Cultural Exchange in Armenia

Choosing a New Path

About a year ago, facing a crossroads in my professional life, I decided to do something that I knew most of my friends and coworkers wouldn’t understand. I left a comfortable, if dull, career in public service that was just starting to reap dividends in order to study Russian and volunteer overseas. Russian had been a topic of interest since childhood, though I only began learning the language while in college. After restarting my education with a year of private lessons, I was rearing for the chance to study the language full-time, and then live in a Russophone country. Fulfilling the first part of this plan was easy; the United States, where I live, is full of intensive summer programs in Russian and other languages, and many offer scholarships. The second part of the plan was a bit trickier. With the war in Ukraine having started only a few months before, my aspirations to go to Russia, Ukraine, and even Belarus were best put on hold. Luckily for me, there were other options. 


Discovering the Armenian Volunteer Corps

While googling volunteer programs in the region, I was lucky enough to discover the Armenian Volunteer Corps (AVC). Armenia, a former Soviet republic, had been on my radar since its 2018 Velvet Revolution, which marked an important step in the country’s democratization. Situated at the edge of the Middle East, it also represented a unique cultural and geographic space when compared with the Slavic and East European states that are more stereotypically “post-communist”. As someone who was contemplating a career transition, the ability to volunteer in any field imaginable through AVC was a key aspect of what attracted me to the organization. However, while I spent most of the run-up to my service imagining that I might be exposed to opportunities in one or more exciting new fields, I owe my most valuable takeaways from the experience to my interactions with local Armenians, recent arrivals from Russia, and my fellow volunteers. 

One of the most important features of service in the AVC is the option of living with a host family. For those looking to practice a new language, it can be an invaluable experience to wake up and come home to native speakers every day. It will also expose you to other key features of life in the country, such as the transit system in the Armenian capital of Yerevan, Armenian cooking, how families observe different holidays, and of course stories from life in the late Soviet and early independence periods. For me, it also served as an opportunity to observe Armenia’s high level of social capital—while engaged in my daily commute from the outskirts of Yerevan, I got to watch how, even on a crowded bus where one could easily board without paying for transit, a single 100-dram coin (the price for a bus ride, valued at about $.25) could safely pass between several pairs of hands before it reached the driver. This is the type of experience that one can miss in other international programs, where volunteers may live together on a base, insulated from the society in which they are serving. (I also met a man at my bus stop who claimed to have served in Eastern Germany while Putin was stationed in Dresden in the 1980s, though he was unclear on whether they were friends)

Interacting with other people in Armenia

As mentioned, an unfortunate aspect of the time in which I was serving was the war in Ukraine, which as of this writing is still ongoing. However, as someone who had previously had little contact with Russians, even while studying their language, this meant that there were many new arrivals in Yerevan from Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other cities who had left Russia because of the political situation. AVC and its sister organization, Birthright Armenia, served as a great hub for meeting many of those who had come to Armenia but had yet to find permanent work. This included a Tatarstan-born marketing specialist who was my coworker at an agricultural NGO, a political science graduate student from Moscow, and several others, each of whom could provide some level of perspective on life in Russia while affording me practice speaking and listening in Russian. Even outside of AVC, there were plentiful opportunities to meet and speak with Russian citizens, whether at volunteer sites, on walks, or riding the overnight South Caucasian Railway train from Armenia to Tbilisi. 

Gaining a New Perspective on Language Learning

As someone who had come to Armenia hoping to live in a semi-immersive Russian-speaking environment, I found almost begrudgingly that the value of language runs both ways. One of my most fulfilling volunteer jobs was serving as an English language conversation partner at one of Yerevan’s many universities. Armenia’s students are vibrant, creative, and intellectually curious. Moreover, owing to the nature of the Armenian diaspora, many of them have roots or families in Russia, other post-Soviet states such as Kazakhstan, and the Middle East. Because of this, I found that the simple act of conversing in my native language was a great way to learn more about the cultures, perspectives, and experiences of young people from across the region, while also providing a window to life in the United States. As I learned, it turns out that one of America’s most important cultural exports is The Office

Beyond studying and experiencing life in Armenia, the Middle East, or the post-Soviet space, AVC is a fantastic opportunity for anyone hoping to build a global network. While hanging out with my fellow volunteers, I met smart, dynamic, and unique people from all over the world, including India, China, the European Union, and even different parts of the United States. During two different trips in Europe since my service ended, I had the privilege of meeting up with contacts I made while volunteering, and in doing so learning a little more about their homelands. More recently, I stayed at the apartment of a fellow volunteer while road-tripping from Michigan to California for work and got to see a bit of Minneapolis in the process. 

Building a Global Network Through Volunteering

Much of what I have discussed, and indeed my motivation for going to Armenia, has been in relation to the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation, and the Russian language. And in terms of language practice and cultural exchange opportunities, my trip was a success. However, what I was completely unprepared for was how much Armenia pushes beyond (or successfully ignores) a “post-communist” narrative to instead be its own thing—simply Armenian. Of course, many there, especially among the older generation, speak Russian. However, Yerevan is host to former members of the diaspora that moved there from Latin America, Europe, the United States, and the Middle East to return to their homeland. Armenians, while Indo-European, are non-Slavic and are host to a heritage that stretches back to the time of ancient Greece—long before Russia or many other modern nation-states had even been dreamt of. During the Soviet period, Armenia retained the use of its own language, with a unique alphabet and grammar system that defies comparison with most European languages (you can take lessons in it for free through AVC!). Even Soviet-era architecture refuses in many ways to conform to the stereotype of gray, foggy Eastern European cities of concrete apartment blocks. While some of these do exist, the major pieces of public architecture are instead rendered in pink tuff rock—a local specialty—and have a neoclassical, rather than brutalist, appearance. Through weekly excursions with AVC, volunteers are also introduced to an arid, mountainous geography that is perhaps the farthest thing from Russia one could imagine. And in political terms, while Armenia is in the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, it is a democracy and is a party to a European Union Association Agreement. Its international activity goes beyond the East-versus-West dichotomy that characterizes how Americans often think about post-Soviet states, as the nation finds partners in Iran and, more recently, India. 

How My Time in Armenia Transformed Me

The three months I spent serving in Armenia were a fantastic experience for someone who was brand new to international travel. Before getting on the airplane at Detroit Metro Airport, I had spent a total of one night outside of my home country—and only in nearby Canada. Nevertheless, through travel with friends I made in Armenia I was quickly introduced to reserving hostels, browsing online bus schedules, and buying train tickets where no one at the station knew English. This gave me the confidence to further expand my horizons, and my return trip to the United States involved a large swing through the Balkans that included several night buses, hotel check-ins at 4 AM, hikes through cities ranging from five to twenty miles in a single day, and helplessly asking drivers the name of my destination city until someone pointed me to the right vehicle. Blessed with confidence and experience, I have since volunteered in Poland and Turkey on humanitarian projects relating to refugee and IDP housing, both of which were important experiences. But in terms of diving right into a country, nothing has matched AVC. I eagerly await my return. 

Written by Christopher Clark, AVC volunteer

May 5, 2023