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A gold-tooth glint from Armenia

The first thing that struck me at Yerevan airport was the hat. It was green and about as big as the babyface of the border police officer under it. In the middle sat a golden star. Hat and man were Russian, and so were the two smile-less ladies checking my Dutch passport, as if it was the first time they ever saw one, and that despite the queue of some 150 people waiting behind me. They only spoke Russian, to which I replied with a mix of pointing fingers and good guesses: Holland, holiday, 3 weeks.

Apparently that was they wanted to know, for 10 minutes later I found myself in Armenia. Well, next to the luggage carrousel, a remarkable piece of engineering made ages before the first airplane ever took off. Luggage would come stumbling down from a hole in the ceiling to start an endless journey at the butterfly-shaped rail. Now, though old and too small, in itself there was nothing wrong with the system.

However, as the smile-less ladies took their passport job a bit too seriously, there was hardly anyone to pick up the luggage. And so, as the rail filled up, suitcases would get stuck between rail and wall, after which a young man had to jump on and over the rail, stop the machine with a big iron handle, rearrange the suitcases and start the machine rolling again, only to see the same thing happen 10 minutes later. All in all, it took about two hours before I first inhaled the fresh Armenian air.

The star-eyed hat, the paper ladies and the dinosaur luggage system were not to be the last signs of life of the Russian bear in Armenia. And not surprisingly so, as for almost 200 years, Moscow has been the dominant political factor in what the Armenians themselves call: “Hayastan.” Situated on the mountainous edge between Europe and Asia, Armenia has enjoyed only brief spells of independence in its recent history, as time and time again the country was overrun by forces coming from all directions.

In 1828, Armenia changed from Persian to Russian hands, after the armies of the Tsar had defeated those of his divine counterpart the Shah, who had earlier taken over power from the godly Ottoman Sultan. The days of “divine power” only ended after WWI, when Armenia joined the workers Walhalla of the Soviet Union.

That was not just an ideological choice, as Turkish troops were standing at Armenia’s borders and the Armenians had all but forgotten the killing of some 1,5 million of their countrymen in what is now known as the first genocide of the 20th century. As Armenia joined the Soviet Union, Turkey signed the 1923 peace treaty with western Europe, which – true to the nature of good politics – failed to mention a word about the mass killings.

Consequently, the already volatile Turkish Armenian border became part of the world’s Cold War conflict. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenia gained its independence and Europe unified, yet the Armenian border with Turkey remained firmly closed. Likewise, Armenia’s eastern border with Azerbaijan was sealed off, following the bitter war fought over Nagorno Karabach in the early 1990s. As in the latest round of the new Great Game,  the United States have teamed up with Azerbaijan and Turkey to ensure the free flow of Azeri oil to the Mediterranean, landlocked Armenia is in dear need of a friend. Hence being welcomed at the Armenian border by an oversized Russian hat.

Russian influence in Armenia is more than but political. The language of Tolstoi and Dostoievski is still the country’s second, light years ahead of the few words of English, French and Arabic that are being spoken. Bookshops are filled with Russian glossies a la Elle for the women and cheap titty and sports weeklies for the men. What’s more, the Armenians drink their Vodka like true Russians and then there is Russian music.
Russian music is big in Armenia, as it is big all over the former Soviet Union. And here I’m not talking about such Godfathers of western culture as Rachmaninov or Shostakovich, who composed part of his oeuvre in Armenia. Nope, here I’m talking about Russian pop, which is probably the most pulp of all of the world’s pop. Set to the simplest of synthesizer rhythms, there are tunes to everyone’s taste. Boys bands, girls bands, long haired John Denver-like types with guitar, and, star of all stars, Boris Blue Eyes with his purple suit, yellow hair and swooning gay look.

This year’s ultimate summer hit however, was an album named after Moscow’s most notorious prison, made by two hard-boiled middle-aged gangsters growling to yet another terribly simple synthesizer tune about crime, the Russian underworld and life behind bars. If you want the real thing, forget about those swinging American rappers with too big an appetite for the latest fashion. These Russian dudes are plain and simple, and look as if they just dumped their latest victim in a barrel of concrete in the Volga.

