One Caucasus

The Caucasus - love at first sight
The Caucasus – love at first sight

The Caucasus summoned me and I obeyed.

Now I am back where I started, at home in Wales, trying to make sense of it all. I fell in love with the Caucasus. I don’t want to over-analyse why I love it so, but I have John Wurdeman’s words ringing in my ears – thoughts need decantation, not only wine.

Stories need a beginning, a middle and an end, so here are my final thoughts to round off the tale – personal musings on a few threads that feel important to me after my four visits to the region.

I knew beauty and joy in the Caucasus – that is the front-page headline. While I can also experience joy at home, I came back to my own hearth feeling emotionally richer and more content. I don’t wish to lay upon the peoples of the South Caucasus the allegation that their region is perfect. It is not. But I found it profoundly beguiling and nourishing, a reminder to me of the importance I attach to wild nature and to the life of the spirit.

There is a sense of the sacred in the Caucasus; you feel it in the air and it is a complex and many-layered thing. A deep understanding of spirituality in the Caucasus would probably take a lifetime of study, but what is immediately striking is that this part of the world cleaves to religious belief – and this after seven decades in an atheist empire, the Soviet Union.

When my mind dwells on Caucasus spirituality, I personally tend to think of the Georgian region of Tusheti, where there are Christian churches but also many pagan shrines called “khati” adorned with animal horns. Both in Armenia and Georgia, the world’s oldest Christian nations, paganism lives on even today as an element in the spiritual mix.

Falling in love with the Caucasus is a fate that has befallen many visitors. I am not alone! This land of resilient people and awe-inspiring peaks higher than the Alps gets under the skin of many a traveller and never leaves them. It is the polar opposite of bland. Writers, of course, leave the fullest accounts of their passion. One of my main learnings has been the discovery of at least a small portion of the literature inspired by the Caucasus and savouring just how wonderful it is.

Many of the titans of Russian literature have gone to the Caucasus and been shaped by their travels – Alexander Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov, Leo Tolstoy, Maxim Gorky, Osip Mandelstam, Boris Pasternak and Vasily Grossman come to mind. If you took the Caucasus out of Russian literature it would leave a gaping hole. I wonder whether any other mountain chain in the world has served as such a powerful muse.

Tolstoy’s case is particularly striking because Caucasus themes inspired him at every stage in his career, after he volunteered for the Russian army at the age of 23 to fight against the Chechens. Even his final novel, the magnificent “Hadji Murád”, is set in the North Caucasus. He wrote it half a century after he first went there in the early 1850s and he wrote it during a period when he spent much of his time denouncing fiction. “Hadji Murád”, an almost unbearably moving tale of the horrible waste of war, is one of the masterpieces of world literature.

Looking beyond Russian letters, English-language authors too have found their voice after setting foot in these lands. Take Englishman Douglas Freshfield, a member of the first team to climb Mount Kazbek back in 1868. He also wrote extensively, and very touchingly, about the Caucasus. In his two-volume work “The Exploration of the Caucasus”‘ Freshfield seeks to play down his literary skills and describes himself as a matter-of-fact mountaineer. But Freshfield was so much more than that – he was a writer.

On one of his journeys he travelled through some very remote parts of Abkhazia, entering by way of Svaneti, up to the northeast. In a chapter entitled “The SoIitude of Abkhasia” he describes the view on the upper reaches of the Kodor river.

“It was not so much any individual peak that fixed the eye as the glory of the whole landscape – the rolling leagues of forest, the broad hills bright in the early sunbeams, the flashes of light in the depths; here a cliff, there a sinuous reach of river, nowhere any sign of human habitation.”

Freshfield makes it clear that for him the Caucasus was a welcome change from the roar of late 19th century London; it was an experience of spiritual solace.

“Men may still, as in past ages, look to the mountains for their spiritual help. In the shining silence of the storehouses of the snow we may find a welcome interlude to the perpetual gloom of our northern cities and the din of a commercial civilisation.”

In our own times too, the Caucasus has proved to be a muse. U.S. journalist Wendell Steavenson lived in Tbilisi at a time of economic hardship and acute power shortages in the 1990s. She fell head over heels for the place and proceeded to write “Stories I Stole”, an electrifying love song to Georgia. It is a non-fiction work of great beauty and her attention to detail is Tolstoyan.

One friend of mine has told me that I have become a Georgian “infatué”. (I know, this word isn’t in the dictionary. But it should be.) I plead guilty and when I read Steavenson I feel I am in good company.

I have heard the view expressed, in my own country, that the Caucasus region belongs to “the periphery”, whatever that means exactly. A big part of my learning is that in my gut I know that the Caucasus is not peripheral. It has become important in the contents of my head and I am still on a journey to understand it more deeply.

The Caucasus region is evolving and changing and trying to find its place in a turbulent world. So, I would like to look briefly at forces that are pulling the three countries of the South Caucasus further apart and forces that are bringing them closer together.

