“A mirror of history after the genocide”: on the streets of the Armenian capital, Yerevan

Mother Armenia. Image: Mosinyan/Wikimedia Commons.

In her wonderful essay The Eyes of Yerevan, Taline Voskeritchian writes of the Armenian capital’s “post-Soviet frenzy to erase from the urban landscape traces of the empire”. Writing in the period immediately following Armenia’s independence from the Soviet Union, Voskeritchian evocatively identified the defining characteristic of Yerevan: the city’s tug-of-war with the past.

Yerevan exists in a permanent state of flux, intimately connected to its history but, like the country at large, caught in permanent uncertainty too. In Armenia, the past isn’t a foreign country. It’s everywhere, all around you, its weight oppressive and inescapable.

It’s just gone 7:30am when my companion and I groggily haul our luggage off the clattering Soviet-era sleeper we’ve taken from Tbilisi, and emerge out of the central train station into the Yerevan morning sunshine. Taxi drivers in battered Ladas and newer imported German cars compete to take advantage of our unfamiliarity with the local exchange rate; the July Caucasian sun is already beating.

The rich history of Armenia makes itself felt here. The architecture of the train station, an imposing building erected in the mid-1950s, takes its cues at once from the socialist realism en vogue at the time, neoclassical Saint Petersburg grandeur, and Armenian traditional architecture. Like every important building in Yerevan, it is clad in the beautiful pink tufa stone, native to Armenia, which gives the city its soft pastel hue.

The pink tufa stone of Yerevan. Image: Ido Vock.

In the square in front of the station stands a handsome statue of David of Sassun, built to impress upon visitors the resilience of the Armenian national character. In An Armenian Sketchbook, Vasily Grossman wrote that the monument is “huge, full of movement and strength,” an impression which reflected the view he came to form of the Armenian nation. He saw them as proud and hardy people, who had suffered innumerable injustices – reading his book, it is difficult to imagine that Grossman did not consider Soviet subjugation one – yet retained enough sensitivity to generally not fall prey to the crude nationalism he so despised.

The train station is a microcosm of post-Soviet Yerevan. Whilst the Armenian heritage of its rosy tufa is undeniable, it is clearly a Soviet and Russian edifice too. And unlike the vast majority of buildings in Yerevan, the station hasn’t been scrubbed of its most overt Soviet influences. A five-pointed star still looks down on the Kond, old Yerevan, from the tip of a huge spire, flanked by twin signs in Armenian and Cyrillic scripts.

Yerevan, to a greater extent than most other cities anywhere in the world, exists with the burden of history on its shoulders. Reminders of the Armenian people’s lengthy history of hardship and dispossession, from the 1915 genocide to the republic’s uneasy transition from communism to shaky democracy, permeate the urban environment.

Soviet era apartment blocks. Image: Ido Vock.

Nothing makes this more obvious than the towering silhouette of Mount Ararat, which frames Yerevan, a low-rise city. The mythical birthplace of the Armenian people, Ararat looms over Armenia, alluring and inaccessible in equal measure, like a precious vase locked inside a museum glass case. Voskeritchian describes it as “opaque and impenetrable, removed from my reach, yet visible”. The fabled mountain lies just across the border with Turkey, now closed, in one of the twelve provinces of Western Armenia ceded to Turkey by Lenin with the 1921 Treaty of Kars.

Mount Ararat’s snowy peak taunts Yerevantsis, forced to gaze upon this ubiquitous symbol of Armenian nationhood, but unable to easily visit it. Yerevan without Ararat is more than Paris without the Eiffel Tower: in its spirituality and centrality to the Armenian national consciousness, a closer parallel is perhaps Jerusalem without the Western Wall.

Indeed, the city found its modern form around Ararat. Under the Soviet Union, Yerevan was transformed from a provincial town of perhaps 30,000 into a capital city over a million inhabitants, largely according to plans drawn up by the Russian-trained architect Aleksander Tamanian. His 1924 masterplan formed modern Yerevan, orienting the city as a huge “semicircular amphitheatre” which opened up towards Ararat, as the academic Diana Ter-Ghazaryan puts it. In his Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino dreamt up Perinthia, a city orientated precisely in accordance with the position of the stars. Yerevan is a real-life Perinthia, aligned not with the heavens but with the earth.

We amble along the amphitheatre, past the expensive cafés lining central Yerevan’s boulevards, before arriving at the foot of the Cascade, a monumental edifice of pale amber tufa. It stretches nearly 120 metres up a hill almost directly facing Ararat. The Cascade was built in the 1970s, although it was included in Tamanian’s original plans as a means to link the centre of the city with the northern Monument district, situated on much higher ground.

