Category Archives: Yerevan

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.

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?

Kond: A City Within a City

 

Old stairs and narrow alleys from Proshyan, Saryan, Paronyan and Leo streets lead you into a hidden city within a city. As you enter what appears to be an uncharted world, wooden doors, walls constructed of asymmetric bricks and labyrinthine lanes take you on an adventurous journey to old Yerevan. Residents, with their doors and hearts open, welcome you and often forcibly invite you to have a cup of coffee. While your eyes try to grasp and remember every single intricate detail, they start to tell you the history of their life and proudly proclaim that they are the residents of Kond – the oldest district of Yerevan.

Historically, Kond was one of the three main districts of Yerevan. Perched above the city, it gets its name from the Armenian, which means “long hill.” In the 18th century, the main residents of Kond were Armenians engaged in farming, cattle-breeding and gardening. Later, when Persians and Turks captured Yerevan, the district was renamed Tapabashi (Turkish for “top of the hill”). Throughout the centuries, Kond was one of the most vibrant districts of Yerevan and was home to several ethno-religious groups. Other residents included Boshas or Caucasian/Armenian gypsies. Historian, literary critic and folklorist Yervand Shahazis, in his book about Yerevan (published in 1933) notes that 46 families lived and worked in the territory of Saint John the Baptist Church (Surb Hovhannes) and actively participated in city life. According to ethnographer Hamlet Sargsyan, in 1830 of the 4,300 residents of Kond 1,568 were Armenians, 2,537 Tatars, and 195 Boshas (Caucasian Gypsies).

Melik-Aghamalyan Family

Kond was also the residence of the aristocratic Melik-Aghamalyan family. According to Shahazis, the family owned numerous buildings and land in the territory of Kond. For several centuries, Surb Hovhannes was known as their ancestral church and the family donated money to rebuild it after it was destroyed in the earthquake of 1679; their name is inscribed on one of the walls of the church. Famous for their participation in several battles in the territory of Yerevan, the Aghamalyans were considered one of the richest and well-known families of Old Yerevan but for the current residents of Kond, the Aghamalyans are famous for their kindness and generous support to the survivors of the Armenian Genocide. As Kondetsis recall, the Aghamalyan family provided shelter to the orphans and immigrants from Western Armenia.

However, the descendants of the Aghamalyans suffered tremendously during the Stalin repressions. The last member of the aristocratic family, Sasha Aghamalyan was ousted from his home in Kond during the Stalin purges and died in a small basement apartment.

Currently, there is a gold watch kept in the Yerevan History Museum that was presented to the Melik-Aghamalyans from Russian Tsar Nikolai I for their contribution to the Russian-Persian war. Their princely residence constructed of black tufa stone, standing half-ruined near the entrance of the quarter, is the only reminder of the family’s existence.

The Mosque

Dating back to 1687, the Thapha Bashi mosque, the remnants of which only remain in Kond is listed as a historical monument and is protected by the Armenian state. When Muslims left Armenia in the beginning of the 20th century, the mosque became a residence for many survivors of the Armenian Genocide. One can still see the influence of Persian architecture that fortunately remain intact. As the residents recall, the “huge dome”  of the mosque collapsed more than two decades ago, several years after the Spitak Earthquake.

Present-Day Kond

Though one can get lost among the dozens of small and narrow lanes of Kond, the district does have three main streets: Rustaveli, Simeon Yerevantsi and Kond. Many houses are covered in vines, while simple rural-style communal springs appear at corners of its narrow meandering roads.

While the novelty of the district often attracts the curious, residents of Kond feel ignored and abandoned by the municipal and national governments. Conversations with locals reveal widespread discontent with the former authorities who for the most part were not able or refused to address issues faced by the residents – from lack of proper services to poor road conditions. An older woman living in Kond, a supporter of Karen Demirchyan, the late Soviet Armenian leader and native of Kond who became parliament speaker after independence wanted to highlight the socio-economic conditions of the district, hoping for some reaction from municipal authorities.

A Soviet era building now stands entirely abandoned in the middle of Kond. It used to house a library and a pharmacy until it became a dumping ground, just like the public toilet close by.

Like Demirchyan’s parents, many of the residents of Kond are descendants of Western Armenian refugees. Many genocide survivors from Van, Mush, Erzerum and elsewhere settled in Kond after 1915. Though Muslims (mostly Azerbaijanis and Persians) lived in Kond in the early 20th century, only a few remained by the late Soviet period. One resident says he was friends with his Azerbaijani neighbors, some of whom were “thieves in law.” He says Turks, Yazidis, Jews, and Boshas (Gypsies) formerly lived in their quarter.

