30 December 2022Armenia

“How to cross the Russian-Armenian border?”

Visible and invisible problems of Russian emigration to Armenia

by Anna Margolis
© Har Toum

Հայերեն   English   Русский

Almost every day, I walk past the wall outside the Saryan Museum, along the eponymous street. Its transformation has evolved right in front of my eyes over the past fifteen years: from a quiet residential area with low-key stores of computer peripherals – into the main “Vanity Fair” of Yerevan, a shiny row of cool and stylish bars․ This is where the Yerevan “middle class,” joined by the Armenian diaspora on vacation and tourists from Russia and other countries, chose to spend their time.

Today, this wall is covered with a thick layer of posters for club concerts, lectures, discussions, some obscure QR codes with links to Instagram and Telegram channels, announcements of political events and theatrical shows, and so forth. Starting this spring, the exploration of the wall has grown into my personal tradition. My scrutiny is focused on how many of the posters placed in the center of the Armenian capital are actually written in Armenian, the only official state language of the Republic. Today, I only discovered one poster – the announcement of a piano concerto – printed in both Armenian and Russian. The rest of them, every single one, are in Cyrillic, interspersed with some Roman-script letters.

When the war in Ukraine broke out, all of a sudden, Armenia turned into a much-wanted destination for Russian citizens fleeing the country – a transfer terminal for some of them, and for others, a place where you can sit out and wait through “until it’s over.” According to different estimates, between 40,000 and 80,000 Russians have settled in Armenia.

In the host countries, Russian emigration has triggered a wave of discussions loaded with fair and unfair accusations. As it is alleged, Russians claim the role of refugees (in the presence of real refugees from war-torn Ukraine), while nurturing their imperial ambitions. They have faced all kinds of criticisms coming from both the remaining opposition in Russia and the pro-Putin majority. In Armenia, however, the reception of Russian migrants is marked by a number of peculiarities.

First, people who were running away not from military activities as such, but from the very fact of war, find themselves in a country where a real war is still going on (smoldering or brewing, but continuing anyway) in immediate proximity.

Second, people run away from the Putin regime to a country where this regime is still perceived by a part of the society, if not as something positive, then, at least, as the lesser of evils.

Third, people find themselves in an unfamiliar environment, but in this country, they do not really have to deal with aggression or struggle with a language barrier.

Fourth, people find themselves in a country whose residents have been running in the opposite direction – to Russia – for many years.

Fifth, people find themselves in a country whose sovereignty often appears to them relative, rather than absolute (in part, for the reasons listed above).

That being said, Russians find themselves in a country that is largely democratic, where almost everything that is prohibited in their homeland – at least, in the matter of the freedom of speech – is permitted and certainly not punished by the stigma of a “foreign agent,” let alone severe prison sentences and tortures.

In Russia, where any sprouts of civic engagement activity have been eradicated for two decades, the motto “I am not into politics” was esteemed almost a virtue. In Armenia, by contrast, keeping away from politics it is not commonly accepted as a proper way of thinking. So, over just a couple of days, you can easily come across a taxi driver who is nostalgic for the Soviet time, a Putin-lover taxi driver, an Armenian nationalist taxi driver, a democrat taxi driver and a liberal taxi driver, or a taxi driver who believes that Armenia can only be saved under the aegis of Europe or America. In any case, though, with a probability exceeding 90%, regardless of your companion’s placement on the political continuum, the attitude towards "the Russian" will be friendly. It is routed in a combination of several historical and geo-political factors. In a nutshell, close family and cultural ties with Russia where the older generation received their education, then the war with Azerbaijan and the closed border with Turkey – all these contributed to the heavy economic and political dependence on Russia that Armenia has experienced for many years. Keeping in mind what shape Russian politics have taken today, this kind of dependence can be plainly qualified as hostage-taking.

Besides, it is in Russia that the world's largest Armenian diaspora is located and, therefore, the migration flow in the opposite direction is something completely extraordinary for Armenians. At first, the influx of Russian citizens who are quite well-off seemed like nonsense and gave birth to a whole stream of jokes à la “Yerevan is not made of rubber” or “The apartment is to be rented only to people of Caucasian nationality.” Given the number of Armenians who have gone through lots of symmetrically notorious racist amusements in Russia, one can only be surprised that the jokes of this sort were not fueled by animosity and did not materialize in practice.

