Monthly Archives: April 2012

Russian vs. English, the battle for the hearts and minds of Armenians

This blog post could likely be a full-blown article, and with my ignorance I can only scratch the surface. But, the battle between Russian and English as the de facto “second language” of Yerevan demonstrates yet another front in the war between cultures.

Historically, Armenia was a socialist state that took commands from Moscow. The cultural alignment was very strong with Russian being a requirement for schoolchildren [Edit: actually, it still is a requirement]. It’s completely unsurprising that a huge swath of Armenian culture is Russian. The influence continues to this day as Russia is one of Armenia’s largest trading partners, is geographically nearby, and still stations troops along Armenian’s border with Turkey.

This influence shows itself through signs with Russian letters, Armenians that can only speak Russian and Armenian, and my host family making me borscht for dinner. During the soviet era, Russian place names based on Russian culture were common, but after independence, the Government of Armenia changed many of the names to represent Armenian culture (e.g. Lenin Square became Republic Square).

On the other side is English, the language of America, household items, and international business. Armenia, like many smaller countries, covets imports from the sexy countries they see in (mostly western) mass media. When you see product placement for Pepsi in some popular television show, don’t think that the Coke v. Pepsi battle is limited to the shores of the United States. When I bought soap, there were the western branded soaps selling for twice as much as the Ukrainian brand. The trendiest bars popular to the youth seem to focus around English, including the weird “Fans of Facebook” that has a surprisingly well-done tile facade of Mark Zuckerburg on the outside.

While English is clearly making inroads, the influence almost completely ends at the Yerevan city limits. Once you’re outside of Yerevan, English becomes much much rarer. In more rural areas, certain  facilities build in the soviet era, such as gas stations, haven’t even bothered to put up Armenian signs next to the original Russian names.

It’s clear that Russian is still the dominant second language of Armenia, but it’s less clear for Yerevan. The Armenian desire for more jobs and opportunities for the youth increases the need for more international connections. While Moscow is a popular destination for the exodus of young Armenians seeking employment, many dream of New York or Western Europe. Whether that influence will radiate out from Yerevan to the rest of Armenia or whether Russian culture is too entrenched or even growing as trade with Russia increases is an open question.

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My diet is terrible

When I arrived, I thought I was blessed with good fortune: my host-brother is a picky eater and won’t eat most meat. As a result, I have yet to see my host-mom cook any meat in the house and it’s never been an awkward point at the table. Unfortunately, he’s also a picky eater about most other things.

But, because of the combination of my host-brother’s preferences, his mom’s Russian background, the beginning of the growing season, and the high cost of imports, I have not had any fruit since I got here and few vegetables. Meals here have tons of carbs (bread, rice, lavash, cake, and potatoes) and always cheese but not much else. I bought orange juice but that adds even more carbs to the equation. Armenia is supposed to have amazing fruits, but I’ll have to wait until those local fruits get into the markets (at least the markets I know where to shop).

I also have yet to go running, but I think I’ll correct that issue this morning.

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Frozen Conflicts

On my first excursion (a.k.a. field trip) with Birthright Armenia, we started talking about Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan.* One of the more vocal participants pointed out how Azerbaijan wasn’t a state, “wasn’t anything,” before 1921 (I may be wrong on the year). The similarity of the argument (de-legitimizing a people) with what some Israelis say about Palestinians is scary.

This idea requires a much longer post (shoot, it needs books) but that will have to wait until I know more.

*The very brief history: Armenia and Azerbaijan fought over the area that is now Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenian troops (with Russian help) achieved military victory over the region which has now declared itself an independent state. Azerbaijan doesn’t recognize the new state (ditto with every other state in the world) and calls it an illegal occupation of its territory. There is currently a ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan but ceasefire violations happen regularly. Places that Don’t Exist did a good episode on Nagorno-Karabakh with perspectives from both sides of the buffer zone.

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The Armenian Genocide

It’s a bit obligatory for me to post about the Armenian Genocide. Genocide Remembrance Day was April 24th. As that was was my last day in the United States, forgive me for being a bit late.

