Seventy Million Armenians

This essay has been published in the “Armenian Reporter” in late 2006 or early 2007.

 ‘- Saint-Exupery says: A thousand Motzarts is horrible.

- He says that and becomes another one.’

Hrant Matevossyan, ‘Hangover’

 In his time, President Ter-Petrossyan was complaining that there was a shortage of people to fill in the need in civil servants for new national government: “Mard chka”! (There is no people) At that very moment hundreds of thousands were leaving Armenia to survive. The then-Prime-Minister Vazgen Manukyan had an ‘economic’ justification: according to him, Armenia could not feed so many people. Those who would leave Armenia would take the burden off the shoulders of those who would stay, giving them, one could say, lebensraum. In fact, those who left became a major source of income for those who stayed. Only in November-December 2006 a Russian-Armenian banking network expected USD100-120 million worth transfers[1].


Armenians came to Russia from Armenia, Karabakh, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Central Asia. From Georgia, it was the Tbilisi Armenianhood, particularly educated intelligentsia, a substantial part of the Javakhk population and the Armenians of Abkhazia. If we add to that the amount of Armenians, who were living in Russia traditionally, we have the strongest community in the world. The latest census of 2004 is unreliable: the same site of the Statistical Ministry gives on one page a number around 800,000 and on another page a number well over 1 mln[2]. Precise numbers are not available. The head of the Union of Armenians of Russia, a multibillionaire, says in an interview that there are about 2.5 mln Armenians in Russia[3]. This is the number that most of the Armenians agree on. There were about half a million Armenians in Russia in 1988. A million or more came from Armenia. A few hundred thousands came from Georgia and Azerbaijan. As usual, they proliferate, not in huge numbers, but having a family with two children is a standard. They settled mostly in the three southern regions of Russia and in the capitals, where they had historical communities. But they also thinly spread over the entire Russian Federation. Some of them are here for good, and some come and go, or may leave at some point.


That means that Armenians are the sixth biggest nationality in Russia, immediately followed by Chechens who are far down. According to Tina Kandelaki, a TV and tabloid star[4], in 30 years’ time there will be 10 mln Armenians in Russia, and they will be the forth nation, after Russians, Chinese and Tajiks. Indeed, Armenians are more or less well-placed, making the ends meet, they are not much threatened and therefore they do not have a reason to lose identity via changing their nationality. They have difficulties in the Southern regions of Russia, Krasnodar and Stavropol Kray. These regions include the biggest Armenian communities after Moscow and St. Petesrburg. In the South of Krasnodar Kray, they have an entire town and several small townships and villages where they comprise an overwhelming majority; in the North, they have been threatened several times over the last years. The causes have been the nationalist policies of the region’s governors, or clashes with Kossaks and Meskhetian Turks.


Until the Armenian government makes its slow and irrelevant attempts to accept the long-overdue decision on double citizenship, the Armenians of Russia have received their Russian passport and have kept the Armenian one[5]. This issue is like the issue of Karabakh: while the world argues, for many years it is de-facto resolved. Although the regulations between Russia and Armenia are not clear on that point, the double citizenship of many Armenians in Russia is publicly acknowledged and does not affect their standing[6]. Even those who don’t have passports feel themselves de-facto citizens.


The Armenians from Armenia do not rely on the help of the Embassy. The migrants do not trust the Armenian governmental or public offices. The Armenians who migrated from Armenia do not much value official events and campaigns, like last year’s ‘The year of Armenia in Russia’. Mostly the traditional community attends them. 


The migrants cooperate among each other and help each other out. Some new successful businesses are based on ethnic partnerships and ethnic trust.


Those who have decided to stay are devoted to Russia and President Putin. They sound, however, caustic and disappointed, talking about Armenia. They bear the grudge against their mother-country who has abandoned them. Their nostalgia contains a great deal of psychological trauma, which makes them to talk about the government and inhabitants of today’s Armenia in negative terms. The Armenian government and/or the richest people do not make any effort to create institutional conditions for return. Despite that, in recent years the amount of incoming Armenians to Russia has receded and stabilized, and the amount of returnees, though small in numbers, is increasing. Among them there are the rare instances of those who were not originally from Armenia but have gone to live there, such as Alexander Iskandaryan, a political scientist from Moscow, originally from Baku (but not a refugee). He came to Yerevan with his family and became the Director of Caucasus Media Institute thanks to Swiss funding. Not many others have such an opportunity for soft landing. Alexander says half-seriously that there are fifty million Armenians in the world, and about fifteen of them in Russia. According to him, Armenians are shrewd and careful, many have mixed ethnicity, and therefore do not show up in the censuses in their full numbers. Professor David Hovhannisyan agrees with Alexander and tells me about his visit to an Armenian restaurant in Kaliningrad (former Keonigsberg, the Westernmost edge of Russia). Gagik Avagyan, an NGO leader and former Karabakh fighter, tells a story about an impressive Armenian restaurant in Vladivostok, the Easternmost edge of Russia. We are sitting at David’s place in Yerevan. I comment that if one walks in the streets of Adler (the Glendale of Russia) in Krasnodar Kray, and if one watches the Russian TV, Alexander’s words sound true. Restaurants in Moscow have Armenian meals. The chain similar to “Starbucks” in Russia is called ‘Coffee—tun’ (tun: house in Armenian). Lavash and tan (sometimes called airan) are sold in every store. The only product lacking is thyme (urts). But one can find tea with thyme in an Armenian restaurant. The owner of the restaurant is building a small garden putting a fence around it from Armenian stones. He has brought them all the way from Karabakh in a truck. In almost every notary office the service of translating Armenian passports is readily available. In South-West, an upper-middle class part of Moscow, Armenians inhabit several buildings.


