An Armenian Family from Baku – Alex Mnatsakanov’s Story
Alex Mnarsakanov in 1981 on the left, and a school photo a few years later, both in Baku. All images were provided by Alex.
Alex Mnatsakanov lives in the US, where he both works and volunteers for the non-profit organization Crisis Text Line, whose mission is to help people break down the stigma surrounding mental health. His background is a fascinating one. Born in Baku to an Armenian family, he has fond memories of his first ten years of childhood. But as the Soviet Union started to weaken and ethnic tensions mounted, Alex’s family felt it wise to leave, heading first to Russia and later to the US. Nonetheless, he remembers a Baku of cross-cultural support between Azerbaijanis, Armenians and Russians that is far from today’s stereotyped narrative of mutual hatred. It’s a situation that grassroots groups like Bright Garden Voices (BGV) hope to reverse by sharing conversations and supportive stories between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Below is a lightly-edited interview with Shargiya of Bright Garden Voices in which Alex shares his memories and views on the conflict. The original was recorded in Russian in December 2021 and can be viewed in full here.
Shargiya: Alex, First of all, I want to thank you for accepting our offer and becoming part of our initiative. Could you tell us a little about yourself and your family and how you and they remember Baku?
Alex: Thank you very much for the invitation. This is a topic very close to my heart. My whole life is intertwined with this story, so I am very happy to help you with this initiative and answer any questions.
A: I was born in 1978 in Baku.
On my father's side, my grandmother is from Shamakhi, and my grandfather is from Ganja (though before, it was called Kirovabad, I think).
By the time I was born, all of them were already living in Baku. We lived with my mother's parents
Alex in 1987, 8 or 9 years old, the age of his daughter at the time of this interview.
On my mother’s side, her parents worked in metro construction, as I said. My father’s mother worked from home as a
S: These are familiar places. We often go to Gunashli. My grandmother was also given an apartment near there: in a 9-storey building in Ahmedli. We still live there.
S: Can you describe the circumstances of your escape from Baku?
A: Yes. We actually left twice. I honestly don’t remember what prompted us to leave the first time, but I have strong memories of being put on buses to Bina Airport. We were stopped on the way to have our documents checked by the military. Then we left for Novosibirsk because
[Still, things felt OK and] I returned to Baku in December 1989 to visit my grandparents who had remained there. I stayed in Baku until January 6 or 7, 1990. When we left, bringing one of my grandmothers with us, nothing foreshadowed trouble. But then a week passed, and the events [leading up to] January 20 took place. We were already in Taganrog by that time, but my other grandparents were in trouble.
S: Is your Baku origin an important part of your personality?
A: Yes. My sister and brother were still small, and they don’t remember much. But I remember the city. I remember the people. I remember this life. To this day, we still make the same food that we used to eat then. We have the jokes, the memories. I have a funny story: once, we were in an Armenian church. I’m not a religious person at all, yet there we stood, and the priest kept talking for a long time. I turned to my sister and said: “Allah qoysa let this end soon” [Allah qoysa meaning “Please God” or “God willing” in Azerbaijani]. Everyone in the church turned and looked at me.
I still use the phrase "Allah qoysa" very often. So yes, like it or not, I was born in Baku, I went to school for the first few years there and started to live. Baku will always be a part of me. So it hurts me to look at this conflict and how it never seems to end.
S: Your grandparents were fluent in Azerbaijani, right?
A: Half of the family. At school, I was an excellent student in Azerbaijani. I still have the report cards [to prove it]. My father spoke, my aunt spoke, and my grandmother also spoke the language. Probably they still remember, but now I’ve forgotten almost everything. Well, grandma is gone, but dad and my aunt remember, yes.
S: What are your memories of life in Azerbaijan, I mean, your relationship with your neighbours?
A: My memories, and those of my parents, are full of good things. Especially when all this mess began, and many Azerbaijani neighbours helped both my aunt and grandparents. I have always been against the fact that a whole nation is often judged by the actions of a few people or of its government. My aunt, with her two small children, was taken to the airport by Azerbaijani neighbours, hidden [for protection] under carpets on the floor of their car.
My paternal grandmother was at home on January 13 when [gangs of thugs] began to go from house to house and look for Armenians. The Azerbaijani neighbours stood up for her. There were many cases like that.
My maternal grandmother – who was Russian, so was not afraid – returned to Baku after the January events had died down to organize an apartment exchange. As a state organization owned the Montino place, she needed permission from the head of the Baku metro to arrange a switch of home from Baku to Novosibirsk. That head was Azerbaijani, [but he was very supportive]. "Valentina Maksimovna,” he said, “we will do everything that needs to be done.” The necessary documents were organized, and permission was granted for the exchange. There was even help loading possessions for the final departure from Baku. There were a lot of these cases [of kindness and humanity]. Of course, there were also some bad moments. At one point in 1988, my father had been forbidden to come to work [because he was Armenian]. And when my sister was in kindergarten, some children began taunting her - something like, "you are an Armenian, so you are bad." But overall, I have mostly positive memories. I especially remember weddings, I remember funerals… times when everyone was together. When my grandfather died in 1986, there were so many people I couldn’t count them. All of my grandmother’s friends, not only Armenians but also Russians and Azerbaijanis, helped her with everything.
