Turmoil in homeland prompts move to U.S.

The Republican, MA

Turmoil in homeland prompts move to U.S.
Wednesday, June 30, 2004

The end of the Cold War was not peaceful for Stella Gabriyelyan. It
brought her the loss of her home, the threat of mortal danger to her
family and years of uncertainty and bitterness.

The Gabriyelyans arrived in America on May 15, 2003, after living for
13 years as Armenian refugees in Moscow.

The date means a lot for them. It was exactly 14 years earlier that
the family arrived in Moscow fleeing ethnic violence in Azerbaijan,
then one of the 15 Soviet republics.

Before 1988, Gabriyelyan recalls, Azerbaijan had just one nationality
– bakinets – residents of Baku, its vibrant capital, located on the
western shore of the Caspian Sea. It was home to about 2 million
people, mostly Azeris, but also Armenians, Russians, Ukrainians and
Jews. “It really didn’t matter what culture a person came from. We
all were just bakintsy. It was such a friendly city. Everyone loved
each other. And then suddenly everything changed.”

Scholars and politicians would likely explain that the ethnic
conflict broke out in the Caucasus as part of a horrible legacy left
by Stalin in his re- drawing of the country’s ethnic map that exiled
entire nations from their ancestral homelands and fomented
disagreements that had been smoldering for decades.

Still, it’s hard to believe that people who used to live and work
side-by-side their entire lives would suddenly find themselves bitter

It was the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region of Azerbaijan that
became a bone of contention for Armenia and Azerbaijan. After the
Armenian majority there broke off relations with Azerbaijan and
joined Armenia in 1988, the conflict between the two neighbors
flared, leaving many dead.

In January 1990 Baku was hit by days of anti-Armenian violence that
claimed dozens of lives. There were certainly stories on both sides
and each side would offer their own explanation. But for sure, it was
not safe for any Armenian to stay in the city.

“I narrowly avoided being killed,” says Stella, who now calls West
Springfield home. “I don’t miss the city. I feel only fear and pain
thinking about those days.”

Vadim, her husband, is a Russian. But as long as Stella’s
“non-Russian” appearance was the obvious sign of an “unfriendly
nationality,” they told their son, Misha, who was 8, that his mom was
a Jew.

Their last days in Baku were spent hiding in their Russian neighbors’
apartment. “We left very early in the morning and we left everything

Stella doesn’t miss Moscow either.

Many Russian-speaking Baku Armenians sought refuge with friends and
relatives in Moscow and other Russian cities rather than in Armenia,
mainly because of their lack of Armenian language skills.
Unfortunately, they were not welcomed, particularly in Moscow with
its growing “Caucasus phobia” and registration regulations for
non-Muscovites which give police the right to expel non-residents who
had failed to register with the authorities.

Due to the arbitrary refusal of Moscow authorities, the Gabriyelyans,
like thousands of other forced migrants, did not receive local
propiskas – residence permits – and were not recognized by the
authorities as citizens of the Russian Federation after the collapse
of the Soviet Union.

So they became refugees in their own country.

“My grandfathers fought for this country in the second world war. My
father was a border guard. I did nothing wrong. I was a teacher all
my life. Why did I have to have problems acquiring Russian

There is still much bitterness in her voice.

The first group of Baku Armenians who applied for U.S. resettlement
came to America in 1990. Stella, a Russian and English language
teacher, helped many of them to fill out the forms.

The Gabriyelyans themselves had to wait for a while until they were
granted refugee status. When it was granted, Stella remembers
thinking, “Now we have to start all over again.” Again.

Alex Peshkov, a staff writer for The Republican, emigrated to Western
Massachusetts from Arkhangelsk in 2002. His column focuses on the
Russian-American community. He can be reached at [email protected]