Maculate National Identity: Becoming post-post-Soviet

Nathan Brand

Intern 2019 to CSN Lab from School of Languages, Cultures and Societies at the University of Leeds


You know, the Director of this Museum, she’s also the granddaughter of Saryan, explained my tour guide as I finished my visit to the Saryan House-Museum on a warm spring day.  I gave it no serious thought.  Nothing more than an interesting coincidence, I mused to myself, thinking it was perfectly plausible that the Director of the Museum might be related to Saryan himself. Especially given he was still alive when the museum opened in 1967.

Later that week, I visited the house-museum of Yeghishe Charents, a poet whose verse is taken as the alternative hymn of the Armenia.  We came to a section of the museum dedicated to Charents’ family.  ‘You know,’ my guide began.  I cut him off.  I recalled the moment when I’d left the Saryan museum.  ‘Is your director by any chance related to Charents himself?’ I asked, more in hope than assurance. Gevorg, my guide, shook his head. My hunch had turned out to be incorrect. ‘No, she isn’t,’ he explained, ‘but our senior researcher is his granddaughter’.

Armenia’s capital – the city of a thousand churches – is a small world.  Over the next few weeks, my tours of its house-museums would be punctuated with the appearances of family members still working at the respective institutions.  Amongst others, I met the two women that had piqued my interest in family links - Gohar Charents-Djerrahian, senior researcher at the Charents museum – and Rouzan Saryan, the director of the Saryan house-museum.  I also observed how often the house-museum exhibitions showcased Armenian literary and artistic ‘families’; the circles to which the respective artist belonged.  The final part of each visit would take place in the studies, bedrooms, and, most importantly, reception rooms of the tun tangaran.  These were the places where the artists two families – genetic and artistic - would come together to share meals and anecdotes, mixing together their different social circles.

Family Lines, Family Circles

The most prominent scholarship on the links between museums and national identity emphasises the importance of particular objects in the construction of national identity (see Kaplan 1994).  Fiona McLean (1998: 244), for example, has argued that national identity is constructed by ‘producing meanings about the nation which we can identify, meanings which are contained in the stories told about it, memories which connect its present with its past, and images which are constructed of it’ (McLean 1998: 244). Museums can clearly play an important part in these processes.  Arguably, by producing these meanings throughpersonalstories, memories, and images, house-museums are even better placed to construct strong national identities.  In their unique position as both dwelling-place and educational tool, house-museums can add an extra layer to the stories, memories, images on show in their exhibitions.  However, what does it mean when family members are still involved in research, collection, and curation in the house-museum?  Does their direct link to the personal stories, memories, and images of the house-museum increase the institution’s ability to construct ‘meanings which we can identify’?  And how do they connect the present with the past – what kind of images do families construct in the mind’s eye?

When we speak about families, we often present them in terms of lineage.  Objects (heirlooms) are passed downfrom one generation to another.  First names are repeated, family names continued[1].  In English, we use terms like ‘ancestors’ and ‘descendants’ when speaking about family lineages.  The etymologies of these words also suggest a certain linear movement; the word ‘ancestor’ comes from the Latin roots ante (before) and cedere(to go), whilst ‘descendant’ is drawn from the French verb descendre, meaning to go down (the family tree).  But families are not only linear; we may also conceptualise them in terms of the so-called ‘nuclear family’.  This family is not as simple a structure as a line.  Rather, what the ‘nuclear family’ alludes to is the surrounding support mechanisms for the individual – not only within that nuclear unit, but beyond it.  In short, it suggests a family which can be otherwise conceptualised.  The family as a circle.

Refusing the strict corner-based ideologies of the square and the triangle, the Stoics in Ancient Greece included the family as one of a series of concentric circles which linked the individual to humanity through a series of different identity groups.  Here, the first circle is drawn around the self and the second around the family unit. These circles are encircled in turn by the extended family (including one’s ancestors and descendants), one’s neighbours or local community, the cohabitants of the town or city, and then by one’s country.  All of these circles, according to Hierocles, writing in the 1stand 2ndcentury, are surrounded by the largest circle of all – humankind. Forming the basis for a version of humanism which prioritised small social units, the idea of concentric circles was taken up most famously by those advocating similarly circle-based political ideas in the 1990s.

