Country of Dust

Episode 6: I’m just a designer

August 15, 2023 Country of Dust Season 1
Episode 6: I’m just a designer
Country of Dust
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Country of Dust
Episode 6: I’m just a designer
Aug 15, 2023 Season 1
Country of Dust

Ara Aslanyan designed one of the most iconic symbols of Armenia’s 2018 revolution - the dukhov hat. But he says he never cared about the movement, that he only wanted to make a successful design. When we spoke in 2022 he said, “I’m really out of politics. But if you need some services, as a professional, I'm there.” How did someone so apolitical end up creating the emblem of a revolution?

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Show Notes Transcript

Ara Aslanyan designed one of the most iconic symbols of Armenia’s 2018 revolution - the dukhov hat. But he says he never cared about the movement, that he only wanted to make a successful design. When we spoke in 2022 he said, “I’m really out of politics. But if you need some services, as a professional, I'm there.” How did someone so apolitical end up creating the emblem of a revolution?

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HOST: So we said that we were going to do 2 episodes about the 2018 revolution and what happened politically afterwards. Those were the last two episodes. But we actually have one more. The first two followed 2 separate people who had widely different views on Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan.

Both supported the revolution he spearheaded. But Mane Gevorgyan (((worked in his administration and))) still supports him, while Ruben Malayan feels betrayed by him. If you remember: Ruben is also a calligrapher and graphic designer - and one of his well-known pieces was this small design with the words “haghtelu enk” - which means “we shall prevail.” It was a rallying cry in support of the 2020 war effort in Artsakh and it was the iconic phrase of war. 

But there was also an iconic phrase of the revolution. Dukhov.

ARO: Dukhov, dukhov, dukhov

HOST: (You’re going to hear that word a lot this episode)

That’s Ara Aslanian - he also goes by Aro. And it’s a design that he made that popularized that word. If haghtelu enk is the phrase of the war, then Dukhov is the phrase of the revolution. 

It was stamped on these hats that everybody had. I wear hats maybe 2 days a year? But even I have a dukhov hat. Aro’s design is simple. The hat is all black and the word - “dukhov” - is printed in these sharp white letters that bubble out a bit from the front. 

And Aro’s relationship to his design is drastically different from Ruben’s, probably about as different as you can get. For Ruben - his haghtelu enk design is deeply wrapped up in his feelings about Armenian politics. But for Aro: It does. Not. Matter. He couldn’t care less about the politics of the person he designs for. Which is wild considering how influential his dukhov hat was to the revolution. 

His politics confuses a lot of people.

ARO: Everybody thinks that I'm really active Nicola-akan, everybody.

HOST: Nicol-akan, meaning a supporter of Nikol Pashinyan. Because Aro made these hats, people assume that he was - and still is - a huge supporter of the Prime Minister. When Pashinyan was leading a revolution, Aro was praised for creating this design that helped overthrow a government

ARO:  And they were saying no, no, no, you're a hero/

HOST: And now that Pashinyan is unpopular, people criticize Aro.

HOST: And after it became really big negative, they start blaming me, like, “you are Nicol-akan!”

HOST: But Aro insists that he didn’t care about the movement.

ARO: But I was saying, like, I'm not into it. Totally. I'm just a designer.

HOST: He presents himself as apolitical, but he created one of the most iconic political symbols of recent memory in Armenia. How did that happen?

Welcome to Country of Dust - stories of a changing Armenia

This episode: “I’m just a designer”

I’m Jeremy Dalmas.

JEREMY: Dukhov, can you translate dukhov into English?

ARO: Oh That was the main question when it starts.

HOST: There’s no letter for “kh” in English - so it’s a word that’s hard to transliterate.

ARO: But mainly it means with courage. I think the direct translation is with courage.

HOST: It’s a combination of Russian and Armenian. In Russian “Dukh” means spirit. And in Armenian, having “-ov” at the end of a word translates to “with”. So “Dukh-ov” means “with spirit” or “with courage”.

ARO: So we use it really really much like go with it, go through it, with courage. That's the meaning.

HOST: It’s a good word for a political movement. But… not just that. It’s also good for a sports tournament. Which is what it was originally designed for: The Dukhov hat was made to advertise a Football tournament in the spring of 2018

ARO: We were wanting to use dukhov as advertisement campaign for football thing.

HOST: Aro was working for BetConstruct, an Armenian online gambling company. He had developed dukhov for them, at work. He was getting ready to launch this campaign and use dukhov as the main motto. But the protests were gearing up at the same time. And then everything froze in Armenia - the revolution ground the country to a halt.

