Spring 2002 (10.1)
One People, Many Lands
the Vatan (Motherland) Society
by Elchin Afandiyev
Azerbaijani writer Elchin Afandiyev,
now Deputy Prime Minister of the Azerbaijan Republic, was involved
with the first organized effort within Soviet Azerbaijan to connect
with Azerbaijanis who lived abroad. In the late 1980s, during
Perestroika, Afandiyev led the Vatan (Motherland) Society in
reaching out to the Azerbaijani Diaspora. Here he describes those
first steps toward renewing contact with Azerbaijanis who, for
any number of reasons, were separated from their homeland.
When the Vatan Society was founded
at the end of 1987, what is now the Azerbaijan Republic was still
part of the Soviet Union. After Gorbachev came to power in 1985,
there was a new atmosphere in the Soviet Union - Perestroika
- and we took advantage of this new freedom to organize a society
to connect with Azerbaijanis living abroad. Prior to that, it
had been impossible for us to talk about Azerbaijanis living
in foreign countries. People used to deny that they had such
relatives because the Soviet ideology was very strict and punitive.
Especially during Stalin's era, it was dangerous to speak about
Azerbaijanis abroad or have direct contact with them. People
with relatives outside the country were afraid to communicate
with them. With few exceptions, Azerbaijanis could not leave
the country and live abroad.
Below: In a bold step, acting independently
from Moscow, Azerbaijanis invited international guests to attend
a Business Congress in Soviet Azerbaijan in September 1990. Many
of these guests are now prominent businesspeople in Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijani emigration is quite a complex
notion. Azerbaijan was split into two separate countries early
in the 19th century as a result of war between Russia and Persia.
The Araz River became the border separating Northern Azerbaijan
(now the Republic) from Southern Azerbaijan (now part of Iran),
where nearly three times as many Azerbaijanis have been living
under quite a different political system.
Though most Azerbaijanis abroad have roots in Southern Azerbaijan,
there were two major groups that originated from the area that
is now the Azerbaijan Republic. The first group included many
of our intellectuals, who left for Iran, Turkey and beyond when
the Bolsheviks took over Baku in 1920.
As curious and unreasonable as it may sound, World War II brought
on the emigration of a second group. Azerbaijani soldiers who
were captured as prisoners of war were not allowed to return
home. Stalin considered them to be traitors and did not allow
them to return to the Soviet Union. As a consequence, many Azerbaijanis
ended up staying in Turkey, Germany, France and other European
countries. Some eventually made their way to the United States.
When we began contacting these people, we found that their children
felt very little affinity to Azerbaijan, unlike their fathers
and grandfathers. In many cases, the fathers of these children
were Azeri, but their mothers were usually French, English or
German. The children rarely spoke Azeri and, in fact, usually
didn't even know much about our country or culture.
One of our objectives in Vatan was to introduce Azerbaijan to
these people. We made contacts with Azerbaijani societies that
were operating abroad and we helped to start new groups. We sent
our musicians, dance troupes and scholars to meet with them.
I guess you could say that Vatan Society became sort of a spiritual
bridge between the Azerbaijanis living in Azerbaijan and those
who lived abroad.
I remember meeting an Azerbaijani from Lankaran - Gulam Gurbanoghlu
- who worked for Radio Liberty in Germany. He had been a prisoner
during World War II and had remained in Germany. Gurbanoghlu
had remarried and raised three children there. He had a good
German wife who took good care of him. To me, he seemed to have
a great life.
Once I told him: "Gulam 'kishi' [man], you're doing quite
well. The German government gives you a good pension, your wife
takes good care of you, your children are all married and are
doing very well. You have no troubles."
He replied: "Elchin bey, you're right. I don't lack anything.
But when I go to sleep at night, I see Lankaran pilaf in my dreams."
We also wanted to get in contact with non-Azerbaijanis in Europe
and the United States to show them that Azerbaijan has more than
folklore and folk music: we also have quality symphonies, operas,
ballets, art and literature. We wanted to show Azerbaijan's modern
culture as well. So we sent a variety of performers abroad, including
singer Zeynab Khanlarova, opera singers Fidan and Khuraman Gasimova
and concert pianist Farhad Badalbeyli [now Rector of the Music
But our Society soon ran into trouble with the KGB. In 1989,
the Voice of America (VOA) invited me to visit Washington, D.C.
While on the air, I mentioned that Azerbaijanis wanted to be
independent, that we wanted freedom. Those words raised eyebrows
in the Soviet government; it seems Vatan had attempted more than
Perestroika had in mind. When we invited controversial figures
to come speak in Azerbaijan, rumors were spread about us, giving
us trouble with the KGB and the Communist Party, who considered
such people to be enemies of the Soviet Union.
After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, our borders opened
up and the objectives of the Vatan society changed. Before, I
didn't allow the society to get involved with commerce, but now
I see that that was a mistake. We need economic ties. The Vatan
society still exists, and I hope that it will grow stronger in
its activities related to an independent Azerbaijan. Our nation
needs the friendship as well as the cultural and economic ties
of all of us, no matter where we live.
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