Monthly Archives: September 2018

Confronting Structural Violence Through Street Art – 2) Georgia

Georgia: Country-Specific Street Art

Street Art as a Response to Violence by the Clergy

The below painting appeared in multiple places in the central streets of Tbilisi. It was part of the protest wave against violence organized by some clerics of the Georgian Orthodox Church. On May 17, 2013, priests led a mob of thousands against a small-scale demonstration that in turn was organized against homophobia. The mob chased and beat the peaceful rally participants in the narrow streets and in public transport. During these developments cameras captured an image of a priest holding a taburetka (the Russian word for “stool” in turn borrowed from French and still in common use in the Caucasus) and attacking with it the bus and people around it. As a result, the taburetka became a symbol of the church-motivated violence against human rights activists.

Caucasus Edition

“Condemn Taburetka”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Rustaveli Avenue, Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili. Date of the Photo: February 9, 2014.

Following the developments of May 17, 2013, another stenciled message appeared in the underground passage on Rustaveli Street in Tbilisi. The passage is in front of the Kashueti Church and Tbilisi Gymnasium N1. Its location, accessibility by thousands of people on a daily basis makes it popular among street artists. For the same reasons, the street art depicted on the walls of this passage is subject to stricter judgment and “censorship” by those who disagree with its form of expression or messages.

The words in the below stencil are an allusion to a phrase from the Gospel of John 8:1-11 in the Bible, where Jesus stops the mob from attacking the woman “caught in adultery”. In the story, the mob wants to stone her to death, and Jesus tells them, “Whichever one of you has committed no sin may throw the first stone at her”. Hearing this, the mob retreats. The message of this work reminds of the double standards of the Georgian Orthodox Church. Soon the message was painted over.

Caucasus Edition

“Whichever one of you has committed no sin may throw the Taburetka first”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Rustaveli Avenue, Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili. Date of the Photo: June 2, 2014.

Another message containing a hint was painted nearby – two hearts, a tiny one and a bigger one with respective writings underneath “The Heart of the Priest” and “The Heart of Jesus”. Similar to the previous one, it was also painted over.

Caucasus Edition

“The Heart of the Priest” and “The Heart of Jesus”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Rustaveli Avenue, Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili. Date of the Photo: June 2, 2014.

The related piece below presents an “interpretation” of the famous human evolution chart, showing human progress from ape to homo sapiens, and regress from homo sapiens to a priest and a taburetka.

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“Taburetka Evolution”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili. Date of the Photo: June 8, 2016.

This next piece depicts a box with the writing “donation”, along with the symbols of cars – Audi, Mercedes, and BMW – to hint at the lavish lifestyle of high-level clerics. Receiving expensive cars as gifts and their usage is common among them. With this painting, the author reminds the society how far the clerics are from the values upheld by Christianity such as modesty, humility, and restraint.

Caucasus Edition

“Donation”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili. Date of the Photo: January 26, 2014.

The figure of a cleric with the dollar sign on the walking stick sends a similar message. Made in front of the Rustaveli Metro Station in Tbilisi, this piece sarcastically showcases the wealth of the clerics and their luxurious lifestyle, inconsistent with what they preach.

Caucasus Edition

A priest with a dollar sign above the walking stick and a “VIP-77” sign. Artist: Unknown. Location: near Rustaveli Metro Station, Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili. Date of the Photo: February 16, 2014.

A similar figure was photographed only two weeks after the first one. This time, the image had been “edited”.

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The partially erased image of the corrupt priest. Artist: Unknown. Location: Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili. Date of the Photo: March 3, 2014.

For the Decriminalization of the Consumption of Light Drugs

A message under a cannabis leaf was part of a campaign devoted to the decriminalization of the usage of light drugs such as marijuana. At the time of the photograph in February 2014, the Criminal Code of Georgia foresaw imprisonment for their consumption. Since then, a long-term struggle and advocacy campaigns resulted to number of changes in the legislation. In December 2017, the Government of Georgia approved changes of legislation, which considered the abolishment of imprisonment for the production, purchase, storage, and consumption of small amounts of marijuana. Respective changes were made in the Criminal Code, the Administrative Violations Code, and other relevant laws. In November 2017, the Constitutional Court abolished criminal responsibility for the repeated consumption of marijuana.

Caucasus Edition

“It’s you who is a criminal”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili. Date of the Photo: February 9, 2012.

In Favor of Labor Rights and Against Poor Working Conditions

The below artwork was photographed in January 2014. Back then, news about the harsh working condition of mine workers became very visible in the media. Public concerns grew into a protest campaign, including a small-scale rally in front of the Parliament building and a few graffiti paintings in the street.

Caucasus Edition

“Low wages are unfair for me”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili. Date of the Photo: January 24, 2014.

The below painting appeared in Tbilisi around the same time, exposing the inhuman working conditions of the working class.

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“Not a slave! A worker!”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili. Date of the Photo: January 24, 2014.

The stenciled phrase “The City of Corpses” appeared in the underground passage in front of Building 1 of the Tbilisi State University on February 14, 2017. The movement Auditorium 115 placed it there immediately after the news of the death of a construction worker spread. Another phrase was added later – “1209. Rebel”. 1,209 stands as the number of the people who have died at construction works in Georgia in 2010-2017. Within a few months, the stencils were painted over.

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“The city of corpses” painted over. Artist: Auditorium 115. Location: Underground passage in front of Building 1 of the Tbilisi State University, Tbilisi. Date of the Photo: May 18, 2018. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili.

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“The city of corpses” painted over. Artist: Auditorium 115. Location: Underground passage in front of Building 1 of the Tbilisi State University, Tbilisi. Date of the Photo: May 18, 2018. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili.

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“1209 Rebel”. Artist: Auditorium 115. Location: Underground passage in front of Building 1 of the Tbilisi State University, Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili. Date of the Photo: February 16, 2018.

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“1209 Rebel” painted over. Artist: Auditorium 115. Location: Underground passage in front of Building 1 of the Tbilisi State University, Tbilisi. Date of the Photo: May 18, 2018. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili.

The phrase “Value human labor” is written in several places in the central streets of Tbilisi. Once again, the author reminds about the need for decent wages for employees.

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“Value human labor”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Underground passage in front of Building 1 of the Tbilisi State University, Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili. Date of the Photo: February 16, 2018.

For the Inclusion of People with Disabilities

The below artwork belongs to the artist under the pseudonym Gagosh who placed it at the entrance of the subway station Medical University. The painting displays one of the challenges of public transport in Tbilisi: none of the metro stations are accessible for people with disabilities.

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A person in a wheelchair wearing a helmet is going up/down the stairs. Artist: Gagosh. Location: Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili. Date of the Photo: June 10, 2016.

Small paintings and writings on the walls along Rustaveli Street in Tbilisi expose the exclusion and invisibility of people with disabilities. “Do you really know me?” asks a person in the wheelchair. It hints to the low awareness about the issues and problems of people with disabilities. The photograph was taken on March 3, 2014 and is still there in 2018.

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“Do you really know me?”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Rustaveli Avenue, Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili. Date of the Photo: March 3, 2014.

