by David Zenian
On a recent Sunday afternoon several hundred Armenians gathered at the main auditorium of the Itartass building in central Moscow for a talent show despite a snowstorm and sub-zero temperatures.
The event was a success, but what made it special was more than just the festive mood, the flowers and the prizes given to the young musicians.
It was an occasion for Moscow’s growing Armenian population to meet, thanks to the efforts of Ara Abrahamian, a young businessman and the driving force behind the Union of Armenians of Russia.
Since its establishment nearly two years ago, the UAR has launched an all-out campaign to reach the ever-growing Armenian community which according to the most conservative estimates numbers more than 2 million across Russia—the second largest concentration of Armenians after Armenia itself.
Until the collapse of the Soviet Union a decade ago, Armenians, like other ethnic groups living outside their national homelands, were citizens of a quasi color-blind state. National boundaries were not important.
“We were all Soviet citizens and ethnicity was a private matter. In fact, there was no such thing as a Diaspora like what we see with other minorities in the rest of the world. And therefore in the absence of a Diaspora concept, there was no need to get organized, there was no need to get together outside the family and immediate neighborhoods. No one thought about issues like the preservation of the Armenian language, the church, culture and other elements which are the foundations of maintaining our heritage outside the homeland,” Abrahamian said in a recent interview at his Moscow office.
But times have changed, and the new realities are sinking in.
Russia is a vast country, and Moscow alone has a population of more than 12 million, of which some 500,000 are Armenians. Between 600,000 to 700,000 Armenians live in the southern Russian region of Krasnodar—almost double the Armenian population of California, the largest in the United States. More than 400,000 Armenians live in the Stavropol region.
According to unofficial figures, the overall Armenian population of the Russian Federation includes more than 300,000 Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan, close to 100,000 from Georgia’s breakaway region of Abkhazia and some 300,000 from the central Asian republics along with more than 1,000,000 from Armenia proper.
The Armenians of Russia today fall into three well-defined categories. There are the so-called old-timers, those who lived in Russia well before the collapse of the USSR, and hold Russian citizenship. The next group is those who settled in Russia since Armenian independence a decade ago. They are the small businessmen and professionals.
The third group, which some sources say is the largest, are the guest-workers, mostly single men who have no legal status but work in Russia to support their families back in Armenia. The vast majority in the second and third group do not have Russian citizenship.
The Armenian Embassy in Moscow, which is the largest Armenian diplomatic mission abroad, has ten diplomats headed by Ambassador Armen Smbatian.
Thousands of Armenians are studying at the various Russian universities, including many on state scholarships.
Given the realities of the Russian economy, and the hardships facing the population after the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Armenians of Russia have managed to keep their heads over the water.
According to a recent study completed by the UAR, well over 90 percent of the Armenians living in Russia run their own small businesses.
“It’s an Armenian thing…. We prefer working for ourselves—it’s all about the entrepreneurial spirit which seems to be alive and well among the Armenians in Russia,” a community activist said.
Discrimination against Armenians, which was a serious problem in the early 1990′s in Moscow has all but vanished thanks to the improved relations between Armenia and Russia and the visibility of the Union of Armenians in Russia.
After several failed attempts by a number of often well-meaning individuals to get the community organized, Abrahamian took the initiative two years ago to reach out and bring people together with a clear objective.
“When we started, we did not even know who was where. We had no data, no statistics, no telephone numbers—nothing,” he said.
As a first step, Abrahamian, dipping into his own personal financial resources, established an office, hired several people and gathered like-minded Armenians to begin the mammoth task of locating the Armenian communities, which are scattered across the Russian Federation.
“In the first months of UAR’s existence, we did nothing but gather information and establish direct personal contacts with Armenian community leaders across Russia.
“We were surprised with the amount of interest among the various segments of the population, and soon we began identifying the needs and resources we had at our disposal,” Abrahamian said.
It was no great surprise to Abrahamian to see how much people cared about their Armenian heritage despite the fact that most had integrated into their local societies.
“Over the centuries, hundreds of thousands have assimilated, but given the present state of affairs, the availability of instant communication, and national pride, things have started to change in a positive manner. We have come a long way in the past two years,” he said.
The UAR has already established so-called “chapters” in more than 67 Russian regions covering more than 100 cities, built up an impressive mailing list, along with modern communication methods like e-mail and gradually spread its message of unity and a single objective: Preserving the Armenian identity.
But what made Abrahamian embark on such a mission? Born in the Armenian town of Malishka in 1957, Abrahamian graduated from the Yerevan Agricultural Institute as an economist and started working—like everyone else at the time—for the government.
He was doing well until the late 1980′s when the Soviet Union began collapsing and in 1989 he made a decision to leave Armenia and move to Moscow only to see the world that he was raised in and the world as he knew it, begin to change.
“It was almost an overnight thing. The Soviet Union disappeared and, in the early years, the new Russia was something like the Wild West. Everyone seemed to be on his own,” Abrahamian said.
Joined by a few friends, the young and inexperienced entrepreneur bought a state-owned factory that manufactured electronic parts for Soviet-made television sets.
“That was my first mistake. I did not know where things were going. I did not realize how fast Soviet television production would be obsolete. We had put the little money we had in an enterprise that employed 30,000 people and our products were worthless,” he said.
But in retrospect, the failure itself was a learning experience.
In 1993, Abrahamian turned to the diamond cutting business, something which his brother was already involved with in his native Armenia, and in less than a decade, has built a “business empire” far beyond just precious stones.
As president of the Joint Stock Company “Concord”, Abrahamian now oversees a long list of business and industrial ventures from diamond mining, cutting, hologram production, construction, household cleaning detergents, air navigation systems, compact discs and publishing.
