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Hikmet Hadjy-zadeh
Vice President, FAR CENTRE
Baku, 28.09.1998


To be precise, the process of self-identification: the determination of a new identity in altered conditions of surroundings, searching for a new National Idea - is in fact continuous process following changes that constantly happens with all nations and in all the times.

The process is perpetual: just after constantly changing conditions of environment a nation begins to shape a new identity  - searches for an answer to eternal questions on "who are we now" and "how to live further"?  This process is particularly intensive for the nations, which like Azerbaijan, are at the turning point of their history  - in Transition...


Present Transitional period is obviously not the first one for Azerbaijan. One can imagine the change of Azeri identity when from the time of the Great Folks Transmigration (4-7th C.) the country had been started to be occupied by Turks, language and culture of which had become dominant in Azerbaijan to the 11-12-th Centuries; or when Zoroastrianism  in the South of the country and Christianity on the North was replaced by Islam (8-9-th C.); or when Shia  branch of Islam  was declared as a State Religion (16-th C.); or when the North part of Azerbaijan fell under the power of Russian Empire (beginning of the 19-th C.) and European Enlightenment, capitalism, ideas of liberalism, social-democracy and the Nation State began to penetrate the country.

What was the Azerbaijani national mentality at the beginning of the 20-th Century? It's backbone was formed under the dominant influence of the medieval Turkic military-feudal code of honor, information on which is available in medieval Turkic epoth  "The Book of My Grandparent Korkut (11-th C..) or "Keroglu" (16-th C.). According to the code: Winner takes all; Valor over profit; Defeat is worse than death; Request of help is disgracing; impulses of the soul, to any direction, found an understanding; Thrift is stinginess and prudence is cowardice.  It is important, that serfdom, which as a rule has considerable impact on the national mentality, had never existed in Azerbaijan.

Another significant influence shaping the Azeri Turks was of course Islam, having covered for a period of 1000 years, much of social life and consciousness. "I am a Muslim" - in that way as far back as in 1890 an Azerbaijani peasant identified himself to a journalist of the local newspaper "Keshkul".

The Shia branch of Islam with its idea of an unjust world, based upon the defeat of Shia leaders in the struggle for power (7-th C.) and of a messiah, who will lead a victorious revolution of good and justice, also imposed an observable imprint on Azerbaijani identity (94% of the country population identify themselves as Muslims; 70% of them as Shia, and 30% as a Sunni).

With the colonization of Azerbaijan by the Russian Empire (1801-1828) a powerful intellectual movement challenged the traditional Muslim society lead to the fundamental cultural and political change.

Rationalism, liberalism and humanism advocated by A.Bakikhanov, M.F.Akhund-zadeh, M.Topchibashev, H.Zardabi as the way to escape from the universal crisis of  the Muslim World by the late 19-th and early 20-th C. had a great impact on the intellectuals of the entire Middle East.

A big step on the way of changing of the identity was the doctrine of Turkic nationalism that disputed with dominating then Islamism. Formula for new identity  - "Turkism, Modernism, Islam", advanced by Ali bey Hussein-zadeh in the very beginning of the 20 C. was so popular that it was embodied in the three-colored banner of the independent Azerbaijani Republic (1918-1920), the first democratic State in the Muslim East, proclaimed after the collapse of Russian Empire. "Freedom to people, independence to nations" - under this slogan, raised by founders of the Republic, Azeries lived only for two years. It is difficult to say, what we would be like now if independence and democracy had existed for at least several decades, as was the case in the Baltic States...


However, in 1920, the Russians returned...  But they were another Russians - Bolsheviks, who were trying to spread their revolution and new lifestyle trough the World. Bolsheviks in Azerbaijan began with a campaign of erasing from the public consciousness everything that did not correspond to their purposes.

Side by side with the bloody Class Struggle on  the whole territory of the USSR  a Cultural Revolution was going on, which was tasked, in the short term, to separate the people from their cultural roots, to silence their ethnic memory and to form a new person - a Soviet one.

Latin alphabet that was accepted in Azerbaijan at 1928 replaced by the Russian Cyrillic. Any mention of the independent Azerbaijani Republic was forbidden and the majority of its founders migrated to Europe and Turkey or were repressed. The people were forced to change traditional last names to Russian style. Religion was forced underground. Half-literate youth were burning books, written in the Arabic alphabet and tearing off the women's veils on the street.

