By Ülvi Gitaliyev
Life in Azerbaijan is different from Kentucky in more ways than one. We have long beaches, nice mountains (sorry Appalachia) and most importantly, bad neighbours who bring more trouble than even Ohio. Iran spreads its religious propaganda, Turkey offers its one-sided trade deals packaged under “friendship”, but none of them can compare to Mother Russia.
As recently as March 27th, a Russian member of parliament said on national television “It is worth it to hit the oil industry of Azerbaijan with nuclear weapons” due to our refusal to support Russia with their “special operation in Ukraine.” While this may seem shocking, the average Azerbaijani greeted the news with little surprise and a lot of apathy. If you have not been threatened with nuclear weapons at least once, then can you really call yourself a neighbour of Russia?
The words Russia and Imperialism have been synonymous since the time of Ivan the Terrible of the 16th century. Starting at Moscow, the Russian Empire expanded in all directions until it hit natural barriers or other empires. This is because the Russian heartland is mostly made up of flat terrain and is lacking in natural defences (other than snow) and so, they take and use the lands of others. The current Russian invasion of Ukraine shows how this policy works in action not just in 2022, but the last four centuries combined. But what exactly motivates Russia to act this way? Let us take a look at an Azerbaijani answer.
I will not bore you with a history lesson, but Russia and its imperial ambitions has had Azerbaijan in their crosshairs for a long time. Russian troops tried to conquer Azerbaijan first in 1722, before George Washington was even born. From 1828 to 1918, Azerbaijan was directly part of the Russian Empire and a result, local culture was supressed, economic growth limited and political rights non-existent. Azerbaijanis, as well as other ethnic groups in the Caucasus region, were stereotyped as violent, ignorant and stubborn (sounds familiar?) Only when oil was discovered was there any major investment in Azerbaijan and even then, the common people saw little benefit from trains carrying petroleum to Moscow. At least the United States did not try to “liberate” us.
Fast forward to 2022 and even though the Russian flag does not fly here (mostly) anymore, its influence is felt on a daily basis. Russian troops continue to occupy an Eastern Portion of the country and plan to do so until 2025, at least. I and many of my peers know and speak Russian since it is still taught in all state schools. Russia is also Azerbaijan’s largest trading partner. Azerbaijanis in Russia have to face with xenophobia and discrimination regularly. While the younger generation follows a variety of news sources, to those in the older generations, Russian media continues to be the most trusted. The one exception I have found is my grandmother.
When she is not participating in The Voice or meeting English pop-stars, my grandmother loves being opinionated about just about everything. In 2020, as I was drinking tea and watching Russian television at her home, she told me “Beware of the Great Russian Chauvinist! He destroys everything in his path.” She went on to list more than a handful of historical episodes about why we Azerbaijanis should never trust the Russian state or people while I put some sugar in my teacup. In my grandmother’s view, Russians, both as a people and government, only consider their own interests valid and will strongarm the rest of the world into accepting them. To prove her point, she repeated a quote by Russian Emperor Alexander III, “Russia has only two allies: the Army and the Navy.” Though I guess in the 21st century, we can add nuclear bombs to that list. Her words, along with the taste of that tea, have stayed with me ever since.
Russia has only two allies: The Army and the Navy.”Russian Emperor Alexander III
The Azerbaijani intelligentsia is currently split between pro and anti-Russian sentiment and my grandmother is certainly on the latter side of that fight, but she is not alone. When the invasion of Ukraine started, the Russian embassy of Azerbaijan was surrounded by pro-Ukraine protestors for weeks. For us, the Russo-Ukranian war is not just a far away conflict, but a real threat. If Kyiv falls, then Baku will almost certainly be next. Therefore, we wish our Ukrainian comrades success in their struggle for freedom against imperialism and Russian chauvinism!