The Struggle for Healthy Public Spaces – the Case of the Vake Park

The graffiti “Beware! A wicked investor is in the yard!” appeared in winter 2014 on the fence located in the Vake Park in Tbilisi. It was part of the widespread protest to protect the park and the largest green space in Tbilisi from the construction of a 7-storey hotel and its facilities there. The movement Guerilla Gardening Tbilisi organized a months-long camp and multiple events there. As a result of the long-term advocacy campaign and court hearings, Guerilla Gardening Tbilisi won the case in the First Instance Court, and the permission for the hotel construction was annulled. In Spring 2018, a new decision of the Appeal Court was announced which allowed the investors to continue construction in that place. The decision can be appealed to in the Supreme Court.

The below paintings appeared during this campaign to emphasize multiple environmental problems in Tbilisi, including the dominating business interests with investors ignoring the public demand on conserving green spaces, the high level of pollution in the city, making the conservation of green spaces even more crucial, the shrinking spaces that are safe and healthy for children to play.

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“Beware! A wicked investor is in the yard!”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Vake Park, Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili. Date of the Photo: February 2, 2014.

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“Help” Artist: Unknown. Location: Vake Park, Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili. Date of the Photo: February 2, 2014.

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A child playing with a kite. Artist: Unknown. Location: Vake Park, Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili. Date of the Photo: February 2, 2014.

Country-Specific Street Art in Armenia

Against Bullying and Violence in the Army

Every year, several soldiers commit suicide in the Armenian army. According to the statistics brought out by the non-governmental organization Peace Dialogue, for the period of 2010-2015, the total number was 48 (Khachatryan 2017). While the government prefers to keep the circumstances of these cases in secret, the public tries to get more information about the problem. People want to understand the reasons that drive young men to this fatal decision. The below painting was made in Yerevan to visualize the issue and remind the society about it. After some time, it was painted over.

Starting from January 2017, a new tax was introduced in Armenia. Every employee is obliged to contribute 1,000 Armenian Drams (about USD2) per month to a special fund. This fund covers the pensions and other payouts of the soldiers that have been wounded, deceased, or disabled in combat. The funds go to their families if the soldier died. A considerable part of the public negatively reacted to the decision, considering it militarization of the society or unjustified deductions from their low income.

The stenciled phrase “My son died, I paid my bank loan” is supposed to be the voice of the parent who has lost a son and has used the “compensation” funds to cover a bank loan, the latter being another component of the social hardship of many families.

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“My son died, I paid my bank loan. #1000drams”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Yerevan, Armenia. Date of the Photo: November 2016. Photo Credits: Ananun’s (meaning “anonymous”) Facebook page.

Street Art Expressing Resistance

Vardges Gaspari is an Armenian political activist. He is famous for his nonviolent resistance against the government. He uses “sit-down” or “lay-down” approaches to express his dissatisfaction with the government and its policies.
The below graffiti was made on a wall in Gyumri, Armenia. It shows Vardges Gaspari standing in a faceless crowd. He is the only person facing the audience and holding a placard with the words “Filth, murderer, scoundrel”.

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Vardges Gaspari holding the sign “Filth, murderer, scoundrel”. Artist: Medialab. Location: Gyumri, Armenia. Date of the Photo: February 4, 2018. Photo Credits: Marianna Grigoryan’s Facebook page.

The following stenciled phrases also serve as reminders of the double standards and cases of injustice in the country.

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“I do not tolerate double standards”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Arami Street, Yerevan, Armenia. Photo Credits: Aren Melikyan. Date of the Photo: January 13, 2018.

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“Being downtrodden means being deprived of choice. bell hooks”. Artist: Unkown. Location: Spendiaryan Street, Yerevan, Armenia. Photo Credits: Aren Melikyan. Date of the Photo: January 18, 2018.

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“When we choose to love, we start acting against power, against oppression. bell hooks”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Spendiaryan Street, Yerevan, Armenia. Photo Credits: Aren Melikyan. Date of the Photo: January 18, 2018.

Bibliography

Khachatryan, Edgar. 2017. “Murders, Suicides, and Fatal Accidents Plague the Armenian Military.” OC Media. February 24. Accessed March 8, 2018. http://oc-media.org/murders-suicides-and-fatal-accidents-plague-the-armenian-military/.

* This story has been produced with support from the US Embassies in the South Caucasus. The opinions expressed in the publication reflect the point of the view of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the US Embassies.

** Read Part 1 of this Story here.

Confronting Structural Violence Through Street Art – 1) Georgia and Armenia

What can a person or a group do if they are deprived of voice and the freedom of expression? When they cannot speak up about their problems and raise issues they are concerned about in the public space? When they do not have access to mainstream media to reach wider audiences? When they are oppressed in one way or another or struggle for survival? In other words, how can people cope with structural violence – the systematic harm that can be done through certain social structures and institutions?

For the last few decades, street art has increasingly become a powerful tool for the voice of the oppressed in different parts of the world. People from minority groups, the underprivileged, the marginalized, civic and human rights activists often use it as a means of communication. They create influential images and messages illustrating their concerns and troubles. They trigger discussion about underrepresented or tabooed topics. Often anonymous, street art challenges the dominating public opinion, questioning issues of justice, security, roles in the society, raising the voices of those who are excluded from political decision making and the public space.

Publicity and easy access are both a strength and a weakness for street art. Images or messages are usually placed where people can notice them. For the same reason, they are easily spotted and erased by those who oppose the image or the message. Some of them can “live” for a few hours; others “resist” a few days or weeks. Rarely can street art survive for a few months, especially if it represents “unpopular” views. It is impossible to predict the exact “life cycle” of street art. It is frequently erased, broken, deleted, painted over, and dissolved.

For the past decade, the South Caucasus societies have also seen a surge of street art-ctivism. Groups and individuals have used it as an alternative way of public speaking. They have raised and protested issues ranging from unfair socio-political processes to specific cases of oppression, injustice, and violence.

In this piece, we present selected works of street art – street artwork – in Armenia and Georgia. Most of them do not exist anymore. They have been subject to official or unofficial “censorship” and “cleaning”. The photographs were taken in different cities of Georgia and Armenia and depict deeply embedded issues in these societies. Some of these pieces have common topics and address the same issues in both societies. Others are related to country-specific issues. These artworks belong to brave art-ctivists who deliver “unsanctioned” images and messages to the public space, raise the silenced voices in their societies, and strive for changes in their communities. They “speak” about people’s feelings and attitudes and can, therefore, contain commonly used language, including swear words and other kinds of expressive language.

This 2015 piece of street art in Yerevan tells you that street art-ctivism is “A Method to Struggle”. The artist’s pseudonym is Hakaharvats meaning “counterblast”.

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“A Method to Struggle”. Artist: Hakaharvats. Location: Koghbatsi Street, Yerevan, Armenia. Photo Credits: Aren Melikyan. Date of the Photo: 2015.

