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A nation divided by language: Azerbaijan’s Russian legacy

8 February 2018
Book sale-off in Baku organized by Qanun Publishing House (Facebook)

Almost three decades after independence, Russian language still plays a large role in Azerbaijan. Many of the country’s schools and universities are divided: into the Azerbaijani-medium Azsector, and a Russian-language sector. But the divide goes far beyond the language: graduates of the Russian sector often see themselves as the elites of society, more progressive, more open-minded, and more cultured. In turn, they are portrayed as aloof, unpatriotic, and not ‘real’ Azerbaijanis.

After taking the first month’s rent and wishing them luck, the landlady left the two girls, who were to live together under the same roof, standing in the hallway. Neither was delighted at the prospect of living with the other. Firstly, they hardly knew each other, but there was also another obstacle standing between them.

Looking at her new flatmate, Fidan thought: ‘she’s from the Azsector; probably a provincial. How can I get on with her?’

‘She’s from the Russian sector; probably arrogant. How can I get along with her?’ thought the other, Madina.

Historical roots of division

Since Soviet times, the Russian language has held a dominant position in Azerbaijan, and society here has been unofficially divided into two: the Azsector and Russian sector. The Azsector refers to people who finished the Azerbaijani-medium section of school and university. Accordingly, the Russian sector includes those who studied in Russian, perceiving it as a native tongue.

For over a century, Russian language has been associated with elite status in the country. It was the official language of the USSR, which meant that the the lion’s share of artistic, technical, and educational literature was published primarily in Russian. This meant that Russian-speaking Azerbaijanis had many more opportunities for self-development.

In modern Azerbaijan, it’s widely believed that Russian-speaking and Azerbaijani-speaking people live and think in completely different ways. In conversations, people will indicate which ‘sector’ whoever they are talking about is from.


Russian proficiency is associated with being educated, intelligent, and sophisticated. Russian-speaking Azerbaijanis see their Azerbaijani-speaking counterparts as conservative and narrow-minded. In turn, Azsector people consider Russian-speakers to be ‘fake’ Azerbaijanis, removed from the nations values and without a sense of patriotism.

Russian language has not had official status in Azerbaijan for some time, but its elite status has persevered, mostly in Baku.

Divided families

Young people from the two ‘castes’ do not interact much on a personal level. As a rule, it’s hard for them to find a common tongue — both literally and figuratively. Tensions sometimes arise even among members of the same family.

Thirty-seven-year-old Asli Gurbanova finished school in the Russian sector, while her younger sister attended the Azsector. Asli says this caused a gulf to develop between them.

‘She has a completely different mindset. I connect it with literature: unlike me, my sister read almost no books, because there were so few Azerbaijani translations. As a result, her worldview has remained narrow. My sister and her friends think about everything in clichés. What’s more, when I address them in Russian, they take it as arrogance on my part’, Asli says.

Asad Karimov has gotten used to living ‘between two fires’. He graduated in the Azsector, and considers himself a part of this group, but he was always more attracted to the Russian sector, because he says he could discuss Western books and films with people from the Russian sector, and Russian speaking girls were more ‘emancipated, well-groomed, and knew how to speak beautifully’.

‘But the Russian sector never takes me for one of their own, although we have the same intellectual level with them. And friends from the Azsector always considered me a black sheep, and said that I had a Russian character’, Assad says.

He has placed his 3-year-old son in the Russian sector at kindergarten, and plans for him to continue his education in Russian.

‘Why do we even need Russian?’

Intellectual game for Azerbaijani-speaking youth (Facebook)

In the 1990s, book publishing in Azerbaijan collapsed because of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Moreover, in 1992 the country began to transition from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet, which was completed in 2001. Accordingly, a new generation, already learning in the Latin script, simply could not read books published using Cyrillic, and ten years ago the overwhelming majority of books sold in stores were in Russian.

But now young people have new opportunities to develop themselves without needing to know Russian. Publishing house Qanun, as well as a few others, is actively translating and publishing world literature into Azerbaijani. In addition, the Internet has become widely used, which makes it possible to find literature, get information, and watch films in English or Turkish. And the latter is very close to the Azerbaijani language.

[Read on Chai Khana: Qanun and the law of freedom]

One more factor: Russian language is the official language of another state. On this background, the question is often raised: ‘Why do we even need it?’ Disputes flare up and subside with regularity.

The last high-profile case occurred recently, after journalist Hafiz Ahmadov made a post on his Facebook page. He said he wanted to ‘crush like dogs’ children brought up in the Russian language. This angered many users, and from both camps. So the journalist soon removed his status and was fired from his job.

