Exploring the Legacy of Soviet Armenia: Conversion with Grandmother
Student: Meline Asryan
PSIA 360, Armenian Politics
Instructor: Vahram Ter-Matevosyan
September 7, 2020
Becoming a part of USSR was one of the turning points in Armenian history, people share different opinions about the possible twists in the country’s history if it did not join the union, however, the theories will only stay on the paper. Armenia chose its path and nothing can be changed. Researchers, scholars, and politicians have their own perspectives and views on how the Soviet Union influenced the country, its economy, foreign policy and life of its people, however, the perspective was different for ordinary people, for the workers. One of these perspectives will be introduced in this assignment, discussing the life, political and economic situation of Soviet Armenian from the point of view of a woman who migrated to Armenia in her early twenties from Bashkiria, Ural, and settled up in a small town called Vanadzor.
The paper is constructed based on an oral history interview conducted via telephone while the interviewee was in her house in Vanadzor. The paper incorporates the analysis of the conversation as well as academic sources presented during the course of Armenian Politics.
Meline Asryan: Today we will talk about one of your favorite topics, the Soviet Union and Soviet Armenia. Today is the sixth of September, 2020, the interview is conducted via telephone, the interviewee is in Vanadzor and the interviewer is in Yerevan. I would like to start the conversation with the following question. Please tell me where and when were you born?
Olga Asryan: I was born on January 29, 1943 in the Republic of Bashkortostan also known as Bashkiria, South Ural.
MA: Were you or anyone from your family a member of the Komsomol / Community party? Can you recall how the membership began and why it was significant to become a party member?
OA: No, no one in my family was a member of the party, because my parents lived in Ukraine and were repatriated, exiled to Bashkiria. We were not allowed to join the party.
MA: What did you know about the party in general?
OA: Well, of course, I knew about the party, about Lenin, about Stalin, about all the leaders. At school we were told everything, taught, explained, we learned history, the constitution of the Soviet Union and everything connected with the party and ideology.
MA: Did your family have any experience with the Stalinist exterminations, repressions, concentration camps?
OA: No, we didn’t feel much. However, my mother was bullied in Bashkiria, ignored. My mother graduated from high school, she worked as an agronomist in our region in Bashkiria, and whenever she collected the harvest, she handed it over to her superiors, who was Bashkir by nationality, and she never saw and enjoyed the results of her work. Once, she was replaced with a different person and fired. She dug up a large bush of tomatoes, put about 30 kilograms of the crop on the roll and took it to the district council. The chairman of the district council was also a Bashkir, who was curious why the women brought the crops to the council. My mother answered him: “Give me a paper, stating how much product I deliver to you each season and I will send it to Stalin to Moscow and let him figure it out why I am being kicked out,” and she left. Later a man was sent to her with a note “Restore immediately, removed by mistake.” The people had rights, but we were not locals there, of course we were born there, but since we were exiled we did not have many rights.
My brother even wanted to study, he was not given any recommendation letter at the military enlistment office because he was the son of an exiled man. We were perceived as enemies of the nation. My brother left for another city, worked at a construction site, took a characterization letter there and left to Leningrad (now: Saint Petersburg), entered the Higher Naval Academy, studied as an atomic submarine engineer. But life from the beginning was difficult for us, as exiled, we were looked at as enemies of the people, traitors. Why are we traitors? We lived at our own expense, after the war who could be a traitor?
MA: What was your experience with the Soviet control over individuals/freedom of expressions?
OA: I didn’t feel it, we all didn’t feel it, we weren’t looking for a high post, we were glad to have a job, we received our salaries, during summer I always took my children for a vacation, we went to the sea, so we lived freely … Sometimes people said that they were infringed, they were not given the floor to speak, but I did not see all that. Work honestly, earn money, live and enjoy all the benefits of the time.
MA: What was it like to live in Soviet Armenia?
OA: What are you asking! Armenia lived the richest of all, when the earthquake happened, my brother and his team came to Armenia from Bratsk, to work here, he saw so much in Armenian shops that he even sent parcels home, sweets, tea, and sausages. He was always saying that we are living a luxurious life here. Yes, we lived well.
