Anti-War Narratives in Post-Soviet Azerbaijani Literature


Azerbaijani writer Alakbar Aliyev wrote on the occasion of the April 2016 exacerbation of the conflict on the border of Azerbaijan and Armenia, which killed more than 200 people.

I am asking Armenians and Azerbaijanis to trust our writers, real writers, not fascist ones, because a true writer cannot be a fascist. Writers reflect of our souls, and if you want to understand who is an Azerbaijani, be sure to read “Kamancheh”[1] by Jalil Mammadguluzadeh. In this play, you will find the Azerbaijani soul. The desecrated soul, oppressed and humiliated for many centuries … by demeaning our good, kind, hospitable, and very stupid people, by humiliating all of us”. (From the essay “Appeal to the Armenians”, May 2016).


The collapse of the Soviet Union brought about not only the creation of new independent states, but also an increase in their national consciousness that grew more pronounced against the background of the resulting rejection of the unified Soviet community. In some cases, the demands for independence of the Soviet republics – the so-called parade of sovereignties – subsequently led to a military intervention by what was still the “Soviet Army” (Tbilisi in 1989, Baku in January 1990, Vilnius in January 1991). Military actions of the Soviet Army led to a sharp ideological transformation: almost everything Soviet became seen in many Soviet Republics as hostile, alien, harmful, and oppressive. The situation was aggravated by the outbreak of local conflicts on ethnic grounds (in Karabakh, South Ossetia, Transnistria) not contained by the weakened central authority.

Most of these conflicts are still unresolved and continue to generate enemy images and an “us vs. them” perception of identity in the societies on the opposing sides. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is a clear example of these sort of developments. This conflict arose in the early 20th century under the Russian Empire and culminated in massacres of Azerbaijanis by Armenians and Armenians by Azerbaijanis in 1918. During the Soviet era, the conflict subsided only to resurge in the year 1988. It escalated into a full-scale war (1991-1994) with the complicity of third parties as Azerbaijan and Armenia became independent. Despite the signing of a shaky truce in 1994, the ceasefire regime has been constantly violated by both sides, causing the death of soldiers and civilians in a “non-military time”.

The image of the “enemy”

The conflict, which intensified simultaneously with the collapse of the Soviet Union and “accompanied” the creation of nation-states, directly influenced the formation of identity in the new post-Soviet societies of Azerbaijan and Armenia, whose fundamental features are often reduced to a confrontation with the common historical and hostile ekzemplifikant[2] image.

In his book “The Black Garden. Armenia and Azerbaijan trough Peace and War” a British journalist and writer on the Caucasus, Thomas de Waal describes that changes like: “Two versions of history collided on this road. To hear the Armenians and Azerbaijanis tell it, this was the fault line between Christians and Muslims, Armenians and Turks, west and east. The trouble was neither side could decide where the boundary lay. For one side, the Armenian possession of Nagorny Karabakh, the beautiful range of wooded hills stretching up in front of us, was an “enemy” occupation; for the other, it was a fact of historical justice. The cultural and symbolic meaning of Nagorny Karabakh for both peoples cannot be overstated. For Armenians, Karabakh is the last outpost of their Christian civilization and a historic haven of Armenian princes and bishops before the eastern Turkic world begins. Azerbaijanis talk of it as a cradle, nursery, or conservatoire, the birthplace of their musicians and poets. Historically, Armenia is diminished without this enclave and its monasteries and its mountain lords; geographically and economically, Azerbaijan is not fully viable without Nagorny Karabakh.”[3]

Mutual antagonism, compounded by pressures from the media and used by the ruling authorities on both sides, prohibits willingness or ability to dialogue.

Literature and “enemy” who looks alike

It is still necessary to find a way out of this deadlock of hatred and intolerance, and some literary works of the post-Soviet period in Azerbaijan and Armenia have attempted to do so.