Martha Nussbaum, in Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism(1994)[2], advocated a cosmopolitanism based on the ideas of the stoics.  Pursuing what she calls ‘becoming a citizen of the world’, she builds on the work of Diogenes, Marcus Aurelius, and Hierocles to suggest that ‘Cosmopolitanism… offers only reason and the love of humanity, which may seem at times less colourful than other sources of belonging’[3].  Similarly, the metaphor of concentric circles has been instrumentalised in very different versions of international relations literature.  A similar structure, which included the metaphor of the family, was used in the Soviet Union’s policy of Korenizatsiya– with the Russian Socialist Federal Republic becoming the big brother in the so-called ‘socialist family of nations’.  Post-Cold War, concentric circles have metamorphosed into ‘spheres of interest’.  Often depicted as ‘natural’, these spheres represent a typically perverse metaphor for the three-dimensional maps and models which dominate the unipolar international system after the end of history.

What the metaphor of the concentric circle cannot grasp, however, is the diverging, competing, often messy process of national identity formation.  How does one take into account the different circles to which one belongs?  That is, not only the individual, familial, or national -ie. those that have the potential to work within Nussbaum’s concentric model of identity - but also those concerning gender, sexuality, race, class; those which intersect and challenge the boundaries of such a model?  In the Armenian case, how does its enormous diaspora – 10 million ethnic Armenians live in diaspora, compared with the Republic’s 3 million inhabitants – challenge the predominant notion of concentric circles?  Moreover, where different circles – genetic, artistic, scholarly – have come together to create hybridized identities, such as the family-experts like Gohar Charents-Djerrahian, Rouzan Saryan, and Avetik Isahakyan, how can we conceptualise the relationship of their workplaces (house-museums) to national identity?  What shape does national identity take in post-Soviet Armenia?

How to strike a chord within the system

Sometimes, one’s identity can become stuck within a certain circle.  Rouzan Saryan took over the Saryan museum in 2003.  ‘It was in a state of disrepair at that time,’ explains Rouzan, a serious and intellectually imposing figure from across the table in her office.  ‘There was a renovation just two years earlier, but they’d fixed nothing’.  Such were the struggles that faced house-museums in the immediate post-Soviet period.  Funding was a struggle, with budgets drastically reduced as a result of the Soviet Union’s collapse and the resultant economic crisis.  Yet, 16 years later, Rouzan Saryan remarks with visible pride that the Saryan Museum had been thoroughly reconstructed.  And the results are indeed remarkable.  The museum now boasts a lift allowing for disabled access, a fresh interior giving visitors respite from the afternoon sunshine, and a mural made according to Martiros Saryan’s original plans.

Her drive to improve the Museum is matched by her deep knowledge of her grandfather’s work.  She has evidently spent a long time poring over scholarly articles, engaging with other figures of the cultural establishment, and working with the rest of her team to provide Yerevan with its most impressive museum.  Putting to bed the suggestion that Saryan was an orientalist of the Russian style, she cites three different art historians from different periods, all testifying to Saryan’s authentic eastern style.  Yet she is also passionate and responsive when I ask her about her the family links which led to her becoming director of the museum, some 36 years after it opened.  Recounting how someone had dug out a photo of her, then a young girl, stood beside her grandfather with a pair of scissors, ready to hand them to him so that he could cut the ribbon, Rouzan Saryan is a picture of family pride.  Of her grandfather – artists, archivist, collector of national treasures – she says; ‘He kept moving forwards, in spite of everything.’

And this ‘everything’ has been added to in the immediate post-Soviet period. Encircled by the problems which faced post-Soviet Armenia in the 1990s – declining income, corruption, war (and resurgent nationalism) – Rouzan Saryan links these problems to those that her grandfather faced.  ‘He was never a communist, but he worked with them.  He knew that Armenia, this little country, could never be truly independent of everyone; we’ll always need someone.’  Glancing up at the picture of her grandfather on the wall, she builds her narrative as director as following in his footsteps; ‘It was a wise decision to work with them.  Already in 1927, he had expressed the wish to build a museum to house his works in Yerevan. In 1967, they managed it.’

Compromises clearly had to be made with the initial post-Soviet government, too.  The Saryan Museum flourished despite the democratic deficit visible in Armenia under Serzh Sargsyan and the Republican circle. From 3000 visitors per year in 2003, the Saryan Museum, pride of place on Martiros Saryan street, now receives some 30,000.  But the Velvet Revolution, which took place in April 2018, has brought new political circles to the table.  New opportunities.  Rouzan Saryan is planning the celebrations for the 140thanniversary of her grandfather’s birth.  ‘We’re planning an exhibition in Amsterdam, at the Van Gogh museum.  It’s a bit of a Napoleonic plan,’ she remarks, ‘but it’ll be great if it comes off!’

