‘I’M NOT good enough yet,’ Ruslan told Tamara when he returned from Rome, ‘but I’m nearly there. I just need to build up my rectus femoris and my vastus medialis a bit and improve my aerobic fitness by three percent. And I should work on my arms. I still waste too much energy on them.’
He also had to change his strategy: ‘I have to improve my pace early on so I won’t have so much catching up to do. Then I’ll have more energy left for the final push. My aim is gold in the Seoul Olympics, and this time I’m going to win.’
Tamara had to smile. It was obvious he meant every word.
She had a question for Ruslan, and she saved it up for Saturday evening as they were sitting on their main balcony finishing off a bottle of wine.
‘What’s Nagorno Karabakh?’
‘Oh God. Don’t tell me people have been lecturing you about that.’
‘So what is it?’
‘It’s part of Azerbaijan, but the population’s mostly Armenian. Every Armenian you ever meet will tell you that it should be part of Armenia…’
‘I know, and every Azeri will tell me it should stay in Azerbaijan.’
‘It’s so depressing. I’d just like to meet one Armenian who thinks it should stay in Azerbaijan, or one Azeri who wouldn’t mind if it became part of Armenia. Just one, for God’s sake.’
‘But you haven’t met them yet?’
‘No. There’s this one guy who works at the stadium – you’ll meet him one day – he’s half-Armenian and half-Azeri. I asked him, and do you know what he said?’
‘When I’m with my mama I think this, and when I’m with my papa I think that.’
‘You wouldn’t believe it,’ said Ruslan, ’the times I’ve been lectured about Nagorno Karabakh: taxi drivers, shopkeepers, athletes, even sweet old Babushka Yasemin. And of course, the annoying thing is, I know a lot more about it than any of them. I did my thesis on Azeris and Armenians, remember?’
‘All right then, clever clogs, who should Nagorno Karabakh belong to?’
‘Neither of them.’
‘What a cop out!’
‘The Azeris and the Armenians are completely intertwined. You can’t carve them up into neat little nation states. That would lead to war and massacres and people being driven from their homes. That’s what happened between 1918 and 1920.’
‘Ruslan, see my eyes? They’re starting to glaze over.’
‘Well that’s what you should say when anyone starts to talk about it. Say you’re not interested in politics and you don’t want to know.’
Unfortunately, Nagorno Karabakh refused to go away, and tension between Azeris and Armenians began to grow as winter set in.
In Azerbaijan, the Communist authorities paid no more than lip service to Gorbachev’s reformist policies of glasnost and perestroika (openness and reconstruction), but in Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh a nationalist movement had started to flourish, and inevitably this led to conflict.
In January, a number of Azeri refugees arrived from southern Armenia, which ratcheted up the tension. Tamara learnt the Azeri for ‘Go back to Armenia’ when a group of youths shouted it at her on the commuter train one evening. She said nothing about it to Ruslan, but she was beginning to wish she didn’t look quite so much like an Armenian.
On 20th February, the Nagorno Karabakh Supreme Soviet passed a resolution calling for a negotiated transfer of the region to Armenia. This raised the tension still further in Sumgait and Baku. Twice over the following week, Tamara was spat at in the street. She felt very frightened and on both occasions told her assailants very loudly that she wasn’t Armenian. One of them apologised to her and even offered to wipe off his spittle. Once again, she said nothing to Ruslan.
Later in the week there were riots in Nagorno Karabakh. Azeri and Armenian demonstrators clashed and two Azeris were killed. On the Friday morning, Tamara found the stares of other passengers on the train very intimidating.
That evening, Ruslan got home from training at six thirty, a little later than usual because he had taken the bus rather than run, for fear of slipping on the snow. As he entered his apartment block, the caretaker spoke to him: ‘Ruslan, don’t go out tonight. There’s trouble in the town.’
‘What sort of trouble?’
‘Some of the young lads are a bit upset about what happened in Nagorno Karabakh. They’re demonstrating against the Armenians.’
Ruslan nodded. He ran up the stairs to his flat, wondering what to cook for dinner. And then it occurred to him that Tamara could be in danger. Her walk from the station would take her right through the town centre, and some of the demonstrators might think she was Armenian.
