Armenia 3.0. Understanding 20th Century Armenia


“EPF University” series presents:

Armenia 3.0. Understanding 20th Century Armenia

This book is based on nine video lectures delivered by Gevorg Ter-Gabrielyan, EPF’s Director and a writer, between December 2016 and March 2017. Its purpose is to provide a picture of how Armenia’s 20th-century history has left its legacy on today’s society. It discusses many controversial developments that took place in Soviet Armenia and their resultant social problems: construction, industrial and cultural developments, Bolshevik and Stalinist purges, and the indelible traces they left on further historical events. The author exposes details about the Gulag and criminal subculture, the culture of self-inflicted violence, the decay of the society’s value system, and the consequent rooting of several types of false consciousness, inherited by Independent Armenia. Various types of corruption have their roots in these social traumas. The main problem which hinders successful reforms, in this context, is the atomization of the society, infected by a few types of false consciousness. Corruption of minds resulted in the incapacity to make rational choices and implement successful positive collective action.

By the end of the discussion, a method is proposed which, if followed, will help initiatives to bring about change and development become more effective. The book is intended for the Armenian Diaspora in the West, all those who study and want to understand Armenia and other post-Soviet states, and, more generally, the English-language reader. The book is also useful to the citizens and residents of Armenia, particularly the young generation, who want to understand the roots of the problems the country faces today.

The text was written before the April 2018 revolution and Armenia has a new reformist government today with an understanding of these issues. Further developments demonstrate, however, that the societal illnesses may yet reappear or may not be fully cured; therefore, this discussion is more important than ever. During the thirty years of independence, the issues raised in this book have rarely been discussed and reflected in the public discourse. Instead, a sanitized version of the past has been presented to newer generations through textbooks, the media, academia and the general public discourse, contributing to further rooting of false consciousness. The author hopes that the discussion around the issues raised in the book will also help the diaspora and residents of Armenia to better understand each other and the situation they find themselves in. With a more complete understanding, they will, in turn, be able to act in a more concerted and productive way.


Please see extracts from the publication:


1. Atomie and tsekhavism. From Chapter 5. The Soviet Agonie

The Soviet system declared adherence to many of the same advanced, liberal values, at least on the surface. Some of the laws that were adopted during the first period of the Soviet system were quite positive and liberal. Some of them were even radically liberal, like the abandonment of the institution of marriage for a while.[1]

But the entire system, from the very beginning, being based on the Bolshevik and Cheka terror against the population, degenerated quickly. It deteriorated into this violent culture of false allegations, of torturing people, of killing people, of extrajudicial killings, and the Gulag camps. The laws that existed in the Gulag camps were simple, as Solzhenitsyn describes them: you die first and I die second; if you are not being touched, don’t make an appearance; etc. Simply put: homo homini lupus est. After those who survived the camps returned, they brought these laws into their communities. Very often, these were people who were in charge of executing the terror, the camp guards, etc. These groups survived and proliferated. They brought the same rules into their life outside the Gulag system, and their successors continued to be guided by these rules, even if they didn’t recognize it themselves. The executioners and those who were able to adapt via this or that compromise were naturally more numerous and healthier than the victims. Therefore, today, many more people live on the territory of the former USSR whose ancestors were perpetrators than those whose ancestors were victims. No wonder that a significant number of Russian citizens consider Stalin to be a national hero and approve of the policies of Mr. Putin. This is what I call negative selection.

This is how atomie comes into being. Wives had to abandon their husbands and sign a statement that their husband was an ‘enemy of the people,’ or vice versa. Children had to abandon and denounce their parents, declaring that they agree that their parents were ‘enemies of the people.’ Children were taken to orphanages, their names changed.

This calamity was atomizing the society. I said that Khrushchev’s reign was less harsh. Some positive developments happened then.

Positive events happened all the time, even during the worst times of terror. But during Stalin’s time, they were the exception to the rule, a result of the ruthless struggle of those who wanted to accomplish something worthwhile against the system and its supporters. After Stalin’s death, killings mostly stopped, and many things became easier. The period of Thaw introduced liberalization.

In relation to the Thaw and to the 1960s, I mentioned two thick variables – one of them is ‘cultural and intellectual construction,’ in addition to, of course, ‘industrial construction’ and all kinds of construction.

