympathetically made fun of us because of our strict adherence to honor, self restraint and pride. For instance, we would seldom go to police or court if two people had any personal differences, viewing it a less manly means. There would always be older, respected member of our community there mediating to settle any problem. We could speak Azerbaijani fluently but with a distinct accent peculiar to only Kurds. We were on good terms with both Azeris and Armenians until the Karabax war threw us on the same side of battle with Azerbaijanis as their fellow citizens against Armenians.
Armenians evidently made no distinction between Moslem Kurds and Azeris when they captured all districts one by one that made up former Red Kurdistan adjacent to Nagorno Karabax. The irony was that Yezidi Kurds living in Armenia were fiercest Armenian soldiers fighting against their own brethren in Lachin and Kelbajar.
When I come to think about it, I tend to believe that the very same religious affinity with Azerbaijanis had been a big facilitating factor in the linguistic assimilation and loss of national identity of so many Kurds over the decades.
I had so many questions yearning for answer in my head about our Kurdish roots and history that I always bombarded my grandfather who could speak a broken Kurdish and other older people with my never-ending questions. But I was always disappointed not to find any reliable source exploring our national saga partly because any form of asserting national identity under Soviet Union was strongly discouraged and partly because most of the people in this part of Kurdistan had lost their history. The assimilation policy ruthlessly pursued against Kurds by the central government of Soviet Azerbaijan and isolation from their brethren in the “mainland” Kurdistan had done irreparable damage to Kurdish culture and language.
There were two theories voiced by elders as to the history of our community, one being that our grandfathers were moved as a part of 24 Kurdish tribes by Shah Abbas of Iran in 16th century from different parts of Irani Kurdistan and Xorasan to the Caucasus to fortify the borders of Safavids against Ottomans. But my grandfather claimed that we had come to the Caucasus from modern-day Southern Kurdistan (around modern Mosul, Kirkuk cities) 300 years before since our tribes (Ferihkhani) was one of the recalcitrant Kurdish tribes refusing to pay taxes to Ottomans. Thus, our true history was lost in the clouds of history and ruthless fate that befell Kurds in all the parts of our rightful homeland. Later I found out that Kurds had lived in the Caucasus since time immemorial, establishing strong Kurdish dynasties like Sheddadites, Revvadites that ruled big parts of modern-day Azerbaijan in 9th -13th centuries. Thus, there had always been Kurds in Red Kurdistan and other parts of Azerbaijan such as Nakhchevan before we came to settle in these beautiful, picturesque lands.
Kurds had left their indelible imprint on the folklore, music, literature and history of Azerbaijan. Old Mugams such as Kurd-Ovshari, Bayati-Kurd, Kurd-Shahnaz are still considered to be the best examples of classic music in modern-day Azerbaijan. In a famous epoch “Koroglu”, the bravery of “Kurdoglu” (Kurd’s son) against feudal pashas and landowners in redressing their injustices towards the poor and dispossessed is so exulted and praised. The world-famous classic of Azerbaijan literature Nizami Gencevi (1141-1209) devoted his famous poem “Xeyir and Sher” to the good deeds and virtues of a Kurdish girl and her rich farther, praising in so many words her beauty, compassion, generosity towards the helpless “Xeyir” by saving him from hunger and death.
During the heydays of perestroika launched by the last head of former Soviet Union, Gorbachov, there was a renewed interest in Kurdish culture and language. Late Shamil Askerov, a poet, tireless researcher and scholar on Kurdology born in Kelbajar were able to introduce Kurdish language classes in some Kurdish village schools. I remember how proud little Kurdish boys and girls were of new Kurdish words and phrases they had learned in school in my village called Zeylik. Unfortunately those good days were short-lived when the bloody Karabax war put an end to this initiative by dispersing all the Kurds around different corners of Azerbaijan.
Kurds lived in Red Kurdistan made up of four administrative units-Kelbajar, Lachin, Gubadly, Zengilan and part of Jebrail until 1993 when a long lasting bloody conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno Karabax drove all the Kurds out of their ancestral homeland. The founding and abolishment of Red Kurdistan is somewhat shrouded in mystery.
