On September 21st, Armenia celebrated its 20th anniversary of independence from the Soviet Union. There were concerts, dance performances, and a general party atmosphere all over the center of Yerevan. In the evening, Republic Square was transformed into one large concert- and show venue, where a full orchestra played while dancers danced, singers sang, and a visual history of Armenia was projected onto the History Museum of Armenia as well as the two government buildings flanking it (the ministries of Foreign Affairs and Finance). I’ve never seen anything like the light show played on the buildings; these photos don’t do it justice. It was really remarkable.
I had spent the evening with a couple of friends, talking, eating fruit and treats, drinking cognac and rose liqueur, and I decided I needed to witness the events in Republic Square. A 20th anniversary only comes around once—and I figured that such a milestone would be perceived a little differently than, say, our 235th anniversary of independence. I started my investigations into the holiday by talking with friends and colleagues, asking what they thought of the anniversary—both in general, and specifically, of the celebrations the government was planning. The celebrations had clearly been in the works for a long time, including not just that day’s activities, but also an entire printed campaign with signs proclaiming “Hayastany Du Es!”, or, you are Armenia!, as well as a music video that played frequently all summer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6dULlTcVjNk .
The responses from my friends were (predictably) mixed. Life under the Soviet regime was far from easy; one friend described how her family couldn’t keep certain books in their apartment for fear of reprisal, and how extensive red tape restricted their travels. But in the period after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which was also shortly after a devastating earthquake hit northern Armenia in 1988, life was pretty hardscrabble. Multiple people told me how everything was in short supply: fuel, food, electricity, water. Transport even in Yerevan dwindled to nothing. Neighbors helped each other, shared apartments in the winter to conserve heat and electricity, huddled around a common television to watch the news.
In many ways, Armenia is considered a good example of a post-Soviet republic: there is corruption, the bureaucracy still lives on, but the economy is recovering, and perhaps it can be said that there is less corruption than in other countries. But my more pragmatic friends see not just how far Armenia has come since 1991 (and 1988), but also how far they want it to go, to become the country they envision. And so, this distance between reality and dream colored their impressions of the massive celebrations put on by the government on September 21st.
I can understand that—watching American politics, and the swollen egos and pockets of our politicians, it’s easy to understand disillusionment about government and the state of one’s country. But as even one of the pragmatic friends said to me, the happiness on the faces of the people in Republic Square that night was breathtaking. I went there, partly to see the spectacle (and I freely admit—it was quite the spectacle), but also just to be part of something—part of a massive crowd, with faces wide-eyed in wonder, turned toward the music and the lights, the celebration of independence.