“Yerevan is unlike any other Soviet city: an intoxicating blend of ancient and modern styles, grandiose planning and small-scale disorder and reminders of a nation’s tragic recent history
Yerevan offers the spectacle of an ancient city (it was founded as Erebuni in the eighth century BC — some fortress ruins are preserved in the suburbs) where almost everything you can see was built between the 1920s and 1980s. It also offers the spectacle of a Soviet city where the notion of a “national form” was deployed consistently from the very beginning. Some explanation of this can be found in the horrific events that immediately preceded its incorporation into the Soviet Union. In the 19th century, Armenia was divided between the Ottoman and Russian Empires; the assumption that Christian Armenians would sympathise with the Russians was the logic of the first genocide of the 20th century, the extermination in 1915 of over a million western Armenians by the Young Turk government. Refugees streamed into Yerevan — a small city which became briefly the capital of an fragile independent republic in the aftermath of 1917. The Bolsheviks, who had a large proportion of Armenian activists, eventually retook eastern Armenia in 1920, with the Red Army marching in without firing a shot. Within a couple of years, the Bolshevik government of Soviet Armenia commissioned Alexander Tamanyan — an exile from revolutionary Petersburg — to design a town plan for its capital.
The resulting plan is an icon of the city. You can find it on logos, as a relief in cafes, as an object of branding. It is not a 20th-century plan in any way: with its green Ringstrasse, and its radial spokes terminating in a vast opera house, it was more like the Hapsburg Empire reborn in the Soviet Caucasus. And as with a Hapsburg city, the result is exceptionally pleasant, logical and easy to understand. There is a rhetorical aspect to it, too. Many of the main streets lead up to slopes, from where you can get jaw-dropping views of Mount Ararat, the double-peaked mountain where Noah’s Ark ended up, its snowy top roaring up out of the clouds. Mount Ararat is, however, just over the border, in Turkey. The plan seems to have been deliberately executed to create a longing for the lost western parts of Armenia, and for the hundreds of thousands who were massacred there. It’s town planning as either memorial or irredentism, depending on what side of Ararat you’re on.”
What can we learn from Georgia’s forgotten master architect?
Rising from the banks of the Mtkvari River, the structure dominates the landscape like an enormous abstract sculpture. Its ritual function is unmistakable: it is the size of a cathedral and clad in the same warm stone used in Georgia’s medieval churches. It also happens to be exuberantly phallic — a giant cock and balls against Tbilisi’s ancient skyline.The Palace of Rituals, or Wedding Palace as it is universally known, is the wrong building in the wrong place at the wrong time: a cathedral built in the atheist USSR, a Soviet celebration of Georgian national heritage, a cultural innovation in an era remembered largely for conformity. It is the work of Viktor Jorbenadze — nicknamed Jorbusier for his love of the French-Swiss master — an architect of genius whose daring and provocative buildings defy categorisation. Just like the now-forgotten moment that produced them.
Jorbenadze’s peculiar masterpiece shows the USSR and its modern architecture in a new light. Despite the chasm that separates the Brezhnev years from the modern West in terms of aesthetics, mores, and economics, Soviet architects in the seventies were as concerned with the problem of “placeless” architecture as any globalised city today. Behind the Iron Curtain, a parade of drab, mass-produced towers marched relentlessly from Vilnius to Vladivostok. It took someone like Jorbenadze to subvert this. His work is neither Old City quaint nor tower-and-slab modern. That it is neither of those things is what makes him special. He built big, but with an eye to what surrounded him — a kind of contextual monumentalism. His designs evoked local traditions without fetishising them, creating an alternate route between too precious and too placeless.
In the late seventies Georgia was by far the best place to live in the Soviet Union
What makes the bold experimentation of the Wedding Palace surprising is not only its design but its dates: commissioned in 1979 and finished in 1984. Across the Soviet Union this was the Era of Stagnation. The time of the gerontocracy, of ageing politburo members catching their deaths watching military parades, of tumbling living standards, drab fashions and stifling censorship. Except, that is, in Georgia. In the late seventies Georgia was rich — as rich as the capitalist countries of southern Europe. Flush with Moscow subsidies, a booming tourism sector and a massive black market, Georgia was by far the best place to live in the Soviet Union.
