Young Russian emigres gather outside TUF bar, one of a growing number of social spots which have opened by and for their community

Highland Hostel Provides Home Away from Home for Russians Fleeing War and Draft

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YEREVAN — Hostels are known to budget travelers and digital nomads as cheap and convenient places to stay while traveling abroad. Tens of thousands of Russians have come to Armenia since the start of the war in Ukraine, and hostels have played an important role in helping them settle here, often serving as affordable long-term housing while apartment rents skyrocket. A new wave is currently arriving daily escaping Vladimir Putin’s mobilization announced on September 21, while travel sites like Booking.com indicate every single hostel in Yerevan is completely full. We will explore the story of one of those hostels and a few of the Russian émigrés who now call it home.

Exterior of the building on Yerevan’s Mashtots Avenue in which Highland Hostel is located at the very top

Highland Hostel was opened in April 2019 near the corner of Mashtots and Amiryan Streets in Yerevan’s center. Its founder, Tigran Khachaturyan, had spent many years in the automotive industry, including in a grueling position at a large car company in Moscow, which gave him the desire to become his own boss and combine his lifelong passions for hiking and tourism into a business. He returned to Yerevan and renovated a top-floor apartment into a homey living space for up to ten guests at a time, while also leading tours for his guests who were eager to experience Armenia’s beautiful nature. Just as the hostel was gaining traction, the 2020 pandemic obliterated the tourist industry, but Khachaturyan was focused on keeping it open, if only for a single guest at a time. “There were fears at times that life would never come back to normal, the future was so uncertain,” Khachaturyan said, but with Armenia never enforcing strict lockdown rules, unlike many other European countries, things started to improve by 2021 with an increase in guests looking for an escape from those restrictions. “Many of these guests told me they would have never thought of visiting Armenia until they saw it on a list of affordable places which had opened up, and they were surprised by what they found here, telling me that if they had known how great Armenia was earlier, they definitely would have visited.”

Russians speak to the press during a September 17 protest, during which they gathered with local Armenians to call for Armenia leaving the Russian-dominated CSTO military alliance after it failed to respond to the attack on Armenia by Azerbaijan days before

Business was back on track and was going through its typical February lull when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine changed everything. With Russians moving in, the hostel has been more or less booked solid ever since. With some of the March émigrés still living at the hostel, there’s just no room at the inn for the latest ones. “Even though the booking websites are full, newcomers still find Highland through Google and I get 20 to 30 calls a day trying to get a bed here. Unfortunately there’s nothing I can do for them right now,” said Khachaturyan. Unlike the IT professionals typical of the first wave, those coming now are young, sometimes unskilled men who are only in Armenia by the chance of it being the destination they were able to get a ticket to first, with no plan of what comes next. As one of Highland’s guests, Andrey, explained about the latest arrivals, “their plan was just to get out of Russia. They have no idea what to do now that they are here. Some don’t have much money. They’re trying to find jobs or a way to support themselves. I’m glad that we have a community of Russians here who help each other out with money and places to stay.”

Andrey had been sent on a paid business trip by his international IT company to Armenia for a month when the war started. However, when that trip finished with no sign of things returning to normal in Russia, he was told in order to keep his job he’d need to remain abroad, and he stayed in Armenia rather than move to another country because of its familiarity and relative inexpensiveness. He had only gotten this particular job a few months prior, and if he hadn’t, he never would have left Russia because he loves his hometown. Now, he’s on the outside able to help his friends get out and to navigate their new life in Yerevan.

Yerevan is already full, but those looking for a refuge will not let up. It is still early days since the mobilization. At first, prices for a ticket to Yerevan soared to over $10,000, but flights still filled up. Many looking to get out still must wait a week or two until their first available flight. However, they have no idea if they’ll actually be able to leave, as the possibility looms that Putin may close the borders to all men of mobilization age at any time. Time is of the essence, and many are thinking of contingency plans if it comes to that.

Another one of Highland’s guests is Nikolai, 24, who like Andrey, became familiar with Armenia when he visited as a tourist last year. Back in Russia, he went to a protest on the first day of the Ukraine war, where he says he was caught by police and spent a night on a station floor. “I started to think, how can I be prepared for what is going on in my country? What will happen to my family? I decided that if I can move somewhere outside it, I can be more valuable to my friends and family as I will be in a position to help in the case of something really bad — like this mobilization, for example.”

Not just about tourism anymore, Highland Hostel’s kitchen table now doubles as a workplace for Nickolai (left) and Andrey

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Having stayed at Highland during his visit to Armenia, he knew where to go and arrived in March. Nikolai’s first step was to get bank accounts in Armenia to transfer money to support himself here, and then to find a job. Being an IT professional, he received great offers from local companies and happily accepted one. While he feels fortunate that his father and brothers are not currently in line to be called up to fight, that could change. He describes how those he knows in Russia are “living in an atmosphere of chaos and uncertainty which really affects them. You can’t rely on tomorrow, anything could happen.”

