IBRAGIMOV HAJIBAU ISAK OGLU HEARD THE GUNFIRE FIRST. Involuntarily, his large body began to shudder as if the slug and buckshot were coming off the mountain and into the cab of the Niva 1600 jeep. The buckshot zipped off the rocks outside, dartlike, and Hajibau watched as his sheep fell into the river that dropped down into the Azerbaijani valley. Some died in the gunfire, others drowned in the clear, rushing water. The force of the river knocked over two of Hajibau's shepherds, coating their clothing with sheep blood.
Hajibau jumped underneath the battered Niva that had taken us the 12 miles up the center of the shallow river from Zakatala. The night was clear, with a full moon; the distressed and dusty voices spat out a garbled patois of Russian and Azerbaijan. Hajibau, looking up, realized that the pellets were still coming. The shots were landing perhaps no more than three feet from the jeep, and slowly coming closer, as if the kolkhozniki (people who work on a state-owned farm) were purposefully aiming at him. A shepherd dived into the Niva to cut the headlight beam.
Dead and dying sheep were scattered on the rocks or floating down the river, their heads broken and bleeding. Other sheep, exhausted from being chased 20 miles across the mountains by the kolkhozniki, cascaded off a seven-foot cliff, crashing into the water. Some took the fall alive. Others were impaled on sunken rocks. Only the goats made it down in one piece.
Makmakhod Zhakanzher, Cooperative Lazat's chief shepherd, shouted that more of Hajibau's 100-head flock had been stoned to death by kolkhozniki who did not want cooperative sheep grazing on state-controlled pastures. Makmakhod, his thick black hair caked in dry blood from a vertical gash on his forehead, had been hit by the stones, too. "I'm sorry, Hajibau," Makmakhod repeated over and over, with a feeble grip on his own shotgun. "There was nothing we could do. To shoot back would've meant death." Hajibau screamed something to him in Azerbaijani. "He told his shepherd to be strong," said Sabina, my translator and guide, as she tried to lift one of the wounded animals out of the current and onto a small rock island.
Matvei, another shepherd, appeared, sliding through the Niva's open passenger door, pressing against the side of the jeep for projection. There was more gunfire this time. Isolated shots. Shepherds were taking cover behind the carcasses of dead sheep, while others tried to dredge the animals out of the rushing water and onto the rocks. Hajibau crawled from under the jeep on his fat belly to one of the fallen animals, shouting wildly into the moonlight, sheep blood flowing into his hands.
Sheep continued to pour down the mountain and into the river, an avalanche of fur. When the level of the dead and injured had risen high enough, the rest of the flock stumbled over them to the safety of one of the river's small rock islands. The gunfire stopped. Hajibau wanted to ferry his sheep out of the water and onto the largest rock island, where they would be safe until dawn, when he would return with a fresh set of the official documents that allowed the flock to graze on government land. But those grasslands were 20 miles away. What was left of the Lazat sheep would be dead before they made it that far.
Matvei, running through 30 yards of knee-deep water from the cliff to the outcrop of rock in the middle of the river, said he heard laughter from the hills. It was Matvei who had driven the 12 miles down the river to tell Hajibau of the chase that had started 24 hours before. Wounded from the hurled stones, Matvei had stumbled into Hajibau's office at midnight, his eyes glazed with fright, his small and gaunt body exhausted. He was sputtering wildly.
"Twenty men with papers from the Zakatala city council, signed by chairman Asim Samadov. Said it was forbidden for cooperative sheep to be on state land. Told them we had permission. Hajibau has documents. They attack us. We have only four shepherds, two dogs and one gun. They drove us off, chased us over two mountains. Many animals dead."
"This was not supposed to happen!" Hajibau had shrieked, running with Matvei to the jeep, clutching a fistful of cheap onionskin documents that guaranteed Lazat's cooperative sheep and cattle the right to forage on state pastures.
Hajibau cursed himself after the gunfire subsided. It was 1 a.m., and, looking at the 27 dead animals, Hajibau began to cry. While he sat sobbing into the night, the specter of Samadov appeared to him--a figure that tormented his life. Hajibau had made up his mind to be a cooperator, and the dead sheep were part of the cost. But now the worst had happened, and Samadov would feel retribution. Somehow Hajibau would see to it. "Samadov. Ahee ," Hajibau said, spitting out the Azerbaijani word for bear, which is used to describe bureaucrats. "Vicious ahee. There is no way yet to slaughter the bears."