The Armenian writer Vahe Avetyan, in his collection of poems “Sayat Nova was imprisoned by a secret unit of decent dashnak girls” (“Саята Нову в тюрягу загнал секретный отряд благопристойных дашнакских девиц[4]) in metaphorical form offers the following thought:

The vast majority of our fellow-citizen khachobaijanies[5] (хачобайджанцев) are racists and fascists but they do not even realize that. They think that they are good citizens, children of God, of Allah while the racists and fascists are the opposite side, the children of Satan and Shaitan. If our people guessed for a moment or if someone would show them that they are the mirror image of their neighbors, at that moment they would stop to be racists and fascists.” “Khachobaijanies”, are often the subject of Vahe Avetyan’s writings, who calls on “stupidity and ignorance” in a satirical form. The author points to the conspicuous similarities between the two nations that have much in common in culture, customs, traditions, and even appearance. Even in their mutual hatred, writes Avetyan, they are literally a “mirror image of each other”.

There is a subtle criticism of the legalization of the conflict by parties based on religious affiliation in this quote: “good citizens, children of God, of Allah”. Christian martyrs, devout Muslims – each have their “undeniable holy truth”.

An Armenian journalist, Yuri Manvelyan, in an interview with the Azerbaijani writer Alakbpar Aliyev for the Armenian news source,[6] describes the events that followed the disintegration of the Union in this way:

How does this happen? One day we wake up and discover in ourselves an increase in national consciousness. We go knocking on our neighbor’s door and ask him if he has this increase of national consciousness too, and we find out that he has another identity and nationality. So, we ask him to get out of here, kick him out or destroy him. It seems like it works this way. Suddenly you find out that you do not have the moral or historical right to live here, and someone decides for you where and how you have to live. It turns out that you were born in the wrong place, and there is a place where you can be evicted to and which is supposedly more native to you.

So, we wake up one day and find out […] Suddenly you find out” – these phrases emphasize the brevity of the time interval, in which former neighbors became enemies and show the absurdity of the process – “there is a place where you can be evicted to and which is supposedly more native to you”.

Thus, the collapse of the Soviet Union not only means alienation, deportation, hostility, and putting up barbed wire on the borders of the two countries, but also a loss of homeland: firstly, the Soviet homeland where Azerbaijanis and Armenians were still good “neighbors”, who lived peacefully side by side, and then the loss of the “small” local homeland – a village in Karabakh for Azerbaijanis and a home for Armenians in Sumgait.

What is the role of the writer in the public projection of the conflict?

Should a writer criticize and put himself at risk of all this overblown hatred of the “enemy” or should he/she comply with the commonplace expectations adopting a patriotic stance? Should he take on the role of an intermediary and use the pen instead of the sword to overcome ethnic strife and liberalize public opinion?

Therefore, both sides have a number of literary works describing the military action in rich colors: the horrors caused by the enemy, the hero-defenders who have fallen in unequal battles at the hands of the enemy, or the image of the victims of war, of the common man (sometimes the prisoner), who is suffering from the cruelty of his former “neighbor” (quite a striking example is the trilogy “Eternal Love” by Sabir Ahmadli[7]).

Generally, in modern Azerbaijani literature, we can observe a certain stagnation in the treatment of war as a theme, and only a few individual works are really worth considering as examples.

The official discourse can be seen in an interview with Rashad Majid, one of the leaders of the Writers’ Union of Azerbaijan, in the Musavat newspaper[8] from October 2010. By denying the need for special financing of authors from the state for the creation of military literature, he explains the situation of modern military rhetoric as follows:

As for the absence of strong works on this topic (war), there are psychological reasons. Firstly, the war is not over, we have not won yet. Therefore, writers are going through some stress, depression, spiritual decline. And in such a situation, it is impossible for society to expect works in a victorious spirit”.

The stagnation is explained by the ongoing nature of the conflict and by the fact that the authors, as an integral part of the society, are constantly under media pressure that makes it difficult to step above the war rhetoric in the news. After all, if we analyze world literature on the theme of warfare, we may notice a temporal regularity, with many significant narratives about the war created only after a certain time (Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”, E. M. Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front”). Societies and authors need time to cool down emotionally and to rethink previous, ephemeral values.