A lot of people came to say goodbye to my grandfather that day because he was a very well-respected person. And again, no one stopped to think whether he was Armenian or not.
When we lived in Montino, I had two close friends in the yard, one Russian, the other Azerbaijani, and the three of us grew up together and played together. You know, you can’t erase these memories. You can’t throw them away. There was a lot of good stuff. To this day, I have a lot of Azerbaijani friends around the world with whom I regularly keep in touch and communicate.
S: I was born in 1992. By then, there were no Armenians in Baku, but my mother often told us stories about the close relationships she’d had with her Armenian former neighbours. One such neighbour regularly helped out around the house after my great-grandmother passed away when very young. Also, my grandmother lost her sight in the last days of her life, and our Armenian neighbour even fed her on occasion - they had a very close relationship.
A: Yes, this is not surprising. Everyone had always lived together: Russians, Armenians, and Azerbaijanis, everyone had always been friendly. There were some good times.
S: What was your path as a refugee growing up outside your hometown?
A: It was not easy. I'm not looking for sympathy but look, in 1989, I was just 11 years old. We moved to Taganrog and lived for 2 years in a house with only cold water and an outside toilet. Imagine. I’d just moved from Baku, from an apartment with all amenities. In Russia, the attitude towards people of Caucasian nationality was so-so, and we heard a bunch of unpleasant things addressed to us. And then, in October 1991, we moved to America without knowing the language, without knowing anyone. My parents had never made crazy money, so we came with the bare minimum.
Alex with his parents and siblings.
I remember we packed everything we could into suitcases because we didn’t know what would happen. We brought everything: pans, plates, forks, knives, pillows, blankets and other things. We came to America: by then, I was 13, my sister was 9, my brother was 4, and my parents were 34. They didn't know anyone, and they didn't know the language. We had a sponsor, and since we’d arrived as refugees, they helped us for the first few months. They rented us an apartment, gave us furniture and gave us English lessons. My parents – a music director and a physicist – worked as cleaners. Dad delivered pizza at one time. We started from scratch. It took us a long time to get back on our feet. But I’ll be grateful to my parents for the rest of my life for taking this risk because here, it seems to me, there are more opportunities. But those first 5-6 years were tough – going to school in weird clothes without knowing the language. It was difficult.
S: Now you have a daughter. How difficult was it for you to explain to her about Baku, the war, and your experience?
A: You know, to be honest, I have not talked to her about this topic yet. She is
A: Perhaps I should say more about my cousin who died last year. It was suicide. This is a topic we don’t talk about much. I would not wish such grief on even my worst enemy. When we recovered a little and went through his papers and his computer, we realized that the ‘child’ – for me, he was a 31-year-old ‘child’ – had been living with depression for years. In this light, you start to look at his life differently. He was born in 1988. His family fled from Baku when he was little more than a baby. They lived in some kind of refugee camp 40 kilometres from Moscow. Then, in 1992, he moved to America. The child went through all this, and it ended up turning into depression, which unfortunately led to a horrible end. It seems to me that too little is said about this topic, and not enough research is done. I can only imagine how many more of these ‘children’ there are, including me, who have gone through all this… Children of conflict no matter which side. What imprint has it left on all of us? I hope someone is interested in this, and I'm trying to be more vocal now - mental health, it's the same as physical health, you need to think about it as well as just the same. When I began to think about my cousin’s life, I realized that we all went through [something like] this as children, and then we just continued to live. It’s the Caucasian mentality. We don’t really talk about feelings.
Alex and his daughter on a holiday in Portugal this year.
S: How do you manage to protect your daughter from all this information?
A: Well, there are enough Netflix shows and YouTube clips to keep a child busy with other stories. I like that now there are a lot of shows where there’s not only a standard family with a mom and a dad: for example, a divorced family or a mixed family. My daughter watches such programs, and she sees that she can compare her life with this. And on serious topics such as the war, I do everything I can to stop her from seeing it. [She isn’t ready.] Not yet. Even what is happening in America! Not that she doesn’t know anything about it. But I censor it a little so that the kid has a normal childhood. I know how my own childhood went, and I want hers to be a little more peaceful.
S: Would you like to return to Baku, and how do you imagine the place these days?
A: I would love to. One thing that has stopped me all these years is that I didn’t know if they would let me into the country once I arrived at the airport. And I don’t want to fly such a long way only to be sent straight back. Yes, I really want to come, I really want to see the city. I have friends and distant relatives who still live there. They sent me photos of our former house in Montino, my old school… Of course, I understand that the city has changed a lot in 30 years. I see everything on the internet. But just to come and see, it would be interesting. I hope someday it will happen.
