ArmArch journal, 2018, July
Regional Modernism


Levon Abrahamyan

ArmArch: What does it mean, national culture?

Levon Abrahamyan: National is what a given group of people perceives as theirs. Such self-identification obtained definition as national during the last several decades, before then it was the ethnic which was perceived as national. Normally there was ours and not ours. There was our world and the world of the others, which was perceived as savage. This phenomenon was well exemplified by the ancient Greeks, who distinguished Helens from the rest referred as to Barbarians. Barbarian means someone who mumbles, who is incomprehensible. Such demarcation is typical for all archaic peoples, not only for such a high civilization as the Hellenistic one, and is a very natural phenomenon. The situation changes when different cultures start understanding each other, in which case each side situates its own culture in the global cultural system higher than that of the other. The opposite existed as well, for example in the case of the Japanese who considered Chinese culture as a high culture, whereas their own culture was perceived as rather savage. However, what is important here is that own culture or ‘the own’ in general becomes a means of self-identification and self-differentiation from the others. On later stages, when states formed, people united in states not on the bases of kinship but on common culture.



ArmArch: Your recent video lecture about the Opera building was titled “The Opera of Tamanyan: Between the National and the Stalinistic”. How does national contrapose Stalinistic, what’s the difference between the two?

Levon Abrahamyan: Tamanyan was accused of bringing in national motifs in his architecture. Back in those days, national or, what Paperni calls Culture 1, was being denied. They needed a new revolutionary world which should had been international, not national. The famous slogan that culture should be national in form, but socialistic in essence, came much later. The initial revolutionary culture was exactly anti-national, the futurists of those times believed that national as a means of proud demarcation should disappear.

ArmArch: What was considered as a national expression in culture in those times?

Levon Abrahamyan: For example, Tamanyan was accused in building his Opera House as a church, which was seen as one of the main national cultural pillars. Yet he wasn’t building an abstract church, as for example the Palace of Soviets would had been, he was literally reciting the structure of the cathedral of Zvartnots. Yet that first revolutionary period had also a nation-constructing aspect. During those years alphabets of many nations of member states were created, so that all nations in the Union could be equal. Stalin used to say that there are two types of nationalism, one is the chauvinism of great nations, and the other one is the nationalism of small nations. During the first period of revolution, the rise of chauvinism was considered more dangerous, hence they strived to support the maintenance of the idiosyncratic culture of smaller nations.

When the competition of the Palace of Soviets was announced, in the competition brief some retrospective signs towards the culture of the past could already be noticed. For example, constructivism was becoming unfavorable and Stalinist aesthetics was starting to take rise. As a result such purely constructivist buildings as, for example, the Moscow Cinema, obtain ornamentations on the bases of national motifs. But Tamanyan was doing the same before the Stalinist cultural and aesthetic ideology established, except he was referring to traditional architectural and decorative motifs, for which he was greatly criticized. But afterwards it became an official state doctrine.



ArmArch: Does this mean that the official ideology of the Soviet government regarding national culture had opposite meanings during the rule of Lenin and Stalin?

Levon Abrahamyan: There was a contradiction between these two ideologies. But the final goal in both cases was the same, to eliminate the notion of distinct nations and to unite them under one uniform communist society, as a single Soviet nation. This was a futuristic theory, which certainly was nonsense. For example, in Soviet ethnography, in studies of Nordic people, there was a slogan saying that we have to help them make the leap from their ‘prehistoric’ state into socialism, whilst skipping the period of capitalism. So, why does Paperni’s Culture 1 turn into Culture 2, into a vertical, hierarchical structure, into a ‘cult of personality’? I believe it has to do with the fact that Stalin was from the Caucasus, he originated from a traditional Georgian society. And perhaps because of this the past played a great role in his cultural ideology compared to proletariat Culture 1 which completely negated the past.

In the 1920s the alphabets of all small nations became based on Latin, so that they would not be dependent on Russian culture and in order not to provoke the chauvinism of the greater nation. Whereas Stalinist ideology did exactly the reverse, those alphabets became based on the Russian, on a Cyrillic alphabet, which is a sign of suppression of national culture. This tendency continued until the Khrushchev Thaw when many previously prohibited things became allowed. Interestingly enough, when limits of freedom become extended, it is the national which appears first. Moreover, the national manifests itself the easiest in a form of the ethnographic, hence national folkloric arts as the safest mode of national cultural expression became supported on the state level.

ArmArch: If to sum up, could we say that during the Soviet years there were three periods of national cultural policy: Leninist, Stalinist and Khrushchev’s?

Levon Abrahamyan: Yes, the first period was the revolutionary period which manifested itself as constructivism in architecture, the aim of which was to destroy the past and bring in the innovative. Yet at the same time folkloric arts were supported. Then the Russification of local culture started and by the end of the 1930s national synthetic cultures were already created. This is a paradox since in the beginning of the 1930s the national was considered as dangerous, whereas by the end of the decade each member nation had to have its own national mythology, legends, opera and culture in general, which were fake cultural constructs.

ArmArch: To sum up, could we assert that all forms of national cultural expressions of Soviet times were artificially synthesized cultural constructs?

Levon Abrahamyan: They were being synthesized during Stalinist period. On later stages, during 1960s-1970s the authentic folklore comes out of the artificial one. These folkloric arts and cultural forms were not synthesized or formulated according to official doctrines then. They truly existed. This was a period when ethnographers started collecting the authentic folklore among the peasants of rural places and remote villages, instead of creating artificially a national opera or a national epos. In other words, in this period the ethnographic became the national. By studying the culture of peasants, scientists attempted to retrieve the authentic past. At this moment ethnographic culture becomes a means of self-differentiation from the others and a tool in the hands of nationalists.



 ArmArch: How did this newly discovered national cultural motifs manifest itself in modernist architecture?

Levon Abrahamyan: This was the period of the Khrushchev Thaw, when architects were inspired and excited by the possibility of creating free architectural forms. For example, in the architecture of Rafael Israelyan, the reference to national motifs is obvious. But his references are rather conceptual than formalistic, for him the building itself is a monument to the national architecture. This approach is expressed, for example, in the building of the Ethnography Museum. Here he has sacrificed such functional requirements as proper illumination in order to have one window looking the Mount Ararat, and the other window looking at the Mount Aragats, (both of which are symbolic, sacred mountains in the Armenian tradition). The overall building is designed as a castle. All of this is a conceptual approach, whilst it is impossible to organize expositions inside the building, its function as an exhibition place is not very well addressed. This, perhaps, seemed as a secondary requirement to the architect, as his aim was to design an architectural monument.

ArmArch: How did growing studies of Urartian culture affect national self-identification in Armenia?

Levon Abrahamyan: Urartu was itself an empire, not a national state. Moreover, its ruling elite were not locals but invaders who came from the outside and started ruling over the local Indo-European population. Urartian culture was tied with Armenian culture recently and hit its ideological peak during the rise of nationalistic moods during the 1988 liberation movement, when Armenians claimed to originate from Uratians. During these years even the name ‘Urartu’ was replaced with the Armenian translation ‘Ararat’, Armenian culture was seen as a successor of Urartian culture. This tendency had the aim of affirming the origins of the Armenians as locals. Nevertheless, these moods soon started to recede, gradually leaving behind a stratum of modernist architecture based on Urartian art and culture.

Picture is taken from the Facebook page of BRUT studio