Bringing Future Closer:

Bringing Future Closer:

Science in Armenia under Communism

The communist ideology from its very inception declared that the society should be governed based on strictly rational principles and therefore it can be assumed that science should have had a leading role in the life of the first communist state in the world. The whole undertaking of the USSR was so innovative that many across the world believed it to be a new form of society worthy to emulate


Text : Tigran Zakaryan


The real situation was quite different. Science in the state of the soviets was put in the service of technological advancement, which during the Cold War started to mean to serve the purpose of the arms race. Meanwhile social science and disciplines close to it were either dismantled altogether (like philosophy, which basically turned into an apology for Marxism-Leninism, preventing it from generating any seditious idea which could potentially question the legitimacy of the Soviet order) or heavily controlled by the party ideology, which under Stalin practiced quite arbitrary approaches, preferring one idea over another and even changing them at a lightning speed.

As Soviet renowned academic Dmitry Likhachev put it: “There was a concept in science in practice that from the very beginning of a research there was only one correct way, one correct school of thought and of course one chief scientist, which was the ‘chief’ in his science.” Under Stalin in many cases it was him personally as he was quoted in most, if not all more or less important research, especially when it referred to history, linguistics, economics or anything alike.

With all the above-said it is noteworthy that education and fundamental research had a strong boost under the Soviet rule as Russia, which had to catch up quickly with the rest of the world as the political strife in the country during 1917-1921 had eroded the already weak infrastructure.

Armenian science and education before and during sovietization

Armenian short-lived republic and SSR were former backward parts of the Russian empire and during the existence of the first and early years of the second had tremendous amounts of basic problems to resolve.

The Armenian republic managed to create an elementary schooling system as early as in 1919, which however was not always possible to enforce due to lack of financial and other resources. In the same year the government passed a decision to found a first Armenian university in the modern sense of the word. This university was founded in January 1920 in Alexeandrapol (now Gyumri) and later in the year it was transferred permanently to Yerevan as the advancing Turkish army occupied Alexandrapol for several months.

Very soon after Armenia’s sovietization science became part of the new leadership’s concern. For centuries the city of Vagharshapat and the spiritual center of Ejmiatsin played an important role in cultural and scientific life of Armenia. Ejmiatsin seminary was almost a non-official Armenian university which gathered renowned Armenian scholars in humanities and its students included most part of the Armenian intellectual elite of the turn of the 20th century.

It was no surprise that the first scientific and research institution in Soviet Armenia was the Ejmiatsin Culture-Historical Institute in February 1921, which was created after historical and cultural monuments, museum and old manuscripts were confiscated from the Holy See and transferred to the new government.

Its activities did not go very smooth at the beginning as one of its founders and director of the museum, Levon Lisitsyan was killed during the anti-Bolshevik February revolt of 1921. After the end of civil war in Armenia the institution’s activities continues with renewed vigor, including Armenian renowned historian Leo (Arakel Babakhanyan) and linguist Hrachya Acharyan, architect Toros Toromanyan and others.

In 1922 the institute was renamed as Scientific Institute of Armenia with linguistic, history and other departments in humanities and art. In 1925 this institution was renamed into Institute of Science and Arts of the Armenian SSR organized on the principle of academy.

From the very first year of its existence, the institute published old manuscripts and modern researches on Armenia’s medieval and modern history. Meanwhile some of its members did not escape Stalinist purges. The head of the Matenadaran (museum of old manuscripts) for long years (1921-1937) Senekerim Ter-Hakobyan was arrested and died in prison in 1938.


Organization of science in Soviet Armenia

It was no wonder that in the beginning the Armenian science was heavily, if not exclusively concentrated on humanities and art as in general the Russian empire and the USSR in the early years of its existence lacked fundamental research in areas like physics, chemistry, medicine etc., and whatever existed was concentrated in Moscow or Leningrad (St. Petersburg).

However the mass collectivization and speedy industrialization of the early 1930’s which, naturally demanded a certain number of qualified technical personnel as well as research in relevant areas and soon a great number of research institution in science were established across the USSR.

Major economic changes also had their impact on the organization of science in the Soviet Union under Stalin. This was also the time when comparative autonomy of the Armenian (the same as in other constituent republics) academic organization came to an end. It was not eliminated earlier probably because the Leningrad-based Academy of Science the USSR was not totally under Stalin’s control until the end of 1930 when scores of academics were arrested and years later it was finally move to Moscow.

