Visiting one post-Soviet state, you can then recognize it in all others – the similar patterns of urban planning and the identical buildings, structures, roads, pipes, wires, tiles, etc. However, an outsider delving inside under the extreme familiarity of the material environment finds an extreme “strangeness” of social interactions and practices. The “Outside In” series is about emplaced paradoxes and nuances. It spotlights the mundane in Armenia’s peripheral locations, where the seemingly unspectacular encounters with people and things allowing us to capture the unique features of the territory.
Human actions and relations are always emplaced, they are linked to the histories, geographical and cultural contexts of places. In contrast to the “void” and “endless” space, place is imbued with peculiarities that are gathered into a very specific constellation. As the Greek philosopher Archytas put it: “Place is first among all things, as everything that exists is in a place and cannot exist without a place.” When we talk about the urban, the images of concrete places — cities and neighborhoods come to mind. These images carry with them embodied associations with sounds, smells, tastes, colors and lights. Cities with their particularities constitute a country, it is through them that we encounter and learn it.
Each country starts with the capital city. By large, asking anyone to name a city in Armenia the first, the most probable answer, will be Yerevan. It is not just a city, but The City — the biggest, densest, fastest, richest, most dazzling, vibrant, creative and innovative. The pink metropolis. Night illumination, constant traffic sounds, street music, people strolling even at the deadest of night, and 24/7 services — Yerevan does not subside or stop. The “orderly” child of Alexander Tamanian’s planning, it is increasingly globalizing and exhibiting rising levels of chaos and schizophrenia much like other capital cities worldwide.
While each country starts with the capital city, it is not defined by it. Sitting on the brink of urban and rural, a conceptual antithesis to the capital is the country’s smallest city. Being the smallest among all cities, makes it a point of interest and attraction, even if there is nothing materially, culturally and socially peculiar about the place. While reading these lines, are any images emerging in your head? Any thoughts on the name and location of Armenia’s smallest city? What if anything have you heard about it from the media or in a geography class in school? Let me guess, you are probably blanking out now. This is a common reaction. A handful of my Armenian friends and colleagues know this toponym. Apart from one, none of them has ever been there.
The lack of an image is an image in itself. Behold, the seeming synonym for nowhere in Armenia — Dastakert in Syunik region.
Though canonically the city’s name means an estate or a farm, I would point to another interpretation. Dastakert can be viewed as a compound word made up of dastak [դաստակ] — a wrist and kertel [կերտել] — to create, to shape. Interpreting Dastakert as something that is handmade, we find a beautiful metaphor for Soviet urbanization. Rather than being organic, the latter was a guided and planned process. Urban materiality and economy were imposed on sites without regard to the accustomed lifestyles and geographical context. Industrialization was the engine for urbanization; whereby cities emerged as localized parts of the state’s industrial corporation. Dastakert is very much an outcome of these processes and their miscalculations. Once an agricultural settlement, tidily inscribed into the picturesque mountain landscape, it was remade by the Soviet state into a site of copper-molybdenum extractivism. Although the copper-molybdenum field of Dastakert was found important to be mentioned in the CIA reports on the USSR’s copper industry of the late 1950s, already in the Soviet period the mining and processing enterprise here was unprofitable, losing out to Kajaran.
With the collapse of state socialism, Dastakert’s copper-molybdenum enterprise de facto ceased to exist though the licenses to mining in the area were traded off until 2019. These developments left the city’s residents to deal with the lack of jobs, provisioning, and infrastructural disruptions. The majority left, but about 200 people continue to live there. Contemporary Dastakert is a city of deficiencies, a city of present absences – no bank or an ATM, no post office, hospital or polyclinic, shops. There are still some students at the school, but its prospects look murky. With traces of enforced Soviet urbanization evaporating, the settlement is back to a somewhat rural lifestyle with the main economic activity being subsistence agriculture.
I approached the city in the first rays of sunrise on a chilly Sunday morning in November. Greeting me was a rusty sign with two crossed hammers as the symbol of a bygone “era” of mining. The streets of Dastakert are layered, climbing up a mountain slope. Along the main road there are several pretentious two-storied pinkish multifamily houses from the mid-20th century made from natural stone. Then several simpler two-storied houses with yellowish and bluish peeling paint. Among them sits the vacant building of the local administration. It’s dark and dusty windows are shielded by metal bars, the door is loosely locked making a squeaking sound at the gusts of wind. Above the door hangs the red-blue-orange flag, faded in the sun, and tangled it does not proudly fly anymore. Uphill, behind the main street, there are lanes with wooden cottages, rather typical for the countryside in Slavic states but quite unique to Armenia. However, fences made from pink stone, along the various extensions and additions made from the most common post-Soviet rural folk construction material in Syunik — flattened rusty barrels — brings one back to the Armenian reality.
The prices for housing in Dastakert are the lowest in Armenia, as there is simply no demand. It is a burden rather than an asset – crumbling desolate buildings with hammered doors and various colorful clothes shyly covering up the left behind disorder and traces of looting. Some houses were torn down with only overgrown foundations visible on satellite images. Remnants of Soviet modernity deconstructed and re-purposed are all around – pipes, wires, radiators and bathtubs. Bathtubs filled with water from DIY assembled hoses running through the streets are a substantial detail of Dastakert’s cityscape. One of them сrowns the view toward the city from the side of Dastakert’s copper-molybdenum enterprise – completely ruined, both by neglect and purposefully torn apart for scrap metal. Old cars make up fences and serve as firewood storage. Metal plates with Soviet propaganda slogans portraying the “bright future” shield balconies from the wind.
The decaying cityscape presents a sharp dissonance to the amazingly well-built road that leads to Dastakert and the fresh yellow boxes of Gazprom Armenia neatly attached to crooked wooden pillars. Dastakert is paradoxical – a good road to a dead end, new gas infrastructure in a collapsing city, traded mining licenses for closed mines. But the most paradoxical issue, a rhetorical question, is why people still live here. Probably a keen scholar would find a nuanced answer upon ethnographic research, but in Dastakert I’m just a passerby grasping it in a moment. Continuously being (re)made by DIY efforts, fixed, and maintained by those who willingly choose to or who are forced by obstacles to remain, Dastakert survives against all odds. Against the state abandoning it and the capital devaluing it. Is it kept by the desperate mundane attempts of place-making, futile hopes of new development or by the place attachment of its residents? Probably all the above.
The periphery can be spatial and aspatial. Dastakert is both, it is an epitome of periphery. Not only is it bypassed by the flows of capital and information, depopulated, and marginalized or rather obliviated. It is also backwoods in the most literal geographical sense. Located off major highways and surrounded by mountains. Passing it, the road proceeds to a tiny settlement with a proud name Nzhdeh, after which it breaks off in the mud. No wonder outsiders know nearly nothing about it. However, in contrast to the material and symbolic fullness of Yerevan, the motionless, quiet, and thinning smallest city of Armenia, where I managed not to meet a single person during a half-day Sunday walk, is still an integral part of the country’s urban geography. It is a lesson in urbanism, even if imposed and a seemingly failing one.