This is the first installment of a six-part series that I wrote for Hetq.am, the official online source for the Investigative Journalists of Armenia. The articles were posted between November 15, 2010 and April 4, 2011. The purpose of this series was to introduce readers to a very different way of describing the passing scene, and to discourage them from continuing to talk the way a generation of educated compatriots have gotten used to talking. This and other istallments appear here with only slight changes, including the occasional footnote.
MALIGNING ARMENIA’S MODERN GOLDEN AGE
Soviet Armenia’s Legacy in Light of 20 Years of Resurgent Capitalism
By Markar Melkonian
On September 21, the 19 th anniversary of Armenia’s secession from the Soviet Union, the President of the Republic described Armenia’s history as one long struggle for freedom, in which “our royal and noble families, backed by national support, passed from hand to hand the standard of Armenian identity, Armenian spirit, and Armenian statehood.” It was just a speech, of course, and a boilerplate at that; few adults take such things seriously these days. But the speech brought together two themes that are the currency not just of orators and toastmasters, but of academics and writers, too: a Golden Age of glory in the distant past, and a dark age of unfreedom in the recent Soviet past.
The Golden Age story goes like this: Once upon a time, in the fifth century AD, or five centuries later in “the city of 1001 churches,” benevolent kings united in nationalist spirit with their enraptured subjects to repel invaders and build Civilization, thereby advancing that final glorious goal of History, modern statehood.
Like other fairytales, this one omits historical specifics, including the fact that the nakharars and ishkhans, those supposed standard-bearers of Armenian spirit and statehood, were in fact satraps who spent much of their martial energy putting down domestic rebellions. Let us remind ourselves that most of the subjects of the Arsacid and Bagratid Dynasties during the Golden Ages were born into feudal bondage. Vulnerable to the whims of their lords, and periodically subjected to the depravities of invading armies, they otherwise toiled until early deaths.
No wonder, then, that peasants time and again rose up against “our royal and noble families.” But if we were to accept the semi-official fairytales, then it would seem that the Paulicians and the Tondrakians, those enemies of feudal tyranny, were therefore not embodiments of “Armenian spirit and Armenian statehood” (as the official Soviet story claimed), but rather enemies of that spirit and statehood.
Admirers of Golden Ages find themselves in the same camp as those who depict the Soviet past in ever-darker hues. Soviet Armenia, we now learn, was a "dungeon" in which the nation faithfully "waited" seven decades for deliverance. (The terms are from Garin Hovannisian’s recent book, Family of Shadows, but Joseph Goebbels presaged the Soviet Union-as-a-dungeon trope at least as early as his 1942 article entitled “The So-Called Russian Soul.”)
But here is the strange point: Never before in two and one-half millennia have so many Armenians been as prosperous, as secure, as well-fed, as literate, and as long-lived as they were during the seventy years of the Soviet period. Not in the twenty-four centuries preceding the Soviet period, and not in the twenty years since. (Anyone who wishes to deny the latter claim should be prepared to deny the fact that working-class women in Armenia had more life options open to them thirty years ago than they have today.) No wonder, then, that so many of our older compatriots do not recall having lived their lives in a dungeon.
If the city of Ani was the capital of a medieval Golden Age, then surely Alexander Tamanyan’s Yerevan was the capital of Armenia’s modern Golden Age. One generation after Mother Armenia flung herself back into the arms of her abusive procurers in the west, Yerevan’s landmarks, with few exceptions, still consist of achievements that were either built during the Soviet years, or that were excavated and preserved during those years: Lenin Square, the National Gallery, the Opera House, the subway system, the Matenadaran, Erebuni, the State University and the Polytechnic Institute, and the Sports Complex. Indeed, the city of Yerevan as a whole, with its distinctive architecture, its boulevards, parks, museums, monuments, and fountains, is itself a Soviet creation.
