ARMENIA: CULTURE IN THE YEARS OF INDEPENDENCE
Azat Egiazarian, D.Sc. (Philol.), professor, Director, Institute of Literature, Academy of Sciences of Armenia (Erevan, Armenia)
Disintegration of the Soviet Union is a fact that cannot be described in simple or unambiguous terms. To my knowledge, there has yet been no work that could offer an objective and profound treatment of the subject. Emotional, one-sided assessments prevail, no matter positive or negative, which fail to reveal the true significance of the grandiose changes.
I believe that we should pay attention to at least two circumstances. First, the event was sudden and revolutionary. We spent the years that have passed since then to talk about reforms—yet we lived through a revolution. No matter how strange this may seem, the early 1990s can be compared with 1917. In both cases the cardinal and revolutionary changes altered millions of lives of those who knew next to nothing of how to adjust to them. Market relations, the cult of private property and everything else connected with the new relations descended on people and created huge psychological problems for them. Poverty of the majority of population in the former Soviet republics made these problems an important part of people’s spiritual life.
There is another, no less important, circumstance—the type of the new relations that supplanted the old relationships. The market, private property, etc. were not absolutely novel for the former Soviet nations: many of them had experienced the process of capitalist formation before October 1917. It was a similar and yet different process: capitalism was evolving spontaneously, people had time to adjust to it while capitalism was adjusting to specific conditions and was perceived as a natural product of local development. In the late twentieth century the market was imposed on the newly independent republics that tried to emulate the developed countries. The result affected all spheres including the cultural sphere in the new states. Culture that has nothing in common with the old traditions arrived together with the economic relations borrowed from the West. There is no much sense in discussing whether the local or Western cultural traditions are better. Let’s have a look at how the situation in the sphere of culture changed and how the changes affect the spiritual life in the former Soviet Union, of which Armenia is part. There is no doubt that all former Soviet nations are living through a period of radical changes in the sphere of culture.
Local Cultural Traditions
Let’s have a look at Armenian’s cultural heritage and describe the system of spiritual values that existed in the republic before perestroika and independence.
Armenia has a rich cultural heritage; it has been using its written language for over 1,600 years and has respect for books and writing in general. In a certain sense books were the supreme value. There are two eloquent facts: Kniga skorbnykh pesnopenii (The Armenian Prayer Book) by Grigor Narekatsi, prominent medieval poet, was, for many centuries, considered a holy book. It was placed under sick people’s heads to cure them. Another fact: Armenian refugees driven away from their homes by Turks spent their money to buy back books stolen from them. These facts (cited often and with obvious satisfaction) are rarely discussed in any depth. Meanwhile, they are the best evidence of the cult of books. People in the Middle Ages and the Armenian refugees of the modern period were mainly illiterate and could not appreciate the literary merits of Narekatsi’s poem or of the manuscripts they rescued. Medieval scribes left vast marginalia in which they asked the readers to treat books with reverence, to wash hands before handling them, etc.
In the recent past books and their authors were also highly respected. During Soviet times Armenia, with a population of 3 to 3.5 million, printed at many as 100 thousand copies of certain books: works of Armenian classical literature and the best works of world literature. True, part of them kept in private libraries were never opened. Strange enough, this is an indirect confirmation of the cult of books in my republic: for centuries people preferred books as the best element of interior decoration. Naturally enough, not all people could appreciate and understand the poem of Narekatsi or even poetry of Ovanes Tumanian who was much closer to common people. Many people never opened the books they bought: it was a matter of prestige, they just wanted to display fashionable books on their bookshelves. This proves that Armenians looked at books as something special: they created an atmosphere of respect to what was written in them and even in the extreme cases of book-hoarding a modest paperback introduced something noble into people’s homes.
This was closely connected with people’s attitude to those who wrote books and creative intelligentsia in general, and to education. This is rooted deep in the Armenians’ past. Grigor Narekatsi is one of the most venerated saints of the Armenian Church. What is more, the Armenian Church celebrates the festival of the saint translators to honor those who, in the fifth century, translated the Bible into the Armenian. Those who could read and write enjoyed profound respect; this respect to knowledge in general has survived till our days.
To my knowledge, there have been no special sociological studies in this field, yet I know that until quite recently writers, scholars, and artistic figures were the most popular people in the republic. Their opinions were respected more that pronouncements of politicians and communist party functionaries. This, in particular, urged the republic’s communist party leaders to listen to what the intelligentsia had to say and to ask popular figures for advice. After all, the leaders, no matter how highly placed, were part of the nation and shared the traditional culture with the common people. Even the shameless bribe-takers and bureaucrats were highly honored when allowed to rub shoulders with prominent cultural figures and delighted to receive them in their residencies. There was the other side of the coin—there were nomenklatura intellectuals and there were attempts, often successful, to bribe members of the intelligentsia. This is part of our recent past. Despite this and other factors, Armenian culture and education were developing during Soviet times.
