In the following extract from Caucasian Days, Banine recalls what happened to her family (including her father, stepmother Amina, sisters and brother) when the military dictatorship was established in Baku after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917.
Next came one of those storms that spell delight for history professors and disaster for humanity.
In the well-known dramatic events in Russia, the tsar abdicated, then Kerensky gave up power too, the October Revolution erupted and civil war set Reds against Whites. The Empire broke up.
These disturbances allowed the border regions, whose populations did not share the history, race and religion of the Russians, to break away and form independent republics. In the Caucasus, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan claimed their right to self-determination and set about exercising it.
In turn, Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, grew restless. Several political factions emerged with the inevitable consequences: rivalry, disturbances, confrontation. Under the guise of saving the country from the communist threat, an organisation of Armenians with socialist sympathies managed to install a military dictatorship; but it was whispered that the leaders were really Bolsheviks.
Be that as it may, they inaugurated their authority with a massacre of the Muslims who were unable to defend themselves. As always, it was the ordinary people in particular who fell victim to the “stimulant of militant nationalism” as an English writer put it. The so-called upper classes, or rather the wealthy classes, Armenian or Azerbaijani, often connected by mutual interests, would provide reciprocal protection during these massacres, which would be carried out by whichever party was the more powerful or the better organised at the time.
It should be underlined that while the massacres were one-sided in Turkey, Turks massacring Armenians, in Azerbaijan the Armenians massacred the Azerbaijanis (Christians against Muslims) before the indifferent gaze of the Russian authorities, who may have been thinking that the famous colonial formula “divide and rule” made good politics.
At about two o’clock on a dark night, Fraulein Anna came to fetch me from my bed: snatched from my dreams, I fell into a state of anxiety.
With the electricity cut off, the house and entire city were plunged into darkness, pierced by whistling bullets that whizzed out of nowhere. Machine-guns could be heard in the distance.
We expected to see the Dashnaks any minute (that was the name of the members of the Armenian nationalist party) storming the house to demolish everything, including the inhabitants. The telephone didn’t work and the house had become our desert island surrounded by the unknown.
Confined in the gloom of Amina’s Moorish bedroom, we had nothing to do but wait, so we waited. Around four o’clock in the morning violent blows at the front door sought to demolish the house and our last hope with it. We thought it was the Dashnaks come to massacre us. My father grabbed his revolver and left the room, followed by Amina who for a woman with such a frivolous air was to display an unexpected courage and devotion from now on. We were already preparing to die but it was premature: a few moments later Amina and my father returned, almost elated, bringing not armed Dashnaks but Armenian friends, our neighbours opposite, who had come to offer us their protection and their house. Need I say that both were accepted gratefully?
We each quickly packed a small suitcase and went down the stairs. We just had to cross the width of the street, but since bullets were promenading there at their ease this short distance could prove fatal for us. We were told to run to cut the time crossing the shooting range. A battle was under way at the other end of the dark street: gunfire crackled sparsely but regularly, interrupted by long blows on a whistle.
Lily-livered though we were, we had to force ourselves to run to the house opposite despite the uneven cobblestones that we stumbled over because of the darkness and also out of fear. Only my father, who was carrying my brother in his arms, walked slowly lest he fall over with him. But Allah was guiding him.
Once we were inside the front door our neighbours greeted us with a very touching welcome for such a moment. Then we had to go to bed, which proved difficult: there were more people than beds. Some of us had to be content with a mattress on the carpet; I was given one in a small room where Fraulein Anna was to sleep on a narrow divan with my brother; between the intermittent cries of the latter and the gunfire there could be no question of sleep.
In the morning we were dismayed witnesses to the following scene: men with cartridge belts slung across their bodies were throwing a wide variety of objects from the windows of our house into lorries parked outside, gradually filling them up. Dressed in filthy uniforms of diverse provenance, the men had a martial air that did not bode well, and we were glad that we were only spectators. Had we been on the other side, we would probably have been subjected to the same defenestration. The house flew past: forks rained down, then laced corsets took to the breeze followed by a Louis XIV chandelier and a flying cashmere shawl.
