Spring 1999 (7.1)
As Mirror of the 20th Century
by Arif Amrahoglu
Azerbaijan's 20th century was shaped by events that took place early in the 19th century. Two Russo-Persian wars (1804-1813 and 1826-1828) resulted in treaties signed between Russia and Persia - the Treaty of Gulustan (1813) and the Treaty of Turkmanchai (1928) which divided the khanates of Azerbaijan between those two nations creating a northern and southern Azerbaijan.
For those of us living in the northern region dominated by Russia (now the Republic of Azerbaijan), it marked a new era which influenced us politically, culturally and socially and it contrasted markedly with the Islamic influences of the previous millennium. Wide exposure to European science and culture gave rise to our first national media, theater and secular schools. Literature became greatly enriched, and new genres and forms came into being.
Prior to this time, Azerbaijanis had never differentiated between their national and religious identities. When asked: "What's your nationality?", the answer had always been "Muslim". With these new influences came a new national consciousness.
Even during periods of domination, it was literature that enabled the nation to recognize its own distinctiveness. Later, literature helped formulate a national ideology. Had we lived under other circumstances, instead of being under Russia and later, the Soviet Union, these ideals could have been implemented at the State level.
Historically, Azerbaijanis have always loved the Word and have highly esteemed their poets and writers as philosophers and thinkers. But during these past two centuries, it was through the Word - through literature - that Azerbaijanis gleaned their ideals of freedom and their hopes for an independent state.
The question of national identity and the role that literature plays in shaping it is somewhat like the proverbial expression: "Which came first - the chicken or the egg?" Both influenced the creation of the other. It is said that the history of 19th century France was created by the writer Balzac. The same thing could be said about Azerbaijan's writers and poets, who had a tremendous influence on the history of Azerbaijan during the 20th century.
Two trends in literature manifested themselves at the beginning of the 20th century. Writers, journalists and poets emphasized the importance of education and science. At the same time, they examined the moral dilemmas related to human suffering. Such writers include Mirza Alakbar Sabir (page 19), Jalil Mammadguluzade (18, 24, 30), Abdurrahim Hagverdiyev, Yusif Vazir Chamanzaminli, Mahammad Hadi and Husein Javid (20).
Specific examples include "The Letter Did Not Reach" by Abdulla Shaig (22) and "In the Realm of Oil and Millions" by Ibrahim Musabeyov. Both works emphasized the tremendous difficulties in life for those working in the oil industry and the fact that "black gold" does not always bring happiness. The same is true of Husein Javid's work, "Conversation between Shafiga and Masud" (20).
At the beginning of the 20th century, Azerbaijan felt the psychological weight of two immense burdens. Like Georgia and Armenia, Azerbaijan also was oppressed by Czarist Russia. But there was an additional complication: Azerbaijan was traditionally Muslim and that fact alone deprived it of the Christian solidarity of the region and of the dominating power-Russia. Thus, Azerbaijanis suffered even more prejudice and discrimination.
Let me site one illustration: Kazan University in Russia was established to educate the Muslim Turks of the region. However, the school had a policy of teaching the Russian language in such an inferior way that the students who managed to graduate had less grasp of the language than most illiterate Russian peasants did. These students were greatly handicapped and felt embarrassed and ashamed of their inadequacies.
The great Turkic poet and state figure of the 11th century, Yusif Balasagunlu, once wrote, "Ignorance is the mother of all evils." Jalil Mammadguluzade (1866-1932), who became the editor of the influential political and social satirical journal, "Molla Nasraddin", wrote in his memoirs, "The first time I opened my eyes to see the world, I saw only darkness." Sabir (1862-1911), a poet and contributor to the same journal, described the pain and problems of the society using the nickname "Crying-Laughing." He was deeply pained by the conditions that he saw around him.
These writings, plus those of Ahmad Agha-oghlu and Ali Huseinzade, set the stage for the establishment of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic in 1918. At the time, national symbols such as the flag, the national army and the national anthem became important topics for writers and poets such as Ahmad Javad, who wrote Azerbaijan's first National Anthem (29).
But the joy of independence did not last long. Only 23 short months later, on April 28, 1920, the Bolsheviks attacked and occupied Baku. They came with enticing promises, but their primary goal was to rescue the Russian Empire from death. The Bolsheviks set out to destroy the intellectual potential of the nation. They were determined to wipe out those among the intelligentsia who were struggling to preserve national identity and independence.