I had witnessed only 45 seconds of what Hajibau and his shepherds were experiencing daily . . . 45 seconds in perestroika , hard times for a cooperative farmer in the Communist-controlled mountains of the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan, 1,200 uncompromising miles from the speeches of Moscow. In July, 1989, three weeks after the 2,300 delegates of the Congress of the Associations of Cooperatives of the USSR assembled in Moscow to form a lobby, Sabina and I traveled into the heart of Azerbaijan. At that historic first gathering of the owners of privately owned businesses in the Soviet Union, Hajibau had invited us to visit what he said was an honest cooperative surrounded by corruption. Less than 24 hours after our arrival on Hajibau's mountain, I understood what his Cooperative Lazat was up against, and what the dream of freedom is made of.
"Even if I cannot resist the state, part of my dream has come true," Hajibau said softly on the drive back down the river to Zakatala, his eyes focused on the horizon. The dawn was up, the mountains became a rolling wall of green shrouded in vapors of blue. "From that mountain," he continued, sticking his hand out the jeep, "to that mountain, I am the master. It is only I who feed them. When the state kills Hajibau for not joining in their corruptions and provocations, the people will remember Hajibau. My people used to fight their wars with daggers; now we fight them with sheep and pieces of useless paper. Hajibau will win. This is why the people call Hajibau the king of Zakatala."
THE TWO MAIN FORCES IN THE SOVIET ECONOMY IN THE late 1980s were the party bureaucrats and the black market. But on June 24, 1988, President Mikail S. Gorbachev and the Council of Ministers, with deliberately grand language, took a step toward a free market and legalized the cooperative movement. Like most decrees from the Council of Ministers, the law on cooperatives was confusing and contradictory: It allowed any three people over age 16 to form a cooperative business by registering with the District Soviet of People's Deputies, which had 30 days to approve the registration. The soviet could refuse for any reason. If the cooperative--whether a restaurant, a clothing store, a farm or a sheep ranch--proved to be too much of a threat to the existing order of things, to the businesses run by the state, its charter could be denied.
From the first, so-called cooperators were prohibited from medicine, environmental management, teaching, publishing and telecommunications. A further series of amendments, designed to force cooperators to be absorbed by state-owned companies, ordered that certain co-ops could exist only as subcontractors for state enterprises. The cooperators wanted to provide products and services to a deprived populace; the state wanted to maintain control and profit. Party bosses did everything they could to destroy the freedoms of the cooperative movement, while usurping the fruits of the cooperator's labor--in essence, co-opting the co-ops. All the while, corrupt officials tried to create the image that perestroika was working, that the system was heading toward a democratic free market.
Risking their lives and reputations, the cooperators did their best to push the bureaucrats' system, the mudistika , against the wall. Nobody knew the limits to which the party and the government would allow the cooperative movement to grow, even though the official philosophy supposedly was: Shatter the black market with the free market. There was a profound historical dimension to the task of creating a democratic free market in an atmosphere of skepticism and chaos. Seventy-one years after the fact, the cooperators were attempting to undo the Bolshevik Revolution, and what they confronted was a world much like the one encountered by those early Bolsheviks: harsh, unyielding and with the capacity to erupt. No matter how popular the rhetoric of perestroika became, the elemental fury and corruption of the communist system were, and in many ways remain, unassailable.
The Soviet people, out of fear or genuine sympathy with the spirits of the past, were loath to embrace cooperators. No one knew how to privatize a centralized economy because it had never been done. This left the door wide open for Communist Party officials to usurp perestroika 's opportunities for their own quick personal gain. And incapacitating the entire effort of economic restructuring was the graft, theft, greed, prejudice and political blackmail fostered by the party.
The street skinny on perestroika was clear right from the beginning: Nobody knew what it meant, but it would certainly be no different from what went before. The Communist Party's 18 million elite members and 76 million drone bureaucrats who did the apparat's bidding were unable to provide the leadership that would enable the Soviet Union to make the leap from a controlled feudal system to the democratic free market.
And there was no Soviet market. People still needed to know someone deep into bribery and embezzlement if they wanted decent food. Gorbachev's perestroika barrage left the average Russian shell-shocked and shivering with the conflicting emotions of dread and hope. Despite elections, the people had no choice because one legacy of Stalin was that they had forgotten how to speak. Local district commissions were apprehensive about lending support to cooperators who would challenge their powers and perks.
