I was in Yerevan, Armenia, for almost ten weeks, from early December 2017 into the New Year, before it occurred to me how I might write about it. I had avoided the city’s small Soviet-built metro system for weeks, but at last I had climbed down into a gaping entrance near Republic Square—at the time, one of just nine stops total on a single line of service. I bought a handful of translucent reddish tokens that go for about twenty cents each and climbed aboard a train that was exactly two cars long. I loved it. The Yerevan metro is the kind of people mover that Walt Disney promised but capitalism couldn’t deliver. It has the same stark vibe of metros throughout the former USSR, and because there’s just one line, the stations are clean—for New Yorkers, I mean that literally, they are clean—and as anatomically simple as a worm: trains come in at one end, go out the other, and there’s none of this business of figuring out transfers. As well, the stations have some interesting design, and some interesting sculpture, and just a few days before I was supposed to leave, I realized that some interesting things might be said about the art of the Yerevan metro.
To that end, I set out the following morning on a journey to visit each of the stations and take a few pictures with my phone which, let’s just acknowledge, is a phrase that will baffle readers of the future. Phones—handheld electronic devices, to get persnickety about it—are not obvious cameras, and it’s easy to confuse someone framing a photograph, itself an outdated term, with someone chatting on their speakerphone or checking their makeup. Just as easy to get confused about are the precise rules of the Yerevan metro, in particular a no-photography policy that must be inferred from unobtrusive signs of the “international symbol” sort—an outline of a camera, not a phone, overlaid with circle-and-slash. What all this means is that I was three or four stations into my mini-quest before any of the strategically placed police officers of the Yerevan metro noticed that I was not, in fact, reading an e-book or scrolling Twitter for the latest evidence that Donald Trump is a devious punk.
I was taking illicit photos.
Armenian police officers are equipped with German Army-style warrant officer caps, but these caps are often worn slightly askew or tipped back on the forehead to project a certain youthful playfulness, such that it’s easy to forget that the same police formed the riot-control squads in response to protests in Yerevan of Armenia’s 2008 presidential election, a confrontation that left ten dead, including two police officers. This amounted to a warm-up for both the Kyiv protests of 2014, which produced the sadly self-explanatory “Heavenly Hundred,” and Armenia’s own imminent revolution. Now, as Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has us all reeling as we teeter on the brink of World War III, the chaos in the region looks disturbingly like the kind of local skirmishes that tend to snowball into global conflict. No one knew it at the time, but Armenia—like Ukraine, like Serbia, like Belarus—may even then have been acting as canaries in Putin’s coal mine, looking peaked and choking on the air of the future.
At first, the officers I encountered in the metro limited themselves to gentle reminders that photographs were verboten. They were happy to send me on my gently chastised way. Undeterred, I took sneaky pics while officers and myself, dually orbiting concrete pillars, produced totality, and in this way I was nearly able to complete my journey, making it all the way to the final snap-worthy moment on the final platform. Here, I was confronted by a tall, handsome Armenian officer who refused to accept that I had been caught merely in taking the picture he had seen me shoot. He insisted on seeing the image, demanded I erase it, and then swiped through several more before he was convinced—I’m guessing here, as we did not share a language—that his discovery required the intervention of a figure with greater authority than his own. He indicated that I should follow him and walked off toward the escalators, as sure of his power in the moment as a magnet is of its force.
He led me to a sad underground office that was exactly like the drab offices one sees in Hollywood portrayals of former-Soviet police offices. A chubby female commander presided here, seated behind an imitation-wood desk and flanked by industrial-grade filing cabinets. Word seemed to have spread that something had happened—someone had been detained—and the office was soon crowded with fifteen or so officers who intimidatingly fell into the kind of giddiness that comes when a game you are playing is no longer in doubt: you have won, and the rest is simply watching your opponent go through the motions. The commander, too, seemed amused by it all, and it was haltingly explained to me that the Yerevan metro is regarded as a “strategic object.” There was some bargaining back and forth, and a beautiful young Armenian woman, an English speaker, was brought in to ease communications. (One of the officers joked that she and I should marry—the poor woman was horrified.) After some initial uneasiness, it became apparent that all of this was going to end amicably, though the Armenian police contingent had no intention of letting me keep my photographs. I was compelled to open my camera application and select every photo I had taken, and to be sure that I got the hell out of there I presented my handheld electronic device to the officer who first “apprehended” me, such that he himself could touch the trash-can icon and thereby cause the photos to vanish with a swishy visual graphic and a sound effect curiously similar to the flush of a toilet.