Obviously, respect to books and literacy bred among people profound respect for school and education. One can even say that there is a cult of education among the Armenians. The Armenian alphabet devised by Mesrop Mashtots in the fifth century provided a strong impetus for literature and education. For sixteen centuries school and education have remained the main values of the Armenian families. Peasants were prepared to sacrifice a lot for the sake of education for children; a failure was a family tragedy. This subject, in varied forms, was present in many literary works. In Soviet times the Armenians acquired a possibility to realize their centuries-old dream, namely education for their children. No wonder, science surged ahead in my country: Armenia, fourteenth, and the last but one, by population strength, was the third among the Soviet republics by the number of academics and scientific results. Our Academy of Sciences was respected in the republic and the Soviet Union as a whole.
There is another thought-provoking fact. Recently, all former Soviet republics have acquired a large number of private higher educational institutions. There are over eighty of them in Armenia; there are also fifteen state-run higher educational establishments. One can ask: does the impoverished population (the numerical strength of which is rapidly declining) need them? The youth, however, enroll willingly despite high tuition fee. This coin, too, has its flip side: since it is next to impossible to hire top-class lecturing staff, the level of training and education is very often indifferent. The wilting economy does not need so many specialists with university degrees and college graduates. No wonder the Ministry of Science and Education has not abandoned its attempts to cut down the number of institutes of higher education. Still, the tradition holds: in any Armenian family the child should get education, preferably, higher education.
The above easily explains the cult of the national written language and its creator Mesrop Mashtots canonized many centuries ago. Numerous poems and other works of literature were dedicated to him. One can say that the Armenians’ reverence of writing, books, literature, science, and education is one of the key features of their culture.
What is national culture today? What is its role in our knowledge about culture? The place culture as a concept holds in the philosophical and culturological writings of today is shrinking. National culture is seen as something outdated. There are several reasons behind this. Fascism scared the European public to the extent that European thinkers reject any mention of the national. Yet the negative historical experience cannot be that important. Globalization of world economy is much more important in this respect: the developed states are setting up a unified economic system in which developed national self-awareness, of which national culture is one of the pillars, is not needed. It may even impede globalization.
The situation is very interesting: in the Soviet Union the attitude to national culture was ambiguous. On the one hand, it was presupposed that, as soon as communism was built, the national cultures would fade away or, rather, blend in one common culture. In the last years of Soviet power the thesis was nearly dropped: it had become clear that this theoretical proposition could hardly affect the cultural processes in the union republics. On the other hand, due to certain ideological postulates the national cultures were encouraged in every way. Internationalism encouraged national cultures because it presupposed national cultural development. It was believed that as a result of long evolution and drawing closer together the national cultures would finally form a single socialist culture.
In certain respects the Soviet cultural policy was faulty. The one-party system imposed the same ideology on the huge country with the highly varied population. At the same time, it was thanks to that policy that the national cultures could develop.
National movement that contributed to the Soviet Union’s disintegration used the slogans of free development of the national cultures. Later these phenomena altered the trend of cultural policies of the newly independent states. National culture retreated under the pressure of the world market and its culture.
Change of the Course. Globalization in the Sphere of Culture
The changes were, in fact, a revolution. The new forces that came to power in the republic started to hastily remove the old system. There was no logical plan, no preparation, and no substantiation. Collective farms were destroyed in the flick of an eye, their property plundered and dispersed. This, and privatization in industry that followed, was dominated by criminals while bureaucrats at all levels created favorable conditions for plunder. All this was supplied with clear ideological slogans. It was said that everything Soviet was bad and should be destroyed to clear space for new relations, liberal economy and adequate culture. As a result what was considered to be national culture proved unnecessary.
Attitude to education and science changed radically: the new authorities decided to close down the republican Academy of Sciences. The plan shocked the nation that has been worshipping science and knowledge for centuries. The authorities acted in a very rude and aggressive way. One of the prime ministers of that period, a junior researcher at an academic institute in the recent Soviet past, said, in particular: “Japan has no academy of sciences but its people live very well.” Other countries (the United States, for example) with no academies of sciences and with universities as the main research centers were also used as arguments. Much was said about a small country being unable to maintain a wide network of academic institutions. A lot of what was said was true, many aspects of work of academic institutes caused displeasure, yet those who wanted to destroy the academy failed to take into account the Armenians’ mentality and traditions. The cult of knowledge and books that for centuries has been an important part of national identity did not allow the authorities to question the importance of the Academy of Sciences. One could speak about reforms in it or its reorganization, yet the academy as an institution was seen as an achievement of the recent period and what the new authorities wanted to do with it could cause nothing but strong opposition.
It was in the early twentieth century that outstanding Armenians tried to set up an academy of sciences in their country. Their dream came true under Soviet power, yet the authorities of the newly independent state questioned its right to exist under a false pretext of protecting national interests.
