The Contradictory 60s: Empire and Cultural Resistance

[1]”This article was written on the basis of a series of lectures I gave on the subject of “Russian-Soviet orientalism” during seminars sponsored by the “Art and cultural studies … Continue reading

The South Caucasus, formerly Transcaucasia, is a Russian-Soviet legacy in the sense that, the region began to take shape as a geographical unit simultaneously with the Russian empire’s southern expansionist drive; in the context of continuous and complex relations with Iran and especially Turkey, as well as with the West, albeit sometimes indirectly. During the entire 19th century, Russia’s relations with Turkey, often on the battlefield, were vital for the former. This was a time when the Russians sought to redefine their identity using Western concepts, to present themselves as a modernizing nation in the Western sense, as a country that was a part of Europe. In this case, a Westernizing Russia saw that “Orient” in Turkey, from which it wanted to distance itself. Thus, within Russia’s self-definition, Turkey was presented as Russia’s, and in general, the civilized world’s oriental “Other.”[2]See, Iver B. Neumann, Uses of the Other: “The East” in European Identity Formation, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998. Russia looked at the Empire’s eastern and southern peoples with a Western perspective. Here, the Caucasus was viewed as an intermediate zone, a passageway between West and East, as a civilizing East through Russian mediation.

Accordingly, the notion of Russia’s “civilizing mission” was established; a notion fully appropriate from the point of view of justifying the Empire’s expansionism and colonialism. This was the way a large segment of the Russian intelligentsia thought. They believed that Russia was bringing enlightenment and civilization to the Caucasus[3]See: Susan Layton, Russian Literature and Empire: Conquest of the Caucasus from Pushkin to Tolstoy, Cambridge: Cambridg University Press, 1994.. It must be added that there were people in the Caucasus who viewed the Russian presence in this way as well. This was also the case with the Armenian intellectual elite, including such pivotal figures of contemporary Eastern Armenian literature as Khachatur Abovyan and Hovhannes Tumanyan. During the first half of the 19th century, many saw the only possibility of liberating eastern Armenians from Persia, defending against Turkish threats, and coming into contact with the Western process of modernization, with the Russian empire.

This means that from the very start, the idea of Eastern Armenia’s modernization was born and took shape within the parameters granted by the Russian civilizing mission; first as a Russian-Armenian and later, Soviet-Armenian project. Of course, the desire to become Westernized, already existing in the Caucasus, increased the possibility for the so-called “Russian orientation” to take hold, especially if the alternatives were Iran and Turkey. At the very least, Russian rule would be accepted by Armenians as their salvation, salvation via a certain kind of self-colonization. However, on the other hand, Russia itself was viewed in Europe as half-eastern, half-Western, as a transitional expanse between the West and East.

Even though the status obtained by nations within the Soviet Union (S.U.) could be regarded as some sort of partial decolonization, nevertheless, Russian orientalism, modified and reshaped, continued to function, albeit in more subtle ways, in the S.U. as well. After the collapse of the Soviet empire, the South Caucasus (Transcaucasia) as an “invented” region (“invented” during the process of Russia’s civilizing mission and later, during implementation of the Soviet modernizing project) gradually lost its distinctiveness. However, it seems that the first noticeable shifts began prior to this, in the 60s, and the transformations that occurred in those years are imparted with new meanings when viewed from the prism of current realities.

The 60s: Years of contradiction

The terms “Thaw” and “the 60s generation” are the most well known expressions defining the cultural awakening that took place in the Soviet Union in the late 1950s and continuing in the 60s. Despite the sharp ups and downs of Soviet cultural policy over the years, the comparative freedoms and renewed restrictions and repressions that followed one another, it was also a unique time for the Soviet national republics in terms of the development of national cultures and the formation of national consciousness. It was a process paradoxically accompanied by unprecedented efforts aimed at the Russification of nations and the shaping of a united Soviet people. Just as in the Russian empire, so too in the SU, the assumption held sway that Russian culture and the Russian language were superior to the cultures and languages of other nations. During the Stalinist era, the superiority of the Russian people took form within the “big brother – little brothers” context. This ensured the basis for the systematic and continuous Russification being carried out in the S.U.

Some of the prerequisites for the expected fusion of Soviet nations and nationalities were a high level of education, where Russian was the lingua franca for all peoples, equal opportunities for economic development for all nationalities and regions, geographic and social mobility for the populace, etc. The other important defining characteristic of the Soviet empire was that there didn’t exist an insurmountable line of demarcation that in Western empires separated the colonizer from the colonized. Along with the implemented restrictions regarding ethnic identity, in contrast to classical colonial systems, real opportunities for participation and advancement were afforded to the Soviet peoples.

