Category Archives: Monuments

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.

Armenian Soviet Monuments

The dirt shone red-orange in the car headlights, the road little more than a trench cutting through endless miles of dry terrain. Night had caught us by surprise, still hours from our destination. We sped through the moonlit wilderness, one single light in a rocky land dotted with pylons, ruined churches, and every few miles or so, looming ghostlike out of the darkness, the vestigial remains of Armenia’s Soviet monuments.

Monument to World War II Victims (1970). Bagravan, Armenia.
Monument to World War II Victims (1970). Bagravan, Armenia.

Somewhere near the village of Dashtadem, down in the southwest corner of Armenia, we lost the road altogether. The tarmac, half hidden under dust, took a sudden, sharp turn to the right while we carried on straight ahead. The car shuddered into the dirt, bouncing to a violent halt; and the small halo of light that had surrounded us erupted into a glowing cocoon of dust and smoke.

Nearby, an invisible siren whooped. In all these empty miles we had managed to plough into the verge just a stone’s throw from a police patrol car (I wondered how long it had waited there, like a trapdoor spider, for anyone to pass), and now we were due for a reckoning.

As one officer leaned down to the driver window, we told him we didn’t speak Armenian. We might have just about got by in Russian, but we told him – in English – that we didn’t speak that either. We assumed that the harder we made this, the more likely the police would just send us on our way… and it worked, though not without one final test to pass.

This Armenian police officer motioned the driver to get out of the car, then he cupped his hands and mimed a gesture of breathing into them. Our driver – an American – did as he was told, he emptied his lungs into the man’s palms and the officer took a good hard sniff. If he’d been expecting vodka breath, he was pleasantly surprised: we weren’t drunk, just tired.

As we reversed back onto the road the two police officers had a good laugh at our expense. They waved us off, muttering something that I can only guess meant “Stupid tourists.”

 

Monument to Mother Armenia (Architect: Rafik Yeghoyan, Sculptors: Ara Sargsian & Yerem Vartanyan, 1975). Gyumri, Armenia.
Monument to Mother Armenia (Architect: Rafik Yeghoyan, Sculptors: Ara Sargsian & Yerem Vartanyan, 1975). Gyumri, Armenia.

SOVIET MONUMENTS IN ARMENIA

Armenia has an incredible number of monuments, and many of those that stand today were built between 1922 and 1991 in what was then known as the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic. According to Garnik S. Shakhkian, author of the 1989 collection Architectural Monuments in the Soviet Armenia, more than 40,000 such structures were built.

 

Monument to World War II Victims (Architect: Z. Terteryan, Sculptors: D. Simonyan & G. Yeproyan, 1970). Vagharshapat, Armenia.
Monument to World War II Victims (Architect: Z. Terteryan, Sculptors: D. Simonyan & G. Yeproyan, 1970). Vagharshapat, Armenia.
Monument to World War II Victims. Yaghdan, Armenia. One of the countless monuments that stand seemingly abandoned near rural communities.
Monument to World War II Victims. Yaghdan, Armenia. One of the countless monuments that stand seemingly abandoned near rural communities.

A lot of these monuments have a distinctly Armenian feel about them. Yerevan, the Armenian capital, is sometimes known as the ‘Pink City’; its buildings characterised by the use of tuff, a volcanic stone formed from Armenia’s ancient lava flows and which glows red-pink or orange in the Caucasian sun. The same stone appears frequently throughout the Soviet-era monuments that scatter the landscape, so that even generic Soviet memorial themes – monuments to the victims of the Great Patriotic War, monuments to the Red Army – are here unmistakably Armenian in construction.

Yerevan is reported to be one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world. It was founded by King Argishti I in 782 BC, on land that had been settled even for some three thousand years before that. Back then, it was known as Erebuni.

 

A Soviet-era monument formed from local stone welcomes visitors to the Armenian capital: Ереван or Yerevan.
A Soviet-era monument formed from local stone welcomes visitors to the Armenian capital: ‘Ереван’ or ‘Yerevan.’
A statue of Alexander Tamanyan stands before the Yerevan Cascade.
A statue of Alexander Tamanyan stands before the Yerevan Cascade.

