Azerbaijan International

Winter 2003 (11.4)
Pages 42-47

Soviet Collapse
The 30s Generation - Changing Horses Midstream
by Dr. Alik Zeynalov, Sona Abbasova and Betty Blair

The 30s generation (young people born in the 1970s) deserves immense credit for finding their way through the political and economic chaos when the Soviet Union collapsed. They had grown up under the Soviet system and just when they were beginning to make critical life decisions regarding career and family, they suddenly found that the rules of the game had been changed. In addition, nobody was there to explain what the new game was or what rules applied. Despite that, they had to make the fastest and wisest decisions in forging a new path with no one to lead them and show the way.

Here Betty Blair, Editor of Azerbaijan International, interviews Dr. Alipasha (Alik)
Zeynalov, a member of that 30s generation to get his perspective about this transition
period. Alik, 31, is an Assistant in the Department of Medical University and Head of the Children's Department of Clinical Psychiatric at Hospital No. 2. He also is an Assistant at the Psychiatry Chair of Azerbaijan Medical University where he teaches courses in Psychiatry.

Sona Abbasova served as simultaneous interpreter and also provided insight and analysis to the discussion. The comments belong to Alik, except in the cases where Sona's name is designated.

Dr. Alik Zeynalov


Sona Abbasova


Betty Blair

Of all the young people who have lived through the collapse of the Soviet
Union and the birth of Azerbaijan as a newly independent nation, it seems that those of you now in your early 30s have had to be the sharpest in making the most astute decisions about your lives and careers. You had just finished high school and received much of your education via one system, and suddenly that system no longer existed. It must have been like changing horses in midstream.

What happened to us is probably hard to explain to people who have lived their entire lives under the same political system. When the Soviet Union with its command economy collapsed in late 1991, we started to build an independent country based on capitalism. Yes, it did seem like we were changing horses in midstream. But, it might be more accurate to say that we replaced the horse with a totally different creature, a totally different mode of transportation - maybe, it was an elephant! Maybe a car! But, whatever it was, we didn't have a clue how to ride or steer this new creature. We didn't really understand what it was.

Let me speak more concretely. Imagine a society following predictable, established political and economic patterns, and then suddenly changing direction and orientation. The Iron Curtain fell. The barriers came down. We were bombarded with enormous quantities of information from the West, all of which was quite different in both form and content to what we were accustomed. Suddenly, countries that had been hostile towards us for decades became our friends. And this economic system known as capitalism became the only viable alternative.

Did most people want these changes?

Yes, of course, all these changes were only natural, and most people wanted us to be free and independent to govern ourselves. But no matter how positive these changes were, they created a schism - an abrupt halt in the everyday lives of the entire nation. It was a rift, a discontinuity in the beliefs and stereotypes that most Azerbaijanis had embraced all their lives.

Of course, the collapse of the USSR brought about change, not only in the political regime, but in the overall economic situation. We started to live by the laws of capitalism. I would describe it as "a very tough, cruel capitalism". These changes brought us to the brink of chaos and instability, and deeply affected the people who had already been shaped in life - the generation of our parents and grandparents who had lived most of their lives under the Soviet regime.

To tell you the truth, most of the people of the older generation have not managed to adapt and adjust to the new rules. They've lost their jobs; they've lost the routine of their everyday lives. They've lost "their rhythm of life". Many of their values have been undermined. It's quite normal for them to feel lost.

As young people, when we face such difficulties, somehow our defense mechanisms kick in. But it's more difficult for older people. It's all related to age. As a psychiatrist, we might refer to this as the "Age of Menopause"; in other words, a period when the situation itself led to so many mental disorders - depression, being among the first.

Both depression and suicides are the obvious consequence when there is conflict between society and the individual. It's what you would expect when people have to deal with enormous stress. And there were suicides, not only in our Republic, but also throughout the entire former Soviet Union.

Below: Holiday office party at Azerbaijan International magazine to usher in the New Year. Note the Santa Claus played by editorial assistant, Aynura Huseinova.

But it seems to me that there was much less depression in Azerbaijan than there might have been. That, indeed, most Azerbaijanis somehow did manage to survive the collapse of the USSR.