Now, even after the failed August coup and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, not much has really changed economically or politically in any of the republics, with the exception of the Baltics. When the people of Azerbaijan went to the polls Sept. 8 to elect a new president, there was only one candidate on the ballot. Ayaz Mutallibov, the corrupt incumbent and Communist Party boss of one of the Soviet Union's richest breadbaskets, remained in command of the republic.
The electricity of Boris Yeltsin's courage during the coup has enchanted the West, which now believes that Russia's free-market revolution can be accomplished through democracy. But Yeltsin is a populist. And although populism is an effective weapon against coup-makers, after the tanks go home, populism remains mostly rhetoric. Simply offering the former Soviet peoples of the 15 republics an opportunity to vent their frustration through their own ballot boxes, without having leaders able to formulate political policy or the money to pay for economic stategies, many believe, is a recipe for revolution; democracy can no longer be created and paid for by rhetoric alone.
Most importantly, the system that spawned the revolution is very much alive--many of the people who ran the communist government are running the transition to democracy. They are in an exclusive position to broker the new free market and distribute whatever relief aid Western leaders earmark for the Soviet economy. And a tradition of corruption dies hard.
The changes in the Soviet Union have done more harm than good for the cooperatives. Many of the early cooperaters are disappearing behind Soviet joint-stock company laws. The 5 million people working in cooperatives hoped that after the failed coup, the system would become more accessible, less bureaucratic. Instead, it has become more chaotic; all the old rules hold, but what or who enforces them is unclear. For example, cooperatives still must register to exist, but no one seems to know with whom. The government and many people continue to accuse the cooperators of using their connections to buy scarce goods and resell them at higher prices. (The truth is that honest cooperators, like Hajibau, sold goods at more realistic prices than did the state-subsidized stores--which usually had no food for sale anyway.) The now-democratic governments remain protective of their land and properties. And many of the people who could be developing a grass-roots entrepreneurial economy by helping cooperatives provide food and services are putting their money in get-rich-quick ventures such as real estate speculation, currently Moscow's hottest business.
But Soviet citizens, whether they are seasoned communists or new-age democrats, pride themselves on being self-made and tough survivors. No matter how much a Russian taxi driver or a Georgian cooperative farmer railed against and groused about the Soviet bureaucracy, most had learned how to survive the elaborately packaged hoax. The king of Zakatala is one of those survivors. His story is of a specific group of Soviet free-marketeers who are still fighting to destroy what the Russians call mudistika (literally, the corrupt bureaucratic system that has nothing to do with communist dogma), but their predicament was, and continues to be, duplicated all over the fractured Soviet Union. The system may have changed. The people remain the same.
HAJIBAU WALKED IN THE WAY OF ALLAH AND FLEW IN THE FACE OF the Communist Party of the Soviet Union for 45 years. The son of peasants, Hajibau began working in Azerbaijan's tobacco fields as a youngster, handpicking leaf for more than a quarter century. The Communist Party political officers who indoctrinated Zakatala's tobacco croppers never got through to Hajibau. "There is a right way and a wrong way to grow and cure tobacco," Hajibau said. "The commissars told us to grow crops 'Lenin's Way.' This was the wrong way. I told them this was the reason behind continued food shortages. They told me to reread my Lenin and there would be no more food shortages. This is why Hajibau is now a cooperator. This is why Hajibau fights the criminal bureaucrats."
It was not easy to be anything in Zakatala, high in Azerbaijan's western mountains, at the end of a road strewn with brush fires, emaciated cattle and visiting Vietnamese workers roasting road-kill dog over spits. Azerbaijan is a once-beautiful land turned to waste, smelling of cheaply manufactured gasoline from the refineries of Baku in the east and the stench of streams polluted with chlorine used to massacre the fish to be sold on the market. Six years into perestroika , billboards extolling Marx and Lenin still decorated a ragged mountain range of forests and great clouds that in better times resembled the Blue Mountains of Virginia. Seven million people live in Azerbaijan, with more than 100,000 in the Zakatala area, a wide swatch of real estate adjacent to Georgia. And, like every inch of Azerbaijan, Zakatala was ruthlessly controlled out of Baku by Mutallibov, the latest in a long line of Azerbaijani Communist Party bosses.
Power in Azerbaijan is sold to those who pay and those who truckle to the caprices of the Baku leadership. It costs 1 million rubles to become a Communist Party secretary in Zakatala; 500,000 rubles to become chairman of the city council. A bribe of 20,000 rubles buys one a pasture, which can be snatched away at any time and for any reason. Twenty thousand more rubles purchases five hectares of land. Fealty to Baku is part of the deal, and if the allegiance is underwritten with further kickbacks, a contract to grow and manufacture Zakatala's hard-currency-exportable rose oil is part of the package.
