• Schoolchildren of early repatriates in Nubarashen, a town built by AGBU's president, Boghos Nubar Pasha in the mid-1930s.

  • Some 300,000 Armenians who had just fled ethnic-based violence in Azerbajian found refuge in crowded and unaccommodating hostels in Armenia in the 1990s.

  • The architect Alexander Tamanian (1878-1936) had during his time drawn out the plans for this square but construction did not finish until the 1970's.

  • The current booming cafe culture, 2010 in Yerevan is believed to have started long ago with the influence of the European Diaspora.

  • 1932, Armenian refugees in Piraeus, Greece, embarking for Soviet Armenia.

  • Even in the 1970s, long before the current flood of cafes, Yerevan was unique among Soviet countries with its open-air spots, said to be an influence of the European Diaspora.

  • Republic Square, 2010.

November 1, 2010 | Magazine Archive


by Aris Ghazinyan and Suren Musayelyan

Nearly a century after surviving the greatest threat to its identity and indeed to its very existence, the worldwide nation of contemporary Armenia is challenged by assimilation. More Armenians live outside the republic than inside it, creating a sort of virtual community that is linked by blood, language and history but only partly by the commonality of a single society.

Genocide diminished and dispersed the population. Borders drawn in its aftermath shrunk the country. But the nation of Armenia would survive, so that now at least some have realized the opportunity for repatriation.

The 20th century witnessed a series of cataclysms. The Armenian nation was nearly destroyed by the Turks over a half-decade, swallowed by communism for seven decades, and ended the 1900s with a calamitous single decade that combined sociopolitical collapse, natural disaster, and war, to leave a staggering newly independent republic hardly able to stand, much less make itself presentable for putting out the welcome mat.

Over the past two decades, billions of dollars have been donated, loaned, granted or delivered through foreign aid to remake a country that gravely suffered the nightmarish outcome of communism’s dream society. When the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics crumbled, Armenia benefitted from a new ease with which its outside family could send help. Western countries eager to buy friends in the region found Armenia a willing trading partner.

Foreign and diasporan aid to Armenia, however, is not only a modern phenomenon.

Let’s build together

When the first (short-lived, 1918-20) Republic of Armenia was founded, a patriotic call was heralded for Armenians to “build their own state with their own hands.”

Answering the call, the Melkonian family of Egypt put $6 million in the Armenian State Budget, without compensation. Baku banker Arshak Ghukasian donated eight million rubles in gold. Rostov (New Nachijevan) Armenian families—the Kayalians, Kistians, Khrmachians—offered to pay for the construction of a Batumi-­Kars-­ Sardarapat railway that would link Armenia to the Black Sea.

The railway and other Diaspora-funded projects never materialized, however, because of the historic developments of that period. In 1920, Armenia became a Soviet republic and would-be sponsors refused to fund Soviet initiatives.

Nonetheless, the issue of creating “their own republic with their own hands” did not become less urgent; on the contrary, it grew more acute. In 1921 Armenians abroad founded an Armenian Aid Committee with affiliates in different countries.

In 1922, Armenian Bolsheviks made a special appeal to compatriots outside, saying in part that the Armenian “workers’ nation” needed the support of its comrades abroad.

This socialistic appeal had a national content too. The republic had to be somehow built, but there were no funds. In order to persuade their compatriots that financial support would mean “helping the Armenian nation,” prominent writers, poets, composers—among them the writer Yeghishe Charents—were sent to Armenian communities abroad for fundraising.

Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Greece, Bulgaria, France, the USA, and Romania had the largest Armenian communities. Since the mid-1920s, Armenian communities in Canada and Latin American countries started growing. To preserve their national identity, their language and their culture, and avoid assimilation, Armenians abroad dreamed of establishing cultural-educational institutions and newspapers in Armenian, along with various sociopolitical organizations, in all their settlements.

In the 1920s, exhibitions of Soviet Armenian artists were held in Italy and France. Prominent Armenian artist Martiros Sarian said, reflecting on the achievements of Soviet Armenian culture abroad: “Armenian communities saw that there is Armenia, there is Armenian culture… that we live, and we celebrate just like the rest of humankind.”

This statement from the honored artist carried weight beyond its financial appeal, for it signaled to others that even someone of Sarian’s prominence recognized that Soviet Armenia was, nonetheless, Armenia.

