Azerbaijan International

Spring 1998 (6.1)
Pages 44-47

The Sixties
A Roadmap to Independence

by Vagif Samadoglu

Paintings by Rasim Babayev

The Red General. The artist, Rasim Babayev, drew this fearsome general when his own son, Elnar, was in the military. His paintings of the Soviet period do not reflect the Socialist Realism that was required of artists.

Right: Rasim Babayev's work of the Soviet period is characterized by his rich use of color and his themes of inhumanity.

Rasim Babayev - Red General

Rasim Babayev - Divs

Although Azerbaijan did not become an independent nation again until 1991, Vagif Samadoglu writes that the seeds of this movement were planted in the Sixties. He believes that you can detect them in the patterns of art, literature and politics. The Sixties was a period that marked a formation of "New Tastes" and aesthetics, reflecting a growing independent spirit in Azerbaijan and other Soviet republics.

"The Sixties" - meaning the 1960s ­ is a term accepted throughout the Western world, including the post-Soviet and Eastern European countries, that refers to the renaissance of science, philosophy, literature and art. It was during the Sixties that the ideas of national independence and liberation in Azerbaijan were also unleashed. The "bridles were unharnessed," so to speak, in both art and literature. But how did these ideas start in the Soviet Union? Where did they originate? Actually, ideas were born during the period when Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971) first became the Soviet Union's Premier and First Secretary of the Communist Party during the period often referred to as the "Khrushchev Thaw."

Rasim Babayev - Divs Photo: Rasim Babayev's works reflect the terror of the Soviet system. Obviously, he was never able to exhibit many of his paintings.

Khrushchev Thaw
After the death of Stalin (1879-1953), Georgy Malenkov (1902-1988) was the Soviet leader for a short time, who was then followed by Khrushchev. The 20th Congress of the Communist Party was held in 1956. During this Congress, Khrushchev delivered a two-day speech behind closed doors, in which he criticized the "cult of personality" that had been constructed around the persona of Joseph Stalin. He denounced Stalinist repression and the Terror of 1937 which led to the imprisonment and death of millions of people throughout the Soviet Union, including Azerbaijan. His speech sent shock waves throughout the world. But it should be mentioned that Khrushchev himself was one of the direct agents of those Stalinist terrors, first as Head of the Executive Body of the City of Moscow, then as First Secretary of the Central Committee CP of the Ukraine. In fact, he was ruling the Ukraine when the Soviet leadership enforced a state of artificial starvation there. The Western Ukraine had refused to join the kolkhoz (collective farming) system. Furious Russian authorities responded by depriving the population of their property which, in turn, led to the starvation and death of 5 million people.

Khrushchev was the direct executor of those cruel events in 1933. In his report, he insisted that he had only been following Stalin's orders. But Khrushchev was not telling the whole truth. Khrushchev was driven by his desire to take revenge against Stalin.

Memoirs of Stalin mention how he often made fun of Khrushchev, forcing him to perform the Ukrainian dance, "Gopak," in front of others. Khrushchev was Ukrainian, and he was short and fat. The Gopak requires quick movements and a trim, fit body. When Khrushchev danced the Gopak he looked quite ridiculous. It's likely that Khrushchev was deeply resentful of Stalin for these insults and, hence, the urge to insist on de-Stalinization.

During Khrushchev's first two years in power, he extended a bit of freedom to the arts and to literature, though he did not eliminate censorship. Translations of Western literature were permitted. Before Khrushchev took office, the journal "Inostrannaya Literature" (Foreign Literature), published only the works of foreign writers who were members of the Communist Party. But after he came to power, the public was allowed to read American writers such as Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner and J. D. Salinger, and German writers such as Heinrich Boell. The fiction of French existentialists Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus became available, but not the philosophical works. He teased the masses with a little taste of freedom, despite the restrictions.

The entire world, including the United States, started to hope that a "softer Communism" would soon replace the severe isolation and authoritarianism of the "Iron Curtain." As for me, I didn't believe it would. My friends and I always observed that these gestures lacked sincerity and genuineness. We knew that all Communist leaders always manipulated events to enhance "the cult of personality." As events unfolded, we proved to be right.

A New Cult of Personality
In the second year that Khrushchev was in power, there was a film entitled "Our Nikita Sergeyevich." It showed once again that totalitarian regimes could only be supported by a "cult of personality." It seems that dictators and heads of military regimes all realize this sooner or later. Khrushchev soon began to understand that he wouldn't be able to rule a totalitarian country if he allowed it to be free. For example, in the 1960s, there was a Moscow exhibition of artists that featured abstract art. After Khrushchev visited the show, it was promptly dismantled. Later, an exhibition of illegal (meaning, not officially recognized) artists at the Sokolniki Park in Moscow was smashed by bulldozers.

