Monday, April 20, 2009

My mom and Gorbachev

My host mother, a calm person up to now, is really annoyed with me. I can’t follow everything that she is saying, but don’t want to ask detailed questions. I think I know what I said that started her on this tirade, because I have heard all of this before from other people.

It started when she asked me what my daughter, Kelly is up to. I mentioned that she will be attending an event at her school in which the speaker is Mikayil Gorbachev, the last leader of the USSR. Under his rule, the Soviet Union collapsed and the 15 countries became separate and mostly democratic. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990.

At the mention of his name, she stiffened and told me how he is despised in Azerbaijan. She is old enough to remember the time in 1991 when the USSR collapsed and overnight Azerbaijan was cut loose with no federal government and no system for running things. Effectively, no one had a job, at least not one that paid, no one was in charge, schools closed, there were no police, utilities, monetary system, medical services and of course, chaos reigned.

For about three years, things went very badly until the former head of the KGB, who was Azerbaijani, Heydar Aliyev, took over and gradually restored some order. He is widely revered here, with a statue of him in literally every city of any size. He died five years ago and his son took over as president.

Things are still not nearly back to being as successful as they were in the days of the USSR. The GNP is about 10 percent of what is was then, unemployment is very high, health and welfare problems abound (for example, there is a much higher infant and maternal mortality rate), women’s rights have regressed and poverty is high. Many people think that the country is not on an upward trajectory.

My host mother blames Gorbachev for the capitalist economy, which she says is bad for Azerbaijan. In contrast to a time when they could save money and had good schools and full employment, she points to her unemployed son, the low salaries that she and her husband earn (her husband, an engineer, earns about 90 cents an hour), the (in her view) poor medical care and schools (she is a teacher) and is angry that the Soviet Union went away. She is very satisfied with the job that the current president is doing, she just feels that the former system produced better results for the people.

I mention to her that in the US, we constantly read stories about how there was not enough food in the Soviet countries, that Soviets wanted to buy more luxury goods and better quality items, which were not sold there. Also, that they could not travel outside of the 15 country area and were effectively prisoners.

She said that the stories about lack of merchandise and food in Azerbaijan were “lies” and that she can’t afford to travel anywhere in Azerbaijan now, so having the means to travel to 15 countries then was wonderful. The Soviet collective farms produced much more food than privately owned farms produce now and there is no good way to get excess crops out of the country due to poor roads and lack of modern farming machinery. In many cases, the modern equipment that existed in Soviet times has been replaced by donkeys and wagons.

I know now not to discuss this situation with my host mother unless I approach it from a different angle—asking questions and empathizing instead of blurting out to her the American perspective as fact. I realize now how strongly democracy is a knee-jerk reaction for Americans—many of think that everyone would have a better life if they lived in a democracy like ours. But I am coming to appreciate how the type of government one chooses is a reflection on culture, values and a historical perspective.

I realize that what we have in common with people in countries with other types of governments is that we all want the same things—a way to earn a secure living, a good future for our children and the security of being safe in our own communities and countries. For some people, our type of democracy may not be their preference in providing the type of life and security they want.

One other perspective I have come to understand is that we always hear from immigrants in the US how much they like our country and our economic system. As a result, we feel that most people like our system. What I am beginning to understand is that many are not comfortable with our system and these are the people who don’t come to America or who come for an education and then return home.