Quake-hit city in Armenia tugs at the heart

A Gyumri church before and after the earthquake
A Gyumri church before and after the earthquake
The same church, modelled on Ani cathedral, today as restoration nears completion
The same church, modelled on Ani cathedral, today as restoration nears completion

“When sorrows come, they come not single spies
But in battalions.”

These words from “Hamlet” are well-worn, but they are tragically apposite for Armenia’s second city, Gyumri.

The sorrows began when an earthquake devastated the city in 1988 and then continued with the collapse of the Soviet Union three years later. This epic unravelling of the world’s biggest state gutted all industry in Gyumri that had survived the natural disaster.

Over the last generation, few cities surely have contended with such challenges. I travelled north from Yerevan, through a barren, stony landscape, to see how Gyumri was faring today.

What I found was a complex story of decline, poverty and hope. The poverty is more shocking than I had expected, but the signs of hope are real.

I’ll let the Armenians tell the story of that first hammer blow. This is from a text in Armenian and Russian on a commemorative plaque outside a central church:

“At 11:41 on December 7, on a misty and bleak December day in 1988, the mountains gave a start and with great force shook the earth.

“Towns, villages, schools, nurseries and industrial plants were instantly destroyed and more than one million people were left homeless.

“At this tragic hour, 25,000 people died, 140,000 were injured and 16,000 were rescued from the rubble.”

Before and after

Big events like Armenia’s earthquake rupture time. When the people of Gyumri talk about their lives, they often say that something happened “before the earthquake” or “after the earthquake”.

The point is that lives dramatically changed. There really was a before and an after. Even if your house was still standing, even if your whole family survived, you emerged into a changed world.

In Gyumri, I went to a bed and breakfast run by Artush and Raisa Davtyan. Artush told me that they had been at home with their two sons watching a Russian film on television when the earthquake struck. He remembers the floor of their stone-built house rising about half a metre as the shockwaves rippled through the building. Everyone in the family emerged unscathed and amazingly the house withstood the ordeal.

Before the earthquake Artush, now a tourist guide, was a scientist working in the physics department of a research institute. But the disaster just knocked the stuffing out of Armenia’s finances and after the earthquake there was no research work for Artush or his colleagues.

“Many people, they lost their jobs,” said Artush. “We had to work anywhere….I became as a common worker. I worked in the building companies. I was in Russia, I worked in Russia later and I came back. I started to work here to rebuild our city and I worked in foreign building companies and step by step, later, I worked in a hotel.”

Artush said that in the immediate aftermath of the quake Moscow promised a rapid rebuilding of Gyumri, along the lines of the heroic resurrection of Tashkent in Central Asia after its tremor in 1966. But times had changed and the Soviet Union was in terminal decline as a political entity. There was no repeat performance of fraternal workers arriving from other Soviet republics to rebuild a shattered city.

After the Soviet Union ceased to be, supply lines between the republics collapsed and there was a further giddy shrinking of the city’s economy.

Artush said that Gyumri’s textile factory had been the second biggest in the Soviet Union, employing 10,000 workers, mainly women. But with the end of the Soviet Union the supply of cotton from Uzbekistan stopped and the factory closed. He said a buyer of the plant carted all the machinery off to the Iranian city of Shiraz.

Today, most of Gyumri has finally been rebuilt. But work is scarce, wages are low and people are leaving in search of a better life. Studies have shown that nowhere in Armenia is depopulation so severe.

“Entire families just lock their doors and off they go to Russia,” said Artush’s wife Raisa. “The city is crumbling.”

Journeys by taxi turn into a running commentary from the driver on how the city is declining. On one taxi ride through Gyumri, the driver pointed to the left side of the street and said to me: “That was an institute – closed.” Then on our right: “All those shops – closed.” Back on the left: “That was a dairy – closed.”

