15 November 2022Armenia

Past, (un)close

Tigran Amiryan speaks about his country and his section

by Tigran Amiryan
© Har Toum

Our Armenia section is edited by curator, contemporary culture researcher Tigran Amiryan. We offer to our readers his opening column.

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Being in charge of a section of a media platform means you have an understanding of what matters to a society, what is talked about and in what language. When I start thinking about the actual narratives of Armenian society, the first things that come to mind are the key events of recent years: the Velvet Revolution, the Karabakh War, the struggle against the destruction of Yerevan’s old city, the incessant actions of eco-activists against the ill-considered exploitation of natural resources, to mention just a few. All these events, it seems, never quite come to a halt, never freeze like an insect trapped inside the amber of the past. This past sticks like tar, it drags on and on infiltrating the present and fusing with it. Strings of words and objects, parts of our life, inevitably and unexpectedly show through the sands of memory. In order to analyse them you need special precision instruments that permit you to sort out in tar, amber and sand the clichéd notions of your country from what really is.

A few years ago in a private conversation with a Russian acquaintance the subject of the Armenian Genocide arose. My interlocutor responded condescendingly, ‘This is ridiculous. What genocide? It’s been over a hundred years.’ At the time Russia enjoyed a publishing boom of original and translated books about memory as a social construct, about the German experience of working through this complex phenomenon, and the words of Aleida Assmann rang in my head: ‘Russia differs in that it favours oblivion over memory.’ I chose not to get involved in further discussion. Remembering is hard work. Years later, we saw the criminal regime in my interlocutor’s country in a matter of weeks raise to the ground the remaining institutions of memory to the total silence of the majority of Russians.

It is possible to let go of the past, it is what our neighbours near and far have been doing persistently and not without success. But there is another way: working with the past without falsifications, accepting it in all its glory and all its ugliness. Acting in this way is difficult for us countries of the former USSR (without exception). However, in Armenia there is nothing similar to a bloody hunt for memory. On the contrary, for a variety of reasons the past holds Armenian society in a tight grip impossible to break. Recent events have brought home to Armenians the urgency of these problems.

The closeness of the past, albeit a hundred years old, is sensed once you begin to descend over the country’s main airport. Out of the window of the landing plane you can see a couple of snow covered mountain peaks. The Old Testament mountain, Mount Ararat, is in the territory of Turkey but in a few minutes at passport control a page of your identity document will be stamped with a blurred and sketchy ink likeness of the landscape you just saw framed by the porthole. The physical, material, heavy closeness of the past becomes clear as never before. Not everyone arriving at Zvartnots international airport knows that the sacred mountain is in foreign territory. The adult generation is informed better owing to age-old Soviet jokes or occasional vacation trips to the south – that what once marked the border of a great empire is now a symbol of the traumatic dissection of Armenians’ memory.

Lately, the talk of opening the Armenia-Turkey border has been increasingly heard – this political decision does not seem to imply any preconditions. For the almost hermetically sealed Armenia that would be helpful and probably even economically sound. But the very format of such borderlessness scatters a lot of ‘buts’ along the entire border of social memory. The question of recognition of the Armenian Genocide must not get in the way of opening communications. Even if you imagine that there is an economic or touristic flow between the two countries, what is the image stamped in your passport supposed to convey? Will you have to learn to see anew? Without getting too deep into visual semiotics, you can simply ask yourself: what is the largest and most important memorial complex that you see when entering Yerevan? And then along the entire border, opened without preconditions, there appear a lot of questions for both Turkish and Armenian societies. For Armenians (again, according to Assmann) the history of the Genocide is not merely political posturing of the state. The memory of the Genocide is deeply rooted in the language, in the family memory of everyone.

Returning your stamped passport, a border guard may ask you a standard question about the purpose of your visit. You have to be prepared that this question may be asked not only by Armenian but also by Russian border guards. Here we need to stop and remind ourselves of the textbook fact that Armenia has no common border with Russia. Sometimes odd things happen to Western Armenians arriving on international flights – the Russian they speak is limited to‘babushka’, ‘matryoshka’ and, recently, the Russian warship meme. But the border guard will insist on speaking Russian as if transporting the repatriate to one of the Soviet-era films the latter could only see as a child in the USA or France. And God help you if you fly in from Russia where you were recognized as a foreign agent. In this case your passport will only be stamped with Ararat by our/not our border guard after a very uncomfortable conversation.

Your flight to Yerevan may appear in many ways similar to a trip in a time machine, but your experience of spatial distortions will be extraordinary too. The feeling of the border is so widespread that you will hardly be able to ignore it. Once outside the airport, you won’t lose the feeling of the border. Our country is so small and so oppressed by big, rich and ambitious countries that wherever you go you will see a border on the horizon. Almost the whole of this border is controlled by our/not our guards whose presence can’t prevent it from shrinking by the hour.

Particularly after the Second Karabakh War of autumn 2020.

The Karabakh War was a most terrible tragedy that set us back for thirty years. In spite of the fact that a major part of Karabakh was taken over by Azerbaijan and ‘cleansed’ of the Armenian population, some Karabakh Armenians still live there in and around Stepanakert. Recent television broadcasts showed a thousand-strong rally in Stepanakert city centre. Armenians held banners saying that under no conditions would they want to live in Azerbaijan. Different analysts gave different interpretations to that meeting. One argued that it was an action provoked by the Russian forces in order to hinder Yerevan’s pursuit of a peace agreement. Another considered it a natural response to the statements of the Azerbaijani authorities that the Karabakh problem had been resolved.

