Over the past three decades, Azerbaijan has seen numerous crises from its perch on the Caspian Sea. The first years of independence were marked by the losses of the Nagorno-Karabakh War, followed by oil-fuelled economic growth. Internally, Azerbaijan saw clashes between authoritarianism and freedom, while it tried to find its new identity on the global stage.
Each of these struggles inevitably made their way into art: either contemporary books, films, and songs that captured a world in flux, or older artwork that resurfaced and shone in a whole new light. The selection below showcases books, films, and songs that decipher present-day Azerbaijan — as marked by both its ancient past, and its potential future.
Originally published in 1945 under the French title Jours Caucasiens, Days in the Caucasus is the memoir of an Azerbaijani noblewoman in the early 20th century. Writing under the name Banine, Ummulbanu Asadullayeva recalls her childhood growing up under the Russian Empire in a family of peasants-cum-millionaires who serendipitously found oil on their land. Her writing vividly describes the houses of oil millionaires, the atmosphere of pre-revolutionary Baku, and public holidays and traditions — as well as interethnic clashes, the presence of the Red Army, and the turbulent years that came with the arrival of the Bolsheviks. Placed together, her memories paint a compelling, first-hand portrait of the short-lived Azerbaijan Democratic Republic before it became a Soviet state. While the original book dates back to the 40s, it was only translated into Azerbaijani in 2006. (It was also translated into Russian and English in 2015 and 2016, respectively). Banine’s little-known history brought new life to the 20th century events that came to define modern-day Azerbaijan — and its unearthing offers a chance to better understand the sociopolitical and cultural structures that rule Baku and the rest of the country today.
Published in 2018, Zülmətdə Bir Alatoran, (“Twilight in the Dark”) sees writer Rasim Qaraca reflect on his life as the USSR collapses and Azerbaijan undergoes a difficult rebirth. As the country reinvents itself politically, socially, and economically, Qaraca decides to embrace a shifting society by branching out into publishing. The move led him to compile Time at a Jaguar’s Pace in 2003, an anthology of Azerbaijani works rejected by the country’s mainstream publishers as too experimental or scandalous.
Today, Qaraca remains a prominent figure in Azerbaijan’s literary scene and a fierce advocate for free creative expression. He is one of the leaders of the Free Writers’ group, an association of Azerbaijani literary figures who meet regularly to read and talk literature and politics, rejecting the state’s narrow ideas of what modern culture should be. Twilight in the Dark reflects on the early stages of that journey: on his sudden need to change profession and how his decision affected those around him. Overall, it paints a intimate, moving portrait of Azerbaijan in the 1990s, and how the greatest of global change can have the most personal of impacts.
Focused on the bitter Nagorno-Karabakh War of the 1990s, Everything Is for the Better was released in 1997, just three years after the conflict ended. Directed by Vagif Mustafayev — who would go on to become Azerbaijan’s Deputy Minister of Culture between 2001 and 2006 — the film is a delicately balanced take on war. Not only does Mustafayev showcase the pain of conflict on both Azerbaijani and Armenian sides, he is even able to include hints of humour in otherwise bleak scenes.
Shot in black and white with a square aspect ratio, the cinematography evokes classic Soviet films: the director’s attempt to style the footage as a TV archive reel, or perhaps a way to highlight the innate darkness of the war’s events. Either way, the film’s neutral, human-centred approach holds up even today — and renewed fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020 perhaps makes it more relevant than ever before.
Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in 2016, Ali and Nino is an Azerbaijani film on the forbidden love between a poor Azerbaijani boy and a blue-blooded Georgian girl. To date, it remains the most successful Azerbaijani film of the last three decades, but its story dates back much further. The film was based on a 1937 book of the same title, written under the name Kurban Said. Even today, much of its publication is surrounded by mystery. The first edition was written in German and released in Vienna, but the true identity of the person behind the pseudonym Kurban Said has been the subject of dispute. Currently, the most widely-accepted theory is that Kurban Said was in fact Lev Nussimbaum, a Kyiv-born Jewish writer who grew up in Baku before fleeing the Bolsheviks in 1920.
The novel only gained widespread recognition in Azerbaijan in the 1970s, but was quickly taken to the nation’s heart. Beyond Ali and Nino’s love story, the story is a quest for truth and reconciliation in a world of contradictory beliefs and practices: between Islam and Christianity, East and West, tradition and modernity, and a strata of social classes. As a novel, Ali and Nino is a must-read to understand the layers of Azerbaijani identity through the centuries, and as a film, it explores many of the dilemmas still relevant in present-day Azerbaijan.
While technically released in 1988, just before the Soviet Union fell, The Scoundrel, is a cultural mainstay that relentlessly unpicks much of the petty corruption, despondent indifference and reckless hedonism that went on to define the early 90s in Azerbaijan.
Directed once again by Vagif Mustafayev, the film is a tragi-comedy tracking the decaying decadence of late-Soviet Azerbaijan through the eyes of Baku local Hatem. Throughout the film, he meets government officials and a homeless man, a thief, a secretary, and a dancer — all of whom expose the different ills that affected Baku at the time.
Inflected with Mustafayev’s signature dark humour, The Scoundrel shines a light on the deep roots of the Soviet collapse, tracing Azerbaijan’s journey into the turbulent 1990s.
Released in 1993, “Narkodünya” (“Drug World”) was the first Azerbaijani rap song to hit the country’s mainstream, catapulting rapper, songwriter and actor Anar Nağilbaz to instant fame.
Born in the Baku suburb of Khirdalan in 1974, Nağilbaz’s musical career began in 1990, when he represented Azerbaijan at an international music festival in Yalta. Following the success of “Narkodünya”, he released his first full album, Sabah Olmayacaq, in 1997.
Aside from introducing rap to the Azerbaijani masses, “Narkodünya” was hailed for its poignant lyrics. Released just after the fall of the USSR, the track reflected on a new wave of violence and drug-related crime that hit Azerbaijani society in the 1990s.
Sadly, Nağilbaz’s career was short-lived. In the 2010s, he held a few government positions but was dismissed for allegedly criticising the government in the run up to the 2013 presidential elections. In 2015, he testified as a witness in the criminal case of human rights activist Rasul Jafarov, and was then exiled to Prague. Nağilbaz died in 2018 in Baku at the age of 44, but his powerful, timely songs and contribution to the Azerbaijani rap scene live on.