Eyewitness of the Century
by Betty Blair
It used to puzzle me how Azerbaijanis could know so little about the most prominent landmark in Baku - Maiden Tower (Giz Galasi). Even historians cannot pinpoint with absolute certainty the original date of its construction, or tell if it was an integral part of a larger defense system or some religious belief or cosmological system.
An abundance of legends attempt to explain its name - "Maiden" - in terms of virginity, despite the fact that the term probably implies that the stronghold was never conquered by the enemy.
One story describes a young girl who leapt from the tower's heights into the sea after running out of ways to fend off her father's advances. But Azerbaijan's folklorists claim such a myth was contrived during the Soviet period to target khans, landowners and other "exploiters" of the masses - ideological enemies of socialism.
But when one considers how much has been lost or not ever known about events that have occurred this century or even this past decade, it's quite amazing that anything at all is known about such ancient monuments.
Statue to Richard Zorge, a celebrated spy of the Soviet Union during World War II. Zorge was born in Baku. Much of this century has been marked by "watchful eyes" that have too often rendered Azerbaijanis mute to the historical processes of this century. Photo: Pirouz Khanlou, August 1999 (See front cover).
So many details about the historical events that took place this century have been lost. So many valuable things are unknown, so many mysteries are still locked in Moscow's KGB archives and so much truth has never been documented, especially as it relates to the role that the Soviet intelligence service played in the tragic events of Stepanakert (1988), Sumgayit (1989), Baku's Black January (1990) and the ease with which Shusha was captured (1992). For Azerbaijan, the nation's problem of losing its historical memory is so pervasive that the 20th century could well be dubbed "The Century of Amnesia".
In this issue, the third this year in our "Century Series", we've turned to personal eyewitness accounts to describe some of the determining events that have shaped this century. Oral history these days is being taken seriously for its significant contributions to the historical record. After all, there are many perspectives that comprise history, not just the ones created and recorded by leaders.
Of course, in any nation over the course of time, it's only natural that many memories about the events that shaped history will be lost due to death and dementia. But there are certain factors contributing to the loss of memory that are specific to Azerbaijan and the Soviet Union.
For example, it's hard to imagine another country in the entire world that has changed its alphabet as many times as Azerbaijan has during this century. In fact, four major shifts have taken place in the short span of less than 65 years (1926-1991). The 1,300-year usage of the Arabic script was replaced by Latin (1926), then Cyrillic (1939) and then Latin again (1991).
With every alphabet change, even when the change can be justified politically (as each of these changes has been), there has been a tremendous loss of information and knowledge, which has resulted in a disjuncture between generations. Essentially, alphabet changes result in the loss of communal and cultural memory. Individuals on society's periphery - the aged and the youth, grandparents and grandchildren - suffer the most. The older generation is denied access to newer ideas and information, while the younger generation is cut off from the tremendous wealth of knowledge that has been accumulated by their predecessors. Such a loss of memory is tragic and often never recoverable.
Another major cause of amnesia this century was that governments were replaced by antithetical political systems. The capitalist system during the Oil Boom period (1885-1920) gave way when progressive leaders tried to democratize the system, creating the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (1918-1920).
Then the Bolsheviks imposed a socialist system (1920-1991). Finally, when the Soviet Union collapsed, Azerbaijan attempted to establish a government based upon the principles of market economy.
Since each political system has reversed the previous system, Azerbaijanis have had to become uniquely adept at being "politically correct". The consequences of not being able to read the signs of the times were severe.
From 1924 until Stalin died in 1953, his policies helped to castrate Azerbaijan's historical memory. So many political activists and members of the intelligentsia were either executed or sent into exile during this period. In Azerbaijan alone, tens of thousands of people were arrested to provide cheap labor for the development of Siberia and other Central Asian territories. In the Soviet Union, the figure ran into the millions.
Such deliberate policies were extremely effective in breaking generational ties and instilling tremendous fear, causing parents to be afraid to even trust their own children.
