Oligarchs and Torahs: This Wealthy Azerbaijan Town Is 100% Jewish – but Its Community Is Dying

Locals say Qirmize Qesebe’s main drag is the wealthiest kilometer in the world and neighboring cities look on enviously

Tea and dominoes in Heydar Aliyev Park, Krasnaya Sloboda, November 2019.
Jacob Judah

QIRMIZI QESEBE, Azerbaijan — A group of elderly men play dominoes in a teahouse garden, enjoying the last days of fall. The icy weather is late this year, but the mountain passes that lead to Dagestan and Russia are already snow-capped.

But this is no classic Azerbaijani teahouse. The proprietor touches a plastic mezuzah as he shuttles in and out with scalding teapots. One of the players wears a kippa. A nearby house has a Star of David molded into its brickwork. The men boast that their rich sons live abroad, not in guttural Azerbaijani or Russian but in Juhuri — their own soft-sounding, Persian-based language — before some of them scurry off toward the synagogue for afternoon prayer. (All of the interviews were conducted in Azerbaijani, Russian or Juhuri, with the aid of a translator.)

Welcome to Qirmizi Qesebe (known in Russian as Krasnaya Sloboda, or “Red Village”), the heartland of the Mountain Jews and one of only two entirely Jewish towns outside of Israel (Palm Tree, New York, being the other). Yet this is no impoverished shtetl. The streets are dotted with extravagant palaces, and this small town is home to several billionaires and, by one count, over a dozen oligarchs boasting multimillion-dollar fortunes.

Tea and games in Krasnaya Sloboda's teahouse, November 2019
Jacob Judah

The players claim that many of Russia’s rich and powerful have passed through the palaces’ guest bedrooms. The names of Russian and Azerbaijani celebrities and political powerhouses fall off the old men’s tongues. The latest visitor was reportedly Russian Orthodox bishop Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, who, they say, was schmoozed at the summer residence of 47-year-old billionaire God Nisanov, the Moscow-based property developer with whom he was attending functions in the capital, Baku. Brief stays in this small town might have been calculated as a personal investment that would pay off in the intrigues of Moscow politics over 2,000 kilometers away.

Qirmizi Qesebe sits across the Qudiyalcay (or Kudyal) River from Quba, a ramshackle, dusty city that is indistinguishable from most other Azerbaijani settlements. “Officially we are 3,640, all Jews,” says Yafa Yadadayeva, Qirmizi Qesebe’s stony-faced mayor. She coyly admits, however, that in practice the permanent population only numbers around 500. “They are in Russia and elsewhere for business and jobs,” she says of the other residents, most of whom only return in the summer and for religious holidays.

Krasnaya Sloboda and, beyond it, Quba, November 2019.
Jacob Judah

But who are the Mountain Jews, and where did they come from? That is a thorny subject. A Jewish community began to settle in the Caucasus — which was part of the Persian Empire — as early as the fifth century B.C.E. One theory holds that Jews, known for their fighting skills, were dispatched by the Persians to guard their steppe frontiers, while another claims that fleeing Jewish tribes sought sanctuary among fellow Jews on this isolated Persian frontier. Some Russian scholars have dated the Jews’ arrival far later, and even tried to claim that the Mountain Jews are the descendants of ninth-century Khazars, referring to semi-nomadic Turkic people.

For centuries only a poor and remote branch of Persian Jewry, the Mountain Jews began to coalesce as a community far later. Prof. Mordechai Altshuler of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has written that only with the waning of the Shahs’ influence around the start of the 16th century did the Mountain Jews begin to develop a distinct identity.

The Mountain Jews themselves believe they are one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, scattered to the fringes of the then-known world in 720 B.C.E. Living in auls or isolated fortress villages, the community was replenished by waves of soldiers, traders and refugees seeking safety and opportunity in the foothills of the Caucasus.

Fight for survival

Portraits of the dead, disapproved of by the village's Orthodox Israeli rabbi, in one of Krasnaya Sloboda's cemeteries, November 2019.
Jacob Judah

Anatolii Manashirov, 59, maintains Qirmizi Qesebe’s small Gilaki synagogue (built by, and named for, immigrants from Iran’s Gilan Province), which is used in winter due to its heating. Mountain Jewish traditions, like all other Jewish communities, have been influenced by their neighbors: shoes are removed upon entering local synagogues; Quba-made carpets line the floors; and women’s sections are conspicuously absent in these tin-domed shuls — this is a man’s world.