The truth is that the notorious Repression carried about by Stalin in 1937 really began in the 1920s. Had the policy actually been carried out at that time, it would have been the death knell for the Bolshevik Empire.
The approach that the Bolsheviks took in destroying the intellectual foundation of the nation was two-fold. First, they tried to create intellectuals out of workers and peasants. Second, they tried to make these pseudo-intellectuals "megaphones" of their own propaganda. The damage they inflicted was considerable; the members of the "pseudo-intelligentsia" became the real enemies of the genuine intelligentsia. For example, the magazine "Molla Nasraddin" (1906-1931), which had been so progressive and influential in the years leading up to national independence (1918), was branded as "atheist" and its editor was made to burn many of his manuscripts. In this way, the Bolsheviks carried out their policy of "the breaking of pens."
The Bolsheviks had one prescription for literature and art: praise and propagation of the Party ideology and glorification of the Soviet system. In this way, the history of the nation became distorted, erasing national consciousness and identity. Russia, the "jailer of nations," was becoming a country that maintained "mangurts"-people of ancient times, who from childhood were like slaves at the disposal of their masters. Words were valued for their political and ideological content, not for their literary or cultural merit. Soviet writers were obliged to glorify the Great October Socialist Revolution , "the Great Leader of the Proletariat" [Lenin] and "the Father of Nations" [Stalin].
The story is told how once a Party official called the writer Husein Javid (1882-1944) to his office and asked him why he did not write about tractors and combines. Javid replied by asking why such pictures were not hanging on the wall in the official's own office. Javid later was sent off to labor camps in Siberia, where he died six years later.
Writers became concerned that literature was not dealing with the pain, joy and problems of humanity. Instead, it was the Soviet man, the Soviet teacher, the Soviet doctor and the Soviet soldier that were mandatory topics. Failing to write about the idealism of the Soviet state was considered insubordination and divisive.
In one of his poems, Rasul Reza describes the following situation: a calf gets sick on one of the collective farms. The milkmaid, who has left her sick daughter at home, dedicates herself to nursing the calf for several days. The calf recovers; but we don't know what happened to the child.
Great Repression - 1937
The Soviet system "issued a decree" concerning those who could not reconcile themselves to a society that preferred a calf over a human being, a society in which people had to live without history and historical memory. Essentially, that decree was to "destroy anything that does not break." And thus it became impossible to halt the momentum of the Repression that was launched in 1937-1938. Throughout the Soviet Union, between 4 and 5.5 million people were arrested.
Nearly 1 million of them received the death penalty. The others, in nearly all cases, were sent off to prisons or labor camps from which few ever returned. In Azerbaijan, writers such as Husein Javid, Ahmad Javad, Mikayil Mushfig and Yusif Vazir Chamanzaminli became victims because of their loyalty to their national ideals.
Depression and fear paralyzed the society and brought on a deep gloom. But not all of those who were faithful to their personal ideas were annihilated. The fact that some writers did not write at all does not mean that they were serving the ideology of the period. They refused to write simply because they did not want to jeopardize their lives. They knew that the threats were real, so they became silent, refusing to serve the system and live a lie.
World War II
Much of the Azerbaijani literature concerning World War II resembled the literature of other Republics - full of praise and propaganda. However, since war provided a source of pain, death and grief, writers and poets were able to give a philosophical interpretation to this tragedy. They could analyze the changes that war made in the psychology and morality of human beings. Vivid examples include "Ice Monument" by Anvar Mammadkhanli, "Insane" by Samad Vurgun, "Pistachio Tree" (48) by Magsud Ibrahimbeyov, "Children's Game of 1946" (51) by Yusif Samadoglu and "Mother Had Gotten Old" (45) by Altay Mammadov. At the same time, there were numerous works that expressed hatred of the enemy and lauded the courage and bravery of the Soviet army.
After Stalin's death (1953), Khrushchev came to power (1958-1964) and the regime somehow "softened", relatively speaking. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, literature attempted to carry out its true mission. The art of the Word turned its focus on humanity.
