LICHK — In the family bedroom, Lilith is asleep in the crib. There are no teddy bears or toys within reach, but on her belly a photo album moves up and down with her breathing. Inside are pictures of her father, Aram. The child asked to see them to remember his face, his dark eyes and his comforting smile. For the past six months, the 3-year-old girl and her two older siblings have seen him only in photographs or on the small screen of their mother Anouch’s cellphone.

In Lichk, an Armenian village located next to Lake Sevan, Aram Harutiunian was a boxing coach until his first daughter’s birth in 2005. That year, he packed his bags and set off for Russia.

“I used to earn 20,000 drams (around $55) per month,” he explains over the phone. “I couldn’t feed my family on that wage.”

Between March and October, the boxing champion now lays stone and pavement on Moscow’s roads and builds houses and buildings. He is not alone. Just like him, other inhabitants of the village and of the region — farmers, drivers, bankers, builders, school principals and even orchestra directors — have reinvented themselves as masons for the insatiable Russian industry.

Since the collapse of the Soviet empire, hundreds of thousands of Armenians have followed this economic exodus. In Lichk and in the whole Martuni province, solutions had to be found after production units were dismantled and regional businesses were shut down. So, instead of leaving to work in Yeveran, the Armenian capital, and spend a poor salary for an overpriced and narrow apartment, they followed the example of a few elderly locals, who decades ago set off to earn money in Siberia, Georgia or wherever the share of the Soviet cake was larger..

Lichk — Photo: Travis K. Witt

And now, income in Russia can be three times higher than at home. “In Russia, I earn a lot more in three months than in 10 months here,” a young Armenian explains. 

As a result, no fewer than 90% of working-aged men in Lichk actually live abroad, mostly in Russia or Ukraine, from spring to fall. This is visible from one side of the village to the other, to the extent that the itinerant traders sell barely any men clothes.

A lonely life

“Being able to adapt to everything is essential,” Anouch Harutiunian sighs, her tone made hazy by a cold. It has been 10 years since the young woman settled in Aram’s parents’ house, joined five years later by her sister-in-law Ruzanna, whose taxi-driver husband took the Slav direction before the couple even had the chance to celebrate their first wedding anniversary.

Eight months out of 12 the two sisters-in-law share the only two family bedrooms with their five children. The only man in the house is their father-in-law Never, who has become taciturn because of this endless crisis that has already taken three sons, one daughter, all his son-in-laws and a few brothers-in-law away from him.

Because they stayed in the village, the women have become guardians of heritage and the heads of these disrupted families. They have to raise the children and take care of the elderly by themselves.

“The women take on everything that concerns the specific village life, including work we used to do as a family,” Mayor Lionel Grigoryan says. This is true even for tasks that traditionally fall to the men — making hay, piling stacks, moving cinder blocks or selling animals at the market. And, of course, they also take care of the household tasks traditionally attributed to mothers and daughters here. It’s “a hard time,” they all agree.

Lost naivete

In these conditions, why don’t they follow their husbands? “What’s the point of leaving everything behind just to end up paying a rent and not be able to get by?” one of the women asks. “I can’t bring myself to leave my village permanently,” another says. “My husband tells me Russia is a dangerous place,” a third woman explains.

For Anouch Harutiunian, these arguments hide a completely different reality: “Some men don’t want their wives to discover the kind of life they live over there, or are afraid that they would do the same. They send money to their wives so they don’t ask questions.”

This tall brunette with romantic spit curls has long since lost the naivete behind which other women hide to accept the harshness of their daily lives. Her biting remarks reveal weariness and a lack of emotional affection. Even if Anouch and her sister-in-law are convinced that their husbands are “different from the others,” the known infidelity of cousins and neighbors makes them cautious. “We know nothing of what they do over there,” Anouch says. “We trust them, but doubt always exists.”

Lichk's S. Astvatsatsin church — Photo: Travis K. Witt

Healer Emma Balabekyan jokes around with her friends about their lives. “There’s no risk here, there are only old men,” she says. On the living room couch, three generations of women burst out laughing. “We can’t always be stressed. That’s why we joke around so much,” says a woman named Nvard.

This relaxed atmosphere clashes with the austerity of the dark living room, where the walls are covered with religious icons and a portrait of the healer’s deceased husband. Candles, crucifixes, mystical recitations and holy water are part of the rite that, for lack of other moral support, helps relieve pain and neurosis.

These days, however, the household is busy harvesting the vegetable patch. Like everywhere else in the village, the family has started harvesting to can before their husbands return home. “It’s the hardest period of the year because we have to prepare for winter,” says Ruzanna Harutiunian. “We don’t have a single minute to ourselves. We’re robots,” Anouch adds.

Bearing the marks of their condition

At ages 25 and 30, the two women already bear marks of their harsh lives. Their bodies are as thin as marathon runners’, their backs more painful than warehouse workers’, and their hands red and swollen from manual labor. At home, the children grow up without a father. Sahak, Anouch’s son, did not even recognize his father the last time Aram returned to the village. He thought he was his uncle. “That day, I saw my husband cry,” she remembers.

This year, she spent 150,000 drams ($400) for her three children to return to school, which is very formal in Armenia. “If one day I’m not able to buy things for them, it would be horrible for me,” she says. At school too, the consequences of paternal absence — which concerns 80% of the pupils — is also evident. 

“When they get to fifth grade, boys don’t want to study anymore,” the teacher says. “In the most concerning cases, we call the father in Russia to tell him his son isn’t behaving properly,” the deputy director adds. “It’s the parents’ job to punish them. If the fathers were there, there would be no problem.”

In eastern Armenia — Photo: Shaun Dunphy

Some high school students don’t even wait until after graduation anymore to leave to join the ranks of the “asphalt builders” abroad. They go back there as soon as they finish their military service, then between two university years, if they get the chance to study.

Of course, emigration does help the village in many ways. At the top of the hill, in the soft light of dusk, are a large group of houses that, 50 years ago, were a lot smaller. Now, a new neighborhood has emerged. The residents have named it “Putingrad” because it was built with money earned in Russia. These last few years, the houses have been getting bigger and more abundant. The houses’ interiors have more and more electrical appliances too. Teenagers strut around in their father’s Jeep. Lichk will soon have its own cultural center and its church, paid for by the villagers.

The village’s whole economy has now come to rely on these comings and goings: In the shops, debts and suppliers are paid at the end of the year, and the hairdresser’s and the restaurant make the most money during the four months the men are there. Women become pregnant when the fathers come home, and 80% of the children are born between July and December.

As for Aram Harutiunian, he has not been able to buy his wife a house yet. But it is their big plan. The couple has received 450,000 ($1,200) from the state for the birth of Lilith, their third child. With this money, they managed to get a bit closer to achieving their dream and are now saving dram after dram to build what Anouch calls their “own home.” She adds in a solemn tone: “It’s all we’re missing to finally give this life a meaning.”