In two minds about Abkhazia

A peace gesture from Georgia on the Abkhaz border
A peace gesture from Georgia on the Abkhaz border
Sokhumi's seafront promenade by night
Sokhumi’s seafront promenade by night

The world, it seems, is in two minds about the Black Sea statelet of Abkhazia at the western end of Georgia.

For Russians, it is a subtropical holiday paradise and they go there literally by the million every year to frolic by the sea. For the governments of the West, on the other hand, it is a dangerous no-go zone and they advise their citizens not to set foot in these badlands.

In 2015 I went three times to the South Caucasus and made it to quite a few places, but back home in Wales it gnawed at me that I had not set foot in Abkhazia. This felt like a serious omission and I decided to find out who is right about Abkhazia – the Russians or the West.

In international law this lush, beautiful region is part of Georgia, but covert Russian forces played their part in wresting it from Georgia in a war fought by Abkhaz nationalists in the early 1990s. Abkhazia claims to be an independent state, but only Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Nauru, Vanuatu and Tuvalu recognise it as such. In practice it is a small extension of Russia, which has a land border on its western edge. Abkhazia’s currency is the Russian rouble.

In late June, just a few days after Britain’s European Union referendum, I set off for Georgia. It was a shambolic departure. When I should have been packing, I was writing to my Member of Parliament urging a new referendum. I have never had such a chaotic start to a journey, but that vote did rather upend my emotions.

I flew from Bristol via Warsaw to Georgia’s second city, Kutaisi, carrying with me an e-mail from Abkhazia’s foreign ministry promising a visa on arrival in the Abkhaz capital. I arrived at Kutaisi airport in wet, grey weather, but out on the highway in a taxi I knew that I was in Georgia. Cowherds sheltering under umbrellas padded along with their cattle on the road from Zugdidi. Georgia wouldn’t be Georgia without its omnipresent livestock. The taxi driver told me that he had lost his left thumb in the Abkhazia war, which suddenly felt more real.

I stayed two nights in the town of Zugdidi for some gentle acclimatisation and then headed in a taxi to the nearby border. This must surely be one of the few official border crossings left in the world where most of the travellers are either on foot or in horse-drawn taxis, covered wagons which ply their trade between the Georgian and Abkhaz border posts.

There is another unusual touch. On the left side of the road, after the Georgian passport control and before the bridge over the Enguri river which marks the border, stands the statue of a black revolver pointing towards Abkhazia. But the barrel of the gun is twisted upwards and this actually points at the sky. While the intention, I suppose, is noble, the statue just seems odd on this rather quiet stretch of road.

The Enguri river was in a sense familiar territory. A year earlier I had walked to its source in Svaneti, at the Shkhara glacier, and now I was close to the end of its journey.

Over on the Abkhaz side of the river I came to a solitary passport officer sitting in a basic shelter. He was a jovial fellow who clearly enjoyed some conversation to help pass the time. He addressed me in Russian, with a certain lightness in his tone. “So, what are you? Tourist, journalist, extremist or terrorist?” Given this menu of options I chose tourist. I also offered the information that I was Welsh since the European soccer championships were on and the world had finally heard of Wales, partly on account of its football maestro Gareth Bale. My new friend, when not flirting with a passing woman, then proceeded to show great interest in matters Celtic and spoke at length about Robert Louis Stevenson and the Picts. I couldn’t follow all he said, but I did reflect that travellers entering Britain would probably not be treated to such literary conversation at passport control.

We said farewell on the best of terms and his parting words to me were “Welsh extremist”. Now the author Ned Thomas, many years ago, wrote a book with this title. I can’t imagine that my Abkhaz passport officer knew this, but it is strange how he chose these words.

From the border I took another taxi to the nearby town of Gali which is still largely inhabited by ethnic Georgians. The taxi driver even accepted payment in Georgian lari. My guide book described Gali as sadly dilapidated — a result of war damage –but the town had commerce and looked in better shape than I had been expecting.

