Who Are the Yazidis of the Former Soviet Space?

Yazidis Girls Near Mt. Aragats, Armenia (Bo Løvschall)

Yazidi girls in the vicinity of Mt. Aragats, Armenia (Bo Løvschall)

Recently the news has been replete with headlines about the atrocities being committed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or simply the “Islamic State”) against the Yazidi people. Who are the Yazidis, exactly?

The Yazidi are an ethnoreligious group of Kurds who speak the Kurmanji dialect of Kurdish. Approximately 640,000 live in Iraq.  The next largest concentration of Yazidis in the world is actually in the former Soviet Union where about 100,000 reside. These ex-Soviet Yazidis are divided among three former Soviet republics: Russia, Armenia, and Georgia. In Iraq, they write Kurmanji using the Perso-Arabic script. In the former USSR, they use Cyrillic.

Melek Taus

Melek Taus

The Yazidis follow a unique faith that seemingly fuses together Islamic Sufi, Christian, and Zoroastrian beliefs. They worship Melek Taus, the “Peacock Angel,” who, according to their tradition, temporarily fell from God’s grace but was later redeemed. The mistaken association of the Melek Taus with Satan by other religions has led to the persecution of the Yazidis as “devil-worshipers,” the atrocities by the ISIL being among the worst in their history. They observe many ritual traditions, including an annual pilgrimage for seven days to the tomb of Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir in Lalish, north of Mosul in Iraq. As previously mentioned, the Yazidis also speak Kurmanji and have Kurdish cultural traditions. Yet, many prefer the designation “Yazidi” over “Kurd.” In some Western publications, they are occasionally referred to as the “Yazidi Kurds.”

Yazidis Fleeing Violence in Iraq (Reuters)

Yazidis fleeing violence in Iraq (Reuters)

Traditionally, Yazidis lived between northern Iraq, northeastern Syria, and southeastern Turkey. However, due to oppression and religious persecution, many have fled. In recent years, especially due to the Turkish-Kurdish conflict and the Iraq War, many emigrated to Europe, particularly to Germany and Sweden.

However, the first community of Yazidi immigrants emerged in the 19th century, when many fled to Tsarist Russia, escaping religious persecution in the Ottoman Empire. They fled over the border into the Russian Caucasus where they principally established themselves in Armenia and Georgia. Others fled further north to Russia proper. A second wave came in the early 20th century when they were targeted alongside Armenians during the Armenian Genocide in the Ottoman Empire.

Avant-garde poster for the NEP-era Soviet Armenian film Zare (1927) about the Yazidi Kurds.

Avant-garde poster for the NEP-era Soviet Armenian film Zare (1927) about the Yazidis.  Watch the full film restored on YouTube here from EzidiTV.ru in association with ArmenFilm.

In Armenia, the Yazidis form the country’s largest ethnic minority (about 1% of the population) in an otherwise homogeneous country (98% Armenian). Most are largely concentrated in the provinces (marzer) of Aragatsotn, Armavir, and Ararat. They generally tend to be well-integrated into Armenian society. They have a history of good relations with the Armenians. The 19th century Armenian writer Khachatur Abovyan was a great friend of the Yazidis.  Some Yazidis even fought alongside the Armenians during the Turkish invasion of Armenia in 1918 and again in the war over the disputed region of Nagorny Karabakh in the 1990s. The Yazidis also have a place in Armenian cinema.  During the NEP era, in 1927, the acclaimed Soviet Armenian filmmaker Amo Bek-Nazaryan directed the film Zare about the Yazidis of Armenia.  In 2003, the Kurdish filmmaker, Hiner Saleem directed yet another film, Vodka Lemon, depicting Yazidi life in post-Soviet Armenia.

Further north, in Georgia, the Yazidis are primarily concentrated around the Georgian capital Tbilisi, where they enjoy good relations with the Georgians and the city’s other ethnic groups. However, since the Soviet collapse, many Yazidis from Armenia and Georgia have emigrated due to poor economic and employment opportunities. Most of them fled to Russia which had already developed a sizeable Yazidi community. The largest concentration of Yazidis in Russia is in the Krasnodar Krai in the North Caucasus. There are also significant communities in Nizhny Novgorod, Yaroslavl, Stavropol, Novosibirsk, Tambov, Rostov, and Moscow.

Yazidi demonstration in Tbilisi against ISIL's atrocities against the Yazidis in Iraq. (Georgian Union of Kurdish Youth)

Yazidi demonstration in Tbilisi against ISIL’s atrocities against the Yazidis in Iraq. (Georgian Union of Kurdish Youth)

The most recent persecution of Yazidis in Iraq by ISIL has catalyzed their compatriots in the former Soviet space into action. As early as May, Yazidis in Armenia have been protesting ISIL’s actions in front of the UN building in Yerevan.  In July, in Tbilisi, the Yazidis there banded together with representatives of various Christian churches in Georgia along with Georgian MPs, human rights activists, and lawyers to protest against ISIL’s attacks on Yazidis and Christians also in front of the UN building. Even larger rallies have since been staged in both Yerevan and Tbilisi.

On 15 August, official Yerevan announced that it was “deeply concerned by the violence against the Iraqi Yazidis perpetrated by extremists” and that Armenia shares “the indignation of Yazidis living in Armenia concerning the ongoing tragic events.” Earlier on 13 August, the Armenian government announced that it would send $50,000 of humanitarian assistance to help Yazidis who have been displaced by ISIL. Meanwhile, Georgia has accepted Yazidi refugees fleeing from Iraq. On 8 August, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement condemning the treatment of the Yazidis. The Yazidis in Russia also called on President Vladimir Putin to lend Russian assistance to their Iraqi compatriots.

As the plight of the Yazidis in Iraq continues, the aid from the former Soviet space will likely continue to expand. The post-Soviet Yazidis will do their best to ensure this.

UPDATE (19 August 2014): Armenian President Serj Sargsyan has voiced his concern about the Yazidis of Iraq and has called ISIL’s actions “absolutely unacceptable.” In addition, the self-proclaimed Nagorny Karabakh Republic has pledged to accept Yazidi refugees fleeing from Iraq. In Stepanakert, Davit Babayan, a spokesman for the President of Karabakh, stated that “the Armenian people cannot remain indifferent to what is happening to the Yazidi people now.”

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