That satisfied them—but what they failed to realize was that this action merely transferred the photos to a Recently Deleted file in my handheld electronic device’s backup memory. I recovered all my pictures as soon as I was released back into the streets of Yerevan.
I’m haunted, now, by the Armenian taxi driver—Armenian taxi drivers are almost always men in their fifties or sixties, though they appear older thanks to a lifetime of labor and decades of Soviet diet—who begged to drive me to the Armenian Genocide Memorial for a fare of two thousand dram, about five dollars. The most telling things that happen when you travel, I’ve found, the events that later come to exemplify whatever journey you’ve taken, are never the experiences you seek out. Rather, they surprise you, and the Armenian taxi driver surprised me because his plea—really, he was just trying to make a buck—instantaneously came to symbolize for me the desperate campaign that Armenians have been forced to wage to ensure that their own harrowed story doesn’t wind up hidden away in history’s Recently Deleted file.
Now, as Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has us all reeling as we teeter on the brink of World War III, the chaos in the region looks disturbingly like the kind of local skirmishes that tend to snowball toward global conflict.
The Armenian memorial opened in Yerevan in November of 1967. The nearby Armenian Genocide Museum opened in 1995 and includes a research institute dedicated to “piecing together the broken mosaic of our past.” The first attempt at the mass extinction of Armenians, a visitor learns, dates from 1725, when the Ottoman Empire decided that too many Armenians lived on the path straight east to the Caspian Sea. There are medieval-style woodcuts of Armenian Christians being flayed alive in public for refusing to convert to Islam. Systematic mass killing didn’t begin until sometime later, long after Armenians, reduced to second-class status (no wearing “fine clothes,” no riding horses), nevertheless established themselves within the empire as skilled educators, teachers, artisans, and doctors. The Ottomans had no truck with either social justice or truth—they tried deleting freedom, rights, and equality from the public vocabulary—and by 1903 Ottoman soldiers were happily appearing on magazine covers with the severed heads of dissidents murdered in a Macedonian uprising. The killing had begun seven years earlier when a group of Armenians seized the Ottoman bank headquarters in Constantinople to call attention to their plight. This incident triggered an immediate local slaughter of ten thousand and a broader campaign that killed as many as three hundred thousand from 1894 to 1896.
Surprisingly, this massacre is not regarded as the first phase of the Armenian genocide, a term that didn’t formally exist until 1944. The beginning of the genocide that is now widely recognized—including just recently by the Biden administration—is usually set in 1915. But another precursor came in 1909, when the so-called Adana massacres erased thirty thousand lives. “Since numerous men, women and children were put to the fire in the course of the Adana massacres, they are frequently referred to as the ‘holocaust,’” a museum exhibit explains. The Ottomans were pioneers in the perverse logic of genocide, echoes of which we’re now hearing from Vladimir Putin: they claimed their own salvation depended on liquidation of Armenian Christians, and Turkish doctors later justified medical experimentation on Armenians by likening them to infectious microbes. Unpunished murders and Islamization persisted for several years, and then World War I provided the perfect cover for an orchestrated drive of deportation and killing. Mass arrests began in February 1915, and evictions a few months later, with men of military age being brazenly stabbed to death while women and children were marched to concentration camps. Over the next sixteen months, one hundred thousand Armenians were killed near Meskene, eighty thousand in Bab, and twenty-five thousand near Rakka—and that’s a woefully partial list. There were mass burnings of children in Bitlis, and near Deir ez-Zor two thousand children were bound together and tossed into the Euphrates. People were shoed as though they were horses. Armenians valiantly fought back at Musa Mount and Van and Mush, but these could hardly be called battles. A phrase used to characterize the carnage proved to be more indelible than the event: “Crime against humanity.”