That same Russia, whose poets have sung the praises of the Caucasus, has been a deadly player in the geopolitical game in these parts and still plays a central role, very much in the spirit of the classic adage “divide and conquer”. Travelling through the region, I found that I had to decant my thoughts on Russia. To change the usual metaphor a little, Russia always felt like the bear in the room.

Taking a deep historical perspective, it is clear that Russia has had within it a strong expansionary dynamic. British historian Orlando Figes, in “Natasha’s Dance A Cultural History of Russia”, writes: “From the capture of Kazan in 1552 to the revolution in 1917, the Russian Empire grew at the fantastic rate of over 100,000 square kilometres every year.” The hunt for lucrative furs first drew the Russians on.

Today, Russia cannot expand in the same way. But this long history of pushing out the boundaries of the empire for earthly gain surely means that it has no model for how to build a friendly, co-operative relationship with immediate neighbours. It has to build such a model from scratch. Several of the countries that have escaped Russia’s grasp, such as the Baltic states, Ukraine and Georgia, are not on friendly terms with the Kremlin.

I pick up too another sort of restlessness in Russia’s history, a yearning to be relevant on the world stage. At its best, this has been pitched in high-flown idealistic terms. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, in a speech on Pushkin in 1877, said: “Yes, the vocation of the Russian man is indisputably an all-European and a world-wide vocation. Perhaps indeed to become a genuine complete Russian can only mean (in the last resort, let me emphasize) to become the brother of all men.” In the light of 20th century history, these words have a hollow ring. I think Dostoyevsky was sincere and I am left with a feeling that today’s nuclear-armed Russia, with its bristling fleets and fighter planes, is still searching for its vocation in the world and is not a happy bear. And this disgruntlement is not good for Russia. Nor is it good for its neighbours or for the world.

One priority for the countries of the South Caucasus is to shape and implement policies towards Russia. When the Soviet Union tottered towards its end there was ebullience, a sense of release. Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan had their troubles when the Soviet empire fell and trade links were disrupted, but they all shared a sense of turning a page of history and starting anew.

In the first instance, both Georgia and Armenia moved away from Russia.

The Polish foreign correspondent Ryszard Kapuscinski was in the Armenian capital Yerevan when the Soviet Union was in its death throes. In his book “Imperium” he writes: “Russian signs, posters, portraits — it is all gone. The city is undergoing a period of intense and scrupulous de-Russification. Many Russians are leaving; Russian schools are closing, as are Russian theatres. There are no Russian newspapers or books. They have also stopped teaching Russian in Armenian schools.”

It is fascinating to read this now because Armenia has since done a U-turn and become a close ally of Russia. In Yerevan there are now Russian newspapers, books and theatre. Even more to the point there are Russian soldiers, invited in by the government to provide defence and patrol the border with NATO member Turkey.

Georgia, on the other hand, actually fought (and lost) a war with Russia and pro-Russian separatists control a fifth of its territory, to the great chagrin of Georgians. In other words, the two countries have given diametrically opposed answers to the fundamental question “What sort of relationship shall we have with Russia?” It is true that Tbilisi, since the 2008 war, has sought to improve its ties with Moscow. But there is still a gulf between the Russia policies of the two countries. Today’s Georgia aspires to be part of the European Union and NATO.

Looking out for decades, Armenia sees its future in alliance with Russia. In 2015, when I was in Yerevan, I submitted some questions by e-mail to Armenia’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Shavarsh Kocharyan, and he replied on November 18.

I asked whether the agreement over the stationing of Russian troops in Armenia had a time limit. He replied: “According to the agreement between Armenia and Russia signed in 1995 and according to the protocol on amending the agreement signed in 2010, the deployment of the Russian military base in Armenia has been extended till 2044.”

Armenia has agreed to pay part of the cost of the base and this close alliance with Russia is not universally popular. One Armenian woman told me how cross she was that a restaurant in the country’s second city Gyumri had a menu only in Russian – Gyumri hosts the Russian 102nd Military Base. But the alliance is a fact of life. Not only is there a military pact, but Armenia is heavily dependent on Russia for energy supplies such as natural gas and fuel for a nuclear power station.

Now Georgia’s leaders want to take their country into NATO. At the very least this would deepen the divide with its southern neighbour Armenia. Mirroring the situation in Armenia, this pro-NATO stance does not enjoy full support in Georgia. I know my guide in Svaneti, Lasha Tkeshelashvili, believed Georgia should have a policy of neutrality. I don’t see how taking Georgia into NATO could make the Caucasus or the world any more peaceful. It doesn’t feel like wisdom. In a worst case scenario it could even be a trigger for a cataclysmic conflict between NATO and Russia. Extending NATO into the human fault lines of the Caucasus could make even less sense than building nuclear plants in an earthquake-prone zone. Why tempt fate?

