20 January 2009
Okay, so on Monday the nineteenth, I walked into the teachers’ room of the Qumlaq village school to find a big, heart-shaped bouquet of flowers. In an attempt to be the comedian, I sauntered in and said, “Ooohhh, who sent me flowers!?” My fellow teachers, who typically laugh at my jokes, no matter how bad they are, gave a pretty tame response, if one at all. It struck me as kind of weird, but after I thought for a second, the circumstances made sense, and I felt like an idiot.
Let me give you a quick Azerbaijani history lesson. Although, in 1917, Azerbaijan was proclaimed the first democratic republic in the Islamic world, it soon after, on May 28, 1920, became a Soviet Socialist Republic. In the 1930’s, the Azerbaijan S.S.R. was affected by Stalin’s purges, as thousands were killed (mainly members of the intelligentsia (who, I might add, were influenced by European ideas, rallied against poverty, ignorance, and extremism, and supported education and the emancipation of women) and other suspected opposition sympathizers).
In the 1940’s, the Azerbaijan S.S.R. was integral in the Soviet Union’s struggles against Nazi Germany, as it supplied a lot of gas and oil. Several Azerbaijani’s fought vigorously in this war, and about 400,000 died.
Policies of De-Stalinization, rapprochement, and Russification followed in the 1950’s, which led to urbanization, industrialization, and anti-religious sentiment. Although education and welfare conditions improved, the Azerbaijan S.S.R.’s economic output and productivity drastically decreased in the 1960’s, mainly because its oil industry lost much of its importance. Heydər Əliyev was then appointed as the first secretary of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan in 1969, in an effort to fix the Soviets’ structural crisis in the area, and economic conditions temporarily improved. However, he was forced to step down in 1987, when Perestroika began.
More nationalist sentiment began to emerge during this time, which was characterized by great civil unrest in the Azerbaijan S.S.R. This unrest reached the boiling point on the twentieth of January, 1990, when Soviet troops killed 132 nationalist demonstrators. Azerbaijan declared its independence in 1991, but not after a long period of ups and downs.
Ah, now do you see why I was a bit embarrassed? Schools and offices are closed on this day (which, in Azerbaijani, is “iyirmi (20) yanvar (January)”.), but it isn’t exactly a holiday. It’s a day of mourning, in which those 132 people are remembered, but, from my perspective, I look at the entire twentieth century: the government changing hands three times, thousands dying in Stalin’s purges, about 400,000 dead after the war with Nazi Germany, great civil and ethnic unrest, and 132 nationalists killed by Soviet troops. After something like that, I’d say it’s good a nation chooses to stick together, remembering its history and moving forward, and as the United States of America inaugurates a new president, I’d say it’s important that we take a hard look at past years and move forward too.