Yerevan, Armenia, USSR — "We Armenians don't particularly like the Russians. We're not particularly taken with the idea of being a Soviet republic," my dinner partner began, tearing free a crescent of the pancakelike Armenian bread called lavash.
"But," he added with a quiet that sounded a little like reverence, "you must remember: Never in our recent history have we had 60 years like these, free from a life-or-death struggle just to be Armenians.
"In the end, only the Soviets gave us that. . . ."m
The story is told that Adolf Hitler, explaining to his military brass how easy it would be to annihilate the people of Poland, remarked that no one, after all, remembers the Armenians.
The Armenians remember the Armenians. They do not so much study their history as feel it: the invasions, persecutions, occupations, and massacres interrupted by brief gasps of peace until, in the first 15 years of this century , Turkey slaughtered well over a million of their number and chased out hundreds of thousands of others.
Many fled here, into "Russian Armenia." And many of these battled for, and briefly won, a truly independent state. In 1921 victory became defeat. Soviet power triumphed and Soviet Armenia was born.
But six decades later, one Yerevan student explains, there are "simple joys" to being a Soviet Armenian.
For many thousands, it is true, these joys are not enough. Flocks of Armenians have left, and continue to leave, to join established communities abroad, particularly in the United States.
They do not, by and large, use their new homes as a platform for public denunciation of the Soviet Union. So the Soviets, by and large, let them go.
Among those who stay, the relatively few who openly advocate human-rights reforms or the reestablishment of a fully independent Armenia are said by dissident sources to get arrested, tried, and promptly convicted for making waves.
Some reported examples: In 1974, the sources said, at least 15 Armenians advocating secession from the Soviet Union were arrested; two years later, a pair of human-rights activists met the same fate. Dissident sources say renewed evidence of nationalist sentiment surfaced in late 1978 and early 1979 in large numbers of leaflets distributed in Yerevan, and that a number of further arrests followed.
"Perhaps," a Yerevan youth remarked, "you have to be an Armenian to understand that this is not the whole story, to understand what we owe the Soviets. . . ."
Such talk could be dismissed as mere political prudence.But much the same message came from Arabic-speaking Armenians here, exchange students from Armenian communities in the Middle East, close friends of close friends of this reporter from an earlier posting in Lebanon.
But even "native" Armenians here do not mince words when talking of the Russians here, who, in effect, run their Soviet state. One stubble-bearded man, feeling insulted by a passer-by as we chatted, suddenly hissed and mumbled that the offender was a "dirty Russian."
But, again, there are the "simple joys." Like the chance to gaze skyward in relative peace at the white-capped countenance of Ararat -- the peak, sacred to all Armenians, where Noah's flood-borne ark is said to have settled back to earth. (The mountain falls within Turkey's frontiers, but to hear Armenians speak about it is to feel it is somehow their own.)
Or like cheering on an Armenian soccer team -- also, naturally, called "Ararat." Like speaking, teaching, learning, protecting the Armenian language (its distinctive alphabet is more than 1,500 years old); or practicing Armenia's ancient strain of Christianity; or singing Armenian songs.
And even, once -- I was told by a Middle Eastern exchange student here -- staging an Armenian general strike, not exactly common fare in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
The catalyst for the strike was yet a further round of fighting in the Lebanese capital of Beirut in late 1978 between Syrian troops and Lebanese Christians. Beirut's large and generally prosperous Armenian community had striven to stay neutral, earning as a result a murderous shell and sniper barrage from both sides. Yerevan virtually shut down in protest.
Hours later, the exchange student recalled, the official Yerevan radio station broadcast a stern message from Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev in effect warning the Beirut combatants to lay off the Armenians.
Although its architecture is oppressively and unimaginatively Soviet, Yerevan is allowed in many ways to be Armenian. True, there are the ever-present paeans to the glory of the Soviet Communist Party, the occasional posters of the aging Moscow Politburo touched up to look like a group of robust 40-year-olds.
At the arrival hall of the city airport, next to Aeroflot timetables, lie Armenian-language editions of Mr. Brezhnev's 1976 keynote address to the Soviet Communist Party congress.
"Long live the inviolable friendship of the peoples of the USSR," screams a placard at the city soccer stadium. The fans use back issues of Pravda as seat cushions, and don't seem to pay much attention to the sign. "Ararat . . . Ararat . . . Ararat," they cheer rhythmically.
It is a city with familiarly, if not exclusively, Soviet problems. There is not enough meat, not enough consumer goods.
"Fish is meat, too," a headline in the Armenian communist newspaper reminds Yerevan. "Today is fish day," announces a sign at a well-known local restaurant.
Housing is short, too, perhaps not surprisingly, since flocks of refugees suddenly turned what was a modest country town into a teeming city not too many decades ago. Shanty dwellings, not unlike Palestinian refugee houses around Beirut, dot Yerevan, some barely beyond the gaze of the large statue of Lenin in the city's central square.
My official guide sings the praises of the truly "modern" Armenia, the citizen of the Soviet state, dismissing the independence drive earlier in this century as something of a misguided prank by adolescent idealists. Only a small percentage of Soviet Armenians still bother with Christianity, he adds.
Although he, like other Soviet Armenians, studied Russian in school, he speaks Armenian with his friends. And as we entered an old Armenian monastery hewn from a rock face in the hills above Yerevan, his voice quieted in what seemed like respect.
Rows of candles, left by anonymous supplicants, glimmered in the near-dark. A priest joined a young couple in matrimony with verses from the ancient Armenian Bible.
"Were you married in a church?" I asked my modern Armenian companion.
"Yes," he said evenly. He added with a note of apology, "It is tradition, you know, just tradition.