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

Making a Home While Holding on to a 'Home'

Diverse Diaspora of Moscow Starting to Form a Community

The Kremlin, Red Square, the domes of the Vasiliy Blazheniy Cathedral, wide boulevards and Stalin-era Gothic skyscrapers. The grand image of Moscow fascinated generations spread across the empire that was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Moscow stood as a dream city, and when socialism no longer united the union, Russia's capital did not lose its appeal to millions from all 15 former republics.

In this dynamic city, the Armenian Diaspora has formed a multifaceted and versatile layer that touches nearly every aspect of society. It is represented by Armenians who are on the list of Russia's wealthiest, such as the Khachaturov brothers, co-owners of Rosgosstrakh Company (Russian State Insurance), with a capital of $1.58 billion. City character is more routinely influenced, though, by those such as taxi driver Hovik Avakian, who earns about $50 a day and for 12 years has lived in a rented apartment in one of Moscow's suburbs.

"When I decided to leave Armenia, I thought about it a lot. I'd always been drawn to Moscow," says Avakian, 34. "Life here is difficult, but you can manage it. I won't return to Yerevan. My parents and friends there are all that draw me back. I brought my wife and children to Moscow eight years ago after I had received Russian citizenship. My children have got accustomed to life here. It is bad that we have no home of our own. In Yerevan we have a large apartment, but I have no job there. So, I will stay here for now."

The Armenian Diaspora is the fourth largest ethnic diaspora in Moscow after Ukrainians, Jews and Tartars. Armenian dialects spoken in Yerevan, Karabakh, Georgia and Central Asian countries can be heard among Armenians living in Moscow.

The Armenian Diaspora of Moscow has a history of about 600 years (the city itself is 800 years old) and the city's cultural and educational life has been influenced by Armenians, beginning with the princely family of the Lazarevs, who promoted the resettlement of Armenians to Moscow in the 17th and 18th centuries. Armenian Yevgeniy Vakhtangov, the founder of a popular theater that now bears his name, and two great Armenian composers of the 20th century—Arno Babajanian and Aram Khachaturian—lived and created in Moscow.

So-called "native Armenians of Moscow"—second- or third-generation Moscovites—are, as a rule, descendants of Genocide survivors, or those who moved to Moscow in the Soviet years for education and then stayed in the capital.

The Moscow Armenians are not always affable to new immigrants, a majority of whom are mainly engaged in small business (for example, retail trade, construction) and who often get a negative reception from the Russian population. New immigrants, in turn, criticize the Moscow Armenians for their assimilation, for not being able to speak the mother tongue and having limited knowledge of Armenian history.

According to different estimations, Moscow was home to 50,000-150,000 Armenians by the late 1980s.

The disintegration of the USSR, the economic blockade of Armenia and the war in Karabakh caused a powerful stream of migration to Moscow (as well as other Russian cities and towns) and, over a 20-year period, the number of Armenians in Moscow grew to almost half a million. (According to unofficial data, the number of Armenians in Moscow has reached a million, including seasonal migrants, with an estimated two million spread across the country).

Those who came to Moscow in the early 1990s, at the very beginning of the economy's transition from centralized planning to market relations, were mostly people of industry and enterprise and those new settlers would take any job, working as traders, cooks, drivers, etc. Now many of those first-wave migrants have achieved great success and have their own businesses, offices and companies.

During the past 20 years, the "new" Armenians of Moscow,  with the minor participation of the "old" ones, founded a dozen public (Armenian) organizations, began to publish their newspapers and magazines and, just this year, have launched an Armenian television network.

Numerous Armenian public organizations function in Moscow today—such as the Fund for the Support of Russian-Armenian Cooperation, the Union of Armenians of Russia, the Moscow Armenian Community, and others. Armenian publications include Noyev Kovcheg (Noah's Ark) newspaper, the magazines Zham (Time), Aniv (Wheel) and others.

There is a Russian-Armenian (state) secondary school, Hayordats Tun (Sons of Armenia) Sunday school, and an Armenian theater. Armenian cuisine can be found in the center of Moscow and many Armenian restaurants are now popular not only with Armenians or natives of the Caucasus, but also among Russians. Among such restaurants are Nash Dvor (Our Yard), Noyev Kovcheg (Noah's Ark), Lavash and Stariy Gorod (Old City). There are shops where one can buy Armenian lavash, cheese, brandy and dried fruits, etc. The city also has a lavash bakery where the flatbread is baked in a genuine tonir (a round stone oven) that has customers standing in line from the time it is fired in the morning.

