6 March 2021

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CALLSIGN ‘OLD MOUSTACHE’

Alexei Saprykin, a Russian Azerbaijani, veteran of the first Karabakh war and actor. He’s still honing himself for the losses of that period

Author:

15.11.2020

Alexei passed away on October 8, 2019. He was a quiet, modest man who did not like to talk about the first Karabakh war with Armenia. He used to call it "the theater of the absurd", which hurt his heart worse than any splinter. On October 8, 2020, his friends, old veterans, visited his grave again. No pompous words and speeches. Just stingy masculine words of gratitude to a person who knew how to lend a helping hand to the needy.

Alexey Saprykin... Lyosha... He might have turned a blind eye to the raging war. Even a quick look at his photo reveals a man with a poor vision that admittedly is not fit for regular combat operations. When it turned out that his vision was -3.5, it was not clear how it was possible to fight at all with such vision.

 

Nevertheless he did it...

Lyosha Saprykin has always had problems with vision. However, this was not a problem for him at all. On the contrary, he made his vision one of his strong sides. That’s why all the girls working with him at the Popular Theatre led by Semyon Steinberg (the 26 Baku Commissars Palace of Culture) loved him a bit.

“There was something about him that gave us a feeling of confidence and security. We all considered him a symbol of a real man," Rita Amirbekova, the Honored Artist of Azerbaijan recalls. It is the time that he noticed Lyudmila, back in 1973-1974. And in 1978, after returning home from the Soviet army, Alexei married Lyudmila and lived with her till death did them part. He worked at the plant and believed that he can combine his work with his hobby for the theatre. However, the love of acting became a defining vector of his future life, and he became an actor. Initially he worked at the Municipal Chamber Theatre led by Jannat Salimova. Later, after the war in Karabakh, he also worked at the Youth Theatre and the Russian Drama Theatre. But in 1991, he began acting on the stage of the Municipal Chamber Theater. This period coincided with the outbreak of hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh, and Lyosha volunteered for the front.

His wife, the actress of the Samed Vurghun Azerbaijan State Academic Russian Drama Theatre Lyudmila Saprykina: “In 1992, Lyosha came home in the evening and said that he was leaving as a volunteer to defend Karabakh. He was 38 years old. We already had two children. I was afraid to lose him, and I began telling him those regular phrases that wives usually do: that he is not so young, that we have children and that I have no idea how I will raise them if he does not return... Lyosha was smoking and silent.”

After some time Eldar Aghayev visited the Saprykins at home. He was forming a commando unit and needed proven, reliable people. Alexey was one of such men for Eldar. They have known each other for many years. It has always been this way in Baku: children of different nationalities grew up together, played together, went through life together to learn all the qualities of human and male characters. That’s how a Russian Azerbaijani Alexei Saprykin volunteered for the front and was appointed commander of a reconnaissance unit. Together with Azerbaijani Lezghins, Jews, Ukrainians, Tatars and ethnic Azerbaijanis, he went through four years of testing. Lyosha was a releaser and remained in radio contact taking on the role of the leader of the unit commanding the rest of his team-members from the enemy zone, when his guys were sent to the rear of the enemy to collect intelligence. Together with his guys, whom he called ‘his boys’, he took part in military operations, fought for the independence and freedom of Karabakh.

Lyudmila Saprykina recalls:

“One day he arrived from the front and I could not recognize him. He told me that he had to deliver five coffins with the bodies of the dead boys to their families. Lyosha was terribly worried about the death of each of them. It is believed that a war makes people tougher and callous. It is not true at all. In one family, a grief-stricken mother asked Alexei: why did my boy die and not you? It hurt Alexei! That's when I first saw my husband crying. He kept repeating that if he could bring that guy back to life, he would gladly do it. Then he said: “If something happens to you or to the children, even if you die, I will not return from the front. Because boys die there every day, and it's scary, unfair, and cruel.” I understood him and was not offended. I understood and felt his pain. But somehow I remembered these words. And I remember them all... It was hard for me too because I was worried about my husband and children. I worked like many other women, whose husbands were in Karabakh. On occasions, when Lyosha and his comrades used to return to Baku from the front, they would come to us. Here they would take a shower, change clothes, I would give them something to eat, and then they left and drove to their families, home. Lyosha's words did not offend me, yet I remembered what he said. One day the doorbell rang. I opened and saw my husband on the doorstep. He ran in for a minute. Just to hug and kiss me and the kids. And then he left. It was then that I realized that he both his family and the Motherland were equally dear to him. Then I forgot what he said to me earlier. Lyosha was very fond of his city and his country. He was proud to be a Russian Azerbaijani...”

Lyudmila was talking about her husband as if she was re-living all the days of their married life. With emotions, experiencing the same feelings as almost 30 years ago, when it was impossible to defend Karabakh. Listening to her, I was thinking that being a citizen of Baku means belonging to a special category of people whose mentality is a fusion of cultures of people of different nationalities. The same holds true for the residents of Ganja, Barda, Mingachevir... For all the multinational Azerbaijan. And then I saw his graphic works. An expressive declaration of love to our city, our homeland. And the Old City appears before us as Alexei Alexeyevich Saprykin saw it.

