Autumn 1999 (7.3)
The Day the Soviet Union Collapsed
On December 17, 1991, the leaders of four of the Soviet Republics-Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan-met in the Belovezskaya Forest in Belarus and made an unprecedented announcement: the Soviet Union comprised of 15 Republics no longer existed as a unified entity.
For this issue, Farida Sadikhova asked Azerbaijanis how they had learned the news and what their initial thoughts and reactions had been. She felt that their answers were very frank and sincere, and that people were not afraid of expressing their opinions against the Soviet Union or against the social ills of the present day. Such a phenomenon, she believes could not have taken place 15 years ago. Note the correlation between age and optimism. In general, young people, were less nostalgic for the "good old Soviet days" and more positive about the future.
Crane operator, 42
I wasn't shocked at all. I expected it after I witnessed the bloody events of January 1990. Everything happened right in front of my eyes. The Russians, who were like brothers to us during the Soviet period, sent their troops against us.
I worked as a crane operator in construction at that time. Beginning in early 1991, the projects became fewer and fewer-now there are none. In the past, we used to build houses and give them to people for free. I worked as a crane operator for six years, and I was given an apartment for free. I thought that my children would work as I did and get an apartment for themselves. So I didn't worry about their future.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, I thought: "Maybe it's better to be free and independent. Maybe our work will move along faster." Now all that's left are my dreams. Everything is so expensive these days. It's difficult to find work. During the Soviet period, I went to work in the morning and came back home in the evening, without ever worrying about my children's future. I was earning money and supporting my family. Now I get up in the morning wondering: What can I do today to earn some money to buy bread for my children?
I don't want to say that independence brought nothing to Azerbaijan. We have our national flag, our national anthem. We are establishing relations with other countries. All of this makes me happy, of course. But the standard of living for ordinary workers is very low. Anyway, I never lose hope. Problems are temporary. I believe in a better future for all people.
For me, the collapse of the Soviet Union really happened in 1988. Up until then, I had led a quiet life with my family in our wonderful house in Armenia. But in 1988, we were driven out of our home. Then we came to Baku. After that, my son, a policeman, died in the Karabakh war.
It always seems to me that the Soviet collapse was the reason for this tragedy, otherwise, we would still be leading a quiet life in Armenia, my son would be alive and there wouldn't be any refugees. Now, even though our nation has gained its independence, I've lost everything-my home, my son, my hope for the future. I wish those happy days would return again.
I was 11 years old when the Soviet Union collapsed. I remember how our teachers used to tell us how strong we were and how other countries feared us. But when the news came, it didn't shock me or my family. For several years, demonstrators had been shouting "A-zad-lig", "A-zad-lig" ("Freedom", "Freedom") or its equivalent in many regions of the Soviet Union. So we weren't surprised; in fact, everybody in my family was glad. My father said, "Good. Now Azerbaijan can follow its own path and not have to depend on Russia or anybody else."
From that very first day of freedom up to the present day, I've felt many changes that are going on in my country. One of the first things that happened at school was that we started learning the new Latin alphabet. I was in the sixth grade. It felt strange to be learning the sounds and shapes of a new alphabet-just like first graders! We felt like babies! Soon afterwards, new textbooks appeared and the tri-colored flag and our national anthem were among the first pages. We started singing Azerbaijan's national anthem and raising the Azerbaijani flag.
I can't find words to express how it felt to see all those things happen. Our people have suffered so much throughout the ages. Other countries have always had their hands on Azerbaijan. It feels really great to be part of such an important moment in our history.
The collapse of the Soviet Union was inevitable from a historical point of view. Like all other empires, the Soviet Empire was doomed to collapse. But still, when I heard a TV reporter announcing it, I was a bit shocked. I wondered: What's going to happen next? Which way will we take? Which ideas will shape our government?
Everything was so confusing. But later, when we had a chance to raise our own flag, to sing our national anthem, to value our mother tongue-I became so happy. I don't have nostalgia for the Soviet period. To be free and independent forever-that's what I wish for Azerbaijan.
Independence has given us many more choices. For example, when I was studying at the University, we were burdened with books by Lenin and Marx. We had to know them by heart, no matter how bored we were. We were clouded by Communist ideas. But now the youth have more choices. They can put forward their own ideas, not blindly serve others.
I learned about the collapse of the Soviet Union while watching a session of the Milli Majlis (Parliament) on TV. I couldn't understand what the Parliament members were arguing about. Was it some kind of joke or something? How could such a great power come to an end? I couldn't believe it.
