I woke up knowing that this time around there would be no way to reach the center by car. The morning of April 16, 2018 was going to be busy for many that had been fed up with cronyism, corruption and complete isolation of the government from its own people. The leader of the parliamentary minority had called on the citizens to block the main roads, bridges and other key intersections. It was already the third day of the peaceful standoff between the disenchanted citizenry and the ruling elite.
I drove down the road, getting ready to park, get on feet and walk the eight-kilometer road down the gorge to reach my workplace. Right on the edge to the steep road, a commotion caught my attention. Noise, echoes of uttered profanities, screams reached my ear sooner that the blurred vision could see the full scene. Young girls and boys were blocking the cars with their bodies. Some sat on the pavement, some were being attempted to be pushed aside, when trying to stand in front of the vehicles, some were being physically intimidated to give in, but to no avail. One girl stood out, as she was alone trying not to succumb to the pleas, screams and agitated demands of an old guy, that was going to visit his wife in the hospital. The moral pressure accompanied with attempts to physically force the girl to retreat did not work. She was adamant, the leader of the day had asked to block the streets and she was not going to be the coward that did not manage to hold on to her part of the conquered land.
A flashback took me to my adolescence, the colors were already faded, but the actions and faces were never so vivid than at that very moment. The demonstrations and marches paralyzing the city of 1988, demanding reunification for an ethnically Armenian enclave within the Azerbaijan SSR, all replayed in my mind in some sort of a documentary. Men and women, particularly women walking tirelessly down the streets of Yerevan and standing for days to demand justice for the ethnic minority in the neighboring country. The women of the movement were strikingly present. Fearless and bold, some were even called ‘armored vehicles’. Standing on the frontline, at times against the soviet tanks and soldiers, that were spreading terror from the sight of the Opera House, resisting the bewildered police and just outright deserting their traditional duties of housewives and mothers, they displayed an unspeakable act of commitment and political maturity. The story stopped there. They were not going to make a statement with their presence in the leadership roles after the independence. Instead, they faded away, back into their kitchens and traditional roles. On that day of April, twenty years later, I felt how my heart quenched. The history was going to repeat itself, I thought.
Fast forward 23 days, on May 8, in front of the eyes of the entire nation, glued to all sorts of screens, from the main square to homes and offices, before being voted into service as Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan, went on to make a statement, acknowledging the unprecedented participation of women in the political life of the country. This was for sure an exaggeration, but an extraordinary one, as no leader in the modern history of Armenia had so far put the spotlight on women. As if it was not enough to startle, the Premier-to-be recognized that the dubbed revolution of Love and Solidarity owes its success to the massive participation of women. Calling on women, he particularly pled inviting to stay committed to political life from now on as a promise for the development and strengthening of the country. This was a sensational appeal.
Following days were marked by appointments of Government officials and active discussions on social media. Many women had taken the invitation and were now putting forward their female candidates for this or that position. At one point the succession of exclusively male appointees raised issues among women and they started voicing their discontentment with what they believed was a major blow to the revolution. With only two women in new cabinet, it was interesting to see that now 47 percent considered it as unsatisfactory, as reported by the Club of Public Journalism. Later, the first ever female chief of parliamentary faction was elected, a woman with a rising political star that was setting her apart from all other prominent female political figures. Lena Nazaryan became the head of YELQ faction, a force that initiated the peaceful movement and transfer of power. We need to remember that all this was unfolding in a by now already a parliamentary, not a presidential republic.
The resemblance of exerted force and power of women from twenty years ago, were not different from their daughters that hit the streets, but for them the dawn never arrived. Instead, a generation down the road was going to petition political representation in exchange to participation and as a confirmation to the equality with their male peers. What was different then that made it possible? Why not then, why now?
The fact that it is the power of the will and the manifesto that sets the tone for transformation, it is still very important to understand the underpinnings of the now and then, as the foundations on which we grow our identities matter greatly. What was the agenda in the late 80s of the soviet woman was worlds apart from the agenda that the contemporaries had at their disposal, could mold and act upon. Hence, understanding the political, economic and societal forces in the background is very important if we hope to at least unfold the shadows of the truth.
Episode 1: The Surfacing of Soviet Style Human Rights Agenda
The Soviet intervention in Afghanistan came at a time, when the economy was already strained, as it was serving the military and arms race at 70 percent of its capacity leaving the consumer on the fringes of the planned economy. With one party system, the soviet person felt disenfranchised and economically depressed. The all-out war machinery that drove the standoff between the East and West, proved to be useless. The concept of warfare had evolved after the World War II, as the insurgency tactics of mujahedeen exposed the vulnerabilities of Soviet troops, technology and standard operations, creating casualties that was now very hard to hide even for a country that had a tight grip over media.
