Soviet Traces in the Caucasus – Armenia, Azerbaijan & Georgia

Mikoyan MiG memorial - Alaverdi, Armenia

A visit to the three Caucasian republics – Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia – today offers much to virtually any type of traveler. An incredible range of sceneries can be found there, from beaches to mountain ridges, from abundant traces of a multi-millennial civilization to futuristic skyscrapers and oil rigs.

As recent history has dramatically shown, these countries are inhabited by markedly different, deeply divided populations. Furthermore, all three of course still have a complicated relationship with their gigantic neighbor, Russia, which shares a border with both Georgia and Azerbaijan – with some unsolved uncertainties especially with the former, as shown in the cases of the contended territories of Abkhazia and Ossetia. On the other hand, Armenia is historically at loggerheads with Turkey, with which it shares a long – and impenetrable – border.

The three Caucasian nations have suffered the influence of stronger powers for ages. Constant clashes between Czar’s Russia and the Turks meant the loss of independence for long. As a matter of fact, both today’s Georgia and Azerbaijan where under Russia, and Armenia under the Turks, when WWI broke out. Soon after the war, short-lived independent nations were extirpated by the deadly action of the communist Bolsheviks, invading from Russia. The three Caucasian nations were forcibly incorporated in the Soviet Union, creating an artificial, uncomfortable friendship between each other and with Russia.

For roughly seven decades the three nations were on the southern border of the USSR, sharing a frontier with Turkey and Persia (later Iran). Turkey collaborated with the Third Reich in WWII, and later joined NATO, hosting – as it still does today – Western military forces on its territory. That border with the USSR was very active in the Cold War years. Aerial espionage missions were flown by the US from Turkey, ballistic missiles were installed, gigantic radar plants were put in place by the Soviets, who also manufactured MiGs in the outskirts of the Georgian capital – really a hot region in the Cold War!

As soon as the Soviet power started to creak at the very end of the 1980s, national movements faced again, eventually leading to the birth of independent nations as we know them today. This was not without a deadly struggle however, as for the case of Azerbaijan, mostly relevant for its oil reserves and the border with Iran. Furthermore, religious and cultural differences and unsolved disputes over the actual borders among each other meant that these three nations were never friends over the last three decades.

Besides this complicated geopolitical inheritance, the long-lasting Soviet tenancy of the three Caucasian Soviet Socialist Republics (SSRs) left traces, of course. Some highlights among the architectural leftovers of Soviet times are presented in this post, from all three Republics. Monuments, from Soviet times, or celebrating independence from the Soviets, are similarly included. Further traces are preserved in museums – military museums dating from the Soviet era, like in Gori (Stalin’s birth town in Georgia, see this post) and Yerevan, history museums like in Baku and Tbilisi, or collections of artifacts from Soviet times, like the world-class Auto-Museum next to the airport in Tbilisi.

Photographs are from a long visit to the Caucasus in summer 2019.

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Armenia

Azerbaijan

Georgia

Sights in Armenia

Republic Square, Yerevan

A fine example of Soviet-times architecture, Republic Square – originally named Lenin’s Square – was designed in the mid-1920s, soon after the creation of the USSR, and was actually built little by little, reaching completion in the 1970s. It is a great example of Soviet-classicism, contaminated by some Armenian motifs – Armenia boasts an original architectural school originating several centuries ago, and particularly evident in medieval Armenian churches.

The focal point, once a statue of Lenin at the center of the square and pulled down in the 1990s, is possibly the front facade of the rich History Museum of Armenia, in a pale color and openly recalling the lines of the beautiful monasteries to be found in the country.

Besides the museum building, fronted by a huge fountain, the oval shaped square is defined by four more buildings, coordinated in terms of volumes and colors. The frieze on some of the buildings is centered on the usual Soviet iconography – five-pointed stars, sickles, harvest, …

The easternmost building with a clock tower used to be the seat of the government of the Armenian SSR, and is now the palace of the Armenian Government.

The westernmost building was designed, and still is, a hotel.

At night, they regularly offer a nice show with music, lights and water games.

Visiting

Centrally located in Yerevan, you can reach this place in several ways. You probably won’t miss it if traveling to the Armenian capital city. Just note that parking is not possible on the square.

Cascade, Yerevan

A large – better, a monster-size… – stairway, climbing uphill from central Yerevan to a residential uptown neighborhood, was designed in the early 1970s and built in two stages, both in the 1970s and in the 2000s.

The stairway is interrupted by platforms, with sculptures and fountains, which make it look pretty irregular and full of details to discover.

Access to the famous Cafesjian Museum is along the stairway.

As of 2021, the complex is unfinished, still missing a planned building on top. The stairway offers a beautiful view of Yerevan, basically in its entirety. The panorama reaches to Turkey and mount Ararat.

