The Azerbaijani Turks

Azerbaijani_TurksIn her comprehensive account of Azerbaijan’s rich and diverse history, Dr. Audrey Altstadt frames Azerbaijani national identity as a story of empires and the political nature of culture. From the early state of Caucasian Albania to the Soviet Empire, Azerbaijan has been subject to a diverse array of cultures, languages, and political systems. Tracing the evolution of the Azerbaijani Turkic cultural identity to a national consciousness, Dr. Altstadt documents the emergence of modern Azerbaijani national cultural awaking in the early 20th century under Russian, and later Soviet, rule. She demonstrates how the development of a modern, secular Azerbaijani Turkic identity led to the emergence of a united religious and cultural front. Politicized to form Azerbaijani identity in contrast to the russification and colonialism of the Russian and Soviet Empires, this identity was designed to form a cultural bulwark in a country increasingly independent of outside influences. Please listen to the interviews with Dr. Altstadt on the Azerbaijani Radio Hour as she elaborates on her research and future projects on November_6November_13, and November_20.

An excellent account of Azerbaijan under Soviet rule, Dr. Altstadt meticulously compiles names, dates, and locations in her seminal work on Azerbaijan. The revival of Turkic culture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries played a vital role in establishing a legitimate Azerbaijani national identity to contend with colonial Russian/Soviet influences. Control over Azerbaijani culture and language further highlight the powerful nature of culture, as it posed a threat to the legitimacy of the Soviet Union and its communist doctrine. Language, ever a political topic, was subject to russification with the imposition of the Cyrillic alphabet on the formerly Arabic and Latin script language. However, after independence, Azerbaijani reverted back to a Latin-based script, which it had adopted briefly from 1929-1938. The imposition of communist-style collective farms and governing councils as well as the deportation, repression, and even execution of Azerbaijani intelligentsia further undermined traditional Azerbaijani culture.

Using both original research and official histories, Dr. Altstadt leads readers through the complex history that formed today’s Azerbaijan. One interesting note is Dr. Altstadt’s research regarding Azerbaijan’s national cultural revival in the 1980s. In contrast to other authors’ claims that the Soviet policy of glasnost (openness) re-opened and ignited long-repressed national identities, Altstadt points to former President Heydar Aliyev as the force behind Azerbaijan’s national revival. Whether or not this directly led to the downfall of the Soviet Union remains a source of contention; however, the celebration of Azerbaijani culture provided a much-needed infusion of national pride into the national political consciousness, vital for the formation of an independent Azerbaijan.

Despite a rich collection of literature and cultural information, Dr. Altstadt glosses over the development and importance of the khanates that made up the territory of Azerbaijan before the Russian Empire. While this simplifies the story, the omission fails to highlight the political structure of the Azerbaijani Turks before the Russian Empire. Moreover, Dr. Altstadt’s book would benefit from an update to her authoritative compilation Azerbaijani history. Written immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union, her story conveniently ends in 1990 and omits key challenges in Azerbaijan’s post-Soviet history.

For readers unfamiliar with Azerbaijani history, this book can be overwhelmingly detailed, and difficult to read. Readers must keep in mind that different accounts and opinions of events in the book exist. Much of the existing literature on the subject does not represent Azerbaijani points of view. Dr. Altstadt presents her book using extensive research of historical archives to substantiate her point and understanding of Azerbaijani history. Despite these challenges, Azerbaijani Turks: Power and Identity under Russian Rule remains a must-read for anyone interested in the region.

Post written by Devin Conley, Karabakh Foundation Analytical and Editorial Intern

Culture Smart: Azerbaijan

culture_smart_azerbaijanOften described as the crossroads of East and West, Azerbaijan is in a unique cultural position that shifts between traditional and modern. Despite a booming economy and winning the Eurovision last year, traditional culture is alive and well in Azerbaijan. However, with this increased global visibility, many visitors and businesses are bumping up against cultural barriers and confusion. While seemingly minor, cultural idiosyncrasies and misunderstandings can determine the outcome of a business deal or affect neighborly relations. In her book Azerbaijan – Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture, author Nikki Kazimova walks readers through the intricacies of history and decodes social norms that provide insight into Azerbaijani culture and people.

A veteran of cross cultural communications and cultural diplomacy, Ms. Kazimova integrates her business and communication background with a discussion of history and society to provide a broader interpretation of Azerbaijani culture. Raised in Baku and educated as an Edmund S. Muskie Graduate Fellow in the United States, she is uniquely qualified to examine her own culture through a foreign lens. She has worked in both the U.S. and Azerbaijan for major companies such as CNN and Exxon-Mobil and has extensive media and journalism experience. Please listen to Ms. Kazimova on the April 8 2012 Azerbaijani Radio Hour interview for an in-depth discussion on her most recent publication, professional career, and future projects.

Written in a simple yet direct manner, the book is designed for those conducting business in Azerbaijan or for serious tourists interested in more than a cursory cultural experience. The book provides a cheat sheet of customs, social norms, and values to integrate the reader into Azerbaijani society. For example, gender roles and relations are explained in the context of dating, family relations, and values. Tips like how to get around like a local and where to shop for groceries provide invaluable insights to a successful cultural experience.

Hospitality is also a cornerstone of Azerbaijani society, expressing the belief that generosity is one of life’s core values. Ms. Kazimova gives tips on how to successfully benefit from invitations and social interactions that form the basis of Azerbaijani relationships. Another insight she gives is the importance of relationships over deadlines and timeliness, another sticking point that often provides a stark contrast and frustration between Azerbaijanis and Westerners, particularly in business matters.

On a higher level, this is a simple expression of cultural diplomacy at its best. The book does not excuse or dismiss cultural issues, but merely seeks to promote mutual understanding. It portrays a cultural richly grounded in history, yet quickly adapting to the demands of modernity and foreign investment. In the years to come, Azerbaijan will become more of a global player in an increasingly interdependent world: without a doubt, this book is a valuable resource and a must-read for those who travel and do business in Azerbaijan.

Post written by Devin Conley, Karabakh Foundation Analytical and Editorial Intern