Interview about The Legacy of Soviet Armenia
Date: 04.09.2020 Ejmiadzin, Armenia
Interviewee: Ogsen Aharonyan 26.08.1926 (O:)
Interviewer: Lilit Movsisyan( L:)
For our generation, it is not very easy to understand the life in the Soviet. I personally grew up in a kind of family where I heard a lot of contradictory opinions. My father’s side of the family, as long as we know our family tree, has always lived in Ararat lowland. My father’s grandfather was a World War 2 veteran and was in the front line during the Brest battle in 1944. My grandmother’s family left Syria in 1949. My mother’s side of family is a genocide survival generation. My grandmother’s father grew up in an orphan in Ejmiadzin after leaving Mush in 1914 and my grandfather’s side immigrated from Salmas, Iran during the 1826-28 war.
As it can be predicted my family members had so many vivid opinions and viewpoints about the Soviet regime. I remember how many times I heard my grandma coursing to Gorbachev saying “Ah Gorbachev, burn in the hell, what did you do to us”. On the other hand from my other grandmother, I heard the saddest stories how her cousin was deported to Siberia and probably been killed in the Great Purge times. I remember when I was in my teens I heard my parent’s stories about their youngster times and how many crazy and cool things they did and how much they traveled. This all was making me so envious that my teen’s and maybe early adult life was not like that. However, the stories about the struggle they had to go threw in order to get, let’s say, 1 pair of jeans was making me appreciate my life.
Of course I see a lot of things different now and this makes me more aware of life and social protocols in Soviet times. The idea of interviewing someone who lived in Soviet times honestly is a very interesting project. Of course, the first person that came to my mind for an interview is my grandfather: Aharonyan Ogsen, was born in the Armavir region. He graduated Yerevan State Agro university, later Yerevan State Pedagogic university, and finally The High Party School of Soviet. He started his career in a Collective Farm of “Haitakh” village. By the time he got promoted up to the President of the State Farm. Now he is 94 years old and is the live legend for our family.
L: ” Pap, tell me how you became a Communist party member”?
O: ” I was 16 years old when I became a member of the Youth Communist Union (Komsomol), It was not easy to became a member. It was an important status and was telling a lot about your education, behavior, and general potentials for the community. Getting membership was the first green light. Sometimes they could take a bribe for membership, but that was again only from the student who had very good potential. I actually showed very good results on my work and in 1955 I got the most important ID of being a member of Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Only after this, they promoted me to the President of Collective farms of the region. I still have it (L: he actually does have the ID and even showed it to me) as one day people will really understand what Soviet actually was. The best part of worlds history”.
L: “Was there any family member who experiences with the Stalinist exterminations, repressions”?
O: “No, not in my family, but you know, my brother Artashes. He went to The Great Patriotic war (WW2) with my 2 brothers and father. I was underage at that time, so they did not take me. Artashes was a war prisoner. In 1943 after the Stalingrad battles, we got the news that he was captivated. Then after the war, we really were waiting for him to come back, but we were getting very mixed messages. Some people who were with him said he was dead, from others we heard he was just a captive. Then when Stalin refused to accept all war prisoners, we were/are thinking maybe he was just afraid to be back to Armenia, or maybe eventually he died. We have no clue about him, we just got his status updated as “a missing person from Stalingrad battles”. And until today, I hope he is/was alive and somewhere in the world save and happy”.
L: “ Tell me a little about Soviet Armenia, what was it like to live in Soviet Armenia”?
O: “ It was the best thing that happened to Armenia in our long history. Armenia was maybe the only country during the Soviet times, which could enjoy the privilege to be part of the Soviet, we took all the best advantages and benefits. Look back, after maybe Tigran The Great, Armenia had never been developing so fast and so dramatic. We have never got so many roads, schools factories, and just buildings made in our history than Soviets did on its 70 years. Let take a car and go to any part of this country, and from the window just look around, whatever you see, is Soviet-made. They are not build by Independent Armenia.