By 1921, Armenians were carrying out assassinations in retribution—in Berlin, Rome, and other locations, according to a museum exhibit, they “liquidated” five “organizers and perpetrators” of the genocide. One assassin was acquitted in a German court. The genocide continued (eleven thousand in Marash, eight thousand in Hadjin) until the Great Fire of Smyrna, which killed as many as twenty-five thousand Armenians and brought to a close another conflict: the Greco-Turkish war of 1919–1922.
If you’re having trouble absorbing the statistics, you’re not alone—despite copious evidence, the world preferred forgetfulness to math. Modern-day Turkey, of course, acknowledges only wartime “atrocities” but denies all claims of genocide. Yet millions of deaths were flushed into oblivion. This enabled German officers stationed in Turkey during the worst of the genocide to tuck away its lessons for future use. In 1939, Adolf Hitler proclaimed, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
The absolute best way to ensure that people you don’t like get their own country is to try to annihilate them. The nation of Armenia as we now know it launched a trial run in 1918, but ongoing conflicts with Turkey to the west and Georgia to the north perhaps made autonomy appear impractical. Armenia joined the Soviet Union in 1920, which is why Yerevan today is a curious blend of American chain businesses (Gold’s Gym, Kentucky Fried Chicken) and blocky architecture that combines Ionic columns and Soviet Constructivism. It’s also why Yerevan has a metro. There’s a funny picture of Nikita Khrushchev holding aloft a giant symbolic key at the start of metro construction—he’s wearing the same kind of cap that Armenian police officers wear today, and his goofy grin recalls Mussolini. The metro didn’t formally open until 1981, which means that Soviet Yerevan had an underground public transport system for only a decade before the Soviet Union dissolved and Armenia declared an independence that has held fitfully ever since.
City on the Mount
You might think a major city thirty-five miles from Mount Ararat, which conjures the very idea of biblical floods, would have a decent waterfront. It doesn’t. The Hrazdan River runs north to south, west of Yerevan, deep and mostly unseen. Exposed drainage tributaries feed into it from downtown, running alongside roads and squirting moat-like for a time alongside the Erivan Fortress, which is the castle, albeit reconstructed, that Russians kicked the Persians out of in 1827. The castle is now a brandy factory, owned by a former arm-wrestling-champion oligarch. It’s one of two brandy factories in Yerevan, one named for the nearby mountain and the other for the inspired mariner who ran aground atop it: Ararat and Noy (Noah). With Ararat-brand cigarettes, and Araratbank, and a bookstore and a restaurant named for history’s most famous unnamed ship, Yerevan is themed on Noah’s Ark in the same way Hannibal, Missouri, is themed on Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.
No one knew it at the time, but Armenia, like Ukraine, like Serbia, like Belarus, may even then have been acting as canaries in Putin’s coal mine, looking peaked and choking on the air of the future.
One hundred years after the fortress fell, and shortly after the estimated total of one and a half million Armenians vanished like every scrap of evidence of antediluvian civilization—the first general plan of modern Yerevan plopped a giant circle down onto a map. The city’s round downtown is latticed with boulevards and neighborhoods that feel European less in a cobblestone-and-bodega kind of way than in a gloom-and-gray-slate kind of way, though to be fair I was there in winter when everything north of the fortieth parallel aches of stone and ash.
Yerevan is the kind of place where you wouldn’t be surprised to turn a corner and find James Bond speeding past, or Jason Bourne kicking someone’s ass—and, yes, that thought is symptomatic of Anglo-American cockiness, but it’s also true that the city’s witching hours are filled with the wailing engines of cars drag racing down the avenues and packs of shrieking street dogs running similarly amok. In daytime, trends emerge from the crowds. There is the unmistakable forward slouch and trudge of former Soviet citizens struggling to progress into any future at all, men and women who sometimes pause and look up and marvel at their city as though it had all changed in a flash, which on a cosmic scale it did. Hurrying alongside them are a surfeit of young women going to great lengths to resemble Kim Kardashian, who is of partial Armenian descent. (Kardashian recently claimed to have donated one million dollars to the nonprofit Armenia Fund.) What this means, in the streets, is that you pass a lot of women wearing chalky lipstick to achieve that poochy, bee-stung look, applied so heavily they are left tottery and precarious, like Claymation figures pitching forward from top-heaviness.
