Russian Cemetery Vandalised in Azeri Capital
|Publisher||Institute for War and Peace Reporting|
|Publication Date||19 August 2011|
|Citation / Document Symbol||CRS Issue 605|
|Cite as||Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Russian Cemetery Vandalised in Azeri Capital, 19 August 2011, CRS Issue 605, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4e538ac62.html [accessed 13 March 2014]|
|Disclaimer||This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.|
Police in the Azerbaijani capital Baku are investigating the desecration of Russian graves in a case that has highlighted the poor state of the dwindling minority's cemeteries.
Natalya Narizhnaya visited the cemetery in Surakhani district on July 18 to lay flowers on the graves of her relatives, only to find that several had been damaged and the headstones smashed.
She says that while initially reluctant to take up the case, police eventually took the complaint seriously.
The incident caused a storm on the internet after the Russian website www.newsland.ru carried a story headlined "Orthodox graves destroyed in Azerbaijan", hinting that the vandalism might be the work of ethnic or anti-Christian bigots in this predominantly Muslim country.
Hajibala Eyvazov, speaking for the Surakhani district authorities, denied such suggestions, saying that the falling numbers of ethnic Russians had left cemeteries abandoned and neglected.
"We don't have the people or the money to guard the cemetery," he said. "The graves there are mainly very old. The surviving relatives left the country long ago, so the cemetery gets very few visitors and is left unattended. We've frequently urged the Russian community to care for the cemetery, but they haven't responded."
Svetlana Ivanova, head of the Russian community in Surakhani, said the Azerbaijani government needed to step in as local people were unable to keep the cemetery in good shape.
An IWPR journalist who visited the cemetery noted that Orthodox crosses on graves had not been destroyed, making this unlikely to be the work of religious extremists, but confirmed that the Russian section of the cemetery looked unkempt and derelict, particularly when compared with the area where ethnic Tatars – a Muslim group from Russia – were buried.
Elkhan Shahinoglu, head of the Atlas think tank, agreed that the damage looked more like the handiwork of vandals than of bigots.
"I don't think the destruction of graves in the old cemetery was some sort of planned, deliberate act…. This dreadful act was probably carried out by a bunch of hooligans," he said. "In Azerbaijan – particularly Baku, which prides itself on its international character – there's never been animosity towards Russians. The Russian language is still very important in Baku, and every second person speaks it beautifully.
"So it wouldn't be right to ascribe the destruction of graves to ethnic animosity. But there is a need to find and punish the culprits as quickly as possible, otherwise common hooliganism carried out by people who hold nothing sacred could take on a political aspect."
Before 1991, when Azerbaijan was still part of the Soviet Union, cemeteries were maintained by local government, but funding has declined since then and many graveyards have fallen into disrepair.
This applies particularly to Russian graveyards, because large numbers of this community have emigrated to Russia itself. The 2009 census showed that around 120,000 remained in Azerbaijan, compared with around half a million – a tenth of the republic's population – in the 1970s.
"There are very few of us left here here," Ilya Maximov, 63, said. "Many Russians left Azerbaijan in the early 1990s. It was a tough time – the collapse of the Soviet Union was followed by poverty and war [in Nagorny Karabakh]. Many chose a better life and left their homes."
But Azerbaijani as well as Russian cemeteries could also do with better upkeep.
Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, a theologian and head of the DEVAMM organisation, which campaigns for religious rights, said the government does not assign enough money to protect graveyards.
"The Alley of Honour and the Alley of Martyrs are exceptions," he said, referring to memorial complexes in the centre of Baku. "In other cemeteries, the relatives of the deceased have to look after the graves. So old graveyards with few visitors are in disarray. And people of ill will take advantage of this and do whatever they want there."
The Tatar section of the Surakhani cemetery is in a better state because relatives care for it, but is still vulnerable.
"We do it voluntarily," Maksud Ahmadjanov, appointed to oversee care of the Tatar graves, said. "But local people throw their rubbish into the cemetery. We can't seem to explain to them that this is a very bad habit. We are left having to clean up as much of the rubbish as we can."