Over the last seven months I have been traveling to Vanadzor quite regularly, but until now I have not published my thoughts about what’s going on there and what the people are like.
Vanadzor is located in the Lori region, about 110 kilometers north of Yerevan, and is the third largest city in Armenia, Gyumri being the second largest. The name of the city was changed not surprisingly shortly after Armenia’s sovietization to Kirovakan, after Sergei Kirov, who was a Bolshevik revolutionary and as a Red Army soldier helped defeat the anti-Bolshevik forces in the South Caucasus back in 1920. The name was changed back to Vanadzor after independence, although the city is mainly known as Kirovakan, and people from the city are referred to as “Kirovakantsi.” There are two ways to get there from Yerevan: by way of Aparan, which is shorter, or through Dilijan via Sevan. The scenery along the latter route is spectacular to say the least, especially around Dilijan.
The city is in a valley as is Yerevan, and the two cities are roughly at the same elevation. But because Vanadzor is in closer proximity to the mountains the weather is unpredictable. Throughout June the weather was rainy and raw, as people walked around wearing jackets and sweaters. The surrounding hillsides were once completely covered by forests, but over the course of the last 15 years they were severely decimated for fuel and due to illegal logging. Before and after photos show this contrast—some should be available on the Armenia Tree Project’s Web site.
The city itself is pretty as tall conifer trees line the streets. Many of the parks and public areas however have fallen out of usability as the city administration has not bothered to restore them. The city’s main boulevards are bustling with activity, especially Dikran Metz Street, which during the day and well into the evening is filled with pedestrians, shoppers, and loiterers.
However, the city administration’s corrupt practices are clearly evident. Despite foreign financial assistance as well as state budget allocation from the Armenian government, many of Vanadzor’s streets, especially in the center, are completely dilapidated and virtually unusable. Water allocation is rationed as residents in many parts expect water every other day or even longer, but for only six hours at a time. And, because of the ‘vochinch’ mentality as well as the general complacent attitude that nothing can be done to change things, the infrastructure system continues to crumble.
The people of Vanadzor as well as much of the Lori region speak a particular dialect in which some words are entirely made up, although a few Turkish words that can even be heard in spoken Western Armenian are also used. Sentence structure as well as conjugational forms and intonations are noticeably different. My mechanic there, Hovik, speaks exclusively in Lori Armenian dialect and mixes in Russian words to describe auto parts, so not surprisingly communication between us is strained, with my invented Eastern/Western combo dialect sprinkled with mispronounced Russian words and basic English terms, such as “okay.”
Vanadzor fell victim to the 1988 earthquake and thousands of people perished. However, new housing has replaced the crumbled from the assistance of France, Ukraine, Norway, and other countries. Although the city is clearly undergoing some economic rejuvenation with new businesses opening and new buildings constructed, it is nowhere close to how it once was during the heyday of the Soviet era, when most of the population was employed at the two main chemical plants that now sit idle and in disrepair.
There does not seem to be a care in the world amongst many citizens there, as people wander across the streets without looking, similar to lambs. I attribute this lackadaisical approach to life to the air, which has narcotic properties. For the first three or four weeks of my visiting the area I had to take frequent naps as I felt fatigued, even light headed.
The people of Vanadzor have a sour expression on their faces, and generally their personalities are not very vibrant. They are notoriously stereotyped throughout Armenia as being very naïve. There is much sarcasm in the air, even amongst the youth. People seem stand offish and even indifferent, oddly enough during business transactions. Obviously there are exceptions, as I have met some people that were warm to some extent, but for the most part people are jaded.
The bad attitude I assume is probably attributed to the mass loss of work and to the psychological effects of the earthquake. However, I have not encountered that kind of behavior at all in Spitak, which with its immediate environs was the worst hit area. There is noticeably quite a bit of birth defects and retardation amongst the city’s population, the side effects of the glorious, all-employing Soviet chemical industry.
Vanadzor has a lot of opportunities and great potential, but it is up to Armenia’s citizens, with the assistance of Armenians worldwide, to realize what it could become. One of the first steps towards those goals is to eradicate corruption, which is undoubtedly the main obstacle to progress in that region. The economic boom of central Yerevan needs to branch out to the regions, and Vanadzor is no exception.
Labels: Personal Experiences