Perchance to Dream

10-year Remembrance

A decade on from the death of national leader Heydar Aliyev, the country has seen much of the long-term planning he put in place bear fruit.


Heydar Aliyev was born on June 24, 1923 in Nakhchivan into a family of eight children, just a few years after the flame of the first Azerbaijan Republic was extinguished. At the time, Nakhchivan was a distant province in the Soviet Union, wedged between Turkey, Iran, and the Armenian SSR. His father was a locomotive driver, while his mother was more than busy looking after the family’s eight children. Although neither his father nor mother had received a formal education, all of the Aliyev family’s children would go on to careers in science, academia, and the arts. Education was seen as the way ahead, and the institutions of the new Soviet state would provide the ways and means for the family to make their way.

One institution, the Young Pioneers movement—the Soviet equivalent of the international scouting association—was to play a critical role in Heydar Aliyev’s youth. At the House of the Young Pioneers in his native Nakhchivan, Aliyev was provided with a musical education, learning the native Azeri instrument, the tar. He was also taught another national passion: chess. However, it was in the field of the arts, and especially drawing and the theater, that the young Aliyev was to show the strongest interest. At the age of 14 or 15 he played the lead role in a shortened version of a play by Mirza Fatali Akhundzade staged by the Young Pioneers, “The Adventures of the Lankaran Khan’s Vizier.” He later went on to play Hamlet as the leading character shortly before his graduation from high school at the age of 16. However, similar to one of his brothers who had gone on to study art in St. Petersburg—Leningrad at the time—Heydar Aliyev looked to use his abilities as a draftsman to further his career. At the time, Aliyev had rarely left his native Nakhchivan, though was encouraged by another brother who had become an employee of the Academy of Sciences in Baku to further his education there.

After travelling three days by train via Yerevan and Tbilisi, Heydar Aliyev finally arrived in Baku in 1939 and began the procedures to continue his higher education. As Baku did not have an Academy of the Arts in the late 1930s, Aliyev decided to turn his attentions to study architecture, a field where his abilities in drawing could prove productive. To gain admittance to university, he had to first pass the entrance exams, all of which were in the Russian language. At that time, his native province of Nakhchivan had few Russian speakers, and he had to quickly master the tongue in Baku to give himself any chance of gaining admittance. Although he had a scholarship, he also took on night jobs to supplement his meager stipend; at first working as a docker in the timber trade, and then later as a draftsman at the Geography School of the Academy of Sciences when his brother managed to find him an opening.

After gaining entry to the Faculty of Architecture of the Azerbaijan Industrial Institute in 1939, he also began to find time to pursue his love of theater, a passion that would stay with him until his death. However, during his third year at university, his studies were interrupted by the encroachment of World War II, or what was called the “Great Patriotic War” by the Soviet leadership. Although seemingly far from the front at first, Baku was considered a prize to be had by the Nazi high command, as its oil fields were key to Soviet force projection. As a result of his working-class background, association with the Young Pioneers movement, and the clean record of his siblings, Aliyev was drafted into the Ministry of National Security—a difficult achievement when considering the paranoia that ran rampant during Stalin’s rule. By 1942, he had managed to gain his first commission as a lieutenant in the security services. His father died in the same year. Heydar Aliyev would serve in the security services for the next 26 years until his appointment as leader of the Azerbaijan SSR by the Soviet Politburo in 1969.


Heydar Aliyev’s life between these two significant dates saw him finally complete a university degree, though this time from the History Department of Azerbaijan State University in 1957, as well as marry and have children. He married his wife Zarifa in 1948, and they had two children together, a daughter Sevil (1955) and son Ilham (1961), the latter of whom would go on to succeed him as President of Azerbaijan. Heydar Aliyev’s political acumen and solid performance soon drew the attention of the Soviet security leadership, and by the late 1960s he rose to the rank of General. It was from this rank that he was to segue from behind the curtains of the Azerbaijani political scene into being declared First Secretary of the Central Committee of Soviet Azerbaijan in 1969.

As leader of the Azerbaijan SSR, he was to pursue policies that laid the foundations of the modern Azerbaijan Republic, and kept many of the intrigues of the Soviet system at bay from its citizens. In terms of the economy, he pursued rapid housing and economic development programs, ensuring the people of Azerbaijan benefitted from the wealth that the country generated for the Soviet Union. In the fields of arts and education, he was passionate in improving the lot of all Azerbaijanis. His desire to protect the Azeri language would culminate in it being adopted as the shared official language of the Azerbaijan SSR in 1978, alongside Russian, following the adoption of a new Soviet constitution in 1977. Important state institutions such as the Presidency Building and the National Assembly were constructed during his term in office. Such institutions, though seen as satellites of the centralized Soviet system back then, would prove their worth once Azerbaijan was able to declare its independence. They remain as key symbols of Azerbaijan’s sovereignty up until today. Although restrained by the boundaries of the Soviet model, Aliyev sought to bring a certain Azeri flair during his period leading the Azerbaijan SSR, gaining him a reputation that would not be forgotten by Azerbaijanis when they faced darker hours. His competence would soon see him attract the attention of the Soviet leadership yet again.


