Armenians Begin a New Era in Moscow
Armenians Begin a New Era in Moscow


The Draw, the Reliance, the Necessity of Russia on Armenians' Wellbeing

Moscow is the empire of Armenia's dreams. It is the imperial capital, the third Rome, a world in which Armenians use centuries of inherited experience in navigating the channels of influence to serve power and accumulate it in the Russian capital.

The maps for this kind of journey were drawn long ago, in ancient Armenia's relations with Rome, in the court at Constantinople, and in the Kremlinology of the Soviet era. Now the Armenians of Russia travel the terrain of a new country with greater sureness of foot than even most of its native sons, for this is an environment of risk and networks and power-brokering in which they are at ease.

A measure of scale

Moscow's population is put unofficially at 15 million—the same as the number of people living in Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan combined. The world's largest country simply compels you to think big—it offers a canvas for talent and ambition that the Republic of Armenia can never hope to match. You have big dreams, a desire to get rich, to be somebody? Go north, young man.

It is a well-trodden trail by migrants permanent and temporary. Given the advantages enjoyed by Armenians, perhaps the only surprise is that more do not look to Moscow rather than Los Angeles. There is the language question—most Armenians speak Russian, even 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. They face no barriers of access—Armenians do not need visas to travel to Russia, and Moscow is only two and a half hours away by plane. Despite violence among nationalist extremists towards people from the Caucasus, Armenians have a common cultural outlook with their fellow Christian Orthodox Russians and, unlike Georgians, no political obstacles to good relations.

The historic bonds of trade and defense that tie Armenia to Russia make it easy for talented Armenians to penetrate the corridors of power in Moscow. If the often-voiced complaint about present-day Armenia is that it has come too much to resemble a Russian-owned province, from the perspective of Moscow this only serves to enhance the view of ethnic Armenians as reliable servants of the state.

An Armenian, Gennady Melikian, is First Deputy Governor of Russia's Central Bank. Another, Mikhail Pogosian, is chief executive at Sukhoi, the aviation company developing Russia's first post-Soviet civilian airliner, the Sukhoi Superjet, and its first fighter jet equipped with Stealth technology, both vital Kremlin projects. Russia's Air Force is still based on its MiG fighters—whose name is drawn from the Soviet aircraft design bureau formed by Artyom Mikoyan and his partner Mikhail Gurevich. After his death in 1970, the bureau was renamed simply Mikoyan. His brother Anastas was for a time the Soviet Union's second most powerful politician under Nikita Khrushchev and was described by Stalin as a "genius of trade" for his flair in acquiring consumer goods for the masses as Commissar of Internal and External Trade.

If media is the new imperial power, then Armenians are well represented here too. The editor-in-chief of Russia Today, a state-funded 24-hour satellite broadcaster presenting a Russian news perspective in English, Spanish and Arabic, is Margarita Simonian, while the king of Russia's tabloid press is Aram Gabrelyanov (Gabrelian), owner of the top-selling Tvoi Dhen (Your Day) newspaper and the website. Russia's most popular TV stand-up comedy show, "Comedy Club," was created by three Armenians, while another, Moscow-born film director Tigran Keosayan, hosts a nightly political talk show

Then there's Ruben Vardanian, founder of Troika Dialog, Russia's top investment bank, who by age 40 was ranked 75th in 2008 in an annual list of Russia's richest businessmen compiled by Moscow's Finans magazine, with an estimated fortune of $1.5 billion. He narrowly trailed brothers Nikolai and Sergei Sarkisov as the richest Armenians on the list—they made their combined $3.3 billion pile as founders of one of Russia's most successful insurance companies.

Vardanian is destined to have a major impact on Russia's future economic development as founder and president of Skolkovo School of Management, which has ambitions to be Moscow's equivalent of Harvard Business School. President Medvedev chairs the school's advisory board and his predecessor Vladimir Putin laid the foundation stone for the campus building as a show of Kremlin backing for the project. Vardanian pulled together many of Russia's best-known oligarchs and businesses to support Skolkovo financially, such as Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, the GUM shopping mall, and steel giant Severstal—a textbook example of Armenian network-building among the country's political and economic elite.

