Sanubar Aliyeva has lived in Russia for more than half her life, but she says she is still a proud Azerbaijani. On a recent afternoon, the 61-year-old health care worker came to the Azerbaijani Embassy in Moscow to pay her respects to the victims of the fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh, more than 1,000 miles away.
Aliyeva says her younger brother lost a leg in the first Nagorno-Karabakh war almost 30 years ago. When fierce fighting between Armenians and Azerbaijanis flared up again in September, she says, her brother volunteered for the army.
“Of course they didn’t take him, he’s over 50,” Aliyeva says. “They told him the Azerbaijani army is so strong now that they don’t need dads like him.”
The reignited war in Nagorno-Karabakh has touched the lives of hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis and Armenians who call Russia home. The two ethnic communities are among Russia’s biggest and most organized, though the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh has driven them into hostile camps.
The Soviet Union fell apart after many of its ethnic groups began to break free in the late 1980s. When Armenia and Azerbaijan gained independence in 1991, the ethnic Armenians living in the Nagorno-Karabakh region fought and won a bloody war of secession from Azerbaijan. Now, with the support of Turkey, Azerbaijanis are determined to take back the territory they lost to Armenians.
The renewed fighting has killed hundreds, if not thousands, of people on both sides.
Red carnations, photographs and stuffed animals have piled up outside the Azerbaijani Embassy in Moscow.
Aliyeva also brought flowers. She says she remembers working together with Armenians when she was a young woman in Soviet Azerbaijan.
“I somehow doubt that we’ll be able to live together in the same way we used to during Soviet times,” she says.
Elshad Agverdiyev, a 32-year-old Muscovite of Azerbaijani descent, was born when the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was just coming to a head. He says he has given up hope on the diplomatic efforts of Russia and the United States, which together with France have co-chaired a peace process since the 1990s.
“We’ve waited 10 years, 20 years, now it’s almost 30 years. Unfortunately the international community has done nothing. We were fed empty promises,” Agverdiyev says. “What is left for Azerbaijan to do? We want to resolve this issue on our own.”
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has led to tensions between Russia’s Azerbaijani and Armenian communities. In July, when Azerbaijan and Armenia skirmished in a prelude to the current fighting, members of the two diasporas clashed in Moscow and St. Petersburg, with reports of dozens of arrests. Following the new outbreak of violence in Nagorno-Karabakh, the city of Moscow had leaders of both ethnic communities sign a statement addressed to their constituents appealing for calm.
“From the first day, we called on people not to give in to provocations and emotions and to follow the law,” says Shamil Tagiyev, a leader of the Azerbaijani community in Moscow. His contacts to local Armenians are mediated through the mayor’s office, he says.
The chasm between Armenians and Azerbaijanis widens with every day that fighting continues in and around Nagorno-Karabakh.
For Armenians in Moscow, the Armenian Apostolic cathedral has become the center of gravity for the community. The cavernous church, consecrated in 2013, is built out of tuff stone in the traditional Armenian style.
Sasun Davtyan, a migrant worker from Armenia, came to pray for Artsakh, as Armenians call Nagorno-Karabakh.
“My brothers are there now, they’re volunteers. They went to defend their homeland,” Davtyan, 28, says. “When the time comes, I’ll be ready to join them.”
He says he doesn’t harbor any hope for help from Russia, Armenia’s historical protector, or the United States, which also has a significant Armenian community.
“The hope is on us and us alone,” Davtyan says.
The Armenian Apostolic Church, one of the oldest in Christianity, has held together Armenians for almost 2,000 years.
“The conflict has brought the community closer together, because we all understand that Armenia and Artsakh are on the verge of extinction,” says Gevorg Vardanyan, a priest at the Moscow cathedral. He says Armenians’ collective memory of the Ottoman Empire’s 1915 mass killing of 1.5 million Armenians looms large. Most historians and a growing number of countries consider it genocide; Turkey rejects the term.
In today’s conflict, Vardanyan says, religion plays a big role, with Christian Armenians pitted against predominantly Muslim Azerbaijanis. But he suggests that faith can also show the way to reconciliation.
“Both Azerbaijanis and Armenians understand that young men are dying, and no one wants there to be mourning in their home,” Vardanyan says. “Religion is that ray of light around which we can build our relationship, because a religious person never wants to kill and never should kill. There is no need for war; war is there where there is no God.”
For some members of his congregation, Vardanyan’s words may sound aspirational at best.
“The longer the war goes on, the more difficult the situation gets,” says Akop Akavyan, who came to the cathedral for an afternoon service with his wife and teenage son. “The wound is very deep and just keeps getting bigger.”
Akavyan says he simply wants the fighting to end and hasn’t started thinking about how Armenians and Azerbaijanis may one day live in peace.
His son Andrei, 17, who was born and raised in multiethnic Moscow, takes another view.
It will take time, he says, but one day Armenians and Azerbaijanis will think differently, the same way that Germans and Russians — bitter enemies in World War II — can now be friends.