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Heavenly Music, Space-Age Architecture, and the Many Surprises of Armenia

A writer who grew up in Moscow finds echoes of her past on a spontaneous trip to a former Soviet Republic that's forging a new identity.


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Yerevan, Armenia

Republic Square, in Yerevan, Armenia, was designed in the 1920s by Russian-born architect Alexander Tamanyan. Photo by Dan Lundberg/Flickr.

Armenia. A small country of 3 million souls, geopolitically squeezed between Russia and Turkey, less than half the size of West Virginia but a cultural giant. Me? A small person, with a Soviet past and a part-time Istanbul present, five foot three, culturally aware, I’d like to think.

How could it be? 

Of all places, I was headed to Armenia from my Istanbul pied-à-terre. Hectically texting my Armenian contacts in Moscow, New York, and Istanbul before my flight to the capital, Yerevan, I pondered this twist of fate. Was it some kismet second chance for me in that country?

I’d been to Armenia once—as a U.S. citizen, in the late summer of 1989. Terrible timing. An earthquake in 1988 had ravaged the cities of Spitak and Leninakan in the north of the still-Soviet republic, filling Yerevan with refugees. When I arrived, the shocking first ethnic explosion in Gorbachev’s crumbling empire had left Yerevan blockaded, without gas or supplies. (The conflict had erupted in Nagorno-Karabakh, a region populated by Christian Armenians but included in Muslim Azerbaijan by the whims of early Soviet cartographers.) My then-boyfriend and I had planned to see Armenia’s medieval monasteries, its mountains, and Lake Sevan, whose turquoise beauty in the crudely colorized postcards my dad brought back from his Armenia excursions had inflamed my childhood imagination. Instead, we were stranded in a gloomy, desperate Yerevan, with no working transport and only sporadic electricity. My two lasting impressions: the pink Soviet edifices and the mournful air of a country whose extensive tragic past forever oppressed any present.

DAY ONE. Arrival is brutal. The lone direct flight from Istanbul leaves around midnight, a consequence of the icy relations between Turkey and Armenia, so we land at 3 a.m. Why the Azerbaijani visa on my passport? demands Yerevan passport control. Why all the Turkish stamps?

Finally, my boyfriend, Barry, and I meet Babik and Anna, the driver and guide who are part of the warm welcome conjured up on incredibly short notice by my contact at MIR, a U.S. tour company specializing in the former USSR. We reach the overblown vastness of Republic Square, framed by familiar silhouettes typical of bulky Soviet monumentalism. We enter our hotel through a typically over-scaled Stalinesque archway. Built in 1958 and operated by Intourist as Hotel Armenia, it’s now the Marriott Yerevan. Before crashing, we toast from a duty-free nip bottle of 10-year-old Ararat brandy, an iconic “good-times” brand since Soviet days. That night I dream of birthdays and pompous socialist banquets.

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'But our main interest lies below Sevanavank: the now-iconic resort of the Union of Writers, a mini-cathedral of Soviet Armenian modernism.' Illustration by Angela McKay.

The next morning, our hotel breakfast stirs more nostalgia. Blistered lavash bread, stringy Armenian cheese, fenugreek-scented basturma, a type of cured meat—I’m transported to Moscow’s Gorky Street and the opulent food store called Armenia, where my mother and I endured Soviet queues for tart yogurt and briny grape-leaf dolmas. Our hotel’s young staffers, though, are pure non-Soviet—the sweetest.

Out the windows, sunny Republic Square, so oppressive and drab in 1989, looks quaintly handsome now, a spruced-up throwback diorama of repeating arches and curving facades ornamented with Armenian folkloric motifs. “National in form, socialist in content,” the hoary Stalinist cliché, comes to mind. Yerevan’s buildings, many carved from tawny-rose local tuff stone, are even pinker than I remember. Barry, the Googler, pipes up that the square and its Government House were both designed in the early 1920s by one Alexander Tamanyan, a Russian-born Armenian architect brought here to concoct an urban plan for the newly socialist ancient city. Plan and man are to this day revered.

Armenia: A small, craggy country still economically poor, but rich in culture, mooring a far-flung diaspora of more than 10 million people through memory, heartache, and loss.

Outside, Amaliya Akopova is waiting to “abduct” us. Another lucky connection via my last-minute networking, Amaliya exudes young Moscow-style hipster with her skinny jeans and swish sneakers, and is a tourism adviser to Armenia’s prime minister. And naturally, we discover that her relatives were friends with my first piano teacher in Moscow, the daughter of the Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian.

Dear, dear AFAR, why have you globe-spun me straight to my past?

