Course: PSIA 360 – Armenian Politics
Instructor: Dr. Vahram Ter-Matevosyan
Student: Nane Manukyan
Assignment: Reality-lab assignment no. 1
This interview encompasses discussion on several essential layers of Soviet Armenia, the Karabakh movement, and the road to independence. Most importantly, the interview discusses all those aspects from an individual point of view. Perceptions of a Soviet Union citizen about the crucial events of the 1980s are discussed throughout the interview. The further analysis presents findings on how local nationalism of the 1960s developed into a large-scale movement in 1988, discusses reasons and main actors.
Interviewee: Mihran Manukyan
Birth date: March 24, 1963
Birth Place: Murad Tapa (currently Kanakeravan)
Interview date: September 4, 2020
Interview location: Kanakeravan, Kotayk Province
- 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 became a member of the Komsomol in 1978, when I was in high school. A great majority of my classmates applied for membership. We even needed to have guarantors and take exams. If I recall it correctly, only the lazy students, who ran away from classes and were not responsible enough, did not get the chance to become Komsomol members. At that time, Komsomol membership was an indicator of being a serious, organized young man.
- What was it like to be a Soviet Union citizen?
If not counting the “human weaknesses” that are typical to almost all social systems, living in Soviet Armenia was not bad in terms of social conditions. By saying human weakness I mean conspiracy, corruption, and laziness. I believe that those weaknesses destroyed the union. What I liked about the Soviet Union was that an individual could outline his/her future; it was more or less visible. I had the confidence that if I got quality education and worked hard, there would be quite promising perspectives for my future.
- What is your experience with the Soviet control over freedom of expression?
Unfortunately, freedom of expression was a fundamental issue in the Soviet Union. There was not much that you would be brave enough to announce publicly, because the consequences of your courage could be cruel. As a student, as a soldier and as a worker I witnessed injustice in every stage of my life. However, the unwritten laws of the Soviet Union prohibited discussing those issues.
- Did you support the Soviet system?
Surely, living in the USSR had various adverse effects and restrictions, but I should also mention that social conditions were far better than during the first years of independence. The unemployment rate was significantly lower than it is today. Free education and healthcare systems were other advantages of the Union. However, as I have already mentioned, human weakness destroyed the system. Education was free, but it was quite hard to get admitted to a university without a bribe.
- Did you feel a victim of the Soviet system?
Taking into account all the advantages that the Soviet Union gave its people, I should claim that we were victims of Soviet propaganda. We were almost uninformed about our past and our history. The limited information that we received was always in the prism of SU ideology. We were cut off from our roots and tried to fill the gap with patriotic poetry and stories from our parents.
- Have you traveled outside of the Soviet Union? Can you recall how the system worked for letting you out of the country?
I have traveled outside of the Soviet Union three times. It was a rare experience for a citizen of the Soviet Union, as the interaction with the outside world was minimized. I have been in Syria in 1988, in Yugoslavia in 1989, and in the United States in 1990. All three times we were traveling in the scope of concert tours. We were strictly controlled by the organizers. There was a specific route, which we had to follow. Deviating from the route would at least mean that next time we would not be included. In all three trips, representatives of the Ministry of Culture accompanied us. Later we discovered that in reality, some of them were KGB security guards.
- Have your opinions of the Soviet Union changed after traveling?
I should admit that the first time I got the chance to travel abroad I finally understood why the Soviet Union was so strict in its restrictions regarding open contact with the West. I clearly remember, the first thing that came to my mind was that Soviet people were completely unaware of basic human rights like freedom of expression or freedom of press. My disappointment was not solely connected with the fact that the United States was more developed. In fact, I was afraid of the consequences that were waiting for us in the vacuum called Soviet Union. That was the time when reestablishment of independence seemed to be the only solution.
- What were the turning points in Armenia’s social and political life in the 1980s?
Everything that comes to my mind now is connected with the national awakening of 1988. A crucial event was the request of the Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Region to join Soviet Armenia in 1988. I think that the Spitak earthquake was another turning point for the Soviet Armenia, as it deepened distrust toward the central authorities. I lost my sister in Gyumri and it was my personal tragedy, but I believe that the terrible disaster impacted our country in a long-term period.
- What is your recollection of the Karabakh movement?
The uprising of 1988 was after the environmental protests in 1987. Although those protests did not necessarily make any significant change, it helped to realize that there was another way to raise concerns. In February 1988, we received the news from Nagorno Karabakh but lacked reliable sources to confirm the information. The information gap was filled with rumors, because anything edited by “the Soviet pen” meant that there was definitely disinformation or lack of important details. At the beginning of the Karabakh movement in 1988 the main demand was the reunification of Nagorno Karabakh with Armenia. As the movement expanded, Independence of our country turned out to be the main demand. After several months, even though we were not de jure independent, I realized that the question was solved. Independence was inevitable. What I also realized was that we would have to pay for our independence. Starting from 1991 we paid for our independence with war, blockade, dark and cold years, economic collapse. I cannot speak on behalf of everyone in our country, but for me the price was adequate. Instead, we gained something priceless – sovereignty and independence. If the independence was not reestablished, other questions would remain unresolved.
