Hierarchy Hrach Bayadyan

Manuel Castells, in his three-volume work devoted to an economic, social, and cultural analysis of the information age, describes the global situation of the end of the 20th century in the following way:

“In this millennium’s end, what used to be called the Second World (the statist universe) has disintegrated, incapable of mastering the forces of the Information Age. At the same time, the Third World has disappeared as a relevant entity, emptied of its geopolitical meaning, and extraordinarily diversified in its economic and social development. Yet the First World has not become the all-embracing universe of neoliberal mythology; because a new world, the Fourth World, has emerged, made up of multiple black holes of social exclusion throughout the planet.”1

Furthermore, the Fourth World includes not only a large part of sub-Saharan Africa and the impoverished rural areas of Latin America and Asia, but is present in any country and city as a manifestation of this new geography of social exclusion. That is, in the current historical context, the rise of the Fourth World is inseparable from the rise of global capitalism.

In this general situation Castells reserves a specific role for the events taking place in the postsocialist regions: “Nowhere is the ongoing struggle between global economic flows and cultural identity more important than in the wasteland created by the collapse of Soviet statism on the historical edge of the information society.”2

Today we can register the tangible differences between the roads and destinies of postsocialist regions—Eastern Europe, Baltic States, South Caucasus, Central Asia—and individual societies. One part has already been included in Europe, others are waiting their turn to enter EU and/or NATO; and maybe the others will be satisfied with a “new political neighborhood.” For many the distance from Russia, from the field of Russian influence, is crucial.

Of course, the Second World was not homogeneous at all. The socialist camp and its component societies were not devoid of hierarchy. It was well known that the camp was composed of four zones. The Russian Federation was in the center, surrounded by a second layer made up of the other Soviet republics. The third layer consisted of the neighboring socialist countries, while the fourth one was made up of the Soviet satellites from Cuba to Vietnam. There were also internal stratifications, stipulated by different oppositions—West/East, North/South, Christian/Moslem, Slavic/non-Slavic, etc.—which probably were not clearly visible within the basic opposition of socialism/capitalism and were intended to disappear in the communist future of a classless society. Moreover, because of the differences between them—including institutional and discursive limitations—various realities of social life (especially ideologically undesirable ones) which remained outside the accessible circle of cultural practices of representation, gradually became “invisible.”

To some extent or other, the Russian factor remains on the agenda of all the postsocialist societies. However, for the South Caucasus—and especially for Armenia—the issue of Russian influence is very urgent. The history of the “Russian orientation” of Armenians (historically forced on them) is about two centuries old. In the 20th century it continued within the structure of the Soviet Empire and it lives on, even after the collapse of the Empire.

Armenia became independent during a period viewed as an age of decline for national states. It gradually fell under the economic, political, and cultural influence of many international and transnational organizations. However, for Armenia the post-Soviet years were marked above all by the restoration of Russian political and economic influence.

Can the post-Soviet societies be considered postcolonial? Responding to this question, David Chioni Moore asks the following: Why do the post-Soviet societies not notice such an obvious fact—why do they not consider themselves postcolonial? According to him there are two reasons. The first is that one group of post-Soviet nations consider themselves “European,” which fundamentally and even racially differentiates them from the Asians. Another factor can be briefly formulated as follows: the reason they do not understand that they are postcolonial is that they are postcolonial. The critical skills for an understanding of their colonial past are lacking, in particular the skill of critical self-reflection, and this is in itself a consequence of being colonized. Continuing the examination of this issue, I will try first to explain certain aspects of the hierarchical structure of Soviet power.3

So what was it that made the Russian and Soviet Empires distinctive, and how can one describe Russian-Soviet colonialism (and the separate cultural hegemonies) along with the characteristics that distinguished them from the “classical” forms of Western colonial rule?

To start with, one has to take note of the awareness of their subordination regarding the West, which was as typical for the Russian as for the Soviet Empire. The basic reasons were the Western ideas and Western models of development—modernity and the modern nation, industrialization, the Enlightenment, socialism, etc.—adopted by Russia and then by the Soviet Union. Accordingly, in the 19th century the Russians, striving to be acknowledged as Europeans, rewrote the history of the Russian nation drawing on Western concepts. The outcome of the definition of Russian identity through Western language was an awareness of its own superiority over the Eastern (and Southern) nations of the Russian Empire, which they began to view through Western eyes. On the other hand, the Bolsheviks did not hide the fact that the aim of the communist project was to surpass the Western model of modernity.

