To best understand the obstacles to peace in Artsakh, one just needs to look at the contents found in the Azerbaijani education system, which not only reflect the Azerbaijani government’s general attitude toward the Armenian nation but also serve as a powerful force perpetuating the vicious cycle of Armenophobia among Azerbaijani youth. The falsification of history and the aggression toward Armenians are vividly pronounced not only in the history textbooks of Azerbaijan but across a wide spectrum of subjects and disciplines, among which literature is a very powerful one.
When reading the Azerbaijani fairy tale Bad Neighbor by Gulzar Ibrahimova, a well-known and celebrated writer in Azerbaijan and the Vice Rector for Scientific Affairs at Baku Eurasian University, one can easily categorize Armenians as villains and Azerbaijanis as victims. The tale starts with the phrase, “Once upon a time, there was a state called Atropatena. This was the previous name of Azerbaijan.” Ironically, Atropatena is a historical area and an ancient state in the northwest of present-day Iran. It corresponds to the territory of Iranian Azerbaijan, which has nothing to do with the current territory and population of the Republic of Azerbaijan. The misleading name may make someone believe otherwise—exactly as the Azerbaijani Republic intended. In May 1918, when the three countries of the South Caucasus declared their independence, the eastern region (which was mainly populated by Muslims and Tatars) wanted to give the region the name, “Eastern and the Southern Trans-Caucasian Republic.” However, the major party at the time, Musavat, with its Pan-Turkic leanings, succeeded in naming it Azerbaijan. Persians protested this decision, as the Persian government argued that Azerbaijan was part of Persia, and the country and the territory east of the South Caucasus (northeast of the Arax river) had never been part of Iranian Azerbaijan. Despite this, after the Bolsheviks occupied the region, Soviet leaders did not attempt to change the name of Azerbaijan. They played the “Southern Azerbaijani card” against Iran.
The fairy tale continues: “Rulers and kings of many countries considered it an honor to decorate their palaces with tableware and jugs made by skilled craftsmen from Atropatena.” With this sentence, the writer establishes the reputation of a country that has a skilled and renowned tradition of craftsmanship, where the “Atropatena people were very hardworking and their skills and efficiency were famous all over the world.” The writer then tells us about Rovshan, a hard-working Azerbaijani craftsman who spares no effort for his family and for his love interest Goncha. He works day and night to pay the bride-dowry for his beloved Goncha, and their love story seems to gradually evolve into a success, before we are introduced to the Armenian villain Vardan (a common Armenian name of Middle Persian origin).
The writer introduces Vardan as a scammer: “Vardan was Armenian. He was expelled from his native land for scam, came to Rovshan’s native town and settled in the old house next to Rovshan’s.” Vardan was a shoemaker, but no one purchased his shoes as they were too expensive, creating a contrast with Rovshan’s character, whose products were in such high demand that “merchants fought to buy them.” Vardan becomes envious of Rovshan’s success and, no matter how much Rovshan tries to help Vardan, the Armenian scammer does not appreciate the kind-hearted Azeri craftsman’s help and “was thinking hard about how to seize Rovshan’s money and was making insidious plans.” Throughout the entire story, Rovshan trusts Vardan unconditionally, but at the end, as Rovshan stoops down to view the bottom of a well, “Vardan pushed him from behind and threw him down to the bottom.” Vardan is presented not only as an envious scammer, willing to steal Rovshan’s fortune, but also as a liar and murderer. “He [Rovshan] did so much good to Vardan that it never occurred to him that Vardan would treat him perfidiously,” the tale reads, to justify Rovshan’s kindness and naivety and reiterate Vardan’s ingratitude and evilness.
At the end of the tale, Goncha manages to save Rovshan’s life. Despite all the harm that Vardan caused him, however, Rovshan decides not to kill Vardan, and instead simply expels the scammer from the town. This ending serves three purposes: first, it highlights the unconditional kindness of the Azerbaijani craftsman who, unlike the villainous Armenian, decided not to commit murder; second, it shows that despite all the harm caused by the Armenians, Azeris will triumph in the end; third, it implies, on a subtextual level, that the “perfidious” Armenians will one day be expelled from Azerbaijani lands. It is important to mention that Bad Neighbor is considered as a “model of modern literary works for children.” According to Professor G. Namazov, it aims to instill “patriotism, sincerity, honesty and purity of soul” in children. It is included in the learning aids for pedagogical university students, as well as in the school curriculum.
