EXPLORING THE LEGACY OF SOVIET ARMENIA
(Interview with my Great Aunt)
Interview date – 04.09.2020 (from 3:40pm to 4:25pm)
Interview format – via Viber
Interview objectives – To explore the legacy of Soviet Armenia.
Location – Interviewer located in Yerevan, interviewee located in Haghpat, Lori Province
Interviewer – Anna Davtian (PSIA student at American University of Armenia)
Interviewee – Interviewer’s Great Aunt, seventy-nine years old, born in Haghpat, Lori Province, Armenian SSR (from this point forward Interviewee)
ANNA: Were you a member of the Komsomol/Communist Party? If yes, can you recall how the membership began and why it was significant to become a member of the party?
SHOGHIK: First, I became a young pioneer when I was 7 so I could wear a red scarf. When I was 10, I got accepted to All-Union Leninist Young Communist League after answering a few questions. Then I received the badge (VLKSM). I couldn’t go to school without the badge. It was obligatory to wear it to school. I wasn’t a member of the Communist Party by my will. I just didn’t want it.
ANNA: Are there any family experiences with the Stalinist exterminations, repressions, concentration camps?
SHOGHIK: No, we did not have any family members experiencing Stalinist exterminations, neither we were in concentration camps. But I know people in the village who have experienced it.
ANNA: What was it like to live in Soviet Armenia?
SHOGHIK: In Soviet Armenia life was ordinary. Everyone had a job. People had hope and believed in the government. We had good relationships with our government and also with the central government in Moscow.
ANNA: How was the relationship between Armenia and Russia in your opinion?
SHOGHIK: Russia was very good with Armenia. We could easily travel around all 15 republics.
ANNA: What do you think of Soviet control over individuals/freedom of expression?
SHOGHIK: There was no freedom of speech or freedom of press. We followed the law. We could speak about politics but not in public.
ANNA: What could you speak about but were afraid to do so?
SHOGHIK: We could talk about corruption, robbery… We could not express ourselves the way we do now. We had to be careful what to say and when to say it. Very very careful! But otherwise the law was very good for us. Let’s say if we didn’t go to work, we had to get a paper from a doctor saying that we were actually sick. If not, our salary would be cut because of a sick day without a proof document.
ANNA: Ok, let’s talk about work in Soviet Armenia then. Were you employed? What was it like working in the Soviet Union? What were the benefits and downsides of working in the soviet system?
SHOGHIK: I was the Secretary of the Haghpat Executive Committee for about 30 years (1965 – 1994). The Secretary could be only elected by the population of the village. Throughout my working years, 7 different Chairmen of Executive Committee in Haghpat were elected but I stayed in my position. People appreciated my work and wanted to see me in that position for many years. So, I won the election every time. I was right under the Chairman. With every new Chairman of the Haghpat Executive Committee coming into office I had to work even harder to teach them their responsibilities in the office. All of the work was on me such as registry office, birth certificates, military service documents, etc. I had to work purely and a lot. Everything was on my hands. I worked with no breaks. We were told that we should serve the country with our work and that the job position did not matter. The only bad thing at work was the fake document writing. Let’s say a farm was supposed to be checked on a weekly basis but there was no actual checking. We would just make the document stating that it has been checked and followed the rules. Another example could be if a builder was supposed to come to my office and report to the government about his work process, he would not come. Instead, I would just write that he did it. A lot of meetings should have been held but actually were not. Generally, I had a good job. I was going to get a huge pension after my working career but then the USSR collapsed so after Armenia’s independence everything had changed and I did not get a chance to get a big pension. We all had to work in the Soviet Union. I even had a friend who did not work for a while, and he was bagging me not to inform the Chairman of the village about that. Work was important. There was not a problem with job positions. Everyone had a job.
ANNA: So, working in political arena, did you ever think of becoming the Chairman of the village yourself?
SHOGHIK: I thought about it but it was not convenient for my family. If I became the Chairman, I would have had to travel a lot but I enjoyed working at the office.
ANNA: What’s your opinion about gender equality in Soviet Armenia then?
SHOGHIK: Men and women could work in the same position. It did not matter if it was an office work, or let’s say at a building site. If a woman wanted to work in any field, she could easily apply for it.