In the implementation of similar policies, an important role was reserved for the native elites. The factor must be taken into account that the widespread collectivization carried out by the Soviet regime, and the industrialization and urbanization parallel with it, allowed for the severing of the Soviet peoples, all rural-based, from their traditions. At the same time, traditional local elites either broke down or were destroyed. Subsequently, the Soviet system prepared new native elites of professionals and intellectuals ready for collaboration in return for certain rewards and advancement possibilities. Being linked with official institutions and having the administrative-political apparatus at their disposal, they were more inclined to frame their demands and reach their goals (including national ones) within the Soviet system rather than aspire to separate themselves from it. Simultaneously, contacts within various professional circles (writers, scientists, etc) that violated ethnic borders were being supported, seeking to create supra-ethnic forms of cooperation. These communities both embodied and symbolized the concept of a unified Soviet people.[4]See, Philip G. Roeder, “Soviet Federalism and Ethnic Mobilization” in Denber, Rachel. The Soviet Nationality Reader: The Disintegration in Context, Oxford: Westview Press (1992), pp. 147-178.

Analysts claim that the nationalism manifested by certain Soviet titular nations in the 60s was not a rebirth of pre-Soviet nationalism but rather a new type of nationalism, although unpredicted, formed during the process of the Soviet modernizing project. The national tradition being reconstructed under Soviet rule and the cultural identity being formed, were unavoidably taking shape as a national-Soviet hybrid.

A few issues will be discussed related to the period covered in this article taken from two texts written in the 60s – the Russian writer’s “Lessons of Armenia” and Armenian writer Hrant Matevosyan’s “Hangover” – read in tandem.

Dialogue: Two texts

Andrei Bitov and Hrant Matevosyan (photograph kindly provided by Hrant Matevosyan Foundation)

Matevosyan and Bitov came to the fore during the Khrushchev “Thaw” years. They became acquainted during the mid-60s when they participated in the two-year Advanced Course for Scriptwriters in Moscow. These works were written in the years that followed. “Hangover” was completed in 1969 and is based on the author’s impressions of that course. “Lessons of Armenia” was written from 1967-1969 and is a result of Bitov’s ten-day journalistic mission to Armenia (he was sent to write an essay about Armenia for a Russian journal). The book was first published in the monthly magazine Druzhba Narodov in 1969 and was later translated into a number of languages and became one of Bitov’s most noted works. Lessons of Armenia is not just a mere travelogue, as Andrei Bely’s impressions of Armenia, or a “semi-novella,” as Mandelstam describes his Journey to Armenia, but rather a real piece of artistic prose.

What follows, in a nutshell, is the subject matter of Hangover. People from all national republics, basically writers, were to attend the Advanced Course for Scriptwriters organized at the Moscow Cinema House. The work portrays one day in the life of the attendees at the course; the conversations of Mnatsakanyan, the narrator, with various individuals, recollections of his native Armenia, especially village life, etc. Each of the participants was expected to write a screenplay to be eventually turned into a film. Mnatsakanyan writes a screenplay dealing with problems in the Armenian villages – industrialization, crumbling rural communities, etc. Vaksberg, the course director, proposes that changes be made to the screenplay, but Mnatsakanyan refuses. Their conversation practically rises to the level of an argument. In all likelihood, they’ll expel him from the class.

The two texts are the result of the stimuli received by the authors from their experience attending the Advanced Course for Scriptwriters. Both, albeit in different ways, talk about this significant period of the Soviet empire. At the same time, both deal with Soviet Armenia. In Lessons of Armenia the “friend,” often evoked by the narrator, is none other than Matevosyan. Bitov lived in his house during those days. In Hangover, Bitov’s name is mentioned. Matevosyan and Bitov were members of the intellectual community shaped during that course. In addition, one can find numerous other commonalities between these two texts, implicit and explicit connections that can certainly be called dialogue.

The journey

In a conversation, Bitov noted that during his life he thrice had the good fortune to turn up in a favorable environment, and that one of these was the “imperial environment of the Advanced Course for Scriptwriters.” Why imperial? It would appear that the course, with the participation of those selected from each of the national republics, reflected the federative structure of the country. On the other hand, the creation of elite communities transcending the inter-ethnic borders was one of the aims of Soviet rule. Simultaneously, certain imperial pretensions were ascribed to the course as well – to succeed in the cultural and ideological struggle against the West, in which a decisive role was reserved for the cinema. In passing, all this is covered in Hangover.

Yes, the environment of the Advanced Course for Scriptwriters, where Andrei Bitov closely dealt with the Armenian theme for the first time, was imperial, but also imperial were the journeys of Russian (Soviet) writers to the Caucasus and the production of related texts starting from the 1820’s. By the first half of the 19th century, in the writings of Pushkin, Lermontov and others, certain themes were taking shape; stereotypical forms and metaphors that represented Caucasia as an expanding peripheral territory of the Russian Empire, thus assisting in the colonization of the Caucasian peoples and the establishment of Russian cultural domination.