Writers from this period include Samad Vurghun, Suleyman Rahimov, Mirza Ibrahimov, Rasul Reza, Nigar Rafibeyli, Ilyas Afandiyev, Mehdi Husein, Suleyman Rustam and Balash Azeroglu. The next generation continued in this same pattern and included Bakhtiyar Vahabzade, Nabi Khazri, Ismayil Shikhli, Isa Huseinov, Gabil, Mammad Araz, Khalil Reza, Fikrat Goja, Nariman Hasanzade, Jabir Noruz, Ali Karim, Husein Abbaszade, Sabir Ahmadli, Anar, Elchin, Akram Aylisli, Movlud Suleymanli and the Samadoglu brothers - Yusif and Vagif.
During this "thaw," Azerbaijani literature expanded in new directions. Rasul Reza's poem "Colors" became an example of philosophical lyricism. Bakhtiyar Vahabzade's poem "Gulustan" expressed the anguish at the division of Azerbaijan between two countries and focused national consciousness on this wound. Ismayil Shikhli's "Crazy Kur" reminded the nation of its historical eminence, wpich had been doomed to oblivion.
More and more literature began to identify humanity in the human being, expressing confidence that beauty could save the world. More and more writers could confirm what poet Rasul Reza had said: "I am happy that I am capable of thinking." This was a great victory for the Word.
The writers of the 1960s brought about fundamental changes in society and the literary sphere. These rebels fought against malaise, inertia, gray monotony and moral and national defamation.
Examples include works such as "Burning Heart" (Isa Huseinov), "A Sign in the Slope", "Green Theater" (Sabir Ahmadli), "White Harbor", "A Tale of a Good King" (Anar), "Baladadash's First Love", "Death Verdict" (Elchin), "People and Trees", "Forests on the Banks of the Kur" (Akram Aylisli), "The Day of Punishment" (Yusif Samadoglu) and "Mill" (Movlud Suleymanli).
Other writers followed suit, inspiring both human and national values. They included: Chingiz Huseinov, Rustam and Magsud Ibrahimbeyov, Afag Masud, Ali Karim, Fikrat Goja, Mammad Araz, Khalil Reza, Sabir Rustamkhanli, Mammad Ismayil, Eyvaz Borchali, Nusrat Kasamanli, Vagif Samadoglu, Chingiz Alioglu, Ramiz Roshan and Vagif Bayatli Onar. The "Gobustan Journal" published during this period was not only a collection of exceptional literary pieces, but also a source for the revival of national consciousness. It allowed for the emergence of a new literary taste and provided an outlet for increased political activity.
The literature created between the 1960s and 1980s played a great role in people's lives in terms of freeing the populace from slavery and enabling them to begin to think independently. The Word became a source of light, hope, serenity and confidence, despite the fact that Azerbaijanis were living under a totalitarian regime.
Azerbaijan's path to independence has been painful. The war with Armenia (1988-), the tragedy of Black January (1990) and the Khojali Genocide (1992) are all written with blood in the memory and psyche of the nation. However, it is noteworthy that the national literature that chronicles these tragedies does not arouse hatred toward the people who inflicted these tragedies (Russians and Armenians). It focuses more on the tragedy of the situations themselves.
A nation is truly a reflection of its literature. If the 20th century teaches us anything, it is that when the harmony between people and literature is broken, chauvinism and skepticism and indifference sets in. Azerbaijani literature of the 20th century has helped to preserve the highest ideals of the Azerbaijani nation-humanitarianism, wisdom, hospitality, generosity, love of independence and peace. Under the circumstances that we have lived through, that's a significant achievement-it shows that the Word, despite all obstacles and efforts to the contrary, is truly capable of saving our small world from destruction.
As we reflect on the mentality of the people of Azerbaijan, it's clear that the beginning of the 20th century was not so different from that of the 19th century, because of the colonization by Russia. However, today, on the eve of the 21st century, we sense that times have changed. It is a new day and a new millennium. A new literature is emerging. A new mentality has permeated the nation; the people want to hold onto their newly acquired freedom. I'm convinced that this transformation is due, in large part, to the passion of writers this century who have understood the power of the Word.
Arif Amrahoglu is currently Secretary of Azerbaijan's Writer's Union.
From Azerbaijan International (7.1) Spring 1999.
© Azerbaijan International 1999. All rights reserved.