ANNA: Did you support the Soviet system?
SHOGHIK: I always supported the Soviet Union. They made mistakes too but their mistakes were not as “dangerous” as the mistakes the government makes now. Why would I not support them? Everybody was satisfied with their work. It’s just that there was no luxury before. The stores did not sell as many things as they do now. We even have saying which says “We lived under communism but we didn’t know there was another way”. We were not aware of luxuries so we did not worry. Everyone was happy with what they had.
ANNA: What are your good and bad memories from the Soviet years?
SHOGHIK: One of my best memories is of our vacations to the sea. Every summer we would go to the Black Sea with the whole family. Well, nowadays we can’t do that anymore. First of all, we can’t afford it, and secondly our family members live in different countries now. One of the bad memories is my lack of higher education. We did not have any money.
ANNA: Do you mean money for paying the academic fee?
SHOGHIK: No, no. Higher education was free. However, even though I got all A’s, I would have had to pay my teachers a bribe for them to submit the document I needed to get accepted to the university. I could not afford that. My brother was also an excellent student but did not have the money to pay the bribe to study in Yerevan either. Also, it was expensive to study and live in Yerevan. My brother and I lost our Dad in World War II. I wish the USSR government could have helped us with higher education as we were children of a single parent.
ANNA: Are you saying that you had to corrupt the teachers to recommend you to a university?
SHOGHIK: There was corruption, there is corruption and there always will be.
ANNA: Did you feel like a victim of the Soviet system?
SHOGHIK: Never. Maybe a little bit because of my Dad giving his life for the Soviet Union in the war… We just did not get any help from the government after losing our Dad.
ANNA: Have you ever participated in any protests in Soviet Armenia such as the demonstrations in Yerevan in 1965 on the 50th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide or in the Karabagh movement in 1988?
SHOGHIK: No, I have not. I did not live close to Yerevan.
ANNA: Would you have participated if you lived in Yerevan?
SHOGHIK: I’m not sure.
ANNA: What did you think about the recognition of the Armenian Genocide? Was it a part of Soviet Armenians’ concerns?
SHOGHIK: We have always demanded that the Genocide be recognized. But in Soviet Armenia we were not allowed to talk about that in public. Also, the press never mentioned it.
ANNA: What is your recollection of the Karabagh movement?
SHOGHIK: Well, the Karabagh issue had been around for a long time. It’s just that during Soviet years we could not say anything about it. We were silent. When Gorbachev started talking about perestroika, we started to talk about Karabagh as well. We always hoped that one day the problem would be solved and justice would be served.
ANNA: Have you traveled outside of the SU? If yes, can you recall how the system worked for letting people out of the country?
SHOGHIK: Yes, my husband and I have. We took a business trip to Mongolia for 3 months in 1987.
ANNA: Did you like it there? Would you consider living there?
SHOGHIK: First of all, the decision of whether to stay in Mongolia or come back was made by the government. Second, Soviet Armenia was so much better than Mongolia.
ANNA: What were some turning points in Armenia’s social and political life in the 1970’s and 80’s in Soviet Armenia that you remember the best?
SHOGHIK: I can just say that those years were the most prosperous years of the Soviet Union. We were developing quickly. Life was very good.
ANNA: What was it like to see the collapse of the SU?
SHOGHIK: Actually, we did not realize how it happened exactly. We thought that we would have perestroika but the USSR would keep all of its republics. It seems like the republics were waiting for the changes to show their will of independence. I personally did not want the USSR to collapse. I agreed with perestroika but did not agree to live in independent Armenia. I don’t think it was worth going through so many challenges (war, poverty) to gain our independence.
1. The All-Union Leninist Young Communist League, usually known as Komsomol, was a political youth organization in the Soviet Union.