The city grew rapidly with the influx of refugees after 1915, Armenians escaping Ottoman oppression in the west, and after WWI Yerevan was declared the new capital: Armenia’s twelfth. Armenia entered the Soviet Union in 1922 and the following year the Russian-born Armenian architect Alexander Tamanyan relocated to Yerevan – where he would oversee the creation of a Soviet-style neoclassical metropolis. A model Soviet city rendered here in glorious pink stone.

There is plenty of fine monumental work in the capital alone. The Yerevan Cascade is one of the city’s defining landmarks, a stepped ensemble that rises from the centre, level by level, all the way up to Victory Park on the hilltop above. Construction began in 1971, to the design of architects Jim Torosyan, Aslan Mkhitaryan and Sargis Gurzadyan. The idea was that each successive gallery would detail a different period of Armenia’s ancient history, time beginning at the bottom and flowing upwards, to finally reach the Victory Monument: an obelisk at the top of the steps that symbolised the arrival of Soviet socialism.

 

Yerevan Cascade (Architects: Jim Torosyan, Aslan Mkhitaryan & Sargis Gurzadyan, 1971-1980). Yerevan, Armenia.
Yerevan Cascade (Architects: Jim Torosyan, Aslan Mkhitaryan & Sargis Gurzadyan, 1971-1980). Yerevan, Armenia.

Phase One of construction was completed in 1980, though the Cascade was still far from finished. Despite another burst of activity, 2002–2009, the Cascade remains unfinished today and the current of time, at least to my eyes, appears to have reversed from the original design. Time seems to flow down the Cascade these days, not up, moving from the tired-looking Soviet monument at its peak down into the lively cafés, the modern sculptures and contemporary street culture that surround the lower end of the installation.

 

Detail of stylised fountains at the Yerevan Cascade, Armenia.
Detail of stylised fountains at the Yerevan Cascade, Armenia.
War Memorial. Gyumri, Armenia.
War Memorial. Gyumri, Armenia.

The Yerevan Cascade survives today as a national symbol but in the capital, as with elsewhere in Armenia, those monuments and monumental installations focussed on more generic Soviet themes seem to be largely abandoned.

In Gyumri, up in the northwest of Armenia, we spied one Soviet monument hiding behind a fence in someone’s yard. Whatever this building was once it had since been privatised; garden walls growing up to cocoon the forgotten memorial site. The silver figure now stood on display for no-one, facing into the bushes at the corner of the garden while around it the outline of a grass-choked plaza disappeared beneath the new-built fence dividing this garden from the next.

Another day we visited the city of Vanadzor. Armenia’s third largest city, Vanadzor reported a population of 148,876 people in the 1979 census. Since then it has halved, its parks, plazas and apartment blocks now beset on all sides by the smoke-stained hulks of abandoned Soviet industry.

In Chemical Factory Workers’ Park a supersize bust of a Soviet soldier in white stone looks out across the remains of a dilapidated fairground. Brambles poke through rusted holes in the carousel. A local man passed me as I photographed the monument; “Это было красиво,” he said, simply, gesturing around the park – It was beautiful – then shook his head and moved on.

 

Monument to World War II Victims (Zhirayr Ketikyan, 1969). Vanadzor, Armenia.
Monument to World War II Victims (Zhirayr Ketikyan, 1969). Vanadzor, Armenia.

Across the country monuments to the Red Army, monuments to the Socialist Revolution and monuments to Soviet leaders were generally amongst the most decayed, unloved structures I saw. Though there were exceptions, of course – and notably in the case of local heroes.

 

Stepan Shaumian Memorial. Stepanavan, Armenia.
Stepan Shaumian Memorial. Stepanavan, Armenia.
Monument to Stepan Shaumian (Ara Haroutounyan, 1982). Stepanavan, Armenia.
Monument to Stepan Shaumian (Ara Haroutounyan, 1982). Stepanavan, Armenia.

