Each time I’ve come to Yerevan in the past decade the city has surprised me with its evolving elegance and cultural richness. The downtown has an energy that is a long way from the sleepy Soviet city I first visited in the 1980s. Walking the shady avenues off Republic Square on a recent visit, I found the city has become a hip place, with wine bars, microbreweries, cafes, art galleries, boutiques selling crafts and carpets, an ever-new array of restaurants, as well as upscale hotels and clothing stores.
The new mood is defined by the millennial generation’s role in the velvet revolution of this past spring. After weeks of peaceful protests, the civil society has pushed from power an old regime that much of the nation viewed as dysfunctional and corrupt, representing a continuation of old Soviet mentalities. When Nikol Pashinyan, a prominent journalist, activist and former parliamentarian became prime minister on May 8, a sense of a new era enveloped the country.
In June I sat in a vine-trellised courtyard restaurant and art gallery on Abovian Street with Armen Ohanyan, a young fiction writer, and Arevik Ashakharoyan, a literary agent. I was hearing Armenia’s new voices of optimism. “Soviet minds are a thing of the past,” Mr. Ohanyan said.
“The new generation, born after the fall of the Soviet Union, is playing a big role in the new democracy,” Ms. Ashakharoyan said. “We are tech-savvy and have no ties to the corrupt Soviet past.” “We feel a new future,” Mr. Ohanyan added. “The reign of oligarchs is over.”
Having written about Armenia for decades, their words resonated. I am a poet and nonfiction writer of Armenian ancestry and have been to Armenia five times in the past decade. My trips are often connected to my work — a translation of one of my books, a lecture tour, a symposium.
I started the day grazing on a classic Armenian breakfast spread at the Armenia Marriott Hotel Yerevan, an elegant hotel on Republic Square with fine local cuisine: bastermas (spicy, cured beef); paper-thin or thicker warm lavash; local cheeses; jams with strawberries or apricots or walnuts; thick yogurt; cherries, apricots, blackberries and melons from local orchards; fruit nectars and orange, red and brown rolls of thick grape molasses stuffed with walnuts (sujuk); and black tea from a samovar. The presentation was beautiful and the Caucasian sun poured through the windows.
Like its cuisine, the country has a long, rich history. Armenia, which became an independent republic in 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union, is a small, landlocked nation in the southwest Caucasus, at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. The country today is what remains of a once-ancient empire that stretched from the Mediterranean to the Caspian Sea in the first century B.C., before it was conquered by the Romans. It was the first nation to make Christianity its state religion, in 301.
Conquered by Byzantines, Persians, Mongols and Seljuks, then colonized by the Ottoman Turks in the 16th century, Armenians were subject to large-scale massacres in the 19th century, during the reign of Sultan Abdul Hamid II, and were the victims of what genocide scholars regard as one of the first genocides of the modern era, by the Ottoman Turkish government in 1915. (Turkey denies that the killings were genocide.)