In the first months, the rapidly growing online chat rooms, such as “Russians in Stepanavan” or “Russophone Hrazdan,” sounded like an anecdote. Confronted by this new reality, the locals ended up treating the visitors more or less the usual way, as guests or tourists from Russia, with all the benefits and drawbacks of this kind of attitude.

Since I myself am one of those “invaders” who arrived recently (although before the war started), but at the same time I have been interested in Armenian life with an inexhaustible neophyte enthusiasm for many years, perhaps, this puts me in the position of an observer from both points of view simultaneously and gives me the advantage to employ a multifaceted perspective in my perception of reality. On the one hand, I understand the motives of immigrants from Russia very well and I sympathize with them. On the other, my reactions to arrogance and disrespect for Armenia may be even more painful than those of my Armenian friends. I constantly have to double check: is my frustration sensible and what if I am trying to be “more royalist than the king”?

Armenia, where 98% of population are Armenians, is the most mono-ethnic republic of the region, and so the new “diversity,” as is believed here, is one of the benefits of immigration, in addition to the economic advantages, the promotion of new cultural trends, and overall increased visibility of Armenia in the region. Many appreciate the efforts of those Russians who started studying the language or engaged with local communities for social activities, such as environmental movements, charity, blood donation, and so on.

To avoid the need to pack the text with disclaimers and diplomatic curtseys, let me emphasize that the people coming to Armenia from Russia are different. Most of them are young or middle aged and came from big cities, mainly from Moscow and St. Petersburg. Most are educated, although the September wave brought lots of people who didn’t have a chance to complete their education. They largely share an aversion to the Putin regime, in particular to the war in Ukraine, but the degree of this aversion ranges from moderate disagreement up to political activism. In the first wave, many emigrants were “relocatees” from the IT sector, and so the share of high-income people was definitely above average. The second, post-mobilization, wave has brought noticeably more young people looking for almost any job. Most of those people, having overcome the first stage of adaptation, get interested and immersed in the environment. This category is not in the focus of this essay.

With no ambitions in the areas of analysis or statistics, I would like to discuss some challenging and alarming tendencies that may, with or without meaning to, affect the life of Armenia.

It is hard to ignore the excessive interest of Russian and Western journalists and sociologists in the "Russian relocatees" versus almost zero interest expressed for the host Armenian society.

I will refrain from detailed discussions of the rather plausible fear: “What if Russia, following its old good tradition, wishes to pay us a visit in order to protect the compatriots?” Or the opposite fear that the presence of Russian opposition in Armenia may invoke the wrath of the “big brother.”

By the same token, I will refrain from touching upon the most conspicuous topic: the unthinkable increase of real estate prices, which came as a blow for both local residents and refugees from Artsakh (this topic is discussed in the article by Samson Martirosyan).

Besides all this, there are less obvious, but more fundamental sources of tension associated with the Russian immigrants. These issues, although largely not articulated out loud, come down to, basically, two points:

1. Snobbery (arrogance, "imperial" attitude, disrespect, presumption of superiority, "they just overlook us");

2. Aggression (usually verbal, irritability, petulance, offensive language in public, rudeness toward their own children, indelicacy, alcohol abuse).

The problem of language – the most painful and important one ­– stands alone, although, in fact, it links up to the first point.

Starting February, Telegram channels have been flooded with questions that are quite natural for new settlers, but the lack of thoughtful attention to the host country often makes the inquiries sound ambiguous and obnoxious.

I would like to draw attention to the term “normal” – one of the words actively used by the Russian immigrants.

“Hey guys, is it possible to find a NORMAL doner kebab here at all?”, “Where, for God’s sake, can I find a NORMAL equipment store here?”, “Girls, please, give me a lead to a NORMAL kindergarten!”, “What, there are no NORMAL doctors here?” and my favorite: “Does NORMAL heating exist here”?

Actually, the word "norm" turns into a synonym for Moscow or St. Petersburg.

People’s desire to customize a new place with some familiar reference points of homelike comfort is totally understandable. Still, what is truly discouraging is the aggressive unwillingness to inquire why exactly there is no NORMAL heating in Armenia (as well as almost everywhere else, except for the Russian Federation). Instinctive shivering seems to be a natural reaction of those Armenians who survived the blockade of the 90s (known as the "dark years") and who still remember the cold and the rolling blackouts.

That’s right, there is no way you can find “NORMAL coffee” in Armenia – a country where coffee is a cult.  It is equally pointless to look for a “NORMAL sushi selection in Gyumri” – a city where part of the population has never recovered a real home after the 1988 earthquake (of course, this is not the new immigrants’ fault, but rather an occasion to take a look beyond the boundaries of their own experience).