It cost Hajibau 10,000 rubles (in 1989, $16,100) in bribes to start Lazat, a multiservice co-op of 60 people that incorporated farming, ranching, vacation cabins and three outdoor restaurant kitchens set on a Zakatala mountainside. Hajibau spent three days walking the mountains alone to find a site for Lazat; and when he told the officials who took the 10,000 rubles from his hand of his discovery, they thought him mad. "If I was successful," he said, "I knew they would come back for more and more and more. I was going to be successful, and I wasn't going to give them any more.
"Seventy percent of Azerbaijani co-ops are run by criminals who bribe the state to stay in business or limit their production to maintain shortages," explained Hajibau, who began with 120 beehives, 2,000 sheep and 5,000 chickens scattered throughout what he called friendly pastures. "The communists first came back to me about my chickens. Hajibau had more chickens than the state. They didn't like this. The criminals on the state farms sold the people five eggs for one ruble. Hajibau sold them 15 eggs for one ruble. The communists said this was not good for them and told me to stop selling the people eggs. They could afford to destroy my chickens. Hajibau said no! The communists said give us more money. Hajibau said no! They came and burned down one of my chicken farms."
Hajibau continued to say no. Too often. One afternoon in the spring of 1989, 35 officials from Baku arrived at Lazat with a message for Hajibau. Demanding a free lunch for having to make the arduous eight-hour journey from the capital, the officials told Hajibau that he was causing too many problems. "We made them pay," recalled Johnny Agakishiyev, the co-chairman of Lazat, named thus because he was the only member who could speak English. "They told us to become part of their mafia. Hajibau listened to them for a long time. I sat there watching, because the entire cooperative was afraid he would do something foolish. Hajibau looked at them with great strength and said, 'No. I have respect for the people. I will not be part of your provocations.' "
Two days later, 36 heavily armed and greatcoated soldiers encircled Lazat, frightening the children and forcing the co-op's adult staff and guests into one of the treehouse dining rooms at gunpoint. Agakishiyev hid under a desk in the office until he could phone Hajibau undetected. Hajibau, rushing up the mountain to confront his adversaries, stood in the center of the armed contingent and laughed at their Makharov pistols and slung Kalashnikovs. "These troops were from the sixth department of the Republic Ministry of the Interior Anti-Racketeering Department," Hajibau recounted, tormented by the scene. "They came to arrest me as a mafioso but brought nothing with them to prove it. They took all my files--everything. I laugh while they demolish my office. Then Hajibau feeds them all. They say it is better food than what they must eat in Baku. One of them tells me a party official is angry. Hajibau sends 200 letters and telegrams to Moscow complaining about corruption. This man warns Hajibau the troops will come back to arrest me. The official with them says to write no more letters because Baku uses the paper for the toilet.
"So I sent another telegram to KGB Chief Vladimir Kryuchkov in Moscow, telling him of this provocation. I sent another to Soviet Atty. Gen. Sukharve and another to the Minister of the Interior," Hajibau said. The cables read:
"The 57 people of the Lazat Cooperative want to inform you of our worrisome situation. We suffered an attack of the so-called state racket police of the Azerbaijan Republic. The road was blocked. All employees and guests were held at gunpoint. When we demanded a warrant or a decision of the ministry, two KGB officers told us that we did not have the right to demand anything. They told us they had come on oral authority of the president of Azerbaijan and the Azerbaijan Ministry of the Interior. The siege lasted until late that night. They took our documents. They told us to try and be friends with the local Communist Party chief, the local militia and the Zakatala city council. This is all a mystery. It was like a foreign video film. We are worried. Please find out about this matter."
"Everybody in Moscow sends their telegrams to the Baku KGB for action," Hajibau said. "Baku sends the letter to the Zakatala city council for action. The city council sends their KGB man to Lazat. He says, 'Hajibau, neither you nor your cooperative are needed in Zakatala' and threatens me with arrest if I send any more telegrams. I told him to get off my mountain. This is perestroika. "
HAJIBAU HAD SLEPT LITTLE THE NIGHT before we went to visit the Zakatala city council that July to tell the story of the dead sheep. He was ashamed that his guests had to participate in saving his flock, angry that so many sheep had perished and outraged by the innocent looks of the bureaucrats standing in front of him. The officials crowded over maps behind Asim Samadov's large desk and bobbed and fussed like hungry crows. The heat of the mountain summer drifted into the office gently from a uniformly gray morning sky.