The tale related by our elders had it that Lenin personally gave the order to establish the Red Kurdistan. Nevertheless, there are certain facts that shed some light on the real story of this first-ever Kurdish Autonomy in modern history. Red Kurdistan was officially set up on July 7, 1923 by the decision of a Special Committee (The official Russian name was Kurdistanski Uezd), confirmed on July17 by the Executive Board of the Committee headed by S. Kirov, a high Bolshevik functionary. But the degree of autonomy granted on us paled in comparison to that of neighboring ethnic Armenians in Nagorno Garabax Autonomous Province. Kurdistanski Uezd was dissolved on April 8, 1929 after the Sixth Azerbaijani Congress of Soviets authorized the structural reshuffling of the administrative units.
Again on May 30, 1930 Central Executive Committee of Azerbaijan made the decision to establish Kurdistanski Okrug, Lachin chosen as its capital which also included other Kurdish districts-Zengilan and part of Jebrail rayonys (districts) that had been left out when Kurdistanski Uezd was created. But the Okrug only existed 2 and half months before the Central Executive Committee of Soviets and Council of People’s Commissar liquidated the Kurdistani Okrug on July 23, 1930. Interestingly, liquidation sidestepped the neighboring Nagorno Karabax Autonomous Province mostly because of the influence and strong resistance of Armenian communists in Moscow and Baku.
The role of nationalist Azeri beauracrats in this unjust decision for Kurds was probably substantial since there they had all the interest in the total assimilation of Azerbaijani Kurds and did not face any strong resistance from the mostly uneducated Kurdish Communities. By that time almost half the Kurds (mostly young generation) in this autonomous province had been assimilated into substituting widely-spoken Azerbaijani for their native Kurdish. The different official sources put the size of Kurdish population in Red Kurdistan at 60.000 after the October Revolution (1917) excluding the sizable Kurdish communities in Nakhchevan and other parts of Azerbaijan. To make matters worse, the official census taken in 1921 manipulated the real number of the Kurds by reclassifying those who did not speak Kurdish as a first language as “Azerbaijanis”. It is not surprising since Baku had no interest in the revival of Kurdish culture and national awareness among the young generation.
During this short-lived relative autonomy and a short period afterwards there were several government-sponsored expeditions led by V. Susoev, Chursin, orientalist V. Gurko, Kriyazhin, into the region to study the language, culture of the highlander Kurds.
Several articles on the Kurds of Soviet Azerbaijan were published in a communist newspaper “Zariya Vostoka” as a result of these expeditions.
Conference on national minorities was held in Baku in June 1931. Soviet author A Bukhspan published a very useful detailed booklet on the Kurds of Azerbaijan, traveling to lots of Kurdish villages and settlements in Kelbajar, Lachin and Nakchevan after the Moscow reproved Baku for its neglectful and chauvinistic policy towards the Kurdish minority. Around 30 Kurdish books were published in Azerbaijan between 1930 and 1938 despite the red tape and purposeful neglect by official Baku. Red Kurdistanis were briefly able to take Kurdish summer classes in 1931; the same year the newspaper “Soviet Kurdistan” was founded in Lachin; Kurdish Department was established at Shusha Pedagogical College In 1932 where my late grandfather, Jafar Ahmedov was sent as a teacher. For many years to come he would be deeply involved in the education of mountainous communities of Kelbajar and Lachin. His leadership and commitment to spreading education among the Kurdish villagers earned him a Lenin Order, one of the highest awards of Soviet Union.
This relative revival of Kurdish national awareness was cut short by Stalin’s notorious 1937- 1938 repression that was implemented with unheard of brutality by Mirrcefer Bagirov, the communist leader of Soviet Azerbaijan. The repression resulted in the closing of all Kurdish language schools and publication. Thousands of Kurds from Nakhchivan and Red Kurdistan were deported to Central Asian republics -Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan. My grandfather’s family was one of these unfortunate Kurdish families who were deprived of all their possessions and property, declared the “enemy of people” because of their former landowner’s status, and exiled under inhuman conditions to Central Asia.
