Yerevan lies in a bowl shaped like the tongue of a cat, delimited on one side by the Hrazdan gorge, and on the others by steep hills, on which stand strange perches and other abstruse relics of the Soviet past. Yerevan sits where the mountains give way to a wide plain unfolding so inviting but, yet, so inaccessible. Shortly after it started, in fact, there’s a border, the border with Turkey, and it’s been closed since pretty much as far as recent history goes. Behind the plain, towering and imposing, is the binary cone of Mount Ararat and Little Ararat. Both are out of reach.
Yerevan is a planned city, designed by Alexander Tamanian, a Haussmann with a hammer-and-sickle pin on his lapel, and built with red stone – granite, distant memories of high school geology shyly suggest – in lieu of white stucco. It is, however, an incomplete oeuvre and because of it a sense of unfinished business hangs above the city. Practicality won the argument against aesthetics in many corners, and economic hardship did the rest; even now, in these more auspicious times, it’s easy to stumble into the gutted shell of an abandoned block, an unfinished underground basement, an unkempt park.
Ararat is firmly entrenched in this small nation’s psyche. I walk along Vernissage, a semi-permanent assembly of knick-knack sellers, far from the sophisticated Parisian scenes that its name evokes, yet captivating, and look at for the shape of the biblical mount. I see it adorning a plethora of t-shirts, scarves, ties, watches, stationery, pins and all sorts of heavy, polished wooden objects of obscure use or purpose. I can’t consider myself immune from this obsession, for I kept watching westwards, climbing uphill, in the hope of gazing upon the big mountain. All in vain. As for the Armenian, who are separated from their symbol from an insurmountable border, my desire is refused. Thick clouds hang above the mountain for days on end, rising deceptively, only to return where they were after a little while.
Nothing can refine an urban environment like a row of trees, and the Armenians know that. Every street, promenade and backdoor alley is seemingly lined with trees: poplars, beech and basswood are planted sometimes chaotically, but always with a degree of care. Under the green canopies the city changes character: small cafes mushroom on every corner, and the populace reconvenes by the trunks’ feet to tend to small flowerbeds, or simply to have a chat. Shops and restaurants spill over on the pavements and, besides them, cats walk silently, surely thinking to be their bigger cousins on the hunt in the jungles of India.
In a commercial street downtown, somebody thrusts a leaflet in my hands. Advertising a local brandy producer, it proclaims that the country has more than 6,000 years of winemaking experience. A church, built incongruously next to a rusting Communist behemoth, its purpose unclear, was inaugurated in 2004, commemorating the 1,700th year of Armenia as a Christian country. One might doubt such claims, this parade of zeros and of centuries, but history runs undeniably deep through these lands and into this people. I walk, almost by accident, into a Sunday mass. Before a crowd of men in suits and women with headscarves, three priests – dressed in red robes, holding cymbals – tune cavernous chants to which reply harmonious women voices, their tone as hopeful as the men’s is baritone. It’s AD 2016, but inside that church it could be 1816, it could be 716, and few things would change.
Armenians’ lineaments are timeless. I look at them as I walk along Mashtots avenue, and I see the same features of the statues and frescoes of the Neolithic city of Çatalhöyük, of the coins minted by Tigranes the Great, of those nobles who rode against the Mongol Subedei, Jebe and Jochi, ending up annihilated in battle. For such a people, I feel, 70 years of Communism and 30 years of tumultuous capitalism are merely a paragraph in the big book of their history, a side note.
I descend into the bowels of the Earth for my first ride on a former Soviet metro. Yerevan’s only line was completed in 1981, mimicking Moscow’s Stalinist grandeur without neither the resources nor the reasons to do so. A pungent odour of mould makes the station I alight to smell like the forgotten, humid cellar of your grandparents’ house, and the convoy that arrives – wobbling and shrieking – along the platform has only two cars. I board with a smile of compassion, only to remember that, small and run-down as it might be, at least it has trains running every four minutes on a Sunday and it costs 14 pence a ride. Get this, London.
I count the stops – one, two, three – until the main railway station that a Soviet planner has decided to locate out of town, deep into the suburbs. I emerge into a vast esplanade bordered by edifices in various state of abandonment, from slightly worn out to utterly gutted, with the station itself on one side: another Stalinist-style concoction, a squat building surmounted by a spire that was undoubtedly designed to be impressive but that, in facts, must be as big as the top tier of Moscow’s Hotel Ukraina. Still, it’s got a star on top: that’s enough for this Cold War kid to daydream about espionage and spooks on their way to steal secrets from secure nuclear facilities.
The square is awash with the mechanic and human rubble that, seemingly at every latitude, drifts up to the doorstep of a railway station. Decrepit marshurtkas and buses belch exhausts as they wait for passengers, or squeak noisily as they try to get their engines to join the chorus. Taxis wait for clients that will take a while to arrive, for only one train alights at Yerevan central, and it’s already gone. Around the inevitable Brutalist statue – a man on a horse, an impossibly muscular arm dragging a sword, building momentum ahead of a strike that will never come – languish the alcoholics, dusty clothes and old bandages on their swollen faces.
I sit at a café, a beer almost forgotten before me, and watch people. It’s high noon and the square is full of life. A group of kids play with a life-size chessboard, lifting the large plastic pieces with cheers and laughs; their friendly scuffle is cut short by the arrival of a group of other boys and girls in green costumes. Next to my table two men – square heads, big hands, strong faces, leather jackets – drink mineral water and chain-smoke, going through a packet of President as if on a competition. A boyish cop, his basque decorated with the Armenian tricolour, keeps good watch from the steps of Moscow Cinema; his partner, whose seniority has allowed him a generous coating of blubber, stands nearby, in the shadow drawn by his impossibly large cap. Around them people walk by: chatting, laughing and carrying bags of shopping, eating ice creams. Range Rovers mingle with rusting GAZ vans, Porsches with buses looking like VW Vans on steroids.
I leave Yerevan at night. Silently, my cab slips through the deserted streets. As we move away from the centre the roads become larger, and the buildings less and less martial, as if there wasn’t anyone to impress over here, and Armenians could be themselves again. A bazaar, a bus depot, a petrol station adorned with rowdy LED lights, boxy tenements joined up by serpentines of yellow gas tubes. As we drive past these modest houses a scene from Don Camillo bubbles to my mind. A series of books and films by Giovannino Guareschi, it depicted the tumultuous lives of a Catholic priest – don Camillo, indeed – and his friend-nemesis, the Communist mayor Peppone in 1950s Northern Italy. In that particular episode, Peppone and a delegation from the village go on a trip the Soviet Union, with don Camillo clandestinely tagging along. Through their eyes the USSR looked like a mysterious entity, evil or benign according to the opinion, but nonetheless futuristic and advanced. I think at those characters, and at those people who came up with the “Empire of Evil” slogan, and at what they’d think if they knew that, behind this mysterious and martial façade, the Homo Sovieticus was just… a man.