Samadov, the chairman of the Zakatala district executive committee, sweated uneasily in the heat. Magshev Hajibau Madiashev, Zakatala's deputy district chairman, and Suleyman Suleymanov, the chairman of the Agro-Industrial Committee of Zakatala, were well able to contain their impatience with Hajibau, Sabina and me much better than with the muggy, fly-filled air. Hajibau had not even telephoned to say that we were coming. He said there would be no reply. Sabina telephoned instead. There was no reply. Hajibau was aware of the aches his body had suffered lifting sheep. It seemed the pain in his head returned with renewed vigor since his decision to stop drinking alcohol so that he could better battle the corruption of Zakatala.
"Tea--coffee, perhaps?" Samadov asked, gesturing to one of his subordinates. "Wine, Hajibau?"
Hajibau slapped his hands smartly, walked with giant steps toward the desk, seized a stool, planted it with a thud before Suleymanov, the party bureaucrat responsible for dividing Zakatala's pastures among farmers. Hajibau plopped his huge girth down, staring at the outraged bureaucrat with deadly eyes. Suleymanov looked away, fingering the maps. Samadov, returning Hajibau's cold stare, steadily groped through the papers on his desk for various documents, fished out a yellowed piece of onionskin Hajibau had given him months ago and waved it in front of the king's face like a dainty handkerchief. "This is not correct," Samadov said, smiling. "You are in trouble and you shouldn't carry on so. You are going to ruin yourself, as you have ruined your sheep."
"You scold like a hungry old grandmother," Hajibau said in a dispassionate voice, as if he had exhausted all his emotions. And with that he got up and paced slowly to the window that overlooked the surrounding mountains. The wooden floor, vibrating from Hajibau's heavy step, shook the tiny Madiashev. For a brief moment, Hajibau stood with his sweaty back to Samadov, looking down at the empty market across the square, then turned around and bore down upon his unwanted adversary. "Get off my mountain."
"Impudent fool," Suleymanov muttered, looking up from his maps. "When will you learn?"
Hajibau dropped off into deep thought as if he had forgotten his grievances against the men who had ordered the death of his sheep. "I know the rules," Hajibau said to the officials. "I went myself to the city hall! I wrote the proper letter! Suleymanov signed it. Samadov signed it. Now you do this to make me uneasy. But I am Hajibau, yes, and you cannot stop me."
"Hajibau, we will of course have a full investigation," Samadov said sweetly. "This should not have happened."
"It appears this is the fault of your shepherds," injected Suleymanov, tapping a compass on the maps, pointing a pencil at Hajibau. "Look here. Your shepherds crossed this line," Suleymanov said, shaking his head. "They should not have done that. You have inexperienced shepherds, Hajibau. The state shepherds know the mountains much better."
"No! No!" shouted Makmakhod Zhakanzher, Lazat's chief shepherd, who had been standing meekly in the corner, intently listening to the discussion. "You all know I have been a shepherd in these mountains for 20 years. These are lies, Hajibau."
"I know these are lies," Hajibau said, his face fervent with anger as four more Zakatala officials entered the room with huge folders full of ordinance survey maps. One of the men, leaning his elbows on the primitive conference table in the middle of the office, looked up at Samadov and asked if he should open the maps. Samadov fidgeted a no.
"The problem is a simple one," interjected Makmakhod Damada, a top Party member and kolkhoz boss with 10,000 sheep, turning from his study of the folded sheaf bursting with the council's thick file on Hajibau. "My sheep don't have enough land to graze on, Hajibau. We all understand the importance of cooperatives, but your cooperative is registered as a catering cooperative. You have the authority to have sheep, but you don't have the authority to graze sheep. What do you think, Hajibau? Does Hajibau think he can just buy sheep and bring them to the mountain? Did Hajibau think where he was going to put his sheep before he bought them?
"You need to re-register your cooperative, Hajibau," Damada added, cautioning: "But maybe it would be smarter for you to develop other agricultural products."
"Yes, of course, comrade!" said Samadov, smugly nodding to Damada. "This is why you have problems, Hajibau. You are not properly registered."
"I've been properly registered for over one year," Hajibau said, pointing to the document in his hand. "You signed the document, and the kolkhoz farms are not using their land. The mountain is full of pasture, and you will not let cooperatives use it unless they bribe you. Hajibau will not do this."
