I had a dream: A Stepanakert native looks back at Karabakh’s recent past

As a school girl I dreamed about my city one day becoming a really big capital to host presidents of foreign states, as well as ordinary tourists from abroad window shopping large local stores and dining at fancy local restaurants.

But life in the small provincial town of Soviet-era Stepanakert proceeded at a measured, conservative step, leaving little room for any expectations of real big changes, and even smaller ones weren’t anywhere in the offing. After graduating from school many Karabakhis would leave for studies in big cities, some of them later pursuing really successful careers as scientists and scholars, military men, etc. They usually visited Karabakh during summer vacations. Back then, Stepanakert resembled a large town of summer homes. By the accents of those visitors one could easily tell whether these “holidaymakers” were permanent residents of Yerevan, Baku or the North Caucasus (Russia).

Everything changed in Karabakh in 1988. At one point I even thought my dream was beginning to come true. First there were demonstrations – people marched through the city, chanting “Miatsum” (meaning a unification with Armenia) and “Lenin, Party, Gorbachev” (early naïve illusions that the Bolshevik Communist Party founded by Lenin and led by reformist Secretary-General Mikhail Gorbachev at that time could allow Karabakh Armenians, once wrongly placed under Azerbaijani rule by Stalin, to reunite with Mother Armenia).

In 1991, the year that brought the formal demise of the USSR, real presidents came – Boris Yeltsin and Nursultant Nazarbayev, the first democratic leaders of Russia and of Kazakhstan. It was also then that Stepanakert became a real capital of a real (if “unrecognized”) State.

And then also came the foreigners – albeit dressed in uniforms of fedayeen. They spoke Armenian, but in some strange dialect barely comprehensible to me. It turned out that they were Diaspora Armenians from the United States, Syria and Lebanon. It was also then that I started to learn the Armenian language and Armenian history anew.

My dream came true, but things worked out not quite in a way I wanted them to be. It turned out that for my dream to come true my city and myself had to go through the worst – a war. The city was heavily bombed. People hiding in the basements of houses, mostly women and children, were all together counting the number of Grads – deadly artillery rockets of Soviet make used by Azeris to shell Armenian towns and villages – falling all over the place, destroying houses, killing and wounding civilians. The count was usually 40. Then, while the Azeris were recharging their mortars, we had some 20 minutes in which we could run outside to get to a spring and fetch some water. My mother-in-law would come out of the basement/bomb shelter and for some reason start sweeping the broken glass caused by the shelling off the area at the entrance to the house. She kept saying that order must be maintained at all times.

Many families lost their homes, many people lost their parents, children, and had their fates ruined by these hostilities. My dream, meanwhile, seems to have come true, as now Stepanakert has a presidential administration of its own, government ministers, even SUVs in which these officials drive (or are chauffeured) around the town. Foreign visitors can be seen at almost every corner, fancy shops are full of goods, there are fancy restaurants offering fancy menus, but for some reason one wants to dream about something else. Maybe about a durable peace and a real ceasefire on the borders where deadly skirmishes are still an unfortunate and almost daily occurrence…

In 1993 I worked as a Russian-language teacher at a school in Stepanakert. Once I asked my sixth-grade students to write a really-really short essay consisting of just a couple of sentences. I asked them to explain briefly what they thought war was. “You’ve got two minutes to put down your thoughts and explain what war is,” I told my students. I was sure that they’d write about people being killed, crippled, houses being destroyed under bombings. But they started to whisper to each other and finally turned to me and asked: “What is the Russian word for ‘looting’?”

Looting, or plunder, is when, under the guise of war, people take someone else’s property; something that does not belong to them. For many in Karabakh it became a disease of sorts, an obsession, a source of enrichment, while for some also the only escape from hunger and cold. Then came the humanitarian aid, when Diaspora gifts were being distributed. Getting it also became an obsession for many.

And while the common people survived on humanitarian aid, meager “looting” and some gardening, there suddenly began this emergence of the new rich, these new generals, posh cars and big private homes in my town. To people’s questions of whether it was moral to be building such houses in post-war Karabakh, the then-president of Karabakh and future president of Armenia Robert Kocharian answered that people need to feel confident about their future so that they will continue to live in this country.

