Nobel Laureate in Literature Czeslaw Milos is looking for an answer to the question of why he opposed socialist Poland at the end of his book The Captive Mind. He writes, “I really had certain aspects that could have assured my future happiness. In a Warsaw, rebuilding its ruins, I would have been working in harmony with the laws of history. I would have translated Shakespeare—what joy it is to breach a language barrier and find sentences as concise as the original. I would have undertaken Marxist studies on sixteenth-century England. Maybe I would have become a university professor. From time to time I would have published a poem stating my loyalty to the Revolution and its founders. Moving in the circles of the philosophers and occupying myself with dialectics, I would have treated the efforts of writers, painters, and musicians very lightly, knowing their art is, and must be, bad. I would have listened to Bach, and read Swift or Flaubert.
…I believe that my motives lie deep in my past, in an incident I shall recount. In my wanderings at the beginning of the Second World War, I happened to find myself, for a very short while, in the Soviet Union. I was waiting for a train at a station in one of the large cities of the Ukraine. It was a gigantic station. Its walls were hung with portraits and banners of inexpressible ugliness. A dense crowd dressed in sheepskin coats, uniforms, fur caps, and woolen kerchiefs filled every available space and tracked thick mud over the tiled floor. The marble stairs were covered with sleeping beggars, their bare legs sticking out of their tatters despite the fact that it was freezing. Over them loudspeakers shouted propaganda slogans. As I was passing through the station I suddenly stopped and looked. A peasant family—husband and wife and two children—had settled down by the wall. They were sitting on baskets and bundles. The wife was feeding the younger child; the husband, who had a dark, wrinkled face and a black, drooping mustache, was pouring tea out of a kettle into a cup for the older boy. They were whispering to each other in Polish. I gazed at them until I felt moved to the point of tears. What had stopped my steps so suddenly and touched me so profoundly was their difference. This was a human group, an island in a crowd that lacked something proper to humble, ordinary human life. The gesture of a hand pouring tea, the careful, delicate handing of the cup to the child, the worried words I guessed from the movements of their lips, their isolation, their privacy in the midst of the crowd—that is what moved me. For a moment, then, I understood something that quickly slipped from my grasp.”
It is a very sensitive subject. At an event, I asked a Polish poet named Dombrowski, “Do you have people who admire socialist Poland?” The retort was quite snappy: “Yes, we have such idiots.” The harshness if understandable—in general, a nation that was culturally inferior occupied a nation that was culturally superior. As a result of this occupation, that is, under socialist Poland, direct connection to the culture to which Poles belonged was forcibly severed. The situation was similar in the Baltic countries. A nation with a more developed culture was invaded by a nation with a less developed culture. The Baltic republics were different in every way during the Soviet era. Their films were different, and so were their clothes, their lifestyle, too. Soviet artists and semi-dissidents moved to the Baltic republics, because the climate there was freer than in the other republics. The Baltic republics were so different that goods produced there were considered “imported” even in Soviet times.
During World War II, Soviet soldiers moving toward Europe were amazed at the houses, kitchens, utensils, household items, furniture, roads, orderliness, and the level of culture in general. Because what they saw was the exact opposite of what the official propaganda said. Ismayil Shykhly, one of Azerbaijani authors, wrote about this in his book Frontline Roads. Ismayil Shykhly, who fought in the Second World War, was amazed to see the well-maintained roads of Germany, the neatness in the gardens, and in his dreams, he took these roads and neatness to his country. Sabir Ahmadli touches upon this topic from another angle in his book The Return of the Departed. As you know, Soviet soldiers used to send home clothes they looted in Europe. Sabir Ahmadli writes that people in the rear did not know how to use the clothes from the packages they received, for example, nightgowns and hats, so they wore those clothes as they came, and ended up looking ridiculous.
