Saturday, December 20, 2008


I recently met someone who was an adult in 1991, when the Soviet era ended in Azerbaijan and who speaks English well enough to give me details on a phenomenon I have noticed in Azerbaijan--that is that many people here feel that life was much better under the Soviets. Until now, I was not able to transcend the language barrier enough to get the details of why they think this. I recently met Flora who speaks passable English. She is about 50 years old and so lived a good portion of her adult life under the Soviets as well as under democracy. She has a good job, a nice home and a grown son and visited the US for the first time for a month in April as part of a professional conference. She is quite opinionated on a number of topics. Here is her opinion of the differences before and after 1991 when the Soviet Union fell:

"Everything was so good under the Soviet Union. There were 15 countries in the Soviet Union and we were all friends. We could travel freely among these countries and since we studied Russian in school, we had a common language. Azerbaijan had a big part in producing products and growing produce for these other areas, which made us prosperous. We felt we were surrounded by friends and people who had the same goals and desires as we did. If one region had a natural disaster or problem, others would help us and we felt secure, with plenty of food and a home for all. Regions with aggressive or dangerous ideas were restrained by the other regions.

The Soviet Union collapse was very unexpected for us. Overnight, all of these countries were expected to function independently and compete with each other. There was no government, no jobs, schools or any way to produce things. Everything was chaos. Now, we don't have a common language anymore, and we don't have the same goals."

I interjected that we had heard in the US that food was scarce in Soviet days, that collective farms were inefficient and there were long lines for shopping for food and consumer goods.

"No, you are wrong! We had plenty of food and it was cheap. We had good doctors and medical care. I have to have two jobs now to have a standard of living that is not as good as it was under the Soviets. I work my (professional job) from 9-5 five days a week and do other work from 8-9 a.m. and 6-8 p.m seven days a week. I am tired. I don't feel free now and I felt free with the Soviets."

I asked her what she thought about the US when she visited.

"I liked the people that I met. They were very friendly and smart and invited me to their homes. I liked the university that I stayed at. It was very beautiful with top quality facilities. The streets and buildings I saw were very high quality. I also liked visiting Washington, DC. It is a beautiful city.

I don't understand why a country that is supposed to be First World has homelessness. No one is Azerbaijan is homeless. Everyone has a home. Americans like to say they have the best things and democracy is wonderful. They also say they believe in God. How can people who have all these things and want to do God's work tolerate homelessness?"

I told her that I don't speak for all Americans, but that some feel that being homeless is the fault of the homeless and that if they try harder, they will be able to afford a place to stay. During this discussion, it came out that some children are homeless or live in cars or shelters. She was unaware of this and was appalled. I told her that another reason people tolerate homelessness is that they feel the problem is so big it can't be fixed and also that many homeless people suffer from mental illness and are hard to manage.