AZERI´S CULTURAL PLAGIARISM AS A CHARTER OF IDENTITY
One of the birthmarks of Azeri nationalism — cultural plagiarism — is thought to be behind the denial of cultural
and political rights of Armenians, Udins, Tats, Talishes, Lezgins and other native groups of Azerbaijan's
colonized periphery, which survived earlier Turkification and became minorities.
As a people whose national consciousness and ethnic self-awareness crystallized only with the imposition
of Soviet rule, Azeris have been long grappling with a sense of insecurity and inferiority in their relations
with the older cultures of their Persian, Armenian and Georgian neighbors. Contemporary Azeris — similarly to
their Turkish cousins — are the descendents of Turkic horsemen who arrived to the Caucasus from their homeland
in Central Asian in the late Middle Ages. To date, the languages and a bulk of ethnographic specs of Turks and
Azeris only insignificantly differ from those of the Central Asia's Turkic groups, e.g. Turkmen and Uzbeks.
Prior to the Turkic invasion of the eastern part of the Armenian Plateau, the territory of today's "Azerbaijan"
was mainly populated by Armenian Christians (to the west of the River Kur) and a number of Persian-
and Lezgin-speaking groups (to the east of the River Kur).
No specifically Azeri state ever existed before 1918, and, rather than seeing themselves as part of a
continuous national tradition, like Georgians and Armenians, the Turkic-speaking Shiite Muslims of the
Transcaucasus regarded themselves as part of the larger Muslim world, the ummah, occasionally having local
tribal identities as well.
Emphasizing the relatively recent emergence of a coherent ethnic group called "Azerbaijanis" or
"Azeris" should not be viewed as an attempt to deny legitimacy to a national state for the
Caucasus' Turkic Shiites. Nonetheless, it is worth contrasting historical facts to the political claims of
Azerbaijani nationalists who try to harass non-Azeris and concoct an identity for their country through
stripping Azerbaijan's neighbors of their own cultural heritage.
Historians agree that the surfacing in 1918 of a Turkish-imposed entity called “Azerbaijan” was
largely an accidental twist of history, and it is questionable as to whether the Azeri nation would have ever been
forged at all, had there not been the spectacular discovery of large deposits of petroleum in the Western Caspian
region by Russian geologists in the late 1860s. In this regard, Azerbaijan presents an instructive example of how
the processes of modernization are capable of creating entire nations virtually from scratch.
It is a stretch to speak about the existence of "Azeris" or "Azerbaijanis" of any sort, either as a single ethnic
group, cultural entity or ethno-political unit before the late 19th century, when the oil boom in the Caspian
resulted in rapid industrialization and urbanization of the Absheron peninsula. This socio-economic change turned
Baku into a large metropolitan area, providing the nascent Turkic intelligentsia of the Caspian an opportunity to
turn their share of oil bonanza into a nationalist educational and political resource, which became instrumental in
producing new identities for the local Turkic-speaking Shiites, future Azeris.
The lack of clear ethnic self-awareness among the Turkic tribes and clans of the Caspian confused the Russian imperial
administration at the time it governed the lands of the Southeastern Caucasus. To create a resemblance of order in
the ethno-demographic cacophony of local Turkic shepherds, Czarist bureaucrats had to coin a special generic term to
characterize them: Caucasian Tatars. Persians traditionally referred to them as Turks.
Prior to the 20th century, most proto-Azeris/Caucasian Tatars lived pristine, self-sufficient lives of nomadic herdsmen.
The Turkic tribes that settled in the Western Caspian shot to prominence through harassing and robbing merchants
who traveled along the Great Silk Road. These tribes significantly contributed to the gradual decline of this
important commercial artery that in the medieval period was used for shipping goods from the Eastern Asia to Europe.
In the absence of their own high culture, (meaning intellectual tradition based on written language) proto-Azeris
had to use the intellectual products of neighboring civilizations of the region in order to interact with their
political and social environs. The vernaculars of the Caucasian Tatars lacked literary tradition prior to the 19th century.
