The Flag Once Raised or 5 Lessons from 100 Years Ago

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Where I come from, in Azerbaijan, as well as in other parts of the globe, that are home to Azerbaijanis, May 28th is celebrated as the Republic Day. And if all previous years this date was important, in 2018 it’s signified further by the 100th anniversary of the inception of the Azerbaijani Democratic Republic.

Why is this important?  For one thing, because of the unique place, ADR holds in our history as the first democratic secular state in the Islamic world, and as one of the pioneers in women’s suffrage in the entire world. Founded on the still-fresh remnants of the Russian Empire, in highly adversarial conditions of the post- World War I, in the midst of the Russia’s civil war and European intervention, this free state accomplished so much during the two years of its existence, that now, a century later, we cannot help but marvel at its levels of performance and  productivity. Lessons we can learn from the leaders of ADR, the brightest and most progressive political and public figures of their time and place, are by no means limited to this article, but what I’ve picked here is what resonates most with my core values. If you bear with me through the length of this post I will explain why.

  1. Acceptance and Inclusiveness

Prior to forming the Azerbaijani Parliament by a free vote, the founding fathers of ADR held positions in Russia’s legislative body (Duma) where they openly spoke against any kind of bloodshed, oppression and enslavement. They stood for respect for human rights and for the free development of all nationalities presented in the country. These very values found their reflection in the Declaration of Independence that was adopted on May 28, 1918, as the foundation of the young Republic’s sovereign status.  Formed in consideration with the voices of the majority, this document guaranteed equal political and civil rights to all citizens regardless of their ethnicity, religious affiliation, occupation, class or gender.

The equality was achieved not only on paper – ADR gave voice to every minority residing in the country by offering them seats in the Parliament. Among its most prominent accomplishments was the extension of voting rights to women, thus making Azerbaijan the first predominantly Muslim country and one of the very first nations on Earth to instate that women deserved equal political rights with men. If my new home country, Canada was the first in the world to accept women’s suffrage in 1917, I am proud to say that Azerbaijan was the second to mark this important accomplishment only a year later. The inclusiveness of ADR was not limited to its citizens only – the young Republic strived to build friendly diplomatic relations with all nations, particularly the closest neighbors. They were quick to extend the helping hand to anyone in need as well, by allocating funds from their not-so-ample budget to any country or nation that may have suffered from natural disasters or other hardships.

Since the equality of all human beings was the battle fought and won by our ancestors 100 years ago, I believe it is time for us to step up our game today and learn to embrace people of all origins as our equals. One step towards that progress would be to move away from using the word “tolerance”.  Whenever I hear about tolerance, it makes me think of a mainstream society barely putting up with the existence of minorities. Instead, let’s accept them wholeheartedly with all of their differences as long as those differences do not overstep the boundaries of anyone else’s freedoms.

 2.Transparency and integrity

ADR parliament’s activity resulted in the adoption of a wide range of laws and regulations that shaped the political, economic, and social life of the country. Among others, there were laws that focused on building the court system that was just and thorough in serving the people’s needs.  This system of magistrate courts, (the concept originating from the British law), was built in the difficult circumstances of overcoming resistance from local administrations as well as dealing with language barriers, poorly trained translators, and the lack of investigative skills by court personnel. According to the contemporaries, magistrate courts not only resolved any disputes and violations of human rights but also served as schools of integrity and the utmost respect for human dignity. Despite all the challenges they faced, these institutions were held to highest standards of integrity and transparency and the judges were held accountable for any wrongdoings. As a result, the court system earned a lot of support from the people it served.

Today, we are facing our own unique or not so unique obstacles to creating transparency on individual, organizational and higher levels. It can be very tempting to hold on to the resources or to hide the knowledge from other people around us. But the key is to remember that we can only achieve true progress as a society if the top is held to the same standards as the rest of us and everyone is treated in a way that encourages their participation and welcomes their contributions.

