Azerbaijani History and Nationalism in the Soviet and Post-Soviet Periods: Challenges and Dilemmas

Rauf R Garagozov. Dynamics of Asymmetric Conflict. Volume 5, Issue 2. 2012.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the former Soviet republics including Azerbaijan began a process of nation-building that included rewriting history. I argue that a significant part of the challenges that confront Azerbaijani history studies and nation-building have been inherited from the previous Soviet Union. I offer first a brief analysis of the Soviet system of shaping and controlling the socialization of Azerbaijani historians. Then I explore the main dilemmas for nation-building in Azerbaijan arising in the post-Soviet period, which are complicated by military conflict with neighboring Armenia over Nagorno Karabakh.

There are many forces and factors that influence how a particular collective constructs and perceives their own past. What should be written down and what should be omitted depends, to a certain extent, on the “politics of memory” and “politics of identity” that are implemented in a given society. These, in turn, can be conditioned by a great variety of circumstances. Among these nationalism is often the most potent force, especially for young nations and newborn nation states. In this connection the case of Azerbaijan—a nation in the making—is of particular interest. For better understanding of the current challenges and dilemmas faced by nation-building in Azerbaijan, it is necessary to take at least a brief look at the previous Soviet period of Azerbaijan. Indeed, I argue that a significant part of the challenges and dilemmas that confront Azerbaijani history studies and nationalism have been inherited from the previous Soviet Union.

It should be noted that the Soviet Union was notorious not only for strictly controlling accounts of its modern history, but also for controlling the ancient histories of peoples who had come under Soviet rule. In order to achieve such control over the history of Islamic peoples within the Soviet Union, the Soviets created a complex hierarchical system of central and regional academic and educational settings focusing on oriental studies and the training of orientalists. Research agendas and instructions for these settings were defined by the Scientific Council at the Presidium of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. This Council in turn was guided by instructions supplied by the appropriate departments of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), which were responsible for outlining the ideology of the Party. The directors of all these institutions were appointed by the orders of the Communist Party’s Central Committee. Communist leaders were particularly concerned with directing scholars in the creation of “correct” historical accounts.

Thus oriental and history studies in the Soviet Union were inevitably engaged in reconstructing the pasts of constituent ethnic communities. For Muslim communities in the former Soviet Union who had no developed national historiographical traditions of their own, the Soviet oriental studies system provided a basic framework within which they were able to create their own history textbooks and produce narratives related to their history. In this way, the Soviet oriental studies program played a pivotal role in the ways that particular collectives perceive and remember their own past. Indeed, the oriental studies progam can be considered as the “institution” responsible for creating and maintaining the collective memories and national identities of these groups. The histories of the Soviet Union’s Muslim population, the overwhelming majority of which were Turkic peoples, were required to correlate with the ideology of Marxism-Leninism.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Soviet stance on the Muslim East was that it was simply “waiting” for its hour to “awaken” from centuries-old “hibernation” and struggle against “exploiters and oppressors.” During this time, Communist leaders considered Ataturk’s Turkey and even Islamic religion as their allies. In the 1930s, however, as the revolution against old regimes which was expected by Soviet ideologists has not begun in the Muslim societies, the Soviet Union’s hopes for the Muslim East were dashed. Accordingly, its policy shifted towards isolating its Muslim people from the influence of the Islamic and Turkic worlds. Soviets wanted to create a single “Soviet people”—for which they resorted to social engineering of unprecedented scope.

Beginning with this period, scholars engaged in Azerbaijani studies were faced with the major and, occasionally, life-and-death predicament of conducting and publishing research that would not lead to accusations of “pan-Islamism” or “pan-Turkism.” Taking into account the significant impact of Islam and the Turkic world on Azerbaijani history and culture, one can imagine the “skillfulness” with which these scholars had to operate in order to avoid falling into ideological dangers. Clearly, this politicization undermined the quality of scholarly works, many of which served the Party’s political line and were far from accepted scientific standards.