The other was the tsekhaviks, who actually contributed to rebuilding the societal fabric in a certain way, including by strengthening family and clan ties.

Tsekhaviks, by nature of their activism, had to come up with a set of rules to function successfully in the Soviet system. In the Soviet system, because of atomie and urbanization, the number of immediate nuclear families or incomplete families increased quite significantly. The tsekhavik movement went against that trend, encouraging traditional, larger-scale family ties. They could afford that because they were richer than average. Also, they needed family members’ trust and interdependency in order to be successful in their business, which was officially illegal. Trust and business success could not be based on the legal system. Finally, the clan system allowed centralized management by the head of the family, which was, again, beneficial from the perspective of the effectiveness of the tsekhavik’s operation.

As a result, one of the cultural principles of tsekhavism became an emphasis on the clan. Clanization was typical for the traditional rural family type all over the peripheries of the Soviet Union. Nations with strong ‘Eastern’ traditions, such as those in the Caucasus and Central Asia, were able to keep the clan system despite the waves of repressions, resettlements, and urbanization.

Via emphasis on personal and clan enrichment (while the Soviet system declared significant personal property and capital illegal) and by reverting to a larger family type, tsekhavism, being a new development in the Soviet system, was turning the system backwards, encouraging ‘anti-modern’ patterns of social life. Tsekhavism was preaching not just conservative but also retrograde values.

The essence of retrograde values is that they are not just conservative and looking backwards. They claim that values were ‘like this’ in the past, but in fact values were not ‘like this’ in the past. A system of retrograde values is based on mythologizing history and producing simulacra, i.e. value assumptions about the past presented as true, although they are merely imagined.

Obviously, tsekhavism was another development that was undermining the Soviet socialist system. It became possible in the context of the collapse of societal values that resulted from the terror of Bolshevism and Stalinism. Social and community values were totally ruined (atomie). As a result, when the ruthless period of Soviet history ended, family ties and extended family practices strengthened in the place of social, state, or community values. Stealing from the state was not considered morally wrong because state property did not belong to anybody. From the perspective of the tsekhavism movement, it was even considered chivalry and social success. Gradually, this became an almost universal consensus in most of the USSR as well as Armenia.


2.Tactics and strategy. From Chapter 9. What is a good project?

The second methodological element that I want to mention relates, once again, to the interrelationship of tactics versus strategy.

I have already mentioned that, every time we attempt a reform, we face three levels that affect the situation: (1) the global issues, approaches, or elements; (2) the post-Soviet ones; and (3) the national ones. A major part of this text has been devoted to the post-Soviet issues because the global and the national issues seem to be better known to the general public. I was talking about the blatnoy culture, and Rob was talking about the merger or intertwining of the national and post-Soviet tradition, and Mikayel was talking about that as well. This is all because, so far, we have lacked a clear understanding of the post-Soviet element in this triad.

Let’s take human rights strategy: the area of reform related to equality between men and women, equality in gender issues, and domestic violence. We now have a situation where we have to tackle domestic violence. A law on domestic violence[2] is being discussed right now. The state wants to pass it because they want to adhere to European standards, at least superficially (another Potemkin village), and continue receiving funding from the West. They decided to pass this law somehow, even though it goes against their own official conservative ideology (of the Republican Party). It may be perceived as ‘westernizing’ by Russia and pro-Russian Armenian circles. It may be attacked by purely traditionalist and conservative Armenian circles, including the Church. Suddenly, the state itself publishes amazingly daunting statistics,[3] which demonstrate that…

Isabella Sargsyan: Eighteen percent of all murders are domestic violence cases. That means each sixth killing.

GTG: Every sixth murder in Armenia stems from domestic violence. This comes from statistics that have been published by the state itself. We may assume that the numbers are even higher in reality, unless the state decided to present such a daunting picture with a speculative interest, i.e. to make this law likely to pass.

