Azerbaijan International

Winter 2003 (11.4)
Pages 70-73

Today's Youth
A View from the 1950s Generation
by Dr. Mehman Aghayev

In my opinion, today's youth are far more developed than the youth who grew up in my generation in the 1950s and 1960s. The distinct difference is that these days youth have more freedom to express their thoughts and ideas and they have more access to knowledge. In this age of information if they are to compete on an international scale, they have no choice but to become more knowledgeable, regardless of whether they want to or not.

When I was growing up, man had not even ventured into outer space. It has only been since the 1960s that man has walked on the Moon. Technology has totally changed our lives and revitalized our thinking. Nuclear technologies have been developed and computers are being used in every sphere imaginable.

My generation grew up during the Soviet times (1920-1991), an era which was defined by its own peculiarities. People were not able to openly express what they really thought; otherwise, they could have been fired from their jobs, arrested, put into psychiatric wards, and sometimes even assassinated. Naturally, people didn't want to ruin their lives, so they pursued the "politically correct" path that was expected of them, in praise of the very system that ensnared them.

Exchange of Ideas
But today, youth have much more freedom. Let me explain. If a young person in my time had written an article critical of the government, there would have been no way to attract international attention to these issues. But now the youth can easily spread their ideas throughout the world via Internet. Entire books, hundreds of pages in length, can be exchanged instantaneously between the far corners of the globe.

In the past, it simply would have been impossible for us to impress our ideas beyond our own borders - not because of the mailing system, but because of the information blockade which kept us from receiving or sending out any such material officially. We would have had to pass such material to someone secretly to carry out in a suitcase and few people would have agreed.

In the past several years since independence in Azerbaijan (1991), there has been a surge in the interest of Islam, particularly among the youth.
Left: In the past several years since independence in Azerbaijan (1991), there has been a surge in the interest of Islam, particularly among the youth.

The information exchange that we are witnessing today is bringing about an immense transformation in our society. In reality, the stagnation of ideas was one of the reasons why the Soviet Union was doomed to collapse.

We were living in a closed system, deprived of the fresh exchange of ideas that keeps a society dynamic.

Unfortunately, even though our youth now have more freedom and more knowledge in so many more spheres, many of the people of the older generation - of my generation - are impeding their development. I'm referring to corruption. This is part of the negative legacy of the Soviet period - part of what is left over from socialism. By doing this, the older generation (if I may express it this way) spits on the souls of the youth. I'm referring, for example, to the obstacles that we put in front of students: making them bow to those in high positions, pay bribe money or pay illegal fees.

These practices all contribute to ruining the souls and minds of our youth because it convinces them that this is the normal way of life. They see very serious looking elderly people sitting in front of them, managing offices and occupying high positions, and suddenly they realize that such people create artificial obstacles just to get money for tasks that they are supposed to do as a normal part of their job.

That's what causes young people to change their attitudes towards life. Their ideas of justice and fairness get broken and as a result, they lose faith in people, in themselves, and in their future.

There are so many shortcomings in our present - day education system. We need to train specialists in a purposeful, constructive way. No corruption, no lies. Then people will care about their professions.

When it comes to teachers, I would say that so many of them have turned out to be rotten and corrupt. They delight when students don't study because it means they can make them pay bribes for good grades. Teachers need to get higher salaries so that they will leave the students alone. Take the average salary of teachers at Medical University; it's between $100-$150 per month which is simply not enough to live on.

Below: Most of Baku's mosques were destroyed or converted to secular uses during the Soviet period (1920-1991). The two exceptions were this one- the Imam Husein Mosque in the center of Baku and Taza Pir. Since independence, several new mosques have been built and many of the older ones have been renovated and restored to usage as mosques. The traditional call to prayer (azan), amplified via loudspeakers, is now heard in nearly every neighborhood at sunrise, noon and sunset.

