In the footsteps of Albert Agarunov, the Jewish war hero of Azerbaijan

By | Rachel Brooks

Interview by Irina Tsukerman 

January 4, 2020 

Images courtesy of the guest, fair use. 

Jewish society has existed within Azerbaijan for roughly 2,000 years. Jews have always lived among the Azerbaijani people, in peace and friendship. Local Jewish people have stated that they have always felt welcomed by the Azerbaijani state and the Azerbaijani people. Today, there are about seven synagogues in Azerbaijan, as well as various Jewish communities in Baku and elsewhere, and Jewish schools. The Jewish Virtual Library states that Baku itself has been called home by at least 16,000 Jews in recent history. 

Who are the Mountain Jews?

Mountain Jews are a unique group of Jews that speak their own dialect, a Judeo-Tat language. They are believed to have been exiled from Israel to the Caucasus mountains in 722BCE. There are others who believe that the Mountain Jews immigrated from what is now Iran, in the mid-eighteen century, and established Krasnaya Sloboda.

“We have always felt the care and attention of the state, in mutual relations, as well as the respect of the Azerbaijani people. Now there are about 7 synagogues in Azerbaijan, various communities in Baku and other cities, a Jewish School, a kindergarten. Various Jewish organizations, charitable, educational, youth. Jews are an integral part of Azerbaijani society. Even after leaving here, the Jews never interrupt communication with their homeland, they often come, and wherever they live they support Azerbaijan in every possible way. This was especially noticeable during the war,” said Rabbi Zamir Isaev. Isaev is the director of the Bokino Jewish school # 46, deputy, he is the director of the American Jewish organization “Vaad L’hatzolas Nichei Yisroel” in Azerbaijan and a member of the Council of Rabbis of Europe.

Rabbi Isaev relayed the story of David Sadiev, born in 1996, who is a Jewish Azerbaijani who fought in the second Nagorno-Karabakh conflict of 2020. 

“Like all citizens of Azerbaijan, the Jews are also part of the Azerbaijani society. And they consider it their duty to serve in the army and defend their homeland. Soldier David Sadiev, born in 1996, was born and raised in Baku into a Mountain Jewish family, graduated from the Baku Jewish School # 46. He went to the front as a volunteer in September immediately after the start of the war,” said Isaev. 

“He passed the military way liberating the Azerbaijani cities of Fizuli, Jabrayil, Khojavend, Lachin. On December 31, David demobilized and returned home, where he was greeted with honor by members of the Russian community, friends, and neighbors. In general, Azerbaijanis are very proud of their Jewish soldiers. One of the first national heroes of Azerbaijan was tanker Albert Agarunov, who died defending Shusha in 1992 as a mountain. Since then, my name has become a household name for the warriors of Azerbaijan, including Jewish ones. David is not my only student, a graduate of our school who is now at the forefront at the front.

He was a footman. He took part in various battles. He is a chef by profession, and will soon find a job. Not married yet.”

Isaev also recalled others of his students who had not yet returned home from the conflict. 

Jewish Azerbaijani soldier ties on his phylactery, a prayer covenant box.

“Other students from the Jewish school who went to war: Mirzakhanov Omar spec. called Zarbailov Eldar Artilleryman. Mamedkhanov Ramin infantry. They have not yet returned from this little info, but thank God all are alive and well,” said Isaev. 

The rabbi likewise gave some updates on the conflict status. 

“Troops are now taking up positions and fortifying them. There is a demarcation of the border between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Fortifications are being built. Communications are carried out. Sometimes the specials have to do the clearing of the forests from the Armenian terrorists who remained there in small groups,” he said. 

“But mostly quiet. The peacekeepers are Russians who control the Lachin corridor and the line of contact between the Azerbaijani troops and the Armenian residents of Karabakh. In the cities of Khankendi, Khojavend, Agdere, and some villages.”

As Rabbi Isaev recalls his students who went to the Karabakh conflict of 2020, it calls to mind the memory of another brave young Jewish soldier who is considered the “Jewish national hero” of Azerbaijan. The Jerusalem Post stated that his life carried “spiritual and emotional resonance” for all people, but especially for Jews living in the Muslim world. 

Albert Argunov was born in 1969 and died in 1992, at the age of 23. An enormous statute with military honors now stands in memory of the young fallen soldier in Baku. The ceremony was attended by Christian leaders and Jewish leaders from far away places, citing Plus 61J media. 

His story has been recalled in many places, including the op-ed column of The Jerusalem Post.  

Agarunov was born to a Mountain Jewish family in the village of Amirjan, which is near Baku. His family was originally from Qirmizi Qasaba, Quba, Azerbaijan, known in English as “the Red Settlement” and had come to the greater Baku area to seek a better life. 

Agarunov started his soldiering days in the Soviet Army but later found himself wishing to give back to his mother country Azerbaijan. He fought for his country as a tank commander and became one of Armenia’s number one targets. His prowess in battle coupled with his double identity as both an Azerbaijani and a Jew led the Armenian forces to place a price of 5 million rubles on his head. 

A decorated warrior before, the night of May 8 and early morning of May 9, 1992, is the most famous of the life of Albert Agarunov. It was the night of his death. In the defense of Shusha, the jewel of Azerbaijani society, Agarunov left the safety of his tank to join the fight hand to hand. He had instructed the tank’s driver not to run over the bodies of the fallen Azerbaijani soldiers. Joining the fight from outside the tank, Agarunov was hit by a sniper’s bullet.