As for the subject, I have just thought about a story that happened in the countryside. I’m not saying in which district exactly as I’m sure that a similar story happened in other districts as well. At a time when kidskin coats were in high fashion, a young man, one of those young people proud to be mavericks at the expense of their high-ranking fathers, came to the bus terminal wearing a kidskin coat he had just bought. At that time, if I’m not mistaken, the price of such a coat was more than three hundred manats, and it took a person a lot of effort and connections to even find it. A teacher’s salary at that time was one hundred to one hundred and thirty manats. In other words, a teacher could save his three-month salary and buy this coat if they didn’t eat, drink or spend money on anything else. I’m mentioning this for scale—to show how difficult in every sense it was to get this coat. So, a young man, a maverick at the expense of his high-ranking father, comes to the bus terminal wearing a kidskin coat, and, banded together with a few other moochers like himself, starts to shoot the breeze with an old man. And the old man fought in the Second World War, he is a veteran. It so happened that he now makes a living selling sunflower seeds. The young man and the sunflower seeds seller have a conversation that resembles the tale of the brickmaker. When the young man overstepped his boundaries with his jokes, the war veteran tells him, “Look at what he’s wearing. I saw this on Germans in 41-45.“
In a nutshell, in socialist Poland, a nation with a high culture was invaded by a nation with a low culture. That is why poet Dombrowski harshly calls the people of that period idiots. In our case, the topic is controversial. Because when the Soviet government was established, the thing called the people had not yet formed here. Therefore, Azerbaijani Soviet writers could easily write what they wanted in their works about the establishment of the Soviet government and the revolution, and could easily cook up what they wanted. You can read more about this in the article “How Gadir became a revolutionary”.
Czeslaw Milosz also wrote in The Captive Mind about how difficult it was to spread social realism in Poland. It was not easy to introduce, implant socialism in Poland—because the works of classical Polish writers were full of hatred against the Russians, the Russian Empire. It was impossible to push aside and ban all these classic writers. Put simply, there were established concepts. It took a lot of time and effort to change all these concepts, to make up lies.
What was our situation like?
Our situation was so difficult that Rasulzade was happy when Samad Vurgun cursed the Musavat government. He said that at least when people read Samad Vurgun’s lines full of curses, they would know that there was once a government called Musavat. This is how deplorable the situation was. The first republic was declared twelve years after the publication of the first magazine—and it was a satirical magazine. With pictures and cartoons its authors wanted to explain to the bearded children what was good and what was bad. It was not easy to publish a magazine like that yet. Those publishing it were cursed from all around, and those threats weren’t worth a penny. How could the republic declared twelve years after the publication of the first magazine be remembered in the Soviet era?
My goal was not to compare Azerbaijanis with Poles and the peoples of the Baltic countries. It would be absurd to make such a comparison. I just want to say that from a historical point of view—and from other important points of view, the events taking place in Azerbaijan today seem legitimate and completely natural. It’s nothing special. Hundreds of thousands of people live in Azerbaijan who don’t read even one book a year from cover to cover. There are many ignorant people who have never read a book from cover to cover in their life, and there are many intellectual lackeys who have read many books and used them to lie and flatter in more fascinating and thorough ways, feeling proud of themselves as they did.
Women are greedy, greedy for wealth, jewelry, gold. Girls’ only thoughts are about getting married. They are not interested in anything but being rich. They are not interested in romance, nature, forests, mountains and valleys, anything that is not material. They see happiness only in wealth, in expensive clothes, in cars, in villas, in material things. They are so greedy for wealth that they are ready to vomit blood, as long as the bowl they spit into is golden. Moreover, they have mastered the ability to “experience” (meaning “imitate”) the feelings of a real person without sustaining any loss.
I had a relative. He was engaged. Whenever I went to their place, I saw him sitting with their fiancé and listening to extremely sad music on the tape recorder. There was sadness on their faces. It was as if they were both sobbing at that moment. I didn’t understand why they did that. Were they together? Yes, they were together. Maybe they both wanted something else, maybe they were forced to get engaged? No, they were not forced to get engaged. Both got engaged by mutual agreement and happily. They both agreed to get engaged. So why do they do that? Why do they sit and listen to such sad music on the tape recorder and make themselves sad? What is their point in torturing and upsetting themselves? Why don’t they go out and take walk? I was young and inexperienced at the time. My head had a hard time grasping such dark, confusing issues (no, I can’t blame my head either. What can the poor head do? Who should it tell about my pain? My head hasn’t been taught anything. We barely learn by forty the simplest things we need to know at the age of twenty). Later, as my life experience grew, as I became acquainted with many similar situations, I realized that this is simply the ability to “experience” human feelings without any loss for oneself. You make the right and most practical choice, and you experience feelings vicariously without any actual loss or effort. Take a look at all the “love stories” being filmed. Couples act as if everything on those videos happened in real life. As if they actually experienced everything in those filmed “love stories”. God, strike me dead, if hundreds of people in Azerbaijan have pure, unconditional love for one another!
