From Leninakan to Gyumri: 20 Years Later

Gyumri, Armenia: Known as Leninakan in the Soviet Era, is home to the second largest urban population in Armenia and a city with a notorious history.

It was in Gyumri where Turkish forces under the order of Kemal Attaturk threatened to invade Eastern Armenia and wipe out the remaining Armenian population in the early 1920’s. Gyumri was also the epicenter of a massive 7.0 magnitude earthquake which, 20 years ago this day, sent ripples throughout the Armenian nation, destroying two major cities and devastating the then Soviet Republic of Armenia.

The earthquake, which hit on December 7, 1988, completely leveled the city of Spitak and nearly destroyed all of Gyumri. The industrial city of Vanadazor, as well as several villages located within the Shirak and Lori Provinces were also severely hit. The sheer carnage caused by the quake was the result of the flawed Soviet construction of apartment buildings and Soviet modeled structures built during the "stagnation era" under Leonid Brezhnev (1960-64 and 1977-82). Major factors involved were the insufficiency and almost non-existence of steel and cement due to rampant corruption, in and outside of construction projects, and internal administrative fragmentation.

20 years have passed since the tragic earthquake and yet remnants of the damage caused are still visible today, serving as a haunting reminder to the 25,000 lives lost and over 500,000 left homeless as a result of the earthquake.

The earthquake was such a traumatic and devastating event that the then General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, had to leave his first ever visit to the United States in a hurry for "ground zero" to take on damage control and oversee the emergency relief effort in Armenia’s Shirak province. But the Soviet Union was ill-equipped to handle the catastrophe and Moscow’s response was comparable to the disastrous response of the US government to Hurricane Katrina.

Exacerbating the devastation was the earthquake’s fateful timing. It hit Armenia amid rising tensions with Azerbaijan, where pogroms and massacres against Armenia’s had occurred only months earlier. The earthquake hit just as Armenia’s in Karabakh and Armenia proper were beginning to stand up for their rights and demand the right to self-determination. The death figures that year were a psychological maelstrom for the Armenian nation.

Unable to respond, the Soviet Union, for the first time since World War II, asked for help and an the international community responded in full force, sending rescue teams, evacuation helicopters, food, supplies, doctors and financial aid.

Gorbachev inability and reluctance to act and his bitterness toward the Karabakh Movement had also spurred Armenia’s from all walks of life to unite in an international effort to save survivors, gather aid from abroad and get it to where it was most needed. Organizations such as Aznavour for Armenia (Directed by Charles Aznavour), the Armenian Relief Society, Rock Aid to Armenia, initiatives financed by Kirk Kirkorian, and several other equally important groups, were front-runners in the aid effort. Also notable was the incredible grassroots movement to raise funds and gather supplies carried out by Armenian college and university students in the United States.

Although Diasporans and local Armenia’s have made enormous efforts over the years to reconstruct Gyumri and the surrounding regions, many still in this historic city remain homeless or dislocated in old discarded shells of oil tankers and shack communities, refereed to as "Domiks," erected as temporary relocation housing but have sadly become permanent homes for many families.

But the situation in Gyumri is not lost. Many NGOs and private organizations from abroad have been investing manpower, youth, and labor opportunities over the past few years. Some have even brought small-scale businesses, mainly of electronics production, to create a base of employment in a city that once thrived because of its large labor force.

Development, however, has been slow-paced and minuscule in proportion because of the overwhelming concentration of investment and development into the country’s capital, Yerevan. As a result, the remainder of Armenia, including the city of Gyumri and the whole of Shirak Province, have been left neglected.

Volunteer organizations such as the BirthRight Armenia Depi Hayk, program have brought Diasporan youth to Gyumri not only to work at various internship opportunities but also to gain firsthand knowledge of the city’s centuries old culture. Because of such programs, Diasporan youth have opportunities to live with local families to get a feel of what it’s really like to be an Armenian living in Armenia and outside of Yerevan. The Pyunic Center of Gyumri for example has brought volunteers to Gyumri to serve as mentors for the city’s disadvantaged children.

The Armenian Youth Federation, another organization present in Gyumri this past year, had volunteers from Southern California help direct a Day Camp for the local youth. The day camp consisted of close to a hundred children from the local community and served as an important factor in helping to keep the morale of Gyumri’s youth up and running, away from the hardships of everyday life. This program also helped connect Diasporans with their native homeland, brothers and sisters abroad, and gain a deeper understanding of their Armenian identity.

The YMCA and Peace Corps can also be found hard at work in Gyumri, whether it’s helping the local youth with camping programs and athletics, or doing much needed humanitarian work.

Meanwhile, local Armenian youths have begun a grassroots effort to help develop their city’s social element and community through plantation programs and athletics clubs, partially backed by the Shirak Human Rights Protection Center and financed from abroad.

On the cultural side, Gyumri has just recently celebrated the 10th Anniversary of its Fine Arts Academy. The Academy was built by the commitment and dedication of the Hayastan All-Armenia Fund, Armenian General Benevolent Union, and funds provided by Loris Tjeknavorian. The academy serves as the Gyumri branch of three state art institutions of Yerevan, consisting of six departmen’s. The institution houses various student works ‘s fine arts, graphics, sculptures, textile designs, etc. ‘s and close to 200 future specialists, reflecting Gyumri’s age old tradition of maintaining and nurturing artistically driven Armenian minds.

Also based out of Gyumri is the internationally renowned KOHAR Symphony Orchestra and Choir. Known for their traditional Armenian music, the KOHAR Symphony went on tour in 2007, traveling and holding major concerts throughout the Diaspora. This group is not only a magnificent contribution to Armenian musical performance but also serves as the livelihood of many families in Gyumri, especially for many women whose husbands have left (mainly to Russia) in search of work, leaving them to raise and support families on their own.

Projects and development such as this have helped support Gyumri’s community, infrastructure, and intellectual base, preventing a further depletion of the city’s population.

The last 20 years have served as a grim reminder to the trials and hardships in which the Armenian people have had to continuously endure. However, the fact that the Armenian people have been able to endure such tragedies as Genocide, the Spitak Earthquake, and the Karabakh conflict, shows that they are a people who cannot be held down or broken by any whirlwind that comes their way and threatens to rip their nation by its roots.

Moving on and rebuilding, brick by brick, in the aftermath of the Spitak Earthquake is an astonishing resemblance of the Armenian identity and psyche, revealing a hint of stubbornness in its true comic nature.

As time passes, we must not forget the lessons that occurrences such as this have taught us. It is our responsibility as Diasporans, as "Deghatsis," and most importantly, as Armenia’s, to pressure the current Armenian Government and international organizations to move forward in their infrastructure and developmental projects outside of central Yerevan. There is also need a to reinforce these projects with seismic-protected structures, or we may soon see a repeat of this tragic event.

Gyumri, and its history, have played a crucial role in Armenian statehood and culture. As this city recovers, it is important that we find ourselves contributing to not only its physical and economic reconstruction, but also in morally supporting its local community to show them that Armenia’s outside have not forgotten them and do wholeheartedly care.

Next time you find yourself on the streets of Yerevan or on the back roads of the countryside, be sure to stop by this beautiful region of Armenia and share the love that I, and many others, have found in sweet old Leninakan.

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Editor’s note: Andre Arzoo is a member of the Glendale Roupen AYF Chapter. He is currently studying for a bachelors in Political Science from the University of California, Berkeley. Andre can be reached for contact at: andrearzoo@berkeley.edu

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