Collapse of the Soviet Union
When the Choice is Between Bread and Freedom
by Azar Pahanli
Three years of independence - stained by a bloody war, economic hardships and social uncertainty - are arousing our memories for the "good old days," causing us to question if this path to democracy and freedom is really worth the sacrificial effort. Concern for personal interests is beginning to take the place of our commitment for the common good and the interests of the nation as a whole. I look around at my friends, my family and neighbors and realize that an era of self-sacrifice is being replaced by an era of self-survival, especially now that we are hungry.
There is no doubt that the economic situation in Azerbaijan has worsened considerably since we became independent in 1991. The shelves in our shops are filled with items - milk, meat and cheese - that many of us simply cannot afford. We used to be so proud of the hospitality that we could extend to our friends and guests, but now for many of us, these celebrations and parties are no longer possible. Lately, I've noticed how so many of us shy away from spending a lot of time with others, simply because we don't want to feel obliged to entertain. We can no longer afford the standard that we are used to, but we're too proud to admit it.
The Soviet system always provided us with a sense of security. Whether we worked or not, we never feared losing our jobs and we always received our salaries. The state provided an economic cushion. Now we can no longer sit all day at work, drinking tea, chatting with our friends - we must produce. Now we, ourselves, must take on responsibilities for our lives and families. We're on our own. And we feel vulnerable and weak and frightened by our vulnerability.
And so we yearn for the artificial security of the "good old days," so quickly forgetting the persecution, repression, censorship and treatment we suffered as second-class citizens only a few short years ago. Our dream about democracy used to be so different. On January 20, 1990, Soviet troops invaded Baku, suppressing our national independence movement, which was on the verge of revolting. Tens of innocent civilians - Azerbaijanis, Russians, Ukrainians and Jews - were shot or crushed under the cold-blooded tanks of the Empire of Terror.
Overnight, our horror of the Soviet tanks turned into raging hatred, and the following day hundreds of thousands of us rose up to shoulder the coffins of those who had been killed. The Shahidlar Khiyabani ("Martyrs' Lane", meaning the cemetery) where we laid to rest those who had been murdered was transformed into our Temple of Worship. Our grief infused us with a desperate energy to work to realize our ideals, hopes and expectations. It felt so exhilarating to be free. Our spirits soared.
But the euphoria has vanished. Our dreams have not been realized. Independence has not fed or clothed us. We go to sleep with the sound of Armenian artillery and awaken to find ourselves wandering homeless as refugees in our own native land.
Under these incredible pressures of the war, it seems impossible to transform our nation and society from one system to another, to implement economic and political reforms, to change the socialist economy into a free market, to replace state ownership with privatization, and at the same time to maintain a satisfactory standard of living.
A few years ago when shortages began appearing, special coupons were introduced that allowed us to buy 10 eggs with one coupon, half a kilo of meat with another, and so on. I always refused those coupons, feeling insulted and humiliated that someone else could determine how many eggs I could eat each month.
At the same time, I knew that these coupons were economic necessities. So I never complained. I simply rejected them personally. But I could well afford to. I was young, single, living alone and responsible only for myself. I had good housing, a good salary and many possibilities for a good future.
But I ask myself, could I have refused them if I had had the responsibility of three or four children? What if I had been like the tens of thousands of our refugees living in tents?
Or what if I had had no choice but to stand in line for hours for a loaf of bread, day after day, only to have the supply run out before my turn came? Would I still find the courage to boast my refusal of such assistance?
I don't want to give up my dream for independence. If I don't find the courage to stand up for freedom today, who will do it for me? And who will do it for my children? If I give in to these pressures today, I'm sure that generations will curse me tomorrow.
I realize this period is very difficult, but if I can only bear to carry this burden for a little while, I know my country will rise to its feet and we'll be rewarded for our patience and resistance. I'm not yet 30 years old, and I don't know if I'll live long enough to see the fruits of these efforts, but I already feel rewarded, even under these trying circumstances.
I love my nation. I love being able to identify myself as Azerbaijani. I love not having to be shy about who I am anymore. I love being able to speak my own language - not the tongue imposed upon me by my oppressor. Having experienced what independence is, I would hate to be enslaved again; moreover, I would hate to exchange my new embryonic freedom for a piece of bread to put on my table.
I would prefer to live one day as a free man than 40 years as a prisoner in bondage. The taste of our new independence is sweet - and delicate. It has instilled within me feelings of personal dignity and integrity. And now that I've experienced this, I'd rather die than lose it. I was a slave and now I am free, and will never agree to be dominated again - no matter what.