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Portal to another time

Once, the dilapidated hotel on Lake Sevan in Armenia was a fashionable place for Soviet Union writers. On the way into the driveway it has become 1962.


Vitalij's stomach tipped over the waistband. He says something in Russian that I don't understand, and I deliver the few words I can: "Will I – one night – one room – please?" Vitalij's body sighs, and he looks up at the hotel he manages, it flows like a mother ship in the sky. We stand at the landing place, behind us the sea of ​​Sevan waves against a rocky beach. Armenia's Riviera, or at least it could have been so. And once it was just that.

The future of the past

To this hotel came the great writers of the Soviet Union to rest, invited by the Armenian Writers' Association of the Armenian Socialist Soviet Republic. It was the association that owned the hotel and nicknamed it "The Author's House".

Foreign writers also visited the place. Simone de Beauvoir was here with Jean-Paul Sartre. They were inspired by the "deep blue, almost bottomless lake" and the "pinkish, chaotic desert".

And of the hotel itself: on a small island in the sea, with whitewashed walls against gray-painted stone shrines, clean lines and arches. A monument to the 1900 century's avant-garde fantasies, an icon of Khrushchev's modernism, a space-age symbol waving to the universe where Gagarin orbited the Earth in 108 minutes.

In high heels, the woman descends the stairs towards the water's edge. As if there were still a beach there, not a parking lot with rusty umbrellas in a bunch.

“We were first! Our man is in space! 'Cried the Soviet people. That was in 1961. The following year, the hotel was expanded with a restaurant – the spaceship that hovers over Vitalij's shiny skull, and mine. Built for the future, the one that would be so beautiful to the people who would conquer both the world and space.

Time and space

Vitalij hooks two keys in a closet and yells at one or the other. Even the heavy body has no will to scratch the spiral stairs; it will be the laundry help that shows me into what she calls the "de luxe suite".

Here, the paint is crying big flakes, the window panes are cracked, and the smell of wet brick and old carpets creeps into the nasal passages. Large cracks run along the concrete walls. Outside, the pine trees have grown large and hide the view behind the green crowns.

Maybe another room? We circle up the serpentine stairs to the upper floor to look at the standard room. Number 8 opens in shades of orange and brown. An old thick screen stands on a small table, an ant trail moves up the wallpaper, over the window sill and disappears. I test the sink in the bathroom; just a little water in the tap.

Ok? asks the woman with the keys. It is difficult to answer "yes", it all seems frightening. But behind the polyester curtains, the mountains rise, the sea is black, it is blue and the landscape is colored by rust, as Vasily Grosman wrote when he lived here. So I say yes and pay 15 drams, not for the room, but to sleep one night in the Soviet Union.

Soviet Man

The door leaves behind me. Out of the suitcase I pick The end for the red man by Svetlana Aleksijevich, the Nobel Prize winner from Belarus. Taking it out on the balcony, studies the concrete that has fallen off into large pieces. It's far to the ground. An elderly lady in floral dress stands down in the abyss. The hair is bleached blonde, tied in a knot at the back, barely visible under the hat with wide brim and light blue ribbon. The red toenails are visible all the way here. In high heels, the bag dangling from her arm, she descends the stairs toward the water's edge. As if there were still a beach there, not a parking lot with rusty umbrellas in a bunch. As if the hotel was yet Stalin's pride.

She doesn't seem to mind the decay around her. No one here seems to notice. Vitalij is watching TV at the reception. On the porch are tanned bodies in swimwear and bikini, a girl blowing up a beach ball. In the market outside, old medals and stars are sold, the symbols of a union where money was almost banned, at least despised.

But for the guests of the hotel everything is as before. Do they see themselves as hotel guests, as depicted in the old photographs at the reception? Before the paint peeled, the concrete crumbled and the windows cracked? Are the Soviet people, the ones I read about in Aleksijevich's book, the ones who are longing back?

«My memories… They will not take from me, neither communists, democrats nor stockbrokers. They are mine! Only mine! In our old Zhiguli we traveled all over the Soviet Union: I have seen Karelia, Lake Sevan and the Pamir Mountains. My homeland Soviet Union. There is a lot I can do without. The only thing I can not do without is what was. "

Portal to another time

The hotel is disintegrating, as the regime itself did. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 came with freedom, but "for our people, freedom was the spectacle of a monkey: no one knows what to do with it," Aleksijevich writes.

With freedom came also the decay of what was: iconic buildings collapse all over the old commonwealth. In Armenia, I travel past swimming pools, sports facilities, hotels and office buildings – all weather. Fantastic constructions that testify to great ambitions. It lacks the finances, or perhaps the will, to save this part of the story. The remains stand as ruins after what was, as portals to another time.

In the country that was first out in space, there were many black holes.

What would the writers who lived here have written if they came here this summer? Maybe nothing. Being a writer during the Soviet regime was no joke. Many of those who vacationed in the "House of the Author" were sent to labor camps in Siberia. Several never returned. Others got their books censored and declared "non-persons."

Even the hotel's two architects were arrested just after the first guests took up the magnificent building in 1937. They were to spend 15 years in a prison camp in Norilsk before being "rehabilitated" after Stalin's death. Also in the country that was first out in space, there were many black holes.

Now and then

It's been night. Up the cliff, the rooms cling, the spaceship glows in the dark. Swimsuits hang dry from the balconies, as Simone de Beauvoirs once did. Maybe she was staying in my room.

On the other side of the wall I hear a woman shout. I walk out onto the balcony, we stand on each of our birdboards, we are so close that we can touch each other. The woman says something in Russian, something about a towel, that's the only word I understand. I turn my hands to the night sky and say in Russian, "I don't know."

I can see in her eyes that she is drunk, and a little later I wake up laughing loudly at some words coming from a dark voice. Maybe a story about red people.

Then I fall asleep on the pillow of the swans from a stereo far away. When I wake up, it's still too early, but I get up, put the key in the rental car and drive back to 2018.

Read more:

Ekaterina Shapiro-Obermair, Catherine Ritter: Soviet Modernism 1955–1991: Unknown History. Park Books, 2013. And Svetlana Aleksijevich: The end for the red man. Kagge Publishing House, 2015

avatar photos
Anne Håskoll-haugen
Håskoll-Haugen is a freelance journalist,

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