Azerbaijan's First Family Features in Schoolbooks

Depending on taste, repeated mentions of the Aliyevs are healthy instruction, alarming indoctrination, or a good way of getting your book published.

Azerbaijan's First Family Features in Schoolbooks

Depending on taste, repeated mentions of the Aliyevs are healthy instruction, alarming indoctrination, or a good way of getting your book published.

An Azerbaijani langiuage textbook. (Photo: IWPR)
An Azerbaijani langiuage textbook. (Photo: IWPR)

Open any schoolbook in Azerbaijan, and you will spot a picture of the late president Heydar Aliyev, perhaps followed by a photo of his son Ilham who succeeded him as head of state.

The pictures of Heydar Aliyev are captioned “Founder of Modern Azerbaijan” or “Azerbaijan’s Greatest Leader”.

A KGB general and Communist chief in Soviet Azerbaijan, Aliyev re-emerged in the independent state to become its president from 1993 until 2003, when he died. Ilham Aliyev has been president since then.

The personality cult around the ruling family has worked its way into the books used by every schoolchild in Azerbaijan, to such an extent that critics see it as a straightforward continuation of Soviet indoctrination of young minds.

Stories featuring the late Aliyev, and even proverbs attributed to him, can be found in textbooks aimed at different age-groups.

In the first-year textbook for Azerbaijani language, pupils read an exchange between a boy and his grandmother, in which she explains that Heydar signifies strength, and was the name of a great leader who will be remembered forever.

In the third grade, he appears in a story called “A Wise Leader”, in which a child refugee from the war in Nagorny Karabakh assures the president that everyone has faith in him. Pupils a year older get to read his sayings, such as, “To be a leader and to educate, one needs the moral right.”

Tamella Gurbanova, who teaches Azeri language and literature at a village high school in the Zaqatala district, cannot see anything wrong with this kind of content.

“The younger generation ought to know Heydar Aliyev. He did a great deal for his nation. Aliyev means everything to Azerbaijan. Schoolchildren already know that, but having information about him in the textbooks is a must,” she said.

Dilruba Jafarova, one of the authors behind the language textbooks, agreed that it was important to mention the elder Aliyev.

“He was a leader. It’s already clear that he played a great role in the prosperity of present-day Azerbaijan. He was always presented as a wise and positive person,” she said.

Malahet Murshudlu, chair of the Free Teachers’ Union, disagreed, and likened the constant flow of praise to the enforced adulation for Lenin and Stalin in earlier times. She said her union had written to the education ministry, and also to the body that draws up school textbooks, to set out its concerns about ideology creeping into material aimed at children.

“The current government wants a new generation that is raised on its values, and that will carry out its instructions without questioning them. The government has a long-term strategy of using education to achieve this,” she said.

“From an early age, children’s minds are being shaped within this ideology. Our values are being built around one person and one family.”

Other Aliyevs also make appearances in the curriculum material. Year 11 pupils read of the good works of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation and its current head, first lady Mehriban Aliyeva. Fifth-grade literature classes use a book featuring a poem by one Leyla Aliyeva – daughter of Ilham and Mehriban.

“Nothing wrong with that; she’s done a lot for Azerbaijan,” schoolteacher Gurbanova said. “It’s OK to have poems by amateur poets in literature textbooks.”

Murshudlu believes the policy comes right from the top.

“As a government institution, the [education] ministry is doing what it’s told,” she said.

Faig Shahbazli, who heads the education ministry’s publications department, denied it was policy to require praise of the Aliyevs, since textbooks were selected by an open tendering process.

“If an author is fond Heydar Aliyev, there’s nothing we can do about it. There’s nothing illegal about including texts that describe him. To me, that seems totally fine. I’m in favour of it,” Shahbazli said.

Rafiq Ismayilov, who has written many of the textbooks used to teach Azerbaijani, acknowledged that quotes from Heydar Aliyev probably improved one’s chances of getting a work approved.

“No one openly ordered or recommended that I include texts about him, but it’s important to do so in order to get a textbook approved. I sense that education ministry likes it and wants it,” he said. “I believe my books are really good for schools. Of course I want to get them approved.”

Shahla Sultanova is a freelance journalist in Azerbaijan.

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