However, I do not agree with Rashad Majid’s last sentence. In my opinion, the Azerbaijani society does not expect works “in the spirit of victory” from writers. We should not forget that Azerbaijan is still the defeated side in a conflict; this has left it’s a mark of apathy upon artists as well for whom the subject is painful. It is hard to write about it; it is hard to read about it. Thus, Majid’s suggestion to create a certain spirit through literature reminds the censorship of socialist realism. To express my stance on the issue of literature and conflict, I would like to quote the literary critic Jalil Javanshir who wrote the following in an essay published by the online portal of Azerbaijani literature Edə[9]: “Solving the “Grief of Karabakh” is not a matter of literature. A knot tied by politicians can only be untied by a war or by politics itself. However, literature contains valuable exemplars of how this “Karabakh grief” finds a creative expression. From this point of view, Seymour Baijan, who describes Azerbaijan and Armenia in peacetime in his novel “Gugarq” is much more successful than Elmar Mammadyarov[10]”.

Hence, literature should not claim a leading role in resolving the conflict. Instead, a meaningful literature of pacifism giving rise to a revision of values from militaristic to humane ones can become a step for the two countries toward resolving the conflict, and in this case, the impact of literature would be more sustainable than the political action.

“Gugarq” by Seymour Baijan

Allow me now to refer to the already mentioned novel by Seymour Baijan “Gugarq” that is controversial in Azerbaijan. “Gugarq” is considered by many literary critics in Azerbaijan and abroad to be, as it is described in the epilogue of the Russian edition, “the best of the novels about the Karabakh war”[11]. The novel is characterized by a non-linear plot. The main action takes place in the youth camp “Gugarq” in Armenia where the main character was invited to participate in a training.

At the camp, Seymour meets his old Armenian friends who have moved away from Azerbaijan and are struggling to put roots in Armenia (“they do not like the Armenians of Baku” (p.139)), as well as new people. He builds a special relationship with an Armenian girl, Anush, who has feelings for him from the first day.

Memories harmoniously integrated into the story take up a greater space in the novel than the main plot. The range of these “flashbacks” that are accompanied by the reflections and evaluations of the narrator is very wide: from portraits of his parents, the uncle who unwittingly made him a writer, girls, historical events (the collapse of the Soviet Union), to vivid and tragic images, individually imprinted in his memory (a dog licking up the blood of some wounded Azerbaijani soldiers dripping from a truck in front of a hospital, a bomb that had fallen onto the market, a monument to Lenin in a herd of sheep). An important place in the novel is taken by the letters Anush writes to him after returning from the camp, which became a kind of sideshow of emotional failure.

The interlacing and alternation of topics such as war, childhood, love, travel, literature, and life in the capital creates a complex model of “War and Peace” in the post-Soviet form. The author actually draws parallels and refers to the work of Leo Tolstoy several times.

Why is it so important to emphasize the word “post-Soviet” in this context? “Post” – is the exact prefix that marks the border between the nations that once used to live in peace, which separates childhood in the home village from youth and adult life in Baku. This border leads to apathy under the pressure of the big and unfamiliar city in which it is so difficult for the dreamer from the periphery to settle down. It cheats with the “kinder-surprise”[12] of independence, a chocolate flavor which for a moment “destroys the sense of reality” among the masses and then inspires fear and uncertainty about the future, fear of war, fear of condemnation. It leaves behind a “post-human” who is lost between the topoi of “war and peace”, without any instructions for survival.

Yes, I am not a hero. For me, being a coward and wanting peace is more acceptable than being a hero and wanting war. Even if others call me a coward, I accept that word. But I have a civil position because of which it was not very easy to live in my rich country. Almost all the doors are closed in front of me”.

The novel is built on the narrator’s monologue, through which the reader is acquainted with all kinds of people, and going with him through childhood in his home village Fizuli that was occupied by the Armenian army and adulthood in Baku where he lives an alienated life working at the newspaper.

