The painful past retold
Social memory in Azerbaijan and Gagauzia

Hülya Demirdirek

Paper presented at the conference "Postkommunismens Antropologi", 12-14 April 1996
Institute of Anthropology, University of Copenhagen

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While I was reading my field-notes on the Gagauz, I was struck by certain points of comparison; I recalled my experience in Azerbaijan and became fascinated by the differences between the two Turkic-speaking post-Soviet societies. On the one hand, the two groups have a similar, immediate past. They used to be part of the Soviet Union, and they related to Communists and Russians as significant "others" (although the Azeri experience of both goes further back). On the other hand, the wider ethnic environment of the two groups is very different. Today, the most important "others" in Azerbaijan are perhaps the Armenians, who are not only Christians - and hence a clear-cut religious "other" -, but also have a long tradition of conflict with the Azeris, which has been reactivated in the present political context. Azerbaijan, with its Shiite muslim Caucasian background, is quite far removed from Turkic-speaking orthodox Christian Balkan Gagauzia. The common Turkic language should not be taken for granted as a sign of immediate sisterhood.

It is fruitful to compare the way some events were related to me in Baku in 1990-1991 and in Gagauzia in 1994-1995. In the current paper, I shall not go into the details of the empirical material, but shall restrict myself to rough comparisons. I shall use these two examples to try to indicate a framework for the issues of self and narration, and hence identity, i.e. the reconstruction of identity as a process of becoming.

At the beginning of my stay in Baku in autumn 1990, the focus of social memory was the events of January 1990. People were still telling horrible stories from those days. Following the pogroms against Armenians living in Baku, January 1990 witnessed one of the few military interventions within the Soviet Union, causing hundreds of casualties. In the meantime, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was turning into a war and the Armenians were quickly becoming the number one enemy. The events of January 1990 were used to illustrate the "horror" of the Soviet regime and the violence of the Russian army during the independence struggle. There were numerous journals, booklets and brochures full of pictures of the dead and injured. Azerbaijanis who came into contact with foreigners gave packages of gifts which included an informative journal especially about "Bloody January". Post-Soviet Azerbaijani identity was somehow marked by this feeling of being subject to violence. Very few people admitted to the violence which Armenians were subject to in Baku. While they underlined their "national characteristics", choosing demonstratively to speak Azeri on public occasions, they constantly made reference to their immediate painful past and glorious two years of independence prior to the Soviet regime.

The shock of guns, bullets and blood in the streets was traumatic for the inhabitants of Baku. Many told me that they were a peaceful people and could not understand how and why such things had happened. Each time I made a new acquaintance, I heard a new version of the horror stories: how their neighbours had been killed, how horrible it was to see people lying wounded on the streets. The anniversary of "Bloody January" was another demonstration of this sorrow. It had the character of a repeated public funeral accompanied by Shiite ritual Ashure. It is beyond the scope of this paper to describe in detail funeral practice in Azerbaijan, but it may be noted here that the expression of grief is rather overt. There is a Shiite tradition of beating one's chest and improvizing songs about the dead person. Women (usually with a rural background) throw themselves onto the graves, and they tear at their own hair and clothes. I witnessed several funerals in Baku. Some of them were funerals of people who died as a result of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. They were all treated as martyrs, irrespective of whether they were fighting on the front and/or served as nurses or journalists. It was interesting to note that people who were killed on the streets and in the busses in January 1990 are also called martyrs, and there is now a special cemetery called Cemetery for Martyrs (Sehitler Xiyabani) in the centre of Baku. Martyrdom is an important issue, although the aspect which I wish to stress here is as a way of tackling sorrow.

The whole dramatization and display of sorrow and suffering for the dead in the wake of January 1990 and the subsequent events in the Nagorno-Karabakh war have much to do with Shi'ism as it is practised in Azerbaijan. Gellner argues that Shi'ism is definable in terms of reverence for - and attribution of ultimate political and theological sovereignty to - the "Hidden Imam" (Gellner 1992: 16). He explains that this reverence is also centred on martyrs and adds "Shi'ite scholars are much better equipped to communicate with the masses in a state of political effervescence" (ibid.: 17). This can be seen as related to the sense of climax which is produced through the ritualized expression of grief at the death of Imam Hussain. This grief, symbolized in ritual Ashure and, as I mentioned above, in the beating of chests during funerals, shares the same expression and climax. The way sorrow is transmitted is akin to seeing oneself in the mirror which is full of the expression of grief. By telling of the sorrow and grief, by making it discursive, they reassess their own being. In the meantime, what is remembered is of course marked by this particular way of telling the story; the way in which they present and represent self-pity becomes an important component of the story which is remembered. They remember their grief through a repetitive action of crying and telling. It is possible to say that this is a two-way process in that consciousness is not separated from memory (see Fentress and Wickham 1992: 6).

