A response to Zaur Gasimov’s paper the Recent Developments in the Azerbaijani historiography

H22 A comment for the SIPCATS Discussion Forum

Dr. Fernando Rosa, visiting scholar at Asian Studies Center, Boğaziçi University, Istanbul

Dear Zaur,

Many thanks for your enticing piece! I know next to nothing about this region, but the issues you raise sound not entirely unfamiliar to me. First, the issue of quality of training for scholars and internationalism: they are also pertinent for my part of the world, namely, Latin America. If you are outside Europe/US, scholarship is always an issue; also, though Brazil, for instance, may be a far cry from Azerbaijan, and in some senses from Turkey as well, its academia is not Anglophone, much less situated in Europe. I just wrote a long message to colleagues in Rio about a joint doctorate between a Brazilian university and an American one that is in the pipeline, in African studies. If you live in a somewhat confined language area and one that is moreover not located in Europe or in a country with many resources, scholarship has a tendency to become somewhat inner-looking and parochial even at the best of times.

What you say about Azerbaijani scholarship – and even some strands of Turkish scholarship – therefore resonate with me in more ways than one. There is no easy way out here, even without authoritarianism or poor training. Part of my discussion with colleagues in Rio was related to the fact that doing a joint doctorate with an American university is full of pros and cons. Not bad in itself at all, but not necessarily only a good thing either. I think pieces like yours, as they engage with the issue frontally, are very important: namely, discussing the issues at stake openly – parochialism, nationalist historiographies, comparatively closed off language domains, authoritarianism – is as important as actually finding solutions, especially as it is hard to see what can be a solution here.

We have tried many paths back home, and none has seemed to yield a good answer so far. Grafting ourselves onto ‘first world’ academia can some times be as noxious as following inner-looking, nationalist, authoritarian paths. I find Caucasian and Central Asian academies may be particularly vulnerable, because of long local histories of authoritarianism and relative intellectual marginality. I find that Turkey is slowly managing to find its own way by increasingly exposing its scholarly domains to Anglophone scholarship – therefore, though some initiatives, as they bring together Azerbaijan and Turkey, may look dubious right now, as you point out, in the long run it is a good thing that Azerbaijani academia is engaging with Turkey. It may open doors when we least expect. In my experience, anything that could get national scholars outside their cocoons is potentially positive, even if the results may not be apparent at first, as seems to be the case here. You wouldn’t believe how many times Latin American scholars meet (say, through the famous CLACSO conferences…) and nothing really great comes out of it! Countless times, in fact. Don’t despair, therefore! As I said, something good eventually comes out of all this.

In this results-orientated environment neoliberalism has created everywhere, this may not sound effective or credible. Yet, it is often in the contradictions, hesitations, interstices, and the many ambiguities, that the best scholarship finds a nurturing ground, especially in our countries, with their complex histories and baffling geographies. The more you try to engineer things (as in much current academia in the West or, alternatively, in authoritarian regimes like the one you describe), the more lacklustre and obvious the results will be, as is evident from your piece itself. What is unexpected and unpredicted may in this way eventually change the nature of academia in Azerbaijan for the better. Keep the good work and do keep telling us about what goes on in Azerbaijan. The more people discuss those issues openly and critically, as you do, the better it is for all of us. We are not alone in our quest for open and critical knowledge!

To Recent Developments in the Azerbaijani historiography by Zaur Gasimov

To the Central Eurasia discussion forum

Recent Developments in the Azerbaijani historiography

H22 A contribution to the SIPCATS Discussion Forum

Dr. Zaur Gasimov, the German Orient-Institut Istanbul (OII)

Editorial Remark
In Historiography and Nation-Building among Turkic Populations, one of our anthologies under revision, Dr. Zaur Gasimov, currently at the German Orient-Institut Istanbul (OII), presented a survey of history-writing and new “history-making” in Azerbaijan during the first two decades of the post-Soviet period. Following up on his previous presentation, Dr. Gasimov has posted a note to the SIPCATS discussion forum with a comment on the status of research after another 3-4 years.

Recent Developments in the Azerbaijani historiography

Looking back at the most recent developments in the Azerbaijani historiography, two aspects seem to be especially sustainable. Firstly, the history-writing around the problematics of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over the region of Nagorno Karabakh still dominates the agenda of the Bakıxanov-Institute of History at the Azerbaijani National Academy of Sciences, the main research institution in post-Soviet Azerbaijan in the field of History Studies. Secondly, the historical research on the so-called ‘Southern Azerbaijan’, the northern part of Iran populated by ethnic Azeris, is of recurrent interest among Baku-based historians.