Ever since Edward Said’s Orientalism, it is well known that cultural representations play a central role in the colonization process of countries, and particularly, that literary texts are tied to imperial and colonizing practices in various ways. Thus, writers also contribute to the crafting of that general point of view that accepts an empire as something taken for granted, while literary texts construct and distribute, and, in essence, legitimize modes of representing the conquered lands and people from positions of domination.

Bitov’s Lessons of Armenia must be seen as an addition to the late period of the “literary Caucasus,” particularly when it is included in the list of texts created as a result of the journeys to Armenia by Russian and Soviet writers. The first of these is Pushkin’s “Journey to Arzrum” travelogue (1835), written on the basis of dairy notes during an 1829 journey to the Caucasus. Studying the issue of the relationships between 19th century Russian literature and the conquest of the Caucasus, Susan Layton singles out two poles – “little orientalizers” in full complicity with imperialism and old Tolstoy holding a diametrically opposite position (Hadji Murat). In the middle ground were a young Pushkin (A Captive of the Caucasus), Bestujev-Marlinsky and Lermontov, who, in certain ways assisted, and in certain ways were opposed, to imperialism.[5]Susan Layton, ibid, pp. 5-10.

It is understandable that a Soviet writer of the 60s had to closely align with the middle position. If Soviet ideology up till the 30s was equated with the crude forces of empire building of Pushkin and the Decembrists, and Pushkin’s Caucasian poems were regarded as examples of “colonial literature,” then, in years to come, the great poets were separated from tsarist authority. Furthermore, in the guise of “progressive Russia,” they came out in opposition to official “conservative” Russia.” Nevertheless, as I will attempt to show, in comparison with the middle orientalist position, Bitov’s approach was much more complex and sensitive.

Also evident is the difference of Lessons of Armenia from similar texts written by Andrei Bely and Osip Mandelstam in the late 20s and early 30s in the Soviet Union. A century had passed since the travels of Pushkin. True, by 1828, after their victory over the Persian forces and their conquest of Yerevan, the Russians took a large number of manuscripts back to Petersburg with them, but the systematic study of cultures of the peoples in the Russian empire begins with the mid 19th century. Excavations at the medieval Armenian capital of Ani began at the end of the century and Valery Briusov’s “Poetry of Armenia” collection was published in 1916. During this period, conceptions of nation and national culture, of relations between different cultures, had also dramatically changed.

Briusov, in his preface to Poetry of Armenia, regards Armenia as a mediator between the West and East, a place where those two cultures are reconciled and deems Armenian medieval poetry as an “exceptionally rich literature that comprises Armenia’s valuable contribution to the treasure trove of humanity.” In his opinion, “In the pantheon of international poetry, the creations of Armenian genius must take their rightful place” alongside the literary works of the peoples of Japan, India, ancient Greece, Rome and Europe.[6]Валерий Брюсов (ред.), Поэзия Армениис древнейших времен до наших дней, под редакцией, со вступительным … Continue reading Bely and Mandelstam were also going to the Orient, but at the same time, for them Armenia was a “cradle of history” (Bely), which due to its geographical position and its historic and cultural links with the ancient world, allowed one to get close to the world “cradle of culture” (Mandelstam).

Thus, Khrushchev’s ‘Thaw” and subsequent years can be called the second period of “travels to Armenia,” of which Lessons of Armenia is the most famous of texts. It would seem that Bitov steps onto the shaky soil of the rich tradition of writings on Russian oriental journeys, fully aware of the dangers of such an act. It seems that Bitov’s A Captive of the Caucasus collection, comprised of Lessons of Armenia and Georgian Album, can be viewed, in a certain sense, as a self-reflection of “literary Caucasus,” a reexamination of traditional approaches, or at least questioning them, something that shouldn’t appear surprising for that time period when they were written. Here, not only are canonized texts referred to (i.e. Pushkin’s Journey to Arzrum, Mandelstam’s Armenia series of poems) and traditional themes (A Captive of the Caucasus), but also established approaches and evaluations are reviewed. Furthermore, in the first pages of Georgian Album he openly discusses the existing imperial roots of the Caucasian theme of Russian writers (Pushkin, Lermontov, and Tolstoy). On the one hand, there is “This traditional Russian capacity to be penetrated by an alien way of life (Pushkin, Lermontov, Tolstoy…),”[7]Andrei Bitov, A Captive of the Caucasus: Journeys in Armenia and Georgia, translated from the Russian by Susan Brownsberger, London: Harvill, 1993, p. 155. but, on the other, it is also clear that there is surely an element of conquest and appropriation there.

