Thunder-less in Yerevan
When I left for the airport two weeks ago my sister handed me a copy of Elinor Burkett’s book “So Many Enemies, So Little Time.” It’s about the year she spent as a Fulbright Scholar in Kyrgyzstan, which is a few Stans east of here. (In fact the Armenian word for “Armenian” is “Hay,” descendants of the legendary archer Hayk, Noah’s great-great-grandson, hence the Armenian word for “Armenia” is “Hayastan” or “Place of the Hays.”) I finished the book this morning while sipping coffee on my little balcony that overlooks Yerevan, courtesy of William Fulbright. I feel so lucky to get to experience the world this way, by having the time to live and work in a place instead of just passing through.
Although Kyrgyzstan is more backwards than Armenia, many of Burkett’s observations are also valid here, and I suspect that they are valid throughout the hinterland of the former Soviet Union. Communism rescued many of these people from harsh nomadic existences. Lenin and Stalin pulled them out of their yurts, through them in ugly high rises, gave them jobs, and forced them to stop bickering with their neighbors. They were part of something big, a super power; they were participants in a noble and revolutionary experiment. And, according to the propaganda, America was a country run by predatory capitalists. So when America bankrupted the Soviet Union, the protective shield disappeared. Jobs went away, communism went away, things started falling apart, and the standard of living plummeted. People felt angry and hopeless. Instead of rolling up their sleeves to compete in the new capitalist economy, they wait to be rescued by another Lenin, even another Stalin.
Although you can find that attitude in Armenia, there’s more hope here than in some of the other republics. Armenia was the California of the Soviet Union. More specifically, it was the Soviet Silicon Valley, so there are a lot of educated people here. (All of the secretaries in my department have Masters degrees.) In addition, there’s a large, wealthy Armenian Diaspora that pumps money into Armenia. The biggest problem in Armenia are, as Marx and Lenin warned, the capitalist predators: the monopolists, the crooked politicians, and, of course, the Armenian mafia.
Here are a few holdovers from communism that I find amusing:
1. My apartment is steam heated. In every room there are radiators sealed behind wooden grids. But I noticed that there are no thermostats. It turns out that every year on a certain day, say November 1, someone at the central power plant turns a valve and the heat comes on. Not just in my apartment, not just in my building, but in every building in Yerevan. The heat stays on at a constant temperature until March 15, then it goes off until November. So if you’re too hot, open a window. If you’re too cold, get under some blankets.
2. The entrance to the building where I work has a bank of seven double doors. But only one half of one door is ever unlocked, creating a huge bottleneck in the mornings. This is true everywhere I go. Tonight I went to a ballet in Yerevan’s beautiful old opera house. After the show it was the same thing. Of the ten magnificent doorways that lead out of the opera house, only half of one wasn’t chained shut. All of the elegantly dressed people were transformed into cattle pressing their way into the stockyards. When I suggested to the guard at the university that he unlock more doors, he totally missed the sarcastic tone in my voice. Pointing to the open half door he smiled and said, “Oh no sir, that’s alright, you may use this one.”
3. Remember the noble workers depicted on those 1920s Soviet propaganda posters? What became of them after the collapse of communism? Answer: they traded in their wrenches and overalls for black silk shirts, gold chains, and cell phones. They can be seen in the parks listening to heavily synthesized overly sentimental music blaring from their boom boxes. They are called the Rabiz Party, a half derogatory half complimentary term that refers to the new post-Soviet lowbrow culture.
4. If I was suddenly thrown into the cold cruel world of capitalism, I know how I would claw my way to the top. It’s too late for the Armenian franchise on push-up bras, but it hasn’t yet occurred to anyone here to put handles on brooms! There’s a reason we see pictures of hunched over babushkas. The poor things spend their lives sweeping the sidewalks with handle-less brooms.
5. Another get rich quick scheme: open a restaurant that gives their guests napkins. They don’t have to be nice cloth napkins, plain old paper napkins will do. Even in the fanciest restaurants in Armenia the waiter tosses a box of tissue paper on the table. At first I thought someone had the flu, but then realized that no, these were actually supposed to be our napkins.
6. This idea is a little more complicated, but how about hiring actors to dub American movies. Instead, they turn down the voices of the American actors– not off, just down– and some Russian voice over tells us what they are saying. The same guy translates for men, women, and children. In all fairness, I have heard a few examples where the voice attempts to preserve the dramatic integrity of a scene by talking in a slight falsetto when telling us what the women and children are saying.
I could go on. I have complaints about the extra buttons in elevators, I have complaints about the chewable coffee, and I would complain about the driving, but unlike Sri Lanka, at least the sidewalks are safe for pedestrians.
Don Knuth and his wife Jill arrived last week. Don is a famous Computer Scientist from Stanford who is here to “put AUA on the map” in exchange for a few academic accolades and some free lunches. I knew this spelled trouble for me the night he arrived. We were emerging from an evening at the symphony when Armen looked at his watch and realized that he should rush to the airport to pick up Don and Jill. My house was a few blocks out of the way so Armen said, “You don’t mind walking home, do you?” then hopped in the cab and sped off before I could answer. As the taillights disappeared in the traffic I realized that some of my thunder was in that cab, on its way to the airport to be handed over to Don.
It hasn’t been so bad riding Don’s coat tails. I get invited to some of the free lunches, and there was an extra seat on this weekend’s expedition to Lake Sevan, so I got to tag along. Lake Sevan is Armenia’s Lake Tahoe, but with Medieval churches and cemeteries along its shore instead of trees. We had lunch at an outdoor restaurant that was right on the beach. We sat at a long table that groaned under the weight of cheeses, breads, fishes, fruits, and beer. Our little group reminded me of the diners in Renoir’s painting “Luncheon of the Boating Party”.