Erevan, the capital of Soviet Armenia, is a city that has discovered the idea of freedom, and is haltingly putting it into practice. I arrived to be swept the same evening into one of the gigantic demonstrations that have been a characteristic of life there for the last 15 months, and in which the evidence of the people’s will was powerful enough for the situation to be beyond the control of soldiers or militia. Could this really be a Soviet city, I wondered, as the militia idled inactively, and the people shouted slogans calling for the unification of Armenia with karabagh, and for the release of the Karabagh Committee? The yerakouin, the red-blue-orange tricolour of pre-Soviet Armenia, was the dominant symbol; the Soviet flag only flew on official buildings. The spirit of defiance was palpable, and as the days passed the authorities responded, slowly and crab-wise. One could not help making comparisons with events in Peking. The Karabagh Committee is now free, and the tricolour has since been designated the national, though not the republic’s flag – an ingenious solution. But Karabagh is still separate from Armenia.
Unification with Karabagh was the overriding theme of the demonstration. Karabagh is the Armenian enclave given by Stalin and perhaps Lenin in 1921 to Azerbaijan, almost certainly with the intention of encouraging Turkey, Azerbaijan’s ethno-linguistic cousin, along the Bolshevik road. Today it is a region starved of any real development, and denied its native culture, with the neighbouring Azeris encouraged to move in at the expense of the unemployed, and therefore migrant, Armenians. Azerbaijan has been manipulating Karabagh as a colony since the Twenties, imposing policies designed to make the native Armenians leave, and filling the vacancies with Azeri settlers. In 1922 the population was 92 percent Armenian: it is now only 75 per cent Armenian. Karabagh’s new status, of being ruled directly from Moscow, has brought about no real change. Building materials have been delivered only to the Azeri villages. The 500 million roubles designated for the development of the region were handed to state officials in Azerbaijan before direct rule was imposed; consequently, the Azeri authorities used them for Azeri rather than Armenian villages. The men and women of Karabagh, despite their poverty – the villages have been denied irrigation by the Azerbaijani authorities – maintain a stubborn strike.
In an unconvincing attempt to gain some sort of initiative, the Armenian Government at the last minute permitted the demonstration to take place, and presented it as its own. The people had gathered on the steps of the Matenadaran, Erevan’s imposing depository of manuscripts, regardless of any official decision, and the crowd stretched as far as the eye could see along Lenin Prospekt. The speech by the Erevan city commandant avoided the contentious issue of Karabagh: instead he spoke, in a dull and defensive manner, in justification of the curfew, which, though brief, is resented. Not all the speeches were so routine, but with the Karabagh Committee then in jail, Armenia’s best speakers were silenced. A student spoke in favour of withdrawing troops and freeing the activists. A Second World War veteran spoke of seeking to establish an Armenian consulate at the UN. Perhaps the mood of the meeting was best judged by the interjections: calls for the unification with Artsakh (the Armenian name for Karabagh), for continuing the struggle, and for Karabagh’s strike to spread to Armenia itself.
As the speeches droned on – the concept of brevity is alien to Armenians – I drifted away, tired and hungry, despite the exhortation of my companion that in a revolutionary situation one has sometimes to forgo food and rest. Negotiating a passage through a block of half a million people pressed together is none too easy, though the crowd was polite and good-tempered. I found that the easiest way was to follow a ‘channel’ created by another leaver, and if there was none, to start shoving, left shoulder forward, as soon as a speech had ended. I found my way back to the hotel, through the warm shadows of Erevan’s night-time parks.
Opera Square is where all the Erevan demonstrations took place until last November. It has now been placed out of bounds by the militia; it is a symbol of defiance and freedom, and of national identity and cohesion, too dangerous for the authorities to countenance. The notion that, here again, opera was in conflict with the authorities was irresistible, especially since, at the height of the demonstrations last year, the opera management had unfurled a flag saying Operan tsez hed e – ‘the opera is with you’ One evening I went to a concert of operatic extracts, passing though the line of militia to do so.