Common Topics in Georgian and Armenian Street Art

Against Political Oppression, Regimes, and Surveillance

George Orwell’s famous dystopian book “1984” describes a system where everyone is under the strict control and surveillance of the state. “Thinkpol” – the Thought Police – identifies and punishes Thought Criminals – those who have the capacity of independent thought. There is no space for real freedom in Oceania. Screens and informers are everywhere. Thinkpol immediately eradicates any alternative to the official version of reality. Only one political party is entitled to set rules, take office, and make political decisions. There is no real freedom of choice, democracy, and public will in Oceania.

A similar interpretation of reality inspired an unknown street artist in Georgia to make a number of drawings. The first photo was taken on May 18, 2012 in Tbilisi. It was during the then President Mikheil Saakashvili’s second term in office. It has been widely believed that back then the government systematically violated the citizens’ privacy. Secret phone surveillance was so prevalent that nobody felt safe. The obtained materials were used for blackmail and political repression. Distrust and fear were rooted in all the layers of the political and social structure. “Big Brother is Watching You” was written onto walls in central Tbilisi, among them the wall of the National Parliamentary Library of Georgia and the underground passage of Liberty Square.

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“Big Brother is Watching You”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili. Date of the Photo: May 18, 2012.

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“Big Brother is Watching You”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili. Date of the Photo: May 18, 2012.

The below image that can be interpreted to have a similar message appeared in Yerevan. It seems to illustrate the sense of control and surveillance prevalent in the society.

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A painting of an ear at the turn of a building that was captured by a photographer and posted on Facebook titled “Big Brother is Listening [to] You”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Yerevan, Armenia. Date of the Photo: January 8, 2018. Photo Credits: Narek Aleksanyan’s Facebook page.

And below is another one from Rustavi, Georgia, illustrating resistance to a democracy that does not work well.

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“Fuck Your Democracy”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Rustavi, Georgia. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili. Date of the Photo: February 8, 2014.

In March 2018, two initiatives “My Step” and “Reject Serzh” started a movement to prevent the appointment of the former Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan in the post of the Prime Minister of the country. As a result of the “Velvet Revolution”, Serzh Sargsyan left the post of the Prime Minister where he had stayed only a few days. The opposition Member of Parliament and the leader of the protests Nikol Pashinyan became the new Prime Minister of the country. The struggle of the people against the corrupted authorities and the ruling Republican party took roughly 40 days of street protests. Throughout this period, dozens of new pieces of graffiti appeared in the streets of Yerevan calling people to take their own step and join the movement.

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“The People’s Victory”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Yerevan, Armenia. Date of the Photo: June 13, 2018. Photo Credits: Aren Mkrtchyan’s Facebook Page.

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“The People’s Victory”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Yerevan, Armenia. Photo Credits: Aren Melikyan. Date of the Photo: June 13, 2018.

Confronting Gender- and Sex-Based Violence

Many pieces of street art challenge the dominant perceptions about gender and sex. They question the traditionally assigned gender roles and emphasize the need for changes.

The artwork below was photographed in the underground passage at Liberty Square in Tbilisi on September 23, 2011. It is a collage of two famous female-icons. The head of the figure “belongs” to the Statue of Liberty in New York, USA. The body is a modification of the Mother of Georgia statue in Tbilisi. It still holds a bowl of wine intended “for friends” and a sword intended “for enemies”. However, unlike the original one, her dress is short, and she is wearing high heels. This way the unknown artist illustrates the transformations of the traditional role of women.

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A collage of the Statute of Liberty in New York, USA and the Mother of Georgia statue in Tbilisi, Georgia. Artist: Unknown. Location: Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili. Date of the Photo: September 23, 2011.

In 2013, UNDP Georgia conducted a research on the “Public Perceptions on Gender Equality in Politics and Business” (UNDP Georgia 2013). Based on the findings, they organized a campaign in Spring 2014. As part of the campaign, the images of the most popular gender stereotypes that hinder the advancement of women were painted on the pedestrian sidewalks in the streets of Tbilisi. Afterwards the images were crossed out by red paint, and the message “Destroy the stereotype” was added below. In March 2014, at the end of the campaign, UNDP Georgia arranged a public discussion, accompanied with a performance. It was called “Gender Stereotypes That Can Be Destroyed by Paintball Bullets”.

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“She will get married, and the husband will take care of her”. Artist: Unknown Location: Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili. Date of the Photo: December 2013.

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“The place of the woman is in the kitchen”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili. Date of the Photo: December 2013.

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“He is the man, and he should make the decision”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili. Date of the Photo: December 2013.

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“It’s only the man’s competence to support the family”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili. Date of the Photo: December 2013.

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“Politics is not a woman’s business”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili. Date of the Photo: December 2013.

In Armenia, gender- and sex-related street paintings appear both in Yerevan and in the other cities.

Arpi Balyan is an artist based in Abovyan, Armenia. Her messages are mostly focused on anti-militarization, the war-business, and feminism. She also considers herself a feminist. In the artwork below, she depicts a woman with the writing, “And what have you done to problematize the war?” The image of the woman is a collage of various female-icons. The head is part of the monument “We are our Mountains” (also known as “Tatik-Papik” meaning “Grandfather-Grandmother”) that is considered a symbol of Nagorno-Karabakh among Armenians. The body “belongs” to the well-known Soviet poster “Rodina-Mat’ Zovyot”[1] meaning “The Motherland Calls”, used for mobilization during the Great Patriotic War[2] .

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“And what have you done to problematize the war?”. Artist: Arpi Balyan. Location: Abovyan, Armenia. Date of the Photo: January 2018. Photo Credits: Arpi Balyan’s Facebook page.

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“I did not get married with the state and the army”. Artist: Arpi Balyan. Location: Abovyan, Armenia. Date of the Photo: January 2018. Photo Credits: Arpi Balyan’s Facebook page.

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“My body is not subject to your commercial standards”. Artist: Arpi Balyan. Location: Vanadzor, Armenia. Date of the Photo: January 28, 2018. Photo Credits: Arpi Balyan’s Facebook page.

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“My womb is not a deal for your war business”. Artist: Arpi Balyan. Location: Abovyan, Armenia. Date of the Photo: January 28, 2018. Photo Credits: Arpi Balyan’s Facebook page.

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“No to the war business”. Artist: Arpi Balyan. Location: Gyumri, Armenia. Date of the Photo: January 28, 2018. Photo Credits: Arpi Balyan’s Facebook page.

Arpi is not the only artist who expresses direct protest against the existing order of the society. Others also challenge the male-dominated and masculinist culture and norms.

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“Fist the Patriarchy”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Arami Street, Yerevan, Armenia. Photo Credits: Aren Melikyan. Date of the Photo: January 28, 2018.

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“In the name of the mother and of the daughter and of the holy spirit”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Mashtots Street, Yerevan, Armenia. Date of the Photo: January 5, 2016. Photo Credits: Ananun’s (meaning “anonymous”) Facebook page.

A banner against sexual violence in conflict was placed onto the wall of the British Embassy in Yerevan, next to the residence of the President (now residence of the Prime Minister) of the Republic of Armenia.

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“Time to act. End sexual violence in conflict”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Baghramyan Street, Yerevan, Armenia. Photo Credits: Aren Melikyan. Date of the Photo: February 20, 2018.