Poland’s Solidarity movement of early 80s, showed another vulnerability of Soviet superpower. Unlike earlier precedents, the USSR refused to send troops to crash the movement instead leaving it to the local politicians. This was a clear signal to the west that the economy is stretched to the point of no return, and one last blow would put the awed empire on its knees. The SALT II negotiations started in 1972 and scraped in early 1980, where now being replaced by a new strategic defense initiative or more commonly known as ‘Star Wars’. This was going to create an anti-ballistic shield, leaving the USSR vulnerable to first nuclear strike. Sure enough, the Politburo of the time had to react by increasing the spending with a countdown to the end of history.
A seemingly unrelated event, the catastrophe at Chernobyl in the April of 1986, pulled to a surface a long germinating network that from early 60s was preoccupied by ecology, serving as the deep force for the origin of Perestroika. With Glastnost now pinned to the latter slogan, ecology triggered a chain reaction that brought the onslaught of liberation movements. At first, the discourse around the need to protect the environment was introduced with the tacit agreement of party-state elite close to KGB chief Andropov. An industrialized a la Sovietique and urbanized emerging middle class needed a new discourse that would resonate with its lifestyle, but still serve the communist doctrine. It would also put brakes on interminably expansionist forces of military industrial nomenklatura and military elite that had a tight grip over the ruling political elite. Then, the emerging western European green pacifist movements of early 80s, unfolding on the backdrop of talks to deploy American Pershing missiles, were raising hopes among Soviets to ally with West German ‘alternative ecological socialism’. Little it knew that back home a conversation around the protection of environment was going to raise issues that would ask for the reformulation of the objectives of the planned economy and politics to be centered around the human needs.
When in early December of 1986, Mikhail Gorbachev, called Andrei Sakharov to tell him that he and Yelena Bonner can return to Moscow after the exile and imprisonment, Glastnost and Perestroika were driving the agenda of the soviet people. The call itself was an invitation to the leader of soviet dissidents, an embodiment for many of peace and humanocentrism, to try and mend the cracks in the system. Having seen the devastations brought about by World War II, made Sakharov, a prominent physicist, believe that working on nuclear projects would ensure lasting peace through maintained balance. The invasion of Afghanistan and scraped SALT talks sealed his earlier disillusionment. From late 60s, he had become a vocal opponent of nuclear proliferation and arms race. He also started talking about the economic injustices endured by workers, ungrounded imprisonments like in the case of Sinyavsky and Daniel, creating undercurrents for dissident movement throughout the empire. In 1970, the establishment of the Human Rights Committee, then the Moscow Helsinki Watch signaled the moral sepulcher of ‘the road to communism’ by bringing the needs (rights and freedoms) of the humans as an inalienable part of the larger ecology into the center of the discourse in controlled mainstream and alternative ways.
Episode 2: An Economy that Could Not Afford Communist Ideals
But who were the Soviet people in terms of being able to exercise economic leverages and powers when the rise of the agenda of human rights came about? On the outer side commanded from Moscow down to ministries and capitals of the country the military industrial machinery and collectivized farming were there to guard against possible wars and avoid famine. From inside, the shortages were the permanent companion of men and women, as the managers of massive factories were accountable to the state, not to the buyers. Black markets and under counter deals thrived, creating inequalities from privileged access to goods and services. The productivity of labor of a typical industrial worker was half that of the 1990 output, in agriculture it was close to being less by one thirds. Although, not sanctioned, seeking extra rent beyond the state had become the story of the 80s. Doing extra jobs, renting or reselling (under the threat of facing charges for speculation) in the black market was far too common and it had its rank and order, including the gender one.
With the mass wars over, mass production was reaching its downfall. The planned economy was no longer able to provide even the most basic needs of its people. The demographic boom in Central Asia had already placed a strain on the labor market leaving many without a decent job. In tighter markets with lower levels of birth, higher education attainment levels within the USSR another more ambitious drive to seek career growth was strained, forcing many to seek answers to perceived discrimination on ethnic grounds, giving rise to nationalism. In this context, faced with arms race, tarnished global reputation in terms of human rights, limited capacity to act on its closest borders, Gorbachev announced Perestroika. In an attempt to reform the economy, to ensure that blue collar workers would not become unemployed along with collapsing mass economy and white collar workers would not stir political discontent further, Perestroika’s initial intent was to improve social and working conditions of workers. Nevertheless, it did not stop there. Far too many factors had come together to push for Glastnost, somehow the Russian equivalent of the freedom of speech. The economic reform was now going to be accompanied with more transparency, but could it keep its pace with the dizzying speed of the latter. Unlike economic machinery that was rather more apparent for the nomenklatura of the day, much of the underground talk and network, if not uncovered, was a minefield that blew into the faces of the Soviet leadership. Its clandestine nature had stored many surprises for the leaders of the dissident movement, as many of its emanations had acquired an ethnic undertone, molding freedoms and rights into national liberation movements.
