This is far beyond a happy story, Alakbar Rezaguliyev’s story is one of the most heartbreaking stories because this Azerbaijani artist’s life has been stolen from him by the ruthless political agendas of his time as we will show in this article.
Alakbar Rezaguliyev was born into a large family of a small businessman. Although there were no artists in his family, Rezaguliyev showed artistic talent at an early age. He studied at Moscow Technical Art College from 1925 to 1928. Alakbar is one of the few Azerbaijani artists who survived Stalin’s reign of terror and then returned to document some of his memories in sketches. Alakbar spent nearly 25 years of his prime years in prison and in hard labor camps in Siberia and Central Asia.
Alakbar was among the first the be arrested in what would later be named Stalin’s Repression, in which 70,000 Azerbaijanis were sentenced to death or exiled along with hundreds of thousands of other citizens throughout the USSR.
The pretense for Alakbar’s arrest was that he was propagating “pan-turkism”. Often he was arrested merely because he was a friend of someone who was accused of being involved in anti-government activities.
Alakbar Rezaguliyev was arrested three times in total throughout his life, the first time was in 1928, when he was sent to Arkhangelsk to the Solovetsky Monastery; the second time was in 1937, when he was sent to Krasnoyarsk in Siberia; the third time was in 1949, when he was sent to Altai, Central Asia. It was in Altai that Alakbar met and married a German woman whose family were prisoners of war.
Perhaps the worst part of Rezaguliyev’s imprisonment was the fact that he wasn’t allowed to pursue his passion and dream of becoming an artist. By the time he was free to go back home to Azerbaijan in 1956 after the death of Stalin, he was by then desperately out of practice, psychologically broken and too weak even to hold a pencil. But despite all of these odds, Rezaguliyev worked hard to develop his talent and make a name for himself as an artist. His hard work paid off and he became a well known artist, especially for his remarkable series of black and white linoleum prints depicting scenes from turn of the century Baku, but living so long within prison walls had it’s noticeable impact on Alakbar’s artwork.
Alakbar Rezaguliyev’s prints glorify work, not in a glorifying manor that honors the labor but rather for the sake of production alone. Alakbar invites you to appreciate the mundane, ordinary work created with one’s own physical labor and made with their own hands and minds. Many of his work depict workers doing their everyday routine, one might say that he was inspired and longed for a life that was stolen from him throughout his years incarcerated, his longing for that stolen reality shows clearly in his work.
Rezaguliyev supported the Communist party when it was first established in Azerbaijan in the early 1920s. But his plans to become an artist and a member of the party was halted in 1928. One of his friends called Ibrahim, was arrested for spreading “Pan-Turkish ideas” and at the time notorious ruler Stalin and the other Soviet leaders were especially sensitive to the remote possibility that Turkey could try to gain control over Turkish speaking people who lived in a wide area along the Soviet southern flank, this area included Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kurgystan. Since Rezaguliyev was associated with Ibrahim, he was arrested and sentenced to six years of exile in the freezing cold, region of Arkhangelsk in northwest Russia.
During his first exile, Rezaguliyev underwent an arranged marriage. His father, mother, and future mother in law somehow managed to bring his bride, Sona, to him at Arkhangelsk. Sona lived with him for a while, then returned to Baku and gave birth to their daughter Adila. His second exile was after his release and return to Baku, when Rezaguliyev ran into Bolshevik leader Ruhullah Akhundov and that was when Rezaguliyev insulted him, resulting in him being arrested again and exiled to Solovki in the icy Arctic. His kids didn’t see him again until 1947 which would make it a 10 years exile.
Between 1947 and 1949, Rezaguliyev and his family lived in the northwestern regions of Azerbaijan. In 1949, after his second daughter was born Rezaguliyev was arrested again and sent to the Altai province in northern Russia. During this third exile he married Berta a German girl whose parents and grandparents had been living in a German settlement in the Saratov Region, just like all the German families who were living in the USSR Berta’s family has been sent to exile at the beginning of WWII. Rezaguliyev and Berta had two sons, Octay and Aydin, and a daughter Sevda.
In 1956, three years after Stalin’s death, Rezaguliyev was exonerated of his charges and released from exile. By the early 1960s, Berta and her children were allowed to join him in Azerbaijan. The harsh experiences of imprisonment that he had suffered for more than two decades, had been merely his fate through association and not based on any crime that he had ever committed himself.
It’s not a surprise to note that all those years of exile had taken a toll on the artist’s mental and physical health. He threw himself into his art, working tirelessly to develop his technique. Rezaguliyev was encouraged by fellow artist Rasim Babayev to work with linoleum prints which was less complicated and didn’t require the use of much color. Following his friend’s advice Rezaguliyev created numerous prints that included more than 150 black and white artworks depicting the Baku from his childhood, he kept adding works to that series until the end of his life, the series was called “old Baku”.
Due to Rezaguliyev’s hard work, he managed to build a name for himself and gain a reputation before his death in 1974. At the age of 60 he had managed to have his first solo exhibition. In 1964, he was named “Honored Art Worker”. His art was featured in museums throughout the Soviet Union.
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