It is a regular mantra - “in Soviet times everything was better” or “In Soviet times we did this or that…” Twenty-five years since the communist design melted, either longing for it or loathing it is still common among citizens of any country across the post-Soviet space.
For 20-something Armenians, what the USSR was is mainly a series of blurred childhood memories, yet a sense of nostalgia for what-is-no-longer lingers and Soviet Union-themed cafes have mushroomed in Armenia’s capital Yerevan. They attract a large crowd, mainly youngsters. Many boast simple, minimal design which has become synonymous of the Soviet interior, or retro design, with basic furniture and at times, Soviet memorabilia.
Jean Paul existential cafe
Take Jean Paul existential cafe. Named after the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, the cafe’ looks like a typical Soviet apartment, with a large living room and hospitable kitchen. Celebrating the communist ideology was far from Narek Bakhtamyan’s intentions. The 28-year-old owner rebuffs the pervasive mindset his parents lived through and of which he barely has any recollection. The Soviets used and abused people’s freedom, he says - as Sartre’s existentialism acclaimed the freedom of the individual human being, he wants his cafe’ to be a place where people do not feel under any pressure.
For 22-year-old journalist Aren Melikyan, a regular customer, notes there is no need to think of resuscitating the USSR as “Russia has already taken up that role.”
12 tables cafe
The smoking-free 12 tables cafe boosts some of the city’s best tea leaves, just a few yards away from the Opera. Popular among youngsters, it features an eccentric Soviet interior. Lilit Martirosyan, an architect and a regular of the cafe, has no direct recollection of the USSR but the 23-year-old is not short of stories from from her mother and grandmother, who has been living in the US for almost 20 years. “[My grandmum] didn’t like the Soviet Union, even though she was free to travel to the US [she had close relatives living there]. There was almost no good food easily accessible, people could buy quality food only at a premium.”
Lilit associates the USSR with simplicity - a TV set was for life, for example, you would not get a second one in your lifetime.
“People lived in a prison state, they were obliged to have a certain taste and already-set wishes. “The Beatles” were forbidden, people were instead obliged to listen to Alla Pugachova [the USSR’s most famous singer].” Yet, Lilit is nostalgic.
Samvel Poghosyan’s grandfather was a builder and used to share anecdotes with Samvel was a child. “My grandfather used to steal from the state and had a wealthy life.” Shortage was a daily word - lack of food, clothes, etc. meant people would get the basics through connections or embezzle items from their workplace.
Samvel spent hours listening to his grandfather’s stories, full of anecdotes and gossip. He liked repeating that, “it was not true that there was no sex in the USSR.” In Soviet times “sex” was a dirty word, charged with negative connotations. In1986Liudmila Ivanova, a popular actress, said in a TV show, US-Soviet Space Bridge, that "there is no sex in USSR...there is love." The last part of the sentence though was cut and the first part became a popular catch phrase, up to now.
“Ask my grandpa and women from the nearby street, they will confirm that there was sex,” smiles Samvel.
The prototype of a Soviet cafe, Temurnots (Temur’s Place) used to serve the best beer in town - until 1978. In November 2016 the cafe reopened, on the same premises, maintaining the same details as much as possible. Temur’s Plate, a dish of fried potatoes and sausages, is a big hit, like it was in the cafe’s of the Soviet heydays. Ruben Harutyunyan, 30, Gurgen Mkhitaryan, 31, Davit Grigoryan, 32, are fond of the cafe.