Most of Baku's mosques were destroyed or converted to secular uses during the Soviet period (1920-1991). The two exceptions were this one- the Imam Husein Mosque in the center of Baku and Taza Pir. Since independence, several new mosques have been built and many of the older ones have been renovated and restored to usage as mosques. The traditional call to prayer (azan), amplified via loudspeakers, is now heard in nearly every neighborhood at sunrise, noon and sunset.
Not Confident of Future
I don't sense that our youth have confidence in their future. When I was young, we knew that if we studied well in high school that we would get accepted into an institute or university. After graduation, we knew a job would be waiting for us. We also knew that, depending upon how knowledgeable and skillful we were, we would be able to advance our careers. But, youth today are not sure of the very things that we used to take for granted.

Life has become much more difficult for them. Their success does not necessarily depend upon how smart they are. After graduation, they face difficulties in getting jobs in their chosen field. Most of them are not able to find fulfilling jobs. Other factors play major roles: especially bribery, and the common practice of "tapsh" (a word derived from "tapshirmag", meaning "to ask for somebody/speak up for somebody"). It means that someone else puts in a word for you - that you aren't necessarily chosen on your own merits, but that favoritism plays a major role.

At present, so many of our youth are suffering from financial difficulties. Some can't afford to pay for education and, therefore, they can't pursue the education that they want. They don't have enough money to travel abroad. Many of them are unemployed. These things break their spirits and make them depressed. Some of them are obliged to work as manual laborers because they can't make a living in their own fields, especially guys. As for the young women, some of them fall under evil influences and go down the wrong path, especially if they desperately need money.

Consider today's show business. You see so many young people, especially women, trying to succeed in this field. Most of them don't have the necessary talent. Their biographies typically read: married, divorced, found a sponsor, produced one or two videos. And that's it. And you can't determine from their performances whether they are really trying to make it as a singer or dancer.

But the classic singers of our times, such as Shovkat Alakbarova [1922-1993], Sara Gadimova [b. 1922], Bulbul [1897-1961] and Rashid Behbudov [1915-1989] achieved popularity in quite a different way - step by step.

Broken Traditions
Nowadays, there are so few role models for the young. The truth is that most of the older people don't even have jobs. They while away the hours, sitting at home, chatting and gossiping with neighbors. It's as if life had discarded them as an undue heavy burden. This causes them great psychological suffering. Many of them die much sooner than they would have under normal circumstances. Thus, they don't have opportunities to be the role models for youth. They are not able to lead the youth; this is a tragic situation.

It means that our traditions are disappearing. In the past, our usual practice was to pass knowledge from grandfather to father, and then, to son. But now because of the change in the economic system, these traditions have been disrupted. It's as if one link in the chain has been broken, and this, in turn, means that most young people are groping to find their own way - reinventing practices that are already known and proven. They are deprived of the wonderful examples from the older generation.

Of course, there are some fine opportunities for youth nowadays. We have the principles of equality, freedom and democracy now and they are, more or less, in place, especially if you compare this period with the Soviet period.

Youth do have opportunities to develop now: the main problem is finances. For example, to get a good education, many young people are eager to go abroad. But this requires money. Very few youth can gain access to the limited scholarships that are available in Azerbaijan for studying abroad. Some, of course, can go on their father's expense, but that doesn't necessarily mean that these youth are the most knowledgeable or most qualified from our country. Most of the talented young people don't get such a chance.

I see another trend developing these days. Young people are not finishing their education. There are some youth whose parents are obliged to take them out of school after the third or fourth grade (nine or ten years old). This means these children will grow up without even having a secondary education. Some of them can't even read or write. This is a great tragedy for our nation.

Working Abroad
Some young men go abroad to earn money. Their wives, left here at home, end up having to take on the full responsibility of rearing the children. Often such arrangements result in the children not being brought up well. No doubt this will affect these children as they mature and become adults. In turn, these young people who go abroad often contract all kinds of diseases.

So, these are the problems of the present day youth. To solve the problems of our youth would mean to solve the problems of our society. You have to give the Soviets credit for one thing: they had a very good indoctrination system. Schoolchildren would start school as Octoberists. Then they would become Pioneers, Komsomols and, finally, full-fledged members of the Communist Party. This system was so efficient and worked so well that the government was able to inculcate its ideas and values into the minds of its people, beginning at the earliest ages.

No indoctrination
But now there is no indoctrination system anymore: there is a huge vacuum. The few youth organizations that exist almost don't do anything. There are no Pioneer organizations anymore. That's why our youth lack ideas about patriotism and national values.

