Wherever you go, look back and you will see something that resembles Russian culture

Text Yelena Sargsyan

In the North of the small country of Armenia, in the green Lori, there is a small town that was established by Russian Molokans, who moved there from Saratov in 1844. In this small town, it is always very windy, and I always wondered, why this little town with its narrow streets and Russian houses has not blown away. I have never been to Russia, but my father says, the weather in our town is very similar to the weather in Russia. I am sure he tells the truth: He spends ten months there each year.

Like any other town, Tashir has its own drama that is a part of its crooked streets and its inhabitants – who do more thinking than dealing. You know, in those lost eyes I can see the thoughts of Dostoyevsky. They are my heroes from Dostoyevsky’s novels. Here, you will not see the contemplative thinker staring up into the heavens like in Bulgakov’s writings. Oh, I am crazy about the dark skies above this strange town. If you look closer, you will see Margarita flying with her procession.

Believe me, this is not just nonsense. I feel it. People say, each town has its own aura. This town is sad: Around 200 years ago Russians from Saratov were exiled here, and they took up residence and planted Russian birches. Nowadays, their descendants live side by side with the Armenians. Although the descendants are now fewer in number, it doesn’t stop the wind from howling through the town in a Russian way – as my grandmother used to say.

Since the mid-20th century, there was a Russian school here, where both Armenian and Russian children studied and brought up together. Naturally, the northern and southern cultures blended over time. For me, culture is first and foremost about people. You would go crazy thinking about how two different cultures can exist, work, breathe and love side by side. This blending of cultures is just … an art in itself. For example, an old crone crooked and thin like a birch who the town has been forgotten.  She has lost her mind, this grandmother, who no longer has any relatives or friends. However, the townspeople keep an eye on her – this is culture. The same goes for old ‘uncle’ Ivan, who is always drunk, who I once saw stand in front of an oncoming car – is also culture. Fortunately, nothing happened to him, only his Russian galoshes landed 6 meters away. As with Maria Fedorova, who overflows with femininity, even though she is 70 years old – is culture too. I would have fallen in love with her a long time ago, if I were a man. She was my father’s Russian teacher and every time she sees me or my mother, she asks how he is doing and sends her warmest regards. You can find countless examples of culture like these. These are just some special and vivid examples.

Sometimes I wonder: How can these two starkly differing cultures be compatible? When I think about compatibility, I always think back of my great grandfather’s bakery, the hot stuffy atmosphere and the square room with its low-ceilings, the smell of lavash and a samovar sitting on the smooth plastered windowsill. A brilliant compatibility, and eccentric combination of cultures: an Armenian bakery and a Russian Samovar.

My father’s house is typically Russian as well. It was built by an elderly Russian half a century ago. Oh, how I used to discover things in this old building: an old Banja, with engravings on the roof, and once I even found one of his medals from the Great Patriotic War. Nothing brings people closer together than communal suffering and hardship, doesn’t it? Those two groups united under one idea, in common struggle. They came together and were victorious, and thus created the intertwined history of two peoples.

After I graduated from school and went to the university, was forced to leave my hometown, but this is not bad, as it is a part of me. In the university, they keep telling me, that I have very strong pro-Russian sentiments. This is an exaggeration of course, because there is too much Armenian inside me, and often I cannot keep it in, and it comes bursting out, but it is my holy duty never to discuss it. However, this does not stop me from keeping some Russian in me. I do not have the power to change this because the Russian culture has been in my blood since birth. I am powerless to stop the feeling of blood rushing through my veins when hearing Shostakovich’s Second Waltz or Tchaikovsky’s softness. I cannot help but softly close my eyes and let my thoughts wander, when I feel the connection with Dostoyevsky, Esenin or Mayakovski.

Never ask me about the similarities between the Armenian and Russian cultures – I cannot answer that question. Maybe, I am crazy when I say they are not similar at all – only compatible in a fantastical way.

Culture is not only inside people, but it is also in the environment: in the streets and houses, in music, literature, nature, food and much more.

Only in an Armenian village can most of the houses can be Russian and their occupants Armenian. Only in Armenia’s far-flung villages do children still play with Matryoshkas. Only on the streets of Armenia will you see the majestic Chaikas of the 70s. Only Armenian men can be enamored with Natashas – and Russian women Ashotas. Only in Armenia, in 2018, the public radio building still bears the Soviet hammer and sickle. This list can go on indefinitely and bring many idiosyncratic things to light.

Wherever you go, take a look around and you will find similarities with Russian Culture. Everything is so closely intertwined here, that sometimes things appear to be the same and it is very hard to tell where certain things came from.

This is us and our culture.

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