New East Digital Archive

Beyond history: how does Armenia’s capital city resolve its Soviet past with its capitalist present?

In her film My Pink City, Greek-Armenian film director Aikaterini Gegisian examines Yerevan as a place where the past meets the present. What does it look like when Armenia's politics have changed but the physical remnants of the city's communist past refuse to be brought into submission?

14 September 2016

How are our impressions of urban space constructed? What happens to a place when its monuments outgrow their function of supporting an ideology that is no longer the official line? Can a city ever really break with its past, or does it take on a life of its own that resists and spills out from beyond the confines of its official representations? My Pink City (2014), Greek-Armenian artist Aikaterini Gegisian’s filmic portrait of Yerevan, Armenia’s capital city, combines archival photography and film, location footage, voiceover narration and images filmed from a television screen. It interrogates the city as a nexus of memory and amnesia, the official and the personal, Soviet past and Yerevan’s present, visualising its ability to disorient time and resist the official narrative of a smooth transition from past to present.

While the politics of Armenia have changed, the physical remnants of the city’s communist past refuse to be brought into submission

The city is animated by the movement of a female fruit and nut seller, a voice that proclaims: “Her past is an undigested and indigestible meal, which sits upon her stomach.” Could the protagonist be speaking about Yerevan itself as much as about the woman? Like that indigestible meal, the city’s Soviet past presses onto its present, in the form of now-derelict or disused public spaces and recognisable symbols of communist ideology. Only the washing that blows in the wind or the occasional bored woman leaning on her elbow rupture the rhythmic patterns formed by row after row of windows and balconies of Yerevan’s modernist housing blocks.

In 1920, with the founding of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic, Yerevan became the site of rapid urban transformation in accordance with the state’s new ideology. Such high-rise building blocks replaced the bazaars, baths, mosques and churches that had made up the fabric of the city. Much like in other post-Soviet states, these blocks remain the predominant source of housing.

A disused and unkempt open-air Soviet-era theatre, complete with an abandoned mattress, is a place without use in present-day Yerevan, but which nonetheless persists and refuses to disappear from the landscape or the memory of the city. The distinctive modernist circular control tower of Zvartnots Airport’s Terminal 1, built in 1971 as part of the Soviet architectural “rebirth” between the 1970s and 90s, no longer functions as part of the city’s infrastructure, having closed in 2011. The building, now an abandoned and unmaintained Soviet ruin, with cracks quickly forming in the concrete, is technically useless. Nonetheless it remains within the fabric of the city, remaining in place, stubbornly recalling the country’s Soviet past and inadvertently acting as a testament to the impossibility of having full control of the topography of the city from above. While the politics of Armenia have changed, the physical remnants of the city’s communist past refuse to be brought into submission.

Yet how different are these two systems? Pink tufa hammer and sickle carvings appear in various locations around the city, one after another, as the still-visible signs of Yerevan’s Soviet past. Contrast this with Yerevan’s present-day landscape — the garish, luminous signage of casinos and supermarkets. In one shot in Gegisian’s film, a supermarket sign sits on an archway framed by two communist symbols. How different are the mechanics of each system that offer up images for consumption, even in the service of two conflicting ideologies? For Gegisian, this became one of the main threads of the film. She comments that, “the idea of the […] transitional narrative is hardly ever a radical break with the past. Maybe the forms of the ideology have changed but the way power is articulated is more or less the same. In the film I wanted to point to such complexities especially through destabilising the idea of the transition and the break with the past.”

Hammer and sickle carvings from Yerevan’s Soviet past contrast with the garish, luminous signage of casinos and supermarkets of Yerevan today

Paradoxically, the film’s formal disjointedness is the most appropriate strategy to undermine the ideological disconnect of Armenia’s past and present. Sound and visuals rub up uncomfortably against one another to create a dissonant whole. A voice speaks from the behind the camera: “Our advice is to begin your tour of the city from Lenin Square… this is where most foreign visitors stay… This is the centre of Yerevan.” While the official guide (incidentally a Soviet guide, since Lenin Square has long since changed its name to Republic Square) points us toward the heart of the city — carefully managed and showy — the disobedient camera roams outwards toward the edges of the city, offering more rugged and visibly less attractive views of gas pipelines and radio masts. This movement between the official and personal resists grand, official images of Yerevan, unpicking the workings of these pithy demonstrations of power.

While it’s easy enough to dismiss these official workings of power — monuments, archival images, travel guides — as features of a controlling Soviet state, they are likewise present in Yerevan today, as My Pink City humorously shows. Unpicking the workings of official military parades through a combination of personal footage and material filmed from a TV screen, we see two sides of the city: there’s the “front” of the city, part of the projected TV images intended for consumption with ordered, choreographed walks through Yerevan’s main square. And there’s the “back” — one soldier passes a lighter to another, another scratches his eye, a third is talking on a mobile phone. If you look carefully, the city’s secrets escape through cracks in its official image.

The nation is personified as the female Mother Armenia — a fierce, muscular figure wielding a sword, overlooking the city

This quest to look closely was a personal quest for Gegisian. The film became a method of enquiry into how she could develop a personal relationship with a city that wasn’t part of her own history, having grown up as part of the Armenian diaspora.

“When I first decided to look at Yerevan, my questions were about how a city that is architecturally and visually constructed as a Soviet space could become a place of identification for diverse Armenian diasporic imaginations. I think the quest for me was — and that’s why the city is ‘my’ pink city — to transform something that was not part of my personal narrative into a place of belonging,” Gegisian says.

Looking carefully was perhaps part of discovering Yerevan as a gendered space. The nation is personified as the female Mother Armenia — a fierce, muscular figure wielding a sword, overlooking the city from the top of a hill in Victory Park. The socialist realist statue replaced that of Stalin in 1967. Women have left other traces in the fabric of Yerevan. In the archival footage Gegisian chooses, women are visibly present in the group of people wearing hard hats and overalls, celebrating the completion of a building project. Meanwhile, a female architect completes an architectural drawing. Gegisian insists on showing the active role that women played in the Soviet transformation of Yerevan, underpinned by the communist tenet of gender equality in labour.

Should we trust images of the Soviet idyll? Has so much really changed?

Meanwhile the camera cuts to a present-day image of a road worker, crouching on the floor to lay down a pavement stone, looking up with a proprietary glance at two women who walk past. We are faced with an image of life in transition for Armenia’s women. Yet Gegisian’s film, so focused on the functions and consumption of monuments and images, shows that the official “front” always has a personal “back”, and the Soviet archival footage needs its personal counterpart to be fully understood.

Should we trust images of the Soviet idyll? Has so much really changed? Having refused to let go of memories of all kinds, the city itself holds the answers if one knows where to look. For the author-narrator of My Pink City, Yerevan is a city “whose charm is composed of nuances, a distinctive atmosphere and a special sensation imparted onto those present in them”. The disobedient city promises to reward those who search more carefully.

Text: Dina Akhmadeeva
Image and video: From My Pink City (2014) by Aikaterini Gegisian. Courtesy of artist and Kalfayan Galleries, Athens-Thessaloniki