The city of Tbilisi, current capital of the country of Georgia, experienced a turbulent set of changes at the dawn of the modern period, from little more than a mass of ruins in 1795 to the 19th-century political center of the Russian Caucasus to 20th-century capital of Georgia. This project seeks to understand cities as intrinsically heterogeneous and historically layered objects: many places in one. Cities are therefore intrinsically “multiple objects” inviting multiple readings. Our website will treat Tbilisi as an “urban assemblage”, composed of heterogeneous networks of human and nonhuman elements and actors. From these heterogeneous materials and actors are assembled and stabilized “imagined cities”: the traditional “Middle Eastern” city, the divided city of colonialism, the modernist city of infrastructures, the socialist “cultured” city and postsocialist cities haunted by past and future.
To study such an intrinsically heterogeneous object is required an equally heterogeneous approach, which renders objects as diverse as literary images of the city and material infrastructures comparable and commensurable within stable “urban assemblages”. Following the grant narrative, this website will divide Tbilisi into five such distinct periods: the maps will be linked to each period.
The City of Balconies: elite politics and the changing semiotics of the post-socialist cityscape
My first experience of Tbilisi was in the spring of 1992, a few short months after the coup that ousted the first post-socialist government of Zviad Gamsakhurdia. It also leveled much of a historic portion of the downtown area. The general who had led the coup, Tengiz Kitovani, had been a sculptor in the socialist period. As a result, the devastated downtown region became known jokingly at the time as ‘Kitovani’s exhibition’.
The coup against Gamsakhurdia was transformative in its effects on the Georgian city not only in the plastic arts, but also socially. The emergent political divide between Anti- and Pro-Gamsakhurdia (‘Zviadist’) orientations often boiled down to the inherited cultural division between Tbiliseli ‘Tbilisian’ and provincial Georgian villagers. The nationalist Gamsakhurdia government’s support was strongest amongst present or erstwhile Georgian villagers, whilst old urbanites, and the urban intelligentsia in particular, ranged themselves against the new government.
The 1992 coup was also a family feud within the socialist intelligentsia: A philologist-dissident-turned-president ousted by a sculptor-turned-general (Kitovani) and a criminal-turned-writer-turned-warlord (Jaba Ioseliani), the coup illustrated emergent and opposed tendencies within the socialist intelligentsia. Different self-conceptions of the urban intelligentsia were, as it were, incarnated in the figures who led this coup. On the one hand, the coup, in which a sculptor-turned-general ousted a philologist-turned-president, illustrates a public, exoteric, battle over the self-definition of the intelligentsia, an essentially urban, elitist intelligentsia (represented by Kitovani) turning against a provincial or provincializing one (represented by Gamsakhurdia). On the other hand, the presence of a unique ‘hybrid’, Jaba Ioseliani, a well-known criminal (‘thief of the law’, Georgian k’anonieri kurdi, Russian vor v zakone) breaking the criminal laws of non-engagement with public political life, who was himself also a writer and intelligent turned paramilitary leader, gives the coup another hidden, esoteric dimension. Here urban life and the intelligentsia is characterized not as a public apotheosis of national culture (dividing the intelligentsia from the people as urban to rural, but reuniting them within the framework of the nation), but as an urban bohemian subculture, stressing the opposition between the intelligentsia and the people, private urban subculture and public national culture.
The Baku Commune
The story of the Baku Commune’s leaders, who pursued power democratically and nonviolently, belies many of the myths of the Russian Revolution.
Most accounts of the Russian Revolution tell the story of one city — Petrograd, where the Romanov regime collapsed in February and the Bolsheviks came to power in October. As decisive as the workers, women, and soldiers were in the capital, people all over Russia launched their own revolutionary movements throughout this revolutionary year.
Fifteen hundred miles to the southeast, in Baku, ethnicity, religion, and class divided the population, altering the course of history and influencing the decisions revolutionary leaders made. There, in a metropolis built on oil, October would arrive late.
When it did, the Caucasian Lenin, Stepan Shahumian, tried to win power for the people democratically and nonviolently. The story of the Baku Commune he built provides an important perspective on the Russian Revolution and the subsequent civil war.
City of Oil
Oil made Baku the largest city in the South Caucasus, a cosmopolitan workers’ oasis surrounded by largely Muslim peasant villages. At the turn of the twentieth century, it was producing more oil than the whole of the United States. Despite miserable living and working conditions, needy migrants flocked to the oil fields to find work.
Baku became the center not only of imperial Russia’s industrial revolution but also a crucible of the labor movement. Indeed, the first collective bargaining agreement between workers and industry was signed there in 1904, and the city served as a refuge for Social Democrats, particularly Bolsheviks like Joseph Stalin, when their organizations were crushed in other, less hospitable cities.