Visiting

This is a highlight in town you won’t probably miss. A climb with a taxi to the top is recommended, descending the stairway instead of climbing it, especially on torrid summer days.

Mother Armenia & Victory Park, Yerevan

A unique sight in the former SSRs of the Caucasian area, the Mother Armenia statute is a typical relic of the Cold War, like you can find elsewhere in Russia or more rarely in the Soviet satellite countries of Eastern Europe.

The statue was born as a commemorative monument for the effort of the Armenian SSR in the Great Patriotic War. Having been designed soon after WWII, when Stalin was still the leader of the USSR, the monument was pretty different from now – a huge statue of Stalin used to stand on top of the huge pillar! This was removed in the early 1960s, being swapped with a nicer statue resembling an Armenian young woman, and titled ‘Mother Armenia’.

The base of the monument features a few decorations, based on typical Soviet iconography.

Around the monument, in what is called Victory Park, a few specimens of Soviet military technology are there to see. These include a few tanks, missiles and aircraft.

Ahead of the monument, an eternal flame is still lighted today (invisible in the pics due to the extreme sunlight). A majestic perspective leads to a balcony, from where you can enjoy a nice view of the Armenian capital city.

The base of the statue is home to a war museum, conceived in Soviet times, and later updated with documents over the most recent  Armenian war actions.

The latter, including the countless clashes with Azerbaijan and Turkey, are documented on the much visited ground floor, besides the main hall.

A part on the same floor is dedicated to the actions of soldiers from the Armenian SSR in Soviet times, and more generally to the Cold War period.

Little or no attention is devoted by visitors to the rich collection on the underground floor, mostly centered on the actions of the Red Army against Hitler’s Wehrmacht in WWII.

Here the exhibition is very rich of relics from both the German and Russian sides, including weapons, papers, uniforms, … Several maps retrace the epic battles and actions, leading to the defeat of the German military machine.

Portraits of generals, insignia and mottoes in Russians, not limited to the actions in WWII, relive the genuine ‘Soviet remembrance’ feeling, to be appreciated also in similar museums like in Kiev (see here) or Moscow (see here).

Visiting

Reaching Victory Park, where the monument is immersed, is easy with a taxi, or climbing uphill from downtown on top of the Cascade described previously. Visiting inside the monument is totally recommended for curious visitors, war history enthusiast and similar folks. Nothing can be found in a western language. A visit of about 45 minutes may suffice for a rich overview of the inside exhibition.

Railway Station, Matenadaran, Opera Theater & Other buildings in town, Yerevan

Soon after its annexation to the USSR, Armenia started receiving many prototypical items of Soviet architecture. However, like in the case of Republic Square (see above), some buildings were designed by local architects, including elements of traditional Armenian style.

A typically Soviet building in Yerevan is the Railway Station, dating from the 1950s, still featuring the emblem of the Armenian SSR on top of a tall spine, and double Russian/Armenian signs on top.

An example of a blend between Armenian architecture and Soviet ‘magnificence’ is constituted by the Matenadaran, designed soon after WWII (Stalin’s era), to host a unique world-class collection of ancient books and papers.

This enigmatic building, despite of course imposing, is definitely not the usual Soviet ‘monster block’ like other museums elsewhere in Soviet capital cities.

Similarly peculiar is the Opera Theater, dating back again to the years of Stalin. Soviet pomp is scaled down to Armenian proportions, and the color of local stone makes the outcome different from buildings with a similar function in other communist capital cities.

Other examples of Soviet buildings can be found scattered in downtown Yerevan, which is generally speaking a nice-looking, neat city center. These include residential buildings, as well as hotels and more.

Even for more recent low-level, purely-‘communist style’ blocks, they put some effort in reducing the inevitable impact of these bulky constructions.

Visiting

With the exception of the railway station, located south of the city center, all sights just cited can be found in the very center of Yerevan, at a walking distance from one another, highlights along a nice stroll in the area.

Mikoyan Brothers Museum, Alaverdi

Besides the gorgeous monasteries gracing the area of Sanahin, in the northernmost part of Armenia, an unmissable destination in the area for seekers of Soviet relics and aviation enthusiasts is the home of the two Mikoyan brothers.

For aviation connoisseurs, the name ‘Mikoyan’ is one of the most prominent – the ‘M’ in the acronym ‘MiG’ being borrowed from the surname of Artem Mikoyan. This marvelous aircraft designer, whose design bureau grew to top fame in the Cold War period, created with his designs the backbone of the fighter force of the USSR and all its Eastern Bloc satellites. Some of his models have been manufactured in the highest numbers in aviation history, and have served in the Air Forces of the world for several decades. The firm remained alive well after the collapse of the USSR, until the (Russian) state-imposed incorporation of several aircraft design bureaus in a single conglomerate, in the early 2000s.