The decision of Hovhannes Adamian, an eminent engineer and inventor, was of great significance too. Well known in Germany and Russia, Adamian came to Erivan (the capital’s official name until 1936) in 1925 to assemble and demonstrate to the world the first three-color TV, introduced under the Armenian name “Herates.”

World news agencies reported the event, saying that the first functional model of a three-color TV—the name of which means “long-sighted”—had debuted in the capital of Soviet Armenia.

In that year (1925), Calvin Coolidge’s inaugural address became America’s first live radio broadcast. Imagine the sensation created in Erivan by a color television, when the black-and- white version was yet decades away from becoming a household item.

Under the political, economic, financial, intellectual, and psychological circumstances Erivan was in, it could not have possibly pretended to the status of one of the centers of applied engineering.

The point was this: the invention and assembling of the three-color TV in Erivan was an Armenian’s tribute to his nation and indicated the readiness of Armenians scattered all around the world to build “the Armenian dream city.”

The position of such public figures as Western-Armenian writers Arshak Chopanian, Yervand Otian, Zabel Yesaian, artist Edgar Shahin, and sculptor Hakob Giurjian, who were successively speaking out for Soviet Armenia and the enhancement of connections with it, had great influence on Diaspora Armenians.

The first homecoming

In the early 1920s, the first caravans of repatriates from Iraq went to Soviet Armenia. In 1924-26, around 20,000 Armenians from Iran, Turkey, Greece, France, and Syria went to Armenia. The repatriation process continued in the years to come.

In 1926-29, some 6,000 Armenians returned to their motherland. In 1932-33 new caravans of repatriates came from Bulgaria, Greece and other countries. In total, between 1921 and 1936, Soviet Armenia received more than 42,000 repatriates.

The 1920s-30s were extremely hard years of starvation for the Soviet Union and, particularly, for Armenia.

Repatriation was encouraged and assisted by major Armenian organizations, led by the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) founded in Cairo in 1906 on the initiative of prominent public and political figure Boghos Nubar Pasha.

The impact of close to 50,000 new residents over 15 years had an influence on the local color of the small city, Erivan.

Middle-Eastern Armenians brought influences of the Arab world and even elements of Arab cuisine that had become part of their lives. For example, basturma (raw beef wrapped in chaman—a certain type of spice) is now widely known as “Armenian basturma,” though its origin is Arabic. Repatriates from France brought a special vocabulary: “Merci” became a common substitute for the more elaborate Armenian “shnorhagalutyun.” From Armenians who had lived or spent time in Europe or the United States, jazz was introduced to Armenia, made popular by the jazz orchestra of trumpeter Tsolak Vartazarian; later an Armenian State Jazz Orchestra was assembled under the direction of composer and cellist Artemi Ayvazian.

Just as it appeared the new Armenia would grow into its own identity despite living under the Soviet shadow, the brutality of World War II had a halting affect.

The war took the lives of more than 300,000 Soviet Armenians. (Estimates say at least 8.8 million USSR soldiers were killed, with Armenia contributing its proportion to the awful loss of life.)

Stalin’s plan for reunification

By the end of the war Josef Stalin was well aware that in the post-war world the Middle East would become the bone of contention for major powers because of fuel reserves, strategic geographic location, and communication advantages. In that context, he conceived the idea of returning historically Armenian lands to Armenians by means of joining them to the Armenian SSR.

Superpowers had never disputed the circumstance under which Armenia was so severely diminished—agreeing with history that land in “Western Armenia” had been seized by Turkey. Stalin, himself, saw the value in joining new lands to his empire and even the dictator saw the morality of reclaiming Armenian land.

If allies return statehoods to European nations, he reasoned, why not give back to Armenians their lost country, especially since Turkey was Nazi Germany’s ally during WWII?

The apparent warming of Stalin to Armenia gave rise to hopeful expectations that his notion of rejoining Armenian lands was imminent. ( In 1945 Stalin relaxed some restraints on the Church and allowed for the placement of a new Catholicos, in the person of Gevorg IV, whose support of Armenian troops had played a role in the defense of Russia.)

The dream, however, evaporated with the fiery end of WWII, as Stalin’s attention turned to creating his own nuclear weapon after seeing the power of the bomb wielded by the Americans in Japan. He dropped his call for reparation of land, and instead issued a call for re-populating the existing Armenia.

