A couple of weeks ago, Jacob and I drove out through Echmiadzin to Metsamor. No reason -- we just wanted to take a Sunday drive. Echmiadzin is the home of the Catholikos, the patriarch of the Armenian Church. It's like a mini-Vatican in the lower Caucasus. Deserves a post of its own. Metsamor is the home of the Soviet-era nuclear power plant plus a major archeological site, a large Bronze Age town. That deserves a separate post too. And then there was the memorial to the Yugoslav fliers.
Background: in December 1988, Armenia got hit with a devastating earthquake. It destroyed much of Gyumri, the second largest city. Killed over 20,000 people and made around half a million homeless. (Twenty years later, there are still some earthquake refugees living in "temporary" housing.) The disaster was so huge that the USSR broke with 70 years of tradition and allowed international assistance. Money, food, and medicine flowed in from all over the world. One donor was Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia was teetering on the edge of its own breakup, but it still had another year or two to live. So they send a plane full of medical supplies... and it crashed, just outside of Echmiadzin. All eight men on board were killed. The Armenians built them a memorial. First, the setting. The memorial is a couple of miles outside Echmiadzin on the main highway to Metsamor. This corner of Armenia is steppe. Or rather, God intended it to be steppe, but the Armenians use it for dryland farming. Think of a two-lane road going through one of the more run-down bits of Nebraska. Okay, Nebraska doesn't have any 15,000 foot extinct volcanoes looming over the horizon, but otherwise it's very like. There's even a shallow little creek where frogs croak and swallows dart for bugs. You could imagine Ma, Pa and Laura stepping out of a sod hut any moment. I wouldn't say it's pretty, exactly, but it's peaceful. Second, the memorial. There is no nice way to say this. It's hideous. Awful. Soviet memorials tended to be either pompous and arrogant, or squat and graceless. But in the final years of the USSR, much was allowed that had long been forbidden, and public sculptors were allowed to experiment with abstraction. The result, in this case, is dreadful. It's sort of a jumble of aluminum blocks -- wreckage, right, got that -- with a couple of vaguely birdlike forms plunging through them. It's a big thing, six or seven meters high. Which just makes it worse. I haven't been able to find a picture online, but, you know, that's probably a good thing. I don't think there's a direct link between the quality of public monuments and the health of the societies that created them. Still... looking at that, you can't help but thinking /the nation that did this simply fell apart soon thereafter/. Third, there are the flowers. There are a lot of them. Armenians are... I don't know if this is the right word, but... a memorious people. And though twenty years have passed, they're still remembering the foreigners who came to help and died trying. It's really something. Finally, there are the flyers. There are eight names, and here's an interesting thing: they all seemed to be Serbs. You can't be 100% sure from last names, of course; Serbs and Croats and Montenegrins share a lot of last names, and they also intermarried. But all the names looked pretty Serbian. If it was a military flight, that might make sense -- the career military was always top-heavy with Serbs. So there it is: a memorial from a nation that no longer exists, built to thank another nation that no longer exists, abstract, ugly, but still bedecked with flowers. Next time you're on the road to Metsamor, stop and check it out.