"Let me see that letter," snapped Samadov impatiently, moving quickly around his deck, apologizing to Sabina and me for the confusion. "I see, Hajibau. Well, this is not an official document. This is just a friendly letter from me to you. I want you all here to notice--particularly our guest from America and Sabina Sabitnova, the granddaughter of the great Azerbaijani leader and Communist Party member Sabit Orudjev--that this letter, although properly written, doesn't contain the official stamp necessary to make it truly legitimate for Hajibau's sheep to graze on the mountain. Nonetheless, an official investigation will take place, the council will pay for Hajibau's dead sheep, and his sheep will in the future be allowed entry to state pastures."
Walking over to Hajibau, Samadov placed a firm hand on his shoulder and smiled through stumpy teeth. "It's important, Hajibau, that our friend from America and the granddaughter of a Soviet hero understand the Communist Party of Azerbaijan and Zakatala is behind perestroika . We are all honest men."
Samadov's dark eyes hooded. His teeth were stained, and made for a genuinely frightening smile. Almost at once, a bird flew in the window and landed on the maps with a faint scream. The men froze at the sound. Chuckling, Sabina whispered to me: "That is a bad sign in Azerbaijan. It means somebody is going to die."
"EVERYTHING YOU HEARD SPOKEN BY THOSE OFFICIALS WAS A deadly lie, so I'm not surprised the meeting ended with the visit of a bird," explained Dr. Hajibau Alikhanov, Zakatala's chief medial surgeon, commenting on the phenomenon that took place in Samadov's office. "They are very professional criminals. Hajibau is one of the few people here who don't violate the law. Hajibau's strength comes from his refusal to cater to the Party bosses. He does not lie."
Alikhanov lowered himself closer to the fire he had built alongside the river where Hajibau's sheep had lost their fight with the bureaucracy, and took a bite of some freshly slaughtered lamb. The sun was sinking. And Alikhanov sat, his face in his hands, looking at the ground and hating all this, the bone gripped in his fingers no more useful in cutting flesh than the blunt scalpels in his hospital. He begrudged his hands, skilled hands that greed and stupidity would not permit to save lives. With firm, satisfied features, he looked up to see Hajibau, off in the distance, handing out food to people who passed up and down the riverbed. Alikhanov was a poet, and like all poets of his nation, the great emptiness he felt in his heart was caused by a land whose rules never gave its people the ability to be left alone. The Russians even had a word for it: grust , the melancholy that accompanies every Russian's success or failure.
Alikhanov's burden was the heavy, invisible chain of the state--a weight lifted only by the vitality of dreamers like Hajibau. "That Hajibau is alive represents that a shift to democracy is taking place in the Soviet Union," Alikhanov said, tossing the bone into the river. "But there's not enough food, even with Hajibau, to feed democracy. The problem will get worse. It's for the benefit of the local party officials to maintain shortages. I don't understand this; as a doctor, mind you, I can't operate on people because I have neither the proper tools nor medicines. Even if I did have the equipment, many of my patients would be too weak to survive the procedures.
"However, as a 48-year-old man who has lived under this system his entire life, I understand their need to destroy Hajibau and create shortages. The people who run my country are incompetent, and Hajibau shows this very clearly. Perestroika will not change this; corruption is a pathological condition without a known cure. Marx and Lenin were supposed to have made a fabulous society, but the corruption killed them, too.
"Hajibau is a marvel who can help the people," he continued. "It's unbelievable what he has done, but when you behave like that you have a lot of enemies. Hajibau isn't always right in how he handles the bureaucrats. He causes scandals, but I'm coming to understand scandal is a price one must pay for democracy. Hajibau has been my friend for 15 years, and, as his doctor, I can tell you he is physically healthy. A bull. Mentally he's a little crazy, but much saner than the bureaucrats of Zakatala."
DIGNITY MEANT MUCH TO HAJIBAU. Pride, to the point of stubbornness, even more. He said he would not sleep nights if he trusted the lies spoken by the cooperators in Moscow's Hall of Columns; they argued about trivial details and ignored the state's corruption. He trusted Vladimir Tikhonov, president of the cooperative congress, but the letters Lazat had sent asking Peoples Deputy Tikhonov for help in defusing the bureaucracy had done nothing. He trusted Alikhanov, but he did not trust himself to find a solution to bureaucratic villainies through more diplomatic means. Sabina said Hajibau was a bull, too, and she did not regard his forceful approach as melodrama, or exaggerated, or out of proportion to what he was up against. "The criminals know when they are fighting Hajibau," she said.