By bus I carried on to Sokhumi, the capital of Abkhazia and a seaside resort of great charm which is finding its feet again after the destruction of civil war.

Luckily the website marches on into disputed territories like Abkhazia and I made my way to a pre-booked guesthouse, run by a woman of Armenian extraction, Anaida.

Her husband Sarkis, a self-employed mechanic also of Armenian origin whose forebears fled to these shores after the Genocide, was sitting on a bench in the front yard, pottering with bits of this and that. We fell into conversation. Within less than 10 minutes he asked me: “Why don’t the English like Russia?” I wanted to say “Give me a break, I have only just walked through your door!” Instead I said something to the effect that Russia’s chequered history, with chapters like the Stalinist purges, induced a certain caution in the English where Russia was concerned.

This prompted Sarkis to embark on a list of America’s misdeeds over the decades, but happily we did not dwell on geopolitics for long. Still, it was a swift lesson for me that having crossed the Enguri river I was now in a part of the world where the Kremlin’s world view prevailed. Sarkis’s tone was not one of raw hostility, but nor did it feel like an invitation to amicable open-minded debate on the state of the world.

Partly, I think, the question was simple curiosity on Sarkis’s part – in the normal way of things he wouldn’t meet many of my compatriots. I spent 16 days in Abkhazia and did not meet a single person from anywhere west of St. Petersburg.

Sokhumi was badly damaged in the Abkhaz war but now feels quite prosperous, feeding off a buoyant tourist trade from Russia. Orange and white trolley buses trundle through its streets giving an air of municipal normality and Russian holiday makers throng the seafront promenade lined with oleander bushes. It feels like a good-tempered resort of the old-fashioned kind. During the day a little train takes children for rides along the promenade and in the evening couples come out and dance. Groups set up tables on the stony beach and drink. Young boys shout “Garyachaya cuckoorooza” which to my ear is more melodious than “Hot sweet corn”. I can imagine spending a few happy days shouting “Garyachaya cuckoorooza” on the Sokhumi seafront, but the idea of yelling out the English equivalent has no appeal whatsoever.

Occasionally the heavens open and the seaside idyll is temporarily suspended. Once I spent nearly an hour on the seafront huddled inside a popcorn vendor’s stall waiting for a downpour to subside.

I arrived in Abkhazia without any firm ideas on itinerary but I didn’t want to try anything too daring. I settled on a plan of walking from Sokhumi to Gagra, another popular seaside resort about 80 kilometres away towards the Russian border.

Oh I do like to be beside the seaside
Oh I do like to be beside the seaside
The golden domes of Novy Afon monastery
The golden domes of Novy Afon monastery

I set out on a bright sunny morning. I bought a peaked cap and an umbrella in Sokhumi’s excellent central bazaar and just walked down to the promenade and turned right. There were bathers in the sea, people on the beach and patches of snow on the Caucasus peaks. I love moments like this, when you simply walk out in fine weather into the unknown.

At the western end of Sokhumi I was reminded of the region’s difficult modern history. I came across the first war memorial of my walk – I was to see many others.

“Eternal glory to the combatants of the Sukhumi battalion who fell in the battles for the motherland!” The memorial gave the names of 36 fighters, one dead in 1992, the others in 1993. Behind were the ruins of a five-storey red brick building partly covered in vegetation. Presumably one of the battles for the motherland had taken place right here.

The first day of my Abkhazia walk, July 6, was also the day that Britain published its long-awaited Chilcot report on the Iraq war, so the human propensity for slaughter was hard to shift from my thoughts.

One of the outcomes of the Abkhaz war was the mass deportation of Georgians from the region. Before the war about half of the population of Abkhazia was Georgian and they greatly outnumbered the Abkhaz. In the political and economic tumult surrounding the end of the Soviet Union, relations between the ethnic groups fell apart, with both sides committing atrocities. In the fighting Russia put its weight behind the Abkhaz and more than 200,000 Georgians were forced to flee their homes. Today, Abkhazia’s greatly reduced population stands at a little over 240,000.

