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

Azerbaijan's Jewish Enclave

“Mountain Jews” live harmoniously with their Muslim neighbours in the north of the country.
By Sabuhi Mammadli

Krasnaya Sloboda is the safest place for Jews at the moment,” said Nisim Nisimov, head of the municipal administration in the village of Krasnaya Sloboda - which means “Red Settlement”. “We are not hostile towards Muslims. We live on perfect good neighbourly terms with them.”

Krasnaya Sloboda, the last surviving compact community of “Mountain Jews” in the Caucasus, is situated in the mountainous Quba district of northern Azerbaijan.

This small community has managed to stay immune to both the Jewish exodus from the region following the end of the Soviet Union and fallout from the Jewish-Muslim conflict in the Middle East.

During the recent conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, the media in Azerbaijan came out with conflicting reports, with some saying that Jewish families had fled from Israel to Krasnaya Sloboda, while others said that residents had gone in the opposition direction to enrol as volunteers in the Israeli Defence Forces.

Semyon Ihilov, head of the Jewish community of Azerbaijan, told IWPR the reports were not true and a visit to Krasnaya Sloboda suggested a much more quiet and harmonious picture - despite it being an island of Jews surrounded by Muslims.

According to Jewish community leaders, a little over 16,000 Jews live in Azerbaijan today, of whom 11,000 are Mountain Jews with about 3,600 of them in Krasnaya Sloboda. They speak a dialect of the Tat language, which is related to Persian, and have lived in the Caucasus for generations.

Krasnaya Sloboda is a prosperous place, which stands in sharp contrast to the surrounding area. The roads are in a good state and there are plenty of expensive foreign cars. Seen from high ground, the village has a reddish tint, due to the red tiling of the roofs - which may be the explanation for its name. Frequent signs in Hebrew and the wearing of skullcaps are the main clues to the different cultural identity of the place.

“The village has two secondary schools, a college, synagogue, a house of culture, where we observe all our religious holidays and historical dates,” said Nisimov.

Local residents are mostly well off, but few of them have jobs. Municipal official Pisah Isakov, said, “There used to be a canning factory here, which employed at least a thousand people. Nowadays the plant is running at half capacity, and unemployment has grown. There are no lands to cultivate in the village either.”

Explaining the secret of the village’s prosperity, Isakov said it was supported by benefactors, all wealthy natives of the village now living elsewhere He said these included three men Zahar Iliev, Telman Ismailov, Sergei Kokunov, who have fortunes estimated at between 350 and 540 million dollars and all of whom feature in Forbes Magazine’s list of the 100 richest people in Russia.

Isakov said Kokunov had donated money for repair work on the schools in Krasnaya Sloboda, which should be completed by the beginning of the new school year.

Relations are generally friendly between Krasnaya Sloboda and other villages and there are cases of inter-ethnic marriages.

“Three years ago my son married the daughter of my neighbour Abraham,” said Gasym Aliev. “They live in Israel today. Of course we are worried about them because of the war. But from a financial point of view, they live very well and send money to us every month too.”

However, some neighbouring Muslims - Azerbaijanis, Lezgins and Tats - are envious of the Jews’ prosperity.

“I have a great respect for Jews,” said Abdullayev. “But why have they been able to make their village look like a small European town, whereas we cannot do this with ours? You must have seen how terrible the state of Quba’s bus station is. And that’s the centre of the district… I’m not even mentioning the villages.”

Nisim Nisimov said that the village’s population used to be 19,000 but, beginning in the 1970s, many Jews began to emigrate to Israel. In the last few years the outflow has stopped. Several Azerbaijani and Lezgin families now live alongside their Jewish neighbours.

Nisimov wants to encourage Jews to move back to the village. “It would be a justified step for our compatriots to move from warring Israel back to our peaceful village,” said Nisimov. “During the many years we’ve lived in the village surrounded by Muslim communities, there have never been any ethnic or religious differences. We’ve lived in peace and harmony for many years.

“Krasnaya Sloboda is in fact the safest place in the world for Jews to live. But despite the safety of our village, not a single Jewish family has come from Israel to live here. Even those who left the village have never come back.”

School headmaster Yaushva Silanduyev said they get many visits from former residents, especially on August 3 which is their annual day of mourning for the dead.

“Lots of people came from America, France, Israel and Russia this year,” he said. “Probably, this year’s mass arrival of Jews in Azerbaijan was misinterpreted because of the war between Israel and Lebanon.”

The villagers are keen to stress that they are good Azerbaijani citizens and their first loyalty is to Azerbaijan. “We consider ourselves to be part of the Azerbaijani people,” said Nisimov. “A big part of the repertoire of the Gubba musical ensemble, which I direct, consists of Azeri folk songs and mugams (traditional songs).”

Abdulla Abdullayev, from the nearby Azerbaijani village of Nugadi, said the Gubba group from Krasnaya Sloboda was frequently invited to Azerbaijani weddings, “They sing our songs well, even better than many Azerbaijani musicians.”

In Krasnaya Sloboda, they also mention the fact that their most famous son Albert Agaronov, a tank-driver, was made a hero of Azerbaijan after he was killed defending the town of Shusha in 1992 in the war over Nagorny Karabakh. Lazar, aged 73, said, “All Mountain Jews are proud of him. If a new war to free Karabakh begins tomorrow, I’m sure all the young men from Krasnaya Sloboda will stand up and fight.”

However, Lazar adds that no one in the village has displayed any willingness to go and defend Israel and he doubted that would happen, “Yes, we are Jews, and when blood is being spilled in Israel, we feel pain for our brothers. But we are citizens of Azerbaijan, and our homeland is here. We should defend our homeland, Azerbaijan.”

Sabuhi Mamedli is a freelance journalist based in Baku.

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