An illustrated guide to urban exploration in the Russian capital.
28 May 2018
The dirt shone red-orange in the car headlights, the road little more than a trench cutting through endless miles of dry terrain. Night had caught us by surprise, still hours from our destination. We sped through the moonlit wilderness, one single light in a rocky land dotted with pylons, ruined churches, and every few miles or so, looming ghostlike out of the darkness, the vestigial remains of Armenia’s Soviet monuments.
Somewhere near the village of Dashtadem, down in the southwest corner of Armenia, we lost the road altogether. The tarmac, half hidden under dust, took a sudden, sharp turn to the right while we carried on straight ahead. The car shuddered into the dirt, bouncing to a violent halt; and the small halo of light that had surrounded us erupted into a glowing cocoon of dust and smoke.
Nearby, an invisible siren whooped. In all these empty miles we had managed to plough into the verge just a stone’s throw from a police patrol car (I wondered how long it had waited there, like a trapdoor spider, for anyone to pass), and now we were due for a reckoning.
As one officer leaned down to the driver window, we told him we didn’t speak Armenian. We might have just about got by in Russian, but we told him – in English – that we didn’t speak that either. We assumed that the harder we made this, the more likely the police would just send us on our way… and it worked, though not without one final test to pass.
This Armenian police officer motioned the driver to get out of the car, then he cupped his hands and mimed a gesture of breathing into them. Our driver – an American – did as he was told, he emptied his lungs into the man’s palms and the officer took a good hard sniff. If he’d been expecting vodka breath, he was pleasantly surprised: we weren’t drunk, just tired.
As we reversed back onto the road the two police officers had a good laugh at our expense. They waved us off, muttering something that I can only guess meant “Stupid tourists.”
Soviet Monuments in Armenia
Armenia has an incredible number of monuments, and many of those that stand today were built between 1922 and 1991 in what was then known as the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic. According to Garnik S. Shakhkian, author of the 1989 collection Architectural Monuments in the Soviet Armenia, more than 40,000 such structures were built.
A lot of these monuments have a distinctly Armenian feel about them. Yerevan, the Armenian capital, is sometimes known as the ‘Pink City’; its buildings characterised by the use of tuff, a volcanic stone formed from Armenia’s ancient lava flows and which glows red-pink or orange in the Caucasian sun. The same stone appears frequently throughout the Soviet-era monuments that scatter the landscape, so that even generic Soviet memorial themes – monuments to the victims of the Great Patriotic War, monuments to the Red Army – are here unmistakably Armenian in construction.
Yerevan is reported to be one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world. It was founded by King Argishti I in 782 BC, on land that had been settled even for some three thousand years before that. Back then, it was known as Erebuni.
The city grew rapidly with the influx of refugees after 1915, Armenians escaping Ottoman oppression in the west, and after WWI Yerevan was declared the new capital: Armenia’s twelfth. Armenia entered the Soviet Union in 1922 and the following year the Russian-born Armenian architect Alexander Tamanyan relocated to Yerevan – where he would oversee the creation of a Soviet-style neoclassical metropolis. A model Soviet city rendered here in glorious pink stone.
There is plenty of fine monumental work in the capital alone. The Yerevan Cascade is one of the city’s defining landmarks, a stepped ensemble that rises from the centre, level by level, all the way up to Victory Park on the hilltop above. Construction began in 1971, to the design of architects Jim Torosyan, Aslan Mkhitaryan and Sargis Gurzadyan. The idea was that each successive gallery would detail a different period of Armenia’s ancient history, time beginning at the bottom and flowing upwards, to finally reach the Victory Monument: an obelisk at the top of the steps that symbolised the arrival of Soviet socialism.
Phase One of construction was completed in 1980, though the Cascade was still far from finished. Despite another burst of activity, 2002–2009, the Cascade remains unfinished today and the current of time, at least to my eyes, appears to have reversed from the original design. Time seems to flow down the Cascade these days, not up, moving from the tired-looking Soviet monument at its peak down into the lively cafés, the modern sculptures and contemporary street culture that surround the lower end of the installation.
The Yerevan Cascade survives today as a national symbol but in the capital, as with elsewhere in Armenia, those monuments and monumental installations focussed on more generic Soviet themes seem to be largely abandoned.
In Gyumri, up in the northwest of Armenia, we spied one Soviet monument hiding behind a fence in someone’s yard. Whatever this building was once it had since been privatised; garden walls growing up to cocoon the forgotten memorial site. The silver figure now stood on display for no-one, facing into the bushes at the corner of the garden while around it the outline of a grass-choked plaza disappeared beneath the new-built fence dividing this garden from the next.
Another day we visited the city of Vanadzor. Armenia’s third largest city, Vanadzor reported a population of 148,876 people in the 1979 census. Since then it has halved, its parks, plazas and apartment blocks now beset on all sides by the smoke-stained hulks of abandoned Soviet industry.
In Chemical Factory Workers’ Park a supersize bust of a Soviet soldier in white stone looks out across the remains of a dilapidated fairground. Brambles poke through rusted holes in the carousel. A local man passed me as I photographed the monument; “Это было красиво,” he said, simply, gesturing around the park – It was beautiful – then shook his head and moved on.
Across the country monuments to the Red Army, monuments to the Socialist Revolution and monuments to Soviet leaders were generally amongst the most decayed, unloved structures I saw. Though there were exceptions, of course – and notably in the case of local heroes.
The town of Stepanavan – situated on the Yerevan-Tbilisi highway – is named after Stepan Georgevich Shahumyan: a homegrown Bolshevik revolutionary whose role in the Russian revolution earned him the nickname ‘the Caucasian Lenin.’ In post-Soviet Stepanavan his likeness still rises proudly from plinths throughout the town.
In Alaverdi, a former mining community where rusted cable cars hang like cobwebs over the streets, a monument to the Armenian aircraft designer Artem Mikoyan – the ‘M’ in MiG – still looks relatively well cared for by the people of his hometown. Behind his bust a MiG-21 forms part of the memorial ensemble while a nearby museum charts his life’s achievements. But in Yerevan, controversy surrounded the proposal to build a new monument to Artem’s brother, Anastas Mikoyan: a Minister of Foreign Trade under Stalin and later, under Brezhnev, Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet. Of these two Armenian brothers, the engineer remains a celebrated local hero while the politician has become problematic.
However, these overtly Soviet memorial themes – Soviet heroes, Soviet victories, Soviet ideals – account for only one portion of the Soviet-era monuments scattered throughout Armenia’s wild and violently rocky landscapes. Of the others an incredible number, rather, were dedicated to the memory of the Armenian Genocide.
Memorials to the Victims of the Armenian Genocide
I never expected it to be so hard to find food in Armenia. We would get hungry on the road, and tell ourselves we’d pull over at the first restaurant we saw. Two hours and six villages later we’d have seen nothing, barely a shop.
In Yerevan, grill restaurants (serving the national barbecue cuisine, khorovats) dotted the cartwheel of roads leading into and out of the capital – sometimes alternating with seedy-looking strip clubs, of which Armenia has a prolific number – but the further we drove the harder it became to find sustenance. Village shops existed, of course, but they were very often small, unsigned establishments, tucked away in rows of pink stone buildings. Restaurants, meanwhile, appeared almost non-existent in these rural provinces… but even the smallest nub of a village, sparse settlements adrift in the endless rolling plains, had a prominent monument commemorating Armenia’s historic struggle against the Ottoman Empire; the massacre of Armenians under Ottoman rule, and the bloody Turkish–Armenian war that followed.
In 1915, the Ottoman Empire had begun the systematic arrest, deportation and execution of Armenians living within its borders. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians died as they were marched to the Syrian desert, and those that survived the journey were processed at a network of concentration camps. Whole villages were burned, and mass graves were filled with tens of thousands of bodies at a time. Many scholars put the number of Armenian victims at around 1.5 million people, and 29 countries have officially recognised these events as constituting a genocide; that is to say, an attempt by the Ottoman authorities to entirely extinguish the Armenian race and its cultural legacy.
The Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic was born the same year the Ottoman Empire died. No doubt the Bolsheviks must have looked like angels back then, at least compared with Armenia’s western neighbours.
During Armenia’s Soviet period an absolute fortune was spent on preserving the memory of the genocide victims. In the countryside we drove past old Soviet monuments that rose as ruins, broken fingers of orange stone – occasionally even with storks’ nests perched on top – but the genocide memorials in town and village squares were altogether different, treated as places of enduring pride and respect.
We stopped in Ujan to visit the Monument to the Seven Fidain.* As we walked around the sun-blasted plaza beneath the memorial two local men, quite elderly, crossed over the road to join us. They wanted to know what we thought about their town’s monument – and they were patient enough that we could exchange a few comments in broken Russian.
[*Fidain is a local word for a commando or guerrilla.]
“These, our heroes,” one man explained, gesturing towards the memorial with its bloom of seven sculpted faces. “The war,” he added then, as if any further clarification were needed. “The war of Armenia and Turkey.”
The other man then told us to wait, said something about a translator and started making a call. The sun was baking my head, so I took a stroll beneath the trees while we waited. At the lower end of the park, a pool and fountain would have welcomed visitors at the original entrance to Ujan’s memorial complex. A sculpture of Mother Armenia sat enthroned above the pool; though the water had long since turned to dust.
I followed the path back up towards the central monolith. There was a chamber beneath it, built into the earth under the plaza, but the door was locked. One of the old men was watching me: It’s empty, he said. That’s when the translator arrived but it seemed there was some confusion; this young man – someone’s nephew, I think I understood – did not in fact speak a word of English either. He was no less friendly than his elders though, and after a few more strained exchanges in Russian we bid the group farewell and made back for the car.
The Ujan monument was loved and remembered, but many others we saw that week were treated with almost religious respect. Even now, even in otherwise meagre settlements with broken roads, poor plumbing and sparse employment, amidst closed-down shops and crumbling industry, these stone and marble monuments are often maintained to a slavishly fine condition. Flags fly, and spotlights set them ablaze by night.
Perhaps the most extraordinary we saw was the Sardarapat Heroic Memorial Complex, opened in 1968 to commemorate the place where the Ottoman Empire, having already begun the extermination of Armenian minorities on its own soil, crossed into eastern Armenia in 1918 to be turned back by Armenian forces in the Battle of Sardarapat. That battle was a turning point in the war. Discussing the possibility of an Ottoman victory, the British historian Christopher J. Walker wrote: “it is perfectly possible that the word Armenia would have henceforth denoted only an antique geographical term.”
Above the one-horse town of Araks, two towering red-rock oxen face off across a courtyard, their powerful forms reminiscent of the deific guardians at ancient Assyrian temples. The memorial complex spills back behind, all landscaped gardens, museums and sculpted stone reliefs. A team of staff worked diligently amongst the hedges and flowerbeds as we explored; squatting, weeding, and splashing these plants with more water than I had seen in all the past hundred miles of dry Armenian terrain.
At Sardarapat, and not for the first time in this trip, I got to wondering exactly what percentage of Armenia’s GDP is today spent maintaining its lavish monuments to the victims of Ottoman atrocities, and to the victors of anti-Ottoman struggle. While generic Soviet monuments have been allowed to slip into ruin, anything associated with the conflict with Turkey appears to get almost sacred treatment. From an outsider’s perspective these monuments appear to be more than Armenia can afford; both in terms of upkeep, and effect.
Regional conflicts have left Armenia without many neighbours to trade with. It shares four borders: to the west, the Armenian-Turkish border has been closed since 1993 (and though attempts were made in 2008 to restart diplomatic conversations, those conversations were dropped in 2009 and in March 2018 Armenia annulled the normalisation protocols). To the east is Azerbaijan, a country Armenia is still officially at war with over post-Soviet border disputes (the most recent clashes occurred in 2016, in the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region, and cost the lives of roughly 350 people). In the south, Iran is under heavy sanctions itself which leaves only Georgia in the north, and Russia beyond that. As a result Armenia, a landlocked country, is cut off from any easy access to international commerce.
It may be that Turkey will never acknowledge nor attempt to atone for the genocidal crimes committed against Armenians by the Ottoman Empire a hundred years ago. But if Armenia cannot find a way to rebuild diplomatic relationships with modern Turkey regardless of this historical injustice, then it denies itself access to European trade routes to the west; thus forcing the country into ongoing economic hardship, and greater dependency on Russia. Meanwhile the Soviet-era memorial sites that Armenia still chooses to maintain – totems of victimhood and monuments to Turk-killers – don’t feel particularly conducive to any kind of change in this status quo.
Perhaps this effect is no accident. From the 16th century up until WWI, a total of 12 wars were fought between the Russian and Ottoman Empires. After WWI Armenia joined Russia in the Soviet Union, becoming a border country between the lands of Russian influence and of Russian enemies. Naturally it would have been in Moscow’s best interests, back then, to support and even fund the construction of extravagant monuments that fanned the flames of the long-standing animosity between Armenia and Turkey. As was ever the case, the USSR defended its borders not only with tanks, but with dogma.
The Soviets had sought to secure Armenian loyalty with a volatile gift; a physical heritage which perpetuated the region’s perceived conflicts, and yet which no self-respecting Armenian could ever allow to fall into disrepair.
Memory & Identity in Post-Soviet Armenia
Armenia is still building monuments. Some of the newer ones are positively uplifting – such as the Armenian Alphabet Monument at Artashavan, around an hour from Yerevan. Opened in 2005, the characters of the Armenian alphabet have been carved from stone and spread across the hillside in a celebration of national culture. This gesture in itself is almost an act of defiance, in the context of Armenia’s difficult history, and like most of the other contemporary monuments in the country this one is modest and manageable… setting it well apart from those lavish Soviet-era marble-and-fountain affairs.
The problem of maintenance is not unique to Soviet monuments in Armenia, of course: communist architecture in general was very often characterised by huge, overblown statements, the kind of monuments built by people who were blind to the possibility of their own eventual downfall. It’s a fact that makes communist heritage sites the world over doubly difficult to reconcile – it’s not just the sociopolitical implications of these places that need to be addressed, but also the steep price that many would cost to maintain.
Other new Armenian monuments sometimes adhere to design aesthetics made popular by the Soviets (for example, the striking Socialist-modernism of the Monument of Gratitude in Yerevan), but these newer ones are much smaller and less extravagant than their predecessors. Increasingly, they seem also to celebrate the positive – rather than commiserate the negative – aspects of Armenia’s history. Contemporary sculptures of Armenian artists and composers, not to mention anonymous street sweepers and backgammon players, add vibrancy to the streets of Yerevan in place of former Soviet monuments to the Red Army.
Nevertheless, the citizens of post-Soviet Armenia have inherited a national identity defined by a history of struggle. Search for Things to Do in Yerevan on TripAdvisor, and the first result is a mountain range not actually in Yerevan (or, indeed, entirely in Armenia). Result number two is the Armenian Genocide Museum and the third result is the Genocide Memorial, technically a part of the same memorial complex on Tsitsernakaberd Hill.
It rises like a barrow: stone fingers clutching around a single eternal flame, a half-formed fist against the distant mountains. The Armenian Genocide Memorial Complex was opened in 1968, and it adheres closely to the familiar Soviet template. A gas-gobbling fire within a cell of contemplation, visitors dwarfed by heavy geometry.
The monument seems to mirror the shape of Mount Ararat on the horizon: the mountain where, in Christian tradition, Noah’s ark came to rest after the flood. Both Ararat and the ark appear on Armenia’s coat of arms, and the name is synonymous too with Armenia’s celebrated Ararat cognac.
That Mount Ararat itself is located now within the borders of neighbouring Turkey, not Armenia, is a bitter irony; the Armenian people can’t even contemplate the core symbols of their nation without looking west and remembering what they lost there. Meanwhile in every village, town and city throughout the country, Soviet-built obelisks list the names of the victims: a mantra against ever forgetting the past’s injustices.