Vol. 3, No. 21 (November 01, 2010)

Baku and contemporary Azerbaijani identity: What do changes in the capital mean for the country?

Leyla Sayfutdinova
PhD candidate
Middle East Technical University, Turkey

Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the transformation of Baku has been the subject of discussions among past and present Baku residents.  Although everyone agrees that Baku has changed dramatically and irreversibly, the reactions to this change vary greatly: some lament it while others welcome and celebrate it.  This controversial issue was brought to public attention once more in late 2008, when the discussion transformed from conversations in the privacy of people’s homes and low-key online forums into a highly charged debate involving prominent intellectuals and politicians.  Particularly heated was the question of Baku’s cosmopolitan past and its role in the Azerbaijani nationhood.  But why is this so?  Why is the cosmopolitan urban identity of Baku so problematic for Azerbaijani nationhood and why does this question generate so much passion? 

In Soviet times, Baku, like Odessa or Tashkent, was famous for its cosmopolitanism, or, in Soviet parlance, “internationalism.”  But the emergence of this cosmopolitan culture actually dates back to pre-Soviet times, when Baku, as a center of Russian Empire's oil industry, drew people from various parts of the empire.  This large settled population was diverse not only ethnically, but also in terms of occupation and class: it included workers in the oil industry, but also merchants and intelligentsia.  Yet it was only in the Soviet period that Baku’s heterogeneity became celebrated—as a case of true “proletarian internationalism.”  Baku’s multi-ethnic population fit perfectly into the official Soviet framework of “merging of nations” and of creating a “Soviet person.”  And as these ideological constructs suggest, what was celebrated in Baku’s cosmopolitanism was not simply a mixture, but rather a hybridity.  Soviet authorities did encourage a further “internationalization” of Baku, through careful control of migration flows that favored highly skilled labor from other urban centers outside Azerbaijan over unskilled rural migrants from Azerbaijan’s countryside, as well as through education and cultural policy which made Baku into a predominantly Russian-speaking city.  By the middle of 20th century, a hybrid Baku urban culture—a product of this complex policy-making and local traditions of intercommunal accommodation—emerged.  This culture included its own code of behavior that distinguished “bakintsi,” the Russian name for bakuvites, from outsiders: from rural migrants on the one hand, and from newcomers from other cities of the Soviet Union, on the other.  From rural migrants bakintsi were distinguished by their urban manners, higher level of education, and fluent command of the Russian language; from other newcomers by their emotionality, warmth, respect for the elders, hospitality, appreciation for good food, traditional gender roles, and, above all, pride in Baku’s multi-ethnicity.  Sometime in 1960s this sense of urban identity that transcended ethnic boundaries was expressed with a popular catch phrase “a nation of Baku.”

Bakintsi also developed their own distinctive intellectual and cultural elite.  Needless to say, the cultural production of this elite was hybrid.  Thus, musician Vagif Mustafa-zade became known for his merging of Azeri traditional mugham music with jazz; writers such as Rustam Ibrahimbayov and his elder brother Maqsud romanticized Baku in their fiction—in Russian; Muslim Magomayev, the first Soviet singer with star-like popularity, and Garry Kasparov, world chess champion, are some of the most known representatives of this cultural elite.

However, this celebrated and romanticized hybridization was not nearly as harmonious a process as many bakintsi believed.  It did not reflect the goodwill and tolerance of Baku residents alone, but also the state policies such as migration restrictions and Russian-led internationalism.  And finally, in Baku, which was a capital of a national republic, these policies came into contradiction with the counteracting policy of nationalization and indigenization of elites.  This clash was revealed in late 1980s with the beginning of the Karabakh conflict.  Despite the celebrated internationalist traditions, the interethnic strife affected Baku as well as other parts of Azerbaijan.  Soviet migration policies proved ineffective in the conditions of a military conflict, as people displaced by the armed conflict in Azerbaijan’s regions migrated to Baku.  Many of the old urban residents began to flee from the city: first were Baku Armenians, followed by many Jews and Russians, and also by many mixed families and ethnic Azerbaijanis who constituted the core of bakintsi.  This was not all about ethnic relations—the restructuring of the Soviet economy was another important cause of this large-scale migration, as deindustrialization left many skilled Baku residents under- or unemployed.  But together these complex social, political and economic transformations had led to a dramatic change in the composition of urban population of Baku, something that in turn affected the culture of the city and of Azerbaijan more generally. 

There are two broad approaches that were developed in Baku in response to this dramatic change.  On the one hand, there exists nostalgia and romanticizing of the past.  In its extreme, the nostalgic approach sees  Baku’s cosmopolitanism/internationalism as a harmonious, conflict-free, symbiotic experience of cohabitation and hybridization, a kind of “Golden Age” from which the city had now fallen.  Many of such nostalgically minded people reject nationalism in all forms; on the other hand there are those who uphold the view that in Baku national identities were harmoniously complemented by a trans-ethnic urban one.  Stories are told about old Baku courtyards where people of different ethnic backgrounds lived together, celebrated each other’s holidays and helped each other in difficult times, about friendships and love affairs across ethnic boundaries.  

On the other hand, there is the rejection of the “myth” of the golden past, which sees the narratives of peace and harmony as, at best, ideological constructs imposed by the Soviet authorities, and, at worst, as outright lies.  Stories are told about discrimination and intolerance that persisted despite the officially promoted ideology of internationalism, and especially of discrimination of ethnic Azerbaijanis by Russians and Armenians.  The cosmopolitan Baku culture is seen in this discourse as a coercive attempt to assimilate and de-ethnicize Azerbaijanis and Azerbaijani culture.  However, these two opposite approaches have two important things in common: first, they both share a homogenized and reified image of Baku’s internationalist/cosmopolitan past, and second, they both see a conflict between Baku cosmopolitanism and Azerbaijani nationalism.  But if in the first nostalgic discourse nationalism is seen as a negative force that destroyed the glorious “nation of Baku,” in the second one it is justice that was achieved with independence.

Interestingly, the recent public outburst of the debate showed that yet another approach to the Baku cosmopolitanism is developing, one that attempts to de-homogenize this past and to uncover the power relations that lie behind it.  This approach acknowledges that Baku’s cosmopolitanism was characterized by both harmonious co-habitation and practices of domination and discrimination.  This approach also connects the Baku cosmopolitanism with Azerbaijani nationalism; yet, here they are not necessarily viewed as conflicting opposites.  The contradiction is resolved through a civic rather than ethnic understanding of nation.

Thus, the debate on Baku cosmopolitanism reveals that the issue at stake here is not so much the Baku identity as such, but rather the nature of Azerbaijani nationhood.  Nearly twenty years into independence, the issue is still far from settled. 

It is not clear what course Azerbaijani nationhood will take, and therefore it is hard to say what the role of Baku’s cosmopolitan past in this nationhood will be.  At present, however, its role may be the very power of generating such a debate.