The town of Stepanavan – situated on the Yerevan-Tbilisi highway – is named after Stepan Georgevich Shahumyan: a homegrown Bolshevik revolutionary whose role in the Russian revolution earned him the nickname ‘the Caucasian Lenin.’ In post-Soviet Stepanavan his likeness still rises proudly from plinths throughout the town.

In Alaverdi, a former mining community where rusted cable cars hang like cobwebs over the streets, a monument to the Armenian aircraft designer Artem Mikoyan – the ‘M’ in MiG – still looks relatively well cared for by the people of his hometown. Behind his bust a MiG-21 forms part of the memorial ensemble while a nearby museum charts his life’s achievements. But in Yerevan, controversy surrounded the proposal to build a new monument to Artem’s brother, Anastas Mikoyan: a Minister of Foreign Trade under Stalin and later, under Brezhnev, Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet. Of these two Armenian brothers, the engineer remains a celebrated local hero while the politician has become problematic.

 

Monument to Artem Mikoyan (1971). Alaverdi, Armenia.
Monument to Artem Mikoyan (1971). Alaverdi, Armenia.

However, these overtly Soviet memorial themes – Soviet heroes, Soviet victories, Soviet ideals – account for only one portion of the Soviet-era monuments scattered throughout Armenia’s wild and violently rocky landscapes. Of the others an incredible number, rather, were dedicated to the memory of the Armenian Genocide.

 

MEMORIALS TO THE VICTIMS OF THE ARMENIAN GENOCIDE

I never expected it to be so hard to find food in Armenia. We would get hungry on the road, and tell ourselves we’d pull over at the first restaurant we saw. Two hours and six villages later we’d have seen nothing, barely a shop.

In Yerevan, grill restaurants (serving the national barbecue cuisine, khorovats) dotted the cartwheel of roads leading into and out of the capital – sometimes alternating with seedy-looking strip clubs, of which Armenia has a prolific number – but the further we drove the harder it became to find sustenance. Village shops existed, of course, but they were very often small, unsigned establishments, tucked away in rows of pink stone buildings. Restaurants, meanwhile, appeared almost non-existent in these rural provinces… but even the smallest nub of a village, sparse settlements adrift in the endless rolling plains, had a prominent monument commemorating Armenia’s historic struggle against the Ottoman Empire; the massacre of Armenians under Ottoman rule, and the bloody Turkish–Armenian war that followed.

 

Monument to the Heroic Battle of Musa Dagh (Architect: Rafael Israelyan, Sculptor: Ara Haroutounyan, 1976). Musaler, Armenia.
Monument to the Heroic Battle of Musa Dagh (Architect: Rafael Israelyan, Sculptor: Ara Haroutounyan, 1976). Musaler, Armenia.
Monument to the Heroic Battle in Aparan (Rafael Israelyan, 1979). Another reminder of Armenian-Turkish conflict, this one at Aparan, Armenia.
Monument to the Heroic Battle in Aparan (Rafael Israelyan, 1979). Another reminder of Armenian-Turkish conflict, this one at Aparan, Armenia.

In 1915, the Ottoman Empire had begun the systematic arrest, deportation and execution of Armenians living within its borders. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians died as they were marched to the Syrian desert, and those that survived the journey were processed at a network of concentration camps. Whole villages were burned, and mass graves were filled with tens of thousands of bodies at a time. Many scholars put the number of Armenian victims at around 1.5 million people, and 29 countries have officially recognised these events as constituting a genocide; that is to say, an attempt by the Ottoman authorities to entirely extinguish the Armenian race and its cultural legacy.

The Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic was born the same year the Ottoman Empire died. No doubt the Bolsheviks must have looked like angels back then, at least compared with Armenia’s western neighbours.

 

Monument to World War II Victims (Architect: V. Sahakyan, Sculptors: E. Vardanyan & K. Karakhanyan, 1970). Sardarapat, Armenia.
Monument to World War II Victims (Architect: V. Sahakyan, Sculptors: E. Vardanyan & K. Karakhanyan, 1970). Sardarapat, Armenia.

