The Price of Dreams

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Chapter Twenty

THE POGROM lasted for three days and was only brought to an end when Moscow ordered troops into Sumgait. They imposed a curfew, and by Monday an uneasy calm had descended on the town. The 17,000 local Armenians, who represented 10% of the population, had no doubt about where they stood in the aftermath of the violence. As soon as they could, they began to assemble under police and military protection with a view to getting out as soon as possible.

The official death toll was twenty-six Armenians and six members of other ethnic groups, but Ruslan and Tamara would never meet anyone who believed those figures. Armenians routinely spoke of hundreds of deaths, and even if this was an exaggeration, Ruslan and Tamara thought that many more than thirty-two people had been killed. Certainly scores had been raped and hundreds beaten up or stabbed.

Several Azeris told Ruslan they blamed the KGB. Ruslan was very sceptical about this conspiracy theory. The pogrom would have a catastrophic effect upon the whole region, polarising opinion and pushing the Azeris and Armenians towards all-out ethnic war. Ruslan couldn’t imagine how this could possibly be of benefit to the Soviet authorities.

He blamed the local Communists, not Moscow.

Tamara telephoned Ruslan at Osman and Yasemin’s flat on the Tuesday, and they agreed that they would join the exodus as soon as Tamara was no longer needed at the hospital. Neither of them had the slightest desire to stay after what they had witnessed, and both were afraid for Tamara’s safety.

The next day, Osman and Ruslan went to collect an exhausted Tamara from the hospital. She stayed in their flat just long enough to shower and change her clothes, and then Osman and Yasemin drove the two of them to Baku airport, where they waited for two days among hordes of Armenian refugees until they were finally able to get themselves on board a plane for Stavropol.

The pogrom affected them both deeply. They blamed themselves for what happened to the Jibotian family upstairs. Tamara was haunted by the fact that she had dragged Ruslan away from their door, Ruslan by his refusal to allow the Derderians to try and bring them to safety.

For two months afterwards, Ruslan suffered debilitating bouts of depression. He also woke up almost every night with nightmares about the man he had seen being thrown from his balcony, or about young Izabella drowning and himself refusing to allow Mrs Derderian to jump into the water to save her. He found it difficult to motivate himself for his training, and his fitness suffered considerably at a time when it should have been building up as the running season approached.

As for Tamara, the pogrom had a lasting effect upon her nerves. Whenever she remembered the seven months she had spent in Sumgait, all she could think of was her vulnerability as someone who looked like an Armenian. She had frequent nightmares about being threatened on the train, or about desperately searching for Ruslan at Sumgait station and being unable to find him. She often wondered what would have happened if Ruslan hadn’t gone to meet her on the first night of the pogrom, or if the Azeri mob had insisted on searching their flat. She shuddered every time she thought about leaving the building to take Ghazi Jibotian to the hospital.

Tamara didn’t feel safe in Ronkoni, where they stayed with Giorgi and Venera after leaving Azerbaijan. ‘What’s going to happen when Ksords and Akhtarians start baying for each other’s blood?’

‘It won’t come to that.’

‘Won’t it? Why not? Don’t you remember how quickly it happened? One minute they were all getting on fine, the next minute they were standing on their balconies applauding murder.’

Ruslan had no answer to that.

‘I’m not safe here. I don’t dare to open my mouth outdoors in case anyone hears my accent.’

Ruslan wrote to Sergo Lionidza, his friend in high places, who arranged for him to train in multi-ethnic Khosume. He also helped find Tamara a position as a general practitioner in a small municipal hospital, though her specialist training would have to be interrupted. Murad, by now a television producer with more than a little blat of his own, found them a flat in a Tatar district of the city. Tamara felt much safer there. She knew Akhtarians had nothing to fear from Tatars. It was Ksords that scared her, however much she adored the Ksord she had married.

At the end of April, Ruslan and Tamara received a letter from the Jibotian family, who were in a refugee camp in Armenia. The letter was full of effusive thanks to both of them for what they had done.

’Every day we look at our daughter and curse ourselves for not opening the door when you came to get us. You mustn’t blame yourselves. It was our decision. We thought we’d be safe in our flat, and nothing you could have said would have made us open that door.

‘And every day I look at my husband and I bless you both because you saved his life. I know you took a great risk for him, especially you Doctor Tamara, because you could have been mistaken for an Armenian and lynched. I can never thank you enough for what you did.’

She wrote about her children. Her son Martin refused to speak about what he had witnessed, and Mrs Jibotian was very worried about him, in many ways more worried than about Izabella, who had cried for weeks after the attack but who now seemed to have come to terms with it. She had recently been admitted to a specialised secondary school in Yerevan. Mrs Jibotian said her husband had been very depressed, but the improvement in Izabella’s condition had cheered him up.

Mrs Jibotian said nothing about how the attack had affected her personally. Tamara guessed that it was her therapy to be strong for the others.

Both Ruslan and Tamara cried when they read the letter, but they also found it a great comfort. It helped them to take pride in what they had achieved for their Armenian neighbours rather than feel remorse for their failure to hide the Jibotians, and Ruslan came to feel he had recovered some of the integrity he lost when he denounced Nina on TV.

His depression left him quite suddenly, and he began to throw himself into his preparations for the Seoul Olympics. His nightmares, however, would continue for more than a year.

He also remained concerned about Tamara. He remembered what he had said to her on the first night of the pogrom, that she was more important to him than his running. He decided that if he really meant it, he had to put her interests first.

‘What would you think about going to live in England?’ he asked her one evening.

‘That would be fantastic, but how could we do that?’

