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Armenia’s Tragedy in Shushi

A church in Shushi damaged during fighting

Alex McBride/Getty Images)

The interior of a church in Shushi that was damaged by Azerbaijani forces during fighting over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh, October 12, 2020

On the morning of November 9, I received an email from a university colleague. “We’ve been a bit rattled by the military plane flying at night yesterday above Yerevan,” she wrote. “I hope it’s nothing serious. I am praying for a powerful heart attack for Aliyev and Erdoğan.” She was referring to Ilham Aliyev, the tyrannical president of Azerbaijan, and his ally Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the increasingly autocratic president of Turkey.

The plane was most likely heading to an outpost in the remote mountainous region where a military conflict was taking place for possession of an enclave known in Armenia as Artsakh, which Azeris call Nagorno-Karabakh. As the war went on into November, the Azeri forces, reinforced by Turkish-backed Syrian mercenaries, crept closer to the strategic town of Shushi (Shusha to Azeris), forcing the majority Armenian population to flee.

The different names Armenians and Azeris ascribe to the kidney bean–shaped territory that is, on average, 3,600 feet above sea level, speak to the competing claims each side has on the autonomous region. Folk etymology holds that the name Artsakh is derived from King Artaxias of Armenia, dating to 150 BCE. Nagorno-Karabakh is the Russian rendering of a Turkic and Persian portmanteau meaning “black garden.” (Nagorno means mountainous in Russian.)

For centuries, Shushi’s majestic setting, soaring over the surrounding valley, has had a firm hold on the political and cultural imagination of Armenians and Azeris alike. The citadel city became an important hub in the south Caucasus, and its inhabitants were voracious readers. Swiss missionaries opened a print shop in the town in 1827, and in the twilight of tsarist rule, Shushi was home to more than twenty newspapers and journals in Armenian and two periodicals in Russian. The fortress city was then known as the “Paris of the Caucasus.” For the Azeris, the eighteenth-century statesman Molla Panah Vagif, whose poems influenced the folk music of the wandering Azeri minstrels, the ashugs, was a famous resident of Shusha.

Artsakh’s modern troubles began soon after the Russian Revolution, when a botched revolt against Azeri rule in Shushi in 1920 resulted in the ethnic cleansing of its Armenian population. In his essay “Why Autonomy?,” the Armenian-born academic Arsène Saparov describes how, on the morning of March 23, 1920, the Azerbaijani garrison and Turkic population of the city attacked and burned down the wealthier Armenian part of the town in a three-day pogrom, killing thousands and laying the foundation for the current conflict. According to Professor Neil MacFarlane, a regional specialist at St. Anne’s College, Oxford, the massacre shifted Shushi’s “ethnic status from an Armenian-dominated town to an Azeri [one].”

The enclave’s desire for sovereignty, based on democratic and demographic principles, was legally affirmed in 1921 by the Caucasian Bureau of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. During its July 4 plenary session in Tbilisi, Georgia, it voted to unify Artsakh with Soviet Armenia. But the following night, July 5, the decision was reviewed and revoked by the Bolsheviks. Instead, the enclave was declared an autonomous oblast, or administrative region, within Soviet Azerbaijan.

In 1897, Shushi had 25,881 inhabitants, of which 14,436 were Armenians and 10,785 were Caucasian Tatars. In 1926, Shushi’s population had shrunk to 5,104, with only 93 Armenians remaining in the town. In 1961, Azerbaijan’s government passed a decision to clear the ruins in the Armenian district—erasing the last traces of Armenian presence. Even in 1969, during the Brezhnev era, the city had grown to only 6,000 inhabitants. But by the waning days of the Soviet Union, ethnic Armenians still formed sizeable minorities in Azerbaijani cities, including more than 200,000 in the capital, Baku, and Armenians were an overwhelming majority in Artsakh itself.