 

Pain

Alexei Alexeyevich is no longer with us. He cannot tell us about his pain, about his feeling of guilt for not being able to hold Karabakh back then. This feeling did not leave him until his death. He always remembered the images from the battlefield with the young boys dying next to him. And no matter what he did, this impressions used to hurt his heart like a splinter. Then he had an idea to write a book. He felt the need to tell the truth about how it all really was. He believed that the years of the first Karabakh war (1992-1996) would allow us all to draw the correct conclusion: the land is ours, we have lost it, and we must return it. For future generations. For the sake of national self-respect. For our own sake. He could not accept and live with the thought that we did not become the winners in that war. This terribly hurt his soul, and he kept repeating that justice would still prevail. What a pity that he did not have a chance to live up to today's victorious days, when thanks to the Azerbaijani soldiers and their courage, the lands then lost are returned. What a pity that he did not see the victorious advance of our army in the regions that he and his comrades could not hold: Jabrayil, Hadrut, Fuzuli, Zangilan... and the city of Shusha! What a pity that he did not see the current streets of Baku, where all the Bakuvites went to express their gratitude and support to the national army and its commander-in-chief! We have returned not only our lands, but also the sense of national dignity. We can defend ourselves, our lands, and our centuries-old conquests. Our president made a victorious address to the people on November 10, 2020. What a pity that Alexei Alexeyevich could not see this happy and historically important moment! What a pity that he cannot share this joy with all of us! But maybe he can watch all this rejoice from the heavens, feeling the triumph of justice? I am sure that he can!

Lyudmila Saprykina recalls:

“Lesha spoke little about the war. His replies to my questions were always short and harsh: "I may not tell you more!" But sometimes he remembered something. For example, In the unit, there was a Russian woman who came to fight with her two sons. She was a nurse. But when it was necessary, she took up a machine gun and fought equally with men. Everyone called her ‘Mama Zhenya’. Her sons died there, in Karabakh. Now she is almost 80 years old, and lives in the village of Keshla.”

“Did he tell you anything funny?”

“Well, he told me that all scouts had individual callsigns. Alexei’s was ‘Old Moustache’, the battalion commander was ‘Sorcerer’, and Muhammed Hasanov – ‘Black Brother’. Armenians on the enemy side knew the Azerbaijani language. So, listening to radio conversations between Lyosha’s friends, they heard Muhammed’s callsign ‘Black Brother’, thinking that the Azerbaijani army has black-coloured mercenaries fighting on their side. Now imagine how funny was it to listen to Armenians replying back on the same frequency and addressing to the ‘Black Brother’ asking him not to fight for Azerbaijanis and return where he came from!”

“Where is Muhammed Hasanov now? What did happen to him later?”

“With the outbreak of the first Karabakh war, Lyosha’s friends were mostly the soldiers of peaceful professions: teachers, musicians and so on. The state of Azerbaijan granted five places for military training in Turkey for the members of the battalion. Four soldiers who went to study in Turkey were from Lyosha's unit. One of them was Muhammed Hasanov. Lyosha has always been proud of Muhammed’s success.”

The first war lasted four years leading not only to the loss of lands, but also the self-respect of the nation and soldiers. Alexei Saprykin and his comrades returned home in March 1996. They returned depressed and disappointed. The novel Let us not be judged!, which Alexei wrote and published in 2003, is his confession, where he does not hide anything of the events of those days. Talking about his experiences, he seems to be asking the readers and himself ‘what they did wrong’.

“Who is to blame and why?”

“Armenians paid a million for each of the wanted heads of the guys from Lyosha's unit. Because it was their unit that helped our soldiers to deliver pinpoint strikes against important enemy combat targets. Lyosha was the releaser of the unit. When the guys went to the rear, he communicated with them by radio and took them back to the front-line. Sometimes it would take several days until the guys were back. They just followed his voice...”

“Why did Alexei Alexeyevich feel himself guilty for the dead and the living veterans of the war?”

“He believed that they did not do everything that they could do and should have done. It is this sense of guilt that hurt him.”

“Even after the published novel?”

“Yes. Even after that. Only the first two parts were published. I keep the handwritten copy of the third part. Lyosha managed to finish it. I promised him that I would publish the third part. But alas... I cannot afford it for now.”

Preface to the first book of the novel was written by the writer Chingiz Abdullayev as follows: “This book will be interesting to those who know little about the facts and circumstances of the past war. To the veterans of the war, it will remind of the path left behind. "

There are many dramatic and emotionally difficult moments in the book. And this is not fiction. It describes the real routine life of Alexei Saprykin, who went through the difficult events of 1992-1996. Perhaps his novel will go down in history as an evidence of all that happened in reality. After all, the author was not only an eyewitness, but also a direct participant of the first Karabakh war. His novel is not fiction but a documentary evidence of the patriotism of ordinary soldiers who gave their lives for native land. Today we know that these deaths and efforts were not in vain. We have learned the necessary lessons. Instead of total forgiveness and intelligent silence, we have learned how to conduct information battles on all fronts without losing our sense of dignity. The real events of today show that we have strength, intelligence and a commander-in-chief, who is a wise strategist and tactician that is opening up new horizons in the history of our country...



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