As Manashirov shuffles around on the synagogue’s carpeted floor, he explains how Qirmizi Qesebe became a Jewish enclave. “We were escaping from Gilan and [18th-century Iranian ruler] Nader Shah. Fatali Khan, the emir of Quba, gave us this town.” The first settlers arrived from Iran, Dagestan and neighboring villages in 1742, with the land offered to Jewish refugees fleeing forced conversions and pogroms at home. In many ways, the history of Qirmizi Qesebe has been a fight for survival ever since.

Anatolii Manashirov, the caretaker of the Gilaki Synagogue in Krasnaya Sloboda, November 2019.
Jacob Judah

Yet as the Jewish shtetls were expunged from the map of Eastern Europe, ancient Jewish communities of Bukhara, Samarkand and Georgia vanished with post-Soviet emigration, and even as war and violence forced the Mountain Jews of neighboring Dagestan and Chechnya to pack their bags and cast their lot with Tel Aviv, New York and Moscow, Qirmizi Qesebe has remained.

“This village has changed from the ground to the sky,” says Boris Simanduyev, 86, recalling his youth. “It was difficult under the Soviets. Religion was banned; We were afraid to pray.” Stalinism arrived in the town with a vengeance in the 1930s: rabbis were dispatched to Siberia, and the 11 synagogues and two yeshivas were turned into shops, factories or storehouses.

As Jewish life in the Caucasus began to be stripped of its religious meaning, Soviet ethnographers finally decided that the Mountain Jews were not actually Jews at all. As the USSR codified and organized its nationalities, its Jews and their diversity presented a special case. Moscow decreed that Judaism and Jewishness were distinct, and so categorized the Mountain Jews of the Caucasus (along with Christians and Muslims who had also emigrated from Persia centuries earlier) as ethnic “Tat” people from northern Iran. By the ’70s, as Soviet Jewry began to emigrate and the Soviet press entered a new phase of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel agitation, the Tat nationality was increasingly imposed on the Mountain Jews in a final effort to dilute their Jewish identity.

More isolated than its sister communities in Chechnya and Dagestan, Qirmizi Qesebe escaped the worst excesses of late Soviet social engineering, but its walls bear witness to the scars of the past.

At the village pharmacy, stones with Hebrew etchings hint at the town’s forgotten synagogues. At the end of an alleyway of smashed paving stones is the oldest, and once grandest, of them all: locals call it the “synagogue of Rabbi Rabila.” Overgrown with nettles, its roof has collapsed and its walls are now bare brick. Another — its bright yellow doors broken open — is now home to accountant Rahila Hayeva, 62, who moved into the synagogue annex when the building was returned to the community. “During the Soviet era they turned the synagogue into a vet’s. Now, well…” She trails off, casting her gaze around the decrepit room with peeling plaster on its walls.

Rahila Hayeva standing in the doorway of her office, a Krasnaya Sloboda synagogue closed during the Soviet era, November 2019
Jacob Judah

Simanduyev recalls Stalin announcing the formation of Israel in 1948, and that “the Mountain Jews decided that while Israel was our ancient home, Azerbaijan was our home now.” But as the Soviet Union disintegrated and the base of Azerbaijan’s rural economy collapsed, young Mountain Jews were forced to move on. For these economic migrants, places like Moscow, Acre and Brooklyn became their new homes, with nary a peak in sight. Simanduyev’s children, for example, live in Israel and Russia. The town is at its busiest around Tisha B’Av (which commemorates the destruction of both temples in Jerusalem), when emigrants use the festival as an opportunity to return home and visit the graves of relatives.

Mountain exodus

The region’s Jewish population plummeted like a stone in the ’90s: More than 60,000 Mountain Jews from Azerbaijan, Chechnya and Dagestan made aliyah to Israel; many others emigrated to Germany, the United States and Canada. Many more left for Moscow, St. Petersburg and Baku, and never returned to their impoverished roots. The community survived by the skin of its teeth and the oligarchs’ mansions hide a murky recent past when fortunes were forged.

