Out of the blue, I found myself invited to Baku. Azerbaijan has immense deposits of oil and natural gas, and in a blithe nouveau riche spirit chooses to put itself on the map by spending fortunes having anyone and everyone come on a visit. The World Amateur Boxing Championships had just been staged in Baku, and a conference on humanitarianism was to follow. On arrival I was taken in charge by a posse of minders, put up in a five-star hotel, and fed at a succession of banquets, meals, and receptions. The Soviet experience in old days had taught me that guests with a full stomach are expected to have an empty head. They’re then supposed to go home and to spin the illusion that everything they’ve seen on the trip is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.
Azerbaijan is one of half a dozen Muslim republics that were colonies of the Soviet Union until that empire’s collapse 20 short years ago. All of them have adjusted from the rule of Communist strongmen to the rule of Muslim strongmen. Independence has created laboratory conditions in which to observe how the historic legacy of Muslim absolutism is incompatible with today’s demands for government of the people by the people.