The TV is full of Armenian names. The bad doctor who cruelly cut the hand of a newborn baby in the Rostov region, another center of Russian-Armenian Diaspora, has an Armenian last name. Many medical doctors and scientists have Armenian names. Tina Kandelaki herself belongs to a numerous but quite secluded group with the most complex identity: Tbilisi half-Georgian/half-Armenians. She was recently involved in a car accident with a multibillionaire-PM of Dagestani nationality in Nice, France: his newly bought Ferrari was speeding and turned upside down. They both survived, but Tina, who leads a TV show about wonderkids and had an image of a good mother and wife, had her reputation ruined. She turned that to her advantage though, using it as a PR opportunity. People might not know that she was half-Armenian, but she speaks Armenian with those Armenians who she interviews on her daily radio broadcast, making the multimillion community of Russian car drivers to listen to her Armenian words with no translation. The irritating joke that “everybody is Armenian” suddenly acquires another meaning.


Many famous people have partly Armenian identity, such as Garri Kasparov, the former chess champion, who abandoned chess and became an opposition politician. From the perspective of the governing powers he is considered an outcast and his name is censored out from TV and many print media. The other case is Sergey Kurguinyan, one of the leading political philosophers of extreme right-wing pro-imperial views, who is often on TV. A similar case, Andranik Mihranyan, who in the Yeltsin’s times was the author of the famous ‘Monroe Doctrine for Russia’—the concept that Russia should make the former Soviet states into its satellites—does not show up so frequently.


The Armenianness of public personalities suddenly opens up, like Pandora’s box: recently the singer Irina Allegrova had a nervous breakdown, and in an interview she said that she was from Baku and her father was Armenian. This may be irrelevant, just as the Armenian and Ossetian origins of the most talented theater director of the middle generation, Valeriy Mirzoev, who emphasizes his ‘Zoroastrian’ roots rather than Armenian ones. But Armenians are hungrily, though with irony, playing the game of trying to find Armenian roots in everybody.


Another skyrocketing career in the Russian TV was that of Garri Martirossyan—the leader of Armenian “Club of Fun-makers and Smart ones” (KVN)—a soviet-time cabaret-type TV show-competition, which survived the collapse of the USSR and is thriving. Garri became the leader of ‘Comedy Club’—the major alternative comic show on TV. The mainstream show is also in the hands of an Armenian: Yevgeni Petrossyan, from the famous cohort of the satirists of the Soviet era. He is currently hated for establishing a monopoly on humor on the government-run channels. Garri’s show may be crude, but there is still a touch of freedom left in it. Recently Garri became a candidate for the Armenian Parliament elections, and it turned out that he wasn’t even a Russian citizen. If he wins, we will have at least one bright person in the Armenian Parliament, though who knows what will the satirist do there.


The strength of Armenians in Russia could be a huge asset, but it is not utilized for the interests of Armenia seriously. In 2005 in Armenia a strategic Creative Game was organized, which discussed the issues of the nation, the region and the country. One of the ideas was, given the destiny of the nation, to move towards a “net-state” (“tsantsapetutyun”), a statehood which is no more defined only territorially. But we are famous for great imagination and ideas with little consequence.


The richest Armenians in Moscow govern banks, mutual funds and trusts. They do mergers and hostile acquisitions. The only lucrative area where they don’t much show up is the famous Russian oil and gas. Some say that’s because these are monopolized by other nationalities. Given the past and present troubles of some of the extractive tycoons, however, it may be that the Armenians were just smart to keep clear of the strategic asset of Russia. Or they are perhaps environmentally conscious. The Armenian tycoons are usually not public figures. The rumor is, they come together every week to play ‘mafia’—a psychological game, where the ‘good guys’ try to establish who are the ‘bad guys’ and ‘kill’ them. But the ‘bad guys’ sometimes win as well. The rumor is, they win more often.






[5] In some cases they have difficulties of doing that, but these cases are about nationalism, beaurocracy and corruption and are worth another commentary.


22:27 October 17, 2015