2. All-Union Leninist Young Communist League in Russian: Всесоюзный ленинский коммунистический союз молодёжи (ВЛКСМ)/Vsyesoyuzniy Leninskiy Kommunisticheskiy Soyuz Molodyozhi (VLKSM)
In order to explore the legacy of Soviet Armenia I interviewed my Great Aunt (Interviewee), who is 79 years old and was a citizen of both Soviet Armenia and the Republic of Armenia. The interviewee was chosen because of her genuine interest in politics both during the time of the USSR and in the modern era along with her ability to coherently regroup her thoughts. Four themes emerged during the interview. The first theme that was brought to light was corruption in the USSR and her attitude towards it. The second theme that emerged was the role of women in Soviet society. The third theme that was uncovered was that she preferred life in the Soviet Union to life in the Republic of Armenia. And, lastly, the fourth theme that became evident is that she seemed afraid to speak out against the Soviet Union, even now.
First of all, the interview shed light on the corruption in the Soviet Union and on the interviewee’s attitude toward corruption, which seems to be acceptance of it as part of life. When she was asked to talk about her bad experiences in the USSR, she came up with the idea of whether or not the USSR could help her get a higher education. She said that her mother did not have money to bribe the teachers to give her the needed documents to get accepted to the university, even though she and her brother (my grandfather) were excellent students. Because her father died in World War II and gave his life for the country, she thinks it would have been fair for her and her brother to get help from the government to study at a university in Yerevan.
Another complaint she had was about the fake documents in Soviet Armenia. As she was the Secretary, she had to write documents and reports about meetings and checkups that did not actually happen. I found out from her words that the most important thing was to submit the documents to the Soviet Armenian authorities (and therefore to central authorities in Moscow). It did not matter if those documents were fake as long as they met the deadline. It seems like forgery was not considered a type of crime as long as everyone was comfortable with it and was holding the common silence. According to the interviewee, everyone knew about it but everyone was quiet. Also, from her point of view corruption will always be in our life no matter what kind of government we have or whether we’re independent or not.
Secondly, it became clear in our interview that women played a major role in the Soviet Union. Talking about this issue, the interviewee said that she was in a high position in her village and she could even become the Chairman of the village. She did not want to be too busy with traveling, so she chose to be the Secretary in the office instead. When I asked her about gender equality in Soviet Armenia, she said that women participated in the social life of the USSR equally with men, but perhaps they were more traditional at home.
Third, when the interviewee was asked about whether she supported the Soviet Union or not, she held the view that Soviet Armenia was so much better than Armenia today. Even though she mentioned that there was no freedom of speech and freedom of the press in the USSR, she would still prefer life in the USSR over life in independent Armenia. She would give up freedom for her previous lifestyle. She pointed out that there were no luxuries in Soviet life but they did not get bothered by that because they did not know about those luxuries then. They simply were not aware that there was another way. She questioned whether an independent Armenia was worth going through so many challenges like war and poverty. She strongly agreed with Gorbachev’s perestroika but did not want to be separate from the USSR.
Lastly, it was evident that the interviewee seemed afraid to speak out about the Soviet Union, even today. For example, when I initially asked her to do the interview, she expressed concern about some of the questions and wanted to make sure that she would not get arrested. During the actual interview, when I brought up the demonstrations in 1965 on the 50th anniversary of the Armenian genocide and of the Kharabagh movement starting in 1988, she said she lived far away from Yerevan and therefore was not able to come to Yerevan. However, I am not sure if she was apathetic, afraid, or both. Throughout the interview her answers to these questions were short and non-informative.
In conclusion, there were four major takeaways from the interview. It was very interesting to hear a former citizen of Soviet Union talk about corruption as if it can never be solved and that no country can exist with a minimal amount of corruption. This is especially interesting given the current government of Armenia’s focus on ridding the country of corruption. It was also interesting to realize that perhaps women and men were even more equal in Armenian society during Soviet times. It seems that women and men had equal rights at work. There was no job “only” for men or for women and women were appreciated as much as men for contributing to the community. It was also somewhat surprising that the interviewee prefers life in Soviet Armenia to life in Armenia today. She loved her life in Soviet Armenia, she was a proud citizen, and she thinks life was peaceful and calm back then. Lastly, it seemed as if she was reluctant to speak out against the Soviet Union any time, including when other Armenians were protesting in Yerevan and this reluctance remains to this day whether out of fear or simply loyalty to the Soviet Union. According to the interviewee, the legacy of Soviet Armenia seems more like a golden era that many would like to return to instead of something that should have ended.