Conflict over Artsakh, or Karabakh, looms large
Conflict over Artsakh, or Karabakh, looms large

The pro-Russian alignment of Armenia is understandable when you look at the world from an Armenian point of view. A century after the Genocide, Armenians still see Turkey as the historical enemy and feel they need Russia as a friend. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict also comes into the equation in a big way.

Armenians are attached to holding onto this region, taken from Azerbaijan in war, and this attachment means they cannot afford to have Russia hostile to them. Even though it is allied to Armenia, Russia still sells arms to Azerbaijan. Russia is in a perfect position to stir up trouble, were the alliance with Armenia to falter.

I asked the deputy foreign minister about the Armenia government’s view of the Russian arms sales to Azerbaijan. He made Yerevan’s unhappiness perfectly clear.

“Russia is the ally of Armenia. Our cooperation with Russia includes all the areas, including the military field, we buy weapons from Russia. Indeed, we are not pleased with the fact that Russia also sells arms to Azerbaijan.”

One view among students of South Caucasus affairs is that it suits Russia for there to be no solution to the Karabakh conundrum.

“Russia uses the conflict to keep its influence in the region,” said a political analyst from a European Union country in Yerevan.

Over the years since the May 1994 ceasefire there have been attempts by the international community to settle this conflict, which still claims lives. But with bigger matters like the Syria war demanding attention diplomatic energy has drained away from Karabakh.

I heard a telling comment from someone who took part in a meeting of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in Vienna in November 2014. It is the OSCE’s so-called Minsk Group which has sought to bring a peaceful settlement for Karabakh. This particular meeting looked at a range of international questions.

“When Karabakh came up, some people left the room and others started texting,” the participant told me in a conversation in Yerevan.

The conflict is one huge barrier to better political co-operation – soldiers facing one another on a front-line running from north to south at the heart of the South Caucasus make a mockery of any real attempt by governments to build regional unity.

"All Armenians dream of Ararat."
“All Armenians dream of Ararat.”

The Welsh call it “hiraeth”, while the Portuguese talk about “saudade”. It is nostalgia, a longing deep in the soul. It struck me on my travels that the people of this region are experiencing more than their fair share of “hiraeth”.

The older people among the ethnic Armenians who now have Karabakh all to themselves long to stroll by the Caspian Sea along the Baku Boulevard as they did in their youth. But war has deprived them of that pleasure. There are trenches, guns and bullets between them and the sea – a border as firmly closed as any border can be.

The ethnic Azeris who used to live in Karabakh but had to flee long for their homes and those glorious forested hills. But war has deprived them too.

Ethnic Georgians forced out of Abkhazia during the bloodshed of the early 1990s long for their homes on the Black Sea shore. But war trumped their hopes.

In Yerevan, Armenians look out over Mount Ararat on the other side of the Turkish border and remember that before the Genocide that part of the world was inhabited by Armenians. One day, on a Yerevan omnibus, a man said to me within moments of striking up a conversation that “all Armenians dream of Ararat.”

Too much unrequited longing is not good, but just possibly it can become a fuel for the creation of a better South Caucasus.

I know of at least two initiatives that seek to transcend borders and I wish them well.

The first is the annual One Caucasus Festival, which started in 2014 and brings together musicians and other creative spirits in the Georgian region of Marneuli. The festival’s website explains why this region was chosen as venue.

“The Caucasus suffers from many conflicts. The region of Marneuli is a borderland of Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and is known for being a place where many ethnic and religious groups have been living in peace for many years. It is quite unique in the Caucasus which continues to suffer from a range of conflicts and tensions. Our aim is, with the support of the local municipality, to create an inspirational & safe space to foster the meetings and collaboration of young people from the entire Caucasus region.”

The website says that funding for the festival is international, with some financial support coming from the governments of the United States and Poland, Warsaw City Hall and the French Institute of Georgia.

The other project that straddles borders is the planned Transcaucasian Trail from the Black Sea to the Caspian. Given the political complexities of the Caucasus, it is remarkable that brave souls have embarked on this venture. In years to come, this has the potential to be second to none among the great trails of the planet.

The website transcaucasiantrail.org lays out a vision of “a world-class, long-distance hiking trail that crosses the Greater Caucasus and Lesser Caucasus and connects diverse communities and ecosystems, providing lasting and wide-ranging benefits for people and the environment.”

Each of the two intersecting trail corridors will be about 1,500 km long and the website says that the work to create these trails will unfold over the next five years.

It lists as one of its aims “improved cross-border cooperation that contributes to the stability in the region.”

The trail’s website addresses the question “How will you build a trail in a region with breakaway territories and frozen conflicts?”

The answer: “It won’t be easy and it may take many years but we believe it is possible. People have crossed these mountains for centuries and we hope it will become easier to cross certain areas in the decades ahead. By starting to build a trail we would like to help spur more positive and ambitious approaches.”

The spirit of Douglas Freshfield is surely following all of this with keen interest.

I salute these initiatives with all my heart.

Gaumarjos! To your victory.

Advertisements

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.

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.