Exploring the legacy of Soviet Armenia
Source of the picture: Mediamax
Student: Anna Khachatryan
Professor: Vahram Ter-Matevosyan
Course: Armenian Politics, PSIA 360
August 31st, 2020 Yerevan, Armenia
While living in the Republic of Armenia and proudly calling ourselves citizens of this thriving Independent country, we have gone through a lot of historical periods: starting from wars for survival, reaching the title “Sea to Sea” Armenia; then again fighting for our territories with homemade weapons and displaying our love and loyalty towards our country. Today we are going to take a retrospect in one of the remarkable periods for the world and for Armenia as well. The scope of the interview is The Soviet Union and the life in the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic. Our interviewee Tigran Safaryan, born on 9 May 1963 is here to help us clear the picture of the
USSR and find answers to some unspoken and undiscussed questions.
1.Were you a member of the Komsomol/Community Party? Can you recall how the membership began and why it was significant to become a party member?
“I studied in school After Krupskaya, which was considered to be one of the best schools. My class was 4D which meant to be one of the worst ones and despite the fact of having 36 pupils in my class. However, 32 of us could get enrolled in universities, which was not so easy because there were not so many universities at that time.
In the USSR everybody had to belong to any party, for getting a good job. I was not a Pioneer or a member of October because I was so naughty, I broke the chairs and that’s why they did not accept me. During the enrollment in Komsomol, they asked me an absurd question, I did not even answer the question, but they picked me. I never wanted to become a member of any party including Komsomol, because I loved rock music which tends to freedom and not in limitation of something. Although, in our class, only 3 of us weren’t members of Komsomol, and they told us that it was necessary for reaching 100% of pupils getting a membership. It was a plan that they needed to complete. Then, I entered the Institute of Physical Culture and Sport, even though having a dream of being in the sphere of theatre. Following my dream, I worked in different theatres, in different positions just to feel the atmosphere and witnessing everything taken place there. I wanted to become a director, and for presenting any performance, you ought to get permission from the party. I recall state theatres couldn’t organize national performances, it wasn’t allowed. No state theatre performed the “Nazar the Brave” by Tumanyan, as everyone was so scared of the consequences. Henrik Malyan created a separate theatre next to ‘Hay Film’, in order to give the title ‘Studio- Theatre’ for showing “Nazar the Brave”, “The Decameron” and other plays which were forbidden for state theatres.
While working in the theatre After Sundukyan, I was appointed as the Secretary of Komsomol. It used to be Araik Manukyan, but because of age, I was chosen due to being young and energetic. Once, we had performance in Surenavan, which was delayed for some hours, because the villagers didn’t return from hills. Till they arrived, we had managed to get drunk, hence, correspondently became the reason of my dismissal. I was laughing that day, as it never meant to be essential for me. Then, I went to serve in army in Afghanistan and returned in December 1987, which was followed by 1988 the year of the movement.
Just once being a member of Komsomol really helped me, it was after the earthquake in 1988. I should have been in Spitak, as I had stayed there for 5-6 days, then I returned to Yerevan and in the morning the disaster happened. I felt so bad and wanted to do something to mitigate people’s sorrow. Together with my friends, we decided to organize concerts in Gagra, Sochi resorts where people found shelter hence their houses were ruined because of the casualty. It would have been
interesting for grown-ups to enjoy the concert but what to do for children. I remembered that Komsomol had fund for children, without knowing the Secretary of Komsomol, decided to enter and ask for help. He showed a willingness to support us and filled the truck with books and toys, it is worth mentioning, they were colorful toys received from Germany as an aid. It was so random because in the Soviet Union everything was just grey and no other color and, finding something colorful was a sensation. So, this way we gave away books, toys and had concerts to make people forget about the happening for at least a few minutes. It was the only blessing left from Komsomol.”
2.Are there any family experiences with the Stalinist exterminations, repressions, concentration camps?
