New York Review of Books
Statue of Alexander Tamanian, the architect of Republic Square and the opera house, in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, with the city’s Cascade staircase in the background
Depending on which figures you look at, Armenia’s population hovers around three million people. That is some half a million less than it was twenty years ago, when the state gained independence as the Soviet Union collapsed. But some believe that the true figure is even less than that. If there are few jobs, and if Armenia remains isolated, it is hardly surprising that so many of its people go abroad.
Just look at the map to understand the fundamental geographic problems facing Armenia. To the west is Turkey, the historic nemesis of the Armenians, which angrily objects to claims that up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed by the Ottomans in 1915. Turkey closed its borders with Armenia in 1993. To the east is Turkey’s ally, Muslim Azerbaijan, also formerly part of the USSR, with which Armenia fought a war in the early 1990s. The border between the two states has been closed since, because of the dispute over the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, which, until the Armenians conquered a land bridge to it, was surrounded on all sides by Azerbaijan.
To the south is Iran. The Armenians are an ancient Christian people but their relations with the Iranians are good. It helps that Iran is deeply suspicious of Azerbaijan, which has good relations with both the US and Israel and has suppressed a pro-Iranian party, the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan.
To the north is Georgia. Georgians are also predominantly Christian, but the country’s relations with Armenia are cool rather than friendly. In August 2008, Georgia fought and lost a war with Russia. Armenia, by contrast, relies on Russian troops for its security. Still, apart from Iran, the route through Georgia is Armenia’s only way out by land. To borrow a phrase much heard from Israelis, Armenians live in a rough neighborhood.
You only have to spend a day or two walking around the capital city of Yerevan to understand just how much the past shapes Armenian thinking about the present and the future.
The capital is full of sculptures and monuments to musicians, poets, and national heroes. In recent years there has been a considerable building boom in the city’s center. I started to walk from Republic Square, with its vaulting pink stone and arched monumental buildings, which date from the 1920s. In 1918, after the collapse of the Russian Empire, a short-lived independent Armenian state was declared that survived only until the Bolshevik conquest of 1920. The new Soviet republic of Armenia, which would eventually emerge, was far smaller than its people had hoped for and was full of refugees. Many had come from regions now in Turkey—which Armenians still, optimistically, call Western Armenia—but which were lost to the Turks in those chaotic years, and many of the refugees were survivors of the genocide of 1915.
Following the Soviet conquest, Armenians were divided. Some saw Soviet Armenia as the end of a dream of independence, but others saw it as the only way the Armenian nation, with its own distinctive language, history, and culture, which historically had been preserved by its church, could survive. After all, the areas where Armenians had once lived in eastern Anatolia had just been lost to the Turks. This is why Republic Square is important. Its arches, for example, are decorated with motifs of fruit and flowers and animals. Arev Samuelyan, Armenia’s deputy minister of culture and an architect, explained to me that in this period, architects such as Alexander Tamanian, who designed the square and the nearby opera house, were trying to create a modern secular style to symbolize the new Armenian republic. Historically the only distinctive Armenian architecture had been pointy-roofed churches—not the ideal source of inspiration in Stalin’s state.
Until then, and even today, church and nation had always been intertwined. Armenians are proud of the fact that theirs was the first nation to adopt Christianity as its official religion, as far back as the year 301 AD; and the church, with its own rituals and sacred texts in Armenian, is independent of the Vatican and is not a strand of Orthodoxy like the Russian, Greek, or Georgian churches. Today, its members make up over 90 percent of the Armenian population.
Across town, I walked up a massive staircase, called the Cascade, which has some five hundred steps. It was begun in the 1970s but only completed after the Soviet state collapsed. Sitting on the steps, basking in the sun, young couples were kissing. Behind the steps, inside the hill they are built on, is a modern art museum funded by Gerard Cafesjian, an Armenian-American who made his fortune in publishing. The Armenian diaspora is perhaps seven million strong. There are no exact figures, but 1.2 million are believed to live in the US, 2.2 million in Russia, and half a million in France, with the rest scattered everywhere from Georgia to Syria and Argentina. The relationship between Armenia and the diaspora is often compared to that of diaspora Jews and Israel—a kinship that depends on family and religious ties and a sense of nationhood that requires Armenians to help one another.
For the Armenian state the diaspora is an important source of money: some 10 percent of Armenia’s GDP derives from it. Of that, between 70 to 80 percent comes from Armenians in Russia, and not only from newly minted billionaires, of whom there are several. While the forebears of much of the diaspora in the West came from Anatolia following the genocide of 1915, Armenians have been in Russia for centuries; they continued to emigrate there during the Soviet era and in the two decades since.
