Why I Had to Learn Russian
by Azar Mammad
Left: In contrast to the Muslim school, this sketch emphasizes the popularity and prestige of a Russian-language education in Azerbaijan. From "Molla Nasraddin" satiric magazine, 1908.
Azerbaijan International's Editor recently approached me, asking if I would translate an essay that had been written in Russian and given to her in Baku. Though someone had begun the translation, they had refused to complete it because they didn't agree with the ideas expressed. As I felt the editor was trying to persuade me that democracy and pluralism can only come about through the expression of a diversity of ideas and the interaction and negotiation of thoughts and opinions, I agreed to do the translation.
Let me confess, it was the hardest job I have ever done - not because the language was difficult, nor because of the essay's length, but simply because each time I started to translate a sentence, I lost my sense of concentration. Instead, I found myself involved in an imaginary, heated discussion with you, its author.
I felt your pain. I understood your tragedy - the tragedy of a large community that has become an island on the land where it used to live carefree, light-hearted and happy. But more than that, I felt the tragedy of my own nation. You were writing about your own grief and sorrows, but subconsciously and unintentionally, you were describing the tragedy of our entire nation.
You felt abandoned, didn't you? For more than 200 years, Russians have lived in this country and never cared to learn its native language because, as you say, there had been no need, since everybody spoke Russian. That was easy for you.
Now, recently, the nation has opened its eyes and understood that maybe it would be easier for half a million Russians living in Azerbaijan to learn to speak Azeri than for 7 million Azerbaijanis to learn to speak Russian.
We, as human beings, always try to boost our own egos - looking for faults, placing blame and guilt somewhere else. But be brave. Try to look at yourself. Hold on to your self-esteem, and you'll be able to overcome these difficulties.
You complain that the government of Azerbaijan doesn't help its Russian-speaking citizens learn Azeri. You say you have neither the time nor the patience to learn the language. And you say you have no money to take private lessons.
Let me share my own experience with you. I was only 18 years old when I left Azerbaijan to pursue studies in Russia. I had graduated from an Azerbaijani school in a provincial town, and, to put it mildly, I had little to be proud of, in terms of my knowledge of Russian. However, by the end of my five-year stay in Russia, not only had I graduated from a school of higher education with excellent grades in every single course, but I had learned fluent Russian and two other foreign languages besides - English and Spanish.
Neither the government of Mikhail Gorbachev, nor that of Boris Yeltsin, organized special courses for me to learn Russian. Nor did I have money to take private lessons. I did not have time, either, because I was studying during the day and working at night. But I managed it. I had a feeling of responsibility that I should speak the language of the country in which I lived. I am not alone. There are hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis like me.
You complain that once at a Cabinet meeting, members had to speak Azeri instead of Russian. You say only two or three persons spoke at that meeting; others kept silent because they didn't know Azeri. You give another example that physicians complain that they cannot write prescriptions in Russian, the language that was used in their medical studies.
Right you are. But we look at the problem from a different perspective. You were offended that members of the Cabinet are required to speak Azeri instead of Russian, and that Azerbaijani doctors have to use Azeri instead of Russian. I am offended because members of the Cabinet and physicians cannot express themselves in their own language and, moreover, that they have to be forced to speak their own native language.
It's absurd, but at the same time, it's the miserable and bitter truth that you cannot find many intelligentsia in Azerbaijan who can speak their own native language. Others simply cannot express themselves without Russian. And let me remind you that it is not their fault, either.
Let me ask you this question. Is this not a great tragedy for our nation? And who is it that has been more hurt and more imposed upon? I fully understand your pain and share your tragedy. And I ask your forgiveness if I have not been very gentle in expressing my views. I hope very much that we shall be able to understand the pain, grief and tragedy of each other and support each other through this difficult situation.