Old Yerevan and the residents of Yerevan

A Yerevan resident didn’t call work “work.” They called it “business.” A Yerevan resident didn’t come to work; they appeared at work! You probably wouldn’t have had the chance to witness such a scene.

The distance from Friendship Square (a major transportation hub) to the entrance of a large enterprise (with over 5,000 employees) – the Institute of Mathematical Machines – was just a few hundred meters. After getting off buses and trolleybuses, employees had to walk along the only alley to the hillside and enter the premises.

You had to see how thousands of people, dressed in their evening best, calmly ascended the hill, chatting and seemingly casually disappearing behind the entrance. Inside the enterprises, everything was done without fuss or visible tension.

A Yerevan resident calmly and almost incidentally did their work. And they did it well, for the most part. Of course, the expression “Why should I be the one to do it all?” was least applicable to an active and self-assured Yerevan resident! They needed it more than anyone else!

They wanted to unfold themselves, to self-realize; that’s what they lived for! They had to create what no one expected from them. They believed, no, they knew that they possessed a special knowledge and skill from birth, and all they had to do was adapt the surrounding world and convince people that this was what they needed.

Moreover, they yearned to be liked and accepted for who they were! But showing others their stress, hurry, or preoccupation was absolutely indecent. After all, everyone had their own tasks; everyone was their own leader.

Not getting in the way of others!… A team of shoemakers would order trendy soles from Italy with their own money to make the most fashionable shoes, no worse than the Italian ones. They did it calmly and naturally, as if they didn’t live behind the “iron curtain” away from Italy and didn’t work at a state-owned enterprise.

At the cybernetics institute, after receiving an order from Moscow to accurately replicate an American computer, they unexpectedly produced a more powerful computer in the Union, superior to the original.

Surprisingly, it was discovered that the range of products at a chemical plant was ten times higher than planned: they themselves mastered new items without any instructions from above.

A factory built to produce ordinary resistors soon starts manufacturing computers and semiconductor devices.

Do you remember the huge posters with energetic workers and collective farmers that adorned the walls of buildings during Soviet times? The coal-stained but happy miners, the machine builders in dirty overalls, exceeding their targets?

Before hanging such a poster in Yerevan, it was often “adapted” for the southern republic: the worker would be repainted as a fiery brunet and, for some reason, a mustache would be added to the “all-Union” poster face.

The initiators of such propaganda would likely be disappointed to learn the discouraging impression the image of an “advanced Armenian worker” made on the people. If anyone paid attention to such a poster, it would be the grandmothers and grandfathers of Yerevan. They couldn’t approve of the portrayal of a young man posing for a photograph, exhausted from work, and still wearing dirty overalls!

Well, meet your targets, then go wash up and change your clothes before smiling for the camera! Otherwise… what a disgrace it is!

Real Armenians, not just those on posters, acted differently. Before me, there is an old magazine photo, and according to the caption, it shows a team of workers building the Arpa-Sevan tunnel:

Four men in their Sunday best are standing, one with a briefcase, and a plump lady with a bouquet, wearing a light dress and high-heeled shoes.

They are standing at the entrance of the tunnel, and their faces display a shy delight: firstly, they look good, and secondly, out of respect for the viewer, they don’t show their difficulties: the efforts they put into building the tunnel, the discomfort, dirt, and heat they endure. Quite the opposite!

So, here we are, building the Arpa-Sevan tunnel, looking great ourselves, and wishing everyone good health! And if we exceeded the plan, well, that’s good if you like it. There’s no need to talk about any bravado or boasting here. It was simply pleasant to shyly conceal any “process”.

Armenians themselves see themselves as “crooked in form but straight in essence”. They believe that it’s almost impossible to keep their actions in disciplined, rhythmic, tidy, and pleasing frameworks. But it’s easier to make the finished action, the result, beautiful and worthy of the gaze of others.

Perhaps that’s why Armenia often achieves success in visual arts, where the end result is visible, more than, let’s say, in dance, where the action itself, the movement, is on display. The Armenian proverb “Sit crooked, but speak straight” implies something more than the non-obligatory requirement for truth to be beautiful and “well-groomed”!

It reflects the belief that “sitting” will inevitably be “crooked”, that it’s impossible to sit straight! But it’s not so frightening, as there is hope to achieve a result that will be “straight”! An Armenian resident was almost always surprised if someone paid attention to how they worked.

Unless it was a student, such attention would not have been received well. The results of their work, on the other hand, were a different matter. An Armenian would sincerely rejoice that they brought someone pleasure with what they had done. Particularly successful were new and unique products, something with a twist or peculiarity.