We have this problem, which is a national-level problem, very much intertwined with the post-Soviet value system. Look how things have changed: we are talking about gender, human rights, etc. We are discussing issues relevant at the global level. But we see that the post-Soviet in us, in the Armenian society, claims that having such a law is against family values. It seems like national rhetoric but it is actually the post-Soviet element which claims that: ‘It’s against our national values. It is going to ruin our family. It’s going to cause a situation where kids are taken into foster care, away from their parents,’ etc. These are the same arguments that Russia recently used to decriminalize some elements of domestic violence.[4] This is not coming from a pure national heart of a conservative and archaic Armenian traditionalist; this is orchestrated by the forces which are fed either from Russia or directly by the state itself. The state feeds these trolls in order to demonstrate to the West how difficult it is to travel the road towards ‘Westernization’ and satisfy the demands of European Union and other donors, in order to have a better bargaining position, whereby the EU requires less from Armenia for more (the EU mantra has been ‘more for more’). Simultaneously, the state is also demonstrating to Russia that the population’s value system is very much in tune with the Russian trajectory, and that adopting the laws required by the West is, in fact, a formality and takes place with huge difficulties: that the population does not support ‘Westernization,’ modernization of the ‘Western’ type. In Russia, too, this was not a genuine national traditionalist outcry but a political step against the West, simultaneously aimed at fortifying its own rhizome via the rally-around-the-flag effect.

If we don’t understand this typical post-Soviet intrigue, we may select the wrong strategy for helping advance the law on domestic violence. We may inadvertently ruin the chance to adopt it, or we may even have a backlash, a situation where domestic violence will be decriminalized, as happened in Russia.

For every kind of reform, we have this situation. If we are only ‘zooming in’ on this issue, this is a tactical approach, and it may happen to be wrong. We should ‘zoom out’ and take into account the larger picture, the interplay between these three layers of global, national, and post-Soviet influences. Only in that case will we become strategic. If success is registered then, it will be more sustainable.

Thus, we see intrigues no less sophisticated than in the American novels. If we try to convert the trolls, we will have chosen the wrong tactic. They create a whirlwind in which ‘innocent’ people also get caught up, those who believe that this law will ‘ruin the traditional family,’ those who become indoctrinated in the connection that since this is a requirement coming from the ‘West’ and since it is supported by NGOs funded by the ‘West,’ therefore the ‘West,’ e.g. Europe, is plotting against Armenia. Here, one has to choose whether or not to try to change the minds of these ‘innocent’ people who are just ‘mistaken.’ But they may be motivated, again, not by sincere belief but by the chance to make oneself important by arguing for a national cause. If they are indeed ‘innocent,’ i.e. they are not trolls and not part of the rhizome, they probably have very few opportunities for self-assertion. A better tactic is, then, instead of wasting time trying to change their minds via arguments, to build opportunities for self-realization, educational and work opportunities, which will create conditions for them to change their minds via practice rather than theoretically. Moreover, any argument that follows the line of debate advanced by the trolls is in fact feeding their discourse. Therefore, the critical thinking and analytic faculties have to be used here in order to select the correct and victorious strategy for advocating that law.

The other example is the fight against corruption. Armenia has signed several agreements with international structures that it will fight corruption. Because of corruption, we have this huge level of mistrust; the post-Soviet in us, in the Armenians, helps build the façade of the reality, when we say one thing and do another. Every time an anti-corruption project starts, we somehow ‘suck off’ the positive edge out of it and build a façade, pretending that we are fighting corruption. People see one thing said while another thing is done. As a result, mistrust increases, and it increases particularly toward anti-corruption activities, and eventually includes in its whirlwind everything that comes from the international community and global values. Corruption, in its generic sense, becomes even stronger thanks to our fight against corruption. Once, I was at an anti-corruption conference with a lot of high-level representatives of the rhizome. The conference was broadcast on TV. Afterwards, one of my friends said: ‘That was an anti-corruption conference where all the main corrupted ones were sitting in the first row.’

There may be some good and successful specific anti-corruption projects, but many of them are fake. Therefore, an anti-corruption project which is indeed worthwhile should ‘zoom out’ from its particular aims and address all three levels in their interrelationships, so that it fights the façade reality, rather than strengthens it, and does not increase mistrust in global values. Often our projects have not been like that; that is why we have actually gone backward vis-à-vis corruption in the last 20 or more years, rather than registered a positive development.

