“I'm a positive person”
Mrs Leyla Aliyeva in conversation with journalist Igor Drobyeshev.
Leila Aliyeva: I'm a positive person.
When we met with MIGMO post-graduate Mrs Leyla Aliyeva four years ago, she was about to become a mother. In fact she gave birth to twin boys, Ali and Mikhail. “The kids have changed my world” smiles Mrs Aliyeva. “They've filled out my life”. It's impossible to feign the combination of quiet dignity and slight shyness with which she speaks about her family. I already remember from my last interview with her, that meeting Leyla is the happiest experience I'll have for the whole month. It's clear from a plethora of different publications that her life is far from losing its drive – quite the opposite, its pace is picking up still further. Leyla Aliyeva presides over a whole series of serious humanitarian organisations, as well as being the Chief Editor of BAKU magazine. I want to ask her about all of it – it's just a question of where to start?
ID: Mrs Aliyeva, your life seems completely full, but just suppose... that you had a completely free day, and you could use it to do whatever you dreamt of doing. What would you do?
I dream of going for a trip in the mountains – we have many beautiful mountains in Azerbaijan. But of course, I wouldn't go on my own – I'd prefer to get a young team together, and turn the trip into an ecological initiative.
ID: Yes, it's well known that you support ecological causes in Azerbaijan. How did that all begin?
I had a lot of pets when I was a kid. In fact we had a snake, some hedgehogs, gazelles, cats, and dogs. We had some guinea pigs too – the first of them was called Alexander Sergeivich (after the poet, Pushkin).
ID: Did you think up that name yourself?
Oh no! He already had the name when we bought him from a pet shop. Nowadays I've got a hairless guinea pig, a sphinx. She has babies every month, so we usually donate them to a children's theatre. But the idea of founding a serious ecological foundation began just over a year ago. We have a rich natural environment in Azerbaijan – nine of the world's climate-zones are represented in the country. You can get in a car and set off – in the south there are mountains and wild rivers, while in the north there are dense forests standing on placid lake-shores. Of course, we always took care of our natural environment – but we took the decision to do so in a more structured way that would encompass the whole Caucasus region, and to take part in international events too. The main idea – is called IDEA! It's short for International Dialogue for Environmental Action. It's something that interests young people, which is why we take a creative approach. To begin with we drew up a list of five species which are under threat of extinction – the bear, the wolf, the gazelle, the hawk, and the lynx. We've spent a year campaigning for this group of five animals – for example, we held a Gazelle Festival.
ID: Surely you didn't organise races for them?
Oh no, of course not! We made sculptures of them, that were put up all over Azerbaijan, to draw attention to the problem. And we had another campaign, involving our environmental activist volunteers – they go to towns and villages in green buses, where they give lectures in schools. They've set up ecological classrooms, too. We've done tree-planting projects, and put up bird-houses. In fact we made so many bird-houses that we decided to donate some of them to Russia, too. I had meetings with the World Wildlife Fund in Russia, and we donated the bird-houses to Astrakhan. We're also planning to take part in a joint project to protect Russian bison – we'll be setting an additional bison reserve, to complement the two which exist already. The Caucasian Leopard is another animal I want to protect. It's one of the biggest cats in the world, but it's severely endangered. We've managed to find its tracks, and we've even photographed it. Now we want to set up reserves, where the leopards can breed. One of the biggest problems, though, is that leopards are very migratory – their trails cross the borders of several countries, which makes them difficult to track. Then finally, we want to set up shelters for domestic pets. Of causes I'm involved in, ecology is closest to my heart – probably because you don't need special experience to get involved, anyone can play their part in this kind of work.
ID: You mean, by turning off lights we're not using, and saving on electricity?
Yes, of course! Even little things, like a photograph of an animal taken by a young child, might give pause for thought to an adult who perhaps has authority for making bigger decisions. That's why we've set up a photo competition called “The World Through Children's Eyes”. Thousands of photos were submitted – the jury chose the very best. The top prize was won by an eight-year-old girl from Russia, named Anastasia Vorobko.
ID: So, what was Anastasia's picture of?
ID: Just a raven?
Yes, but it was a really fantastic raven! There'll be a photo festival in Baku in May, where we'll be giving prizes to the competition winners.
ID: Does your father. President Ilkham Aliyev, share his ideas with you about humanitarian causes?
Of course, and I always listen to his ideas carefully. Of course – Dad is usually right. It's one of the main things which life has taught me, and it's really true! But not because he's my dad, or because he's the country's president. And he's never forced his will on me, telling me “do this!”, or “do that!” - he just gives me advice. And it usually turns out that he's right, and I usually come to the same conclusion that he's already suggested. It's all due to his insight, and his astonishing intelligence – his human qualities. I get advice from him about everything, whether it's the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, or ecology, or even BAKU magazine.
ID: Can you tell us how that works?