Harutyun, a 68 year-old retired sculptor, is a typical Kondetsi. “We had several opportunities to leave Kond, but we stayed here,” he said. Named after the resurrection of Jesus (Harutyun is Armenian for resurrection), the old man said he speaks baradi lezu, simple language, staying true to his origins. The locals are well aware of the district’s status as the only surviving part of “old Yerevan.” A local guide, a woman in her 30s, pointed to several houses. “These are from the 1920s. You won’t find buildings this old in Yerevan,” she claimed. A neighbor reacted, “Not 1920s, but older. Both my grandmothers were born in these houses in 1908 and 1912.”

 

View of Kond, 1909.  
The Mosque in Kond, 1923.  
Kond, 1900.  
Kond, 1932.  

Historical Value

Sevada Petrossian, an urban architect who has researched the quarter with fellow architect Sarhat Petrosyan, notes that Kond’s value is not only in its historical buildings, such as Surb Hovhannes, the Persian mosque, the Aghamalyan residence but the fact that the layout of the streets have largely kept their original form from the 18th century. “Moreover, people are the ones who give a distinct local identity to a district,” Petrossian explains. “Kond is one of the rare places in the city where generations have continuously lived.” It is because of this longevity that residents of Kond identify more with their district than with Yerevan.

However, because of the unbearable living conditions – lack of running water, decrepit buildings, outhouses – residents have been trying to reconstruct their homes and as such are altering the original structures, many of which have historical value. While this is destroying the feel, ambience and value of the district’s old buildings, Petrossian understands and notes that people do not have other options.”

 

Revival?

Though there have been plans to reconstruct Kond from as early as the 1930s (according to Alexander Tamanian’s plan for Yerevan) they were never realized. “Tamanian had an idea of a transforming Kond into a museum district, and Kond has always been in the city reconstruction plans,” Petrossian notes.

The last big project for the district was initiated in the 1980s by Karen Demirchyan who wanted to turn it into Yerevan’s Montmartre. Kond was declared eminent domain by the authorities. The large scale initiative that was under the direct supervision of Demirchyan was conducted by young architect, Arshavir Aghekyan. Unfortunately, after the 1988 earthquake and the dire social and economic situation of the country, the project was never finished. After independence, mainly in the 2000s, there were several revitalization projects for Kond which, again, were never realized.

While there are no current plans for redevelopment, Petrossian sees a future for Kond. With minimal investment, the district could become an amazing place, he said. Today, Kond is the only preserved district of Yerevan that has a great potential to become a center for tourism in the capital.

Exploring Yerevan’s Oldest Neighborhood

Exploring Yerevan’s Oldest Neighborhood: History and Ethics of Heritage Preservation in Kond

By Karine Vann, a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn. “She received her Master of Studies in Musicology from Jesus College, University of Oxford in 2014, where her dissertation examined the assimilation of jazz music in Soviet Armenia.
She writes about Armenian cultural heritage for Smithsonian.com.”

Published by Ajam Media Collective

“First things first… Kond might look like a ghetto. It’s not,” says Sevada Petrossian as a preface to our walking tour of Yerevan’s oldest neighborhood. Petrossian is an architect at a Yerevan-based firm called urbanlab.am, an organization that has spent the last five years working hard to garner attention for Kond. The firm has devoted many weekends to giving walking tours of this district to curious travelers, in hopes of highlighting its significance. According to Petrossian and his colleagues, Kond is uniquely situated in Yerevan’s urban fabric–both geographically and socially.

It isn’t clear how long Kond has been inhabited, says Petrossian, but the current layout has remained almost intact since the seventeenth century, back when Yerevan was a cosmopolitan crossroads at the intersection of different religions and ethnicities. The district’s name in Turkish was Tapabashi, meaning “hill top” and the word ‘Kond’ literally translates to “long” or “round” hill in Armenian. Its location on a hill has created a geographical barrier between the district and the rest of the city for centuries. On a map, Kond’s outline resembles a teardrop. caressing the western exterior of the circular main downtown area.


Map of Yerevan, outlining Kond. Photo courtesy of Google Maps.

The deterioration from decades of neglect has taken its toll on the surrounding environment. Streets are crumbling, buildings appear to be sinking from their own weight, and residents’ living conditions are deplorable. It isn’t clear how long Kond has been inhabited, says Petrossian, but the current urban fabric has remained almost intact since the seventeenth century.


Photo courtesy of Karine Vann.

Despite the rough exterior, this structural neglect has actually played an important role in preserving the centuries of history in Kond. It is the reason most old buildings have miraculously avoided demolition. In stark contrast to the rest of Yerevan, Kond has not undergone any fundamental or radical architectural modifications in over three hundred years. Today, Kond hosts the most diverse array of architecture in the city.


Donning a patchwork of plaids, Petrossian himself was an appropriate ambassador for Kond. Despite his very frank demeanor, his piercing blue eyes belied a genuine compassion for the neighborhood and its residents. Photo courtesy of Greg Davies.

Within the confines of its tear-shaped borders, one can find a smorgasbord of styles–anything from eighteenth-century brick houses and former mosques turned into makeshift housing, to luxury Soviet-era hotels and half-finished contemporary apartment complexes.