I’m not really sure what to say besides the fact that people here will never ever forget about the genocide. The Genocide, and the resulting Diaspora, permeates so much of the economic, cultural and political realities of the country.

Also, from what I can tell,* Armenians don’t hate the Turks or the Turkish government for the Genocide. Armenians realize that not all Turks were involved and that not all involved were Turks. Likewise, the current generation of Turks  clearly has clean hands except for the lack of recognition. The lack of recognition or any form of compensation is what makes Armenians angry at the current Turkish government, not the act of the Genocide. But that anger is not trivial as demonstrated by the burning of the Turkish flag during the Genocide Remembrance Day parade (Look at the 17th picture).

For anyone that wants to learn more about the Genocide, there are plenty of sources online with the Wikipedia article being a good start. From a international politics perspective, A Problem From Hell by Samantha Power is a great resource. Some of the volunteers here in Birthright Armenia are planning to watch the movie Sunrise Over Lake Van. I can’t speak to its quality yet, but it sounds like it captures well the modern complexities of the unresolved issue. Note that I wouldn’t trust any anonymous ratings for the movie because of its political subject matter.

I’ll upload more pictures of my visit to the Armenian Genocide Museum as soon as I have a decent internet connection.

Armenian Genocide Museum

*I may be being hopeful and seeing what I want to see.

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Birthright Armenia culture shock

So here I’ve been for the last 36 hours struggling to communicate (acting like a mute when I’m out in public) and still just trying to get my bearings (e.g. I still have the unsolved problem of I don’t know where I can buy a towel). Then I go to this community service task for birthright: picking off the petals of flowers from the genocide memorial to dry them and put them on paper. While the work was fun, it was a culture shock to be surrounded by over a dozen fluent English-speaking 20-somethings.

The Birthright Armenia crew

I suddenly could speak at a normal speed with my full vocabulary using irony and sarcasm to my heart’s desire without worrying that my listener wouldn’t understand. I could make cultural references people would understand. I could tease, mock, flatter, cajole, amuse and impress without fear of misunderstanding. I might as well have been hanging out in America as it was so easy and seamless.

However, I came to Armenia to learn Armenian culture including some of the language and not just hang around westerners. But, I’m also not a machine and need to be able to relax and express myself sometimes. And, meeting people and learning what they do and their backgrounds is learning more about Armenia. As you can tell, there is a struggle.

A part of me wants to excel, which requires that I’m in a familiar setting, the other part wants to develop new knowledge and understanding, which requires that I’m in an unfamiliar setting. This is a balance that everyone has to regularly work on. Do I watch my favorite brainless tv show or read a new book? The only difference here is that my unfamiliar setting is as close to as unfamiliar as you can get.

Petacular!

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Call me

My number is 77364260. In country, this is (077) 36 42 60. For all you non-Armenians you can call my cell through 011 374 77 364 260 or use my google voice number of 646 580-[crawler blocker]4510. The latter number will go to my computer and since I rarely have internet access, you’ll need to leave a message.

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Election Monitoring

Armenia is having an election for the parliament on May 6th. It’s a big deal in the news (unsurprisingly), but I haven’t seen much evidence of the election in person (I don’t read or listen to the local mass media and political ads are only allowed in certain locations*).

Thankfully, some people are paying attention. Corruption is a big problem in Armenia, including vote tampering and election fraud. This year there is a ton of pressure to ensure that this election goes smoothly and isn’t filled with “irregularities.” First, there are seven international NGOs and 47 local NGOs signed up to monitor the election with a total of 28,000 observers. Second, even corporate interests are getting involved with Armenia TV paying Gallup to ask every 5th voter in 131 voting locations.

Let’s hope May 6th goes smoothly. I’ll keep you updated (because I’m sure you’re on the edge of your seat).

*I think this is a good thing. Elections in El Salvador involve painting any and everything in your party’s colors. It can become a mess and awfully ugly when the FMLN and ARENA are trying to paint their colors in the same place.

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