Apparently, the soul leaned towards “something different from the rest”. Every new enterprise of the 1970s revolved around a new idea, or to be more precise, around some super-active individual, a person who was confident that they were creating something “unprecedented”.

Even everyday items and food products produced by Yerevan factories were different from the “all-Union” ones, not due to any particular Armenian culinary traditions. The wonderful Armenian cuisine remained in the reliable hands of housewives and professional chefs.

But what the factories in Yerevan produced was more of a result of the imagination of specific confectioners. Firstly, there was the amazingly delicious shaped chocolate (the present generation probably doesn’t even know what it is) – dense dark chocolate without any filling, with an assortment of figurines in a candy box.

Secondly, only in Yerevan was cotton candy produced on an industrial scale. It was sold in stores and for takeout in the form of colorful bricks the size of a loaf of bread. In the famous “Gastronom number one” located on the ground floor of “Detskiy Mir,” the salespeople would try to explain to foreign tourists what this product was, using their fingers.

Although there was cotton candy in France (where it’s called “grandfather’s beard”), it was difficult to recognize it in the green and red bricks of Yerevan. As for how they managed to spoil simple candies or cookies to the point of being completely inedible, one can only guess…

One of the favorite festive treats in Yerevan was “adi-budi.” It seemed to always be there. In Russia, it appeared in 1992 under the name “popcorn.” Yerevan’s popcorn was eaten without salt or sugar, and it was made “dry” from freshly-popped corn alone. Therefore, unlike the Moscow version, it didn’t leave an oily residue.

The old grandmother selling “adi-budi” in the archway of House 2 on Abovyan Street was probably pleased with Russian tourists. It was near her that tour buses would stop, and tourists, like children, delighted in this unusual treat and lined up for it. Perhaps the grandmother even gave a little extra to the tour guides.

Would today’s young Yerevantsis, accustomed to excellent ice cream, believe that the ice cream in Yerevan back then wasn’t sweet, had a margarine taste, and Eskimo popsicles didn’t have sticks at all? When kefir became popular throughout the Soviet Union in the 1960s, the people of Yerevan didn’t embrace it.

A couple of times, they attempted to sell it in stores, but the buyers believed that it was diluted yogurt, shamelessly watered down, so the dairy factories stopped producing it. Instead, a local invention called “zepyur” took off. It was an acidophilus drink with tarragon flavoring, tinted blue or with pink jam, resulting in a pink color.

Looking back after decades, it seems to me that none of the current fruit flavors go as well with yogurt as those two did – tarragon and rose! The factory with the mysterious name “Combinate of Eastern Products” produced original sweets with fancy names, but the simple pastries were not very tasty.

All the original products were a success: the first electric instruments in the USSR – the “Krink” guitars, “Krink-60,” and “Armenia,” as well as ionics and electric organs, were known throughout the country. However, the pianos, to be honest, didn’t turn out very well.

In Yerevan, you could buy strange items like a bedside lampshade made of pure copper or a flashlight that protected drivers from the blinding headlights… Meanwhile, regular light bulbs from the second largest electric lamp factory in the USSR would only last for about a month until the beginning of the 1980s.

When plastic bags with colorful designs became fashionable in the 1970s (there was a time when a plastic bag was a trendy accessory!), and there were no technologies for printing on plastic yet, Yerevan printers found a solution by producing bags with a double layer of transparent film with a printed design sandwiched between them on paper.

At the same time, children nicknamed Armenian-made school notebooks “ishhanam” (meaning “bishop” in Armenian): they were gray on the outside and densely pink on the inside, like Sevan trout. They were printed crookedly on terrible quality paper…

Yerevantsis produced the best shoes in the USSR. However, it was not proper to openly talk about it. A Yerevantsi would say, “Our shoes are among the best,” nothing more. Although there was no one to compare specifically in the shoe industry, it was alien to the spirit of Yerevan to remain psychologically isolated even at the pinnacle of success.

First, the “Masis” factory and later the “Nairi” factory produced high-quality and beautiful shoes that were also exported. But footwear creativity in Yerevan was not limited to these large factories.

Next to the stores, you could always find independent craftsmen who politely and subtly criticized factory-made shoes and offered their own “unbelievably good” shoes made of the finest leather, using the latest techniques, and most importantly, crafted by a true master!

From the book “Yerevan Civilization” by S.V. Lurie and A.A. Davtyan.

Translated by Vigen Avetisyan

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