City of Dreams? Karabakh’s center of culture hangs on and hopes

April 2004

City of Dreams? Karabakh’s center of culture hangs on and hopes

Marianna Grigoryan and Sona Danielyan

Gray-haired and aged by war and hardship, 68-year old Rima Danielian moves
with care down the edge of a bluff approaching a row of unremarkable shops
in her town, Shushi.

She passes children coming home from school who are growing up in a Shushi
far different than the one Rima sees in her memory.

“My city is the most beautiful,” says Rima. “For centuries Shushi had been
considered as the heart and center of culture of Artsakh. And today it seems
life has become silent. Many things have changed.”

In fact, in the decade since Shushi-on its strategic vantage point
overlooking the capital, Stepanakert the site of prolonged and vicious
fighting between Armenian and Azeri forces-almost everything has changed.

Rima’s memory is good and its facts well known. Before the war, Shushi had
12,000 residents. It was a beacon of culture, a center of art, of publishing
and of a refined life that, if found in Shushi today, is somewhere under the
city’s scarred exterior where 3,500 hang on.

A Borrowed Life: Roosters announce the beginning of the day in Shushi, soon
followed by the ringing of bells at St. Ghazanchetsots Church-33 clangs from
the tower, one for each year of Christ’s life.

The bells mark the beginning of Anahit Danielian’s working day. She sells
candles at the church and says that even though most of her neighbors have
nothing to do with their days, even the poorest ones come to pray; probably
for a better life.

“It’s true that it seems that people’s life conditions don’t change,” Anahit
says. “But in recent years people have been getting married more often and
it delights the heart.” It has become tradition, she says, for couples from
Stepanakert (about 10 kilometers away) to come to the church for their

And the occasion to have outsiders in Shushi is welcomed by owners of the
little shops that are evidence of the commerce of necessity, even in a
skeleton of a city.

“Residents of Shushi mainly buy vermicelli, sugar, oil and cheap vodka,”
says 24-year old Liana Harutyunian, a shop worker. But “buy” is not exactly
the right word. “They mainly borrow,” she says. There are two bottles of
champagne on her shelf, so long there that Liana can’t remember where they
came from.

“Sometimes those who come from Stepanakert for wedding ceremonies plunge
themselves into excesses like that if, of course, they forget to bring that
stuff with them. Such things are not for residents of Shushi.”

Liana moved to Shushi from Masis six years ago with her two little girls and
says that they couldn’t live and exist here if her parents didn’t help them
by sending flour, potatoes and other necessary foodstuff from Masis.

“Many people don’t work but I have a job,” Liana says. “However, for two
months I haven’t been getting my monthly 15,000 thousand drams (about $26).
She shows a notebook in which she keeps a record of “borrowed” food. “Only
this copybook grows thicker and thicker. This month people’s debt to the
shop has become more than 100,000 drams (about $177).”

Buying on credit has become a way of life that, for many, is necessary but

Stella Hakobian has seven children and receives a government subsidy for
having a large family-an incentive by the State. “Every month the owner of
the shop gets my children’s allowances,” says Stella, who moved to Shushi
from Hrazdan, a town north of Yerevan. “During the month we take some things
from the shop and then take my children’s allowances directly to the shop.
This is how our debts are covered.”

Stella recently was given an apartment, another perk of having a large
family. She and her children have a three-bedroom flat, but the only
furniture in it is beds. “We have no job,” says Stella. “The only good thing
is that in winters we can go ‘sticking’ in the neighborhood forest for wood
to heat our apartment. And in the spring we pick berries and sell them for
cheap prices to earn money.”

Shushi has not recovered in any comparable way with the development that has
taken place in neighboring Stepanakert. And while the number of “large”
families (having four or more children) is increasing in response to the
State programs, the overall birth rate has dropped, officials say.

“When we were at war we thought everything would be ok,” says veteran
Karineh Danielian. “However, it was understood that there would be
difficulties in the future. Anyway, hope still lives.”

Culture as Pastime: City leaders say that Shushi’s future lies in finding a
way to keep its young people and assure a future for them in their city.

“The majority of young people don’t think about leaving the city because
they haven’t got enough opportunities for thinking about it,” says 22-year
old Armen Poghosian. “For many of them a marshrutka (Russian for mini-bus)
ticket from Shushi to Yerevan is as much as the sum they spend for living
during a month.”

But even in the diminished version of its former self, Shushi shows glimpses
of what it once was, and efforts are made at providing a “normal” life that
would encourage youth to stay.

In fact, cultural life shows the most obvious development in Shushi.

In this place of damaged and vacant buildings one can find an arts college,
a drama theater, a puppet theater, a choir, a quartet, a dance group, and
the list can continue. A few summers ago an arts festival was even started.

The State Humanitarian College named after Arsen Khachatrian is the only
educational option given to students from Shushi and neighboring or remote
villages. The college mainly teaches various arts and crafts such as
painting, carpet making, decorative art, etc.

In May 2003, a technical school was renamed into the college, which, though
small, is a sign of Westernization in a place that seems largely detached
from the rest of the world-or more connected to its former Soviet regime.

The college was reopened in 1992 after the liberation of Shushi. Today the
college has 181 students, ranging in age from 15 to 23.

During a recent day in the winter session at the college, students gathered
to discuss the topic: “Love, Marriage, Family and Law”, while teachers sat
at a table to moderate the discussion.

After a short introduction students discussed questions on divorce, on
children’s rights and whether love is enough reason to get married, and
looked for answers from their experienced teachers.

As is often the case in small towns, the youth of Shushi and their teachers
have relationships that are open and relaxed. After the day’s special
program they all met to sing songs, read poetry, dance, eat, drink, then
dance and sing some more. The scene, not typically found in institutions of
learning, for example, in Yerevan provides a glimpse of life in Shushi.

Such events are a big thing for the youngsters here. It is noticeable that
the day was planned with great care, especially through the way the girls
prepared themselves in their best manner.

Shushi doesn’t offer many opportunities, outside school, for its younger
generation to socialize and even then, the events are restricted to daylight
hours. When the sun goes down, activity is mostly limited inside apartments
among family.

Our future is vague, the youngsters say. And they complain that their city
of rich cultural heritage is too often overlooked.

“Stepanakert is Karabakh’s advertising town,” says David Avagimian, age 22,
who joins other actors at the puppet theater after school. “For some reason
they prefer to concentrate everything there.”

The kids at the puppet theater say officials making promises to revive
Shushi’s cultural life don’t seem to understand that culture is all that’s
developing in Shushi.

In fact the only singing ensemble in Karabakh is from Shushi (so, too, is a
former “Miss Karabakh”).

First it was a quintet founded in 2000 by girls singing in Shushi’s Varanda
choir, and now it is a quartet called Nareh who have become celebrities in

Karine,19, Alina 27, Christina 23 and Gayane 22, have taken part in some
folk and pop festivals in Stepanakert where they’ve taken first place. The
girls are mainly performing folk songs but in a modern way.

First they would travel around Karabakh and perform for free, just to become
known. Sometimes they get paid today and they consider $200 ($50 each) a
fair price. However they don’t always get that much.

“If we have a good sponsor we’ll get promoted,” says Gayane. “If not we’ll
stay here and no one will probably know about us except Karabakh.”

Anush Danielian, 22, says she dreams of having an Internet café in Shushi to
connect youth with each other and the outside world. “The only thing we do
now is visit each other, but that gets old.

“All of us have interesting dreams but to make them come true we need
opportunities. And if dreams and possibilities coincided with each other,
then Shushi would become the city of our dreams.”

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress

Emil Lazarian

“I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia . See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.” - WS