The interior of the house was enchanting down even to the shape of the seat-backs. But the stern sounds of Philip II’s monologue from Verdi’s Don Carlos brought back the reality of the situation. ‘She has never loved me,’ Philip sings of his wife Elisabeth de Valois. So might Russia sing of Armenia. Russia helped Armenia develop throughout the last century, giving her the chance to make emancipation a reality; Armenians repaid the compliment by giving soldiers and public servants to both pre- and post-Revolutionary Russia: Count Loris-Melikov, for example, who stormed Kars in the war of 1877, and who was appointed chancellor to Alexander II. (He makes an appearance in Tolstoy’s short story ‘Hadji Murat’.) At the close of the turbulent period which followed the First World War, it was the 11th Red Army which rescued Armenia from the jaws of the Turkish Nationalists. Since then, Armenia has learnt how to prosper within the Soviet economy: the traffic today on Erevan’s roads is awesome. Yet the Armenians have never loved the Russians. Today, as Russia calls on all Soviet nationalities to lay aside partisan grievances and embrace perestroika, and Armenia proclaims the struggle for unification with Karabagh as the very essence of perestroika, the mutual incomprehension is almost total.
One could always recognise the Russians in the lobby of the Hotel Armenia; aside from their fairer colouring, they moved with an assurance and an ease that must once have been the privilege of the British at Raffles or Shepheards Hotel. Nothing was said by the hotel staff; but they were always grateful for a few words spoken in Armenian.
One thing that the two peoples share is a passionate devotion to debate. As I watched the demonstrations, or mitings as they are known – the English word is used – and saw bolder demands being made, beyond the question of Karabagh, bearing on the very nature of democratisation, it was hard not to think of the risks. Asked for my opinion, I counselled caution. I was told I was absurdly out of date ‘This is how I thought until last November; things have moved on since then,’ a student told me. Just before I left, the demands were being made for the resignation of the Armenian Government, seen as the creatures of Moscow, and not of the people they allegedly represented. Was this wise? Even the Dashnaks from America, representatives of an Armenian political party not known for its caution, are being criticised by the activists in Erevan for advising a step-by-step approach. But people from the US do at least know the intentions, and the methods, of Turkey. The border between Turkey and Armenia has been silent for 68 years; such a span of time may induce local forgetfulness.
Groups of Armenians from the worldwide diaspora are visiting Erevan all the time, and I was lucky to make friends at the hotel with a group from Damascus: they appeared to be owners of factories in Syria, or large importers. Together we travelled by minibus to the devastated areas in the north. Leninakan, Kirovakan, Spitak, or, as one finds them on the old maps, Alexandropol, Karakilisa and Hamamlu: the destruction wrought by the earthquake is catastrophic. All of Spitak will have to be levelled, and much more of Leninakan is still to come down. The drawn faces of the people were reminiscent of an earlier more terrible period in Armenia’s modern history. The WHO has just initiated a four-year programme for monitoring the health of those engaged in re-building Leninakan.
The foreign aid-workers constituted a multinational peace corps. The French were most in evidence, especially, along with the Belgians, in Médécins sans frontières. On est au bar was scrawled on the door of their temporary office in the hotel; but the impression gained was of almost non-stop work. The German Red Cross were situated in the journalists’ centre. The most remarkable building was the Italians’ temporary village outside Spitak: an immensely accomplished concept, stylishly finished. The Americans (in the form of the AmeriCares agency) were working or spinal injuries in the Erevan hospital. Where were the British? Not much in evidence. I was told they were building the school in Leninakan, a gift of the British Government, but I did not see them, or it. As aid workers they seemed absent. The school, incidentally, is to be called the Lord Byron: an imaginative touch, recalling Byron’s struggles with the Armenian language in Venice in 1815, and perhaps beyond that, his fight against Ottoman tyranny, something with which the Armenians came to grips only when they defeated the Turkish Army at the battle of Sardarabad in May 1918.
Perhaps it is Armeno-Georgian friendship that needs to be sought out today. Turkey is implacable and monolithic to the west; to the east is Azerbaijan, which got away with slaughtering Armenians at Sumgait in February last year, and which – perhaps because it does not seek to disturb the status quo – has been allowed the ear of Moscow, something that is denied Armenia. A sympathy for Georgia, her Christian northern neighbour, swept through Armenia when demonstrators were gassed and mown down in Tbilisi in April this year; the football match played in Erevan when I was there between Dynamo Tbilisi and Ararat Armenia (a no-score draw) turned into something like a carnival. Whether this friendship is anything more than an opportunistic alliance, and whether the nations will succumb to old ways of Caucasian enmity and jealousy, no one can tell. An optimist might say that, working together, they will achieve the more just and free society that developments in the Soviet Union have brought so tantalisingly close. But optimism is often misplaced in the Caucasus.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.