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How Nizami Ganjavi became an Azerbaijani National Poet: Knowledge, Power and Persian Poetry in the 1930s Soviet Union

How Nizami Ganjavi became an Azerbaijani National Poet: Knowledge, Power and Persian Poetry in the 1930s Soviet Union

Photo: Adam Harvey, "Nizami Museum of Azerbaijani Literature", via Flickr

Central Asia in Transition Lecture by Edmund Herzig, University of Oxford

Tuesday, April 25, 2017
12:00 PM - 1:30 PM
10383 Bunche Hall

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Today Nizami Ganjavi’s place as the national poet of Azerbaijan is firmly established. His name is everywhere and on everything – from museums to commemorative coins and from exhibitions to cultural centres. Azerbaijan’s claim to Nizami is not uncontested, however, and Iranian and Azerbaijani nationalists and intellectuals frequently lock horns over the ownership of this 12th century poet and the symbolic capital he represents. This lecture will explore the context of Nizami’s adoption as the Azerbaijani national poet par excellence in the late 1930s Soviet Union, at the height of Stalin’s Great Terror. In that decade Soviet nationalities policy gave vigorous, if prescriptive, encouragement to nation building in the fifteen Union Republics of the USSR, with the glorification of national literary heroes as a standard part of the repertoire. At the same time, the Communist Party leadership in Baku threw its weight behind a conception of Azerbaijani nationhood that emphasised ties to the territory of Azerbaijan rather than to the Azeri Turkish language as the crucial ingredient of Azerbaijani ethnicity. This allowed the recognition of non-Turkish ancient peoples – Medes, Caspians and Caucasian Albanians – as the ancestors of contemporary Azerbaijanis, and the adoption of Persian poets as Azerbaijani literary figures. This radical reinterpretation of Azerbaijan’s ethnic and cultural past was endorsed by Joseph Stalin, whose intervention mobilized the central resources of the Soviet Union in its support. Academics and institutions hurried to fall into line, with a key moment being the publication in 1940 of a book with the title, The Great Azerbaijani Poet, Nizami: Life, Work and Times by the leading Leningrad orientalist, Evgenii Berthels. The circumstances surrounding the publication of this book provide a lens through which to examine the broader political and intellectual processes at work.

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This event is presented in collaboration with the Center for Near Eastern Studies.

Sponsor(s): Center for European and Russian Studies, Program on Central Asia, Pourdavoud Center for the Study of the Iranian World