Keep in mind how Communism came to Azerbaijan in 1920: it was imposed against our will. History has proven that Communism was an artificially created system.

Despite the fact that it is based on humanistic ideals, it does not reflect the needs of human nature. Fortunately, Soviet Azerbaijan really did not endure for a very long time - only for a few generations [1920-1991], although, admittedly, its idealism did manage to penetrate deep into people's consciousness.

There are many other reasons that explain why communism historically came to a logical end. I'm not a political scientist and that's why, maybe, I can't express my thoughts in this field very well, but I think that our society was ready for these changes, at least, theoretically. In practice, of course, problems were inevitable. That was only natural. Sometimes, even just a simple change in where you live even within the same city can cause considerable social and emotional stress.

How difficult were these changes for your generation - those youth who are now in their 30s?

I think we were quite ready for them. We were conscious of the terrible inadequacies and the many negative aspects of the Communist system. I wouldn't say that my generation was any less sensitive to these changes than our parents were; but being young, we had a great capacity to adapt. So we've managed to survive without so much difficulty.

It wasn't until later that we started to feel the consequences of the collapse of the Soviet Union, especially when the financial difficulties that our families were experiencing began to impact us as well. In the early 1990s, it was far too early to talk about financial or any other kind of independence.

Perhaps, even from childhood, we had grown up to be more Western oriented than previous generations. I don't know. But, in any case, even though we grew up at the exact juncture when these two opposing political systems collided and even though we were practically 100 percent Westernized already, we are still having to deal with a lot of Soviet stereotypes, brought on simply by our Soviet upbringing. It's a fact. Probably, this is the greatest problem of all - having to deal with this legacy - the hangovers of the Soviet system.

What has been the glue to keep society together during these difficult times?

If you look very closely at Azerbaijani mentality and traditions, you'll see the reason. We have some very strong traditions. Despite how drastically things change, our traditions still remain quite strong. And, personally, I wouldn't want them to change. Take me, for example. I'm 31 years old and I still live with my parents. I still haven't started a family of my own.

And most young women, unless they are married, also live with their parents. Right?

Almost all young women do. The exception might be if the children lived in a different city than their parents did. If, for example, the children were living here in Baku, attending the university, and home was really in Ganja or someplace else, then they might live alone. In good families, if children live separately from their parents, it's because they've either left to study or work. Culturally, it would not be acceptable for children to live separately from their families for any extended period of time if there were no special reason.

Since you're still living with your parents, what kind of issues cause the greatest conflict between you?

One of the biggest issues is marriage. It's a very serious problem. But I can't complain that my parents are bothering me about it now.

They keep pressing you to get married?

It used to be that way.

Why did they stop then?

I don't know. Maybe I managed to impress upon them that I would get married when I was ready and that nobody could force me.

Were they trying to choose a girl for you?

Oh, yes. Sure!!!! In our culture, parents always try to get very involved in choosing the partner for their child. I think it's even more difficult for girls. Four or five of my closest friends are married now and have children. My parents keep saying: "All of your friends are already married, you should get married as well."

And my mother is starting to get rather depressed because of it. Mothers are always trying to hurry marriage. They want to become grandparents. They want to see their grandchildren. Maybe it's a bit difficult for you to understand what I'm talking about, but it's very traditional here in Azerbaijan, and it's deeply embedded in our culture.

But that first year when you get married, you also have to have a baby right away. Yes?

Exactly. But attitudes are changing. In fact, many things have already changed. For example, in the past, the earlier you got married, the better. It used to be that girls got married when they were 18 or 19 years old, and guys married in their mid-20s. But now, young people are not marrying as early as they used to - especially girls in Baku. They value themselves and their own development first. They want to find themselves. They want a good job - a good salary. But most of all, they want some independence.

Are you going to choose your own bride?

Yes, that's for sure! You can count on that! Already grandparents and parents are realizing what a lousy experiment they carried out on their children in the past. Grandparents are starting to back off, especially if they pushed their son or daughter to marry someone and then witnessed the horrible consequences of that marriage ending in divorce. These days, grandparents are telling their grandchildren: "I'm not going to choose a bride for you, go find the partner you want."

