History Camp 2022 in Armenia: “Uncovering Soviet Propaganda”
The History Camp “Stronghold of Friendship and Happiness? - Uncovering Soviet Propaganda” took place from 25 to 28 October 2022 in Yerevan, Armenia. Seventeen young prize winners of the Arminian and Moldovan EUSTORY History Competitions 2021/2022 critically discussed Soviet propaganda in everyday life and approached the topic through creative group activities, lectures and site visits.
The teenagers, aged 14 to 19, came from the post-Soviet countries of Armenia and Moldova and were all born long after the collapse of the Soviet Union. They knew the Soviet times only from their parents’ and grandparents’ stories.
That’s why the History Camp started with a kind of time travel, namely a visit to the Soviet Club in Yerevan. Founded by the Armenian photographer Hayk Bianjyan, the Soviet Club assembles a great variety of everyday items used in all Soviet countries. While some of the items, mostly kitchen utensils, were familiar to the History Camp participants, other objects could not be identified.
A lot of fun was had with the Soviet gaming machines, table soccer and table ice hockey games which still worked very well. But the everyday life in Soviet times could not only be seen and touched but also tasted: a typical Soviet meal was prepared for the History Camp participants – and of course served in Soviet style dishes. The rather iconic faceted drinking glass which was used in all parts of the Soviet Union raised the question if an article of daily use like a drinking glass could also serve as propaganda – as its facets could stand for the Soviet republics and it was said to be almost unbreakable. “To see Soviet things in ‘real life’ was very impressive”, one participant remarked after the visit to the Club.
The second day of the History Camp offered artistic approaches to Soviet propaganda through literature and by watching Soviet cartoons – which were very popular at the time. A cartoon clip presented by the expert Hamlet Melkumyan showed three evil and ugly looking men who could easily be identified as being “Western” – in contrast to the clever and good-looking figures representing the Soviet (mostly Soviet-Russian) people.
Bad stereotypes and images of the “class enemy” from the West were easily consolidated and reinforced through these “funny” and widespread cartoons. By working in groups on famous Soviet cartoons the participants also detected other propaganda messages transported by the animated pictures. And they made the (renewed) acquaintance of “Leopold the Cat” which – in contrast to its Western counterpart Tom (of Tom & Jerry) – always acts friendly and prudently.
In the session with Armenian writer Armen Hayastantsi, the History Camp participants learned to work critically with texts and pay attention to the way something is told and from whose perspective. At the end of this workshop day, the teenagers took Hayastantsi’s statement home with them: “I never felt nostalgia for the USSR because right there the most important thing – freedom – was lacking.”
The first half of the third workshop day was dedicated to an explosion of artistic creativity in the midst of Soviet repression – a visit to the Sergey Parajanov Museum. Parajanov, a famous Armenian-Georgian film director, used whatever he could get his hands on to create art, even while being kept under inhospitable and inhumane conditions in prison. The guided tour “Freedom in Arts in Times of Soviet Propaganda in Arts” by Levon Abrahamyan and the encounter with Parajanov’s various works made a great impression on the young people (“I was impressed by Parajanov’s talent to rearrange broken things, making art out of rubbish.” - “He used everything – even his body – to create art. This was very impressing.”) and prepared them for their final assignment within the History Camp: the creation of a collage.
Participants were asked to create collages which should deal with the History Camp’s topic of “Uncovering Soviet Propaganda” and contain a message chosen by the participants themselves. Each participant could decide whether to do the collage on his or her own or together with other participants in big or small groups. To create these collages, they were to use a big sheet of paper, glue, various sorts of materials provided by the camp organisers (e.g. old magazines, toy figures, records, chains, buttons, etc.) and their own creativity and imagination.
The presentation of six amazing collages, showing personal and creative approaches, was another highlight of the History Camp and took place in a seminar house outside of Yerevan in the beautiful landscape close to the Sevan Lake rather high up in the mountains of the “little Caucasus”.
Raluca, one of the participants, placed a Soviet record in the centre of her collage “Добро Пожаловать/Welcome to (We Wish You Well)” which, with its endless spinning, symbolises the never stopping same tone of propaganda that became a sort of unconscious companion for each Soviet citizen – or, in Raluca’s words: “We could see how the state and the idea of socialism managed to creep into every single aspect of life – so much so that people became brainwashed with time, singing the same song that had been sung to them on a broken record for 70 years (1921-1991).” Others works dealt with the conflict and competition between the Soviet Union and “the West”, with different propaganda phases and with the role of the “Soviet woman” in society. Being asked for their feedback to the four days in Armenia Pavel, a participant from Moldova summed up the experiences of his young colleagues by stating: “Figuratively speaking: We are taking so much with us, that we all will have to pay for extra weight!” Otelya from Armenia expressed the wish “to see you all again sometime in the not too distant future” and Diana from Moldova added: “I will share all my experiences with my friends, colleagues and my family.” Before all participants were rewarded with a delicious Armenian lunch and a leisure trip to Lake Sevan, Vanya Ivanova, the Bulgarian moderator of the History Camp, finished the formal part of the Camp with the appeal: “The most precious part of these events are always the people you meet. So, take home with you the feeling that we are all connected to each other and will keep in touch. Let’s stay creative, let’s be the change that we want to see in the world!”
The History Camp 2022, organised and hosted by DVV International Armenia and the Armenian NGO Hazarashen for the prize winners of the national history competitions, forms an integral part of the cooperation project “History Competitions in Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine 3.0” which is implemented by DVV International in cooperation with Körber-Stiftung and with the financial support of the German Federal Foreign Office.
Initially the History Camp 2022 was planned to be held in Berlin but due to strict entry requirements caused by the pandemic it was rescheduled to Armenia. Due to the continuing war in Ukraine and the unresolved situation of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict neither teenagers from Ukraine nor from Georgia could take part in the History Camp. The Georgian prize winners were invited to a two-day History Camp in Georgia.