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Diverse expressions of Armenian national identity

Variations on a Theme

Diverse expressions of Armenian national identity


Armenia has long been noted for its homogeneous population, 98 percent of which is composed of ethnic Armenian Christians. Yet beneath the surface of this big picture statistic reveals a vibrant mosaic of almost three million individuals, each with perspectives shaped by a host of demographic and psychographic markers—generational, ideological, regional, and cultural. 

Today, an independent Armenia challenges each generation to tap into their authentic Armenian selves.

For those born outside of Armenia, a different contour of identity emerges. The conflict in Syria in the mid-2000s saw the influx of Syrian Armenian refugees to Armenia and the war in Ukraine ushered a mass entry of Russian emigres to Yerevan, each adding to demographic variations on the national theme. Finally, two Artsakh wars have reshaped the national image of Armenia, first as the triumphant victor and now as a nation still reeling from defeat.

In the pages to follow are profiles of five proud Armenian citizens—differentiated by age, national origin, upbringing, education, and more. Each connects with their Armenian identity in their own way, and is taking actions to reinforce the Armenian spirit in their communities. Their personal stories shine a light on how Armenia, for all its trials and challenges, is still a place where one can find inspiration, meaning, purpose and the indestructible Armenian spirit that transcends time and history.

In the pages to follow are profiles of five proud Armenian citizens—differentiated by age, national origin, upbringing, education, and more. Each connects with their Armenian identity in their own way, and is taking actions to reinforce the Armenian spirit in their communities.

 

Land, Legacy and Love of Country   

How Tigran Baghishjanyan connects with his Armenian spirit  

By Lusine Minasyan

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Tigran Baghishjanyan riding his horse in forests near Lake Sevan.

Tigran Baghishjanyan riding his horse in forests near Lake Sevan.
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Tigran Baghishjanyan riding his horse in forests near Lake Sevan. Photo Credit / Davit Hakobyan

For Tigran Baghishjanyan, the Armenian epic narrative called the Daredevils of Sassoun made a profound impact on him at age six. Today, the 54-year old lifelong resident of Martuni, located in the mountainous region of Gegharkunik, reflects on that transformative experience.

 “As I was flipping through the pages, an illustration of Kurkik Djalali, David’s horse, captivated me immediately. It evoked in me an infinite sense of freedom, along with deep pride in our courageous folk heroes. The image and the message are etched in my Armenian identity.”

This was not a childhood experience that Baghishjanyan would eventually outgrow. He recalls how, in his teenage years, he secretly took bottles of homemade vodka from the family cellar to offer the nearby horse caretakers in exchange for a chance to ride a horse for an hour. These exhilarating rides sealed his connection not only with horses, but also with nature itself.

In 1998, after graduating from the Gyumri State Pedagogical Institute with a military science diploma, Baghishjanyan began teaching military science at Martuni’s No. 1 public school. It was a golden opportunity for him to instill that national pride in his students. In parallel, he worked in regional television, hosting the “Good Evening, Martuni” show—one more platform by which to transfer his passion for horses, nature, and other identity-enriching values to his audiences.

Despite these professional commitments, Baghishjanyan found another avenue by which to reach beyond the Martuni market. In 2004, he ventured into the tourism industry by offering none other than horseback riding tours through the picturesque mountains and forests near Lake Sevan. These excursions not only showcased the region’s natural wonders, but also the cherished hidden havens he had discovered in his youth. “I wanted visitors to experience Armenia through our mountains and monasteries and appreciate Armenia’s natural and historical treasures,” he explained. “I always feel immense pride in our St. Hovhannes Chapel, situated at an altitude of 3,330 meters. It’s even more gratifying to see tourists marvel at how we Armenians could have built such a structure at such high elevations.”

