Magazine article The Spectator

The Spirit of Armenia

Magazine article The Spectator

The Spirit of Armenia

Article excerpt

It is impossible not to sympathise with Armenia.

It has spent much of its history between the hammer and the anvil, trying to fend off imperial predators and usually failing.

What if the Armenians had inhabited the British I sles? Apart from the savage I rish in their bogs and cabins, the main enemy would have been the French, whose malevolence could be drowned in the English Channel. With such a happy geography, Armenians would be as numerous and prosperous as we are. But neither geography nor history was benign, with one paradoxical exception. Because the Russians rescued them from the Turks, the Armenians were rarely disloyal to the Soviet Union.

Even so, their grog-makers suffered. The Soviet system drove more and more people to drink, of worse and worse quality. At the beginning of last century, Armenia's brandy enjoyed a reputation second only to the French, but that had long ceased to be true when I first encountered it.

I associate Armenian brandy with toasts and speech-making: endless toasts, in which the spirit was supposed to go straight down the gullet.

It would have been effeminate to stop and savour.

In those days - a few years ago - it would not have been worth savouring, and its anaesthetic properties made the speeches less unpalatable.

For some of the time, we were in Nagorno-Karabakh. Wholly surrounded by Azerbaijan but entirely populated by Armenians, it is disputed territory. There has been one war already, in the early 1990s.

It will be surprising if there is no further conflict in the course of this century.

Every building seemed to have shell scars.

Most of the people we spoke to had lost close relatives.

Tragedy was never far away, even if the stage seemed set for comedy.

We were visiting a school. Some of its buildings were less a case of holes in the roof than roof in the holes. …

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