We never had such a long period of life without any war, or even fear of war, except WW2, but it was not a threat directly to Armenia. We never had terror to our country or never felt insecure. At the beginning of the Soviet Union, we had 880.000 population in Armenia, by the 1980’s we reached 3.5 million. Soviet Armenia was an eclipse of social, scientific, agricultural, educational, cultural, and basically on every tiny little sphere, from sport to physics. People had free healthcare, free education, that education gave them a job. STATE was giving them a job, apartment, so no one even thought about unemployment or financial issues. Living in Soviet Armenia you were living in the Soviet Union, so it was open to go and move EVERYWHERE you wanted. It’s a state where you were welcomed in each corner of it. It was cheap and easily accessible to travel, study… Just be a member of Labour Union and that’s it. EVERYONE had a chance to get promoted, career road was quite possible if you worked well and were showing results. We had a stable salary, not too high, but it was enough for Soviet citizen, and obviously we got high pension afterward”. (L: I could see his eyes were sparkling saying this words) Armenia was developed compared to other states because we had diaspora. This is such a power. They immigrated to Armenia and brought all the advantages from the Middle East and other states, we developed better than any other Soviet states. Only Armenia, ONLY”!
L: “Do you still support the Soviet system? Was it really that perfect”?
O: “Yes, what else? I am telling you, it is the best system ever but not perfect because the whole world was trying to break it apart. If they had not put their nose into soviet and had let Soviet in peace, the Soviet would have been really the best and the most perfect State in the world’s history. But Western countries were scared stiff. They were poking the Soviet whatever they could, internal and external repressions and the necessity of Soviet to react on that repressions were making the Soviet weaker and by the time quite slow. Answer me, if the Soviet was that bad, then why they built the European Union? Isn’t it exactly the same? Open borders, open trade, equal rights, and possibilities. They were afraid that the Soviet will just eat them out alive. So they did everything, America, Europe, Asia, they did the best they could to destroy the Soviet.
The economy was saved. It was steady and never fluctuated, like it does these days. Internationalism was another good thing we had. The relationships, brotherhood was something even Europe cannot achieve now. We reached to Space, it was not a joke to do so. That is how perfect the Soviet was!
The worst thing in soviet was atheism. Authorities lost the first “battles” to other soviet states which wanted to keep their cultural heritages, and Armenia is the best example. Soviet was trying to give equality to everyone and that equality was smashing national individualism…… but wait, it was this tiny line, because on the other hand, after 1937 the discrimination was quite chilled. Muslims, Christians were free to believe what they wanted. The state was not encouraging them but was not punishing either. My kids got baptized, even if I was not in the church at that time. I was a Communist, tried not to take attention even though no one said anything to me”.
L: “Could you express your opinion freely?”
O: “NO, but I didn’t need it much… look, once I did something that was against my superior. The mayor of Ejmiadzin town was caught criticizing the district committee secretary. He was fired with disgrace and on his dismissal process, we had a committee meeting to discuss this. I gave my honest opinion that this all was just a misunderstanding and maybe we can reconsider this decision. 2 days later I was told to resign myself as I didn’t justify my superior’s decision. I was also fired. It was 1976, Brezhnev prospering times. I resigned and was working at the airport for 1 year, can you believe it? But I guess I deserved it. At that time I was not miserable, I knew this was my fault. Then after a year, the district committee secretary was changed, and I got a phone call to my home, that if I want I can get my job back. I did so.
See the problem in the Soviets was not that the system was bad, individuals were: selfish and ambitious. They could not stand the fact that someone would stand against them. There was not any rule, regulation, or any article about these things in any books. People just chose to be like this, vain and selfish individuals”.
L: “Have you traveled outside of Soviet? How was it to go to the other side of The Iron curtain?”
O: “I did, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Czechoslovakia… many countries under socialist camp, I have been also all 15 Soviet Union member countries, but never went away from Socialistic states. Had no time. Some countries were more developed, some had more food on shelves ( L: laughs), some had better beaches, some were cleaner but overall they were socialistic states. The Iron curtain had its advantages. Soviet was protected from Western immoral ideologies under “the freedom” term which destroyed family institution. …..(L: long pause) can not believe they let the soviet collapse”.
