In a tough economic climate, emigration is a daily reality for the thousands of Armenian families who have at least one male relative working abroad. Left behind are the children, the elderly and the women, the latter of whom must assume the greatest responsibility. In some rural villages, the gender disparity is staggering, with 90 percent of men absent. The husbands are in Russia, working to get ahead for their families and sending home remittances. But the newfound mobility comes at a price. The modern Armenian family leaves women with more duties—now in charge of the family decisions and caring for the homestead, while struggling to balance the traditional expectations of the past.
Dotted across the hilly slopes and scattered across the fertile plains, the southern villages of Armenia's eastern Gegharkunik region appear as a bucolic wonderland to visitors. Linens are line-dried in the fresh breeze and even the manure, known here as nature's fuel, is stacked in neat cones or square slabs, left to harden under the sun for heating come winter.
But beyond the idyllic scene is a painful reality. Gegharkunik province has become known for its "women's villages", in which up to 90 percent of the male population leaves each year for seasonal work abroad. The province also has the highest labor migration rate in the country, with some 10 percent of its population setting off for Russia and other countries each year.
In the village of Verin Getashen, the Arzunyan family members are gathering for supper in their large, recently renovated dining room. The new furniture contrasts with a reminder of a simpler past—a china set on the sideboard, part of the dowry that Armine Arzunyan brought to the house 20 years ago as a bride. On the table, homemade salty cheese and plump bread are laid out alongside aromatic greens cut fresh from the garden. Arzunyan has prepared fish, pasta and vegetable salads for her daughters Taguhi and Narine and her toddler Smbat.
The family seems at once joyful and serene in their farmhouse. But the mother confides that they take little comfort in their daily routine when her husband is gone.
It is the sixth consecutive year that her husband Vardan has left home for seasonal construction work in Bashkiria, Russia.
Each month he sends home $500-1,000, a sufficient amount for a family of four in a small mountain village. The family was able to renovate the house and buy a washing machine and computer with the money.
Individual remittances like Vardan's—averaging around $500 per month—are a major component of the economy in Armenia, where the average monthly salary is $150. The annual sum of international transfers is around 2 billion USD. With a state budget of $2.8 billion (the lowest in the South Caucasus), the transfers provide a critical bandage for the cash-strapped government and stem social upheaval.
"We live a secure life thanks to Vardan's work. We can buy food and other things we could not afford before," said Arzunyan, 39. "But this life is empty for my children and me. My husband's absence is especially painful, because he does not get to see our long-awaited son growing up."
When Arzunyan gave birth to Smbat, she was 37 years old—an anomaly in rural Armenia where most people are grandparents by their forties. One of her three daughters had already moved out of the house, and her husband was already in the rhythm of working abroad.
"It is such a pity that my husband sees his children only a few months out of the year. I don't worry for my daughters, since he was a good father for them when they were little. But what will our son remember from his father's parenting?"
"There is nothing we can do about it," she sighed. "How else can we raise children when there is no work in the village?"
Arzunyan's husband is one of 1,500 men from Verin Getashen, a village of 5,000 people, who are currently abroad.
Their decision to work outside Armenia, especially in countries like Russia, does not come without risks for the country and the individual.
MIGRATION & SOCIETY
Sociologist Gevorg Poghosyan, a member of the National Academy of Science, says that such a high migration rate is considered "depopulation" and should be treated as a threat to the country's national security.
"In Armenia, one-third of the population has left the country since 1990. This is 10 times higher than the global average. To continue labeling such a hazardous trend as migration is to ignore the issue," said Poghosyan, Director of the Armenian Sociological Association.
The sociologist warns that the problem is especially pressing with Armenia's unresolved conflict with Azerbaijan. "Our border villages are emptying and some of their schools are attended by only a few students. The populations of entire villages migrate because they do not have the means to live, or any hope for the future."
Economist Ani Kalashyan says individual migrants are likely to face exploitation.