ARO: So the campaign stuck. We couldn't use it.

HOST: But Aro still had this design that he had made. And he had one sample of this hat. This black cap with dukhov written in white on the front. 

Meanwhile - Nikol Pashinyan was walking across Armenia, drumming up support for this political movement. And Pashinyan is a hat person. He was wearing a hat all the time. An ADIDAS hat.

ARO: I was thinking, not from the point of view of movement and revolution, but the point of view from advertisement. Like product placement.

HOST: For Nikol it’s a piece of clothing to cover his head. But to Aro, he sees an opportunity.

ARO: ADIDAS. It's not Armenian. What if we change it? 

HOST: People are watching Pashinyan, he’s giving speeches. People are looking at his face, and right above his face there’s this hat. This big space. What if it didn’t say ADIDAS? 

ARO: Okay, I have a hat. I just have to pass him. What if he'll do it, and this will be the best product placement for our brand. That was my thought. I never was thinking like, this is for movement.

HOST: He thought - there’s all these people looking at Pashinyan and if he’s wearing the dukhov hat, then all those people will see Aro’s brand

ARO: And we have this brand, and we own this brand. In fact, we trademark it. BetConstruct where I was working. 

HOST: So he took this design he had created for the betting company he was working for.

ARO: And my point of view was to develop the brand. And that's it. Developed the brand. My thoughts was as a marketer, not a movement.

JEREMY: So you were like, if Pashinyan wears this hat. It'll be good for the brand I'm working for.

ARO: At that moment, yes. At that moment, yes. 

HOST: He never asked his company if this was ok.

ARO: If I'll go and ask my manager, “can I do this thing?” Like for 1,000,000% He will say no. So I didn't ask nobody.

HOST: But, it never ended up being an issue.

So he got his one sample hat. And he had a person he knew give it to Pashinyan, with the hopes that Pashinyan would wear it.

ARO: It was a prototype

NYREE: So he got the prototype?

ARO: Yeah, the first prototype.

JEREMY: What made you think that if you gave Pashinyan the hat that he would wear it?

ARO: I was sure that he needs some brand. He was in a mess And I was sure he will understand that this is the thing I have to wear. Not ADIDAS. What is the message of my head? For ADIDAS does nothing.

HOST: After Pashinyan got the hat - Aro waited. 

ARO: When I pass it I was like looking: when he will wear it? When he will wear it? Where he will wear it? How he will wear it? What else he will wear it?

HOST: He was tracking him - watching all the videos he could find on Pashinyan. He describes it like a spy movie

ARO: I had like four monitors different no really different.

HOST: People Aro knew were tracking Pashinyan, watching as he did things like eat dinner, and then texting Aro about if he had the hat with him, or not. And Aro was just waiting for the moment that Pashinyan first put the hat on his head.

ARO: Because I was also ready for the next step.

HOST: The next step being that once the public knew about the hat, then they would want the hat. And that means he would need to have hats ready to sell

ARO: It was not like okay, he will wear it and that's it. If he will wear it, everybody will want the thing.

HOST: Because Aro was already working on getting them manufactured.

ARO: If I'll be the first guy who will have it not waiting one or two days while others will print. So I will be kind of not the winner but manager of the situation.

HOST: Because he knew if he had them out first, everyone would buy his original hats, and not the knock-offs that people would very quickly get made and sell. So he put in orders to every business in Armenia who could manufacture caps.

Aro says he was absolutely sure this plan would work: Pashinyan would wear the hat, and it would take off.

ARO: I was ready. Like I was ready.

HOST: But - he just wasn’t wearing it. Aro saw that Pashinyan’s son was wearing the hat, but that didn’t matter. Aro was upset. 

ARO: Then I was like, okay, okay, it's not good. Nobody, nobody just noticed.  And I was waiting.

HOST: Then… something changed. 

ARO: And do remember, they took Nikol Pashinyan to jail for one day.

HOST: It was a pivotal day. Pashinyan was taken into custody and everyone was waiting to see if he would stay in jail. It was this make it or break it moment to know who was in control - the government or the protesters. If Pashinyan wasn’t released then the revolution was likely over. But if the movement had enough momentum and couldn’t be ignored then they would have to let him out. 

ARO: And everybody was waiting like this one day. If Nikol will not get out - okay, same old shit.

HOST: And then… he was released. It was clear that this revolution might actually bring down the government. All eyes were on Pashinyan.

ARO: And he get out with the hat.

HOST: He came out of jail with the dukhov hat on his head.

NYREE: Yeah, I remember that

ARO:  It was that moment. It was like the happiest moment of everybody. And with the hat. It was exact time for the branding. It was like, Oh my God.