What qualities do you look for in an ideal bride? Is it different than in the past?

When I was 20 or 22, I had this stereotype in my mind about what an ideal wife would be like. She had to come from a family that was similar to mine, both in terms of economic status and profession. She had to have a higher education, preferably as a teacher or doctor. She should be beautiful and, yes, she should be Azeri. As I've grown older, I have rejected these stereotypes; the only thing that I still hold onto from my past ideals is that the girl should have a good upbringing.

What do you mean by that?
Lots. She must have manners; she must be very appropriate in the way she speaks and acts. But here, we're talking about my own ideas. Some of my friends might say that the main thing for them is beauty. Of course, I'm not saying that I'm going to marry a monster. She does need to be beautiful.

But she doesn't have to be a movie star or a model?

No, it's not that she doesn't have to be such; I wouldn't even want that.

So you're putting a lot of emphasis on her character and personality?
Exactly. She needs to be her own unique person. And most of all, she has to be a friend.

Is that a new concept?

Well, actually most of my friends think this way, too.

Did all of your friends marry girls that were their friends?

Yes, most of them.

Do you think this wasn't necessarily true of your parents' generation?

I believe that they became friends over time. Marriage was a different kind of institution back then. Marriage is still a normal arrangement for a man and a woman in Azerbaijan, and, for that matter, throughout the whole world. We're talking about marriage being a natural stage in life.

But sometimes parents even use illness as emotional blackmail.

Yes, sometimes they pressure the young person, "I'm sure I'll die without seeing your children." Primarily, though, they want their children to be secure. For them, security means a good job and marriage, or sometimes, especially in the case of a girl, just simply marriage. When parents leave this world, they want to know that their children are secure.

We even have this expression in Azeri,
"yerleshdirmek"which means, "to put in place." Sometimes you'll hear parents say, "Men ushaglarimi yerleshdirmedim," meaning, "I didn't put my children in the right place - in the place that they deserved or belonged." For them, it represents the fulfillment of their duty in this world. To raise their children, give them a good education, get them married to a good person, and have grandchildren. That's it.

Then they feel that their duty towards their children is completed. But these days, all of this is complicated by the problem of housing. It's one of the main reasons why young people postpone their marriage.

How's that?
Simply, they don't have any place to live. They don't want to live with their parents, and it's very expensive to buy a separate apartment. I mean even if a girl and a boy love each other and they're ready to create a family, in many cases they're postponing marriage because it's impossible for them to buy an apartment. Many married couples are just renting apartments these days.

What was it like in the past? What's different about it now?

I think the problem wasn't as great in the past because the Soviet system provided young couples with apartments. If you had a job, sooner or later, you would get an apartment.

Of course, in the United States, it would be normal for a young couple to rent an apartment. But here, parents usually provide the house. Right?

Of course. Usually the husband's family provides the house, and the bride's family purchases all the furniture. But attitudes are changing. For example, the girl and the boy can collect money and buy the apartment together; or if the girl's family is wealthier, they can provide the apartment. It wasn't so strict in the past either, but it's becoming even more flexible now. Decisions are based on circumstances.

But still you have to take into consideration our mentality. Some attitudes are very difficult to change because they are part of our national tradition. Maybe the younger generation won't feel these problems as acutely as we do. I'm referring to youth who are 17-20 years old now. They think completely differently than we do.

Because everything is moving and changing. Everything is dynamic. Our generation is not part of the Soviet system, but on the other hand, it is. It's impossible for us to completely detach ourselves from it. Maybe I'm starting to think like an old person already. We have a saying that when a person starts to judge the younger generation, he's already old himself.

So you see big differences between yourself in your early 30s and the young people just finishing high school.

I think they are less intellectually developed. I'm not talking only about Azerbaijan. I'm talking about youth in general. OK, I'm turning into a grumpy old man again. But I'm talking about young people who are 17- and 18-years old now. I'm saying this from the position of a person who grew up with a Soviet education. This younger generation doesn't read as much as we did, and I think their worldview is much narrower.

