Why I Don't Know Azeri
by Natasha Trishkova
Left: "The First Day of School at a Muslim School" as depicted in the satiric magazine "Molla Nasraddin" (1908). The librarian had fallen asleep on the job because there were no requests for books. The Azeri book titles in the official Arabic script include "Vatan Dili" (Native Language), "Ana Dili" (Mother Tongue) and primers for 1st and 2nd years. The sketch criticized the fact that few Azerbaijanis wanted an education in the Azeri language (Photo: Molla Nasraddin Magazine, 1908).
Let me begin by immediately mentioning that I don't find it excusable that I don't know the language of the country in which I live. I consider it a real tragedy - a real loss. On the other hand, I don't think I should feel guilty about it.
Why is it that I have never learned the Azeri language? On the surface, there is a very simple explanation. I don't know Azeri simply because I never learned it. And I never learned it because there has never been a need to know it. I'm not excusing myself. For a long time, I've known that this is not how it should be.
One has to understand the makeup of the population living in Baku, where I was born and raised. Azerbaijan is surprisingly multinational; Azerbaijanis, Russians, Armenians, Jews and various other ethnic groups all live together in this country.
To communicate with one another, we have chosen a medium that everybody could understand - we have all spoken Russian amongst each other.
In this process, which occurred over the past seven decades, we enriched Russian as it is spoken in Azerbaijan with specific idioms, phrases, clichés and words from Azeri and the other languages of Baku. Each nationality had the chance to preserve its own national, ethnic and religious character, and to speak and study its own language. Instruction in schools was available in Azeri, Russian and Armenian. But the language of communication amongst the various nationalities was Russian. This was not a burden for anybody; at least, it didn't seem so to us.
The main programs on TV and radio were in the native languages. Documentaries and other films were in Azeri. Nowadays, the only source of news on TV for the Russian people is a brief 15-minute program called "Telefax."
It is often argued that the Russification of Azerbaijan was forcibly imposed during the Bolshevik period. But I think this is a simplistic interpretation of the problem. In reality, it is much more complex. Azerbaijan was joined to Russia more than a century and a half ago. An intensive development of oil refineries, factories and plants followed. The entire country's infrastructure - including transportation systems, communications, food and light industries - soon developed.
Western entrepreneurs and businessmen like Rothschild and Nobel, who at the time had interests in Russia, invested in various spheres of industry and oil. Azerbaijan's upper crust - represented by the likes of Taghiyev, Naghiyev, Mantashov, Shamsi Abdullayev and Shahbazov - was very involved in business. All of these people became wealthy, but they also made many contributions that benefited Azerbaijan - such as opening new schools, theaters and hospitals. In fact, many of the palatial residences that they built nearly 100 years ago are still standing.
At the same time, there was an influx of labor into Azerbaijan, mainly from Russia. Qualified specialists - engineers, oilmen and chemists - came from Russia and Europe, and a real industrial boom began. The Russian language became the means of communication amongst these people.
The first Azerbaijani doctors, engineers and teachers received their education at the universities of Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kiev and Kharkov. After the Sovietization of Azerbaijan , the pace of development sped up. The first electric railway began to operate in Baku, and the basis for an industrial complex was formed. A large influx of Russian-speaking intelligentsia, specialists and laborers entered the country.
We can have different attitudes toward history, but we can't wipe it out. The situation in Azerbaijan is changing very rapidly, and the attitude toward Russians is also changing. The influence of the Russian language is diminishing. This problem exists not only for the Slavs, but also for most of the Azerbaijani people who have received a Russian education. They simply cannot express themselves adequately in their own Republic because of their low level of knowledge of Azeri.
For example, two years ago, the Soviet Ministry (now the Cabinet Ministry) held a very important conference concerning the theme of global independence in relation to the national economy. Naturally, Azeri was chosen as the working language of the conference.
Two poets and a director from a wine-making region spoke. However, the economists, the directors of the larger enterprises and the chiefs of the industrial complexes who wanted to say something important kept silent. They didn't dare attempt to discuss the complexities of economic problems in Azeri because they didn't know the specific terminology.
Likewise, the doctors who studied in Russian in medical school are now having problems filling out medical prescriptions. They don't have time to look up the names of diseases and symptoms in Azeri.
A new situation is emerging, and we must face the necessity of changing and learning Azeri. As far as Russian schools are concerned, the system for studying Azerbaijan's mother tongue has not been well formulated. Azeri is still being taught as a foreign language. Since the method of teaching is weak, our knowledge is also weak. Though the government has declared the necessity of learning the official state language (Azeri), it doesn't really assist Russian-speaking citizens in their efforts to learn.
It is true, there are other ways of learning Azeri. We could pay for lessons, but not everyone can afford them. When it comes to self-education, there are always the barriers of a lack of patience and time as economic pressures and inflation press in upon us.
As I mentioned earlier, I don't condone my not knowing the native language of the country I live in. I'm beginning to feel inadequate as a professional now, and I'm not sure if I will be able to advance without knowing Azeri. Perhaps I should leave Azerbaijan like so many other Russians are doing, but I don't know where else to go. I was born here. This is my home. I've completely absorbed the customs, morals, manners and mentality of Azerbaijan - I'm afraid I would be a stranger in my own historical Motherland of Russia. I truly doubt that I could regain my former social and economic status there, and I would lose so many of my friends. I've never faced a deeper dilemma in my entire life - it's a very perplexing situation for me.