Friday, January 25, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Azerbaijani Novelist Describes Moscow Gastarbeiter Life from the Inside

Paul Goble

Baku, January 25 – One of the most controversial best sellers in the Russian Federation during the past year is “Gastarbeiter,” a lightly fictionalized account of its ethnic Azerbaijani author’s life as an illegal foreign worker who fled Turkmenistan where he was born to seek his fortune in the turbulent Moscow of the 1990s.
This week, Moscow media featured both an extensive review of Eduard Bagirov’s novel and an interview with him about why he wrote it and how he sees the future, two articles that have attracted particular attention because of the brawl between Azerbaijanis and Armenians in a Moscow neighborhood on Monday.
Writing on the Polar Star portal, Nikita Mendkovich notes that the central theme of Bagirov’s novel is the extraordinary difficulties Azerbaijanis and other non-Russians living in the Russian capital now face in trying to cope with the rising level of xenophobic attitudes among Russians (
Many reviewers have reasonably suggested that the novel overstates this problem, Mendkovich says, and he cites a review in Komsomol’skaya Pravda on July 17 which argued that “by the 20th page [of this book], it seems that [the novel’s hero] has arrived not in Russia but in some kind of Polar Reich.”
But if Mendkovich points out that Bagirov seems to be equally critical of the attitudes his hero meets as well. Indeed, the reviewer says, the only entirely “normal” in the book is an ethnic Ukrainian with whom the main character organizes a firm – and Bagirov makes clear that even he has his shortcomings.
Moreover, however angry Bagirov’s hero may be about people living in Moscow and Russia, Mendkovich continues, the write makes it clear that he and his hero both have “a deep and sincere love for Russia and for Moscow,” one that the critic acknowledges is often deeper than that displayed by longtime residents.
Like many Russian critics and Russian readers, Mendkovich focuses on a scene in the book in which an elderly Azerbaijani explains to Russians why the terrorist actions in 1999 which most Russians continue to believe were organized and carried out by Chechen militants.
In Bagirov’s account, the Azerbaijani says: The terrorists “don’t have any families. No and that’s because you killed them… Yes … In the middle of the night, your tanks shot into the homes where their wives and children were peacefully sleeping. And then you shot their fathers, cut down their mothers, and raped their sisters.”
Given all that, the elderly man continues, no one should be surprised that “these men have gone insane and begun to blow up peaceful residents” here in response to what the Russians have done.
In addition, Mendkovich writes, Bagirov’s suggestions that non-Russians have thoroughly penetrated key institutions in Moscow and that ethnic Russians almost certainly will be used by rabid Russian nationalists on their websites to mobilize their followers.
But by presenting his story in such a dark and unqualified way, Mendkovich says, Bagirov has failed in what the Moscow critic says is the first task of a novelist exploring social problems: to understand and explain rather than simply to describe and attack. And because of that, the critic says, he does not expect much from Bagirov in the future.
Bagirov in effect responds to such criticism in the course of an extensive interview about his life and writings that he gave to, one of the increasingly numerous websites directed at the more than two million ethnic Azerbaijanis now living in the Russian Federation. ( ).
Saying that “80 percent” of his novel is based on his own life, Bagirov noted that he was born in Soviet Turkmenistan to “a mother [who was] a native of Russia [and] a father [who was] an Azerbaijani,” could not get into a university because he lacked the money for the necessary bribe, deserted from its army, and fled to Russia at the age of 18.
The novelist said that his book was not only his own story but “the biography of tens of millions of people with a similar fate, who have the same problems with their names and nationalities in Moscow as [he] had.” And consequently, he said, it had never occurred to him to hide his background.
“I am Eduard Bagirov,” he said. “I am an Azerbaijani!” At the same time, and again like his hero in the book, Bagirov said that he loves Russia and Moscow and believes both Russians and non-Russians must work to find a way to live together amicably, rather than as now viewing each other in a negative way.
Many Russians, like the critic Mendkovich, would argue that Bagirov has not contributed to reducing ethnic hostility but rather exacerbates inter-ethnic hostility. He explicitly denied that and argued that his novel, by raising these issues, has prompted some on each side of this divide to change their views of the other.
However that may be, many in the Russian capital and beyond are certain to reflect upon what could happen in Moscow if such tensions among the various groups continue to manifest themselves as they did earlier this week in two large confrontations between Azerbaijanis and Armenians there (
Fortunately, as one Baku newspaper noted, the Russian militia intervened in a timely fashion to limit these clashes. But Bagirov’s novel and the experiences of his own life on which it is based help to explain why these latest outbreaks happened and why inter-ethnic tensions in Moscow could so easily explode.

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