“My grandmother’s brother was Stalinist, I don’t remember the title perhaps, he was a professor of biology. I just remember, my grandma telling, that Stalinists had been coming and demanding to give his brother’s books, but his wife kept on refusing to give. It was according to the retellings of my grandmother. In general, nothing terrifying happened to our family.” (some interesting facts about the consequences of Stalinism we can find below)
3. Where does the family come from originally?
“We are originally from Khoy (խոյեցի)․ In 1815 my grandfather’s father moved to Armavir, Russia, but my grandfather’s grandfather moved to Vayk. Ours were quite wealthy, I recall my grandfather talking about possessing 10 000 head of sheep, grape gardens…The house of Armavir used to be a clinic. Can you image how huge the house built in the 30s was for rebuilding a clinic? My grandfather’s close friend was Nver Safaryan, commander of Tamanyan division. As my
grandfather was rich enough, Stalinists were looking for him, because even having some sheep or goats could appear in the center of attention and meant to grabbed (arm.կուլակահան). Nver Safaryan told my grandfather to escape because Stalinists were looking for him. In 1949 my grandpa escaped to various regions, such as Sisian,Vardenis… then in 1953 several months after Stalin’s death he returned and bought our house in Nork-Marash.”
4.What was it like to live in Soviet Armenia?
“As I have traveled a lot and have been in major cities of the former USSR countries, probably, the condition of Armenia was the best after Moscow and Leningrad. When you get older, you realize how much in reality the authorities kept the money to themselves and what manipulations occurred at that time. Why did they give Kochinyan the nickname of Anton Brilliantovich (Diamond), because of the money he possessed. In Armenia life was much better than in Georgia or Azerbaijan. They were coming to Armenia to buy boxes of butter. People were buying so much butter that they couldn’t even use. I can’t say that you could have found a variety of products in shops, absolutely no. Even later, Demirchyan brought the system of cheques, family members were standing in a line for hours to buy a loaf of bread or a piece of butter. It was truly exhausting, but comparing Armenia with other former USSR countries, I think we had better conditions. It is because Armenians have always distinguished from others due to their wittiness and agility.”
6.Discuss their experience with Soviet control over individuals/freedom of expressions.
“I have been fond of rock music, which was forbidden at that time. They were limiting our freedom, anything what is forbidden makes you aspire to it more. Freedom of speech was also forbidden, we had to read Soviet newspapers and, everywhere the word ‘Soviet’ was mentioned. You could not tell your opinion anywhere, people didn’t dare to lift the topic of Genocide or complain about the Soviet Union system. I remember, once I saw the picture of Andranik Ozanyan, he looked so similar to Stalin. I asked whether it was Stalin and one of my workmates told me that it was Ozanyan, one of our fedayis and warned me not to speak about it. So, we were not encouraged to mention or speak out about our national values.
In my youth, I remember during one festival a soloist named David tore Brezhnev’s picture. We all were taken to KGB (the Committee for State Security). As we didn’t do anything except being there, that’s why we were released the next day, though David stayed a little bit longer. Nowadays we recall these moments and laugh, however, at that time it was truly rough. It was real cruelty to tear Brezhnev’s picture, if it was in Stalin’s period, you could have been beheaded for it. We just were next to him, that’s why we were released. Actually, the KGB was out of control, if they wanted to sentence someone, they would do it even without any reason. During one of the rallies, they threw something in the pocket of Hayrikyan and took it. It was a mission, they needed to do and that’s it.
7.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?
“The astonishing fact was, that my father being the head of a department in a factory earned 240 rubles and I studying in the Institute of Physical Culture and Sport got 40 rubles of scholarship and used to ‘work’ in a Department which checked for some streets not be destroyed. My part was just to go and sign every morning and from there I used to get 80 rubles. And in the evenings after studies, worked as an assistant in the theatre after Sundukyan and earned 120 rubles. Totally, I earned 240 rubles as much as my father who was the head of a department in an engineering factory… Do you find it fair? However, everyone had a job in the Soviet Union and the benefit of it was that you could live and even go to vacation in the frame of your salary. For instance, I remember going to Hrazdan with my friend, where I paid just 30% of the cost, as the trade union (arm. Պրոֆ. միություն) covered the other part of the cost.”
