"Nationalization of memory" about World War II in Armenia (1991-2021)

Margarit Gevorgyan

The memory of World War II / Great Patriotic War is an important part of the Armenian identity, but it is not a founding myth, as in Russia and Belarus. Such an event is the Armenian genocide of 1915[1] and its influence extends to the memory of the Second World / Great Patriotic War. Even though during the war there were no military operations on the territory of Armenia, a lot was done in the republic for the front line. About 600 thousand Armenians participated in World War II – 300 thousand from the USSR (200 thousand from the Armenian SSR, 100 thousand from other Soviet republics) and 300 thousand from the Armenian diaspora – the USA, Great Britain, France, etc. In Armenia, both the terms “Second World War” and “the Great Patriotic War” are used equally. Thus, S. Sargsyan (former President of Armenia) noted that “World War II is indeed a Patriotic War for us[2].”

[1] The Armenian Genocide is the massacre of Armenians in the territory of the Ottoman Empire. During this event, up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed (up-to-date estimates of the number of victims vary). The genocide is not officially recognized by Turkey nowadays.

[2] Message from President S. Sargsyan // Republic of Armenia. May 9, 2011, 2016, 2017 (in Armenian).

After the collapse of the USSR, no laws on decommunization or lustration were adopted in Armenia as in some former republics of the Soviet Union. At the same time, in February 1991 a law on “Civil-Political Organizations” was passed against the Communist Party. In the 1990s in Armenia some monuments to communist leaders were removed; the squares, cities and villages were renamed. However, there are many “reminders” of the Soviet past left in the country. For example, the monuments dedicated to the Armenian communist leaders who participated in the war remained untouched. Such a memory of the Soviet past Mikayel Zolyan calls “compromise” because of its constructive ambiguity[3]. This concept can be narrowed down to the memory of the Second World / Great Patriotic War. Thus, the memory of the Soviet past and the war can be divided into “our Armenian” and “the other all-Soviet”, which is not vivid as clearly as the first one.

[3] By “compromise memory” the researcher understands the confrontation between “Soviet” and “anti-Soviet or non-Soviet”. S. Huseynova, M. Zolyan, S. Rumyantsev. Conflicts and DeSovietization of the South Caucasus Political Regimes and Memorial Landscapes / Activism and peace in the South Caucasus. — Tbilisi, 2019. — P. 4-9.

Over the past 30 years, one can trace the trend towards the “nationalization of memory” of the war[4]. An example of the “nationalization of memory” is the connection between the Armenian genocide and the war. For example Armenian history textbooks emphasize the possibility of Turkish aggression during the war. “If Germany won, what would happen to Soviet Armenia? We should not forget that Turkey, Armenia’s old enemy, was an ally of Germany, waiting for an opportunity to attack. The danger of Turkey’s invasion of Transcaucasia and Armenia called into question the existence of Armenia and Armenians“[5] \ “… there would be a new genocide“[6]. “In this regard, the struggle of Soviet Armenia against fascist aggression was connected with the containment of Turkish aggression“[7]. This connection was developed in the speeches of the top officials of the country after 2015, the centenary of the genocide. Thus, President Serzh Sargsyan, at a concert dedicated to the victory in the Great Patriotic War and the Battle of Shushi, noted: “Two decades after the Armenian genocide, the Armenians of the Soviet Union fielded about half a million soldiers and officers against the enemy[8].” This narrative was continued by President Armen Sarkissian and Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan in their speeches: “… the Armenian people still bleeding from the genocide[9]” paid a heavy price in the fight against fascism. In official speeches the emphasis was made on the number of Armenian victims, since “it was an incredibly large number, comparable only to the human losses suffered by the great countries[10].”

[4] The term is borrowed from the work of T. Zhurzhenko – “the nationalization of memory is associated with the reinterpretation of the Soviet narrative about the Great Patriotic War, the reassessment of its main events, actors and main results in the process of constructing new national identities and national “cultures of memory” by the post-Soviet elites”. The nationalization of memory does not always involve the rejection of Soviet symbols, but also integration of new symbols into the dominant historical narrative. Журженко Т. «Общая победа»? «Чужая война»? Национализация памяти о Второй мировой войне в украинско-российском приграничье // Пугачева М.Г., Жарков В.П. (ред.) Пути России: Историзация социального опыта. – 2013. – С. 94.

[5] Фарсяданян А. Участие армянского народа во Второй мировой войне // Դասախոսությունների համառոտագիր, 2008. С. 30. (in Armenian).

[6, 7] История Армении с древнейших времен до наших дней / М. Катвалян, П. Ованнисян, Л. Мкртчян и др. Е.: 2000. С. 423. (in Armenian).

