by Marianna Grigoryan
Population: 138,500 ( 4.3 percent of republic's total population), 76.2 percent in rural settlements (the highest rate in the republic)
Education: 2 universities (one private), 21 pre-schools, 125 public schools of general education and, 9 music and art schools, 19 sports schools
Healthcare: 26 out-patient polyclinics, 5 hospitals
Industry: Food and beverage production, building materials
Agriculture: Potatoes, fodder, livestock breeding
(Aragatsotn is also home to the Byurakan Observatory and the Institutes of Radiophysics and Electronics.)
A look into the eyes of 97-year-old Varsenik Grigorian finds a crossroads of the past and the present where the long path of life has stamped so many memories, stories, people and events.
"Oh my, child," says the granny, nearly a century old, distorting the wrinkled and shrunken features of her face. "We have lived a real life, we have worked, dressed smart, enjoyed living. What should the young people say now? There's no more vibrancy in the village."
Varsenik Grigorian is from Kuchak village, in the province of Aragatsotn. It is a place known for the longevity of its residents.
"The air and the water of our village are life-giving. That's the reason why people live long," says 92-year-old Galust Galstian. He doesn't consider himself an old man, since there are people older than him in the village. Still: "Life belongs to the young but, well, they don't stay in the village. They study, then find a loophole to sneak out of the village."
Lying on the foot of Mount Aragats and 50 kilometers from Yerevan, Kuchak has changed considerably in Varsenik and Armen's lifetimes.
But life there changed most, says village head Armen Gevorgian, since independence.
"Before, there was hardly anything rural about Kuchak," Gevorgian says. "Villagers were mainly working at the local machine-tool plant or were doing construction. There were other plants and people weren't engaged in agriculture. We weren't the richest village but we were well-off. Everybody worked."
But the familiar refrain of all the republic is also heard in Kuchak: Plants shut down, people are left jobless, factory workers become farmers.
Larisa Grigorian, 45, tenderly pats her two cows and then starts milking them.
Years ago she was the village tailor. She put away the needle and thread several years ago and now puts her hands to whatever task is required to survive—like most of the 2,350 here (617 households).
"It's true, life has grown more difficult, and everyone should think of a specific way to get by," says Larisa's husband, Anatol, a builder by trade. "But he who is hardworking will find work. As soon as life changed we started breeding cows and pigs and planted potatoes. I did my best to be able to maintain the family. Whenever possible, I go to work abroad."
Anatol Grigorian says the benefits of agriculture are negligible for their village, due to storms drawn in by the mountain (the highest in Armenia) or by unseasonal frost.
"We buy the cabbage seedlings for 10 drams (about 2 cents). We work the whole year long but we still fail to sell the cabbage even for 30 drams," Anatol says.
Most in the village grow potatoes, grains, cabbage and apples—mainly for their own needs. Few bother to try to transport their harvest to Yerevan.
Exchange is more common than sales. Villagers consider it a success if they manage to exchange their vegetables and fruits for the goods offered by other villagers who happen to get to Kuchak by car from Ararat and Armavir provinces.
Potato, wheat, cabbage and dairy products, in that case, are exchanged for tomato, cucumber, herbs, apricot, peach, grape and other fruits and vegetables not found in Kuchak.
The average Kuchak household owns three cows. Potatoes form the basis of the Kuchak villager diet.
According to the village head, 70 families receive poverty benefits (determined by how many children they have). More would no doubt qualify, except for relatives who've left to work abroad, primarily in Russia.
Gevorgian says much of the emigration is seasonal, but that it also happens that a few who find success in Russia eventually take their families, and stay.
"It is impossible to say exactly how many people have left," Gevorgian says, "but the villagers joke that there are so many people from Kuchak now in Kastroma that it remains only to elect a village governor and there will be another Kuchak in Russia."
The village famous for long life is also known for its younger generation's devotion to education; about 50 percent of high school graduates apply for entry in Yerevan universities.
Getting an education is a matter of honor in the village.
The village head brags that, unlike neighboring villages where trade, land cultivation and cattle-breeding are esteemed, learning is the priority in Kuchak.
But: After education, the effort is to find a job. And jobs for applying higher learning are not in Kuchak.
Water is not a problem in Kuchak, in fact it has clean drinking water from Aragats. But the water network is. The system is so deteriorated that many villagers can't get the water into their homes.
"There are lots of problems in Kuchak. If there were gas and water, people's lives would get much easier," says the village head. "But neither water nor gas would be enough to keep the people in the village. If there were jobs or people could make money off their agricultural products, hardly anyone would think of leaving."
Rebirth in Aragats
Spartak Beybutian, deputy head of Aragats, strongly believes his village—the largest in the province—has found the perfect formula for 21st century Armenian rural living. And, just as the "good old days" have been forgotten, so, too, have the problems that fell in their aftermath.
"Everything is fine here," says Beybutian. "If people prove industrious, diligent, everything will be fine on its own."
The population of the village is about 3,700. Aragats has a church and an equipped hospital meant for the whole region and able to serve 15,000 people. The hospital has a maternity ward and an out-patient department. There are two active schools and a third under construction.
Aragats is a rare happy village where not only agriculture is developed but industry, as well.
"Our villagers are very hardworking. Besides, we have participated in a number of international programs, received grants that have largely contributed to the prosperity of our village," says Beybutian. "Along with all that, we take advantage of the circumstance that Yerevan is close to us."
There's a shuttle service in the village that, several times a day, makes the hour or so trip to Yerevan.. By it, the villagers have the chance to sell their harvests in the capital, at good prices.
"If you work, you live, you manage," says Yeghishe Aleksanian, 39, an Aragats villager. "We get a normal harvest."
Aragats is the only village in the province that has a restaurant, serving all the neighboring villages.
According to Beybutian, only 30 families receive poverty benefits, and: "There is emigration, but the percentage is so low that it's incomparable with the achievements."
The deputy governor says that unlike other villages, most of Aragats is employed, including 600 who commute to jobs in Yerevan.
Included among workers are 120 at the Almast diamond polishing plant, where the average salary is more than 50,000 drams ($100) - a high wage for village living. There is also a basalt refining plant in Aragats.
"Ashtarak Kat (dairy products) has set up a production plant that will soon be in business. This is a very good opportunity not only for the Aragats people but also for the inhabitants of the neighboring villages, who can sell their milk on the spot at the best price, without having to spend extra money for going to Yerevan," says Beybutian. "This production will make fundamental changes in the life of the villages. A cheese plant will also be established."
Aragats has gas supply, and a functioning water system. A digital telephone station is expected to be in operation soon, serving surrounding villages that currently have nearly no reliable service.
Villagers say Aragats was in dire condition for several years and has been brought out by smart investments and diligence.
If birth rate is a sign of socio-economic well being, then something positive is surely happening here.
In 1998, four births were registered in the village. Last year, the number was 37. And the number of noisy wedding parties keeps increasing.
"We're a success because we never wait for anybody; we ourselves search and find means," says Beybutian. "We learn about whatever changes, whatever programs work, and try to develop our village."