- How did local nationalism of the 1960s and 1970s turn into a large-scale movement in 1988?
As a child, we were told that all our dreams and aspirations should be connected with our shared country – the Soviet Union. We were told to be unified in the path of building communism, building our homeland. For me that was the only kind of patriotism. I have never seen anything else. Independence was a vague statement for me; I didn’t even have the courage to dream about it. Soviet Union belonged to all of us, but at the same time, it belonged to no one. It was mutually beneficial cooperation between the union and the citizens. The economic and political crisis in the 1980s was the only chance for us to acquire independence. It felt like the door was open and if we did not have the courage to go out, it would be closed again.
- What was it like to see the collapse of the Soviet Union?
It was unbelievable for me, I am actually still stunned. The legend of the Soviet Union collapsed, because the system was rotten inside.
Findings and Analysis
The interview is structured in a way that firstly discusses the main concerns of a Soviet Union citizen, then focuses on the development of the national discourse, and finally concludes with the expectations and concerns of the Armenian people. Several times during the interview, Mihran Manukyan points out that their access to uncensored information was strongly limited. This statement is also valid when the interviewee speaks about the information gap on Armenian identity and history. Soviet propaganda and censorship on national issues are also discussed in Vahram Ter-Matevosyan’s research on the legacy of the First Republic of Armenia during the Soviet era. In the 1930s, in the official discourse of the USSR, the First Republic was presented as insignificant history (Ter-Matevosyan, 2018). Furthermore, the interviewee comes to confirm another point presented in Ter-Matevosyan’s piece. Manukyan claims that “Armenians tried to fill the gap with patriotic poetry and stories from their parents.” As Ter-Matevosyan suggests, literary works helped produce a new identity (Ter-Matevosyan, 2018).
Another vital aspect discussed in the interview was the events that brought the interviewee to the point, where he believed that independence was inevitable. Mihran Maukyan was born in the Soviet Union and independence was just a vogue statement for him. As Manukyan recalls, the first time that he genuinely desired to live in an independent country was when he traveled abroad. This interesting change in human perception comes to prove that the concept of the Iron Curtain performed its main function – people were unaware of the reality in the West, thus, they did not strive for it. The interviewee points out that at a certain moment, he realized that if independence was not reestablished, other questions would remain unresolved. The first prime minister of the Republic of Armenia, at that time member of the Karabakh Committee Vazgen Manukyan, emphasized that history does not forgive those who do not benefit from available opportunities (Manukyan, 1990).
The interviewee recalls the protests in 1987 on environmental issues as the beginning of the Karabakh movement. Those protests did not provide a significant change but created a solid ground for the large-scale movement. This statement comes to prove that people did not receive desirable answers and solutions from the central authorities and given the fact that protests became another powerful tool, they decided to raise their concerns from the streets. As Gerard Libaridian suggests, protests against pollution did not produce results, but set a precedent for subsequent events (Libaridian, 1999). Interestingly enough, the interviewee considers the Spitak earthquake as another catalyst for the movement. This disaster in 1988 was indeed a turning point for Soviet Armenia. It deepened distrust toward the Kremlin and became another decisive factor on the path of independence. In her research article on the Armenian earthquake of 1988, Katja Doose brings attention to this emerging distrust. She argues that Armenians saw the earthquake as a deliberate attempt by Moscow to undermine dissent in the republic (Doose, 2018).
Mihran Manukyan considered the economic and political crisis in the Soviet Union as the only chance to reestablish independence. Armenians viewed the movement as a unique opportunity to solve their problems independently and to be responsible for their future. Armenian nationalism was radicalized because of the absence of a solution from central authorities (Panossian, 2006). As the interviewee describes – “the door was open, and if we did not have the courage to go out, it would be closed again.” This brings to Vazgen Manukyan’s statement on the transitional phase. Secession was possible only in the transitional phase (Manukyan, 1990).
Lastly, the interviewee discusses the “price” of independence. People had to pay for their victory with poverty, economic crisis, war, and blockade. Gerard Libaridian argues that in such conditions people could ask, what, after all, was the advantage of independent statehood? (Libaridian, 1999). As a response, Mihran Manukyan claims that the value of sovereignty and independence turned out to be priceless for many of them.
Political youth organization in the Soviet Union.
Secret police force that was the main security agency for the Soviet Union.
The 1988 Armenian earthquake. Occurred on December 7 with a surface wave magnitude of 6.8.
The imaginary line dividing Europe between Soviet influence and Western influence.
- Libaridian, G. J. (1999). The challenge of statehood: Armenian political thinking since independence. Watertown, MA: Blue Crane Books.
- Doose, K. (2018). The Armenian Earthquake of 1988: A Perfect Stage for the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict. Europe-Asia Studies, 70 (6), 924-941.
- Panossian, R. (2006). Post-Soviet Armenia: Nationalism & Its (Dis)contents in Barrington, L. (Ed.). (2006). After Independence: Making and Protecting the Nation in Postcolonial and Postcommunist States. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
- Manukyan, V. (1990). It is Time to Jump off the Train. Hayk.
- Ter-Matevosyan, V. (2018). The Legacy of the First Republic of Armenia during the Soviet Era: The Tumultuous 1960s. Armenian Weekly magazine.