“My blue velvet dress,” groaned Amina, while Fraulein Anna sadly watched the fall of a cushion that had taken her more than a year to embroider.
“My beautiful, brand new dressing gown,” Zuleika sighed in turn. And still incorrigibly animist, I whispered to my favourite coat, trimmed with fox fur, which was tumbling into one of the lorries, “Poor coat, they are making you suffer. Farewell.”
That same afternoon my father and Amina left us: our residence wasn’t secure enough for a man wanted by Armenian terrorists. So an Armenian friend took him to a secret location where my father would be safe from any danger. Moreover, the situation promised to get even worse: as often happens, the leaders were losing control of their men, who were pillaging, rampaging and slaughtering.
The night after my father’s departure, we were woken around three in the morning by a band of armed men who began to look for him everywhere. They climbed onto the roof, opened all the cupboards and wardrobes, poked under the beds with their bayonets and anywhere else that might just about contain a man. When they didn’t find him, they drank all the wine in the house, swore like troopers and left in a fury.
In the morning, soldiers of unknown provenance came to install a machine-gun on the roof of the house where we were staying and began to pepper the one opposite (ours) with avenging but useless bullets: a gratuitous act but one which must have given the soldiers a sense of power.
We lived like this for two weeks: mentally restless but physically immobile and inactive. We led a cloistered existence and even the shutters of the house were kept closed most of the time to shield us from prying eyes and the bullets of the ragtag army.
When night came, we trembled in concert with the candles that we used sparingly; it was impossible to buy more, so we were burning our capital. It was the same with our food: we had to munch lentils for two weeks; we munched them for lunch, we munched them for dinner; we began again the next day and did the same the next. It was a flood of lentils, an avalanche. “Help yourselves, have some more,” our hosts would say kindly. “Don’t worry, we’ve got sacks full of them…” they would assure us graciously. Strange to say but I wasn’t put off them for life; I still enjoy them today, remembering those faraway Armenian lentils.
Our meals were poor in provisions but rich in sighs and tears. The three old ladies in our saviours’ family would weep and sigh one after the other and even all together.
It was sad to die! The oldest especially, who was a very sensitive soul, could not look at us without thinking of our misfortune and bursting into tears of compassion. She had white, silky hair and touchingly soft black eyes in a face smooth and pink despite her age. Her benevolence was directed at everything and everyone, and in turn they were well disposed towards her. When the good soul saw me rigid and trembling with fear, she would take me in her arms and try to make things better for me. But it wasn’t easy to make things better for me: I was too afraid. I was also lonely, due in part to my character and in part to circumstance. I no longer saw any children of my own age. The few years that separated me from Zuleika were a gulf at that age; my relationship with her was that of an inferior to a superior with all that that implies in resentment and impatience with the victim. My cousins, my unspeakable, brave cousins, lived a long way away and the older I became, the more I was to be kept apart from them. The virtuous will say, “So much the better,” the others, “What a shame.”
There was always Fraulein Anna with her loving heart. But I rejected her affection through misplaced pride; moreover, as she had replaced my brother’s nurse, she was busy with him all the time and had no choice but to neglect me somewhat. I still longed constantly for Amina’s affection, but I was beginning to realise the futility of my feelings. So I withdrew into myself.
Sometimes, during slight lulls in the confusing battle under way in Baku, our hosts would receive visits from some of their relatives. One of them, a handsome young man with blond hair (yes, Armenian but blond) and blue eyes, aroused the roundly declared interest of Zuleika-the-painter and the not so roundly declared interest of Zuleika-the-woman. When he visited, the two conjoined Zuleikas would throw themselves upon him, install him in an enclosed balcony with windows and, notwithstanding the events, one would set about painting him, the other flirting with him. As for me, I knew what the object of painterly zeal should be, and I would study this young man carefully to see if he was worthy of our love: I was already preparing to submit to it.
I met this handsome young man later in Paris where I still often see him. The years have perhaps made him a little less handsome, but he has the same eyes and the same blond hair. When he is cross with my sisters and me, he never misses the chance to say, “To think that I was stupid enough to save these women from the massacre.”
