1988-2013: Emotional aftershocks from a quarter-century ago

A structure with unique architectural solutions, three floors, 120 rooms, 320 beds, velvet curtains streaming all the way down from the ceiling, monuments, mirrors, carpets, a dining lounge… the only reminder of this once blooming venue is its still beautiful exterior.

“All of this was a hotel, but they broke down it to parts and sold, it’s divided in two now, they cut off the aircraft’s wings and what’s left is a barrel. This was ours once, we could board 500 people. And this was my place – I was an administrator, used to sit here feeling all important, I used to be active, wasn’t old, although I am active now too, aren’t I? … the entrance was from here, this was the textile workshop, this was a beauty parlor, this was a public bath…not a day passes by without me remembering, reminiscing about those days, me as an administrator at my post, ” recalls 70-year-old Siranuish Martirosyan, who spent 42 years of her life at Gyumri’s Leninakan Hotel.

The hotel was erected in the heart of Gyumri, next to St Savior and St Astvatsatsin (Holy Mother of God) Churches, facing the newly built city hall. Built in the 1930s, the hotel had operated till 2000, then got segmented, sold by pieces and privatized.

“Former MP Martin Sukyasyan bought this segment, started major repair, but passed away leaving it unfinished. Of the entire hotel the only surviving part is this outdoor café I am running. Nothing is left from the old rooms. Look around, all this beauty is due to my efforts. Every morning I clean, tidy up, water the flowers before the other employees come to work,” says Siranush with pride.

During the Soviet years the city’s only big hotel hosted locals, politicians, foreign visitors. The concrete walls hold the memories of good old times.

“[Catholicos of All Armenians] Vazgen I, [renowned physicists Artyom and Abraham Alikhanyans] the Alikhanyan brothers, there was no famous person that did not stay at our hotel. [Astrophysicist] Victor Hambardzumyan, and this was where our Mher Mkrtchyan’s [popular actor] stayed, he would come and go directly to this room. Or, Albert Mkrtchyan [Mher MKrtchyan’s brother, award-winning film director and script writer], who stayed here in the days after the earthquake. He would go out and shoot his films, and I would cook a hot meal for them to have upon return …” tells the former hotel administrator.

The hotel named after communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin survived the devastating earthquake of 1988, boarding all the rescue groups from across the world who had arrived to help overcome the natural disaster that took lives of thousands.

“I lodged foreigners, fed them, lit stoves, candles… would go out and take blankets to people sleeping in the square. That day it was my shift. As it started to shake, all of us ran out and saw the city razed to naught, the city council building had collapsed, nothing was left from this square, the buildings, shops beyond St. Yot Verq (Seven Wounds - pains of Holy Mother of God) church were gone, everything was in ruins… October Cinema was still there… Yot Verq’s dome had fallen… ” she recalls.

She describes the tragedy of December 7: “It had snowed just a little, the weather was warm, and just like that in the morning the city went down in seconds, collapsed, then it turned foggy… then they came from everywhere, coffins were all over, the square was full of coffins, not a single spare space left… someone would bring the legs, someone - the head, and arms, and put them together. Corpses were lying in the streets. I would stand frozen amidst all that, unable to move… ”

The earthquake devastated not only the city, but people’s lives, leaving thousands without a shelter; among them Siranush.

“My house was next to the polygon. When I went there, I found no house, no nothing. All I could do was to return to the hotel and use whatever shelter these walls offered. Only four months ago I received a single-room apartment. Death spares no one. Old wounds scar, time heals. Twenty five years have passed and a lot has changed. It is hard to see the change right away. If the Soviet Union did not collapse, Gyumri would have probably been rebuilt. But Gyumri before the earthquake was a completely different city – of industrial development, of trade and tourism, of people having fun, enjoying good food and drinks. Although even now people here are very hospitable, even when then don’t really know the person, have only met once, they will nonetheless offer a treat, that’s why they boast that much,” she says, her reference to the fact that Gyumri natives are known in Armenia as people who like boasting.

She recalls how she met the USSR leader Mikhail Gorbachev when he visited Gyumri.

“The next day after the earthquake I went to visit my sister’s daughter, on my way I ran across Gorbachev. His car pulled over right beside me. He got out, went up to the ten-storey building burning in flares, went upstairs, cried, took out a handkerchief and wiped his tears. His wife was with him, too. And I was just there standing nearby. I stood staring at him, while my brain was hectically working – ‘what is this? is it true?’ … there were talks that it was not an earthquake, but that he was the one who had done it as an act of revenge for Karabakh… but that’s not true. I saw him stand there and cry. Then he took off his glasses and wiped off the tears, and said: ‘Don’t you worry, in two years it will be the same Gyumri again, this is great misfortune…’. He stood there watching how they were taking out people from under the ruins,” Siranush recalls from the dusty depths of her past.

Siranush interrupts her conversation every now and then to return the greetings of passers-by: “Hello, Lyova jan [jan is usually added to a name to make the greeting warm and to show affection], why hello there, Karo jan…” She says: “I used to be a woman of power; they are still somewhat wary of me”.

She feels puzzled by the new hotels and recalls her times: “We caught so many spies. Well it was a hotel, we gave lodging to people with passports only, and even when spouses did not have civil marriage registration we had no right to accept them, everything was by the law. And now, what law, what rules! Who comes, who goes, no selection, no order. I feel at a loss when they come and tell how they manage things now!”

From her ‘treasure-box’ Siranush takes out her album that holds half a century of memories, and the book of memories where visitors left notes. As she brings them to light, people, events, sentiments come alive again. Young and pretty Siranush smiles from photographs.

“This was my office. Eh… I used to be a very good-looking woman… these were my shift-takers, this was the engineer, this was the household keeper, this was the hotel with Leninakan sign on its façade. This man was Polish, this photo of us was taken right in this hall. He invited me to go visit several times, but I never went. He was crazily in love with me, wanted to marry me . . . “ the memory brings a broad smile to the lively face.

The life she had fills Siranush’s days now, she can’t stay indifferent, can’t stay calm when talking about the bygone days, but because she is strong enough she holds the stubborn tears back. For the woman who has never had a family of her own, the city and the hotel were and still are her big family and her unforgettable romance.

“I love this city, its people. It’ll be ok, it won’t stay this way…” she says.

Editor’s Note: In this series ArmeniaNow visits Armenia’s “second city”, Gyumri, where on December 7, 1988 earthquake destroyed the city while taking the lives of 25,000 and left thousands homeless from the epicenter in Spitak, to Gyumri, Stepanavan and Vanadzor. The fallout from the quake revealed the crumbling condition of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and signaled the beginning of new relations between Armenia and its broad Diaspora. In the immediate years to come, the earthquake would be seen as the starting point of struggle as Armenia dealt with recovery, while also engaging in war with Azerbaijan, a blockade by Turkey, and energy crisis. Orphaned from the USSR, and left to the mercies of foreigners – mostly Westerners who had for nearly seven decades been shut out of contact – Armenia was shaken on every front as it dealt with destruction, displacement and war during historically cold winters and as the country was in recovery while also facing the challenge to reshape itself into a democracy. No crisis had been as severe since the Armenian Genocide some 70 years earlier. The Shirak province of Armenia is no longer a “disaster zone”, but life there is surely still in recovery. Approaching the 25th anniversary of that seminal day, residents relive their stories and reflect on the years since . . .