In 1933 in Tbilisi the Transcaucasian branch of the USSR academy of science was established which had its sections in Yerevan and Baku. Ultimately in 1935 all of those institutions were transformed into Armenian, Azerbaijani and Georgian branches of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR.

No coincidence that the first head of the Armenian branch was not a local but originally from Leningrad, Franz Levinson-Lessing a veteran of the Imperial Academy of Science of St. Peterburg, and later of the Academy of Science of the USSR.

Armenia’s own academy of science was founded in 1943, a period when Stalin needed support of the non-Russian nationalities and engaged in war against Nazi Germany made concessions to some less ambitious desires of constituent republics. So Hovsep Orbeli, an ethnic Armenian was elected as its first president to be substituted by Viktor Hambardzumyan in 1947 who stayed in that position for decades until 1993.

Stalinist purges

Meanwhile the years of Stalin’s rule were not at all safe and prosperous for the intellectuals of the Soviet Union, including the Armenian SSR. Although the soviet official ideology trumpeted the success in substitution old bourgeois intellectuals with new proletarian ones, in fact the most prominent ones among them shot or exiled, while some old school representatives managed to survive somehow.

Most bright representatives of the new intellectuals, poet Yeghishe Charents, who died in prison and writer Aksel Bakunts (who also worked as a specialist in agriculture) shot in prison were among the most prominent Armenian victims of the bloody purges.

The purges also touched on those who were in charge of research and propagation of the communist ideology. Economist Nersik Stepanyan, head of the Armenian branch of the Marxism-Leninism institute and was in 1933-1934 Armenian SSR People’s Commissar of Education, in a private note wrote, probably to his surprise that the Communist leadership is “fighting against national feelings rather than bourgeoisie”. No surprise, that in 1937 he was charged with “nationalism” and shot along with other intellectuals and political leadership of the Armenian SSR.

This was a tremendous blow to the intellectual life of Armenians, which was undergoing a second intellectual genocide after another just decades before which was unfolded under the Ottoman rule just a couple of decades before.

Among dozens of prominent intellectuals who found their death under Stalin were woman writer Zabel Yesayan, historian Astvatsatur Khachatryan, histrorian, archeologist Ashkharhbek Kalantar, mathematician Arshak Tonyan, lawyer Grigori Yevangulov, pedagogue Gurgen Edilyan, philologist Gurgen Vanandetsi, historian Davit Ananun, economist and historian Tadevos Avdalbegyan, physician Khosrov Hekimyan, biologist Hakob Hovhannisyan, Armenian Republic’s first prime minster and architect Hovhannes Kajaznuni, chemist Husik Ter-Poghosyan, philologist Poghos Makintsyan, writer and translator Vahan Totovents and many others.

Sanctioned to think behind bars

Those intellectuals, including scientists who survived were either put to pressure being forced to write apologies for Stalin and the Soviet regime or were part of the system, sometimes penning accusing letters to NKVD in the hope that cooperation with the regime would spare their life, however it was not always the case.

All this put tremendous pressure on research let alone any free thought in the Soviet Union.

The Soviet intellectuals were not supposed to raise problems and discuss it, as a true intellectual in a more or less free society should be, instead they were summoned upon by the authorities to resolve problems, a large part of whom were created by themselves. So these intellectuals were rather experts than intellectuals in the true sense of the word.

Although the Soviet authorities proclaimed their scientific bases, things under Stalin worked in some case in most anti-scientific way. Delirious ideas, such as for instance to turn the rivers flowing towards the Arctic Ocean into the interior for irrigation and things alike could incidentally be embraced by the soviet leaders and all those arguing against it declared as “enemies of the people” while at Stalin’s whim the situation could be reversed.

The same was also in Armenia, where Armenian medieval author Movses Khorenatsi was sometimes announced as 5th century author and those who argued with it had to bear serious consequences of non-academic nature.

An epitome of this voluntarism in the Soviet Union was the construction of the Belomorkanal (the White-Sea-Baltic Canal) by the GULAG slaves costing thousands and thousands of human lives, which ultimately proved to be useless for the navigation of larger ships.