Good for business, good for Armenia

Moscow is a young city in Armenian terms, 863 years old—less than a third the age of Yerevan.  Approximately 200,000 Armenians live in Russia's capital, according to official registration data, although the real number is estimated at close to 500,000. The official census puts the total number of Russian citizens of Armenian descent in Russia at 1.4 million, but again, this number takes no account of those who have moved to the major cities or travel to Russia as seasonal guest workers in the summer. Some estimates have put the figure closer to two million, approximating the number that live in Armenia itself. By most measures, anyway, Russia is home to the world's largest Armenian Diaspora community.

It is almost certainly now the wealthiest, quite apart from its billionaire members. Armenian businessmen in Moscow donated $5.3 million of the $15.9 million raised in November's annual worldwide Armenia Fund telethon to support reconstruction of Shushi in Nagorno Karabakh—double the amount raised in the United States and Canada. Nor was this a one-off: the previous year Samvel Karapetian, a Russia-based businessman, pledged $15 million to fund construction of Stepa­nakert's regional hospital, the largest single donation in the 12-year history of the telethon.

The money that poured into Armenia to finance construction projects in Yerevan before the global economic crisis also came overwhelmingly from Russia. Like it or loathe it, the reformation of central Yerevan was paid for in Moscow as businessmen recycled profits from Russia into property in Armenia. Stories abound of how much of the investment was really a way of concealing profits from Russia's tax inspectors by laundering undeclared income into apartments that could be converted into clean money. In a country where businesses routinely pay bribes to local bureaucrats and police officers—usually just to be left alone, rather than for any favorable treatment—it often pays not to appear too successful in Russia for fear of attracting unwelcome and costly attention from greedy officials.

The flow of cash from Moscow has other consequences. When the U.S. administration threatened to "suspend or terminate" $235.6 million in Millennium Challenge funding for a five-year rural development program in Armenia, after the bloody post-election crackdown on opposition supporters in 2008, then-President Robert Kocharian professed himself unconcerned. He stated: "If they make such a decision, we will look for other ways of fully implementing that program. I have no doubts that we will find those ways."

It was a typical display of bluster from a man who had long ceased to worry about his or the country's international image, but it was also rooted in fact. Kocharian knew that wealthy Armenians in Russia could be tapped to contribute money without him being obliged to satisfy burdensome requirements on human rights and democracy. His and President Serge Sargsyan's close ties to the Kremlin and the prevailing authoritarianism in Russia mean that money from Moscow acts as a countervailing force on any expectations for democratic development in Armenia expressed by the U.S. and European diasporas.

But it also acts as a more direct means of survival for thousands of poorer families than aid ever could. It is fair to say that Moscow and Russia's southern Krasnodar region, a traditional center of Armenian settlement, effectively keep Armenia's rural economy afloat, thanks to remittances sent back by family members who have migrated to seek work. A Migration Information Source (MIS) report in 2008 calculated remittances to Armenia the previous year at $1.4 billion or 20 per cent of Armenia's GDP, based on data from the Central Bank of Armenia and the World Bank. (It is a figure that severely dropped in 2008-2009 due to the world economic crisis—and was a contributing factor in Armenia's need to take several huge inter­na­tional loans.)

Overwhelmingly, cash from abroad came from Russia, with estimates ranging between 72 and 85 percent of total remittances between 2005 and 2007. Transfers normally took place roughly every three months and averaged between $600 and $850 each time. The World Bank found that households in receipt of remittances from migrant workers relied on them for as much as half their income.

Working for family, away from family

Behind those figures lies a hidden army of menial laborers in Moscow, surviving in often desperately harsh conditions to support family members that they will not see for nine months of the year before returning to hibernate during winter (many in fact put down roots in Moscow over time, starting parallel families, and eventually never returning). They are the construction workers, the fruit and vegetable vendors, the taxi drivers, the restaurant kitchen hands, all the sorts of jobs that native Muscovites turn up their noses at.