On November 21, 1946, the Soviet government issued a decree “On Measures Concerning the Return of Armenians Abroad to Soviet Armenia.”

The new campaign started to repatriate Armenians to their historic motherland from 12 countries, including the USA, France, Egypt, Bulgaria, Lebanon, and Syria. Some 360,000 people stated their wish to leave for the USSR.

Simultaneously, the Diaspora rallied for reparation. From April 30 through May 4, 1947, the Pan-Armenian World Congress took place in New York with 715 delegates from 22 countries and 31 Church eparchies. The goal of the forum was to “raise the issue of return of Armenian lands seized by Turkey under the post-World War II circumstances.”

The congress was launched with a message sent by the Catholicos of All Armenians Gevorg IV and with the blessing of Stalin’s government. Standing in the way of plans, however, was the Truman Doctrine, which was but a draft (about to be adopted on May 12, 1947) when the Armenian congress convened. US Secretary of State George Marshall specifically stated that the Truman Doctrine “is based on the stability of Turkey’s territorial integrity.” The doctrine established the current U.S.-Turkey relationship, and was based on America’s interests to stop Soviet expansion.

The situation grew more complicated also in Armenia itself. On September 1, 1948, a mysterious fire that killed 42 broke out onboard Pobeda (Victory), a ship that had been used to transport repatriates to Batumi.

On September 13, Stalin told his government that the ship disaster was the work of American spies among the Armenian repatriates. The next day, a regulation was issued by the Soviet Ministers of the USSR “completely and immediately revoking the repatriation of Armenians from abroad to the USSR and forbidding the entrance of Armenian migrants to Armenia, no matter where the migrants were coming from.”

Only on October 8, 1948, as an exceptional case, the Soviet Political Bureau allowed 269 repatriates to come to Armenia, and the very last repatriates were 162 Armenians who came from America in February 1949.

So, as a result of 1946-1949 repatriation, instead of the planned 360,000 from 12 countries, only 100,000 moved to Soviet Armenia.

That ship fire still remains a mystery. In 1949 a short (only two weeks) closed-door trial took place. The captain of Pobeda, the telegrapher (who did not give the SOS signal), and the dispatcher of the steamship line were pronounced guilty. They were sentenced and each served time in prison.

The incident had international political overtones beyond the connection to Armenia, as among the victims was Chinese General Fyn Yuisian, who was considered the only legitimate rival of Mao Tse-Tung, so foreign media mainly blended that news into the context of a Chinese scandal.

It is not excluded that the fire became just a convenient excuse for stopping the repatriation process. It also became obvious that those repatriates were having a hard time trying to adapt to the Soviet lifestyle—a planned economy, lack of property ownership, and the impossibility of running a private business.

Additionally, there was not enough housing or jobs for the arriving Armenians, and so they were settled in the villages of the Ararat valley (for example Nor Kyank—”New Life”) or new towns, such as Hrazdan.

Still, the overwhelming majority of the 100,000 repatriates settled in Yerevan, changing the culture of the city. Turkish and Arab Armenians, for example, introduced the coffee tradition to Armenia, which, till then, had been a tea-drinking society. For several years the coffee culture was a distinctive feature of the newcomers; however, by the 1960s, it had won over the Armenian mode of life.

French Armenians introduced the tradition of open-air summer cafes—a rarity in the Soviet Union. Whereas previously people spent evenings in their yards, now rather than gathering under a mulberry tree, they went to cafes. And, as time went by, those meeting points became places where relationships were formed, political parties were conceived, and various plots were hatched.

It was then that the sleepy city of Yerevan was imposed upon to grow into the heart of the Armenian historic memory, and outline the spiritual perimeter of the lost Motherland within its newly modest borders.

New communities from old names

The intention to unite memory in a single city was reflected in names given to communities of Yerevan where the impact of repatriates was felt: Nor (New) Arabkir, Nor Butania, Nor Kharbert, Nor Sebastia, Nor Aresh, Nor Zeitun, Nor Kilikia (Cilicia).

It was then that people started building a new capital. Within a few decades, a small regional town was turned into a metropolis—a center of vigorous industry, leading science, high culture, developed spiritual life and civilization.