 3.Value of Education

Educated in some of the most prestigious schools in Russia and Europe the founding fathers of ADR placed a high value on education. As a part of their plan to make education accessible to everyone in the country, they opened schools even in the most remote mountainous villages of Azerbaijan. Their biggest accomplishment in the field of promoting educational values was the establishment of Baku State University, in 1919, which became the first modern-type university in Azerbaijan.  To work there, they handpicked the most qualified professors in the fields of medicine, philosophy, history, jurisprudence, and sciences from the best Universities of Russia and Europe.  The first department established at BSU was the Department of Medicine, based on the founders’ firm belief that highly functioning Education system and Medical care are the two prerequisites for any society’s progress and development.  This accomplishment hits close to home as BSU, subsequently named after Mamed Emin Rasulzade, the Head of ADR, was my very first Alma Mater which paved the path for the rest of my life.

 There is a lot of talks these days questioning the role of education and whether or not it’s needed for our success in life. I believe that when done right, (made accessible) education is a great equalizer that provides a baseline for everyone to build on so that they can reach their own definition of success.

  1. You can have the best of both worlds

ADR showed us that it is possible to combine the traditions of the Western Democracy with the cultural values of the East. Legislators in charge of developing new laws, were well-versed in the legal profession and had gained their experience working in Russia’s Duma. So, facing legal, economic or financial issues they drew from their knowledge of Russian and European Legislation. They formulated the new laws by relying on the definitions from Russian and European languages as well as on Eastern terminology, influenced by the Arabic language, common for a Muslim world.  The reason was their aspiration to timely resolve the pressing societal issues while strengthening the legal foundation of the country and gaining international recognition for its independence.

Recognized de-facto by the attendees of the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 as the first parliamentary democracy Republic in the Muslim world, ADR formed an independent, Western-style cabinet of ministers. At the same time, they acknowledged the cultural and religious values of their own society by cooperating with and taking into account the views of the local spiritual community leaders which my great grandfathers happened to belong to and I heard of a lot of growing up in my family.  The new government created conditions for the population to celebrate and observe their local cultural and religious holidays, extending the right for a paid day -off to all ethnic and religious groups represented in Azerbaijan.

In today’s global environment, people and business often move across the world or expand into new territories while constantly facing the clash between the old, native and the new, adoptive cultures. What we can learn from ADR is that seemingly opposed values do not have to always contravene. Instead, they can complement and enrich each other. It is up to each of us whether to reject any new ways of living as foreign and hostile or to keep an open mind and see what we can learn from other cultures we come in contact with.

  1. What’s hard to gain, is even harder to keep

No matter how difficult it was to gain the coveted independence in the extremely complex geopolitical situation Azerbaijan found itself in – it proved much harder to keep it.  “The flag once raised will never fall”, was the slogan of the young republic solidified by its leaders through their relentless and selfless work. This firm belief fueled their energy and determination to hold the fort until the very last moment as the grossly unequal adversarial forces of the invaders were inevitably gaining in.

The flag our founding fathers raised had to temporarily go down at that particular point in history, in 1920. But not before it showed people what was possible. The spirit of ADR is still alive. It’s the spirit of going after what you believe in no matter how formidable the adversity you face is. That very spirit is what inspired our contemporaries to reclaim Azerbaijan’s independence all those decades later, in 1991.  Today, as we raise our flag once again, we realize we have to live up to the values it stands for. The values of integrity, transparency, acceptance, development, and resiliency are as relevant today as ever before, and not only in Azerbaijan but everywhere else we go. The question is what each of us is going to do about those values and how are we going to uphold them in our own lives?

 In preparation of this article, materials from legislative documents and parliamentary speeches of ADR have been used. These materials were sealed during the Soviet Union and only became available to public 20 years ago due to the initiative and persistence of the then-President of the newly independent Republic of Azerbaijan, Mr. Heydar Aliyev.


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  1. I wish that a great country like Azerbaijan would receive more credit in our modern world. Most people here in North America haven’t ever even heard of Azerbaijan, let alone acknowledge its impactful nature.