The area did not develop with the rest of Yerevan for a number of reasons. In the early twentieth century, when the rest of city was being remapped according to Soviet architect Alexander Tamanyan’s master plan, Kond was left relatively untouched. Tamanyan had intended to turn it into a museum district, but because Kond was home to so many residents, before implementing any structural changes, officials would first need to have a plan of relocating the several thousand newly Soviet Armenian citizens. It was an enormous logistical burden, which was never reconciled across the entire Soviet period. State officials always planned to do something, but never did.


Dvin Hotel, in Kond, was the luxury hotel in Yerevan during Soviet times. After the collapse of the USSR, it was privatized. On Armenia’s first Independence Day in 1991, all foreign journalists stayed here. Shortly after, it went bankrupt and was purchased recently by a Canadian developing firm, was totally gutted, and remains in this state today indefinitely. Photo courtesy of Greg Davies.

The remains of a former mosque, which stopped functioning after the 1915 Genocide when Armenians from Turkey fled to Yerevan for safety. It’s said this mosque housed seventeen refugee families. Today, it houses five. The mosque’s dome was standing until 1930s or 40s. Photo courtesy of Karine Vann.

Following the country’s independence in 1991, Armenia’s new government recognized the need to do something about the district. In line with the trends of modernist urban planning that dominated the nineteenth and twentieth century, where older structures all over the world were demolished to pave way for the new and “modern,” those plans involved decimating the whole area.

Fortunately for Kond, finances were insufficient to implement such extraordinary plans, but Petrossian says that each year, one by one, he sees old buildings replaced with new ones adhering to a more ‘modern’ style strangely juxtaposed against the rest of Kond’s deteriorating, yet historic charm.


New buildings go up in Kond, one by one, which typically do not make any attempts to match the aesthetic of the rest of Kond’s architecture, which is often in stark contrast to the dilapidated, yet historic buildings that surround them. Photo courtesy of Greg Davies.

The last century has seen Kond exist in a state of perpetual inertia. But its frozen state is a double-edged sword, one which has had profound consequences in the lives of its residents. Compared to the rest of the city, the standard of living in Kond is remarkably low and anyone walking through, without knowing its history, might easily mistake it for a slum. Petrossian tells us that many families don’t have access to running water–a standard commodity for other Yerevantsis (locals) living just down the hill. Many bathrooms take the form of outdoor shacks. Much of this one would expect to find in the villages surrounding Armenia’s capital, but certainly not its kentron.

Those seeking to preserve the identity of Kond face a number of obstacles, for the issue of heritage preservation is much more complex here than in, say, the ancient ruins of an Urartian temple where humans have not lived in for millennia. “When you talk about preservation, you usually talk about freezing something the way that it is now,” Petrossian says, “But here, there’s an ethical issue. Look at how the residents of Kond are living today. It’s a living city. You’re dealing with people’s lives.”

Despite their harsh living conditions, the people of Kond are remarkably resourceful. Walking through the city gives glimpses into the patchwork of construction materials residents use to circumnavigate material shortcomings. “It’s the best example of vernacular architecture,” says Petrossian, referring to the way residents transform their surroundings to suit their needs, oftentimes repurposing everyday instruments as building materials. He even recalls one residence constructed a new balcony made out of an old van.


Living conditions in Kond are deplorable, but its residents find ways to create makeshift solutions to structural issues. The owners of this building have plugged a hole in the stone bricks with old kitchenware, steel pots and a ladle. Photo courtesy of Karine Vann.

“Public and private spaces of conventional cities don’t apply in Kond,” Petrossian warns us. Getting around the neighborhood requires walking into someone’s backyard, bearing witness to their undergarments hanging to dry within arm’s length, and sometimes even becoming active participants in the lively commotion on the streets. These unclear boundaries between public and private are what give of Kondetsis a reputation for being particularly friendly. As we walked by one residence, admiring its brick facade, a man yelled from up the street, “That’s my house, you can go ahead and go inside if you want! Help yourself!”


Photo courtesy of Greg Davies.

Today, little pathways connect the rest of kentron to the veiny streets of Kond and despite the main roads that exist, many locals prefer the hidden foot trails utilized for centuries. The city has changed, Petrossian tells us, but what’s amazing is that people’s instincts have remained the same. While this may be inconvenient for tourists seeking clear directions, it’s a fascinating window into subtle resistances to shifting ideologies expressed through urban planning.


A cobbler’s shop in Kond. The narrow door has the words ‘Shoe Repair’ scribbled in marker. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Moore.

Given that the incredible character of Kond’s residents are a result of both the centuries of regional cultural heritage, as well as the current hardships they face, what is that “authentic element” we’re looking to maintain when we talk about heritage preservation? What do you do when the same reason old buildings have not been demolished is the same reason people are living in poverty?