Finding sanctuary from war in Azerbaijan

Photographer: Sitara Ibrahimbayli

Edition: Migration
Topic: Conflict

Starting from the first days of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, tens of thousands of Russian and millions of Ukrainian citizens have fled in waves, making their way to various countries, including Azerbaijan–one of the few countries where they can enter without a visa.

Their destinations might be different, but the reasons are the same: people are running away from fear, uncertainty, and economic crisis.

Azerbaijan has not been a top destination for Ukrainians but the latest statistics show there has been a steady flow since the war started in February. The number of arrivals jumped from a monthly average of around 1600 to 5300 in March. Over the past seven months, an average of 2000 people have arrived every month from Ukraine, although just 3925 have officially registered as refugees.

Azerbaijan is much more popular with Russians, according to the State Tourism Agency of Azerbaijan: in February, 23,600 Russian citizens came to Azerbaijan. In May, 28300 arrived. By July, the number had nearly tripled: 60,000 Russian citizens arrived that month.

After Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a general mobilization of 300,000 men in September, Baku was the third most popular destination for Russians fleeing the country, according to Reuters

The sheer number of people opting for Azerbaijan is all the more impressive due to the fact the country’s land borders have been closed since the height of the pandemic. The only way to enter Azerbaijan is by plane, which makes it one of the more costly destinations for anyone fleeing the conflict. Additionally, migration legislation in the country is more restrictive than in neighboring Georgia, for example. Foreigners who enter Azerbaijan without a visa can only stay for 90 days unless they qualify for an exception. Alovsat Aliyev, an expert on migration, says this policy prevents people with limited means from arriving. “It enables mainly citizens [of Russia and Ukraine] with favorable finances to flee to Baku.”

He noted that some have already started to move on from Azerbaijan, either back to Russia, or to a third country. “I believe that only highly capable businessmen will be able to stay in Azerbaijan. They are expected to make some economic investments. But there is no free business environment in Azerbaijan and most of them will go to Georgia and Turkey,” he explains.

The people moving to Azerbaijan come from a variety of backgrounds; photographer Sitara Ibrahimbayli met some from the art and public scene who opted to move to Azerbaijan due to ties to the country.

Catherina Igoshina (artist) Moscow; Maxim Tatarintsev (artist) Moscow

Catherina Igoshina: This is my first time in Baku. I feel safe. My parents were born and raised in Baku. My family left Azerbaijan in 1993 (during the first Karabakh war) because they were scared. In 2022, I came here because I was scared.

Maxim Tatarintsev: Before that, I was in Baku in 2018. I came to the Biennale of Contemporary Art. My father was also born and raised in Baku. He studied at the Azim Azim-Zade Art School, after which, as the best student, he was sent to improve his qualifications in Lviv, where he met my mother. By the way, at our wedding, our fathers found out that they studied at school in Baku in the same year.

Karina Balaban (student), Moscow and Kyiv

Karina Balaban:  My father is in Kyiv now and I receive all the latest news and a summary of events from the frontline… I have to filter the news that comes to me from Russia and Ukraine and choose among them. Because there is little truth. Both sides embellish events and I have to rely only on myself and on my psyche, which is already very tiring of filtering to choose for yourself what you want to believe.

I visited Baku as a tourist and when my husband suggested that I come to Baku, I immediately said yes, because it is a good city to settle down in, and I had good memories from there.

Fatima Ibragimbekova (producer), Moscow

Fatima Ibragimbekova: There were rumors that there would be a general mobilization in March. Since I have three sons, I decided that it was necessary to take them away, then some time passed, and there was no general mobilization.

I was born in Baku, went to school, lived here for 18 years, then went to study in Moscow, got married there, stayed to live, and flew here all the time. I have many friends and relatives here. And in general, this is my place of power. I love this city very much and I always feel good here. And in difficult moments of my life, I heal my soul here.

Kaikhan Salakhov (artist), Moscow

Kaikhan Salakhov: On the day when I found out that the war began on February 24…I figured out that I definitely didn’t want to be in this place anymore.  Moscow is a very cool and a good, advanced city. It is very convenient, far superior to the European cities that I have visited. But I didn’t want to stay there due to the society.

Just before all these events, I had an exhibition, “Infinity,” in honor of my grandfather Tahir Salakhov [People's Artist of the USSR]. I’ve decided the legacy that created this path should not stop and should move on through time and generations. He always wanted me to be here but only after I received an education in Europe or in Russia. I decided to come back here and do something to interest, and generally create Azerbaijani science fiction. 

Rovshan Askerov (public figure), Moscow. After Askerov posted on social media about the Soviet Marshal Georgy Zhukov in May this year, a criminal case was opened against him and he is on the wanted list in Russia.

Rovshan Askerov: Well, I was born here 50 years ago. I lived here for 28 years, then I left for Moscow because I met a girl there whom I married. It was more difficult for her to move to another culture than it was for me to adapt to Russia. I stayed there for 22 years. Probably I would have lived there even longer if the country had not gone crazy. But it turned out that it went crazy all at once.  Of course, in 2014, I also thought that I needed to move. But somehow I reached this war and realized it was already too difficult to stay.

Rebekka Magomedova (opera accompanist), Saint Petersburg

Rebekka Magomedova: I came from Petersburg. I worked at the Mariinsky Theater as an opera accompanist. I made the decision to leave and 10 days after my arrival, Vladimir Putin delivered his speech about the fifth column. I realized that some part of the 20th century is starting to repeat itself and categories of citizens like me are at risk.

I realized here in Baku that when you live in Russia, you have no doubt that you are part of some great big project…because Russia is a big country, it won the Great Patriotic War. Probably the biggest discovery for me was that this feeling of a great country is a myth. You come to Baku, you see that people live in a completely different country and they don’t have so much territory, but they are absolutely happy in their own way.

Alina Bob (actress and public speaking coach), Kyiv


Alina Bob: I learned about modern Baku from Formula 1. I googled it and the first thing that impressed me was the city’s architecture. 

Despite the different mentality, I really fell in love with Baku. I immediately started working, met people who helped me a lot. I frequently go to church, the mystery of these places calms me down a lot. All the people that I met in Azerbaijan from Belarus and Moscow were extremely kind to me and helped me a lot, even outside of Azerbaijan.

Anastasia Ragimova (political scientist) Kyiv

Anastasia Ragimova: When I first arrived in Baku, I naturally met Russian-speaking guys from CIS countries. Many people decide to go to Georgia or Kazakhstan, but we decided to go to Baku due to the Russian-speaking community here.

Rustam Chelebi (owner of a design studio) Moscow

Rustam Chelebi: I was born in Aghdash, Azerbaijan. When I was six, I moved to Moscow with my family and grew up there. When the war started on February 24, my boyfriend was upset by what happened and we decided to move to Baku together with his dog.

To be honest, I am grateful to Russia for many things. For example, my free education and its role in my self-development. I did not move to Baku just because I was born in Azerbaijan. I also chose this place because there is no territorial conflict between Azerbaijan and Russia, although there has always been a trace of Russia in the background of the Karabakh conflict.

This photo story was prepared with support from the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) South Caucasus Regional Office. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of FES or Chai Khana.

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