Later, some but not all of these families made it back to their homeland after this nightmare period was over. Unsurprisingly, most of the Kurds in Central Asia nowadays are the descendents of those Kurdish families deported from Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia during the repression years.
The deplorable situation for Kurdish culture and self-awareness did not change much even after the repression was eased with Stalin’s death.
Nevertheless, there were sporadic expeditions and published work by Russian kurdologists such as T. Aristova (1957), K. Kromov(1961) Ch.
Bakaev(1960), a Yezidi Kurd by background, that dealt with the dialect and culture of Azerbaijani Kurds despite obstructions of Baku.
Bakhaev found out the presence of considerable concentration of Kurdish communities in other parts of Azerbaijan such as Xachmaz, Ismayilli, Yevlax. He also noted that Kurdish language fluency had remarkably deteriorated among the Azerbaijani Kurds, particularly among the young generation, Nakhchevani Kurds being an exception. Their studies provide some useful but not convincing information on the size of Kurdish population and Kurdish settlements in the country since they extensively relied on official census data.
The policy of wiping out all the traces of Kurdish culture is confirmed by the official census taken in 1959, 1970, 1979, and 1989 in Soviet Azerbaijan which manipulated the size of Kurdish minority of Azerbaijan to a greater extent by reclassifying most of the Kurds as “Azerbaijani”. The result was ridiculously low statistic for the size of Kurdish population in the country: 1,487 Kurds in 1959, 5, 488 Kurds in 1970, 5,676 Kurds in 1979, 12,226 Kurds in 1989. Besides, all the other new settlements in Red Kurdistan that had brunched out from the older Kurdish villages were reclassified as Azerbaijani villages purely because of the fact that the young brainwashed inhabitants in these settlements used Azerbaijani as their first language. (The widely-accepted consensus today is that there are at least 500,000 Kurds in Azerbaijan, a country of 8 million, excluding those who have been completely assimilated whereas the official data only admits the presence of 13-14 thousand Kurds in Azerbaijan)
The biggest disaster was still ahead for Red Kurdistan. The Upper Karabakh War Btween Armenia and Azerbaijan broke out in 1988 after the Armenian nationalists of Nagorno Karabakh and Armenia demanded separation of this autonomous province from Azerbaijan. The long-lasting conflict(1988-1995) had dire consequences for the population of Red Kurdistan: All the Kurdish settlements and districts were occupied by Armenian forces with the military support of Russia. The fierce rivalry for power in Baku and consequent confrontation between the different factions of unorganized National Army rendered Azerbaijani troops completely unable to defend the territories of the Republic, losing all the districts of Red Kurdistan – Lachin (1992), Kelbajar(1993), Zengilan(1993), Gubadli(1993),Cebrayil(1993) to Armenian forces without any resistance. As a result, the inhabitants of this former Kurdish Autonomy were driven out of their homelands and scattered around different parts of Azerbaijan.
Most of the displaced Kurdish population still lives in refugee tents and temporary settlements under harsh circumstances, waiting to turn back to their native homelands for over 13 years. The negotiations between Azerbaijan and Armenia to find a peaceful solution for resolving the conflict has produced no results so far. The Kurdish Cultural Center -“Ronayi”, is virtually unable to promote the Kurdish culture and language among the young assimilated Kurds because of lack of funding and watchful eye of government with evident pressure from Turkey. The dispersal of the Kurdish communities around the different corners of the country further complicates the task of putting up a common front to save our culture and language from the verge of extinction. However, a lot can be done to help revive the Kurdish culture in Azerbaijan by working towards practical goals such as opening Kurdish language courses and schools, providing the material to teach Kurdish, sending the young Kurds of Azerbaijan to study in cities like Suleymani, Hawler of Southern Kurdistan. In this respect, the Kurdish Diaspora in Europe, Kurdistan Regional Government and higher Kurdish officials of Iraq today can play an important role in improving the lot of these communities and facilitating the revival of our cultural heritage on the brink of extinction.