Azerbaijan International

Winter 2001 (9.4)
Pages 66-69

Beyond the Russian Language
New Trends at Baku Slavic University
by Kamal Abdullayev, Rector

Kamal Abdullayev
Baku Slavic University's new name change [from Institute of Russian Language and Literature] signifies that Azerbaijan has begun to distance itself from Russia both politically and psychologically.

During the Soviet era, as well as during Azerbaijan's first decade of independence, there has been a sensitivity about language usage in Azerbaijan - whether to use Azeri and Russian. Even before the Bolsheviks established their power in Azerbaijan in 1920, Russian was considered a prestigious language. Still today, most Azerbaijani parents are convinced that sending their children to "Russian-track" schools guarantees a stronger education than Azeri-track schools. Unfortunately, this situation is likely to remain such until more books are made available in the new Azeri Latin alphabet.

Kamal Abdullayev congratulating Russian President Putin
Left: Rector Kamal Abdullayev congratulating Russian President Putin for his Honorary Doctorate from Baku Slavic University in January 2001.

Slowly, but surely, Azeri is gaining more strength and prestige. More and more, you hear people speaking Azeri on the street. President Heydar Aliyev is firmly behind this new tendency, as evidenced by his decree designating August 1, 2001 as the deadline for switching to the Latin alphabet from the Cyrillic that was imposed by Stalin on all the Turkic and Central Asian Republics. The new Latin alphabet was one of the first pieces of legislation that Parliament passed in 1991 when Azerbaijan gained its independence, but it has taken a decade to really start seeing the new alphabet in street signs, store signs and newspapers and magazines.

Another prime example of this trend to strengthen Azeri can be found at the former Institute of Russian Language and Literature in Baku. A year ago, it was renamed the Baku Slavic University and given a much different, more expansive mission: to teach Slavic languages rather than just Russian. We asked the school's Rector, Kamal Abdullayev, to describe the dramatic changes that are underway.

During the Soviet period, Russian-track schools were everywhere in Azerbaijan - even in very remote mountain villages. Russian was the official unifying language across the entire USSR. It's no secret that as a consequence, the Azeri language was in a very weak situation. To attain any important position in Azerbaijan, you had to be fluent in Russian. This was true in all of the 15 Soviet Republics. There simply was no way to progress seriously in a career without knowing Russian. A considerable number of Azerbaijanis, especially those living in the capital, had poor Azeri language skills.

Azerbaijan's President Heydar Aliyev, Kamal Abdullayev and President Vladimir Putin

Above: Azerbaijan's President Heydar Aliyev (left first row) joined Rector Kamal Abdullayev (right) and the Baku Slavic University Faculty to bestow an Honorary Doctorate on Russia's President Vladimir Putin (center) in January 2001.

Not surprisingly, there was a high demand for Russian teachers at that time. Even schools known as "Azeri-track", which provided instruction via the Azeri language, required Russian teachers to teach classes in Russian language and literature.

This is where Baku's Institute of Russian Language and Literature came in. Opened in 1946, the Institute was established as a pedagogical school for training Russian teachers for both Russian- and Azeri-track schools. While we still offer that type of training today, the purpose of our school has shifted and expanded dramatically, especially this past year.

Baku Slavic University
Left: Registration Day fall term 2001. These days more students are putting Baku Slavic University at the top of their list as first choice, according to Rector Kamal Abdullayev.

In the past, if you graduated from the Russian Institute, all you could do was become a teacher of Russian language or literature. These days, our main goal is to continue to delve deeper into Russian while we broaden into other Slavic languages.

A New Focus
In June 2000, by the decree of President Aliyev, the name of the Institute was changed to Baku Slavic University. The name change signified that Azerbaijan was beginning to distance itself from Russia politically, psychologically and in many other ways. In other words, Azerbaijan had become independent enough not to totally rely on Russian language and literature. Today Azerbaijan is open to the whole world and wants to build relations with other countries outside the borders of the Former Soviet Union.

I became Rector about a month before this decree was issued. It may sound strange, but I think that part of the reason I was chosen as the head administrator was that I come from an Azeri-speaking background and am myself a philologist and a linguist. Unlike many other intellectuals, Russian has always been a second language for me, not first. But in terms of building up this school, I think that being a Turkologist can also do a lot to support and strengthen language development and studies.

Baku Slavic University Baku Slavic University

Above: Card catalogs are still the norm at many of Azerbaijan's libraries, including this one at Baku Slavic University.

For the past year, we have been working hard to establish many new departments at the University. In the past, we only had one faculty for teaching Russian. It was divided into two sections: a section for students who had graduated from Russian-track schools and another section for those who came from Azeri-track schools. However, if the Institute had continued to teach only the Russian language, I think it would have eventually become irrelevant and eventually disappeared.

More Languages
Today, the University's choices are much broader. We have faculties of Philology and Pedagogy. Our Regional Studies faculty gives students the opportunity to study economics, international relations or primary education. For those teachers who have decided to change their specialty and return to the university to study Slavic languages, we have a faculty for Advanced Studies and Requalification.

