Exploring the Legacy of Soviet Armenia
Armenian Politics PSIA 360
Professor: Vahram Ter-Matevosyan
Student: Meri Lachinyan
Exploring the Legacy of Soviet Armenia
06 Sept. 2020
To explore the legacy of the USSR, particularly that of Armenian SSR, I have interviewed my mother. She was born in 1965, in Turkmenistan. As she explained in the interview, being born in Turkmenistan was just an unplanned event, as her parents were visiting some friends in Turkmenistan and it coincided with the time of her birth. They came back to Yerevan, Armenia after a few months. I have also asked my mother about her origins because it is necessary to look at the roots of an individual in order to better understand his/her perspectives about life in general. I found out that my mother’s maternal line comes from Gegharkunik Region, while her paternal ancestors lived in Iran until the Armenian Genocide in 1915.
As my interviewee remembered, neither she nor her family members were Communists. To the question whether her ancestors ever underwent Stalinist repressions or Soviet Regime repressions overall, she recounted that her grandmother’s family consisted of priests on one side, and wealthy men on the other side, thus grandmother’s family underwent many repressions, including dekulakization. In the times of Stalin USSR, mother’s grandfather lost his leg in the Kerch battle and was captivated. After the end of the war and the returning of prisoners, he was constantly invited to KGB.
While my mom described the life in Soviet Armenia as “careless, safe and calm”, she still mentioned that the limitation of freedom of expression was a common rule in the Soviet era, the media was not free and individuals were not free to express their concerns about the Soviet Regime. She told me that she and her peers were not allowed to read some books from the Silver Age of Russian literature, as they contained anti-Soviet propaganda. It is interesting to mention that, as she now puts it, those limitations were leading to a situation, when it eventually became “trendy” to be anti-Soviet, to be in a role of a victim.
My interviewee almost did not work in the Armenian SSR, as she was a student back then. She recalled her university years as “nice and happy”. While bribes for high grades were common, good students were able to gain high-quality education. She also remembered an entertaining story from the year when she graduated from university. “I received a notice from KGB. They invited me to KGB. I was very surprised and scared because there were all kinds of stories about how dissidents are tortured in the basements of the KGB. I thought that maybe circulating and reading prohibited books were the reason for this. So I went there and it turned out that they were offering me cooperation. They were offering me to work for KGB, which really insulted me because we had a perception that if you work for KGB, then you are a knocker (стукач). Then I realized that they just thought of me as a person who fits into the Soviet Ideology”. She even expressed her regret about rejecting the offer.
My mom neither supported nor did not support the Soviet System as many disadvantages were commensurable with relative development and safety. Thought it was common to exaggerate the system’s power and influence, she never really felt herself a victim of the Regime. According to her, USSR collapsed mainly because of Western propaganda and Mikhail Gorbachev himself was doing everything to lead USSR to collapse from within the state. The anti-Soviet atmosphere in Armenia was established not after the awakening of nationalist ideas, but way before that because of Western propaganda by literature, etc. Anti-Russian mood later was generated during the Karabakh Movement. While considering the collapse mainly a result of Western politics, she stated that some problems such as corruption, limitation of freedom of speech, the Iron curtain, the economic stagnation, the limited information, and many other disadvantages were leading to the mistrust towards the Government. Nationalism, the rebirth of which mostly started fifty years after the Armenian Genocide with a huge protest in the streets of Soviet Yerevan with the claims of recognition and return of the lands was also, as she stated an important factor for generating an anti-Soviet atmosphere in Armenia.
She never traveled outside the Soviet Union, but she remembers stories of repatriates and the ones’ who traveled. They were sharing their experience about the variety of products in the markets, which was not the case with the USSR. However, the people who traveled outside the state were usually followed by KGB agents. She believes that repatriates and people who had visited other countries were also generating anti-Soviet spirit with their stories from abroad.
My mother recalled feelings of uncertainty and anxiety in the period of the collapse. There was a realization of danger of becoming an independent state neighboring with Turkey, without any certain economical outlook. To my question whether there was regret about the falling of the great machine-state she mentioned that the euphoria of gaining independence was suppressing all the other feelings.
While my mom herself was taking part in the demonstrations during the Karabakh Movement, she remembers with a great sadness that when the war began, the number of men who went to protect their land was significantly less than the number of people gathering in the Republic Square with the slogans “Karabakh” and “Unity”. She told that men were captured in the nights and forced to go to the border to war. The main warriors were from Karabakh. She also added that when the Movement turned the shift to the ideology of independence, the topic of ecology was widely incorporated. Another theme that grounded the claim for independence was the recognition of the Armenian Genocide and the return of the lost lands.
