Dimensions of Cultural Identity and post-Soviet ways of Modernization in Armenia

Dimensions of Cultural Identity and post-Soviet ways of Modernization in Armenia

The series of seminars is led by cultural critic Hrach Bayadyan

Curator and Moderator: Susanna Gyulamiryan

Seminar 1 Russian-Soviet Hegemony and Soviet Armenian Nationalism
Seminar 2 2000s: Certain (Re)Modernization Tendencies in Armenia
Seminar 3 Conclusions: How to Become Post-Soviet

3. - 5. 6. 2012, “Galentz” Museum
18 H. Kalents Str., Yerevan

In the series of seminars Hrach Bayadyan gives an overall summary of his recent articles that concern the issues of Eastern Armenian cultural identity. The main stimulus behind this work has been the wish to understand the complex post-Soviet situation with its cultural, social, and political aspects. This desire has led to an interest in the central themes and some decisive developments of the past two centuries that have been, although fragmentarily, reflected in his works. Here the core theoretical-interpretational framework is the modernization, to the extent to which the Eastern Armenian history of that period can be viewed from the perspective of its relation, at least as a certain elitist project, to the Western processes of modernization. This framework is used taking into account the vast number of critical revisions done particularly, from the viewpoint of Postcolonial studies.

However, for the Eastern Armenians the era of Modernization was inseparably linked to the Russian orientation, as it was also the era of Russian-Soviet hegemony. Moreover, the Russian orientation goes beyond being just an orientation and gradually conquers the whole historical-cultural horizon of the Eastern Armenians (Russian Armenians). This circumstance becomes highly urgent in post-Soviet Armenia and can be viewed, for instance, as a problem of overcoming the Russian-Soviet cultural hegemony or a problem of cultural decolonization. If the extended viewpoint on modernity (“alternative modernities”, for instance) allows to consider the experience of Soviet Socialism and, thus, the history of post-Soviet societies in the context of global transformations of the time, then, at the same time, it implies adoption of new theoretical-methodological approaches. In this regard, H. Bayadyan presents those sectors of the research that seem to be most relevant for this purpose: Postcolonial studies and Cultural studies. Moreover, a number of key concepts: postcolonialism, Orientalism, hegemony, nationalism have also been discussed.

Seminar 1 Russian-Soviet Hegemony and Soviet Armenian Nationalism
At the beginning of the 19th century, the expansion of the Russian Empire to the Caucasus and on the other hand, the forced Russian orientation of the Eastern Armenians (as the “lesser evil”) were the two sides of the historical situation. We can learn a lot about these developments (especially when we consider the ideological aspect) by putting side to side the texts of A. Pushkin and those of Kh. Abovyan. Meanwhile, one should not forget that Kh. Abovyan was indeed not a Russophile. Pushkin, in turn, combined the role of the critic of the Empire with the role of an imperial poet. While through Pushkin’s texts the whole imperial diversity (nations, territories, cultures, etc.) was consolidated into the Russian imagination, thus forming the literary context of colonization (K. Hokanson), in Abovyan’s novel “Wound of Armenia” the very moment that the Russian foot stepped on the Armenian land is literally blessed, connecting (seemingly forever) the rebirth of the Armenians, the beginning of modernity and its further developments with the Russian domination.
At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, a new approach towards the cultures of the Empire was being formed in Russia. Excavations in the medieval Armenian capital of Ani were initiated during this period and in 1916 a book named Poetry of Armenia was published under the editorship of Valerii Briusov, who in the introductory part, praised Armenian medieval poetry. This indicates the changes taking place in the nature of Russian hegemony: Armenia is valued as an old country with rich culture, but it is Russia that guarantees its survival, while at the same time appreciating and representing its culture. It could also be viewed as a new form of Orientalism.
The 1930s are seen as a period when Soviet peoples were provided with history and traditions. However, those were not authentic recovered traditions, but were invented by the State, with the enthusiastic participation of the national elites, and inevitably embedded in Socialist modernity. The highly clichéd essentializing rhetoric of national culture and identity and the Orientalist practices exoticizing them originated during those years (T. Martin).
In this regard, the examination of Eastern Armenian and Western Armenia, as well as Soviet Armenian
and Diaspora Armenian interrelations is principal for the analysis of the Eastern Armenian identity.
The consideration of these issues helps to see the complexity of the historically developed construct of Russian-Soviet domination and the problem of cultural decolonization in Armenia. In Armenia the national ideology has never been properly embodied into and discussed in the context of contemporary debates, especially taking into account the new post-Soviet circumstances. Therefore, the Russian orientation has become an inseparable part of the Eastern Armenian identity or Russian-Soviet hegemony and Soviet Armenian nationalism are linked to each other in a hidden complicity.