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David of Sassoun illustrated by Hakob Kojoyan

David of Sassoun illustrated by Hakob Kojoyan
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David of Sassoun illustrated by Hakob Kojoyan

Throughout the ensuing years, Baghishjanyan’s passion for horseback riding never waned, until a health setback in 2021 caused him to take a break. Recovering from surgery, he rechanneled his energies to retaining Armenia’s indigenous horse breed. As he explains, it’s a pure golden horse, shaped over centuries in the Armenian highlands and adapted to its surroundings. Artsakh Meliks once possessed herds of these golden purebreds, and it is believed that the last horse of this type was presented to the English Queen during the Caribbean Missile Crisis by Khrushchev. Then it disappeared.

Through extensive research and support from family and friends, he gathered the necessary knowledge to begin a conservation effort, which he admits involves time and meticulous breeding to realize success. “I now possess all the biological prerequisites to retain this indigenous breed,” he asserted.

Such dedication was recognized by experts of the field leading to commendations and support for his conservation and tourism initiatives. In 2020, he was named “a hero of our times” and was granted a designated space in Martuni by the Armenian government.

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Situated at an altitude of 3,330, St. Hovhannes Chapel brings Baghishjanyan great pride.

Situated at an altitude of 3,330, St. Hovhannes Chapel brings Baghishjanyan great pride.
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Situated at an altitude of 3,330, St. Hovhannes Chapel brings Baghishjanyan great pride.

The onset of war that same year saw Baghishjanyan’s swift transition from tourism to frontline service in the Armenian Armed Forces. This is where the legend of the Daredevils of Sassoon brought forth the values of courage and bravery that indeed influenced his decision to become a military science expert.  “I am compelled by my professional background and my natural inclinations to be among the first on the frontline,” he stated, adding that a few days after he reported for duty, he encouraged his son Gagik to do the same.”

Post-war challenges, compounded by the pandemic, forced difficult decisions for Baghishjanyan. Most heart-wrenching was reducing his horse stock to just 12 out of 35. Yet, he remains optimistic, banking on future generations, perhaps his son or grandchildren, to realize his dream of retaining these indigenous purebreds.

As I was flipping through the pages, an illustration of Kurkik Djalali, David’s horse, captivated me immediately. It evoked in me an infinite sense of freedom, along with deep pride in our courageous folk heroes. The image and the message are etched in my Armenian identity.

Moreover, to ensure that the youth grow up to assume custodianship of Gegharkunik lands and its pristine terrain, Baghishjanyan recently initiated a week-long sleepaway camp for school-age children. His mission is to build character through horseback riding, which he believes helps children confront their fears through interaction with the horses. “When youngsters can release their fear of riding a horse, it can give them a tremendous sense of empowerment. This strategy can be very liberating for a young person,” he emphasized. Yet, he is also quick to point out, “I firmly believe that Armenians can contribute to our land in their own way. I do it with horses as a symbol of the ultimate of personal freedom. This is an important mindset for us to have these days, considering the outcome of the 2020 Artsakh War.”

Since that war ended, the border between Martuni and Azerbaijan has expanded, and intermittent disturbances from Azerbaijan on Armenian soil have imposed on Baghishjanyan’s tourism activities. “Even an hour of shelling on the border makes visitors feel unsafe and prompts them to change plans,” he noted. Nevertheless, it doesn’t take Baghishjanyan long to tap into that spellbinding storybook image of David of Sassoon on horseback, instantly triggering those triumphant feelings that originally set him on his lifetime journey—mostly on horseback, of course.

 

Creativity and Community 

Arsen Vardanyan revives the spirit of Gyumri with visionary projects 

By Lusine Minasyan

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Arsen Vardanyan, the founder of Gyumri is Our Home NGO.

Arsen Vardanyan, the founder of Gyumri is Our Home NGO.
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Arsen Vardanyan, the founder of Gyumri is Our Home NGO. Photo Credit / Davit Hakobyan

Gyumri—the second largest city and cultural capital of Armenia has been the birthplace of a vast number of talented Armenian artists, craftsmen, and sportsmen whose names alone arise national pride both locally and around the world. However, this collective consciousness about the city, located in the region of Shirak, is mingled with dark memories from the 1988 Spitak Earthquake. The disaster caused severe damage to what was then called Leninakan, before it was renamed Gyumri after Armenia’s independence.

