Blank Zones in Collective Memory, or The Transformation of Yerevan’s Urban Space in the 1960s

Ruben Arevshatyan

Moscow Cinema Theater open air hall (part I)

Moscow Cinema Theater open air hall, 1965

The beginning of 2010 in Yerevan was marked by an unprecedented activist movement that began immediately after the Armenian Government had made certain changes in the city of Yerevan’s official list of historical and cultural monuments. The changes concerned the open-air hall at the Moscow Cinema—a bright example of the late modernistic architecture of the 1960s—which was removed from the list with a subsequent order being issued that it should be demolished, and that the church of St. Poghos-Petros, which had been destroyed during Stalin’s antireligious campaign in the 1930s, be reconstructed in its place.

The decision provoked an immediate and, in terms of its scale, rather unexpected reaction. A Facebook group called “SAVE Cinema Moscow Open-Air Hall” was formed, and 6,000 members joined the group within a short period of time. In addition, an activist initiative that organized various types of actions, public discussions, etc., was formed. One of the most effective actions was the signature campaign that was held for a week, during which more than 26,000 signatures were collected. Different professional unions, NGOs, and other public institutions also supported the initiative. The campaign started to resonate with a broad section of the public, shifting the discourse to broader sociocultural and political levels and giving the government and the church an unwanted surprise. After fierce debates in the press, TV, radio, and Internet, the church, along with the government, decided to pull back and suspend the implementation of their plans for the time being. They announced that the question was being considered by different commissions, which could mean either real discussions or the usual tactic employed to take the heat out of a problem by freezing public attention.

The question regarding the Moscow Cinema open-air hall is actually more complex than it may seem at first sight. In a strange way, it links the epoch in which it was built, with its tensions, emancipatory energies, and paradoxes, to the neoconservative context of neoliberal sociopolitical and cultural actuality. The open-air hall was constructed between 1964 and 1966 by architects Spartak Kndeghtsyan and Telman Gevorgyan. It was one of the best examples of the revived functionalist approaches in post-Stalinist Soviet Armenian architecture that were developing parallel to the intensive urbanization of the city of Yerevan. Architects masterfully transformed a constricted backyard between two buildings into a rational space, where the combination of concrete forms with developed surplus spaces, mixed with integrated natural elements, created a distinguished ensemble in the very heart of Yerevan.

An amphitheater was built, with an extensive foyer underneath that used to be one of the most popular and active cafes in the city. The wide terrace that united the amphitheater with the sidewalk broke up the rigidness of the existing topography in a way that was at once interventional and obedient to its geometrical form—trees were allowed to grow on the sidewalk, pushing up through the firmness of its concrete and so creating many new perspectives for observing the surrounding environment, as well as the architecture itself. But one of the most important features I would like to focus on in this architecture (as well as in many other architectural forms created in the very same period in Yerevan and Armenia) is how it generated certain surplus spaces in the urban environment, spaces that could be regarded as a kind of blank, or what one might call “extra territories.” These territories shaped new perceptions of urban space, and new urban cultures and politics, the formation of which was tightly intertwined with the appearance of qualitatively and essentially new public spaces in the city terrain. However, since the mid-1990s, those particular spaces have been vanishing from the urban environment having either been destroyed or corrupted beyond recognition. It might seem that, in a newly developing post-ideological society, these constructions and spaces have remained as examples or reminders of something “other” that, from today’s perspective, would not easily fit the logic of the economy and politics of the current sociocultural paradigm. The tendentious demolition of these structures and spaces went hand in hand with reconsiderations of historical narratives, and the occupation of these “extra territories” of the city was in a symbolic way an erasure of certain zones from collective memory—a phenomenon that, in a paradoxical way, juxtaposes a certain 1960s-style tendency to create blank spaces in the urban environment with the formation of blank spaces in collective memory. Thus, we are dealing here with a forced or natural collective amnesia, the symptoms of which could be traced right back to the 1960s.

Collective Amnesia and/or Blank Spots of the 1960s

Reflecting on the Soviet 1960s nowadays, we are faced with such an enormous wealth of information, images, personages, and narratives and their interpretations that (both during the Soviet period and in post-Soviet times) there have been only a few low-key reconsiderations of the changes in the political and cultural paradigm. The connection between these elements may seem quite contradictory and at times even rather forced, as if you were trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle, with the knowledge of a certain image in mind, but confronted with pieces that either do not fit this image or make up other, different, fragmented pictures, leaving extensive blank zones in between.