Perhaps only that kind of Yerevan was capable of fulfilling the role of the national standard bearer, where the influence of a limited but significant influx of repatriates helped shape the identity of post-Genocide Armenia, even under Soviet control.

Many repatriate families became well-known representatives of Armenian science and culture. For example, Gohar Gasparian, soloist of the Egypt State Radio, moved to Soviet Armenia in 1948 and, a year later, she was singing at the Spendarian Yerevan Theatre of Opera and Ballet and brought worldwide fame to Armenia.

As many flourished, many also suffered the constraints imposed by dictators’ abuse of the socialist society ideal. Many wished for more freedom.

Zhan Tatlian, for example, was born in 1943 in Thessaloniki and, when he was five, was brought to Soviet Armenia with his family. At age 18 he became Armenian State Jazz soloist, and then worked in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg), where he was able to create his own orchestra. However, Zhan could feel the lack of freedom, especially burdensome for an artist whose very music—jazz —relied on self-expression. In 1971 he left for Paris with only one suitcase.

Fates of the repatriates in Armenia developed differently. Many of them were never able to adapt to the mode of life in the USSR and left Armenia. Many others were suspected and repressed as “agents of imperialism.”

The remaining decades of Armenia as a Soviet Socialist State saw only internal movement, with, for example, some 48,000 relocating to Armenia from Georgia and Azerbaijan in the 1960s.

Then, in the late 1980s when the grip of communism loosened and the fate of the faltering Soviet Union became apparent, any Armenian with means began to see a chance for life abroad.

Movement in the wrong direction

Armenia was hit by the first wave of post-Soviet emigration soon after it gained independence. Emigration continued at a high rate throughout the troubled 1990s, characterized by a deep economic decline, a severe energy crisis, food shortages, and a bloody armed conflict with the neighboring republic.

The drastic impoverishment of the population caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of economic ties with former fellow Soviet republics was an early driver of emigration which, according to different estimations, saw between 600,000 (modest) and 1.5 million (perhaps overstated) abandon Armenia.

According to the official census taken in 1989, Armenia had a population of some 3.6 million people. The most intensive migration that began in the 1990s was to the central and southern regions of Russia and various Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries. But it is also believed that some 40,000 managed to leave for the United States and other industrialized countries. Those people apparently either possessed outstanding professional skills or had a preferential status, such as refugee, or strong family ties in those countries.

Armenia’s population in the 1990s also included a layer of about 300,000 Armenians who had just fled ethnic-based violence in Azerbaijan. They were officially classed as refugees or “internally displaced people” and, along with 1988 earthquake survivors, were one of the most sensitive groups in terms of migration.

Refugees, many of whom failed to achieve a sufficient level of integration into Armenian society—be it socially, economically or culturally (many were Russian-speaking and either did not speak or spoke very little Armenian)—were one of the obvious groups that would be subject to emigration. Many of them took the opportunity of their status and managed to settle abroad in Europe and the United States, among other areas. Others, who first moved to Armenia fleeing ethnic tensions and pogroms in Baku, Sumgait, Kirovabad, the Shahumyan region and other cities and towns in Azerbaijan, later joined their relatives and families who were well established in Russia, Ukraine and other former Soviet republics. Many refugee families, where a member or members possessed outstanding or just good professional skills or expert knowledge that would be required abroad, also found ways to leave the country. (Interestingly, Armenians who were born and lived outside the Soviet Armenian borders, such as in Azerbaijan or Georgia, faced more competitive environments in their republics in terms of studying and careers, which apparently shaped them into good professionals and specialists in their professions).

Brain drain was not uncommon for Armenians born and raised in Armenia proper, as Armenia was known as one of the leading Soviet republics by its level of education. Many scientists, engineers and specialists in other spheres, who lived on meager salaries under communism, saw opportunities and demand for their skills abroad, or in post-communist Russia. Most did not hesitate to leave their homes in Armenia (some determined to stay abroad for life, while others hoped to earn money and return). Only a fraction of them has returned, while a majority, on the contrary, became a magnet for their close and even distant relatives to relocate.

Low-skilled labor also tended to seek employment opportunities abroad. Male members in many families, both from towns and rural areas, chose to do seasonal work abroad, mostly in Russia, rather than remain unemployed or get meager wages in Armenia. Whole brigades of Armenian builders, who had the experience of migrant work and professional ties still from the Soviet times, went abroad, working on small and large construction projects there. Still others engaged in retail trade and sometimes preferred staying abroad after achieving a certain level of business.

