Making Victory Count: Giving meaning to Shushi’s liberation

On May 9, 1992, the day after the liberation of Shushi, when the smell of gunpowder had not yet given way to the smell of incense rising on prayers for peace, rebuilding began in the nearly destroyed and desecrated Ghazanchetsots church.


Azeris had turned the church into a munitions dump, but a special mass for the dead was a rebirth for Shushi that continues these 20 years later. Shushi was built as a fortress. Until a century ago it played a significant role in the cultural and economic life of not only Nagorno Karabakh, but also the entire South Caucasus. The war of 1991-94 nearly razed it.

Today large-scale construction gradually but surely heals the town’s wounds and dreams of a “cultural capital” are coming into view.

Karabakh’s Minister of Culture and Youth Affairs Narine Aghabalian says that today there is a need to put a new face on mental images of Karabakh, and Shushi could be the calling card to change perceptions.

“The international community associates the name of Nagorno Karabakh only to an unresolved conflict. We must try and change that and present ourselves as a country with millennia-old historical and cultural heritage that today embraces pan-national humanitarian values. Developing culture is very important in this sense,” says the minister.

While immediately after the war Karabakh had to pay more attention to the most vital problems of survival, now the proud republic is developing a strategy for cultural development in 2013-2017.
It is not a coincidence that Shushi was chosen to become a cultural center – it will be history repeating itself.

From 1827-1920, Shushi had five printing houses publishing more than 150 titles a year. Shushi also had a number of educational institutions, such as Karabakh’s Armenian Diocesan School (1838), Our Lady College for Young Women (1864), Urban College (1875), Non-classical Secondary School (1881), Mariam Ghukasian Royal Gymnasium for Girls (1894) and 10 other schools and educational establishments. Shushi’s theatrical life began in 1865. The well-known Khandamirian Theater opened in 1891 and would become regionally-famous.

“After the war we restored Ghazanchetsots and already could breathe more easily, but the town was still in ruins, which put potential visitors and settlers off. We were highlighting these problems, saying that Shushi should enjoy the splendor of a cultural town that it once was,” says Aghabalian, adding that today the Shushi Restoration Program has been launched due to the Hayastan All-Armenian Fund and Diaspora donors and a series of cultural projects have been carried out in Shushi in recent years.

Ministry with a mission

Among the major steps toward cultural revival was the relocation of the Ministry of Culture and Youth Affairs from Stepanakert to Shushi.

In 1912, the Mariam Ghukasian Royal Gymnasium for Girls was built on one of the central streets of Shushi. It was destroyed during the Karabakh war. But exactly 100 years later, in October this year, it was reopened as the Ministry of Culture and Youth Affairs. Its renovation was financed by Moscow-based donor Konstantin Manukian who, with other Diaspora, shares the dream of Shusi’s cultural restoration.

Minister Aghabalian says that some of the cultural programs will move to Shushi and different events will be organized in the town, which will also encourage more tourism.

“Those who visit Shushi know that there is also the Ministry of Culture here, which by itself generates interest. And now many traveling from Yerevan to Stepanakert will not bypass Shushi, but will come and see the town,” says the minister.

Aghabalian says the town is gradually unyoking the burden of the ruins and regaining its former spiritual, cultural, and educational image.

Before the Karabakh Movement, in 1988, Shushi had a population of 15,000. Today, the town has about 4,100 residents, most of whom are refugees from Baku, Kirovabad and some Armenian-populated territories that are now part of Azerbaijan.

Today, Shushi has one basic school and one high school along with three music schools.

The first music school in Shushi opened just six months after the liberation of the town – in November 1992. It was housed in the building of one of the half-empty secondary schools.

At that time the school had only four sections: piano, violin, clarinet and vocal art. It was attended by less than three dozen students.

In 2002, one of the old buildings in the center of the town was provided for the Shushi Music School, and in 2004 it was totally repaired due to the funds provided by U.S.-based Karabakh natives Hakob and Hilda Baghdassarian.