And men… Their philosophy of life is very clear and very primitive. You get a wife, or other people get one for you. It doesn’t matter. Changing the order of summands doesn’t change the sum. You tell her: don’t wear this, wear that, don’t go there, go here. It doesn’t matter if she obeys or not. The main thing is to secure your ego simply by saying: don’t go there, go here, don’t wear this, wear that. Et voila, you can feel like an individual, like a personality. Being a man in Azerbaijan is easier than being a citizen. There are many advantages to being a man in our society. Whatever you do, whatever your job is, whatever crime you commit, whatever, whomever you serve, just be a man. Being a citizen is such a headache. Most importantly, being a citizen requires thinking, and thinking is the most difficult thing for Azerbaijanis. A TV channel was conducting a street survey once. The reporter approached people on the street and asked questions and eventually approached an Azerbaijani. The reporter asked the question: “What do you think about this or that issue?” The respondent, in great agony, somehow managed to string some words together and say something. There was another one like him by his side. The reporter handed the microphone to that other man and repeated the question, “What do you think about this issue?” The answer was marvelous. It was truly spectacular. In one sentence, the man impassively and without any pathos revealed the whole anatomy of Azerbaijanis. He nodded at his friend standing next to him and said, “I think what he thinks.”
Those who have mastered the ability to “experience” human feelings from afar without any loss for themselves, and those who find it difficult to think come together, couple, and bring children into the world. As a result, those who find it difficult to think become fathers, mothers, grandmothers, and grandfathers. These children grow up and go to school. At school, teachers who put fake ballot papers into ballot boxes teach them to write and break the law. Sometimes they can’t even teach that. Thus, life goes on. In this way, they unconsciously multiply and replenish the earth, thinking that they are living a real human life. It doesn’t matter what regime these people live in. Whatever the regime, it is enough for them to be able to meet their basic needs. Everything else on earth is insignificant, except for basic needs. Thinking and worrying about something other than basic needs means being an idiot…
…I went to a wedding once. While I stood smoking in the lobby, an acquaintance of mine showed up. He was holding a child in her arms. He asked me what I did. I said, literature, I write short stories. And he said, “I swear to god, literature is nothing, this is what matters” and nodded at the child in his arms. Then he planted a smacking kiss on the child’s face. As if anyone had even asked him what was nothing and what was something, what mattered and what did not. I looked at the child’s face. There is innocence in children’s faces. There was not an ounce of innocence in that one. The child’s face exuded devilry—not that attractive, charming kind, but real, repellent, terrifying devilry. All that was missing was a small horn and tail. But if you searched, you might find them, too.
Now, how do you explain to this muttonhead that what matters is not what you hold in your arms, but the education and upbringing given to what you hold in your arms. How do you explain to this muttonhead that there are wagons of what you hold in your arms in the streets and deserts of the eastern countries? And no one to pick them. Finland, with a population of 5 million, is at least 168 times more respected in the world than Bangladesh, which has a population of 168 million. If you say all this, will he understand? He will not. By multiplying unconsciously, they think that they are living a real human life and doing an extraordinary job.
And now I want to write about one of the scariest days I have ever lived. I had to meet someone. I called. They said, I’m shooting at an entertainment center, come here. So I did. A group of children was gathered in the hall. They were shooting some program or a commercial, I’m not sure. This is neither interesting nor important. Here is what is. The children looked very scary. The girls looked like witches, like old hags. At some point I even thought that they were about to climb brooms, cackle and fly back and forth across the hall. I expected them to get on their brooms any moment, cackle and fly. I was ready for that. I would not have been surprised. I don’t know why they didn’t.
The boys, on the other hand, looked like potential criminals, slanderers, and informers. Little criminals… Little telltales… Little bootlickers… Little bribe-takers… Little liars… I looked at what they were saying and doing and felt that they had already mastered the laws of the jungle. They have learned the “rules of how to live” well. Black energy washed over me. I was drowning. Maybe I wouldn’t have been so scared if I had seen those little old hags, those little criminals separately. It was impossible to endure the dark energy coming from all of them together, to face that energy and not to drown, not to be afraid, not to be frightened, not to be shaken, not to fall into hopeless thoughts about the future. I left the hall. I went to the boulevard. I walked for two or three hours. Then I ate. No matter how much I ate, it didn’t help. I could not get rid of the dark energy that hung over me. I thought, maybe if I changed the atmosphere drastically, my mood would change. For this purpose, with this intention and without any other intention, I went to a nightclub called “Freshly Opened Bride”, where all sorts of shallow silly songs evoke a high level of sentimental feelings. The word “nightclub” sounds very grand. God damn both the Azerbaijan night and Azerbaijan nightclubs. There were few people in the nightclub. I ordered a beer. A girl approached my table and started saying some silly nonsense. As she spouted that silly nonsense, my brain relaxed. She wanted a beer. I got it for her. As you know, in our country, sex is given different names. I do not see it appropriate to list all the names for sexual intercourse used in our country. In many nightclubs, they “live” sex. Exactly. It’s that simple. While I was drinking my beer, the girl suddenly asked, “Do you want to live?” I did not answer. She said it again, “Don’t you want to live?” I didn’t answer again. The next time, I was faced with a more difficult question: “If you don’t want to live, why did you come here?” Fortunately, a fight broke out and she got distracted. I escaped the humiliation of answering these difficult questions that have a completely different meaning for me.
