Azerbaijan International

Winter 1999 (7.4)


Azerbaijan's President, Heydar Aliyev
Looking Back on the Century - Personally and Professionally
by Betty Blair

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During the Soviet period, we kids used to go to what was called "The Pioneers' House" where we could explore various activities. I was very active there. I started playing chess and attending music classes. My father was poor and couldn't afford to buy me a tar [traditional stringed instrument], so I went and practiced at the Pioneers' House.

But my greatest interest was in theater. Despite the fact that Nakhchivan [pronounced nakh-chi-VAHN], where I grew up, was a small, provincial Muslim town, there was a very high level of culture there. Our theater tradition dates back more than 100 years. Can you imagine that there was a theater tradition there so long ago? That's quite an accomplishment given that Tabriz, for example, a large Iranian city populated primarily by Azerbaijanis and about three hours south of Nakhchivan, still to this day doesn't have a theater. Yet Nakhchivan does. In other words, although there were only a few people that you could call intellectuals, they had created a theater. When I was 12 and 13, I used to go there a lot. Sometimes I didn't have money, but since I was a kid they would let me in without a ticket. It was a great event for me. Such occasions are among my dearest memories of childhood.

The theater had a profound impact on me. It wasn't long before I started getting involved with theater myself at the Pioneers' House. The leader of our club was one of the leading actors at the Nakhchivan theater.

After awhile, I was assigned some of the key roles. For example, Mirza Fatali Akhundzade, the founder of theater in Azerbaijan, wrote the country's first dramatic work. He has a play called "The Adventures of the Lankaran Khan's Vizier". I read somewhere in the newspapers recently that this work was being staged again, but I ended up playing the key role when we staged it. Of course, we couldn't perform the entire piece - only two or three acts. I was 14 or 15 years old at the time. Later we staged Hamlet in two parts. I played Hamlet.

In Azeri, of course?

Yes, it had been translated into Azeri. I don't speak English. No one knew English in Nakhchivan at that time. I also pursued drawing and could draw quite well. My sketches used to take first place in competitions at our high school. Perhaps there was some sort of talent in our family, because my older brother became an artist. While I was studying in high school, he was off in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) at the Art Institute. When he would come home on vacations, he would draw scenes from nature. I would hang around with him and so I started to draw as well. I discovered that I could do it quite well. So by the time I graduated from high school, I thought that I wanted to become an artist. But at that time, Azerbaijan didn't have an Art Institute, so there was no way for me to get further training and experience. At the age of 16, I left Nakhchivan for Baku.

Was that unusual to do at the time?

Of course. First of all, because the distance was so great. You had to take a train for three days because there wasn't a train running directly between Nakhchivan and Baku. You had to go to Yerevan and then Tbilisi and then change trains for Baku. I've slept in railroad stations on many occasions. I used to have a small suitcase that I would put under my head so I could sleep on the floor in those stations.

Who would believe these stories?

Yes, it's the truth. Then I came to Baku and studied architecture at the university.

Did you come alone to Baku? Did your family accompany you?

Absolutely on my own. I would return to Nakhchivan during the holidays. I was always on my own.

Why did you leave Nakhchivan for Baku?

Because Nakhchivan didn't have a university and I wanted to get more education. My brother was living in Baku at the time. He became a scientist and used to work at the Academy of Sciences. I was interested in architecture and loved it very much. I had planned to study to be an architect.

I should mention one other thing. In Nakhchivan we had studied in Azeri, but in Baku at the university, architecture was taught only in Russian since the professors had all come from Russia. My Russian was very bad. It was a serious problem for me, and I was worried that I wouldn't get accepted. But my older brother insisted that I would gradually learn more Russian. At that time, there were very few Azerbaijanis outside of Baku that spoke Russian.

Well, I did succeed in learning Russian and in getting admitted to the Faculty of Architecture at the university. I was on my own, living alone in a dormitory. I had a lot of financial needs, since my father's family was so large that he couldn't afford to send me money. Despite the fact that I had a scholarship, it was not enough to cover living expenses.

An older friend in the dormitory, a Russian, one day asked me whether I wanted to make some money. Of course, I did. So we went down to the port of Baku and unloaded logs from the ships. I used to go to the port from 7 or 8 p.m. until 1 a.m. We would carry the logs on our shoulders. It took two or three people to carry one of those huge logs. We would get paid every ten days. So for four or five months I made some money that way.

But I soon realized that I was getting bruises on my shoulders from carrying those logs, so I quit. My brother helped me get another job at the Geography Institute of the Academy of Sciences. I went there in the evenings and worked until midnight copying maps. It was easier work and enabled me to make some money. So that's how I was living.

Once again, I got involved with drama at the university. After the first year, I was again assigned some of the leading roles. Theater has had such a great impact on me. Playing those roles helped me to understand the deeper meanings of those works. To this day I still love theater very much.

Then 1941 came, the war broke out and that was the end of my college education. It was my third year of school but I was drafted into the army and sent to the Ministry of National Security. Within a year or so, I became a lieutenant, but my heart missed architecture. After the war I wanted to leave the army and continue in architecture, but they wouldn't let me go back.

So you didn't graduate?

No, I didn't. I only studied for about three years. Then I worked in the security system. Again with success. I ended up staying there for 26 years working in security.

Here in Azerbaijan?

Here, as well as in other countries. I was very successful and eventually was appointed as General. I was very much appreciated in that system as well, because political knowledge was very important.

Then in 1969 I was elected as a leader in Azerbaijan.

But getting back to your original question, in other words, when I was young I had no intention of getting involved with the military or working in security, political parties or the government. I simply wanted to become an artist or an architect. But life took me down a different path. It turned out that I also had talent in these other areas, but I didn't know that when I started.

That's why you're still so sensitive to art.

Yes, it's very dear to me.

Music, architecture and art.

Yes, I love the arts very much. Then I was the leader of Azerbaijan for 14 years. It was not by accident that after such experience I was assigned to Moscow to work in the Kremlin. I might add that in the history of the entire Soviet empire, that was the only occasion when an Azerbaijani - a Muslim - was named to the Politburo.

Did you have to deal with a lot of prejudice and discrimination?

Yes, of course, because it was unusual for a person like me to be in a powerful position in Moscow. It's true that there were chauvinists in Moscow as well as in the Politburo. They were jealous because they felt that only Russians should hold these top positions.

I remember that in one of the American magazines - Time Magazine - there was an article about me sometime in 1983 or 1984. It said that Heydar Aliyev was the most qualified and deserving person to head up the Soviet Union after the death of Andropov. But, the article noted that since I was a Moslem, I would never be allowed to lead the Soviet Union.

Again, after the death of Andropov and later Chernenko, there were several articles in the Western press saying that I was a very valuable and deserving candidate to lead the Soviet Union. Those articles sparked even more jealousy towards me which intensified so much that I had to resign from the Politburo in 1987.

There was one more magazine article that I should mention. It was in an American magazine. It said, (I'll repeat the quote in Russian) "Among the sleepy members of the Politburo, Heydar Aliyev looks like a Hollywood star." So that's how I entered politics.

It's hard to identify something specific that happened in childhood that made me become a politician. Most likely it was because I worked very hard. Look, you're meeting with me today - on a Sunday. No one works in America on Sundays, nor in Moscow. But here I am in my office and I'm making all these poor people around me work.

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Azerbaijan International (7.4) Winter 1999.
© Azerbaijan International 1999. All rights reserved.

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