A Trip to Yerevan
Translation: Thomas Campbell
Who Lives in Yerevan?
The strongest impression from my first day in the city was the sense that only one language was spoken on the streets and everyone looked more or less alike. Armenia is a monoethnic country. According to statistics, over ninety-seven percent of its residents are purebred Armenians. You notice the rare tourists on the streets of Yerevan immediately. There is no hostility towards visitors, but people keep their distance. I realized that only my Armenian friends could help me penetrate the city’s inner life.
The homogeneity of the cityscape was so unusual that I immediately wanted to ask whether anyone besides Armenians lived in Yerevan. It turned out there were small communities of Kurds, Yezidis, Assyrians, Greeks, and Molokans (descendants of sectarians deported from Russia in the nineteenth century), but they are closed to contact with outsiders. None of my Armenian acquaintances had any personal or professional ties with people from these ethnic minorities.
The crowds on the streets seemed more diverse to me when I learned to distinguish Iranians from the mainly local tourists. The Armenians half-mockingly call them “Persians” and say they come to Armenia to let off steam: to get drunk and pick up girls. Every evening a crowd of “Persians” would gather at Republic Square to admire the singing fountains. Most of them were quite easy to approach, and so I did dozens of portraits of Iranian women and men during my first few days in Yerevan.
“Turks Will Always Be Turks”
Unlike Russia, where people are alienated from each other, mutual support and monitoring is cultivated in Armenian society. The notion that the Armenian state is one big Armenian family is supported by the government and makes criticizing the authorities problematic. People who were involved in the recent Electric Yerevan protest rallies against rising prices for electricity told me how the police had tried to appeal to their conscience by saying, “But we are all brothers and sisters!”
Musicians on Northern Avenue
The topic of the Armenian Genocide comes up constantly. The very first poster at the airport compares the Turks to Hitler. Every evening on Northern Avenue, musicians sing songs about Armenian resistance to the Turks from the time of the genocide. Armenians from the large diaspora, who come to Yerevan for the summer, instantly surround the musicians and enthusiastically sing along. During the Electric Yerevan protests, protesters also sang songs about the genocide.
There is a saying in Armenia: “Turks will always be Turks.” Meaning, they will always be the bad guys. However, progressive young people in Yerevan have been following the social and political upheavals in Turkey and sympathize with the country’s leftist movement. I attended a meeting of activists at which they discussed how to quickly translate and publish news of the anti-government protests in Turkey that kicked off after the terrorist bombing in the city of Suruç. Official Armenia media almost never report news from the neighboring countries of Turkey, Iran, and Azerbaijan.
Seed vendor near the Yerevan Opera Theater
If you walk through downtown Yerevan without peeking into the inner courtyards, you might think that Yerevan, with its desire for glitziness, resembled Moscow.
During my first days in the city, I could not figure out where the cheap local fruits and vegetables were to be had. The nearest produce market was accessible only by public transport, there was no sign of street vendors, and prices in the chain stores were nearly as high as they were in Moscow. Then I was told to look for the shops of private traders—kiosks and sheds—among the inner courtyards.
Refugees from Syria have opened unpretentious cafes where the food is tasty and cheap, while the local Armenians own the restaurants. In Yerevan, as in Moscow, the culture of secondhand shops is underdeveloped, but there are a multitude of expensive brand-name stores. In the evenings, people in fashionable clothing—men with very close-cropped hair in dark clothes and longhaired, made-up women in splashy slim-waisted outfits with low necklines—stroll the streets of downtown as if they were catwalks.
Women involved in prostitution can be seen walking among the crowds. On Republic Square, I witnessed a row. A man had made a remark to a sex worker about her unworthy occupation, and she had replied by saying something to the effect of “my body is my business.”
When I tried to sketch the scene, another sex worker suddenly grabbed my arm and screamed bloody murder, and a dozen pimps came running. Fortunately, the subject of my sketch defended my sketchbook from destruction and even agreed to pose for a separate portrait.
Sex worker from Republic Square
You can find many interesting things in Yerevan’s inner courtyards, for example, tiny private barbershops, where men get haircuts, play backgammon, and talk politics. Once, while we were walking in Yerevan, we happened upon such a place, and my Armenian friends asked permission for me to draw there.
“When I was a child I was taught that Chapayev was our principal national hero.”
