The Cultural Renaissance

The Cultural Renaissance

In the second half of the nineteenth century and in the early twentieth century, Azerbaijan underwent a cultural renaissance that drew on the golden age of the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries and other influences. The patronage of the arts and education that characterized this movement was fueled in part by increasing oil wealth. Azerbaijan's new industrial and commercial elites contributed funds for the establishment of many libraries, schools, hospitals, and charitable organizations. In the 1880s, philanthropist Haji Zeinal Adibin Taghiyev built and endowed Baku's first theater.

Artistic flowering in Azerbaijan inspired Turkic Muslims throughout the Russian Empire and abroad, stimulating among other phenomena the establishment of theaters and opera houses that were among the first in the Muslim world. Tsarist authorities first encouraged, then tolerated, and finally used intensified Russification against this assertion of artistic independence.

Several artists played important roles in the renaissance. Mirza Fath Ali Akhundzade (also called Akhundov; 1812-78), a playwright and philosopher, influenced the Azerbaijani literary language by writing in vernacular Azerbaijani Turkish. His plays, among the first significant theater productions in Azerbaijan, continue to have wide popular appeal as models of form in the late twentieth century. The composer and poet Uzeir Hajibeyli (1885-1948) used traditional instruments and themes in his musical compositions, among which were the first operas in the Islamic world. The poet and playwright Husein Javid (1882-1941) wrote in Turkish about historical themes, most notably the era of Timur.

Under Soviet rule, Azerbaijani cultural expression was circumscribed and forcibly supplanted by Russian cultural values. Particularly during Stalin's purges of the 1930s, many Azerbaijani writers and intellectuals were murdered, and ruthless attempts were made to erase evidence of their lives and work from historical records. Cultural monuments, libraries, mosques, and archives were destroyed. The two forcible changes of alphabet in the 1920s and 1930s further isolated Azerbaijanis from their literary heritage. Never completely extinguished during the Soviet period, however, Azerbaijani culture underwent a modest rebirth during Khrushchev's relaxation of controls in the 1950s, when many who had been victims of Stalin's purges were posthumously rehabilitated and their works republished. In the 1970s and 1980s, another rebirth occurred when Moscow again loosened cultural restrictions. Under Aliyev's first regime, publication of some mildly nationalist pieces was allowed, including serialization of Aziza Jafarzade's historical novel Baku 1501.

In the late 1980s, Gorbachev's policy of glasnost energized a major movement among Azerbaijani writers and historians to illuminate "blank pages" in the nation's past, such as Azerbaijani resistance to tsarist and Soviet power and Stalin's crimes against the peoples of the Soviet union. Reprints of Azerbaijani historical and literary classics became more plentiful, as did political tracts on topics such as Azerbaijani claims to Nagorno-Karabakh.

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