By Lillian Avedian
I sit across from an older man from the village, his green eyes bright with youthful energy as he proudly explains his family heritage. His wife buzzes around us, filling the small table with bitter Armenian coffee, corn, chocolates, and fruits. I beg her to sit and not tire herself.She tells me it is her pleasure to do so.
The couple has lived in Shvanidzor for decades. Shvanidzor is a small village tucked away in a valley within the imposing mountains of Syunik.
It takes ten hours of driving up and down twisting roads winding around Armenia's mountains to reach Shvanidzor from Yerevan. The closest city to Shvanidzor is Meghri, with a population of about 4,000 people. The Hambardzumyans have a 24-year-old son named Misha who currently serves in the army at the Armenian border, and a 19-year-old daughter named Rosa studying English at the Armenian State Pedagogical University.
Shvanidzor is a village with a rich history that extends across centuries. Considering Shvanidzor's isolated location and ancient status, it is easy to assume that not much changes here. However, speaking to the Hambardzumyans, it is clear that this is not the case.
Mr. Hambardzumyan explains that Shvanidzor was not always solely dominated by Armenians. Just thirty years ago, Armenians and Azeris peacefully coexisted in this village right along the border of Iran.
"I would drink the milk of my Turkish neighbors," he claims, a statement meant to elicit shock in a country where Azeris (referred to by many Armenians as Turks) are the indisputable enemy. After the Sumgait Pogrom of 1988, a pogrom in which Azeris targeted and killed Armenians living in Sumgait considered to mark the beginning of the violent stages of the Kharabagh conflict, Azeris who had lived in Shvanidzor for years were compelled to leave. It was unclear based on my conversation with Mr. Hambardzumyan whether they were forced to leave the village or chose to do so of their own accord. However, he told me that, in his opinion, the conflict between Armenians and Azeris is a political one waged between governments, rather than an ethnic conflict between the two communities.
Mr. Hambardzumyan did not lament the demographic changes that have taken place in Armenia in the past thirty years, however. When I asked him how life in Armenia has changed since Armenia was part of the Soviet Union, he criticized the Soviet policy of subjecting minorities to an all-dominant Soviet identity that would trump ethnicity, thus erasing their cultures.
"Towns in Syunik were filled with Turks, Uzbeks, and so on. Armenian families would give birth to two children, and Turkish families, to six or seven . . . We were losing our country and our culture."
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, he feels that Armenian culture is free to flourish and thrive, free of the destructive influence of intermixing with other cultures. Armenian nationalism has only been strengthened by the country's experience living under Soviet rule, as people like Mr. Hambardzumyan see the preservation of culture as inextricably linked to the survival of an Armenian nation for Armenian people.
I asked Mr. Hambardzumyan about the material wellbeing of villagers in Shvanidzor since the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of capitalism in Armenia. He did not hesitate to praise the beautiful nature of Shvanidzor, stating that people living in Shvanidzor are blessed with abundant opportunity due to the rich harvest at their fingertips. Families like his grow fruits and vegetables that are sold throughout Armenia as well as Russia. According to him, if they think wisely and work hard, villagers can now make enough money to take care of their families and live comfortably based on individual exertion and will.
"Everyone drives a car now," he says. "Anyone who looks wistfully upon the Soviet era didn't understand the Soviet Union." His optimism and drive are contradicted by the difficult financial situation and material scarcity that face many families living in the village.
He says the main problem facing the village is the lack of water. In the summertime, the temperature in the valley of Shvanidzor reaches 120°F. Between the months of June and August, the water that flows into Shvanidzor from the mountains, the village's main source of water, runs dry, so that tap water does not run in the families' homes. Instead, families share a limited source of water that comes from a couple of streams in the village. Mr. Hambardzumyan's modernity and tenacity shine through once more as he asserts that if the people of the village come together, they could think of an innovative way to solve the problem and bring water to the village from behind the mountains. "We need a wealthy person to be born in Shvanidzor and solve our water crisis," he jokes.
Shvanidzor also experienced political changes alongside the revolution that took place in March throughout Armenia. He explained to me that kids in the village organized protests in Meghri, and that people from surrounding villages travelled to Meghri to protest against the regime of Serzh Sargsyan and demand democracy and freedom from corruption. Although it is too soon to tell the material outcomes the regime change will bring to the lives of Armenians living in Shvanidzor, the political energy and activism alive throughout the country is also vibrant and apparent in this village at the most southern border of Armenia and in this household.
While Mr. Hambardzumyan gives me his take on the various transformations undergone by Shvanidzor in the past decades, his wife sits silently next to him, occasionally nodding along in silent assent or contributing a sentence. Yet the progressivity of this family is apparent. When I ask the couple whether they approve of their daughter pursuing an education before seeking to get married and raise a family, they automatically say yes.
Mrs. Hambardzumyan gives me a severe yet wistful glance as she advises against getting married at the age of eighteen like she did. "You should not get married so young. It is important to pursue a life for yourself before starting a family," she warns. It is clear that Rosa's parents wholeheartedly support her pursuit of an education and her desire to learn English from the pride in her father's face as he speaks about Rosa's incredible language skills.
As I leave the Hambardzumyan's home, they tell me that their door is always open to me. When I ask them to forgive me for taking up so much of their day, they immediately shut me down, stating that I made their day full (an Armenian expression signifying gratitude). Even with the many cultural, economic, and political changes experienced by Shvanidzor, one everlasting constant is the infinite hospitality and generosity of the Armenian villager.
Lillian Avedian is a student at the University of California, Berkeley studying Peace and Conflict Studies and Armenian Language and Literature. She is publishing a series of articles overviewing life in Shvanidzor, a village in the southernmost corner of Armenia.