During Armenia’s Soviet period an absolute fortune was spent on preserving the memory of the genocide victims. In the countryside we drove past old Soviet monuments that rose as ruins, broken fingers of orange stone – occasionally even with storks’ nests perched on top – but the genocide memorials in town and village squares were altogether different, treated as places of enduring pride and respect.

 

Memorial to the Seven Militiamen (Yuri Minasyan, 1989). Ujan, Armenia.
Memorial to the Seven Militiamen (Yuri Minasyan, 1989). Ujan, Armenia.

We stopped in Ujan to visit the Monument to the Seven Fidain.* As we walked around the sun-blasted plaza beneath the memorial two local men, quite elderly, crossed over the road to join us. They wanted to know what we thought about their town’s monument – and they were patient enough that we could exchange a few comments in broken Russian.

[*Fidain is a local word for a commando or guerrilla.]

“These, our heroes,” one man explained, gesturing towards the memorial with its bloom of seven sculpted faces. “The war,” he added then, as if any further clarification were needed. “The war of Armenia and Turkey.”

The other man then told us to wait, said something about a translator and started making a call. The sun was baking my head, so I took a stroll beneath the trees while we waited. At the lower end of the park, a pool and fountain would have welcomed visitors at the original entrance to Ujan’s memorial complex. A sculpture of Mother Armenia sat enthroned above the pool; though the water had long since turned to dust.

 

A likeness of Mother Armenia overlooks empty water fountains in a memorial complex at Ujan, Armenia.
A likeness of Mother Armenia overlooks empty water fountains in a memorial complex at Ujan, Armenia.

I followed the path back up towards the central monolith. There was a chamber beneath it, built into the earth under the plaza, but the door was locked. One of the old men was watching me: It’s empty, he said. That’s when the translator arrived but it seemed there was some confusion; this young man – someone’s nephew, I think I understood – did not in fact speak a word of English either. He was no less friendly than his elders though, and after a few more strained exchanges in Russian we bid the group farewell and made back for the car.

The Ujan monument was loved and remembered, but many others we saw that week were treated with almost religious respect. Even now, even in otherwise meagre settlements with broken roads, poor plumbing and sparse employment, amidst closed-down shops and crumbling industry, these stone and marble monuments are often maintained to a slavishly fine condition. Flags fly, and spotlights set them ablaze by night.

 

Sardarapat Heroic Memorial Complex (Architect: Rafael Israelyan, Sculptors: Ara Haroutounyan, Arsham Shahinyan & Samvel Manassyan, 1968). Araks, Armenia.
Sardarapat Heroic Memorial Complex (Architect: Rafael Israelyan, Sculptors: Ara Haroutounyan, Arsham Shahinyan & Samvel Manassyan, 1968). Araks, Armenia.

Perhaps the most extraordinary we saw was the Sardarapat Heroic Memorial Complex, opened in 1968 to commemorate the place where the Ottoman Empire, having already begun the extermination of Armenian minorities on its own soil, crossed into eastern Armenia in 1918 to be turned back by Armenian forces in the Battle of Sardarapat. That battle was a turning point in the war. Discussing the possibility of an Ottoman victory, the British historian Christopher J. Walker wrote: “it is perfectly possible that the word Armenia would have henceforth denoted only an antique geographical term.”

Above the one-horse town of Araks, two towering red-rock oxen face off across a courtyard, their powerful forms reminiscent of the deific guardians at ancient Assyrian temples. The memorial complex spills back behind, all landscaped gardens, museums and sculpted stone reliefs. A team of staff worked diligently amongst the hedges and flowerbeds as we explored; squatting, weeding, and splashing these plants with more water than I had seen in all the past hundred miles of dry Armenian terrain.

