The Loneliest Monument — how activists in Armenia are trying to draw attention to the victims of Soviet repression

Image by Hans Gutbrod. Used with permission.

This article was originally published in Slovo Magazine in June 2023. Global Voices has permission to re-publish an adapted version of the text.

Imagine a giant monument at a landmark location of a capital city, and yet, practically no one knows about it. Passersby are as puzzled as the guides on a city tour bus who apologetically say they cannot help when questioned about the structure. The monument itself is only open one day of the year and remains locked for the other 364 days. Searching for the monument on Google Maps shows only a silhouette of the memorial, missing a name as well as a description.

Cascade Memorial to the Victims of Political Repression

The monument known as the Cascade Memorial to the Victims of Political Repression was designed by Jim Torosyan, Yerevan's chief architect, between 1971 and 1981. At the time, its construction aligned with the government’s agenda of de-Stalinization in a period of relative thaw and was dedicated to Armenia’s victims of Soviet repression. The monument formally opened in 2008.

The Cascade Memorial sits at the top terrace of Yerevan’s Cascade complex — a landmark stairway that connects Yerevan’s downtown center with Victory Park above the city. It stands next to an obelisk that is visible from afar. The Cascade’s broad limestone band, over 300 meters long and 50 meters wide, marks the city’s north-south axis that runs through the pedestrian Northern Avenue and the imposing Opera building, the focal point of Yerevan’s culture.

Like the history of the Soviet repressions itself, this Cascade Memorial remains largely neglected, which is something a handful of Armenians are now trying to change. 

They see proper commemoration as a step Armenians must take on their path to democracy. And so, for a few years, on June 14, the local activists, led by the researcher Gayane Shagoyan with some support from the Eurasia Partnership Foundation, have been organizing a ceremony to remember the victims of purges and deportations of the Soviet period. In Armenia, June 14 marks the “Day of Remembrance of the Repressed.” The scale of the repressions remains staggering: several thousand were executed, and tens of thousands were deported.

The Cascade Memorial, designed in the shape of a rectangular box with a slit as a window, resembling a bunker, provides the commemoration ceremonies an evocative setting — containing and preserving a painful memory in a brutalist style that accurately conveys rupture.

In 2022, about 25 people gathered at the Cascade Memorial to remember the victims of these deportations and purges. Participants read the names of some victims, following an approach of remembrance by the well-known Russian human rights organization, Memorial Society. Memorial Society launched this “Return of the Names” in 2007, which involved reading out the names of people who were unjustly prosecuted under the Soviet Union. As a ritual, this approach reasserts people’s individuality in the face of totalitarian erasure.

This year, the activists were back at the Memorial, where they laid flowers and also attended a talk by Hranush Kharatyan, an ethnographer and former deputy mayor of Yerevan. The event was organized within the framework of an Armenian-US conference on the Soviet Experience and its aftermath. In her talk, Kharatyan highlighted that genocide survivors were particularly targeted in Soviet repressions, as many of them had relatives outside the Soviet Union. 

Unlocking memories and monuments

The commemorative events are a rare moment when the Cascade Memorial opens; otherwise, it remains locked. It is an orphaned monument covered in dust. Even people who regularly pass it do not know what the big concrete building stands for. 

That the Monument is only accessible one day a year is, in many ways, symbolic. As scholars and activists have pointed out, major parts of the Soviet past remain neglected. As they argue, in the absence of redress or at least acknowledgment of the wrongs done through the state authority, it will be hard to build a society that respects the rule of law. 

This nexus between the past and the present is a particular emphasis for Gevorg Ter-Gabrielyan and Isabella Sargsyan, who work at the Eurasia Partnership Foundation. They think that the past needs to be more directly faced to create opportunities for genuine change. Their view is shared by historians such as Gerard Libaridian, who has argued that an “evaluation of the impact of Soviet rule on the economy, political culture, morals, and intellectual health of the society” is overdue.

In its landmark setting, the Cascade Memorial can help recover the marginalized memory of Soviet repression — but more needs to be done. Even basic information remains buried. For instance, much of the recollection of Torosyan’s creation of the Cascade Memorial remains personal. Ter-Gabrielyan’s publications provide some context: his father had been friends with Torosyan and witnessed when Torosyan’s father was arrested in 1937, never to be seen again.

Such recollections deserve a more central place. Local universities could do more: Wikipedia, through its online participation, can be a “unique space […] for the construction of knowledge, memory, and culture,”  argue scholars Jutta Haider and Olof Sundin. The media scholar Christian Pentzold has also argued that Wikipedia “provides an ideal example of the discursive organization of remembrance and the different observable steps of memory work as they evolve online.” Students, through micro-contributions to knowledge, can be authors and not just consumers of knowledge. Right now, there is not yet an English-language Wikipedia entry for the Cascade Memorial, nor one for Jim Torosyan, its architect. 

Remembrance ties into broader urban issues in Yerevan. For example, various attempts at replacing the statue of Lenin on Republic Square have struggled. The space stands empty. As Diana Ter-Ghazaryan has pointed out, Republic Square is “a place that represents the ambivalence Armenians have about their collective identity and one that shows vividly the discord between the official narrative of identity and its contestations by the residents of Armenia.”

Most immediately, a task is to come up with a better way of creating access to the Cascade Memorial. One could think of an automated system in which visitors read out the name of one victim of the repressions to gain entry. With access through remembrance, each visit would connect to one fate and invite individuals to reflect. The process of discussing such ideas could offer citizens the opportunity to engage in how they want their past to be represented. As Shagoyan has documented, a previous discussion on placing a statue provoked a spirited debate.  

The commemoration of June 14 and the Cascade Memorial arguably connect to the country’s broader political identity. One surprise as you walk up the Cascade staircase is that a stretch below its top part remains unfinished — a huge hole you only discover as you level with the yawning gap unseen when looking up from below. Rudimentary foundations are visible, with rebar sticking out from concrete. In ascending towards the Cascade’s highest platform, you have to take a major detour.

From the outside, at least, it appears that there remains a gap as well in how Armenians remember their past. Here, too, it may be time to build on the already existing foundations and connect more directly with the past as a way of charting a way toward a more viable and inclusive future.

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