For example, in order to get their conclusions in accordance with the Party line, Soviet scholars were often reduced to uncritical acceptance of theoretical postulates based on primordialism or the concept of ethnogenesis. In particular, the factor of territory shaped the structure of the soviet approach, which called for a certain integrity of historical development of the Azerbaijani ethnos and statehood from ancient times to the present. In this development, the history of Azerbaijan begins with the state of Manna (ninth century bce) and embraces all subsequent states in the given territory up to the present (Mustafayev, 2007). Whatever happened in the given territory had to be relevant to the people living in this area now. Depending on how the real story of a people was different from the proposed picture of continuity on a terrritory, history was distorted to the same extent.

In general, small nations were not perceived by the Soviet ideologists as a particular threat to the main goal of shaping “Homo soveticus”. However, larger nations and especially those that have a “family” abroad—such as Turkic peoples, including Azeris—should be isolated by all means from their ethnic kin (Turks). Hence the struggle with “pan-Turkism” developed by Soviet authorities and their orientalists. A similar attitude was accepted by Soviet ideologists towards Islam. Ethnic people who had Muslim religious identity were exposed to “double sin”—the Soviet man was planned as an atheist. If an individual must believe in something it should be only in the ideals of communism.

Although nationalism was continuously in check, there remained a few possibilities to express some forms of ethno-cultural nationalism. Local scholars could express their nationalism indirectly, through the selection, translation of and commentary on primary sources. As a result, first-rate translations from Arabic, Persian, and later Turkish manuscripts in both the Azerbaijani and Russian languages appeared in Azerbaijan. Also, although limited in their scope, nationalistic sentiments could drive scholarly debates on issues not directly touching the fundamental Soviet ideological line. For example, Azerbaijani and Armenian historians waged disputes on the heritage of the Caucasian Albanians throughout the 1970s and 1990s. In some cases, such debates were even encouraged by central authorities in order to bring down the “national heat” and to manipulate conflicting parties.

Finally, local nationalism and hidden resistance to Moscow’s nationalities policy became apparent in the emergence and strengthening of various informal communications and networks linking scholars from different republics of the Soviet Union. One of the main reasons for resistance by local scholars and their networks was their discord with the Russian national chauvinism in general and the policy of Russification pursued by the central authorities in particular.

For example, when in early 1978 the issue emerged of adopting new constitutions in the republics, based on the 1977 Soviet Constitution, an attempt was made by the Soviet authorities to remove the clause that assigned the status of state language to the language of the “titular nationality” in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, and to replace it with a clause giving equal official status to the Russian language. The move was highly unpopular, and provoked a negative outcry among local scholars and public outrage in all three republics (Olsen, Pappas, & Pappas, 1994).

In 1985 the policies of glasnost and perestroika launched in the Soviet Union set in motion the rapid growth of nationalism in Azerbaijan, with enormous implications for the future development of the region. In the years that followed, the growing conflict with Armenians over Nagorno-Karabakh infused Azerbaijani nationalism with strong anti-Armenian sentiments. The Armenian claims on Nagorno-Karabakh, a region viewed by Azerbaijanis as an inalienable part of their own territorial-cultural-historical inheritance were accompanied by what is known as a “war of historians,” in which both sides appealed to historical facts to justify territorial claims. Glasnost and perestroika gave a new dynamics to these debates by opening the archives containing new and previously hidden documents.

The Soviet social experiment in redrawing history, which was carried out for 70 years with almost two generations of people belonging to a wide variety of ethno-linguistic, religious and racial groups across very different levels of socioeconomic development, did not succeed. The failure of the experiment to reach its goal—to form a new community of the “Soviet Man”—became obvious on 26 December 1991: the Soviet Union collapsed.

The end of the Soviet system has allowed Azerbaijanis ever more confidently to turn to their own history and collective memory, both of which had been seriously distorted by the Communist authorities, and thus to continue the process of the recovery of their own past that began during the period of glasnost and perestroika. This was a time of enormous growth in the interest of people to their own history, a rethinking of well-known events and new attention to almost unknown and largely forgotten events which one might call “the blank spots” of history.

A similar process has been going on in all former Soviet republics, but what makes the situation in Azerbaijan unique is that up to now almost all of these “blank spots” being filled in concern the complicated history of Armenian-Azerbaijani conflicts. And there are at least two, in many respects mutually reinforcing, reasons why there has continued to be no lessening in the interest of Azerbaijani society in precisely these questions.

