My Family’s Soviet Photo Album
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In his novel Fathers and Sons, Russian writer Ivan Turgenev dissected the growing divide between two generations - Nikolaj no longer recognizes nor understands his son Arkady when he returns to his father’s home after studying in distant and liberal St. Petersburg. The year was 1862, but it could be as well the 2017.

I am Arkady. After studying abroad in 2015, between times, once every two-three months,  I returned to my native Sumqayit, in Azerbaijan, to discover that while everything was changing in my world, nothing had changed in my father’s. We are the representatives of two opposite eras - as he longs for the stability of the old Soviet times, I, his 29 year-old daughter dreams of freedom of expression, human rights and similar democratic values.

“The USSR was my motherland. I want it back,” he regularly mutters - or rants, depending on the mood. I just cannot understand how he can miss those times of suppression and repression. For years the family photo books represented for me, those times I could grasp. I was not interested in those black-and-white images, where everyone and everything looks the same.

Until January 2017, I was home, where I have returned once every a few months, and I decided to look through my parents’ photos. It was an instinct, I thought maybe I understand a bit more of my father’s Soviet nostalgia. These cock-and-bull stories about how life in the USSR was good or bad will last for another generation - probably by then the Soviet Union will probably just be a chapter in the history books, not a chapter in people’s lives.

From the board I took the dusted photo albums that had not been opened in a long time, no reason for that. My parents keep separate albums, each owns their personal one.

My mom, Gulnara Seyidova, was born in 1964, in the Brezhnev era, at the beginning of the “era of stagnation” as the years of economic, political, and social immobility are known. My dad, Aliyev Azer,  was born in 1959, under the so-called “Khrushchev Thaw” when Nikita Khrushchev brought some kind of openness after the fierce Stalinist regime. Most photos date back to the stagnation years which last through the early 1980s. As it happens, someone calls them the years of “well-developed socialism.”

I leafed through my dad’s photo album from his military service. It was an honor to serve in the Soviet army and conscripts could be sent anywhere across the vast USSR as the government’s policy was to promote integration and migration. He ended up in Kazakhstan in 1978. After the 2-year mandatory military service my father was offered to remain in Kazakhstan and work, but when his parents learnt about it they urgently sent him a telegram urging him to return to Azerbaijan because “someone was ill.” It was a lie fabricated to bring him back home. So my father left the Kazakh steppes and returned to the industrial city of Sumqayit where he started to work on the pipe rolling factory. There he was born, there he met and then married my mother in 1982 In 1984 my sister was born, three years later I followed and a new photo album, still Soviet, was prepared for us.

When I picked up these albums I wondered whether these photos would shed light over those times that for me meant just repression, uniformity, and the lack of individual expression. Why do they miss them so much? Was it only because they had a stable life where no surprises could disrupt their daily routine? Was it simply confidence in tomorrow?  Or was it because they never adjusted to their country’s independence and what that word means?

 

In 1978 my father served in the anti-aircraft missile troops in the city of Emba, Kazakhstan. Men from all over the Soviet Union served here all together. “And we never had any ethnicity-based confrontation,’’ he remembers.
“The only problem [in the army] was dedovshina, bullying. Everyone had to withstand it during the first year, then the following year you’d become yourself a ded, a bully, and you would take it out on the new recruits.”
“It was forbidden to record songs, but sometimes we did it. Mostly, the songs were a celebration of the army, or our mothers, or fiancées who were waiting for the soldiers back home.”
“I swore to defend the USSR, not only Azerbaijan. The USSR is my motherland”
Girls would commonly dance with other girls - it was a delicate touch to engage with those girls who were without boyfriends and not leave them alone in a corner.
Precious dishes and cups were religiously shelved in an old hutch, and never used - it was a common practise in the houses across the socialist empire. Habits outlive governments, and this practise has not changed. The Soviet generation, like my parents, still think the most beautiful china, inherited by their parents or wedding gifts - should not be used, and should be kept in the cupboard. To be desired, not consumed.
Keep the toys for the future. Such counter-intuitive thinking, kids are kids now, then no longer. Yet children’s toys would be carefully left in a corner or hanged on the wall. Not to be broken and remain in good conditions for the generations to come.
Studying music was taken for granted, with almost every parent trying to get their children into playing piano. Music schools were all over the Soviet Union and had a unified curriculum and teaching methods - no matter where you were, Moscow, Baku or Tbilisi, you’d learn exactly the same. Kids entered music school at the age of seven, but not everyone could pass through the tough competition and finish the nine years. My mom graduated in piano, but did not pursue a music career.
My grandfather fixing the TV, a black-and-white set. Families would own the same TV set for decades and people got skilled at fixing it as chances were they could not purchase a new one.
A typical Soviet flat - a carpet on the wall, a cupboard with cut glass, and cut lamp.
My mom started playing basketball when she was 12. At school she played in the children's and youth sports school. She was a candidate for playing in the Azerbaijani national team, but it did not happen. As a team they travelled to Astrakhan, Voljsk and Volgograd, in Russia, to Donetsk in Ukraine. “Every sportsman received all the necessary equipment. For free, the uniform, the ball, the shoes. Today, the parents have to buy everything with their own money,” she laments.
Of all of the USSR’S obsessions, sport ranked at the top. Budding athletes from the early school years to produce champions for the Olympic Games - the USSR participated in all Games from 1952 through 1988 (boycotts apart, like in the Los Angeles 1984 games as a retaliation of the US boycotts of Moscow 1980). Practising sport was also a must for factory workers who were required to do exercises throughout the work day in order to increase their productivity.
My mom represented our city Sumqayit and she says she was a good player. She was due to enter the gymnastic university, but she could not swim and failed the entry exam. She ended up working in a compressor’s factory. There she played in the factory’s team.
A Soviet Wedding in a Soviet-decorated registry office. A hand-sewn wedding dress, a fashionable hat, matching gloves. Long flowers and Soviet Champagne was common for all Soviet weddings.
A feather pen, used in registry offices.
Most holidays and birthday parties were celebrated at home.
My parents (center) at the events for May 1st which was celebrated with massive rallies all across the Soviet Union. The day was to honor labourers and the working class.
My sister, Sabina, and I. Once a year my parents dressed us up - in our best clothes, new tights, colorful ribbons, and elegant hairdos - and took us to a photography studio to freeze our age on film for the future. I used to like those days, it was like a holiday. Now I look back on those moments with a mix of skepticism and fond memories.
Chai Khana
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