I had lived in the Soviet period my whole life and I liked my way of life. We 15 republics were like one big family. Now that family is divided, and each member lives separately; it's like a divorce.
I think the collapse was painful for most people-almost everyone I know seemed to be just as shocked as I was. We used to consider Moscow the capital of our Motherland. When we go there, we don't want to feel like strangers.
I'm still nostalgic for the old days. I was born and brought up during the Soviet period, and consider myself fortunate because of that. I can't get used to the new system. I think we've lost more than we've gained.
When all of those events started, I sat glued to the television curious to know everything that was going on. Nearly all of the programs-both Russian and Azerbaijani-were discussing the issue of the Soviet collapse. Of course it was a shock at first, but for me the surprise didn't last long.
During the Soviet period, we all believed in the unity and friendship of the republics. But Black January (1990) proved to be quite the opposite. Russia sent in its troops against us-can you call that "friendship and unity"? How could we call Moscow the capital of our Motherland? If that's the way they were going to treat us, then our Republic had to be independent. We had enough power to establish a strong country.
Now that we're independent, we can be responsible for ourselves. During the Soviet period, we were dependent on others. Now we can make our own decisions.
University professor, 50
When I first heard the news on TV, I was really shocked. I would never have thought that such a great power as the Soviet Union could ever cease to exist. At the same time, I felt relieved. It was like an innocent man finally escaping from prison. In the past, we were never allowed to make a single move by ourselves-always there were directives. So after the Union collapsed, we had hope for some radical changes in our lives. When the announcement came, I was very happy.
My first thought was: at last we'll be independent. But now as time has passed, I feel a kind of nostalgia, a yearning for the past. Such feelings are common here in Baku.
During the Soviet period, our city was indescribably wonderful. But now it seems to me that the face of the city has changed. It's dirty. Street vendors are everywhere. Despite such difficulties, given the choice between living in the Soviet Union or in an independent Azerbaijan, without a doubt I would choose independence.
Head of a scientific lab, 50
Like many other people, I first heard the news on TV. I didn't expect it and thought it was something temporary. But that wasn't the case. The first thing I thought was: What kind of government will we establish? How will our lives change? How will I manage personally?
During the Soviet period, those who worked at the Academy of Sciences made decent salaries and didn't have to worry about money. But now our salaries are a mere pittance, and we're afraid of losing our jobs just like so many other people. Despite these difficulties that we're facing, I'm convinced that we'll eventually succeed. We, the older generation, built the Soviet Union; the youth must do their best now to build a strong, independent country.
I was shocked. For me the collapse of the Soviet Union was like a natural disaster-like a catastrophic storm at sea. My first thought was: What will we do if we're left alone? Will we be able to live independently?
Today Azerbaijan is an independent country with valuable resources: oil, gas and fertile soil. We can flourish if we use these things properly. But still I'm not completely satisfied with the conditions that we have today. I work at a school and my salary is too small.
I still feel very attached to the Soviet period as that's the way I was brought up. I would like to go back to it. But that doesn't mean that being independent is not good. On the contrary-I like it, but I would have to admit that I liked the Soviet period more.
I am a naturalist by profession and am very conscious of the evolutionary process in nature. That's why the transition of our society from one form to another didn't surprise me at all. But what did shock me were the processes that accompanied this collapse-especially the ethnic conflicts.
Mankind is correct in protecting bio-diversity. Scientists have gone to great lengths to compile what is called the "Red Book" of endangered species. Even the smallest insects are identified and classified there, so as to protect diversity and balance on Earth. The irony is that while we go to such great pains to protect a wide variety of animal and plant life, some people exert all their energy into victimizing and destroying human life, the most advanced form of natural life. They're especially intolerant of those who belong to other nations, religions or races.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, we gained freedom and independence. More importantly, our people became more responsible and began showing more initiative. Many newspapers, magazines and TV channels have begun to appear.
However, many of our social institutions belonging to the sphere of cultural maintenance have been totally neglected and are now in shambles. It's an issue that requires serious attention or we'll have severe consequences in the future.
Athlete and coach, 49
The collapse of the Soviet Union didn't happen in 1991. It began much earlier-in 1988, when relations between the nations in the Soviet Union began to deteriorate. My parents were driven from their homes in Armenia that year, and the Union just closed its eyes to it. Then Armenia started an unjust war against Azerbaijan, claiming our territories. Again, the Union closed its eyes. Then Black January (1990) occurred. I knew that all of these unjust events would eventually lead to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
So when I heard the news on TV, I wasn't shocked at all. Of course, it was difficult to believe that such a great country could lose all of its power. As an athlete, the first thing I thought was: at last our sports will be independent. During the Soviet period, we used to join athletes from other republics to represent the Soviet Union. Whenever we won, the Soviet flag was hoisted, not our own Republic's flag. If you only knew how much I longed for that flag to be Azerbaijan's! Now I'm proud that our athletes can represent our own independent country.
