States as Bastions of Memory: Lessons from the Talysh Case
Updated: Nov 10
Even the most democratic of aspiring nation-states can be likened to bastions of memory, particularly when ‘bastions’ are taken to mean fortified structures, or bulwarks, designed with the aim of protecting what lies within from what lies without. Certain collective memories are internalized to greater and lesser degrees by those individuals enclosed with them behind those fortified walls or gates, thanks to proximity, the passage of time, and overseers of order and authority.
In Azerbaijan, collective memories of the summer of 1993 and the events that took place within this tumultuous period are particularly securitized. It was during this time that the Talysh-Mughan (Autonomous) Republic rose and fell within the then-fragile territorial state of Azerbaijan. Whereas official narrations of memory during this period tell one tale, Talysh activists tell another. The tale told is one of burdensome alternative memories and a collective desire for conciliation.
The southern bastion of the Lenkoran Fortress (prison), 1898, from the album of Konstantin Gil'chevskiy. Source: Lənkəran tarixi foto və sənədlərdə.
I conducted online interviews with seventeen self-ascribed Talysh activists from 2021-2022 for an international research project called ‘InBorder’. The project is funded by a Swedish NGO, Formas, and the aim is to conduct a comparative study of how the Estonian, Georgian, and Azerbaijani governments relate to specific borderland minority populations—Russians in Estonia’s Ida-Viru, Armenians in Georgia’s Javakheti, and Talysh in Azerbaijan’s ‘Southern’ (aka Talysh) region. The activists interviewed represent a variety of age cohorts and geographical areas of residence, and interviews were conducted in Azerbaijani, English, and/or Russian. Given Azerbaijan’s propensity to prosecute intellectuals and laypeople alike for professing controversial views regarding issues of importance to Talysh activists, anyone conducting interviews with said activists must be cognizant of the risks to one’s interlocuters and act accordingly to minimize these risks. For interview participants, one particularly sensitive subject was the Talysh-Mughan Autonomous Republic of 1993, which had been established during a particularly difficult time in post-Soviet Azerbaijan.
The early 1990s were years rife with trials and tribulations. The state was on the verge of collapse as war raged in Nagorno-Karabagh and frequent, dramatic changes in government pitted various political camps against one another and resulted in uprisings throughout the country. Civil war was on Azerbaijan’s doorstep and economic collapse was imminent. The timing for the establishment of a Talysh-Mughan (Autonomous) Republic seemingly could not have been worse. For those interested in establishing the some form of autonomy for the Talysh people, however, the timing appeared to be completely appropriate. After all, the present was in upheaval and the future was uncertain.
The Talysh-Mughan Republic (TMR) was declared by Col. Alikram Humbatov and his supporters on June 21st, 1993, encompassing the districts of Astara, Bilasuvar, Jalilabad, Lenkaran, Lerik, Massali, and Yardimli in Southeastern Azerbaijan. Some two weeks later, however, Humbatov turned to political scientist Fakhraddin Abbasode, fellow member of the Talysh intelligentsia, to ask for help in bringing the TMR in line with republic and international law. Abbaszode set out drafting the constitutional law and worked to construct a People’s Assemly (Narodniy mejlis) of village leaders and other influential figures capable of setting putting said law to a vote. On August 7th, 1993, more than 200 individuals, Talysh and non-Talysh alike, gathered to vote on the existence of a Talysh-Mughan Autonomous Republic (TMAR) and overwhelmingly approved the new Constitutional Law. This law effectively renamed the Talysh-Mughan Republic to that of the Talysh-Mughan Autonomous Republic and firmly positioned the Republic within the confines of the Azerbaijani territorial state. By this time, Heydar Aliyev had been welcomed back to Azerbaijan to resolve the difficulties left in the wake of his predecessors, Ayaz Mutallibov and Abulfaz Aliyev (aka ‘Elchibey’) and made it clear that he would not share power. Heydar Aliyev made a televised speech on August 23rd, 1993 to the people under the leadership of the Talysh-Mughan Autonomous Republic and called for locals to help overthrow Col. Humbatov and his supporters. It was soon after this speech that the TMAR fell in a murky cloud of localized violence and, according to interview participants, Baku-led subterfuge. Some two months after the TMR came into existence, its successor, the TMAR, was no more.
Map of the Districts of Azerbaijan, Highlighting the Seven Constituent Districts of the Talysh-Mughan (Autonomous) Republic. Source: Wikipedia.