"The main risk migrants face is the threat of human trafficking," said Kalashyan, who estimates that 77 percent of Armenian families have at least one migrant worker.
Last June, the brutal beating of two Armenian migrant workers in Russia dominated Armenian headlines. Armenian national Martiros Demerchyan, 38, and Abkhazia native Sergei Krbashyan, 25, were working on a construction site near Sochi (host city of the 2014 Winter Olympics) when they were severely tortured by local police for demanding their unpaid salaries. This incident was only notable for its publicity; in the majority of cases, undocumented workers keep quiet about human rights violations for fear of deportation.
Despite the dangers, the lack of jobs in remote villages and the limited income from agriculture drive many men to take the same path each year. Like Vardan, most head to Russia, while others go to Ukraine or Kazakhstan, to work on construction sites. They often return for the New Year to spend a few months with their families before packing up to leave again in March.
"Our life is nothing but waiting," Arzunyan said.
Her youngest daughter, 16-year-old Narine says it is very hard to live without her father at home.
"Our brother is too little to remember him or realize that dad isn't home, but we feel his absence very deeply. When dad comes home in the winter, life is totally different," Narine said. "I don't want to live like my mom."
Despite the painful family separation, the advantage of having a family member working in Russia is clear. The added income allows women like Arzunyan and her daughters to forgo debilitating work in the fields.
Taguhi is a typical 19-year-old. She enjoys listening to music and watching American movies, but her real statement is her stylish manicure. She says she is lucky she doesn't have to farm vegetables. She dreams of the day the village will have at least one karaoke club or cinema, because there is no place where young people can gather.
"Our relatives keep telling me it's high time for marriage but I don't want to live like my mom and all the other women in the village, with my husband away," said Taguhi.
Labor migration has changed the image of the patriarchal village, but the absence of the men has left its mark on the hands and faces of the women left behind. It is these mothers who have taken responsibility not only for the family, but also the house and farms.
In the "women's villages", where females now sow, plough, chop firewood and even organize funerals, the traditional family stereotypes are still deeply rooted and survive.
The older generation of in-laws carefully watches over their sons' wives during their long absences. The women are discouraged from visiting their own parents and trips to the homes of friends are unwelcome. With their lives virtually controlled by the parents of their husbands, there is little relief from the daily work of raising a family.
While the old generation guards the young fiancées and wives, their sons find not only work in Russia, but often a separate private life.
Women left behind in the village share concerns about losing their husbands to other women in Russia, anxiously listening to stories of men who made another family and never returned.
"Once a man in the neighboring village told his wife he was divorcing her via Skype and never returned," said Gayane Hakobyan, another resident of Verin Getashen.
"All of the women worry about their husbands. Russian girls are pretty and cunning and most of them would like to have an Armenian husband since our men are hardworking and don't drink vodka like the Russian men."
Hakobyan says she worries for her husband Tovmas, who has been working in Ukraine since 2000, and keeps in touch with him daily.
"I talk to him in the morning around 7 a.m. before he goes to work, then in the evening when he finishes work. When he is late, I get exhausted—I won't go to sleep until I hear from him.
"My generation grew up at a time when the man was not only the bread-winner, but also the decision maker. Now all the responsibility for the family is on the woman's shoulders. It's a heavy burden," she said.
"When something goes wrong with the children, our husbands accuse us of being the cause. We know their work is hard in Russia, but they don't know anything about how hard it can be with teenagers. And there are no men in our extended family to go to for help.
"We agree to be alone, but at least we need our husbands to come back to us," said Hakobyan.
There are also acute health risks. Garen Nazarian, the permanent representative of Armenia to the United Nations last June noted that 50 percent of HIV cases in Armenia are found among circular migrants.
According to the Armenian National Center for AIDS Prevention, which has tracked HIV infection since 1988, last year Aremnia hit an all-time high with 228 cases, 70 percent of them men.