Laborers on the expensive new apartment buildings that sprang up all over Moscow in the boom years earned as much as $1,300 a month, two or three times what they could have hoped to make at home, even taking account of living costs in one of the world's most expensive cities. But they also ran the constant risk of being arrested by police since, lacking work permits, they made easy targets to be shaken down for money under threat of arrest and deportation.

Russia's Federal Statistics Service ranked Armenians the fifth largest group of migrant workers, according to the MIS study, most of them employed illegally on "the gray market"—the trade of commodities through unofficial channels. Despite suggestions that Yerevan's expanding economy was encouraging a return home, the statistics service found that the flow of migrants from Armenia rose substantially in 2006 and 2007 to its highest level for a decade, drawn by the prospect of richer pickings in Russia's own booming market.

The fortunate ones can hope to rely for help on the established Diaspora in Moscow, whose roots go back generations. Many seized the opportunities that opened up in post-communist Russia to form their own businesses and recent arrivals counted on ethnic and family ties to open doors for work in an unfamiliar city.

The collapse of Moscow's construction industry when the economic crisis hit in 2008, and harsher official attitudes towards illegal migrants as unemployment rose, had an immediate negative effect in job opportunities and triggered a slump in remittances home. The scale of the fall-off can be measured in Armenia's decision to seek a crisis loan of $500 million from the Russian government last year, repayable over 15 years.
A multi-layered Diaspora

When former Speaker of Parliament of Nagorno Karabakh Oleg Yesayan was appointed Armenia's Ambassador to Russia in January, he inherited oversight of a Diaspora that has as many differences among itself as it does, collectively, with the Russians.

"The major part lived here before the collapse of the Soviet Union, and are still in their own homeland," the ambassador said in an interview with AGBU. "Another group came here after independence (many due to the crisis in Armenia). A third group came from Azerbaijan, Georgia and Central Asia. All this cannot help but influence the nature of the Russian Diaspora.

"Given all this, a new type of community emerged. And as with any society, it requires time to become mature and acclimated. The Russian community of Armenians is now becoming full-fledged."

And it is to Moscow, whether officially or informally, that Armenians look for salvation. It remains the "center" even if the empire, Imperial or Soviet, has ceased to exist. It is the playing field of dreams for those who aspire to be rich or famous or merely "bigger" than the possibilities offered in Armenia. It is home to a self-assured and long-established Diaspora that feels comfortable in its own identity and long ago learned how to thrive alongside Russians. In modern Russia, the additional value placed on a combination of networking skills and entrepreneurial talent has allowed many Armenians to flourish financially, turning them into a vital resource of know-how and investment for the fledgling independent homeland.

The Armenian-American Diaspora, in particular, may feel displaced by the dominance of Russia in the life of the republic. For so long during the Soviet era, and immediately after independence, Armenians looked to their American kin as beacons for a better "Western" future, rejecting their Soviet (that is, Russian) masters. But centuries of co-existence cannot be so easily set aside. Armenians and Russians know each other, however difficult their history, and familiarity breeds familiarity. For most, American lifestyles and values remain far more alien than Russian ones, physically and psychologically.

Moscow, by contrast to the West, demands only loyalty to serving its needs and cares little about the motivations and aspirations of those who exhibit those qualities. Finding out what people want and then giving it to them has always been a particular Armenian talent. Like a giant magnet, the metropolis will continue to attract Armenians to its steely heart.

Originally published in the May 2010 ​issue of AGBU Magazine. Archived content may appear distorted on your screen. end character

About the AGBU Magazine

AGBU Magazine is one of the most widely circulated English language Armenian magazines in the world, available in print and digital format. Each issue delivers insights and perspective on subjects and themes relating to the Armenian world, accompanied by original photography, exclusive high-profile interviews, fun facts and more.