Possibly less-known today, but a really prominent personality in his era, and perhaps even more influential in recent history than his brother, was Anastas Mikoyan. This was a member of the Soviet Politburo since its foundation in the years of the civil war following the communist revolution in 1917, until 1965 – i.e. managing to stay on top for the entire length of Stalin’s and Khrushchev’s reigns, and resigning only some time after Brezhnev had taken the lead. He over-viewed production in the USSR, acted as an emissary to the US and Cuba in the years of the Kennedy administration, and especially during the missile crisis in 1962.

The two Mikoyan brothers were born in the small mountainous town of Alaverdi, Armenia, where a monument and museum was created back in Soviet times to commemorate their achievements.

The most notable feature, really an unexpected view in this mountain town, is a MiG-21 placed under a concrete canopy, with inscriptions nearby. This supersonic fighter is a true icon of the Cold War, and of course a good way to commemorate Artem Mikoyan’s contribution to aviation history.

The museum is housed in a small building, where visiting is with a guide (English speaking) and photography forbidden and impossible. Several artifacts, pictures and papers unfold the life of the two brothers, since their birth in this village until their respective rise to prominence and success.

An old Soviet car, likely belonging to one of the two (unclear), can be found in an adjoining building.

Despite a primary touristic destination, the area around Alaverdi and the town itself is (as of 2019) a prototype of post-Soviet decay, with a monster-size, partly abandoned factory building dominating the valley, and old-fashioned, shabby working-class blocks scattered along a road in poor conditions, where buses dating back to the Soviet middle-ages move people around.

Visiting

Visiting the museum is recommended for all aviation enthusiasts and for those interested in the Cold War. The town is a tourist destination thanks to the beautiful monasteries. The museum and monument can be visited in less than 1 hour by a committed visitor.

Sights in Azerbaijan

Museum Center, Baku

One of the few prominent remains of Soviet Baku, the Museum Center has taken over the former building of the Lenin Museum, born in the the early 1960s to celebrate the achievements of communism in the USSR (?).

Today this relatively small building hosts several institutions, including a museum on the history of Azerbaijan. The latter includes many pics and smaller artifacts from older and more recent history. Among them, mock-ups of the famous statues in Berlin-Treptow (see here) as well as the one in Volgograd can be found. The museum covers also the contribution to the history of the country made by the influential Heydar Aliyev, a former member of the Soviet Politburo and first president of newborn Azerbaijan.

However, the Soviet roots of the building are clearly visible in the details of parts of the decoration, which include hammer and sickles on the facade as well as inside. The Soviet-neoclassic architecture of the exterior, and some evident miscalculations in the size of the stairs inside (the ceiling is embarrassingly low!), are other distinctive features of communist design.

Visiting

Centrally located along the nice seaside park, this museum is worth a visit for the small art collection and for the history exhibit. Visiting may take about 45 minutes for the committed visitor.

Martyrs’ Lane and Shehidlar Monument, Baku

Despite not dating to the Cold War, this monument is strongly bound to the Soviet impact on the history of Azerbaijan – in particular, to the victims of Soviet military actions.

The annexation of Azerbaijan by hand of the Bolsheviks was fiercely opposed by the population, and many lost their lives trying to stop the attack of the communists. A first memorial for them was erected here, wiped out soon after when the Bolsheviks finally gained control of the area.

A small monument from Soviet time can be seen in the area, from the time of WWII.

A more recent episode in the closing stages of the Cold war, largely forgotten in the West, was the brief but bloody war fought by Azerbaijan against the agonizing USSR, which militarily invaded the region of Baku to prevent secession. Many were killed in the so-called Black January of 1990.

Today’s monument, made of an alley with graves and an eternal flame, is rather scenic but not excessively pompous.

The location is really gorgeous, with a stunning view of Baku and the gulf in the Caspian Sea, as well as of the iconic Flame Towers.

Visiting

Reaching is easy with the funicular starting from downtown Baku. Highly recommended for both the significance of the place and for the panorama.

House of Soviets & Other buildings

The government of the Azerbaijan SSR operated from a stately building, designed in a purely Soviet formal style, and completed under Stalin after WWII. A statue of Lenin originally ahead of the building was demolished following the independence war in 1990 and the secession from the USSR. The building still retains an official role, hosting some ministries of Azerbaijan.

In the peripheries of the pretty big town of Baku, more typically Soviet alleys, architectures… and cars can be easily found. These are in striking contrast with the hyper-futuristic architectures of the big central district, dominated by the iconic Flame Towers.