MA: So life in Soviet Armenia was better than in your homeland?
OA: You know, I left Bashkiria early when I was only 20 years old, and it was impossible to live there, because, of course, maybe I am wrong, but mostly Muslims lived there, they did not communicate with Russians very much. Many Russian were not locals in Bashkiria, these people still remembered the Tatar-Mongol yoke. Well, I came here, we worked, we built a house, we raised our children, I did not feel any oppression. Even then, I remember Armenian guys coming to Russia for work. God forbid someone would say that these people are foreigners, they are of another nation, they could easily get punished for expressions like that, and it was impossible to speak of it as a political issue, saying that some foreigners came from another republic to work there. On the contrary, they were friendly to other nations, there were almost 111 nations in the Soviet Union, and they lived peacefully.
MA: Were you employed during the Soviet regime?
OA: Of course, how did my experience come from? When I finished school, my mother was still working on the collective farm, my father was already dead by then. At that time a person from each family needed to work certain hours at the farms, I started working there instead of my mother. Later I learned to sew, I was sewing ladies’ outerwear, suits, and coats. Then we moved to Armenia and I went on working here.
MA: And where did you work in Armenia?
OA: I sewed, learned accounting and started working at a tour desk.
MA: Was there any difference in working conditions in Soviet Armenia and Soviet Russia?
OA: No, no. In the mornings you go to work, at lunchtime you have a break for one hour, in the evenings you finish the work and go home, we even worked half day on Fridays, plus the weekends off.
MA: What was it like working in the Soviet Union?
OA: Well, you know, when we worked at the factory, everyone was paid equally, and the taxes were 13%, including education, medicine, vacations, these deductions went to the budget. The trade union wrote out vouchers for vacations, wherever we wanted, it was almost free, we only paid about 30%, the rest was paid by the state. Pioneer camps were almost free.
MA: Well, these are all advantages, but what were the disadvantages?
OA: Well, maybe it wasn’t good for someone, I don’t know, usually only lazy people complained, it was like that in Soviet times, and it is now.
MA: Did you support the Soviet system?
OA: We lived good, I was not against the Soviet system, in essence it was good when there was only one party, but now, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in each republic there are about 20 parties. There are deputies, parliaments, and they get their salaries from the state budget. Back then there was one party, one secretary, he had assistants, ministers and that’s all. I liked this system. I approved it.
MA: So you didn’t feel like a victim of the Soviet system?
OA: No, I didn’t feel slighted.
MA: Have you ever been outside the USSR?
OA: No, I didn’t travel abroad, only within the USSR, Armenia, Bashkiria, Russia, Georgia. I never was drawn to go abroad.
MA: Did you have any acquaintances or friends who were abroad?
OA: Well, my brother-in-law’s family was, Sarkis and Tsovik.
MA: Was it difficult for them to leave the USSR?
OA: No, as far as I know, they submitted an application, collected documents and that’s it. My kind of abroad was Russia, visit there and come back home to Armenia.
MA: You have been living in Armenia since the early 1960s, can you recall 5 key turning points in the social and political life of Armenia during the 1970s and 1980s?
OA: Nothing comes to mind, well, I only remember parades, say on May 1, but not demonstrations or anything against the government. Maybe in big cities there was something, something was formed, people rebelled, they didn’t like something. I think that such people have nothing else to do in their life.
MA: What was Armenia like before and after the earthquake?
OA: Before the earthquake, we lived good, but after the earthquake the world turned upside down, people lost their homes, there were many deaths, it was a disaster. People from all over the world came to help, to restore everything. And now, of course, it is difficult, there is no work, the factories have been plundered, everything has been stolen and sold. Those who stole got rich, but the people like us were left at a broken trough, [а вот народ как мы остались у разбитого корыта].
MA: What do you remember about the Karabakh movement?
