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?