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Sumgait. Nagorno-Karabakh. Artsakh. Yerevan.

In 1988

Sumgait. Nagorno-Karabakh. Artsakh. Yerevan.

In 1988

Excerpts from

my 15 years at iki by mike gruntman

My Fifteen Years at IKI, the Space Research Institute:

Position-Sensitive Detectors and Energetic Neutral Atoms Behind the Iron Curtain

Interstellar Trail Press, 2022. ISBN 979-8985668704

detailed book content    paperback    Kindle    book preview

Chapter 10. Neutral Atoms Reach Critical Mass

Trip to the Caucasus (pp. 226ff)

IKI 15 pages 018-026


Then we flew to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, and visited the nearby Byurakan Astrophysical Observatory. The region had already plunged into turmoil, after the recent pogrom in the town of Sumgait near Baku in neighboring Azerbaijan. Seven months earlier in February 1988, a total of more than 30 people, primarily Armenians but also some Azerbaijanis (Azeris), were killed there. Violence in the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region, also known and dear to the Armenians as Artsakh, intensified. Mutual ethnic cleansing followed, with thousands of miserable refugees.

I visited the region only six weeks earlier when my vacation time came up in early September of that year. I went first to Baku and Sumgait (Fig. 10.18) in Azerbaijan, then Stepanakert (Fig. 10.19) and Shusha (Shushi) in Nagorno-Karabakh, and finally reached Yerevan. In Shusha I could have gotten killed if caught when photographing local Azeris using an Armenian cemetery as a pasture for their sheep.


In Yerevan, my local science friends introduced me to a couple of members of the Karabakh Committee that organized massive protests in the streets (Fig. 10.20, top left). People demanded the unification of Artsakh with Armenia, chanting "Artsakh miatsum!" ("Unite with Artsakh!" in Armenian). The Soviet authorities arrested the leading Committee members three months later. In a few years, some of them would become members of the government of independent Armenia.

An area surrounding the Opera Theater became the central place for mass protests in Yerevan (Fig. 10.20). I mixed with a crowd there for half an hour when a member of the Karabakh Committee found me and pulled me aside. He sternly advised me to keep my mouth shut. Somebody had told him that I had been explaining in conversations with the gathered people that their problem was not with the personal unfriendliness and incompetence of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev but with the Soviet system. "Look, local KGB officers know us all and we know them," my new friend said to me. "They would not touch us, the Armenians, as we are all here related, the cousins, brothers, uncles, and members of same families. But they will break your neck, the outsider." It is even possible that an undercover security officer had tipped off my protector from the Karabakh Committee. I was an odar in that land. [9]

When ... [we] ... came to Yerevan one month later in October 1988, the subdued mood in the streets did not resemble the boisterous meetings of people (Fig. 10.20, top left) and mass demonstrations by excited students in September. Dispirited men and women still gathered at the square near the iconic Opera Theater to express their grievances (Fig. 10.20, bottom left). Posters blamed the Moscow rulers and personally Gorbachev for allowing the killing of the people to happen. They demanded the authorities recognize the Sumgait massacre as genocide (Fig. 10.20, right). The situation was gradually and irreversibly getting out of control.


IKI 15 page 011

Fig. 10.18. Orwellian-named Monument to Friendship (as in friendship among the peoples) on a square in Sumgait, a dreary industrial town 20 miles (30 km) from the Azerbaijan capital Baku. Mobs killed more than 30 people, primarily Armenians, in a pogrom in late February 1988. The Armenians constituted 7% of the town population at that time. Photograph (September 1988) courtesy of Mike Gruntman.

Fig. 10.19. Memorial plate "To Victims of Sumgait Tragedy" in Stepanakert, the capital of the Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) region in September 1988. The inscription is in Russian, the lingua franca of the Soviet Empire. Photograph courtesy of Mike Gruntman.

Fig. 10.20. The subdued mood in the square near the iconic Opera Theater in Yerevan (bottom left) during the trip of the Space Gas Dynamics Conference participants in October 1988. The area continued to be the gathering place for people to express their grievances and show dismay with government actions and inaction. The banner on the theater building reads "sovereign government is people's will" in Armenian. The same square boiled with thousands of angry people (top left) a month earlier, when I was there during my vacation trip on September 14. They chanted "Artsakh miatsum!" ("Unite with Artsakh!"), challenging the Moscow authorities over their handling of ethnic violence and cleansing in a conflict with Azerbaijan. Right: photographs of the Armenians murdered in the Sumgait pogrom in February 1988. The banner above reads (in Russian) "The Supreme Soviet [Council of the USSR] must recognize genocide in Sumgait!" The conflict was dormant for many years after the mid-1990s. In 2020, largescale hostilities between the two independent countries, Azerbaijan and Armenia, erupted again. The rebuilt and strengthened Azeri military defeated the Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh in a short campaign. Azerbaijan widely employed the new Turkey-built unmanned aerial systems with devastating effect. Photographs courtesy of Mike Gruntman.


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