Attempting to find a similar context for Hangover, we can recollect different types of travels and dislocations that were occurring in the S.U. from the periphery to Moscow and generally across the entire empire; for example, with the aim to study in Moscow or to perform various seasonal work in some far-flung corner of Russia… Those participating in the conquest of virgin lands, student work battalions sent to Russia during the summer holidays, young people off to serve in the Soviet Army…They all wound up in multi-national communities where the Russian language and Soviet culture dominated, where the feeling of “all-union” belonging was cultivated. Inter-ethnic contacts, the continuous experience of joint living, and later on, continued friendly relations, written and oral histories, etc., assisted in the formation of the Soviet people as an “imagined community.”

Like many others, the author of Hangover went to Moscow to study. But his experience gave birth to a text that was exceptional in its attempt to reverse the gaze of the observer from the Center to the periphery, to represent the gaze of someone from the periphery towards the Center. On the part of the participants of the Advanced Course for Scriptwriters, the advance of a group transcending ethnic boundaries, that was a part of a much wider community of “same generation writers (artists)” was portrayed: “They are my friends – in their presence for me a warm climate of safety is being knitted: it is pleasant to feel their existence from Yerevan to Moldavia, Tbilisi, Leningrad.”[8]Hrant Matevosyan, Tsarere. Yerevan: Sovetakan Grogh, 1978, p. 128. But, just as Matevosyan has already clarified later on in post-Soviet years, their group paradoxically embodied both the collective Soviet belonging of those coming from different republics and the quite evident anti-Soviet, anti-imperial solidarity that, in particular, could have been expressed with the recognition of the difference of the ethnic identity and culture of each participant.

The map

In one of the diary entries of Walter Benjamin, written during the last days of 1926 during his two-month stay in the Soviet capital of Moscow, he reflects on the prominent role that the map began to play for Soviet ideology. Seeing a pile of maps being sold in the street, and noticing that the map had entered not only the daily life but also the culture of Soviet man, from theatrical performances to the propaganda film “One-sixth of the world,” he concluded that the map, just like Lenin’s portrait, was becoming a new Russian center of visual worship. Truly, the vast landmass of the Soviet Union, highlighted in red on the world map, along with its assumed momentum of continual expansion, was one of the visual symbols of the empire.

However, ever since the 60s, when, in the on-target expression of a scholar, “Soviet nations were also allowed to have a history,” maps, as influential means of the visualization of history, could also become powerful tools in the construction of national identity, as well as spurring nationalism. If we follow the assertion of Benedict Anderson, one can then assume that the Soviet national republics appearing on the map, with their borders and capitals, could already have shaped the imagination of the population. As regards to “historical maps,” then, “Through chronologically arranged sequences of such maps, a sort of political-biographical narrative of the realm came into being, sometimes with vast historical depth.”[9]Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London: Verso, 1991, p. 175.

Forty years later, yet another traveler, Andrei Bitov, this time in Soviet Armenia, also meditates upon maps. He describes the attractive power that an atlas of historical maps of Armenia has on his friend and friend’s brother, the way the atlas sucks them in and they are submerged in map reading. Bitov then adds: “Here, green and round, Armenia extends to three seas. Here, to two. Here, to one. And here – not even to one. So swiftly does Armenia diminish from the first map to the last, always remaining a generally round state, that if you riffle quickly through the atlas, it’s a movie: it captures the fall of a huge round stone from the altitude of millennia. The stone disappears into the depths, diminishing to a point,”[10]Andrei Bitov, ibid, p. 43. or, if you flipped through the pages in the opposite direction, it expanded.

The part that talks about the atlas can give rise to different interpretations. From the past to the present, during the entire course of history Armenia continues to get smaller, reaching the edge of disappearing altogether; a fact which makes it more appealing to look through the atlas from the opposite direction, until one reaches the map, “Armenia: from sea to sea.” These were the years of the reawakening of nationalism. However, one can also ponder that it was only due to the Russian-Soviet Empire that Armenia was saved from total disappearance. From this point of view, the past was defined solely as a period of loss; the present, secure and safe, while the “radiant future” to come could only be socialist. In any case, it seems that Anderson’s observation above is helpful in clarifying what Bitov describes.

During these years, one could find maps of historic Armenia in the homes and work places of many. And this wrested opportunity to remember and commemorate the past, first and foremost, dealt with the 1915 Genocide. Permission to mark the Genocide’s 50th anniversary and to construct a memorial on the occasion wasn’t easily obtained: “Their latest war is the war for their own history.”[11]İbid, p. 44. Thus, it is not by accident that the subject of the genocide appears in the pages of “Lessons of Armenia” and in Hangover. It was from Bitov’s works, which had previously been published in one of the largest circulation literary journals in the S.U., that wide segments of society, for the first time, read about that event. Not only was it unprecedented that the genocide issue was brought to public light, or there was a chance to write about it, but also the fact that the meaning and importance of pre-Soviet national history was recognized. This was something that underscored the uniqueness of national destiny, its difference, as opposed to the unity and commonality of socialist nations being cultivated.