 

A 26m bell tower rises above the Sardarapat Memorial Complex, symbolic of the bells that rang to call Armenians to join the fight against the invaders.
A 26m bell tower rises above the Sardarapat Memorial Complex, symbolic of the bells that rang to call Armenians to join the fight against the invaders.
A 1979 Soviet monument to the victims of WWII stands derelict at Getk, Armenia.
A 1979 Soviet monument to the victims of WWII stands derelict at Getk, Armenia.
Meanwhile, in Araks, a dedicated team of staff weed and water the flower beds at a monument to a historic battle between Armenia and the Ottoman Empire.
Meanwhile, in Araks, a dedicated team of staff weed and water the flower beds at a monument to a historic battle between Armenia and the Ottoman Empire.

At Sardarapat, and not for the first time in this trip, I got to wondering exactly what percentage of Armenia’s GDP is today spent maintaining its lavish monuments to the victims of Ottoman atrocities, and to the victors of anti-Ottoman struggle. While generic Soviet monuments have been allowed to slip into ruin, anything associated with the conflict with Turkey appears to get almost sacred treatment. From an outsider’s perspective these monuments appear to be more than Armenia can afford; both in terms of upkeep, and effect.

Regional conflicts have left Armenia without many neighbours to trade with. It shares four borders: to the west, the Armenian-Turkish border has been closed since 1993 (and though attempts were made in 2008 to restart diplomatic conversations, those conversations were dropped in 2009 and in March 2018 Armenia annulled the normalisation protocols). To the east is Azerbaijan, a country Armenia is still officially at war with over post-Soviet border disputes (the most recent clashes occurred in 2016, in the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region, and cost the lives of roughly 350 people). In the south, Iran is under heavy sanctions itself which leaves only Georgia in the north, and Russia beyond that. As a result Armenia, a landlocked country, is cut off from any easy access to international commerce.

 

Nor Arabkir Monument (G. Ghambarian, 1985). Yerevan, Armenia.
Nor Arabkir Monument (G. Ghambarian, 1985). Yerevan, Armenia.

It may be that Turkey will never acknowledge nor attempt to atone for the genocidal crimes committed against Armenians by the Ottoman Empire a hundred years ago. But if Armenia cannot find a way to rebuild diplomatic relationships with modern Turkey regardless of this historical injustice, then it denies itself access to European trade routes to the west; thus forcing the country into ongoing economic hardship, and greater dependency on Russia. Meanwhile the Soviet-era memorial sites that Armenia still chooses to maintain – totems of victimhood and monuments to Turk-killers – don’t feel particularly conducive to any kind of change in this status quo.

Perhaps this effect is no accident. From the 16th century up until WWI, a total of 12 wars were fought between the Russian and Ottoman Empires. After WWI Armenia joined Russia in the Soviet Union, becoming a border country between the lands of Russian influence and of Russian enemies. Naturally it would have been in Moscow’s best interests, back then, to support and even fund the construction of extravagant monuments that fanned the flames of the long-standing animosity between Armenia and Turkey. As was ever the case, the USSR defended its borders not only with tanks, but with dogma.

 

Peace Monument in Victory Park (Architect: Felix Zargaryan, Sculptor: Vahan Khachikyan, 1977). One of numerous Soviet-era monuments inhabiting the park at the top end of the Yerevan Cascade.
Peace Monument in Victory Park (Architect: Felix Zargaryan, Sculptor: Vahan Khachikyan, 1977). One of numerous Soviet-era monuments inhabiting the park at the top end of the Yerevan Cascade.
Elsewhere in Victory Park, this Mother Armenia Monument (Architect: Rafael Israelyan, Sculptor: Ara Harutyunyan, 1967) replaced an earlier statue of Josef Stalin (Sculptor: Sergey Merkurov, 1950).
Elsewhere in Victory Park, this Mother Armenia Monument (Architect: Rafael Israelyan, Sculptor: Ara Harutyunyan, 1967) replaced an earlier statue of Josef Stalin (Sculptor: Sergey Merkurov, 1950).

The Soviets had sought to secure Armenian loyalty with a volatile gift; a physical heritage which perpetuated the region’s perceived conflicts, and yet which no self-respecting Armenian could ever allow to fall into disrepair.

