Ethnic Armenians whose families migrated to another part of the former Soviet Union can often find themselves confronting a question when they return to live in Armenia -- are they Diaspora or are they locals?
For many Armenians, the answer falls somewhere in between. While these newcomers may not have experienced firsthand the chaos and conflict that marked Armenia’s initial post-Soviet years, their background in Russian-speaking, former Soviet republics means they are not the same as Diaspora from the US, Europe or Middle East.
“[N]o one would consider [an Armenian] person living in Rostov [in Russia], a member of the Diaspora,” comments Armenian fashion designer Faina Arutyunyan, a native of Kazakhstan.
Their offspring, even after returning to Armenia for good, can also still be seen as “different.”
The seven individuals below, migrants themselves or the children of migrants from the 1980s or 1990s, have all grappled with this quandary. Chai Khana spoke with them to learn how they have found a sense of identity in Armenia that transcends categories.
Artem Galustyan first came back to Armenia in 2015 to cover that year’s Electric Yerevan protests for the Russian news outlet Kommersant. It was the first of several trips.
“Home is where you are loved. Here, you are loved the most and without a reason. You are considered like a particle of some sort of cosmic Armenian love,” he says.
“In Russia, you are always someone’s enemy – [you’re] either a ‘liberal retard’ or a redneck, a khach [a derogatory name for Caucasians based on the Armenian name Khachik – ed] or a xenophobe. You gradually become a player in their game of hatred.”
“Maybe it’s because of the xenophobic environment that we lived in -- it makes you assimilate,” he speculates.
Nonetheless, within any Armenian family in Russia, he underlines, “everyone remains an Armenian.” He himself rejects any notion that he identifies most with Russia.
“[I] am not a ‘Russian-Armenian.’ I am just an Armenian. Yes, I lived there [in Russia] for 20 years, but I always felt like an alien there. It became my second home, but it’s not my homeland.”
“Your biography consists of many more details than the place you belong to,” believes Anush Zeynalyan.
Born in Moscow, she considers both Armenia and Russia her “two homelands.” Her father moved to Russia in the 1980s to study and, later, after marrying in Armenia, to workfull-time.
But Zeynalyan says she “always felt better” in Yerevan than in the Russian capital.
That doesn’t mean, though, that she’s pushed Russia away. Since moving to Armenia’s capital for good, “I realized how advantageous it is to have two cultures and I don’t depend on things on which single-culture people depend,” she says. “I am more free and mobile.”
That sense of freedom – and assimilation within Armenia -- means that “I am not even offended when [locals] call me a ‘Muscovite Armenian’ or when they consider me different . . .” she adds. “If it’s a pretext for attaching a stereotype to you, then it’s their problem.”
Faina Arutyunyan says she now thinks of herself as a local Armenian, but reaching that point has not been easy.
“Several years ago, if you had asked me, I would have told you that newcomers aren’t welcome here; we feel alienated. If now someone says something like that, I will reply ‘What’re you talking about? You are all locals here,” but I will understand what they mean.”
“It took me five years to feel like a local. I guess it was after I was recognized as Faina, the designer. That helped me become more self-confident.”
She says she can now even “criticize” newly arrived Diaspora women for “insignificant things” -- laughing loudly or making jokes that some deem off-color -- in the way that “I used to be criticized when I was a newcomer myself.”
Most Diaspora Armenians, she notes, cannot draw on the Russian-speaking, Soviet past to connect with local Armenians in ways that she, as a native of Kazakhstan, or others from Eurasia can. “They haven’t watched the same cartoons as us and the same films. Even their jokes are different.”
“We just want people to be the way we are, but that’s impossible,” she adds.
For years, Hayk Zalibekyan had a split identity of sorts. “I went to an Armenian school [in Russia] for the first two years and communicated with Armenians a lot. Things changed when I entered university. I had two identities, one of which was comfortable in a Russian circle, while the other remained in contact with Armenians.”
With time, after the initial rush of Armenian migration to Russia in the 1990s, “people started to assimilate,” he recounts. “I gradually turned into a Russian. I would feel more Russian than Armenian.”
