Azerbaijan International

Autumn 2001 (9.3)
Page 12

10 Years After The Collapse of the Soviet Union - Visionaries
by Betty Blair

Just as we were putting the final touches on this editorial, all set "to put this issue to bed", as they say, the tragic news of the terrorist attacks on New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon intruded upon our busy, but quite predictable, lives. Like hundreds of millions of people the world over, we were glued to the TV watching the horror of the appalling devastation, which left some of the world's tallest buildings reduced to a heap of debris and dust. As I write, there are still thousands of victims unaccounted for and presumed dead. Even more unsettling are the big question marks about what the future might hold, since U.S. Administration has threatened to retaliate. No doubt when September 11, 2011 rolls around, the media will be writing analyses entitled, "Ten Years After" as it relates to this deplorable attack on human life.

Azerbaijan declared its independence - as did many of the other 14 Soviet republics - in August 1991. But it really wasn't until the USSR was officially dissolved in December, four months later, that these new nations gained their freedom. On December 7 and 8th, leaders of three Soviet republics - Boris Yeltsin of Russia, Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine and Stanislav Shushkevich of Belarus - met secretly at a dacha in the Belovezhsky Woods near Minsk, Belarus, to sign an agreement to abolish the Soviet Union and form what they called the Commonwealth of Independent States. By December 17th, Yeltsin had forced Mikhail Gorbachev to sign an agreement that the USSR would cease to exist by January 1, 1992. In reality, the end came sooner. On December 25th, 1991, the Soviet flag with its familiar hammer and sickle no longer flew over the Kremlin in Moscow. In its place was the tri-colored Russian flag with its stripes of white, blue and red.

No matter how gargantuan the task will be for Americans to rebuild after the recent terrorist attack, it is dwarfed by the efforts of people who have been trying to reshape their lives since the Soviet Union collapsed ten years ago.

Historians identify the disintegration of the Soviet Union as one of the three most monumental events of the 20th century, on a par with the two world wars (1914-1918 and 1939-1945). Nothing has redefined territorial bound" on such a large scale as these cataclysmic events. The downfall of the Soviet Union also signified the end of the 500-year reign of the Russian Empire, one of the most long-lived empires in history. In truth, it was not external forces that brought about the demise of this world superpower. The USSR collapsed in upon itself due to inherent faults in its philosophical understanding of economics and human nature.

There has been no road map to guide the former Republics on their journey from a centralized system to a market economy and from totalitarianism to democracy. Unlike America, with billions of dollars at its disposal, the Republics of the former Soviet Union were left bankrupt. That's why the journey has been so difficult and painstakingly slow. There has been no big Sugar Daddy to bail them out or tell them how to do it. Abandoned to the world like orphans, they've had to forge new friendships and alliances-politically, economically and militarily - entirely on their own initiative. In addition, countries like Azerbaijan have had to cope with the devastating effects of war and the accompanying tragic loss of life and displacement of hundreds of thousands of refugees.

Despite new hopes and new opportunities, it's been a long, difficult decade. The collapse of the Soviet system has meant restructuring the government, setting up new electoral processes, organizing new banking systems, new educational and judicial practices, and rethinking new concepts like private ownership and the role of the media. New currency has printed (manats now, not rubles), as have new identification cards, new passports, new postage stamps, new licenses and permits.

As if that weren't enough to deal with, Azerbaijan chose to revert to the modified Latin alphabet that it was using before Stalin imposed the Cyrillic script in 1939. The repercussions of this symbolic act to throw off the yoke of Russian imperialism and signal a closer identification with the West have been enormous and unprecedented.

In this issue, we've featured some of the visionaries of this transition process. No summary would be complete without an interview with President Heydar Aliyev [page 14-18], Azerbaijan's most experienced leader from the Soviet period, who has been a pioneer in forging so many fundamental changes for a new Azerbaijan. According to the President, the greatest misconception that the West has about this transition is the period of time that it requires. Mental and psychological changes must precede overt, physical changes, he says. "You cannot impose democracy by force, nor by revolution. Democracy is an evolutionary process, not a revolutionary one. Different countries require different time frames."

Italian Paolo Lembo [pages 20-30], one of the first foreigners to set foot in Baku in mid-1992, carried the UN flag with him in his suitcase and set up the first UN mission in the country. His vignettes of those early days offer poignant, often humorous, glimpses of Azerbaijan as it was just beginning to break out of its isolation. Written from an Internet café in Paris while he was cramming for French exams and preparing for his new assignment to Algeria (his third since leaving Azerbaijan in 1997), Paolo's memoirs read more like a page out of a playwright's diary than an official diplomatic briefing.

Historians, too, have had to re-examine their approach to analyzing the past. Farid Alakbarov's article, "Writing Azerbaijan's History - Digging for the Truth" [pages 40-49] shows how every "historical fact" had its own Soviet imprint on it. Now historians are trying to strip off the layers of ideology to determine the actual reality of Azerbaijan's past.

Gulnar Aydamirova, now 18, reflects on what it has been like to probe into her past and learn that her great-grandparents were branded as "Enemies of the Nation" for their resistance to the Bolshevik invasion in 1920. They did not live to tell their story. She tells it now [pages 64-67]. Hers is a story that is not confined to Azerbaijan. Tens of thousands living in the former Soviet Union could tell a similar story.

One of the most delightful consequences of the collapse of the Soviet system is that the international community is now getting acquainted with some of their talented artists. Azerbaijan International magazine is immensely proud that, together with Statoil, we have reproduced 7 CDs of some of the finest works by Azerbaijani composer Uzeyir Hajibeyov. No composer was more committed to breaking the fetters of political, religious, social and gender oppression. For this we say, Thank you and Happy Birthday, Uzeyir Hajibeyov! He would have been 116 this September. To purchase or listen to music samples, visit and click on AI Store.

Azerbaijan International (9.3) Autumn 2001.
© Azerbaijan International 2001. All rights reserved.

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