Country of Dust

Episode 1: Serving with a rifle, and then with a pen (part 1)

July 11, 2023 Country of Dust Season 1
Episode 1: Serving with a rifle, and then with a pen (part 1)
Country of Dust
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Country of Dust
Episode 1: Serving with a rifle, and then with a pen (part 1)
Jul 11, 2023 Season 1
Country of Dust

In our first episode, we introduce Nikolay Stepanyan, a young Armenian from Russia. We learn about the circumstances that shaped his life and that ultimately led him to become a soldier. 

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Show Notes Transcript

In our first episode, we introduce Nikolay Stepanyan, a young Armenian from Russia. We learn about the circumstances that shaped his life and that ultimately led him to become a soldier. 

Support the Show.

HOST: We wanted this to be the first story we told because so much of what is happening in Armenia today comes back to the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war.

This episode isn’t about the details of the war, or the politics around it though we will get into that later this season. For now, we are just talking about one person, what brought him to Armenia, and what happened to him during the war.

That person is Nikolay Stepanyan - or as he’s known to his friends: Kolya. Kolya has a certain glow about him. He’s always ready with a joke, a thought, and before you know it you find yourself engaged in a meaningful conversation with him. He loves reading, his bookshelf has philosophy books, a Koran, and J.K Rowling - He learned English by reading Harry Potter books when he was growing up in Moscow. 

Whether you know about the war or not - Kolya’s story is not like any story you’ve heard before.

And it is unique in 2 different ways. First - the way he became a soldier. And secondly because he -and 5 other young men - had to keep surviving the war after it was over. For 70 days, the rest of Armenia assumed they were dead. The whole story is crazy. It made big news in Armenia, and there is a movie being made about them. 

And so we’re going to tell his story in 2 parts: how he became a  soldier, and his time stranded behind enemy lines. 

In this episode and the next we are going to talk about the war. There isn’t anything graphic, but it is a sensitive topic for many, so keep that in mind.

If you don’t know anything about the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, here is a bit of background: This was the latest major conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, known to Armenians, as Artsakh. In this podcast, we’ll use Karabakh and Artsakh interchangeably. 

The first war lasted from 1988 to 1994. When that ceasefire happened in ‘94 - Armenians were in control of the land. But the war never really ended. 

It remained a frozen conflict with regular flare-ups along the border, But in the fall of 2020, Azerbaijan, launched a full-scale attack. This war - the 2nd Nagorno-Karabakh war - lasted 44 days, resulting in over 7000 deaths and much of the Armenian-held region being ceded to Azerbaijan. 

And this conflict is far from over. It is still very much unresolved. The fate of the people of Artsakh remains uncertain. 

Kolya’s story takes place just before, during, and in the direct aftermath of the 2020 war. 

Welcome to Country of Dust - stories of a changing Armenia

This episode: “Serving with a rifle, and then with a pen” Part one

I’m Gohar Khachatryan

When we walk into Kolya’s apartment - his living room table is filled with breakfast for us. He doesn’t normally cook for himself, but he pulled out all the stops. There’s Russian cottage cheese pancakes, tea, dried fruit, and his favorite: omelet with honey. It can be controversial.


KOLYA: So breakfast straight out of Goris that I love is omelet with honey on top that my guests courageously tried. And they didn't have any negative emotions about it. It was okay. 

JEREMY: Have you had other reactions from other people?

KOLYA: No, they’re all scared, initially, but when they try, they're like, Okay, that's not bad.

HOST: You’re going to hear my co-producer Jeremy asking questions (he likes to ask questions and he is pretty good at it)

JEREMY: And it's a typical breakfast in Goris?

KOLYA: Yeah, we loved it. I mean, in my family, we ate that a lot.

HOST: Goris is a town in the south of Armenia - it is one of the last stops on the road to Artsakh.

JEREMY: And so your parents are from Goris and then correct? 

JEREMY: And then you were born in Moscow, right? 

KOLYA: Yeah. 

JEREMY: So they brought the honey omlet to Moscow.

KOLYA: Yeah, my mom would cook all the stuff like typical Goris food …

I'm getting hungry.

HOST: Kolya had been to Armenia before when he was 2 but when he came here at 15 - it felt like coming home for the first time.

KOLYA: It completely was like falling in love and it's a very like, cheesy story. I don't like this story. But that's what happened. I was just at the backseat of the car. And it was an evening I saw the flag just waving. That's it. Like I just fell in love with the idea, I guess.

HOST: It was as simple as seeing the Armenian flag - that flipped a switch in him. 