Baku Slavic University
Left: Students mingle at the entrance of Baku Slavic University, which offers instruction in nine different languages.

In addition to Russian language and literature, Baku Slavic University offers specialties in Ukrainian, Polish, Czech, Bulgarian and Slovak language and literature. We need to teach as many Slavic languages and literatures as we can; in the future I hope that we'll be able to teach all of them here.

It may surprise you that we also offer Greek language and literature as a specialty, even though it's not a Slavic language. But I view "Slavic University" as a symbolic name. It doesn't prevent us from teaching Turkic, Japanese, Chinese, Korean or even African languages in the future, if we so choose. In my opinion it's not enough to study a specific system like Slavic Languages and cultures; you should know something about the systems that surround such a specialty as well.

Training Azeri Teachers
There's another twist to our program as well. We train Azeri teachers for Russian-track and English-track schools - another innovation. In the past, most of the children who attended Russian-track schools could not speak Azeri very well. The Azeri teachers at those schools were not strong enough, so the children took little interest in the subject. Today when I ask students who were educated in Russian-track schools: "Why is your Azeri so poor?" they reply: "Because we weren't taught Azeri well." If Azeris teaching at Russian schools are stronger than Azeris teaching at Azeri schools, to some extent, the credit belongs to our university. That's why today we want to strengthen Azeri in Russian schools now.

In the future, teachers who are trained here will not only be able to teach Azeri; they will also know Russian, another Slavic language and English. For example, if a student's specialty is the Czech language, he or she is also taught Azeri, Russian and one of three Western European languages - English, German or French. Even though English is not a specialty here, the truth is that our students spend more hours studying in English classes each week than students at other universities who concentrate in English as their specialty.

Exchange Programs
My biggest dream is for teachers and students to master the language and culture of their specialty, not through books, but by being able to go and live in that country. We consider it an important part of our University's mission to promote student exchange programs. We're just in the beginning stages. So far I've already been to Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. We're also trying to build relations with Charles University in the Czech Republic and the National Institute of Oriental Culture and Languages (INALCO) in France. We have already developed relations with institutions like International Academy of Personnel in France, Institute of Russian Language after Pushkin in Russia, Moscow State University of International Relations in Russia, Cherkas State University in Ukraine and Slavic University in Kiev. Afterward, we want to organize student and teacher exchanges with these schools and participate in regional conferences and meetings as well.

Last summer, for the first time, we sent 18 students for one month of pedagogical practice at Cherkas State University in Ukraine. We're also planning to send two students to the Czech Republic this year. My biggest dream would be to send our first and second year students of Czech to continue their studies and receive a master's degree from the University of Prague. Then they could return and teach Czech here. There are a lot of other proposals for exchanges, but because of the financial limitations, we can't respond to all of them.

Of course, if we send our students to Prague and other places, we have to be prepared to receive foreign students here. What can we offer them? That's why I've established a Chair of Turkic Languages Study and a laboratory for Turkic-Slavic Relations. We would like to offer these foreign students the chance to study Turkic languages like Azeri and Turkish as well as Turkic literature and the history of Turkic peoples.

So far, we've had foreign students come from Turkey, Iran and Korea. They learn Azeri here through Azeri, not Russian. We also have Russian and Ukrainian students living in Azerbaijan and learning Azeri.

With the rapid growth of the school and the addition of new programs, we have seen our enrollment increase to more than 2,000 students. Today, many more students are writing Baku Slavic University at the top of their lists when they take their entrance exams.

Yet, we still struggle with many difficulties. One of the most pressing, obviously, is financial. I would like to repair this building, to make it more beautiful. We also have problems getting hold of textbooks; many of the ones we have were published during the Soviet era and are now outdated. But it's difficult to acquire new books. When I went to Poland, I brought back a whole suitcase of books for learning Polish. When starting relations with any other university, we talk about book exchange first of all.

We're also concerned about teachers. The salary that they receive from the government is so minimal that we give them extra aid each month. Right now we have about 400 professors, assistant professors and teachers, about 50 professors and doctors, 130 candidates of sciences and assistant professors and teachers. We also give aid to our 500 technical workers and laboratory assistants.

My goal is also to improve the relations between students and teachers. I would like all of our teachers to treat students like colleagues, rather than inferiors. When I address students, I say "my colleagues". I realize this confuses some of my teachers. My personal slogan is "Docento Distimus." In Latin it means: "By teaching, I learn." This is what I want to put into practice here - an attitude of learning on the part of all of us.

Kamal Abdullayev, Rector of Baku Slavic University, is both a Turkologist and a dramatist. He also serves as President of Azerbaijan's Cultural Fund. His recent works include: "The Theoretical Problems of Azerbaijan's Syntax", and "The Secrets of the Silver Period" (Russian poetry translated into Azeri). Currently, his play called "Spy", based on some of the motifs in Dada Gorgud, is being performed at the Azerbaijani National Drama Theater. He is also known for his play, "The Mysterious Dada Gorgud".

Azerbaijan International (9.4) Winter 2001.
© Azerbaijan International 2002. All rights reserved.

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