When the territories of contemporary Azerbaijan were annexed by the Russian Empire from Persia, there appeared first
humble attempts to create a literature in proto-Azeri dialect by early Turkic enlighteners — Abbas K. Bakikhanov (1794-1846)
and Mirza F. Akhundov (1812-1878). This in contrast to Armenians, Georgians, and Persians, whose tradition of artistic
and scholarly writing dates from antiquity.
The word "Azerbaijan" (originally — Aturpatagan in Parthian or Atrpatakan
in Old Armenian) is also a confusing term. It never represented a single political or ethnic unit before 1918, being
solely a geographic concept, for centuries designating an ancient northern province of today's Iran. Only in the last
decade of 1800s, Azeri nationalist intellectuals came up with a controversial idea to hijack the term
"Azerbaijan" in order to give a single name to the lands of the present-day Azerbaijani Republic,
located to the north of the "original" Azerbaijan. Ironically, if anyone should be rightfully called "Azerbaijani" at
that time, they should not have been the proto-Azeri Turkic tribal infiltrators from the sandy plains of Eastern Caspian,
but the aboriginal population of present-day "Azerbaijan," i.e. Armenians, Udins, Talishes, Lezgins, Budughs, Tats, etc.
All would later become victims of the Azeri policy of forced assimilation and ethnic cleansing.
It was not until 1937, when the current ethno-name — "Azeris" (azerbaidzantsi, in Russian, translated
into azarbaycanli, in Turkic) — was put into wide circulation by Bolshevik anthropologists,
becoming one of a dozen of terms that were created to describe those ethnic entities of the USSR that lacked clear
self-definition in the past. In a bundle with "Azerbaijan", Bolsheviks either created entirely from
scratch or helped to legitimize up to 25 ethno-territorial entities as parts and divisions of the USSR — for various
nationalities — that never existed in history before, e.g. Kalmikia, Buryatia, Yakutia, Checheno-Ingushetia, Chuvashia,
Udmurtia, Kirgiziya, etc., etc.
Mark Saroyan, an American political scientist, noted that Azerbaijani historians produced histories
of “Azerbaijan” based not on the historical facts of a prior national state(s) but on the assumption that the genealogy
of "Azerbaijanis" could be traced in terms of putative ethnic-territorial continuity of all lands that are found
within the borders of the present-day Azerbaijani Republic. Similarly, the history of the ancient tribal Christian
commonwealth of Caucasian Aluania (also known by its customary Armenian name — Aghvanq,
or as Strabo's "Caucasian Albania", no reference to European Albania) was assimilated by Azerbaijani
historians into the history of the "Azerbaijani (Azeri) nation", despite the absence of any
linguistic and cultural similarities between the Armenian civilization of Caucasian Aluania and the contemporary
Azeris. In this way, cultural practices substantiated claims to ethnic continuity based on the modern form of the
territorial national state.
Another observer, Yo'av Karny, an Israeli anthropologist and writer, went even further by demonstrating in his
"Highlanders" how Azerbaijani nationalist attempts to fabricate history and by this deprive Karabakhi Armenians
from their own cultural heritage laid down the foundation of the Karabakh dispute in the mid-1980s. Effectively,
the denial half a million Armenians in Azerbaijan their identity was a prelude to ethnic cleansing. Karny points to
the role of historian Ziya M. Buniyatov and his disciples whose controversial project to invent Azerbaijan's past and
"un-invent" that of Azerbaijan's neighbors went berserk, spilling over the academic field and helping to bring about a
major regional trouble.
Rewriting history and pillaging the cultural heritage of neighbors has an important function in the ethno-politics
of Azerbaijan. This practice is aimed at legitimizing the presence of the Azeri state on the territories which
were earlier associated with or, in fact, were original homelands of other peoples of the region and became part
of today's Azerbaijan as a matter of chance, political expediency or even topographic error. Another rationale
behind Azeri cultural plagiarism relates to the efforts to deny civil liberties and cultural rights to
Azerbaijan's indigenous non-Turkic groups through hijacking their culture and "privatizing" their historical heritage
by the republic's ethnic majority.
It goes without saying that other monuments of Armenian history and culture invisible from the Iranian border were eliminated long ago. The Azeri state has one goal: to demolish all traces of Armenian presence to avoid another headache in future.s