In 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_6, November_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