Among the foreign partners of “Concord” are such well-known names as the world famous De Beers Group of Companies of South Africa (mining and sales of diamonds), Thompson-CSF of France (production and operation of aircraft navigation systems), David Morris International of Great Britain (jewelry manufacturing), and the Commercial Capital S.A. Bank of Greece (food industry and hotels).
More than 50 million dollars have already been invested in Concord’s development of the Lomonosov deposit in the Arkhangelsk region, the biggest diamond deposit in Europe located in the northwestern European part of Russia.
Abrahamian declines to put a price tag on his vast business holdings, but business and banking sources say the figure runs well into multi-million dollars.
Regardless of his busy schedule and the diversity of his various business ventures, Abrahamian still finds time for his “pet cause”—Armenia and, as he put it, “things Armenian.”
It is not unusual to see Abrahamian taking time off from work to visit a distant Armenian community, or make a large donation to help out.
“I can’t help it, but I still think in Armenian. Even in my business dealings I often ask myself … Is this good for Armenia, or is there something we can do to help,” Abrahamian said.
And help he has.
In the past few years, Abrahamian has built a church in his native Malishka in Armenia, made substantial donations to boost the operations of the Union of Armenians in Russia by setting up and equipping the organization’s headquarters in Moscow, which are located on premises rented from the Armenian Embassy, and maintains close relations with the Russian authorities in an effort to improve living conditions in Armenia and the thousands of Armenians living in Russia.
In recent months Abrahamian, who maintains very close working relations with both the Armenian government and the Holy See in Etchmiadzin, was instrumental in helping negotiate a major debt write-off package under which Russian companies “purchased” four factories in Armenia and “paid” for the acquisition with money the Armenian government owed the Russian Federation.
Under the deal, the Russians will renovate and operate the factories, thus creating thousands of jobs in Armenia.
On another level, Abrahamian, working through the Union of Armenians in Russia, which he heads, played a pivotal role in lifting visa restrictions for Armenians visiting Russia in hopes of finding employment. Under existing laws, Armenians do not have employment restriction in Russia.
“We have to work on more than one front to improve economic conditions in Armenia. The sale of the four factories to Russia will create more jobs at home, and if people still leave the country and come to Russia, we need to make sure that they can work here too. After all, those working in Russia send millions of dollars each year to support family and relatives at home,” Abrahamian said.
As much as the community needs people like Abrahamian, there are also the less visible “foot soldiers” who also play a key role in shaping the Armenian Diaspora in Russia.
Gevorg Anissonian, a journalism graduate from Yerevan State University, worked as a reporter for Armen Press and later as a correspondent for an Armenian news agency in Moldova, before setting up his own newspaper last year—the Russian-language monthly Noev Kovcheg (Noyan Tapan) which now has a circulation of over 35,000 and reaches the far corners of the Russian Federation along with Armenian communities in other former Soviet republics.
“Our mission is two-fold. As much as information is a key element for the Diaspora, we also need to have our voice heard in Russian circles,” Anissonian said in an interview. The newspaper is sent free of charge to all members of the Russian Duma, government and private institutions and a large number of foreign embassies. It is also sold in at least 153 kiosks in Moscow alone. Non-Armenians have to know who we are. They have to know us well if we want their respect,” Anissonian said.
Working from a two-room office in central Moscow, Anissonian and his staff concentrate on news from Armenia—which takes up more than 50 percent of the space and includes a color supplement—the communities across Russia and the former Soviet republics where he maintains special correspondents.
It is no secret that the newspaper industry is not a profitable business, especially in Russia where most of the publications cannot survive without the financial backing of power brokers such as banks and industrial complexes.
But Anissonian insists on maintaining his independence, and seems to have managed to do just that.
“I am a journalist and I still believe that if I put out a quality product and avoid getting involved in inter-Armenian politics, I can attract enough advertising to make ends meet. I will not get rich, but so far we have not done badly,” he said.
“We need to keep Armenians involved and without a newspaper it is hard to maintain a healthy momentum. We need a forum,” he said.
As much as a newspaper is vital for maintaining the national awareness, it can only serve half the purpose in the absence of schools where Armenian children can not only interact, but also maintain their ethnic identity.
Despite the size of the Armenian community, there are no Armenian schools in Moscow—at least not like the Armenian-owned and funded educational institutions that exist elsewhere in the Diaspora.
But thanks to the good will of the Moscow government authorities, several schools teach not only the Armenian language, but also history, geography and even religion.
One such school—and the largest in Moscow—is school #1110 where Yerevan native Ms. Seda Galoyan is the principal and driving force, supervising an all-Armenian co-ed student body of 650 and a predominantly Armenian teaching staff.
Ms. Galoyan, a career educator, took over the post of principal in 1998, almost five years after the school was opened. While following a strict Russian curriculum, the school still maintains its unique Armenian character.
“For all practical purposes, this is an Armenian school, especially when it comes to the environment it provides. We have a 60-member “Flowers of Armenia” folk dance group, which often performs at local functions, and has appeared on Russian television too.
“We celebrate Armenian holidays, teach the Lord’s Prayer to our youngsters, tell them about Christianity and the students interact in their native tongue. We are very close with their families. In fact, this is one of the few public schools where we have a parent association which is involved with everything that takes place in the school,” she said.
“Despite the fact that the school does not have its own transportation, Armenian families still make an effort to send their children to #1110 even it means spending almost two hours on the road to get here,” she said.
Ms. Galoyan is certain that in time the Armenian community will have its own schools, but until that day, community activists will continue pressing for more Armenian-language hours in Russian institutions.
“Looking back a few years, I think we have come a long way. You have to remember that only a decade ago, we did not even consider ourselves a Diaspora. Now, we have active community structures, and are constantly getting better organized.
“The reality has finally sunk in. This is a Diaspora and we have started acting like one,” she said.