He hurried next door to Osman and Yasemin’s flat. The old lady opened the door.
‘Hi, can I use your phone?’
‘Yes, of course.’
He telephoned Tamara’s hospital. ‘Hello, this is very urgent. I need to speak to Doctor Tamara Shanidza in the ENT Department.’
‘The ENT Department’s closed.’
‘I know, but she doesn’t usually finish until seven. This is her husband and it’s very very urgent.’
‘The ENT Department’s closed.’
‘Yes, but she’s still there. Please let me speak to her, it’s very very urgent.’
‘I’m sorry but the ENT Department’s closed.’
The telephonist hung up.
Ruslan was now beginning to get very worried. He explained the situation to Yasemin, who told him that her husband had phoned to say he would be late home because a mass meeting had been called at the steel plant. Otherwise he would have been happy to drive him down to meet Tamara.
Ruslan decided to go to the station at once. He should have plenty of time provided she hadn’t finished early. He left the apartment block and ran towards the station, following Tamara’s normal route through the shopping district just in case she was walking home. In the town centre, he saw large crowds of young men and stopped running so as not to draw attention to himself.
The young men were shouting slogans.
‘Blood for blood!’
‘Death to the Armenians!’
He saw one Armenian restaurant whose window had been shattered. He could hear the sound of men smashing the place up. Ahead of him, he saw a crowd outside a shop that had been set on fire. Ruslan hoped for their sakes that the staff had managed to flee.
It was not yet seven when Ruslan arrived at the station. He positioned himself by the newspaper kiosk. He knew Tamara would spot him as he would frequently come to meet her there. Nevertheless, he felt very anxious as he scanned the faces of all the passengers arriving on trains from Baku.
Finally, Tamara’s usual train came in and he saw her on the platform.
‘Tamara!’ he yelled at the top of his voice.
She saw him and gave a cheery smile. They exchanged four kisses.
‘Hello, this is a pleasant surprise.’
‘There’s trouble in the town centre. I don’t want you walking through there tonight.’
She seemed to understand at once. ‘Shall we take a taxi?’
They found a very long queue at the taxi rank, but no sign of any taxis. After waiting for some time, they telephoned Osman to ask him to pick them up. Unfortunately, he still hadn’t returned home.
‘Shall we walk?’ Ruslan said. ‘It should be okay as long as we keep away from the shopping district.’
They set off, taking a roundabout route through unfamiliar streets. The whole area was deserted, with neither traffic nor pedestrians. It was eerily quiet apart from the distant sound of demonstrators.
‘What are they saying?’ asked Tamara.
‘Blood for blood, death to the Armenians.’
They hurried on. Suddenly a middle-aged man ran out of a side street. He looked behind him and then turned and ran past them down the middle of the road.
Then a dozen young men emerged.
‘There he is,’ one of them yelled. ‘Get him.’
They all ran after him. Ruslan took Tamara’s arm, pushed her into a shop doorway and stood protectively in front of her.
One of the young men spotted them: ‘Look, there’s two of the bastards there.’
They all stopped running. Several of them had knives in their hands.
‘We’re not Armenians, we’re not Armenians!’ Ruslan shouted in Azeri.
‘So what are you then?’
‘We’re from Ksordia-Akhtaria. I’m a Ksord, she’s Akhtarian.’
‘She looks like an Armenian to me.’
‘We can prove it, look.’
Ruslan got out his ID card, and a terrified Tamara fumbled in her handbag and retrieved hers. The leader of the mob looked at the cards and nodded.
‘Okay,’ he said, handing them back. ‘We’ve got no quarrel with you. You’d better get off the streets, though. Especially her.’
They set off again in half-hearted pursuit of the Armenian they had been chasing.
Ruslan took Tamara’s arm, and they hurried fearfully up the deserted street. It took another fifteen minutes to get home, and when they arrived, Ruslan shut the door and leant his back against it as if to hold back the invading hordes.
‘Thank God for that.’
Tamara buried her face in his shoulder and he embraced her.
‘Thanks to you.’