By 1982, Aliyev had managed what seemed to be nearly impossible for someone of his background: appointment as a Full Member of the Soviet Politburo. He was not only the first Azerbaijani to gain this status, he was also the first Muslim in the history of the Soviet Union to break through the unwritten prejudices of the age. He left Baku for Moscow to take up his role as a full Politburo member, and his local leadership was passed onto those that he had helped train and develop. At the time he was considered to be a part of the Soviet leadership’s “new generation,” joined by another three members whose backgrounds did not stem from the beginnings of the Bolshevik period: Mikhail Gorbachev, Grigory Romanov (a rival of Gorbachev), and future Soviet foreign minister and Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze. By this stage, Aliyev had also been appointed as First Deputy Prime Minister of the Soviet Union, in confirmation of his newly elevated status. It was a role he would serve in until his forced retirement in 1987. His period as a full member of the Politburo afforded him more access to the outside world, and during his overseas travels he began to better understand the weaknesses of the Soviet system.

As the Soviet leadership quickly cycled through the reigns of Brezhnev, Andropov, and Chernenko in the early 1980s, the members of the younger generation were afforded the chance to take over. Mikhail Gorbachev emerged as the successor to the aging Soviet leadership, and during his period the policies of Glasnost and Perestroika were slowly enacted. They would, eventually, lead to the implosion of the Soviet Union by 1991. During Gorbachev’s rise over 1985, Aliyev lost his wife Zarifa to cancer. Aliyev served in the Politburo until 1987, and resigned under pressure from Gorbachev to make way for his own men. Aliyev was exiled to a party estate on the outskirts of Moscow, not allowed to return to Azerbaijan. It wasn’t until mid-1990 that he was able to make his escape, just as his native land was under attack from nationalists in neighboring Armenia during the dying days of the Soviet empire.


The events of Black January in 1990 shook Heydar Aliyev. The brutal Soviet repression of pro-independence protestors in his native Azerbaijan, leading to scores of deaths in Baku, saw him finally lose all faith in the Soviet system. Despite the repercussions that could have occurred to his family, he resigned his membership of the Communist Party, and then considered how best he could return home. The difficulties of house arrest in Moscow saw his first two attempts prevented by the Soviet authorities, though he finally took his chance in May of 1990 after buying an air ticket under an assumed name. Despite his long association with the members of Azerbaijan’s ruling institutions, he found the atmosphere in Baku to be heavily politically charged. After three days in the city he decided to return to where his entire career began—Nakhchivan. It was from there that he relaunched his political career as a deputy in the pre-independence National Assembly.

The president of the Azerbaijan SSR in 1990, Ayaz Mutallibov, was to oversee Azerbaijan’s transition into independence from the Soviet Union, despite being one of the few opponents of its break up. However, Mutallibov’s time as a national leader was increasingly stained by the chaos of the independence period and the loss of territory in the Nagorno-Karabakh War. Following the Khojaly Massacre in February 1992, his hold on power became increasingly fraught, and after the occupation of Shusha and the influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees in May, he fled to Moscow. Over this period, Heydar Aliyev had been consolidating his presence in the Nakhchivan region and building up his popular support base, eventually being elected to head up the province.

Under the presidency of Abulfaz Elchibey, Azerbaijan was to have little respite from the economic collapse of the Soviet system and the ongoing conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. By June of 1993, Elchibey invited Aliyev to return to Baku to intervene in the brewing political crisis. Now considered a safe pair of hands by the members of the National Assembly, Aliyev was elected to be its Chairman. Following the departure of Elchibey as President in late June 1993, Aliyev was constitutionally compelled to temporarily assume the powers of the presidency. An election held in October 1993 confirmed his presidency. The fate of the second Azerbaijan Republic would now lie in his hands, and he took to the task of preserving the nation and planning for its future.


Heydar Aliyev could now begin his second period as the leader of Azerbaijan, though this time as an independent state rather than under Soviet tutelage. Among his first acts in 1994 were to achieve a cease-fire in the Nagorno-Karabakh War, a conflict that was threatening the very existence of Azerbaijan. In the same year, he signed the “Contract of the Century” with major oil companies that would lay the foundations for Azerbaijan’s long-term economic revival. These two achievements alone showed the pragmatism and political acumen that had marked his long career. For Aliyev, the first consideration was to rebuild the economy and improve internal stability to ensure that the second republic would not suffer the fate of the first. In 1995, a new constitution was approved.

Over his two terms in office, Azerbaijan was to transform into a market-based economy, with foreign investment flowing in to help build up the nation’s infrastructure. Other major reforms included the transformation of agriculture to a private basis from the collectivized system of the Soviet past. In the area of language reform, he returned Azeri to the use of the Latin alphabet, annulling the forced Cyrillization imposed under Stalin’s regime in the late 1930s.

On the foreign policy front, Aliyev began to reach out to the West to counter-balance the interests of other regional powers, and to ensure that Azerbaijan would have more friends that were actively engaged in its future. The signing of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline contract in 1999 would underpin his foreign policy strategy, and diversify Azerbaijan’s market access for its oil and gas industry. As with many reforms staged under this period, their fruits were not to arrive during his presidential term. However, the long-term planning characterizing his presidency would form the basis of Azerbaijan’s economic revival.

On October 23, 2003, toward the end of his second presidential term, Heydar Aliyev died at the age of 80. The Azerbaijan that he left behind had succeeded in becoming one of the most successful post-Soviet states. The oil and gas boom that would see the economy rapidly flourish had just begun. The transition to a market economy had been achieved. The future of the second Azerbaijan Republic had been secured. It was now time for the younger generation to pick up the baton of change and move ahead.

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