Sumqayit: This is Where I Am
Sumqayit is the city we’re at for training. It’s about 45-50 minutes from Baku, on a good traffic day. I don’t think I would post about Sumqayit except for the interesting way this city came to be:
It was a purely Soviet town, built to fulfill the dream of creating a modern internationalist workers’ community. Instead, it created a large class of poorly housed and disaffected lumpenproletariat.
The patch of Caspian Sea shoreline north of Baku, where Sumqayit now stands, was empty until World War II. It is a pleasant sandy spot, sprouting palm trees and other tropical greenery, where in the late 1940s, a town began to grow. Its population was filled by the lowest ranks of Soviet society: zeks (political prisoners) let out of Stalin’s camps; Azerbaijanis who had left Armenia to make way for Diaspora Armenian immigrants; and poor Armenian migrant workers from the hills of Karabakh. In 1960, the new city already had a population of sixty-five thousand.
By the 1980s, this internationalist dream had turned into a nightmare. The population had rocketed to a quarter of a million and there were acute housing shortages. Factory workers lived in crowded hostels. The city’s chemical factories gave it one of the worst pollution records in the Soviet Union. The infant mortality was so high that Sumqayit had a cemetery set aside especially for children. The average age of its residents was twenty-five, and one inhabitant in five have a criminal record. Between 1981 and 1988, more than two thousand released prisoners called it home. (Thomas de Waal, Black Garden)
Not exactly the picture of a city with a bright future. In fact, in the late ’80s and ’90s, it became a city rife with violence. While Azeri sources may contend the accuracy of the reports, it’s generally accepted that there were hideous pogroms against the ethnic Armenians of the city in 1988.
However, luckily for us, things have turned around since then. The pollution is still a concern (Sumqayit pollution), but I haven’t witnessed any pogroms, and the city has grown into one of the largest in the country with some nice parks along the sea and a bustling square downtown. We usually spend our Sundays by the Dove statue, overlooking the Caspian, drinking tea, or walking through the downtown bazaar.