Ruslan closed his eyes and held her trembling body tight. ‘Jesus, I can’t believe this. How can people just turn on the Armenians like that?’
‘Their blood’s up, Ruslan. People will do anything when their blood’s up. Don’t you remember us when we were kicking Mingrelsky?’
‘Yes, but he attacked us.’
‘But the Azeris are the same. The politicians stir it up, and everybody feels like they’ve been attacked.’
Ruslan shook his head. ‘What a disaster.’
‘I suppose there’s one good thing. Maybe that Armenian guy got away because they stopped to look at us.’
At nine o’clock, they turned on the television for the news, flicking from Russian- to Azeri-language channels. To Ruslan’s disgust, there was nothing whatsoever about the riots.
’So much for Gorbachev and his bloody glasnost.’
‘What did you expect?’
Ruslan prepared a quick meal of pasta while Tamara showered. She said she could smell the fear on her body and was anxious to wash it off. They ate dinner with some Georgian wine, and she told him about the growing hostility of Azeris over the past few weeks.
‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
‘I don’t know, I’m sorry. I just didn’t want to be…I didn’t want to come along and be a liability. I just thought it would all blow over.’
‘Tamara, you’ll never be a liability to me. You’re the most important thing in my life. If the authorities don’t get a grip very soon, we’re out of here.’
‘What about your running?’
‘What about my running? I don’t care about my running. I care about you.’
She reached out and took his hand. ‘Thank you.’
As he looked at her, he realised just how much he meant what he had said.
He woke up in the small hours. He thought he heard men shouting and the breaking of glass, but when he looked out of the window, he couldn’t see anything. He got back into bed and lay still for a very long time, unable to get back to sleep, despite the comforting presence of the sleeping Tamara.
The day’s events troubled him, not just because of the danger Tamara had faced, but because they seemed to be a fearful omen. Gorbachev’s reforms were spinning out of control, and Ruslan feared that it was too late for anyone to get a grip on the situation.
He had once longed for the collapse of Communism, but he no longer believed that it would add to the sum of human happiness, at least not in the multi-ethnic fringes of the Soviet Union. Not if it led to another war between the Azeris and the Armenians. And what about the Ksords and the Akhtarians? Would they fight each other too? Ruslan shuddered at the thought.
He got up and tiptoed into the living room, where he tried and failed to distract himself with a recent edition of Sovetsky Sport. After a moment, he heard a noise and looked up. It was Tamara, her hair in a tangle, her eyes full of sleep.
‘What are you doing out of bed? It’s only just gone three.’
The sight of her lifted his mood. At least there was one Ksord and one Akhtarian who would always love each other. It would all be different tomorrow. The police would put a lid on the trouble, and Moscow would bang a few heads together and force the Azeris and the Armenians to sort out their differences.
Next morning, Ruslan got up early as usual. He spent half an hour doing mobility exercises, and, after a shower and a quick breakfast, he popped out to buy a copy of Literaturnaya Gazeta. He also decided to buy three newspapers: Pravda, Izvestia and the Azeri language Babinsky Rabochy. When he got home, he scoured the three dailies to see if he could find any news of the riots. There was nothing, not a single mention in any of them. At nine, he tried the Baku radio news, which had an eyewitness report by one Tofik Bakhramov, who claimed to have observed a small and peaceful demonstration by workers from a caustic soda plant.
This report infuriated Ruslan. He translated it for Tamara. ‘This Bakhramov must be the worst eyewitness in history, but I bet there are some morons who are so bigoted they still believe him even though they’ve seen what happened with their own eyes.’
They spent some time reading the newspapers and were thinking about wandering down to the town centre after lunch to see how much damage had been done. But then, soon after eleven, Tamara noticed an unfamiliar noise, something akin to the roar of a distant monster. For a moment they wondered what it was.
‘It’s a demonstration.’
They went onto the kitchen balcony and looked down the main road leading to the town centre. There, less than 300 metres away, was a large crowd, more than 1,000 strong.
‘They’re coming this way.’
The crowd continued to approach, their slogans more and more audible.
‘What are they saying?’
‘Same as last night: “Blood for blood. Death to the Armenians.”’
‘Do you know what? I think they mean it.’