By Dr. Harutyun Marutyan, Director of Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute Foundation, Republic of Armenia
Memorials are one of the most common forms of memorialization and may be understood as symbolic reparations for the victims and survivors of mass violence. They acknowledge the suffering and grief of the victims and pay tribute to the dead. At the same time, the memorials epitomise not only history but also teach contemporary lessons of local and global character. The Armenian Genocide Memorial as a symbol of grief and revival of the Armenian nation serves all these aims.
This article aims to address some points of history of the construction of the Armenian Genocide Memorial, its local and global implications, the issue of absence of names in the Memorial, as well as the feelings of patriotism and statehood embedded in the Armenian Genocide Memorial.
Globalization and, particularly, cultural globalization is creating a borderless world. As a result, many phenomena that had narrow, national implications are being reevaluated and reinterpreted to stress their universal and democratic features and be presented to the world within the context of more understandable concepts. Each generation must acquire the knowledge and skills needed to build the private and public dispositions necessary to support democratic values and understand the importance of respect for human rights. They should be used to combat discrimination, hate speech and other violations, being built through texts, studies and the power of example, consciously constructing and reproducing democracy, one generation after another. Traumatic past experiences, memorials and museums accumulating the people’s memory thus gain new meanings and roles in civic education in the age of globalization.
Memorialization – understood as the practice of remembrance by commemorations, writing history textbooks and establishing memorials. Memorials as one form of memorialization, may be understood as symbolic reparations for the victims and survivors of mass violence, since they acknowledge their suffering and grief and pay respect to the dead. Therefore, after mass violence, memorials can be understood as the physical loci of recognition and the imperative of not forgetting the atrocities of the past. Public memorials such as historic sites, monuments and museums, certain public art or conceptual art projects and commemorative events have become critical elements in the current struggles for human rights and democracy. Communities, in vastly different contexts, see public memorialization as central to justice, reconciliation, truth-telling, reparation and embracing the past.
Recognizing the power and potential of memorialization, NGOs, victims’ groups, and truth commissions in various countries have advocated that memorialization be a key component of reform and transitional justice. Such initiatives, for the victims of violence, are the second most important form of state reparation after financial compensation. Memorials exist to tell us something about the past while seeking to affect the future. They and museums are embedded in local sites and function as nodes around which the fabric of remembrance unfolds in multifaceted and organic ways. Some are sites where atrocities occurred, while others represent more abstract and conceptual places and can be constructed and placed anywhere. Memorials are often seen as being established for the forming of collective memory, meaning and identity, with those of a difficult past being symbolically enacted and recounted at their sites. This symbolism is not, however, limited to the geographical site of the memorial site itself. Through various processes and agents, these local memories and memorial sites are transformed into transnational spaces. Even though memorials have always been present, they are becoming globalized as memories are released and shared. A perfect example of this is the Armenian Genocide memorial.
The graves of Armenian freedom fighters killed during
the Armenian-Azerbaijani border clashes (1990-1992)
Aspects of the History of the Construction of the Armenian Genocide Memorial
It seems that memorials are only meant to embody the memory which they are built to preserve and pass on, but actually solve immense problems. Civic education of future generations is carried out through them, conveying basic values, some of which will be addressed below, using the Armenian Genocide Memorial and Museum as an example. It should be noted that the story of the construction of the Memorial itself is an example of a struggle against violations of human/national rights and the result of civil disobedience and courageous civic behavior. What is meant by this statement? The point is that from the mid-1920s until the mid-1950s the Armenian population of Soviet Armenia was deprived of the right “to grieve.” I do not know which article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights embodies the right to “remember,” but being deprived of it was a reality for Soviet Armenian citizens. This thirty-year period is known in history as the “Stalinist era.” During that time, talking about Armeno-Turkish relations, massacres of Armenians, the fate of the Armenians in Western Armenia, even hints of the need for the return of the Armenian occupied lands by Turkey were qualified as manifestations of nationalism and anti-Soviet sentiment and were punished by execution, imprisonment or exile to Siberia.