Hajibau proudly judged his life as a capitalist by the smiles he provided the Soviet families who paid 4 rubles 50 kopecks a day for room and board at Lazat. When the city council reneged on its promise to build a bridge across the ravine to Lazat because Hajibau would not give them 40,000 rubles, Hajibau built the bridge with 4,000 of his own. Every year Lazat was fulfilling the quota of food it promised the state. The council failed to give him the "official stamps" necessary to double the 10,000 tons of meat he supplied between 1988 and 1990. "There are no vegetables in Zakatala," said Hajibau. "Again, the council refused to give me idle land to grow vegetables. I sent a cable to the Soviet Minister of Agriculture:
"Unground opposition to the cooperatives in Azerbaijan has forced many of us to become bankrupt. Land is not being allocated, and we are forced to slaughter sheep and cattle because there is no place for them to graze. Cooperative Lazat has lost one ton of cheese and two tons of wool for the people because of opposition. Please allocate land to Cooperative Lazat for vegetables and pasture. Please tell me of the measures you will take."
The reply was a visit from Telman Orudjev, a secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan. "He asked me why I fed people," Hajibau continued, shaking his head in a gesture displaying both disgust and amazement. "He said to let people take care of themselves. 'Why have 1,000 sheep, Hajibau? Raise only 100 sheep and we will give you all the land you need.' Hajibau told him to get off the mountain."
It was strange, Hajibau said, that after finally explaining his plight--"the fate of all honest cooperators"--he would no longer wonder in more private moments if his battle was just. He said that fear stretched behind men like shadows, always trying to catch up and devour the one who gave it life. He found it blackly funny that the government bought food from the West, while at the same time it killed his sheep because they were politically incorrect, prevented him from growing vegetables because the vegetable documents were not in order. The state and the Party wanted the people to live lives of disguise and bluff, amid all the old corruptions repackaged under the notion of perestroika. Yet through it all, through the triumphs and the nightmares, Hajibau exuded a towering energy that shamed all those who believed the stolid impassiveness of the system was unassailable.
Hajibau's efforts to clean up Zakatala and the cooperative sector had reached Baku, and it was the unexpected suddenness and apparent irrationality of his movements to wipe out the shameless fixers and awesome bunglers that made Azerbaijan's top officials uneasy. They had firmly contained Hajibau, of course, but the recklessness with which he attacked the apparat on the food issue made them uneasy, leaving them to wonder how many others might be inclined to adopt his tactics. "Hajibau is a great irritant to the officials in Baku," explained Alim Azimov, the director of the Bakcoop Bank, Azerbaijan's first commercial cooperative bank. "I lend Hajibau money for his ideas without any guarantees. He goes too far, but he has ideas and knowledge, and that is all the collateral my bank requires.
"The loan policy of the Bakcoop Bank will sound foolish and amateurish to the great institutional banks in the West," said Azimov, who had directed the main finance department of the state's Baku Gosbank before starting his cooperative in 1988. "Credit without guarantees is madness only if there is collateral out there. There's nothing out here, and that is the tragedy of our history. I lend out money to make something, anything. Hajibau believes in his dreams. That is sufficient for money."
Money--specifically, rubles--was not sufficient to complete a negotiation in the Soviet Union. There was always something needed--bribes, favors, kickbacks, hard currency or consumer goods--for any of Azerbaijan's 3,000 cooperatives to conceive a project.
"The methodics of creating honest business when the state doesn't want honest business means you must do dishonest things in order to control the situation and bypass any sort of harassment the state might plan to use against you," said Amir Mamedov, the chairman of the Azerbaijani delegation to the Cooperative Congress and a Bakcoop Bank customer. "Great men like Hajibau and Alim do this at the cost of much personal suffering. We need rubles, but they are worthless without the state's permission to use them."
Although Azimov started the Bakcoop Bank with 10 million rubles in capital, the bureaucracy prohibited him from lending any more than 250,000 rubles, no matter how much money the bank had on deposit. Most of Azimov's clients required sums greater than that, however, forcing the 37-year-old banker to become the de facto comptroller of his client's cooperatives, paying "loan money" totaling millions of rubles directly to contractors to whom his ruble-capped borrowers were indebted. Azimov, who never knew whether or not the procedure was legal, did this because it was the only way for a cooperative banker to underwrite the free market in a nation of contradictory laws administered by corrupt bureaucrats through a cynical system of government. Depositors received 1% interest, borrowers were charged 10% interest, and the disparity of the figures was of no importance because revenue was essentially nil.