Adds Andrey, “Since mobilization every day has been horrible. I’ve been unable to sleep, worrying about every single relative and friend and their families.”

The Russians have found that, like all places, life in Armenia has its benefits and difficulties. The thing which strikes Nikolai the most is the Armenians’ warmth and hospitality. “Here you feel like a guest of your relatives. It’s the same feeling I get when I go back to my grandmother’s village. It’s not your home, but you are included and welcome to take part in it.”

This is in contrast to Georgia, where Russians have moved in even greater numbers than Armenia because it is perceived as a more cosmopolitan and “hip” place to be, but there is a lot of resentment about the Russian presence there from the local populace because of conflicts such as the 2008 war between them.

As for difficulties in Armenia, as IT professionals, one of the biggest for both men is sub-optimal internet speeds and the fact that the electricity can suddenly briefly go out from time to time. Armenia is also a place, however, which affords special opportunities not available in Russia. For example, Nikolai had long wanted to teach in a university, and now gets to do just that, heading a computer programming class at Yerevan’s Slavonic University. Living in a hostel also has its benefits, as while there is a Russian social scene in Yerevan, he doesn’t really feel the need to take part because he has so much built-in camaraderie with his fellow hostel residents.

Andrey feels spoiled living at Highland, because he’s come to find that many other hostels have similar prices but are not nearly of the same quality and comfort level. He intends to return to Russia as soon as the war and mobilization end, but that will also depend on the political situation. Nobody knows when that will be or what life will be like in Russia at that point, but regardless he wants to return, and bring some of the aspects of social life he’s experienced in Yerevan back with him to make his city more interesting and entertaining too.

Armenia has supported these Russians as a welcoming place of refuge, but the benefits have been mutual. Andrey observed: “Russians are pushing Armenia forward, because I can already feel how things are changing. They’ve opened a lot of new places, like bars, restaurants, and coffee shops.”

Companies are hiring Russian programmers and designers, who are some of the best in the business, and they are helping Armenian companies to develop both internally and externally as new customers. These Russian IT professionals are key for Armenia because many of them make their salaries from international companies but spend it in Armenia, injecting money into the Armenian economy. Andrey considers this to be an exchange, pointing out how for decades people from Armenia went to Russia to seek out a better life. “Now that life is better in Armenia, it is natural that Russians come here.”

The influx has created problems for the average Armenian too, however, such as, most notoriously, the soaring of rents. They have more than doubled in many cases, with Russians willing and able to pay more to secure a place. Despite many landlords opportunistically raising rents, Khachaturyan has refused to do that for guests at his hostel. “I appreciate every Russian who decides to come here rather than fighting and dying in an unjust war. I don’t want to benefit from people’s misfortune, especially from those who by being here and not at war are saving the lives of both others and their own.” He does point out however that the latest rush of less affluent and less skilled Russians could lead to societal pressure, since they aren’t of the same quality as the earlier émigrés who were able to settle in relatively easier. “Many of them just won’t fit here, which could cause internal problems for Armenia.” There are already accounts this past week of young Russians without a place to stay sleeping on the street.

Overall though, Khachaturyan is excited about the prospects the Russians bring for Armenia. “Even if most of them don’t intend to remain here, some will inevitably settle down, starting families and businesses and having a positive impact here.” He already knows some of them are buying property with a long-term mindset. Highland Hostel has been growing too, as it has a new section set to open next year which will double its capacity and have options for greater privacy. Khachaturyan also acquired a brand new 11-person off-roading vehicle for his company’s tour branch, making it the only one of its kind in Armenia. It can carry adventurers most of the way up Kotayk Province’s 3600-meter-tall volcano Azhdahak for breathtaking views of Lake Sevan, Mounts Ararat and Aragats, and for relaxing by the mountain’s crater lake. Word has spread about the tours and 90 percent of his customers are from the Russian IT community, who make up a long wait list.

“These people are even more impactful than regular tourists,” said Khachaturyan, “because they are already being integrated into society, telling their friends and family about Armenia, and attracting more people to at least visit here. I think they are also having a social impact, because having so many different kinds of people now living even in some small villages throughout Armenia is bringing local people into contact with new kinds of people and opening their minds. I think it passes a new energy into Armenia and invigorates our society.” Even though going into 2022 nobody could have imagined what changes the year would bring, and it remains to be seen how long the stay of most Russians in Armenia will last, there’s little doubt a transformation is underway. “I even see a changing fashion trend. More local Armenians are starting to wear many more colors instead of the typical black,” said Khachaturyan. “This might sound trivial, but it’s also a representation of our internal mindset: an increase of imagination, and different ways of thinking are starting to grow here.”

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