Of course, this does not mean that pressures and restrictions had disappeared. In Hangover, during the conversation between the Armenian participant of the Advanced Course for Scriptwriters and the course leader, the genocide is discussed as a possible screenplay theme. Its rejection comes in the form of an advice: not to “go digging up old graves” or not to “yield to local nationalism.” The permission to make a film about the genocide was much harder to obtain than the permission to write about it.

In the next section of the article, the issue of representation is discussed and, in that context, it must be at least noted that the authors mentioned were obliged to deal with ideological pressures, in particular, censorship. Matevosyan’s and Bitov’s writing were crudely censored and sometimes altogether banned. There were two faces to Soviet censorship. There were restrictions and banned themes, but, at the same time, there were declarations that had to be stated, to be constantly repeated. On the other hand, the restrictions and prohibitions were diverse. As I have shown, primarily on the basis of Hangover, the more influential means of cultural expression in the S.U. (cinema), that created possible contemporary forms or “styles” of imagination, were mostly being used to mold the Soviet people into an “imagined community.” All the while, their availability for the ethnic cultures was clearly restricted. Put another way, even during the period of nationalist awakening, fairly strict restrictions were operating in the S.U. regarding the cultural representation of ethnic identities.[12]See, Hrach Bayadyan, “Soviet Armenian Identity and Cultural Representation” in Tsypylma Darieva, Wolfgang Kachuba (eds.), Representations on the Margins of Europe: Politics and Identities in the … Continue reading

Difficulties of representation

In totally characteristic fashion, one of the prominent themes in Lessons of Armenia is the issue of representation, with all its different aspects. The first of these is the optical difficulty; the visual incapacity of the narrator-subject. In “Geography Lesson,” he notes, “And I pursue that image as a method. With the naked eye I see nothing – one has to be born here, and live here, in order to see. Through the binoculars I see large objects, for example, a watermelon – and nothing but the watermelon. The watermelon blocks out the world. Or I see my friend – and nothing but my friend…. Every time, something blocks out the world. I reverse the binoculars – the watermelon zooms away from me, like a nucleus, and disappears over the horizon. In the unimaginable depth and haze I see a small round country with one round city, one round lake, and one round mountain, a country inhabited by my friend alone.”[13]Andrei Bitov, ibid, p. 45.

The same issue is presented, in another fashion, in a chapter relating to Lake Sevan: “Such authenticity and uniqueness does this country show you, again and again, that by now its authenticity seems redundant … It suddenly occurs to me that the birth of a brilliant painter would be a paradox in this country. Nature here is so exact that it will suffer no transformation by the artistic vision. To remain captive to this absolute exactness of line and color is probably beyond an artist’s power; no copy is possible.”[14]Ibid, p. 53-54. Later, he specifies: “Now I catch myself: when I said “line and color,” I was not being accurate. I was following tradition, rather than my own awareness. I was paying tribute to Sarian, rather than to nature.”[15]Ibid, p. 54.

This reminds one of Bitov’s sensitive attitude regarding local reality. He rejects the typical view of the Soviet center towards the periphery, that would have seen a reality caught up in the surge of socialist transformation – new buildings, factories, mass enthusiasm, etc. This view would have proclaimed the blissful life of a people, once colonized for hundreds of years, and of a country reborn from ruins of the past. This is a people that could rediscover its cultural tradition only due to the progress and enlightenment brought by socialism. This rhetoric was often accompanied by stereotypical elements of orientalism; old culture and exotica, stored values of the past, etc.

Elleke Boehmer, while discussing ways of describing a colonized foreign country and ways of maintaining control through description, and the problems these engender, suggests: “Rhetorical strategies to manage colonial unreadability can be organized into broad groups. First, there was the practice of symbolic reproduction already discussed, where the intention to characterize a place expressed itself in defiance of the empirical evidence or conventional laws of association. As did the Australian explorers, colonizers created a viable space by repeating names and rhetorical structures from the home country regardless of their accuracy… what could not be translated was simply not a part of the represented scene. Second, a development of the first, there was the strategy of displacement, a device whereby the intransigence or discomfort the colonizer experienced was projected on to the native…. Here the unreadable subject is transformed into the sign of its own unreadability…. The native or colonized land is evoked as the quintessence of mystery, as inarticulateness itself.”[16]Elleke Boehmer, Colonial&Postcolonial Literature: Migrant Metaphors, 2nd edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005, p. 90.