It was only during the “Khrushchev thaw” (from the mid-1950s to 1964) that historians, writers, and artists were allowed to reflect on the massacres of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, the experiences of individual Genocide survivors and their later activities etc. Armenian writers’ works, who were victims of Stalinist repression; Armenian classic writers, who were labeled as “nationalists” and the “enemy,” were gradually returned to the people and were seized upon, as were editions of books by Western Armenian writers that were published in tens of thousands of copies. Perhaps it was due to inner political changes as well as a certain liberal approach toward the issue of the Genocide, brought about by literature and art, that fomented, on the 50th anniversary of the Genocide, the mass demonstrations that occurred in Yerevan in April 1965. This was an unusual phenomenon in the Soviet state of those times, with tens of thousands of people taking to the streets to commemorate the memory of the innocent victims of the Genocide and to demand reparations.
The Soviet Armenian leadership (having received the Kremlin’s permission in advance) marked the anniversary of the Genocide in a solemn session in the Opera House. Thanks to the people’s request and the patriotic stance of the Armenian Soviet leadership, the Armenian Genocide Memorial was built in 1965-1967. It is noteworthy that during the construction of the memorial there had always been a concern that the Moscow/Kremlin leadership of the Soviet Union may suddenly change its mind and stop construction. The memorial was therefore built quickly, without any reports being published in the press.
Roads leading to the memorial pass through a large park. The complex itself occupies an area about half a hectare and consists of three main structures: a one hundred metre long memorial wall with the names of the Armenian settlements in the Ottoman Empire where major massacres took place inscribed on it, the open air memorial hall and the obelisk symbolizing “Resurrecting Armenia.” The circular open-air hall, 30 m in diameter, built of 12 huge basalt pylons inclined towards the eternal flame in the centre, symbolize the perpetual memory of the Genocide victims. The 40 m high obelisk is the stone embodiment of the sprouting of two leaves that ascend with each other and symbolize the revival of the Armenian people.
By becoming acquainted with the roots of the Armenian Genocide Memorial Complex and also with the history of the construction of the monument itself, one may learn the essence of totalitarian/authoritarian systems and the need to struggle for fundamental human rights and freedoms, as well as the potential negative effects of hate speech. This information will educate a conscious citizen, whose role in building of a healthy society is of the greatest importance.
The Local and The Global in the Genocide Memorial
The Issue of Presence or Absence of Names
The Memorial and the War Factor
The Issue of Patriotism and Statehood
Please click on The Local and Global in the Armenian Genocide Memorial to view the entire essay in PDF form
1 Julia Viebach, “Alétheia and the Making of the World: Inner and Outer Dimensions of Memorials in Rwanda,” in Memorials in Time of Transition, eds. Susanne Buckley-Zistel & Stefanie Shafer (Cambridge-Antwerp-Portland: Intersentia Publishing Ltd., 2014), 69.
2 Sebastian Brett, Louis Bickford, Liz Ševčenko, Marcela Rios, Memorialization and Democracy: State Policy and Civic Action, https://www.ictj.org/sites/default/files/ICTJ-Global-Memorialization-Democracy-2007-English_0.pdf, accessed 12.02.2020.
3 Ernesto Kiza, Corene Rathgeber, and Holger-C. Rohne, Victims of War: An Empirical Study on War-Victimization and Victims’ Attitudes toward Addressing Atrocities (Hamburg: Hamburg Institute for Social Research, 2006).
5 Annika Björkdahl, Stefanie Kappler, “The Creation of Transnational Memory Spaces: Professionalization and Commercialization,” International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society 32 (2019): 383-401.
6 Vardges Petrosyan, “On the different sides of the ‘psychological barbed-wire’” in Մեր ժողովուրդն իմն է՝ ինչպես իմ վիշտը [Our people are mine – as is my grief] in Collection of Articles, ed. Levon Ananyan (Yerevan, Hayastan, 2003), 132.