Vol. 2, No. 21 (November 01, 2009)

Standing up for Azerbaijan: Why a pre-World War I intellectual remains important for Azerbaijan today

Rahman Badalov
Academy of Sciences of Azerbaijan

“Hər kəsi çağırıram – gəlmir, göstərirəm – görmür, deyirəm – qanmır.”

Each nation defines itself by the heroes it identifies as important; Azerbaijan is no different.  Its long history is filled with remarkable people, but few had lives more instructive for the present than Hasan-Bek Zardabi, who died just over a century ago.  Indeed, for the author of these lines – and beyond any doubt for many others, Zardabi is a chief Azerbaijani, because he opened a window to Europe and thus began the processes of enlightenment and modernization of the nation, processes for which there is not and cannot be any reasonable alternative.
More than any other Azerbaijani before him, Zardabi identified the basic cause of progress in European countries as being the dominance in those lands of scientific education and spiritual freedom and insisted that these were the same tasks that Azerbaijanis themselves can and must confront if they are to become a modern nation.  In 1877, he wrote in Ekinci that until the European peoples knew freedom, they were just as backward as anyone else, but once they did experience that freedom, they surpassed everyone else.  The same course and the same possibilities, Zardabi insisted, are available to Azerbaijanis.
In the 1860s and 1870s, Zardabi almost on his own launched the first newspaper in Azerbaijani (Ekinci), the first secular school in Azerbaijan, the first aid society for poor Muslim students, the first theatre production in Azerbaijan and much else.  He hoped that these institutions would “transform the worldview of Muslims.”  In so doing, he was in no way a prophet but simply looked at what was taking place in other countries and considered that the same possibilities were available in Azerbaijan.

But because he was the first, Zardabi was like others in this position condemned not to be understood and to follow what would have been an impossibly lonely world save for the understanding and support of his wife Ganifa Khanum.  In saying this, of course, one needs to be clear that Zardabi was not fighting with windmills or acting without a clear sense of the times.  He faced real opponents, but he recognized that Azerbaijan had reached a stage in its development – thanks to the spread of liberal ideas throughout the Russian Empire in the 1860s and the oil-driven industrial boom in Azerbaijan itself – in which the ideas he espoused had a real chance. 

Thus, it is entirely fair to say that Zardabi played a key role in stimulating the search for national identity, for a genuine political and cultural Renaissance, the result of which was the appearance of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic.  In fact, it is possible to say that Azerbaijan experienced the first wave of Enlightenment and Modernization thanks to Zardabi, a development that anticipated the second wave of modernization after 1991 and the second wave of enlightenment which reflected both Soviet-era processes and post-Soviet developments.

Zardabi’s misfortunate, if one may call it that, was that he arrived on the scene prematurely, perhaps ten to fifteen years earlier than when these processes took off.  He was one of what many describe as “a premature man.”  But already at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, a sufficiently broad stratum of the intelligentsia and emerging national bourgeoisie in Azerbaijan was seized by a similar enlightenment passion.  And when, after 16 years away in the middle of his career, Zardabi himself was surprised by how far things had gone.  But as the future showed, he remained ahead of his time and thus fated not to be understood then even if he can be very much understood and appreciated now.

His newspapers and journals were not successful in terms of numbers not only because of the negative attitudes of the Imperial authorities and many Azerbaijanis around him but also because of the general atmosphere that arose at the time of the Russian-Turkish war.  His Ekinci was viewed by many as little more than an outlet for anti-Russian sentiments, and consequently, it folded after only 56 issues.

But for me and for many other Azerbaijanis, the work of Zardabi continues to stimulate our “Azerbaijaniness.”  I will say more, in recent years, his ideas as expressed in Ekinci have set me apart from what is taking place around me.  Perhaps, I am becoming a cosmopolitan.  But perhaps this is inevitable because Zardabi was more than just an Azerbaijani: he was an Azerbaijani who saw himself also in terms of a broader international enlightenment.  And because of that, it is impossible to talk about him only within his own times as a historian might.  One needs to think about him in terms of our times as well.

One aspect of his career that strikes me especially was his participation in the Baku City Duma.  He was uncompromising in his defense of rights, national and all-human.  Indeed, he behaved much as Andrey Sakharov did at the last sessions of the Congress of Peoples Deputies almost a century later, inspiring not just members of his own nationality (while offending some of them) but also inspiring a broader range of humanity.

Because that is so, many of the episodes in the life of Zardabi represent a challenge not only to traditionalists but to contemporary national patriots who are limited in understanding by their focus on ethnic visions alone.  It is impossible to change them in this, it seems, because they lack the breadth and depth of spirit which allowed Zardabi to talk about the need for helping poor people regardless of whether they were Azerbaijanis or Armenians.  Had others had his understanding of that, much of our national history might have been different – and still could be.

The history of Azerbaijan in the 19th century began with the Gulustan and Turkmenchay treaties and ended with the invasion of the XI Red Army.  In the intervening period, Zardabi played the role of the first Azerbaijani intelligent, not only because of his attachment to the ideas of the Enlightenment but because of his willingness to look beyond what was to what could be.  As such, Zardabi was dramatically and even tragically antinomian.  Or to put it in another way, he had the courage to live and not simply to mimic those with power.

Zardabi’s life provides yet another occasion for reflection: how many people have to change themselves in order for a society to change – or, more precisely, what percentage of Azerbaijan’s seven/eight million people need to change for the values of the enlightenment to triumph.  I began thinking that perhaps five percent would be necessary.  But that is around 350,000 people, a fantastic figure.  Then, I thought about one percent or 70,000 to 80,000.  Finally, I thought about 0.01 percent or 700 to 800 – which is about the percentage that Zardabi first attracted and then transformed our nation as a result.

With even fewer readers than that, he was able to change practically everything in Azerbaijan, to help shift the people from a traditionalist to a post-traditionalist society, the largest transformation of a people that any can undergo but a continuing struggle even when victory appears to have been won.  Zardabi understood this; his challenge to us is not only to recall it but to live it, something many find difficult but all of us must recognize as necessary.