Kolya is a little embarrassed by this story  - but his dedication to Armenia is so important to who he is and where he is today. And it all started with that visit.

KOLYA: That was when I fell in love with it madly. And I came back to Russia and I started planning on moving and serving it. Yeah, it became like my obsession.

HOST: The love of any nation can feel a bit cheesy. But it’s an incredibly strong force. 

KOLYA: Like, I'm in a country where everyone is like me, it feels home.

HOST: Before then, he felt like a fully Russian kid.

KOLYA: Like I identified myself, I think as a Russian. I wasn't much into Armenian anything. After that trip, it all changed. And I started visiting every year also. I had two major, big goals. I wanted to serve Armenia from that point. And I saw that in two stages, first serving with a rifle, and then with a pen.

HOST: Meaning he wanted to help Armenia first by joining the military, and then by becoming a writer.

I first met Kolya in 2018, when he came to Armenia as a volunteer. I worked for Birthright Armenia, an organization that connects diasporans with volunteer opportunities in the country. We get a lot of volunteers and so when we met, he didn’t especially stand out. He was a quiet kid who focused on his work - teaching English to teens.

KOLYA: Working with kids, I connected to them, especially the boys.

HOST: Armenia has mandatory conscription. Every young man has to serve for two years. Kolya was thinking about how most of these boys would soon be in the army, could be on the front lines shooting and being shot at. 

KOLYA: Just looking at them and thinking, Okay, this kid, in eight years, he will go to the army. How am I better than him? And why I shouldn't go?

HOST: And that was what pushed him to start the first part of his plan - to serve Armenia with a rifle. This was the winter of 2019. 

KOLYA: It was the easiest decision

HOST: The decision was easy, but getting into the military wasn’t.

To sign up as a conscript he had to become an Armenian citizen. Kolya’s parents had Armenian passports, which he needed to present in order to get citizenship. But he didn’t want to tell them he was trying to join the military. He was worried about how they would react. 

KOLYA: Like I stole my mom and dad's passports and with them like if your parents have Armenian passport, you can get yours like in a week. 

JEREMY: You stole their their passports?

KOLYA: I mean, they expired already. They did not need them. So I thought I can borrow that for some time. 

JEREMY: But you took it without telling


HOST: There were still more hoops to jump through. He had a small medical issue and the army said he wasn’t fit to serve. Basically the doctors were telling him: go away, we’re giving you an out. But - he did not want an out. He went ahead and got the surgery. This drive to join the military really sets him apart. It’s not uncommon in Armenia to hear about young men and their families trying to avoid military service. Kolya wanted the opposite

KOLYA: And I did the surgery, and I went to the army.

HOST: He pushed through it all. He was committed.

A lot of diasporans feel connected to their homeland, I see that all the time at my work. But most won’t take it to this level.  

KOLYA: I think my just my head works in the extremities. Like if I love something I obsess over it. So just I loved it. And I obsessed over it. And that's what happened.

HOST: But there was one last obstacle - he had to tell his parents. He was leaving to serve in the army in a week and they still didn’t know he was going.

KOLYA: I was just walking around my room for hours before it. Like I had the text but I couldn't send it. It was so hard. You know, when you know you're about to break your mom's heart. It's extremely hard.

HOST: He said telling his family was the hardest part of his whole journey . But he had to say something eventually. He finally told them about his decision just a week before starting his service...

KOLYA: That week was very important for my family to at least a little bit to accept it. They were initially very angry at me and I understand it, for sure, I completely understand it. So we fought, and then after that, like a day or two before going, they called and, you know, at least I, like I went with some kind of blessing from parents at least, so it was big for me. 

HOST: The last night before he left, he couldn’t sleep. He arrived an hour early to the spot where new recruits were meeting. The officers hadn’t even showed up yet.  

He was excited - but he was also anxious.

KOLYA: It was scary. For sure. Two years is a lot. When you are trapped somewhere with a lot of people, me being an introverted person. It was a challenge.

HOST: Kolya ended up in Jabrayil, in southern Artsakh, just north of Iran and a handful of kilometers west of Azerbaijan. It was right on the line of contact, exactly where he wanted to be. 

KOLYA: I didn't want to waste my two years. If like I spent it I spent the best way I can.

HOST: Almost no one he was with had voluntarily entered the military. They were all drafted. This was so different from Kolya and made him stand out. They couldn’t understand his decision to join. 

KOLYA: I could see it on their faces. The guys would see me as an idiot like a madman. Like why did you come? Because every one of them not every one of them but the majority they lived there 18 years thinking how to escape it.