The painting below exposes the structures that oppress women and their struggle for their rights – the police and the court system. It depicts a woman who is trying to speak out but two hands – one labeled as belonging to a judge and the other to a policeman – cover her mouth to force her to stay silent.

Medialab made the painting in October 2017 to draw the attention of the Armenian society to domestic violence. According to the Human Rights Watch, “Armenia’s Coalition to Stop Violence Against Women, an alliance of nongovernmental women’s rights organizations, reported that at least four women were killed by their partners or other family members in the first half of 2017, and at least 50 were killed between 2010 and 2017. The Coalition received 5,299 calls about incidents of domestic violence from January through September 2017” (Human Rights Watch 2018).

The painting was made as part of the campaign that supported the adoption of the law on domestic violence (Stepanian and Aslanian 2017). The law was passed in December 2017 with great difficulty, and it caused heated debates in the society. Some parts of the society perceived it as a threat to the traditional family and values. They also have argued that the police and the state should not have the legal right to interfere in family matters.

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“Don’t remain silent”. Artist: MediaLab. Location: Harav Arevmtyan District, Yerevan, Armenia. Date of the Photo: October 29, 2017. Photo Credits: Marianna Grigoryan’s Facebook page.

This next piece is a parody of a popular TV commercial in Armenia from several years ago. In the commercial, two women, Parandzem and Taguhi, are cooking. Taguhi, who chooses to cook the meal with the advertised grains, is able to finish earlier and leave for the dance club. Meanwhile, Parandzem has to keep on cooking the entire night since she chooses the “ordinary” brand of grains.

Women’s rights supporters considered the advertisement sexist and assigning women the role of the cook in the family. Since there is little space to contest this role on the same media platforms that would air such a commercial, street art is the alternative space to challenge the engrained perceptions of women’s roles and needs.

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“Parandzem and Taguhi were having sex all night”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Amiryan Street, Yerevan, Armenia. Photo Credits: Aren Melikyan. Date of the Photo: January 13, 2018.

The below photo was taken in January 2018. The stenciled phrase is located on Parpetsi Street where the only LGBTI bar in Yerevan used to operate. The exact date the phrase appeared on the wall is unknown, but we can assume that it was made after 2012, when the bar closed after an arson attack, and the owner of the pub had to leave Armenia.

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“DIY Street”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Parpetsi Street, Yerevan, Armenia. Photo Credits: Aren Melikyan. Date of the Photo: January 14, 2018.

The below graffiti directly challenges the traditional viewpoints on love, relationships, and hierarchical, male-dominated structures of the society. It has two women with the phrase, “My love shall break your patriarchy”.

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“My love shall break your patriarchy”. Artist: Arpi Balyan. Location: Vanadzor, Armenia. Date of the Photo: September 12, 2017. Photo Credits: Arpi Balyan’s Facebook page.

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“Some people are gay. Take it easy”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Mashtots Street, Yerevan, Armenia. . Date of the Photo: August 6, 2015. Photo Credits: Pure-af’s tumblr page

Against State Violence, Lack of Justice, and Police Violence

On May 31, 2018, the Tbilisi City Court announced a decision on the so-called “Case of the Khorava Street”. On December 1, 2017, in broad daylight and in front of many witnesses, a group of teenage boys brutally killed two 16-year-old schoolmates – David Saralidze and Levan Dadunashvili. Multiple wounds inflicted by knives caused their deaths. Based on the evidence presented by the investigation, the court found guilty one person in the death of Levan Dadunashvili and another one in the “attempted murder” of David Saralidze. The father of the victim Zaza Saralidze asked people for support to achieve justice for his son and punishment of his killers. He believed the prosecution covered up the criminals and did not investigate the case properly, due to their connections with high-ranking law-enforcement officials.

Thousands of people gathered on Rustaveli Avenue, Tbilisi to express support to Saralidze. They required justice and the resignation of the high-ranking governmental figures. On May 31, 2018 the Prosecutor General of Georgia resigned. The mass protest lasted for several days. The Prime Minister, the President, and the Public Defender of Georgia and other officials met Saralidze and promised fair investigation of his son’s case. Civil society representatives, writers, and other groups also empathized with him. The Parliament formed a Temporary Investigative Commission to study the “Case of the Khorava Street”. As a result of mass protest, the Ministry of Internal Affairs started the re-investigation of the case.

These developments inspired two artists to create new artwork. They reflect the struggle for justice that grew from personal grief to public support and wider socio-political outcomes. On June 2, 2018 Gagosh published a new photo on his Instagram page: “2 murdered pupils + 1 unpunished murderer = 3 injustices”. The caption at the photo says, “Arithmetic actions always lead to indisputable truth. Today the Prosecutor’s Office and the Government are standing at the blackboard and cannot solve the simplest equation…”.

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“2 murdered pupils + 1 unpunished murderer = 3 injustices” Artist: Gagosh. Location: Tbilisi, Georgia. Date of the Photo: June 2, 2018. Photo Credits: Gagosh Instagram page.

Another artwork appeared two days later and almost immediately became subject to alteration. It was made on June 4, and the next day someone “corrected” it, erasing the writings.

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“14 years old. 13 cuts. 0 murderers”. Artist: Sandro Pachuashvili. Location: Tbilisi, Georgia. Date of the Photo: June 5, 2015. Photo Credits: Salome Barker’s Facebook Page.

On August 7, 2017, 22-year old Demur Sturua committed suicide in the village of Dapnari, Samtredia Municipality, Georgia. In his farewell letter, he accused a police officer in persecuting him and threatening his life. He wrote that the officer was forcing him to share information about people who cultivated cannabis. The stenciled art with an excerpt from his letter appeared in several locations in Georgia, among them Kutaisi, Zugdidi, and Tbilisi.

The words “Mom, you are left alone, but I have no other way” have become the voice of those who have been under the pressure of the police and other state structures, especially those who have been victims of the very strict anti-drug policy.

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“Mom, you are left alone, but I have no other way”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Kutaisi, Georgia. Date of the Photo: November 12, 2017. Photo Credits: Street Sentiments Facebook page.

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“Mom, you are left alone, but I have no other way”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Zugdidi, Georgia. Date of the Photo: August 20, 2016. Photo Credits: Misha Dzidziguri.

On December 24, 2017, the Georgian poet Zviad Ratiani was beaten in the street and arrested by police officers. Insults and resistance to the police were named as the official reasons for the arrest. Meanwhile, the poet stated that the incident started because the officers did not like his colorful jacket. This inspired Gagosh (it is the pseudonym of a Tbilisi-based street artist, who creates stencils, installations, street poetry, and mosaics) for the new artwork in the center of the city.

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The black and white policeman confronting the colors. Artist: Gagosh. Location: Underground passage in front of Kashueti Church, Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili. Date of the Photo: February 16, 2018.

