Gyumri: A Century of Textile

Illustration by Armine Shahbazyan

2021: It is 8 a.m. and we are at a relative’s house in Gyumri. It is at this time that the machines at the textile workshop next door start working. The deafening noise fills the “cold room”.[1] The neighbor cannot—or does not want to—move his workshop. After persistent demands, he did install some sound isolation that muffles the noise a bit. And that’s how our relative will continue to live—unsatisfied with the neighbor’s efforts at coexistence, but unwilling to get the courts involved.

And now, imagine the thousands of people working (and living) peacefully under the clatter and clamor of hundreds of textile machines during the Soviet years: the masters of textile workshops, sub-masters, weavers, and simple laborers. At that time in the USSR, Leninakan (Gyumri) – the “city of masters” – was the center of Armenia’s textile industry.

When Armenia first declared its independence on May 28, 1918, Gyumri – back then Alexandrapol – was under Turkish (Ottoman) occupation and would remain so for another seven months. Moreover, at the time of the proclamation of Soviet rule in Armenia, the city had been looted twice. Firstly, the Russian army had left, taking with them military supplies and their personal belongings. Some of the wealthy Armenians had also fled.

Their homes were ‘squatted’ by Turks who, when they left, took away the stock, seeds, furniture, the shop contents, even the doors and the windows of not only the city but the entire province. In the months following the upheaval, the former Russian military bases—the posts of Kazachi, Seversky, and Polygon—were filled with tens of thousands of migrants and orphans.

In November 1921, Alexander Myasnikyan, the Chairman (Prime Minister) of the Council of People’s Commissars of Armenia wrote in the Soviet Armenia daily newspaper that “Soviet Armenia received a perverted and dehumanized people consisting of migrants and the poor.

This is not an exaggeration, but a fact. She received an army of hundreds of thousands of orphans and emaciated children. Our country is a place of orphans and migrants; this is a hell of sorrow, grief, mourning, and suffering.” But he hoped, nevertheless, that “no matter what, the workers’ Armenia will turn that hell into a humane environment.”[2]

It was that “army” of orphans that became the living force of Leninakan’s textile industry. Their number exceeded the number of able-bodied people in the city.

In his 1920 report, U.S. Army Colonel William N. Haskell wrote, “We have also acquired large barracks from the Armenian government, where we will concentrate 50,000-60,000 migrants who will work on the roads or do community service, to reduce their living expenses.

There are 13,225 orphans in the 49 orphanages of Russian Armenia. Together with the women, they are engaged in light industrial work, which, we hope, will cover their living expenses when exports from the Caucasus begin soon.”[3] The American officer corps, led by Haskell, began distributing the first aid in Alexandropol.

The starving and scrawny children of the “Orphan City”, regardless of their age, needed to be taught skills they could use for employment, which would be vital for their survival. Their lives still had to be saved, since their ration of daily bread was coming from across the ocean and would not last forever.

In early 1922, Myasnikyan met Ernest Yarrow, an American missionary who later oversaw the efforts of the orphanages. During the meeting, Myasnikyan remarked that due to the destruction of manual machines during the war, it would take a long time before the country was able to produce textiles in pre-war quantities and that textile production would not be sufficient for at least two years, due to a shortage of sheep stock and the lack of finances to import cotton.

He expressed his satisfaction that the Near East Foundation (NEF), which oversaw the orphanages, was teaching the ancient art of weaving, as it can “help the hundreds of women of the new generation to keep the country self-sufficient and will help replace the skilled weavers who died during the war.”[4]

In January 1922, another 20 looms were added to the existing six in the orphan city’s weaving class, which would employ an additional 1,000 children. The first 1,000 girls worked in the morning and went to classes during the day, while the next 1,000 replaced them at the looms.[5]

In December 1921, the Kazachi Post received 15 sewing machines; within a few weeks, the orphans sewed 1,915 hats, 13,803 pairs of socks, and 1,307 sweaters. All the clothes they sewed were worn by the 6,000 children of the Kazachi Post and almost all of the 3,000 children in Alexandropol.

Every week, 18,000 pairs of socks were patched, and old clothes sent from the United States were modified. These old clothes even came to be used as a currency, facilitating trade in the city. Art critic Vigen Galstyan recalls that in his 1930 film “Yerkir Nairi”, director Hamo Bek-Nazaryan includes a surreal scene where a farmer is plowing a field wearing a tailcoat.

