President, Heydar Aliyev
Back on the Century - Personally and Professionally
to Page 1
During the Soviet period, we kids used to go to what was called
"The Pioneers' House" where we could explore various
activities. I was very active there. I started playing chess
and attending music classes. My father was poor and couldn't
afford to buy me a tar [traditional stringed instrument], so
I went and practiced at the Pioneers' House.
But my greatest interest was in theater. Despite the fact that
Nakhchivan [pronounced nakh-chi-VAHN], where I grew up, was a
small, provincial Muslim town, there was a very high level of
culture there. Our theater tradition dates back more than 100
years. Can you imagine that there was a theater tradition there
so long ago? That's quite an accomplishment given that Tabriz,
for example, a large Iranian city populated primarily by Azerbaijanis
and about three hours south of Nakhchivan, still to this day
doesn't have a theater. Yet Nakhchivan does. In other words,
although there were only a few people that you could call intellectuals,
they had created a theater. When I was 12 and 13, I used to go
there a lot. Sometimes I didn't have money, but since I was a
kid they would let me in without a ticket. It was a great event
for me. Such occasions are among my dearest memories of childhood.
The theater had a profound impact on me. It wasn't long before
I started getting involved with theater myself at the Pioneers'
House. The leader of our club was one of the leading actors at
the Nakhchivan theater.
After awhile, I was assigned some of the key roles. For example,
Mirza Fatali Akhundzade, the founder of theater in Azerbaijan,
wrote the country's first dramatic work. He has a play called
"The Adventures of the Lankaran Khan's Vizier". I read
somewhere in the newspapers recently that this work was being
staged again, but I ended up playing the key role when we staged
it. Of course, we couldn't perform the entire piece - only two
or three acts. I was 14 or 15 years old at the time. Later we
staged Hamlet in two parts. I played Hamlet.
In Azeri, of course?
Yes, it had been translated into Azeri. I don't speak English.
No one knew English in Nakhchivan at that time. I also pursued
drawing and could draw quite well. My sketches used to take first
place in competitions at our high school. Perhaps there was some
sort of talent in our family, because my older brother became
an artist. While I was studying in high school, he was off in
Leningrad (St. Petersburg) at the Art Institute. When he would
come home on vacations, he would draw scenes from nature. I would
hang around with him and so I started to draw as well. I discovered
that I could do it quite well. So by the time I graduated from
high school, I thought that I wanted to become an artist. But
at that time, Azerbaijan didn't have an Art Institute, so there
was no way for me to get further training and experience. At
the age of 16, I left Nakhchivan for Baku.
Was that unusual to do at the time?
Of course. First of all, because the distance was so great. You
had to take a train for three days because there wasn't a train
running directly between Nakhchivan and Baku. You had to go to
Yerevan and then Tbilisi and then change trains for Baku. I've
slept in railroad stations on many occasions. I used to have
a small suitcase that I would put under my head so I could sleep
on the floor in those stations.
Who would believe these stories?
Yes, it's the truth. Then I came to Baku and studied architecture
at the university.
Did you come alone to Baku? Did your family accompany you?
Absolutely on my own. I would return to Nakhchivan during the
holidays. I was always on my own.
Why did you leave Nakhchivan for Baku?
Because Nakhchivan didn't have a university and I wanted to get
more education. My brother was living in Baku at the time. He
became a scientist and used to work at the Academy of Sciences.
I was interested in architecture and loved it very much. I had
planned to study to be an architect.
I should mention one other thing. In Nakhchivan we had studied
in Azeri, but in Baku at the university, architecture was taught
only in Russian since the professors had all come from Russia.
My Russian was very bad. It was a serious problem for me, and
I was worried that I wouldn't get accepted. But my older brother
insisted that I would gradually learn more Russian. At that time,
there were very few Azerbaijanis outside of Baku that spoke Russian.
Well, I did succeed in learning Russian and in getting admitted
to the Faculty of Architecture at the university. I was on my
own, living alone in a dormitory. I had a lot of financial needs,
since my father's family was so large that he couldn't afford
to send me money. Despite the fact that I had a scholarship,
it was not enough to cover living expenses.
An older friend in the dormitory, a Russian, one day asked me
whether I wanted to make some money. Of course, I did. So we
went down to the port of Baku and unloaded logs from the ships.
I used to go to the port from 7 or 8 p.m. until 1 a.m. We would
carry the logs on our shoulders. It took two or three people
to carry one of those huge logs. We would get paid every ten
days. So for four or five months I made some money that way.
But I soon realized that I was getting bruises on my shoulders
from carrying those logs, so I quit. My brother helped me get
another job at the Geography Institute of the Academy of Sciences.
I went there in the evenings and worked until midnight copying
maps. It was easier work and enabled me to make some money. So
that's how I was living.
Once again, I got involved with drama at the university. After
the first year, I was again assigned some of the leading roles.
Theater has had such a great impact on me. Playing those roles
helped me to understand the deeper meanings of those works. To
this day I still love theater very much.
Then 1941 came, the war broke out and that was the end of my
college education. It was my third year of school but I was drafted
into the army and sent to the Ministry of National Security.
Within a year or so, I became a lieutenant, but my heart missed
architecture. After the war I wanted to leave the army and continue
in architecture, but they wouldn't let me go back.
So you didn't graduate?
No, I didn't. I only studied for about three years. Then I worked
in the security system. Again with success. I ended up staying
there for 26 years working in security.
Here in Azerbaijan?
Here, as well as in other countries. I was very successful and
eventually was appointed as General. I was very much appreciated
in that system as well, because political knowledge was very
Then in 1969 I was elected as a leader in Azerbaijan.
But getting back to your original question, in other words, when
I was young I had no intention of getting involved with the military
or working in security, political parties or the government.
I simply wanted to become an artist or an architect. But life
took me down a different path. It turned out that I also had
talent in these other areas, but I didn't know that when I started.
That's why you're still so sensitive to art.
Yes, it's very dear to me.
Music, architecture and art.
Yes, I love the arts very much. Then I was the leader of Azerbaijan
for 14 years. It was not by accident that after such experience
I was assigned to Moscow to work in the Kremlin. I might add
that in the history of the entire Soviet empire, that was the
only occasion when an Azerbaijani - a Muslim - was named to the
Did you have to deal with a lot of prejudice and discrimination?
Yes, of course, because it was unusual for a person like me to
be in a powerful position in Moscow. It's true that there were
chauvinists in Moscow as well as in the Politburo. They were
jealous because they felt that only Russians should hold these
I remember that in one of the American magazines - Time Magazine
- there was an article about me sometime in 1983 or 1984. It
said that Heydar Aliyev was the most qualified and deserving
person to head up the Soviet Union after the death of Andropov.
But, the article noted that since I was a Moslem, I would never
be allowed to lead the Soviet Union.
Again, after the death of Andropov and later Chernenko, there
were several articles in the Western press saying that I was
a very valuable and deserving candidate to lead the Soviet Union.
Those articles sparked even more jealousy towards me which intensified
so much that I had to resign from the Politburo in 1987.
There was one more magazine article that I should mention. It
was in an American magazine. It said, (I'll repeat the quote
in Russian) "Among the sleepy members of the Politburo,
Heydar Aliyev looks like a Hollywood star." So that's how
I entered politics.
It's hard to identify something specific that happened in childhood
that made me become a politician. Most likely it was because
I worked very hard. Look, you're meeting with me today - on a
Sunday. No one works in America on Sundays, nor in Moscow. But
here I am in my office and I'm making all these poor people around
(7.4) Winter 1999.
© Azerbaijan International 1999. All rights reserved.
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