In July 2016, an armed group called “Sasna Tsrer” (meaning “Daredevils of Sasoun” and borrowed from the title of the Armenian epic poem) captured a police station in Yerevan and took hostages. The demands of the attackers included the release of one of the opposition leaders Jirair Sefilian from prison and the resignation of the then President Serzh Sargsyan. The police surrounded the station, and the siege lasted nine days, leaving those inside without food. A man named Artur Sargsyan drove through the police barricades delivering bread and food to those inside the police station. He was arrested as a “supporter of terrorists” and died in prison as his health issues were complicated by a hunger strike (Arka.am 2017). Many in Armenia consider him a role model of humanism. The below painting was made on the wall of the Parliament of Armenia.

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“The Bread Giver”. Artist: Hakaharvats. Location: Yerevan, Armenia. Date of the Photo: March 2, 2017. Photo Credits: Hakaharvats’s Facebook page.

The piece below represents a Santa Claus as he is being arrested by a policeman. The painting refers to incidents in Yerevan around New Year 2016. In December 2015, an opposition movement called “New Armenia Public Salvation Front” protesting on Freedom Square tried to have an “alternative celebration” of the new year with the attributes of Grandpa Winter, Snow Maiden, and a new year’s tree. The attempt was blocked by the police. On January 1, the member of the movement Gevorg Safaryan dressed as a new year tree tried to join the others on Freedom Square. He was arrested and later sentenced to two years for “use of force against the police” (Human Rights Watch 2016). Many in the civil society in Armenia consider him a political prisoner. He was released from detention most recently.

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Policeman arresting the Santa Claus. Artist: Hakaharvats. Location: Yerevan, Armenia. Date of the Photo: December 31, 2016. Photo Credits: Hakaharvats’s Facebook page.

Opposing Social Injustice and Poverty

These two small artworks at the entrance of the British Council were photographed in September 2012 on Rustaveli Street in Tbilisi. They depict the devastating poverty that some people live in. One of the figures has a loaf of bread instead of a head and the other one has a house. Respectively, the writings above them say, “I am hungry” and “I want a house”.

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“I am hungry” and “I want a house”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili. Date of the Photo: January 26, 2014.

This next writing on a wall on Atoneli Street in Tbilisi emphasizes a tragic reality – thousands of people have lost their houses because of debts.

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“Shelter to the people. People without houses and houses without people”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili. Date of the Photo: February 21, 2014.

The following stenciled phrase also emphasizes social inequality in Armenia.

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“Snatch the Rich”. Artist: Uknown. Location: Yerevan, Armenia. Date of the Photo: December 13, 2017. Photo Credits: Narek Aleksanyan’s Facebook page.

Footnotes

[1] The original poster can be viewed here: https://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/Файл:Ussr0437.jpg.

[2] The term “Great Patriotic War” is used in some of the former Soviet Union countries to describe the conflict fought within the Second World War from June 22, 1941 to May 9, 1945 between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany and its allies.

Bibliography

Arka.am. 2017. Bread Bringer Dead, Things Growing Tense in Yerevan. March 17. Accessed March 6, 2018. http://arka.am/en/news/politics/bread_bringer_dead_things_growing_tense_in_yerevan/.

Human Rights Watch. 2018. Armenia: Little Protection, Aid for Domestic Violence Survivors. January 12. Accessed March 6, 2018 https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/01/12/armenia-little-protection-aid-domestic-violence-survivors.

—. 2016. Armenia: Opposition Activist Jailed. January 8. Accessed March 6, 2018. https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/01/08/armenia-opposition-activist-jailed.

Stepanian, Ruznna, and Karlen Aslanian. 2017. “Armenian Parliament Passes Bill Against Domestic Violence” Azatutyun.am. December 8. Accessed march 8, 2018 https://www.azatutyun.am/a/28905131.html.

UNDP Georgia. 2013. Public Perception on Gender Equality in Politics and Business. November 25. Accessed March 6, 2018. http://www.ge.undp.org/content/georgia/en/home/library/democratic_governance/public-perceptions-on-gender-equality-in-politics-and-business/.

* This story has been produced with support from the US Embassies in the South Caucasus. The opinions expressed in the publication reflect the point of the view of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the US Embassies.

** Read Part 2 of this Story here.

Soviet Kitchens Dissent

A typical Russian kitchen inside an apartment built during the early 1960s, when Nikita Khrushchev led the Soviet Union — what later became known as Khrushchev apartments.

Courtesy of The Kitchen Sisters

When Nikita Khrushchev emerged as the leader of the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death in 1953, one of the first things he addressed was the housing shortage and the need for more food. At the time, thousands of people were living in cramped communal apartments, sharing one kitchen and one bathroom with sometimes up to 20 other families.

“People wanted to live in their own apartment,” says Sergei Khrushchev, the son of Nikita Khrushchev. “But in Stalin’s time you cannot find this. When my father came to power, he proclaimed that there will be mass construction of apartment buildings, and in each apartment will live only one family.”

They were called khrushchevkas — five-story buildings made of prefabricated concrete panels. “They were horribly built; you could hear your neighbor,” says Edward Shenderovich, an entrepreneur and Russian poet. The apartments had small toilets, very low ceilings and very small kitchens.

But “no matter how tiny it was, it was yours,” says journalist Masha Karp, who was born in Moscow and worked as an editor for the BBC World Service from 1991 to 2009. “This kitchen was the place where people could finally get together and talk at home without fearing the neighbors in the communal flat.”

These more private kitchens were emblematic of the completely new era of Soviet life under Khrushchev. “It was called a thaw, and for a reason,” says Karp.

“Like in the winter when you have a lot of snow but spots are already green and the new grass was coming,” says Russian writer Vladimir Voinovich. “In Khrushchev times it was a very good time for inspiration. A little more liberal than before.”

The exterior of Khrushchev-era apartments in Kazan, Russia.

Untifler/Wikipedia

Kitchen Table Talk

The individual kitchens in these tiny apartments, which were approximately 300 to 500 square feet, became hot spots of culture. Music was played, poetry was recited, underground tapes were exchanged, forbidden art and literature circulated, politics was debated and deep friendships were forged.

“One of the reasons why kitchen culture developed in Russia is because there were no places to meet,” says Shenderovich. “You couldn’t have political discussions in public, at your workplace. You couldn’t go to cafes — they were state-owned. The kitchen became the place where Russian culture kept living, untouched by the regime.”

In a country with little or no place to gather for the free expression of ideas and no place to talk politics without fear of repression, these new kitchens made it possible for friends to gather privately in one place.

These “dissident kitchens” took the place of uncensored lecture halls, unofficial art exhibitions, clubs, bars and dating services.

“The kitchen was for intimate circle of your close friends,” says Alexander Genis, Russian writer and radio journalist. “When you came to the kitchen, you put on the table some vodka and something from your balcony — not refrigerator, but balcony, like pickled mushrooms. Something pickled. Sour is the taste of Russia.”

Furious discussions took place over pickled cabbage, boiled potatoes, sardines, sprats and herring.

“Kitchens became debating societies,” remembers Gregory (Grisha) Freidin, professor of Slavic languages and literature at Stanford University. “Even to this day, political windbaggery is referred to as ‘kitchen table talk.’ ”

Even in the kitchen, the KGB was an ever-present threat. People were wary of bugs and hidden microphones. Phones were unplugged or covered with pillows. Water was turned on so no one could hear.