I don’t know if people could get that kind of confidence from the sight of luxurious homes, but for sure they could get mixed feelings, having watched the northern part of Stepanakert turn into a huge city gravesite with more than 3,000 young, handsome men buried there.

Not far from that cemetery someone opened a restaurant, naming it “The Living and the Dead”. At first glance, the name is terrible and it can send shivers down your spine, or a flinch of anger. But in post-war Karabakh the attitude towards the dead is different. For most Karabakhis these dead are still alive. And a cemetery for Stepanakert is just a large bedroom where their family members are resting after a tiring battle.

In the courtyard of this restaurant there is a small church, Vararakn. Vararakn is the ancient name of Stepanakert, which means a “full-flowing stream”. The legend has it that some 1,500 years ago King Vachagan the Pious vowed to God to build 300 churches across the Armenian land. He traveled around the country and in the place where his horses were stomping on the ground to warn there was water underground, he would dig a spring and build a church on that site. Vararakn is one of those surviving churches.

But for some reason the church does not function, perhaps because it is part of private property as it is situated in a territory privatized under the restaurant. This is very much like the history of Karabakh proper, as there wasn’t a single functioning church in Karabakh for more than half a century.

The first time I saw a “real” priest was in 1986 when I was on an excursion to Echmiadzin, to the Holy See of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Before that the church seemed to me something fabulous, non-existent. In the 1930s the last church was closed in Karabakh. My mother kept, in a closet, a portrait of Catholicos Vazgen I and that image of the supreme head of the Church embodied Christian morality in our house. The first church to open in Karabakh in 1988 was Gandzasar, a majestic 13th-century edifice in the Martakert province. Then other churches were reopened one after another, and it turned out that almost every village had a small church and it was enough to clean a thin layer of dust off them to get their bells ringing again.

Now a cathedral is being built in Stepanakert. Meanwhile, in the lower part of the Karabakh capital a small church has been constructed at the expense of Armenian American philanthropists, the Vatche Yepremian family, from California. It is never empty – people come here to pray for the repose of the dead and for new births; students come here to ask God for good marks during exam sessions, and this itself demonstrates that Karabakh has returned to God.

Generally speaking, there’s a lot of building going on in Stepanakert. A guest who visited the city during AGBU’s Assembly in October, compared the main street of Stepanakert to the famous Champs-Elysées in Paris. This is, of course, a bit of a stretch, but the street has greatly improved.

In a way, though, things still look like fancy props, as the beautiful facades of the buildings hide that same measured provincial life of Stepanakert, with men playing backgammon and women skillfully hanging linen and clothes on lines stretched between the houses.

Stepanakert courtyards generally resemble a large exhibition of underwear. And visitors happily take pictures of this “tourist attraction”. Most women in Karabakh are laundry-hanging freaks, as they treat the job as a sacred art – linen and clothes need to be arranged neatly on the washing line, following a special order and keeping in mind the colors and sizes. And God forbid you break this order. My mother-in-law, for example, taught me how to hang clothes correctly “not to lose face in front of our neighbors”.

Karabakh has a provincial way of life in the positive sense of the word. It is a fairly quiet place where life does not have a frantic pace typical of big countries and cities. Here people appear to have more time and space for pondering about life and stuff…

But this measured pace of life and this typical post-war aspiration for stability at times turn the place into a stagnant bog in which people are afraid to speak out, even to defend their common rights. Although during the latest presidential election in July more than 30 percent of Karabakh voters who went to the polls refused to support the incumbent, but voted for the candidate who, in fact, criticized him, nothing has changed after the elections. People are still afraid to speak out, perhaps remembering that their president’s resume includes having been a former KGB boss.

But Stepanakert has never been provincial in terms of the scale of local thought. Folks in the Karabakh capital think globally. As one person used to say, everyone in Stepanakert knows about the potato crop in Honduras, and who assassinated JFK and why. The locals are able to dream on a universal scale. They even joke that if it weren’t for their dreams, two of the three presidents of Armenia would not have been natives of Karabakh.

Today’s Stepanakert, a beautiful, clean and cozy city, has been built on these dreams as well as on a very clear understanding of liberty and equality. And even the threat of war does not stop the locals from looking into the future to see tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. Why not? Shushi could turn out to be the capital of a united Armenia.

My dreams often come true, and this one could be no exception.