8.Did you support the Soviet system? Explain the answer.
Everyone was satisfied with whatever they possessed, but you were under control all the time, every step, every word would have been judged. As Armenians, we all wanted Independence.
9.Didn’t people have fear not to survive in newly Independence gained Armenia?
No, we were more confident. We were ready to share with everything we had together with our neighbors. We knew it would be difficult at first, till everybody was seeking a new hope in Independence. We all were thinking, that soon we would be free, we would return our lands.
10.Did you feel victims of the Soviet system? Explain the answer.
Yes, surly. I remember of competing with a Russian cyclist from Moscow. The score was 2:1 in favor of me. I was assured to travel to Canada for the final competition but at the last minute it was announced that the Russian cyclist was going to travel to Canada from the Soviet Union. It was unfair and you couldn’t go against it, as some people from authorities from Moscow decided to make it work the way it was suitable for them. Winning the European sportsmen was really hard, as they used to ride the best bicycles and wear clothes sets special for cycling, unlike we were wearing cotton clothes bought with our own money and it was appreciated and went on making decision on their own.
11.Did Russification dominate?
Yes, of course. The best schools were the Russian ones. Mine probably was one of the unique schools which was Armenian, even though it was a good one. However, it was named after the wife of Lenin. We didn’t learn Armenian History, but the History of the Soviet Union, which I truly hated and didn’t read even a single page. The emphasis was mostly done on Russian culture, Russian language rather than Armenian. The benefit of the Soviet schools was that we learnt about
everything, we had point of view of every sphere. Graduating school, people somehow had imagination what profession to take, although today mostly parents show some preferable directions to their children. At that time Soviet movies were displayed about each profession, watching the films children tried to think about the differences of the occupations.
12.Have you traveled outside of the SU? If yes, can you recall how the system worked for letting them out of the country?
I have gone to Bulgaria to take part in a competition as a sportsman. As an ordinary citizen, it was much more difficult to travel outside of the Soviet Union. I cannot say, that it was impossible but you could face a lot of difficulties. For instance, the theatre After Sundukyan offered several trips. Once, I was again offered a trip to Bulgaria but made my friend go, as it wasn’t interesting for me anymore. When he asked me what to bring, I answered salty pins (arm. աղի ձողիկ), as we did not have them in Armenia, and they tasted so good with beer.
13.Have your opinions of the SU changed after travelling?
No, based on that experience of Bulgaria, I think it wasn’t much different, as it was such a Socialist country.
14.Were there variety of clothes in the Soviet Union
No, just a few factories were making clothes which were alike. The market of clothes was in circulation within the Soviet countries. One of my friends bought a pair of shoes from Moldova but later it turned to be the product of Masis factory. The factory of Gavar was tailoring jeans, however it looked not so good. All bright T-shirts, modern glasses or jeans such as: Rambler, Levis, we received through parcels from other countries rather than the Soviet ones. Diasporans from Lebanon brought nice clothes to sell, so it was the way to obtain fashionable clothes.
15.Were any advantages in the life of the Soviet Union?
Some advantages existed of course, like education and medicine were free of charge, also nobody was starving. People could travel within the USSR countries easily. On the other hand, disadvantages were also visible. Everything was limited, if you had a little bit more money, you would be taken to KGB to ask where I had the money from. Even if it was legally earned money, people should have proved it. Let me bring an example, my mother wanted to buy a fridge. One of our neighbors brought a fridge from Riga and my mother seeing it asked her whether it would be possible to bring one fridge for us as well. The neighbor asked her to give the passport as if she couldn’t do it only with her passport.