Let us turn to the Gagauz. First, it is necessary to say something on who the Gagauz are. This is in fact the core of the problem. We know that most stories and histories are reconstructions, but some groups of people have fewer of these stories which they are accustomed to believe over generations. In this sense, it is difficult to answer the question of who the Gagauz think they are. They are, in a way, a nation in the making after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

According to the available Russian and English sources, the Gagauz are referred to either as Turkified Orthodox Bulgarians or as descendants of medieval Turks, who have assimilated elements of Slavic culture. The Gagauz are believed to have fled from northeastern Bulgaria to Russia during and after the Russo-Ottoman war of 1806-12. Today, the Gagauz live mainly in the southern part of Moldova. They number 153,000, or 3.5 per cent of the Moldovan Republic's population.

The story of the Gagauz' struggle for autonomy and even for an independent republic goes back to 1990. In August 1991 Moldova proclaimed its independence (declaring the Soviet annexation of 1940 to be illegal) and the Communist Party was banned. The Moldovan language law (enacted in August 1989), which became a turning-point in the region, led to an increased polarization of ethnic relations (Cavanaugh 1992, Eyal 1990, Fane 1993). Many strikes were held by non-Moldovans during the discussions, and after the declaration of Moldovan as the official language and the re-introduction of Latin script to replace Cyrillic.

As in other parts of the Soviet Union, reactions against the Soviet past have been symbolized in the renaming of places and streets and in the introduction of new flags and new national holidays. The rise in Moldovan nationalism was also accompanied by increasingly vociferous reactions among the other ethnic groups. This ethnic polarization seems to have driven many non-Moldovans to support the Soviet system, and, to some extent, drawn them into an "internationalist" solidarity movement directed against the Moldovan pressures for reunification with Romania and the new nationalist policies.

According to the revised history that was officially sanctioned by the Moldovan parliament in 1990, the Gagauz were not considered to be indigenous to Moldova, and their homeland was regarded as Bulgaria. Claiming the support of international law and "ethnographic science", the parliamentary report stated that "... if a segment of any people or nation, both the emigrants and their heirs comprise an ethnic group... The Gagauz as well as other ethnic groups residing in the Moldavian SSR within the national territory of Moldavians do not have their own national territories within the Moldavian SSR" (cited in Fane 1993: 144). This report provoked a Gagauz reaction in an attempt to show that they were not an ethnic minority (etnicheskiy men´shinstvo) but a people (narod). The most extreme members of the Moldovan Popular Front, at the height of its popularity, argued that the Gagauz, like the Russians, should return to the places from which they came, though the slogan "Russian, suitcase, railway station" (russky, chemadan, vokzal) was not used for the Gagauz. The fact that the Gagauz do not have an external homeland as Russians do may have helped here. The contention that "we have always been here" arose among those articulating the Gagauz national agenda. Some of them even argued that they were in the territory before the Moldovans. M. Maruneviç, a politically active ethnographer, wrote a short history of the Gagauz in a pamphlet and supported this view.

First the Gagauz, and later the Russian-Ukrainian coalition, declared secession from Moldova and proclaimed their own republics in August 1990.

On 25 October 1990 there was some unrest in the cities inhabited by the Gagauz due to attempts by unarmed Moldovan "volunteers" to prevent the Gagauz presidential elections. The Moldovan police force stopped these "volunteers" at the borders of Gagauz-inhabited areas and thus avoided bloodshed. (Both Russian and Gagauz Communist Party officials and the Moldovan President Snegur appealed to Gorbachev with a request for troops from the USSR Internal Affairs Ministry (MVD) to be sent into the area to prevent an "outbreak of another Karabakh" (Cavanaugh 1992:4). President Snegur declared a two-month state of emergency, and after MVD troops reached the region the Moldovan "volunteer" units left the area.