I meet the mayor of Gyumri
I meet the mayor of Gyumri
The "temporary home" of Armen, his mother and a friend
The “temporary home” of Armen, his mother and a friend

“Temporary housing”

I went to see the mayor, Samvel Balasanyan, to get his take on matters. The mayor, a tall, broad-shouldered man who is one of Armenia’s leading beer magnates, told me in his office that the population of Gyumri had dropped from 225,000 at the time of the earthquake to 125,000 today.

He struck a philosophical note. “It is not like everyone leaves and forgets the city,” he said. “There are a lot of people going and coming back. And the other thing about people leaving is that life is going at its natural pace. If people have bad housing conditions or can’t find jobs it is very natural for them to leave.”

The mayor said that 2,500 families still lived in metal containers put up after the earthquake as temporary accommodation. He refused to be drawn on when the last of these families would finally get proper homes, saying it depended on finance.

Did he expect the exodus from Gyumri to stop at some point? “Yes, of course it will.”

During the interview, a city hall official named Armen Hovsepyan acted as my interpreter. It turned out that Armen was one of the unfortunates who still lived in a metal container. Indeed, except for four years when he studied in Utah he had lived in this “temporary dwelling” since he was a baby.

He said these containers were designed to last as homes for four years and they were poor protection against the elements.

“When it rains outside, it rains inside,” he said. “It is crazy cold in the winter.”

The day after my conversation with the mayor, Armen took me to see his home. Technically, it is two metal containers placed side by side. There is a sitting out area by the front door, a living room, one bed room and the kitchen. In the ceiling above the kitchen table a tear is clearly visible in the fabric. Armen shares this home with his mother and an elderly female friend of the family.

All around their house the urban landscape is an endless succession of metal containers still housing people.

At the time of the earthquake Armen was a four-month-old baby, living with his mother in a third floor apartment just metres from where he lives now. He is lucky to be alive. Rescuers got to him probably just in the nick of time.

“It took seven hours to get me out of the apartment, in freezing cold,” he said.

Although Armen has an American university degree, fluent English and a responsible job in city hall’s department of foreign affairs and tourism, his monthly salary is just 50,000 drams ($104).

Spices in Gyumri market
Spices in Gyumri market

Hope for Gyumri

I never asked Armen outright why he had come back, but I didn’t really need to. He has such an obvious love for his city. For me, extended travel only makes sense when you meet people like Armen, who love their patch of the earth. The fact that he was in Gyumri at all struck me as being part of the hope for the city.

One of the hats that Armen wears is as a volunteer at a charitable foundation, which is trying to raise funds to make Gyumri a better place and persuade people to stay. The foundation website is http://www.gyumriprojecthope.org.

At city hall, his main job now is to attract tourists and I doubt that Gyumri could find a better person to do this. Armen knows his city well and conversation about it just comes tumbling out of him.

Did I know, he asked, that Gyumri’s 19th century Church of the Holy Saviour, still being rebuilt after the quake, was a copy of the cathedral in Ani, the ruined Armenian city over the border in Turkey?

“The architect went every Thursday by horse and carriage to copy the details of the cathedral,” said Armen.

Ani, which thrived in the Middle Ages, is an enduring source of fascination for Armenians. The fact that, like Mount Ararat, it is on Turkish soil feels deeply wrong to them.

“Ani and Armenia are connected with underground tunnels,” said Armen. “My uncle knows one of the entrances.”

It was Armen who told me that Gyumri was the birthplace of George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, a 20th century mystic and spiritual teacher. Gurdjieff was an early example of a modern thinker who sought to take the wisdom of the East to the West. It seems absolutely right that he was from Gyumri, an Armenian Christian city with Kurdish Yazidi villages in the surrounding area.

There is a school of thought that Gurdjieff was a charlatan, but then the same could probably be said of many a spiritual teacher. He certainly attracted some interesting followers, including a senior officer in British military intelligence and a Harley Street psychiatrist.

With his shaven head, black moustache and piercing eyes, Gurdjieff was a striking figure even in the world of esoteric thought. His father, a cattle herdsman and bardic poet, is buried in Gyumri and Armen told me that some Americans come to the city solely on account of the Gurdjieff link.

