YEREVAN, Armenia — The Russians are not just trying to exert themselves in Ukraine; they are actively staking claims to their irredenta throughout their former territories. The opposition in Armenia has lacked the drama and intensity of the resistance in Ukraine and Georgia, but there is a small artistic challenge to what many are calling the Russian recolonization of the area.
As to the MIG-29 and TU-25 jets flying too low, he [the spokesperson for the Ministry of Defense] said: “It is normal for show flights. They fly so low for people to admire.”
An Armenian man whom I had just met offered me a pill as we watched (and heard and felt) the Russians pretending to dive-bomb the city. “To calm nerves during terrible noise,” he said. It was hard to see this as anything but a Russian effort to impress a tiny country of its ability to roll over said country anytime.
Most former Soviet territories want as little to do with Russia as possible. Putin is up front about what his goals for the proposed Eurasian Customs Union; he says he wants breakaway states to be linked again to Russia, via the awesome parts of Soviet culture. Yikes.
Armenia is an exception to most Western-leaning, former Soviet areas. The country seems, unlike its one fellow non-Muslim neighbor, Georgia, to be slightly in favor of Russia. This is a devoutly Christian nation that borders Iran, Azerbaijan, and Turkey, with two of those countries actively blockading Armenia. As such, there is a belief that the Russians are protecting Armenia with their military base there — that Armenia needs Russia.
Art-Laboratory (Artlab), a Yerevan-based political art group, is trying to fight this perception of Russia as protector. On June 26 they created an art action in the Russian base town of Gyrumri. a city still partially in rubble from the earthquake of 1989. Artlab held a press conference and bravely — considering the possible repercussions of fines, jail (unlikely, but not out of the realm of possibility), or whatever Russia might feel like responding with — graffitied a ruined building near the 102nd Russian Military Base.
The action unfolded in similar ways to other art projects I have seen in other parts of the world. Artlab’s members started in high spirits in Yerevan, excited about the transgression. What was different was the formality the action gained once we arrived in Gyumri and how seriously it was taken by local media. As soon as we arrived (I rode along with Artlab), we were ushered onto a movie-set cliché of a rundown newspaper office — books and papers stacked all over, dingy carpeting, fascinating framed photographs with water stains, and so on. The only real difference between this newspaper building and the ones I knew in the West was that instead of a Coke machine and coffee percolator, there was a traditional jazzve, a long-handled copper coffee boiler that makes demitasses of sweet Armenian coffee. This is where Artlab’s spokesperson (I was asked to list them as a collective only, eschewing individual names) launched into an hourlong speech to the six local reporters about the group’s intended act.
The speech was a stem-winder about the history of Russia as a colonizer — an assertion that’s refuted by Russia. The speaker claimed that Edward Said’s 1976 book Orientalism has only recently and reluctantly been translated into Russian, and printed with dismissive Russian commentary that’s as thick as the book itself. The tone of Artlab’s conference was professorial and seemed to just underline the basic fact that Russia is a bad guy making a regional power play. It was strange to the point of surreal that these 12 artists (and a few friends) were being given so much attention and respect for something that seems so obvious. But then again, I guess this type of art is new to the region, and the idea of poking Russia in the eye is something will always give Armenians pause.
From there the art action lapsed back into the familiar. We left the conference, and the group applied a giant stencil representing an advancing T-90 tank to the side of a collapsed factory. An accompanying stencil painted next to the tank featured Russian text, which proclaimed that 80% of Azerbaijan’s military hardware is bought from Russia, with a listing of the various weapons bought by the Azeris. This served as a direct refutation of the claim that Russia is protecting Armenia from Azerbaijan.
We didn’t get caught, and afterwards the members of Artlab razzed the thankfully indifferent guards at Military Base 102 from the safety of our bus. We then ate trout with bread cooked in underground pits as approximately 1,000 homemade vodka toasts were made. This part of the action felt familiar too.
Political art is notoriously turgid, but Artlab is doing some of the more interesting contemporary work in this field. It may feel overly familiar to Westerners, but this is not the West. This is a country that’s being actively blockaded and has Russian troops on full display. When I asked a member how effective he thought Artlab’s action would be, he responded with the group’s slogan: “The definition of ‘idiot’ is one who does not get engaged in politics.”