As the long freeze of Soviet rule thawed, the competing claims and old enmities revived. Calls for Artsakh’s independence or unification with Armenia provoked a wave of violence against Armenians across Azerbaijan, including massacres in Sumgait and Kirovabad (now known as Ganja) in 1988, and a pogrom in Baku in 1990. After war broke out, the forces of the Soviet republic of Armenia captured Shushi; this time, the Azeris were routed in another example of ethnic cleansing. The entire enclave of Artsakh, or Nagorno-Karabakh, came under Armenian control, while Azerbaijan purged its Armenian population; today, there are virtually no Armenian residents of Baku. For their part, Armenian forces, too, were responsible for atrocities, such as the 1992 massacre of Azeris in Khojaly. And after they had captured Shushi, a fifty-foot Soviet-era mausoleum honoring Vagif was damaged and left in neglect for decades.

I visited Shushi in the spring of 2013. A river of nostalgia runs through it. Looking out at the city from my bus window, I took a bite into my jengyalov hats, a flatbread that is a feast of seventeen herbs baked into the dough. The bus rolled along a windy road that ascended in the direction of a fortified wall. There are at least five churches in the upper section of the city, and I found twelfth- and thirteenth-century Armenian cross stones, cemeteries, a public bath, and schools among its streets and around Shushi.

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The Azeris returned last month, forcing the Armenian population to flee. An army of modern-day bashi-bazouks, Syrian militiamen whom Turkey had flown in to fight alongside the Azeris, provided crucial support. On November 10, a truce was signed between Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Russia, and the fate of Shushi was sealed. The enclave’s shrunken borders are now patrolled by Russian peacekeepers. Tens of thousands of Armenians were left homeless and forced to cross a narrow land corridor that now connects Armenia to the enclave. Only the buzz of drones circling over abandoned Armenian military hardware, trenches, and towns lingered.

More than 60,000 Armenians have been displaced, and now live in ad hoc shelters across Armenia. “We can’t even go back to take our photos and the kids’ schoolbooks,” Nadia Babayan told me. I see her, a bedraggled grandma from Shushi wrapped in her anguish and autumn shawl, most days, looking lost and forlorn, near our home in Yerevan.

Another casualty of the war is Armenia’s embattled prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan. In the spring of 2018, Pashinyan rode the tide of a velvet revolution and ushered in a new democratic era in Armenia, but today he has lost a war against a mercenary-backed tyrant while the world’s democracies largely watched. People cast a glowering look when discussing the war, blaming him for not ending hostilities sooner. Several high-ranking officials from his cabinet have tendered their resignations, and there are growing calls for snap elections.

Now that Shushi is under the control of Azerbaijan, Armenians fear that their heritage and centuries-old presence in the city are once again imperiled. During the fighting, Shushi’s Cathedral of the Holy Savior was shelled, resulting in a partial collapse of its roof, and following the armistice, it was desecrated with graffiti. In a tweet, Azerbaijan’s deputy minister of culture, Anar Karimov, misattributed an ancient Armenian monument, Dadivank, a monastery built between the ninth and thirteen centuries, claiming that it was Albanian.

Will the apocryphal stories continue or will one day both sides acknowledge the other’s memories? For answers, I revisited the pages of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. “The city of Zora is like a honeycomb,” he wrote, “in whose cells each of us can place the things he wants to remember: names of famous men, virtues, numbers, vegetable and mineral classifications, dates of battles, constellations, parts of speech.” And what if Shushi, too, were to become a honeycomb in whose cells memories coexisted without vitiating or privileging one over the other? What if we included in those cells not just the names of famous women, places, fictions, and nonfictions that we have been taught or lived and gotten to know, but other such signs, peoples, and meanings that can be acquired outside ourselves and communities? Can we not meet halfway in those liminal spaces to build new histories of inclusion?

Four days after the war ended, on November 14, I wrote to an academic in Baku to learn more about Shusha, as opposed to the Shushi I knew. Given the recent hostilities, I had no expectations of a response, but he graciously emailed me back with several translations of early nineteenth-century poems by Qasim bey Zakir, who was born in the city. Zakir was jailed in Baku by the authorities of his time for viciously satirizing his contemporaries. I wondered if President Aliyev had ever read him. In one of his poems, “The Shusha Mullahs,” he wrote: “Our only hope is for the Shah of Shahs to end all disputes.”

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