 

MEMORY & IDENTITY IN POST-SOVIET ARMENIA

Armenia is still building monuments. Some of the newer ones are positively uplifting – such as the Armenian Alphabet Monument at Artashavan, around an hour from Yerevan. Opened in 2005, the characters of the Armenian alphabet have been carved from stone and spread across the hillside in a celebration of national culture. This gesture in itself is almost an act of defiance, in the context of Armenia’s difficult history, and like most of the other contemporary monuments in the country this one is modest and manageable… setting it well apart from those lavish Soviet-era marble-and-fountain affairs.

 

Armenian Alphabet Monument (Architect Fred Afrikyan, Concept by Aghvan Hovsepyan, 2005). Artashavan, Armenia.
Armenian Alphabet Monument (Architect Fred Afrikyan, Concept by Aghvan Hovsepyan, 2005). Artashavan, Armenia.

The problem of maintenance is not unique to Soviet monuments in Armenia, of course: communist architecture in general was very often characterised by huge, overblown statements, the kind of monuments built by people who were blind to the possibility of their own eventual downfall. It’s a fact that makes communist heritage sites the world over doubly difficult to reconcile – it’s not just the sociopolitical implications of these places that need to be addressed, but also the steep price that many would cost to maintain.

Other new Armenian monuments sometimes adhere to design aesthetics made popular by the Soviets (for example, the striking Socialist-modernism of the Monument of Gratitude in Yerevan), but these newer ones are much smaller and less extravagant than their predecessors. Increasingly, they seem also to celebrate the positive – rather than commiserate the negative – aspects of Armenia’s history. Contemporary sculptures of Armenian artists and composers, not to mention anonymous street sweepers and backgammon players, add vibrancy to the streets of Yerevan in place of former Soviet monuments to the Red Army.

 

Monument of Gratitude (Megurditchian & Megurditchian, 2010), in Yerevan.
Monument of Gratitude (Megurditchian & Megurditchian, 2010), in Yerevan.
Gates of Goris (Sevada Zakaryan, 2001). Goris, Armenia.
Gates of Goris (Sevada Zakaryan, 2001). Goris, Armenia.

Nevertheless, the citizens of post-Soviet Armenia have inherited a national identity defined by a history of struggle. Search for Things to Do in Yerevan on TripAdvisor, and the first result is a mountain range not actually in Yerevan (or, indeed, entirely in Armenia). Result number two is the Armenian Genocide Museum and the third result is the Genocide Memorial, technically a part of the same memorial complex on Tsitsernakaberd Hill.

 

Armenian Genocide Memorial Complex (Architects: Arthur Tarkhanyan & Sashur Kalashyan, Sculptor: Van Khachatur, 1968). Tsitsernakaberd Hill, Yerevan.
Armenian Genocide Memorial Complex (Architects: Arthur Tarkhanyan & Sashur Kalashyan, Sculptor: Van Khachatur, 1968). Tsitsernakaberd Hill, Yerevan.
Harsh angles and sheer stone walls create an atmosphere of oppression inside the Armenian Genocide Memorial Complex.
Harsh angles and sheer stone walls create an atmosphere of oppression inside the Armenian Genocide Memorial Complex.

It rises like a barrow: stone fingers clutching around a single eternal flame, a half-formed fist against the distant mountains. The Armenian Genocide Memorial Complex was opened in 1968, and it adheres closely to the familiar Soviet template. A gas-gobbling fire within a cell of contemplation, visitors dwarfed by heavy geometry.

The monument seems to mirror the shape of Mount Ararat on the horizon: the mountain where, in Christian tradition, Noah’s ark came to rest after the flood. Both Ararat and the ark appear on Armenia’s coat of arms, and the name is synonymous too with Armenia’s celebrated Ararat cognac.

That Mount Ararat itself is located now within the borders of neighbouring Turkey, not Armenia, is a bitter irony; the Armenian people can’t even contemplate the core symbols of their nation without looking west and remembering what they lost there. Meanwhile in every village, town and city throughout the country, Soviet-built obelisks list the names of the victims: a mantra against ever forgetting the past’s injustices.

