Azerbaijan International

Spring 2002 (10.1)
Page 27

One People, Many Lands
Founding 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.

Cultural Bridges
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 Academy].

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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