Nevertheless, I like this generation because, generally speaking, they know what they want. When I was their age, I was interested in everything just as my peers were. I was curious about the arts, technology, nature, fashion, everything. Today's youth is very tight-fisted and, if I may say so, I think they are rather poverty-stricken in their dreams. They don't comprehend and accept as big a world as we did. And I think they are less emotional about social issues.

But you're not so much older than they are - just 10 years, that's all.

We are the children of juncture. At school, I was an Octoberist, then a Pioneer and, finally, a Komsomol member [stages in becoming a Communist Party member, starting in primary school at about age 8]. I finished high school in 1990. That was the last year for Komsomols.

Sona: You see, I think why our outlook was so broad is because it was based on ideology. There was a spirit for everything. We're not talking about whether that spirit was good or bad. It's just that we were taught that there were higher values beyond the material things in this world. For example, how many children would like to become astronauts now? Back then, many youth wanted to go into the sciences and become astronauts, geologists, archeologists. . .

But, at the same time, I like this young generation very much, too. They are very independent and, in my opinion, that's one of the main parameters of success in life. I think our generation could be described more like "greenhouse people".

"Greenhouse people"? What's that?

If you compare me to my parents, I would call them even "greener greenhouse people"! It means they grew up protected. Let me explain why. I think by the time we finish our conversation, you'll think I was a very strong Communist (smile)! But that's not the way it was at all. I'm just talking about the conditions of life. Life during the Soviet period was softer and gentler. A person felt much more protected. He was more secure about his future. No matter how primitive this protection was or how unknown his future, people felt much more protected.

But we were very frightened of the United States. We were taught to be afraid. I remember that first day when Ronald Reagan came into power in 1981. Every Friday they would gather us at school. I remember our headmaster announcing: "Now a really crazy guy has come to power in the States - Ronald Reagan" and I still remember that he told us that we could call him "Ares - the God of War" from Greek mythology and blah, blah And the headmaster went on to talk about the arms race. They dumped all this stuff on us when we were seven and eight-year-old kids. I would wake up in the middle of the night, worrying about this crazy man who might attack us.

They used to measure our heads for gas masks. We had emergency drills where they would time how quickly we could put on our masks. That was Ganja [Azerbaijan's third largest city, located in the north central region of the country].

Those were tense times between the United States and the Soviet Union. There used to be a huge yellow loudspeaker in the center of the hall that they could use in case they needed to announce any emergency. We had a bomb shelter right there at school for evacuation purposes. There was a wax model of this realistic-looking hand with big, festering wounds, blisters and burns. It was supposed to show what would happen if there were ever a chemical or nuclear attack. It was very scary.

It wasn't until I saw an American choir on TV - just students singing together - that I began to think: "Americans are just ordinary, normal people." We were just as scared of Americans as they were of us. When Reagan was leaving office, I saw him on TV waltzing with his wife and I thought: "Wow, he's just a normal guy. He doesn't want to scare us kids." So that's how it was back then.

But the Soviets pushed their ideology. BBC [British Broadcasting Company] was synonymous to lies. In cartoons they were always represented as a crow or some such nasty creature. And then there were all those acronyms - NBC, BBC, ABC. Gradually, I realized that those initials simply represented companies such as National Broadcasting Corporation or American Broadcasting Company. They always had negative implications. We were always scared of things like that.

My dad was a Communist Party member. One time, he warned me: "Look, if I ever catch you listening to Voice of America (VOA), you'll be in big trouble because I'll be arrested and you'll be left without your papa." And one night I got up and I caught my dad doing the same thing - listening to the Voice of America.

Alik: But at the same time, no matter how much we were afraid that the U.S. would attack us or destabilize the situation, there was something mysterious about this country that attracted us. It was a country that produced very good chewing gum, good jazz and blue jeans. And we used to pay twice the amount that they were worth just to get them. By the time I was 16, I already associated America with good cigarettes and some interesting magazines.

Like Playboy?

