Why do many of us struggle to love ourselves as a nation?

 Why do many of us struggle to love ourselves as a nation?

Why do many of us struggle to love ourselves as a nation? Colonisation and its by-products of internalised oppression and cultural inferiority in the Azerbaijani identity.

“But we don’t have a Dostoyevsky” wrote a dismayed social media user under a post on the importance of preserving and developing the Azerbaijani language. The comment did not cause a significant negative reaction from the local population because, unfortunately it expressed a relatively popular belief. “Great Russian Language” and “Great Russian Literature” are terms often used by many Azerbaijanis followed by opinions that Azerbaijani language and literature are inferior to the Russian one. “But they educated us” is also a common statement voiced by Azerbaijanis when oppression of cultural identities by Soviet authorities is discussed.


Many of us believe that as a nation we are incapable of greatness and excellence because we are inherently “backward”, “lazy” and “unsophisticated”, adjectives precisely echoing colonial governments’ views of colonised populations. We attack our national identity publicly and privately. There are popular pages on social media describing “Azerbaijani national traits” in a mocking and humiliating style under headlines “Only in Azerbaijan”. For example, we call negative social behaviours such as being late a national habit of Azerbaijanis. We mock centuries old traditions such as large communal weddings and funerals as backward. We find different accents in the Azerbaijani language laughable.


“But honestly, what do we have in terms of art and cultural heritage? Not much compared to the West” a friend told me quite matter-of-factly once. “We have no meaningful art history because we converted to Islam and drawing faces was banned” I heard young Azerbaijanis discuss at a dinner party. “Why do we devalue our art and our culture? Who and when decided that portraits are the only and most valuable form of art?” I asked myself, quickly remembering the answer: European and Russian colonial empires.


As Pakistani-American visual artist Shahzia Sikander rightfully explains, “Our understanding of art history has long been Eurocentric, so we come into the world primed to belittle or dismiss anything outside the Western canon. Beliefs in binaries such as East-West, Islamic-Western, Asian-White or oppressive-free are deeply entrenched in how we view the world”[1].


This belief system where a nation or a group of people degrade themselves and uphold other nations is called internalised oppression.


In her article “Yeah, but they’re white” Dr. Sarah Webb explains this as “the belief among historically oppressed people that negative stereotypes about themselves and positive stereotypes about a dominant group are, in fact, true”.


In his book “My Grandmother’s Hands” trauma therapist Resmaa Menakem says: “Oppressed people often internalize the trauma-based values and strategies of their oppressors. … In many of us this self-hate lives so deep in our bodies that our thinking brains are unaware of it”.


“Two things are happening”, explains psychologist Gulnara Akbarova in the panel discussion “Is Europe the birthplace of progress?”. “Both Stockholm syndrome and brainwashing are involved”. She says nations who are oppressed naturally produce large amounts of anger in their bodies. However, since it is impossible for them to express that anger or end the oppression, they transform it into self-hate and admiration for the oppressor “denying their own identities and wishing to become like the coloniser”.


The self-hate of the oppressed is meticulously engineered by the oppressor-coloniser. This is done by creating and spreading false beliefs about superiority of the oppressor with carefully crafted propaganda strategies.


In European colonial empires “Europe’s cultural superiority was held to be self-evident, and with it the right and duty to favor non-European peoples with the blessings of European civilization”[2]. “Knowledge of non-European space was structured by a ‘grammar of oppositions: we and they, civilized and savage, rational and superstitious, enterprising and lazy’”[3].


Similar mentality was dominant in the Russian Empire. The empire justified invasion of other territories as their obligation to bring “European Civilization, progress and enlightenment into isolated and backward region”[4].


Brainwashed by these strategies oppressed nations disconnect from their past and devalue their history and culture as “uncivilised”.


“If culture was a house, then language was the key to the front door, to all the rooms inside.”, Khaled Hosseini.


Language is the cornerstone of culture. It is not a mere system of communication but fundamental to one’s sense of self. This is why colonial powers use language and education as political weapons when colonising large populations. Azerbaijan has been under the colonial impact of Russian language since before the Soviet occupation as it was under the reign of the Russian Empire. Advancing professionally in the Empire and in the Union required knowledge of Russian.


Alphabet was changed twice in Soviet Azerbaijan, initially in 1929 from Arabic to Latin, then in 1939 from Latin to Cyrillic each time creating educational stagnation by making the literate semi-illiterate and disconnecting future generations from their ancestors. Moving from Arabic to Latin was applauded by some local intellectuals of the time as according to them Latin gave Azerbaijani language more room for expression. (Latin is the current official alphabet of the Republic of Azerbaijan). However, there was no linguistic justification to move the alphabet from Latin to Cyrillic.

In 1938 the teaching of Russian language was made mandatory in all non-Russian schools across the USSR making Russian the unofficial official language of the Union.