At the top of the Cascade is the Maison Charles Aznavour, which contains the apartment of the veteran French-Armenian crooner. Aznavour has long been a leading figure of the diaspora, helping mobilize it to raise money for everything from schools and hospitals to roads and irrigation schemes in both Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. In 2009, he was appointed Armenian ambassador to Switzerland. This is the second reason why the Armenians of the diaspora are so important. They are organized and lobby for Armenian causes. The most important of these relates to the genocide, but they also include, in the US for example, blocking the confirmation of Matthew Bryza as American ambassador to Azerbaijan this past December, which led to his recall from Baku after a year. Armenian groups in the US had lobbied against him, accusing Bryza—who was appointed by the White House in December 2010 during a congressional recess and never confirmed by the Senate—of pro-Azerbaijani and pro-Turkish views, and even of denying that a genocide of Armenians had taken place in 1915.
However, Armenians often told me that Armenians in Armenia and those in the diaspora don’t always agree. For many Armenians in the West, the primary goal has been to convince parliaments around the world to pass resolutions recognizing the events of 1915 as a genocide. On December 22, for example, the French National Assembly passed a bill making denial of the Armenian genocide a crime. In response, Turkey announced that it was recalling its ambassador to France and freezing all bilateral relations in protest. The bill was confirmed by the French Senate on January 23, and President Nicolas Sarkozy said he would sign it into law within fourteen days. On January 31, however, Turkey welcomed the fact that the law had been suspended pending its referral to the Constitutional Court. This decision by the “wise” French would “preserve” Franco-Turkish relations, said Ahmet Davutoğlu, the Turkish foreign minister.
The issue of the genocide is important in Armenia too; but opening the border with Turkey to boost trade and create jobs seems more urgent if you live here, not in Paris or California. The French bill might be emotionally satisfying, in other words, but it won’t help Armenian farmers keen to sell pomegranates just over the border in a Turkish market rather than shipping them all the way to Russia at great cost.
Just above the Cascade steps is a stele and a sort of secular black temple, erected in 1970 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Soviet rule. Cross the street and walk through the park and you soon arrive at the huge Soviet Mother Armenia statue, which replaced one of Stalin in 1962. In front of it is an eternal flame for the Armenian soldiers who died fighting in the Soviet army in World War II. Inside the Mother Armenia pedestal, an exhibition commemorates the casualties of the war against Azerbaijan in the 1990s. Nearby is another, newer, war memorial, for those who died between 1979 and 1989 fighting with the Soviet forces in Afghanistan.
Important though all these are, the single most important memorial in the country is the one to the genocide and its museum. It commemorates the Armenians who died in 1915 and earlier, in various pogroms. The memorial is centered around another eternal flame. This is surrounded by twelve massive, inward-curving, black petal-like walls, representing the twelve “lost provinces” of Western Armenia, which is to say the regions now in Turkey where Armenians once lived.
When I was there, children were laying flowers around the flame. As I entered the museum, I ran into a group of journalists waiting for Bertrand Delanoë, the visiting mayor of Paris. (Two weeks earlier, Sarkozy had also visited.) Delanoë spoke about the need to remember the genocide, and then, outside, he shoveled earth onto a fir tree sapling, which he watered for the cameras. The other firs there all displayed little plaques indicating that they had been planted by a visiting politician, many of whom were Americans. Like visiting American politicians, Delanoë would want to make sure that his voters of Armenian origin back home were aware that he had spoken out in Yerevan.
A few hours later I walked past the grand opera house in the center of town. It performs the works of famous Armenian composers such as Aram Khachaturian; in December you could hear Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater and Bizet’s Carmen is scheduled for 2012 .
Filmed by the police, a small group outside the opera was protesting the arrest of a young political activist. Armenian politics has been turbulent and even violent these last twenty years. It is a parliamentary democracy with a strong president and weak institutions. On paper, Armenian politics looks like an alphabet soup of parties, coalitions, and alliances. However, in reality, much of contemporary political life is dominated by the current president, Serzh Sargsyan, head of the conservative Republican Party of Armenia, and his two predecessors, Robert Kocharian and Levon Ter-Petrossian. As in many post-Communist countries, who is in and who is out tends to be connected to whom one owes one’s allegiance to, rather than ideological or policy differences.
In February 2008 the opposition, led by former president Ter-Petrossian, claimed that Sargsyan had stolen the elections. After that the police clashed with demonstrators and ten died. Dozens were jailed. The opposition claimed they were political prisoners. For twenty days Armenia was put under a state of emergency. Since then, all the prisoners from 2008 have been released, and in 2011 the main opposition alliance, made up of thirteen parties and led by Ter-Petrossian, was allowed, after a three-year ban, to hold rallies in a central square in Yerevan. Several were held, but this time, instead of violence, the government offered talks with Ter-Petrossian, and he accepted. I asked the protesters how many political prisoners there were in Armenia today. They replied “one”—the young man they were protesting about—although just what he had done to be arrested no one could say.