The original plan of the mile-wide circular city called for a complete circumference of green space, a dotted line of arcing linear parks, though today less than half the circle remains. A ring of pink volcanic-stone administrative buildings is situated just below the circle’s center point—originally Lenin Square, now Republic Square—and a central boulevard runs north (Northern Boulevard) toward the Opera and Ballet Theatre and the Cascade Complex. The Yerevan Cascade is surely descended from cascades in Russia—which, in turn, descended from cascades like the one at Château de Saint-Cloud in Paris—but Yerevan’s is far more massive, spilling down the face of a mountain, and it’s not a waterfall as nothing cascades down it. Completed at about the same time as the metro, the Yerevan Cascade is a giant art complex and a monumental staircase leading to a peak from which, on clear days, Mount Ararat and its neighbor Little Ararat loom like the head and shoulder of a titan hoisting itself up over the cliff of the western horizon.
The metro cascades a bit, too, the Soviets having dug their tunnels at angles so steep the stations feel much deeper than they probably are. A whole lot of Yerevan is underground, actually, and that’s probably true figuratively as well as literally. Bars in Yerevan are often subterranean, little shacks on sidewalks concealing stairways that shoot down into cozy, windowless speakeasies and dance clubs. The old cellars of the aforementioned castle and brandy factory, where there are many rows of aging barrels the size of elephants, extend five stories down. A tour gives you a taste of century-old wine but forbids descending deeper than two stories—though you may feel free to wander precarious ancient tunnels that squirm from here into the city proper. More recent tunnels beneath Yerevan form underground markets that are again characteristic of Soviet civil engineering. Sometimes, these are tidy shopping complexes, and sometimes they are burnt, derelict casinos where one might expect to find Alex DeLarge brawling with his droogs or setting his rassoodock on an evening of ultraviolence.
Which is not to say that Yerevan is dangerous. It’s certainly moody, however, and even the art of the metro speaks to the region’s wild, turbulent past, with facades of beasts and sword-wielding men and women, and busts of morose leaders. Within the city’s tight diameter, one finds shops that sell sport coats for $1,000 and shantytowns that are the equal of anything in South Africa. Nevertheless, I felt perfectly comfortable in Yerevan, save for New Year’s night, when a young Iranian family, temporarily escaped from the regime, walked past me on the street: their little girl was observing the holiday by lighting firecrackers and tossing them blithely over her shoulder. Explosive-obsessed tots aside, a grimly peaceful urban milieu is exactly what one might expect of a culture that has been subjected to both the horrors of history and the tendency of civilization to willfully delete the repeatable past.
There must be something about the land here—the Great Flood perhaps affecting local water tables—because construction in downtown Yerevan, and there is a lot of it, goes deep. At night the eerily lit construction sites attract whirlwinds of bats that raise an ultrasonic cacophony that hits the brain like the memory of a disaster.
The office was soon crowded with fifteen or so officers who intimidatingly fell into the kind of giddiness that comes when a game you are playing is no longer in doubt.
The most dubious thing about traveling the world today—and this is a thought that occurred as I gobbled dolma and buckwheat at a tavern on Aram Street and heard the name “Harvey Weinstein” pop into an otherwise all-Armenian conversation at the table next to me—is the recognition that Western culture is executing a colonization of the world far more efficient than that of any empire that deluded itself into believing it was obliged to force its version of civilization onto everyone else. In a downtown bar called Tom Collins I watched a group of women bounce tribally and chant “Uptown funk you up!” and then dance to Ed Sheeran’s embarrassingly brazen efforts to produce “world music” and an unironically played version of “Macarena.” There are other Yerevan bars themed on Robert Johnson, Amy Winehouse, the Beatles, 007. And there are taverns called Yankee Pub and Western Pub, though I didn’t enter the latter and never found out whether it referred to the canon, civilization, or the simplified redneck worldview of “God is great, beer is good, and people are crazy.” There’s something troubling about cultures that hand themselves over to the tripe of their colonizer, that roll out carpets for Mickey Mouse, Coca-Cola, and Colonel Sanders, mistaking kitsch for class and trading cultural identity for false freedom. How else to explain why Donald Trump came so close to building aesthetically horrific hotels in this part of the world? The danger in this is not that diversity is bad—it isn’t, it’s strength. The danger is that pluralistic mishmashes of cultural influence invariably favor superficial culture. Everywhere becomes nowhere, anywhere becomes everywhere, and subtleties like who got murdered when, and how many, vanish.