As Russia’s restrictions on civil rights tightened, Zalibekyan and his wife, an ethnic Russian from Ukraine, eventually decided to move to Armenia. Though the couple reviews their decision annually, Zalibekyan says that the 2018 change of power in Armenia means that they will almost certainly stay.
Despite some rough spots, he believes, like others, that his experience in Russia facilitated his return to Armenia. “The Diaspora in Russia is closer to local Armenians than those in the Americas and Europe,” he says.
“The only thing that gives away my identity are my license plates. The fruit sellers on the side of the road notice it and try to overcharge me.”
Though he believes that “at some level I also have a Russian mentality,” he says he now feels “like a local” in Armenia.
And that’s how he wants to be identified. “I am not interested in fitting into a specific narrow subgroup,” he affirms. “I am Hayk, an architect and an Armenian.”
Hakuk Yeghiazaryan has spent all but nine years of her life in Moscow. Yet she says Yerevan is the place where she feels “more at home than anywhere else.”
“This understanding came gradually, as I realized that Yerevan is a city that demands unconditional love. You don’t want to lose your mind from vain searches for the ‘right conditions.’ “
But her love for Yerevan is, at times, unrequited. While her friends don’t consider her a Muscovite, “for those outside my circle of friends, it takes only one bit of criticism to be reminded that I am not a local and I am asked not to ‘meddle’ ” in Armenia’s domestic affairs.
“Still, their acceptance is not an issue for me. I will insist that I am a Yerevan girl even if I fly to Moscow once a month and speak only Russian. . .”
Her 11-year-old son, Tigran, now ponders his own identity – whether he’s a Muscovite or an “Oshakanite;” a name he derived from the ancestral village where his parents are building a house.
“We don’t insist on his taking any of these identities, and left him to choose on his own,” she says. “He decided that he’s just Armenian.”
Deciding that he was Armenian was not initially straightforward for 22-year-old Edgar Elez. Growing up in Moscow, Elez recalls, “[e]very time I said I was an Armenian, my mother would reply ‘How are you an Armenian? You father is a Serb and you are a Serb.’”
“In the early 2000s, when Moscow was very dangerous from many skinheads, every time when I left the house I was told, ‘Remember, you are a Serb, not an Armenian. Don’t speak Armenian,’” he recalls.
“Still, I would declare that I was an Armenian wherever I went. I don’t know where this patriotism comes from, but I had to be someone.”
Five years ago, he moved to Yerevan to attend university. But he found his first year in Armenia “very difficult.”
“I got acquainted with the local mentality and I couldn’t feel myself a part of it.”
With time, though, that changed. Elez says he now considers Yerevan his home and does not want to leave. “Even if I have to, one day I will still return.”
Seven years after he moved to Yerevan from Uzbekistan, Karen Manukyan has found a ratio for his relationship with Armenia: “I am more a local than an outsider. It’s 80:20.”
It took time for Manukyan, a native of Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent, to embrace his ethnic Armenian identity. The family were not recent migrants; his father had been transferred to work in the Central Asian Soviet republic for the AvtoVaz car company in the 1970s.
“When I was at my first year of school, I thought I was Russian. I got to know my first Armenian friends in college and that’s how I entered my [so-called] Diasporan life. I was 16-17 when identity started to interest me . . .”
When Manukyan and his wife came to Armenia in 2009 for a visit, they decided that this was where they should raise their children. “I was born in [Uzbekistan] ‘accidentally,’” he says, “so I wouldn’t want the same fate for my kids.”
“We sold off our house to be sure that we had no place to return, bought the tickets and moved to Yerevan without telling anyone,” he recounts. “My daughter was four months old.”
It took Manukyan three years, though, before, as he puts it, he “calmed down and realized everything was normal” – that he was considered an Armenian in Armenia.
“When we moved here, I would still have an Armenian flag in my car, as if I were in Tashkent,” he says.
Now, he has another location in mind for that flag – on his own plot of land outside of Yerevan; an area where he has planted 2,000 fruit trees (the realization of a Tashkent-era dream) and plans to build a house.
June 2018, Identity Edition