A black and white television; that’s how Anush, a history teacher from Tavush, pictures the Soviet Union. A complex period in Armenia’s history, the Soviet years are often perceived as “black and white” by many, including those who teach about it. As Armenia grapples with current geopolitical challenges, the legacy of the Soviet past continues to shape perceptions and conversations within and beyond classrooms.
How is the Soviet Union Understood?
Reflecting on Armenia's Soviet years, teachers and students seem to focus either on the socio-cultural divide between all things Soviet and everything national. In contrast, others interpret this period through the dichotomous lens of "free world versus the iron curtain." According to Arman, a Yerevan schoolteacher, he “was born in the Soviet Union, but went to school in the Independent Republic of Armenia, and instead of communist things, learned about Zartir Lao and the [Armenian] flag.” Similarly, 18-year-old Babken juxtaposes components of cultural identity, like religion, to the Soviet Union. “The Soviets didn’t appreciate old values, e.g. the church, architecture, etc,” he says.
People also tend to identify the Soviet Union with Russia. Arek, a student in Yerevan (originally from Syria), for example, associates the Soviet Union with the Russian language. Referring to the current political scene, Arman notes, “Now the U.S.-Russia problem is very serious. It is very important [to rethink Soviet history] because today they want to rebuild the Soviet Union by force.” Arman’s perception may imply that the Soviet Union is the same as modern-day Russia, disregarding the fundamental political and economic differences between the two.
By leaving out the ideological aspects of the Soviet system and adhering to the “Soviet vs national” and “Russia vs the U.S.” dichotomies, many nuances could go unexplored. When teaching about the USSR, which was founded on socialist theories of political and economic social organization, it would perhaps be helpful if history teachers delved more into the ideological dimensions of it besides highlighting and further pushing the hackneyed narratives of “national vs Soviet” or “free world vs the iron curtain.”
This article is based on dialogue between history teachers and students within the scope of the “Intergenerational Dialogue” project led by Paradigma Educational Foundation in partnership with Friedrich Naumann Foundation. The real names of dialogue participants have been changed to protect their privacy.