I gaze at the photograph….”
Bulát Okudzháva

For two and a half years the Trans-Caucasus has been burning and bleeding. Six million Azerbaijanis living in a territory of 86,000 square kilometers, and three million Armenians in a territory of 30,000 square kilometers, have forgotten peace. Why has this happened? The 157,000 Armenians of the 4,000 square meters of Nagorno-Karabakh made their will manifest: in a resolution during the February 20, 1988, session of the Regional Council they demanded the right to be reunited with their people in Armenia. Since then we have been calling this war a “conflict,” or “the actions of extremists, bandits”—anything but war. A war of the strong against the weak, a conflict between law and violence. Karabakh began with law, Azerbaijan responded with violence.

Exactly one week later, after Moscow’s peremptory response to the resolution of the Regional Council of Karabakh, the pogrom against Armenians in the Azerbaijan town of Sumgait, not far from Baku, began, and continued for three days—February 26, 27, and 28. The Armenians were counting on justice and glasnost. What they got was bloodshed at the airport in Zvartnots, on the outskirts of Yerevan, in Armenia—where they say the now famous General Makashov was in command—and a stream of lies on television and in the press.

To the sound of this uproar was born the million-strong Azerbaijani movement in defense of “the sacred grove” in Topkhana (an old city in Nagorno-Karabakh in which Armenians have built an aluminum plant). Andrei Dmitrievich [Sakharov] and I had been there, and were convinced that no grove ever existed. But not far off, behind tall fences, stand the dachas of the Azerbaijani establishment. Pogroms against Armenians in Kirovabad and other regions of Azerbaijan followed the Baku demonstrations, as did a flood of Armenian refugees. By the end of November 1988 the Armenians couldn’t stand it any longer and began expelling Azerbaijanis from Armenia. The new misfortune established a balance: 230,000 Armenian refugees and the same number of Azerbaijani refugees.

Then came the earthquake of December 1988, and the stress felt by all Armenians after that. Another half million people were made homeless. Troops were brought into Armenia, into Yerevan, where there had never been any violence. Azerbaijanis destroyed the Azerbaijan-Iran border and weapons began flowing into Azerbaijan. Then came the Azerbaijani blockade of Karabakh and Armenia. International aid headed for Armenia was looted. There were bloody attacks on Armenians in Baku in January 1990. The army, which stubbornly refused to separate the contending parties, began the forced deportation of Armenians from Karabakh, on the pretext that it couldn’t protect them. Armenian self-defense units were formed in response to hundreds of incidents of assault, in which water pipes were driven into the vaginas of women and girls, and in which people were rolled up in rugs, doused with gasoline, and set on fire. Having lost hope of receiving help and protection from anyone, the Armenians now rely only on themselves, and on honest battle, in which there will be casualties but no submissive victims. Can one offer them anything else?

What has the government done during these years? It declared the resolutions of the February 20, 1988, session of the Karabakh Regional Council invalid. This signified a defense of the Stalinist constitution and a disregard for the people’s right to self-determination. By scattering the Azerbaijanis arrested at Sumgait about different regional courts, the government concealed their monstrous crimes from the country. It ignored the Armenian arguments put forward at the summer session of the USSR Supreme Soviet in 1988. It formed a Supreme Soviet commission to govern Karabakh but in reality left Karabakh subordinate to Azerbaijan. It arrested the members of the Karabakh committee, the only people trusted by an Armenia shocked by earthquake. In Karabakh it broke up the Krunk1 committee, and held one of its leaders in jail for a year and a half. It proved powerless, with all our army’s might, to deal with the destruction that was taking place at the Armenian border and the blockade that the Azerbaijanis had imposed. To be sure, the government did learn from this and was later able to use a blockade against Lithuania. That’s a law-abiding government for you!

In Sumgait the government was three days late in sending troops; in Baku it was six days late, and moreover the troops acted in such a way as to add hundreds of slain Azerbaijanis to the hundreds of people killed during the pogrom. The government also promised to restore within two years what had been destroyed by the earthquake. As I write, four months before that time is up, it has restored nothing at all. Not knowing how, or not wishing to resolve the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict by parliamentary methods, and fearing such methods, the government itself opened the way for violence not only in this region, but elsewhere—everyone realized that it was concerned only with power, and not with the fate of individuals and peoples.


Why do I write about Armenia? Not because the fate of an entire people is involved; and not (let some not forgive me) because a Christian people is involved. But because nowhere else have the central authorities demonstrated so clearly their inclination, not to protect the weak—which is the most important responsibility of any government—but to help the strong. As soon as the violence in Azerbaijan-Armenian relations became two-sided, the policy of the central authorities acquired an openly anti-Armenian character. The equating of victims and executioners was shocking. Still one wanted to think, this is a mistake, the result of ineptitude or fear; it can’t be a conscious policy.

Recent events have extinguished that weak glimmer of hope. The 28th Party Congress had hardly been concluded when a man by the name of Revenko, previously little known, appeared on our television screens. It turned out that he was a new member of the President’s Council. By way of introduction he announced that the President’s Council (that is, he personally!) had set about creating a new Union treaty. And what about the republics? Aren’t they the ones who are to decide what functions to give over to the top? What about the Constitutional Committee of the USSR. Congress of People’s Deputies? Has it been forgotten?

In their haste the Council didn’t stop to think that such a method of creating a Union treaty would only offend all “the Russias, great and little and white”2 and the other peoples of what is already, like it or not, our former Union, and would deprive all the autonomous regions and republics, from Tuva to Komi, from Buryatia to Karabakh, of the hope of independently deciding their own fate. On August 3 they thought better of it—it was announced that the Supreme Soviets of the Republics have begun to take part in the consultations. So far not a word has been said about the autonomous regions. [Nagorno-Karabakh is only one of them.]