In response, the European Union Delegation and UNICEF have partnered with the Ministries of Labor & Social Issues and Territorial Administration on a project aiming at mitigating social consequences of labor migration for families and communities.
For some women in Verin Getashen, a visit to churchwarden Srbuhi Petrosyan is what helps bring solace.
Petrosyan, 44, does not like to be called a fortune teller. In pre-Soviet times, beginning in 1838, it was her forefathers who served as priests of the St. Hakob village church. Under the USSR, the church was destroyed and plundered. But its priest managed to rescue one of the church walls by enclosing it with stones during the night.
The rescued wall—decorated with images of saints and crosses—and the remaining khachkars (cross stones) are known today as the Holy Place. It is here that Petrosyan holds court as the village "healer", whose power comes from the salvaged wall.
According to Petrosyan, the holy place is known beyond the small village, attracting people from across the region in search of health, luck or love. But most of the visitors are women praying for their husbands to come home.
"I am full of faith and believe that one day the situation will change. Fathers will return to their children; husbands to their wives; and sons to their mothers," said Petrosyan, who is single.
Meanwhile, the harsh realities of the present demand more than faith from most men. As the years pass, more and more men consider leaving their scarcely populated villages permanently and taking their families with them.
Since Armenia declared its independence in 1991, the country has experienced a net outflow of people. It is speculated that every citizen now has at least one relative living abroad.
According to official data collected by the National Statistical Service, the Armenian population dropped from approximately 3.8 million people in 2002 to 3.27 million in 2012.
The majority who leave at the beginning of the year are the labor migrants who seek seasonal work abroad and return by winter. But the mass outflow is not limited to circular migration, as the number leaving the country for permanent residence abroad is steadily growing.
Haikanush Chobanyan of the Armenian State Migration Sendee points out that these statistics should not be taken as the literal emigration rate, since some people leave one year and return the next.
Nevertheless, the statistics reveal a trend of emigration when viewed over the long term. The State Migration Sendee counted an overall negative balance of migration of 200,000 from the year 2000 to 2013. In the past several years, the number has been climbing.
A 2013 Gallup World poll shows Armenia as having the highest number of potential migrants among countries of the former Soviet Union, with 40 percent of Armenian respondents expressing a desire to leave.
Khachik Hovannisyan has already been traveling back and forth to Russia. The young man was scheduled to come home in December, but he returned early to Verin Getashen village this summer to visit his sick father who was stabbed last year in Russia, where he had been working on a construction site.
Now Hovannisyan is the only breadwinner for the family of four. He works on a construction site 12 hours per day and sends home at least $500 each month. The hardened 23-year-old, who started working in Russia as soon as he completed his military sendee three years ago, looks far older than his age.
On a midsummer afternoon, Hovannisyan's parents are anxiously awaiting his arrival with the neighbors in the street. It has only been a few months since they saw each other, but events have taken their toll. His mother cannot hide her tears when she greets him and Khachik tries to bury his emotions.
"Every time my son leaves the village, my heart goes to pieces," said 43-year-old Susanna Hovannisyan. "I'm so sorry for my son. When I compare his youth and ours, I think about how harsh his young years are compared to how we lived."
Khachik does not hide his intentions to move to Russia.
"If it weren't for my father's illness, I would not have come home, since I've lost my income for this period. I hope that in a few years I can earn enough money to take my parents from the village."
His mother says that life is getting more expensive each year, while their income from agriculture has decreased. Two years ago, a bag of flour sufficient to make bread for one or two months cost $20; now it costs $30. On the other hand, the price of potatoes, the family's only crop, has dropped. A kilo today is worth the price of an egg—just 10-15 cents.
"If we sell an entire ton of potatoes, we barely make $150. And potatoes are our only income. We would starve if our son did not send money," said Susanna.
During Soviet times, the regional industrial hub of Gavar boasted dozens of factories and plants, which closed with the collapse of the centralized economy. Growing potatoes and cabbage, practically the only cultivated vegetables in the region, could not replace the lost income.
