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Armenia comes to terms with the aftermath of communism

An edited extract from Tom’s excellent book Janapar: love on a bike.

Even though I’d been living amongst the remains of Soviet communism for half a year, I still felt faintly appalled by the conditions in which people were seemingly happy to operate. Little stores were carved from metal shipping containers propped up on breeze blocks, years of botched repairs and modifications making them almost unrecognisable but no less unwelcoming. Toilets were plank-covered pits with a foot-wide hole cut from the wood, corrugated metal walls imparting some rudimentary sense of privacy, and a strict bring-your-own-toilet-paper policy. The legacy of the socialist republics was the triumph of function over form, and so today the preservation of function was all that mattered, with form now all but forgotten. Entire generations of people had never been permitted to display independence and initiative in public. Their jobs had always been to keep things running just-so for the good of the communist state, only changing the pattern on receipt of instructions from above – instructions that had abruptly ceased to arrive.

After the grim desperation of the ‘90s, today was supposed to be a time of brightness and hope and optimism for the future. Yet almost half of Armenia’s adult population had no means of earning a living. It was a country where demonstrations over alleged election-rigging were met by soldiers firing live ammunition into crowds; where journalists at ballot stations reported having their cameras smashed on the ground by hired thugs; where it was alleged that hundreds of millions of dollars in development funds mysteriously ‘disappeared’ on a regular basis; where high-ranking officials from the Ministry of Nature Protection were accused of spontaneously declassifying parts of protected areas in order to build luxury lakefront properties, with no functioning judicial system to stop them. Several people I knew in Yerevan lived in apartments that were missing floorboards, because much of the nation had been without gas and electricity during the winters following the Soviet collapse, and the residents had had to rip up the planks beneath their feet for firewood to avoid literally freezing to death.

It was time to leave Armenia. Part of me would always remain here, hoping that the country’s corrupt core would one day be hollowed out. I travelled between freshly harvested fields of wheat as the south shore of the lake appeared on the horizon, and soon came upon a track leading down to the water’s edge. At the bottom of the track was another little resort hidden amongst the trees, which consisted of a handful of shipping containers converted into lodgings, a couple of benches and tables nearby, and a beach that was covered with tiny little frogs. It looked like an ideal place to stop for the night.

The caretaker was a veteran of communism who had seen better times and was content to dedicate his remaining days to a single task, even one as drab as looking after an empty lakeside camp for nine months of the year. Armenia was littered with these characters – old men now, each proudly fulfilling the same repetitive task that they had been practising since time immemorial, whether or not it still came with the same salary or greater purpose that the socialist dream had once provided. They maintained the old city parks that the state had abandoned. They prevented the disused instruments of former rulers from falling into ruin. They repaired the tools and machinery and vehicles built by industries whose factories had long since closed down, whose visionaries and engineers had died or been deported or passed out of memory. They tended to the old tree-lined boulevards, kept the ancient railways trundling, operated the flea markets and the dingy canteens that served them, and performed a thousand other invisible duties for little or no tangible reward. And in doing so, they single-handedly preserved the last remnants of a system that once promised life’s essentials to all the societies of the world – shelter, food, family, purpose and unity – as long as they never spoke out.

Communism was a loaded word now, stinking of death and deportation, cast as the antagonist in the good-versus-evil narrative of twentieth century history. But communism had provided hundreds of millions of people with everything they needed. It was its disappearance, not its presence, that had pulled the rug mercilessly from beneath those people, leaving them barely capable of functioning, all of the things they’d taken for granted suddenly missing. Elderly people remembered the peak of the Soviet era with happy nostalgia – a time when everyone had a job and a car and central heating and vouchers for the finest holiday resorts the Union had to offer. Of course, they were the ones who were still talking, not having been trotted off to Siberia. Still, was it was worse to watch industrial society disappear in front of your eyes, or to never have seen it in the first place?
Lake Sevan, Armenia

Armenia was still in the throes of that torturous readjustment. There had been fourteen other nations in the Union before its dissolution, putting three hundred million people in the same boat as the three million Armenians here – three hundred million people who’d had their life-support systems suddenly unplugged in what must have been an unimaginably desperate and tragic moment in history, which had occurred silently and invisibly while I’d been happily traipsing the half-mile between school and home in Middleton, Northamptonshire, aged eight, building go-carts out of pram wheels and planks.

Darkness fell, the friendly family who had been finishing their barbecue departed, and a new trickle of crinkly old men began to arrive in a series of standard-issue white Ladas. They were friends of the caretaker, and when they came over to the tent with an enthusiastic invitation to join them, I realised I was a long way from an undisturbed night’s sleep. For the antidote to these modern-day ills was about to be administered, with the help of a decoratively carved shot glass; the antidote to the knowledge that the happy times had passed, that the dream of communism had come to an end. It was the antidote that blotted out the memory that the greatest social experiment in human history had failed. It was vodka.

‘Come and drink with us!’ blurted an invisible voice by my ear as I struggled out of my sweaty Lycra and tried to slip into something more comfortable.

Extracted from Tom’s excellent book Janapar: love on a bike. This vivid account of a long-distance bikeride has also been made into a film. Buy both or just check out his website for some travel inspiration.  Photo courtesy of shutterstock.

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