At times, all good things Russian come together, as in that one fatal bus drive from Nagorno Karabach back to Yerevan. At first, everything seemed just fine. It was about 10 AM, I had found a perfect seat right behind the driver, who was about to leave. But then “Gold Tooth” stumbled in. He was a 60-something-year-old with faded blue tattoos on his hands and arms and one golden tooth sticking out of his lower jaw. In a plastic bag he carried two bottles of Vodka, one of which already half empty. As soon as he got in the bus filled up with the sweet smell of alcohol.

If that wasn’t bad enough, Gold Tooth had brought with him several tapes of Russian jailbird music, which he insisted on hearing again and again and again. Now, in case you didn’t get the picture yet, I can assure you that Gold Tooth gave the 7-hour bus trip, up and down through Armenia’s endless mountains, a whole different dimension, especially when the Vodka effect took its lulls and the old man kept falling asleep on my shoulder, all the while Moscow’s gangsters and their synthesizers roaring on about life in the gutter.

Fortunately, Goldy was quickly forgotten back in Yerevan, a remarkably pleasant and modern city. Founded in 782 BC by King Arghist of Urartu, and continuously inhabited ever since, the Armenian capital is characterized by broad avenues and grand squares, lots of parks, museums, and hundreds of café’s, serving Armenian beer, wine, cognac and khoravatz, the Armenian kebab. The streets are ruled by a small armada of Ladas and Volgas, though gradually more western brands appear. Same is true for Italian designer clothes and French perfumes. So far however, no sign of McDonalds, the world’s ultimate capitalist barometer. 

With dozens of museums and galleries, and music everywhere, the city reminded me a bit of Paris, certainly in the weekend when the giant flee market takes place. Called the “Vernissage,” it is Yerevan’s take on Montmartre. On sale are antiques, paintings, icons, carpets and jewellery, as well as a enormous collection of Soviet souvenirs: buttons with Marx, Lenin and Stalin, medals for every possible achievement you can imagine, such as the one for the paper mill worker who reaches his first 100,000 kilo of production, and a series of posters from the Cold War heydays, showing graphic images of the wars in Vietnam, Cambodia, Angola and Israel, accompanied by the text “Made in the USA.”

Yerevan is largely of Soviet design, which is reflected in the rigid city plan and the imposing pillared facades of the government buildings at the giant Republican Square. Also, there are hardly any churches in Yerevan. Yet, the more you leave the Armenian capital, the more Russian influence wanes and the more a much older face of Armenia appears.

So, immediately outside Yerevan the land is flooded with ancient churches and monasteries. Made of black basalt, a vivid reminiscent of the country’s volcanic past, every village and town has at least one ancient church, while some stand at the most remote mountain ridges, as if to remind Mother Nature of the country’s Christian character. The Armenians are fiercely proud of the fact that Armenia was the world’s first nation to adopt Christianity as a state religion in 301 AD, and they will never fail to remind you.

Also, Yerevan and most other cities are surrounded by a sad belt of no-man’s land made up of concrete and rusted steel. These are Armenia’s skeleton cities, which can stretch for miles at an end. During its some 70-year-reign, the Soviet regime attempted to transform Armenia’s traditionally agricultural society into an industrial one. All sorts of pharmaceutical, chemical and even one nuclear plant appeared. However, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the factories proved no longer economically viable and one after the other was forced to close its doors.

“God forgot us in 1988, and from then on it only got worse,” said one Armenian taxi driver. He referred to the terrible earthquake that hit the northwest of the country in 1988 and killed some 30,000 people. Soon after, the Soviet Union came to an end and with it the communist dream. And, if that were not enough, Armenia plunged into a bloody four-year war over Nagorno Karabach with neighbouring Azerbaijan.

In those dark years of the 1990s, some 1,5 million Armenians, about one third of the population, left the country for America, Russia, France, Iran, Syria and Lebanon. Today, some 3 million people live in Armenia and some 10 million abroad. Los Angeles alone houses nearly 1 million of them. The people who remained in Armenia returned to the one thing they had left: their fertile lands and agricultural skills.

Having said that, the image of Armenia today is not so much a star-eyed hat at the border, nor Boris Blue Eyes or Gold Tooth, but first and for all a sturdy church on a hill top surrounded by green fields, orchards and vineyards, against the background of a mighty, up to 5,000-meter-high mountain. This is the image of Armenia as it was and always will be, a rich and old land, full of symbolism, a paradise, in which a cineaste such as Abbas Kiarostami would no doubt feel at home and create poetry.

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