Schooling in Post-Soviet Society

Jennifer Wistrand

What happens when trust fails and people no longer know which social, political and economic institutions and actors are predictable, reliable and safe?  This is the reality that has been and continues to be confronting the former Soviet Turkic Muslim republic of Azerbaijan since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Between January 2006 and April 2008 I conducted twenty-two months of field work in Azerbaijan.  The focus of my research was young Azerbaijanis' understanding, interpretation, internalization and, ultimately, reaction or response to the lack of trust in their society's main institutions and actors.  Since all young Azerbaijanis are required to attend school for at least nine years, I selected five different types of schools at which to observe and interact with them.  Four schools were located in or around Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, while a fifth school was located in a village four hours west of Baku.  Shortly into my field work, two important questions emerged that proceeded to guide or frame the remainder of my research: What does it mean to belong in Azerbaijani society? And how does one actually belong in order to get by in Azerbaijani society?

I define young Azerbaijanis are those born between, roughly, 1989 and 1993, or in the years immediately prior to, during and following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the formation of independent Azerbaijan.

The government, the schools, the media and the NGOs provide messages to young Azerbaijanis concerning the rules governing society and the roles individuals are supposed to play in order to belong in that society.  Said differently, collectively these messages constitute Azerbaijani society's "official narrative."  Messages concerning language, ethnicity, religion and gender are particularly relevant to belonging in Azerbaijani society.  To borrow from linguistic theory, those that were "marked", or considered inferior, for the majority of Azerbaijanis during Soviet times are now "unmarked", or considered superior, for them.  Since I had specifically chosen to situate myself in the five different types of schools' history, civics and constitution classes - or those classes in which Azerbaijani society's "official narrative" is more likely to be discussed - I was able to observe what messages concerning language, ethnicity, religion and gender government officials, school directors, teachers, journalists, NGO workers and activists are communicating to students, specifically how they are communicating their understandings and interpretations of them through school curricula, textbooks, television broadcasts, newspapers, ect. .  This participant-observation also enabled me to distribute surveys to, and have informal conversations with, students about their perceptions of belonging and how they accord with or differ from the "official narrative".  And, it allowed me to pursue in-depth interviews with government officials, school directors, teachers, journalists, NGO workers and activists on how young Azerbaijanis are understanding and engaging: various social roles, like becoming and being a husband, a wife, a father, a mother, etc; various political roles, like becoming and being a citizen; and various economic roles, like becoming and being an employer or an employee.

The way young Azerbaijanis are drawing on or using their perceptions of messages concerning language, ethnicity, religion and gender in discussions and demonstrations of their and others individuals' successes (or examples of getting by) and failures (or examples of not getting by) within various social, political and economic spheres highlights the gap that exists between the "official narrative" and how one must actually belong in order to get by in Azerbaijani society.  Ultimately, these verbal and non-verbal "facts" begin to explain how Azerbaijanis' beliefs and practices vis-à-vis belonging and getting by are serving to rebuild, or build new forms of, trust within their post-Soviet society.

While government officials, journalists, NGO workers and activists may not be in the schools, their "official narratives" are there in the Ministry of Education's school curricula and textbooks, in the human rights NGO's publication of classroom activities and posters, etc.

My field work was funded by a one month Washington University pre-dissertation grant, a two month American Councils Eurasian Regional Language Program grant, a thirteen month Fulbright grant and a six month IREX IARO grant.