I didn’t have the leisure to love him, nor did Zuleika to complete his portrait; the two weeks lived among lentils, fear and some passing lulls soon came to an end. Someone came to tell us to get ready to leave the same evening to join my father. Our preparations didn’t take long, but what did take long were our touching farewells to our saviours: the hugs were mixed with tears and the tears with sighs; then we had to part all the same. A car driven by an employee of the family firm came to collect us and we jumped into it, blessed and sprinkled with the tears of our elderly hostesses. I talk about this now in a light-hearted way, but at the time my attitude was quite different: I didn’t know then what I know now, that it would all end well, and I was paralysed with fear.
For two days the gunfire had almost stopped entirely: it was possible to move about the city again until seven in the evening, the time of the curfew.
The city was pitiful: the ransacked shops, upended paving stones and houses with broken windows and bullet-riddled facades gave it an air of desolation that would have depressed braver men than us. Even the aggressive Zuleika became gloomy and fell silent.
Our car slowly descended towards the harbour avoiding the main streets; it soon stopped outside a small house near the docks. We got out of the car and the driver took us inside the house where we saw Amina sitting at the table with a worker in overalls – it was my father! More hugs and tears, and we learned that we would be leaving for Persia where my father hoped to escape the perils facing us in our native city which was as troubled by the revolution as elsewhere in Russia; but at least we would be foreigners there and could hope to go unnoticed.
The house belonged to the captain of one of our tankers. The captain was keeping his boat ready to sail and we boarded that evening without any difficulties; but the departure checks made by the Dashnaks could end in disaster if my father were recognised. It was decided that he would work as a stoker in the engine room, while we would be presented as the captain’s children; Amina and Fraulein Anna, both veiled as circumstance dictated, would pass for good Muslim wives.
Everything went swimmingly: the Dashnaks who came aboard were very lenient, due in large part to the glasses of vodka proffered by the captain. They didn’t even go down to the engine room where my father, shovel in hand and cap rammed over his eyes, was struggling to identify with the world that he had hitherto exploited. Looking through a light veil of alcohol fumes into the dining room, full of the captain’s alleged wives and children, and probably seeing double, they expressed mild surprise at their number but left without taking their investigations further. A few moments later, the dark mass of Baku, where there was still no electricity, began to draw away.
Then we became familiar with the state that I will call, for want of a better term, “the post-fear state”. It’s a well-defined state that deserves a special designation. When fear paralyses you, forces you to curl up on yourself physically and psychologically, when internal spasms shake your bowels and your jaw starts to ache because of your spasmodically clenched teeth, when you keep waking up in terror, and suddenly you enter a world where your fears stop abruptly and are no longer relevant, that’s when this state begins for which I would like to find a special word. It is total deliverance: your body becomes supple again, you can breathe deeply, released from constant anxiety, your spirit becomes lighter. You are free at last! The sensitive weep for joy, believers thank their God, atheists are jubilant; but for everyone the immediate, material result is an enormous appetite.
As soon as the boat reached the open sea, we threw ourselves on the table that was sagging under the weight of magical dishes, or at least that’s how they seemed to us after two weeks of lentils. There was fresh caviar and sturgeon pilaff and chicken pilaff and almond cakes… We ate the caviar with spoons and the chicken with our hands, as this was quicker. We ate in silence, forgetting everything. A chicken leg roasted to perfection took the place of the revolution and a golden slice of sturgeon took that of the massacres. But instead of the great well-being that I was expecting, a malaise took root inside me, at first imperceptible but then violent. I turned from pink to green, from joyous to nauseous… And it all ended in the toilet bowl.
My violent seasickness lasted throughout the voyage. The fear had disappeared, but horrible seasickness raged in its place. Since everyone else was fine and I was suffering alone, solitude in misfortune made my misery even worse. When the boat arrived in Enzeli, I was a wreck ready to surrender my soul.
(Translated by Anne Thompson-Ahmadova, Illustrations by Evelina Aliyeva)