HOST: It was hard - he felt like an outsider. Most people had come to fulfill their service. He had come here to get trained. But when the training began, it felt completely useless.No one was preparing him for the war that the Army knew could start at any time. 

KOLYA: For three months, I was in the army before the war started for three months. I shot from a gun once. How can I not talk about this?

JEREMY: You shot from a gun once meaning you should have been…

KOLYA: It's army training! You know, you're like in the middle of the war, it can start every second. You like guys do nothing. They don't train they do nothing. 

HOST: Once the war would start, he would have to lean on more experienced soldiers for basic training.

KOLYA: I was at the war, asking my friend to show me how to shoot. How to aim. I had no idea.

HOST: Kolya says his training mostly consisted of officers having them march around all day just to kill time.

KOLYA: And you know why? Because officers don't want to work. They just go sit in the I don't know, benches and drink coffee. That's what's happening. No one talks about this. And then the war starts and then we're like, oh, you know, we were not prepared? Of course. I don't know if it's like that in every base. Okay, in my base, it was like this. Imagine how many kids died just because they had no idea how to use their weapon.

HOST: In late September 2020 there was intense firing on the border, which was not uncommon, but this time something was different... 

KOLYA: We kind of knew, maybe one or two days before? Not that we knew. But there were talks.

HOST: For two days they heard sirens going off. Officers brushed it off when they asked. A few days later, he and other soldiers were doing some outdoor cleaning, when suddenly, everything shifted

KOLYA: On the building there was a like bomb and then and then we rushed to the to take ammunition and stuff

HOST: It was a drone attack. This is how Kolya found out that the Second Artsakh War had started. 

KOLYA: Because we could hear the sound and then we rush to the building and then it bombed. It was a panic. You know, a day before we had like alert and in this one day we could have done a lot to be prepared to go at at any moment

HOST: While everyone in Armenia knew that a war could start at any time, most people also underestimated the likelihood and the scale. So for the first few days, we were waiting for the news that the fighting would be over. Instead, martial law was declared.

Kolya, spent the first two weeks of the war on the second line - meaning he was supporting the front line. The second line was where the army sent new recruits. After three months living in a barracks on the base, now he was in a trench.

KOLYA: General day to day we were hearing bombs dropping next to us all the time. It was very hot at day, and at night, it was very cold. And we were like in very light clothing. And almost no food, almost no water.

HOST: That’s because the supply lines were being bombed. 

KOLYA: So we would have like, one canned food for like four people, for example. So we'd gather together and you know, share it, it's it was it was nice.

HOST: Often Kolya talks about the joy of these difficult moments and how important they are to him. The times when he felt a deep sense of friendship with the men he was with.

KOLYA: I mean, I don’t know, it was something special, to eat together with guys that you are about to maybe die together. Imagine the two weeks in a trench. You'd want to be with your friend. There was a lot of good in it. 

HOST: On the battlefield, soldiers could occasionally call home. He had one last talk with his father. 

KOLYA: The last things he asked me was like “what do you think, whats going to happen?” I was like “whatever inch klini klini”

HOST: “Inch klini klini” Meaning whatever will happen, will happen. 

KOLYA: And he was like, he almost smiled at the moment I felt in his voice said “Ha inch’ klini klini.” And that's it. That was it.

HOST: Soon, Kolya would lose communication with everyone, and be presumed dead. 

Kolya’s story will continue in the next episode. 

This first part focused on his decision to serve and the beginning of his time in the Army. 

Many diasporans have a commitment to Armenia, a drive to do what they can to make the country better. They donate money, or spend time volunteering here. Some even move here. But very few serve it the way Kolya has. 

He said that if he loves something, he obsesses over it. But how did a kid from Moscow end up obsessing over being in the Armenian military? When he was teaching English to teenage boys, and knew that they would soon have to join the army, he felt like it was his duty to do the same. He sees Armenia as his greater family.

KOLYA: If someone comes to your house, and there is your family, you protect like, that's, that's what you do.

HOST: In the second part we’ll hear how he did that, what he went through during the war, and how he survived. 

Country of Dust is created and produced by Nyree Abrahamian, Jeremy Dalmas and Gohar Khachatrian; with help from Gabrielle Kaprielian. Sound engineering and music by Jeremy Dalmas. 

Thanks for the support from

  • The Creative Armenia - AGBU Fellowship
  • Impact Hub Yerevan
  • The Vahé and Lucie Foundation
  • and the Nexus Center for the Arts 

And thank you so much for listening! If you like this show - and want to support us then spread the word!