But the discussion of this incident, and therefore of the language issue, continued for quite some time. And in these discussions, many Russian-speaking Azerbaijanis have faced accusations of indifference to the fate of their homeland and their people. They were even compared to a fifth column sympathetic to Russia. But Russian-speakers in Azerbaijan, as a rule, do not feel any connection with Russia as a state. For them, Russian exists by itself, apart from the country.

Choice of language as mirror of public sentiment

Faig Huseynov (Facebook)

After the tragedy of 20 January 1990, in which many people died at the hands of the Soviet army in Baku, and the subsequent disintegration of the Soviet Union, a crisis of the Russian language began in the country. Many parents withdrew their children from the Russian sector and enrolled them in the Azsector. Some did so out of patriotism, and others because the fate of the Russian language in the country seemed uncertain.

Since then, the situation has changed. Of the 3,280 secondary schools in Azerbaijan, about 340 have a Russian sector. Many Azerbaijani-speaking parents send their children to the Russian sector, still believing that education is better there.

One such parent is Sabina Iskendervoa, whose eldest daughter was enrolled in the first grade this year. ‘When neighbours learned this, some of them almost accused me of treason’, Sabina complains. ‘They started saying that my husband and I were wrong, that our child would stop being Azerbaijani and stuff like that… I wanted to tell them this was none of their business, but did not dare’.

Ilgar Gayibov chose the opposite path. He speaks both Russian and Azerbaijani well, which is why people are surprised to learn his children do not know Russian at all and study in the Azsector. Ilgar says he made this choice out of political considerations after the war in South Ossetia.

‘I do not want our neighbouring country to use the linguistic preferences of my children. I do not like the politics of modern Russia, although I am not a Russophobe’, Ilgar declares.

Faig Huseynov organises intellectual competitions for schoolchildren and students from both sectors. According to him, the difference in the level of education between them is slowly narrowing. At the same time, he notes that children from Russian language circles are more emancipated. Their parents tend to give them more freedom and socialise them from early childhood.

‘The open-mindedness of children from the Russian sector is still wider than in Azsector’, he notes. ‘And this is directly related to their parents. Azerbaijani-speaking parents, for some reason, do not give their children additional knowledge on top of the school programme. Russian-speaking ones, on the contrary, strive for their children to know more’.

Closing the Russian sector

Erkin Gadirli (Facebook)

Proposals to reduce the number of Russian departments in schools and universities, or even close them, are raised periodically from various officials and public figures. One ardent supporter of closing of the Russian sectors is Erkin Gadirli, a board member of the political movement ReAL. He does stress that it’s impossible to simply get rid of the Russian sector in one go.

‘I’m for the gradual reduction of the Russian sector in schools, so that the population has time to reorient themselves to the Azerbaijani language. This is a long process and will take at least 10 years. But we need to do this, otherwise the situation will never change, and the country will continue to maintain a linguistic division’, he said.

According to Gadirli, although the Russian language in Azerbaijan continues to be considered prestigious and in many cases still helps in one’s career, its practical benefits are much smaller than during the Soviet Union.

On an official level, to some extent learning Russian is even encouraged. For example, the Ministry of Education is in its third year of implementing the Intensive Russian Language Training programme for year 10–11 students in 50 schools in the country. In addition, instruction in Russian in all public schools is free of charge. Official websites of several ministries have Russian language versions, as does as the state news agency AzerTac.

Meanwhile, even some ethnic Russians are learning the Azerbaijani language. Accountant Lyudmila Kuznetsova has lived in Baku all her life. Although she is Russian, she is quite proficient in Azerbaijani. All last summer, she tried to make her 13-year-old daughter, Marina, study Azerbaijani.

‘Without knowing the official language of the country, she would not be able to find a good job in future. This is why I try to teach it to her; I even hired a tutor. Recently she befriended a girl from the Azsector. I was happy that Marina would be learning from her. But instead, that girl began speaking Russian in two months!’ Lyudmila says.

Personal bridges

Quite soon after their arrival in the new apartment, Fidan and Madina became friends and laughed at each other’s initial bias. Despite belonging to different linguistic worlds, it turned out that they perfectly understand each other.

They no longer live together but continue to see each other from time to time, to gossip and ask for advice. Fidan sometimes uses phrases Madina does not understand, to which Madina laughs at Fidan’s broken Azerbaijani and exclaims: ‘Have some shame! I am an Azsector provincial, talk a human language, without these smart things of yours!’

So, one can say that in this particular case, the gulf between two sectors, if not gone, has at least had a rope bridge thrown over it.

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