Seminar 2 2000s: Certain (Re)Modernization Tendencies in Armenia

Post-Soviet Armenia is somehow similar to post-colonial countries, which, in the 1960s, were described using the newly introduced term “neo-colonialism”. However, the reaffirmation of Russian economic domination upon Armenia is accompanied with a growing influence of international forces and transnational capital on the State. We can outline two very typical and interconnected processes of socio-cultural transformations taking place in Armenia, which are the diffusion and appropriation of consumer culture and the widespread use of information and communication technologies. Under the new conditions, this scheme allows to reformulate and productively discuss a number of important topics, such as the question of what happens to the national ideology under the conditions of consumerism domination (the topic of “nationalism and consumerism”). Further on, what is the new status of the so-called “national intellectual”, presumably embodying that ideology (the topic of “intellectuals and consumerism”)? By the opinion of H. Bayadyan on this is that through the spread and establishment of consumer (“low”) culture, the State authority, in fact, was able to extrude the intellectuals, the carriers of the “high” culture. It was able to appropriate and, without any unwanted intermediaries, use the national rhetoric. In this respect, the advocacy of “high” (“spiritual”, “genuine”, “purely national”, etc.) values by the marginalized intellectuals was rather an attempt to rehabilitate the lost privileged status.
Actually, the examination of relation between consumerism and information technologies is quite relevant for understanding certain features of the post-Soviet period. Armenia’s enthusiasm at the beginning of 2000s concerning its “high potential” in the information technologies industry and opportunities for penetrating the global market indicate to the inability of the post-Soviet intellectuals to break themselves from the Soviet context (the unresolved problem of Russian-Soviet hegemony). The examination of Armenia’s current potential for creating information and knowledge, the structure of the society’s information needs, and the preferred ways of communication show the absence of ambitious and realistic programs in the field. The appropriation and use of new technologies take place not within the science, education, or economy, but in the social sphere, mostly serving entertainment purposes (the problem of re-modernization of the society).
Moreover, the existence of complex problems in this field and the absence of proper programs are disguised under the exaggerated topic of “information security”. This reduction and simplification of the scope of meanings is accompanied with a “militarization”of social and cultural issues, often dragging them into the territory of “patriotism” and “national interest” (the issue of ability and forms of establishing social coherence and solidarity).

Seminar 3 Conclusions: How to Become Post-Soviet

If we accept that with the establishment of the Republic of Armenia the Eastern Armenians’ Russian orientation, with a history of nearly three hundred years, reached its main purpose, then, more than twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the following question seems relevant: how to deal with that orientation? Should it be abandoned, and, if yes, is it possible to do, while this orientation, now as a subjection to Russia, has long become an inseparable part of the Eastern Armenian identity? It should also be noted that diverse practices of overcoming the Soviet Russian domination seem, under current conditions, possible only as intellectual undertakings and marginal activities, without any perspective of being institutionalized in the foreseeable future.
In some sense, these practices can be perceived as efforts to critically reinterpret the tradition, stimulated by the urgent issues of today and with the aim of reexamining the discursive framework of the tradition. A work that can be carried out in different directions and using different tools. In places where this domination is resisted or called in question, articulation of that very resistance would be required. While, in other places, the self-evident domination should be problematized.
There are a lot of dominant forms of representation, as well as places and ways of cultural resistance that require critical consideration. Inseparable from this is the Eastern Armenians’ tendency towards self-orientalization (“Armenia is a museum under the open sky”). Another important topic is the examination of the Transcaucasus (currently South Caucasus) as an example of Russian-Soviet legacy, a culturally constructed or, according to an accepted term, “invented”
region. Here we have to deal with a motley bunch of diverse ideologies, ranging from “Russian civilizing mission” and Russian-Soviet orientalism to “Cold War”.

Hrach Bayadyan is a cultural critic living and working in Yerevan, Armenia. He is a lecturer at the Yerevan State University, leading the “Communication, Media and Society” Master’s program at the Department of Journalism. Along with other courses, he teaches “Media and Cultural Studies”. His recent articles are related to such issues as political, social, and cultural implications of information and communication technologies, post-Soviet media culture and transformations of urban spaces, as well as Russian-Soviet orientalism and cultural identity. Among his recent publications are: Articles “Boredom” and “Hierarchy” for the book “Atlas of Transformation”, JRP-Ringier, 2010 (Project “Monument to Transformation 1989-2009”, Tranzit, Prague); Becoming Post-Soviet, Series: Documenta 13: 100 notes – 100
thoughts, No. 059, Hatje Cantz, 2012.

The series of seminars is kindly supported by the Ministry of Culture of Republic of Armenia and “Galentz” Museum

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