Exactly. My school here in Baku was different than Sona's. We didn't have gas masks. They did try to spread propaganda against the United States but, to tell you the truth, I can't remember it very well. My school was one of the best schools in the center of town and mostly children of privileged people studied there. And so, we all came from families whose views were slightly different from most others. Of course, there were a lot of rules that the school administration had to follow, but inside, it was more or less democratic. A lot of my classmates traveled outside of the country and quite often. Me, too.

You traveled outside of Azerbaijan but still within the Soviet Union. Yes?

No, not just the Soviet Union. We traveled to Europe - even capitalistic countries. For example, my parents traveled a lot during Soviet times. My grandmother was a very well known scientist - a neuropathologist - and she traveled throughout the world from Japan to Europe and Africa.

Do you remember when you first learned that the Soviet Union had collapsed?

I was studying at the university. It was my first year. It was a time of instability in the country. The war had broken out between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. So, the collapse of the Soviet Union for me came to be associated with instability. I have very blurred, but negative, feelings about that period. But I wasn't worried about the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was quite incomprehensible for me at that time to think that a country that occupied one sixth of the world's territory could just collapse. On the one hand, it was scary, but I was old enough not to be surprised, and to concentrate more on thinking what it all might mean.

Sona: Actually I remember very well when Gorbachev came to power. For me all the unpredictable crazy things started back then. I remember I was at school and they were televising one of those Communist Party congresses. It was the first time that Gorbachev had ever made a public speech. I remember one guy being introduced and making a speech just like they had done back during Brezhnev's time, repeating all the clichés.

And Gorbachev leaned over and said something like: "Can we stop this bullshit and just get back to the point." That was the day when I realized that there was hope. I couldn't stop applauding. I was in the middle of the big hall on the ground floor of our school, standing with my friends and for some reason that small gesture caught my attention.

Some people might hate me for saying this, but I did like this guy Gorbachev because he changed our whole approach to life. If it had not been for him, all these things would not have happened today.

Even though Gorbachev did bad things to Azerbaijan [implying Black January 1990 when Soviet troops attacked Baku and killed hundreds of civilians]?

Yes, he did bad things to Azerbaijan.

Alik: I don't agree with you. If there had not been Gorbachev, there would have been someone else. What was happening in the Soviet Union was a natural, logical unraveling of a system because it had arrived at the point of logical self-destruction. It had to destroy itself. There was no alternative. Even if Gorbachev had not been the head of the USSR, we still would not be living in a Communist society today. No, it still would have collapsed, and we would have gained our independence - without Gorbachev.

Sona: But without Gorbachev, there wouldn't have been such a positive attitude toward the government and "Perestroika" or "Glasnost". For example, when the Soviet Union collapsed, there was no gas, no electricity in Ganja. So in my mind, memories come flooding back: Soviet system collapsed, no gas, no electricity and complete blankness about the future. It was pretty scary. And then the Popular Front came to power in Azerbaijan and completely screwed things up.

Alik: Yes, that was the scariest period. When you saw this contrast between the collapsed Soviet system and the horrible Popular Front that came to power, it was terrible. Now when I recall that period, I wasn't afraid of the collapse of the Soviet Union, what concerned me was the horrible reality of complete chaos and ignorance

Sona: It was a time when people who hardly had any education would come and tell you what to do, promising to cover Azerbaijan in gold. Had their administration continued for another year or two, as the expression goes: "We would have eaten earth, instead of bread".

Tell me about education. What do you see as the main problems that young people are facing?

Under the Soviet system getting a higher education meant getting a university degree. It was more or less compulsory, meaning it was socially expected. Of course, in the true sense of the word, only 10 years of schooling were compulsory. The Soviet system required us to get at least a secondary education and preferably more. But let me stress: education was absolutely free of charge. There were no fees.

But now I meet young people who have stopped attending school after the 5th grade. We're mostly talking about the countryside where children have to help their parents on the farm, taking care of domestic animals.

But in my opinion, the biggest problem relating to education has to do with the dilemma that young people face-to study to earn more money later on, or to study and earn money while they are going to school.

All this, of course, has led to the reduction of the number of young people entering higher education institutions. Nevertheless, the number of people who want to get a higher education is quite high.