One doesn’t need to be in Yerevan long to realize that games are an important part of the indigenous cultural tradition. Not only is this the region of the world that gave us the royal sartorial choices now associated with the kings, queens, and jacks of the standard fifty-two-card playing deck, Armenia also boasts of a disproportionate number of chess grandmasters—forty-four, to be exact—including former world champions Tigran Petrosian and Garry Kasparov, who is from Baku, Azerbaijan, but is half-Armenian. Even in games, however, Yerevan is now awash in Western influence. Within the city’s tight radius, I was told, there are as many as two hundred video game parlors where men gather to play soccer on big-screen televisions. This excludes legal sports betting parlors, which add perhaps another one hundred locations. The most prominent of the gamer chains is TotoGaming—and one can only speculate as to why the suggestion that they’re not in Kansas anymore would resonate with Armenians.
I was passing another game parlor called Shooter when I noticed, right next to it, a place called Arsenal, which might have been Yerevan’s only actual gun store.
Guns are another curious refrain in Armenian life, though this may be more metaphor than call to arms. In advertising, or in the art of the underground bars, women posing with guns, or aiming them at you, is a consistent motif. I took note as well of a repeating bit of graffiti around town: a stencil of an assault rifle and the phrase “Defend Yerevan.” This turned out to be merely the logo for a company that sells hoodies and T-shirts featuring the same image. But might something similar explain why ordinary Ukrainian civilians, immediately following Putin’s recent aggression, appeared to have been so willing—and so ready—to take up assault rifles? To this point, I haven’t mentioned anything at all about Armenia’s ongoing conflict with Azerbaijan to the east. Thirty thousand people have been killed over decades, including several thousand in conflicts that erupted after I left. Nor have I acknowledged that my final days in Yerevan overlapped with the country’s most recent revolution. A former president, the man who was in office during the deadly 2008 protests, had attempted the Putin Two-Step: retain power by sneaking into the role of prime minister. Hundreds of thousands of protesters—in a country of three million—flooded into Republic Square and Northern Boulevard and the Cascade Complex to object. The protests were peaceful, but they were led by a former journalist who wore camouflage as a fashion statement, even as he was criticized for lacking military experience. (The revolution worked; Nikol Vovayi Pashinyan became prime minister in May 2018.)
Perhaps the gun fascination speaks as much to vigilance as to violence: as we’re now seeing in Ukraine, your past can be stripped away from you even more easily than your property. On one of my final days in Yerevan, a survey was released revealing that American millennials dramatically underestimate the number of people killed in the Holocaust. They can’t name any of the forty thousand camps and ghettos where the killing took place, either. This explains, perhaps, why Vladimir Putin, knee-deep in his Kremlin sandbox, toys with facts and history. One hopes that he is as naive as the Armenian police officers in believing he can control the past with the swipe of a finger. “However much you deny the truth,” George Orwell said, “the truth goes on existing, as it were, behind your back.”
On my final day, I wandered back down into the Yerevan metro—“strategic object” was making more sense now—and I visited the gun shop Arsenal again. Of course, it was below street level. To be clear: as was true in the Soviet Union, guns are hard to buy in Armenia—harder than in the United States. You don’t see people wandering around with Glocks on their hips, and it’s not a safe city because everyone is armed. Rather, almost no one is. Despite its name, Arsenal was mostly a hunting shop. Still, I attempted to ask the store’s owner why guns are so prevalent in the imagery of Yerevan. It was tricky to communicate, and we tried using our handheld electronic devices for translation for a time. At last, the man gave up and made an actual phone call to someone who spoke English. Why so many guns? On billboards, in tunnels, the imagery inescapable? The owner chatted with his friend, and I made out snippets about Turkey and Azerbaijan. Then he offered an answer, in halting phrases.
“We are . . . surrounded . . . by enemies.”