‘I met this English athlete who works at a college in London that specialises in Soviet studies. He said I should contact him if I ever wanted to do a PhD.’

‘A what?’

‘A PhD: it’s like a Candidate of Science degree. I’d get a small stipend, and you could find work as a doctor.’

‘Would you still be able to run and train properly?’

‘It might be difficult, but I’ve been thinking about it. I mean, I’ll be thirty-one next month and so I’ve only got a few more years’ serious running anyway. And I think it’s important to have my next job sorted out before we have children, and this would be a great opportunity.’

‘But you’re not going to miss the next Olympics are you?’

‘No way.’

‘What about exit visas? I’m sure there’ll be some rule about doctors not being able to leave the country for so many years after they qualify. Plus you’ve done military service.’

‘Theoretically.’

‘Yes, but there’s a rule, isn’t there?’

‘Yes, seven years. I’ll ask Lionidza, maybe he can help.’

Lionidza was surprised that Ruslan was willing to end his running career so soon.

‘I’m worried about Tamara. What happened in Sumgait has really affected her. She’s terrified that the Ksords and Akhtarians are going to be at each other’s throats before long.’

‘I wish I could tell you she was wrong,’ said Lionidza. ‘Unfortunately, Comrade Gorbachev seems intent on letting every genie out of every bottle he can find.’

Ruslan was staggered. He had never thought he would live to hear a senior Communist criticise the General Secretary of the Party.

‘I could probably get you exit visas. There are those who would love to get rid of you. Maybe we could sell you to a running club for hard currency.’

Ruslan laughed. ‘Yes, if I was a footballer.’

‘You’ll probably be able to continue running, especially if you can come back here for altitude training in the university vacations.’

‘That would be great.’

Lionidza suddenly turned very serious and looked Ruslan in the eye. ‘If I’m to get you exit visas, you have to make me two promises.’

‘What’s that?’

‘Number one: when you get to England, no politics. You don’t give press interviews about your time in prison, you don’t campaign for your friend Nina Begishveli’s release, and you don’t join some Pan-Kuban nationalist committee over there. You owe me a lot, Ruslan, and if you splatter egg all over my face, I’ll be bloody angry.’

‘You have my word.’

‘And number two: you bring back a medal from Seoul.’

‘I intend to, don’t worry.’

Lionidza extended his hand and Ruslan shook it.

Ruslan wrote to his English hammer-throwing friend, who replied almost at once, saying that there was every chance of a PhD research studentship with a £4,800 stipend. Ruslan soon came up with a proposal and wrote it up.

His topic was, The Crystallisation of Ksordian and Akhtarian National Consciousness among Speakers of the Central and Coastal Dialects 1793-1943.

Tamara burst out laughing when she read his title. ‘It’s not exactly catchy, is it? I can’t see it being a bestseller.’

‘It’s academic research.’

‘So what’s it about then?’

‘It’s about how the people of southern Akhtaria and Central Kubania became divided into Ksords and Akhtarians.’

‘You surprise me. And when exactly did that happen?’

‘Between 1793 and 1943, obviously.’

’1793? That’s when the Russians liberated us from the Turks?’

‘Yes.’

‘And 1943 is the Great Repression?’

‘Correct.’

‘What? So some people didn’t decide whether they were Ksords or Akhtarians until 1943?’

‘Yes. Everyone who speaks your dialect is Akhtarian. Nobody’s ever argued about that. But with people who speak my dialect and the Coastal dialect it’s often very recent.’

‘Ah, you’ve told me about this before. It depends on whether their local church joined the Akhtarian church or the Ksordian church.’

‘I’m glad you’ve been listening.’

‘I always listen to you, dear,’ Tamara said with a grin. ‘And that often depended on the priest rather than his congregation?’

‘Correct again. Some people who’d moved house ended up with a different nationality from their parents. And lots of people still called themselves Kuban Christians until 1931.’

‘What happened in 1931?’

‘The Communists made everyone register as a Ksord or an Akhtarian.’

‘Why?’

‘Divide and conquer, probably. There was a lot of unrest during collectivisation, and some of it had a Pan-Kuban flavour.’

‘And you’re the last of the Pan Kubanists.’

‘I’m a disinterested academic researcher.’

‘Well yes, obviously. But if it’s all so recent, how come people feel so passionate about it?’

‘Because it became a matter of life and death. The Rebels slaughtered people who’d ended up becoming Ksords, and then Stalin deported all those who’d become Akhtarians.’

‘You’re going to love doing this thesis, aren’t you?’

‘Yes, I can’t wait.’

‘Make sure you don’t neglect your wife.’

‘I won’t.’ Ruslan took hold of her hand. ‘There is one other question connected with nationality.’

‘What’s that?’

‘What about our children? What will they be?’

‘Half-Ksord, half-Akhtarian.’

‘Don’t we need to give them an identity?’

‘What? Do you want them to be Ksords?’

‘My mother does. Before we got married, she asked me to promise that our children would be Ksords.’

‘And did you promise?’

‘No. I told her I’d have to consult you.’

‘And was she satisfied with that?’

‘Not really. She said I was her only living blood relative and her other children had been killed because they were Ksords, so she wanted Ksordian grandchildren.’

‘My family suffered too, you know.’

‘I know.’

‘My mother lost her grandma and her little brother.’

‘I know.’

‘I’m glad you didn’t promise anything. I’d be really cross if you promised without asking me first.’

‘I didn’t make any promises, but I’d be very grateful if you’d think about it. It would mean a lot to an old lady who’s had a hard life.’

‘All right, I’ll think about it, when the time comes.’

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