Eventually, the fridge arrived and later my mother was called by KGB. They went on to ask why she was bringing so many fridges whether why she needed them. It became clear that the neighbor bought many fridges using my mother’s passport in order to sell them. So, you couldn’t do anything out of frame in the Soviet Union, as everything was being checked and controlled.
16.More illegal actions were mostly done in the Soviet Union or after the collapse?
Illegality have been implemented since the Soviet Union. After the movement, everyone was expecting justice to be carried out but when the expectations happened to be far from reality, the feeling was even worse. We just fully believed that everything would have been different afterwards. At least in the Soviet Union, they didn’t lie during the elections, they were telling that there was just one candidate for people to go and elect. Although, after the movement, everything was fraud. In 1996, I am sure Vazgen Manukyan was elected, but they succeeded to adjust the results. If he had been truly elected, nobody would say anything and he wouldn’t be dismissed in two years.
17.How was the idea raised to become independent?
It started from Karabakh, people wanted to be united with Armenia. They felt repressed within Turkish, I mean Azerbaijanis, in reality we have always called them Turkish since Communism. So, people from Karabakh gave the start, then we began organizing strikes, after the Sumgait massacre was realized. Finally, people became united and understood that we need to fight for Karabakh.
18.How did the Sumgait massacre happen?
In one day. Probably, they had planned it beforehand. Have you seen the cartoon Alibaba, where he goes and draws crosses on doors, exactly the same way keeping the list of Armenian in hand, they entered to kill. Even so, Armenians could honorably fight and win.
19.How was the army formed after the Independence when we didn’t have anything?
It was Vazgen Sargsyan. When the movement started, he announced that 500 fighters were required ready to die. Everyone were acknowledging, they were going to die. Since then, Vazgen Sargsyan formed the Armenian army, as it was obvious for us as a fighting country that having a proper army was essentiality.
20.Through the 1970s and 80s, what were the 5 key turning points in Armenia’s social and political life that you remember the best?
I remember parades, limitation of speech, meat which cost just 2 rubles, the movie “We and our Mountain”, this film faced a lot of troubles before being released by the way, also the opening of Yerevan Subway and the Sport Complex, these were really special moments at that time.
21.What was it like to see the collapse of the SU?
People for 100% said ‘yes’ to the collapse. We were one of the first nations which made rallies to become independent. We all were up to be free, I don’t believe anyone to vote against it. It was the fairest election probably. Firstly, the Baltic countries got independent, then we started to make steps which was led after the situation of Karabakh. However, Soviet wasn’t the same anymore, it meant to be collapsed.
22.Do you remember any noble personality who has left a huge mark?
Karen Demirchyan, he really loved and supported his country. I met him personally 2 or 3 times. First time I remember when the Sport/Concert Complex was in fire, his eyes were filled with tears. I would like to tell you a story, after which Karen Demirchyan became an honorable person for me. In the House of Cinematographers, there are white walls on the third floor, where are the signatures of Aram Khachatryan, Tigran Petrosyan, Vazgen the First, Willian Saroyan. When Karen Demirchyan was invited there, he was asked to sigh but he refused by saying “Who am I to sign next to the signatures of these People?”. Everyone was really shocked. Now if you come, you will see signatures of people who really don’t deserve to have their signs next to these People.
- Komsomol was the executive leadership of the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League.
Pioneers/October members were responsible for supporting and bringing communities together in the period of USSR leadership.
Henrik Malyan was an Armenian film director and writer.
Joseph Stalin’s follower of established rules
Nver Safaryan was a military figure, USSR Major General, participant of the Great Patriotic War.
Anton Yervandovich Kochinyan was a Soviet Armenian politician.
Karen Demirchyan was a Soviet and Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic from 1974-1988
Andranik Oznian, an Armenian military commander and statesman, a key figure of the Armenian national liberation movement.