Poets often got together to read and recite their poems in front of Vladimir Mayakovski's monument in Moscow. [Mayakovski (1893-1930) was a famous Soviet poet.] Of course, it didn't take long before the Soviet power forbade these gatherings, too. And so the "cult of personality" continued throughout the Brezhnev era and into Gorbachev's rule, though it took on a different form.

Despite the fact that the "Khrushchev Thaw" only lasted for a short period of time, a great resonance was felt throughout Eastern European countries. In some countries, the movement of democratization grew so much that leaders of those countries couldn't contain the momentum. This movement developed in various directions, demanding freedom of speech, human rights and national liberty. Crimean Tatars were among the first to start a national liberty movement. [The Tatars are a group of people living in Russia who speak a Turkic language.] Similar movements also developed in Georgia and Azerbaijan.

Left: Vagif Mustafazade, jazz mugam pianist.
Center: Samad Vurgun, beloved poet.
Right: Gara Garayev, composer of orchestral music.

 Vagif Mustafazade  Samad Vurghun

 Gara Garayev (Karayev)

Sparrow Society
One political organization in Azerbaijan was called the Sparrow Society (1966-1968). It consisted of young people, aged 18-23. The sparrow is a symbol of spring and is associated with freshness, vitality and newness. The group developed ideas for a new Azerbaijan government. Their goal was to separate Azerbaijan from the Soviet Union, build an independent state and claim power for themselves. They even went so far as to elect their own Cabinet of Ministers.

Members of similar societies in other Republics were arrested by the KGB and severely punished. Let me point out that in Azerbaijan, no one was arrested. At that time, the KGB in Azerbaijan was headed by Heydar Aliyev, now President of Azerbaijan. The Sparrow Society members were called to the KGB offices. Each of them was reprimanded, but no one was arrested.

In all honesty, I must say that Aliyev's policy was very far-sighted, much more so than those of the other leaders in the Former Soviet Republics. If the Sparrow Society's members had been severely punished, they would have turned into serious dissidents. Instead, their actions were treated like a child's naughtiness. Naturally, the Sparrow Society collapsed. Many of them were my friends. Today we look back on those days with a feeling of pride, tinged with a sense of humor at our naiveté.

I, too, could have become a serious dissident. At one official party, I raised a toast to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a writer who was "persona non grata" in the Soviet regime. I'm sure that top circles were later informed about my toast. But I didn't suffer for it. In other Republics, I could have been arrested for such a provocative act.

Tanks in Prague
The events in Czechoslovakia in 1968 gave great impetus to the dissident movement in other regions. Before the Soviet tanks entered Prague and oppressed the national liberty movement, many of us had believed and hoped that the ice would break and that someday democracy would prevail.

A few days before the Russian tanks entered Czechoslovakia, a Russian news program showed the Writers' Congress in Czechoslovakia. One writer, Yan Prokhazski, took the floor and uttered the simple phrase: "There is no censorship!" Then he started to cry. The entire audience stood up and raised their national flags.

The Russian news program severely criticized these events and used them as an excuse to attack the country. A few days later, Soviet tanks descended on Prague and strangled the liberation movement. The USSR had a habit of destroying resistance with tanks. Remember: Berlin (1951), Hungary (1956), Czechoslovakia (1968), Afghanistan (1979) and, most recently, Azerbaijan (1990).

World-Famous Dissidents
In the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, there was no such thing as a republic or state without dissidents. In Moscow, the dissident movement concentrated on human rights; while in other Republics, the emphasis was on national liberation movements to separate from Russia's control. Famous dissidents in the USSR during the Sixties included men like Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov.

Solzhenitsyn (born in 1918), winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, wrote a series of works criticizing the Stalinist Repression. His novel "The Gulag Archipelago" is considered to be an encyclopedia of persecution. Published during Krushchev's rule, these were memoirs written about his own experiences which he used to criticize the Soviet repression camps. Khrushchev gave the green light to the novel, "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," thinking it exposed Stalin. What he didn't realize was that the story was, in fact, challenging the entire Soviet system. The novel exploded like a bombshell.

Solzhenitsyn published another similar story and was soon forbidden to publish his works inside the USSR. Nevertheless, he managed to get them printed in Europe. In fact, it could be said that it was the Nobel Prize that protected Solzhenitsyn from being sent to prison or another repression camp. In 1974 he was exiled from Russia, and moved to Switzerland, and later to the U.S. In 1994 he returned to Russia.