However the need of defense forced soviet leader to think in a more constructive way. That urge ended up with a first serious attempt in the history of humankind to develop science behind the bars on the vast territories of the GULAG. Staring from 1930 and later up until Stalin’s death in 1953 number of secret research and technical institutions existed in the Soviet Union mostly composed from slave technicians and researchers, whom some German POWs and forcibly removed scientists were added. They were mostly working on technologies designed for military purposes.


Science development after Stalin

Although after Stalin’s death and the 20th congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union a period of thaw ensued and GULAG prisoners were released, tight ideological control remained in place. On the other hand no great repression was any more needed as the ideological mold had done its effect over the past decades: most intellectuals agreed with the ideology, while a tiny minority which was to different degree critical preferred to keep silent.

Different new science branches required proper organization and the newly founded academy by 1950 already had over 30 institutions under its umbrella. In 1958 the Matenadaran, which moved from Ejmiatsin to Yerevan in 1939, was given a special status and extended its activities.

While cybernetics was considered as a “fake science” under Stalin, after his death studies in mathematics and cybernetics developed quickly and Armenia became a leader in that area. As early as in 1956 Yerevan Computer Research and Development Institute was founded, soon unofficially called “Mergelyan Institute” after its renowned director Sergey Mergelyan. The institute had some 7,000 employees by 1990.

1960’s saw a rapid expansion of science industry in Armenia with scores of new institutions added to the Academy of Sciences, in branches such as radio physics, microbiology, seismology, geophysics, cardiology etc. In 1956 was officially unveiled the Byurakan observatory, equipped with state-of-the-art technology and devices of the time, which still is a major one in the region.


Pressure on social science and dissidence

Meanwhile dissidence, mainly coming from few democratic and nationalist centres of mind was not totally eliminated even at the heyday of Stalinism. Dissidence in Armenia existed even then. In 1941 a group of 30 people mostly students from the Yerevan State University history department which reportedly propagated anti-Stalinist and nationalist ideas, was uncovered, arrested and later shot or exiled. This showed were dissidence possibly could come. Armenian history was indeed a tough topic and any serious student in it could find flagrant discrepancies between what the facts said and the ideological rigid frameworks.

All this accumulated and exploded in early 1960’s when the Armenian SSR leadership ensured consent from the central authorities in Moscow to hold memorial events on the 50th anniversary of the genocide. Yet this was not enough as people on 24 of April 1965 took to the streets in a spontaneous move, in the meantime breaking the official half-silence and for the first time in Armenian SSR history making a national cause part of the republic’s social life. There was no way indeed to counter this, the only possible option was to channel the energy into something less harmful for the soviet authorities.

Indeed the research on Armenian genocide surged after those events. In the same their anti-Turkish rhetoric was in the interest of the Soviet Union as this seemed a plausible reason for keeping Armenia within under Moscow’s control, in the same time silencing any voice on Soviet-Kemalist cooperation against Armenia, which was a well-known secret to most sound-thinking researchers and more or less informed public. Armenian history textbooks, academic publications in their research of recent Armenian history were strengthening the image of “Turkey-foe vs Russia-brother” and this is still valid in Armenian historiography, although some parts of it are seriously reconsidered after independence.

On the whole Armenian social science and history in particular, functioning under Soviet ideology, admittedly had some success in fact-finding, checking, offering some explanations, however, in some cases they lacked connection with other relevant histories and badly lacked diversity in theoretical approaches.

No suprisingly, in 21st century Modern Armenian social science is only slowly moving away from most patterns established by then, trying to integrate into the global research community.

What is the Soviet heritage in science?

Admittedly Soviet period was a quite dynamic period in the history of science in Armenia. However there are certainly some problems with it, starting from its nomenclature. It was rather “science in Armenia” than “Armenian science” since it was part and parcel of the Soviet science serving its own purpose, mostly unrelated to the needs and expectations of the Armenian people. It was dominated by a certain ideology which at times was contrary to the development of science itself and to the Armenian national interest.

On the other hand modern Armenia inherited a number of research institutions with highly trained professionals but who are underpaid and badly underequipped. Modern Armenia can hardly revive the science which existed in the Armenian SSR. There is no need of doing it either. What we need is a dynamic, internationally integrated science, which can show leadership in certain areas. Social science and research needs a special attention in Armenia in order to have a more modern and dynamic society and this needs to be a prime concern for the Armenian current and future governments.