Yan Shenkman (photo by Igor Vereshchagin)

The following extract is from Yerevan-based Russian author Yan Shenkman’s recently published book, At Home in Yerevan.

Shenkman, born in 1973, is a writer, journalist, literary and musical critic. He is the author of five books. In March 30, 2022, just after the beginning of the Ukrainian war, he migrated from Russia. Currently, he works at the “Noyan Tapan” news agency in Yerevan and hosts the “Displaced People” program.

His book is available from  https://buyarmenian.com/product/here-in-yerevan-yan-shenkman/.

Translation from Russian and comments

by Artsvi Bakhchinyan

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

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We were debating what city Yerevan resembles. A little bit like Paris, which feels natural given spots such as Republic Square, Aznavour Square, and France Square. In the heart of France Square, at a bustling crossroad, stands Rodin’s sculpture. However, it is so small that Yerevan residents often stage large protests to get a better view. These protests lead to traffic being blocked, allowing people to approach the sculpture more closely.

France’s influence is strongly felt; the ties with France are very close. Perhaps not as strong as the ties with Russia, but this city has no resemblance with Moscow. However, this city bears no resemblance to Moscow at all, despite the abundance of khrushchyovka [A khrushchyovka is a type of low-cost apartment building constructed in the Soviet Union during the early 1960s, during the time of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev] buildings in Yerevan. The khrushchyovkas here, made of tuff, vary in color — some are black, some grey, and others pink — but they still fail to evoke a sense of recognition in me.

The city appears small, at least visually. However, this is an optical illusion; only the city center is small. If you’ve lived here for a long time, it’s impossible to walk in Kentron without encountering an acquaintance. You can traverse the center in half an hour. And it won’t grow any larger, as there’s no room for expansion, with mountains surrounding it.

Comparing it to Tbilisi, which exudes a solemn and serious atmosphere like that of an adult city, Yerevan may seem more childlike and domestic in nature. However, when you go outside the center and view the neighborhoods and districts from above, it leaves a powerful impression, especially at night. The sight of numerous small fires dotting the entire area is captivating to behold.

I was surprised to learn that several European cities, such as Geneva or Bern, are actually smaller than Yerevan. Thus, Yerevan’s size is not as small as I had previously thought.

Similar to Bern in the Soviet TV series “Seventeen Moments of Spring,” Yerevan is a magnet for intelligence services from all over the world. The city is practically inundated with intelligence operatives, easily accessible from both the East and the West. It serves as a comfortable platform for observing one another and conducting separate negotiations, akin to General Karl Wolff’s meetings with Dulles. [In 1945, German SS functionary Karl Wolff, as part of Operation Sunrise, assumed control and coordination of intermediaries to establish contact in Switzerland with the regional headquarters of the US Office of Strategic Services, led by Allen W. Dulles. This initiative aimed to negotiate the surrender of German forces in and around Italy.]

During one of the anti-war meetings in Yerevan, I encountered an investigative officer from the Center for Combating Extremismv [А unit within the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Russian Federation]. I had previously seen him three years ago near the Presnensky District Court of Moscow during pickets. While it could have surely been a hallucination, they conduct operative activities exactly in such a manner, with a similar posture and expression. Although I should have just walked past, I couldn’t resist and approached him, saying: “Can you take a picture of me too?”

Last year, with forty planes from Russia flying per day and people sleeping on park benches, it felt like I was in Casablanca from the famous film — a place where many flee without money or proper documentation to seek refuge in America and other powerful states. It became a haven for the destitute, overcrowded and bursting at the seams. Three, four, or even six people would share living quarters; separate housing was a luxury.

Here, you find everyone or nearly everyone: displaced people, with few having lived their entire lives without leaving the city. Those who have left know that staying in one place is unlikely. Our previous homelands include Lebanon, Syria, Russia, Ukraine, Iran… and no one knows where we’ll be tomorrow.

All of this creates an atmosphere reminiscent of Noah’s Ark, ready to set sail. We must hurry. You’ve climbed the hillside, but soon the waters will reach here too. And the ark is not yet ready—not even the boards have been cut.

Sometimes Yerevan reminds me of Vichy in southern France before the Nazi invasion, where immigrants flocked from all over Europe. Everything seems fine, and you feel relatively safe, but at any moment disaster can strike. I don’t want to think about it, but it crosses my mind.

The feeling of living on a volcano, on the edge of a precipice, gives the city a unique flavor. Everyone understands the situation, but they don’t seem overly concerned. They’re accustomed to it; it’s impossible to worry every day for thousands of years. The lava is simmering beneath your feet, ready to erupt, yet the person to whom the feet belong is saying you:

“How are you? Are you all right? Sit down, we’ll have a bite to eat.

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