Most of the industrial training programs for girls consisted of skills they could use as future housewives and mothers. They included sewing, knitting, mattress- and yarn-making lessons. Fifteen sewing teachers worked in the morning and afternoon classes, each with 300 girls. As an example, in the fall of 1921 alone, the orphanage students had sewn thousands of pieces of clothes, underwear, and slippers from old clothing donated by the American people.

The orphans not only took care of their own clothing needs, but also cultivated the land, engaged in cattle breeding, prepared food, and cleaned and maintained their dwellings. This work was the chance for their survival and their living space between Soviet rule and American charity.

By 1926, around 200 orphans (close to 80 percent of the workers) were already employed in Gyumri’s newly-established Textile factory. While these orphans were settling in orphanages or, unable to adapt, throwing themselves into the chaos of their insecure city, Soviet rule and power were being established in Armenia.

At the end of 1922, a group of workers arrived in Armenia from the Russian city of Vichuga, located in the Ivanovo-Voznesensky province, to get acquainted with the country and the workforce. Upon their return, they sent 2,172 spinning machines and about 30 weaving machines to Armenia as a gift to develop the local textile industry.[6]

It was in 1924 that Alexandropol was renamed Leninakan, and its first textile output was produced that year. Another team of specialists from Vichuga set up equipment and trained weavers and spinners. Textile workers also came from Azerbaijan to evaluate the factory workers. The opening of the newly-built textile factory in Leninakan took place in 1928. The first factory training college was established in 1929, and the textile technical school in 1930.

In 1939, the textile kombinat [an industrial plant], named in honor of the May Uprising [a coup attempt by Armenian Bolsheviks that started in Gyumri on May 10, 1920), was put into operation. It united a large spinning mill and a textile factory.

There were 76,000 spindles in the spinning mill alone and 2,264 weaving machines in the textile factory. Workers managed several machines at the same time. Specialists from other parts of the USSR—mainly female spinners and weavers—also worked there.

The May Uprising Textile Kombinat of Leninakan later united 11 enterprises, including the Chkalov sewing factory, the Arshaluys hosiery manufacturing unit, the Lukashin spinning mill, and knitwear factories.

In 1975, the May Uprising Textile Kombinat, the yarn workshop of the Leninakan textile kombinat, the Artik, Kirovakan, and Alaverdi branches were reorganized into a group of enterprises of the Ministry of Light Industry of the Armenian SSR. The headquarters was the May Uprising Textile Kombinat of Leninakan—the largest enterprise in Soviet Armenia’s textile industry.

We spoke briefly about the use of local textiles with Araksya, who moved from Yerevan to Gyumri in the early 1970s. She recalled that you wouldn’t find any clothes made in Gyumri in the shops and it was customary to order them from tailors.

“They would come from the villages and buy underwear and socks from us. The local product was very good. I have worn it, too. The children would wear the tights. They were made of cotton; it was a very good material. They also brought chintz, calico, and fabrics for bedding.

We ordered clothes from seamstresses; everyone had their seamstress. We had special ateliers. You took your fabric; they sewed clothes for you. Whatever you wanted, you could have it sewn. The fabrics were sold in shops and department stores,” she explains.

At the May Uprising Textile Kombinat.

After the earthquake, the quality of tailored clothes wasn’t fit to be worn Araksya says and adds: “At the time, we did not understand… no, it wasn’t a matter of fashion. It was a matter of quality, mastery.”

Nevertheless, the products of the textile kombinat and the other factories were sold in all the republics of the Soviet Union, and many products had received federal quality certification.[8]

The kombinat had a Palace of Culture, the Aragats sports club, nurseries and kindergartens, and a recreation zone.[9] It published its newspapers such as the Harvatsayin Tekstilshchik (1930-1931), Manatsagorts (1931-1959), and Tekstilagorts (1959-unknown).

The textile association’s clubs and cinemas were the favorite family activities for Leninakan’s residents. Leninakan was a city where generations born after World War II led a fulfilling life; it had turned from a “hell” filled with sobbing orphans into a provincial town that combined the traditional and the modern and was well known for its exceptional humor.

A booklet published in 1961 entitled “In Leninakan’s Textile Kombinat” presents the famous textile workers of the kombinat. Almost without exception, they are all former students of the orphanage, who had worked there for decades.

During this time, they started families, raised children, and brought their sons to the factory. Describing daily work life, the author of the booklet, Gabriel Arevyan, mentions the tens of thousands of machines and their constant noise of clacking metal.

Employees inspected and repaired the machinery—consisting of thousands of parts—so that any downtime did not last long. In recalling one of the masters, the head of the weaving plant made an interesting comparison: “In the same way an experienced gardener knows all his trees, our Hovo knows all his machines. The machines are also green, thus this plant looks like a garden. Hovo often says “my garden”. And he sees this “garden” as his own.”