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan has emerged as an authoritarian dictatorship with an “appalling” human rights record, according to Human Rights Watch. The Aliyev dynasty has ruled this oil-rich country with an iron fist since 1993, when Heydar Aliyev assumed the presidency. His son Ilham succeeded him in 2003 and was “elected” for a fourth term in 2018. Heydar Aliyev may have passed away in 2003, but his presence dominates. He watches from posters as you drive into Qirmizi Qesebe and looks down from photos on the walls of shops and government buildings. In the local park, a gold-leaf statue of Aliyev sits on a throne, seemingly overseeing his kingdom.

A statue of Heydar Aliyev at Heydar Aliyev Park in Krasnaya Sloboda, November 2019
Jacob Judah

Azerbaijan was born as the Caucasus went up in flames and, until 1994, it fought a brutal war with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, an unrecognized statelet that remains occupied and supported by Armenian troops. That conflict, and a shared mistrust of Iran, spurred an increasingly tight relationship with Israel, the Jewish state among the few countries willing to sell weaponry to the Azerbaijanis.

In the teahouse, genteel family recollections are shelved once the subject of post-Soviet Azerbaijan and the Aliyevs is brought up. “We have survived because Azerbaijan is a strong and happy country,” says the teahouse owner. Mayor Yadadayeva, meanwhile, says the locals “cannot imagine what would have happened without the Aliyevs. It is too hard to even think about.”

The official narrative is that Azerbaijan is a modern, diverse and exciting young country that is assuming its place in Europe. Baku has become a destination of choice for sporting tournaments (such as a leading European soccer final last May), and the country has spent millions promoting itself abroad. Sponsoring and supporting its small and unthreatening Jewish community — particularly with the aid of the region’s wealthy Jewish businessmen — is a key part of advancing that narrative.

Azerbaijan’s relationship with Israel relies on the narrative that has been created and bought into by the Azerbaijani Jewish diaspora that Azerbaijan is a tolerant and anti-Semitism-free country that is fighting for its survival. In Israel and Washington, Jewish Azerbaijanis have been important in articulating this narrative.

Inside the yeshiva of Krasnaya Sloboda, November 2019
Jacob Judah

Despite Azerbaijan and Israel’s close relationship, Baku has tactically chosen not to open an embassy in Israel for risk of upsetting important partners domestically and abroad. Rather, relations are conducted informally through the Israel office of AZAL, the Azerbaijani state airline.

As Aliyev made his move in an unstable Baku, the Mountain Jews of Qirmizi Qesebe made theirs in Russia. More comfortable in Russian than Azerbaijani, and connected to Mountain Jewish communities in the north Caucasus, Moscow was a natural fit for them. As the Russian economy went into free-fall and the old Soviet industries were off-loaded in increasingly dubious deals, a coterie of men from Qirmizi Qesebe began to amass fabulous wealth as they climbed the greasy pole of the Russian economy in Moscow, St. Petersburg and assorted regions.

“The Jews were granted an unofficial autonomy. This is why Azerbaijan’s Jews have become so successful. They were loyal and reliable,” says Vidadi Muradov, an expert on the Jews of Qirmizi Qesebe from the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography in Baku, a respected local think tank.

The gauche mansions of oligarchs Nisanov and his business partner Zarakh Iliev, 53, dominate the center of Qirmizi Qesebe. With whitewashed walls, grand balconies, annexes and Greek columns, their homes have an aesthetic that would prove jarring anywhere other than Beverly Hills. For these two Mountain Jews, the ascent to the top was a slow one: In the final days of the Soviet Union, the childhood friends were working with family in Moscow’s markets, but by the early ’90s had begun conquering the kiosks of the Moscow Metro. They have subsequently created a multibillion dollar portfolio of Moscow property, product distribution firms and shopping malls. Forbes estimates both men’s net worth at $3.5 billion and among the 700 richest people in the world.

The Krasnaya Sloboda home of Russia-based oligarch God Nisanov, November 2019
Jacob Judah

Their success impacted Qirmizi Qesebe in more ways than just their grandiose buildings. “Jews from this town support each other,” explains local resident Naum, 24, when asked why the town’s post-Soviet history has seen unprecedented prosperity — those who have remained are mostly elderly and are reaping the benefits of their children’s labors elsewhere. In addition, “those living in Russia help out others when they arrive. For example, God Nisanov gives work to people from this town. What they get depends on what they can do and their talents: some become managers, others administrators, others accountants,” he says.