Eager also to “escape” were the survivors of the Spitak earthquake. Mostly left without homes and livelihood, the earthquake survivors saw little support from the state and had to think of ways to meet their essential needs. (Soon after the December 1988 earthquake, Soviet authorities allowed a considerable number of people from the affected areas to relocate to southern Russia or elsewhere in the Union, where they were provided with some living conditions. While many returned to Armenia later, some also preferred to stay on.)

The severe energy crisis in the early 1990s (after Armenia closed its nuclear power plant out of environmental concerns and when the pipeline supplying natural gas to Armenia became a soft target for Azeri saboteurs) and food shortages also drove people out of the country.

It was a common practice for families to spend winters with their relatives in Russia or elsewhere, as a warm home was a luxury in Armenia during the winters of 1993-1994. For many, the “winter” turned into a series of seasons that has not yet ended.

Still other families were driven out of the country by the fear for their sons who were of, or near, army conscription age (18 and above). As hostilities intensified on the Karabakh front, military authorities in Yerevan were desperate to recruit more soldiers for the army—not necessarily to go to the front and take part in combat operations, but often to man the ranks in the rear.

It was also the case then that many of those who had completed their two-year military duty in the Soviet army at around the time of the USSR’s breakup were again called up for military obligation in independent Armenia’s army and had to serve for another two years. Many were disgruntled over such a policy and tried to find every way to escape (often deciding to leave the country until conscription age passed, or for good).

Dual citizenship, but lack of strategy

Point IV of Armenia’s Declaration of Independence provides for a new sort of repatriation, according to which “Armenians living outside the borders of the Republic of Armenia have a right to RA citizenship.”

Later, however, independent Armenia’s first president, Levon Ter-Petrosian, stated that “national ideology is a false category” and that “Armenia’s development is the Armenian Republic’s citizens’ business.”

Considering that the largest part of the Armenian nation lives outside the republic’s borders, such a statement by the first president was against national consolidation and in fact was seen to discourage repatriation.

The Constitution adopted in 1995 read: “A citizen of the Republic of Armenia cannot simultaneously be a citizen of another state.”

And by that, the Constitution deviated from the Declaration of Independence and forced compatriots to give up their citizenships in order to become citizens of Armenia, thereby forcing a wedge in the movement for national consolidation under the new historic circumstances.

Second president Robert Kocharian returned to the points stated in the Declaration. As opposed to his predecessor, he stated that “Armenia’s development is something to be done not only by Armenian citizens but all Armenians.”

Kocharian initiated the Armenia-Diaspora Pan-Armenian forums (Diaspora Conference), along with which dual citizenship was put on the table as a priority.

Still, diasporans wishing to move to (or back to) Armenia find the challenge daunting and are often discouraged by the levels of bureaucracy involved. Recognizing the need to strengthen Diaspora ties, the administration of President Serzh Sargsyan has seen the formation of a Ministry of Diaspora. While the ministry has been successful in promoting cultural ties among all Armenians, the need remains for a single clearinghouse of sorts that would make repatriation a more appealing option for those who wish to establish residence in today’s Armenia.

In June 2008, when the suggestion arose for the creation of a new ministry on connections with Armenians living abroad, parliamentary discussions were held on the issue and Vahan Hovhannisian (Armenian Revolutionary Federation Party or Dashnaktsutyun) suggested that the new structure should be called “Diaspora and Repatriation Ministry.” However, the suggestion was not accepted and the word “repatriation” was dropped.

Finally, the Ministry of Diaspora was formed.

Well into its second year, the ministry has notably supported programs encouraging participation of the Diaspora in Armenia’s life. Its activities often seem to fall under cultural or foreign-affairs objectives, however, and the long-range mission of the ministry remains somewhat obscure. No state program on repatriation has been created.

Lacking in export commodities, and bound by natural as well as man-made impediments to successful commerce, Armenia’s hope to emerge from struggle to self-sustenance is inexorably linked to its stalwart resource—its Diaspora. A state strategy for Armenian repatriation, then, would seem a natural priority, which is currently conspicuous by its absence.

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