Exploring the legacy of Soviet Armenia

 Exploring the legacy of Soviet Armenia

Student: Monika Poghosyan

Date and place of the interview – September 2, 2020, Yerevan

Interviewee – Karen Poghosyan, a trauma surgeon at Gyumri Medical Center

The primary question that will be attempted to answer throughout this interview is the perception of the Soviet Union system by Soviet people and the influence it had on their lives. I interviewed Karen Poghosyan, born on 10 September 1968 in Leninakan (Gyumri), who was a student of Yerevan State Medical University when the Soviet Union collapsed.  

  • Were you a member of the Komsomol (The All-Union Leninist Young Communist League)/Communist Party? Can you recall how the membership began and why it was significant to become a party member?

Membership at Komsomol was mandatory but “voluntarily”. The government and schools used to say that it was voluntary, but if you for some reason refused to become a member, your teacher or parent had to bear responsibility.

I became a member of the Communist Party in 1989 right before the collapse of the SU. My uncle was head of Yerevan’s Department for Agitation and Propaganda. That was a very high position in the Soviet Union. He was helping me to prepare for my Communist party entry exam. In order to become a member of the Communist party, you had to be active, know the values and regulations of the party. A membership at the Communist party was similar to winning a lottery ticket. It would be easier for a member to have career growth. If there was still the Soviet Union, I would probably have a high position. 

  • Are there any family experiences with the Stalinist exterminations, repressions, concentration camps?

No, we didn’t have any victims of Stalinist repressions. 

  • Could the person whose family member fell victim to Stalinist repressions have career growth?

No. That person would have many problems. KGB (the Committee for State Security)  was always checking on your family members. Those whose family members were against the Soviet regime were suffering a lot. 

  • What was it like to live in Soviet Armenia?

Before a mature age, my perception of the Soviet Union was based on the history books, the stories, and the experience of my family. When I was a child, I thought that life in the Soviet Union was perfect. I had many things that my friends did not have. I did not realize why I had those privileges. But as I grew older I discovered some foreign magazines, started listening to foreign artists. I compared my discoveries with Soviet reality and saw how different life can be. 

  • Tell me about your experience with the Soviet control over individuals/freedom of expression.

In my opinion not being able to travel outside the country freely, think freely, do something other than what the government wanted you to do, made people feel like victims. 

There were 3 channels on TV. You had to listen, watch, read whatever the government wanted. Wear what the government gave you. There were not many choices in the SU ( Soviet Union). Even outside the country, the citizenships of SU were controlled. 

You had to be careful about what you speak and think. Control was everywhere. 

  •  Were you employed? What was it like working in the Soviet Union (SU)? What were the benefits and downsides of working in the Soviet system?

I was not employed, because I was a student of medical university and also served in the army.

There were many good sides. The government provided the population with jobs. Vacations were paid for by the government. The salary was enough for the living. The salaries were corresponding with the prices.

The disadvantages of the working system in the Soviet Union were the following. The working system of SU did not meet the worldwide standards. The plants were not automatized. The economy was distributed among regions. For example, cotton was collected in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, and then it was brought to Armenia, where people made a thread and so on. 

But overall it was good for the workers. The overwork was paid. All the people were provided with jobs. 

  • Did you support the Soviet system? Explain the answer.

I did not support the system. Opportunities and talents of the individual were not evaluated. The concept of the isolated country did not give a chance for the people to become more educated and civilized. The control over individuals may sometimes seem a terror by the government.

During WW2 (World War II) my grandfather served in the air forces on the home front. In kindergarten, we were taught that every brave soviet citizen was a participant in WW2. And the grandparents of all my friends had medals. And I blamed my grandfather for not going to the war. But the truth is, my grandfather was a survivor of the Armenian genocide and he had a very tough life. When I was older, I felt very embarrassed by the fact that I blamed a person, who lost his family and home, but still could survive, for not going to war.  This is an example of the Soviet system. The government dictated to you what to think and feel. It taught you the morals and values of the Soviet system. And you had to accept and abide by those morals. Though the slogans of the country were good, they did not match reality. But there is no bad slogan. Every system has good slogans.

  • Did you feel a victim of the Soviet system? Explain the answer.

I think it depends on the individual perception of who is the victim. Your life can be good, but you feel like a victim of the system. Or you may become a victim because of the Government. Or you can be trapped. I, personally, did not feel myself a victim. Yes, of course, I was frustrated by the system, but never thought of myself as a victim.

  • Have you traveled outside of the SU (the Soviet Union)? If yes, can you recall how the system worked for letting them out of the country and have your opinions of the SU changed?

In 1989 I traveled to Bulgaria. As a member of the family who had a victim of the 1988 Earthquake, I had the opportunity to have a vacation outside the Soviet Union. There were 2 beaches: one was very clean and the other was very dirty. Germans and many other Europeans were using the clean one, and the citizens of the Soviet Union were not allowed to go there, instead, they had to use the dirty beach. The agent of KGB was always there to control where you went, what you did, and with whom you spoke. I ran away a few times. I knew some English and was able to speak to some Europeans. Also to be able to shop outside the SU you had to illegally exchange money. 

During my journey by communication with other nations, I saw how life can be different. I realized that people from capitalist countries were able to control their lives themselves.

  • In your opinion what were the 5 key turning points in Armenia’s social and political life that they remember the best during the 1970s and 80s?

In my opinion, the turning event for the Soviet Union was the death of Vladimir Visockiy. I personally think he was killed by the government because he used to speak and complain  freely. The death or murder of a person who spoke the truth showed how much the government wanted to control people. 

The actions of the Asala group were very important for Armenia. They made the world speak about the Armenian Genocide. And it inspired Armenian living in SU very much. 

One of the turning points was the annual commemoration of the Armenian Genocide. Though celebrating or commemorating an event that has nothing to do with the SU was against the Soviet Union system, the government could do nothing about it.

The invasion of the Soviet troops to Warsaw was also a turning point. People saw how Moscow tried to destroy democracy. 

The massacre in Sumgait changed the views on the Soviet system. It showed that Moscow has no intention to protect Armenians.

  • What is your recollection of the Karabakh movement?

Frankly speaking, I was not very involved in those demonstrations back then. When this movement just began I was in the army. I came back from the army after the 1988 earthquake. I lost my brother and I had to support my family. It was a hard period for me and my family. 

Those demonstrations for many students were just a reason not to attend classes. But still, all the students had optimistic views on those demonstrations. We rarely spoke about the movement at home, but we all knew that we would be able to claim independence. 

  • What was it like to see the collapse of the SU?

The collapse of SU was followed by chaos and uncertainty and war in Armenia. People were scared for tomorrow, there were horrible living conditions for people. There was an unfair distribution of the poor and the rich in the country. Nevertheless, people were optimistic. We were no more dependent on Moscow. 

  • What do you think would happen if the Soviet Union could survive?

Everything was leading to collapse. A system based on a lie cannot survive for too long. The only way the SU could survive is by completely changing the system like China. But still, there would be a dictatorship in the country.

In conclusion, even though the Soviet system had many good sides such as the education and working system, overall, the system tended to control its citizens and limited their freedom. By trying to implement a uniform way of thinking, the government aimed to make the people obey them easily. That was one of the reasons that led SU to collapse. The interviewee talks about the taboo on speaking about national values, national history. In SU people had to forget their history, since there was only the history of the Soviet Union. This control made people realize that it is impossible to live under that system. This realization and many events inspired Armenians to start a movement of national rebirth and claim independence.