Exploring the legacy of Soviet Armenia: Conversation with (grand)parents
Source of the picture: Mediamax
Student: Alla Shirinyan
Date of interview- 03.09.2020
Place- the interviewee house.
Interviewee date of birth -16.01.1955
In 1985 Michael Gorbachev assumed the leadership of the USSR. He was a longtime Communist Party politician. Gorbachev inherited an inactive economy and a political structure that made reform all but impossible. He guided two main policies for the development of the USSR. The first policy was glasnost or political openness, which eliminated traces of Stalinist repression and gave new freedoms to the Soviet citizens. For instance, newspapers could print criticisms of the government. Besides glasnost, the second set of reforms was known as perestroika or economic restructuring. Gorbachev’s policy was to enhance the Soviet economy with the help of to loosen the government’s grip on it. Frustration with the decreased economy combined with Gorbachev’s hands-off approach to Soviet satellites, inspiring independence movements in the republics on the U.S.S.R.’s fringes. The Baltic states, more specifically Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia declared their independence from Moscow.
The Soviet Union officially collapsed on December 26, 1991, and the communist-era policies of the region ceased.
The interview was conducted with one of the people who lived during the Soviet era. It’ll help to understand and emphasize some questions with their answers before and after the Soviet Union period. It’ll also help to analyze and have better insights about the time which undoubtedly had its consequences on the formation of the independent country/Armenia.
1.Were the members of the Komsomol/Community Party? Can they recall how the membership began and why it was significant to become a party member?
Yes, I was a member of the Community Party. This is largely because, during the Soviet Union each person had to be a member of the Communist party to receive any position, otherwise the government did not give an individual such an opportunity. Thus, being a member of the Communist Party pursued in order to have a career.
2. Are there any family experiences with Stalinist exterminations, repressions, concentration camps?
Yes, my two grandfathers were exiled, like a kulak during the Soviet Union in 1937 and after that time we had not had any information about both my mother’s father and my father’s father. They were considered as missing persons. Moreover, after exiling my grandfathers the government made pressure on our family, such as they gave a command to the workers which entailed not to grind our wheat. In addition to this, they sent my brother to the penal battalion, in these conditions we could say that it was a step to death. To sum up, they made pressures on our family members, and only after Stalin’s death the government began gradually soften these conditions.
3.What was it like to live in Soviet Armenia?
Honestly, I did not see Stalin’s exterminations, as I was born later in 1955 and I remember the 1960s events, but my mother and father always told me about it and the history of our family. Marxism and Leninism were praised at that time, but I can say that we had great adolescence. We noticed propaganda only in the 1970s, as there were a lot of contradictions, a lot of questions that did not get answers. Besides, I remember that there was a film with the name of ‘‘Zangezur’’ where they presented Garegin Njdeh(who was our national hero) as a clown. I can say that the economy was at a decreased level, but there was equality and this helped people to live easily.
4.Discuss their experience with Soviet control over individuals/freedom of expression.
I would like to mention that I had this kind of experience. Once I should go to Bulgaria and my friend who worked in the Committee for State Security told me to receive information from Bulgaria and provide it to them. Then, I rejected to do so, and after all the government had banned me from this trip.
5. Were they employed? What was it like working in the Soviet Union (SU)? What were the benefits and downsides of working in the Soviet system?
Yes, I was employed. The privilege was that each individual had a job during the Soviet Union, which is considered one of the greatest problems today. I would like to mention that I was head of energy and mechanical department and the government used forces against that person who did not have any kind of work, so in this case, no person did not have a job during the Soviet Union and for me, this was a beneficial side.
6. Did they support the Soviet system? Explain the answer.
I cannot say that I did support the Soviet Union. I tried to do my work perfectly and this gave me pleasure, in many cases, I tried not to analyze the situations. I think this kind of approach helped me to do my best in my domain, but not in policy.
7. Did they feel victims of the Soviet system? Explain the answer.
No, I did not feel victims of the Soviet system, but I could mention that my mother and father feel so, as they lived during Stalin’s exterminations, the government exiled their parents and they felt pressure from the Soviet system. There were great differences before and after Stalin’s death.
8. Have they traveled outside of the SU? If yes, can they recall how the system worked for letting them out of the country?
No, I did not have this kind of experience. The only incident was when I should go to Bulgaria and they rejected me. A long ago I was informed that the government tried to receive information about my life and my actions. I could emphasize that they were cautious about this issue.
