The voices of regular people that Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich records in her Secondhand time: The last of the Soviets reveal post-soviet countries which in the 1990s is yearning for meaning. When the USSR collapsed their world, and million of others’ shattered, Communism gave way to capitalism, and the Soviet citizens plunged it into existential crisis. Quickly, euphoria gave way to despair.
The implosion hit hard millions of men and women in their 30s and 40s -- though still economically active, they found they could not handle the new order they were taught to despise. They could not understand the enormous economic, social, and political changes that embraced the now-independent Soviet republics -- it was too much to take in. They missed it and got lost in the transition.
Fiqan Imanov knows it well, he is one of them. The 66 year old is originally from Shikhli, a village south of the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region which he fled following the war that ravaged the Azerbaijan’s region in the dying years of the Soviet Union. After graduating from the National Economic Institute (now Azerbaijan’s State Economic University) in Baku in 1974, he completed the compulsory military service and in 1976 returned to his village to work as an accountant and an economist. When he turned 30 he was appointed chairman of the kolkhoz, collective farm, New Life -- a huge responsibility for a man his age.
"I still remember the day I was elected. It was in February 28th, 1981,” he recalls. “I was chief accountant in the trade union and I was sitting in my room. The assistant of the region’s secretary [of the Communist Party] came and asked me to go to their office. I did not know the reason, I was worried. When I entered the office all bureau members were in the room. "Is he this person?" asked the newly-appointed partly secretary. He looked at his papers and told me: “I was advised to choose you as the chairman of the collective farm." I was very surprised.''
That day is engraved in his mind, 36 years on.
"I was young and motivated. I wanted to move further, to achieve a high position. However, the collective farm was a completely new for me."
The collective farm’s productivity was lagging behind, it needed a new manager to improve it, and Imanov did his best to be that manager - he pushed for reforms, reaching the set goals, he says. He held the position for nine years, until 1989.
"You understand how complicated agriculture is once you start working, you don't know what to expect when your work depends so much on nature. It happened that in the result of the natural disaster the farm could lose the products. From a human perspective, I was always surrounded by people, I was help either at work or in the personal life.”
The implosion of the Soviet Union hit the then Socialist Soviet Republic (SSR) of Azerbaijan, and the Karabakh war changed the life of thousands of people like Imanov. Being relocated from Shikhli village, Fizuli, mostly populated by azerbaijanis, as an IDP, he lost almost all his photos. He found the only one where in 1985 they celebrated the New Year.
"At that time the State Television (today AZTV) used to invite on New Year festivities all heads of collective farms, and I was among them," he remembers with smile.
After the Karabakh war, the government placed families of the IDPs in dormitories (common living places). Those dormitories used to belong to the factories and universities in Soviet times, but now most of them are settled by IDPs like Fiqan Imanov, who together with his family settled in one of the dorms of 9 store building that was belonged to the Industrial Pedagogy College, but currently is occupied by 200 IDP families. Each family has only one room and common shared kitchen and bathroom. After Imanov’s neighbour moved, he bought his room where now his son’s family live.
Imanov spent his formative and professional years abiding by an ideology whereby everyone worked towards the common good -- his life was full of certainties. Until they crumbled, leaving him with a sense of loss.
"In the 1990s I tried to work in different places, like institutions with some kind of Soviet traces. I used to work in a meat plant as a supervisor, then the manager changed and I saw the real face of capitalism. Everyone appointed to high positions was somehow his relatives. In Soviet times it was forbidden. I understood that this life is not for me. Everyone tried to destroy something. Nobody asked for any reports. I could not adapt to capitalism. There was no fear of the government nor responsibility. I have never seen such things before. Therefore, since 1997, I have been unemployed."
Imanov maintains that “back then” those who worked hard were rewarded.
“Nobody made you work more than you should. If you had a complaint, the managers would look through and resolve them. Nobody could regulate the prices as they wanted.”
For the time of working as a chairman of Kolkhoz, Imanov had a salary of 192 manat, 42 manat more than the average 150, and was entitled to an extra bonus of 1,500 - 2,000 manat at the end of the year if the farm’s targets were met.
“I have been living here for 25 years, and did not see anything from the government. We received a small amount of money (an IDP monthly allowance which is 20 manats per person) every month. We call it “bread money.” It does not meet even 1% of my family’s needs.”
He remains bitterly disillusioned.
“Independence is the dream of every nation. But despite the sufferings, it did not give me anything. On one hand you are happy, on the other, life is such a struggle, you don't benefit from this independence at all.”
Fiqan Imanov is very hopeless about his family’s future. On numerous occasions he was going to leave the country but did not dare to do it. He wants to be with the people he loves, and make enough money for his family, but under the current circumstances it does not seem possible for him.