    1. I agree Aydan that it would be great for people to know more about other countries. In the case of Azerbaijan there is so much to the previously hidden parts of its history that even we as Azerbaijanis do not know enough. That’s what I’m trying to improve by sharing some of this knowledge.

      1. Aydan’s comments are very accurate. When I was a young student growing up in Canada the focus regarding history, geography, and current events in Eastern Europe / Southwestern Asia was always on the communist USSR and their power struggle with the West. I was one of those somewhat ignorant people who had never heard of Azerbaijan let alone the storied history of the ADR and the Azerbaijani people. You have every right to be proud of and to celebrate such great accomplishments that came as a result of brave leaders paving the way for democracy 100 years ago. The spirit of the ADR and your personal values form a tight connection between your past and your present Natella and it shows in your passionate writing in this week’s post. Thank you for helping me to better understand your history and the history of the Azerbaijani people.

        1. Hi Jason, thank you for sharing your view and how it had been occurring to you, growing up here in Canada. I feel there has always been a certain amount of propaganda involved in how they had been presenting the facts and history in the school system, especially coming out of the cold war. Even during our childhood back in the Soviet days, the accomplishments of ADR were never discussed or even mentioned in the school system. We only started learning about this glorious part of our history in the 1990s. I know a lot of time passed since the ADR days, but the more I learn about its leaders the more fascinated I am about their progressive views, their far-reaching vision, and the brave actions. Definitely, something to take pride in and to take further.

  2. Thank you very much, Natella. Very interesting and informative as always. I loved how you drew a modern day lesson from each point you discussed.

    1. You are welcome K. The modern day lessons almost came to me themselves as I was writing this. I couldn’t help seeing the striking relevance to our modern life of the issues that ADR leaders had to deal with exactly a century ago.

    2. Very true. I am also impressed by such an interesting parallels made by Natella.

  3. Very interesting post, Natella! While reading the article I was really surprised and impressed by the fact that ADR was not only the first democratic republic in the Muslim world but also one of the first in the entire world that gave women equal rights with men! Every nation should remember the history of its country and be proud of its great accomplishments! Azerbaijanis can definitely be proud that all the way back in 1918 their young country – ADR was the first democratic republic with a parliamentary form of government in the East and the Muslim world which was quite successful in making a lot of democratic reforms.

    1. Hi Melissa thank you very much. Yes, it’s truly remarkable about the women’s suffrage and other progressive laws adopted by ADR! As I was doing research I was coming across things that even I didn’t know about the early Azerbaijani Republic – such as the details of the court system, or the levels of inclusiveness the government had achieved at all levels up to providing paid holidays to representatives of other nations living in Azerbaijan so that they could celebrate what’s important for their culture. Makes me think with a foundation like that what would have been possible if only those first leaders were given a chance to stay in power and continue!

  4. Having the best of both worlds sounds so appealing and diffucilt to achieve at the same time. I am really impressed that the young ADR managed to achieve all this.
    I think this is exactly what we need to be striving for.

    1. Thank you Lida. Striving to take best from all cultures you are exposed to seems to be one of the keys to not only survive but to prosper in today’s world of globalization and multiculturalism.

  5. This is a part of the history not known to us at all, going to school in the US. If anything, your part of the world was presented to us as the opposing forces to the values of western democracy. It’s very eye-opening to learn how advanced Azerbaijan was at the beginning of last century in promoting the rights of women and all the minorities when our people had to fight for their civil rights only a few decades ago. Thank you for the great post and Congratulations on this important Anniversary!

    1. Thank you very much Guy. I am just glad I had this opportunity to share about this and to shed some light on the issue that had been previously unknown.

  6. I often visit your site and have noticed that you always surprise us with something entirely new.

    I wonder if writing this content takes you a lot of time. Do you use any tools for creating your articles?

    1. Hi Rosa thank you for commenting on your observation. I do not currently use any special tools for creating my articles. They are basically written from scratch. Yes, it does take some time to write them, but I enjoy the process and like knowing that readers find value in what I have to share.