I spent most of the month of April 1991 in Yerevan Armenia. It was my second trip to Yerevan within a few months. The first trip was during the first Armenian Businessmen’s Conference organized by the new Government of Armenia. There were over 400 Armenian businessmen from many parts of the Armenian Diaspora that showed solidarity with the emerging free republic of Armenia. At the conclusion of the meeting, an Armenian Businessmen Association was formed under the leadership of Vahe Jazmadarian, a Banker from France.
Toronto had a large group of participants in the Conference. Most of them, including me, were shareholders of a company named ArmenTrade that was incorporated long before the Conference for the sole purpose to invest in Armenia and help create jobs.
The highlight of the Conference was the banquet where President Levon Ter Petrossian gave an eloquent and patriotic speech about the political challenges the country was facing and the Prime Minster Vazken Manougian spoke about the economy and the hardships that the country was going through. Despite the dire conditions, there was an upbeat mood.
This time around I was traveling alone to set up a functioning office for ArmenTrade and further explore possibilities for business opportunities. The trip from Toronto to Yerevan prove to be a disaster. I had booked a seat on a Czechoslovakian Airlines from the USA via Ottawa to Prague.
After spending a sleepless night at the Ottawa airport for the delayed arrival, we landed in Prague during the night and spent another sleepless night at the cold Prague airport for the delayed arrival of the Armenian Airways. The only “bright spot” of the trip was when I met an Armenian woman, Dr Carolyn Najarian, from Boston USA. She was in a heated argument with an employee of the Airport who could hardly speak English.
She wanted to make sure that her belongings were unloaded from the plane. With the help of a passenger from Yerevan who spoke Russian, the employee-led us to the cargo unloaded from the plane. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that, what Dr. Najarian was mostly worried about were over twenty boxes of medicine that she was taking to the earthquake zone and Արցախ (Karabagh). The next day she also made sure everything was loaded on the Armenian Airways flight to Yerevan.
What a life-saving treasure Dr. Najarian was taking to Armenia especially so if compared to my luggage packed with some office supplies, while my “precious” possessions were a heavy fax machine hanging from my shoulder and the carry on luggage packed with “emergency” supplies of nutritional bars, flush light, spare batteries, etc, that were my “lifesavers” during those days when there were hardly any restaurants or electricity in Yerevan.
Dr. Najarian was a real patriot and humanitarian and this was not her first trip either. She advised me whenever traveling to Yerevan, I always make sure that the luggage was loaded on the plane. I learned my lesson on my third trip via Amsterdam when I had to wait one week for my baggage to arrive after I landed in Yerevan
It was a challenging few weeks in Yerevan, to say the least. The only hotel that had partially heated rooms was the front part of the Hotel Armenia and it was booked solid. After a few cold nights in Hotel Ani I managed to rent a room in the Hrazdan guest house built for the Soviet elite and now was used for government guests and diplomatic missions. It was uplifting to see many prominent Armenians from Diaspora engaged in discussions, going through files, etc, with senior government officials in the lobby of the hotel. Everyone seems to be on a mission and in a hurry.
I even met a junior Canadian diplomat from the Moscow embassy, in the hotel lobby. During a lunch at a restaurant near the hotel, that was partially open for lunch and supper with a limited menu, he recounted his difficulties in getting around in Yerevan and not being able to accomplish much and advised me to proceed with caution and do not get carried on with patriotic emotions to do business.
I recall him saying something like “Although the Soviet Regime is collapsed and gone, within its ruins the only thing functioning is the corrupt Soviet System”. (To a certain extent it seems that is still the case under the Putin Presidency). The second meeting with the Diplomat was a disaster. When he came down to the lobby he was impeccably dressed but completely drunk. The frustrations and loneliness had taken their toll, so to speak. He hardly ate anything at the restaurant.
Finding office space in Yerevan turned out to be a real challenge. There was no such thing as “office space to rent” in Soviet System. When it was getting desperate the luck struck so to speak. During a casual meeting, while I was having a conversation with the director of the Encyclopedia Armenia, “Համայնագիտարան” when he became aware of my difficulties in finding office space, he proposed to rent me two rooms on the ground floor in the “Համայնագիտարան” building. It was a totally unexpected blessing.
With a distinct Armenian Architecture and right in the heart of Yerevan at 17 Tumanian street, it was like a “crown jewel”. Unfortunately, the same building does not exist anymore. Like many other historic buildings in the center of Yerevan, it has been replaced with a high-rise building.
The irony is that at that same meeting I also met the chief Architect of Yerevan who invited me to a presentation he made at Hotel Armenia to a French delegation about the infrastructure capacity and the expansion of Yerevan.
He explained to the delegation that the best solution for Yerevan to expand was toward the “Նախալեռնային շրջաններ” (It was the first I was hearing that expression and it loosely translates “pre mountainous areas”) and upgrade and keep the old architecture of the central Yerevan. Wise advice indeed but it seems the new oligarchs of Yerevan had no use for it.
Needless to say, the highlight of the trip was the Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day on April 24. On April 23 night there was a cultural program. The Armenian national orchestra played beautiful Armenian music appropriate for the occasion while a renowned Armenian narrator “ասմունքող” Hagop Abajian was reciting poems from poets killed during the Armenian Genocide. It was beautiful.
On the April 24 morning knowing that it was a long walk to the Genocide Monument “Ծիծեռնակաբերդ” instead of wearing a suit and tie, I dressed in a casual outfit with a windbreaker and no tie. When Tatoul our Yerevan representative came to pick me up, I thought he was sort of “overdressed” for the walk. But I was surprised when he said “Are you going like this? it is April 24, and the President and all leadership of Armenia will be there?. Since I was not going to meet the dignitaries, I did not bother to change.
It was a solemn walk, every street in the proximity of the genocide monument was filled with people young and old dressed in their best dresses and flowers in their hands climbing towards the Genocide Monument. Unlike today, there were no banners, posters, flags, etc. None was needed to remind people why they were there as if they do not know. It was a solemn and dignified walk to pay respect to the victims of the Armenian genocide.
We arrived early and placed the flowers at the Monument before the Government and religious leadership arrived and stood silent just opposite where the ceremony was to be performed.
Soon the dignitaries arrived led by President Levon Ter Petrossian and Vaske Vehapar. They placed flowers at the Memorial and a Հոգեհանգիստ (Requiem) was performed led by Vazken Vehapar. No speeches were made, and no sermon (քարոզ) was preached, none was needed. It was the most solemn and the most appropriate Armenian Genocide Remembrance service I ever witnessed.
Zohrab Bebo Sarkissian.