Bishkek and Yerevan
Yerevan offers the spectacle of an ancient city (it was founded as Erebuni in the eighth century BC — some fortress ruins are preserved in the suburbs) where almost everything you can see was built between the 1920s and 1980s. It also offers the spectacle of a Soviet city where the notion of a “national form” was deployed consistently from the very beginning. Some explanation of this can be found in the horrific events that immediately preceded its incorporation into the Soviet Union. In the 19th century, Armenia was divided between the Ottoman and Russian Empires; the assumption that Christian Armenians would sympathise with the Russians was the logic of the first genocide of the 20th century, the extermination in 1915 of over a million western Armenians by the Young Turk government. Refugees streamed into Yerevan — a small city which became briefly the capital of an fragile independent republic in the aftermath of 1917. The Bolsheviks, who had a large proportion of Armenian activists, eventually retook eastern Armenia in 1920, with the Red Army marching in without firing a shot. Within a couple of years, the Bolshevik government of Soviet Armenia commissioned Alexander Tamanyan — an exile from revolutionary Petersburg — to design a town plan for its capital.
The resulting plan is an icon of the city. You can find it on logos, as a relief in cafes, as an object of branding. It is not a 20th-century plan in any way: with its green Ringstrasse, and its radial spokes terminating in a vast opera house, it was more like the Hapsburg Empire reborn in the Soviet Caucasus. And as with a Hapsburg city, the result is exceptionally pleasant, logical and easy to understand. There is a rhetorical aspect to it, too. Many of the main streets lead up to slopes, from where you can get jaw-dropping views of Mount Ararat, the double-peaked mountain where Noah’s Ark ended up, its snowy top roaring up out of the clouds. Mount Ararat is, however, just over the border, in Turkey. The plan seems to have been deliberately executed to create a longing for the lost western parts of Armenia, and for the hundreds of thousands who were massacred there. It’s town planning as either memorial or irredentism, depending on what side of Ararat you’re on.”
An impressionable young diaspora Armenian returns to his ancestral homeland to rid its capital of its Soviet heritage and rebuild the city anew. It’s a familiar story in post-Soviet Armenia.
But for Frunz, the hapless but well-meaning hero of Viken Berberian and Yann Kebbi’s new graphic novel The Structure is Rotten, Comrade!, “rebuilding” Yerevan is meant literally – he is an architect set on physically transforming the city.
Berberian, a Beirut-born novelist and essayist, has lived in Yerevan for the last four years, a turbulent time for the city. So it’s no surprise that his Yerevan, brought to life by the Paris-based illustrator Kebbi, is littered with cranes; its residents narrowly avoid wrecking balls on a daily basis. Much of this is the doing of Frunz’s father Sergey, who is known as “Mr. Concrete” and directs the tragically misnamed Radical Architecture Department (RAD). The book opens with Frunz having dropped out of architecture school in Paris and joining his father’s business.
But the father and son’s bold visions prove their undoing. The city they regard as a blank canvas for their experiments is home to a million people who do not take kindly to this relentless “redevelopment.” In an absurdist twist, they compensate evicted homeowners with original Alvar Aalto stools, and see the citizens’ ingratitude as evidence of their inability to grasp the architects’ genius.
Ultimately, though, Frunz and Sergey prove to be little more than enablers of oligarchs’ wholesale destruction of the Armenian capital. “The structure is rotten, comrade!” one resident screams at Frunz.
The parallels with the Armenian capital’s predicaments are obvious to anyone who has strolled down Yerevan’s Northern Avenue, where empty luxury apartments tower over outlets of luxury international brands. There is an increasingly common sentiment that downtown Yerevan is no longer a city for its residents.
There is no denying the ecstatic cries of the children and the content faces of their parents who have been flocking with their families to the newly inaugurated 2800th Anniversary Park of Yerevan. The mosaic-laden, grid of fountains, benches and astonishingly schmaltzy statues is a massive success. The general jolliness of the public inadvertently silences those naysayers who decry the supposed ‘tastelessness’ of the park. Just like the derided Northern Avenue, this new initiative by the city’s municipality – realized through the auspices of private capital – has given Yerevan’s residents a much-needed stretch of public space where people can socialize in relative comfort and safety. So what is the issue here and is there an issue at all? If we were to strip back the layers of meaning and intent in this site, what we’d find hidden is not so much herd mentality and tastelessness, but quite the opposite. This park, along with its even more grotesque twin – the recently reconstructed Central Avenue square adjoining Mashtots Avenue – are taste-full. Overwhelmingly so, in fact.
To put it crudely, ‘good taste’ is a historical and cultural phenomenon that evolved in the Western world during the early modern period in the 17th century and served as a way of delineating the aesthetic judgement of the nobility and the upper classes, from that of the ordinary folk. Possessing ‘good taste’ meant being aligned with superior levels of power and political standing – a position reflected through luxurious material objects and richly decorated residences. While it transformed dramatically during the 19th and especially 20th century, the concept of ‘good taste’ was always decried by Marxists and the artistic avant-garde as the epitome of petit bourgeoisie, and was passionately fought through the standardization of mass-culture and lifestyle in communist republics such as Soviet Armenia. Nevertheless, the ambition for social elevation remained an undercurrent drive that exploded with untamed force after the collapse of the USSR. This repressed desire to show one’s ‘taste’ in fine things – and hence, higher social ranking – was reflected in every aspect of everyday, post-Soviet Armenian life: from the extraordinary number of luxury cars to the neo-imperial style of the gargantuan private and public buildings constructed in the last two decades. The two newly reconstructed parks in Yerevan’s center boldly extend this tendency into the development of public space. Attendant political, sociological and cultural implications of such conversions have been ignored by the popular media and despite some critical reactions, the local intelligentsia has passively shrugged the matter away. The present article is an attempt to continue the discussion and examine the wider consequences behind the relentless subjugation and transformation of existing public spaces in Yerevan, under the auspices of private capital and neo-liberal cultural policies.
Archaeology, Modernity and Post-Soviet Industrial Decay
“Archaeologist Dr. Lori Khatchadourian spoke with EVN Report about her current archaeological and ethnographic research in Armenia that focuses on the afterlife of socialist modernity, focusing on the forces shaping industrial ruination. Khatchadourian is an Associate Professor in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Cornell University, the co-director of a long-term field project in Armenia called the Project for the Archaeology and Geography of Ancient Transcaucasian Societies (Project ArAGATS), co-director of Cornell’s Landscapes and Objects Laboratory and co-founder and co-director of the Aragats Foundation.”
By Amalia Margaryan and Ani Hovhannisyan
“Yerevan’s Circular Park was envisaged as a green space, some 2,500 meters long and averaging 120 meters wide, to provide residents with a respite from the noise and fumes resulting from a fast-developing urban landscape in the Armenian capital.
Little of the green remains today. Cafés, amusement parks and other assorted commercial establishments have been built on the land over the years.
Hetq reporters filed a query with the Yerevan Municipality and obtained copies of 57 contracts between private companies and Yerevan Municipality on privatization, construction and rent in the Circular Park.”
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”.
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.
** Read Part 2 of this Story here.
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.
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.”
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.