On the surface, the quotes from Lessons of Armenia remind one of the second strategy, but it seems that Bitov has other motivations and objectives. First, Armenia was explicitly different from a colonized nation in the Western sense. Second, a continual tradition of representing the Caucasus, especially Armenia, took form in Russian literature. In addition, there was the established conviction that Russian writers possessed an unsurpassable capacity when it came to representing others. Dostoevsky made the claim that only Russians were truly universal, and could truly put themselves into the shoes of others, as it were. In his opinion, Russians are the only people capable of authentically representing others.[17]See, Katya Hokanson, “Literary Imperialism, Narodnost’ and Pushkin’s Invention of the Caucasus,” Russian Review, Vol. 53, No. 3 (Jul., 1994), pp. 336-352. And Bitov knew about this, as it appears from the above quoted passage on the “traditional Russian capacity to be penetrated by an alien way of life.” But, at the same time, what agitated him was the sensation that he was “a foreigner, an outlander, an uninvited guest.”[18]Andrei Bitov, ibid, p. 57. The notion of the Caucasus as the Russians’ own “East,” a concept that came to the fore in the 19th century, noticeably weakened in the 60s. For Bitov, Armenia was not the Orient, as it had been for Bely and Mandelstam. Nevertheless, in one of the first pages of the novella, Bitov quotes the following, said by his friend. “Please, just don’t write that Armenia is a sunny, hospitable land.”[19] Ibid, p. 22. Here, “sunny and hospitable land” is a familiar stereotype of Soviet orientalism.

To all appearances, for Bitov, the “naked eye” was an eye unfamiliar with local cultural conventions and codes: “one has to be born here, and live here, in order to see.” However, it seems that Bitov also rejects the literary tradition of representing the Caucasus (and Armenia) and, in particular, the entire repository of travelogues, whose mission was to describe the conquered lands and make them recognizable. Bely and Mandelstam resolve this problem each in his own way. In his journey notes to Armenia, Bely writes, “I’ve been viewing Armenia for two days now, but I saw it for the first time in the canvases of Sarian.”[20]Андрей Белый , Армения, Ереван: Наири, 1997, p. 35. In other words, in order to see Armenia one must first visit a picture gallery. A foreign country becomes familiar and visible only through the intervention of visual codes of Western painting. As for Mandelstam, in the chapter “The Frenchmen” included in the book Journey to Armenia, he describes the experience of viewing the works of French artists in the museum that becomes a training for the eye via paintings. Afterwards, the real world appears to him as a painting. Viktor Shklovsky critiques Mandelstam for that very “formalism,” when art becomes a medium to perceive reality. He observes, “When humans perceive natural phenomena through art, they are deprived of the opportunity of truly comprehending the object.”[21]Павел Нерлер, Комментарии, в Осип Мандельштам, Сочинения, том 2, Москва: Художественная литература, 1990, p. 431.

In general, the critiques of Mandelstam on this issue complement each other: “What interests Mandelstam is not knowing the country or its people, but rather, the capricious amalgam of words,” “Lamark, Goethe and Cézanne are mobilized in order mask the absence of the real Armenia,” “That is a journey via grammatical forms, libraries, words and citations.”[22]See: ibid, pp. 420-421. The author of the last observation is also Shklovsky. Naturally, the undamaged process of seeing and describing, the apparent accessibility of otherness, is conditioned not only upon the possibility to dissolve Armenia in the world cultural context (when Armenia becomes an almost transparent mediator between the poet (Mandelstam) and his cultural origins), but also with the Russian political and cultural domination in Armenia.

As it appears from the above cited passage Bitov is also cognizant of the trap of using Sarian’s painting and in general fine arts as a medium. He continues to ponder “And where had I acquired, what had generated within me, the image of a certain celestial land, a land of real ideals? … Simply, a land where everything was what it was … Where all the stones, herbs, and creatures had their own corresponding purposes and essences, where primordial meanings would be restored to all concepts… The land was nearby, and I alone was not in it… Under what circumstances had I left this land? … I found the word authentic and settled on it … This is a land of concepts.”[23]Andrei Bitov, ibid, p. 63.

Bitov discovers the country’s utopian image, cleansed of all historical traces, where, instead of the “cradle of civilization,” what arises before us is pure Nature. The unattainable “other” discovered in the alleged homogenous body of the Soviet people, is finally recognized as the “authentic.” The characterization “a land of concepts” reminds one of Andrei Bely’s enunciation regarding Martiros Sarian: “He paints the East in general, his paintings are proto-typical, raised to the level of schematic-pictures.”[24]Андрей Белый, ibid, p. 35 In other words, the Orient is always and everywhere the same and its unchanging essence can be located via certain concepts and schematics. In the cited and other passages, fragments of an orientalist discourse are obvious reminders of the East as a place of pilgrimage, of oriental man’s “platonic being,” of the inability of the Orient to represent itself, of the Orient’s “consistency” and “homogeneity,” etc.