For those with no interest whatsoever in Gurdjieff, does Gyumri make sense as a holiday destination?

I would certainly say it makes sense as part of an Armenian tour. If you stay in a cosy B and B, as I did, there is no shortage of creature comforts.

The city is not rich, but it has a welcoming feel, smart people and a bustling market. Step nimbly past the ageing Ladas driving by and you enter an outdoor market which is just as I like them. In my book, markets should be noisy and this one is. There is the whirr of coffee grinders and the banging of metal in shops selling wood stoves – you can feel the ancient lineage of this place.

This being Armenia, the fare on offer in late October included grapes, grapes and more grapes, nuts of all kinds, live fish, crayfish, Armenian cognac, pomegranate wine, spices, coffees, carpets and Turkish electric heaters.

I want to open up one final new thread, to give more substance to my assertion that there are real signs of hope in Gyumri. I went one day to see the work of a foundation financed by Diaspora money. The Tumo Center for Creative Technologies, funded by the U.S.-based Simonian Educational Foundation, opened a branch in Gyumri in September. It is doing impressive things with youngsters between the ages of 12 and 18.

They come after school, typically for two workshops a week, and can choose free courses from the four areas of animation, film-making, computer game development and web design.

When I dropped by, there were dozens of youngsters in the classroom and spanking new Apple computers everywhere. The manager who briefed me at Tumo was a feisty young woman who grew up in Los Angeles, Nare Avagyan.

After hearing so much in Armenia about emigration, it was a most refreshing change to meet a sparky young Californian who had come home to her Armenian roots. Nare has been living in Armenia since 2012.

The Tumo Center struck me as a good example of the American “can do” philosophy, allied to Armenian patriotism and Armenian American money – all in all, a potent mix.

Nare said of the centre: “This is huge because Tumo really changes a generation, because kids start young and they are exposed to so much that it really helps them unlock their creative potential.”

“All they need is motivation and a longing for learning and our doors are open to them, so any kid can come, register and take part.”

In Yerevan the Tumo Center has more than 6,000 active students, she said.

“In Gyumri we are at full capacity, near 1,000 students,” said Nare. “We also have over 500 kids on the wait list and, of course, we are going to do everything to accommodate them.”

The Tumo Center in Gyumri is in temporary accommodation in a technology park, but Nare said the plan was to renovate the city’s old theatre, a bigger space, and use that.

I have let this run because English-language articles about Gyumri are rare. And, as you’ve probably guessed, I rather like the place. I wish it well.

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Armenia’s independence generation

Davit Dilanyan of Armenia's independence generation
Davit Dilanyan of Armenia’s independence generation

Davit Dilanyan was born in 1991, the year when the Soviet Union collapsed and Armenia threw off Moscow rule after 71 years. That makes Davit a member of what Armenians call the independence generation, the young people who have grown up in an independent state.

I met Davit, a professional facilitator, when he was running a workshop at the hostel in Yerevan where I was staying. On a day after the workshop ended we went for a leisurely coffee and chatted about life, the universe and everything Armenian.

Davit is slightly built, gentle, alert and full of nervous energy. He is patriotic, steeped in his country’s difficult history yet forward-looking. Our conversation ranged widely, from the emergence of a pub culture in Yerevan to Armenians’ backing for President Bashar al-Assad of war-shattered Syria.

First I asked Davit about his youth. His early years coincided with a period of extraordinary challenge, when Armenia fell back to a pre-industrial way of life. War with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh and the dissolution of the Soviet Union meant Armenia had scant electricity.

Davit grew up in a small town near Yerevan. He has memories of universal poverty, very little light and his brother heading off to collect firewood to keep the home fire burning.

“I remember them grey and dark actually, these years. But I always remember candles,” he said. He recalled his mother rushing to do household chores like washing during the one or two hours of daily electricity.