Over the past few months, the Russians managed to open several "normal" bars and coffee shops. In one of them, my friend from Yerevan failed to order coffee in the Armenian language.

When a Russian immigrant published an online inquiry asking where in Israel one can have a cup of “pumpkin latte,” it caused a storm on the Internet. If an innocent question turned into a truly controversial subject that stirred up a country independent of Russia, what turn might a topic like this take in Armenia, which is less successful economically and more dependent overall?

Snobbery is not about the longing for the normal life as such – it is about the form of expression, which often reveals impatient petulance. Does it have to do with the notorious colonialism or banal lack of manners? These nuances are complicated to convey, and so gentle attempts to explain what is wrong about this attitude are usually met with genuine surprise: “Since when is criticism forbidden? And the service is really terrible here, no?”

The urge to make Yerevan convenient and “normal,” to reshape it for their own needs – immediately and without reservation, without even trying to understand the environment – is one of the most characteristic idiosyncrasies of the first immigration wave that came in the spring.

Armenia in general and Yerevan in particular suddenly popped up to become visible on the Russian cultural map: unlike Riga or Tbilisi, it had been virtually non-existent as part of the Russian cultural landscape. I have to admit that sometimes it looks rather preposterous when Russian intellectuals engage in sparkling debates on Garegin Nzhdeh's nationalism, or when newly arrived art historians offer guided tours to the "hidden gems of secret Yerevan." There is nothing really bad about it – what is a little scary is just this kind of precocious expertise.

For many people, today’s Yerevan has become a cultural “venue” – a convenient and [politically] neutral ground for a variety of cultural events that have been “relocated” here lately, such as festivals, exhibitions, clubs, or cultural fairs. It would be foolish to argue that the locals are not pleased with all these developments – this is just not true. It looks like a lot of these events, however, take place in a parallel reality. There are multiple reasons for that, from inflated entry ticket prices to the language problem, given that all the information – especially on the Internet – is disseminated almost exclusively via Russian channels. As a result, there have been anecdotal incidents when, for instance, a guest performer, in front of a full house, publicly declares solidarity with the Armenians in connection with the Azerbaijani aggression, with just a couple of Armenians in the audience.

“I don’t really understand why the Armenians are not happy – after all, we’ve raised their VVP [translator’s note: the Russian acronym for both GDP and Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin]!” I have heard that more than once or twice. As one of my friends remarked ironically, “Russians have already raised some VVP so effectively that, perhaps, raising another one would be too much?”

The problem here, of course, is not the statement as such, which can be confirmed or refuted, but the unchecked condescending attitude (still in place even in 2022) often based on the habit of explaining everything exclusively by the market laws. “What do you mean “This country has given us shelter?!” I pay this crazy money for housing here – so they are the ones who should be thankful!”

The economic blockade of Armenia [by Turkey and Azerbaijan], as well as the fact that Russia owns a huge part of Armenia's rather modest economic resources, seem to be of little concern to the newcomers. Of course, it is hard to expect profound knowledge of Armenian life from those people who were wondering, back in the spring, if there were “normal direct flights from Baku to Yerevan” or “what is the best way to cross the Russian-Armenian land border,” or were surprised to discover that there was no railway connection between Armenia and Russia (“What happened? Was it closed because of Covid?”). Many of those questions have grown into memes, including my favorite one: "So you guys are not all Muslims here?!" – that sounds a bit grotesque when addressed to the people who pride themselves on being the first nation in the world to have had adopted Christianity. Yet, after six months of residence in Armenia, it would be kind of expected to show some more interest in the country.

It is important to note that this kind of insensitivity and unwillingness to delve into the specifics of local life are not only typical of “economic” immigrants, but also of some political activists “fighting a just cause,” who are confident that a protest can be “relocated” to another country just as easily as an IT-company, without taking into account the context and environment. Protest rallies calling for the release of oppositional Ilya Yashin or the overthrow of Putin, when held on Yerevan’s Opera Square, look quite ridiculous, while it is not quite clear to whom they are addressed altogether. These protests just appear to be used as another occasion to teach Armenians who are still “not anti-Russian enough.”

This attitude did not come as a surprise: it is true that many Russian liberal media have been squeamish about Armenia’s overly pro-Russian position in recent years. At the same time, there has been a lot of finger-wagging from the state-run Russian media, which, on the contrary, criticized the country for the lack of loyalty.

