Good Bolsheviks and Bad Bolsheviks


Good Bolsheviks and Bad Bolsheviks

is the Soviet Past still a Matter of Controversy in Armenia?

When Armenia was still part of the Soviet Union, November was a month of celebrations. On November 7 “the Great October Socialist Revolution” was celebrated (October 25 in the old “Julian” calendar) and November 29 was the day when “Sovietization” of Armenia was celebrated. Today these dates mean little to most Armenians. And yet, it turns out, there is still room for a heated debate on how to deal with the Soviet heritage.

Text: Mikayel Zolyan


When in the municipal council of Yerevan an opposition political block “Yelq” raised the issue of renaming those Yerevan streets that still have “Soviet” names, some observers thought the initiative would go unnoticed, since inhabitants of Yerevan have more pressing concerns, such as the state of public transport or the quality of air. However, the initiative sparked heated debates that extended far beyond the city council and resonated outside of Armenia.

Renaming streets and removing statues has been one of the spheres of symbolic “wars of memory” between Moscow and post-Soviet countries for years, and these “wars of memory” have recently intensified. So, the “Yelq” deputies’ initiative was noticed by many outside Armenia: the issue of renaming certain Yerevan streets reached Russian media. A prominent member or Russian parliament Leonid Kalashnikov, head of the committee responsible for “Eurasian integration”, called this initiative “a hostile act”, compared what was happening in Armenia to developments in the Baltics and Ukraine, and said that Russia would need to respond “if these discussions did not stop”. Apparently “Yelq” deputies had touched a nerve, and not just in Yerevan.

Traditional October Revolution parade in Yerevan, 1984


Hundred Years Later: How Post-Soviet Countries Remember the Soviet Years

Post-Soviet countries have varying approaches to dealing with the Soviet past. In Russia the condemnation of the Soviet system, which was the dominant paradigm in the early 1990s, gave way to widespread nostalgia. Against the dramatic background of the 1990s the Soviet years came to be seen by many as a time of stability and comfort, a view adopted also by a part of Russia’s political elite. Perceptions of the Soviet past remain mixed today: some episodes, such as the October revolution itself, are largely seen in a negative light, while others are celebrated. Thus, the celebration of victory in World War II (the Great Patriotic War) became a major unifying force for the Russian society. In addition, while in the late 1980s many Russians, of both liberal and nationalist views, made a distinction between USSR and Russia, today USSR is increasingly seen as simply another incarnation of Russian statehood. Paradoxically, this attitude allows to combine an idealized view of the Russian Empire with an equally idealized view of the Soviet Union. It also means that when a post-Soviet country makes a move that challenges heritage associated with either the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union, this is often perceived as a hostile act in Russia. Thus, through recent years Russian media reacted negatively to such diverse developments as the demolition of Lenin statues in Ukraine, the introduction of a public holiday in remembrance of a 1916 uprising against Russian Empire in Kyrgyzstan, and the decision to introduce a Latin-based alphabet in Kazakhstan.


Traditional October Revolution parade in Yerevan, 1984


As for other post-Soviet countries, their approaches to the Soviet past vary from celebration to complete rejection. On one end of the spectrum is Belarus, which, at least until recently, was arguably even more loyal to the Soviet heritage than Russia. Minsk still surprises some of its foreign visitors with an impressive Lenin statue on the city’s main square, which has been renamed “Independence Square”, even though the metro station is still called “Lenin Square” (yes, it is complicated, and yes, it is the statue mentioned in a classic episode of the American TV series “Friends”). Even in Moscow the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the infamous founder of Soviet secret police, was demolished in 1991 and never restored. Yet, a bust of Dzerzhinski can still be seen in one of Minsk’s streets, aptly placed before the State Security Committee (the abbreviation still reads “KGB” in Russian). In the recent years, Belarusian government has engaged in a campaign of “soft Belarusization”, which among other things, means paying more attention to pre-Soviet Belarusian history and encouraging cultural traits that distinguish Belarusians from their neighbors. However, at least so far, this campaign has not meant significant changes when it comes to the attitude to the Soviet past.