The second peculiarity was the fact that Russia had never been a nation-state. The major factor of the disintegration of the Empire, in 1917 as well as in 1991, was the conflict between the imperial state and the emerging Russian nation, or “society.” No one had any idea where Russia ended and the Empire began. As one scholar noted, “Britain had an empire, but Russia was an empire.”4

Soviet national policy was not short of ambiguity either. It was not mere rhetoric when they spoke of the economic and cultural progress of the Soviet nations, the “flourishing” of national consciousness and national cultures, especially from the 1960s onward. There was no such insurmountable barrier in the Soviet Union dividing the colonizers from colonized as in Western empires. The Soviet nations may have been limited insofar as expressions of their ethnic identity were concerned, but at the same time they were provided with real possibilities for development and progress. However, the official ideology did not conceal the inevitable prospect of the “fusion” of nations. Naturally, the nucleus of the dominant Soviet culture was Russian. It was regarded as self-evident that Russian culture and language surpassed the language and culture of other Soviet nations. Ethnocentrism or Russo-centrism was obvious in Soviet cultural policy and most probably was the consequence and copy of Eurocentrism.

An important role in the implementation of such policies was reserved for the indigenous elites. It has to be acknowledged they had a big share in the modernization of their own nations. It should also be taken into account that the large-scale collectivization implemented by Soviet power (as well as the parallel industrialization and urbanization and the second wave of industrialization in the 1960s) allowed the Soviet nations, which were all rural, to be cut off from their traditions. Simultaneously, the traditional local elites were destroyed or eliminated, after which the Soviet system recruited new indigenous professionals and intellectuals who were ready to collaborate in exchange for certain rewards and opportunities.5

All these reasons could undoubtedly have contributed to the colonization remaining unperceived or simply overlooked. A closer look at the Soviet cultural hegemony may help to shed some light on this.

The above mentioned ambiguity of Russian culture—i.e., subordination with respect to the West and supremacy with respect to the East—was dictating an approach which “also propagated an image of Russia as a mediating civilization between East and West and of Moscow as ‘the third Rome,’ the fabled instance of a culture of translation” (Andrew Wachtell). Ewa Thompson observed that:

“Russia engaged in a massive effort to manufacture a history, one that stands in partial opposition to the history created by the West on the one hand, and on the other to the history sustained by the efforts of those whom Russia had colonized. In doing so, Russia has successfully superimposed portions of its own narrative on the Western one, either blending the two or including its own voice as a kind of universally acknowledged commentary or footnote. Entering Western discourse through a side door, as it were, reinforced Russia’s invisibility as a third voice.”6

One aspect of Russian modernity that helped to shape the picture of modern Russia and circulate it a round the world was the “translation” mission of introducing Western modernity into the East. Such an imperial attitude toward its colonies, later the Soviet nations, shows clear elements of Orientalism. We could theoretically describe one set of these elements—the method of dominating the nations and maintaining power—as “translated” or “second hand,” or simply as Russian-Soviet Orientalism. Orientalism is here understood in the way defined by Edward Said in his book Orientalism.

The meaning of this concept in the Soviet context can be explained in the following example. The Soviet imperial attitude showed a marked reluctance to notice and denote differences between its subjects. Within the established framework of the socialist unified “Self” and the capitalist “Other,” they were different not one from the other, but from the Center. “Sunny Armenia” (Solnechnaya Armenia, a description ascribed with similar success to Georgia, Azerbaijan, and the Central Asian republics) was a stereotypical label awarded by the imperial center which embodied the difference between the Center and the periphery, and which affirmed the incontestable right of the Center to signify and to give a name. On the one hand it was celebrative and attractive to the point of being complaisant, and absolutely in tune with Soviet optimism. But on the other hand it can easily be seen that a specific feature of such naming was the identification of the society and culture through geography (in this case through the South or the East). This evoked the myth of the natural human being, of the uncivilized indigenous man, from whence it is only one step to Oriental exotica.

For Eastern Armenians, the Soviet period was a stage of modernization in the course of which, through the tools of Soviet modernization, a number of political and societal institutions typical for a nation of the new age were installed, a particular understanding of a culture, nation, and national identity was formed, and a high “Soviet Armenian culture” created in many different fields. This gives us grounds to state that the “Soviet Armenian”—the bearer of the modernized Armenian identity—is a hybrid construction, where “the Soviet” and “the Armenian” seem to be indivisible. In this sense it is impossible to imagine any “pure Armenian quality” free from all Soviet admixtures, the same way it is difficult to imagine a Soviet nation, a Soviet community, free from ethnic/national attributes. For those who grew up in the Soviet years the national tradition became available only in that hybrid form, and it is not surprising that it was perceived by many as the true national form.

