Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Azerbaijan: Russians Come to Terms With Minority Status

The Russian language is vanishing in Azerbaijan as the community dwindles.
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Pavel Kazakov, 73, has lived in the village of Ivanovka all his life, but he may be part of a vanishing breed. He is a Russian in Azerbaijan.

In Soviet times, more than 400,000 Russians lived in the Soviet republic south of the Caucasus mountains, but two decades after the end of communism, just 160,000 remain and Ivanovka is the only all-Russian village left in the country.

“I say thank you to the Azerbaijan government, that it gave us the opportunity to save our collective farm, and our identity,” Kazakov said.

But the future of his fellow Russians in Azerbaijan is less than certain. In Soviet times, knowledge of the Russian language was obligatory for anyone wanting to get ahead, which guaranteed a decent living for ethnic Russian teachers and officials.

“After the fall of the Soviet Union, this influence unfortunately passed, and with it went one of the most important channels for connecting Azerbaijan to world culture and arts. The English language, which has taken its place, is only known in a very narrow segment of the population,” Zardusht Alizada, a political analyst, said.

“This impacts negatively on the cultural and intellectual level of the population.”

The Russians in Azerbaijan often failed to learn the Azeri language, and were doubly disadvantaged with the collapse of the Soviet system – their skills were no longer in demand, and they could not compete on equal terms in the jobs market with Azeri-speakers. That meant many of them left; 200,000 from the capital, Baku, alone.

“My mother was a teacher of Russian language and literature. In the early 1990s, the Russian sections and the Russian language lessons in Azeri schools were cut sharply, and she lost her job. In schools, instead of three Russian language teachers, there was just one. After my mother lost her job, she decided to move to her brother in Moscow,” Alina Belyayeva, a Russian in Baku, said.

Belyayeva is also a teacher by training, but has not worked as one for a long time.

“I taught mathematics in the Russian-language section of a Baku school. I also was left without work when the number of classes in the Russian section was cut. They suggested I could move to the Azeri section, but it was hard for me to teach in Azeri. I, of course, did not leave Azerbaijan but I had to change my job. Now I’m an accountant,” she said.

In central Baku, a shop run by the Ivanovka collective farm that sells only products grown in the village is a focal point for the Russian community. Tatyana Yermolayeva is originally from Ivanovka but now works behind the counter in the shop.

“Working in this shop, I still feel myself to be in my native village. It’s as if I didn’t move anyway,” she said.

Arif Yunus, a conflict expert, said Russians in Soviet Azerbaijan could be divided into three groups. The first to come were religious minorities – such as the Molokans of Ivanovka – who moved to Azerbaijan in the 18th and 19th centuries. The second group was descended from oil workers who moved in the early or mid-20th century. The last group was made up of servicemen and their families who had moved to Azerbaijan more recently.

As the Soviet Union fell apart, the servicemen left first, then the oil workers. The religious minorities in the main have stayed behind.

He said Russians face the same problems as all residents of Azerbaijan – unemployment, small pensions, the financial crisis, corruption and human rights abuses – but have their own problems too, mainly as a result of not knowing the language.

Apart from that, many Russians have accommodation concerns. When Russians fled Baku in the late 1980s – a time of mass disturbances between Armenians and Azeris – they often did not sell their flats. On their return, they found that refugees had moved in and that they did not have the right to eject them.

“In my opinion, the main reason why Russians do not know Azeri and do not take part in public life is because they have still not rid themselves of the feeling they had during Soviet times. Then, everyone spoke Russian, and there was no need to study the local language. Only in regions where the Russian language was known less than in Baku did Russians manage to successfully integrate,” Yunus said.

“As for why they do not participate in public life, this is down to a fear of upsetting their position. Russians prefer not to talk about their problems, because they are afraid that some radical nationalist forces could come to power, and then their situation could get worse.”

Mikhail Zabelin, who, as a member of parliament, is considered the head of the Russian community in Azerbaijan, said the main problem is Russians’ lack of knowledge of Azeri.

“In all other ways, Russians are just citizens of Azerbaijan like all the rest. They have no extra rights or privileges, and no one acts against them,” he said.

It may well be that emigration is coming to an end, and Azerbaijan’s remaining Russians have adapted to their relatively new position as a minority. Despite a Kremlin-sponsored programme to entice ethnic Russians to Russia, where the population has fallen sharply since 1991 and new immigrants are needed to bolster the workforce, the number of Russians in Azerbaijan has remained largely unchanged for several years.

Olesya Kozmina was born and has lived her whole life in Azerbaijan, and has no intention of leaving to join her relatives in Russia.

“In my opinion, sometimes it is actually easier to be a Russian in Azerbaijan. For example, when applying for a job, they think that Russians are harder-working and more responsible,” she said.

“My daughter is growing up, and it is dangerous in Russia. There are alcoholics and drug addicts.”

Vafa Mammadova is an IWPR staff writer.