From the words of my interviewee it is clear that in her perception, Armenia gained a chance of becoming an independent, self-governed, sovereign state with an ability to achieve its long-term dreams and goals after the collapse of the USSR. However, according to her, right after establishing an independent state, Armenia has lost safety and possible economical progress. She made a prediction that as the globalizing world is exhausting himself, an establishment of a new united state in the region under the control of Russia is highly possible. It will be interesting to come to this interview after decades to see the correctness of the prediction.
What can be concluded from the words of my interviewee is that 1970-1980ss USSR and Soviet Armenia in particular, was a good place to live safely, with relative equality and development, while significant individual rights were greatly limited. The memories of Soviet Armenia were mostly positive and even wistful. However, clearly, not all Armenians agree on these statements. A controversy between the interview information and views of some prominent Armenian politicians and political analysts about the USSR collapse period emerges.
While all the sources including the interview, state that the Karabakh conflict and the demand of the recognition of Genocide were key factors for starting a movement later leading to independence, still the level of emphasis on that factors differed. What my mother stressed more as a reason for claiming independence was not the nationalist ideology, but the so-called western propaganda about the free market, free borders, freedom of speech, etc. She believes that the anti-Soviet sentiment was grounded not by the Soviet Russian leaders’ behavior towards the Karabakh conflict, but by the western influence that amused soviet people. What coincided in the interview and in the article “Re-Negotiating the Boundaries of the Permissible” by Arsene Saparov, was the statement that the repatriates had a significant role in shaping the overall mindset of Soviet Armenians. However, the direction in which the latter was reshaping the mindset differs in both sources. As my mother mentioned, the repatriates opened up the eyes of soviet people living behind the Iron curtain with their stories from abroad, while Saparov claims that repatriates, mostly being the survivors of Genocide, accentuated the importance of the recognition and demand, thus influencing the renaissance of nationalist ideologies (Saparov, 2018, pp. 868-869).
My mother also perceives Mikhail Gorbachev as a “Western agent” whose reforms were directed to break the country’s stability and lead it to collapse. It is hard to conclude if this was the truth or no because what the first Prime Minister of Armenia Vazgen Manukyan believed was that the incompatibility of the USSR politics with that of the rest of the world created destructive forces from within the country (Libaridian, p. 58). However, he also believed that Gorbachev was trying to develop the country in accordance with the standards of the world, by democratizing the state and coming up with economic reform-solutions (p. 67).
An important coincidence that was found in all sources was the accentuation of the worrisome feelings towards becoming an independent state with a neighbor such as Turkey. While Vazgen Manukyan offers solutions and possible patterns of survival in his article named “Time to Jump off the Train”, my interviewee only had to say that even though people were worried by the vision of taking the responsibility to become guarantors for their own safety, still all of those feeling were dimmed by the aspiration of independence.
Another significant concept that was discovered while getting to know the thoughts of witnesses of the collapse of the USSR was that anti-Russian and anti-Soviet sentiment greatly differed. While one can think of these two to be the same ideas, soviet people perceived these as different concepts. For instance, according to Vazgen Manukyan, Armenians never were anti-Russian, while he also claims that Russia was an expansionist country (pp. 54-55). My mother, stating the difference between anti-Soviet and anti-Russian sentiments believes that the anti-Russian atmosphere was created during the Karabakh Movement by the members of the Pan-Armenian National Movement, member of which was Vazgen Manukyan himself. Probably, the claims about expansionist Russia could have been perceived as anti-Russian propaganda by my interviewee. These and many other factors are a matter of opinion and worldview. What goes with a red line in most of the Armenian sources about the collapse of the USSR is that the Armenian nation stood up not (not only) because of economic stagnation, social problems, or other issues, but for a single unifying idea- unity with Karabakh and safety of compatriots.
Arsène Saparov (2018) Re-negotiating the Boundaries of the Permissible: The National(ist) Revival in Soviet Armenia and Moscow’s Response, Europe-Asia Studies, 70:6, 862-883, DOI: 10.1080/09668136.2018.1487207
Vazgen Manukian, Time to Jump off the Train, Armenia at the Crossroads, ( pp. 51-86), file:///C:/Users/HP/Desktop/PSIA/Armenian%20Politics%20Readings/Armenian%20at%20the%20Crossroads%20-%20p.%2051%20-%2086.pdf