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Abulfaz Elchibey (right) with Alparslan Türkeş of the Turkish MHP party. Photo: Wikipedia Commons
Abulfaz Elchibey (right) with Alparslan Türkeş of the Turkish MHP party. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Abulfaz Qedirqulu Aliyev, better known as Abulfaz Elchibey (the pseudonym stands for "noble messenger") was born in Nakhchivan, the Azerbaijani exclave sandwiched between Armenia, Turkey, and Iran, in 1938. His father died in the First World War. Recalling his childhood, Elchibey wrote that he would secretly fast and pray on his own. Driven by his desire to study traditional Azeri poets, who had written in the Persian and Arabic languages, in 1957, Elchibey began his education at the Oriental Studies Department at Azerbaijan State University (currently Baku State University). Elchibey later noted that at university he would frequently engage in discussions with friends, concluding that Soviet rule amounted to the colonization of the Azeri nation.[1] Elchibey studied Arabic which would later bring him to Egypt to work as a Russian-Arabic translator in Egypt in 1963-1964.

After his return from Egypt, Elchibey and four of his friends created a group at the university to call for a revival of Azerbaijani national consciousness. They worked out a strategy to attract members. As Elchibey later explained,

"We had trouble because we were inexperienced, and the KGB was always following us. So we decided to work each individually and do propaganda. I worked with all my might to create national consciousness in the university, among university students. I would create groups of three, five or nine people and talk to them myself. This took time and strength".

One of the young people whose views were influenced by Elchibey was Novella Jafaroglu, later an Azerbaijani women rights activist. She described her first meeting with Elchibey in an interview with ESI, emphasizing his fascination with the heritage of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic and its founding father, Mammed Emin Resulzade.

In 1967 I was working in a village in Nakhchivan, as a chemist in a laboratory. The village was called Keleki. There I met Elchibey. Back then, I truly thought that the Soviet Union was the best thing that happened to us. I read a lot of literature by the Soviet authors but I had no idea of Azerbaijan's history. One day, Elchibey sent word that I meet him at the river side. He started telling me about Mammed Emin Resulzade, Azerbaijan's first independence, the struggle the country had gone through, the purges. He showed me the flag of the first republic of Azerbaijan: This was the first time that I had ever seen it. No one knew it in the country. He explained that he could not have told me all these things at home. There were spies everywhere.

The flag of the ADR (1918), currently the state flag of Azerbaijan

In 1969, Elchibey completed his doctoral thesis on the Tulunid state (a Turkic state in Egypt in the ninth and tenth century). The years 1971 to 1974 marked the emergence of some dissident student groups in Soviet Azerbaijan Elchibey's arrest on charges of "propaganda against the Soviet Union" came as no surprise. He was handed an 18-month sentence and was imprisoned from January 1975 until July 1976. Several months after his release, Elchibey started working at the manuscript department of the Academy of Sciences, exploring the first written sources of Turkish and Islamic history. It was an isolated job which allowed little room for contact with people. American journalist Thomas Goltz, who interviewed Elchibey in 1991, described this time as "very lonely years indeed" for someone who was a "solitary dissident figure in a distant Soviet republic."[2]

Rallying the masses

Rally in Baku, 1990. Russian inscriptions on the placards say "No to murderous Perestroyka!"
and "To Armenian nationalists, get out of Karabakh!". Photo: FotoSoyuz

The period of the late 1980's marked the creation of the Popular Front of Azerbaijan (PFA), an anti-Soviet movement similar in nature to the popular fronts that had already sprung up in the Baltic republics. Elchibey, together with a small group of like-minded intellectuals, stood at the origin of the PFA. Another founder was Isa Gambar, who first met Elchibey in 1983 as a third-year university student. Hikmet Hajizade, a biophysicist who worked like Elchibey at the Academy of Sciences, also became active in the PFA.  The two met first in late 1988.[3]

Hikmet Hajizade. Photo:

The movement aligned itself at first with perestroika principles of gradual reform, a fact reflected in its official name,

[1] "Elçibey'in kendini anlatıyor…", Anti Gazete, 25 August 2010.

[2] Thomas Goltz, p. 60.

[3] ESI Interview with Hikmet Hajizade (by e-mail), 1 December 2010.

[4] Thomas de Waal, "Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through Peace and War" (New York University Press, 2003), p. 82.

[5] ESI Interview with Hikmet Hajizade, 1 December 2010.

[6] Thomas de Waal, "Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through Peace and War" (New York University Press, 2003), p. 87.