Circles Turning – the 2018 Velvet Revolution

I ring the number I was given for Avetik Isahakyan, the namesake grandson of the great Armenian poet.  Avetik answers, ‘I thought you weren’t going to be interested in meeting me today,’ he says, ‘I spoke with Rouzan, Rouzan Saryan, she said she met you yesterday. After you’d spoken with her, she didn’t think you want to speak with me.’  A little confused, I mumble a few words in response about still wanting to meet him. ‘I’m her husband, you see.’ Evidently the family circles which I had recognised from my visits to Saryan and Charents’ museums were closer than I had originally thought.

Our discussion is wide-ranging, from the Armenian diaspora in different parts of the UK to the general criminality which accompanied the dissolution of the Soviet Union and continued into the 1990s, but it keeps returning to the so-called Velvet Revolution of 2018.  ‘They organised it beautifully, you know’.  He shows me some pictures on his phone; it appears to be a genuine coming-together of different parts of Armenian society; a social event for the ages. ‘I didn’t even know these people before the revolution.  But we met in the street.  There were people dancing, making shashlik… It was so different from the events of 2008 [when 8 people were shot and killed by the army during protests]: 2008 was just a case of clear criminality.’

Although Rouzan Saryan’s house-museum story is one of striking a chord within whatever political or cultural circle may happen to predominate, her husband’s is much more about the proliferation, and movement, of different circles.  Our discussion moves to ‘Vernatun’ (upper room), the Armenian literary circle based in imperial Tiflis (today’s Tbilisi), of which his grandfather was a part.  The circle, named after the room in which they would meet once or twice per week, was no revolutionary group; but it did help build an air of social unity between the Tbilisi Armenian writers involved[4].  The group would run from 1902 until 1908 until Hovhannes Toumanian – the central figure of the circle - was imprisoned for anti-Tsarist activities.  Although they never thought of themselves as a revolutionary group, the Tsarist authorities clearly deemed them sufficiently anti-imperialist.

Another ‘revolutionary’ movement, the 2018 Revolution – commonly known as the Velvet Revolution[5]– was indeed an attempt at a complete turning of the circle.  However, despite the name differing from the other so-called ‘colour revolutions’ in the post-Soviet space, it bears all the hallmarks of a post-Soviet ‘revolution’. Instead of a violent overthrow of the rule of law, the colour revolution often does not even require changes to laws or constitutions.  Instead, one political circle simply replaces another.  Although these circles turn, then, they exist independently of one another. As Alexander Iskandaryan (2018: 466) has noted, ‘The leadership and the management stylechange, as does the system for rotatingpower, but the declared goal of the revolution is to ensure the implementation of laws adopted by the previous authorities, whose main fault is often considered to be having failed to ensure the rule of law,’ (emphasis mine).  Indeed, only recently new Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan warned of groups of young men, dressed all in black, with links to the old, corrupt system ‘preparing to solve political issues through violence’[6].  His solution, rather fitting for Iskandaryan’s analysis, was that ‘Those people dressed in black should be caught and changed into flower-patterned clothes, given bowties and sent back to the civilized way of life.’

No matter how hard Pashinyan’s statement makes it to take the Velvet Revolution as substance over style, Armenians appear optimistic about the future.  Despite the obvious difficulties facing Armenian society – poverty, unemployment, poor infrastructure and investment - Avetik Isahakyan also positive about the changes that Armenia has undergone.  He talks with passion about the talent of younger generations. These new political circles are different from the ones which came before, in that they all came of age in the post-Soviet era.  As a result, their backgrounds are fundamentally different. ‘Was it not shameful that Armenians all over the world were living well, apart from those in Armenia?’ Avetik asks, with a knowing smile on his face.  Although this generational gap does not ensure that the new political powers will encourage changes for the better, ‘it can’t be worse than the clear criminality of 2008. The past circles of power, that Karabakh clan, they were just crooks.’

Secants: cutting across concentric circles

I meet Gohar Charents-Djerrahian on the hottest day of June.  Although she never met her grandfather – he was put to death in 1937, only two years after her mother’s birth – she has returned to the country of her birth after more than twenty years away to work as a Senior Researcher in the Yeghishe Charents Memorial Museum.  ‘I married an Ethiopian-Armenian and for three years I lived in Ethiopia,’ she recounts.  From Addis Ababa, the couple moved to the Netherlands, where they raised their – now adult - children.  Eight years ago, Gohar returned to the capital of Armenia.  ‘To be honest, I came back for the museum,’ she admits.

