Straddling Cultures: An Azeri in Moscow

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HE is probably the warmest, most outgoing Muscovite that I have met in many visits to the Soviet capital. He has lived there for decades and speaks Russian but comes from Baku. His story - and his family's - helps explain the confrontation between Soviet forces and Azerbaijan's Popular Front. Reza is a laboratory researcher but moonlights weekends as a taxi driver. He picked me up late one night after dozens of other drivers had passed by. When we hit a pothole, he cursed the Moscow streets. Reminded about Alexander Pushkin's verse about the roads of old Russia, Reza laughed appreciatively.

This burly giant knows almost no English, but he likes Louis Armstrong and Count Basie. Although I prefer Mussorgsky and Prokofiev, music and poetry brought us together. Next day Reza was no longer my taxi driver but my friend, careening around Moscow to visit his research institute and his family.

Such hospitality! His wife, Karime, hearing an American was coming, scoured Moscow's ``cooperative'' markets for ingredients to make an Azeri feast: creamy soup, stuffed grape leaves, broiled chicken, and, for dessert, sugar-coated rose leaves and whipped cream-filled Napoleons, washed down with dark tea.

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Why did Reza leave Azerbaijan for Moscow? The story came out as he showed me the family heirlooms. In an album, among photos showing Reza at age 20 leaping high to sink a basketball shot, is a crumbling but terrifying document dated July 23, 1956: From the military branch of the Soviet Supreme Court, it announced that the execution of Reza's father as a German spy in 1937 had been a mistake. So, he was rehabilitated - five months after Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin's crimes.

Reza was only six when his father died, but the boy's whole life was shaped by this event. The secret police threw his father's body in a river and confiscated the family apartment and furnishings. Mother and children became political outcasts, dependent upon relatives for handouts.

When Reza finished the 10th grade in 1946, an uncle advised him to go to Moscow. ``In Baku,'' he said, ``you will always be politically suspect. In the capital they may not know you. Apply to a college and hope no one checks the file.''

Reza did as he was told. He attended technical institutes and got two degrees, but was not the first of his line to leave Azerbaijan for training. His was a family that valued education and saw no contradiction between Islam and learning. Reza's grandfather (whose own father was a rug merchant) attended a Muslim religious school that taught not only the Koran but languages and mathematics. This training helped him become secretary to a Baku oil millionaire, a position that he later exploited to smuggle arms. A rich man even under Soviet rule, he dispatched his own son - Reza's father - to Paris to attend the Sorbonne in the 1920s.

Karime's youngest aunt became the first female doctor in Azerbaijan. Another aunt, now in her 80s, served as Azerbaijan's foreign minister.

The teenage son and daughter of Reza and Karime exude energy. When I suggest that they pose for a family portrait, the boy dons his hockey uniform (with helmet and stick) while the father brings out a silk robe and a curved sword. Both children treasure videocassettes and lament that not every Muscovite has a VCR system. They trade cassettes with friends and dub foreign movies.

The children summer on the Caspian Sea with relatives. They feel more at home in Azerbaijan than in Moscow, but plan to attend university and make their careers in Russia. Daughter Fara wants to become a physician. Son Faromazh has not decided on a profession. The children display no hostility toward Armenians, but their father allows that the Armenian earthquake may have been a punishment sent by God.

The family Koran lies in the same cabinet with old photo albums. More prized than read, it is written in Arabic, which none of the family now knows. They have no Russian or Azeri translation.

If Azerbaijan splits from the USSR, would Reza and family remain in Moscow or return to Baku? I suspect that they would stay where they have sunk new roots. Their hearts, however, are in the south. Reza admires Gorbachev, but doubts that communism has been good for either of his countries - Russia or Azerbaijan.

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