Armenia, founded in chaos, still struggles to find place in the world
With closed borders and a railway blockade, future looks tough for the country’s children
The ninth-century Tatev Monastry, an icon of the ancient Armenian Apostolic Church, reached by the world’s longest aerial tramway. Photograph: Hayk Melkonyan
“Whole generations have been lost. We are left without children and it means we are left without a future.” I remember those words vividly. They were spoken by Norik Muradyan, the party chairman of the Armenia town of Spitak.
We were standing, one winter’s day in 1988, together surveying the ruins of a school where hundreds of children had been killed by a terrible earthquake that took the lives of more than 25,000 people.
This tragedy occurred within living memory of the survivors of the 1915 genocide, the medz yeghern or “great crime”. To this day some Armenians believe the earthquake was another medz yeghern, an underground nuclear explosion manufactured by the Kremlin as punishment for its struggle to wrest Armenian-occupied lands from neighbouring Soviet Azerbaijan.
Given all the misfortunes that have befallen this landlocked country the size of Belgium, it is not surprising paranoia is a national characteristic.
Founded in chaos and turmoil after the genocide, and composed of only a fraction of Armenians’ traditional homeland, the fledging country was overrun by the Red Army and forced to become a Soviet republic in 1922. Some 75,000 Armenians subsequently died in the second World War 20 years later.
In 1943 “Armenians again faced being wiped out as the Armenian division was at Stalingrad and the Turks were massing on the border”, the country’s independence leader, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, told me in an interview as Soviet tanks occupied Yerevan’s main square.
The break-up of the Soviet Union, in 1991, brought renewed strife and agony. A six-year war with Azerbaijan cost 6,000 Armenian lives, and threatens to erupt again today as Azerbaijan rearms with the aim of taking back the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Christian Armenia has been forced to look to Orthodox Russia as its protector. “If only we had a border with Russia, we would be really safe,” said Artur Gukasyan, a 57-year-old veteran of the war with Azerbaijan, at his home in the frontline town of Martakert in Nagorno-Karabakh,
Ter-Petrosyan, whom I encountered again last October, addressing an opposition rally at Yerevan’s opera house, noted there was no choice, given the need for Russia to act as Armenia’s guarantor. There was no “Maidan” in Yerevan.
With closed borders on almost all sides and a railway blockade, Armenia struggles to offer its children a future. Many leave. In the decade to 2011 the population fell by 6 per cent to just over three million, and continues to decline.
Armenian entrepreneur and philanthropist Ruben Vardanyan is based in Moscow. His grandfather was saved from the genocide by a missionary. He sees the legacy of recent history as a lack of respect for knowledge and labour, and an increasing sense of dependency. These factors are making Armenia “a mediocre nation with mediocre ambitions and a limited world view”, he said.
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Vardanyan is ploughing much of his wealth from investment banking back into education in his native country. He and his wife Veronika Zonabend initiated Armenia’s first international school, a United World College, which opened last year in Dilijan, a resort town in Alpine-like surroundings. (My Armenia wife Zhanna has been involved in its development.) The couple also initiated an $80 million project to revive the 9th-century Tatev monastery, an icon of the ancient Armenian Apostolic Church, reached by the world’s longest aerial tramway.
Two other rich Armenians, Sam and Sylvia Simonian, of Dallas, Texas, are also boosting education. They have funded the Tumo Centre for Creative Technologies, with free digital learning centres in Yerevan and Dilijan, to promote entrepreneurial talent.
Despite Armenia’s misfortunes, Yerevan is a vibrant capital with high-end shops and restaurants, free wifi, excellent markets, and smart – and smartly dressed – young people. As evidence of the emphasis on brain power, in 2011 chess was made compulsory in primary schools.
The genocide, in Vardanyan’s opinion, is gradually losing its emotive and unifying force. Armenians now need “to think globally and broadly rather than swim shallow”.
“Fortunately, we are seeing the rise of a very interesting young generation of Armenians, members of the old and new Diaspora, residing in Armenia and outside of it, who received a good education and are competitive, who truly want to be proud of the fact they are Armenians.
“It is very important for these young and promising people to find their place in the new Armenian world, aiming not for survival, but prosperity.”
Conor O’Clery is a former Irish Times foreign correspondent