Before I start to present some of the most recent developments, it is noteworthy to mention two structural elements that shape the framework for historical and any other research in the humanities of Azerbaijan. These elements are the authoritarian regime of the ruling party “Yeni Azǝrbaycan Partiyası” (YAP) as well as a relatively low level of historians’ training in post-Soviet Azerbaijan. The by-products of the political authoritarianism in Azerbaijan are the cult of the former President of Azerbaijan, Heydar Aliyev (1923-2003, presidency between 1993 and 2003) and the comprehensive involvement of historians in the state-run policy of identity-building and of state-building. The great majority of Azerbaijani historians are members of the ruling party and an integral part of the establishment. Baku State University along with the Azerbaijani State Pedagogical University, the two main institutions educating professional historians and teachers of history for the secondary and grammar schools, are highly corrupt. This has a crucial impact on the scholarly qualification of historians partly mirrored in the academic periodical of the Institute of History at the National Academy of Sciences, “Tarix vǝ onun problemlǝri” (History and its issues). Most articles can easily be considered as longer abstracts rather than academic articles. They often lack proper citation and are based on research from the Soviet period.

Leaving aside an enormous number of biased books, booklets and compilations of articles devoted to either Heydar Aliyev and his role in Azerbaijani state-building orthe conflict over Karabakh, it is worth mentioning some positive developments in Azerbajani history-writing.A Baku-based publishing house, Hǝdǝf nǝşrlǝri, founded in 2009, has launched a memory series, where so far they have published thirteen separate volumes mostly with primary texts initially written by Azerbaijan’s prominent writers and artists or by their family members.[1] The Baku-based historians Altay Göyüşov and Cǝmil Hǝsǝnli delivered amazing research on the history and current development of Islamic education as well as on the republican years between 1918 and 1920[2] and Azerbaijan’s place in the Cold War. Both authors are in regular contact and exchange of ideas with the international scholarship and are recognized as independent researchers of Azerbaijani and Caucasian history.

Strategic Area Studies and Politics
In May 2012, the Vice-Dean of the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Yerevan State University, Rumen Melkonian, presented a newly published textbook about the Azerbaijani Language authored by the Yerevan-based Turkologist Lilit Movsesian. During the press conference, Melkonian stressed that “the knowledge of the enemy’s language is of significant importance”[3]. This argumentation corresponded completely to the standpoint of Azad Rzayev, the Dean of the History Department of Baku State University (BDU) as well as of Iradǝ Hüseynova, Professor of Caucasian History at the same university. Rzayev and Hüseynova, both of whom are specialized on the contemporary history of Russia and the Caucasus, have argued for the expansion of Armenian Studies at Baku-based universities. BDU along with Azerbaijani State University of Languages and some other institutions for higher education regularly offer courses in the Armenian language and history. In 2015, a Baku linguist, Hatǝm Cabbarlı, presented his textbook in the Armenian language. In 2013, a public discussion on the opening of the Faculty of Armenology was launched by Azeri historians.

By boosting ‘strategic area-studies’, Baku exports its Armenologists to neighboring Turkey. Another academician, Gafar Mehdiyev, has been involved in the foundation of Armenian Studies at the Erciyes University in Kayseri, Turkey.[4]

The Phenomenon Yaqub Mahmudov
Yaqub Mahmudov is the head of the Bakıxanov-Institute of History at the National Academy of Sciences. He is about eighty years old and was initially specialized in the field of Azerbaijani Medieval History. In contrary to his predecessors educated partly in Baku and in Moscow, Mahmudov was trained at Baku State University only. After Heydar Aliyev’s comeback to power in 1993, Mahmudov joined the ruling party YAP. He was three times elected a member of parliament and and he is also part of the supreme board of the YAP. Mahmudov has been active as public intellectual in dailies and television. He has launched a project under the pathetic title of “Tarixi şǝxsiyyǝtlǝrimizǝ sahib çıxaq” (Let us protect our historical personalities!). A conference on “Azerbaijani Safavi ruler – Shah Abbas I” was held at the Bakıxanov-Institute on 22 April 2016 within the framework of this project.[5] The majority of events are designed for the local audience. Historians from Iran or Georgia rarely join them. Yaqub Mahmudov embodies the ethnically defined and highly politicized historical research currently conducted by the majority of academicians. Scientific cooperation with the international scholarship in general and with the regional historians in Iran, Georgia and Russia leaves much to be desired. Turkey seems to be the only exception: Mahmudov has co-organised several joint conferences with Turkish partners from mostly second-ranking universities.

To the Central Eurasia discussion forum

[1] “Xan” xatirǝ ǝdǝbiyyatı, in: http://hedefnesrleri.az/nesr-tip/xan-xatirǝ-ǝdǝbiyyatı (31.08.2016).

[2] Jamil Hasanli: Foreign Policy of the Republic of Azerbaijan, 1918-1920. The Difficult Road to Western Integration. M.E.Sharpe, Armonk, New York, 2014

[3] Ruben Melkonian o pervom azerbaidzhanskom uchebnike: Znanie iazyka protivnika imeet strategicheskoe znachenie dlia Armenii, 14.05.2012, http://www.panarmenian.net/rus/news/107297/ (09.09.2016).

[4] Türkiye’nin ilk Ermenice ders kitabı çıktı, in: http://www.haber7.com/egitim/haber/1152472-turkiyenin-ilk-ermenice-ders-kitabi-cikti (09.09.2016).

[5] Xǝbǝrlǝr, in: http://www.tarix.gov.az/index.php (31.08.2016).