Arsen Vardanyan, 33, did not personally experience the earthquake, yet profoundly felt its consequences. For many years, he and his family were confined to living in a portable tin dwelling called the domik, surrounded by dire and impoverished con-

ditions. This deeply impacted Vardanyan’s identity in society and the world, which influenced his choices as a young adult. However, after finishing university in Gyumri and serving in the Armenian Armed Forces, he decided to abandon the grim and gloomy past in favor of helping Gyumri thrive again.

Twelve years ago, he founded the Gyumri is Our Home NGO, which would soon become a driver of various youth initiatives, designed to change the mindset of the community and the momentum of the city. Their first big project was to create a skating rink in the center of town to coincide with the commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the earthquake—an ironic way of reflecting on the disaster.

With zero funds and little support, members of the group started knocking on doors—from the municipality to the people they knew—to explain the mission. In a very short time, they succeeded. The municipality provided them with a space with indoor plumbing and lighting, while local and international friends helped fund the skates and other necessary equipment. Early on, they noticed that young people, even from the outskirts of Gyumri, came to skate, bringing hot tea and food to share with other participants. Nearby cafe owners opened their doors for free so that people could warm up from time to time. What’s more, older men would come and organize hockey competitions. “We realized that the city wanted a new rhythm of life; people just didn’t have the right conditions and environment back then,” recalls Vardanyan.

Over time, the number of volunteers at the NGO grew, as did the scale of their initiatives. Vardanyan took up civic journalism while also creating a blog that focused on the city’s issues, ranging from infrastructure to harmful civic habits. “Then I realized that everyone could complain, but to make something work, we could help change attitudes by showing the right path.”

With a focus on protecting the environment from pollution, Gyumri is Our Home created mosaics and frescoes made from plastic bottle lids, threads manufactured from the bottles, and leftover paints. The final images, featuring world-famous individuals such as Charles Aznavour and Armenian cultural representations such as carpets, adorned the facades of residential buildings, bringing new colors to Gyumri. “Back then, Gyumri’s center wasn’t as renovated as it is today, and the mosaics and frescoes gave a special spirit to the city,” Vardanyan observed.

These initiatives received international recognition when they were invited to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival as part of the “My Armenia” project in 2018. Today, the youth of Gyumri have designed over 50 art works. Vardanyan mentions that during summers, his workshop becomes a gathering place for people of diverse ages. “Grandmothers with their grandchildren may come at different times of the day to help sort out the lids by color and size while also interacting, sharing ideas, and experiences.”

When speaking about the peculiarities of the people of his region, Vardanyan first states that he was born in Leninakan but feels himself to be a bold Gyumretsi with all the specific characteristics his people possess. One of the differentiations from other regions is Gyumri’s iconic sense of humor. The most famous Gyumri anecdotes can be found on the “Wall of Humor” which appears in three languages to represent the essence of the city to visitors and tourists.

Vardanyan disagrees with the idea that tomorrow belongs to the youth. “We often appreciate our rich historical heritage, but what about creating a rich heritage for tomorrow today? We need to appreciate the people we are surrounded by and recognize their contributions while they are alive.” Therefore, he created a massive trilingual online map showcasing artists from the region of Shirak, such as craftsmen, painters, blacksmiths, and tonir makers, who people could visit while passing through various villages. This initiative also fostered a vibrant community of artists from nearby communities, enabling them to get to interact and build common bonds.

“In Gyumri, it’s considered an honor rather than irony to give someone a nickname, which one must earn through hard work. This cultural trait was exemplified a few years ago when I received mine: ‘the Hawk of Shirak.’ As I frequently travel, my friends noticed my ‘keen eye’ for spotting treasures, which led them to bestow me with the nickname.”