On the day we visit, the Cascade is deserted, but kept spotlessly clean and well-maintained by a silent army of gardeners and cleaners. The greenery lining the hundreds of steps steadfastly refuses to wilt, even under the crippling 40°C heat. The detailing of the stark socialist architecture is sublime. During the evening’s last hour of sunshine, lengthening shadows soften out the structure’s harsh angularity, the rosy hue of the Armenian stone heightened under the sun’s golden glow. As Grossman wrote in his magnum opus, Life and Fate, “the light of evening can reveal the essence of a moment”.

A sweaty walk away from the top of the Cascade, on a hill overlooking the city, stands the statue of Mother Armenia, the Armenian nation personified. The effigy she replaced was that of Stalin, nearly 60 metres tall, and it shows. Statues of this scale are not built to commemorate but to intimidate. Grossman described the likeness of Stalin as embodying “a power so vast that it can belong only to God”. It was built to tower not only over Armenia but over the rest of the Soviet Union too, its domineering gaze conveying the unmistakeable message that “Stalin and the state are one and the same.”

Today, the statue of Mother Armenia no longer watches over the Kazakh steppe and Black Sea, but its scale and steely looks awe all the same. The dissolution of the Soviet Union was messy in Armenia, which remains locked in conflict with its neighbour Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, under de facto Armenian control.

Soldiers hold a flag during the Constitution Day march. Image: Ido Vock.

At an Armenian Constitution Day march, the region’s flags, a pixelated enhancement of Armenia’s, are everywhere. The procession is headed by ordinary people on their own bikes, and has an endearingly amateurish feel. At one point, irritated by the rally’s delayed start, the brass band put their instruments down in the middle of the road and pause for a smoke.

The following day, we make our way to the Cathedral of Saint Gregory. The cathedral, erected in 2001, is perhaps the best embodiment of Yerevan’s fraught post-Soviet urban environment. It sits in a neighbourhood almost exclusively made up of identikit Soviet apartment blocks, which originally may have been a pale pink imitation of tufa but are now monochrome, caked in grimy Yerevan soot. The Yerevan TV tower peeks out from behind the blocks, giving the area its slightly unnerving 80s SSR feel. As we wander, a passer-by notices our pale English complexions, makes an erroneous assumption, and shouts, “Russians! Nice!” at us.


Yet the feel of the cathedral itself could not be further from that of the area in which it is located. It is a stark, unadorned building, quasi-Brutalist in the unpretentious honesty of its materials: entirely tufa, of course. It is unassuming but strikingly beautiful, and not only in comparison to its surroundings. The cathedral manages a deft balancing act, nodding both to Armenia’s past, its domes and swooping arches recalling the hundreds of small monasteries which dot the country; and to the future, with its scale and modernist looks. The very presence of a place of worship among so many ashen Soviet fossils is a statement, a break with the state atheist past, in the country Armenians are so proud to remind foreigners was the first in the world to adopt Christianity as its state religion.

Armenians are not a subdued people, who passively wait for their urban environment to evolve as élites erect cathedrals and tear down statues at their leisure. Yerevan has a rich history as an unusually active seat of political insubordination. In 1965, it saw the first large-scale anti-regime demonstrations in the Soviet Union, demanding the construction of a memorial to the Armenian Genocide on its fiftieth anniversary. (The Communist Party, initially reluctant to indulge gestures which might encourage nationalist sentiment in individual Soviet republics, conceded the construction of the excruciating Tsitsernakaberd, erected two years after the protests.)

It is in the fabric of the capital city that an official narrative is most readily conveyed. The city’s architectural styles, the symbolism in its statues, the name of its squares and streets… With these, governments – and peoples – choose alternately what to glorify and what to forget. Modern Yerevan is a mirror of Armenian history after the genocide. More than a simple administrative centre, Yerevan had to “become the embodiment of the rebirth of a nation, which was on the brink of disappearance,” in the words of the architect Karen Balyan. Yerevan would be “a city that would save the nation”.

In a moving passage of An Armenian Sketchbook, Grossman describes attending a wedding in a small village, far outside Yerevan. The groom’s mother embraces Hrachia Kochar, whose clunky novel Grossman has travelled to Armenia to translate – despite not speaking Armenian – before the two collectively break down in tears. As merry flutes and drums sound to celebrate the wedding, they weep for the loss and suffering of the Armenian people, for the lost twelve provinces, “because they couldn’t not weep for relatives of theirs who had perished during the massacres of 1915”.

And yet, as they weep, the drummer plays on, a smile on his face. “In spite of everything, life would go on, the life of a nation making its way through a land of stone.”

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.