One has to admit that aggression – albeit mostly latent – that permeates Russian everyday life immediately becomes noticeable in new surroundings. Here, in Armenia, behaviors and manners are generally softer nearly everywhere: at border passport control, in a store, in a government office, or at a notary. Open rudeness is rare. The inefficiency or sluggishness of the "services" are usually mitigated by the kindness and friendly attitude toward customers. Back in my first years in Armenia, long queues were the biggest challenge for me, with no “How about you open another cash desk?” coming from the other customers. I had a hard time getting used to the waiting: when stuck in those long lines, I couldn’t help but look around in search of fellow disgruntled customers, in the hope to roll our eyes together and share our annoyance – but I could never find any “accomplices,” be it a 15-minute holdback at the checkout in a local store or an excruciating hour in bank queue. The difference is not so much in the quality of service as in the high “irritation threshold” that is typical of Armenia, while in Russia it may easily be enough to "drop a match to start an unstoppable fire."

The locals often comment on Russians’ aggressive treatment of maintenance personnel and service employees, including waiters. This attitude is usually based on the presumption “As long as I pay, I can demand.” In Armenia, however, the original assumption sounds more like “As long as I pay, I can ask.” Your payment does not mean that you are exempt from saying “hello” (the function that is frequently turned off in Russian visitors).

Recently I was present at a meeting, which was a friendly talk about art. It was hard not to notice the imperative tone, overbearing manners, and peremptory wordings that Russians (and Russian Armenians) used, in contrast with the behaviors of the host party. I would like to emphasize: that was not a debate on a controversial topic. Actually, I would certainly not be able to register this subtle level of aggression before [I came here] – simply because I would probably speak the same way (and probably still speak this way?) myself. When I shared my observation with a Yerevan friend who is deeply rooted in both Armenian and Russian cultures, she was only surprised that I failed to discover this sooner. “Whenever I came to Moscow, I always felt the need to be defensive, as if proving myself not guilty about something, when they spoke to me in this tone. By the way, this summer in Yerevan, I was stricken by virtually the same feeling that reminded me of Moscow. I was walking at my usual pace along a narrow street when I heard an impatient voice in Russian right behind me: “Lady, how about you set up your mind – are you going to the right or to the left after all? Just need a pass!”

Foul language is a related problem and the second (after the high housing prices) of the most negative aspects of the Russian presence in Armenia. Swearing in public spaces, which is considered to be normal in Russia, is not perceived as the norm here. Routine use of obscene words helps to distinguish a local Armenian from someone who has lived or worked in Russia for a long time. Russians, unfortunately, simply cannot imagine free communication in Russian without obscenities. Armenians, on the other hand, usually do not reprimand their “guests” for swearing, except for extreme situations, although if the situation is really extreme, it may turn into a serious conflict and not be limited by just a reprimand.

Finally, back to the question of language per se.

The thirty years of independence and sovereignty, followed by the 2020 war and recent events, are, therefore, perceived by many as a sequence of tragic mistakes, disappointments, and defeats, but the reinforcement of the Armenian language over this period is commonly recognized as a downright achievement.

In the Soviet time, the status of Russian education and Russian schools was extremely high, and so the Russian language largely replaced Armenian for a significant part of intellectuals. At the same time, Armenian was preserved as a less prestigious language, mainly for informal everyday communication. In addition to this, a few other factors helped maintain the knowledge of Russian at a high level in the republic: for example, close Armenian-Russian ties at various levels, Russian-language media, and, later, the Internet (at the early stages, using Armenian fonts was a challenging task). Nevertheless, Armenian has certainly become the main language of communication and education, and the level of proficiency in it gained over these decades generally corresponds to its status of the state language.

According to the law, Armenian is the only official state language on the territory of the Republic of Armenia. The Law on Advertising prescribes that any advertisement must be printed in Armenian (if translation is needed, the letters of the foreign language must be smaller in size and the information in Armenian must not be inferior in volume to the information in the foreign language).

But it’s just a law and there are not many hair splitters around. Of course, no one expects a foreigner to quickly master the Armenian language.

People who had to suddenly take off from their places, who left their homes and are trying to build a new way of life in a foreign country, do not always have the energy and resources to quickly learn a difficult (I testify that!) foreign language, especially given that in a store or hair salon it is probably enough to speak Russian or English.