But the town’s reliance on Moscow’s internecine politics for its prosperity is risky. In March, three of Nisanov’s shopping malls were raided by Russian police. It has been suggested that the oligarch had fallen foul of powerful patrons who had previously turned a blind eye to alleged irregularities and illicit financial activities in how he amassed his fortune. It has been reported that he has moved his wealth out of Russia, and that his nephews purchased Maltese passports as an emergency escape route.

Although Qirmizi Qesebe’s rags-to-riches story could yet come undone, this is not preoccupying its long-standing residents. “The town is 1 kilometer [0.6 miles] long. It is probably the richest kilometer in the world,” jokes Naum. He points up a steep hill toward the new home of real-estate billionaire German Zakharayev, 48, who has funded renovation work of the village’s religious infrastructure, including a yeshiva. Zakharayev’s new home has been chiseled into the mountain and stares down on small, single-story homes.

Across the Qudiyalcay River in Quba, envious eyes look on. “The Jews there are isolated and tight-knit,” says Fidana, a 26-year-old history teacher. She leans in and whispers, “They’re rich over there; they’ve made it. They have big houses and better roads.”

Quba, like most of Azerbaijan’s smaller rural cities, has been forgotten as rampant corruption has diverted badly needed funds, industries have shuttered, and the rich and wealthy have moved to Baku, never looking back. Part of the explanation for the “tight-knit” nature of Qirmizi Qesebe’s Jewish community is that Mountain Jews are often seen as outsiders in both Russia and Azerbaijan, which has helped forge communal solidarity wherever they find each other.

Krasnaya Sloboda's yeshiva, November 2019
Jacob Judah

Looking for tourists

In Quba, buses crammed with schoolchildren and rush hour commuters navigate crowded streets. In Qirmizi Qesebe, there is no rush hour and, in an entire afternoon, less than a dozen schoolchildren walk down the main drag. Qirmizi Qesebe has a demographic crisis on its hands.

Denis Isakov is a rarity: He is young, 25, and about to assume one of the few new posts that has been created in the town in recent years: Guide at the upcoming Museum of Mountain Jews, which has been built with funding from Nisanov and Iliev.

The soon-to-be-opened Mountain Jews Museum, funded by local oligarchs Zarah Illiyev and God Nisanov, in Krasnaya Sloboda, November 2019
Jacob Judah

“One-hundred percent, the future of the town is tourism,” he tells Haaretz. “In August, we received three busloads of tourists — Israelis, Germans and Americans — in one day, and that was before the museum.” Isakov is waiting to receive a grand opening date for the museum from President Aliyev, but is hoping it will be “in the next few months” and that the president himself will be in attendance.

As Isakov drives around Quba and Qirmizi Qesebe in his Soviet-era Lada, his candid comments highlight why he is placing so much emphasis on tourism. “This used to be a carpet factory. That too,” he points out. Quba is famous in Azerbaijan and beyond for its carpet weavers, but the industry was in decline even before the fall of communism. “There is almost no work here,” says Isakov, throwing his hands up in exasperation. “Three people will work in the museum, and then two in the new information center [in Qirmizi Qesebe]. That’s not going to solve it.”

Empty palaces in Krasnaya Sloboda, Azerbaijan, November 2019.
Jacob Judah

In Baku, prominent members of the Mountain Jewish community fret over Qirmizi Qesebe’s future. Irmik Abayev, who spent a decade working at AZAL as Azerbaijan’s unofficial representative in Israel, says he is hopeful the town “will become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so that more people will rediscover this unique place’s history.”

Others, though, are less optimistic. “I am concerned the town might disappear in a few generations,” says Ruslan Agababayev, 43, a well-known pianist whose face was plastered all over Baku during Haaretz’s visit, promoting his concert. (Although he was born in the capital, Agababayev has Mountain Jewish roots.) He suggests that the mansions are actually a sign that the Moscow-based Mountain Jews are worried, since “their grandchildren won’t be interested in returning. If that’s the case, then there is no future. It is a way of showing that this remains their base. It’s sad,” says the musician.

Russian-fueled prosperity is Qirmizi Qesebe’s present and niche Jewish tourism could be its future. But many of the town’s children are growing up as Muscovites, New Yorkers or Acre, Israel’s Azerbaijani-Jewish center. This winter, the padlocked palaces of the Moscow moguls will stand empty until next summer. The evil eyes dangling from doorways fail to repel nagging doubts that Qirmizi Qesebe’s unlikely boom might yet also prove its swan song.