Class distinctions in Baku matched ethnic differences. Foreign investors and engineers sat at the top of the social hierarchy alongside Armenian and Russian industrialists and Azerbaijani ship owners. Russian and Armenian workers held the more skilled positions, and the unskilled workforce consisted of Muslims. As the most transient and vulnerable workers, they ended up with the dirtiest jobs.
The empire’s exploitative relationship to Caucasia was nowhere more evident than in Baku, where accumulating oil revenue trumped all other concerns. The propertied elite — that is, Armenians and Russians — handled city governance, and welfare for the lower classes was largely left to private charity. Political institutions had very few non-Christian representatives, and the regime frequently proclaimed martial law and states of emergency, undermining confidence in the local government or the rule of law.
Both ordinary people and the ruling classes wanted reform, but the tsar offered virtually no institutional avenues to effect change. The situation demanded extralegal organization, and revolutionary activists, few as they were in number, provided the available leadership and direction.
Social Democrats and Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs) often noted that Baku’s workers, divided by skills, pay rate, and ethnicity, cared more about wages than politics. Fortunately, the oil companies were unusually willing to grant concessions in order to hold on to their workforce, particularly their skilled hands.
By focusing on economic benefits, the general strike of December 1904 won an eight-to-nine-hour working day and significant improvements in wages and sick pay — a contract so good, it earned the nickname the Crude-oil Constitution.
After Tsar Nicholas II issued his “October Manifesto” in 1905, granting limited civil rights and an elected duma to his people, Baku formed a Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, one of many such councils that articulated working people’s demands at the end of that revolutionary year.
But workers continued to focus on their economic interests and eschewed politics. Shahumian lamented:
In general the workers here are a terribly mercantilistic group. They are thinking and talking about a new economic strike in order to snatch another greasy piece and increase “bonuses.”
Despite relentless police efforts, revolutionaries maintained an underground presence even after 1905, when the tsarist regime repressed the labor movement and forced many radicals either out of politics or into exile. Their work culminated in a forty-thousand-worker-strong strike in 1914, just as Russia’s war machine was gearing up.
These successes masked the tension that simmered just under the surface. The Russian- and Armenian-majority skilled workers joined unions and took in the Social Democrats’ message while Muslims only reluctantly engaged in protests or strikes.
Observers referred condescendingly to the “Tatars,” as they were called, as temnye (dark) or nesoznatel’nye (politically unconscious). Many Muslim workers remained tied to their villages and religious leaders. Though a small number of Muslim intellectuals preached socialism and nationalism, most Muslims in Caucasia had no interest in politics.
Baku’s ethnic and religious divisions reached a head in February 1905, when the tensions between Armenians and Muslims erupted into riots and interethnic killing. Muslims, alarmed by rumors that Armenians were taking up weapons, attacked first. The police and soldiers sat idle.
The Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaks), a nationalist party formed a decade earlier to defend Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, used its soldiers to protect the community. Social Democrats and liberals denounced the government’s inaction, accusing officials of promoting a pogrom. After the violence ended, hostilities continued to smolder, and, on the eve of World War I, people feared that another outbreak of violence was imminent.
An impressionable young diaspora Armenian returns to his ancestral homeland to rid its capital of its Soviet heritage and rebuild the city anew. It’s a familiar story in post-Soviet Armenia.
But for Frunz, the hapless but well-meaning hero of Viken Berberian and Yann Kebbi’s new graphic novel The Structure is Rotten, Comrade!, “rebuilding” Yerevan is meant literally – he is an architect set on physically transforming the city.
Berberian, a Beirut-born novelist and essayist, has lived in Yerevan for the last four years, a turbulent time for the city. So it’s no surprise that his Yerevan, brought to life by the Paris-based illustrator Kebbi, is littered with cranes; its residents narrowly avoid wrecking balls on a daily basis. Much of this is the doing of Frunz’s father Sergey, who is known as “Mr. Concrete” and directs the tragically misnamed Radical Architecture Department (RAD). The book opens with Frunz having dropped out of architecture school in Paris and joining his father’s business.
But the father and son’s bold visions prove their undoing. The city they regard as a blank canvas for their experiments is home to a million people who do not take kindly to this relentless “redevelopment.” In an absurdist twist, they compensate evicted homeowners with original Alvar Aalto stools, and see the citizens’ ingratitude as evidence of their inability to grasp the architects’ genius.
