What comes first, the middle class or the mall?
Image from Flickr via oletommyp
By Emily Mkrtichian
Armenia exists. It is the biggest little ex-Soviet state you’ve probably never heard of. And this year, it got a lifeline to the blood coursing through the veins of our consumer-driven, globalized world: a mall. Its first mall ever.
The Dalma Garden Mall opened in October of 2012. It is, in fact, nowhere near a garden. It rests on a large pool of concrete, surrounded by desolate expanses of dirt and rocks. The mall takes its name from the Dalma Gardens, a 530 hectare green space that used to exist just outside the city center of Yerevan, the republic’s capital. Since 1991 (the year of Armenia’s independence), this land had been rented out to over seven hundred residents of Yerevan so they could have a small piece of soil to grow their own vegetables, grapevines, and fruit trees. And for over ten years they did—until 2004, when by a little trick the government likes to call “redistricting,” 250 hectares were declared the new site for major city projects. Specifically, the Dalma Garden Mall. There are still over six hundred landowners protesting every week in front of the Parliament building—they swear their descendants will carry on their fight after they are gone.
The Mall itself is two stories and 45,000 square meters. The inside is a funhouse mirror of linoleum, glass, and metal, with recognizable brand names and logos—GAP, ZARA, ACCESSORIZE—plastered prominently over gaping entrance ways, every so often sucking in a bored-looking passerby. In short, it feels like America.
It was as if I had set out on a long journey to a new and foreign place, only to find that I had accidently walked in a large circle and ended up right back on my own doorstep. And that all of a sudden I realized my house was strange and ugly.
The parking lot is full of more cars then I have ever seen in one place in Armenia. Usually, 90 percent of the cars in a full parking lot here are Ladas, the most popular car produced in the Soviet Union. The Lada easily became a recognizable symbol of city life because, like many things in the Soviet Union, it never changed. From the first Lada to come off the production line in 1969 to the final one produced in 2012, not one design feature was altered—it was just ‘perfect from the beginning.’ In the Dalma Garden Mall parking lot, the Lada has been replaced by midsized cars of other models, SUVs, and the occasional minivan. Seeing this well-organized parking lot full of families unloading themselves from new, mid-to-large sized vehicles and walking together through the neat rows of other new, mid-to-large sized vehicles was disorienting.
I took my first trip to the mall via my favorite form of public transportation in Armenia: the marshutka. Essentially Yerevan’s version of a bus, a marshutka is a numbered passenger van that travels a specific route around the city every day. A marshutka can comfortably fit twelve to fourteen people… and can uncomfortably fit anywhere from fifteen to forty. They have their own social cues and etiquette; for example, a woman should not sit in the front of the marshutka with the driver, but if a woman finds herself in the back of a marshutka with no place to sit, it is expected that any man under the age of sixty-five will give up his seat. If, once that woman sits down, another man over the age of sixty-five shakily enters the vehicle, this woman will in turn stand up and demand that he sit. Such is the logic of the marshutka.
As I emerged from the van into the blinding light of the mall’s parking lot, I blinked in confusion. It was as if I had set out on a long journey to a new and foreign place, only to find that I had accidently walked in a large circle and ended up right back on my own doorstep. And that all of a sudden I realized my house was strange and ugly.
The mall was financed by Retail Group Armenia, an offshoot of Alhokair Fashion Retail. Alhokair is a corporation from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia that has been blazing a retail franchise trail through MENA and CIS countries since the early 1990’s. Their record is unmatched—they have brought Steve Madden and Aldo to Kazakhstan, Gap and Accessorize to Egypt, US Polo to Jordan, Zara to Georgia, and now, the Dalma Garden Mall to Armenia.
This question of whether or not I deserve that new crème button-up blouse from Zara, isn’t this a middle-class question?
One might ask why it took so long for Alhokair to invest in the consumer potential of Armenia. All the other post-Soviet republics jumped on the mega-capitalism band-wagon long ago. There is the Stolitsa Mall in Belarus (est. 2007), the Akropolis Mall in Lithuania (est. 2002), and the Mega Planet Mall in Uzbekistan (est. 2010), just to name a few. The truth is that while the country has strong links to the US and Europe because of its large diaspora, the period since the collapse of the Soviet Union has not been kind to Armenia. In fact, as a recent political blog put it, “Of all the countries in the region, geography and history have been the cruelest to Armenia.” There is the ongoing Karabakh War (an ethnic conflict following the fall of the Soviet Union over a piece of disputed territory between Armenia and Azerbaijan), for which peace-talks have been ongoing for ten years; the devastating earthquake of 1988, which leveled entire cities and villages; and the fact that Armenia is landlocked with two of its four borders with its neighbors closed, indefinitely.
Still, it must be said that a mall is a solid investment, because a mall is the same wherever you go. I know that if I walk into a mall in Uzbekistan, it is going to feel about the same as if I had walked into a mall in North Dakota, because they are all designed for one purpose, a purpose which easily traverses culture and history and geopolitics: it is designed to give me all the comforts of modern life. It is designed to make me want to spend my money… and give me a limited set of non-unique choices about how I might want to do that. And why shouldn’t everyone around the world have that choice? Don’t we deserve it?
But, the fact that there is a space in Armenia where this question is often posed and moreover, encouraged, brings us to an even bigger social question. Because this question of whether or not I deserve that new crème button-up blouse from Zara, isn’t this a middle class question? And if people in Armenia are asking this question, does that mean there is an emerging middle class here? Most people say no, Armenia is too young. It spent too much time under communism, a supposedly classless society. And since then, the disparity between those who can barely make ends meet and those who have made their fortune through corruption, bribery, and intimidation has grown too large. But still, there is a mall, and it is packed every day of the week. There is, beyond a doubt, a growing number of people in this country with a disposable income, a defining feature of the middle class. I would argue, along with cultural and economic theorist Jennifer Patico, that in post-Soviet countries, consumption is increasingly becoming a way to fortify a middle class identity with its own social and moral values, slowly replacing the older middle class identity based on profession (the ‘intelligentsia’—doctors, engineers, writers). And the mall is the glowing shrine to our new ability to consume.
I should be clear: I am talking about a very specific kind of middle class, one that uses consumption to separate and distinguish itself in the hazy class vacuum left by communism.
So, it would seem that the mall is the material evidence of the emergence of a middle class in Armenia. But, there is one complication—a quick look at the national statistical data for the two years before the opening of the mall show that the percentage of those making what would be considered a middle class income actually shrunk by about 2 percent. This is no huge number, of course, and while this data on income is not the end-all measure of the middle class, it does pose an even more interesting question: What comes first—the middle class, or the mall?
In a world where Saudi Arabian corporations see dollar signs in every untouched corner of the post-Soviet world, could the formulation be the other way around? Could the first mall in Armenia actually come before and help to spur the growth of the middle class? I should be clear: I am talking about a very specific kind of middle class, one that uses consumption to separate and distinguish itself in the hazy class vacuum left by communism. But, in the case of Armenia, perhaps this is what we are seeing—a place where the mall itself, instead of the consumer, generates the demand to consume and defines how we do that.
Emily Mkrtichian is a writer and filmmaker living in Yerevan, Armenia. She received her MA from Fordham University where she studied English Literature. Her first film, 140 Drams, is currently in the international film festival circuit. She keeps a Tumblr on street style in her small post-Soviet home.