I was a 16-year-old schoolgirl when the Soviet Union collapsed. Everybody was talking about it-every house, every institution-every school. When we heard the news, we were shocked, especially my parents. They simply couldn't believe it.
The next day at school our first class was History. We discussed the events that were unfolding right in front of our eyes! Although our parents accepted the news as tragic, for us-the youth-it was fortunate and exciting.
Now we are independent. Our future is in the hands of the youth. If our parents built the Soviet Union, we, the young, must build a strong and independent country. When my parents talk about their nostalgia for the Soviet Union, I don't argue or criticize them-I know they spent the happiest moments of their lives during that time. But as for me, I prefer an independent Azerbaijan.
Still, there were a few things I liked better about the Soviet Union. I liked when we became Pioneers, then Komsomols. This program united all Soviet children. Unfortunately, nothing like that has yet replaced it today. But who knows, maybe in the future?
We all talk about the "collapse" of the Soviet Union, but really it was more like a slow disintegration. In 1988 and 1989, when the national movement started in Azerbaijan, I joined it as well. Such movements were happening in other republics as well. That was one of the main reasons for the Soviet collapse.
Another reason was that Russia supported Armenia when the Karabakh conflict broke out. When the Azerbaijani population of Karabakh was driven out of their homes and Moscow did not take any steps to prevent it, I knew that the Soviet Union could no longer exist and that it was already going downhill.
When I heard Yeltsin's speech on TV announcing the dissolution of the Union, the first thing I thought was: What can we expect? What does it mean to be independent? We had grown so used to that system. We were afraid of the unknown-of living in another system that was completely unfamiliar to us.
I finished industrial trade school and worked as a welder. At that time there were four construction enterprises in Baku. I worked at the largest one. It's closed now and my heart aches.
Despite the fact that I didn't finish school, I was still given a three-room apartment and treated with respect. Even those who had higher positions were treated the same as the workers. Now I feel like nobody needs me.
Of course, it's good to be independent, to have our own flag, our own national anthem. But it's not good that thousands of workers go to so-called "slave markets" where they hope to be hired by the rich as very cheap labor. During the Soviet period, we didn't have such "markets".
Chess referee, 51
The collapse of the Soviet Union was not a process that started suddenly. There were enormous economic problems that were concealed by the Communists. For example, those so-called "Five-Year Plans" were all lies-and never adequately carried out. The Soviet government just wanted to show other countries how powerful they were.
So when I heard the news, I wasn't shocked at all. A feeling of pride and relief swept over me. Immediately, my father's words came to mind. He was in his late 50s when he told me: "Any government that is based on lies cannot exist very long." He believed the day would come when people would make a list of the Communist leaders' names, hang it on a wall and ridicule them. My father predicted the Party's demise and never became a member.
Not everything has gone smoothly since we became free and independent. Communist leaders in Azerbaijan fought to hold onto their positions of power. We still face many problems in our society, but the feeling of freedom and independence enables us to challenge them.
I'm an international chess referee. I feel proud of the achievements in sports in my country. Chess players can now represent our own country in international competitions and not the Soviet Union. Now when we win, our national flag and our national anthem is recognized. That makes me feel immensely proud and happy!
I always feel nostalgic for the Soviet period. The Soviet power was built to help the poor and the helpless. It was the hope of the workers and peasants. There was equality everywhere and in everything. The rich do not share their wealth with the poor easily-that's why such a governing system was necessary. The richer you are, the greedier you become.
I'm not a politician to analyze the situation. I only compare my living conditions today with what I had back then. Let's consider the difference.
Education on all levels used to be free. Medical care was free. With my normal salary, I was able to take a vacation outside of Azerbaijan [to another part of the Soviet Union] at least once a year. I could buy a car and a summer home [dacha]. All the things I own today and all the things I ever achieved, took place during Soviet times.
But what can I do today on the pittance of my pension? The ideology of those years was that everybody should be compensated according to his capability. What's wrong with that? Today, we have to pay for everything-universities, medical services. What can people do with a measly $20-30 a month from their government salary?
From Azerbaijan International (7.3) Autumn 1999.
© Azerbaijan International 1998. All rights reserved.
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