Well, sometimes I've show him a bundle of photographs, to ask his opinion – which ones he thinks shouldn't be included.
ID: Your father graduated from MGIMO (The Moscow State Institute for Foreign Policy). It can't have been coincidental that the first international gathering for MGIMO alumni will take place in Baku in April?
Oh, I can hardly wait for it! I'm dying to see my old lecturers – like Vladimir Shishkin, the Dean for Foreign Students – he's someone I respect very highly, along with many others. I'm sure that all the attendees of this event will have the chance to relax and socialise in a warm and convivial format. Even those who were in Baku ten years ago won't know the city as it is today! Even when I come back to Baku myself, after a few months away, I find that yet more new facilities have been built – there's always something new!
ID: What are you expecting this forum will deliver?
I'm confidently expecting that our discussions will focus on topics including education, ecology, and societal development. The main thing is that this forum lays the ground for future meetings of a similar kind. We're doing everything to make people feel at home here. Although of course, hospitality is such a well-known Azerbaijani tradition anyhow – our people adore having guests to stay. It's probably the reason that so many forums are held in Azerbaijan – humanitarian, ecological, and educational forums.
ID: This forum of MGIMO alumni is unusual for taking place under the personal patronage of the Azerbaijani President – which gives the event a special nature for both the residents of Baku, and for the alumni participants too.
I believe MGIMO can be rightly proud of having such a worthy graduate as President Aliyev. I'm planning to participate in the round tables on ecological issues and youth affairs. We have close ties to the World Wildlife Fund in Russia, and I'm sure we can include the signature of important environmental policies in our forum discussions. When we come to discussing youth issues I plan to present our youth organisation, AYOR (Azerbaijan Youth Organisation in Russia), which unites Azerbaijani youth in Russia. The last time you and I met, it had only recently been formed – and now I can confirm that it's fully operational.
ID: What would you suggest your guests should see in Baku?
Baku is full of beautiful sights! Among the architecture you should see the Heydar Aliyev Centre, designed by Zaha Hadid. I'd call it the most beautiful building in the world – a true masterpiece of post-modernism. The Flame Towers, which blaze by night, are another of our modern sights. But Baku is just as famous for its history, and the charming atmosphere of the Old Town streets – where you will find examples of French-style art nouveau, of which there are many buildings. Of course, no-one should miss the Maiden Tower, or walking on the boulevard along with young couples in love. If you can find the time to travel forty minutes drive from Baku, then visit Gobustan – which has cave paintings that date back to 10,000 years BC.
ID: Which world problem most concerns you, other than ecology?
Education, definitely education. It lays down the whole basis for the way we live. Without education no kind of progress is possible. It's never too early, and never too early to start studying – even though the amount of information in the world never stops growing, nor does its population.
ID: Yes, that's a paradox, isn't it? Why do you believe that happens?
It's because we've stopped reading, and watch TV instead. We watch dopey serials, and reality TV shows whose participants live in some weird parallel dimension – yet the viewers can watch this stuff for hours? It worries me that kids are watching these programs so much. And there's so much fighting and swearing in cartoons, too! What can kids learn from that kind of broadcasting? In soviet-era cartoons there was always some valuable kind of message – the main characters spoke in noble poetry. Another thing which troubles me is the role the internet plays in children's lives – there's a constant flow of irrelevant information. It can't replace the importance of reading books – but for many kids, television and internet have taken over.
ID: Maybe it's an area, I'd say, which can't be left to democracy – we have to put our foot down. Some things have to be stopped, and other, better things promoted?
We need to teach our children how to make good choices in these things. I'm very much in favour of that when bringing up my own sons.
ID: But computer games are the biggest problem.
Problem? They're more like a sickness! I've forbidden my sons to play them.
ID: What's your main approach to bringing your children up?
The main thing is that they're not children now, but people. With completely different and intense personalities! But both of them are cheerful, outgoing kids. Both of them are Sagittarius – my favourite Zodiac sign! I try not to mummy them – they're boys, and they need to be able to stand up for themselves. We have a close and friendly relationship, and have lots of fun together. Whenever I go to them, they involve me in the toys they're playing with. They vie for my time and attention! But there's one thing I'm very strict about, and that's schooling – so that they grow up to be properly educated people. There was something I heard that I really liked - “We hold knowledge in respect – and knowledge brings respect to us”. The idea is simple enough, but there's deep meaning in it. That's why my sons are learning foreign languages, know their alphabets and will soon be learning to read – as soon as they're five they'll be off to school.”
ID: People in Baku have always traditionally been polyglots – they spoke both Azerbaijani and Russian.