And then there is the matter of national industry: chemicals, machine tools, mining, electrical power generation, and mechanized agriculture. These were the achievements of a small, ravaged, landlocked country with a population of four million at its height, and the construction of Armenian industry took place despite economic embargo, military encirclement, and a military invasion that took the lives of well over 20 million Soviet citizens, including more than 300,000 Armenians.
Twenty years after the establishment of Soviet power in Armenia, the country had repelled the aggressors, fed the hungry, housed the poor, educated the children, and built the cities. Twenty years of resurgent capitalism, by contrast, have reversed the trends of the Soviet period. Birth rates and life expectancies have receded; infant mortality has risen; the industrial infrastructure has collapsed; hundreds of thousands have been thrown out of jobs; thousands have been thrown out of their homes and farms, and the population of Armenia has plummeted by perhaps 20%.
Aspiring gangsters might well have experienced Soviet Armenia as a “dungeon” in which they could only bide their time, waiting for deliverance. But architect Alexander Tamanyan did not sit around waiting, nor did Soviet Armenia’s writers, composers, military commanders, engineers, and hundreds of thousands of once-proud, once-employed workers. One wants to ask, by way of comparison, what sorts of changes the last twenty years of capitalism have wrought in “the Armenian character.” One thinks of Hovhannes Bagramyan and Ivan Isakov, of Rafael Israelyan and Victor Hambartsumyan, of Aram Khatchadouryan and Alexander Spendiaryan—and one wonders why they have no counterparts amid the proliferating mediocrity and swinishness of capitalist Armenia.
If the medieval rulers of tiny, warring fiefdoms and satrapies could be said to have handed down the standard of Armenian “statehood”—and this of course is a misleading anachronism--then the leaders of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic most certainly can be said to have done so. Armenia was one of fifteen constituent Soviet Republics during the years when Anastas Mikoyan was one of the highest-ranking leaders of the USSR. Mikoyan was the leader of the country that against all odds had defeated the Nazis—a country that supported national liberation struggles from China to Vietnam to Southern Africa. Mikoyan’s Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite, put the first man into Earth orbit, and the first woman into orbit, too. (Let us recall that cosmonauts Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova were both born into peasant families.)
Armenians of the diaspora have grown weary of appeals for donations to benefit the homeland. It may be hard to imagine nowadays, but not so long ago the charity was flowing in the opposite direction: Soviet Armenia used to extend support to the diaspora, including thousands of full scholarships to the State University. Now that these scholarships are gone, students from the diaspora can no longer sentence themselves to a free higher education in a “dungeon.”
Confronted with these considerations, the villifiers of everything Soviet will protest that the achievements were purchased at a terrible cost to freedom and human rights. They are right, of course: Stalin and Beria are responsible for the deaths of thousands of ordinary Soviet citizens in Armenia. Their henchmen deprived Armenia of Yeghishe Charentz, Aksel Pagountz, and its best sons and daughters, including Hayk Bzhishkyan, Aghasi Khanjyan, and hundreds of other Armenian Bolsheviks.
But the First and the Third Republics have had their victims, too. We can recite a long litany of abuse by successive administrations in post-Soviet Armenia—the looting of public coffers, land gabs, ballot stuffing and bribery, intimidation, jailings, the killing of opponents, and the beating of demonstrators. We know, too, that many of Armenia’s tycoons are thugs and thieves, and that the plutocrats, so imperious in their ersatz castles and their limousine convoys, are really just modern-day vassals who kowtow when they find themselves in foreign capitals.
People with opposing visions of the future hold very different visions of the past. In view of the twenty-year track record of resurgent capitalism in Armenia, it is no wonder that the Junior-Achievement types feel they have to continually dial up the horror stories about life in the “dungeon” of Soviet Armenia. But it is unwise to assume that future generations, raised under the regime of capital, will share their selective amnesia, their one-sidedness, and their inability to give credit where credit is due.
Hetq.am. English section; Feature Stories, Politics. Published on November,15, 2010, 15:00. http://hetq.am/en/society.
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