Amaliya promises us a surprise. Driving past shoddy Khrushchev-era apartment blocks—much like the Moscow one I grew up in—we arrive at the Megerian carpet factory and museum, where, after a disquisition on rare dyes and Armenian double knots, we meet Amaliya’s surprise: Sedrak Mamulyan, the country’s most illustrious chef, who consults at the snug, carpet-hung restaurant on site. For lunch, Sedrak showily constructs a meat-and rice Mount Ararat, along with garlicky wild chard with walnuts. He seems every bit the grand Soviet type, with his stovepipe toque and firm conviction that everything tastes better with sour cream. But his mission is counter-Soviet. “They lumped us with the Caucasus—but we’re not the Caucasus,” he proclaims. “We’re a highland cuisine of our own.” Ten years ago, Sedrak founded an NGO to resurrect and preserve Armenian traditions. That is, to construct a post-USSR identity, a common challenge throughout the fallen empire. He began by walking around villages collecting recipes. “I learn a lot by assigning my cooking students essays about their grandmothers’ dishes,” he says.

After spending the rest of the day touring and talking, by 10 p.m. we should collapse in bed. Instead, we discover local Areni and Sireni grape varietals at an outdoor table of the sleek Wine Republic bar. There, wine consultant Vahe Keushguerian is now faulting Soviet central planning for “interrupting” Armenia’s ancient viniculture. “Georgia got assigned wine,” declares Vahe. “Armenia got assigned brandy—it’s our 400-pound gorilla.” Syrian born, Lebanon raised, Vahe lived in California, then made wine in Tuscany and Puglia before moving to Armenia in 2009. He tells us of the existential dilemma faced by members of the Armenian diaspora scattered around the globe. “We grew up longing for an abstract homeland we didn’t know,” Vahe muses. “We come to this Armenia, and it’s alien—especially the weird Soviet past! But this is reality, no? And you can make something of it.”

Armenia: A small craggy country still economically poor, but rich in culture, mooring a far-flung diaspora of more than 10 million people through memory, heartache, and loss.

DAY TWO. Vahe’s friend Sarhat Petrosyan, on the other hand, is passionate about Soviet Armenia—at least architecturally. The young Iranian-born architect is an urban preservationist, and we pounce on him for an impromptu tour of Yerevan’s socialist specialties.

We meet at the statue of Tamanyan and squint in the sun at the Cascade, a 1970s extravaganza of white stairways that connect the lower town with the sword-wielding Mother Armenia statue that has loomed above the city since 1967, when it took the place once occupied by a looming statue of Stalin.  

Then off we march to a constructivist edifice with spiraled windows that was designed in the mid-1930s by Tbilisi-born architect Gevorg Kochar—to house the KGB. “The architect spent a couple days imprisoned here in his own building en route to the gulag,” Sarhat says with a poignant grin.

By car now, we hasten over to the hill-topping Karen Demirchyan sports and concert complex. As genuinely sensational as anything by Frank Gehry or Zaha Hadid, this voluminous structure from 1981 on one side evokes the Sydney Opera House’s wingspread, and on the other, a great dark-shingled, domed hive decorated with little terracotta bucket balconies.

I’m transported to Moscow’s Gorky Street and the opulent food store called Armenia, where my mother and I endured Soviet queues for tart yogurt and briny grape-leaf dolmas.

“Seventies and ’80s work across the non-Russian USSR is finally being celebrated for its adventurousness,” Sarhat notes happily.

Our time with Sarhat ends at the Tsitsernakaberd, the museum complex built in memory of the mass deaths of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire more than a century ago. Modern Turkey’s refusal to accept the term “genocide” still poisons relations between the two countries. Alas, the museum itself is closed. But the minimal outdoor memorial, built in 1967 by the lead architect of the Karen Demirchyan complex, grips us in its somber power. A circle of tall gray basalt slabs leans over a central ring of flowers laid around an eternal flame. “Anyone who thinks Soviet architecture is without soul should come here,” Barry murmurs. Choral music plays. We walk away wiping at tears.

DAY THREE. Today is my birthday!

We ride two hours north through barren mountains to Gyumri, formerly known as Leninakan. En route, we catch a hazy glimpse of Mount Ararat, the symbol of Armenia’s identity, towering across the border in what Armenians call Western Armenia—the part of their country lost to Turkey by treaty in 1921. Nearing Gyumri, I realize we’re only some 40 miles from Kars in Turkey, the 10th-century capital of an Armenian kingdom, now behind the tightly sealed border. Two years ago we celebrated the New Year in Kars with Turkish friends—and in nearby Ani, the ghostly hilltop ruin of another Armenian capital, we gazed straight across into present-day Armenia. How uncanny that the luck of the draw has put me right where I was gazing then.

Gyumri, Armenia’s second-largest city, considers itself the country’s historic cultural center. Other than the Tamanyan-designed Vardanants Square, it looks richly un-socialist. Old men sell pre-Revolutionary samovars at the outdoor bazaar, and streets of recently renovated black-tuff neoclassical and art nouveau buildings evoke the long Russian czarist rule here.

Part of the reason I wanted to spend my birthday in Gyumri is Cherkezi Dzor. Yerevaners drive hours to eat this restaurant’s succulent trout and grilled baby sturgeon enfolded in house-baked lavash. Barry and I share the fish, fresh from the restaurant’s own ponds, and the house-distilled apricot vodka, with our gracious friend Aida, a Gyumri resident with whom we celebrated that New Year in Kars.

