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Posted March 23, 2012
In her comprehensive account of Azerbaijan’s rich and diverse history, Dr. Audrey Altstadt frames Azerbaijani national identity as a story of empires and the political nature of culture. From the early state of Caucasian Albania to the Soviet Empire, Azerbaijan has been subject to a diverse array of cultures, languages, and political systems. Tracing the evolution of Azerbaijani Turkic cultural identity to a national consciousness, Dr. Altstadt documents the emergence of modern Azerbaijani national cultural awaking in the early 20th century under Russian, and later Soviet, rule. She demonstrates how the development of a modern, secular Turkic identity led to the emergence of a united religious and cultural front. Politicized to form Azerbaijani identity in contrast to the russification and colonialism of the Russian and Soviet Empires, this identity was designed to form a cultural bulwark in a country increasingly independent.
An excellent account of Azerbaijan under Soviet rule, Dr. Altstadt meticulously compiles names, dates, and locations in her seminal work on Azerbaijan. The revival of Turkic culture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries played a vital role in establishing a legitimate Azerbaijani national identity to contrast with colonial Russian/Soviet influences. Soviet control over Azerbaijani culture and language further highlight the powerful nature of culture, as it posed a threat to the legitimacy of the Soviet Union and its communist doctrine.
Using both original research and official histories, Dr. Altstadt leads readers through the complex history of Azerbaijan’s trials and tribulations that formed today’s Azerbaijan. One interesting note is Dr. Altstadt’s research regarding Azerbaijan’s national cultural revival in the 1980s. In contrast to other authors’ claims that the Soviet policy of Glasnost (openness) re-opened and ignited long-repressed national identities, Altstadt points to former President Heydar Aliyev as the force behind Azerbaijan’s national revival. Whether or not this directly led to the downfall of the Soviet Union remains a source of contention; however, Azerbaijani culture certainly provided a much-needed infusion of national pride into the national political consciousness, vital for the formation of an independent Azerbaijan.
Written immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union, Dr. Altstadt’s book would benefit from an update to her authoritative compilation and research of Azerbaijani history. Despite this, Azerbaijani Turks: Power and Identity under Russian Rule remains a must-read for anyone interested in the region.