The reader accompanies him on trips to Russia, Kazakhstan, Georgia, Armenia, gets acquainted with other cultures, derived from the personal experiences of the character: “At the wedding, I was finally convinced that the Slavs are the funniest people in the world.” (p. 135), “It is really a sin to drink for Kazakhs.” (p.127), “Caucasians are generous.” (p. 150)., The reader also gets acquainted with his “girls” whom the main character always treats with his inherent machismo: “When a woman wears a dress, which is difficult to take off, it complicates the matter. Some women wear such dresses purposely… to talk nonsense during the undressing” (p. 141), “She looked like a peeled egg.”, says the character about Anush.

The main character, a difficult, sometimes melancholic, indecisive and thinking in stereotypes, is the literary choice of the author who wants to show the events of two decades through the prism of a common person, to give them a tinge of emotion. Thus, everything that happens is the truth of a single, imperfect man, who grew up in a society that has experienced recent cataclysms.

I would like to explain briefly why I think that “Gugarq” is an antimilitarist novel.  The main character who was deeply affected by the war, who lost his home village, who saw friends being killed, should blaze with hatred towards Armenians. Instead, he is in the “enemy” camp, and the enemy is not the same as it is presented in the news. Moreover, the enemy has its own “truth”, its own dead soldiers and civilians, and the grief of the mothers on both sides is equally indescribable. Thereby the novel deconstructs the image of a cruel and ruthless enemy, created over twenty years of conflict.

The old Armenian man from Baku who works in the camp remembers his homeland – Azerbaijan with sadness and he praises Azerbaijanis: “– What do you think, will people make peace?… We lived in Mardakan. I worked in the pioneer camp. We lived well. Mardakan’s people are good people. I still remember the smell of the sea. I wish to walk on the shore of the Caspian Sea one more time, so I can die in peace” (p. 153). As in other texts mentioned above, instead of inciting tension, Seymour Baijan emphasizes the significant commonalities of Azerbaijani and Armenian culture: “The wedding was in full swing. I did not see any difference between the enemy’s weddings and ours. Same food, songs, faces, dances”. Thus, under the pen of the writer, the horrors of war are not the monopoly of one side on truth and suffering; they are a crime against all humanity.

I would like to conclude my reading of this work with the words of Luiza Poghosyan a representative of Caucasus Center of Peace-Making Initiatives (CCPMI)[13]. “‘Gugarq’ is not a book. Seymour has cut off his own ear and given multiple copies of it to Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Van Gogh cut off his and gave it away too… but he did not feel better. It turned out that he did it for others. Seymour will not feel better, either. “Gugarq” will help others.

[1] Kamancheh (also known as kamanche or kamancha) is a bowed string instrument, used in Iran and the Caucasus. The play “Kamancheh” by classic Azerbaijani writer Jalil Mammadguluzadeh (1866-1932) was written in 1920 and tells the story of the humane act of an Azerbaijani who releases an Armenian musician held hostage, despite the violent clashes between Azerbaijanis and Armenians in neighboring villages.

[2] Auch E. M. Muslim – Untertan – Bürger: Identitätswandel in gesellschaftlichen Transformationsprozessen der muslimischen Ostprovinzen Südkaukasiens (Kaukasienstudien), Wiesbaden 2004.

[3] Thomas de Waal “Black Garden. Armenia and Azerbaijan trough Peace and War” (New York 2003).


[5] The portmanteau “khachobaijanies” – “khach” – the cross (this is how Armenians are often tagged in Russia) and “Azerbaijanis” – figurative representation, coined by the author to show the similarity of the representatives of both nations.


[7] Sabir Ahmadli “Eternal Love” (Baku, 2003). The author lost his son in the Karabakh war.



[10] Elmar Mammadyarov is the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Azerbaijan.

[11] “‘Gugarq’ by the by artistic qualities and in terms of objectivity is the best novel about the Karabakh war”, affirms the cultural resource in the Caucasus

[12]Seymour Baijan “Gugarq”, Baku 2014. p. 94.


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