Despite the fact that the epoch of the 1960s is firmly stamped in the collective memory of ex-Soviet societies as an extremely important part of their histories, which conditioned, in many senses, the subsequent development of their cultural, social, and political environments, one may also note how this memory is fixated on certain events and data that are only associated with the established local historical master narrative, which is mainly invoked to rationalize the present state of those societies. The rare publications about the period mainly focus on specific subjects and mostly deal with them in quite narrow and particular contexts. But as soon as you try to step beyond the trite notions and general stories like “the Thaw,” “Khrushchevki,” “dissident culture and politics,” or “revived national self-consciousness,” and just talk to people of the 1960s about the 1960s, you will often confront an interesting, yet paradoxical situation, where even a minor allusion to that period arouses an intense flow of fragmented private memories, intertwined with scrappy, but at the same time bright images and emotions that are generally interrupted by a memory effect that is deep, impenetrable, and spotty. It might seem that the selective processing of private memory is constantly correlating personal data with the junctures inscribed in the time line of the historical narrative (believed to be a collective memory), as well as with the contemporary context, which seems to be in total opposition to the paradigms of the “romantic rebellious epoch.” And whatever does not fit in the narrative is self-censored, ignored, or just deleted from memory.

In exploring Yerevan’s transformation in the 1960s, I discovered a very interesting case of collective memory loss related to the changes that took place in the city’s most visible symbols.

Stalin’s monument in Yerevan (1950 – 1962)

At the beginning of 1962, the monument of Stalin, which had “watched” the city from the heights of one of Yerevan’s hills, was displaced, and the roof of the World War II Victory Museum building, which had served as a huge podium for the monument, remained empty until 1967. After a five-year break, another monument, Mother Armenia, was put on display to replace the “Father of the Nations.”

Monument of Mother Armenia (1967)

Though it might sound ironic, it took quite a long time and a lot of effort to figure out the exact date the monument of Stalin in Yerevan was displaced. Despite the fact that it was one of the biggest and best-known monuments in the Soviet Union made by Sergey Merkurov,[1] its displacement has not been well enough covered either in books or in documentaries.[2]

For some people, the date the monument was taken down was associated with the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in 1956, where Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s crimes and the “cult of personality.” Alternatively, there was another fixed notion that the monument had been removed in 1967, right before the Mother Armenia statue was installed in the same place. The only thing that got imprinted in the collective memory was the case about the two workers who were killed during the removal process.

In the book about Yakov Zarobyan (the first secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Republic of Armenia in the period 1960–66) written by his son Nikita Zarobyan, there is a very interesting detail that describes the whole political context of the period when Stalin’s monument was displaced in Yerevan. It was, in fact, one of the last displacements of a monument to Stalin in a Soviet capital, and the son of the former first secretary describes the reason for this delay as a form of hidden diplomacy between Armenia and Georgia. This story is also connected with another veiled and/or forgotten episode from the Soviet past.

Spontaneous large-scale demonstrations took place in Tbilisi and other cities in Georgia (Gori, Sukhumi, Batumi) right after the 20th Congress of the CPSU in 1956, with the offended protesters trying to defend the outraged honor of their compatriot Joseph Stalin. The Tbilisi revolt, which lasted five days (March 5 through 10) and was violently suppressed by military forces (the number of estimated casualties varies from several dozen to several hundred), could be considered a breaking point and a symptomatic event in Soviet history. Apart from being the painful reaction of a society at the end of the Stalinist myth, it also became the starting point for the development of new nationalistic contexts and separatist discourses in Soviet sociopolitical and cultural situations that were being shaped parallel to the evolving social disbelief in the feasibility of a new social order.[3]

The connection between the Tbilisi demonstrations and the late displacement of Stalin’s monument in Yerevan is explained in Zarobyan’s memoirs as the very concrete and simple intention of the first secretary of the Armenian Communist Party of that period to keep good neighborly relations with Georgia.[4] Although this description might seem somewhat unsophisticated, it also signified another important contextual shift: the peripheral republic decided to pursue its own autonomous politics by defining its strategic priorities with an eye to the future development of relations with its neighbors. There was to be a clear understanding that the regulation of national questions was no longer under the same authoritarian central control as it had been during the Stalin period. This supposed the advance of the individualization process that had started to develop in the sociopolitical, economical, and political situations in each of the fifteen Soviet republics.

