Depending on which figures you look at, Armenia’s population hovers around three million people. That is some half a million less than it was twenty years ago, when the state gained independence as the Soviet Union collapsed. But some believe that the true figure is even less than that. If there are few jobs, and if Armenia remains isolated, it is hardly surprising that so many of its people go abroad.
Just look at the map to understand the fundamental geographic problems facing Armenia. To the west is Turkey, the historic nemesis of the Armenians, which angrily objects to claims that up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed by the Ottomans in 1915. Turkey closed its borders with Armenia in 1993. To the east is Turkey’s ally, Muslim Azerbaijan, also formerly part of the USSR, with which Armenia fought a war in the early 1990s. The border between the two states has been closed since, because of the dispute over the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, which, until the Armenians conquered a land bridge to it, was surrounded on all sides by Azerbaijan.
To the south is Iran. The Armenians are an ancient Christian people but their relations with the Iranians are good. It helps that Iran is deeply suspicious of Azerbaijan, which has good relations with both the US and Israel and has suppressed a pro-Iranian party, the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan.
To the north is Georgia. Georgians are also predominantly Christian, but the country’s relations with Armenia are cool rather than friendly. In August 2008, Georgia fought and lost a war with Russia. Armenia, by contrast, relies on Russian troops for its security. Still, apart from Iran, the route through Georgia is Armenia’s only way out by land. To borrow a phrase much heard from Israelis, Armenians live in a rough neighborhood.
You only have to spend a day or two walking around the capital city of Yerevan to understand just how much the past shapes Armenian thinking about the present and the future.
The capital is full of sculptures and monuments to musicians, poets, and national heroes. In recent years there has been a considerable building boom in the city’s center. I started to walk from Republic Square, with its vaulting pink stone and arched monumental buildings, which date from the 1920s. In 1918, after the collapse of the Russian Empire, a short-lived independent Armenian state was declared that survived only until the Bolshevik conquest of 1920. The new Soviet republic of Armenia, which would eventually emerge, was far smaller than its people had hoped for…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.