Nevertheless, the majority of today's Armenian Diaspora of Moscow is part of a new phenomenon, formed over just the past two decades, and just beginning to stake its claim on this vast city.

Unlike, for example, the Armenian Diaspora of Tbilisi, Georgia, which traditionally played a significant role in the public, political and cultural life of the country and even had its districts in the city with predominantly Armenian population, the Moscow Armenians are only lately unifying. Many who came to Moscow out of desperation have only lately reached a level of security that affords paying attention to embracing and expressing their national identity.

In private conversations, Moscow Armenians complain about high prices, but at the same time acknowledge that they make enough for normal living. A four-member family on the average needs about $3,000 a month to survive (if they own their own apartment).  Moscow is among the five most expensive cities of the world in terms of property prices and the most expensive in the ratings of costly cities for foreigners. The price of a studio in downtown Moscow may reach $150,000 while the average rent for a studio is about $1,500 a month (some fives times more than in Yerevan center).

Nevertheless, many Armenians don't complain as much about the high cost of living, as about the difficulties they have with bringing up their children in the manner in which they were raised.

Children of the 1990s Moscow immigrants grow up in a culture that is in every way foreign to their parents' Soviet-era Armenia upbringing. Like big cities everywhere, Moscow can be ruthless, dangerous and easily misleading, bearing little comparison to the "typical Armenian" lifestyle.

Many believe that the link between modern realities and their own national identity might become the Armenian Apostolic Church and its numerous cultural-educational initiatives recently energized here.

Hayordats Tun and its young ambassadors of Armenian culture

"Where at least one Armenian appears, there appears a school and a church." This is how one Armenian saying goes and is expressed in Moscow since 2005, when Bishop Yezras Nersissian presided over the opening of a spiritual-education center of the Armenian Apostolic Church—Hayordats Tun Sunday School. (During the same year, the church-affiliated non-religious organization NUR Union of Youth was formed, joined by about 100 Moscow Armenians aged 15-38 who are engaged in public and educational activities.)

The modern, renovated and well-equipped center faces the challenge of assuring that new generations—who may never set foot in Armenia—remain faithful to the rich cultural heritage of the nation and maintain the traditions of their people.

Classes in the Armenian language, the history of Armenia, the history and dogma of the Church, spiritual singing and Armenian folk dances are held in the school on different days of the week. Dhol (the Armenian drum) and duduk classes and others are also held at the school.

School Director Hmayak Gevorgian-Sukiasian knows all the pupils and their families by name and he has reason to be proud of the merits of each of them.

"A considerable shift in the spiritual-educational life of the Diaspora has taken place, thanks to the Church in the past several years," says Gevorgian-Sukiasian. "People started to believe in the Church. Those who do not know the Armenian language want to learn it. Those who cannot learn it want at least their children to learn it. This means a lot in a large urban environment.

"The children who were born and grew up away from the Motherland undoubtedly become bearers of a different culture and somewhat different values, which is quite natural, because it is impossible to live a full life in another country without integrating in it. Our task is difficult, but at the same time simple—not to let the younger generation forget their national identity. Our students are ambassadors of Armenian culture on whom we pin great hopes."

The school has 20 teachers, six of whom teach Armenian language for classes of different age groups. The eldest of 450 pupils is 60-year-old Karl Zakarian, from Karabakh, who came to the school to study Armenian literature and language. He wrote his first essay "Ara the Beautiful and Shamiram" only a year after he started to attend the school, making it a matter of pride for the whole staff of the school.

Hayordats Tun holds numerous events timed to different dates of the Church calendar and programs dedicated to the works of Armenian poets, writers and composers. The versatile curriculum is meant to promote the penetration of Armenian culture into the growing self-awareness of the younger generation of Armenians living away from their historical homeland.

Education is family affair

Brothers Armen (12) and Artur (15) Gevorgian were born in Moscow after their parents moved here from Armenia in 1993.

One cannot tell them apart from other natives of Moscow, judging by the way they talk. But then Armen starts to recite Hayr Mer (The Lord's Prayer) in Armenian and his brother joins in the recital and in the clearly uttered classical Armenian words with a slight Russian accent is the hope of their parents and the school principal that the two brothers will never forget their Armenian roots.

Their mother, 35-year-old Anush Gevorgian, says that her sons try not to miss a single class at school, which sometimes even surprises her.

"Of course, my husband and I and their grandmother tried to instill Armenian spirit in them from birth. But this school has given them an additional stimulus that perhaps we would not have been able to provide at home. However tired they are or busy in their [secondary] school or other matters, it is very important for them to have constant ties with the Armenian school."