As was noted by Benedict Anderson, “Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined.” In the Soviet Union pressures over national identity were also exercised through restraining cultural representation. The availability of certain forms of cultural representation which mediated modern forms or “styles” of imagination to the audience were in the main confined only to national cultural production. This had to do first with the sphere of visual representation—the cinema. In the Soviet Union this novel and very powerful instrument was forced to serve Soviet ideology and its “universalist project”: the building of the Soviet individual and the identity of the Soviet people. I think that visual representations, being the widest spread of these regimes, served Soviet culture in the first place in securing cultural power, and functioned as a means of normalizing and homogenizing cultural expression as a defense against the cultures of what were called the Soviet nationalities. Modernization was both permitted and prohibited, or at least limited. In the end, being modern meant being Soviet.

Armenia, meanwhile, having not yet freed itself from all that the Russian-Soviet hierarchical structure of modernity inflicted on it, may find itself—with the major part of her territory and population—in that Fourth World described by Manuel Castells. It is not inappropriate to say that the globalization process taking place in contemporary Armenia is unprecedented. The economic and political influence of Russia over Armenia is here no longer a source of exclusive cultural hegemony but rather mediated, no longer through Russian channels but by other cultural currents. That means, at the very least since the times of the Soviet Union, a completely new and unaccustomed phenomenon. Nevertheless, coming to terms with the consequences of cultural colonization remains urgent for Armenia (as well as for a number of other post-Soviet societies).

The desire to erase the Soviet traces, to clear out the most vivid signs of colonization, was typical of the first years of independence and the first stage of building the nation state. Renaming squares, streets, and other places and buildings was an attempt to have the body of the city reflect the national historical past: glorious predecessors, famous events, etc. This was the way the city should be changed, the history of the city and the city itself nationalized. The removal of Soviet statues was intended to sever the connection with the meanings and values they embodied. However, a number of things today speak of a Soviet-Armenian, rather than purely Armenian, identity. The best example is the raising of the gigantic “Mother Armenia” statue, which replaced Stalin on the same pedestal, not far from the tomb of the Unknown Soviet Soldier. The names of Yerevan streets and squares and erected statues speak mostly of Armenian cultural identity, while the majority of political and military figures are Soviet, although Armenian in origin. One cannot identify with them simply by denying that “Marshal Hovhannes Baghramyan” and “Admiral Hovhannes Isakov” belonged to the Soviet Army.

The rebuilding of the physical space of the city that started in the early 2000s continued with the mass reconstruction of the downtown center and the formation of elite areas. The social as well as the physical landscape of the city is changing. The main social and cultural changes have been the extreme social polarization and the expansion of mass culture and consumerism.

Naturally, the reconstruction of the downtown area of Yerevan was first and foremost connected with the legalization of capital of dubious origin and the new stratum of the nouveaux riches, with the increasing profitability of the entertainment industry concentrated here, with the purchase of real estate, and with the artificial increases in price. The fact that the nouveaux riches were using the location of the city center as a form of differentiation was also eloquent; the geographical location here became a social location, and the stratification of society was echoed spatially.

In Soviet Armenia there were two elites: the Communist Party and the intelligentsia. The first included every type of leader while the second, while still under the control of the first elite, consisted of people with a certain autonomy and their own mission. Our present society is diametrically opposed, yet still consists of two completely different elite groups. The first includes the upper circles of the civil service and commerce, mixed to such an extent that they can be considered as a single group. The second is made up of the gradually increasing stratum of the people working in and cooperating with international organizations.

But the game is not yet over. The massive wave of political and social unrest that followed last year’s presidential election is evidence that the struggle for urban space is continuing. All the manifestations of this struggle (for example, the “political strolls” along the newly constructed Northern Avenue) have such a goal in mind—to return an alienated city to the people.


1 / Manuel Castells, The Information Age: Economy, Society, and Culture, vol. 3: End of Millennium, Blackwell, Oxford 1998, p. 164.

2 / Ibid., 69.

3 / David Chioni Moore, “Is the Post- in Postcolonial the Post- in Post-Soviet? Toward a Global Postcolonial Critique,” PMLA 116 (2001), p. 111–128.

4 / Roman Szporluk, “The Fall of the Tsarist Empire and the USSR: The Russian Question and Imperial Overextension,” The End of Empire? The Transformation of the USSR in Comparative Perspectiv, ed. Karen Dawisha, Bruce Parrott, M. E. Sharpe, New York 1997, p. 70.

5 / Philip G. Roeder, “Soviet Federalism and Ethnic Mobilization,” The Soviet Nationality Reader: The Disintegration in Context, ed. Rachel Denber, Westview Press, Oxford 1992, p.147–178.

6 / Ewa M. Thompson, Imperial Knowledge: Russian Literature and Colonialism, Greenwood Press, Westport 2000, p. 41.