The Tbilisi riot, as well as many other insurrections that took place in the Soviet Union in the Khrushchev period (Murom in 1961, Novocherkassk in 1962, Sumgait in 1963, etc.), had a very complex, diverse, and intertwined character (pro-Stalinist, social, political, anarchistic), where there might be significant discrepancies between people’s essential motivations and their final demands. Demonstrations in the early Brezhnev period took on a more specified character in the sense of asserting concrete political demands (Yerevan in 1965, Moscow in 1965, etc.). But, in any case, all those important historical episodes of public uprisings were strictly tabooed during the Soviet period. They remain only in the memories of the local participants in those rebellions, but are now fading away through being mythologized and losing their contextual particularities.

It might sound paradoxical, but, even after the fall of the Soviet Union, only a minor portion of these historical episodes were uncovered, and then only partially. The multifarious essence of these social rebellions, which represented, in a certain way, the ambiguous character of the epoch itself, was perhaps the main reason why those narratives were retold to the public via selective and fragmented interpretations. The editing of history that started in post-Soviet societies with the revision of the narratives and images (the demolition of monuments and symbols) of the communist past to a certain extent revitalized some of those episodes that fitted in with the political and cultural contexts of the liberalizing post-ideological society. As a rule, these interpretations obeyed the mythical narration, and, what is most interesting, they were mainly deprived of the affirmation of imagery. By the same logic, just as there were no images of an empty podium from the interval between the displacement of Stalin’s monument and the erection of the new monument to Mother Armenia in Yerevan, a host of other images that might provide some information about the phenomenon, and/or propose other contextual readings of it, had been either lost or removed from public circulation, and later on from collective memory.

Coming back to the period between 1962 and 1967—the specific temporal “void” that was opened wide in the midst of an epochal shift marked by the change of two monumental symbols in Yerevan, signifying different epochs and different political and cultural hegemonies—it is possible to trace how the same kinds of voids were appearing in the different strata of the sociocultural, political, and even economic reality of that period. And these were not the type of voids that could be allowed to appear in a confused society that, after losing its leader, also lost its belief in the ideas of a “bright future.” They were very soon filled by substituting the “personality cult” with the “cult of the nation”[5] as a new system for controlling a society stripped of ideological bias.

The process was much more complex and multilayered, as complex and multilayered as the society itself. Maybe it is appropriate to mention that, aside from that great inter-ideological void, there were many other voids of different scales and different characters that had appeared in or were generated by the same society, either in order to extend certain spatial and ideological (formal and informal, new and old) limitations, or to prolong the absence of autonomous reconsiderations of the past, the present, and visions of the future.

The actively evolving urbanization of Yerevan and its rural areas, the intensive development of diversified industries throughout the republic with a gradual shift toward advanced technological products, the establishment of scientific institutes, the improvement of living standards, intensifying interrelations with the world (in the 1960s there was the last great wave of repatriation of Armenians from the diaspora), and many other progressive developments in the 1960s, had really influenced the country’s reality by reviving Soviet utopias. Yerevan, as well as many other cities in the republic, had gained a new modernistic appearance that was in contrast to Stalinist architecture. In parallel to the appearance of new environments in the urban space, new urban cultures were emerging that were also shaping new individual images. Reintegration (although partial and distanced) with worldwide sociopolitical and cultural processes and a clear vision of Armenia’s involvement in the big Cold War–period geopolitical setup on the one hand stimulated universalistic perspectives, albeit considered with a local focus, and, on the other, suggested reconsiderations of the known, as well as forgotten, narratives of its own history of modernization—such as the formation of the first republic between 1918 and 1920, followed by the formation of the Soviet Socialist republic in 1920. In the 1960s, Sovietization started more and more to be considered in intellectual, cultural, and political discourses solely as an imported project and a new form of colonization. This was propagated in society in direct and indirect ways, despite the fact that since the beginning of the twentieth century, the Caucasus had been one of the key centers for the development of communist and socialist revolutionary movements. This placed in doubt not just the history of Sovietization but also the prospects for the socialist system itself.

The other important event in that period that determined the subsequent development of the whole sociopolitical and cultural paradigm was the demonstration staged by students and the intelligentsia in Yerevan on April 24, 1965 (which overflowed into a large-scale nationwide protest), demanding the recognition of the Genocide of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915—an issue that was strictly banned during the Stalin period. In two years, the memorial to Genocide victims was raised on Tsitsernakaberd Hill in Yerevan and became a unifying symbol for Armenians scattered all over the world.

Demonstration of students and intelligentsia demanding the recognition of the Genocide of Armenians in 1915 in the Ottoman Empire, Lenin Square Yerevan April 24, 1965

Construction of The Memorial for the victims of the Genocide of Armenians in 1915 in the Ottoman Empire (1965-1967)

All those and many other processes and newly developing discourses concerning identity, history, perspectives about the future, etc., have opened new spaces in the collective consciousness and memory. Besides activating some forgotten segments and driving others out into the zone of oblivion, they have also opened up a space between perceptions about utopias and the doomed constancy of existence, between modernisms and antimodernisms. An open space for contemplation, tensions, confusions, drifting, flânerie… A space that appeared in the Armenian literature, cinematography, and architecture of the mid-1960s.

Artavazd Peleshyan, applying in his films his method of “distance montage,” based on a redefinition of spatial-temporal structure and the relationship between image and sound, created a certain kind of space between sequences, bringing them closer to or further from each other, and letting the spectator enter that space and contemplate it, switching between images of modernisms and antimodernisms. In his short films, Peleshyan used his method to structure the simultaneity of diverse episodes taking place in different temporal and situational contexts, and depicted vanity as the poetics of the modern epoch, contrasted with the ontology of existence (presented with images of constant movement, migration, transitions and transmutations, cataclysms, etc.). Vanity was universalized and identified with the notion of eternity.[6]

In Frunze Dovlatyan’s film Hello, It’s Me (1965), the young scientist Artyom[7] endlessly strolls in and between Yerevan and Moscow, in his own memory space, having a dialogue with his alter ego; he drifts between the past and future, contemplating as he goes. His flânerie in a certain way becomes the main process and meaning of the whole film, which at the end is unexpectedly interrupted, when, all of a sudden, the protagonist wraps up his analysis of the past, perceives (as a kind of epiphany) his identity and destiny, and leaves the boundless space of idle drifting, going away toward the mountainous landscape in the final scene. The physical materialization of these blank, open free spaces could be better observed in the transformations in urban spaces and in Soviet Armenian architecture of the mid-1960s, particularly in the case of Yerevan.

“Extra Territories” Metamorphosing Yerevan in the Transformations of the 1960s

In comparison to other cities in Armenia, Yerevan experienced the most intensive and radical transformations in the 1960s, which affected the whole character of the city. One of the most important reasons for such an active development of the city was the intensive growth of the city’s population, which massively exceeded the population growth stipulated by the 3rd master plan of Yerevan developed in 1951. In 1961, work began on the 4th master plan, which not only posited a new scale and new strategies regarding the city’s development but was also based on a new philosophy somehow related to Soviet utopias (like Khrushchev’s famous declaration that Soviet society would attain communism as early as the 1980s). Moreover, it also had to deal with a social and cultural structuring that was different from the radical visions of early Soviet utopias.

The modernistic trends in early Soviet architecture and urbanism that were interrupted in the 1930s experienced a revival in the 1960s. Once more, there was demand for the rationalist creative approaches of the important architects that belonged to the avant-garde constructivist groupings of the 1920s and 1930s, such as Michayel Mazmanyan and Gevorg Kochar (both of whom had just returned from exile) and Samvel Safaryan and Hovhannes Margaryan, architects who energetically joined in the creative process of devising new forms of urban planning and architecture.

Since 1956, a group of architects led by Mazmanyan had been busy with the new urban planning projects and their realizations, such as the residential area for the Achapnyak district in Yerevan[8] and extensive work on the master plan of Yerevan. Kochar realized several interesting architectural projects. In the 1960s he had the chance to continue and complete some of the complexes and ensembles that he had started to design and build in the late 1920s. The best example of these is the canteen of the summer resort for the Writers’ Union in Sevan. Safaryan headed a workshop for the standardized design of housing that became a real school for the young generation of architects who would later shape the language of late modernism and postmodernism in Armenian architecture.

Besides those architects that belonged to the early constructivist groupings, there were many other architects from the younger generation who had managed to travel abroad, sometimes even for short-term study or research projects. In the 1960s, architectural communities throughout the Soviet Union started to organize specialized professional trips and exchanges inside and outside the Union parallel to the activated reciprocal professional visits of architects from Europe, the United States, and Japan. That was also a period when some European professional architectural magazines were in regular circulation, and the library of the Architects’ Union was daily enriched with professional literature that was coming to Armenia by various routes (through professional exchanges and connections with the diaspora, etc.).

