Ryan Browning and Dr. Cynthia Finlayson, Art History
Stalin’s terror regime over the Soviet Union created a tense environment for artists and architects. He oversaw the birth of a new artistic movement called Socialist Realism, which sought to portray the progress and beauty of socialist life. In most corners of the Soviet Union, the Socialist Realism style and ethic was enforced with a heavy hand by government watchdogs. Artists who attempted individualism in their work or who refused to follow the iconological status quo of the new movement came under the condemnation of the state, and were often removed from society in the times of the great purge. However, the reach of the Kremlin seemed to have less effect over the arts in Armenia. The Armenians had a 1600 year history of Christian tradition at the time of the Bolshevik revolution, and it remained active through the nation’s political conversion to atheistic socialism. It has been said that the officials in Armenia were “Armenians first, and Soviets second.” This preference for nationality over the institution resulted in a proliferation of Armenian-Christian influenced work that infiltrated even Soviet projects. Rafael Israelyan, who led out the tail-end of a renaissance of national style in Armenian architecture, was one of the great architects of the Soviet era in Armenia. Israelyan’s Victory Monument to the Great Patriotic War, although once topped with a gargantuan Stalin figure, was adorned with relief sculpture inspired by traditional Christian-Armenian design. The base of the monument also reflects the form and style used in Armenian religious architecture. Despite the striking paradox of iconographical elements in his work, Israelyan avoided Soviet judgment and enjoyed a very long and celebrated career.
Despite his successful career, information about Rafael Israelyan is difficult to come by, especially outside of Armenia. I was initially interested in his many works commemorating the Armenian Genocide events of 1915-1918, and I planned to conduct my research on site and in public records. The genocide was never officially recognized by the Soviet Union due to political constraints, but nevertheless, Soviet-era genocide monuments dot the cities and countryside of modern Armenia. I had initially planned to point out iconological references to the genocide in Israelyan’s Soviet commissions, but was disappointed to find none. Instead, I found that many towns and individuals, rather than the state, funded the building of monuments related to the genocide. The only government-funded structure built by Israelyan that had anything to do with the Turkish-Armenian conflicts commemorates a legitimate battle, but not the atrocities inflicted on innocent Armenians. I was, however, surprised to see undisguised, Christian iconography gracing the walls of Soviet monuments. I chose to focus my research on the Victory Monument, for it was not only Israelyan’s crowning achievement, but a treasure trove of Christian/Soviet iconological contradiction.
I had originally planned to spend at least one month in Armenia during the spring, but was unable to do so after getting married in April. At the beginning of the year my wife (then fiancé) Natalie found out that she would have to attend classes in the Spring and Summer semesters, and we both felt that it would be difficult to spend a month apart right after getting married in April, which was the only available time we had. I considered postponing my research for another year, but decided I would try to squeeze my trip to Armenia into the two-week break following the summer semester. It turned out to be a whirlwind of a trip, with great disappointments and equally great miracles. In short, I spent the first half of my trip wandering the city, finding rejection wherever I turned. Later, I was blessed to happen upon a man who had done research on Israelyan himself. My wife and I were about to turn in for the day when I decided to make one last stop in a small museum. After asking a couple of men at the door a few questions, I found out that one of them was the author of a book I had purchased the day previous. That man, Artur Aleksanyan, proved to be more helpful than all the books in Yerevan, for he got me access to the national university’s library and introduced me to the president of the Yerevan Architectural Union. For a two week trip, I had found more than I expected thanks to the generosity of one man. Despite my successes, I was not fortunate enough to find any information on the politics of Israelyan’s work. I hope to get in contact with Rafael Israelyan’s son through the Architectural Union, for he supposedly possesses much of his father’s work at home. He may also be able to help me learn more about Israelyan’s personal feelings for Stalin, which would never have been published or recorded publicly.
Due to the postponement of my research, I was left with little time to produce a paper worthy of publication. I intend to publish later this year, after I have had time to polish off my findings. In the meantime I will be continually updating my research at www.ryanbrowning.com. Despite the failure of my initial hypothesis, I believe that an analysis of the conflict between state, religion, and nationality that occurred in Israelyan’s work will provide revealing insight on the cultural state of affairs in Armenia during the Stalin era.