On the one hand, it was precisely during the Gorbachev period that Armenians demanded the transfer of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan to the neighboring Armenian SSR even though Azerbaijanis have always viewed Karabakh as an inalienable part of their own cultural-historical inheritance. Not surprisingly, Armenian claims to the contrary sparked an interest in the history of this district and the region as a whole among Azerbaijanis.

And on the other hand, many historical events, with the closest causal connection with the Karabakh conflict, had to a large degree been forgotten or distorted in favor of the ideological requirements of the Communist regime. In particular, the treatment of such themes as the history of the Caucasus of the nineteenth century, of the establishment of Soviet power in Azerbaijan, or of the Armenian-Azerbaijani clashes of the beginning of the twentieth century was so reduced or distorted as to constitute “blank spots” in the historical memory of the Azerbaijani people.

Consequently, it should come as no surprise that a book published in Baku in 1990 and devoted to the history of Armenian-Azerbaijani conflicts of the beginning and end of the twentieth century, bore the highly symbolic title Blank spots of history and perestroika (Mansurov, 1990). Many historical events of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had been subject to a taboo in Soviet times and thus were kept out of the collective memory of Azerbaijanis. The result was that the outburst of Armenian expansionism and territorial claims against Azerbaijan at the end of the twentieth century was something completely unexpected for a large part of Azerbaijani society and shocked many people.

Initially, the Armenian side turned out to be ideologically better prepared for the conflict: thanks to the efforts of Armenian propagandists and assorted experts allied with them, Armenian explanations predominated. The Azerbaijani position on all this for a long time was not even heard, not only because the Armenians were so ready with answers but also because the Azerbaijanis were to a large extent not prepared to express their own views with precision. The reasons for these differences lie in the very different historical minds of the two peoples and, even more, in the differences between the nature of the collective memories of Armenians and Azerbaijanis.

French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs (1992), a founder of the academic study of collective memory, noted that individual memories in order to survive for any length of time must correspond to certain “social frameworks,” within whose space they can be placed. From this flow two important consequences relevant to our story here. It can mean that these frameworks distort personal memories in a way that Lowenthal (2001, p. xiii) says leads to “the syndrome of false collective memory.” Orit can, when these social frameworks are lacking, lead to a situation in which individual memories are condemned to disappear. The first variant is what has been the case for Armenian collective memory; the second, for the Azerbaijani.

The Armenian framework for a long time has been well-developed, and its narrative centers on the belief that Armenians are a people surrounded by enemies who will triumph if they remain true to their faith and their people. Initially, these narratives were written for powerful clans but increasingly they reflected the views of the Armenian Church. And then with the rise of modern nationalism, the people or nation replaced the faith at the center of the narrative, but the basic storyline remained unchanged, as Marc Ferro (2003) has shown in his study of the informal histories Armenians have passed down within their families.

The situation with regard to Azerbaijani collective memories has been entirely different, reflecting heroic tales and epic storytelling. These stories talk mostly about individual heroism or unrequited love rather than about the people as a nation in history. Without the frame of a people moving through time, many historical events are at risk of being discarded and Azerbaijanis are at a disadvantage in the conflict of histories.

These characteristic difficulties of Azerbaijani collective memory, which have given birth to remarkable lacunae in their collective images about their past, gave great opportunities for all kinds of historical innovations and constructions that distorted the historical record in the twentieth century. Thus it was no accident that in the Soviet period, Azerbaijani historiography was far more fabricated than were the historiographies of neighboring nationalities.

Taking advantage of new opportunity with glasnost, Azerbaijani scholars took the lead in retrieving and publicizing documents and information with close causal connections to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Based on new information, they called into question the Soviet treatment of such themes as the history of the Caucasus of the nineteenth century, of the establishment of Soviet power in Azerbaijan, and the Armenian-Azerbaijani clashes of the early twentieth century. Ziya Buniyatov, a well-known Azerbaijani-Soviet orientalist, academician of the Azerbaijani National Academy of Sciences, played a leading role in the process of reconsidering the official history. Under his editorship, from 1988 to 1990, the journal of the National Academy of Sciences published many historical and archival documents disclosing the facts about Armenians’ mass resettlement in the Caucasus after the Russian empire conquered this territory at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Azerbaijani independence after the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 stimulated the development of nationalist sentiments in two divergent forms: nationalism based on ethnicity and nationalism based on citizenry.

