Autumn 1996 (4.3)

History in a Nutshell
20th Century Personal Naming Practices in Azerbaijan

by Jala Garibova and Betty Blair

Part 1 of 4

Names are the DNA of the social organism we call community. One tiny strand of letters carries an incredible amount of vital information in terms of a person's social heredity. From a single word, it is often possible to determine a person's gender, education level, social and economic status, language, religious preference, sense of aesthetics and values, political inclinations, nationality, age (in terms of historic period), and sometimes even birth sequence.

Like DNA, names not only reflect the inheritance of the past, but in a general sense, they map out expectations and possibilities for the future.

Sara Khanum Ashurbeyli, daughter of one of Baku's most famous Oil Barons at the age of one and a half in 1907. She celebrated her 90th Jubilee in January 1996.

No one is more conscious of the inherent power of names than those who have lived under repressive systems, whether they be economic, political or religious, or, in the case of the Soviet republics like Azerbaijan, all three. Under such circumstances, the prudent selection of a name can give an individual a slight edge or advantage over another.

The historical record of most nations is written exclusively by those in powerful positions. Names as the DNA of communal experience provide a more subtle and, at the same time, more comprehensive record of the perceived influences and forces that have shaped the destiny of a community. The history according to names is inclusive and, therefore, more accurate. The pen of every name giver counts, not just those who enjoy status.

Note: Many names for this study have been gleaned from official documents-mostly birth certificates. It's a normal practice in such research; however, in the case of Azerbaijani names, the process has been rather painstaking in Baku since the republic has had three official alphabets during this past century. To acquire the data meant deciphering handwritten records of all three scripts: Arabic (up to 1929), Latin (between 1929-1939), Cyrillic (1939-1991) and Latin again (1991 to present).

This overview of naming practices begins with the Soviet period (1920-1991), which was primarily influenced by Russian naming practices. It then reverses in history to discuss the Pre-Revolutionary period (before 1920) when Islam shaped many names. Finally, it discusses trends that seem to be evolving during this contemporary period since Azerbaijan gained its independence (1991 to present). Generally speaking, it's a period marked by a quest to return to their own Azerbaijani and Turkic roots.

Ask Azerbaijanis these days about some of the personal names that emerged during the Soviet Period, and words like Traktor (tractor) and Kombayn (combine) often top their lists. Needless to say, these names no longer "work," but earlier this century when there was great emphasis on the industrialization of agriculture, such farm machinery obviously captured the imagination of people as they moved from a feudal system to a centralized government, which provided the means for mass production.

Names such as Traktor and Kombayn were not very widespread, but the fact that they did exist indicates how even children's names came to be used as tools of persuasiveness to express loyalty to the Soviet system, especially during the period now known as "Stalin's Repression" of the 1930s and 50s. During this period, hundreds of thousands and even millions of people throughout the Soviet Union were shot, imprisoned or exiled to Siberia if their allegiance to the State was, in any way, questionable or, in some cases, even questioned. [During the 40s, there was a slight reprieve from these internal purges; Stalin and other Soviet leaders were preoccupied with "The Great Patriotic War" (World War II), so much of which was fought on Soviet soil].

Some of the other names that emerged during that period were based on concepts related to the Communist party and governmental structures. For example, there was Narkom (from Russian, Narodniy Komitet which means People's Committee) and Raykom (from Azerbaijani, Rayon Komitesi meaning Regional Committee).

Even commonplace words like "organization," Tashkilat (tash-ki-LAT), which frequently appeared in the media, found their way into the repertoire of personal names as there were local Party and Komsomol (collective farm) organizations everywhere. The word Tablighat (ta-bli-GHAT), meaning "propaganda," came to be used as a male name (it does not carry with it the negative connotations so common to English; simply, it meant "dissemination of ideas" in Soviet ideology). Even "information" was created as a name-Malumat.

Of course, such names were not widespread among Azerbaijanis, but again, the fact that they even existed provides evidence of the influence of the political system upon the society as a whole. Though it may appear otherwise from these examples, name givers the world over are extremely conscious of the names they give their offspring, as they are always trying to anticipate how well the name will be accepted among the circle of people whom they want to influence.

Names of months were also given, especially those which related to significant Socialist or Soviet events. Oktyabr (ok-TABR) commemorated the Great Socialistic Revolution which took place in October 1917. Mayis (Mah-YIS) marked the holiday of the Solidarity of the Workers, which today is often referred to as May Day (May 1) around the world.

Go to Part 2

From Azerbaijan International (4.3) Autumn 1996.
© Azerbaijan International 1996. All rights reserved.

Home | About Azeri | Learn Azeri | Contact us