Yerevan’s Statues

The state has a monopoly on building monuments and erecting statues in public spaces and each one comes with a message and benefits the rooting of a particular ideology that serves the state at the time of its installation.

If we look at how many monuments have been erected in Yerevan and how many were dismantled, how many were moved or altered, we’ll have an extensive overview of the  political currents and ideological tendencies that swept through the country since independence.

As per the list provided by Yerevan Municipality to EVN Youth Report, 51 statues and busts were erected in Yerevan since independence in 1991, excluding 2005-2006, when none were erected. These statues were the images of men — characters from novels, films (Men), artists (William Saroyan, Arno Babajanyan …), military figures (Garegin Nezdeh, General Antranik, Marshal Baghramyan …), philanthropists (Alexander Mantashev, Calouste Gulbenkian…). There is only one statue of a woman, “Armenuhi” which is a collective image of the Armenian woman, not commissioned by the state but rather retrieved from the artist’s studio by her granddaughter in 2009. The majority of these statues are in the center of Yerevan.

Dismantling Memory

We erect statues to fortify the past or at least save it from oblivion and when we deconstruct them, then the time has come to re-evaluate history.

Six statues (not counting the statue of Stalin dismantled in 1962 and replaced with Mother Armenia in 1965)  have been removed in Yerevan’s relatively recent history, and each has a bit of mystery around them but their removal comes as no surprise.

 

No one was shocked by the removal of Lenin’s statue from Republic Square post-independence. The Soviet leader’s beheaded body lies in the backyard of the National Gallery of Armenia today with three gunshots still visible on his iron bust. Who shot at the statue when and why remains a mystery.

However, Lenin was not the first casualty of change in Armenia. While in 1988, the Karabakh movement unified the people of Armenia around the demand for the reunification of Nagorno Karabakh with Soviet Armenia, today’s Sakarov Square was named after Meshadi Azizbekov and featured the bust of the Azerbaijani Marxist, one of the 26 famous commissars. One morning in 1988, Yerevan woke up to news of a truck driving at the statue and toppling it over. It was said but never confirmed that the driver had a heart attack at the wheel and lost control. The bust was never re-installed. In 1991, the square was renamed after Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov, a nuclear physicist and human rights activist who was outspoken about the pogroms of Armenians in Soviet Azerbaijan. Sakharov’s bust was installed at the square in 2001.

Ghukas Ghukasyan’s statue was next. In 1990, in the middle of the night, unknown people blew up the statue of the Soviet revolutionary located on Abovyan Street, at the student’s park. In 2009, the slot was conveniently given to famous astrophysicist Victor Hambartsumyan, because the park also has a small observatory.

According to artist, art critic and independent curator Ruben Arevshatyan, contextual and paradigmatic shifts deriving from political or regime change assume the consequent elimination of certain symbols. Statues, as the symbols of veneration of individuals or their servitude to society are the first to go.

 

Another reason for the fall of monuments may be that some statues are not properly articulated, their aesthetics or symbolism producing mixed vibes, says Arevshatyan.

An example is the statue of the Worker or “Working Glory” unveiled near the “Gordzaranayin” (from the Armenian word “gordzaran” meaning factory, Gordzaranayin roughly translates to “industrial”) Metro Station in Yerevan in 1982, thought to represent the Soviet worker despite sculptor Ara Harutuynyan’s insistence that his Worker is not about Socialist ideology but depicts a man walking towards Western Armenia. Evidence of the discrepancy around what the statue represented is the urban legend about how the Worker initially had a copy of the Pravda newspaper in one hand and a hammer in the other that were later removed. Archival photos from its installation however prove that the statue was what it was, a stylistically formalistic collective representation of a man with empty hands.

