Azerbaijan International

Autumn 1998 (6.3)
Page 57

Viewpoint: Legends and the Soviet Period
Manipulating the Text

by Vagif Samadoglu

It's time, I think, that we begin to examine our legends and offer new interpretations. This means using interpretations that are not based on Soviet ideology or our own romanticism but that are more pragmatic and less poetic.

It seems to me that heroic epics and legends within a society are created out of anxiety - perhaps out of our fear of death or vulnerability. When people are afraid, they create heroes to save themselves from disaster. In my opinion, legends and epics are expressions of this desperate plea for help. By believing in legends that they themselves have created, people are able to alleviate some of these fears.

Take the example of Koroglu. The legend of Koroglu emphasizes the spirit of heroism - the heroism of one person who stood up against the rulers of his time. Like Robin Hood, Koroglu was a "gachag," a person who fought against the wealthy landowners and khans.

During the 19th century, there were gachags in almost every region of Azerbaijan. A lot of stories and epics were created about them, praising their heroic deeds and bravery. But, the truth is that perhaps as many as 70 percent of the gachags were organized by the Russian Empire in their efforts to overthrow the landowners and rulers in the region. In my opinion, the greatest tragedy related to our legends is when a lie is accepted as truth through misinterpretation.

When it comes to legends, sometimes our suspension of disbelief goes too far, and we are led to believe the absurd. For instance, the epic says that Koroglu only robbed the wealthy, and didn't touch the poor. But why would he have bothered with the poor? What did the poor have? Koroglu didn't steal from the poor simply because they had nothing to steal.

When we grew up in the Soviet period and read legends and epics at school, most of them were in a manipulated version. How do we know? For example, there is a scene in Koroglu in which a gardener tells Koroglu to come to the garden because his wife Nigar will be there. Koroglu asks: "What time should I come?" Those who interfered with the story weren't careful about small details and nuances and forgot that during the period when Koroglu lived several centuries earlier, watches and clocks had not yet been invented.

I've observed that people are psychologically incapable of living with feelings or emotions of fear over an extended length of time. Eventually, they transform negative emotions into love and belief. Legends about dictators such as Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin are fitting examples. Sometimes stories that grew up around them were based on real situations; sometimes they were entirely manufactured.

For example, when Stalin died in 1953, many Azerbaijanis thought his death was a real tragedy, that the experiment known as the USSR was finished. They loved Stalin and believed in him, even worshipped him as a savior. He was their hero despite the fact that he had murdered thousands upon thousands of people-within Azerbaijan alone. Their devotion to him, it seems to me, was created out of fear. Stalin was able to win the war and save people from Fascist Germany and he was the one who had brought modernization and industrialization to the largest nation on earth. Never mind how.

Many legends circulated about Stalin that don't seem to be based on fact. For instance, it is said that Stalin lived such a modest life that when he died, proper clothing for the burial could not be found. So he was buried in worn-out boots and a shabby suit.

Another legend boasts that when Stalin opened a book and read three pages from the beginning, middle and end, he could discern the contents of the entire book. Keep in mind that this story is told about a person who had had only four years of formal education. Curiously, this same ability had been ascribed to Lenin earlier.

Supposedly, Stalin only slept three to four hours a night. He worked the rest of the time and would stay up until 3 or 4 a.m. Late at night, as the story goes, Stalin would call in individual members of the Politburo to question them about their colleagues. For example, he would call in Beriya (the Minister of Internal Affairs) and ask: "What do you think about Budyonni (the Marshal)?"

Beriya would say, "Nothing. Why?"

Stalin would reply, "I just asked. Good night."

He would repeat the same question to others. This was his way of putting people on edge and making them insecure and suspicious of each other.

I don't believe this story is based only on hearsay. Perhaps, it happened once, but the notion that Stalin was calling in his staff like this on a regular basis is not very probable.

Another story is told that when people were exiled to Siberia, Stalin supposedly would come to the train station to personally see them off especially if he had known them from childhood and if they were Georgian. It is said that Stalin got deep satisfaction from bidding them a final farewell.

The story is told of Georgian Duke Amirajili. Stalin came to see Amirajili at the station to bid him farewell. As they walked along on the platform, Stalin noticed that Amirajili had not asked him for anything. He had figured that Amirajili would beg not to be sent to Siberia.

This surprised Stalin and so he inquired, "Don't you want to ask me anything?"

The Duke replied, "No."

Stalin asked, "Why not?"

The Duke replied, "The quieter you go, the further you will be" (This is a Russian proverb).

Stalin got angry and replied, "No, you're wrong. 'The further you go, the quieter you will be.'" And the Duke was ordered to be sent even further away.

Azerbaijanis have a proverb: "The people's force is like a flood's force" (El gücü, sel gücü). During the Soviet period, this proverb was used to emphasize the positive power of group unity, meaning that if people would combine their forces for a common cause, they could achieve great things.

However, I think that this proverb originally had just the opposite connotation. I think the proverb originally meant that "the people's force combined together can be immensely destructive." A flood is associated with destruction and in just the same way, the power of a mindless mob can also be destructive.

We need to be aware of the history and multiple interpretations of this proverb, just as we need to be aware of the history and multiple interpretations of our legends. Fear can eventually disappear. But if our legends are to remain, they need to speak to us as we are now, not as we were under the Soviet system. Otherwise, we will no longer believe them.

From Azerbaijan International (6.3) Autumn 1998.
© Azerbaijan International 1998. All rights reserved.

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