Azerbaijan International

Summer 2005 (13.2)
Page 17

Tribute - Arif Abbasov

Putting Ethnography on the Map in Azerbaijan
by Dr. Tamara Dragadze

arif abbasov
Left: The late Arif Abbasov (1937-2005), who championed the study of Ethnography in Azerbaijan.

Arif Akim oghlu Abbasov, Director of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography of the Azerbaijan Academy of Sciences, passed away on April 21, 2005. He was 67 years old, born December 22,1937 in Nakhchivan. A gentle giant (for he was of large physical stature), Abbasov was a brave, reliable scholar and professor who tenaciously defended his younger colleagues against adversity. A man with a wry sense of humor and keen, observant wit, he was both warm and hospitable.

Some people leave their mark on their nation's history and culture and shape their own fields and disciplines through their modesty, wisdom and discretion. Professor Abbasov was one such scholar and administrator.

Independence movement
Few people realize the extent to which he was involved in Azerbaijan's independence movement that took place during the late 1980s and early 1990s - Azerbaijan's darkest days.

While many of those on the highest levels of academia pressured their staff who dared to defy Soviet authorities, Abbasov turned a blind eye when they went absent from assignments because they were demonstrating at Lenin Square [now Azadlig or Freedom Square]. He went even further by using his vast network of friends and contacts to quietly negotiate for the release of scholars who had been detained.

Above all, Abbasov was a free spirit and fostered this quality in others. It follows that Azerbaijan's recent course of history - and its early espousal of culture, civility and liberty as important ideals - would have been very different without the involvement of the many scholars and intellectuals in the quest for independence.
Abbasov, however, was also a man of peace. It was for this reason that he was so deeply pained by the war in Karabagh and the resulting "ethnic cleansing" that took place upon the break-up of the Soviet Union within all three republics of the Caucasus (Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia).

At international conferences, Abbasov's humanity always shone through. For example, during a visit to Yerevan [Armenia] since independence [1991], I met up with a scholar who was grieving that he had had to leave Baku, convinced that nobody in the whole world would ever be as fair and supportive as Professor Abbasov had been.

In addition, there are many Western scholars like myself, who owe their study of Azerbaijan to his tireless efforts even when times were so difficult. I first went to the region in 1969 as one of the first foreign anthropologists. In 1987 I began intensive field studies in Azerbaijan with the support of Abbasov whom I had met through connections from academic colleagues in Moscow and Georgia.

During Soviet martial law, when tanks were everywhere and borders closed, Professor Abbasov personally walked to the military headquarters in Baku (his father was a general) and acquired a special pass for me - pleading that mine was an exceptional case since I was a British scholar. He believed passionately that it was essential for scholars to witness historic events first hand.

Thus, my Baku colleague, Atiga Ismayilova and I found ourselves scuttling through the grass and bushes and surrounded by soldiers in order to reach the Parliament building and go inside. We were responding to his goading that, as serious historians, we should witness these sessions of the transfer of power away from the Popular Front in 1993.

Abbasov saw that we lacked for nothing when we were ensconced in a village in Shamakhi region so that we could complete our ethnographic fieldwork, despite shortages and a depleted academic budget.

A man of his time, Abbasov secured crucial funding from BP to maintain the Museum of Archaeology in Baku's Old City, as part of the arrangement for BP to house their first office above it. Wherever I look, I see his mark, tender but unwavering, discreet but decent, and I feel so privileged to have earned his confidence. I am not alone in mourning his passing.

Abbasov grew up in Baku and majored in History at the university. He later wrote two dissertations - Candidate Doctorate and Professorial Doctorate - the field of Ethnography was established in Azerbaijan, and that it became so well recognized, given that such a discipline was so sensitive in a politically fraught environment.
Dr. Abbasov published four monographs and co-authored another in that field. Then he was appointed as Professor and Corresponding Member of the Academy of Sciences. He led the efforts to research actual problems related to ethnic groups, inter-ethnic relations, and the influence of the ethnic peculiarities to economic, social, cultural process.

Through his active lobbying, in 1993 the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography was able to obtain its separate identity from the Institute of History. A journal was established in 2003. Today the Institute boasts 300 employees, including three full Academicians and three Corresponding Members, 21 Professorial Doctorates and 80 Candidate Doctorates.

There are at least 11 departments in his Institute in the Academy of Sciences campus. Abbasov worked tirelessly and imaginatively to maintain funding and standards throughout the most financially challenging period that the Academy of Sciences ever experienced. Even more to his credit, however, is the fact that he never succumbed to the great difficulty he felt at times, maintaining his principle of academic freedom, supporting the right of scholars to express views even when he personally did not agree with them. Such a spirit of openness will be difficult to replace.

Abbasov is survived by a daughter and two grandchildren. His wife had died 10 years earlier.

Dr. Tamara Dragadze, B.A. (Kent) and Doctor of Philology (Oxon), is a third generation British scholar and writer with more than 50 publications, mostly in Caucasian Studies. She lives in London. Contact:

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