The regional authorities are considering two major economic boosters for Gegharkunik. One is to reopen three garment factories to employ 100-150 people each. The second is an agricultural project to cultivate and process Jerusalem artichokes used for insulin production.
Gegharkunik Governor Rafik Grigoryan emphasizes that everyone has the right to freedom of movement.
"Labor migration does not mean emigration. People leave for seasonal work, then bring the earned money and invest in the homeland. And I welcome it," the governor said.
Grigoryan said the major problem is the absence of raw materials in the region, which— aside from the economic activities associated with Lake Sevan and the local craft of khachkar making—offers little to investors in the short-term aside from cheap labor.
Despite being the poorest region in Armenia, labor migration and remittances have changed the landscape of some villages in Gegharkunik over the past decade, with newly- built mansions dwarfing ramshackle houses.
The abundance of such mansions even changed (unofficially) the name of one of the villages. Litchq is now known as Putinovan, which translates to "Putin's town". The village took its nickname from Russian President Vladimir Putin, since the money earned by migrants in Russia is building the houses here.
Hakop Ter-Mesropyan, one of the few men who remained in Litchq, says that some of the houses actually date back to Soviet times when labor migration became a tradition in their village.
"In the 1970s, one of the men from our village, Gagik Abrahamyan, left for Moscow, where he became a very successful businessman," said Ter Mesropyan, 50, the owner of a local grocery store.
"Over the years, he invited many locals to Moscow. By the time Abrahamyan died, many village men had their own enterprises in Moscow and were taking other villagers for labor."
Ter-Mesropyan worked in Moscow for more than 25 years. Two years ago he decided to come back to raise his children.
"When my youngest was born, my wife delivered me an ultimatum—either I stay in the village, or we all go to Moscow. She says she can't raise four children alone, but I think it is her jealously that made her say this," he said wryly.
Most of the newly-constructed houses in Putinovan are empty, as entire families now live abroad.
"Whoever has even the slightest opportunity will leave the village," said Susanna Mneyan, who lives with her in-laws while her husband and one of her sons are in Russia. Her youngest son is doing his military service in Karabakh.
"For those who stay, keeping the family together means communicating via Skype. I use it to talk to my husband, son and sister. God bless the man who invented Skype," said Mneyan laughing. "I can't move to Russia, because we can't leave my in-laws alone."
In the neighboring village of Yeranos, many of the new houses also stand vacant. Only some homes have the lights on, with parents waiting for their children's summer visits.
In one of the houses, Sirvard and Khachatur Karapetyan discuss the upcoming wedding of their only son, which will take place in the fall.
The husband and wife have five children and 14 grandchildren, all of whom live abroad. The four daughters are already married, and all of them live in Russia. In the summer, the daughters come back with their children for visits.
“Our children all ended up in different places," said Khachatur, 57. "They live in Ufa, Murmansk, Tolyati, Saratov and Moscow. Our computer is always turned on and we always wait to see them on Skype."
Karapetyan was a migrant laborer in Moscow for over 20 years, finally retiring in 2000. His only son lives in the Russian port city of Murmanks, where he owns a sausage production plant and a chain of stores. His business is flourishing and he takes in $10,000-$20,000 per month, $2,000 of which he sends back to his parents.
Today, their elegant home stands out in Yeranos. The couple spends most of their evenings in front of the computer, their portal to Russia. In their quiet moments in the richly decorated house, they reflect on their own youth, often feeling regret for missed opportunities.
"When I married Khachatur, we did not have one percent of what we have today," said Sirvard. "There was no shower in our tiny home and I used to have to wash in the bam."
Today, the couple owns apartments in Yerevan, two cars, and the days of showering in the barn are only a dim memory of the past.
"Now we can afford things that most Armenian families in the capital cannot even buy," reflects Sirvard. "We lived most of our married life separately and now we feel it is high time to reap the fruits of our labor. But our big house is too empty to enjoy it.
"The only thing we can't have back is our youth.”