Interview Transcript: Exploring the Legacy of Soviet Armenia
Student: Emanuela Karamyan
An interview with my father, who witnessed the Era of Stagnation, Perestroika, and Glasnost reforms. He recalled memories of the Soviet Union, his experience and views on different aspects of social and political life during that time and after.
Interviewee: Xxxxxx Xxxxxxxx
Date and Place of Birth: October Xth, 1960s, Soviet Armenia, Yerevan
Date of Interview: September 4th, 2020
Location of Interview: Republic of Armenia, Yerevan
Q1: Were you a member of the Komsomol/Community Party? Can you recall how the membership began and why it was significant to become a party member?
A: I have become a member of the Komsomol Party right after I graduated from school. 1 It was quite late because the average age for the membership was thirteen. The SU youth was required to join the Komsomol Party to fulfill their civic duties and work for the common good. As members, they were serving for the country’s prosperity, helping to establish an exemplary society. Besides these responsibilities, there was a two kopek 2 monthly membership fee. Later, some of them were joining the Communist Party.
Q2: Are there any family experiences with the Stalinist exterminations, repressions, concentration camps?
A: Unfortunately, we have experienced repressive incidents among our friends and family. We had relatives who came back to Soviet Armenia to rejoin with their families and roots. However, they were not provided with relevant living conditions and were treated as outsiders. Also, many of our inherited properties got confiscated due to private property ownership restrictions.
Q3: What was it like to live in Soviet Armenia?
A: In retrospect, I can say that life was more delightful and joyous. As a community, we shared standard norms that were based on respect and caring for one another. Moral standards were higher in the past. Considering that WW1 had drastic consequences on Armenia, the SU era was significant for Armenia’s cultural, educational, and industrial development. Cities were built, the industry was regulated, higher educational institutions were established, many historical and cultural monuments were reconstructed from ruins, cultural heritage was maintained and preserved. Higher education was free, and the healthcare system provided free medical care. As a result, people were much healthier and educated, so very few were unemployed.
Q4: What was your experience with the Soviet control over individuals/freedom of expressions?
A: I could not retrieve any particular personal experience. However, in general, if your concerns or protests were not against the Soviet Union system and were justified, there was a possibility to get a solution and reach your voice. I assume that most of the ordinary citizens were not facing this kind of repression as the majority agreed with the system and its ideology.
Q5: 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?
A: After graduating from school, I started working for a construction company as a laborer. Shortly after, when I began my studies at the university of architecture and construction, I worked as a foreman’s assistant. In construction, salaries were higher than in project institutions. Even though unemployment was not a common thing in SU, salaries were only enough to maintain existence. You may be able to afford more by working on 2 or 3 jobs.
Q6: Did you support the Soviet system? Explain the answer.
A: We were not against SU’s system or its ideology. However, facing such significant problems for the nation as reuniting our historical territories, we wanted to live in an independent country, so there were no external manipulations. Also, we wanted to improve our living conditions. In comparison to the Western countries, SU seemed undeveloped, so the outside world was alluring us with all the possibilities and opportunities. It’s human nature that we want more than we have. Despite the conflicts of our nation’s interests and suppressions, everything was enough to maintain our existence securely in terms of life quality. Life, in its simplicity, was the reason why we were happier.
Q7: Did you feel a victim of the Soviet system? Explain the answer.
A: I have not. Even though there was an essential sense of unity in the SU, states were trying to maintain their national identity, and there was a diverse national color. Despite the freedom of expression, there was not any discrimination or inequalities among the citizens. As a nation, we were in a state of victimization when Armenian-populated territories were separated from us.
Q8: Have you traveled outside of the SU? If yes, can you recall how the system worked for letting you out of the country?
A: After the sixties, there were few ways to travel outside of the SU that I remember. The first way, if you had relatives abroad, you could get permission to visit them. It was significant for Soviet Armenians as we have a diaspora. The process of getting approval was challenging. However, if you did not have any law issues, you would eventually get your permission to travel as a tourist and come back in the required time. With travel agencies, you could get vouchers if you were planning to travel for vacation (mainly socialist countries). Also, citizens who were members of the Labor Union , a public organization providing some privileges and discounts to the working class, was buying discounted tickets/vouchers for its exemplary workers. Anyway, traveling abroad was not something everyone could afford or be permitted. It was much easier for artists and performers to travel for competitions and concert tours.
Q9: Were you familiar with migration policies? If someone wanted to relocate from the SU, what were the consequences?
A: If I remember correctly, many Armenian families came back to Soviet Armenia in the 1940s. They thought living conditions were better in the SU, and they could live in their motherland. Nevertheless, many of them could not merge with the system. They were offered the opportunity to get permanent residency visas if they had relatives outside the SU. They were required to provide evidence of blood relations and invitation from their family. After waiting for several years, they were allowed to migrate and reunite with their families. For example, the United States, France, Israel, etc. There were other similar situations to this type of migration. In case you did not have any family or national ties with foreign countries, an ordinary citizen’s intention to migrate would have met harmful consequences and even imprisonment. In the late 80s, restrictions were more loosened.
Q10: If you traveled outside of the SU, have your opinions of the SU changed?
A: In terms of economy, western countries seemed prosperous and wealthy. Shops, cafes, cars, shining advertisements, life dynamics, and people were alluring to look. You could tell that material possession and physical comforts were more valued than spiritual and cultural values. I can conclude that my views on SU have not changed as we were raised to appreciate our morals, that were not money-oriented.