S: What was your favourite place in Baku? What comes to your mind when you think of the city?
A: The park that is opposite the Narimanov metro station! I used to go there as a child. I don't know if it's still there or not.
S: It’s still there.
A: Yes? There was another one a little further out. Lord, what was it called? Dzerzhinsky Park or something? There were swings. My grandmother would take me there. It would be interesting to see what those areas of my childhood memories look like now: Narimanov metro station, Aga-Neymatulla Street, Chapaev street, now it seems to be called Tabriz, and all these places where I ran, walked and went to school as a child.
S: You mentioned that you communicate with acquaintances from Azerbaijan. Have you met up with Azerbaijanis in America since the conflict?
A: I made many friends thanks to a website that was called something like baku.ru or bakupages.ru. I think it still exists. I registered in 2004 or 2005, which was before Facebook and Instagram. It was created for the people of Baku by a man named Vadim, who lives in California. He created a Baku community, and there, thanks to that website, I began to get acquainted with Azerbaijanis and Armenians scattered all over the world. Friendships have remained, though I have not visited that website for many years, and these are friends with whom I communicate regularly. For example, I was recently in Amsterdam and saw friends who live there.
S: Okay, we have a [listener’s] question here: “What are your views on the conflict in general and what are your expectations?”
A: You know, sometimes you just give up, and it seems that it will never end. For more than 30 years, there has been so much enmity that you start to question whether this can ever be resolved. To be honest, I don't see a way out yet. What's more worrying is that a new generation on both sides is growing up being taught this hatred. I was in Armenia in 2012 with a humanitarian organization, and we were building a house there in a village. One girl, about twelve years old, told me, "you are evil," when she heard I was from Baku. "What do you mean I'm evil?" I asked. She replied, "we are taught that everyone from Azerbaijan and Baku is bad."
I know that they are doing the same thing in Azerbaijan. And if this has been taught to a whole generation of children, how can anything change?
Alex at Lake Sevan, Armenia. 2012.
However, then I found Bright Garden Voices. When I stumbled upon you, it gave me some hope that maybe not everything is so bad.
But I do not know how to resolve this conflict, how and when everything will calm down. So far, I don’t see a way out. Both sides talk in absolutes. Some kind of compromise is needed, but I don't hear anyone talking about it. And I'm not smart enough to figure one out. Meanwhile, we continue to live in this state of cold or sometimes "hot" war.
I don’t know.
Bright Garden Voices gives some hope that there are people who think like me. People that understand that a whole nation and all the people cannot be bad. I don’t have the audacity to frame everyone on the other side as enemies. I don’t understand how you can say that, especially having lived as I lived and received help like my family did from neighbours, from friends who were Azerbaijanis. So there is some hope, but so far, I see no clear way out.
S: Under what circumstances can you imagine Armenians and Azerbaijanis coexisting [peacefully] together?
A: I don’t even know... somehow it worked before, so it’s possible. But now, after [the 2020] war, I don’t know. To be honest, I can’t imagine it. Some meetings have taken place - in Europe – and with the heads of Armenia and Azerbaijan and with Putin. But I am very pessimistic about any governments, not only those of Armenia and Azerbaijan.
S: We shouldn't trust politicians, right?
A: Indeed. So my hopes are very low. When they meet, on their level, they do have some goals to improve the life of the country, the nation, and somehow improve relations. Each has very different priorities. Maybe with the help of organizations like Bright Garden Voices, [there is hope]. It will be slow and difficult, but I hope that someday in my lifetime, it will work. I just don’t know how.
S: It seems that we can’t expect anything from politicians. They mainly focus on economic and political issues. When it comes to the relations between people, I think people have to solve the issues themselves.
A: Yes, 100%. Because politicians, following the example of the United States, only seem to have one thing on their minds: "how can I be re-elected." So yeah, it seems we need [grassroots] people like Bright Garden Voices who are outside of politics and that [work for understanding] because they believe in it, not because they can cash in on crazy money from sponsors. These days it seems that this is the only way to achieve positive results. I don’t think that much good will come from anything imposed from above.
S: Thank you for your time and for taking part in our initiative. It was a pleasure to talk with you. I do hope that someday you will be able to return to Baku and walk around the places of your childhood.
A: Thank you for having me!
Newly constructed apartment blocks were built by the Soviet state and distributed, at least approximately, according to the families most in need.
 In past decades, Baku Airport was widely known locally as Bina Airport for the eponymous township in which it is situated.
 A large city in central Siberia which would have been extremely cold in December 1988 when the family arrived.
 Baku’s older housing complexes are typically built around a central communal ‘yard’ which forms an important social space.
 Note that this section was originally recorded at the very end of the interview but is placed here for context.
 Tabriz Street, formerly Chapayev Street, is a major artery linking Narimanov Metro to the main Baku train station area and would have had tram tracks during Alex’s childhood, though these were removed around 20 years ago.