Unspoken and unwritten hierarchy of speaking Russian as the second language emerged: top of the hierarchy were people speaking fluent Russian without an accent; middle of the hierarchy were people speaking with a local accent, and bottom belonged to those who spoke little or no Russian. The latter were considered uneducated and were mocked by their Russian speaking countrymen, an attitude still present in modern day Azerbaijan. Statements such as “They speak Russian, they are of intelligentsia” can be heard in the country.


This policy of linguistic imperialism called “russification” was presented as progressive and developmental for the non-Russian speaking populations of occupied territories both in the Russian Empire and in the Soviet Union. This colonial viewpoint is upheld even today. In a 2017 study of Russian Empire’s language policies by Moscow State Institute of International Relations researchers argued that “Russian missionaries and teachers played a significant role in educating the indigenous peoples of the country”[5] (underscore added by the author). When it comes to the impact “russification” had on identities of non-Russians they concluded that “Learning Russian naturally influenced the picture of the world but did not totally destroy it because the native languages were still used in informal and sometimes formal communication”[6] (underscore added by the author) inadvertently confirming limitations put on the use of native languages.


As much as the Soviet Union attempted to distance itself from the political heritage of the Russian Empire, it took a similar colonial approach to the occupied territories. Culture and language were weaponised under the umbrella of developing Soviet nation’s literacy level and allowing for freedom of expression. Goal was to form a Soviet citizen who would serve the Communist Party’s political and economic goals, and be anything but free.

Hence, although literacy numbers rose each year and reached almost universal level by around 1950s, it is wrong to conclude this was done for the highest good of the people. The purpose was indoctrination. Primers in literacy trainings, for example, included phrases such as We have fought for the Soviets, The Soviets have given us land, factories and plants and “The Soviets are our strength.[7]

Changes were made not just to the alphabet, but also to the names of languages and content of languages. This strategy aimed to disconnect populations from their cultural identities. “Languages close to each other were proclaimed ‘separate and distinct’ – this way, Türki became Azerbaijani, Uzbek and Turkmen. To speak of being Turks was now considered dangerous ‘nationalism’”[8]. In the newly introduced official vocabulary of the Azerbaijani language several words of Turkish, Persian or Arabic origin were replaced with Russian ones – firka became partiya, jumhuriyyet became respublika, shura became sovet[9].


Family names were changed to adopt Russian endings of “ov” or “ev” for males and “ova” or “eva” for females. My family name – Tahirli – was russified into Tahirov in Azerbaijani and became Tagirov in Russian as there is no letter or sound “h” in Russian. But in official papers in other languages such as in English Russian pronunciations of non-Russian names were utilised. My father’s scientific article was returned to him for “correction” because he had written his surname as Tahirov on the English version of the paper. He was requested to change it to Tagirov although the letter and the sound “h” exist in English.


Geographic names were changed, too. For example, under the Russian Empire the city of Ganja was named Yelizavetpol after the Russian Empress Elizabeth. In early years of the Soviet Union the city regained its original name, to only lose it again in 1935 and become Kirovabad after Bolshevik revolutionary Sergei Mironovich Kirov. In 1938, the name of Bilasuvar region was also changed. It became Pushkin, after the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin. All geographic names were gradually reverted back to their pre-Soviet and pre-Russian Empire ones after the collapse of the Soviet Union and proclamation of independence by the Republic of Azerbaijan in 1991.


Wounds that need to be acknowledged, tended to and healed.


This article focused mainly on policies related to language however, colonisation invades not just the language but entire governance, education, social and cultural structures.


Soviet regime had zero regard for the diversity of ethnicities, languages and belief systems on the ground and applied top to bottom social engineering to create a so-called Soviet citizen. The process was inorganic, violent and heavily traumatic where cultures and identities were oppressed; intellectuals, political activists, religious elites and affluent farmers arrested and killed.


The oppression, abuse and dehumanisation left a tremendous toll on the sense of self and identity of oppressed populations, leading to self-hate and a deep sense of cultural inferiority, or what is called internalised oppression. The traumas were passed down from generation to generation disrupting lives, dimming potential and creating disconnection and conflict among members of the same community. The oppressors traumatised their own people, too, teaching them lies of their own superiority. These harmful beliefs allow for perpetuation of racism today.


Internalised oppression can even be tracked in the vulgar terms used by Azerbaijanis against each other today. One example is ‘chushka’ – a derogatory word used for those deemed uneducated or backward by the users of the term. There is no consensus regarding the origin of this word, but some believe the word was taken from the racist slur ‘churka’ used in Russia by ethnic Russians against people from the Caucasus and Central Asia.


