BAKU, AZERBAIJAN — AMID his many awards, under bright oil paintings in a room half-filled by a grand piano, Azerbaijan's greatest living composer waxes eloquent about his beloved city, Baku.
"There was no more international city in the Soviet Union," Arif Melikov says, referring to the period under Soviet rule. "It was not due to the Soviet Union, it was because of oil."
The massive oil fields around Baku, the source of half of the world's oil at the turn of the century, transformed this ancient Silk Road port into a bustling, cosmopolitan city. Not far from the old city where the caravansaries (inns where caravans stopped) still stand, the oil barons built grand stone villas and opera houses on the boulevard that curves along the shores of the Caspian Sea.
Along with the bosses came an influx of workers from other parts of the Russian Empire - more than 60,000, of many nationalities, including Russians, Armenians, Georgians, Jews, and Tatars - to work alongside Azeris.
The oil workers made the city a hotbed of socialist agitation in the runup to the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. Baku became one of the Soviet Union's busiest seaports.
"People lived here together," says Mr. Melikov, who was born in this city when it was renowned for its music and arts. "There were no national[ity] problems."
The composer of many works, including the world-famous ballet "Legend of Love," Melikov recalls: "Up until 1940, Baku was a city where the most outstanding conductors came on tour. Baku paid hard currency. Moscow didn't have it, but Baku did."
Indeed, the special character of Baku was such that its residents almost came to think of themselves as a separate people. Even today the city's inhabitants are known as "Bakintsy," a term that distinguishes them from Azerbaijanis of the countryside.
But the tumultuous events of recent years are changing this special character. "We are starting to lose this, quietly, step by step," Melikov laments.
"Ten or 20 years ago this was a modern European city, in terms of music, social life," says a Turkish source who lives here. "Lots of the people who put so much flavor into life in Baku have fled."
The breakup of the Soviet Union and the accompanying nationalist political turmoil has driven many of the Russian-speaking population to leave. The city's large Jewish population is rapidly emigrating to Israel.
And the 200,000 Armenians have virtually all departed, refugees from the almost five-year conflict between Azerbaijan and neighboring Armenia over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. (The enclave within Azerbaijan is populated largely by Armenians, who want to join Armenia.)
In their place have come 300,000 to 400,000 Azeri refugees from Armenia and from Nagorno-Karabakh. Many of them are from rural areas, and face unemployment, lack of housing, and other problems in the city.
"We are in the middle of a cultural transition period," a Turkish resident of the city says. Still, Baku has a very good philharmonic and opera, "far better than in Turkey," and hundreds of fine painters. Intellectually, Baku remains a highly sophisticated city.
And for some, the spirit of Baku lives on. "I wouldn't think of going back," says the Russian wife of a Soviet Army officer who recently ended a long career here. "This is a wonderful place. It is my home."