The loss of Abkhazia and the ethnic cleansing of so many people is the worst tragedy to afflict Georgia since it regained its independence in 1991. The whole dreadful episode brings to my mind a short conversation I had in Tbilisi in the spring of 2015, when the Ukraine conflict and Russia’s role in that had been a major world story for months. In the cafe at Prospero’s book shop on Rustaveli Avenue I briefly met Robert Nalbandov, an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Utah State University. Nalbandov told me that he had been writing a book on Russian foreign policy under Putin.

“So what is it like,” I asked, “to be a neighbour of Russia?” I half-thought that I might get a carefully nuanced reply from a cautious academic. But the good professor’s response was bluntness itself. “It sucks,” he said.

As I walked through Abkhazia, it did become clear that linguistically this is a seriously Russified part of the world. Russian is the language on everything from billboards to beer bottles, from fridge magnets to menus. It is the tongue you hear most often.

A linguistic map of Georgia, published by the Tbilisi-based Centre for the Studies of Ethnicity and Multiculturalism (website shows how beleaguered the Abkhaz language is. Abkhaz, a Northwest Caucasian tongue spoken by about 100,000 people, is restricted to a band of territory more or less following the coast from Ochamchire in the south to the village of Kaldakhvara in the north, a stretch of about 140 kilometres. In the south Mingrelian, a Kartvelian language related to Georgian, predominates, while in the Kodori valley of eastern Abkhazia there are villages populated by speakers of Svan. The map shows many pockets of Armenian.

But what the map doesn’t tell you at all is the primary linguistic truth of Abkhazia – the Russian language is king.

I also realised, as I headed north, just how very beautiful Abkhazia is. After about four hours’ walking, largely on roads with no sight of the sea, suddenly there was the Black Sea. I had a glorious view of the whole coast stretching to the northwest, with wooded mountains sweeping down to the water and the golden domes of a monastery glinting in the sun. I walked the last kilometres along deserted beaches, sometimes getting my feet wet because the beach was abruptly terminated by rising land. But these were not savage shores and I came safely home to a long straggling village where I found a room overlooking the sea.

The next morning I walked the few kilometres to the golden domes of the huge Novy Afon monastery, established by Russian monks in the 19th century. The monastery and its cathedral are popular spots with day-trippers from Sokhumi. While there were some worshippers, secular tourists set the tone. But it is a very lovely place all the same, with the domes nestling so naturally among the trees.

From Novy Afon I retraced my steps to the main road, past a lake and verdant landscaped gardens, and walked on to Gudauta. This is also a seaside town, but utterly eclipsed by its sisters Sokhumi and Gagra. I checked into a sterile hotel which reeked of the Soviet era. The front door squeaked outrageously and immediately to its left was a building in ruins. In the morning a kitchen babushka dispensed porridge to the guests in a rather Spartan canteen.

After Gudauta the road swept inland and was quite heavy with traffic. The saving grace was the lush subtropical landscape, the trees and the mountains. Some of the trees are so big. The elder trees, with their flowers in bloom, are great bursts of white in the landscape, but so high that the lowest flowers are out of reach. The elderflower cordial enthusiast would need a ladder!

On day three I walked as far as the village of Kaldakhvara. I couldn’t see any sign of a hotel or a B&B so I just went into a shop and asked the owner, a woman, if she knew where I could find accommodation. “Would a tent be OK?” she asked. I said that would be fine and she made a phone call. While I waited I took stock of what she sold. This was a well-provisioned country shop. It had plenty of Abkhaz wine, but the shelves also boasted Jack Daniels and Amaretto.

Soon a young man arrived and whisked me off to a nearby camp site. Sadbey, a 23-year-old Abkhaz, said his small camp site was in its first season. He was a qualified mechanical engineer and had studied at Sokhumi and Rostov-on-Don in Russia. He said his grandfather had provided him with the land to start a business. Sadbey was charming, hospitable and mentally attuned to the wider world. He has an aunt living in Virginia. Never again can I view Abkhazia as an improbable distant land of which I know nothing!