Aggressive atheism went parallel with an even more violent struggle with "Panturkizm". Any mention of the Turkic roots of the population was forbidden. In Passports, in the section of ethnic origin instead of "Turk" from 1935 was written "Azerbaijani". Azerbaijanis were declared "Persians assimilated by Turks".

Identity of Azerbaijan non-turkic Moslem population was damaged too. Many representatives of such ethnic minorities as Kurds, Lezgies and Talishs were also recorded as "Azerbaijanies" - to assimilate these small ethnic groups in "Titular nations" of the USSR Republics, and afterwards to assimilate these nations in a new identity - Soviet Nation.

However, it is also hard to deny the positive sides of "Sovietization" and "Cultural Revolution", expressed in the successful struggle against illiteracy, and covering of the whole population by modern medical care service, initial and higher education, well sponsored, as well as controlled by the government, culture and art. Women Rights in Soviet Azerbaijan, in contrast with traditional approach, were considerably improved.  The "main" communist poet of that time - Samed Vurgun - at the beginning of the 1930`s , in his poem "Greeting to the Chieftain" (Stalin) has described the change in the Azeri woman's image in this way: "...Greetings to you from turkic girls without a veil and (unnatural) cosmetics".

We can learn to what extent Azeri Turks were changed during the first 20 years of Soviet rule from the memoirs of the founder of independent Azerbaijani Republic Mamed Emin Rasul-zadeh, which for the first time, from a time of his emigration in 1920 encountered in Berlin Azeri people, who had as Soviet soldiers been captured by the German Army in the Second World War.

"...New generation", - wrote Rasul-zadeh, - "I may say, is completely literate (can read and write in native language). All of them have finished primary schools. Many of them have got secondary and higher education - physicians and teachers.

To my question, if there are today in Azerbaijan several hundreds of people with the higher education, which might be able to manage the Government, one of the prisoners answered: 'Oh, not hundreds, we have a thousand of such people...

Prisoners had an incomplete knowledge about the Soviet political system and completely no idea about religion. No one knew neither canons, nor the very basic religious rites. All churches and mosques were locked. It's possible, that in case of collapse of the Soviet regime religion will occupy its place in moral sphere and will control a spiritual life of the people.  However religion will never be able to manage the  public sphere and social life. This is result of the anti-religious propaganda, commenced by M.F.Akhund-zadeh and M.A.Sabir (great Azerbaijani poet and satirist, 19 C.) and continued by modern Azerbaijani intellectuals...

...Talking with these people, I found that all of them were properly aware of Azeri prose and poetry and cited cuttings from them in their speeches. In Berlin in 1943 they  began to publish the newspaper "Azerbaijan". Without any written sources in captivity, they published in the newspaper materials on the literature, quoting Azerbaijani authors by heart. New generation got a feeling of the national pride for their culture"...

Any way, but the Soviet system with the lack of feedback had collapsed and Homo Sovieticus by the end of the 1980`s was transformed into cynical and totally corrupted creature without any idea about "who we are now? and  how to live further"?

The impact of Communist rule on the self-consciousness of Azeries is still significant, however "Winds of Change" that began to blow from the end of 80-th over the Communist bloc has made us different, during a few years.


The double standards of Soviet reality caused a mass stress from the split of personality, longing to avoid of which became an operative power of change even in relatively successful society of  60-th and 70-th of former USSR. Even, Khrushchev's "thaw" revived nationalistic moods amongst intellectuals, which by the end of 1980`s was transformed into a mass movement for self-determination and self-identification. Forgotten slogans of "Tukizm, Modernism, Islamism" and "Freedom to people, independence to nations" once again, after 70 years, have possessed our minds. This all-nation movement was headed by Popular Front of Azerbaijan (PFA), which included all, without exclusion, groups of society in their aspiration to change. There was not yet doubts whether we should be an independent country and nobody did expect big problems with the democracy and free market. The only aim was to topple communists and establish a "Nation State", which was largely accepted as a State that corresponds to the identity of the ethnic majority of population.

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