JEREMY: What did you think when you saw him?...

ARO: I think more production! That was my first thought. That 5000 copies not enough.

HOST: Soon dukhov was everywhere. And the design wasn’t just on hats - people used it as their profile pictures on social media, there were t-shirts, people even got tattoos. You would walk down the streets of Yerevan and it was like every item you saw said dukhov on it.

Pashinyan, and others in the movement, had been using the term dukhov before Aro gave him the hat. But after the hat became popular, that’s when the word became a symbol. 

ARO: All these guys start using this word as a branding after that and all the time their speeches end with dukhov. They understand, “Okay, this is the brand. And we'll use it as a brand.”

HOST: For years Aro had cringed when he saw what he felt were badly marketed political movements. He says that people running the protests were not thinking about their political movements like he thought of them: as a brand.

ARO: They will never think, “Let's brand our movement dukhov.” They will never think about that.

HOST: It had been driving Aro crazy. 

So he was able to fix this problem he saw. He had a successful design. He had influenced a revolution. It seems like it would be a huge win for him. But he was disappointed. He was hoping it would be able to keep growing and transcend politics, but he felt that Dukhov’s popularity had reached an upper limit.

ARO: I thought it will be even bigger. Like, what only Politik? Because I was thinking about football championship, not a small political one time thing.

Most Armenians wouldn’t call the revolution a “small political one time thing”. But Aro was unhappy that dukhov was tied to a political movement.

ARO: The brand became only political, which I didn't want because it's really weak.

HOST: Something like football will always be popular. And people’s support for football is tied up in national pride. Armenians will always like Armenia. That’s eternal. Aro wanted to connect Dukhov with things that Armenians would always connect with, so that the brand would last too.

ARO: If you get many other associations your brand is really big and strong. Like Coca Cola you don't have any political.

HOST: Because Aro had given Pashinyan the hat, now, Dukhov would rise and fall based on what people thought of the revolution. It would be hard to connect with anything else.

ARO: For example, Ararat Cognac is national brand for us. So you can use it, not only as drinking things. You can do festivals. You can do anything if you've got a really big brand. You can use it how anyhow you want.

HOST: Think Hello Kitty - pure branding - Hello Kitty would never support any politician. Alternatively, there was this one Pepsi commercial from 2017 in the U.S. where Kendall Jenner gave out cans of soda as a symbol of peace between protesters and police. Pepsi was trying to say “we can all just get along.” But it backfired - dramatically. A lot of people found it trivializing and Pepsi sales hit an all-time low. Aro wanted Dukhov to be like Hello Kitty - but he was worried it was going to be like the Pepsi ad. 

ARO: So it's only political, which is not good. You can't monetize it.

HOST: Because the popularity of the design was his main concern. Not the revolution.

ARO: Like they're saying, “And what do you think about movement?” And I was saying I don't care. I'm just doing design. I really don't care.

HOST: But people in Armenia cared a lot, and the design Aro made was part of the movement. 

And soon - what that political movement meant started to shift, and what the hat meant started to change with it. 

The first thing that happened is that Nikol Pashinyan took off the hat. The revolution was won, he became Prime Minister and he started wearing suits - and you don’t wear a cap with a suit. He wasn’t the head of a revolution anymore, he was the head of a government. 

Aro was hoping that dukhov might go on to work as a “national brand”, like Ararat, to symbolize support for the country in general. And half a year after the revolution, stores were still selling the hats - but it had become a souvenir. 

ARO: It was like the first thing for the tourists.

HOST: I was in Yerevan in 2019 and I bought the hat for 2000 drams at vernissage, then put it in my bag to take home. If you saw someone wearing the hat, you could tell they were visiting the country. It had stopped being something that local Armenians would buy because it wasn’t an active symbol of protest anymore. While some Armenians were disillusioned with Pashinyan, for most there was nothing to be courageous about. The moment had passed and dukhov was stale.

ARO: Everybody had the hat in his wardrobe. Not using everyday of course, but everybody has it. And it's history.

HOST: It wasn’t thought of negatively though, by most people. For the next couple of years at least - until the war.

After the war the optimism that Dukhov represented was wiped away. Pashinyan was blamed for the loss, including by a lot of the people who had stood by him.

ARO: After war it get this negative association and everybody started to get rid of this.

HOST: Those bright feelings around dukhov were part of the past. Hats were stuffed in the back of closets. And, similarly, people’s hopeful feelings from the revolution were also shut away. People don’t even say the word anymore, like at all - not just when talking about politics - when talking about anything. If you wore a dukhov hat out in the street right now, it isn’t out of the question that someone might punch you in the face. 