“Some of us had been followed,” says Freidin. “Sometimes there would be KGB agents stationed outside the apartments and in the stairwells. During those times we expected to be arrested any night.”

Samizdat

As the night wore on, kitchen conversations moved from politics to literature. Much literature was forbidden and could not be published or read openly in Soviet society. Kitchens became the place where people read and exchanged samizdat, or self-published books and documents.

A samizdat collection of poems and song lyrics by Vladimir Vysotsky, published shortly after the famous Soviet bard’s death in 1980.

Courtesy of Rossica Berlin Rare Books

People would type hundreds of pages on a typewriter, using carbon paper to create four or five copies, which were passed from one person to the next — political writings, fiction, poetry, philosophy.

Samizdat is, I think, the precursor of Internet,” says Genis. “You put everything on it, like Facebook. And it wasn’t easy to get typewriters because all typewriters must be registered by the KGB. That’s how people got caught and sentenced to jail.”

Samizdat was the most important part of our literature life,” says Genis. “And literature was the most important part of our life, period. Literature for us was like movies for Americans or music for young people.”

In 1973, Masha Karp’s friend got hold of a typewritten copy of Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago. “She told me, ‘I’m reading it at night. I can’t let it out of my hands. But you can come to my kitchen and read it here.’ So I read it in four afternoons.”

Genis’ family read Gulag Archipelago, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in the kitchen. “It’s a huge book, three volumes, and all our family sat at the kitchen. And we were afraid of our neighbor, but she was sleeping. And my father, my mother, my brother, me and my grandma — who was very old and had very little education — all sit at the table and read page, give page, the whole night. Maybe it was the best night of my life.”

Magnitizdat

What happened with samizdat books happened with music, too. Magnitizdat are recordings made on reel-to-reel tape recorders. Tape recorders were expensive but permitted in the Soviet Union for home recordings of bards, poets, folksingers and songwriters, made and passed from friend to friend. People had hundreds of tapes they shared through the kitchens.

“My songs were my type of reactions to the events and news,” says songwriter Yuliy Kim, one of Russia’s famous bards, who was barred from giving public concerts. “I would write a song about whatever was discussed. I would sing it during the discussion. If there would be someone with a tape recorder they would tape it and take it to another party. Songs were spread quickly like interesting stories.”

“The most famous bard was Vladimir Vysotsky, who was like Bob Dylan of Russia,” says Genis. “That’s what you can listen to in kitchen.”

During the 1950s, with vinyl scarce, Russians began recording rock ‘n’ roll, jazz and boogie woogie on used X-rays that they gathered from hospitals and doctors’ offices. They would cut a crude circle out with manicure scissors and use a cigarette to burn a hole.

Courtesy of Jozsef Hajdu (top); courtesy of Ksenia Vytuleva (bottom)

Bone Music

Before the availability of the tape recorder and during the 1950s, when vinyl was scarce, ingenious Russians began recording banned bootlegged jazz, boogie woogie and rock ‘n’ roll on exposed X-ray film salvaged from hospital waste bins and archives.

“Usually it was the Western music they wanted to copy,” says Sergei Khrushchev. “Before the tape recorders they used the X-ray film of bones and recorded music on the bones, bone music.”

“They would cut the X-ray into a crude circle with manicure scissors and use a cigarette to burn a hole,” says author Anya von Bremzen. “You’d have Elvis on the lungs, Duke Ellington on Aunt Masha’s brain scan — forbidden Western music captured on the interiors of Soviet citizens.”

Radio: ‘A Window To The Freedom’

Most kitchens had a radio that reached beyond the borders and censorship of the Soviet Union. People would crowd around the kitchen listening to broadcasts from the BBC, Voice of America and Radio Liberte.

“It was part of our life in the kitchen,” says Vladimir Voinovich, author of The Life andExtraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin. “It was a window to the freedom.”

Voinovich’s books were circulated in samizdat and smuggled out of the country. One of his pieces was broadcast by a foreign radio station. “I heard some BBC voice reading my chapters. After that I was immediately summoned to KGB.” Voinovich was expelled from the Writers Union and later forced to emigrate.

Moscow Kitchens

Dissident composer Yuliy Kim wrote a cycle of songs called “Moscow Kitchens” telling the story of a group of people in the 1950s and the ’60s called “dissidents.” It tells how they began to get together, how it led to protests, how they were detained and forced to leave the country. He describes the kitchen:

“A tea house, a pie house, a pancake house, a study, a gambling dive, a living room, a parlor, a ballroom. A salon for a passing by drunkard. A home for a visiting bard to crash for a night. This is a Moscow kitchen, ten square meters housing 100 guests.”

And, he adds: “This is how this subversive thought grew and expanded in the Soviet Union, beginning with free discussions at the kitchens.”

Memory Politics in Baku

Baku and the Soviet Heritage: Memory and Oblivion

The collapse of the Soviet Union launched the search for a new identity and the creation of new narratives in Azerbaijan just as in the entire ex-Soviet space. We cannot cover all aspects of the memory politics in Azerbaijan during and after the Soviet period in a single article. Instead, we highlight the most significant sites of the Soviet memory landscape of Baku and their post-Soviet transformations within the new politics of memory.

The Nagorny Park Named After Sergey Kirov

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The monument to Sergey Kirov. Location: Nagorny Park, Baku, Azerbaijan. Date of the Photo: 1978. Photo Credits: Isaac Rubenchik, taken from ourbaku.com.

Immediately after the Sovietization of Azerbaijan, the urban development of Baku took a Soviet turn. In September 1920, the special committee on the development of city gardens in the Absheron peninsula created a plan on changing the appearance of the city. It included the development of the English Park in the place of the Chemberkent cemetery[1]. Later it became part of the Nagorny[2] Park.

In 1939, the Nagorny Park took the name of Sergey Kirov, a prominent political figure whose death of at the end of 1934 had made him one of the central heroes of the politics of memory of Soviet Azerbaijan[3]. Kirov’s monument was installed in the Nagorny Park as the latter dominated the panorama of Baku with a view on the bay. Kirov’s massive figure raising his hand over the city was placed at the center of a memorial that remained a prominent landmark of Baku until the collapse of the Soviet Union (Bertanitski 1971, 138-140).

The Architectural Complex Lenin Square

The design of Baku’s new central square began with the construction of the House of the Soviets (“Dom Sovietov” in Russian) or the Government House. Intended to accommodate large-scale events and serve the purpose of an ideological center, the square was the largest one in the USSR at the time of its completion (Bertanitski 1971, 146-149).

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The Government House. Location: Then Lenin Sqaure, Baku, Azerbaijan. Date of the Photo: 1977-80. Photo Credits: Leonid Kondratyev, taken from pastvu.com.

The construction of the House began in 1930 and was completed in 1952. According to the architects of the House, the exterior of the building was designed in the Baroque style, using also elements of the national Azerbaijani architecture. This style was reflected in the three rows of columns located along the edges of the building, the prototype for which was the colonnade of the reception hall of the medieval Shirvanshah palace in Baku. The construction of the adjacent Lenin Square ended in the Fall of 1951. It became an ideal location for military parades and demonstrations of workers. The first large-scale event took place on November 7 of 1951 on the commemoration of the October Revolution of Bolsheviks.

