May 08, 2022

Friends to the Friend Who Isn't There

Friends to the Friend Who Isn't There
Men wait for the parade commemorating the Armenian genocide in Yerevan's Republic Square on April 24. Photographs by Haley Bader

In Armenian, three toasts are traditionally shared: the first is to welcome guests, the second is the reason for drinking, and the third is for parents.

“Now, when Armenians and Russians are getting dinner together, the first toast is for peace, the second is for our homelands to stay safe and in prosperity, and third is for parents and relatives,” says Araks Manucharyan, a 30-year-old financial education expert and economics professor, referring to  Russian friends who have fled their home due to the war in Ukraine. 

Thousands of Russians, mostly Millennials and Generation Z, have fled to Armenia since the war’s onset.

Downtown Yerevan's famous Cascade complex

Calling from the Armenian capital Yerevan, the bespectacled Manucharyan smiled warmly over a WhatsApp video chat. At the request of a friend, Manucharyan has hosted two Russians for nearly 40 days in her small Yerevan apartment. At first, she was unsure whether she could cope with the emotional consequences of their presence. To her, the “energy of war is not acceptable,” she said.

“All Armenians just want peace in the world... They have seen three wars in the last 30 years. No one knows better [than us] what war is,” she said. “I was not able to go through it once again. But I found some energy in me. I said welcome.”

Now, Manucharyan said, relations between Russians and Armenians are generally good. The Russians who come have many Armenian friends, and they spend time together in places like parks and restaurants.

“We understand what they are feeling. It is very hard for them... Only the Russians who don’t agree with this situation come to Armenia, and these people are good people.”

But attitudes toward the Russian government are more complicated, says Ani Mejlumyan, a 30-year-old Armenia-based journalist who writes for Eurasianet.

A Complicated Affair

Armenia has good relations with Russia, though, Mejlumyan explained, the alliance is “like a forced marriage,” with “an enemy you don’t want to have and a friend who is not there.”

Attitudes have shifted in recent years as Russia failed to live up to promises to protect Armenia’s claims over the contested Nagorno-Karabakh territory, instead standing idly by as Azerbaijan took most of the disputed region in 2020 fighting. “So you could say that the attitude towards Russia as a partner... is absolutely non-existent at the moment, she said.”

Sentiments toward Russia and its war in Ukraine varies by generation, Mejlumyan said. “If you ask a few people in the older generation, they would be happy to be moved back to the situation in the Soviet Union.” Regarding the war, “they would lean towards understanding what Putin is doing there and try to justify why he is doing that,” she said.

The Monument to 50 Years of Soviet Armenia at the top of the Cascade complex

Among the younger generation, however, “nobody likes Russia. Nobody thinks that Armenia... should support Russia in their endeavors of devouring Ukraine to the core... Nobody wants to share this burden that is called Russia.”

While Armenians organized two gatherings in support of Ukraine during the first week of the war, several hundred rallied in support of Russia on March 19. The picketers, including several pro-Russian politicians, brandished placards emblazoned with the Russian war symbols “Z” and “V,” though few inside the country paid much attention.

Still, Armenia’s government attempts to maintain neutrality. They understand they are in no position to “poke the bear even further,” Mejlumyun said.

Armenia and Ukraine

Armenia’s relationship with Russia and its war is also complicated by its soured relations with Ukraine. “Armenia doesn’t really owe Ukraine anything,” Mejlumyan said. 

Russia has been more “politically correct” towards Armenia than Ukraine has, she explained. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky recently spoke publicly in support of Azerbaijan. Armenians are also affronted that the Ukraine war has garnered so much international attention, while the 2020 Karabakh war was virtually ignored, she said.

Men gathered in front of the Armenian Opera Theater on April 19

“Armenians are not very supportive right now politically for Ukraine,” Manucharyan said.

“Ukraine was more active during this war, and on the side of Azerbaijan,” she said. “I personally couldn’t accept any Ukrainian in my home... Maybe, if I met a Ukrainian, I would forget about this, because in any case I accept people as people. But Armenians remember all the collaborations between Ukraine and Azerbaijan.”

“At the same time,” Mejlumyan said, “Armenians understand what war is, they have experienced war, especially in their recent past, so nobody’s thrilled about that.”  

Russian Presence

Russians are coming to Armenia for several reasons. Some want to be vaccinated before moving on to Europe and the United States, Manucharyan said. Others are “fed up with the Russian government. It’s dangerous there, they’re opposition, they don’t want to be a part of the war.” A third group are those who fear they will be recruited to join the Russian army.

Armenians gather in Yerevan's Republic Square on April 24 to commemorate the Armenian genocide

The Armenian government is actually encouraging Russians to relocate to their country. The Ministry of Economy sponsors a working group to aid businesses considering relocation and has published a guide with information on registering businesses in Armenia.

There is an expression in Russian that means “Moscow is not rubber” – implying that the city does not stretch and cannot take on too many newcomers. Mejlumyan said her friends are now joking that Yerevan isn’t rubber, either. This can have both positive and negative impacts on Armenia’s economy.

“Armenia doesn’t have a big population on its own. I think one negative aspect could be that Yerevan will be overpopulated... financially that might even hit our pockets because prices can go up,” she said.

At the same time, “just having more people is in itself a positive aspect,” Mejlumyan said. “It diversifies the mood a little bit, the atmosphere.”

However, the influx of Russians means that local rents have skyrocketed, hurting some Armenians, but real estate is also snapped up, pleasing landlords.

Yerevan's Vernissage Market on April 23

If there are any bad relations, Mejlumyan said, it is only in rare cases when Russians behave rudely.

“There was one case where I heard someone complaining about Armenia, and they were like, ‘oh, I don’t like it.’ That girl spent like, I don’t know, 48 hours in Armenia. [She said] ‘the clubs aren’t that good,’ this and that, and basically said Yerevan is a dump. She received lots of backlash because that was deemed to be extremely disrespectful.” When “Russians misbehave," she said, "or if they are not behaving like guests, they will not be welcomed.”

Empathy on both sides is key, and there is plenty to be had. After living with the two Russians who came to shelter in her home, Manucharyan found solace. While the trio spoke daily of war, she and her new roommates rode the waves of stress and sadness together. “At my home we were talking about the war the whole time. That was stressful. [But] by talking, we [got through it].”

cascade installation
An art installation in Yerevan's Cascade complex


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