Episode 3: Women in Limbo: With Told Sense of Liberation and Double Burden
It was not surprising, that faced with tectonic shifts, women’s cause, not found fully, was already lost within the urgency and vastness of this all national agenda. By 1970, half of the enrolled students in the higher education institutions were women and were more than half of the workforce in government. Nevertheless, the glass ceiling and segregation was experienced by women economically, as well as politically, even though the state propaganda declared that the issue of women (zhenskii vopros) was no longer a problem within its boundaries. Women, in the meantime, faced the double burden, still mainly carrying the tasks of the housewives while being full time employees. Another interesting side to the story, as the economy failed to provide effective alternatives for family planning, was the abortion that assumed the function of contraception. Nevertheless, in historic perspective, compared to their mothers and grandmothers, their lives were greatly improved under the Soviet rule.
Still, when in 1987, the Committee on Soviet Women openly questioned the soviet solution of the zhenskii vopros, women’s consciousness was far from being conceptualized in the context of contemporary western gender categories. The economic difficulties of 80s, old bureaucracy’s control over organization as such, isolation from the international feminist movements of 60s to 80s and the flood of information brought by Glastnost, all stifled the possibility of a unified stance among women. In addition, white collar and blue collar divide, here too, created multitude of identities that were hard to reconcile. On one side, there was the traditional woman, mostly found among peasant women and the generation of World War II. On the other side was the Soviet woman, liberated and burdened, an educated worker-mother that was the embodiment of hard work and self-sacrifice. On top of this, many young women of the time did not want to embrace the Soviet woman, trying to find ways back to more womanly mission or wanted to escape it altogether by searching for shortcuts to wealth mostly through marriage. The detachment of women from global feminist movements had suspended the self-perception at the stage of proto-feminism that in the sea of change was doomed to a shipwreck and total dissolution.
Back to 2018. Things had changed greatly. Urbanite women had received an education that was free of state oversight and was gradually converging with its western counterpart. Many had by now been enrolled in short or long term courses or even online courses provided by foreign universities and had alternative cultural and educational experiences that had greatly changed their political and economic demands. They were operating in a political system that was now in superficiem adhering to most fundamental treaties on human rights and freedoms, in a country that had an openly declared multi-party democratic governance with an open market. The women were mostly working in public sector, their wages on average where only two thirds of their male counterparts, but in big urban centers some were successfully advancing careers in private sectors. They were operating in an environment that had returned the land back to the people, the state property was privatized and by 2018 the economy was expanding, creating opportunities for income generation in sectors such as agriculture and tourism.
When the leaders of the peaceful movement got arrested, the regime hoped to behead it, but women led the stage and held the electrified public on the tenth wave in the evening of April 22, 2018 in a full packed Republic Square. The discourse was highly political, the reverberation was massive. Later that night, the sudden pan and bucket vigil erupting here and there, disturbing unsuspecting people was an all-female decision to invite their sisters to protest even without leaving their houses. On April 25, Zara Batoyan, then an activist, now turned a Deputy Minister of Labor and Social Affairs, declared that the pans and buckets protest was going to continue until all the demands of the movement were met. This was a surface of something that had its deep forces awaiting an explanation.
The phone was buzzing every few seconds. Ideas were being discussed, news were being shared, possible risks alerted amidst high tension and jokes. A big number of women in all corners of the city, most pulling together a concerted action of small-group-spread-out-street-blocking operations, where on constant move and in permanent contact with each other. They all knew each other either directly or through their trusted female friends. All believed that there is a women’s issue, but unlike zhenskii vopros of the 30s and late 80s of their mothers, they had gone one step further. By then, most of them were introduced to main ideas of feminism, key writings, discourses and many of them adhered to this or that subtype of feminism. Although, when in one room they would have heated debates over what was the best way, they still believed in the need for movement and unfinished business with the emancipation of their sisters. This is how they perceived other women- exactly sisters. They came from all walks of life, many at some stage of their life had been directly involved with woman’s rights defense in some format. Some were prominent woman’s right defenders all their lives. All were well webbed and globally connected with knowledge hubs and most had active connection with activist hotspots elsewhere. They were a far cry from their mothers, alone and cornered. So, when the time for appointments came it was not a surprise that they were going to trouble the leaders, asking for a walk along their talk.
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