On the heels of Revenko’s “appearance” came the July 25 Decree of the President of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on “the prohibition of armed units not provided for by legislation of the USSR, and the confiscation of weapons in cases of illegal custody.” Against whom is this decree directed? Against the Baltics, going their own way? Against Byelorussia, which rescinded the application to its territory of Article 73 of the USSR constitution, the article on whose basis the decree was made? Against Moldavia, the Ukraine, Central Asia? Or perhaps against Azerbaijan, whose Supreme Soviet has already approved the decree, and so swiftly that an impression was given: Had the President and the Azerbaijani Supreme Soviet made a deal?

No decree is necessary for confiscating weapons from the mafia or bandits. Only the Armenians have armed units which actually call themselves by that name. This decree is directed against them. But the Armenian fedayeen will not turn in their weapons.3 And they have already declared this openly. They won’t turn them in because they have been betrayed, and sooner or later a betrayed people come to feel that “it’s better to die standing than to live on one’s knees.” And if they don’t come to feel this way it means they aren’t a people.

So there you have it. I’ve written about the Armenians, who have almost a million homeless, possessing stones instead of earth, and whose only hope lies in themselves. About Azerbaijan, perishing in poverty like all the Muslim republics, and in the animosity cultivated by its leaders—today’s Aliyevs and Vezirovs.4 About the central authorities.

And what about us? “Moscow mine, you are most beloved,” “Petersburg, Petrograd, Leningrad,” “Russia, poor Russia”? Us. At first there was a fuss in the Moscow Tribune. There were some articles, words, then we fell silent in unison. The interregional group hasn’t breathed a word about Armenians. The freedom-loving Baltics decided that it was far away from them. Our muchvaunted glasnost! I would only remind you of Andrei Dmitrievich [Sakharov]. On March 8, 1988, he gave an open letter to M.S. Gorbachev on Karabakh and the Crimean Tatars to Moscow News—it has not been fully published. In May, in an interview on the television program “Fifth Wheel,” what he said about Karabakh was not broadcast. You all heard Sakharov’s words in the Supreme Soviet two weeks before his death: “For Azerbaijan, Karabakh is a question of prestige: for Armenia, it is a question of life!” The chairman of the Supreme Soviet, now the president, also heard these words, but he didn’t heed them.


I have hundreds of letters and thousands of telegrams. The most frequent words addressed to Andrei Dmitrievich are: “We are ashamed” and “Forgive us.” Ashamed that we didn’t protect him, didn’t support him. Forgive us for this.

Won’t all of us be ashamed of what’s happening now? When the tragedy occurs, won’t we say to the Armenian people, who will be half-destroyed or again scattered about the world, “Forgive us,” and to ourselves, “We’re ashamed”? What have we come to—we, the silent ones, accomplices—when the best of us, our deputies, can say to the Armenian refugees: go to Armenia, Russia is for the Russians. In these years of silence and lies, we have contributed to the hatred of the Armenians, we, the democrat-liberals, have thus played into the government’s hands, encouraged its unjust policy.

For the second week since the decree I am looking at a photograph. The people in it are also Armenian fedayeen. It is 1916. But the tsarist government didn’t think of disarming them. And perhaps it even gave them weapons, so that they wouldn’t have to kill Russian soldiers in order to acquire them. My father stands on the left. Mikoyan is seated. They protected their people, poor and rich, women, old men, children. Then they established Soviet power—in Baku, Georgia, Russia, Armenia. Then they defended it one cruel winter, and my father was somewhere in the mountains in the Semyonov pass. Was it worth establishing Soviet power and defending it, if it took away the people’s last right, the right to protection? I am asked what do I care. But what am I to do if I feel responsibility for what my father and his comrades in arms did, for the government they established, willingly or not.

I feel as if I am living in a bad novel. I hadn’t yet finished writing this article when Iraq occupied Kuwait. What does it have to do with me? Again the strong strike the weak. And I am an accomplice. And not in the figurative but in the literal sense. Thirty years ago as a doctor, I participated in a small-pox vaccination campaign in Iraq. Yes, not just anywhere, but in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Kurds were demanding autonomy. Baghdad answered them with an order to disarm. And our Soviet tanks—our dear T-34s—crushed the Kurdish resistance. And, to teach them a good lesson, they later added poison gas as well. All right—so the gas wasn’t ours, apparently it was French. The Kurds had it none the easier for that. And after Kurdistan, in a Baghdad hospital, I nursed Arab boys—today’s soldiers of that insane country, which has enough of our weapons, not just for the entire Near East, but even perhaps for the Far East as well.

Pain for Kuwait. And, on my part, fear that in the uproar of this worldwide tragedy (look and listen, today’s twenty-year-olds—it was the same scenario in 1968 when our tanks turned up in Prague, and on the eve of 1980 when the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan), our disarmament activists—not nuclear, global disarmament, but disarmament on a local, domestic scale—will cover Armenia with blood.

Every day in the papers I come across the expression “architect of perestroika”—already a cliché. And each time I shudder, remembering the housing projects of the earthquake zone, in whose ruins thousands of people are buried. Are we not building something equally shoddy and equally dangerous? And will our architect and president ever again see a million-strong demonstration, like the one in Yerevan in February 1988, with banners saying “Gorbachev—Yes”?

translated by Jamey Gambrell

Copyright © 1990 Elena Bonner

This Issue

October 11, 1990