School principal Gevorgian-Sukiasian says the family's influence on the boys has a strong foundation in their grandmother, Emma Gevorgian, in this three-generation household. (Family head Martin works in a box factory and Anush works in a law firm.)

Emma Gevorgian, 74, is a descendant of a 1915 Genocide survivor. Her parents fled Kars and settled in Leninakan (now Gyumri).

"My parents lived their whole life in nostalgia for home, and now I am in a foreign land already for 17 years. Have I become used to it? No, but I am here for the sake of my children and grandchildren," says Emma, going through letters, greeting cards and photographs of her adolescence in Leninakan.

"My home is here. My family and my church are here. I am looking forward to seeing the opening of the new church. It means a lot for us Armenians who live here."

Big family in the big city

The Kurghinians are in a commotion. Guests have come. Anahit Kurghinian, 53, her two daughters and daughter-in-law are moving quickly to and from the kitchen and dining room where a huge table has been laid. All along they exchange abrupt and quick conversation, understanding each other from half a word. The scene is very familiar, seen in traditional Armenian families for whom the arrival of guests is an important event, regardless of the visitors' status.

When the family and guests sit, more relatives appear—some have been invited, some not, but all are welcomed—and before the night ends nearly 40 people will partake of the table, and a guest unknown at the beginning of dinner will be invited to spend the night.

By all appearances this would be an Armenian household crowded into an Armenian apartment in Armenia. Instead, this is the Moscow suburb of Zhulebino and this extended family has moved here from Samtskhe-Javakheti (Javakhk), Georgia.

The first toast is for the Motherland. For Javakhk, the predominantly Armenian district of Georgia lately troubled by culture clashes between the Armenians and the Georgians.

Fifteen years of life in Moscow has done little to change the Kurghinian family.  Three children have been brought up here on values that have remained remarkably untouched by big city life in a foreign country.

The younger of the three children, Kristina, is an energetic 20-year-old, a student at the Russian Customs Academy, in love with Armenia and Javakhk.

"I was four when my parents moved here, I studied in a Russian school and now I go to university, I have many non-Russian friends, but still I wonder how one can forget his or her national heritage," Kristina says, fidgeting with beads in the color of the Armenian flag.

Kristina, who most of her life heard Armenian spoken only at home, started studying the language when she was 12.

"Some song in Armenian was being performed and I had heard that song many times before," remembers Kristina. "But for some reason it moved me in some special way. Perhaps I was already grown-up enough to feel nostalgia in those Armenian words."

In the academy of about 3,000 where she studies, about 60 students are Armenian. Together with friends, Kristina set up a small organization, the "Compatriotic Union of the Armenians of the Russian Customs Academy."

Kristina's brother, 29-year-old lawyer Ararat, and sister, 27-year-old doctor Gayane, have families of their own. Their little children (Ararat has three, and Gayane has two) speak to guests in Russian, but once they hear an Armenian word, they quickly switch to Armenian. Ararat shares the place with his parents and sister, and Gayane lives with her husband and children in an apartment across the hall.

Anahit and her husband Albert used to work as teachers in the village of Alatuman, in Javakhk. Even after so many years, Albert is not reconciled to the fact that he had to give up teaching and move to Moscow in order to engage in business for a living. But as they themselves say, circumstances forced the decisions. They left their home in order to support their three children and secure their future. The couple opened a firm trading in confectionery, which they've maintained.

They are content with their life and say their business is successful. They bought their apartment eight years ago and now their monthly income of $3,000 is suitable for basic needs. They have found a secure life—but at the expense of leaving their Armenian community.

Laborers, musicians, artists, designers, builders...

In his new workshop in the center of Moscow, not far from the city's popular pedestrian street Arbat, 42-year-old sculptor/painter Aren Harutiunian from Karabakh—known here by his nickname, Bumants—recently completed work on his most expensive painting so far.

Bumants will have his canvas "Between Evening and Day" put up for sale at a price of $30,000.

A member of the Union of Painters of Moscow since 2007, Bumants, the son of Albert Harutiunian, Karabakh sculptor and honorary citizen of Karabakh's capital Stepanakert, moved to Moscow 17 years ago.

Despite the fact that Bumants' works are on display at several galleries (on the average they sell for $5,000 to $6,000), he says that the revenue from paintings is not stable. Sometimes he manages to sell several during the year and yet sometimes he cannot sell a single one for months.