Andrei Dmitriyevich Sakharov (1921-1989) was another world-famous giant of the 1960s. His name is usually associated with the invention of the hydrogen bomb, but he led the dissident movement in Russia, which began in the Sixties. At first, his protests centered around the use of the hydrogen bomb, but then spread to the areas of human rights and freedom of speech. He was the spiritual, non-official leader of the dissident movement in the USSR and was well-respected by the Soviet intelligentsia. Because of his dissent, he was not allowed to leave Moscow and was kept under house arrest.

In my opinion, however, Sakharov misjudged the Karabakh situation entirely. He seems to have been very much influenced by his wife, an Armenian, and his position was clearly anti-Azerbaijani.

It's very curious to look back and discover that the liberation movements of the former Soviet Republics were all headed by representatives of the Sixties; for example, in Azerbaijan (Elchibey), in Georgia (Gamsakhurdiya), in Armenia (Ter-Petrossian), and in Lithuania (Brazauskas). Today's President of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel, was also a dissident writer in the Sixties. He, too, languished in jail many years as a political prisoner.

Foreign Translations
Another interesting development that took place in the USSR in the Sixties related to the phenomenon of translation, which played an enormous role in the formation of "New Taste." Translators used their skills very cleverly to introduce Sigmund Freud, Karl Jaspers, Sartre, Camus and other thinkers and writers whose works were forbidden.

In brochures with titles like "Eclipse of the Mind," they criticized the works of these writers. They said, "Look what kind of nonsense Freud is saying," or "Look what Camus says. How ridiculous!" Then they would use the next two or three pages to print pages from the original works they had translated into Russian. They repeated this process several times in a single brochure. (It should be noted that at least 90 percent of these translators were Jews.)

It was through these publications, passed from hand to hand, that I learned about existentialism. This was a period of time when the philosophy of existentialism was spreading throughout the world. I'm certain this approach served to raise our consciousness.

Sixties Poetry
The New Taste also showed itself in the poetry of Azerbaijan. At that time, the audience was used to traditional forms - rhymes and rhythms - but poets such as Gabil started to deviate from traditional rhetorical poetry. For example, "The tram going to the tram park," a line from Gabil's 1957 poem, caused a sensation at the time.

Two opposing camps of poets began distinguishing themselves during this period - the traditionalists and those who experimented and wrote free verse without rhyme. Often there was no meter and the number of syllables didn't parallel other lines.

The traditional poets said that we, the representatives of free verse, were not even poets, and that such works were anything but poetry. We replied by saying that the traditional poets were not poets but were "ashugs" (wandering minstrels).

Rasul Reza was the brightest star of free verse. His poems contributed considerably to the formation of the New Taste and helped to break down barriers in poetry.

Let me say that there was a tendency for those of the Sixties to reject everything and everyone that had preceded them. But how can you reject such great poets as Nizami, Fuzuli, Vagif and Samad Vurgun?

But during this period, poetry was affected in various ways - in form as well as content. Consider, for example, my father Samad Vurgun's (1906-1956) poetry when he wrote, "Poet, how early you have become old." The idea hinted of pessimism - a forbidden topic.

Another of his famous poems, "I'm Not in a Hurry," contradicted the Communistic ideology which insisted that everybody "was hastening forward to Communism with great, long strides." Vurgun wrote these poems in the late 1940s [See "Samad Vurgun, Father & Poet: 90th Jubilee," AI 4.1, Spring 1996].

Another example of the New Taste is a line from a poem [1958] written by Fikrat Goja: "The Caspian is an ordinary sea with saltwater." This straightforward imagery sent out shock waves because, in most poems, everything was praised with metaphors and flowery phrases. The Caspian, as well as other famous seas, lakes and mountains was "great," and everyone was always "happy." It created quite a sensation to reduce this body of water to the mundane and suggest that the Caspian was nothing but ordinary saltwater.

Sixties Prose
How were the Sixties reflected in prose? First of all, the writers simplified the language of Azeri prose. They used shorter sentences. When Azeri is written, the verb comes at the end of the sentence. The writers brought the verb closer to the subject, making the sentences easier to comprehend, and making them resemble the spoken language more closely. Our writers, of course, were criticized for this pattern, even though Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) had made a similar case years earlier.