9. If they traveled outside of the SU, have their opinions of the SU changed?
10. If they lived through the 1970s and 80s, what were the 5 key turning points in Armenia’s social and political life that they remember the best?
There were 5 key turning points.
- Freedom for information. There were barriers to getting information and I could mention that the first turning key was easily accessing information. For instance, after the first world war, there were articles that citizens could not read, as it was forbidden at that time.
- National injustice. There were pressures against nationality.
- Identity Restriction. People did not have a chance to choose any direction according to the policy, they should accept and move only with the Soviet Union.
- 24 April 1965 mark a successful challenge that forced the Soviet authorities to allow commemorations inadvertently granted legitimacy to the blending of the notions of genocide, justice and territorial claims.
- In 1988 the Karabakh movement started. In 1989 the boys of the movement were arrested.
11. What is their recollection of the Karabakh movement?
At the beginning of the Karabagh movement we trust Lenin, we all said that Lenin, party, Gorbachev. After a while we realized that we should rely only on ourselves and our power, we should unite and did our best. We started to prepare for war and my friend was injured in a gun test. Then, in Armenian different places, a lot of people were preparing for war, we collect guns and this was our main goal to have many guns, as there were a lot of changes and we should be prepared for each situation. In Armenia on February 18, we started with movement as an environmental one. Then gradually, it started to change its direction, and requiring Kharabagh’s independence became the milestone of the movement.
12. What was it like to see the collapse of the SU?
Nations were extremely happy, because of collapse of the Soviet Union. More specifically, Armenian population was happy and full of emotions, as the Armenia became independent country. Obviously, there were odd emotions too, as the Soviet Union was a huge country which was collapsed.
13. How common was bribery and corruption in the Soviet Union?
I did not collide with corruption during that time, but I could mention that there was a presence of corruption and bribery. For instance, the way that workers got homes was connected with corruption, people needed to give a bribe to receive home or maybe getting a position at work.
14. Did you ever consider the possibility that the Soviet Union would collapse before 1985?
Initially, we did not think that it could happen, but after a few actions that the Soviet Union did against our nation, specifically, it gave our land to different neighbors. For instance —— . After all, we realized that we should try to separate from the Soviet Union as soon as it would be plausible, and this was considered the beginning of the collapse.
15. Did you have Azerbaijani friends and have you ever visited Azerbaijan?
Yes, in the course of my life I went to Azerbaijan in two days. Then, during military service, the government sent us to the Azerbaijan. I could mention that there were normal conditions and we did not notice any aggression against Armenians.
16. While you were a Soviet citizen, did you support communism/Leninism/ socialism? How do you feel about those ideas now?
No, I took part in the Communist Party for my career and this was all, ideologically I did not support it and did not participate in any activities.
In my opinion, communism is a good idea, but it depends on who introduces it and how. I can mention that people like this idea, as each of us prefers to live equally. There were some downsides too, for example, creators(painters, writers, and so on) did not have the right to create freely and this made them limited.
Overall, based on the interview, it can be concluded that the Soviet experience of the person living during that era was not extremely bad or good. There were both problems and also a few advantages in the Soviets which can be remembered by the person who lived at that time. However, this also can be a result of nostalgia, and opinions maybe a little subjective. There were surely problems in the Soviet Union. The rising dissatisfaction towards the Communist Party and its policy led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In a nutshell, the trajectory of Armenian nationalism might appear that the Soviet leadership gained more by granting merely symbolic concessions to the Armenians without redressing the real issues at stake-most importantly, the territorial question. However, in the long term, these symbolic concenssions allowed Armenians to form a national identity narrative centred on the issue of genocide and territorial claims. Thus, the events of 24 April 1965 mark an important watershed: a successful challenge that forced the Soviet authorities to allow commemorations inadvertently granted legitimacy to the bleding of the notions of genocide, justice and territorial claims. All these elements proved decisive in the final years of the USSR when the Armenian population took advantage of glasnost’ to pursue the territorial issue with Azerbaijan. The inability of the Soviet leadership to find a satisfactory solution to this issue was one of the many factors that led to the final unravelling of the Soviet Union. (Saparov,2018)
Saparov, A. (2018). Re-negotiationg the boundaries of permissible: The National(ist) Revival in Soviet Armenia and Moscow’s Response, Europe-Asia studies, 70(6), 862-883.