As part of his support for Shirak tourism, Vardanyan also organizes kayaking and hiking tours that include visits to historical and cultural monuments. In 2023 alone, over 36,000 tourists, primarily from Armenia and Georgia, joined the tours.

Not everything seems promising to him, when reflecting on the present and the future. He believes that a sense of victimhood still lingers in some parts of society, and it’s high time people abandoned that mentality. “Sometimes I feel that Gyumri is in a coma from the past. I feel uneasy when those from outside view Gyumri as a place needing continuous support through monetary donations, food, or clothing. Gyumri requires a new urban strategy to shape the city’s future trajectory. We must revitalize its authentic spirit.”

As for Armenia in general, Vardanyan believes that we have sidelined science from our agenda. “In a second, I can name thirty young singers but not a single inventor or scientist, despite our potential,” he added regretfully. However, he concluded his thoughts with an inspiring call to action. “People often thank me for my initiatives, but I never accept mere words of appreciation. If they truly value my work, they should commit to doing at least one good deed for Armenians and Armenia every day.”

 

Faith and Family 

Syrian-Armenian Shaghig Der-Vartanian’s recipes for Armenian unity 

By Araks Kasyan

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Der-Vartanian in the kitchen of her eponymous restaurant in the heart of Yerevan

Der-Vartanian in the kitchen of her eponymous restaurant in the heart of Yerevan
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Der-Vartanian in the kitchen of her eponymous restaurant in the heart of Yerevan. Photo Credit / Davit Hakobyan

Amid the bustling streets of Yerevan, Syrian Armenian Shaghig Der-Vartanian finds herself at a crossroads of ident-ity. Hers is a story of looking back and moving forward, an odyssey not uncommon among immigrants in foreign lands. Only in Der-Vartanian’s case, her move was from her native homeland of Syria to the universal motherland of all Armenians—Hayastan. In fact, her favorite monument is Mother Armenia. “It can be seen from my balcony and it conveys some strange power to me,” she confesses.

Like many Syrian Armenians, in the early 2000s Der-Vartanian and her husband made a decision to leave Aleppo, the city of salvation for her Genocide-survivor ancestors, in search of connection and belonging in Armenia, where their two daughters and one son were born.

“Although my forefathers resettled in Aleppo after the Genocide, my grandfather bought land in Afrin, north of Syria, where he planted hectares of olive trees, becoming a producer of olive oil. He passed away never imagining that his precious lands would one day be occupied by Turks. For me, every planted tree in those lands has special meaning,” Der-Vartanian explained with an air of nostalgia.

I was inspired to get to know and learn the mentality of the local Armenians, trying to understand the cultural differences between us. And I found the areas where we share common ground, especially in our love of family and our faith.

At the same time, the famous chef, culinary expert and now restaurateur has firmly planted herself in the heart of Yerevan, where her passion can run free in Western Armenian, Mediterranean, and international cuisine. Recently, she opened a restaurant in the city center where local and foreign patrons can taste the authentic flavors and dishes of traditional Western Armenian cuisine. “We Armenians have many unique dishes and foods that are an integral part of our identity, but we often forget about them and do not properly pass them down from generation to generation. Perhaps we fall a little short in that duty,” she noted. Der-Vartanian is determined to change that.

 When asked about navigating the differences between native and diasporan Armenians, Der-Vartanian puts it in perspective: “Years ago, especially in Soviet times, the attitude towards Syrian Armenians was standoffish. The locals referred to them as ‘Akhpar’ and had difficulty integrating our community into their lives.” However, Der-Vartanian describes her early personal encounters in post-Soviet Armenia differently. She felt a warm and friendly attitude, despite her observation that people in Armenia don’t smile much. “I have not had any difficulties here. On the contrary, I was inspired to get to know and learn the mentality of the local Armenians, trying to understand the cultural differences between us. And I found the areas where we share common ground, especially in our love of family and our faith.”