The period after these events until the agreement on autonomy is rich with political events that I will not touch upon here. The rest of the period witnessed numerous internal conflicts among the politically active Gagauz as well as external differences with the Moldovan government. Many of those who were engaged in Gagauz politics in the 1980s belonged to one intellectual circle. Subsequently, they split into basically two groups: Topal, Kendigelyan and Maruneviç ran the self-proclaimed republic until the old communist party secretary Tabunshic was elected as bashkan (governor) of Gagauzia; on the other side, Dabrov, who proposed the Gagauz Yeri project (originally together with Tausanci), took a less active part in politics during the referendum and the election.

The Gagauz leadership in Komrat and the Moldovan government in Chisinau reached agreement in December 1994 on autonomy for Gagauzia, thereby ending a five-year struggle which had witnessed the existence of a self-proclaimed republic. For Gagauzia, the agreement is the beginning of an open-ended process of cultural, political, and social autonomy within Moldova. Currently the Gagauz have a people's assembly (in which a deputy represents each village, irrespective of size, and every 2000 people) as well as their own bashkan.

When I went to Moldova in late September 1994, Gagauzi intellectuals were glad to see somebody planning to study among the Gagauz. My presence for them was another assertion of their existence. My host Misha, a village school teacher, said that I was the Gagauz' Joan of Arc. (I thought that he was referring to some of the financial support I had applied for for small projects and which was eventually granted). Not taking his comment seriously, I replied by saying that in fact I worked for my own career, not for the Gagauz. He disappointed me by adding an anthropological cliché to the effect that "you being here as an anthropologist is the biggest contribution".

Being a small minority, the Gagauz were and still are concerned with being recognized by different kinds of significant others. Some of the people were thrilled that "people in Norway will be interested in the Gagauz", as they put it. I met various people who told different stories of the independence struggle. There was a constant conflict between the few cliques who were struggling to possess the power of representing the Gagauz. Despite the fact that the potential volunteer threat and period of anxiety had occurred five years ago, I still expected that people would tell heroic stories since I was the "relevant person", an anthropologist who would write about the Gagauz. Yet they did not. I decided not to ask about those events in order to ascertain the contexts and the way in which they would appear; only during structured interviews with leaders and other politically significant people conducted very late on in my stay did I raise the subject. With the exception of a politically active poet, no-one ever dramatized these events during an interview.

Despite the time lag and the disparity in the number of casualties, the difference in reference to the painful past events in Azerbaijan and Gagauzia still strikes me as significant. Being a small minority among other Christian neighbours, the Gagauz could have romanticized the days of insurrection as a way of making themselves manifest, so as to mark their ethnic difference and existence. They could use the story of the Moldovan volunteers' attack to assert their sense of identity. Not that they do not refer to it at all, but the extent and form of such reference is certainly not similar to that of the Azerbaijanis. They do not choose polarization against Moldovans as the Azerbaijanis do with regard to Russians and Armenians.

Some of the political leaders do speak about "Kishinev" as a locus of Moldovan policy-making, and many of them have a kind of love/hate relationship with the Bulgarians, who now constitute a minority both in Moldova and in the autonomous territory of the Gagauz, Gagauzia. What I observed during daily life, funerals and religious ceremonies consistently showed a certain continuity in public representation. The morality which is attached to the individual expression of feelings dictates the repression of painful and negative feelings and of overt or "exaggerated" emotions. Old women standing in church during the Easter mass symbolized this expression for me. Those who were healthy enough to stand scarcely shifted their weight from one foot to the other, but stood straight for six hours; I, on the other hand, was about to collapse from the pain in my back. I joked sincerely by saying "now I know how Jesus suffered for us". ("Jesus suffered for us" was one of the expressions which was used all the time during both daily conversations and ceremonies.)

I would argue that the self which is moulded in the process of narrating about the self is different in Azerbaijan and Gagauzia. In my view, religious background is one of the important contexts for this difference: firstly, as an element in defining the "other", and, secondly, as a cultural repertoire which shapes the narration of self and suffering, and hence memory. I have shown elsewhere (cf. Demirdirek 1992) in relation to Azerbaijan that religious identity without faith in God may be used as an ethnic identity marker and in defining the "other". Defining this "other" as different is not at all difficult, and hence, defining one's own identity in opposition to it has also proved easy. The Gagauz, in contrast, seem predisposed to weaker and less definite expressions of nationalism, since they have the same religious background as their neighbours, and have no larger non-Soviet community with which they may identify unambiguously. Religion is a context for narrating self which produces and reproduces itself. The narration of a painful, unpleasant immediate past is only one way of approaching the issues of the construction of identity.