L: “What do you think about 1970-80’s soviet times. Which things were most memorable for you”?
O: “I told you the ’70s were very individualistic times. Corruption had always been in the Soviets, but these times it was obvious. It led to discipline issues to labor. I remember these times people were not even much motivated anymore. For the first time, we heard stories about crimes in the Soviet Union by regular people”.
L: “Why? What was the reason?”
O: This all was a part of Capitalistic plan. Brezhnev was not a strong leader. In his last years, when he totally failed, he was old, sick, and already crazy, was saying and acting like madmen, he must have left way earlier. Brezhnev shook soviet soil and as the pressure from outside was also quite strong, the country got some invisible issues. This was what West wanted, so they had a good chance to press Soviet. And they did. Later, that Capitalist puppet Gorbachev came, with all his stupid ideas about renovations, freedom of speech, wishes, we need to change this and that. AH! What a shame! (L: getting miserable)
Gorbachev was appointed to destroy the Soviets. Yes yes! I think he was even paid to do it. What was that idea about democracy in the Soviet? We were living for 60 years very good and functioning quite ok, why did we need it? They gave an unhealthy amount of freedom to people who had never seen what it is. Of course, the reaction would have been wrong and lead to issues inside of The Soviet states”.
L: “Is this the reason the Karabakh movement started?”
O: “Look, we lost a historical motherland to Turkey. The wound was so open and then with the light hand of Lenin, we lost another chunk of our lands. OF COURSE, we wanted historical justice for us. We just wanted things back, it was a legal demand. There were laws on this. Supreme Council of Soviet could simply make a smart decision and support Karabakh’s people’s legal demand. They betrayed us. We never had any attitude towards Azerbaijani people as an enemy, I think we still should not treat them like the enemy. Azerbaijan on the other hand reacted aggressive to this, and I am sure Azerbaijan has also never had an intention or never could possibly imagine our states becoming enemies. We have what we have and I think West has something to do here again. I have always believed, this all is a battle for oil”.
L: “How was for you to see the collapse of The Soviet?”
O: “……. (L: long pause) I am still on shock, it was not supposed to happen, I feel so sorry for this, and I am even more sorry for you guys ( L: young people) that you have to live in this state and not is Soviet State. The state that changes its laws every 2-3 years, can never have dramatic and steady development. You guys have to live and fight for a better life, something that I never had to do as a young adult…..”.
The interview lasted longer than an hour, he was taking long pauses, remembering things, and sometimes even changing his mood. Anyways he is 94 years old and I gave him a lot of hard questions. He is the best and we have always joked about him being such a “communist leader” who, according to my grandmother’s stories, threw 50 liters of milk away because someone had left that milk at his house as a bribe. He still is that strict person with discipline. If he gets a chance for another life, he will still choose to live in the Soviet Union and that is fascinating to me.
This interview is a single example of social protocols and people’s ideas about the Soviets. It is a clear fact that the Soviet collapse was not because of people, it was mainly because of leaders and their strategy. Strong leading nature, individual abilities, and correct decision-making skills are essential for every country and its population. This is what The Soviet lacked in the last 10-15 years of its history. There can be different reasons for this, starting from the criteria of choosing a leader, finishing to lifelong governing possibilities that every leader had. As it is mentioned in the interview about Brezhnev’s age and health stability, all these were not good conditions for him to take such a big responsibility and run such a huge state. It can be agreed that Western or generally external attempts to destroy soviet success because of the internal infirmity of the state.
