The Soviet Legacy In Armenia
What is it like to live in a country that was once part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR)? Armenia is my first experience with it.
The only other former soviet republic I’ve been to is the Czech Republic, but that was only for a day. And you wouldn’t know its soviet past from its architecture, street signs, or food. Armenia, on the other hand, bursts with communist buildings, Russian food staples, and signs in Cyrillic.
There are 15 former soviet republics. Some have repudiated their soviet past, like Georgia and the Baltic states, while other countries, like Belarus, are still operating in more or less the same way.
But since I’m not in a position to compare Armenia with other countries, I’ll just tell you about what I notice and perceive to be “soviet” influences in today’s Armenia.
EVERYONE SPEAKS RUSSIAN.
Language is probably the biggest give-away. Lots of things are still in Russian, like almost everything on TV and in the supermarket down to the sign on the Ararat factory (Armenia’s super famous cognac).
I speak only Russian (almost no Armenian) and I’m getting around just fine. Russian is everyone’s second language here, and many speak it fluently. I also hear people speaking in Armenian but using Russian words.
Many people say that the younger generation doesn’t speak Russian well though, so things may be changing.
ARMENIA LOOKS SOVIET.
The local architecture is another big clue. There are practically no old Armenian buildings left–it’s all soviet stuff: large and square, with little variation. The only Armenian twist is that most buildings are made of the local pink tuft stone, which looks a lot nicer than concrete.
Also, some major street names refer to the soviet past, like Leningradyan, which is a big road near my house.
And many Yerevan residents aren’t just living on soviet streets and in soviet buildings–they’re living in a soviet idea.
For example, the soviets thought it was a great idea to build apartment blocks in the shape of the letters USSR in every soviet republic, so they could read it from the sky. Today, thousands of Armenians live in these flats and unfortunately they’re dangerous–if there's another earthquake, they might go down like dominos.
The soviets are also responsible for where people live. First of all, they simply moved people to different places if they wanted to. The “Bangladesh” vegetable market owes its name to an angry Armenian who wrote a letter to Moscow because he was relocated to a neighborhood too far from the city center, and he felt like he was being ‘banished to Bangladesh.’
Moreover, when the soviet system fell apart and the housing sector was privatized, Armenians were essentially given ownership of the house they lived in at that moment. The good news is that nobody has a mortgage. The bad news is that nobody can move because there’s basically no system in place, and no movement in the housing market.
You can also still see a lot of soviet cookie-cutter construction in public areas. Playground equipment and park benches, for example, all look like they’re from the same soviet factory, built many, many decades ago.
CARS & FASHION.
I was told that until ten years ago, the road was full of Russian-made cars, like Nivas, Volga’s and Jhigoulis. There are still plenty of those cars now, but the main brands are probably from Japan and Germany.
Armenian guys no longer dream of driving a white Niva with black windows and a sound system; they want a nice Mercedes–preferably G-class.
Ladies fashion isn’t as easy to describe. Armenian women suffer from a collective make-up addiction, which is decidedly un-western. They’re also skinny and impeccably dressed, which is also something I associate more with Russia than with the US or Europe.
On the other hand, the malls here are full of western brands and plenty of girls walk around like hipsters and Kardashian look-a-likes. Basically, anything goes.
AND THE NATIONAL PSYCHE?
I wish I could look into the national psyche to find out exactly how much nostalgia there is for soviet times. I doubt there’s much among the younger generations, since they don’t have memories from that time. And many from the elder population were happy to see the soviets go; Soviet statues were removed as early as 1990 and the only place you can see a “Lenin head” now is in some guy’s backyard.
It probably doesn’t help that the Russians, when they left in 1991, took everything with them, including the machinery used in factories. Until today, there are many, many ghost factories around Yerevan and the rest of Armenia (and huge unemployment and under-employment).
But the older crowd grew up in the soviet system and does have some fond memories. A language teacher told me that the education system used to be much better: a degree had much more meaning, and jobs were guaranteed–even if it meant you’d have to teach in a remote village for a while.
More generally, it seems like the older generation is disappointed with Armenia’s development since independence. Many adoring parents and grandparents watch their children leave the country in favor of the US, Russia, and almost anywhere else. It’s very hard to make a living here, and the fact that the population is shrinking is definitely not helping.