Leonid Brezhnev, former Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union
Paruyr Hayrikyan, Armenian politician and former Soviet dissident.
Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Russian Communist Party, the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution (1917).
Socialism is an economic and political system.
Karabakh Committee member, the first Prime Minister of Armenia
Vazgen Sargsyan was an Armenian military commander and politician. He was thr first Defence Minister of Armenia.
The interview helped us to go through the path of 1960s and feel the moments on one’s skin, knowing how it was to reach to the desirable moment of Independence. The interviewee living in the period himself tried to pass the reader the atmosphere of the Soviet Union and its impacts on human lives. It is drawn about how people lived for so many years being locked and retrained, having no opportunity to raise the issues which were discussed in the families but forbidden outside of it.
Quoting one of the moments the interviewee shared reliving it once again: “In our class only 3 of us weren’t members of Komsomol, and they told us that it was necessary for reaching to 100% of pupils getting membership. It was a plan that they needed to complete. In the USSR everybody had to belong to any party, for getting a good job.” Going into details, he highlighted the situation with an example “You could not tell your opinion anywhere, people didn’t dare to lift the topic of Genocide or complain about the Soviet Union system. I remember, once I saw the picture of Andranik Ozanyan, he looked so similar to Stalin. I asked whether it was Stalin and one of my workmates told me that it was Ozanyan, one of our fedayis and warned me not to speak about it.” It is even frightening to imagine, how people’s lives were spent in cages with fear. Confirming the situation happening in Armenia can be found in various books. As this period was eye-catching for many scholars. In the book “Armenia at the Crossroads” edited by Libaridian, the picture was described as ‘slavery’ which could be intimidated by ‘freedom’, where people were following the slogan “Liberty or Death” emphasizing the thirst of the nation to become independent.
The Soviet system had influence not only on ordinary citizens but also on theatres, movies. In the interview, a bright example is presented, a famous Armenian national tale “Nazar the Brave”,
which was forbidden for state theatres to perform as it was perceived as a dangerous topic by authorities. Taking as a parallel with the article “ The National(ist) Revival in Soviet Armenia and Moscow’s Response” written by Arsene Saparov(2008), we can find the same way how Armenians and other Soviet citizens found it challenging to bring up some topics and tried to find another solution to preserve the nationality and at the same time not be judged by Moscow. In the article we can see, that Armenians raised the topic of Genocide for the first time in 1965 covering it with their appreciation towards Soviet System and serving the idea of rally as so-called “necessity” for the Soviet System. Exactly the same way, state theatres didn’t touch the “dangerous” topics but did not leave them out of attention as well, presenting them in Studio-theatres. Actually, these issues bothered people for so many years, that later found its place in the Declaration of Independence of Armenia.
On the other hand, we can see informalities performed since then, the interviewee became a victim of. The victory of competition of cycling which was to be continued in Canada, was interrupted by Soviet authorities giving the priority to a Russian sportsman. Probably, it was the lightest informality done in the USSR, people were living based on it from the heads of organizations to ordinary people. The variety of examples and situations led by informality can be learnt in “War, Business and Politics” edited by Sergei Minasian in 2016. Where the concept of clientism is greatly is described telling how it became a tool for society to arrange everything suitable to them. The interview also mentioned the elections of 1996 which were fraud as the candidate changed it in his favor. The election of 1996 also took part in the book “War, Business and Politics”.
One more interesting fact, the interviewee mentioned that films helped them to choose the future profession and the equal salary. The first idea that came to my mind was Marxism and Communism and how people were perceived in these concepts as working machines in equal surface.
The interview was summed up in a nice recollection, recalling a person who acquired his part in Armenian history by playing such an important role and appearing in the rails divided between Soviet and Independence.
Independence did truly bring a new light for Armenians, giving a chance to be proud of his/her national treasures, learn and spread the Armenian language and last but not least have freedom expressing an opinion without a fear to be punished.