For my generation that mass meeting was also some kind of déjà vu. My generation grew up with the images of Armenian dissenters protecting themselves and their memory, the boundaries of their identity facing the continual threat of total extermination. People of my age remember very clearly the crippled refugees who had seen most inhumane things flow through Yerevan. We remember the flow of Armenians fleeing the pogroms in Sumgait and Baku, the massive processions under the ‘miatsum’ [translator's note: unification and integration] slogan. Miatsum did not happen, no one heeded the slogan, no one listened to the calls of the people. Today, thirty years later, when I see again thousands of Armenians crowding squares with almost the same question, the same cry for help – what is going on does not appear either entirely real or entirely belonging to the present; something long gone shimmering near you. We saw it, and nothing has changed over the whole post-Soviet period. Karabakh Armenians don’t want to live in Azerbaijan. Sadly, we must acknowledge that the responsibility for the fact that nothing has changed in decades is shared by all parties in the conflict – not only on both sides of the border but also those who we never had a common border with.

The end of the 44-days-long war in autumn 2020 was a moment of disappointment, a moment of a full rollback to the past. A huge loss of life for a small country is a wound that will be remembered for a long time. Almost the entire male population born in 2001–2002 was killed by Turkish Bayraktars. The sudden – overnight – end of the war not only revealed lists of the thousands killed, missing and fallen into Baku captivity. It marked the bitter disappointment in the #WeWillWin media campaign. For 44 days in a row we attended one memorial service after another. All this time these hashtags appeared on social networks and userpics. Userpics did not help.
In 2018, during and after the Velvet Revolution, one would think that at last our society had found an alternative way to bury the past – both the Soviet past and the criminal oligarchic past of the 90s. It was a time of dreams and a time of hopes. I remember working really hard in the first year after the Revolution. I worked for one organisation and then for another, I was eager to help the Ministry of Culture, I participated in endless discussions on the necessity to introduce this or that legislative change. This was the only moment when we were writing about our country as a ‘young democracy’ – without any doubt, without false, pompous populist pathos. But we – with all our hopes and dreams – were quickly brought down to earth. Our region woke up to a reality where a weak leader of the young democracy lost the war to an oil dictator. Now every day we are facing the risk of another rollback into the pre-2018 period. And the former Armenian authorities and their media are actively fighting to come back to power and to send us back to the past.

The war stopped on November 9, 2020 under the trilateral agreement between Armenia, Russia and Azerbaijan. Drowned in total grief, Armenian society was hoping for rescue of any kind and ignoring rhetorical details. Vladimir Putin refused to re-read the agreement before signing, he said something like, ‘Why should I read it again? It was I who wrote it.’ The agreement was called trilateral but Nikol Pashinyan was not present at the online signing conference. That was a bilateral agreement penned by one author. But the desire to stop bloodshed at any price was stronger than attention to details and subtleties of verbal and legal gymnastics. The war stopped. And a convoy of Russian peacekeepers’ tanks moved to Karabakh. Russian military presence in the region increased. The war stopped but it goes on. Regular Azerbaijani offensives not only on the disputed territories but also on Armenia itself have been going on for two years. In September 2022 alone two nights of shelling, according to Armenian reports, cost the resort town of Jermuk over 200 dead and missing. They don’t let us forget our distant past and our close past alike.

Frequent demands of Azerbaijan and Turkey to create a corridor through Armenia outside Armenia's control, statements that Zangezur, almost the entire south of the country, is Azerbaijan’s historical territory (yes, dictatorial ambitions and colonial or imperial rhetoric are contagious in our region) – all of this keeps Armenian society in suspended fear, the fear that an all-out war may resume.

Our society didn’t have time to pull out of this endless war, this ongoing process of shrinking the borders. Another war began – the Russian aggression against Ukraine. The scale of the Russo-Ukrainian war and its closeness to Europe literally pushed our trauma into the shadow of world news.

Hundreds of thousands of Russians who escaped from their harsh dictatorship are now walking the streets of Yerevan. These Russians have quickly adjusted to the post-Soviet city, they are peering into Soviet Modernist buildings, feeling nostalgic, trying to communicate their feelings to us. We have to recall the almost forgotten rules of Russian grammar so we can better serve the refugees who spend millions on wines in Yerevan and its surroundings. We have to leave our rented apartments and go back to our parents’ homes because the newly arrived refugees can pay more than we can afford and are more profitable to landlords. A number of bloggers have noted that Yerevan shows more hospitality to Russians than Tbilisi (hopefully, this won’t put us at odds with our Georgian neighbours to cap it all). That really is the case. I bothered to count: at a recent book festival, 15 out of 55 events were held in Russian. Neither local nor newly arrived Russians – decolonial and anti-imperial, quite liberal as they are – failed to ask themselves whether it was necessary to provide translation into the local language. Everyone understands Russian anyway. Here everyone seems to remember the lingua franca of the past. And those who don’t can always choose not to participate.

Language is often an instrument of oppression and coercion, but it can also be used as an instrument of mimicry. Armenians – how can they not? – remember the Russian grammar which they learned not only from textbooks but from our own experience of being foreigners. That experience got under our skin and into our minds in the ‘dark’ 90s from which many of us fled to Russia where we did our best to be as intelligible, agreeable and invisible as possible for the local population and authorities. This close memory is a reflection of the present day, of another déjà vu: along with the forgotten rules of Russian grammar and pronunciation we – how can we not? – have to remember the rules of conduct and be hospitable, intelligible and invisible.

Translated from Russian by Alexander Stoliarchuk

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