The academy was not safe even when Ter-Petrossian and his team retired from power: it is one of those institutions that are tolerated rather than supported. Wages dropped ten times as compared with the Soviet times; the research basis has crumbled, funding shrank. Later came wage arrears. Not paid for many months in succession, best researchers left academic institutes for other fields of activity, many emigrated to near and far abroad, to the countries where their scientific potential was needed. The staff of all academic institutes dropped more than by half—quite often it was the most promising and able people who left.
Recently the republic finally acquired the law under which the Academy’s place in the system of research organizations was fixed while its staff was promised higher wages. Looking at the numerous holes in the country’s budget and other financial problems, few believe in a better funding of the Academy and science in general.
School has also found itself in a financial abyss: low wages drove away the best teachers. Today, school education is suffering from deficit of teachers, especially acute in the periphery. School buildings stand abandoned: people are impoverished and leave their homes in search of work and better living conditions abroad (in the CIS and other countries). As a result, children of school age do not attend school; they become vagrants or work together with their parents for daily bread. Here it is hard to separate the objective from the subjective factors. Lower incomes, a drop caused by gross mistakes and errors of those in power and their incorrigible corruption, resulted in a catastrophic decline in the living standards of the major part of the nation and indecent enrichment of few businessmen and bureaucrats. The earthquakes in the educational system were inevitable. The people that came to power had to tread cautiously in this sphere: it is too sensitive and fragile and too important for the nation’s spiritual health. I have already said that the desire to change everything radically and promptly prevailed over reason. A wave of experiments followed. When A. Bleian became minister of education, attempts were made to alter the programs of the humanities, literature and history including. The powers that be obviously tried to change the nation’s self-awareness that (as everybody knows) is immune to such experiments. The minister tried hard to force the Armenians forget certain pages of their history. This was typical of the early years of independence when the negative sides of revolutionary upheavals were especially evident.
The system of higher education also suffered: the so-called state order was cut down—put in plain words this means that there were fewer free places at universities while the system of paid places developed. In medical schools and departments of jurisprudence the fee was prohibitive: children from poor families were deprived of any chance to enroll there. Even the Armenians’ desire to learn and acquire higher education, that at times looks a bit inflated, cannot overcome financial and other barriers.
For many decades all settlements had clubs and libraries that offered all sorts of leisure to people. In the past the libraries were regularly stuffed with books published in Armenia and Moscow and were able to function as a source of reading material for those who loved reading. Today, the local authorities have no money to replenish public libraries.
Art also suffered a lot during independence: the state proved unable to keep the numerous cultural institutions of the Soviet period afloat. In fact, lack of money and theoretical inventions of new authorities went against Armenian self-awareness. For example, it was postulated at one time that not all children needed special musical training in musical schools that functioned in all cities and large settlements. The schools were not closed down, yet the nation raised under Soviet power became convinced that the rich had much more possibilities to give their children musical and other special training despite what the country’s constitution said.
Theaters deprived of state funding are in a very bad shape, too; their buildings are falling apart; their directors are looking with hope at rich compatriots and expatriates. From time to time money does come from that side in a form of large donations and prizes. The state, obviously, cannot and should not build up its cultural policy on private donations no matter how large. Lack of a clear-cut state policy in the field of culture and education is the main problem. I should say that the authorities display strange indifference to what is going on in the spiritual sphere. This arouses negative feelings: at all times the Armenians looked at education, literature, art, and science as their common cause and not private enterprise. Today, the authorities are looking at the spiritual sphere as something alien to them.
This causes another problem: these processes are connected with globalization, of which much has been already written. One thing deserves special mention: globalization threatens national cultures, it will unify them to fit one pattern, that of mass culture now reigning unchallenged on the TV screens. Why do I mention the TV in the first place? Because it has the widest coverage and, therefore, exerts the greatest influence on the minds and souls. Every day numerous films and clips are building up a definite (or ordered) spiritual atmosphere and tastes. National elements are being pushed to the background. This creates among the youth an attitude to national culture that contradicts the traditions of their parents. The national culture comes to be seen as backward and unworthy of attention. These feelings will hardly help develop national culture.
In these conditions the state policy in the sphere of culture has acquired even greater importance. While being opened to the world and world culture, Armenians, and other similar nations, have to protect their culture and its very special image. This calls for a well-substantiated policy, funding and material support. For example, film production in Armenia can be saved through great efforts and a lot of money—this is a costly branch that the impoverished state cannot maintain. As a result, Western films predominate. The state should support the national cinema and coordinate the noble efforts of private sponsors in order to save the film industry. Today, Armenia produces one or two films every year. They obviously cannot fill in the void in the minds of Armenians attacked on all sides by American film products. People have no choice: Armenian, and European for that matter, films are retreating under the pressure from the United States.
To sum up: today, Armenian culture is limited by three factors: the country’s ailing economy, globalization, and an absence of a reasonable and well-substantiated cultural policy. All the three factors are present, to different degrees, in other CIS countries.