Twenty seven-year old Arsen Vardanyan was born and raised in Gyumri, Armenia’s second largest city. He trained to be a lawyer, but only worked in the field for two years, from 2013 to 2015. Vardanyan quit to devote his life to improving his hometown, as one of the co-founders of the “Gyumri Is Our Home” initiative.
“At the end of 2013, my friends and I participated in the meeting of the Council of Elders of Gyumri and announced that we want to build a skating rink in our city. There was one in [the capital] Yerevan, but we wanted to have ours. And we succeeded,” recalls Vardanyan.
Initiatives like Vardanyan’s are an important part of Gyumri’s long struggle to rise again from the ruins. Thirty years ago, this north-western corner of Armenia was struck by a 6.5 magnitude earthquake. Gyumri and the surrounding Shirak Province were devastated; 25,000 people were killed, many of them buried beneath the rubble, and 130,000 were injured. While the earthquake prompted humanitarian aid from all across the world, subsequent years brought new hardships with the collapse of the Soviet Union and eruption of conflicts across the South Caucasus.
Today, Shirak remains one of Armenia’s poorest regions. Gyumri, the regional capital, has few opportunities for young people. If they can, many chose to leave the place when they grow up, just like I did. Those turbulent years in the 1980s and 1990s deprived me and others like me of a proper childhood, while the bleak economic prospects led me to believe I would not be able to build a proper life in my hometown.
Nobody should have to write such things about where they grew up, and I hope that such thoughts need never cross the minds of generations to come. Fortunately, some young people in Gyumri are working hard to ensure that happens.
Vardanyan’s rink was a small step towards bringing the city back to life. From the beginning of 2014 onwards, evenings were for skating. Everyone regardless of the age and gender would come and visit.
“We told the mayor that we didn’t need anything from him besides an area for the skating rink and water. Everything else we would found and do ourselves. The heavy snow was free. Each of us invested something. One brought figure skates, the other one building materials, someone helped with money and we succeeded”, remembers Vardanyan, mentioning that they sometimes rented the rink to figure skaters for AMD 500 ($1.3) and then donating that money to charities.
Today Arsen is very well known in Gyumri. He has an impressive track record in creating something from nothing.
In 2015, the walls of several Gyumri buildings were decorated with colorful bottle caps, forming intricate carpet designs.
“I saw that the Guinness Book of World Records recorded the biggest such mosaic in 2013 in Slovenia, prepared using 500,000 [bottle] caps. At that time I decided that we should have one like that. Then I changed my mind and decided it was better to have several ones like that and not try to surpass the record.”
To create their first carpet Arsen and his friends started to collect bottle caps from the streets, but later residents of Gyumri helped them and created a large collection.
“I was getting more motivated when some child with a cap in his hand would come and tell that he wants to help us. One by one we collected it. During that period once I met the mayor, who already knew about the initiative. The mayor joked that ‘Gyumri would finally get all the useless junk from across Armenia,’” says Vardanyan.
Gyumri got more than just junk; the city got a beautiful carpet from bottle caps. You could also say it got more than a carpet; locals got a taste of what they could achieve when they came together.
The next idea Arsen and his friends brought to life in Gyumri was a wall of anecdotes. They began by posting humorous notes in different parts of the city.
“A teacher asks his pupil: ‘Tell me honestly! Who did your homework?’” begins one of the outlandish anecdotes. “‘I honestly don’t know; I was asleep,’ replied the student.”
“[The anecdotes] were a good chance to develop internal tourism. Several years ago people would visit our city only for gastronomic tourism, because we have a tasty and unique local cuisine. But in reality there is a lot to see in Gyumri. When tourists just walk in the streets of the city, they can learn a lot about the city from the anecdotes posted on the walls of the buildings,” says Vardanyan.
That idea has since blossomed into an entire wall of anecdotes in the very center of Gyumri, created with the support of several international organizations. The anecdotes are now in English and Russian as well as Armenian. However, Arsen does not like these versions of anecdotes, saying that the color of the original has been lost in translation.
Arsen has brought more of that color to his home city in his latest project: for over a year now, he’s been making spinning tops.
“In our childhood, when spring came, we used to play spinning tops. Last year when the snow had just melted, I asked my friend Gagik to go to the bazaar and buy a spinning top so we could play with one again. It turned out that the toy of our childhood is on the verge of disappearing,” begins Vardanyan.
“So that gave us an idea to produce spinning tops. We found craftsmen who could do it and started production,” he continues, emphasizing the word ‘we.’ “It’s teamwork. One craftsman peels the wood, the other creates the iron tip, a third paints them, and I prepare the braid string.”
Arsen’s spinning tops are decorated with images of Gyumri, and he now sells them internationally by mail order. The $5 price of the spinning tops is symbolic, covering only the materials used to produce them. He hopes that the small venture could create some more work in the city, with its high level of unemployment. He also hopes that spinning tops could bring the city’s children together, and encourages them to leave their computers for the yard, where they can enjoy spinning tops and their childhoods.
Vardanyan adds that he could not have done anything without his colleagues, and that there is quite an age gap between him and many of his supporters. “Some are very young, others is quite old, but their love of their city unites them all,” he concludes.