On day four I rested and read one of Margery Allingham’s novels, “Death of a Ghost”. The time always passes agreeably in Ms Allingham’s company.

The next day I completed my walk through the heart of Abkhazia and entered Gagra. Walking along roads is not the ideal scenario, but I felt better acquainted now with this part of the world. I knew the sounds of the Abkhaz countryside – the chirruping of crickets, the tinkle of cow bells and, rather less poetic, the whirr of grass trimmers.

For some of my walk from Sokhumi the road had run alongside a railway line. If you ride this line far enough, you arrive in Moscow. Put the other way, you can travel from Moscow’s Kazansky station and 36 hours later arrive in Gagra, in the subtropics. I had never thought before about trains leaving Moscow for the subtropics, but when I checked into my guesthouse I discovered that the place practically shuddered every time a train passed. So I have now mentally adjusted my ideas of Russia’s railway network. There is more to it than the Trans-Siberian.

I warmed to Gagra. It is a popular resort in a good sense, without pretension and simply very lovely, with green wooded hills tumbling down to the sea. If you have been through a north Russian winter, this coast must be a taste of bliss.

I did fall ill in Gagra, with a stomach complaint and the start of a long attack of hiccups. But such is a traveller’s lot on occasions. On my last full day before returning to Sokhumi, feeling distinctly below par, I paid for a place in a 4×4 to go to Lake Ritsa, one of Abkhazia’s star attractions.

The road to Lake Ritsa
The road to Lake Ritsa
A lake that most emphatically vaut le détour
A lake that most emphatically vaut le détour

I was glad that I raised myself from my sick bed. The trip to Lake Ritsa, up in the mountains, was glorious. Now you might imagine looking at a map of the Caucasus, that the route going up to Ritsa is a quiet country road. You would be wrong! The road simply teemed with traffic. Russian tourists in literally hundreds of 4x4s dotted the countryside between the coast and the lake, taking in side tracks that go to two spectacular waterfalls. They often stood in their vehicles, did high-fives with passengers in other cars and generally threw a party over a great swathe of countryside. But what countryside! On the drive to Ritsa the road goes through a canyon and you really couldn’t wish for grander scenery.

The lake itself is sublime. The waters are a light greeny blue and specked with little paddle boats. The backdrop is wooded hills and behind them a line of snow-streaked rocky mountain. This is a very popular spot indeed, but somehow nature accommodated everyone and I didn’t begrudge anyone their time in such splendour. Inevitably, Stalin had a dacha here. (You almost didn’t need to be told that. You could probably guess.)

Back in Gagra for my final evening I watched a fiery red sun sink into the Black Sea. This is a town of great natural exuberance and beauty.

My little health problem accompanied me back to Sokhumi (I travelled in motorised transport this time) and this meant that I did not stray too far from my bed for much of the time. But I did make it to the botanical garden, a well-tended, well-frequented place with shady bamboo groves and soaring pines and palm trees.

After a few days of doing little I decided to head back to Georgia proper. At the border my old friend the passport officer recognised me instantly and we re-entered the conversational realm of matters Celtic, particularly languages.

For the very first time, just minutes before leaving, I had a conversation in English with an Abkhaz citizen. A man in his thirties told me that he had an MBA from the University of Westminster and a hazelnut processing factory in Gali just down the road. “We export hazelnuts to Russia,” he said. I asked how Gali was doing. “We are building, bit by bit.” He said it was slow because no outside investment was coming in, but he struck an upbeat note about Abkhazia. “We have stability,” he told me.

That, presumably, is where the British Foreign Office would disagree with him. But during my 16 days in Abkhazia I didn’t see anything to contradict him. The region felt pretty stable to me and never once did I feel unsafe.

I unfurled my Sokhumi umbrella and in light rain embarked on the 20-minute walk to the Georgian border post. A gentle mist hung over the waters of the Enguri and horse-drawn wagons crossed with their passengers.

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

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.

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.