When you ask them to tell you about someone who was as important to the establishment and concept of Azerbaijan's nationhood as Shah Ismayil Khatai, many of them don't even know when he reigned or what role he played. [Shah Ismayil Khatai (1485-1524) was a well-known poet and statesman who founded the powerful centralized state of Safavids (Azerbaijan). He wrote many poems in the Azeri language, which he raised to the official status of state language.]

Or when you ask young people what classic literature they've read (both Azerbaijani and foreign), only 10 to 15 percent of them can name even a few works. Again, this is lack of a system to encourage cultural development. During the Soviet period, youth were encouraged to read many classics; that's why the theaters and concert halls were full. But now moral values have changed and part of it can be traced to the fact that our youth don't know classic literature.

When talking about national values, I'm referring to Mammad Sayid Ordubadi's "Sword and Pen" or Nizami's "Khamsa". I'm sure that if you ask 10 young people to recite something from Nizami, nine of them won't be able to. Whereas, Nizami is so strong, so philosophically deep, that very few other poets in the world can be compared to him.

Or if you ask youth if they've read "War and Peace" by Tolstoy (1828-1910) or anything by the great American writer Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945), they'll tell you, "no". Whereas, during the Soviet period, almost everybody would have known this author. We knew who Mark Twain (1835-1910) was and that he had written "The Prince and the Pauper".

Soviet education was very strong. Secondary schools offered a general education that covered many, many fields. After finishing secondary school, each young person had some general knowledge about fields such as chemistry, biology, physics, algebra, geometry, literature, world history, world geography, astronomy, and a foreign language. I can still imagine the map of Africa in my mind and tell you the names of all the countries [as they were called at that time] - their territorial size and their main economic activities.

The educational program is almost the same now, but the level of instruction is much lower; therefore, after finishing school, our youth have very little idea about what these sciences are all about. In the past, they would have had to learn their lessons well; otherwise, the Pioneer or Komsomol leaders would have embarrassed them in public and called their parents to discuss these problems.

But the situation is different now. Even when the parents are called to school, they say, "Fine, if my child doesn't want to study, what difference will it make? Look at all these educated people in the streets. So what, that they studied hard and earned university or graduate degrees? They have no work now! They either sell their labor or trade at 'tolkuchkas'! [a Russian word, which is also used in Azeri, to describe an open-air market where people sell goods brought from Turkey and China.] So, does it matter if my child has a diploma or not if he's just going to sell his labor?"

Need for jobs
So, how can we solve this problem? First of all, we need to create new jobs for our youth. They need to know that they are needed in society and that if they work hard, there is a place for them.

For example, let's take sports. Fortunately, sports have developed well during this past decade. Other spheres should follow their example. Within the last seven or eight years, we've made considerable progress in this field. Our athletes are winning gold medals in many international competitions. How can we explain that?

One could say that we've always had strong sportsmen in the past as well. But if that's true, why didn't anybody know about them? Simply, because somebody started working very seriously with these youth. Talented individuals were invited to sports and opportunities were created for their development. Then, the organizers selected the "Best of the Best," and these athletes had the chance to go to the Olympic Games in Sydney [2000].

They returned to Baku with three medals (two gold and one bronze). Our athletes (both men and women) are doing very well in other World and European championships and the international community is starting to know Azerbaijan through sports.

Such organized efforts are very important for the development of the youth. The reason Azeri sports developed so quickly was because we have the National Olympic Committee here. Ilham Aliyev, now our President, led it, and I hope he continues this work, not only in the field of sports, but also in many other fields throughout the Republic.

New attitudes
Generally speaking, I have faith in our youth. What happens to them greatly depends on us, the older generation. But we are not really in a position to train them because we've come from the Soviet system. That system was wrong, abnormal and deformed.

The views today - attitude towards life, work, business and the market economy and even toward each other - are all quite different from our perspective from the past. We think of the market economy as a bazaar where people buy and sell. But, in reality, market economy is a science; it's a way of life. That's why we are not able to explain to youth the things that they themselves can understand. We cannot comprehend them because we've come from a different system.