Lenin's statue overthrown in Yerevan, Riga, Bucharest and Kiev

On the other end of the spectrum are countries like the Baltic states and Georgia, which treat the Soviet period as “occupation”. It seems that Ukraine, where the two approaches to the Soviet past had competed for years, has now firmly moved to the “anti-Soviet” camp. In other post-Soviet countries the political and intellectual elites took the middle road. They needed to build a national narrative distinct from the Soviet heritage, while not breaking with the Soviet past completely, especially in those cases when the rulers themselves came from the ranks of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Even in case of Belarus things were not black and white. Going back to the case of Dzerzhinski, locals usually explain that the main reason why Dzerzhinski’s name is still on the city map, is that Dzerzhinski, though of Polish ancestry, was a local of Belarus. So, paradoxically, a controversial Soviet figure can also be perceived in the context of a distinct Belarusian identity. In other words, when it comes to dealing with the Soviet heritage, things are complicated.

Lenin's statue on the Freedom Square, Minsk, Belarus


Remembering the Soviets in the Armenian Way

Until recently, it seemed that Post-Soviet Armenia had found a perfect solution to the issue, combining seemingly incompatible approaches. Armenia was one of the first Soviet republics to experience a mass national-democratic movement that directly challenged central authorities. Accordingly, Armenian society went through a reappraisal of the Soviet past as early as the end of the 1980s. Dark pages of Soviet past, such as Stalinist repressions or the previously unknown details of Armenia’s forced “Sovietization” were discovered. Lenin’s statue on Yerevan’s central square was removed in April 1990, when the Soviet Union still seemed alive and strong. Yet, already then, Armenian society’s attitude to the Soviet past was more complicated and nuanced than the “occupation” model, which dominated in the Baltics. While forced “Sovietization” in 1920 came to be seen as an act of aggression, it was still considered to be “the lesser evil” compared to the possible perspective of occupation by Kemalist Turkey. Those territories of Armenia that fell to Kemalists were practically cleansed of their Armenian population, while Soviet Armenia became a center of revival of Armenian life. Obviously, Soviet Armenia was not an independent state, but it was seen as a “quasi-state” with some characteristics of a sovereign political unit. For the first time in centuries (with the obvious exception of the short-lived independence in 1918-1920) Armenians received a chance to build something that resembled a nation-state. Hence, Soviet Armenia, while not a sovereign state, is seen as “the second republic”, a bridge between the independent Armenia of 1918-1920, i.e. “the 1st republic”, and post-Soviet Armenia, i.e. “the 3rd republic”.

Stepan Shahumyan's statue, Yerevan

The attitude to Soviet historical figures reflected this attitude. Historians and politicians distinguished between two kinds of Armenian Bolsheviks: “nationally conscious” Bolsheviks, who combined Communist views with loyalty to Armenia’s interests, and “anti-national” ones, who were ready to sacrifice Armenian interests on the altar of “world revolution”. Based on this distinction, some Armenian Bolsheviks were “punished” by erasing their names from the map, while others were “spared”. Thus, in Yerevan there are still statues and streets devoted to prominent “nationally conscious” Bolsheviks, such as Stepan Shahumyan and Alexander Myasnikyan. Yet, the statue of Ghukas Ghukasyan, a participant of Bolshevik uprising in May 1920, which stood in one of Yerevan parks, is gone (so is the park, but that is a topic for a different article). And probably very few of the pub-goers, who fill Yerevan’s Parpetsy street on weekends, know that this street was called Ghukasyan street before 1991.

This nuanced approach was applied not just to the period of “Sovietization”, but to other periods of Soviet history as well. Soviet leadership, especially Stalin's, was condemned for totalitarian policies, and the victims of political repressions were remembered. At the same time Armenia’s achievements during the Soviet years, whether in development of economy, in science or in arts were celebrated. Armenians’ participation in World War II is seen by most Armenians as a heroic episode, and Armenian soldiers and generals of World War II continued to be celebrated as national heroes after the Soviet Union was long gone. It was in the post-Soviet years that the statue of Soviet Marshal Hovhannes (Ivan) Baghramyan on horseback was erected on one of Yerevan’s central avenues that bears his name.