It's not only very good that people in Baku speak flawless Russian – it's something that gives us a real advantage. I would call Russian one of the world's most beautiful languages. Azerbaijan is the only one of the former soviet republics that has retained its full program of teaching Russian to everyone, it's taught in all schools. We have a Russian-language drama theatre, a Slavic university and an affiliate institution of Moscow State University. No matter where my sons eventually study, the first thing for me is that they learn Azeri, and the history and traditions of our country – and then Russian language and literature. Finding the right school for your children is never easy. The soviet standards of education have been eroded, they barely exist any longer – and there's no tougher system of education anywhere in the world. The other problem is that my life is divided between London, Moscow and Baku.
ID: Will you have to spend the same time looking for a university for them?
No, things will be much easier on that score! Of course, only time will tell – but I would really like them to go to MGIMO – it's what we hope for. Even so, it wouldn't be right to force them into it – even though I know myself what a wonderful experience it would be for them. My own studies at MGIMO are one of my fondest memories. As well as the top-rate education I received there, I had the chance to meet a huge number of talented, brilliant and intelligent people – both the teaching staff, and my fellow students. Sad to say, it's hard to meet such people nowadays. It's marvellous that MGIMO keeps up those standards. It was at MGIMO that I began to get involved in social issues – the first project was opening an Azerbaijanian club there – it was what prompted our young people to stick more closely together. That kind of club then appeared in other Russian universities too – there are more than sixty such groups in the regions. I continue to head the Azerbaijani Club at MGIMO to this day – I'm very passionate about bringing on young people, and their enthusiasm exceeds all my expectations. Our young people are talented and intelligent – they love their homeland, and want to work for the best relations between Azerbaijan and Russia. Recently, as a way of bringing the MGIMO alumni together, we founded the Association of Azeri MGIMO Alumni, and it's a special honour to be the Association's chair.
ID: Yes, and the Executive Secretary of the Association is Ruslan Aliyev, the leading light behind MGIMO's ecological issues movement, and he heads the faculty of natural resources.... But perhaps we can come on to the topic of the Arts? I remember that in our last interview you were telling me about a beautiful promotional film about Azerbaijan, in which you were involved. Don't you have any plans to star in a major movie? Perhaps, with an ecological theme?
Actually we've already filmed quite a few such documentaries on exactly that kind of them. Of course, it's quite possible that I could appear in a major movie – but I don't know if that world is really for me?!
ID: But maybe you could play the role of a female explorer amongst the Amazons? But without any anacondas, of course!
Why not? Let's have the anacondas too! But seriously, we've been working on a film project for two years based on Kurban Said's book “Ali and Nino”. It's a love story – between an Azerbaijani boy and a Georgian girl. The film's producer approached me for help with it, and I took to the idea at once. And as well as that it will help the world to hear more about Azerbiajan too.
ID: What's your favourite book?
The Three Comrades, by Remark. I love to read poetry, too. I often re-read Pushkin's poetry, he's a poet I love very dearly. Of course, I love Yesenin and Mayakovsky too. And from the poets of our own times, Vysotsky and Rozhdestvensky. Actually I wrote poetry myself, too.
ID: As the Chief Editor of BAKU magazine, what gives you your drive in your work?
It's the results that motivate me. I look forward to every fresh edition, and even though I've seen the editorial proofs while we're working I still can't help a feeling of intense pleasure when I hold the actual publication in my own hands. Recently we begin issuing BAKU in English, and it's available all over the world – it has more about arts, painting and art projects.
ID: You paint yourself – you've even exhibited your work in exhibitions. How did that all start?
I always loved painting as a child, and adored doing it – but I never showed anyone my pictures. I gave them to my grandfather for his birthday. When we came up with the idea for Fly To Baku, the project's curator, Herve Michailoff came to Baku himself to select the works for the exhibition. He chose many kinds of pieces – installations, photographs, sculptures, and paintings by twenty-one artists. It was he who suggested I ought to take part in the exhibition. I was hesitant – I'm not a professional artist, and didn't want to rank myself alongside the masters – but it was still pleasant for me. This exhibition has been seen in Paris, London, and Rome – but it was best-received in Moscow, where it was attended by more than two thousand people every day, who came to see the works in it!
ID: What's the main subject of your pictures?
People often say my pictures have a kind of sadness – but they still reflect the feelings within me. (Leyla shows several pictures taken on her mobile phone. In one of the pictures there is the outline of a girl. Within the figure is a canned butterfly, while there are snakes all around). Well anyhow, that's what I think. I show problems that a lot of people have. Often people have trapped their positive emotions inside themselves – like the canned butterfly – but let the negative things out – like the snakes. Even though negative emotions can be powerful too. For myself, I'm very positively-aligned to the world – it always seems to me that a positive approach, and a belief in the superiority of good over evil are what makes the world better. I believe everyone should try thinking like that? It's an idea which has the force of gravity on its side. If you think everything will go badly – then it will. The other subject of my paintings is love. A few of them are rather frank on that subject – but it's not something I can steer round. Art is something without barriers.