Der-Vartanian believes one of the reasons that local Armenians admire Syrian Armenians is their strong Armenian identity, which was reinforced in Syria due to fear of assimilation, and the intention to stick to their roots and be raised as true Armenians. “Religion and language preservation have always been on solid foundations in the Syrian Armenian community. For example, my father always got angry when I didn’t use some word in Armenian at home. Thanks to my family, I grew up speaking and writing pure Armenian. My very name, Shaghig, which means dew, is pure Armenian. For me, my name alone best represents me and my Armenian identity. I believe that the locals in Armenia appreciated our deep Armenian character and did not think of us as outsiders.”

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Der-Vartanian in front of her eponymous restaurant in the heart of Yerevan

Der-Vartanian in front of her eponymous restaurant in the heart of Yerevan
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Der-Vartanian in front of her eponymous restaurant in the heart of Yerevan. Photo Credit / Davit Hakobyan

Today, she tries to pass down the Armenian religious and cultural traditions to her children in the best possible way. “We instill in our children the love for the motherland, we teach them the importance of church and religion, we say that we should always be grateful to God and be God-fearing. Our history has been very cruel, but we have remained Armenians, we have kept our identity.”

She goes on to say, “Modern life and social media often cut people off from reality, create an illusion of artificial busyness, and people often forget about simple but important things. Especially the events of recent years have shown how we, Armenians, unite in difficult times. Meanwhile, we should always remain united and act as one. Imagine if you pay attention to your own body only one day in a month. It will not give any results, because you have to practice a healthy lifestyle on a daily basis. The same is true for the country, the homeland. One should take care of the homeland every day.”

In September 2023, when tens of thousands of Armenians fled in mass exodus from Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh, Der-Vartanian manifested that sentiment by providing them with hot food. “In those difficult days I tried to share love with people,” she says. In her opinion, willingness to help people in need should be an integral part of national identity. “By helping each other, we should be able to raise ourselves up,” she adds.

Last but not least, she mentions the Armenian Genocide Memorial, where she often visits with her husband and children. “Every time we go there, we walk past the wall bearing the names of historical Armenian cities and tell the children the history of our family and nation. And we remind them that despite all we went through, we are still here.”

Clearly, Der-Vartanian’s journey from Aleppo to Yerevan was not merely a geographic relocation, but the transfer of the Armenian spirit—a force that keeps her attuned to the echoes of the past while resonating with the vibrant pulse of a nation on the move.

 

Freedom and Friendship 

Russian emigre Alexandr Jarvi has turned a haven into a home 

By Paul Vartan Sookiasian

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Alexandr Jarvi in front of the Yerevan Opera House.

Alexandr Jarvi in front of the Yerevan Opera House.
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Alexandr Jarvi in front of the Yerevan Opera House. Photo Credit / Davit Hakobyan

With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, millions of lives changed overnight. The fallout resulted in an exodus of people fleeing not just Ukraine, but Russia as well. Some fled Russia after being arrested or threatened for attending anti-war protests. Others came to escape the newly imposed sanctions, as their companies and clients abroad were suddenly no longer able to pay them, as long as they remained in Russia.

Known as “relocants,” almost 100,000 Russian citizens (at its peak) and those from its ally Belarus wound up in Armenia. Despite its small land mass, the country became a major hub for Russians, an ironic twist when one considers the multiple waves of Armenian migrants to Russia since the 1990s, in their search for work and opportunity.

One such relocant to Armenia is Russian native Alexandr Jarvi. The 30-year old IT specialist, who hails from the city of Tula a few hours south of Moscow—arrived in Armenia in the early days of the Ukraine war. His motive was clear: to protest against the Russian government’s actions. Though he and his wife were earning enough money to be comfortable in Tula, they felt an oppressive atmosphere around them, which they could no longer endure.