Shushi Children’s Music School Director Razmik Harutiunian says that today the school has as many as 10 sections: piano, vocal art, clarinet, trumpet, violin, accordion, drum, kanon (a string instrument), shvi (flute) and duduk.

Today the school has branches in four villages of the Shushi province. It has a total of 164 students, including 22 who attend classes in villages.

“Musical education is very important in general, as due to it children can develop their aesthetic tastes,” says Harutiunian. “Not everyone will continue their education in music, but this musical education will definitely have an impact in their lives.” Last year five of the school’s 15 graduates chose to continue higher education in the field of music.

The part of Shushi called the Internal Quarter, which suffered the most during the war and still bears traces of mass destruction, is seeing active construction these days, with a prospect of becoming a student quarter in a couple of years’ time.

Growing a future

If Shushi is bound to be a cultural capital, it might also serve as a center of Karabakh’s other great potential, agriculture.

The war-damaged building of the former technical school is being reconstructed to reopen as the Agrarian University of Artsakh, next September.

In 2008, the Agrarian faculty was separated from Artsakh State University and, through cooperation with the Agrarian University of Armenia, the Agrarian University of Artsakh was established.

Around 2,000 students attend the University, which is now housed in one of the decrepit buildings of Stepanakert.

Dean of the university’s Faculty of Agrarian Biology and Economics Artak Ghulian says the new building which is under construction today will be a unique facility in the South Caucasus due to its conditions and laboratory equipment.

“The new building is very important to the university as we will get an opportunity to include more narrowly specialized directions in the curriculum,” says Ghulian. He adds that a vocational training center will also be affiliated with the Agrarian University.

A new building is rising next to the agricultural academy. The Stepanakert Vocational College is due to move into this building when its construction is finished.

Not far away is a 1977-built hostel, which has housed the State Humanitarian College named after distinguished educator Arsen Khachatrian, since 1994.

Today the college has a number of departments, with 310 students, 145 who attend classes and the rest who study remotely.

College Director Ara Hairapetian says that about 45 students are enrolled in the College’s cultural departments.

“We participate in all cultural events that take place in Karabakh, often organize separate exhibitions, concerts,” says Hairapetian, showing in his room what he describes as Karabakh’s and Armenia’s largest Gobelin tapestry that depicts old Shushi, made by last year’s graduates.

Hairapetian says the college is likely to move to another location next year because the hostel building will be reconstructed according to French standards through a joint effort of the French branch of the All-Armenian Fund and the NKR Government and will become one of the best student hostels in the region.

During Soviet times the hostel could house up to 450 students, but after total renovation the capacity will be for 190 students, as the level of convenience and amenities will be significantly improved.

Pictures, parks, priority

Shushi Mayor Karen Avagimian, who has headed the town since 2009, says that in the initial period after the war the state did not have so many opportunities to make Shushi a point of special attention, but during the last 5-6 years Shushi has become a priority.

“The relocation of infrastructure to Shushi to make it an educational and student center also helps restore the town’s old, historic, but now-rundown buildings,” says the mayor. “After the relocation of student infrastructure, life in Shushi will become more active, cultural centers will operate, the town population will increase.”

Through Nareg Hartounian’s efforts and funding, the Narekatsi Art Union has operated in Shushi since 2006. The Union’s 12 groups bring together more than 50 people of different ages who are fond of arts.

Several theaters that functioned in Karabakh before the war have united today into one, the Mkrtich Khandamirian Drama Theater. At present, 12 students from Shushi are taking acting classes at the Goris branch of the Yerevan State Theater and Cinema Institute to join the Shushi theater troupes after their studies.
The theater today is operating at the Culture and Youth Center, which was Shushi’s former Cinema House, but in 2012 was completely renovated and furnished due to the Hayastan All-Armenian Fund and its Canadian-Armenian donors.

Two other buildings are currently being reconstructed in Shushi. One is to become a Geology Museum that will display a collection of rare minerals of Academician Grigor Gabrieliants (advisor to the NKR President, the USSR’s last Minister of Geology).

The other building will house a Picture Gallery, for which, again with Gabrieliants’ support, more than 400 canvases have already been collected.