It is possible to understand the ambiguities of political discourse as part of a struggle for the assertion of a more general social identity which, under appropriate historical circumstances, is constituted as an ethnic and national identity. The concrete realities of daily practice and the political atmosphere make many people in the Soviet Union susceptible to discourses about their traditions and cultural values. Hence, the assertion of national characteristics may be seen as a way of coping with the problems of the present moment. In this respect, many societies in transition would have quite similar stories if they were told by a political scientist. Being part of the former Soviet Union, both the Azerbaijanis and the Gagauz "invent" themselves and reproduce their own image. In a somewhat similar vein, theoretical discussions of the "invention of tradition" (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983), and "cultural objectification" (Handler 1988) may be seen as providing a basis for considering tradition and change, continuity and rupture, and also the role played by anthropologists in reifying such concepts. These and certain other positions have been criticized for making use of "... concepts of tradition and change in an absolutist way, as though they could possibly have a universal and objective status" (Harris 1993: 18). Since most knowledge of traditions and of the past is a reconstruction, awareness of this reconstruction does not necessarily provide for better understanding unless we look at the mode of narration.

When political activity and discourse, which are processes of continuous reconstruction, are seen as a form of narration, they can provide channels for exploration of the attributes of agency. Narration as a point of departure offers scope for an understanding of agency in its own locality and temporality. The way the story and history are told, what is regarded as worth mentioning or repeating, what is remembered and what is omitted are points of importance.

On the other hand, places (in this case national territories), which are now considered to be more than geographical and spatial realities, can be considered as coming into being both through pratice and narration (Rodman 1992: 642). The very name Gagauzia is a good example of this. Traditionally, there was no place called Gagauzia and the Gagauz lived in the Bucak region.

Through the retelling of the past (immediate or distant) people reconstruct their identity and past. Memory here has to be seen as a part of social and cultural processes. Memory is a vast area of research both from the point of view of the individual and the social. Fentress and Wickham (1992) divides memory into two aspects: memory as action and memory as representation. The former, generally speaking, refers to remembering while the later refers to commemoration. In their extensive discussion of memory Fentress and Wickham point out the importance of looking at genres and narrative styles of commemoration and to the conversations about the past which have particular meaning for a particular group. They later relate memory to knowledge of self by referring to the psychologist Tulving´s two systems of memory. In this, semantic memory underlies knowing consciousness that governs our personal experience of ourselves while episodic memory underlies self knowing consciousness which forms our subjective sense of identity. According to Tulving semantic memory remembers through symbols while episodic memory remembers through recalling experience. This distinction according to Fentress and Wickham is problematic because it cannot have universal validity and it is this separation of semantic from the sensory which produces a conception of memory that is counter-intuitive. They use Tulving as an example to show the frontier, between semantic and sensory or word and thing, can neither be found in literate nor illiterate cultures. And even so such a frontier for them does not need to exist. However this distinction in my opinion is useful in the counter argument to underline the complementarity of content and form and also the embededness of present experience in the past experience. There is a continuum in this experience. The recognition of this continuum can be used to support the idea of narrative identity in the sense of being the writer and reader of ones own life. Our sense and knowledge of the past and present are built upon the ideas and experiences of the present as suggested by Fentress and Wickham. Memory thus is an active process which is open to re-structuring, re-ordering and/or suppression or forgetting. "Social memory is a source of knowledge. This means that it does more than provide a set of categories through which, in an unselfconscious way, a group experiences its surroundings; it also provides the group with material for conscious reflection. This means that we must situate groups in relation to their own traditions, asking how they interpret their own 'ghosts', and how they use them as a source of knowledge" (Fentress & Wickham 1992:27). Memory thus serves both a source of knowledge and it produces knowledge. We may remember how Borofsky connects the way of knowing and the way of "making history" among Pakapukans (Borofsky 1990). The way we learn as well as the way we remember and validate knowledge all contribute to the way in which we reconstruct the past.


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