Thousands of people spent most of their lives in the factory; it was their second home. What happened when the factory stopped and their world collapsed? Were they trying to save what was dear to them from destruction by taking, buying, or stealing whatever was left?

Is this why when the Lukashin yarn factory was being pilfered (people were stealing the furniture), a joke went viral: “Who looks like the statue of Lukashin? Take that as well and place it on their grave.”

According to Olga Dikova, whose mother once worked at the kombinat, the “BD” building built by the Bulgarians collapsed with all its equipment during the 1988 earthquake; the workers were inside at the time and did not survive. It was one of the buildings of the Leninakan hosiery factory—the Chulochni—where the machines were located on higher floors. The famous textile kombinat built-in 1928 did not suffer significant damage, as it was a one-story structure.

The looting of the factories in the first days of independence is no secret. In answer to a question about the fate of the kombinat following independence on a Facebook group about Gyumri, most people said that whoever stole as much as they could still believe they hadn’t stolen enough.

Some of them recalled how equipment received, both in the final years of the Soviet Union and that which came as aid afterward, was never installed. Some of it was left outside in the snow and rain. Some of it traveled to neighboring countries in closed wagons. And so, again, after 100 years, the city’s wealth flowed toward Turkey—being sold as scrap metal.

During the first years of independence, the factories of this Soviet-era juggernaut were privatized. From 1991-to 1994, the kombinat’s chintz and textile workshops were still in operation. In the late 1990s, a small spinning workshop was still operating. The textile kombinat was declared bankrupt in 2007.

When its assets were being auctioned off, former textile workers, some of whom were single elderly people, were still living in the kombinat’s dormitory. Two female pensioners lived in the dilapidated dormitory until 2020. The kombinat had “adopted” them after World War II. The last “orphans” of the kombinat received social housing last year.

These days, 33 years after the earthquake, the collapsed part of the dormitory (named “Feze” by locals) is finally being dismantled, which will improve the appearance of the street. However, to completely dismantle the building, it is still necessary to reach an agreement with some of the owners.

After the earthquake, the district named in honor of American Mormon benefactor Jon Huntsman was built on one part of the kombinat’s footprint, followed by various kiosks and shops.

Nowadays, Gyumri is being transformed by its vibrant youth, and textile production is beginning to improve. Local textile products have become respected and popular among ordinary consumers; this is the most impressive change: overcoming the fascination with imported goods.

Some small workshops operate in the backyards of producers, in residential areas. It is possible that some of these entrepreneurs once had links with the textile kombinat.

Textile, which built the identity of Soviet Leninakan, remains equally as important during the renaissance of Gyumri. Today, some Armenian clothing brands are trying to create a local field of competition, and Gyumri’s textile industry seems to have its established place and role in that field. Hosiery and underwear produced in Gyumri continue to be very popular.

There are several small ateliers in the city, where they receive orders for alterations and make customized clothes, costumes and uniforms. There is also another interesting production company that is inspired by Shirak’s natural landscape – the ‘Ochre’ brand of decorative woolen blankets.

Established by Moscow-based museum specialist Anush Zeynalyan, this boutique line is a collaborative effort between weavers from Amasia and contemporary artists from Gyumri. However, due to unregistered organizations and individuals, it is difficult to provide accurate statistics on production volumes and actual consumption in the local market.

Moving to the realm of symbolism, we can state that, in its search for ways to develop (domestic tourism, beer production, development of air and railway communications), this conservative city confidently continues the traditions of the textile industry, which in turn inspires new initiatives.

Research of the article is supported by the OCHRE line of textile products.

Footnotes

[1] They still call it the “cold room” because it was the coldest room in the house during the energy shortage of the 1990s.
[2] Nercessian, N., City of Orphans: Relief Workers, Commissars and the “Builders of the New Armenia”, Hollis Publishing, 2016
[3] Ibid, p. 63.
[4] Ibid, Chapter 7, footnote 608.
[5] Ibid, p. 228։
[6] Another source lists 1,600 machines.
[7] Arevyan, G., In Leninakan’s Textile Kombinat, p. 28։
[8] The Soviet mark for the certification of quality (1967-1991), which was used on consumer, production, and technical goods or their packages and containers, as well as accompanying documents, brands and labels, to certify that they met high quality standards.
[9] Recreation areas near and adjacent to large factories, where workers were provided with healthy food and a kinesiology regime after injury.

By Karin Grigoryan EVN Report

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