I have been thinking about this since my interview for Women’s Forum.
Somebody said something to me that I have not heard in years. He (or she?) said that I was a weak example of the Azeri people since I did not speak any Azeri.
When people ask me what my first language is, I say Russian. They then assume I must be Russian. And even my dark hair and clearly non-Slavic features do not help. If they are genuinely curious, I attempt to explain. But they don’t really get it. And if I were them, I would not get it either. Because, it is so complicated, it would take me forever to even begin.
And yet.... I could try.
I was a city girl. And the city spoke Russian. Russian was the main language during my Soviet childhood. Everybody I knew spoke it. At school, and later, university, we had two language sectors. And the kids from the Russian sector would never associate with kids from the Azeri one.
It was like living in two parallel worlds.
Speaking Russian to me was never a matter of choice. I was born into a Russian-speaking family, and It defined who I was. Those days, Bakuvians were openly snobbish towards people from villages. The peasants. Chushkas. And chushkas spoke Azeri. Russian-speakers did not respect anyone who could not speak Russian. What I am saying here is neither fair nor pretty. But it is the truth I know.
Russian was the language of the best available careers, theatres, schools, universities and books. Speaking Russian was the sign of belonging to a certain social group. Just like your accent can tell a lot about your background and social status in the UK.
And then Azerbaijan became independent. And speaking Russian was suddenly not so great.
The degree of hatred towards Russia and the Russian language varied from one ex-Soviet republic to another. When, in 1990, my mother took me to Vilnius on a summer break, everyone was telling us that Lithuanians hated the Russians and their language so badly, they would refuse to speak to us. I could not really understand that. If two different neighbouring countries have one language in common; and it is the only way to communicate, why would they chose not to? Does national pride have to get expressed in such pathetic ways?
And in Baku, things were changing. And it had to happen fast. But the problem is, you see..Nobody would love something if it is forced upon you, often aggressively. Speaking what you were raised to believe was your own language became socially unacceptable on the streets of what you once thought was your home town . It could get you into trouble. Dirty looks, nasty remarks and verbal abuse were becoming the norm.
And everything inside me rebelled against that aggressive change. I did not like being forced to speak the language, even if speaking it was a must. What about providing good education in Azeri? What about making it so great that you would want to send your children to Azeri sector schools?
These days, things are changing. Almost everyone in Baku now speaks Azeri. Proudly, without being assumed to be chushkas. There is a whole generation of young Azeries, who don’t speak a word of Russian. And , to be honest, why should they? The country belongs to them, not the Russians.
But as for me, I will remain what I have always been. Someone who belonged to the society that no longer exists. And it is too late for me to change.
There are things I hate about back home, and there are things I love. I listen to some Azeri songs and I think the language can sound so beautiful. But do I ever miss not being able to speak it properly? Not really.
Just like my great-grandparents chose to study in French before the revolution; I wanted to learn and speak the language that had more to offer. From educational, cultural, career, future point of view. And I hope that one day, Azeri language will also become the one that people would want to speak. Not because they must. But because it has a lot to offer.