The plot of this fairy tale would not be so severe and alarming if it was the only fairy tale portraying Armenians as the villains. Unfortunately, the evil nature of Armenians is a recurring theme in Azerbaijani fairy tales. In another fairy tale, Gulzar Ibrahimova’s Story of Ilham and Fariza, Armenians unite with the Russians and attack “the inhabitants of the nomads’ camp with the aim of murder and robbery. […] The locals did not have time to take up arms while the Armenians and Russians set fire to the Azerbaijanis’ houses, with neither children nor old people spared. They mercilessly killed everyone in their path.” Ironically, throughout history Russians have oftentimes united with Turks and Azeris to attack the Armenian population. During the 2020 Artsakh War, although Russia is officially considered Armenia’s political and military ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government played the double-faced game of selling weapons to Azerbaijan and making decisions that favored Azerbaijan’s political agenda. Russia’s deceitful attitude toward Armenia was also well pronounced in the Soviet times (in fact, the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan was initiated by the Soviet Union’s decision to annex Artsakh to the newly formed Republic of Azerbaijan). Presenting Armenians as allies of Russia who together attack the Azeris is an interesting dynamic, which, I believe, neither Putin nor Stalin’s governments have been aware of.
There is something else that I find particularly ironic and hilarious in this fairy tale. “The inhabitants of the nomads’ camp, Azerbaijanis, always considered the Armenians their younger brothers and Russians their elder brothers, so they were thunderstruck by their treachery and betrayal.” The writer’s choice to refer to Armenians as “young brothers” and to Russians as “elder brothers,” as intentless and random as it may be perceived at the surface level, supports the Azerbaijani political agenda of presenting Armenians as a newly-formed nation, with no history or heritage to trace back to. The author could have simply said “Azerbaijanis always considered the Armenians and Russians as their brothers,” but she specifically chose the words “young” and “elder.”
Azerbaijani poems are not as subtle and subtextual. Jabir Novruz’s poem “Three-year-old Asker,” for example, has lines as blatantly violent as, “As soon as he wakes up/ He takes the gun/ My little grandson/ Kills, slaughters the enemy every day,” and territorial claims as unjustifiable and threatening as, “Fight, my little hero/ Because sooner or later/ You should take not only Karabakh/ But also lair of blood Yerevan.” Another poem, Ruslan Novres’s “Armenian,” encourages the reader to kill without hesitation: “If he is sleeping in his cradle, slaughter him quickly, don’t drag it out/ Find a knife, a sharp one!/ The Armenian is a scum!” Phrases like this are found not only in Azerbaijani poems but also in their proverbs, among which a popular one is: “Harda gördün erməni Vur başına gülləni” (meaning “Wherever you meet an Armenian, put a bullet through his head”). Unfortunately, such aggressive statements are voiced not only by adults but also by Azeri children. It therefore comes as no surprise that educators can hold an image of a soldier with a gun in front of children and glorify the soldier as a “hero” for killing Armenian “enemies.”
The Azerbaijani government has succeeded in the formation of territorial nationalism, which would perhaps not be as detrimental if it wasn’t grounded on some other nation’s territory.
Such an upbringing instills hatred and violence in children and results in individuals like Ramil Safarov, an Azerbaijani lieutenant who murdered a 26-year-old Armenian lieutenant. Safarov “struck Markaryan 16 times with an ax, almost decapitating him. Following the murder, he walked over to another Armenian officer’s room, hoping to commit a second murder, but found his door locked.” Ironically enough, Safarov and Markaryan “were in Hungary for a NATO-sponsored Partnership for Peace English-language course in 2004.” When commenting on Safarov’s act, Azerbaijani MP Ganira Pashayeva said: “This is a great event not only for Azerbaijanis living in Azerbaijan, but for the whole Turkish people living inside and outside Azerbaijan.” According to the BBC, “Ramil Safarov was given a hero’s welcome on his return to Azerbaijan last week. As well as an official pardon from President Ilham Aliyev, he was promoted to the rank of major, given a flat and all the pay he had lost since his arrest eight years ago [he was arrested in Hungary, but later released].” Unfortunately, this is not a poem, nor a proverb, nor a dystopian sci-fi film. Perhaps, Gulzar Ibrahimova should revisit her fairy tales and change the roles.
The Azerbaijani government has succeeded in the formation of territorial nationalism, which would perhaps not be as detrimental if it wasn’t grounded on some other nation’s territory. The Azerbaijani government has failed drastically in the upbringing of morally and emotionally healthy citizens, for whom the murder of a young person is not a cause for punishment but rather an occasion for pride and praise. This moral and psychological downgrade has, in the short term, benefited the Azerbaijani government’s political and financial interests and elongated the life of the Aliyev clan. Yet once the common enemy Armenia is destroyed (God forbid) and there is no more unifying national objective, the moral downgrade may turn against Aliyev’s government and lead to detrimental violence among Azerbaijanis themselves, which the Azerbaijani population should be well aware and careful of. At the end of the day, the Azerbaijani national identity has been constructed only in relation to the Armenian identity, and destroying the base will sooner or later result in the collapse of the sixth-floor balcony.