Spring 1999 (7.1)
Editorial: Century of Reversals
A Literary Perspective
by Betty Blair, Editor
When I was a kid growing up in Tennessee, one of my earliest childhood memories was the bomb drills we had at school. The siren would go off, and we would scramble under our desks and wait, scarcely daring to breathe, until we heard the "all-clear" signal. Then we would crawl back into our seats and the teacher would try to resume the lesson. It was just a practice drill. No planes buzzed overhead, but our young minds were so impressionable and they became fixated on what would happen if we really were bombed.
For us kids, the whole universe revolved around that sleepy little town nestled in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. Little did we know that in the grand scheme of things our town would never have made anybody's list of strategic places to target.
But Teacher said the Russians might bomb us. Me - I didn't have the foggiest notion who the Russians were nor what a "cold war" was. In Tennessee, the only cold we knew came during the winter months when snow would accumulate on ground. When we were lucky, it was deep enough to close the schools for a day. And we used to jump up and down in anticipation.
Photo: Dismantling the Kirov Statue in Baku, 1992
Teacher said that the Russians lived in the "Soviet Union," but everybody I knew just talked about "Russia," and called the people living there, "Russians". We didn't know there were other "republics" or nationalities on that vast country that nearly stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Nor did the Russians, as I would learn much later, do much to dispel such myths.
Not long afterwards, a round, short, old bald-headed man gave a speech at the United Nations. It was an unforgettable, shoe-thumping speech to which his name - Khrushchev - became forever linked in our minds. "We will bury your grandchildren," he threatened. That was pretty scary stuff. We kids didn't have the slightest idea that back in his own country, this guy was considered mild in comparison to their previous leader Stalin who had killed millions of their own people. Who knows how many grandchildren never saw the light of day.
After Khrushchev's speech, my next-door neighbor Gerty and her husband Burl started digging a bomb shelter in their back yard. All the rest of us in the neighborhood wondered whether we should do the same. I had seen several architectural designs in a number of magazines. They were quite simple - a single room about ten feet square, made of concrete blocks. It turns out that Gerty and Burl soon let their bomb shelter double as a cellar and lined the walls with shelves for those quart jars of home-grown tomatoes that Gerty canned each summer.
Little did I know that when I grew up, the barriers to that mysterious land behind the "Iron Curtain" would come tumbling down and we would learn that our childhood fears were nothing in comparison to what the Soviets experienced.
This year as the world begins its countdown to the new century and the new millennium, our magazine will be publishing "The Century Series" to explore Azerbaijan's 20th Century from various perspectives: Literature (Spring), Art (Summer), Eye-witness Accounts (Autumn) & Giants (Winter).
Our first issue - "Century of Reversals: A Literary Perspective" identifies the works of some of the most illustrative writers who did their best to capture the feelings that Azerbaijanis lived through during these past 100 years. Politics, of course, shaped everything for them this century. Up until 1918, Azerbaijan was ruled by the Russian Czar. Then for a very brief period (1918-1920), Azerbaijanis caught a whiff of what independence was like with the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan. Then the Bolsheviks set up the Soviet system of government, which finally collapsed on itself in 1991. Now, once again, Azerbaijan is beginning to travel down the path of independence and democracy.
Politics also determined economic policy in terms of whether the government encouraged personal entrepreneurial initiative or squelched it. Politics has shaped language policy. Some people believe that had the Soviet policy continued for another generation in Baku, the use of Azerbaijani as a mother tongue would have almost been wiped out. Ironically, these days the Russian language is on the wane as youth scramble to learn English.
Even the alphabet became victim to political manipulation. Four times this century, the script has been changed: from Arabic (until 1927), to Latin (1927-1937), to Cyrillic (1937-1991) and again back to Latin (since 1991). Politics has also profoundly affected policies toward religion. Today Azerbaijan, a traditional Muslim country, prides itself on its secular approach and its tolerance of other religions. The list of reversals could go on and on.
In this issue, you'll catch a glimpse of the problems that concerned Azerbaijanis this century. In many cases, this is the first time these works have been made available in English.
You'll discover what Azerbaijanis experienced during this century through the symbolism found in their stories and poems. You'll see how much energy was spent learning the rules of life just to survive. Azerbaijanis knew real fear and oppression. They knew the irreversible consequences of a single misplaced remark or a slight miscalculation or misjudgment of character. Bakhtiyar Vahabzade speaks of such horror in his poem, "Two Fears" (65) when even close friends were afraid to carry on a candid conversation together.
Azerbaijani writers learned to speak freely about what was on their minds by projecting ideas onto other objects, other people, other historical periods and other geographical locations. For example, Vahabzade once wrote a poem attacking the U.S. government for its treatment of the American chemist Linus Pauling, a victim of the McCarthy-era "witch-hunts" but he really wanted his readers to think about the Soviets' treatment of their own scientist and political activist Andrei Sakharov. Examples are endless - language issues, repression,
The most poignant description of fear in this collection is Anar's "Morning of that Night" (38). The story's scenario is a superb script for a suspense movie. The story line, however, is not a figment of someone's imagination but rather is based on the fear people felt during Stalin's repression of 1937. Approximately 5 million people were arrested during that period, the majority of which were sent into exile where they died. Anar describes the paralyzing panic that grips people who believe they have been targeted. Outside an apartment complex, a "black raven" pulls up and parks during the wee hours of the morning.
Everyone strains to hear where the sound of those dreadful footsteps are headed. One by one, Anar reveals the thoughts of all the characters as they lie in bed, reviewing their lives, trying to determine why they might have come under investigation. Was it a friend or a neighbor who had betrayed them? Could it be one's own child innocently singing a melody written by a composer who had been arrested a few weeks earlier?
You'll discover the bleakness and loneliness of life by those who feel totally helpless. One of the most fully developed characters is Uncle Sabzali in Yusif Samadoglu's "Bayati Shiraz" (58). Uncle Sabzali is a rather pathetic, sickly old fellow who has been playing the double base in an orchestra for 23 years. Only when he responds to the absurd request to play one of the traditional mughams - an impossibility on his instrument - does he begin to feel empowered.
We intentionally have not included any Soviet propaganda pieces in this collection though there were many. Instead, we tried to find works that would provide genuine insight into the century.
From these pages, we hope you'll discover the rich treasury of Azerbaijani literature. Of course, this collection is merely an introduction. There's much more to explore - though very little of it exists in English translation yet. We hope our efforts help stimulate more translations.
So read, enjoy and discover the century through the eyes of those who knew best how to reveal Truth through the art of words. And yes, by all means, do read between the lines - that's exactly what these writers had in mind.
From Azerbaijan International (7.1) Spring 1999.
© Azerbaijan International 1999. All rights reserved.