Now, he is happy with his decision to forge a new life in Armenia. He begins his migrant story by observing that although Armenians are a very close-knit nation, they were very accepting and welcoming to him and his family.  He also had the benefit of some local friends who could assist him, and he credits them with helping him adapt to the country over the first nine months of living there. Plus, as an IT specialist, Jarvi found a job in Armenia’s burgeoning tech sector within a month of his arrival.

Jarvi cites various reasons why Armenia has been such an attractive option to Russians. First, Russians do not require

a passport to enter Armenia, and, at the height of the emigration, flights were plentiful due to the high demand. Moreover, despite enduring inflated prices and other disruptions, local Armenians warmly welcomed the new Russian population, unlike the Republic of Georgia. Although that country received even more Russian relocants, it has largely treated them with disregard or even hostility because of its long-standing conflict with the Putin regime.

As for questions regarding the impact of the move on his Russian identity, Jarvi finds it to be complicated. “Especially since the war, I don’t think there is such a thing as a Russian identity. I feel there are some growing cultural and behavioral differences between Russian migrants and those who stayed behind, so it is difficult to identify with them.” Moreover, I have always liked to learn about other cultures, so I consider myself a cosmopolitan. I think that helps me to acclimate easily to Armenia.”

While noting that local Armenians speak Russian to accommodate him and his compatriots, he also conceded that there are quite a few accounts of Russian relocants expecting to have Russian spoken to them and are somewhat condescending to locals—a behavior symptomatic of the centuries-long unequal relationship between Armenia and Russia. However, Jarvi was quick to offer numerous counter-examples of Russian newcomers who have actively sought to support Armenia, organizing environmental clean-ups, and providing aid to an even newer displaced population in Armenia—those who fled Artsakh in September 2023 in the final phase of Azerbaijan’s ethnic cleansing campaign. 

Jarvi emphasizes the point, saying, “I really want to join the Armenian civil society and help the country. I am very grateful to Armenia. It has become a real ‘Noah’s Ark’ for me and thousands of Russian people. I feel obliged to do something useful for the country and the people.” 

In Armenia, you can freely start your business, you are free to start volunteer activities for any cause, or freely visit anti-war meetings. We can freely walk the streets without fear of the police. Such experiences can reawaken the idea of freedom in the minds of many Russians.

Overall, what Jarvi appreciates most about living in Armenia are the freedoms they have. “In Armenia, you can freely start your business, you are free to start volunteer activities for any cause, or freely visit anti-war meetings. We can freely walk the streets without fear of the police. Such experiences can reawaken the idea of freedom in the minds of many Russians.”

Coming to Armenia has also been professionally rewarding for Jarvi. Though the Armenian company he was working for closed due to financial reasons last August, it pushed him into starting his own business as a solo entrepreneur. He has since accumulated some international clients and has been able to exceed his living standards compared to what he earned in Russia.  Nonetheless, he insists that his livelihood is not as important as the other benefits of living in Armenia. “In Armenia, there is an absence of background stress that is, unfortunately, now typical in Russia. We feel free, and the people we have met here are now our friends.” 

In turn, Armenia has benefited from the Russian influx. It owes its jump in economic growth over the past couple years to it. As many Russians work remotely, the high salaries they receive are being spent in Armenia, and a great deal of Russian capital was also redeployed to countries like Armenia due to sanctions at home.

Jarvi makes one last observation regarding his identity: “IT is one of the most global fields of activity. IT specialists from different countries use the same technologies, read the same manuals and articles, and can freely share experience with colleagues from other countries, and work anywhere in the world remotely. These opportunities allow IT workers to view themselves as global citizens in the international community. And I guess, in these moments, our ethnicity and mother tongue don’t matter. Even still, IT does not make you lose ethnic roots. You will always remember who you are and where you came from. The question is where you are going, and for me, I have come to Armenia to stay.”

Originally published in the June 2024 ​issue of AGBU Magazine. 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.