…Azerbaijanis are a very envious bunch. Now, many will say that’s no news. Envy is everywhere. I agree. Envy is everywhere. However, I’m saying this again: Azerbaijanis are an awfully envious society. I felt the quintessence of this envy with every single one of my cells when members of the LGBT community were beaten up in Tbilisi. One wrote: look, man, this is your Georgians. The other one said: look, man, this is your Georgia. It is as if I’m an authorized representative of the Georgians and Georgia. I have to explain, respond and comment on every action, every unfortunate occasion. Most of those who said sarcastically and mockingly, “Look, man, this is your Georgians,” “Look, man, this is your Georgia,” were people who allegedly wish for democratic change in the country, God forbid. However, if a person is truly a democrat, if they want democratic change in their country, they must feel bad about the foundations of democracy being shaken in any country, be it far away or nearby. If this happens in a neighboring country, and if there are shameful regimes in other neighboring countries, this grief must be, logically, deeper. Because, in the words of Czeslaw Milosz, if there is something good or bad somewhere, there will definitely be something good or bad somewhere else as well. A true democrat should rejoice in democratic change, even in Armenia. A true democrat must feel bad about the foundations of democracy being shaken, even in Armenia.
If a person is a true democrat, if they want democratic change in their country, why should they be happy that the foundations of democracy are being shaken in a neighboring country? I was so sick of the words “this is your Georgians” and “this is your Georgia” that in the end I had to respond harshly to those who said that. I said that seven or eight LGBT people here hadn’t run away from an aggressive crowd. But the leader of your National Movement, when barely shooed, ran away to the countryside and holed up there, saying, “I didn’t want a civil war.” As if there were that many people to start a civil war in the first place. The supporters repeated the same word. Because the name given to that escape came from their hearts.
History book is not inaccessible. Truth shouts from every page of it. That’s John Steinbeck’s words. As simple as it may seem at first glance, these words have a very deep and broad meaning. From a historical point of view and, as I mentioned above, from other important points of view, Azerbaijanis living a semi-savage lifestyle should live in tribes, principalities and khanates. Which they, in fact, do.
There is a film critic named Aydin Kazimzade, an Honored Artist. He has been talking about the history of Azerbaijani cinema on TV for many years. He has been talking for many years, as far back as in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s as if he talks about French and Italian cinema. What is there of Azerbaijani cinema to talk about its history for years? In Soviet times, there was a saying about Azerbaijani cinema, “There is bad cinema, and there is Azerbaijani cinema.” In other words, Azerbaijani cinema is not even bad films, it’s something else. It is in a category of its own. Mr. Kazimzade has been talking about this cinema for many years. One day, a young director asked him, “Sir, when will you talk about us?” Aydin gave him an excellent answer, “Don’t worry! I’m getting there, little by little.”
Now, in the words of Aydin Kazimzade, Azerbaijanis are getting there, little by little. When I speak with confidence about where they are going, I get a legitimate question: “How do you know?”
When I hear this question, I tell my favorite story. I wrote about this small but edifying story in my article “Very scary games”. I’m going to tell it again, since, as they say, “repetition is the mother of learning”.
There was a Polish writer named Witold Gombrowicz, one of the greats. Gombrowicz left the country before the Nazis entered Poland. Asked by his friends where he was going, Gombrowicz gave a brilliant answer, “Friends, don’t you read the papers?”
Now this sentence is on my tongue. And when I speak confidently about where Azerbaijan is going and rightly face the “how do you know?” question, I don’t get perplexed, I don’t get offended, I don’t get incensed. I answer quietly, “Friends, don’t you read the papers?”