The writer Anar in his chilling story, "Morning of That Night" (see AI 7.1, Spring 1999), provides a poignant example. Two parents fear for their own arrest simply because their daughter, in the privacy of their home, sang her doll to sleep with a lullaby composed by a neighbor who had been arrested a few weeks earlier.
In reality, the significance of Stalin's repression is that by killing tens of thousands of people, the memory links between generations were broken. Already by the 1950s, young people had almost no idea that there had been giants among their own people who had lost their lives to oppose the socialist system. The older generations who knew the truth were petrified to talk about it, even in the privacy of their homes.
Another major contributor to the enormous loss of memory this century has been the shift to embrace the Russian language in everyday discourse. Naturally, during the Soviet period, the staircase to success was through the Russian language. In the public schools, the "Russian Track" was, and still continues to be, the superior educational system. Such a policy has deprived Azerbaijanis of the opportunity to learn about their own writers and other great thinkers. Azerbaijani youth studied Pushkin, but not Nizami, Tchaikovsky, but not Hajibeyov. Such policies resulted in an incredible lapse of cultural memory.
In Azerbaijan today, Russian still dominates in Baku. Russians living there don't know the country's official state language, Azeri, and many Azerbaijanis are more fluent in Russian than in their own mother tongue.
The forced migrations of millions of Azerbaijanis has also contributed to the loss of memory. The first exodus occurred when the Bolsheviks took control of the government (1920). Azerbaijan's most brilliant entrepreneurs fled en masse. Those who stayed behind rarely lived to tell the story. Today, the ornate residences in the center of Baku bear witness to their previous owners, but only the monograms remain. In many cases their names are unknown.
Those who led the fledgling government of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (1918-1920) faced the same fate. Many fled; most of those who remained were killed.
Another forced migration of several hundred thousand Azerbaijanis occurred in the mid-1920s, when Stalin gave the Zangazur region of Azerbaijan to Armenia. This narrow strip - barely 46 kilometers wide - now separates Azerbaijan from the Azerbaijani region of Nakhchivan, effectively cutting off any possible alliance between Turkic-speaking Baku and Turkey.
Then in the 1930s, another mass exodus was carried out, when tens of thousands of Azerbaijanis from Iran were forced to return home under Stalin's injunction. They had originally come to Baku during the Oil Boom seeking economic opportunities.
Then there was 1937 - known as one of the most notorious years in Soviet history - when Stalin arrested tens of thousands of Azerbaijanis. Some were executed; many were exiled. Some managed to survive until Stalin's death in 1953 and eventually found their way back home.
Another mass migration organized by the Soviet government occurred between 1948 and 1950, when several hundred thousand Azerbaijanis were deported en masse from Armenia, despite the fact that Azerbaijanis had been living there for thousands of years. Although most mass deportations during Stalin's regime took place on the eve of World War II, curiously this exile was organized during peacetime when the victory of war was being celebrated.
Of course, the Azerbaijan-Armenian conflict has contributed to one of the greatest exiles in this century. Since 1988, nearly 1 million Azerbaijanis have had to flee their homes-both from Armenia and from the Azerbaijani territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and the seven surrounding regions that Armenians have occupied militarily beginning in 1992.
In addition to exiles of ethnic nature, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, severe economic conditions have forced many to seek employment in Russia, Israel, Turkey, Europe and the U.S. All of these exiles have resulted in an immense loss of memory, effectively breaking the links between generations, culture, language, circles of influence and world view.
In this issue, we've tried to provide a general overview of many of the determining events that have shaped this century. Of course, such material could fill an encyclopedia. We hope in future issues to fill in some of the gaps that, out of necessity, have been left out this time.
Our wish for the next century and for the next millenium is that Azerbaijan will never again experience such a collective loss of memory. Hopefully, systems will not need to be reversed - whether political, economic, educational or cultural. May there never again in the history of this nation be so many factors that contribute to the loss of national memory.
From Azerbaijan International (7.3) Autumn 1999.
© Azerbaijan International 1998. All rights reserved.
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