The Descent of Noah from Mount Ararat. Picture Credit: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Why Russians are fleeing to Armenia

Yerevan is set to become a refuge for dissident Russians, a place of romance and sorrow

Artillery Row

I have become a refugee. This is strange to say, for refugees — like alcoholics, like artists — are always other people, and the word itself conjures images of people pushing wheelbarrows of possessions, periodically strafed by enemy aircraft. But if losing your home and possessions and being forced to leave a country at high speed for the unknown makes you a refugee, then that, I suppose, is what I am. 

Recently, after four years of living in Russia, I made my undignified exit, rather more slowly than my Embassy was advising me to. By that time there were a mere handful of places accepting flights out of Moscow, and prices for the tickets were skyrocketing. Though other writers quote $2000 for a direct flight to Istanbul, I saw, when martial law seemed possible, fares to similar places at three times that amount. With the help of a saintly Russian colleague, I managed to find an affordable fare. I chose Armenia.  

A centre of the Other Russia, of those who chose to leave. 

There were various reasons for this. There had been a large Armenian community in the Russian city where I’d lived, and I’d always found the Armenians intriguing. They were striking-looking and quite recognizable — dark hair, dark eyes, chiselled features — and had strong family links (in the place I worked, an Armenian secretary’s father would come to pick her up in his car each evening, even though she was in her late twenties). The taxi-drivers were friendly and talkative, often more so than the Russian variety. They made excellent brandy and shashlik — shish kebabs, roasted over coals — though people said that, other than that, their national cuisine was best avoided. 

What else did I know about Armenia? They were the earliest Christian country in the world, having embraced the religion in the early 4th Century, and the country and its green mountains were littered with picturesque ancient temples. The Armenian diaspora was massive, with far more living abroad than the 3 million who had stayed in their country. 

Their national emblem, Mount Ararat — captured on millions of bottles of Armenian Ararat brandy (a favourite of Winston Churchill’s) — actually stands now in Turkey — a country which had enacted genocide on them in 1915, leading to 1.5 million Armenian deaths. 

They had an unfathomable alphabet of 39 letters which, when formed into sentences, looked like a procession of strange animals looping and hooping their way across the horizon. This was appropriate, for Armenia was also the country of Noah’s ark, which had washed up on the dry land of the sacred Ararat. It was Bible land, a place of myth. The Armenian language, said Lord Byron, was “the language to speak with God.” Armenia was fertile too, a land of green hills and fresh fruit. Their national symbol was the pomegranate, and The Colour of Pomegranates (Sergei Paradjanov’s 1969 visual masterpiece) their most famous film. 

Armenia’s capital, which I was moving to, is Yerevan — so named, they say, because Noah, sighting dry land, cried in Armenian “Yerevats! Yerevats!” (“It’s appeared! It’s appeared!”). Founded in 782 BC, Yerevan is a very old city. Everything in Armenia is old: its churches, its religion, its suffering. Many citizens still dress in a mournful black, sacrifice being, the late Pope John Paul II remarked, an inseparable part of the country’s history. Or perhaps because, with their black hair and black eyes, the colour just looks good on them. 

Yerevan itself is another colour. A local volcanic rock — rosy and blushing — has been used for many of the buildings, Yerevan thus becoming known as the “pink city”. Though the pink is dull and torpid when the sky’s overcast, it warms up nicely in the sunshine.  Chilean poet Pablo Neruda declared Yerevan “harmonic like a rose… one of the most beautiful cities in the world”, and though you suspect Neruda had been at the Mezcal that day, it’s certainly a nice enough place. 

It’s also one of the hotspots for Russians currently fleeing Putin’s regime, along with Istanbul and Tbilisi, and probably the handiest of the three. In Turkey no Russian is spoken and in Georgia, where it’s a second language, locals are reputedly failing to show much of their fabled hospitality. Some Georgian cafes, as the historian and journalist Owen Matthews reports, are refusing to serve Russians, landlords rejecting them as potential tenants, and many are telling Russian refugees to “go back home and fight against your government”. Memories of 2008, and Putin’s invasion of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, have been reawakened by his present attack on the Ukraine. But Yerevan is free of such grudges and thus due to be, to the 2020s, what Paris, following the Russian Revolution, was to the 1920s: a centre of the Other Russia, of those who chose to leave. 

