around the world – part 18.1 (here there be dragons)

Nov 15 2006:

If someone had told me back when I was a callow youth, that I would wind up in a job which has allowed me to travel extensively I would probably laughed it off as hardly likely – regardless of how much the idea appealed to me then.  If they had then said, ‘and by the way you’ll wind up in Armenia’, I would have suspected them of illegal substance abuse.  The fact that I am writing this, and you are reading it will probably dawn on you that indeed I have landed in Armenia – former Soviet Socialist Republic and now the very model of survival in the 21st century.

Armenia is situated solidly in the Caucasus mountainous region – to find it, spin your globe so that you can see both the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea directly in front of you.  Zero in on the area directly to the east of Turkey, North of Iran and you will find running in succession from the north west to the south east, the countries of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.  Armenia is arid, yet possessed of grasslands stretching between mountain ridges. I have yet to see a tree over 20 feet tall.

Armenia has had a very lengthy history and an especially rough recent past. In the space of a little more than a (admittedly) lengthy lifetime, Armenia gained Independence from the Ottoman Empire then suffered the most severe repression from Turkey.  Historians disagree whether the Armenians suffered a ‘genocide’, but the point is actually moot – approximately 600 000 to a million Armenians were killed between 1915 and 1916 with many more becoming refugees and settling in the West.  Almost immediately after, Lenin set about recovering those bits of Czarist Russia which had the temerity to seek Independence in the turmoil following the Communist Revolution. By 1921 Armenia was firmly in the hands of Soviet Russia and by the 1930s and 1940s it was in the grip of the despot and darling of western leftists, Stalin.

Stalin being of Georgian descent fully appreciated the depth of belonging Armenians and other Caucasian peoples had and set about destroying it.  He simultaneously deported (internally exiled) about half of the populations of Georgia, Armenia, Chechnya and other southern (and equally unreliable) peoples to Siberia and beyond. In place he imported ethnic Russians – the ultimate goal being to eliminate anti soviet nationalism – it didn’t quite work out however, because 38 years after his death as the Soviet Union disintegrated, the newly independent regions adopted fairly virulent anti – Russian tendencies. To this day conflict simmers in Georgia, Chechnya, directed primarily against Russia while within other former Soviet Republics anti Russian sympathies lie very close to the surface of their societies.

Upon Independence from the USSR in 1991, Armenia quickly found itself engulfed in a nasty regional conflict with Azerbaijan – a neighboring newly independent former soviet republic. This conflict arose primarily because Stalin had cleverly divided ethnically contiguous areas in the region to ensure that each contained a minority of the other – Azerbaijan contained an area largely comprised of ethnic Armenians who had historically suffered and not surprisingly almost immediately declared their intention to secede from Azerbaijan to join with Armenia. Much fighting including aerial bombardments and conventional ground warfare resulted in Ngorno Karabach gaining a measure of self rule from Azerbaijan but prevented by treaty from joining Armenia. In one of those curious twists of realpolitik, the Islamic Republic of Iran secretly supported Christian Armenia in its war with Azerbaijan despite the latters’ adherence to Islam.
This is because Azeri’s are largely Turkic and Armenians are not. I n the narrow view of self interest that informs struggle in this part of the world, Turkey sided with Azerbaijan (their ethnic cousins), so Iran sided with Armenia – simply to counter Turkey and its expanding influence to the east.

By 2006, Yerevan, the Capital of Armenia is a study in contrasts.  Unlike Bucharest which was pretty uniformly drab and run down, Yerevan seems to contain two extremes. The downtown area is quite pretty, clean and functional.  New capital pouring into Armenia is most visibly expressed by the sheer number of new buildings going up complimented by a nearly equal number of renovations. The centre is well policed – thus an absence of beggars and petty street thieves (Bucharest take note).  Leave the downtown however, and one quickly leaves behind the clean core and arrives in a Mid-eastern city. Dusty roads, few and broken sidewalks, abandoned construction projects thousands of Lada’s and countless able bodied men standing around in the absence of employment. Armenia is simultaneously the recipient of the largest amount of foreign development loans per-capita and possessed of up to 40% unemployment. It is as if the country having emerged destitute from the Soviet Experience and warfare, suddenly won the lottery and went on a mad spending spree without thought to the longer term plan.

Survival, then 21st century style.  Globalisation means that extremes of wealth are visible alongside poverty – but, and this is important, don’t confuse the poverty as being a result of recent economic globalisation (I don’t think too many Armenians would have very much time for Naomi Klein and her ‘no logo‘ crowd). The destitution on display in Armenia is a direct result of the economic and social wreckage perpetrated by the criminal soviet system in Armenia. That kind of devastation is the product of 70 years of stupid, brutal, collectivist thought. It is likely that the sudden removal of that system has disadvantaged some of the already poor, but clearly many more are making a go of it – something that could NOT have been said during the heyday of soviet socialism.

On Wednesday afternoon we departed on the cultural tour to Khor Virap, a monastery located south west of Yerevan and within sight of Mt Ararat. Khor Virap was the site where in the 4th century, the King of Armenia had Saint Gregory the Illuminator imprisoned in a pit for 13 years. This because Gregory would not recant his Christian faith, nor give up attempts to convert the King.

I can attest to the fact that if I had been thrown into this pit, I likely wouldn’t have lasted 13 years on principles.  A chapel was built in the 7th century over the site of the pit and the tourist (me) is able to climb down. To access the pit you step down into a small well just to the right of the chapel altar, and then climb straight down on a steel ladder for about 45 feet in pitch dark into the chamber. The chamber is circular, about 20 ft diameter with a domed ceiling and decorated with icons, grottos and other religious artefacts. Quite an experience.

Mt Ararat, for those of you thinking you may have heard of it before, is reputed to have been the location where Noah’s arc made landfall after the great flood. Armenians claim a particularly sentimental attachment to the mountain – “Mt Ararat IS Armenia” etc, despite the fact that is actually over the border in Turkey. Mt Ararat factors quite largely in Armenian myth and popular culture – everywhere there are hotels, businesses, rental agencies, city districts etc all bearing the Ararat name – the feature itself is visible from Yerevan, and I would guess from a large part of Armenia. The fact that the mountain is tantalisingly close yet unreachable doesn’t deter Armenians who claim with some justification that the eastern bit of Turkey is in fact Armenian territory – any bets as to whether the border is open or closed between these two? If you guessed closed, you would be right. In fact, the border to the east (Azerbijan) is also closed, leaving Armenians at the mercy of Georgia to import nearly everything requiring overland transport. The current unrest in Georgia (unrelated to Armenian relations) can’t be helping to ease fears of potential shortages.

I would love to be able to spend more than a week here. I doubt I will ever have the opportunity to return – this letter and the pictures I took will have to satisfy my desire.

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