Alexander Myasnikyan's statue, Yerevan


Between Mikoyan and Nzhdeh: Re-Emerging Debates on Soviet Past

This consensus on how to deal with the Soviet past that emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s helped Armenia to avoid some of the conflicts that tore apart other post-Soviet societies in the 1990s. With the exception of some radicals on both sides of the political spectrum, neither political nor intellectual elites in Armenia questioned the consensus that emerged regarding the Soviet past. True, the hardships of the 1990s brought about nostalgia for Soviet times, but it did not become a factor of political life. Armenia never experienced a political comeback of Communism: Communists’ votes diminished from one election to the other. Even when the former head of Soviet Armenia Karen Demirchyan returned to politics in 1998 as a presidential candidate, he did not do so in the capacity of a Communist. In fact, he carefully avoided ideological rhetoric, stressing his managerial qualities instead.

However, recent events showed that the consensus on the perception of the Soviet past, which existed in post-Soviet Armenia, may no longer exist. The “Yelq” initiative was not the only sign of erosion of the consensus on the Soviet past. Several developments showed that the question of how to relate to the Soviet heritage is once again a matter of debate. One of the first signs of this change was the case of a planned monument to Anastas Mikoyan in 2014. The initiative to place a bust to Mikoyan in Yerevan came from his Russia-based descendants. Mikoyan was well-known as the most powerful Armenian in the Soviet hierarchy, having been a member of Stalin’s inner circle and Khrushev’s closest associate. However, he was clearly not a “nationally oriented” Bolshevik: in 1920 Mikoyan took a hostile stance toward “Dashnaks” and “Imperialist Armenia”. Yerevan municipality first gave its approval, but this brought about criticism from historians, descendants of victims of Stalinist terror, as well as various political and NGO activists. Eventually, after heated debates, plans to erect a monument to Mikoyan were abandoned, but the very fact that initially authorities considered the monument acceptable was remarkable.

Recently, in September 2017, the Soviet past once again became a matter of heated debates, this time in relation to the exhibition “Eclipse”, devoted to victims of Soviet political repression. The exhibition was held in the Museum of Hovhannes Tumanyan, a major Armenian writer, whose sons perished in the repressions. It was shut down by an order from the Ministry of Culture; and the Deputy Minister, when explaining the closure, said that the exhibition was “somewhat politicized”. This explanation raised even more questions from critics: how could an exhibition on political repressions not be “political”? Some, like historian Hayk Demoyan, argued that the decision is a sign of "freeping re-Stalinization", which has begun in Russia and is now influencing Armenia as well. 

Garegin Nzhdeh's newly opened statue, Yerevan

While it may be hard to believe that Armenia’s Ministry of Culture is run by closet Stalinists, the decision to shut down the exhibition may reflect the fear of Armenia’s authorities to do something that could be perceived as hostile by Moscow. Indeed, in the recent years Moscow has become increasingly sensitive to developments related to Soviet past in Post-Soviet countries. Thus, when in the center of Yerevan a statue to one of the most celebrated Armenian national figures of 20th century, Garegin Nzhdeh, was erected, it created a minor, but noticeable tension in Russian-Armenian relations. Nzhdeh is one of the most revered Armenian figures of the 20th century, and Armenia’s ruling party, the Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) considers him to be its ideological forerunner. Controversy emerged, however, related to allegations of cooperation with the Nazi Germany during the World War II. Nzhdeh did participate in the creation of “Armenian legion”, made up from ethnic Armenian POWs, which, however, never took part in the actual fighting. Most Armenians believe that Nzhdeh’s actions were aimed at preventing mistreatment of Armenians by the Nazis, particularly saving Armenian POWs from perishing in concentration camps. When the Soviet forces advanced, Nzhdeh voluntarily surrendered to the Soviets and suggested cooperation (the offer was not taken and Nzhdeh died in a prison in Russia several years later). Whatever the complexities of history, the monument to Nzhdeh draw a negative reaction from Russia, voiced not only by the Russian media, but even by the MFA speaker, Maria Zakharova.

Some observers noted that within the same week, another statue was erected in Yerevan, this time devoted to a Soviet hero of World War II, marshal Hamazasp Babajanyan. Probably this “statue diplomacy” worked, as no further discussion of the controversy around Nzhdeh followed. Instead, Babajanyan’s statue created controversy at home. Some Armenians, mostly of liberal political convictions, claimed that Babajanyan, apart from being a war hero, had also a dark page in his biography: he took part in the suppression of the Hungarian revolution in 1956 by the Soviet military. Apparently, when it comes to deciding how to remember the Soviet Union, things are complicated, even today, a quarter of a century after its demise.