Azerbaijanis feeling distraught that ‘we don’t have a Dostoyevsky’, thinking ‘we have no history of art’, believing that ‘Azerbaijani is a weak language’, feeling grateful ‘for the literacy achieved in the Soviet Union’ or insulting each other for being ‘uneducated and backward’ are all trauma retentions from the colonial past.


These are wounds that need to be acknowledged, tended to and healed.


We must understand that concepts of racial and cultural superiority and inferiority are false constructs. They are lies of former colonial empires to justify invasion and colonisation. Yet they are not issues of the past.


These beliefs are deeply ingrained in us today. We must be aware of their existence and consciously rid ourselves of them. We must remember that there can be no hierarchy of cultures. Any attempt to assert such hierarchy is cultural imperialism.


Because in truth, there is diversity of cultures and each one is equally valuable as common heritage of humanity. As United Nations Johannesburg Declaration said in 2002, “Our rich diversity . . . is our collective strength”.


So let us actively detox from colonial lies. Let us unapologetically love our cultures and our heritage, ourselves and our unique identities.


[1] ‘Shahzia Sikander: What We Believe About Culture’, The New York Time, May 25, 2021: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/25/special-series/shahzia-sikander-what-we-believe-about-culture.html

[2] ‘Völkerschauen: Encountering The ‘Exotic Other’ in the Empire’s Entratainment Culture’ artcile by Hilke Thode-Arora in the book to the exhibition ‘Kirchner and Nolde, Expressionism and Colonialism’, p. 146

[3] ‘The Artist as Colonizer? Emil Nolde and the Medical-Demographic Expedition to the German South Sea Colonies, 1913-1914’ article by Rebekka Habermas in the book to the exhibition ‘Kirchner and Nolde, Expressionism and Colonialism’, p. 85

[4] ‘Civilization and Russification in Tsarist Central Asia, 1860-1917’, Ulrich Hofmeister, Journal of World History, Vol.27, No.3, Special Issue: Preaching the Civilizing Mission and Modern Cultural Encounters, September 2016, pp.411-442

[5] E.V. Voevoda, A.Yu. Belogurov, L.P. Kostikova, N.M. Romanenko, M.V. Silantyeva, “Language policy in the Russian Empire: Legal and constitutional aspect”, January 2017, Giornale di Storia Costituzionale 33(1):121-129; https://mgimo.ru/upload/iblock/94f/language-policy-in-the-russian-empire-legal-and-constitutional-aspect.pdf

[6] E.V. Voevoda, A.Yu. Belogurov, L.P. Kostikova, N.M. Romanenko, M.V. Silantyeva, “Language policy in the Russian Empire: Legal and constitutional aspect”, January 2017, Giornale di Storia Costituzionale 33(1):121-129; https://mgimo.ru/upload/iblock/94f/language-policy-in-the-russian-empire-legal-and-constitutional-aspect.pdf

[7] Tonkonogaja, E.P. (1976), “Illiteracy Eradication in the Soviet Union.” Literacy Discussion 7.25-52

[8] Audrey L. Altstadt, The Azerbaijani Turks, Power and Identity under Russian Rule, p. 124

[9] Audrey L. Altstadt, The Azerbaijani Turks, Power and Identity under Russian Rule, p. 124

Author: Afsana Tahirli

Salam, biz VarYoxuq. Bizi birləşdirən bir dəyər var – incəsənət və mədəniyyətimizi fərqli rakurslardan göstərmək və inkişaf etdirmək istəyi. Biz keçmişin mədəni və incəsənət nailiyyətlərinin kölgəsində gizlənmək istəmirik, yeni uğur, yeni təşəbbüs, qısası yeni nəfəs axtarırıq.

Fəaliyyətimizin ilk 2 ilində müxtəlif şirkət və təşkilatlardan maddi dəstək alsaq da, son 1 ildir ki, özümüz özümüzü kommersial layihələrlə maliyyələşdiririk. Təəssüf ki, bu imkanlar həmişə əlçatan deyil və artıq siz sadiq izləyicilərimizə üzümüzü tutmaq məcburiyyətindəyik. İndiki məkanımız bizim üçün sadəcə iş yeri deyil. Bura həm müxtəlif tədbirlərimizi, canlı yayımlarımızı etdiyimiz studiyadır, həm də bir araya toplanmaq, müxtəlif ideyalar arasında breynstorminq etmək və nəticədə keyfiyyətli, faydalı işlər görmək üçün komandamızı birləşdirən yaradıcı məkandır. Hal-hazırda məkan xərcləri və bu kimi məsələlər üçün dəstəyinizə ehtiyacımız var. İtirsək, artıq əvvəlki kontentlər bizdən asılı olmadan zamanla ləngiyəcək və bəlkə də davam edə bilməyəcək. İnanırıq ki, siz də bizim kimi bunu istəməzsiniz. Ona görə də bizə dəstək olmaqdan çəkinməyin.

Bunlar da xoşunuza gələ bilər

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