Armenians’ seasonal matriarchy in Georgia

Knar Babayan

Since she was born, Zina Khachatryan's life has been marked by two seasons: the one with her father and the one without him. Now 13, the teenager from the southern Georgian region of Samtskhe–Javakheti, estimates a total of six and half years spent with him -- half of her life.

Zina was six months old when her father Samvel Khachatryan, then 21, left and headed to Russia to work -- just as he had been doing since he was 16. He is part of an army of men who seek employment abroad, leaving behind their families for six months of the year.

There are no precise figures about this seasonal migration from the Samtskhe–Javakheti region where Armenians make up the majority of the 160,000 residents.

“[W]e can estimate that up to 3,000 people travel every year to either Armenia or Russia for seasonal work and up to 30,000 have migrated in recent years. Of these migrants, two thirds [roughly 67 percent] went to Russia, about 30 percent to Armenia and the remaining to other countries, including Europe and the US,” notes Hrant Mikaelian, a researcher at the Yerevan-based Caucasus Institute.

A recent survey carried out by, a local news agency, also indicated that about 63 percent of the families in the region have at least one member who is a migrant worker. The number climbs up to 80 percent in small villages, like Khado, where job opportunities are scarce.

Between May and December most men of the village’s 2,500 residents are nowhere to be seen.

For half a year women bear the weight of everything, from bringing up children to working in the field -- during those months, the patriarchal society turns into a matriarchy.

“For half of the year the oldest man in the house is my 11-year-old brother, Serzh,” explains Zina whose uncle also works abroad. “He does most of the shopping in the village, women do not shop locally [as stores are owned by men]. They either go to Akhalkalaki [a nearby town, 16 kilometers away] or buy from women selling groceries door-to-door.”

Free education through high school means that over the years, men wait until later to seek employment abroad, but the trend has not stopped: the khopanchi, an Armenian term in use since the 1950s when laborers were employed in the Soviet Union’s Far East to reclaim vast swaths of land, continue to seek work elsewhere.

Most workers return to their families in early winter, when the cold weather puts a temporary halt to work in sectors like construction, where Khachatryan works. Hence December is a month of celebration for Zina as it marks her father’s return as well as her birthday.

“This year I asked him to bring me a cellphone and a silver ring. And my favorite chocolates,” she giggles. “Of course all of that doesn’t really matter, it’s the physical presence that matters to me. I just wish he was with us and everything will be alright.”

Zina in Khando, on her way home after school. “Last year I spent my summer holidays with my father in Moscow for the first time. He would come home tired after work. I would prepare coffee for him and tell him where I had gone and what I had seen in Moscow that day. Moscow is really big and beautiful, but our village is better.”

Shoes lined up against a wall while children attend dance class at the “Smart School”. The “Smart School” organizes classes where children can learn traditional dances and the Russian language. The founder, Margush Hakobyan, says that the name was suggested by her nephew who thought it was a “smart idea” to provide these activities for children in the village.

“I’ve loved dancing since my childhood. I don’t mind what style, I just love it. I feel happy when I dance. I have been dancing traditional dances for a year, we also performed in Tbilisi.”

Zina sits next to a heater as she waits for her dance class to begin. “We had to attend a national dress competition [in Akhalkalaki] and we had to find transportation to get there. In moments like that I miss my father a lot. He would definitely have had a solution and taken the kids in our car.”

The road from Akhalkalaki to Khando crosses vast pastures and potato fields. Potatoes are Khando’s main crop and a key source of income for many of its residents.

Zina heading to work in the potato fields with her friends. “The few men who don’t migrate for work help load the potato sacks onto the trucks and do other heavy-lifting tasks. During the potato harvest women manage to earn some money doing the daily work. The women in my family also work in the potato fields.”

Zina and her mother Kristine work in one of their neighbour’s potato field during the harvest. “My mother tries to leave me as little housework to do as possible. My main duty is to take care of my three-year-old cousin Davit, which I am happy to do. Still, I feel sorry for my mom, she has to do all the household tasks alone, but I always help the family during the harvest.”

Laundry hung up to dry in Zina’s yard. “Our family is large. My family, my uncle’s family and our grandmother live in the same house. A total of nine people.” Yet between May and December, only the women and children remain.

Zina shows her friend Haykush how to play the dhol, a double-headed drum widely used in India and across the South Caucasus region. “I saw a video of a girl playing it and decided to learn. People told me that it was not a girl’s instrument, but I insisted. My mom told my father and he supported me. One of my cousins gave me his old dhol, a red one, the right color for a girl. We still need to gather a few more people to get a teacher. Still, I don’t want to waste time and I’m learning by myself

Zina chats with her father via the phone application Viber. “The time, the distance, and my father’s work mean that we do not communicate very often. I send him pictures of me, from when I was a toddler and current ones so that he sees how much I have grown up. We don’t text that much, he works a lot and gets very tired.”

Zina and her mother preparing a traditional Georgian dish, khachapuri, which is a cheese-filled flatbread. Zina’s uncle also spends half of the year working in Russia. “[During those months] the burden of the house falls on the shoulders of three women: my mother, my grandmother, and my aunt Roza.”

Zina takes a photo with her phone in the small village chapel that was built in the early 1980s by some of her relatives. “Every Sunday we all come here to light a candle. I pray to God for one thing only: let everyone be healthy.”

With the thaw comes the farewell. Until she was seven years old, she did not realized fully what it meant to be separated from her father - as time passes it gets harder.

“The last two years have been difficult. I can’t help crying when I see my father. I cry and he cries with me,“ Zina says.

Somehow Zina has tried to distance herself, cooling the relationship as a way to cope with the feeling of loss. Technology helps. Father and daughter talk via Skype, but short text messages with emoticons have become more frequent and Zina finds it increasingly difficult to ask her father directly for a favour or permission -- she turns to her mother instead.

Zina dreams of going to college and becoming a designer. She also thinks she will likely return to her native village, although she knows that if she does, her future husband will also likely leave for six months out of the year to work in Russia, just like her father.

“My parents always support my decisions and help me. I have enough time to study. After university I want to return [here] and yet at the same time I would like to travel and see the world.”



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