Fence Me In: An “independent” Armenian’s view through the wire
When the teacher was giving another boring lecture I and my friend Ashot were sitting at the last desk in the class, planning to go across the barbed wire that closed Armenia’s border. The escape plan that didn’t go off the drawing board is the freshest of my recollections. We had been planning to commit an offense called “illegally going abroad” and for which the Soviet penal code envisaged one to three years in jail. Fear proved stronger than our dream. For us barbed wires were easy to overcome only in our neighbors’ orchards from where we used to steal fruit tearing our clothes against the barbed wire.
And beyond the main barbed wire stretching for thousands of kilometers was a wonderful world from where colorful chewing-gums, quality electronic equipment, porn magazines, tasty chocolates, fashionable clothes were coming. Every time when someone from across the barbed wire came to our home I waited for him to leave to see what wonders he had brought.
During the university years the scope of our interests broadened and we also awaited literature banned for us from across the barbed wire. It happened that low-quality photocopies or typewritten anti-Soviet literature appeared at our home, but it also happened that books hidden deep inside travel suitcases did not escape the sharp KGB eye. So, in 1985, philology student Raffi Melkon was arrested for smuggling literature from Syria. The court found him guilty of anti-Soviet propaganda and exiled him abroad.
We had no hope in our dreary Soviet routine to get the sweet smell of the outside world until the Soviet giant that seemed unshakable suddenly began to disintegrate. We watched the Berlin wall collapse and could not believe our eyes. Were the walls of the prison we were born in and lived against our will really collapsing? But we were destined to have another future, as we still have to bear the heavy legacy of the Soviet past for a long time.
Immediately after Armenia gained independence it found itself at war [with neighboring Azerbaijan] over borders drawn inside the Soviet Union that handed Armenian-populated Karabakh over to Azerbaijan.
In the whirlpool of rapidly changing developments I could not understand at once that independence did not free us from barbed wires. Fifteen years after the breakup of the Soviet Union the barbed wires on the border with Turkey remain as impassable as they were during the Soviet times and they are guarded by Russian soldiers wearing Soviet army uniforms like in the past. On the one hand Turkey punishes us for warring against its little brother and on the state level bringing up the issue of genocide in the international arena, on the other hand Armenian authorities, in the name of animosity with Turks and Azeris, yielded the independence to the Russian army and do not try to settle relations with Turkey and trained us to live inside an area surrounded with a barbed wire. Thus, Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanian declared that we can live on for a hundred years in blockade, although I am confident that he, his family and other people in power are not included in that “we”.
Although the border with Iran is passable, Russian frontier-guards wearing the same Soviet army uniform are there to preserve the barbed wire with care and this wire is not turned into a monument like the bits of the Berlin wall were.
Only in the occupied Azeri territories the chaos of the war ruined the barbed wires of the Iranian border. A few years ago in Zangelan, renamed by Armenians Kovsakan, I was lucky to go across the barbed wires lying flat on the ground to have a snack at the Arax river bank.
Was it because of the war, the lack of experience in building a democratic state, the lack of ethics, or the national aspiration that the country was plunged into poverty and injustice and as a result new barbed wires began to loom in sight.
The world entered Armenia, but Armenia did not enter the world and its way was blocked. The barbed wires of the German Embassy were the first to catch my eye that associated with Nazi concentration camps that remained in my memory from Soviet movies. But it was simply a delusion of memory. The U.S. Embassy built its barbed wires and raised concrete walls in front of its building on Baghramyan Avenue. The embassy then moved to a newly constructed edifice and the barbed wires of that area can be seen from the car window, by a passer-by from distance. And you begin to feel that the new barbed wires surround not the embassy premises, but again Armenia, and you yourself.
The borders were blocked with barbed wires – between the authorities and their subjects. On April 12, 2004, when demonstrators marched towards the president’s residence to demand his resignation, the street was blocked before them with barbed wire coils and at night the barbed wire was stretched for punitive detachments attack from the other side to smash unarmed civilians to smithereens. The offense for crossing the Soviet border was replaced in independent Armenia with the offense of crossing the border of authorities and numerous people were arrested on charges of calling for overthrowing the government.
The winged expression “Remain in the Barbed Wire” is perhaps understood only by Armenians, which means “unfulfilled dreams”.
Unlike the Soviet barbed wire, which was a chaotic interlace of metal wire, those stretched by the government and embassies are modern ones – with symmetric spikes on metal wire.