“But actually people were happier in a way then,” he said. “Because the neighbourhood was amazing. I remember visiting each other and, yeah, we had really nice neighbours…I think in a way that society was equal then. There was not much ‘rich people or poor people’. They were all poor.”

We moved on the current state of Armenia. “We don’t have the best economic situation,” said Davit. “It’s probably the worst in the South Caucasus.” Electricity shortages are a thing of the past, but Armenia has low wages and few exports, mainly brandy, wine, fresh fruit and minerals. Its borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan are closed so it relies on road links with Georgia to the north and Iran to the south.

What’s working well?

I asked Davit what was working well in Armenia and that moved us into a whole discussion of the independence generation. He said many young Armenians were getting a good education and often spoke several languages.

It was the young, he said, who had taken the lead in street protests in June over a planned increase in electricity prices. These protests lasted more than 10 days and made international headlines. They were a challenge for the Armenian government because the distribution firm planning the hike was a subsidiary of a Russian company and Russia is a key ally. The protesters basically won the day.

Davit painted a picture of Yerevan youth leading the way and older people then joining the ranks of the protesters.

“I think all of Yerevan stood next to these young people,” said Davit. “They got really inspired.”

He said the country was benefiting from the non-conformist stance taken by Armenia’s pro-independence and environmental movements back in the late 1980s.

“The people who stood up then taught their children not to be conformist…The independence generation is really active. This is the future of Armenia, I am sure,” said Davit.

I asked whether there was a youth sub-culture. “I think there is youth sub-culture,” said Davit. “For example, the pub life comes from our generation. I am sure there was nothing like that seven or eight years ago.”

He described pub life as the symbol of the youth of Armenia. “I don’t think the pubs are places for getting drunk in Armenia,” said Davit. “You just go there to hang out and to have a nice time.” Often there was music and you could dance. There were rock pubs. Members of NGOs, entrepreneurs also gathered in pubs to discuss plans.

Davit approved of the spread of pubs, but he disapproved of one associated development. “Girls started to smoke a lot in Armenia…It is a bad trend for me.”

What’s not working well?

When I asked Davit what was not working well, he said there was corruption and nepotism in Armenia, but less than there had been a decade or so ago. In no time at all the conversation focused on emigration.

“For me this is the biggest problem,” said Davit. “I don’t like to judge people, but I feel if they tried harder they could stay.”

He knows from first-hand experience that the economic pull drawing Armenians away from their own country can be very strong. He studied in an Erasmus programme in Italy for seven months and received a grant of 1,000 euros a month. Back in Armenia studying for a PhD he gets a grant of between 40 and 50 euros a month.

Nor is money the only reason that emigration appears attractive to some. Young Armenian men are expected to serve two years in the army. Davit said the continuing conflict with Azerbaijan over Karabakh was one factor behind emigration “because there are still shootings and deaths alongside the border”.

Finally, I asked Davit what core message he would give if he had five minutes on world television. He immediately said he was getting really stressed when he read news items about Islamic State.

“My first message is peace for all the world,” he said.

Then our conversation took a turn which surprised me. Making his plea for peace, Davit had tapped into the deepest, most terrible memories of his race. Since the Genocide, Armenians see the world through the prism of who stood by them in their hour of need. Davit told me that Syrians had been the first people to offer sanctuary to Armenians fleeing from the massacres in the Ottoman Empire.

He said Armenians still felt gratitude to Syria and he praised Assad for what he felt was the Syrian president’s supportive policy towards religious minorities.

“Armenians are rather in favour of Assad,” said Davit, whose plea for world peace just minutes earlier had come across as totally heart-felt.

One strong impression I have after talking to Davit is that Armenia is a “bridge country” between East and West. Davit is fluent in Armenian, Russian and English. He is writing his PhD on the Eurasian Economic Union, the political and economic bloc set up by Russia and to which Armenia belongs. Davit’s girlfriend is Czech and lives in Prague, where he is a fairly frequent visitor.

We need bridge countries and bridge people, even if some of their views do not accord with our own.