Mikayel Zolyan

I am a researcher from Armenia specialising in issues of ethnic conflict, the politics of nationalism and ethnicity, and issues of democratisation and nation-building in the post-Soviet context. My research interests include issues of collective memory and representations of history, as well as the problem of political uses of the past. I have a PhD in history from Yerevan State University and an MA in Nationalism Studies from the Central European University in Budapest. Currently I am an Assistant Professor at the Brusov Yerevan State Linguistic University’s UNESCO Chair of Democracy, and a guest lecturer in the Department of International Relations and Political Science at the Russian-Armenian State University in Yerevan.

My research project was focused on how the period of the break-up of the Soviet Union is presented in the textbooks of post-Soviet Armenia. The period spanning the late 1980s and early 1990s is of crucial importance for the newly emerged Armenian state. It has been a subject of debates and conflicting interpretations, which range from the conceptualisation of these events as a democratic revolution to conspiracy theories linking the events to subversive activities carried out by external forces. The authors of history textbooks were therefore faced with quite a complicated task: on the one hand it was impossible to leave out the events of the late 1980s and early 1990s, due to the magnitude of their importance for the modern Armenian state and its political system; on the other hand, there was no consensus in society regarding these events, which for the last two decades have remained a subject of heated debate. How Armenian textbooks have been dealing with this complicated issue became the subject of my research.

The narrative presented in textbooks generally combines elements of two models which can both be broadly described as nationalist, though in different meanings of the word. The “ethnic conflict narrative” focuses on the conflict with Azerbaijan over Karabakh, and, in wider terms, on the conflict between Armenia and its Turkic neighbours. Most textbooks refer to the popular movement of 1988 as a “national liberation movement”. Descriptions of the conflict, and especially of such key events as the massacres in Sumgait and Baku, as well as the beginning of armed clashes in Karabakh, include terms and expressions that suggest analogies with the genocide of Armenians in 1915, a key event in Armenian collective memory.

The other model is that of the “nation-building narrative”, which focuses on the (re-)establishment of Armenian statehood and the creation of the independent nation-state and which can be broadly described as “civic nationalist”, or more precisely statist-nationalist. It is also present and vocal in textbooks, yet plays a secondary role compared to the narrative constructed around the Karabakh issue. The process of the attainment of independence is largely presented within the context of the movement for the “national liberation” of Karabakh and as a logical continuation of that movement. Apart from the somewhat irrational claims, found in the textbooks, that independence had been “the age-old dream of the Armenian people”, there is little discussion of whether and why independence was necessary or desirable.

There are, however, some elements present of what could become a third narrative, but they are not very clearly pronounced. The narrative element which can be described as “democratic”, i.e. stressing the role of the movement for democracy against the totalitarian Soviet system, is the weakest in the current textbooks. Issues of democracy have a secondary role, usually mentioned in passing, or simply as part of descriptions of events. The achievement of democracy and the struggle for human rights are not explicitly presented as the main goals of the popular movement: the issue of democracy is mentioned mostly as auxiliary to other processes. Thus the element of struggle for democracy which was obviously present in the mass movement in the late 1980s appears barely to be a priority for the Armenian state today when it comes to educating the younger generation.

In addition to the analysis of Armenian textbooks, the textbooks from other post-Soviet countries which I was able to access at the GEI were extremely interesting for me. As stated above, one month proved too short a period for a thorough analysis of these textbooks; however, some of these left quite interesting impressions. For example, one particular image from a Ukrainian textbook was particularly interesting, since, even though not very successful from the point of view of design, it gave insight into how the authors of the textbook were trying to convey an image of the country that is both rooted in the past and looking towards modernisation.

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