At the time, the Architects’ Union was one of the important public institutions that, along with the state architectural firms, municipalities, and government, participated in decision-making processes and provided a venue for active discussions on architectural and urban development projects. Those discussions tackled different subjects, one of the most dominant of which was the question concerning form-building principles regarded from the perspective of the functionality of architecture and its relationship to the specificity of the local context. This involved considering not only the relation of architecture to the natural but also the cultural environment. It was, in fact, the continuation of a rather tense discourse that had begun in the 1920s and had been interrupted in the mid-1930s by two major architectural groups or schools (the national school and the constructivists) and was revived in the new ideological context of the Khrushchev period, which put strict limitations on construction norms, correlating them with restricted financial means.

Faced mainly with a dull, standardized form of architecture in the second half of the 1950s, when it was only possible to make innovations in the field of urban planning, architects and local authorities started, at the beginning of the 1960s, to find some ways out of the monotonous construction and budget dictates, creating low-budget but extremely interesting architectural forms that imparted new energy and new images to the city character of the 1960s.

While aware of the context in which they were working and complying with the standards imposed upon them by the SNIP,[9] architects manifested a truly modernist enthusiasm in concentrating their creative thinking on achieving the objectives set by the system, i.e. on creating and developing additional capabilities—extra functions and extra potentialities of materials, technology, form, space, and context.

Coming back to the tendencies in the 1960s mentioned earlier with regard to the formation of blank spaces, the Armenian architecture that started to develop in that period presented perfect examples of such “extra” territories, or “extra” volumes, despite the fact that the ideological doctrine of the period was waging a war against excesses in architecture.

There was a story about Khrushchev’s visit to Armenia in 1961, when the Soviet leader became furious (and his anger turned into a major scandal that was widely propagated by the Soviet press of the time) after seeing a small architectural volume in the form of a seagull displayed as a roadside sign for the northern exit of Yerevan city. This architectural volume made of concrete (actually a very low-budget construction) became an object of Khrushchev’s harshest criticism. His phrase, “So that is how you are squandering public resources!” became a warning to other republics to steer clear of that kind of dissipation.

“Seagull” road mark at the northern entry of Yerevan

Although Khrushchev saw this small architectural volume as a “squandering,” there was an intensive development of new spaces and volumes in urban environments that could be associated with a waste of means, territory, and purpose. Without going over budgetary limits, architects, together with local authorities, employed new tactics as well as a new philosophy regarding the organization of urban space. In Yerevan, the construction of new streets and avenues (like Sayat Nova Avenue, which was inaugurated in 1963), the reconstruction of some of its old streets, the improvement of its parks, and the development of new recreation areas were imparting to the city a new horizontal character, creating spacious zones for pedestrians. Water features of different sizes and geometrical shapes appeared in the parks and even on the sidewalks of some reconstructed streets. Next to them, there were often pergolas that were either used as open-air cafes (new and important public spaces in Yerevan developed in that period) or marked out functionless or multifunctional territories on the sidewalks. The open-air cafes that appeared in Yerevan in the 1960s were not just a new type of public space that formed a new city culture but were also bright examples of new horizontal architecture, where it was possible to see the direct influences of organic architecture, as well as some echoes of the concept of emptiness coming from modern Japanese architecture.

Circle basins on Abovian Street

Sayat-Nova Café

Pergolas on Abovian Street  

Café Aragast in Yerevan

Cafe Aragast in Yerevan

The liberation and democratization of urban space in Yerevan paralleled the revival of modernistic trends in architecture, and the historicist principles of the national style (which since the mid-1930s had been integrated into the Stalinist style) retreated, opening up a short temporary gap for free experimentations that were more universalistic in their essence. These experimentations were in contrast to existing national and Stalinist styles in architecture and succeeded in shaping not only the new character of Yerevan but also a new social, cultural, and psychological situation in urban life. This short-lived transformation of the city, which occurred in the midst of replacing two hegemonic monumental symbols, succeeded in giving rise to a new society and to new individuals who had the chance to choose their positions when strolling around the “extra spaces” of the new city amid new architecture that was free from the aesthetics of the past and did not have direct ambitions concerning the structuring of the programmed future. The functional essence of that architecture, which was based on the principles of a rational distribution and usage of space also brought forward a discourse concerning other possible functionalities of space that might stimulate a sense of commonality outlined by the simple compositions of concrete forms and structures, as well as a sense of individuality conveyed by individual aesthetic and conceptual solutions.