Meanwhile, we find a completely different Armenia in Hangover. The screenplay written by the novella’s protagonist, the Armenian writer Mnatsakanyan, which was rejected by the director of the course, is about the disintegration of the Armenian village community, the population influx to the cities and the emptying of villages, the alienation of the villager from work and the land, the fall of morality. Generally, these are the basic literary themes of Matevosyan. According to him, during the long history of colonialism, the village community was the prime mode for the survival of the Armenian people and its ethnic resistance, and its dissolution could have severe consequences. In Hangover, the co-optation of Armenia by the Soviet tourist industry that accompanied the disastrous consequences of the new wave of industrialization and urbanization of the 60s is discussed. The expression, “Armenia is an open-air museum,” was quite widespread during the Soviet era, and the theme of tourism directly deals with the approach shaped in the S.U. – to equate national culture with the past, with ancient monuments and museums, while at the same time, to equate the process of the modernization of nations with socialism.

On the other hand, there is no description of Moscow’s urban environment in Hangover, except for the scene visible from the window of the dormitory overlooking Dobroliubov Street, together with the colossal Ostankino TV antenna looming in the distance. Instead, the “imperial environment of the Advanced Course for Scriptwriters” is described in detail. To look, turn ones gaze towards the Center, in this case means to question, primarily through the use of irony, the forms of (self)representation of the Center and forms permitted or assigned by the Center, the dominant modes of cultural expression, that, to all appearances, was a prohibited action. Furthermore, the criticism of the ideological rhetoric was accompanied by the offering of ones own narrative, the short story being written by Mnatsakanyan in Moscow. The novella begins with a segment of this story and the claim, repeated several times throughout, that “The story is falling into place”[25]See: Hrach Bayadyan, ibid.

The novella is full of citations and re-compositions culled from the most diverse types of texts, linguistic and visual. Antonioni’s film and Salinger’s short story are retold and discussed, the short story themes and versions of the screenplay are discussed, and typical examples of the rhetoric of the “cold war” of the period are reproduced… In the taxi on the way to the Cinema House to watch Antonioni’s “The Night,” the participants of the course are flipping the pages of the daily papers. Cited, or more likely retold, are two large excerpts, two examples of Soviet media discourse, one of which is an ironic reference to the “bourgeois press” and “bourgeois values” (very typical of the Soviet press). It begins, “Even with its so-called omnipresence, the ‘free’ press has not been able, till now, to poke its nose onto the sail boat of Aristotle Onassis and Jacqueline Kennedy and pry any details regarding the ‘marriage of the century’.”[26]Hrant Matevosyan, Tsarere. Yerevan: Sovetakan Grogh, 1978, p. 11. (In all cases, since we are talking about the Moscow papers, they are translated from Russian into Armenian and here I do not have the luxury of discussing the language issue, a central theme in Lessons of Armenia and Hangover.)

The Advanced Course for Scriptwriters was envisaged to assist the revival of the Soviet film industry by, on the one hand, creating domestic commercial films, for example, “Soviet Westerns,” and, on the other hand, assisting in the instruction of the “generation coming of age” in a spirit of military-patriotism. “The war hasn’t ended,” reminds Vaksberg, “…When was it that Russia started to live through the culture of others? We have purchased seventy-five movies from the Americans and we have sold them fourteen. What is this? They are winning the game by a margin of sixty-one units.”[27]Ibid, pp. 38-39. Note that the S.U. is being equated with Russia. Especially when the issue being discussed is the clash between the S.U. and the U.S.A., the other Soviet peoples are forgotten, and this was also typical of the West, which took Russian ethno-centrism for granted.

Taking this decisive role which the cinema and photography played for Soviet propaganda into account, I wish to pay specific attention to the critical commentary on samples of visual representation carried out through ironic reproduction. In a more general sense, the changes occurring in visual representation and comprehension were of interest to Matevosyan as expressions of the overall cultural shifts.[28]See, Грач Баядян, Воображая прошлое, Художественный журнал, 65/66, 2007, ст. 85-96 ( Here’s one example. The narrator is in the restaurant of Cinema House: “In that old man, already wrinkled with age, I suddenly recognized the youth in the war newsreels, the boy that was leading his company into battle, his chest thrust forward in defiance, decorated with medals, his gun held high above his head, two-thirds of his face turned to the photographer and one-third toward the enemy ahead.”[29]Hrant Matevosyan, ibid, p. 183 The essential elements of the propaganda picture’s rhetorical arsenal are reproduced in the one sentence, the pathetic and infectious gesture of self-sacrifice reaching imprudence, and the award granted by the fatherland encouraging and justifying it.