The story becomes more complicated when we take into consideration that the Talysh-Mughan Republic was known as such for only part of its nearly two-month existence—albeit the lion’s share of the time—and the name was changed to the Talysh-Mughan Autonomous Republic some weeks prior to its collapse in August of 1993. This suggests either a shift in intent - from autonomy outside of Azerbaijan to autonomy within it - or a mere shift in title that underlies a continuity of meaning; that is, that the name change reflects what always was or what was always intended. For sixteen out of the seventeen activists that I interviewed, the change was in name only and the intent was always to remain autonomous within the territorial confines of the Azerbaijani state. While we may never know what was intended at the time of the Republic’s establishment in June 1993, the interviewees present a different side of the story not commonly told in Azerbaijan, which is a country of diverse peoples and cultures.
A narrative commonly recited regarding Azerbaijani multiculturalism is that of Azerbaijanism. The narrative/ideology of Azerbaijanism and its focus upon territorial identity, rather than purely ethnic or civic identity, does make some room for the acknowledgement—and even limited celebration—of diversity in the country. For sixteen out of the seventeen Talysh activists interviewed, however, Azerbaijanism also contains elements of pan-Turkism that demonstrate wanton dislike or, at the very least, suspicion of non-Turkic groups in the country. This, participants say, does little to encourage members of the Talysh minority to internalize a truly ‘Azerbaijani’ identity alongside their self-ascribed ethnic affiliation as Talysh. As one activist put it, “The Talysh can call themselves ‘Azerbaijanis’, but the Talysh will not call themselves ‘Turks’.” This suggests that, while Azerbaijanism is touted as an inclusive ideology uniting all peoples living within the country, many Talysh activists are not buying into these official narrations of Azerbaijanism.
There is a kind of suspicion of Talyshness in Azerbaijan, and its roots run deep—back to the 1930s at the very least. It was at this time that Talysh and other minority identities were repressed within the Azerbaijani SSR, as in other republics of the Soviet Union as well. The erasure of the ‘Talysh’ category in census materials occurred in 1959, resulting in the classification of Talysh as ‘Azerbaijanis’.[i] More recently, dislike or, at the very least, suspicion of Talyshness is visible on the subject of the Talysh-Mughan Autonomous Republic. It is crucial at this point to acknowledge that it is not merely Talyshness that is disliked or feared in Azerbaijan. When expressions of Talyshness are paired with discussions of the Talysh-Mughan Autonomous Republic, however, suspicions and accusations abound. This is because collective cultural and/or territorial claims to autonomy are perceived as steppingstones to separatism. As more and more people come to identify as members of this or that collective, fear of the specter of separatism begins to raise its ugly head.
According to my interview participants, mere mention of the TMAR is frequently accompanied by assertions of ‘separatist!’ and ‘traitor!’ that reflect a broader unwillingness to hear/read alternative histories or alternative memories of what occurred during the summer of 1993. Even a willingness to conduct research on the subject has resulted in condemnations of my integrity as a researcher on social media and in trolling in emails where I have been accused of supporting separatism. For those who reside in Azerbaijan, researching such subjects can result in blacklisting or, even worse, to a stay in a maximum security prison on charges such as incitement of national hatred or calls to overthrow the government. Some subjects are safer to show an interest in in Azerbaijan. Others, including the subject of the Talysh-Mughan Autonomous Republic, are seen by officials as better left unstudied or are better left to the purview of foreign researchers residing and finding ways to conduct related research outside of the country.
Those who were involved in the TMAR continue to be viewed by governing officials and their supporters as particularly treacherous stains upon an already embattled Azerbaijani state, threatening to pull it all apart while it already faced challenges on multiple fronts, including in Nagorno-Karabagh and Ganja. Since 1993, the atmosphere of state-Talysh relations has been securitized, with state security services attuned to changes in Talysh activism that might warrant intervention. This securitization would have occurred irrespective of the establishment of the Talysh-Mughan Republic during the summer of 1993, however, as many politicians fear that the granting of ethno-territorial concessions merely opens a path for future secessionist bids. It is not just the relationship between the Azerbaijani government and the Talysh minority that is subject to said securitization, and public memory surrounding the events of June-August 1993 is also securitized. Certain discourses and narratives are allowed to circulate within society concerning the establishment of the TMR (where the ‘A’ for ‘Autonomous’ is conspicuously absent), and what these narratives aid the legitimization of Azerbaijan’s governing regime.
Research is increasingly demonstrating the role that legitimacy plays in the resilience of authoritarian regimes. Hegemonic discourses need to circulate to a certain degree within society in order to be internalized by key social groups, serving to bolster the legitimacy of the governing authoritarian regime. Governments cannot simply rely on repression alone to stay in power. The more people that need to be repressed, the more resources and effort go into implementing repressive measures, which is costly and inefficient. Focusing upon socio-economic modernization without actually implementing democratization initiatives is part of what the government can do to grow support or toleration for its rule. Another part of the equation is how it generates support for national identity narratives that can foment collective ascription without focusing too much on political ideology. This is how a regime generates a society that is largely politically apathetic yet sympathetic to national identity discourse and its constituent narratives. In summary, people can become complicit in their own governance in a very Foucauldian sense. They come to govern themselves and their conduct in ways that benefit the status quo under authoritarian regimes, at least outwardly. Behaving contrary to official interests places a target on one’s back for disciplinary action, which is something that the Talysh activists that I interviewed understand very well.