Dukhov had gone from revolutionary, to establishment, to disappointment.

Some of the people who had gotten dukhov tattoos had them covered over when the meaning changed. 

But Aro doesn’t hide from his hat. It was always about his work, not about politics, so there isn’t anything to hide from. Even when people direct their anger at the government towards him.

ARO: I'm proud of this. And everybody anytime they are saying, “ha ha you're the Dukhov guy,” I'm saying, “Yes. What the problem with that?”

HOST: You would think that a person who does art for a political movement does it because they are passionate about the cause. But that isn’t Aro. He even told us that, after Pashinyan was Prime Minister, he worked on branding with the very people who the revolution overthrew. Although no designs ever came out of it. 

Aro explains it this way:

ARO: If I have a restaurant, should I not sell this wine to Robert Kocharyan?

HOST: Robert Kocharyan, represents Armenia’s old regime. He’s like the Putin of Armenia. He was president from 1998 until 2008, but he’s still a powerful force. 

ARO: It's absurd. It's really absurd. Or bread? I will not sell it because he's Robert Kocharyan. No. Even in prison I have to give him bread.

HOST: So is it all just business to Aro? When he designs for someone, does it not matter to him what the outcome is? Gohar asks him:

GOHAR: But isn't there for you at least a line that you couldn't cross? Because I understand that it's work for you and you care about branding and design. But isn't there other things in play when you think about who you will work with and who you will not work with?

ARO: This question. I had this question a lot of times, because there is this tricky moment, but I never say, “I don't care if it's Kocharyan, Serg or Nikol.” I hate Kocharyan and Serg because I lived the life with them. I don't love Nikol Pashinyan. I never said I don't care if it's Kocharyan or Nikol. Yeah, I don't want Kocharyan. For sure million percent.

HOST: But he would design for them.

ARO: I'm really out of politics. But if you need some services, as a professional, I'm there. I can help to develop your brand. You know - if Aliyev gave the order, I will not do.

HOST: Ilham Aliyev - the president of Azerbaijan.

NYREE: So you have a line

ARO: Of course I have a line. But maybe I'll do it. I don't know.

JEREMY: You might?

ARO: Look, I consult to my Azeri friend who was doing the Aliyev airport branding. Like it was profession to us. And he was sending me sketches, like from the design point of view. And I was saying like, “do this, do that” I was working with him for Aliyev airport. So yeah, I did. It's just a profession.

HOST: So where is his line? 

ARO: I'm not like I don't have any line. Of course there is some lines. If I will brand weapon and give it to my enemy, and he will kill me. Of course, there is a line. If I'll be hurt, I will not do it.

HOST: While Aro is disappointed that Dukhov has fallen out of favor, he is strangely optimistic about the future of the brand, and - by extension I think - Armenia too. 

ARO: You know, I think the story didn't end yet. It didn't end. Nichols still there. Maybe it will get back again. Maybe. I don't know. 

HOST: For him Dukhov is still evolving. It’s unclear what it’s future will be… or Armenia’s

JEREMY:  If you're gonna have to design a hat for right now,

ARO: I’m working with,

JEREMY: Oh, you're working on something right now? 

ARO: yea yea yea 

JEREMY: Can you tell us?

ARO: Not at the moment, but you will for sure. You will see, maybe it will. Maybe it will not be so popular. But you will see it for sure. 

HOST: I want to know what it is. The same way that I want to know what is next for Armenia. 

At first, it felt bad to me to reduce Armenian’s politics to just marketing. That doing so made what happened in the country not about real people’s struggles, but instead about just selling them clothes. But a different way to think about it, is you can use Armenia’s symbols as a way to more deeply analyze what is going on in the country. You can understand the nuances of politics by understanding the stories people tell around these designs (images/figures/icons/logo), and how those stories change over time.

People take symbols really seriously, and how they react to something as simple as a hat can show you a lot about how they feel about so many other things. 

Things have changed a lot in Armenia since April 2018 when Pashinyan first stepped out of jail with a Dukhov hat on his head.

First wearing it was defiant

Then it was everyday.

Now it is distasteful.

What might Dukhov mean next?

Country of Dust is created and produced by Nyree Abrahamian, Jeremy Dalmas and Gohar Khachatrian; with help from Gabrielle Kaprielian. Sound engineering and music by Jeremy Dalmas.

And thanks for the support from

  • The Creative Armenia - AGBU Fellowship
  • Impact Hub Yerevan
  • The Vahé and Lucie Foundation
  • and the Nexus Center for the Arts 

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