Ultimately, though, Frunz and Sergey prove to be little more than enablers of oligarchs’ wholesale destruction of the Armenian capital. “The structure is rotten, comrade!” one resident screams at Frunz.
The parallels with the Armenian capital’s predicaments are obvious to anyone who has strolled down Yerevan’s Northern Avenue, where empty luxury apartments tower over outlets of luxury international brands. There is an increasingly common sentiment that downtown Yerevan is no longer a city for its residents.
There is no denying the ecstatic cries of the children and the content faces of their parents who have been flocking with their families to the newly inaugurated 2800th Anniversary Park of Yerevan. The mosaic-laden, grid of fountains, benches and astonishingly schmaltzy statues is a massive success. The general jolliness of the public inadvertently silences those naysayers who decry the supposed ‘tastelessness’ of the park. Just like the derided Northern Avenue, this new initiative by the city’s municipality – realized through the auspices of private capital – has given Yerevan’s residents a much-needed stretch of public space where people can socialize in relative comfort and safety. So what is the issue here and is there an issue at all? If we were to strip back the layers of meaning and intent in this site, what we’d find hidden is not so much herd mentality and tastelessness, but quite the opposite. This park, along with its even more grotesque twin – the recently reconstructed Central Avenue square adjoining Mashtots Avenue – are taste-full. Overwhelmingly so, in fact.
To put it crudely, ‘good taste’ is a historical and cultural phenomenon that evolved in the Western world during the early modern period in the 17th century and served as a way of delineating the aesthetic judgement of the nobility and the upper classes, from that of the ordinary folk. Possessing ‘good taste’ meant being aligned with superior levels of power and political standing – a position reflected through luxurious material objects and richly decorated residences. While it transformed dramatically during the 19th and especially 20th century, the concept of ‘good taste’ was always decried by Marxists and the artistic avant-garde as the epitome of petit bourgeoisie, and was passionately fought through the standardization of mass-culture and lifestyle in communist republics such as Soviet Armenia. Nevertheless, the ambition for social elevation remained an undercurrent drive that exploded with untamed force after the collapse of the USSR. This repressed desire to show one’s ‘taste’ in fine things – and hence, higher social ranking – was reflected in every aspect of everyday, post-Soviet Armenian life: from the extraordinary number of luxury cars to the neo-imperial style of the gargantuan private and public buildings constructed in the last two decades. The two newly reconstructed parks in Yerevan’s center boldly extend this tendency into the development of public space. Attendant political, sociological and cultural implications of such conversions have been ignored by the popular media and despite some critical reactions, the local intelligentsia has passively shrugged the matter away. The present article is an attempt to continue the discussion and examine the wider consequences behind the relentless subjugation and transformation of existing public spaces in Yerevan, under the auspices of private capital and neo-liberal cultural policies.
Archaeology, Modernity and Post-Soviet Industrial Decay
“Archaeologist Dr. Lori Khatchadourian spoke with EVN Report about her current archaeological and ethnographic research in Armenia that focuses on the afterlife of socialist modernity, focusing on the forces shaping industrial ruination. Khatchadourian is an Associate Professor in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Cornell University, the co-director of a long-term field project in Armenia called the Project for the Archaeology and Geography of Ancient Transcaucasian Societies (Project ArAGATS), co-director of Cornell’s Landscapes and Objects Laboratory and co-founder and co-director of the Aragats Foundation.”
Ideologies and Informality in Urban Infrastructure:
The Case of Housing in Soviet and Post-Soviet Baku
Since the early 2000s, the Azerbaijani state has made enormous efforts to turn its capital Baku into a showcase of modernization in urban infrastructure, housing and architecture. The authoritarian government of the oil-rich country has forged large infrastructural projects, such as renovating the old city, the seaside boulevard, parks and metro stations, as well as constructing luxurious hotels and elite housing estates in the context of Baku hosting international mega events like the ‘Eurovision Song Contest’ (2012), the ‘European Olympic Games’ (2015) or the ‘Formula One Grand Prix of Europe’ (2016). Preparations for these events were accompanied by largescale demolition of pre-Soviet neighbourhoods, which is often legitimized by their deficient infrastructure. Many such neighbourhoods were replaced by new infrastructural model sites such as the Flame Towers1 or park areas in the central districts. In this context, infrastructure constitutes a key concept in public discourse.