Imagining the Past: Narratives of Soviet Armenian Modernity

  • ‘Imagining the Past: Narratives of Soviet Armenian Modernity’ is the title of the recently-published book by cultural critic and member of ACSL Hrach Bayadyan.

Textual summary by the author
Can the disintegration of the Soviet Union be considered a failure of a particular modernization project? Let us rephrase the question: what is the fate of the Soviet modernization project today or, rather, what are its ‘fates?’ This formulation makes more sense, since former Soviet nations that have passed through the crucible of socialist modernization continue their existence as independent states. But here, the following question arises: what did Soviet modernization mean for each separate national republic?

Do ‘multiple modernities,’ ‘alternative modernities,’ or other similar notions allow to speak not only about the Soviet modernity but also about a specific nation’s, say, Soviet Armenia’s modernity. In this book, I attempt not so much to prove the correctness or incorrectness, the relevance or irrelevance of the notion of ‘Soviet Armenian modernity’ and to find arguments supporting my standpoint in the Soviet Armenian society’s experience but rather to adopt the modernity as a viewpoint, to use the space opened up by this notion in order to examine, for instance, such concepts as the ‘national,’ to consider the Soviet Armenians as a society that has faced a certain type (even a failed one) of modernity, to discuss its ‘modern’ dimension from different perspectives, and, finally, to follow its reflux and transformations during the post-Soviet years. In the book, different aspects of Soviet Armenian modernity are discussed through different cultural texts: literature, cinema, urban musical folklore, cultural landscape, and so on.

The idea of the Armenians as a modern nation was born and embodied within the framework provided by the Russian civilizing mission as a Russian-Armenian and, eventually, a Soviet Armenian project. The final stage of this was the Khrushchev Thaw and the years following it. During this period, Russian-Soviet hegemony had been an inevitable condition for the formation of the modern Eastern Armenian cultural identity.

The field of colonial discourse and postcolonial studies provides yet another point of view for speaking of Armenia as a post-Soviet country as well as discussing its Soviet past. It provides the researcher with a critical stance, suggests certain topics, and motivates to ask relevant questions. It also provides a language and analytical tools that can also be changed or adjusted for the given context and research purposes.

We can speak of the ‘Eastern Armenian modernity’ using the language of national narratives, and the book discusses three such narratives. In the 19th century, through the efforts of a few generations of Eastern Armenian intellectuals and under the influence of the ideas of Enlightenment and romantic nationalism, a new perception of Armenianness and a modern national narrative came forth. In the book, a brief reconstruction of one version of this narrative is carried out through examining Khachatur Abovian’s ‘Wounds of Armenia’ novel (1841) and Hovhannes Tumanyan’s publicistic work (from the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries).

A new need for formulating national aspirations and ambitions emerged in the 1920s, which was the brief period of the New Economic Policy (NEP), the Bolshevik policy of encouraging the development of local cultures and languages, and the rivalry among different cultural movements. The new national narrative emerged in the works of a group of artists: painter Martiros Saryan, architect Alexander Tamanian, poet Eghishe Charents, and others. Within this artistic circle, an own perception of the local socio-political situation was formed, which, being different from the universalistic principles and practices of the Russian avant-garde spread from the Center, can be perceived as, among other things, an attempt of cultural resistance.

Despite the sharp ups and downs of Soviet Cultural policy of the 1960s and 1970s, the comparative freedoms and renewed restrictions and repressions that followed one after the other, this time was unique for the Soviet national republics in terms of the development of national cultures and formation of national consciousness. This process was paradoxically accompanied by unprecedented efforts aimed at the Russification of nations and the shaping of a united Soviet people. In Soviet Armenia, this was also a period when a new nationalism was being formed accompanied by the emergence of the third national narrative. Analysts claim that the nationalism manifested by certain Soviet titular nations in the 1960s was not a rebirth of pre-Soviet nationalism but rather a new type of nationalism—albeit one that was not predicted—formed in the process of the Soviet modernizing project. The national tradition that was reconstructed under Soviet rule, and the cultural identity that was formed, were unavoidably taking shape as a kind of national-Soviet hybrid. The book discusses a number of issues within the above-mentioned context through the parallel reading of two books written in the 1960s—Russian writer Andrei Bitov’s ‘Lessons of Armenia’ and Armenian writer Hrant Matevosyan’s ‘Hangover.’

One of the main concerns of the book is to follow the transformations of the notion of the ‘national’ during the Soviet period, which is carried out through the analysis of embodiments of the national in different cultural texts: ‘national landscape’ (1920s), ‘national epic’ (1930s), and ‘national cinema’ (1960s). These examples reveal the national as a deeply Soviet construct, as, to a great extent, a result of ideological imperatives, Party decisions, dominant cultural norms, and forms of expression. In the case of the national epic, for instance, we see that, starting from the 1930s, the process of Soviet Armenians inheriting the western Armenian popular epic was accompanied by the epic’s inevitable sovietization. It was incorporated into the dominant Soviet ideological structure and into the strategies for consolidating the Soviet people. Interpretations of the epic were conducted by employing Soviet theories on folklore and in every way reproduced the officially encouraged rhetoric. For example, values related to the discourse of socialist construction (humanism, altruism, internationalism, lofty patriotism, etc.), the hierarchical relations between Soviet nationalities where Russians were the ‘elder brother’ and social discrimination, are noticeable in the interpretations of the epic. So, we can conclude that on the road of cultural appropriation and nationalization the epos is quite removed from the popular epic. Just like the most prominent artistic embodiment of the epic, the statue of Davit of Sasun erected in Yerevan in 1959, with its pathos and exaggerated monumentalism, is far removed from the peasant protagonist of the popular epic, which has survived on the social margins of the colonized people for millennia.

Yerevan, 2020
Hrach Bayadyan