The toasting continues at Aida’s apartment, where the dessert table—chocolates, a fruit cornucopia, Ararat brandy—is a vision straight out of the Book of Tasty and Healthy Food, a Soviet kitchen bible conceived by Stalin’s wily Armenian-born food commissar, Anastas Mikoyan. My mother still has her copy. Aida sighs: “This East German china,” she says over her delicate tea set, “is all that’s left of our pre-earthquake luxury.” For 18 years after 1988, Aida, her late husband, and their daughter lived in a one-room trailer. They were offered housing in Yerevan. But how could they leave their precious Gyumri?

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Etchmiadzin Cathedral was founded in 301 C.E. Illustration by Angela McKay.

DAY FOUR. Sunday morning. Celestial voices soar over the throngs a half hour out of Yerevan. The whole country, it seems, is packed into Armenia’s Vatican, Etchmiadzin Cathedral, founded in 301 C.E. and the seat of the Catholicos, or head of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Ever since the third century, when Armenia became the first country to adopt Christianity as its official religion, the church has been an anchor for Armenians, a beacon throughout the country’s tumultuous history. Stalin tried to quash that connection. But you can feel its strength as the liturgy unfolds: It’s a dynamic public event, the opposite of passive and rote. There are no pews. People crowd in and out under the chandeliers and frescoes, press to take photos of monks in black peak-hooded robes. A young ecclesiastic in a snowy garment stands alongside leather-jacketed dudes near the women’s choir. The singing takes our breath away. Armenia’s top opera stars come to take part on Sundays, explains Anna, our guide.

An hour’s drive east, in the village of Garni, another Armenian Sunday ritual of sorts awaits. It’s a midday breakfast of khash, a notorious morning-after cow’s-foot soup cooked for 12 hours. We confront this thick gelatinous brew in the garden outside the rambling restaurant of Sergey Gabrielyan. “You don’t eat khash how you want,” Sergey announces, tearing up tandoori-charred lavash to add to his bowl. “You eat it how it’s supposed to be eaten!” Sharp pickles, loads of pepper, and shots of homemade 60-proof fruit vodka—for breakfast!—are all part of the protocol.

Ripely opinionated and craggy-handsome, Sergey is a former photographer who taught himself to cook by watching international food TV. He peers at me suddenly. Wait: Hasn’t he seen me on a Russian foodie show? Yes, I gulp—flummoxed again at having been globe-spun into my personal history.

What does Armenia mean to you, I ask him, a native son. “This house,” Sergey replies. “This water, these fruit trees—my khash.”

His Armenia: the opposite of a diasporic abstraction.

DAY FIVE. At long last, here it is. Lake Sevan, of my father’s colorized Soviet postcards. Of my own childhood abstractions.

Today, however, Sevan’s postcard-turquoise waters are a dull Jersey Shore gray; a small gale blows under an overcast sky as we stand at close to 6,300 feet in the rust-colored mountains two hours from Yerevan. Barry, Anna, and I struggle up the windswept hill to Sevanavank medieval monastery, on what became a small peninsula when the Soviets lowered the level of this huge lake for a dictatorially imposed irrigation project. The peninsula was still an island in 1930, when Osip Mandelstam, the great Russian poet, spent a blissful month here, recounted in his magical Journey to Armenia travelogue.

But our main interest lies below Sevanavank: the now-iconic resort of the Union of Writers, a mini-cathedral of Soviet Armenian modernism that Sarhat, the preservationist, arranged for us to visit. Its mid-’60s restaurant juts straight out from the slope—a spaceship balanced on a single pedestal pier. The architect was none other than Gevorg Kochar, the architect imprisoned in his own work en route to the gulag in 1937. He survived his gulag years, was rehabilitated in 1954, and went on to build this space-agey masterpiece. The yellow typewritten order for his rehabilitation hangs in the resort’s tiny museum.

The restaurant is closed now for the season, so I ponder the twists and turns of Soviet fate over Lake Sevan’s famous crayfish in a freezing tourist restaurant nearby. Then we head north, to overnight in the alpine resort town of Dilijan on the way to Tbilisi, Georgia, where we’ll catch our flight back to Istanbul. Babik, our driver, an unapologetic Sovietophile, annotates every USSR-made car and bus and truck we pass along the way.

We pass a lot of them on the road, as well as rusting hulks off in the weeds. These archaeological remnants, a quarter century after the empire’s collapse, fill me with an almost cozy nostalgia—lamplit by my childhood, I realize. Approaching the Georgian border, I recall Mandelstam’s poem of farewell: “I will never see you . . . nearsighted Armenian sky. . . . I’m seized with gratitude that fate has granted me my own second chance.

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This post originally appeared on Afar and was published February 1, 2018. This article is republished here with permission.

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