The statue that was included in the list of monuments protected by the state, was dismantled overnight by the decision of the state in 1997. The reason – it was not sturdy enough and was at risk of collapsing. Many disagreed at the time; the statue was firmly attached to its base by metal rods. Maybe it was, or maybe it was not worth the effort to fortify, or maybe it had come to represent the collapse of Armenia’s economy or had become a reminder of times of employment and easier living, or maybe 1997 was just not a good time to be reminiscing about Western Armenia.

Dismantling Lenin’s statue, 1991.  
Azizbekov Square in Yerevan.  
Ghukas Ghukasyan’s statue at the former Ghukasyan park, now Student’s park.  
The Worker was unveiled in 1984, dismantled in 1997. 
Image source.

Overcrowded Imagery & Symbolism

Another problem with statues and monuments is oversaturation, or crowding of imagery and symbolism. Arevshatyan explains, “it happened a couple of times during the Soviet Union; during Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev. Symbolism needs space and when symbolic representations are placed too close to each other, by the sheer fact of their proximity, they are viewed in relation to one another and the result is an awkward new context.”

Try to read the city through its statues and monuments, there certainly is an accumulation of contexts, at least in central Yerevan. Take just one part of the circular park, there is the writer Mikael Nalbandyan, the alleyway of diasporan philanthropists, then there is the monument to the friendship of Russian and Armenian people, opposite is the monument honoring the Assyrian Genocide. Walk a couple of meters and there is the famous Armenian painter Hovhaness Ayvazovski; cross the street and there is the poet Avedik Isahakyan, the hands symbolizing Armenian-Italian friendship, across from there another poet, Vahan Teryan. Look to the left there is the monument in honor of the victims of the Holocaust and the Genocide… not counting the ones that were left of out the list. There is the woman (another collective representation of the female sex), a tree of life… All of this within a ten minute walk.

The saturation of urban space with symbolism with no consideration for the right placement of the monument, the size, the style is exactly what will make the surrounding work against the monument, says Arevshatyan.

“Take Aram Manukyan’s, Admiral Isakov’s, Hovhaness Ayvazovski’s statues, all these statues try to reproduce the aesthetics of Soviet Monumentalism. But the aesthetics came with its own social, political and economic context,” Arevshatyan explains. “When the context is not there any more, the use of the derivative aesthetic of that specific context is pointless. New work becomes a copy of the copy, this is the issue. This is where we most often seen banal, almost anecdotal symbolism, when you get a statue of Aram Manukyan emerging from tricolored bundle.”

It should also be noted that the placement of the statue did not go without severe criticism either; the statue of the Founder of the First Armenian Republic was erected literally on the Soviet Modernist complex of the Republic Square Metro Station, the work of famous architects Jim Torosyan and Mkrtich Minasyan.

Collision of Stereotypes & Statues

Contrary to the heavy, monumental placement of Soviet style statues, it is interesting to observe the lives of moving statues; the experience of the personal collection of statues of the Cafesjian Center for the Arts (CCA) that are placed with no “political” context in the center of Yerevan.

“Society continues to perceive statues as ideological tools, these statues have an important characteristic, they are not static, they constantly change their place. This is an important feature but one that is hard for society to grasp. How can a statue be treated like a house on wheels that be moved from one corner to the other? This is an example of the deep cultural conflict that happens when you maintain the post-Soviet perception of things,” says Arevshatyan. “Regardless of whether or not you like them, these statues have become the conjunction where the statue and the public’s stereotypes about statues collide.”

***

On the eleventh minute of the walk from Nalbandyan’s statue through the circular park there is the latest addition to the statues of Yerevan, unveiled on August 23, 2018, is a statue of the Armenian shepherd dog, the Gampr, a gift from the Armenians of Amsterdam to the Yerevan on the occasion of the 2800 anniversary of the city. The Gamper is meant to protect the city as it has protected Armenian families and their livestock for centuries.

The majority of statues in Yerevan look like bookmarks inserted to remind society of values and people from the past, three dimensional reminders of history, tools for education. This begs the question, is there room or demand for statues to also do what in art is their privilege – push the boundaries of form and imagination, tell about human sentiment and a vision of the future?