The House of the Soviets itself was designed as a “memorial-building” dedicated to the “father of the revolution” Vladimir Lenin. His monument was installed in the square on November 6 of 1954. For many years, the expressive 11-meter bronze sculpture of Lenin, the leader of the proletariat, portrayed at the time of addressing the people, was the central element of the whole complex. The last Soviet demonstration in the square took place in May 1987. The mass rallies in the following years went down history as the events that contributed to the collapse of the USSR.

The 26 Baku Commissars Square

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26 Baku Commissars Memorial. Location: Baku, Azerbaijan. Date of the Photo: 1980. Photo Credits: taken from commons.wikimedia.com.

On September 10 of 1920, a solemn ceremony of reburial was taking place in the Freedom Square (the former Stock Exchange Square or “Birzhevaya” in Russian) of Baku. The remains of the Baku Commune members were brought from Krasnovodsk, where they had been executed by a firing squad in 1918. Since then, they have been referred to as the “26 Baku Commissars”, with the Soviet propaganda putting upon them a halo of martyrdom and turning their story into an important Soviet historical and ideological narrative. The four main commissars, Meshadi Azizbekov, Prokofy (Alyosha) Dzhaparidze, Stepan Shahumyan, and Ivan Fioletov, with their respective backgrounds of an Azerbaijani, a Georgian, an Armenian, and a Russian, were to symbolize the international spirit of Baku. The Soviet ideology turned their burial site into a place of memory and glorification.

The square and the park around it went through several transformations and were renamed after the 26 Baku Commissars. The first memorial was constructed in 1923 in time for the fifth anniversary of the commissars’ death. For the 40th anniversary in 1958, a high relief sculpture, the “Execution of the 26 Baku Commissars” was installed in the park. In another ten years, the entire site went through a redesign. The Eternal Flame was added and the structure made of marble, reinforced concrete, and granite was erected above the graves, creating a ring-shaped pantheon. The structure was inscribed with the words “26 Bakı Komissarı”. A massive bust of an oilman bent over the Eternal Flame was placed in the center of the composition.

In the Soviet politics of memory, the cult of the commissars took up an extremely important place as a symbol of proletarian internationalism and a selfless struggle against oppression. In the 1970s and 80s, in addition to this memorial complex, personal monuments to some of the commissars were established in different parts of Baku – in 1975 to Stepan Shahumyan, in 1976 to Meshadi Azizbekov, in 1980 to Prokofy Dzhaparidze, and in 1985 to Ivan Fioletov.

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The statue of Meshadi Аzizbekov. Location: Baku, Azerbaijan. Date of the Photo: Unknown. Photo Credits: Isaac Rubenchik, taken from ourbaku.com.

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The statue of Ivan Fioletov. Location: Baku, Azerbaijan. Date of the Photo: Unknown. Photo Credits: taken from ourbaku.com.

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The statue of Stepan Shahumyan. Location: Baku, Azerbaijan. Date of the Photo: 1981. Photo Credits: Isaac Rubenchik, taken from the Photobook “Azerbaijan”.

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The statue of Prokofy Dzhaparidze. Location: Baku, Azerbaijan. Date of the Photo: 1981. Photo Credits: Isaac Rubenchik, taken from the Photobook “Azerbaijan”.

The Collapse of Ideals: The Alley of Martyrs in Nagorny Park and the New Freedom Square

The collapse of the Soviet Union, which coincided with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, led to a dramatic reconstruction of Baku’s memory landscape. The Baku residents who were killed during the tragic events of January 1990[4] were buried in the Nagorny Park[5]. A grandiose funeral demonstration began on Lenin Square, transferring the bodies of the dead to the territory of the park, that from that moment on, became the site of the Alley of Martyrs (“Şəhidlər Xiyabanı” in Azerbaijani).

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The Alley of Martyrs. Location: Baku, Azerbaijan. Date of the Photo: 2013. Photo Credits: Urek Meniashvili, taken from commons.wikimedia.com.

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The entrance to the funicular in the Upland Park. Location: Near the Martyrs Lane Mosque, Baku, Azerbaijan. Date of the Photo: February 6, 2018. Photo Credit: Saadat Abdullazade.

Kirov’s memorial was demolished in 1991. Later the graves of the heroes of the Nagorno-Karabakh war of 1992-1994 were also placed here. Regardless of when they died, those buried here are called martyrs. This is a religious term applied to people who died for their faith, and in a broader sense, for a just cause – in this case, for the independence and territorial integrity of the country. The grand opening of the memorial complex of the Eternal Flame took place on October 9 of 1998. Currently, the ally continues to serve as a reminder of Azerbaijan’s Soviet past, but now exclusively in a negative sense – as a period of oppression and deprivation of independence that was restored thanks to the martyrs buried here.

The January 1990 tragedy in Baku became a point of no return. The more heated the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh became, the louder the nationalist slogans got, which, in turn, further fueled the conflict. The later events of the Nagorno-Karabakh war, as well as the explicit and implicit Russian assistance to Armenia, gave momentum to the discourse of Soviet oppression and antagonism with it. As a result, everything Soviet, Russian, and Armenian was declared alien and subject to demolition and distancing. In a new Azerbaijan, the Soviet monuments were perceived to embody the crimes of Russians and Armenians towards the Azerbaijani people and the loss of independence. The “fight” against these monuments inevitably became an important part of the de-Sovietization that was already underway.

One of the first monuments to disappear from the streets of Baku in 1990 was the bust of Stepan Shahumyan[6] . With the transition to independence, the head of the Baku Commune had become nothing but the worst enemy of Azerbaijanis and a hidden Dashnak – affiliated with the nationalist Armenian Revolutionary Federation Party (“Dashnaktsutyun” in Armenian).

Immediately after the failed attempt of the August 1991 Coup in Moscow, Lenin Square was renamed into Freedom Square (“Azadlıq Meydanı” in Azerbaijani). Soon after that, Lenin’s statue in front of the Government House was demolished, and the state flag of Azerbaijan was erected in its place. The square kept its status of the central square in the country and was now associated with the fight for independence. Military parades continue to take place here nowadays. The first one took place in October of 1992, and the latest one was in June 2018.

The New Interpretation of the Soviet Past

On October 18 of 1991, the Constitutional Act on the State Independence of the Republic of Azerbaijan, signed by President Ayaz Mutalibov, became the document laying out the foundation of the official politics of memory in independent Azerbaijan. It referred to centuries-long traditions of statehood of the Azerbaijani people and the Russian aggression towards Azerbaijan in 1920. The document described the seventy years of the Soviet rule as a period of colonialism, a ruthless exploitation of natural resources and plunder of national wealth, and infringement on national dignity.

