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Citizens of Soviet Armenia Permitted a Laid-Back Life Style

Times Staff Writer

Many motorists here in the capital of Soviet Armenia seem to delight in breaking the law, honking their horns, making illegal U-turns and even running a red light now and then.

The traffic police, who in Moscow and elsewhere in this country are notorious for their hard-nosed attitude toward the slightest infraction, seem to look the other way.

“It’s a family operation,” an Armenian government official said of this relaxed attitude toward law and order.

Traffic Signs Ignored

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Pedestrians also ignore traffic signals. They pour across the streets in waves that intimidate even Yerevan’s aggressive drivers.

“The pedestrians think they are tanks and that cars are made of glass,” muttered a taxi driver from the neighboring republic of Georgia. “They have no order here.”

But ethnic Armenians, who account for 90% of this republic’s 3.2 million people, clearly prefer their laid-back life style. Signs of it can be seen nearly everywhere in Yerevan.

Liquor is sold not only in state stores during prescribed hours but by street vendors as well. It is not unusual to see two men at an outdoor cafe split a bottle of brandy over lunch, although there are strict regulations against drinking in public, and they are enforced elsewhere.

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Credentials Overlooked

At City Hall, a police officer did not bother to inspect the credentials of two visitors from Moscow. He sent them along to a deputy mayor’s office with the casual instruction: “It’s on the third floor someplace. Look for yourself.”

On a gravestone in the Pantheon, where part of the ashes of Armenian-American author William Saroyan are buried, someone has left an open bottle of vodka with two glasses so that visitors can drink to his memory.

And unlike other Soviet cities, with drab, look-alike buildings, Yerevan has a varied architecture that makes good use of a native stone that often has a pink or rosy hue. The rounded archway is typical of Armenia, and there are many examples. Gasoline stations are decorated in pastel colors.

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Outdoor cafes, some with vine-covered trellises, dot the city. Fountains and ponds are abundant along the tree-lined streets, which help keep the residents cool when the thermometer rises above 100 degrees.

Bars and Discotheques

Yerevan also boasts a 17-story Palace of Youth that contains a hotel, a discotheque, a restaurant and, on the top floor, a revolving bar.

There is a modern art museum with abstract paintings that probably would never be shown in more conservative Moscow’s galleries.

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Armenians show deference to the Soviet Union, of course. A square named for Lenin dominates the downtown area and large photos of Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev are prominently displayed. But the Armenian heritage places a high value on national traditions, too.

“We are Communists,” an official said, “but we are also Armenians.”

The Armenians never challenge the commanding role of the Communist Party or Moscow’s ultimate authority. In turn, the ruling powers tolerate the Armenians’ unconventional behavior.

Industrial Successes

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Moscow’s edicts are generally enforced with greater flexibility as the distance from the capital increases. Armenians may be given even greater leeway because their once backward republic is now 70% industrialized, thanks to the hard work of the people here, and because previous party efforts to curb the Armenians’ individualistic tendencies have not met with great success.

Yerevan, founded in 782 BC, ranked with Babylon and Nineveh as a center of culture. It was the first state to adopt Christianity, in AD 301, and it has churches more than 1,500 years old.

The church is credited with preserving the Armenian language and culture despite persecution under a series of pagan and Islamic rulers. Armenians had an alphabet in the 5th Century, about 400 years before the Cyrillic alphabet was created.

Their history and language have set Armenians apart even though they have scattered to dozens of countries around the world.

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Armenians Coming Back

The Soviet Union, which established a Socialist Republic of Armenia in 1920, has always tried to get Armenians living elsewhere to return to their birthplace. According to Soviet officials, 250,000 have come back in the past 65 years, mainly in the 1920s and the years immediately after World War II.

But Soviet authorities have generally kept tight control over Armenian emigration, except for a few years in the late 1970s when an estimated 12,000 to 14,000 Armenians departed.

Now the flow has dwindled to a trickle in both directions. Armenia limits arrivals to 1,000 a year and provides a job, housing and other benefits for returnees. Last year, only 100 Armenians were allowed to leave to join relatives abroad.

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A special committee sends literature, textbooks, a monthly magazine and other materials to 2 million Armenians abroad to keep up their ties with the homeland.

“We are custodians of the entire Armenian past,” Amtranig Martirossian, first vice president of the committee, said in an interview.

He said that “political conditions” in Iran and other countries are blocking the return of some Armenians who wish to be repatriated. He added, “Thousands of our people are sitting on their suitcases waiting for travel permission.”

Relatively few of the estimated 600,000 Armenians in the United States want to come to Armenia, officials said, but they are nonetheless welcome.

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“Armenia is always ready to accept its sons and daughters back,” said Levon Manasserian, chairman of the committee for repatriation.


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