Stepping out of line by publicly challenging accepted discourses of national identity and the historical memory narratives that inform this identity can be a dangerous exercise in many societies, particularly as populism grows in influence across the world. For Talysh activists, however, this danger takes on particular meaning within their daily lives, because the danger is typically posed by state agents rather than by laypeople. Talyshness is easily hidden, therefore those with the ability and interest to punish particular expressions of Talyshness are those with the resources to conduct surveillance of individuals’ activities—whether online or in person. Naturally, those with these sorts of resources at their disposal tend to be employed by government agencies. After all, authoritarian regimes keep a tight grip on the narratives of historical memory used to propagate national identity, meaning that those who publicly go against these narratives are effectively risking their livelihoods and, in some cases, even their lives.
Most Talysh interviewees expressed a similar sentiment, that there is a kind of ‘weightiness’ involved in identifying as Talysh in this day in age. Suffice it to say that to be Talysh in Azerbaijan today is to carry the weight of history on your back, with some of the baggage visible and some hidden. The more obvious, more visible baggage is that of the TMAR and its violent collapse, the more hidden baggage is the history of the Talysh people that remains understudied, undertaught, and therefore little known. Those that make these burdens known tend to face disciplinary action from the powers that be in Azerbaijan, because these burdens that they carry are not welcome in contemporary Azerbaijan; they are like prohibited goods. These prohibited goods are better borne in silence, or, better yet, discarded completely so as to better ‘fit in’ within Azerbaijani national identity discourses. According to one Talysh activist, “With age, I have seen how this [being Talysh] is a difficult process. In the beginning, when I was a child, a young man, it was not so attractive to me. But every year, this large load grows, and you have to carry this load.”
Contemplating the vastness of the Talysh Mountains. Image by Mark Elliot.
Yet this is not to say that all hope for recognition and conciliation is lost. Despite the Azerbaijani government’s best efforts to silence them, the Talysh activists that I interviewed do their best to develop and promote their culture whilst navigating the landscape of suspicion surrounding collective expressions of Talyshness. They do this by making efforts to learn/use the language and pass it along intergenerationally as well, and they do this by carefully showing support—openly or in secret—for those self-ascribed Talysh who have been arrested on spurious charges. The systematic repression noted by interviewees is nothing terribly new, in fact, as Goff (2021, Ch. 4) argues. The weight of history has long been a cumbersome load for the Talysh to carry. Still, the Talysh activists soldier on, bearing their burden across the decades. At certain junctures new activists come along and help ease the burden of their weary forebears.
In the end, there is something to be said for human agency and the creative potential of the human spirit. A government can implement measures intended to structure individuals’ thoughts and actions but said government cannot dictate either. Talysh activists embody this struggle—the struggle between showing respect, albeit not love, for one’s government and showing respect and love for one’s roots. Showing respect for one’s government in this case means acknowledging the government’s rule over a given territory as well as acknowledging the monopoly of violence the government has within said territory. Such acknowledgement does not engender separatism or irredentism. What it does engender, however, is pragmatism alongside a desire to be seen as belonging in and to Azerbaijan in a real, meaningful way, in a way that allows one to unpack one’s historical burden in the light of day and without fear of violent reprisal.
The author would like to thank Tiffany Williams (Institute for Caucasus Studies, Friedrich-Schiller University of Jena) and Leyla Sayfutdinova (Centre for Energy Ethics, University of St. Andrews) for their helpful comments and suggestions on an earlier draft of this blog post. Any remaining errors are the sole responsibility of the author:
Dr. Karli-Jo Storm(-Närväinen) is a project researcher employed within the University of Eastern Finland's Karelian Institute. Karli is part of a three-person international research team conducting research within the Formas-funded research project, Planning for Integration: Landscapes of Power in Borderland Governance, or InBorder, running from 2021-24. Karli is also an international fellow (2023-24) within the project, Resilience in the South Caucasus: Prospects and Challenges of a New EU Foreign Policy Concept, or JENA CAUC. Karli earned her Ph.D. in Human Geography from the University of Eastern Finland in 2019, her M.A. in Russian and East European Studies from Indiana University in 2013, and a dual B.A. in International Relations and Politics from Drake University in 2009. Karli is a two-time Fulbright grantee—to Azerbaijan from 2009-10 and to Finland from 2013-14.