Tsitsernakaberd, the Armenian Genocide memorial complex, on November 16, 2018. Picture Credit: Maja Hitij/Getty Images.

I quickly discover the local landmarks. There is a huge statue, Mother Armenia, built in 1967 and towering above the city. Similarly ascendant is the Ararat cognac factory, atop a long flight of stone steps, which organizes tours and tastings.  Cresting another hill (Yerevan is built on them) is the Tsitsernakaberd, the Memorial to the Turkish Genocide of Armenia, a huge concrete bunker surrounded by fir trees bestowed by the world’s great and good. But the city’s main landmark is the Cascade, a huge and rather unattractive open-air staircase made of arid-looking, sand-coloured stone (faintly Ark-like from a distance), with colonnades and over-priced cafes. 

There are many, many departing Russians who wanted very much to stay

Whether Russians setting up home here will find what they want is debatable. It’s hard to claim one of the most mono-ethnic countries in the world (98% Armenian) is cosmopolitan, even if its restaurant scene has everything: Chinese, Indian, Italian, Lebanese and local. Yerevan’s centre – a rose-gold network of avenues and promenades with names like Tumanyan, Sargasyan and Meshtots – has clearly had huge sums of money pumped into it and feels like it could be any Western metropolis, from Milan to Madrid. There’s an opera house, a decent national gallery, a clutch of museums and a seemingly endless café scene. With the money, you can clearly live a good life in Yerevan. 

But do Russians have the money at the moment? Forbidden by Putin to take more than about $10,000 out of the country, with their Russian-issued Visas and Mastercards frozen and the rouble plummeting in value, this is doubtful. This hasn’t stopped Russians pouring in – they are leaving the country en masse: journalists who find their media outlets closing down or simply gagged, opponents of the regime and, it turns out, a huge amount of IT workers, whose foreign clients have cut and run. 

I meet one such IT worker, Misha, in the “English Park”. An émigré from Krasnodar, Misha tells me that his entire plane was full of people working in Information Technology,  no doubt swapping coding secrets over the cellophane-packed plastic cutlery and talking fluent Python. “This profession is mobile, thank God,” Misha said to me. “As long as you get the work done on time, you can do it anywhere, anyhow, and our boss is trying to sort out local bank-accounts for us.”

Misha was optimistic about the future. “In a way I’m happy, I’ve always wanted to leave Russia and this has finally forced me to do it.” But Misha was 25 — a flexible age — and I think untypical. There are many, many departing Russians who wanted very much to stay, and have seen their homes and futures ripped from them. 

Khor Virab Monastery in Yerevan, Armenia on February 06, 2022. Picture Credit: Ali Balikci/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

I fill my time in Yerevan in different ways. I walk through those shopping streets around Cascade, people-watching. I visit the Vernissage, a local crafts market, where you can buy pomegranate souvenirs and Turkish coffee-makers. I go to a swanky Armenian restaurant to try the food — which turns out, sadly, to be bland as its reputation. But I marvel at the Saturday afternoon banquet taking place there, a table of women in evening dresses and high heels feasting on silver plates of roast meat and vivid, livid red and green salads, knocking back red wine as they go.

On Sunday I visit local monastery Khor Vhirap, a sublime place at the foot of Ararat, shrouded by thick fog. In the ancient church a service is taking place, young boys in red cassocks and young girls in midnight blue kneeling and crossing themselves, to a crackle of candles and a toll of bells. Outside, men stand around with cages of pigeons, urging you to stroke one, make a wish, and release it into the sky. 

I may well stay in Yerevan: there is plenty to enjoy. I don’t know what Russian visitors will make of their new city, once the Caucasian dust has settled. Emigrés from places with similar populations will find it just fine, and soon a home from home. But those fleeing here from Moscow or St. Petersburg — epic, towering metropolises — may tell another story. 

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