As senior researcher, Gohar is currently busy preparing a book manuscript.  It is a collection of poems – or, rather, one poem – translated in no fewer than 35 languages, including Turkish, Bengali, and Japanese.  She is particularly proud of the translation into Japanese; ‘We have a translator, an Armenian girl, who speaks wonderful Japanese.  Some of the translations are done from English as source language, but this one is done directly from Armenian’.  The translated poem is something of an alternative hymn for Armenia and was put forward to the competition for a new anthem when the third republic was declared.  It is printed on the house-museum’s top floor in five of the book’s thirty-five languages.

But her new role at the museum has not allowed family ties to come unstuck.  On the day that I visited the museum, Gohar’s daughter and grandson were visiting from the Netherlands, and could be found walking (or toddling) around the building.  Nane Djerrahian, Gohar’s daughter, proudly informs me that she had done the translation of the Charents poem into Dutch.

Whilst the presence of family members at house-museums could potentially point to a continued linear vision of national identity, Gohar’s family history shows the possibility of a more nuanced vision.  Her life, which has taken her to live in the Armenian diaspora in two different continents, is testament to the influence of the diaspora on contemporary Armenian identity.  Indeed, in Yerevan today, returning diasporic Armenians have a visible and active presence. Cutting across both lines and concentric circles, the often-hyphenized identities (Armenian-American; French-Armenian and so on) of diaspora Armenians suggest that Armenian national identity can defy borders [7].

Currently standing at around 10 million (Thandi 2017), the diaspora clearly plays an important role in the construction of Armenian identity.  Today’s Armenian diaspora includes around 2.3 million Armenians in the Russian Federation, 1.5 million in the United States, 500,000 in France, 450,000 in Georgia, and around 100,000 in Turkey and Australia, with others dotted (for the most part) around the northern hemisphere.  With pockets of Armenian diaspora communities residing all around the world, family circles are often more complex structures than the concentric circle model.  As Gohar Charents-Djerrahian’s family shows, the possibility of being part of an Armenian diaspora does not preclude an active interest in the construction of Armenian identity.  Her direct family links to Yeghishe Charents have provided her with a reason to move back to the old country.  But her family remains spread across Europe.  What these hyphenized identities showcase is not the encirclement of identity by other, broader relationships, but rather a maculate – like a leopard’s skin – national identity.

Maculate Identities

This maculate national identity chimes with the spatial disturbances of the internet age: low-cost airlines, radio, television, smartphones, and information on demand all contribute to the possibility of a family living beyond the borders of their homeland.  Yet, the possibility of Nane’s contribution to the book of poetry signals the ability to affect the boundaries of that identity, despite living beyond it.

But the border remains.  Ararat remains, as all of my guides in the house-museums noted, ‘on the territory of Turkey’.  With the post-Soviet generation assuming political power, the problems of post-Soviet Armenia remain: poverty is still prevalent outside of Yerevan, unemployment is massive, infrastructure remains poor and badly need updating from the Soviet period, investment trends are weak and/or limited to one sector (information technology), and business and politics are tying themselves in increasingly tight knots.  But the changed meta-geographical image of our world has meant that the maculate circles of Armenian identity are moving closer and closer together.

Despite the appearance of family members in a faraway land, the advent of video calls and the ability to send instantaneous information have both contributed to a change in the meta-geographical image of the world in our heads.  Mount Ararat, previously only imagined by diaspora Armenians, can now be seen by all, if only through a screen.



[1] The third family member connected to a tun tangaran that I met was Avetik Isahakyan, the grandson of poet Avetik Isahakyan.


[3] One can see from Nussbaum’s framing of cosmopolitanism vis-à-vis ‘more colourful… other sources of belonging’ the foundation for the political settlement which we see today, where liberal democracy is placed as one pole of a binary option between itself and resurgent nationalism.  Perhaps what Nussbaum’s cosmopolitanism did not recognise at the time was that ‘reason’ and ‘love’ could work in favour of the politics of isolation and containment (what is framed by the right as the politics of ‘somewhere’) as well.

[4] In two letters from Isahakyan and Toumanian respectively, cited in (the grandson) Avetik Isahakyan’s book about the circle, the two writers describe the circle as ‘without the circle, most of all, the most grey and dreary weekdays would await us’ (Isahakyan in Ishakyan 2018: 7) and ‘without the circle, there is of course no life’ (Toumanian in Isahakyan 2018: 7).

[5] Alexander Iskandaryan (2018: 466) has suggested that the name of the revolution, previously used for the transition away from communism in Czechoslovakia, was potentially carefully selected ‘to avoid references to flowers or colours so as to preclude uncomfortable analogies with the revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine’.


[7] It can also construct borders. As evidenced by Vahe Sahakyan in a piece for EVN report, even the tiny geography of Armenia was able to host two global events on the diaspora entirely independently from one another.