Bus station

Pergola Open Air Café on Abovian Street

Yet the most important change suggested by these architectural forms was a new correlation between architecture and the recipient, where the extra space provided required first and foremost the presence of someone who would modify, articulate, and subjectify that architecture. In return, this new feature formed a novel but at the same time ambiguous interrelation between the notions of particularity and commonality, between the subject and the universal. On the one hand, there was great excitement about the self-potency granted by the universalist world outlook, which offered an opportunity to shape reality, but, on the other, it generated tensions related to a fear of being absorbed or lost in the “extra territories” of commonality that belonged to no one.

Krunk Restaurant

Writers Summer Resort in Sevan

Parvana Café in Hrazdan Canyon, Yerevan

The trend changed in just a few years (we may even say it was developing as a parallel process), and particularity turned into a main principle regulating local social, political, and cultural processes. By the end of the 1960s, new models of “local modernities” had begun to appear. They were either large-scale representatives of supranational architecture—although it might sound contradictory, Armenian late modernistic architecture of the 1970s and 1980s was also considered in the Soviet Union as a certain national particularity— or examples of a new national style in architecture that had conceptualized and contextualized structures and forms of traditional architecture inside a modernistic modus operandi. The stratum of “extra-territory” architecture with its new urban structures and landscapes was soon overshadowed by the particularity of large-scale representational architecture that continued to develop “excessive” spaces that were to fulfill “other” functions but were already different from the “extra territories” of the 1960s.

The Fate of the “Extra Territories” and the Moscow Cinema Open-Air Hall (Part II

Today, the architecture of the 1960s in Yerevan has been almost completely swept away or has been distorted beyond recognition. The effects of neoliberal economics and urban policy were first felt in public spaces, recreation areas, historical centers of the city, and so on. Of course, in this process of violently reshaping the city, buildings and districts that belong to different periods of time were destroyed, and each of these destructions had its own history and problems. As a matter of fact, certain projects relating to the radical modernization of the city center (like the construction of Northern Avenue) had been in development since the very early master plans of Yerevan were made.

Of course, questions concerning the “ephemeral” spaces that were developed during the 1960s can sound somewhat naive and romantic at a time when the city was losing districts developed at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries, when symbolic buildings of constructivist and Stalinist styles, and late modernistic architecture had been partly or completely destroyed or terribly corrupted (the Sports Committee Building, the Sevan Hotel, the former Russia Movie Theater, the Youth Palace, etc.), when the continuous green zones and recreation areas of the city were fragmented and hidden behind the facades of the newly erected buildings, and when the problem of the loss of public spaces in the city, which is a social problem and a matter of town planning, had become a burning political issue.

Construction of “Russia” cinema theater (early 1970s)

Youth Palace in Yerevan (designed in late 60s constructed in early 70s)

Construction of the Youth Palace in Yerevan

Deconstruction of the Youth Palace in Yerevan (2003-2004)

However, the case of the Moscow Cinema open-air hall, which led to the explosion of such an incredible self-organized public reaction and turned into a serious social movement struggling with the political authorities and the church to protect an architecture that embodied, in its structure and form, something that had been neglected, covered, and forgotten, was really symptomatic of the complexity of current social, political, and cultural processes in Armenia.

One of the keys to understanding the complexity of the situation that developed around the cinema theater can be found in a text entitled “The End of the State,” published in 2008 by Tigran Sargsyan, the current prime minister of Armenia. Analyzing the evolution of states in the context of postindustrial societies, Tigran Sargsyan concludes that:

The state as we perceive it today is nearing an end. New forms of networked structures of public organization are coming to replace it. […]

In a postindustrial world, in accord with the new philosophy and ontology, we should first conceptualize our competitive advantages in networked forms of self-organization. We have an opportunity to pull through the periphery of history and create a new networked civilization—the Armenian World. From the perspective of the above described methodology and hypothesis, we can conceptualize Armenians as a network.

