The Place Beyond Conflict

Artsakh/Nagorno Karabakh/Karabakh


Olya Zovskaya

It seems almost like an impossible task: to talk about Artsakh (Nagorno Karabakh) and not be talking about long-lasting conflict; recent war; ongoing blockade; frequent shootings targeting peasants; nationalistic narratives and the reality they create for people there. This context leaves almost no room for anything but the above; no room for memories unaffected by warrior narratives, nor thoughts about the possibility of a peaceful future. Yet this kind of story, centered around the conflict, doesn’t feel complete. I find myself balancing between the heavy reality on the ground and thoughts about the multicultural past—when many peoples of the region were not separated by nation states’ borders and mutual suspicion, but coexisted and cooperated in the economy, culture, and everyday issues —as a possible way for thinking about and reimagining a possible future.

In the 1950s, my grandparents moved from what was at the time called the Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast in the South Caucasus, to the Middle Volga Region in the russian SSR. Their move—as well as the subsequent moving of other family members—left many questions, but I had no one to ask.[1] Attempting to fill the gaps in my knowledge and understanding of the family’s past, and looking to find the hidden logic behind decisions they had made that seemed unobvious to me, I started rereading the history of Artsakh/Karabakh. Drawing parallels in time to reconnect this history with events of my family’s life, traces began to appear which led back to and revealed the colonial logic in which the region still exists. Since its domination by the russian empire in the 18-19th centuries, through the Soviet times, and to this day, the region’s colonial history continues to inform the geopolitics of the area and influence relations between its peoples.

In particular, my grandparents and many others were moving out of Nagorno Karabakh as a result of the ongoing cultural, economic, and social oppression of ethnic minorities in the Azerbaijan Soviet Republic. The politics of the AzSSR were enabled by the Policy on Nationalities of the Soviet State, which—in order to control the local populations of the Soviet state—prescribed the development of “titular” nations of the national republics, while ethnic minorities and their rights were largely left aside and often became subjects of discrimination and forced assimilation. Thus, this policy created hierarchies in society within the republic and led to tensions between members of titular nationality and other ethnic groups. In this context, the movement for the self-determination of Armenians from Nagorno Karabakh which started in 1988 was largely the aftermath of decades of that very policy. Met with a violent response from the authorities of Soviet Azerbaijan, the initially peaceful movement exploded into a military conflict in a matter of months.[2]

Today, I am looking for ways out of this prescribed scenario. In the midst of continuing conflict that seems to seek to cement us in its reality for generations to come, I turn to the past: the history of the town of Shushi/a (or Shusha for Azeris)—once the multicultural center of the region and the most contested stronghold of the current conflict—can serve as a vantage point for challenging the imposed order and status quo.[3] Recovering and revealing the multicultural and multiethnic nature of Shushi’s past could become a source for imagining alternative scenarios for the future.

[1] Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast or NKAO —an Armenian Autonomy that was a part of Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic in the period from 1923 until 1991.
[2] See Sumgait (1988) and Baku (1990) programs of Armenian population in Azerbaijan SSR.
[3] At the moment, it is quite impossible to provide a single comprehensive and reliable source on the history of Shushi (Shusha). While it was a subject of significant historiographical manipulations during the 20th and early 21st century, many sources still remain under-investigated and untranslated.