Q11: What were the 5 key turning points in Armenia’s social and political life in the 1970s and 80s, that you remember the best?
A: In 1985, M. Gorbachev, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, started the Perestroika reform , which was meant to improve and develop the SU, 4 which failed. Shortly after, in 1988, I can recall the horrible earthquake. After that, one of the significant events for us was the Karabakh movement, and people could finally express themselves and their interests. In social life, I can mention the construction of the subway in 1971, Sport/Concert complex in 1983, later renamed after Karen Demirchyan. Furthermore, cooperatives were opened, and people could own private property and run cooperative businesses. My family ran a few cooperatives, including furniture production, construction company, and bakery.
Q12: What is your recollection of the Karabakh movement?
A: We were all excited, and almost everyone participated in the movement. It was an excellent opportunity to express our national interest, fight for our independence and future. We were dissatisfied with how Armenians and Armenian question was treated by Azerbaijan and SU authorities. This movement was a chance to stand for our rights.
Q13: What were the main differences between the Khrushchev Thaw and the late era generations (Era of Stagnation , Perestroika, and 5 Glasnost reforms) that you could recognize in the context of Armenian 6 nationalism?
A: In our family, we always had the conscious of our national identity. My grandmother was a survivor of the genocide, and this history was an open wound that did not let Armenians forget their origins and what they went through. Of course, this sense was softened for the later generations because SU was preaching brotherhood and unity among its nations. I can not say that there were huge differences between these generations. However, cases like the 1988’s earthquake, the Sumgait pogrom, the Karabakh conflict had a new strong impact on our generation and our identity.
Q14: What kind of influence did the diaspora have on Soviet Armenia?
A: The diaspora has had its influence in different periods and many aspects throughout Soviet Armenia history. Even during the WW2, it provided help to the Soviet Union. They also released almost 40.000 Armenians from concentration camps. Even though SU continuously prevented after the war, they had a considerable contribution to cultural life. Matenadaran was reconstructed, diaspora also had financial investments in education, and many institutions were established with their aid. Furthermore, during the nationalist movements, they also provided financial assistance to continue realizing our motives.
Q15: What was it like to see the collapse of the SU?
A: After achieving what we aimed for, we hoped to develop more rapidly and prosper by relying on ourselves, but it turned otherwise. We faced many challenges, the Karabakh war had erupted, the economy collapsed, approximately 500 factories were closed, and facilities were sold, along with the factories. People sunk into poverty. There was no food, shops were empty, no light and gas. These were tough years for Armenians.
Q16: Do you frequently recall the time before SU’s collapse? Positively or negatively?
A: It was a positive experience. Even now, I mostly remember the good things. We were much happier and had fewer concerns compared to the situation nowadays. We felt secure and trusted the authorities more. But I know that recalling the past will not change the present or fix previous mistakes. Still, we do not lose our hope for a better future.
The diversity of the contradicting points that we could witness in this conversation does not change the interviewee’s important statement that “Life, in its simplicity, was the reason why we were happier.” As we know, Armenia did not have anti-Russian sentiments or disagreement with the Soviet Union’s morals and ideology. Despite the territorial reintegration and national motives, I assume that the generation of Soviet Armenians recall the past not only negatively. The sense of security, fewer concerns in the past made them have mixed feelings. Forming an independent state in such critical conditions, without sufficient resources on the former Soviet Union’s corpse, is challenging. And yet, along with all these difficulties by achieving the dream of being a sovereign country, the primary moving force and influence for Armenians “for the sake of the nation.” started to dissolve into nationalism as a tool for narrow political interests. As a result, people’s trust was decreased. What they fought for and believed had unpleasant consequences in some ways, and the road of formation was not a smooth one as they could imagine. However, “The heaviest burden in the world is the burden of making decisions on one’s responsibility. Slavery is sweet in the sense that it relieves one from that burden, and it frees one from the sense of responsibility.”*
Vazgen Manukian, “It is time to Jump off the Train” (1990) in Armenia at the Crossroads: Democracy and Nationhood in the post-Soviet, ed. Ger. Libaridian. 1991. Watertown, Blue Crane Books.
1 Komsomol Party – Youth organization controlled by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Primarily a political organ for spreading Communist teachings and preparing future members of the Communist Party.
2 Kopek – the currency unit of Imperial Russia and then the Soviet Union (as the Soviet ruble).
3 Labor Unions or Trade Unions in the Soviet Union, headed by the All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions (VTsSPS), had a complex relationship with industrial management, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and the Soviet government, given that the Soviet Union was ideologically supposed to be a state in which the members of the working class ruled the country and managed themselves. Organizations formed by workers from related fields that work for the common interest of its members. They help workers in issues like fairness of pay, good working environment, hours of work and benefits.
4 Perestroika Reform – policy or practice of restructuring or reforming the economic and political system of the Soviet Union during the 1980s. First proposed by Leonid Brezhnev in 1979 and actively promoted by Mikhail Gorbachev, perestroika originally referred to increased automation and labour efficiency, but came to entail greater awareness of economic markets and the ending of central planning.
5 Era of Stagnation – period of economic, political, and social stagnation in the Soviet Union, which began during the rule of Leonid Brezhnev
6 Glasnost Reform - the policy or practice of more open consultative government and wider dissemination of information, initiated by leader Mikhail Gorbachev from 1985.