"Profit doesn't matter. The downside to lending honestly is the difficulty I encounter trying to prove to people that I'm not a crook. Cooperators learn Soviet reality quickly," Azimov added in measured tones. "There is definitely a war going on between the cooperators and the state. Tikhonov says there are many men like Hajibau, but I know that Hajibau is a general without much of an army. The least I can do is give him the rubles he needs to try to make all our lives better."
Hajibau had no illusion as to the ruble's worth without his toadying to the bureaucrats. To the state, Hajibau was a peasant, a member of a half-caste lot unwashed in the matters of high finance and without enough education to handle hard currency effectively. There were provisions in Soviet law enabling men such as Hajibau to have hard currency, but the loopholes were wide and tyrannically enforced by the state banks to keep their unquestionable control over the flow of hard currency. The successes of cooperators, particularly rural cooperators operating outside the Moscow-Leningrad-Kiev axis, amazed and frightened the bosses at Gosbank and Vnesheconombank, the Soviet bank for foreign trade and de facto controller of hard currency. Vnesh never responded to Hajibau's letters and telegrams. Standing arms akimbo outside Vnesh's headquarters whenever he was in Moscow, Hajibau asked everyone leaving the bank for help to get inside because the guards would not let him past the steps.
The Bakcoop Bank was Hajibau's only link to the world of investment capital, and he clung to Azimov for it. It was not easy for Azimov to lend money to Hajibau and other cooperators, but it was necessary--despite the threats to his family.
"Part of my husband's job is to lobby officials so they will allow Alim to use the bank's money," described Aza Azimov, rubbing her thumb and index finger together, the Soviet signal for blat (money). "There is great discrimination against us. People on the street, I don't know them, come up and scream that Alim's loan to a cooperative bakery has taken bread from the mouths of the people, or that Hajibau is a criminal. Cooperators everywhere in the Soviet Union are threatened like this. The state orders strangers to harass us, even our children. They tell us we will not live. They laugh at us.
"It's their laughter I cannot stand," she went on. "I hate the laughter."
HAJIBAU HATED THE laughter, too. He stood straight whenever it came, with fisted hands deep in the pockets of his pants, so as not to take them out and attack. The laughter was easier to take when he felt the solid ground of the mountain beneath his feet. Sometimes, when the bureaucrats came to Lazat, Hajibau greeted them in a 15-foot fleece cape made from the skins of a dozen sheep. He said the cloak brought out his warrior spirit.
He would stare stiffly at the bureaucrats, looking neither to the right nor to the left but at their eyes only. The bureaucrats laughed. Hajibau, his workers gathering around him in a crescent, continued to gaze into their eyes. Soon the apparat replaced their hilarity with questions, demands, explanations and good-humored warnings. Hajibau stared in silence, the absurdity of the spectacle transformed by how he presently made the bureaucrats quiver, like children seeing a fairy-tale ogre come to life. Alikhanov, Alim Azimov or whoever else happened to be visiting Lazat invariably entered the crescent--standing quietly, staring intently, watching the fury of the apparat turn into sullen, festering silence.
Sabina and I hesitated at first; then one summer night, abruptly, we walked the few yards down the hill to join the 23 people gathered around Hajibau. As Hajibau spoke, carefully punctuating each word with a scornful jerk of his head, he looked at the taller of the two officials who had come with an invitation to return to the council chamber and discuss the large number of Lazat chickens being sold in the market, his left eye open and wide, the right slanted and nasty-looking.
Hajibau moved closer to the bureaucrat. The two men stood exactly opposite each other: one short, fat and wearing red-plastic sandals; the other tall, heavy and sweating in the costume of a giant sheep.
"I am Hajibau and you know me," the king of Zakatala said, grabbing the documents, crumpling them in his hand as the bureaucrat's face collapsed in perfect terror. "Get off my mountain."
AFTER THE AUGUST coup, Ibragimov Hajibau Isak Oglu continued to walk in the way of Allah. And though his cooperative still survives in the new Azerbaijan, he is fighting the same officials and the same oppressive rules. The president of Azerbaijan had been the first Soviet-republic leader to publicly applaud Gorbachev's removal during the coup, this just days before his re-election.
"Matters are worse," Hajibau wrote to me just before the coup. "And I'm still not able to feed the people."