[8] Speech, given by the President of the Republic of Armenia Serzh Sargsyan during the concert dedicated to the May victories, URL

[9] Message of President Armen Sarkissian on the occasion of the Victory and Peace Day, URL

[10] Message from the Prime Minister of the Republic of Armenia Nikol Pashinyan on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Victory, the Day of the Liberation of Shushа, and the formation of the Artsakh Defense Army, URL

Moreover, the language of genocide can be traced in the speeches of the leaders of the country, when the word “victim” (զոհ -zoh) is replaced by the word “martyr” (նահատակ – nahatak) – “I bow to the memory of our holy martyrs and heroes[11],” said in 2019 The Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. Researcher G. Shagoyan writes that “in the Armenian public discourse, the topic of genocide has become a language for describing any collective trauma, a kind of metanarrative[12].” It is not surprising that the genocide affects the memory of the Second World War. 

[11] Congratulatory message of the Prime Minister of the Republic of Armenia Nikol Pashinyan on the occasion of the Victory and Peace Day, URL

[12] Шагоян г. Ставить ли памятник Анастасу Микояну? Опыт «социальной люстрации» в Армении. Научно-информационный и просветительский центр «Мемориал». М.: 2014. С. 138.; Шагоян Г. А. Культурная vs коллективная травма: мемориализация советских репрессий в постсоветской Армении по модели памяти о геноциде //Сибирские исторические исследования. – 2021. – №. 2. – С. 73-98.

Another example of the “nationalization of memory” is the connection of the Second World War / Great Patriotic War with the Karabakh wars. This aids to the fact that since 1992 May 9th in Armenia has been the Day of Victory and Peace – a triune holiday (Եռատոն – Eraton): not only Victory Day in the Great Patriotic War is celebrated, but also the day of the capture of Shushi[13] in 1992 and the day of the creation of the Nagorno-Karabakh army. In this regard, the speeches of the President and the Prime Minister consist of two parts: the first part of the speech is dedicated to the Second World / Great Patriotic War, and the second part of the speeches is about the capture of Shushi and the memory of the war in Artsakh. The connecting link between these parts is the idea of continuity of generations: “… the heirs of these heroes [heroes of the Great Patriotic War] decades later rose to fight in the name of freedom and liberated Shushi, creating our newest victories[14],” President A. Sargsyan noted in 2018. Over the past 30 years, in the speeches of the leaders of the country, the memory of the Second World / Great Patriotic War has acted as a mobilizing force. It is especially important during the years of escalation of the conflict with Azerbaijan in the region.

[13] The capture of the city of Shushi (Shusha in Azerbaijani) had not only strategic but also symbolic significance during the war in Karabakh from 1992-1994. During the 2020 war in Artsakh (the Armenian name for Karabakh), the city of Shushi was ceded to Azerbaijan.

[14] Message of President Armen Sarkissian on the occasion of the Victory and Peace Day in 2018, URL

Since the 1990s, within the territory of monuments dedicated to the Second World / Great Patriotic War, monuments devoted to the Karabakh wars appeared. Thanks to this “neighborhood[15],” the monuments are endowed with new “commemorative features” and “come to life” every May 9th[16]. G. Atanesyan notes that the monuments about the Spitak earthquake[17] and the Armenian genocide[18] fit into the symbolic landscape of the monuments dedicated to the participants of the Great Patriotic War. Here we can also talk about the main monument dedicated to the participants of the Second World / Great Patriotic War – “the Mother Armenia” and the monument to the Unknown Soldier, which are the most visited in Armenia after the monument to the victims of the Armenian genocide[19]. These monuments acquire such significance due to the fact that there are attractions on the territory of the Victory Park, which at times increase the number of visits to the park by the population.

[15] М. Габович: Советские военные памятники: биографические заметки // Что делать? №37/2014.

[16] G. Atanesyan noted: “Thanks to the construction of such pantheons, the monuments of the Patriotic War are not only put in order but again begin to play an important role during memorial ceremonies. There were cases when people who visited the monuments of the victims of the Artsakh war, noticing the monuments of the Patriotic War in the same territory, also laid flowers at these monuments”. Атанесян Г. Судьба памятников Великой Отечественной войны в постсоветской Армении //Человек и культура. – 2018. – №. 3. С. 5-6.

[17] A powerful earthquake in Armenia in 1988, which took the lives of 25 thousand people.

[18] Атанесян Г. Судьба памятников Великой Отечественной войны в постсоветской Армении //Человек и культура. – 2018. – №. 3. С. 5-6.

