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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.

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.''


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