One of the barbershop’s regulars was the son of the famous socialist realist artist Simon Galstyan. He criticized the imposition of Russian literature and culture on Armenians during the Soviet period, and quoted Tolstoy and other classic Russian authors in his argument against colonialism. The majority of Yerevan residents still speak Russian, and whole sentences in Russian occasionally pop up unexpectedly in the middle of Armenian conversations.
We touched on the topic of new construction in Yerevan.
“They are building bloody churches instead of schools.”
Yerevan artists and activists had several times voiced to me the opinion that Armenians believe every space should have an owner, be built up, and generate a profit. Public places in Yerevan can easily become someone’s property. For example, in 2002, the millionaire Gerard Cafesjian bought the Cascade, a giant stairway built in Soviet times that is one of Yerevan’s main symbols. A central city park had also been privatized and purchased.
Ordinary Yerevan residents appropriate urban spaces with the means at their disposal. Forecourts are turned into personal gardens by first-floor dwellers, while additional rooms, supported by columns, are tacked onto the façades of high-rise buildings.
The Blue Mosque and Grandpa Lenin
Yerevan is one of the most rebuilt cities.
The period of the Erivan Khanate survives in the form of the Blue Mosque, now tightly ringed by residential buildings, and part of the Kond neighborhood. The famous Ararat cognac factory now occupies the site where the Erivan Fortress and the Palace of the Sardars used to stand.
The Blue Mosque
In Soviet times, several Iranian mosques and Armenian churches were demolished. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was the turn of Soviet buildings. The modernist Yerevan Youth Palace, popularly known as the Corncob, was demolished, as was the Sevan Hotel. All that remains of the renowned Dvin Hotel is the framework, while only protests by city dwellers saved the avant-garde open-air hall of the Moscow Cinema, which was to be replaced by a church.
Many Soviet symbols were removed during perestroika. Lenin Square was renamed Republic Square, and famous sculptor Sergei Merkulov’s statue of the Bolshevik leader was shoved from its pedestal and decapitated. Artist friends told me the headless Lenin still lay in the courtyard of the National Gallery of Armenia. It would be impossible to get into the courtyard without a special permit, but I might catch sight of the statue from a window in the museum. I bought a ticket and found the right window. The headless Lenin was lying incongruously in a dysfunctional fountain.
My attempt to draw Lenin seriously disturbed one of the museum matrons. “Do not show that drawing to anyone! Do not tell anyone he is lying here!” She could not explain why this was such a dangerous secret.
In the early noughties, an entire downtown street was demolished to make way for Northern Avenue and its elite new real estate projects. Forcibly evicted from their homes, many residents received minimal compensation instead of new apartments. Now Kond, Yerevan’s oldest district, could be facing the wrecking ball.
Kond resembles an anthill. Pre-Revolutionary houses are densely plastered to a large hill, and it is easy to get lost on the crooked, narrow alleys, many of which are dead ends. Once upon a time, wealthy people had built these stone houses, but today most of Kond looks like a slum. Especially impressive is the semi-ruined Iranian mosque, where around five families have been living since Soviet times.
“How can we live in this antique house?”
In Armenian, “antique” is almost like a swear word, meaning “junk.”
Many Kondians consider the neighborhood cursed, because most of the houses used to belong to Muslims—to Iranians, Azeris, and “Turks” (as Azerbaijani Tatars called themselves.) Yet the Kondians are strongly attached to their community. Neighbors know each other well and many are relatives. This pigeon coop owner would like to see all the inhabitants of Kond moved to one big new house.
“We will move to an apartment and keep the pigeons on the roof.”
The Activist Nara
Not all residents of Kond dream of moving out. I visited the home of Nara, an activist. Nara and her mother live in a house built by her grandfather and grandmother, who had fled from Turkey during the genocide. Nara loves her home and would like to have it repaired.
Nara said that in Soviet times the local authorities demanded that owners of private homes cede the deeds to their properties. Most residents of Kond, including her grandmother, complied with the demand. When they learned that residents of demolished houses were thrown out on the street when Northern Avenue was built, the Kondians were worried about what would happen to them.
Nara made the rounds of all the houses in Kond, urging her neighbors to fight for their rights. The Kondians went with chairs to Government House and sat there for several hours, demanding the restoration of the deeds to their properties. They succeeded in getting the deeds restored.
“I have no husband, brother or son, so they could not plant a weapon or drugs on me.”
In Armenia, pressure is applied to women activists through their male relatives. Women and one old man, a veteran of the Nagorno-Karabakh War, were involved in the Kond protest rally, so the police did not disperse it by force. The police attempted to negotiate with the only male in the group, thus ignoring Nara’s leadership of the protest.
