Lusine Hovhannisyan

Revisiting the Past: The Last Stop on Yerevan’s Southside

One of the giants of Soviet-era industry, the HayElectro Plant, is shown here in its present state; on the southern outskirts of Yerevan.

It’s a skeleton of its former glory, surrounded by vacant fields and bus depots.

The plant, a major polluter, was targeted by a budding movement for democratization in Armenia. We demanded the plant’s closure. It and other factories did close. But it was not due to the activists, but rather because the Soviet internal manufacturing network had collapsed.

This strange and unattractive manufacturing giant is very familiar to me. I had the chance to see it every day for a full year. My mother worked at the All-Union Research Institute of Complex Electro-Computing as an engineer. (The institute is located close to the plant)

As a child, I had difficulty getting accepted to the institute’s kindergarten. But I did, and thus have a partial impression of what life was like within the industrial giant.

As the name implies, institute was not merely a Soviet Armenian project. It attracted scientists, and their families, from all over the Soviet Union. The kindergarten reflected such diversity. I can say that the children of Russian laborers were different, in character, from children of engineers. The latter were more self-confident, calm and content.

The Proletarian Cultural Union of the Russian working class was still strong and able to issue warnings, push its concept of right and wrong, use force and strive for power.  Events held at the kindergarten were serious affairs. You had your parents and their colleagues attending.

One of my memories from kindergarten is my first-grade school bag that I received at graduation time, and a portfolio of terrible watercolors I had painted. Once, we were told to paint a person. Given that watercolors tend to drip and spread, the legs of the man I painted extended far out from his pants.

The children’s paintings were always hung on the wall of the classroom. Parents could thus visit and marvel at the creative skills of their kids. I’ve kept that watercolor of mine until today.

Given that the institute was adjacent to, but somewhat removed from the HayElectro Plant, it’s aesthetics overshadowed the unattractive activity within the industrial behemoth.

Institute staffers had to show a pass to gain entry. Being late was frowned upon. Passes would be seized. One of the entryway guards was an Azerbaijani, so staffers learnt a few words in his native language to get on his good side.

The institute was managerially top heavy. Each sector and unit had a head honcho. The vast majority of researchers and scientists worked quite diligently. Of course, there were a special few, wives of top managers, who could arrive late and not be penalized. They were also given a lighter workload and received higher wages.

All the women had drawers in their desk, where the most important items of feminine life were kept. First, nail polish. In Soviet times, shortages were so constant that it they became normal. Nail polish shortages, forced women to get creative. They would place a few drops of red or blue pen ink into the bottles to extend the polish. The ritual of painting their nails took place with their hands shoved in the desk drawers. Managers roaming the halls, would look through the top glass of the doors, to check up on the staff.

Another important item kept in the drawer was the "IL", the "Inostrannaya Literatura" magazine. Women just had to be the first to read the great works printed inside.   

The other activity taking place in those drawers was checking out fabrics and mohair yarn, quite rare in those years. In a country of shortages, colorful mohair yarn appeared in stores. Women were very well groomed and wanted to look their best, even thought they had to show up for work at eight in the morning at the institute entrance at the south end of the city. Even during periodic shortages, everyone occasionally flaunted a Lancome face powder compact or some French Fiji and Clima perfume. They were clever women. Many were from various Soviet cities. Some of the Armenians hailed from towns outside Yerevan. There were also Armenian repatriate women with their unique pastries, customs and words. They were cultured and erudite. There were also young women from Armenia’s provinces who wanted to learn from the others and mimic them.

The women engineers had a rough time of it when they were sent out, in the bitter cold or sweltering heat, to fix some problem in the plant. But they went compliantly, stealthily changing their high heeled shoes under the desk for something more appropriate. There was a pair of such shoes under each desk; just in case.

The institute had everything – a gym, tennis court, health clinic, cafeteria and cinema.

Staffers were obliged to have a physical at regular intervals. Women would sometimes buy something from the cafeteria to take home. Otherwise, they would gather at a large table in the laboratory at have lunch. It would be a mélange of foods from Yerevan, around the Soviet Union, and the Armenian diaspora.

Sometimes, late in the evening, the institute would show quality films in the hall. Staffers and relatives would make a beeline to the last station of Yerevan’s southside to watch films at that unusual hour. Vladimir Vysotsky, the Russian singer-songwriter and actor, once gave a concert at the institute. The place was packed to the rafters.

Vysotsky sang in the auditorium on the top floor, where those three empty windows appear 

The HayElectro Plant fell into disuse after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

It was a few days ago that I wanted to visit the site, thirty years on.

I first went to the departmental kindergarten. Its windows resembled a long showcase. You could see everything going on from the outside. It’s now a residential site. The glass windows have been replaced with regular metal-plastic ones.

The institute’s entry, once a busy site, is now empty. I saw no one at the site. The health clinic’s leather sofa was outside, in the yard. The entrance to the hallway was almost impassable. The windows of the former hall, where Vysotsky sang, rocking the walls, were black and open. The giant yard was divided into units, and these smaller sections were cut off by Chinese walls.  It was as if each unit was building an atomic bomb, and that the other sections shouldn’t know about it.  

The HayElectro Plant resembled an extinct dinosaur’s skeleton. This giant, which once employed thousands, is now a closed page of history. This “all-union” institute was unable to survive once the union collapsed.

The equipment and machines drafted in the institute, and manufactured in the plant, were sent throughout the Soviet Union, to the various republics. The raw materials and parts were imported from around the Soviet Union as well. It was a process of interdependency.

The Soviet hierarchy had devised it in such a way to stave off any degree of independence in the “fraternal republics”. When the country collapsed, there was no more factory or product. There was no more demand for thousands of workers and engineers.

The gates of the factory were now being blown back and forth by the wind. Back in the day, it was the spot where Yerevan’s public system disgorged thousands going to work.

I saw no one at the HayElectro Plant. The drivers of two public vans were waiting for passengers. They were surprised to see me casually walk by and head further into the barren depths to photograph the hulking dinosaur skeleton.

Even the most skilled of institute former staffers went unemployed.  Some wound up selling meat and cheese pies in Spandaryan Square. Others sell handmade mousetraps at the Vernissage Market. Still others found work at places where their university-level technical skills are never needed.

Each of these scientific institutes has its own story to tell. A story characteristic of a country as cruel and strict, and at the same time, sordid, as the Soviet Union.