However, barbed wires are not for all citizens of Armenia. The doors of all countries are open to people with power and money, they never have problems with entrance visa. Both barbed wires are intended to bite only vulnerable citizens of Armenia who break new and old barbed wires, often with an intention not to go back through the opening, as that hole could be closed for them forever. During the early years of independence my university classmate went to Europe to get the sweet smell of the outside world, perhaps from the very beginning guessing that barbed wires would remain in their place. After several years of wandering he came back, during the days when the military raided the streets to catch men and send them to the front. He ran back in terror and only last year returned to Armenia, calmly, with a U.S. passport in his pocket that he acquired through marriage. With his new citizenship that made it possible for him to travel around the world freely and feel secure in Armenia he became superior to those who wanted to catch him in the street and send to the front.
Thus new dividing lines appear, on the one hand people with power and westerners, for whom borders are open, and on the other hand ordinary citizens of Armenia.
For us, locals, to get permission to leave abroad is a humiliating and complicated process that we need to overcome constantly with a high probability of being denied a visa in the end. In September, one of my relatives at the request of the embassy was for a week gathering a file of documents needed to go to France – property certificate, IDs of her husband and children, marriage certificate, translated into French and certified by the notary, up to details of his salary. But she was luckier than many others: the same embassy demanded from some of my friends besides all those documents also to present bank accounts, and they didn’t have them. They had to borrow money and open bank accounts, get a paper that they have money, then get the money back and repay their debt, and give the bank document to the embassy. Perhaps they are “guilty” that they have no power, did not accept bribes and did not grow rich for the EU doors to open before them.
Even so, they still had invitations to participate in conferences and meetings, which increased the probability of their getting entrance visas. But what about those who don’t have such invitations? I was looking for books at one bookstore when a French embassy official entered the store and smiling gave the shop assistant a catalogue of French days. As soon as he left, the book seller said: “You’ll come this way, bring booklets, Armenia! France!, Friendship!, but you denied all of my friends.” “All?” I asked. “Yes, all, only one managed to get a deal with money, they stamped a visa for $3,000, the others didn’t have that much money.”
I had no reason not to believe her, especially having known of cases in the past against U.S. embassy officials who arranged entrance visas for bribes. When barbed wires are stretched in front of you, there will always be someone who would want to free you from them for money.
I managed to break through the former Soviet border three times. I found myself inside the “elite” called journalists, which entitles you to become part of some development program that leads you abroad and overcome the border without being stung. No problems emerged when I was leaving for our former fraternal socialist republics Czech and Poland. I filled in some paper, gave my passport and got a visa within two days. In 2000 I also visited the United States as part of one program. It was good that we were going there on a U.S. government-sponsored development program, as all paper issued at the embassy were solved by the inviting party. But we were led through all rooms of the polyclinic so that they would select only healthy ones. They refused to take one woman as she had gall-bladder stones. The gravel in my kidneys was not so much that they disallowed me to enter America. I filled in a paper where I had to mention my skin, hair and, I think, eye color and for the first time registered that I am a white-skinned man. At the end of my third week in the States I was already impatient to return, though I didn’t miss anyone.
Would I like to get rid of the barbed wire for good? Recently an acquaintance of mine who had returned from abroad asked: don’t you want to go from here? I said – no. Why? I wanted to find a true answer: “I’ve adapted to it,” I say. The barbed wire has become the symbol of our being doomed that has wrapped me for so long that over years it pierced me inside out and I can no longer feel it. Ten years ago it was perhaps possible to escape those fetters. Now I understand that it is late, now I am afraid to get rid of the chains and fear lest the spikes hurt me when I undo them. Like Kobo Abe’s character imprisoned in a pit who constantly tried to climb up but failed every time, and years later when a ladder was given to him he climbed up, went around the pit and descended to his place again.
The dream of Ashot and me remained on the barbed wire. Ashot went to Moscow, but not having seen the other side of the barbed wire died a few years ago. After his funeral we, childhood friends, gathered and went to drink. One of the guy’s sister is in the States, and he said he also intended to go: “Vahan-jan, what shall I do, my sons are growing up, can I let them go to this unruly army?” We all nodded in approval, others thought for a moment about living on the other side of the barbed wire. But we will not go, it is late to begin a new life, we are 40 something now. During one party one politician was praising the nation, saying that we are brave, and those who left the country are also strong and brave people, as they have the courage to leave everything behind and build a new life. And I’ll add that perhaps other brave people are those who made their way to power. And we remained among cowards and weak. My homeland does not belong to me so much that I love it, and I don’t have the courage to leave.
Entry filed under: Essay.