This reinterpretation of the Soviet past was also derived from the context of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and was sealed by its consequences. It reflected the vision of history of the nationalists from the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan (“Azərbaycan Xalq Cəbhəsi Partiyası” in Azerbaijani). However, this approach remained the cornerstone of the public consensus also under the leadership of President Heydar Aliyev. Later, it gained a fresh momentum in the form of another wave of de-Sovietization under President Ilham Aliyev. Heydar Aliyev’s decree “On the Genocide of Azerbaijanis”, adopted in 1998 for the bloody events of March 1918, was also an important landmark of the de-Sovietization process.

The dismantling of memorial plaques was the latest stage of de-Sovietization, as a policy to put the Soviet past to oblivion. For example, the Soviet plaque “Palace of Happiness” was removed from the Palace of Marriage Registrations during its reconstruction. The plaque also noted that the building used to house the Women’s Club named after Ali Bayramov and that the Club played an important role in the “emancipation of the Azerbaijani woman”. Similarly, after the reconstruction of the Nizami Cinema Center, the memorial plaque that indicated that the cinema received a commemorative banner did not find a place on its walls.

The Sahil Park in the Place of the 26 Baku Commissars

The demolition of the memorial complex of the 26 Baku Commissars began in the early 1990s. First, the Eternal Flame was put out, and then in 1993, the high relief sculpture “The Execution of the Baku Commissars” was destroyed. The inscription “26 Bakı Komissarı” was removed from the pantheon, and the area was renamed into Sahil Park.

For many years, the memorial remained abandoned. Stripped of its usual symbolism, the pantheon over the graves of commissars in the center of the city was creating an obvious dissonance. Finally, in January 2009, the park was closed for reconstruction. The structure around the Eternal Flame was demolished, and the remains of the commissars were reburied in the Hovsan cemetery in the suburbs of Baku. The renovated the Sahil Park, with a three-tier fountain installed in the middle, opened in May 2009.

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The fountain in Sahil Park built in the place of 26 Baku Commissars memorial. Location: Baku, Azerbaijan. Date of the Photo: February 5, 2018. Photo Credit: Saadat Abdullazade.

As noted above, with the wind of change, the monument to the Armenian commissar Stepan Shahumyan was the first one demolished in 1990. In 1992, the monument to the Russian commissar Ivan Fioletov followed. Monuments to the Azerbaijani Meshadi Azizbekov and Georgian Prokofy Dzhaparidze stayed significantly longer and were demolished only in 2009 on the night of April 26 and 28 respectively.

The authorities react fervently to the slightest attempt at the revival of the symbolism associated with the commissars and the former name of the park. In 2017, the café “26” near the Sahil Park was closed by the city authorities, and their property was confiscated. The owners of the café were blamed for fulfilling an “Armenian order” and speculated to have family ties with the deceased commissars of Armenian origin.

The “Untouchable” Narimanov

Among the monuments to the Soviet state and its party leaders, there is one that survived all the stages of de-Sovietization and de-communization. It is the monument to Nariman Narimanov. He was the de facto leader of Soviet Azerbaijan during the first half of the 1920s when the first anti-Soviet armed demonstrations were suppressed. Through his participation in the central structures of the Soviet state, Narimanov also cemented the Soviet ideology of internationalism, which in modern Azerbaijan is viewed nothing more than a way of Russian and Armenian dominance over the indigenous population – the Azerbaijanis. Then how did Narimanov’s monument survive de-Sovietization?

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The monument to Nariman Narimanov. Location: Baku, Azerbaijan. Date of the Photo: February 6, 2018. Photo Credits: Saadat Abdullazade.

The new official discourse in independent Azerbaijan claimed that people had been fighting for independence throughout the Soviet period. And it was this persistent struggle, carried forward despite Moscow’s policy, that explains any achievement and success of the Soviet period. The argument is that despite Moscow’s anti-national policies, the Azerbaijani identity was preserved thanks to local political leaders whose national-patriotic spirit outweighed their adherence to Soviet ideology. Thus, their legacy is still honored as they are believed to have done everything possible to protect Azerbaijan’s interests. This clause of “despite” allows the selective attitude towards the monuments of the Soviet political leaders, and Narimanov is one of them.

Narimanov is credited for keeping Nakhijevan and Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan in the 1920s. It is widely believed that he was the one who saved prominent Azerbaijani generals Samed Mehmandarov and Aliagha Shikhlinski from Bolshevik repressions. He is portrayed as the politician who blocked the demands of Armenian nationalists acting under the patronage of Russian Bolsheviks. More recently, theories have appeared suggesting that Narimanov was deliberately pushed out of Baku and later poisoned in Moscow. Articles and books defending his ideas have been published. And the large-scale monument to Narimanov put up in 1972 continues to stand in one of the Baku squares.

Between Memory and Oblivion

The monuments, memorials, and places of memory discussed in this article appear to us as the most significant in the context of Soviet politics of memory and its post-Soviet transformations. Nevertheless, many other memorials were produced both in Soviet and independent Azerbaijan, and one article cannot cover them all. It is noteworthy that a number of monuments related to the Second World War (or its Soviet “equivalent” of the Great Patriotic War) have been completely preserved. At the same time, “that war” has largely lost its significance and ceded its memory to the events around the collapse of the Soviet Union and the current Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. As a result, the monuments, memorials, and places of memory, created for the commemoration of the “Black January” of 1990 or the Khojaly tragedy[7] , currently occupy a central place in the modern memory landscape in Azerbaijan.

Footnotes

[1] The Chemberkent cemetery was also the burial site of the British soldiers who died during the civil war of 1918 in Baku. That’s why initially the park was often called “English”.

[2] “Nagorny” means “upland” in Russian, and the park was named so because it is situated on a high platform in Baku.

[3] As a member of the 11th Unit of the Red Army, Kirov had taken part in the establishment of Soviet power in Baku. Later he was elected First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan.

[4] On the events of January 1990, see the 2003 book of Thomas De Waal “Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through peace and war” published by New York University Press.

[5] This decision might have been motivated by the fact that the Chemberkent cemetery used to be located here. It was believed that the Muslim victims of the bloody events of March 1918 in Baku were buried here. And indeed, during the ground preparations for the burial of the victims of January 1990, the remains of three people were found in the park and were reburied. The tombstones indicate that these are the “martyrs of 1918”. For more details on these events, see the 2010 translation into Russian of the book by Jörg Baberovski “The Enemy is Everywhere: Stalinism in the Caucasus” («Враг есть везде: Сталинизм на Кавказе») published by Rosspen in Moscow.

[6] For the biography of Stepan Shahumyan, see the 2012 work of Eldar Ismailov “Stepan Shahumyan – doomed to oblivion: a portrait of the “legendary communard” without retouching” («Степан Шаумян – обреченный на забвение – портрет «легендарного коммунара» без ретуши») published by Sharg-Garb publishing house in Baku.

[7] For more on the Khojaly tragedy, see the 2003 book of Thomas De Waal “Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through peace and war” published by New York University Press.

Bibliography

Bertanitski, Leonid. 1971. Баку [Baku]. Leningrad-Moscow: Iskusstvo.

* This story has been produced with support from the US Embassies in the South Caucasus. The opinions expressed in the publication reflect the point of the view of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the US Embassies.

** This story is part of a series on post-Soviet transformations of the memory landscapes, memorial sites, and monuments in TbilisiYerevan, and Baku.