There are totally contradictory and interesting opinions about The Iron Curtain. As it was propagandizing in Soviet, West has nothing good to bring to the Soviet and nothing morally valuable to learn. My grandfather agrees to this. On the other hand, one of his explanations about why Armenia was developing better than others, is the Armenian diaspora. This shows that anyways people in the Soviet state had a necessity and desire to get something fresh from outside of The Curtain. In any case, they had that lack and hanger to learn something new and fresh. After all this, was it right to give freedom and democracy to people who lived with a limited amount of freedom and possibilities? Maybe people needed more time and gradually development? Is there any other example of countries that had a smooth transaction from dictatorship to democracy? Undoubtedly, the regime had to be updated, get some innovations on its governing systems on its ideologies, and partnerships but for the Soviets, it was a bit fast turn and in fact another reason for the collapse
Armenian’s unique self difference instinct was so strong that even after the genocide could not only survive but develop faster than other states. Creating “forever values” in culture and unification on the same national concept were manifests for Armenia, up to the Karabakh movement. Because of my grandfather’s Soviet national-international upbringing dictated him to believe that neighbor and brother countries could have never been enemies. Well maybe inside of the Soviet Union they could not have been enemies, but even inside of Union, in fact, Sumgait’s massacre proved that the Soviet brotherhood was a giant myth.
Soviet stereotype institutions worked strongly on people’s psychology. My grandfather was fired for not supporting his superior’s word, he left his job, worked at the airport yet he has never thought that this was not fair. He kept believing that he deserved it. He even mentioned he felt sorry not for him being fired but for the other person who he tried to defend as he was totally a victim of misunderstanding. This is a powerful example of upbringing. The stereotype of fear was another interesting fact. Grandfathers family even didn’t try much to check information about his brother who was missed in WW2. Partially because they were afraid of the Stalin regime, partially because they were also believing that if he was captivated he might not be good for the soviet state anymore. This is an example of strong ideologies what they were fed. Maybe after 1937?
Dreaming of Soviet times to be back doesn’t make my grandfather less patriot to Independent Armenia. He loves Armenia and has always taught us how to be a “real Armenian” and how important our country is. People’s memory about Soviet times is so beautiful because of the tough times of the ’90s. The contrast was so big, that people would rather lose their freedom of speech than have war or live without electricity and heat. Looking at this as humans’ natural instinct seems to be the most logical option.
As can be seen, there is nothing right with extremist ideas. Soviet systems and structures were perfectly written on the paper. In practice, they had a lot of gaps. If we try to put all the good parts of the Soviets and also add real laws and democracy, we might see a picture of modern socialist countries. Most of them are the best ones in the world with the highest democracy level and steady economic development.
The defense of Brest Fortress by the Red Army was the first major battle launched 22-29 June 1941. 429 dead, 668 wounded.
Mush is a city and the provincial capital in Mush, East of Turkey. During the Armenian Genocide of 1915 the indigenous Armenian population of the region was exterminated. Over 140,000 Armenians in 234 villages and towns left the Mush province.
Salmast( Salmas) is a city in North-West of Iran. The majority of the population is composed of Kurds, Azerbaijanis, Armenians and Persians as minorities.
The Russo-Persian War of 1826–1828 was the last major military conflict between the Russian Empire and Iran.
The Great Purge or the Great Terror was a campaign of Political repression in Soviet Union that occurred from 1936 to 1938.
The Soviet Union implemented the collectivization. The policy aimed to integrate individual landholdings and labour into collectively-controlled and state-controlled farms: Kolkhozy and Sovkhozy accordingly.
The All-Union Leninist Young Communist League usually known as Komsomol. Was a political youth organization. It is sometimes described as the youth division of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union(CPSU), although it was officially independent and referred to as “the helper and the reserve of the CPSU”.
In the Battle of Stalingrad (23 August 1942 – 2 February 1943) Germany and its allies fought th Soviet Union for control of the city of Stalingrad in Southern Russia.
Leonid Iljitsj Bresjnev was a Soviet politician who led the Soviet Union as General Secretary of the governing Communist Party (1964–1982) and as Chairmen of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet (1977–1982).
The Iron Curtain formed the imaginary boundary dividing Europe into two separate areas from the end of World War II in 1945 until the end of the Cold War in 1991. The first metaphorical usage of “iron curtain”, in the sense of an end of an era, was used by British author Artur Machen (1863–1947).
Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev (born 2 March 1931) is a Russian and former Soviet politician. The eight and the last of the Soviet Union, he was the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1985 until 1991.