OA: Well, you know, it’s not like a movement, but I’ll explain it now. We went to Saratov ans stayed at a house, there was a map on the wall. If I knew that such troubles would start about Karabakh, I would have brought that map to Armenia with me, as it was said there “ Ծովից ծով Հայաստան “, even Anapa was Armenian, just imagine what the border was. For as long as I can remember, Karabakh was Armenian, I studied it history at school, but now they have thrown it all out of history, moreover, back then it was not called Karabakh, but Armenian Highland, this I remember very clearly. Later, all the changes in politics mixed everything up, one ruler gave Crimea to Ukraine, another ruler gave the territory of Armenia to Turkey for 30 years, another ruler gave Karabakh to Azerbaijan “to unite people”, but it went the other way around, and they began to hate each other, they became enemies.
MA: What do you know about the war itself?
OA: It all started in Sumgait, there was a pogrom, and then Armenian people started to resist. In Sumgait, everything was prepared in advance, Azerbaijani families were warned to turn off the light in their houses on a certain day and hour, and Armenian families left the light on and the Azerbaijanis staged a massacre. This is a tough question…
MA: Was there anyone among your acquaintances who took part in the war?
OA: No, there was no one, because everyone had already served, they had families. But as far as I know about the Sumgait pogrom, people worked at the factory, there were Armenians, Russians and Azerbaijanis. One Azerbaijani worker warned his Armenian friend that there would be such a thing, but he did not believe that this could really happen. When this massacre took place, he confessed that his friend had warned him , but he did not believe it. You see, not everyone was enemies, it was all politics. This is a very difficult issue of national enmity, it is not something for us to decide.
MA: How do you think the war affected the life of Armenia?
OA: The peoples have become enemies and are still shooting and killing each other at the border, that’s why many Armenian send their children abroad, to prevent them from serving and getting shot at the border.
MA: What was it like to see the fall of the USSR?
OA: Collapse [Крах] … What a fall … Collapse … As if everything fell into an abyss, life turned upside down, people were sitting without firewood, without light, starving, begging. It was a very difficult time, the roads were closed, there was no food.
The Baltic states separated, Armenia was the last to leave the Soviet Union, Ukraine separated, everyone separated. It was very difficult for Armenia, it was on the outskirts of the Soviet Union, Turkey was nearby and Azerbaijan, Armenia was surrounded by Muslim countries. Roads were closed, transport did not run, planes did not fly, after the collapse it was very difficult for Armenia. But now it’s hard as well.
MA: How did it affect your family?
OA: Your uncle left Armenia, your aunt left with her family, only two of my children remained, your younger uncle and your mother. It was hard to survive, there were no jobs, all the factories were plundered. There were so many things in Kirovakan, only the Chemical Plant was enough, there were only four of them in the whole Soviet Union, and one was in Armenia. If it had worked now, Kirovakan would live happily ever after.
MA: Do you see the difference between today’s Armenia and Armenia after the collapse of the USSR?
OA: It is not enough, young families have left Armenia, it’s not life, it’s existence. I don’t see anything good for children in future. Moreover, with this virus going on.
MA: I have no more questions, thank you for your time, however if you have something else to add, you are more than welcomed to.
OA: I’ll add. I had a friend who said, “Let there be several people like Tsarukyan, or like Ralph Yerikyan, who helps people, builds houses, if only there were several such people, Armenia would take the lead. And I would also like people not to go against Pashinyan, but to help him. It’s right that he ruled only two years, but who can make changes in the country with an empty budget. People, instead of uniting, helping the government, everyone pulls only in their own direction.
Armenia has changed a lot during the Soviet Union. When I moved to Kirovakan, the highest building had five floors but during the Soviet Union the whole city was built up, factories were built and everything was destroyed by our presidents. Everything was sold around.
People need to be positive in order to help the government, to support it, but no, they started organizing rallies, started shouting. This energy could have been used for better deeds …
MA: Thank you very much.
OA: Will anyone come for me after this interview? )))))
MA: No, no, they won’t.)))))))
OA: Well, that’s good …)))
The interview took roughly 43 minutes, it was conducted in Russian and later translated and edited by the interviewer. The purpose of the interview was to understand the influence of the Soviet system on the life of ordinary working people, how they understood the strategies of the regime, how they perceived it, and how it influenced Armenia and their life. It was interesting to discuss this particular case because the interviewee, Olga Asryan, was a child of an exiled Ukrainian family, who was born and raised in a Muslim country, Bashkiria, and who in her early 20s got married to an Armenian man and moved to Armenia.
