Last night, Linda and I had the pleasure and privilege of touring Victory Park in Yerevan with an informed and hospitable local tour guide, Dr. Gevorg Ter-Gabrielyan, Chief Executive Officer of the Eurasia Partnership Foundation (EPF). Dr. Ter-Gabrielyan, who cares deeply about Yerevan and the Armenian people, is also a creative writer, storyteller, humorist, local historian, and practical philosopher.
EPF, an important NGO working in the region, specializes in social justice issues, economic development, and peace. EPF has provided expert logistical and institutional support for our trip--an endeavor with many moving parts--and Gevorg sets a collegial tone of informal, flexible professionalism for the organization. After a fascinating tour of Victory Park, framed with a delightfully digressive conversation about history, the Armenian diaspora, the aesthetics and ethics of front yards and property rights, the environment, politics (local and global), civic engagement, war, art, literature, amusement parks, family life, and cultural memory, we enjoyed Armenian barbeque and a touch of local wine under a rustic gazebo, accompanied by a yellow stray cat who, Gevorg noted, lives in a veritable paradise, in such close proximity to restaurants, kindly cooks, verdant hiding places, and the absence of the many stray dogs one finds in the heart of the city.
Haghtanak Zbosaygi (Victory Park), which was built to commemorate Soviet Armenia's participation in the Second World War, sits on a high ridge overlooking the city, at the top of the Cascade (a gigantic staircase that links the downtown Ketron area with the Monument neighborhood). The Cascade also features an interior escalator that sweeps you up to the summit (or almost to the summit), through an ascending art gallery with neoclassical, fountained piazzas, enclosed lookouts with panoramic city views. Built in the post-Soviet era, this stairway to heaven is, sadly, incomplete, a criminal casualty of local politics, economics, and personal antipathies. Where a final, soaring pedestrian bridge should be, there is, instead, a frozen construction project, a devastating, post-apocalyptic canyon--a gaping, hellish pit between the end of the escalator and the summit, where sits an imposing platform-and-monument cantilevered into space, as though an aircraft carrier came to rest on Victory Mountain in some strange secular retelling of Noah and the Ark.
The views from this prospect, and from the periphery of Victory Park, are spectacular. The sprawling development of the city, from Soviet times to the present, unfolds in bands of muted color, and lines of second-growth trees have emerged to soften what has become, in parts of the city, a concrete cataclysm. The hurried, late-twentieth-century development of Yerevan came with a steep price: dense forests were clearcut and replaced with purely functional (sometimes dysfunctional) buildings that have aged far too quickly, perhaps because of poor construction standards and neglect. And yet, from here, it all seems to make sense. Layered beauty bristles with life and creative energy. At a distance, the picturesque veils the grotesque.
Victory Park, with its winding pathways and capacious promenades, reflects Soviet formality and grandiosity, it is true, but there are instances when even dogmatism can produce good art. In one of my favorite sculptures, an open hand and a clutch of raised fists proclaim worker solidarity--people power on a superhuman scale and the sanctity of human labor. Massive--and for the masses--the lines of the sculpture are organic and fluid, creating movement, strength, and, somehow, harmonious musicality. "Workers of the world, unite!"
In a sense, the place reflects the ambiguity--one might say liminality--of Yerevan, a city that seems caught between epochs and empires, historicity and modernity. Nestled at the summit, partially hidden by second-generation trees, scrub, and tall grasses, is a vintage amusement park, the ancient rides a blend of 1950s Disney and Steam Punk postmodernity. The gears, levers, couplings, nuts, and bolts of the ancient rides--terrifying to behold--still lift delighted, screaming teenagers to the stars and back again. The cartoon characters and buzzing neon still entertain the toddlers and tykes and evoke fond childhood memories in the watchful grownups. The vendors and restaurants are in full swing, and young couples row and pedal on the shallow man-made pond, encircled by midcentury masonry, also showing its age.
The massive Mother Armenia statue, symbolizing peace through (military) strength, scrapes the sky and radiates a powerful aura, which seems out of keeping with a nation of shopkeepers, merchants, poets, philosophers, artists, intellectuals, teachers, farmers, taxi drivers, and IT entrepreneurs. Mother Armenia, a masterpiece of the sculptor Sergey Merkurov (1881-1952), replaced an even larger monument to Joseph Stalin.
At the feet of Mother Armenia are the artifacts of war--tanks and missiles—that have become awkward anachronisms or, more to the point, misfit toys.
The eternal flame of remembrance . . .
Around the edges, more ruins . . .
There was joy here once . . .
Structured recreation . . .
Suspended in midair, the frayed and faded triumph of a bygone century . . .