Also since the collapse of the Iron Curtain, the number of people getting both secondary and higher education from leading European and American schools has significantly increased. But, of course, not everybody can afford this or be fortunate enough to earn scholarships.

The other important fact that causes young people to hesitate about committing themselves to get an education is the difficulties in finding a job after graduation. Many young people, even those with degrees, have not been able to find appropriate jobs and are obliged to work at less prestigious jobs, not related to their specialties. Many people avoid state institutions because the salaries are too low in comparison to non-government related companies.

I myself teach at the university. The level of education is pretty high. In regard to medicine, or more specifically to psychiatric education, there is not enough literature in Azeri. We do have some texts in Azeri, but, unfortunately, many teachers received their education in Russian, which means that they think in one language and have to speak in another.

For example, it's my own big minus. It's a very big problem and I'm not trying to blame anybody for it. It's my fault that I don't know my mother tongue very well. I speak Azeri and I teach in Azeri. But I don't think in Azeri, I think in Russian. When I try to explain medical nuances, I have difficulty doing it. My Azeri vocabulary is not as developed as my Russian and being a very emotional person, I get really frustrated when I can't express what I know to my students. I would say that the biggest problem for me and my friends - those in my generation - is this language problem.

Most professional Azerbaijanis were trained in Russian. Right?

Yes, not only did we receive our education in Russian, but we knew the world via Russian. I'm not saying that I'm old, but it's a fact that after you reach a certain age, changing the language in which you think becomes very difficult. We're on shaky ground when we start talking about the mentality of Azerbaijanis who speak Russian, compared to those who speak Azeri. I don't want to elaborate because it becomes too sensitive. Lately, I've noticed the tendency for the Russian language to make a comeback. It's again becoming more popular and I'm glad.

Perhaps, because it means that relations are getting better and that people understand the role of language in a deeper way. At first, when the Soviet Union had just collapsed, anything that had to do with Russian was completely rejected. There was a tendency to discard both the Russian language, along with its great literature. Now that things are normalizing a bit, people are beginning to admit that Russian is also a part of who we are - it's a part of our past. There was a very radical attitude when people took their children out of Russian track schools and enrolled them in Azeri track schools, I think that has changed a bit now.

Seems to me that people are just wanting to offer the best education possible to their kids.

When we were growing up, the Russian track schools were better.

They still are, aren't they?
Perhaps, you could say so. Why? Because among our more or less outstanding people - I'm speaking about members of our older generation, our scientists and artists, those who have the ability to teach others - most of them were educated in Russian and, consequently, they think in Russian. So whatever they can teach the younger generation, they do it better in Russian than in Azeri. But the situation is beginning to equalize. A lot of translations are taking place.

What kinds of trends do you see occurring in religion? Are there changes going on within society, especially among the youth?

Yes, there are new trends. What do I personally think about it? I believe in God. But I'm not a religious person. It's the same with my family. So, on the one hand I'm very happy when I see people beginning to embrace some faith and belief. But I'm against the cult of religion. I'm against forcing people to adopt religion. And I'm completely against religion as an institution. Maybe others would criticize me, but I feel that religion should be a free choice for each individual.

These days there's a great interest among our youth towards religion. We're now in the middle of the month - long period of fasting, which is known as Ramadan. All of the newspapers provide schedules telling the exact moment when the sun officially sets which is when you can break your fast and eat. Even the restaurants are posting those hours on their doors.

But the model of Islam that exists in Iran these days, at least from what I understand it to be from gleaning the TV and newspapers, is totally unacceptable to us. At least, it's unacceptable for me. You'd have to take a poll to be certain about what others think, but I seriously doubt whether Azerbaijanis would accept kind of religious model that is practiced in Iran. We're more of a secular country. Besides, our constitution supports freedom of religion and separation of the powers of Church (in this case, "Mosque") and State.

So there you have it. Times are changing. So much of our lives are in flux, but still, there are so many constants that we can depend and rely upon - so many traditions that hold our society together.

Sona Abbasova, who both contributed to the content of this article and did the simultaneous interpretation for this interview, graduated from the Institute of Foreign Languages [now University] and has worked with several companies in Baku including HSBC Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) where she is currently employed.

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