Behind the Picture Gallery a park of statues is being created. These statues have been collected during two recent symposiums of sculptors held in Shushi. Sculptors and artists from Italy, Japan, Belgium, Belarus and other countries had come to the town to attend the symposiums.

Moscow-based Karabakh native Sergey Sargsian also decided to contribute to the restoration of Shushi and established the Picture Gallery.

Today’s building of the Picture Gallery has a history of about 200 years and is one of the oldest buildings in the town. Beginning from 1828 the building housed the first printing house in Shushi, which was the third largest printing house in the entire region, but during the Soviet years the building housed trade unions. The building was destroyed by fire during the war, with its standing walls badly damaged.

A new three-storey building made according to the old one’s pattern is rising today. The Picture Gallery will have two large exhibition halls.

Sargis Galstian, a representative of the Picture Gallery founders, says it was established within the framework of an investment program, but the $284,000 funding earmarked for the programs was too small a sum for such a huge project. Eventually, twice as much was spent for it.

“The Picture Gallery will not be for permanent exhibitions, it will periodically offer displays on different subjects, by various artists. Visitors will be able to see something new all the time,” says Galstian, who adds that there are also plans to organize children’s exhibitions and the best participants of such exhibitions will be provided with assistance for their further education.

Although the building’s official opening is scheduled for 2013, in October 2012 it already managed to host the Shushi Art Project, an unprecedented cultural event for Karabakh.

Not far from the Picture Gallery is one of the first constructions of Shushi - the 1810-built Post Office building. It was restored by the Avan Company in 2011 and now the building houses a museum of antique-style carpets and rugs.

About 160 carpets on exhibition, the oldest of which is 270 years old, are a private collection of presidential adviser Vardan Astsatrian.

“Artsakh has always been a carpet-weaving center, and because today it is a little bit forgotten fact, the main goal of the establishment of this museum was to help restore historical justice and the Artsakh carpets brand,” says Astsatrian. He adds that Karabakh’s carpets and rugs differ from Persian and Arab symmetric ones by their dynamics, as Karabakh carpets depict an image that has a beginning and an end.

If you build it, they will come

Hotels are also important prerequisites for the development of local cultural life. Shushi has four. Two have opened in the last couple of years. The history of one of them, reopened after reconstruction, dates back to the 19th century.

During the times of Tsarist Russia, in 1831 Borzhom Hotel was built in Shushi, which, however, was destroyed in the 1920s and in 1970 what would later become the well-known Karabakh Hotel was built in the same place.

Although the building was not affected by shelling during the war, it still was plundered and damaged otherwise. Years ago, it became property of the Avan Company, among whose shareholders are Armenian-American philanthropists Alec Baghdasarian, Shirak Amian and others (who also renovated Shushi’s Oriental Bath and Oriental Market). That company undertook to renovate the building and in March 2011 it turned into a modern 11-storey hotel, Avan Shoushi Plaza.

During the summer months the hotel provides an average of about 40 jobs, with monthly salaries at around $170. It receive about 1,000-1,200 guests, while in wintertime the number of guests drops to 200, and only 28 staff are employed.

“Besides receiving guests we also host various cultural events, such as the recent events celebrating the 500th anniversary of printing, various meetings, conferences, etc. That is, the hotel also has its role in the development of cultural life,” says Avan Shoushi Plaza manager Sargis Galstian.

Today, in Shushi there are many locked gates and half-ruined buildings with arched windows that fall into more decay as time goes on and turn into garbage dumps. But next to these buildings are others under repair, and next to those, bright and modern new ones.

It was a town with a legacy of culture, replaced by a legacy of war. Today, strong efforts are afoot to switch the prominence of those legacies, and to see fallen Shushi rise.

“We should be able to make our attitude towards Shushi equivalent to that pride that the liberation of this town granted to every Armenian, in every corner of the world,” Karabakh’s Minister of Culture and Youth Affairs Aghabalian says. “The problem was not only liberating Shushi, perhaps more important than that has been restoring Shushi to make that victory meaningful.”