History testifies that after the loss of statehood, the Armenian people demonstrated an alternative form of self-organization that helped this nation to survive. The church came in to take on that function of self-regulation. As such, the methods and the form of organization the church used were complying with the network logic.”[10]

This fragment from the prime minister’s text could, in fact, serve as a key puzzle piece that will bring together the whole picture. And it deals with the same space or void, the same tension between modernistic visions of universalism and phobias regarding loss of particularity, i.e. control over societal self-organization processes. In the Armenian context and in many others, the end of the 1960s suggested a simple superposition of these two visions, as a result of which particularity had been universalized, revitalizing and universalizing good old institutions of power like the nation and the church.

Moscow Cinema Theater open air hall

The struggle for the Moscow Cinema open-air hall was, in fact, the continuation of that old conflict, in which the architecture of the theater (as well as other rare examples of modernistic architecture from that period that have been preserved) has, in a certain way, turned into evidence of, and a vessel for, other models of universalism that have succeeded in encouraging a sense of unity and self-organization in post-Soviet fragmented societies.

Postscript: In the summer of 2013, after many years of disuse, the Moscow Cinema open-air hall was temporarily reopened for public screenings for the Golden Apricot international film festival.


[1] Sergey Dmitrievich Merkurov a prominent Soviet sculptor-monumentalist of Greek Armenian descent. He was a People’s Artist of the USSR, an academic at the Soviet Academy of Arts, and director of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts from 1944 to 1949. Merkurov was considered the greatest Soviet master of post-mortem masks. He was the author of the three biggest monuments of Joseph Stalin in the USSR. See (accessed October 22, 2013).

[2] It was also impossible to find any archival photos of a missing monument, although taking family photos with the monument of Stalin and later Mother Armenia in the background was popular. I am still in the process of looking for such an image, but at the same time it is clear why such images are missing: it did not occur to anybody to have a picture taken in front of an empty podium—a missing icon.

[3] In his book Unknown USSR, Vladimir Kozlov wrote about the development of the Tbilisi outbreak in 1956 among many other small- and large-scale outbreaks in the Soviet Union during the Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev eras. He identified it as one of the most symptomatic outbreaks, as its start had a rather symbiotic character where advocacy for Stalinism was intertwined with a nationalistic background, which in the end (on the fourth day of unrest) turned into appeals calling for the separation of Georgia from the Soviet Union, an unbelievable idea at the time. The author of the book thinks that, even if those appeals had a fragmented and particular character, their effect on the subsequent development of the sociocultural and political situation in Georgia, as well as in other republics of the USSR and the communist bloc, was tremendous. Vladimir A. Kozlov, “Politicheskie volneniia v Gruzii posle XX Sezda KPSS” [Political Unrest in Georgia after the 20th Congress of the CPSU], chap. 7 in Neizvestnyi SSSR: Protivostoianie naroda I vlasti 1953–1985 [Unknown USSR: Antagonism between Society and the Power System 1953–1985] (Moscow, 2005), (accessed October 22, 2013).

[4] Nikita Zarobyan, Yakov Zarobyan i ego epocha [Yakov Zarobyan and His Epoch] (Yerevan, 2008), p. 92.

[5] In the same period of time, the monumental symbols of the “motherland” were erected in almost every Soviet national republic (Mother Georgia, the statues of Mother Motherland in Kiev and Belarus, etc.).

[6] See Artavazd Peleshyan, Mardkants yerkire [The Earth of the People] (Yerevan Documentary Film Studio, in association with the All-Union State Institute of Cinematography and Hayk Studio, 1966), black and white, 10 min.; Skizbe [Beginning] (Yerevan Documentary Film Studio, in association with the All-Union State Institute of Cinematography, 1967), black and white, 10 min.; My [We] (Yerevan Film Studio, 1969), black and white, 27 min.

[7] The protagonist was based on a real character, physicist Artyom Alikhanyan, one of the founders of nuclear physics in the Soviet Union, the founder of the Yerevan Physics Institute and the cosmic ray station on Mt. Aragats (at an altitude of 3,250 m), and one of the creators of the Yerevan synchrotron. See (accessed October 22, 2013).

[8] The district was composed of only prefab slab houses (so-called Khrushchevki). This was the city’s first residential district in the usual sense of the term, as a district with structural and functional importance for the urban system.

[9] The SNIP (Stroitelnye normy i pravila) were the construction standards and rules commonly applied as part of Soviet building code.

[10] Tigran Sargsyan, “The End of the State – or a New Form of Societal Organization” (Yerevan, 2008), p. 13, (accessed October 22, 2013).