Bumants has had his works exhibited in Israel, the United States, France and Switzerland. In 1999, his works were put up for sale by Sotheby's and in 2008 he held his latest exhibit, in Saint Tropez, France.

Bumants has his own unique technique of painting—with special devices he covers the canvas with pigments in filigree relief technique, which gives the painting a unique decorativeness and texture.

The artist does not like linking success to monetary gain, saying instead that creativity should not be limited by commerce.

"Moscow is an interesting city. It is rich with museums, galleries and exhibitions. Young talents have chances to be discovered here. I truly believe that the real talent will always find its way," says Bumants, who with his wife, a psychologist, is raising two sons in Moscow.

Unlike Bumants, Arkady Avak­ian moved to the Russian capital from Leninakan back in the Soviet times. But he is a native of Tbilisi, Georgia.

"Even if they made me the country's president, I would not go back to live in Armenia," 67-year-old Avakian says half-jokingly, in the purest Armenian language, which sometimes is not heard from a person who has lived in Moscow for 36 years.

Until he was 16, Avakian lived in Tbilisi, then went to study at the Rostov Railway Institute, and after graduation went to Leninakan, where he lived for 10 years. His father, Avak Avakian, was at that time professor of the Leninakan affiliate of the Yerevan Polytechnic Institute where Arkady commenced as lecturer.

"I remember the difficulties when I think of that period of my teaching career. My father did not take bribes, nor did I. I simply could not sell good marks to illiterate students for a bribe. It was difficult to live off a teacher's salary; that's why, together with some friends, I did other work in the evenings, repairing apartments. That life did not suit me and I moved to Moscow. I got married, started a family of my own, and worked at a scientific-research institute."

Avakian retired from his academic career in 2006. But that did not end the working biography of this energetic Moscow Armenian. A graduate of music school in violin,  Avakian has been the organ player for Holy Resurrection church for 13 years.

Avakian says he is a self-taught organist. AGBU had given a small organ to the church but for some time it went unused, as there was nobody to play it. Avakian, as a parishioner and violinist, was approached for advice on how to technically install the organ in the church. Avakian began to study the instrument and sometime later began to play it.

"I love Moscow, it has become a home for me," says Avakian. "I love Leninakan and Armenia too, but I no longer have anyone there. All my relatives either left to different places or died. Sometimes I want to go there, to see my historical homeland; let's see how things will be . . ."

Another Moscow Armenian from Leninakan, Ashot Tatevosian, has not lost ties with his homeland. He moved to Moscow in 1993, and enjoys a posh home in one of the prestigious districts outside the city. But he insists that his daughter stay in Yerevan for her university studies.

"I could have ensured my daughter's education in many other cities, but I wanted her to spend her student years in Armenia. I wanted her to grow up as a personality in her homeland," says Tatevosian, also known by his artistic alias of Tatev.

A painter by training, Tatev moved to Moscow "for creative freedom," he says. He is also an interior designer, who he charges $100 per square meter.

Tatev has had several exhibitions in Moscow and Yerevan and recently the artist became a businessman, opening an Armenian shop "Nur" near his home. Here, he sells hundreds of different products of leading domestic manufacturers (canned fruits and vegetables, juices, sweets). His son studies in Moscow and his wife is engaged in textile design.

Tatev's current design project is the new complex being built by the Armenian Apostolic Church (for which he is donating his time), a job covering some 30,000 square meters.

Mason Armen Mnatsakanian too would perhaps donate his work to the church project, but he uses all the money he earns to maintain his family, who he left in the village of Voskehat in Armenia, where he will return—like thousands of "migrant" workers—in autumn.

Mnatsakanian, 36, came to Moscow in March, where a mason can make from $800-$1,400 a month—multiple times what the same job would pay in Armenia, where construction has slowed since the global financial crisis.

Of about 100 laborers and craftsmen at the church complex site, about half are seasonal workers from Armenia. (Russian masons are not familiar with working with tufa—the Armenian stone used in the construction.)

The mason team leader is 25-year-old Samvel Gevorgian, who has been working on the construction site for two years. He tells how sometimes Armenians who happen by the construction site come and ask if they can work. He says they stay a couple hours and then leave.

Gevorgian likes talking about the work, but not about himself nor about the other laborers.

"We are ordinary masons, ordinary Armenians," he says. "We will finish our work and will go back to our homes. The church will stay. This is the best part about our work."

They will leave, having made their contributions to a community. And that community will stay to continue finding itself, and building opportunities for unity among these scattered and diverse Armenians of Moscow.

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

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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.