Most of the passers-by avoid it; the plaster cracks, bricks may drop, and rods fall, making the large four-storey building on Garegin Nzhdeh street just too dangerous to walk by. Heavily damaged in the 1988 earthquake that hit Gyumri, the former dormitory was abandoned since 1989, yet is still home to 16 people who have been living in dreadful conditions for decades.
The building was built in the 1950s as one of the dormitories housing workers of the city’s former textile factory - the large industrial complex, no longer operating, used to produce fabrics for the whole Soviet Union and employed, at its peak, over 1,000 people. As the local workforce was not enough, it hired professionals from all over the USSR, hence the need to have a dormitory for off-site workers. After the earthquake, the building was classified as dangerous, a “3rd category emergency,” and half of it was pulled down. Experts like Albert Margaryan, head of the urban development department in the local administration of Marz of Shrak, maintain that the building is suitable for living but would not sustain another shock of magnitude 6 or higher.
After independence the building was privatized and sold to several buyers whose names remain undisclosed. Their residents left in dribs and drabs, while the building was falling into decay. Former workers remember well what life was like at the factory - they all came temporarily, some of them ended up settling forever.
62-year-old Tatiana Peretyaka came to Gyumri from Dneproperovsk, Eastern Ukraine, in 1973 and worked in the textile factory for 15 years.
“I came to Armenia with another Ukrainian woman and a lottery determined in which city we would work. I was sent to Leninakan (Gyumri’s former name). I came to work in the textile factory. Life was easy, for the first six months everything was free: food, clothing, home appliances. We were also paid well and could save money to send back home,” she recalls.
After the earthquake first, and the USSR’s collapse later, Tatiana’s relatives hoped she would return to newly independent Ukraine. By then, though, Gyumri had become home, she hoped that the city would revive, that she would return to work and that life would be again like once it used to be. She dreamt of a family. But her dreams shattered, like the depleted building she’d been calling home for 44 years,
Never married, Tatiana makes a basic living as a cleaner and is officially registered as homeless. She laments no past and no future - everyone has forgotten her, both in Ukraine and in Armenia, and she has no family connections.
Roza Raeimkulova, 55-year-old Kazakh woman, shares the same fate with Tatiana. She came to Gyumri in 1983. She read in an announcement that workers were needed in Armenia. She was 21 at the time and moved to Armenia with her 57 other compatriots.
In 1985 Roza met her late husband, Iskandar Grigoryan. They had 4 children, 2 girls and 2 boys.
“My husband died 4 years ago, one of my sons is a migrant-worker and the other is in the army,” she says pointing at her two daughters, 13-year-old Iliana and 26-year-old Inga who has two children herself.
“My mother told me a lot about Kazakhstan, and I know that I visited Kazakhstan when I was a toddler. She took me there so that my grandparents could see me. Then we returned as my dad was in Leninakan,” recalls Inga. She doesn’t like remembering about her mom’s homeland.
In the early 1990s Roza’s relatives hoped she would return to Kazakhstan and abide by the religious law and traditions of her homeland. She declined. In largely Muslim Kazakhstan a union between a Muslim woman and a Christian man is frowned upon, so Roza remained in Gyumri.
The dormitory used to host women from all across the Soviet Union, mainly from Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan and Moldova, as well as from other cities of Armenia. In 1978 Susanna Petrosyan, born in Armavir [western Armenia, close to the Turkish border], married a man from Gyumri where she moved to and started working in the factory.
“The Soviet Union ruined my life … why did it even build this factory and the dormitory? Do you know how many families were destroyed because of the cutie women of this building? My husband was one of them. He left the family, our two little children for a Moldovan woman and emigrated with her,” she grieves as she doesn’t have a real house to live.
Susanna and her husband divorced in 1985. He left without finishing the paperwork to register as a resident in Gyumri.
“Because of messy bureaucracy I didn’t receive a house after the earthquake. When I got married, I left my registration in my father’s house, meanwhile my husband never registered me here. So I ended up without a registration. I have temporary registration in the dormitory and have been living here for 28 years. Nothing happened to me during the earthquake but my two rooms got destroyed, so I moved to a different room in 1989. There is an earthquake in this building every day, we look into death’s eyes every day.”
Since the earthquake, the building has partly collapsed and is now in hazardous conditions, at constant risk of toppling. No measures are taken though and residents have no place to go. They consider themselves as a Soviet memory, remembered only once in awhile.
Donara Bisharyan is 50. Born in Gyumri she received a room in 1988 as she lost her house in the earthquake, she thought it would be temporarily. However, only her husband turned out to be temporary, as they divorced three years after getting married. He left her, and Donara lives in a small room, without hope to leave it.
When there is talk about her family life, with a trembling hand, Donara shows her photo where she’s in a bridal white dress and says ‘I was happy.’ Happiness is long gone, her life is barely a day-to-day survival.
The future of the former dormitory is unclear. It is not registered as a government property, so it does not qualify for state assistance. Forgotten by everyone, the 16 people who live here have no financial means even for the small renovation for their own rooms. They barely manage to buy food and pay for utilities’ bills with their tiny incomes. This dormitory is one of a kind as all the other concrete skeletons in Gyumri are not inhabited.