Red Kurdistan

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue Jun 6 12:26:10 UTC 2006

Another sad story - Red Kurdistan

6/5/2006 - 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 (Kurds 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

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 Peoples 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
Stalins 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 grandfathers 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
landowners 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 Stalins 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.

[cf. map at (hs)]

More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list