Abovyan Women’s Prison
With support from the Ministry of Justice’s Inmate Rehabilitation Center, I was able to teach a couple of drawing lessons at the Abovyan Women’s Prison while I was in Armenia. The Inmate Rehabilitation Center provides legal and psychological support to convicts, and Abovyan, the prison closest to Yerevan, regularly organizes lessons in ceramics painting, stained glass making, and woodcarving.
Abovyan Women’s Prison
During my classes, I met Nastya, Abovyan’s star artist, who has painted several huge murals at the prison. She studies the work of the famous Armenian painters Martiros Saryan and Minas Avetisyan, and then produces homages to their pieces.
There are many trees on the premises of the prison, and the low walls with barbed wire do not completely obscure the view of the mountains. The inmates wear their own clothing. I was told uniforms were not provided at women’s prisons (“They are women, after all!”), and that conditions at women’s prisons are not as rough as in men’s prisons. There are no girl’s prisons in Armenia: courts try and sentence underage girls to parole.
At lunchtime, a motley crowd of women poured into the cafeteria carrying food they had cooked themselves in saucepans, cast-iron pots, and frying pans. No one eats the prison food. Unlike Russia, where families abandon many female convicts, in Armenia relatives take care of them throughout their sentence.
Fraud, drug trafficking, and sex trafficking are common offenses. Armenian women lure their female compatriots into sex slavery in Turkey, because it is close and there is a demand. Women who go to prison are marked for life. They have few chances to find a normal job, put their personal lives in order, and marry off their daughters.
Being an Armenian Woman
I was once taken for an Armenian woman in Yerevan. I was sitting on the ground and drawing these carpet merchants, when an elderly lady came up to me and solicitously tugged at my skirt while chiding me in Armenian. When she realized I was from Russia, she lost interest in my moral character. In Armenia, “Russian woman” is a synonym for “slut.”
It is interesting what different kinds of pressure Russian and Armenian societies exert on women. In Russia, it is unseemly to remain a virgin beyond the age of nineteen. Women are expected to have sexual intercourse with some man, whatever he is like, and give birth to a child, even if that means being a single mother. In Armenia, the main value is family honor. Many women who have been unable to get married remain “old maids” and can easily talk about it openly. In many marzer (provinces) of Armenia, the tradition of the red apple has survived. The morning after the wedding night, the parents of the bride are sent a red apple, meaning their daughter had been a virgin. In Armenia, it is shameful to “get knocked up” out of wedlock. It is shameful to get divorced. It is a misfortune to be childless.
Once, an Armenian female sociologist friend of mine noticed a bakery in a courtyard and suggested doing a joint interview with the women baking lavash (Armenian flatbread). The women cordially seated us at a table and offered us coffee, but our conversation about social change in Yerevan flagged. The women asked my friend in Armenian how old my children were (for some reason they were sure of their existence), and they tried to set her up with their sons.
“Are you married?”
The only question I was asked.
As in Russia, domestic violence is widespread in Armenia. In 2010, seven women’s organizations united in the Coalition to Stop Violence against Women to lobby for passage of a law against domestic violence and render assistance to victims. I attended a court hearing in the case of Suzanna. The coalition was paying her legal fees and escorting her to court. Her husband and mother-in-law had routinely beaten the young woman, but when she decided to get a divorce, they took away her daughter. After the hearing, the judge admonished the ex-spouses on the need to preserve the family and the honor of Armenian society.
Court hearing in Vanadzor
“The child is every family’s light. The child must not suffer because of the parents.”
Armenia has a specific problem: the country ranks third after China and Azerbaijan in numbers of selective abortions. An abortion is usually performed when a family already has two daughters and the sex of the unborn child has been identified as female. The unwanted girl can be termed bavakan, meaning “enough.” Sons are considered bearers of the family name and future breadwinners. The social status of a woman who gives birth to a son is greatly enhanced. By tradition, the son takes his wife to live in his parent’s house, and the property is bequeathed to him. The daughter goes to live with her husband’s family, while an unmarried women serves her brother’s family.
These patriarchal traditions are gradually loosening, and Yerevan’s young people are very different from their parents. This is a portrait of the social researcher and feminist Arevik and her mother, who wondered why her daughter was in no hurry to get married and have children.
“I raised her and raised her . . . What did I miss?!”
My fondest memories of my journey to Yerevan are the meetings, interviews, and collaborations I had with independent women. I think the growth of women’s activism promises the most progressive changes in Armenia.