Andrei Bitov and Hrant Matevosyan (photograph kindly provided by Hrant Matevosyan Foundation)

A new stage of consolidation of the Soviet people began in the 60s that was paradoxically accompanied by the “ethnicization” of the Soviet nationalities. This phase of modernization was marked by the birth of nationalism in republics, whose bearers were the hybrid (Soviet-national) intellectual upper classes formed during the Soviet years. One of the descriptive expressions of this period was the creation of all-union communities that transgressed ethnic boundaries. This non-formal supra-ethnic solidarity nurtured in the intellectual communities could have both been expressed as loyalty towards the Soviet authorities and/or as resistance towards the empire. Such resistance could have signified the questioning of the dominant types of cultural expression and established norms and values, in various forms, including the recognition of national cultures (and identities) as being different and independent. In this sense, the “imperialness” of the Advanced Course for Scriptwriters could also have signified the formation of a conscious anti-imperial position.

As I have tried to show, the two works selected for discussion written by Russian and Armenian writers of the “same generation” in the second half of the 60s, bear witness, in different ways, to this important development that was taking place in the S.U. during the years following Khruschev’s Thaw.

The critical gaze of the Armenian writer towards the Center, which, in the manner of its performance is an unparallel action, at least in terms of Soviet Armenian literature, also registered the divide between the Center and the periphery. This was coupled with the discovery made by Andrei Bitov of the irreducible cultural difference and ethnic otherness of Armenia. This is perhaps implicitly conditioned by the recognition by Bitov of the ability, in the persona of “his friend” Hrant Matevosyan, of Armenia’s cultural self-representation.

Hrach Bayadyan

Translated from Armenian by Hrant Gadarigian


1”This article was written on the basis of a series of lectures I gave on the subject of “Russian-Soviet orientalism” during seminars sponsored by the “Art and cultural studies laboratory” (November, 2008). These lectures were subsequently published in a series of articles entitled “The question of cultural decolonization” (in Armenian) that appeared in “Hetq” [,]
2See, Iver B. Neumann, Uses of the Other: “The East” in European Identity Formation, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998.
3See: Susan Layton, Russian Literature and Empire: Conquest of the Caucasus from Pushkin to Tolstoy, Cambridge: Cambridg University Press, 1994.
4See, Philip G. Roeder, “Soviet Federalism and Ethnic Mobilization” in Denber, Rachel. The Soviet Nationality Reader: The Disintegration in Context, Oxford: Westview Press (1992), pp. 147-178.
5Susan Layton, ibid, pp. 5-10.
6Валерий Брюсов (ред.), Поэзия Армениис древнейших времен до наших дней, под редакцией, со вступительным очерком и примечаниями В. Я. Брюсова, Издание Московского Армянского Комотета, 1916 (Ереван: Советакан грох, 1987), p. 9.
7Andrei Bitov, A Captive of the Caucasus: Journeys in Armenia and Georgia, translated from the Russian by Susan Brownsberger, London: Harvill, 1993, p. 155.
8Hrant Matevosyan, Tsarere. Yerevan: Sovetakan Grogh, 1978, p. 128.
9Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London: Verso, 1991, p. 175.
10Andrei Bitov, ibid, p. 43.
11İbid, p. 44.
12See, Hrach Bayadyan, “Soviet Armenian Identity and Cultural Representation” in Tsypylma Darieva, Wolfgang Kachuba (eds.), Representations on the Margins of Europe: Politics and Identities in the Baltic and South Caucasian States, Frankfurt/New York: Campus Verlag, 2007, pp. 205-219.
13Andrei Bitov, ibid, p. 45.
14Ibid, p. 53-54.
15Ibid, p. 54.
16Elleke Boehmer, Colonial&Postcolonial Literature: Migrant Metaphors, 2nd edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005, p. 90.
17See, Katya Hokanson, “Literary Imperialism, Narodnost’ and Pushkin’s Invention of the Caucasus,” Russian Review, Vol. 53, No. 3 (Jul., 1994), pp. 336-352.
18Andrei Bitov, ibid, p. 57.
19 Ibid, p. 22.
20Андрей Белый , Армения, Ереван: Наири, 1997, p. 35.
21Павел Нерлер, Комментарии, в Осип Мандельштам, Сочинения, том 2, Москва: Художественная литература, 1990, p. 431.
22See: ibid, pp. 420-421.
23Andrei Bitov, ibid, p. 63.
24Андрей Белый, ibid, p. 35
25See: Hrach Bayadyan, ibid.
26Hrant Matevosyan, Tsarere. Yerevan: Sovetakan Grogh, 1978, p. 11.
27Ibid, pp. 38-39.
28See, Грач Баядян, Воображая прошлое, Художественный журнал, 65/66, 2007, ст. 85-96 (
29Hrant Matevosyan, ibid, p. 183

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