I already mentioned that whistleblowing, or giving information about something negative, some criminal act, has become unfashionable in Armenia, despite the fact that the donos culture was so prominent. At the global level, we are talking about the need for transparency, which, of course, presupposes that if one sees something wrong or illegal, one has to report it: that is one’s duty as a citizen. Obviously, at the national level, it would mean cultivating the culture of whistleblowing, including providing security for those who speak out, and encouraging whistleblowing. But because of the post-Soviet condition, we have a negative attitude to that culture.

If we want to make the value stronger, we have to ‘zoom out’ and think about building a culture of whistleblowing in such a way that it keeps the authority and integrity of the individual who is whistleblowing, so that the positive results of whistleblowing are much bigger than the negative results, and people are not blamed for baselessly writing complaints because of the remnants of the donos culture in our society. As I said before, most of the time, accusations of corruption are not answered; moreover, often those who raise the issues are prosecuted. This also means changing the media culture so that the public knows that the media report fairly, without just attacking somebody because they are allowed to do so. This is, in fact, much more difficult to do than simply implementing one or more anti-corruption projects. Building a strategic project against corruption requires some deep thinking in its planning stages.

The situation is even more complicated because of the global information onslaught: our society receives a lot of examples of media being irresponsible globally. How, then, can we make sure that the media in our small Armenia are professional and follow the rules of media ethics? Probably, with the so-called ‘information age,’ we will have a situation where we are bombarded with much more unreliable rather than reliable information. This creates the necessity to educate people in media literacy. A part of this should be the skill of orientating in the global information world, including the media world. Just like in the case of human handshakeability, members of our society should become capable of critically determining which media are handshakeable and which are not.

In this respect, knowing the historical trajectories of persons or organizations, including media, is a value. The medium that published fake news should be regarded with suspicion. A person who has changed his or her political or ethical position several times should be regarded with suspicion. For that, one needs to accumulate the ‘dossiers’ on personalities and the media. Memory of past behavior becomes one of the key determinants of trustworthiness. It is ironic that, in the society where the institutional value of trust is ruined, those who want it to be built back have to start by mistrusting. However, there does not seem to be a way around that. Just like with handshakeability, mistrusting the media which deserve mistrust, because they have ruined the social contract of reporting fairly and ethically, and expressing one’s mistrust is, in fact, a way to build trust. In game theory, it is known as the tit-for-tat[5] tactics. If repeated several times and consistently, it is one of the best ways of coming back to a sustainable cooperation pattern.

It is noteworthy that those who are corrupt tend to go for anti-corruption projects, those who censor and curtail freedom of expression are often very much inclined to work on its promotion, etc. Freedom of expression is intimately linked to what I was saying above. The problem, as I have already mentioned, is that even if it is possible to say whatever one thinks, at least on the Internet, this stays inconsequential. The dogs bark, but the caravan does not pay attention. Combined with the noise of fake news, the result is that people lose faith in the value of the freedom of expression. One of the results of this is that electoral bribes are not resisted by the population because nobody is usually caught for their distribution. It has become a habit, a tradition that before elections people will receive gifts, big or small, usually very small.

If people in their right mind, even if they are not well-educated, agree to take 10,000 drams and vote for somebody, that means they are being paid five lumas per day for the next 5 years. This is, they rationally calculate, the value they have as citizens. That means there is no trust whatsoever that the person who is being elected to power would participate in governance seriously, according to the rules of power distribution and division, and react to the needs of the society, expressed via freedom of expression. There is this saying in Russian: С паршивой овцы хоть шерсти клок; From a lousy sheep, at least a scrap of wool.

If we want to do a project on freedom of expression, therefore, we shouldn’t just promote freedom of expression, because if it increases without adjustment, without any connection with action, then there is no sense in that: words become cheap and useless. That is why political parties today use many different words, but most of them don’t use any convincing words. There are no more convincing words left in the rhizome’s polity. (this is about the situation of 2017)

Photo credit | Alexander Ter-Gabrielyan

[1] The Russian Effort to Abolish Marriage, The Atlantic, July 1926:

[2] Armenian Weekly, December 8, 2017, Armenia Adopts Law against Domestic Violence at Last:

[3] EVN Report, November 15, 2018, Domestic Violence: An Imperfect Law and Enduring Stereotypes: