The influence of the Russian language on the Azerbaijani Culture

Text Vahid Aliyev

Russification has a long history in Azerbaijan. The Russian language was introduced to the Caucasus immediately following colonization in the 19th century. At the beginning of the 19th century after the war between Iran and Russia, the Caucasus region was controlled by the Russian Empire. Russian schools were established in large cities. Prior to the “Sovietization” of the Caucasus, there were more than 200 schools in Azerbaijan teaching in Russian.

Throughout the Soviet era the Russian speaking population integrated into the multi-ethnic urban Baku culture, uniting people of Azeri, Jewish, Russian, Armenian and other origins, who were distinguished by their cosmopolitanism and use of the Russian language. The phenomenon of “Russian-speaking Azeris” was established in the middle of the 20th century and it is still widely used in Azerbaijan.

The Russian language influences numerous areas of life in Azerbaijan; in the arts, literature, politics, and hospitality. Although there were some measures taken by decision makers, such as a decree issued by Heydar Aliyev to establish Azerbaijani as the sole official state language, or another by the National Broadcasting Council to cease the live broadcasting of Russian TV channels.

Nevertheless, the Russian language is still being used actively in the daily life of intellectuals and the political “elite”.

Even though the Soviet Union collapsed 27 years ago, the intellectual and political elite still use the Russian language in their daily life. However, the phenomenon of Russian-speaking Azeris is gradually weakening due to the growing influence of Azeri spoken throughout the country, especially in Baku. Several ministers are not able to talk or read in Azeri, as Russian was and still is their first language. It has also been observed both inside and outside the country that officials are using the Russian language among themselves.

During the Soviet era, when Azerbaijan was part of the Soviet Union, the prisons had and still have their own slang vocabulary. Nowadays, young men (“gagas”) use this vocabulary in their daily life. The slang is in Russian but has been adapted as it enters the Azeri language. Lads (пацаны) who use these so-called prison-terms generally cannot describe their exact meaning in their own language. Such slang words include: “strimit” (from the word стремиться, meaning ‘to aspire to’ in Russian, but here meant in a more criminal sense); “dvizheni” (which in Russian means “movement” but in Azerbaijan is used when approaching someone in a crafty or underhand manner); “priznavat” (which in Russian means “to recognise”, but is often used in Azerbaijan to imply the acceptance of someone’s informal authority); “nakazat” (which in Russian means “to punish”, but which in Azerbaijan also has distinct criminal undertones).

Language is a fundamental part of any culture, and the necessity of relations between peoples brings the speakers of one language into contact with those of neighboring or culturally dominant languages. These relations can be hostile or friendly. A language can be enriched not only by borrowing words but also infinding alternatives and integrating them into the language. The Russian language itself spread so widely because the Russians colonized the Caucasus and reached to the heart of the languages it touched. In other cases, French has colored the English lexicon, and Arabic has permeated both Persian and Turkish, however their vocabulary was not integrated in the same way. This illustrates the power of nationalism, cultural as well as political, during the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. Today, in the 21st century and a period of independence, there should be some psychological resistance to borrowing and integrating words into the language, and local governments should look beyond Russian loan words and pay more attention to supporting the development of the Azeri vocabulary itself, for example working on a new orthographic dictionary.

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