Ethnic nationalism achieved its peak under Abulfaz Elchibey (Aliyev), an orientalist by profession who led Azerbaijan for a short period in 1991. Being an ardent adherent of Turkey he regarded Azerbaijanis as Turks and their language as a dialect of Anatolian Turkish. It was not coincidental that during Elchibey’s administration the Milli Mejlis (local parliament) passed a law on language that changed its name from Azerbaijani to “Turkic”. However, Heydar Aliev, the former member of the Soviet politburo who replaced Elchibey as president in 1992, changed the name of the language back to Azerbaijani and included it within the Constitution adopted in 1995. The main purpose of this act was to emphasize the uniqueness of the Azerbaijani nation.

Like many other nationalist programs throughout the world, Azerbaijani nationalism looks for various symbols, historical narratives, and different cultural artifacts which would help answer one question: what does it mean to be Azerbaijani? This process inevitably includes such activities as: opposing of “us” and “our nation” against “them” and “their nation,” drawing up of a pantheon of valorous ancestors, lengthening the glorious history, inventing of traditions, and creating a collective memory. But if, owing to the conflict with Armenians, Azerbaijani nationalist imagination has had no problems with creating the image of “enemy,” the pursuit of certain other aspects of the nationalist agenda has been difficult. Lack of a developed national historiographical tradition, and an often dubious historical record, are among the main factors in creating an inhospitable environment for the resolution of matters such as who to include into the list of national heroes, and how to write the definitive national history.

The previous approach to these issues, subservient to the demands of communist ideology, could hardly satisfy the aims of contemporary Azerbaijani nationalism. In particular, the Soviet authorities and academicians constructing Azerbaijani identity, “Azerbaijanizm,” did so in conscious contradistinction to “pan-Islamism” and “pan-Turkism”. It was expected that the creation of this model of the Azerbaijani nation would make it easier to integrate Azerbaijanis into the community of Soviet people. For this reason, Soviet scholars created a national history and list of national heroes that would distance Azerbaijanis from other Turkic peoples.

As a result of this approach the list of Azerbaijani national heroes has included such figures as Javanshir, a seventh-century Albanian Christian prince and commander, and Babek, a ninth-century staunch defender of Zoroastrianism and the leader of rebellion against Islam who was also known for his persecutions of Albanians. These personages, who were connected to Azerbaijan by their birthplace and the territories of their activities, were called on to symbolize Azerbaijanizm cleansed of its Islamic and Turkic features.

It is not surprising that this Soviet rendering is perceived as being of limited value by contemporary Azerbaijani nationalism in its quest for an unambiguous historical picture which could account for the consequent development of Azerbaijan as an emerging nation-state. The Soviet version of Azerbaijani history has also evoked many complaints among nationalists who argue that it is a history of Azerbaijani territory while the history of the Azerbaijani people, which is closely connected with the Turkic and Islamic world, is absent or fabricated. Responding to such demands, historians in Azerbaijan are currently driven by nationalist ideology, having turned towards revealing the Turkic roots of Azerbaijani nationhood, an area of inquiry long neglected by Soviet orientalist scholars.

Two main approaches to Azerbaijani nationhood that can be summed up as the “history of Azerbaijan” versus the “history of the Azerbaijani people” have emerged. These are the poles within which tense debates on nationhood are occurring. Supporters of the former approach believe that the construction of national history should be done within the basic Soviet paradigm with the addition of long-neglected historical data on the Turkic and Islamic features of Azerbaijani people and culture. Those who support the latter approach believe that the Soviet paradigm of Azerbaijani history must be abandoned and a new history focusing on the Azerbaijani people must be written. Indeed, the future of nation-building in Azerbaijan will, to a certain extent, be defined by how this dilemma is resolved in future debates on history writing and Azerbaijani nationhood.