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Arts and Culture

Armenia is Our Home: Life as a National Minority

 View from the Molokan village of Fioletovo

View from the Molokan village of Fioletovo

Misha and Natasha live on what they call a “military schedule.” They wake up at 5AM every morning to send their cows to the mountains with the village shepherds, and spend the day working in the lush green fields outside their house. They keep the Sabbath on Saturday, when the elders read the bible, and the whole village gathers to pray together. They are Molokans, part of a Christian sect that was exiled from Russia in the 1800s because they stayed true to their traditions and refused to follow the conventions of the Russian Orthodox Church. They were able to find refuge in Armenia, however, and settled in little villages tucked away in the Armenian mountains.

 Misha and Nastiya in the backyard

Misha and Nastiya in the backyard

    Misha and Natasha live in the house that Misha built in Fioletovo, a Molokan village set against a picturesque background of rolling green hills.Their children have all migrated to Russia to find work, but they still keep their traditional customs alive, and Misha and Natasha teach their grandchildren about their lifestyle when they visit in the summers.

“We took our granddaughter Nastiya out with us when we went to the fields yesterday,” Misha told us, “But she lives in Moscow, so she didn’t understand what we were doing, and she kept stirring the dirt around and saying ‘Mamma, can I make you a soup?’”

Misha and Natasha were sad to see their children move to Russia.

“If only there were jobs here, they would have stayed,” Natasha said. “Armenia is our home. We speak Russian with an Armenian dialect, and we think like Armenians. Armenians are very friendly to us, and they respect us a lot, and we never have conflicts.”

Having always thought of Armenia as a monoethnic nation, I was surprised to hear this. But when I spoke to Der Hayr Asoghik, one of the senior priests at the Armenian Apostolic Church in Echmiadzin, he echoed the idea of tolerance for national minorities.

 Der Hayr Asoghik in his office at Echmiadzin

Der Hayr Asoghik in his office at Echmiadzin

“The church forbids forced conversion and destroying other people’s cultures,” he said, “Armenians have been victims of that in other countries, but we want to be an example for other nations. We believe that nationalism is loving your nation, not hating others. So the mission of the church is to help every nation stay devoted to its language and culture.”

Throughout its history, Armenia has stayed true to that mission. Khrmnjo, a Yazidi man who herds sheep on Mount Aragats told us how his family escaped genocide by Turks and Kurds in 1915, and were welcomed into Armenia with open arms. He now lives like many of the other Yazidis in Armenia, staying in a tent to find the best pastures on the mountain in the summer, and coming home to his village at the base of the mountain in the winter. He and his family cook Armenian food, speak Yazidi and Armenian, and celebrate Yazidi holidays. He also tunes into his radio every day at 6PM to hear the Yazidi radio station, all spoken in their language, and featuring some of their most famous Yazidi pop stars.

 Yazidi encampment on Mount Aragats

Yazidi encampment on Mount Aragats

Aziz Tamoyan, the president of the worldwide Yazidi community, sees the Yazidi radio as one of the many important expressions of Yazidi identity in Armenia.

“Our culture is developing a lot here,” he said, “We publish books and newspapers, as well as running a radio station in the Yazidi language. President Sarkisian even gave a speech and celebrated our New Year with us.”

 Medieval Yazidi Cemetery near Mount Aragats

Medieval Yazidi Cemetery near Mount Aragats

This type of recognition is very important for the Yazidi community because, throughout their history they have been persecuted for their belief in a god that created the universe and entrusted it seven holy beings.

“The most holy of the angels is Tawûsê Melek, the peacock angel,” Aziz explained to us, showing us the peacock mural on his wall.

On the opposite wall, Aziz has a huge display of bedsheets and pillows.

“We believe that life begins with the bed,” he says.

 Aziz Tamoyan in front of his bedsheet display

Aziz Tamoyan in front of his bedsheet display

Over the years, Yazidis have faced relentless persecution for their unique beliefs, but they have always stood by their faith. Even after Daesh destroyed their holy land of Sinjar in Northern Iraq in 2014, many Yazidis found a new home in Armenia and joined the community that has become such an integral part of this nation. And, in the wake of the destruction of their holy sites at Sinjar, they have begun construction on what will soon be the world’s largest Yazidi shrine in Armenia.

Kristin Cass