[19] Marutyan H. et al. Как помнят Великую Отечественную в Армении: некоторые наблюдения //PLURAL. History. Culture. Society. Journal of History and Geography Department,„Ion Creangă” State Pedagogical University. – 2016. – Т. 4. – №. 2. – С. 102

The “connection” between the two wars can also be traced in “the Mother Armenia” Museum located on the pedestal of the Mother Armenia statue. Museum “Soviet Armenia in the Great Patriotic War 1941-1945” was opened in 1970 in honor of the 25th anniversary of victory in the Great Patriotic War. In 1995, the museum was transferred to the Ministry of Defense and was renamed “the Mother Armenia” Museum. At the same time, the information about the war in Karabakh and the history of the First Republic of Armenia[20] was included in the main exposition. It is worth noting that the main exposition of the museum dedicated to the Second World / Great Patriotic War has not changed much since Soviet times. The main focus of the museum exposition is devoted to the national divisions in the Red Army[21], Armenian generals and marshals – I.Kh. Baghramyan, I.S. Isakov, A.Kh. Babajanyan, S.A. Khudyakov and other participants who distinguished themselves during the war. In addition, the emphasis in the museum is made on the contribution of Armenians to the Resistance Movement. The role of the Armenian diaspora in achieving victory is very important in modern Armenia. It can also be noticed in textbooks where a paragraph is devoted to this topic.

[20] An independent state that existed from May 28, 1918 to December 2, 1920.

[21] Much attention is being paid to the 89th Division, which is the only national division to have reached Berlin.

After the collapse of the USSR previously absent or poorly covered themes appeared in the narrative about the war. For example, in textbooks published since the 1990s The Armenian Apostolic Church is signified as an important actor during the war. Thus, the role of the church in raising money for the creation of tank columns “David of Sassoun” and “Hovhannes Baghramyan” on the territory of the USSR is noted. Attention is paid to the figure of Catholicos of All Armenians Gevorg Chorekchyan in improving the position of the church in wartime[22].

[22] История Армении для 12 классов для гуманитарных классов / А. Мелконян, Э. Геворгян, К. Хачатрян и др. Е.: 2011. С. 113-117. (in Armenian).

In conclusion, one can note that the memory of the Second World / Great Patriotic War is alive in modern Armenia. It is facilitated by the fact that a large number of Armenians took part in the war; during the post-war period, there was cultural and economic prosperity in the Armenian SSR.  For people this war is Patriotic[23]. There are gaps in the narrative about the war and “uncomfortable heroes” in the form of Garegin Nzhdeh[24], who collaborated with Nazi Germany. Despite this, in the collective memory of Armenians Nzhdeh is not associated with collaborationism. He is remembered in connection with the defense of Armenian territories and the First Republic of Armenia. However, for the Russian authorities Nzhdeh is considered an accomplice of the Nazi regime. So, after the installation of the statue in Yerevan the Russian Foreign Ministry criticized the “heroization of Nazism”.  The Armenian authorities did not agree with such a characterization of the national hero, who is remembered and loved for his contribution to the Armenian national movement at the beginning of the 20th century[25].

[23] This can be inferred from a conversation with history teachers and employees of “the Mother Armenia” Museum, who noted that they prefer to use the Great Patriotic War instead of World War II.

[24] Garegin Nzhdeh (1886-1955) – Armenian political and military figure, the founder of Tseghakronism (Armenian nationalist ideology), fought against the Red Army for Zangezur (modern Syunik) in 1919.

[25] Watch: Maria Zakharova about the installation of a monument to Garegin Nzhdeh;  Sharmazanov – to Zakharova: Nzhdeh is a national hero, and speculation on this issue is unacceptable:

G.P. Grigoryan proposes to consider the memory of the Great Patriotic / World War II in Armenia as a “remember to forget” model, referring to the work of Aleida Assmann[26] and the memory of the genocide as a “remember to avoid forgetting” model. Since the second model assumes a more powerful and “aggressive” consolidation of society, the researcher comes to the conclusion that the memory of the genocide dominates the memory of the war[27]. Developing the author’s idea, we can assume that this contributes to the spread of the language of genocide in other events including the Second World / Great Patriotic War.

[26] Assmann A. From Collective Violence to the Common Future: Four Models for Dealing with the Traumatic Past // Banber. Bulletin of Yerevan University. No.134-5 (2011). P. 16–19.

[27] Григорян Г. П. Память о Великой Отечественной войне в системе коллективной памяти постсоветского общества Армении //Дневник Алтайской школы политических исследований. – 2020. – №. 36. – С. 60-61.

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