During the Soviet period, the society was built completely differently. It was a society built on idealism. All the rules of the Soviet system were written down on paper; and in real life, people followed these rules: "All people are brothers." "People must help each other." "Education and medical treatment must be free" (and they really were free). But now, in most situations, people must pay for medical treatment.
Islam, Christianity and Judaism are three religions of faith which inherently possess an enormous power. Smart governments take advantage of this power and use it to focus the energy of their people.

The attitude toward religion is changing. The other day on television, we saw Putin [Russia's President] attending church. Or, we remember when the late President Heydar Aliyev went to Mecca [in the 1990s]. Never in the past would the head of the Soviet government ever have visited a religious site and participated in such rituals. But now they do.

I think that most people who talk about religion here in our country really don't have much of an idea what religion is all about. To talk about religion, you first must study it. I think all high schools should teach the basics of religion - not only Islam, but also Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Hare Krishna and other major religions.

We should enable people to understand the essence of these religions and then choose for themselves. I'm not saying that they should be deeply religious. But religion can help people develop a sense of morality and enrich their inner world. It can change their attitude towards life and towards other people. They can become different people, trying to make correct decisions. They would expect more justice in life.

It has been proven that in societies where religion is present (I'm referring to genuine religion, not a distorted and extremist form), alcoholism and drug almost do not exist because religion exposes the true nature of these addictions.

It seems to me that if many young people are turning to religion these days, it's because they are without hope. I suspect that very few people turn to religion in a purposeful way. Perhaps, they would if they really understood the substance of religion.

Of course, there are many young people doing "namaz" (Islamic ritual of daily prayer) these days. But many of them do it without understanding religion in depth. If youth understand religion and, only after that, they start doing namaz - then it's good for them. But, if they do it blindly, out of desperation, then I'm against it.

This tendency to turn to religion is not just apparent among youth, older people are exploring it as well. Older people, who grew up during the Soviet period without knowing what religion was, are beginning to do namaz as well.

But I think they go to religion out of desperation. They've lost everything and they think, "At least, let me make an attempt to pray to God".

And drugs. Many more people are doing drugs now than in the past - many, many more. I know because some of them come to me for help [as a medical doctor]. What's very interesting is that there are many drug addicts among the children of the wealthy. It's as if this is some kind of punishment from God because these people have robbed the nation and are not contributing anything to society. They create "papanin gul balasi" [literally "father's flower - child", meaning when parents do everything to please and spoil their children]. This eventually leads to the destruction of their own children.

All in all, I think that the future of Azerbaijan will become better, but it all depends on the circumstances. If more jobs are created in the next five to six years, things will be better. By that, I mean factories must be opened and many other private businesses must begin. Then after graduation, students will have a place to work. These days, many students graduate and just wander the streets unable to find any job. Lack of a stable income source deprives our youth of the chance to marry the person whom they love. And those who do marry, often end up divorcing because they can't support their family. All these factors are interconnected and lead to broken dreams and an unstable society.

If President Ilham Aliyev opens more jobs for our youth, makes some changes in the educational system and in youth organizations, if he deliberately and purposefully focuses on their development, then I'm sure so much will change for the better. The youth are our future. In 15-20 years, the Republic will be in their hands. What we plan for now will become our future. So many things will fall into place if we can just create an economic base. It's the most pressing issue that must be solved in the next few coming years.

Dr. Mehman Aghayev graduated from Baku Medical Institute in 1968. In 1986, he received his Doctor's degree and was awarded the title of Professor, both from Moscow. Currently, he teaches at the Chair of the Diagnostics of Internal Diseases at Azerbaijan Medical University. Aghayev specializes in «scientific» medicine, but he has also studied and now practices traditional medicine, with special emphasis on aromatherapy. Contact Dr. Aghayev at:

Dr. Aghayev was interviewed by his daughter Arzu who was curious about her father's impressions of young people her age. Arzu is the Baku Manager for Azerbaijan International magazine. In this issue, she also wrote the feature about the new phenomenon of Women Drivers in Azerbaijan -
"Hey Dragon! Need a Driver?" - reflecting upon her own experience of driving in Baku.

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