September 1993 (1.3)

Why I Don't Know Azerbaijani

by Natasha Trishkova

(Companion Piece to "Why I Had To Learn Russian" by Azar Mammad)

Non-Azerbaijani Library. Sketch from "Molla Nasreddin" (1908), a socio-political satirical magazine.

Library is probably intended to symbolize the popularity and prestige of a non-Azeri education in Azerbaijan at the time. See Cartoon in Companion Piece "Why I Had to Learn Russian".

Let me begin by immediately mentioning that I don't fnd it excusable that I don't know the language of the country in which I live. I consider it a real tragedy--a real loss. On the other hand, I don't think I should feel guilty about it.

Why is it that I have never learned Azerbaijani? On the surface, there is a very simple explanation. I don't know Azerbaijani simply because I've never learned it. And I never learned it because there has never been a need to know it. I'm not excusing myself. For a long time, I've known that this is not how it should be.

One has to understand the composition of people who are living in Baku, where I was born and raised. Azerbaijan is surprisingly multinational - Azerbaijanis, Russians, Armenians, Jews, and various other ethnic groups are native to this country. Naturally, to communicate with one another - we have chosen a medium that everybody could understand - we have all spoken Russian together.

In this process, which has occurred over the past seven decades, we have enriched Russian as it is spoken in Azerbaijan with specifc idioms, phrases, cliches, and words from Azerbaijani, and the other languages of Baku. This has enabled every nationality to preserve their own national, ethnic and religious character, and to speak and study their own language. Instruction in schools was available in Azerbaijani, Russian, and Armenian. But the language of communication among the various nationalities was Russian and this was not a burden for anybody; at least, it didn't seem so to us.

The main programs on TV and radio were in native languages. Documentaries and other flms were in Azerbaijani. But nowadays the only source of news on TV for the Russian people is a brief 15 minute program called "Telefax."

It is often argued that the Russifcation of Azerbaijan was forcibly imposed during the Bolshevik period. But I think this is a simplistic interpretation of the problem. In reality, it is much more complex. Azerbaijan was joined to Russia more than a century and a half ago. An intensive development of oil refneries, factories and plants followed. Thus the entire country's infrastructure - its transportation systems, communications, food and light industry followed.

Western entrepreneurs and businessmen like Rothschild and Nobel, who at the time had interests in Russia, invested in various spheres of industry and oil. The local bourgeoisie was represented by Tahkiyev, Nahkiyev, Mantashov, Shamsi Abdullayev, and Shahbazov, who all were very deeply involved in business. All these people became wealthy but they also made many contributions that beneftted Azerbaijan - such as the opening of schools, theaters, hospitals, etc. In fact, many of the houses which they built nearly a hundred years ago are still standing.

At the same time, there was an infux of labor into Azerbaijan, mainly from Russia. Qualifed specialists - engineers, oilmen, and chemists came from Russia and Europe and a real industrial boon began. And thus Russian became the means of communication among these people.

The frst Azerbaijani specialists - doctors, engineers, and teachers began to receive their education at the universities of Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kiev and Kharkov. By the time of the Revolution in 1917, the Baku proletariat actively reacted to all these new political tendencies in the country. After the sovietization of Azerbaijan, the process of development of the country became more intense. The frst electric railway began to operate in Baku and the basis for an industrial complex was formed. A large infux of Russian-speaking intelligentsia, specialists and labor entered the country.

We can have different attitudes towards history, but we can't wipe it out. But the situation is changing very rapidly and the attitude towards Russians is also changing. We are now experiencing a diminishing infuence of the Russian language. The problem exists not only for the Slavs, but for most of the Azerbaijani people who have received a Russian education. They simply cannot express themselves adequately in their own Republic because of their low level of knowledge of Azerbaijani.

For example, two years ago, the Soviet Ministry (now Cabinet Ministry) held a very important conference concerning the theme of global independence in relation to the national economy. Naturally, the Azerbaijani language was chosen as the working language at this conference.

As a result, two poets and a director of the wine-making region spoke; but the serious economists, the directors of the gigantic enterprises and the chiefs of the industrial complexes who wanted to say something important kept silent. They didn't dare attempt to discuss the complexities of economic problems in a language in which they did not know the special terminology.

Another example are the doctors who have graduated from medical schools in Russian who now are having problems flling out medical prescriptions. They don't have time to look up the names of diseases and symptoms. in the Azerbaijani.

However, a new situation is emerging, we must face the necessity of changing and learning Azerbaijani. As far as studying it in Russian schools is concerned, the system for studying the mother tongue has not been well formulated. It is still being taught as a foreign language. Since the method of teaching is weak, consequently, our knowledge is also weak. Though the government has declared the necessity for learning the offcial state language (Azerbaijani), they don't really assist Russian-speaking citizens in their efforts to learn.

It is true, there are other ways of learning Azerbaijani. We could pay for lessons but not everyone can afford them. When it comes to self-education, there are always the barriers of lack of patience and time - as economic pressures and infation presses in on us.

As I mentioned earlier I don't condone my not knowing the native language of the country I live in, but I'm beginning to feel so inadequate as a professional now. I'm not sure whether I will be able to advance without knowledge of Azerbaijani. Perhaps I should leave Azerbaijan like so many other Russians are doing, but I don't know where to go. I was born here. This is my home. I've completely absorbed the customs, morals, manners, and mentality of Azerbaijan--I'm afraid I would be a stranger in my own historical Motherland of Russia. I truly doubt whether I could regain my former social and economic status there and I would lose so many of my friends. I've never faced a deeper dilemma in my entire life - it's a very perplexing situation for me.

Home | About Azeri | Learn Azeri | Arabic Script | Store | Contact us

Articles from
Azerbaijan International
© Azerbaijan International. Copyright 2002. All rights reserved.