In the literature of the Sixties, the "Theater of the Absurd" flourished. This school insists that everything in life is absurd. Arthur Miller wrote some such works. So did Eugene Ionesco (1909-1994), who became one of the best-known purveyors of absurd literature. In "Rhinoceros" (1959), his most popular play, the protagonist holds on to his humanity in a world where humans are changing into beasts. The Sixties were a time when absurdity and surrealism pushed the frontiers of the imagination. Azerbaijani writers were also subject to this trend, despite the fact that the Soviet regime always insisted on socialist realism.

Sixties Music
How did the Sixties Generation manifest the spirit of independence in music? One significant innovation came from Azerbaijani composer Gara Garayev, who wrote dodecaphonic music based on a 12-tone scale. This somewhat cacophonous system had been created by the Austrian-born composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) at the beginning of the 20th century. Garayev's "Third Symphony" was written in this manner. He was nominated for the Lenin Prize for this Symphony in 1962, though it was his more traditional work that Soviet authorities recognized such as his ballets
"Path of Thunder" and "Seven Beauties."

His approach was criticized as "something imported from the bourgeois world." Officially, it was prohibited by the Soviet regime. But Garayev was intrinsically linked to this modernist school of music, and even students from the Moscow Conservatory came to Azerbaijan specifically to study with him.

Mugam performers gave new interpretations to their music during the Sixties. For example, Ramish became very famous for being the first musician to perform mugams on the electric guitar. This was revolutionary at the time. The Sixties also gave birth to the mugam jazz of Vagif Mustafazade.

This was also the time when the saz, a traditional stringed instrument, was first used in solos. Prior to this, saz melodies were performed by "ashugs" at big parties. For the performance of epics, the ashugs would sing and accompany themselves on saz. Ashig Adalat, a famous musician, started playing solo saz in the Sixties.

Vladimir Vysotsky was the most famous poet-singer to criticize the darker aspects of society in his songs. He not only played the guitar, but wrote the lyrics and melodies for his tunes.

"Dada Gorgud" and Gobustan
Another trend of the Sixties was an attempt to trace one's roots and history. This trend was evident throughout the world, as in the examples of country music in America and of the Beatles in England, whose songs were based on Irish and Scottish folk music. In Azerbaijan, this was a time of increased interest in national treasures such as the literary epic of "Dada Gorgud," and the ancient cave drawings located at Gobustan. We wanted to make Azerbaijan known to the world. We wanted to demonstrate that we had a valuable cultural heritage.

The Gobustan cave dwellings were inhabited at least 5,000 years ago. Located about 30 minutes west of Baku, the cave features drawings of animals, people, dancers and reed boats. In the Sixties, rock drawings in Sakhara and Nepal were made known to the whole world through UNESCO [United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization]. Azerbaijan became sensitive that the outside world had no clue about our own pre-historic drawings at Gobustan.

I'm very proud that my father, Samad Vurgun, did his best to protect Gobustan while he was a Vice President at the Academy of Science. These boulders were in danger of being used for construction materials. Due to his initiative, Gobustan was designated as a protected area.

"Dada Gorgud," a Turkic literary epic, chronicles the heroic deeds of the Oghuz Turks. Though transmitted via oral tradition for centuries, it was finally written down in the 15th century. Its motifs are closely related to Homer's 8th century "Odyssey," and scholars often compare the events and characters of these two epics. [See "Dada Gorgud: Passionate Tales of the Middle Ages" AI 4.3, Autumn 1996].

Stalin forbade the study of "Dada Gorgud;" he didn't want Azeris to become aware of their common heritage with other Turkish peoples. He feared a movement of Turkish reunification and forbade everything with a nationalistic theme. After Stalin's death, when it was no longer prohibited, research on the "Book of Dada Gorgud" started in Azerbaijan in the late 1950s.

Vagif SamadoghluA Map for Freedom
It seemed as if the eyes of the world gained new light in the Sixties. It was as if people wanted to see more and wanted to share these new approaches and perspectives with others. There was no area in human thinking that remained untouched - from religion to jazz, to philosophy and style. At that time, some of the most progressive poets, composers and artists of the USSR lived in Azerbaijan.

Photo: Vagif Samadoglu

The Azerbaijani people couldn't help but be influenced by these revolutionary ideas about independence and freedom. These intellectuals provided some of the milestones by which the Soviet and Eastern European states eventually gained their independence. In retrospect, it's worthwhile to ask ourselves where we might be today without the fusion of East and West in the mugam jazz of pianist Vagif Mustafazade, or the dissonant symphonies of composer Gara Garayev or the penetrating words and thoughts of poet Rasul Reza?

Jala Garibova was also deeply involved in the preparation of this essay.

From Azerbaijan International (6.1) Spring 1998.
© Azerbaijan International 1998. All rights reserved.

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