Armenia: a nation that lives from the past

Armenia, a legendary nation that predates most of the countries that exist anywhere on Earth. The very first Christian nation, a titan of the Southern Caucasus that survived full annexation during the Roman times. A land full of symbology, legends and mystery that has influenced the entire world and that has made it to the history textbooks of every single high school student around the world. That is what I had in mind before traveling to Armenia, nonetheless, I was met with a nation in decay, an identity in ruins and a blindfolded territory that has suffered the fall of the Nagorno Karabagh to the Azeris like a mother that has lost her children. The only lifeline that is holding the Armenian nation is its history and nostalgia for the achievements of their ancient kings. A country that has its vision more towards the past than to the future is, in my opinion, a sad nation. Like a grandfather that lives angry with the rest of the world because back when he was young everything was better.

Armenians have a peculiar way of understanding time and history. For them, their heritage is something worth dying for. This might sound like an understatement — “I would also fight for my country, what makes it different…?”. It is something that one can feel in the streets or when you talk to an Armenian. Most of them have stories of their ancestors coming from places as far as modern day Syria, Eastern Turkey or current Azerbaijan. Armenia is such a big nation that just does not fit in its territory, and they know it. Their history of humiliation and suffering makes many of them defend the same ideas as Nazi Germany did such as the “lebensraum” — “the territory of Armenia was way bigger before”, “Eastern Turkey all made up of Armenians”. In a sense, this is true, although we have to take into account the heavy mixing between the Turks and Armenians, something not many are willing to admit.

Sevanavank Church by Sevan Lake, one of the oldest in the world.

Prior to my trip to Armenia I had worked extensively on the Southern Caucasus region, especially in the conflict between of the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Before diving deeper on the conflict, I was sure Armenia was on the right as Azerbaijan has a big reputation of being a dystopian dictatorship. We could get into a deeper debate on the legitimacy of the the states and borders that were formed after the fall of the Soviet Union. Truth is, the rebels of Nagorno Karabakh were defying international law the same way and with the same arguments as those from the People’s Popular Republic of Donetsk and Lugansk. They argue that given their ethnicity and the borders of one hundred years ago, their territories should belong to other state, and if not, they would suffer repression and possible genocide.

Nonetheless, the entire Western world (and practically the rest of the world including me) has always endorsed the Armenians and criticized Azerbaijan over its offensive over what they consider “their legitimate land” while shutting the possibility of endorsing the Ukrainian breakaway territories. The same (with similar arguments) can be said of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. This got me thinking for a long time before traveling to Armenia — is the West coherent at all in its discourse? We could find arguments to prove that indeed the Western countries follow a logic narrative, but they are becoming increasingly weak, leaving me with a true existential crisis. There must be a reason out there why Armenia has more supporters in the West than any other country trying to take back its glory. Is it because of it small size? Azerbaijan is also small. Is it because they are white and Christian? Russia is also white and Christian. Then, what is it?

Armenia is surrounded by bullies with the sole exception of Georgia. Towards the East, Azerbaijan continues questioning the territorial integrity of the small Christian nation after taking over the Artsakh Republic (Nagorno Karabakh). Dictators enjoy this: after they manage to solve a problem in which they had some sort of moral leverage by force they normally engage in further unjustified action to take more land or accomplish any kind of ridiculous objective. This is the case, for example, of Saddam Hussein trying to take over Kuwait after fighting Iran or Putin trying to invade Ukraine after annexing Crimea and occupying Georgia — the equation tells us that Aliyev will probably defy Armenia’s proper territory in the future. Towards the West, Armenia has its legendary enemy and perpetrator of the genocide of its people — Turkey. The Turkish government continues to deny the existence of the genocide that killed almost two million Armenians and punishes those countries that recognize it. If that wasn’t enough, Turkey is best friends with Azerbaijan, a friendship rooted in their common ethnic group and their hate for Armenia and Armenians. Like a kid in the middle of two bullies in class, Armenia has to handle a two-fold harassment from both sides. Perhaps that’s the reason why the popular opinion in the Western world supports Armenia — because we see them as victims of a genocide and the constant hatred from its neighbors. They are the “true victims” of the story.

Taking the train from Yerevan to Gyumri is a very interesting experience. When the train gets close to the Turkish border, a voice in Armenian, Russian and English tells the passengers that “towards the West lie the territories of Western Armenia, territory under Turkish occupation”. Mount Ararat is one of the tallest mountains in the region. At 5137m, it’s an enormous volcano that rises out of nowhere in the middle of some plains. It can be seen from anywhere and it is truly majestic. It used to be the most important symbol for the Armenians (it still is) but after the Treaty of Kars it was given to Turkey. It is truly a humiliation for the Armenian people — if you examine the border of Turkey you’ll see that the almost straight line makes a detour to take Mount Ararat. The Treaty was signed by the Soviet Union in name of the Armenian SSR. You can find the volcano everywhere in Armenia — water bottles, logos of enterprises, mosaics…etc. While seeing the snowy peak of the mount over the smog of Yerevan from one of its viewpoints I asked myself: is there any remedy for the chronic nostalgia of a nation? Hopefully Armenia will find it soon.

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