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.