In terms of everyday life, the language problem of Russians in Armenia is not really the problem of a language barrier. The problem is that Russians perceive Russian as a “default language”: they speak Russian to us because it is natural and “NORMAL,” and not because people are doing them a favor, as a goodwill gesture.

In discussions on this subject, Russians sometimes resort to this argument, “But why harass us? Do you want to treat us the same way as Sobyanin’s Moscow treats visitors who are supposed to “speak Russian and not their gibberish”? This comparison, however, is fundamentally flawed, both because Russian in Armenia has a totally different status and because it almost never occurs to anyone here to “harass” anyone.

Again, the solution to this problem is not in gaining fluency in Armenian, but in making the simple and easy, almost symbolic efforts to show respect: learning a few basic phrases like “thank you, please, good afternoon” or asking if the person you are talking to speaks Russian. Even these little gestures would be enough to make the visitor look like someone who is aware that we are in Armenia, and not in a "hub," or "location," or at the outskirts of the world.

As for those who are planning to take root, start a business, or organize an event, it would be enough to simply comply with the language policy. By the way, this also applies to some local Armenian businesses who, in their strive to please the new Russian clientele, started to ignore Armenian and even fire Armenian employees whose Russian speaking skills are not strong enough.

It still seems quite natural, without even resorting to “general principals,” that local residents in their home town are allowed to order a coffee in their native tongue. All that is needed for this is, at least, one of the café employees who is able to speak Armenian.

The same applies to the public events held in Russian. It is not always possible to hire a professional interpreter, however, before the performance starts, it would be nice to ask if there is somebody in the audience who needs translation. And if is it, indeed, the case, find a person who can translate for those in need. This solution looks quite affordable.

There is a huge demand for Russian-speaking private schools among those migrants who come with children, which is totally natural. What sounds a little less natural is the chat room complaints about the preschool teachers speaking Armenian or the Armenian children not speaking Russian, or about “not enough activities for Russian children.” With rare exceptions, it does not really happen in my surroundings that a Russian family is willing to send their child to an Armenian-speaking school. Even a small child who would be able to adapt quickly. Even the families who have already realized that they came here for a long time and not just for several months. This, too, is taken for granted as something normal.

After all, despite the downshifting in living conditions and the growing prices, Armenia appears to be the most "comfortable" of the available locations, both psychologically and legally, for the Russians who disapprove of the war. That said, the relative psychological comfort and the friendly attitudes of the locals, should not lull them into a false sense of security, but rather become an opportunity for introspection. A transfer to a different country cannot be reduced to a physical spatial movement. Basically, a large number of problems can, indeed, be avoided by developing the habit of thoughtfulness: where exactly did I find myself and for what reason? It is hard to avoid a reference to the proverbial "cognitive reframing" here, but many, including myself, seem to get through this procedure quite successfully.

As a result, the expectations for “normal” or familiar will give way to – or will be accompanied by – a willingness to figure out why things are done here exactly this way and not the other way around (hint: most likely, not because Armenia had been populated by savages until the Russians came over), along with the motivation to offer or create something based on this newfound knowledge, and not beyond and above it.

If this happens, chances are that the ambitions of the former empire (which has not yet fully realized that its time has passed) will become more moderate. And that is when the emblematic metropolitan designer or manager will think twice before saying in an interview, a couple of weeks upon arrival in Yerevan, something like, “The city is Sovietesque, but the Russians have already opened some new bars and we are so excited about Vasya Pupkin from St. Petersburg with his unique boutique relocating here, so the place might get more fun soon.”

In an angry social media post, the emotional tension nearly turns into shouting when someone who came from Russia – not from Ukraine – complains about the greedy Armenians and housing prices: “We sincerely hope that you will not find yourselves in such a war situation, because this is hell.”

Two years ago, about five thousand soldiers died in the war here, but that hell was of little interest to anyone.

Just recently, though, I happened to meet a very young person from St. Petersburg who told me, “I have only been here for two weeks, but it’s enough to make me cry – I just realized what a haughty bubble we lived in all our lives, not even bothering to notice anyone but ourselves.”

We are not met here with angry cries, “Russians, shut up” (which Ukrainians definitely have every right to). Now that Armenia gives us a unique opportunity for reinvention and a chance to experience modesty and gratitude, we can do it willfully and voluntarily, in the softest and mildest possible environment, but for this we should at least be willing to hear and see the other.

Translated from Russian by Kun