During the whole interview, the interviewee mentioned the importance of work and effort, “which could be the influence of the Soviet ideology, she was pleased with the system and approved it a lot. The Soviet ideology was taught to children from schools, even though her family was discriminated against exiled people, she knew every detail about the Communist Party, how everything worked, who were the leaders, the whole Soviet history from A to Z. Even though the Soviet regime preached equality among all the nations in its territory, there was a clear division between people in power and who were not able to stand for their rights. From the words of the interviewee, “Once, she was replaced with a different person and fired. She dug up a large bush of tomatoes, put about 30 kilograms of the crop on the roll, and took it to the district council. The chairman of the district council was also a Bashkir, who was curious why the women brought the crops to the council. My mother answered him: “Give me a paper, stating how much product I deliver to you each season and I will send it to Stalin to Moscow and let him figure it out why I am being kicked out,” and she left. Later a man was sent to her with a note “Restore immediately, removed by mistake”, one can conclude that people in power were not behaving on the behalf of the Soviet regime and were doing whatever they pleased to those minorities who were afraid to speak up. However, whenever they were frightened even just a bit, they immediately changed the way they act. Despite all the discrimination and inequality, the interviewee claimed she’d lived a prosperous and quality life, however, she strongly agreed that only due to her husband’s and her hard work, their family was able to be well off and not worry about anything particular.
Being quite aware of the Soviet system and political situation within its territory, the interviewee was not aware much about the political and economical challenges and movements inside of Armenia. Discussing the turning points in Armenian history in the 1970s and 1980s, she was not able to recall any significant event that took place. To open up the conversation the topics of the 1988 earthquake and the Karabakh Movement were introduced. The interviewee had strong and emotional responses connected with the earthquake since her family was also greatly affected by the disaster and she had the first-hand experience. Her family got separated, her children left the country, it was hard to survive during after-earthquake years when the country was in devastating conditions and a couple of years later the USSR collapsed and the situation in the country worsened.
Even though Armenian historian and political scientist, Razmik Pannossian describes that political life in Armenia was thriving and people were able to incorporate their political needs with the Soviet slogans and ideology to fight for national values, Armenia, Nagorno Karabakh, however, the ordinary people who were living in the regions were not highly involved in the national movements (Barrington, 2006). While Yerevan was full of protesters in the streets, the interviewee was not able to recall a single protest in Kirovakan (now: Vanadzor). Even though the interviewee or any of her family members were involved in the political life of the country, she mentioned that “Maybe in big cities there was something, something was formed, people rebelled, they didn’t like something. I think that such people have nothing else to do in their life”. There is a possibility that the movements and protests were mainly organized in Yerevan, and only rumors and stories got to the people living in the regions.
The Karabakh Movement was also resented as a distant event as if it was not even happening in the country, she was living in. She remembered stories that her acquaintances used to tell her, no one from her family or friends participated in the movement. The interviewee was living a bubble, inside her comfort zone, separated from the political and economic issues present in the country. A possible explanation for this behavior could be the way she was raised and taught at school, being selfless and working for your good was the main motivation of her life. She was not interested in becoming a political figure of building a career, she changed several professions, mastered different crafts to keep her family well off.
To put it in a nutshell, even during the years of political dramas, economic challenges and difficulties, some segments of Armenian residents were not aware of the situation in the country. People were busy caring about their families and children, without overthinking about the national issues. In this particular case, low involvement and interest in the political life of Armenia could be because the interviewee was not Armenian. The turning events in the 1970s and 1980s were strongly tied with nationalistic views, which could not be a priority for the interviewee. She is a proud residence of Armenia, she knows a lot about the history of the country, about the current political and economic situation, but national issues as Nagorno Karabakh, Western Armenia, or acceptance of the 1915 Armenian genocide are not a priority for her. She was not born with these issues; she is just surrounded by people who carry these dilemmas in their hearts and minds.
Barrington, W.L. (2006). Post-Soviet Armenia. R. Panossian. The University of Michigan Press. Retrieved from: https://www.press.umich.edu/pdf/0472098985-ch9.pdf