Country of Dust

Episode 2: Serving with a rifle, and then with a pen (part 2)

July 18, 2023 Country of Dust Season 1
Episode 2: Serving with a rifle, and then with a pen (part 2)
Country of Dust
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Country of Dust
Episode 2: Serving with a rifle, and then with a pen (part 2)
Jul 18, 2023 Season 1
Country of Dust

In this episode, we delve deeper into Nikolay Stepanyan's personal journey during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, and hear his remarkable story of survival. If you missed part 1 of Kolya’s story, go back and listen to the first episode before listening to this one. 

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Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, we delve deeper into Nikolay Stepanyan's personal journey during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, and hear his remarkable story of survival. If you missed part 1 of Kolya’s story, go back and listen to the first episode before listening to this one. 

Support the Show.

HOST: Welcome to Country of Dust - stories of a changing Armenia

This episode: “Serving with a rifle, and then with a pen, Part 2”

I’m Gohar Khachatryan

We’re going to continue with Nikolay Stepanyan and his time in the army. If you haven’t heard the last episode, go back and listen to the first part of his story before we start. 

Kolya had moved to Armenia from Russia and had enlisted in the military - just a few months before the beginning of the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. When we left off, the war had been raging for 2 weeks, and Kolya was living in a trench with his fellow soldiers, sharing the few cans of food they had.        

Kolya’s battalion was in Jabrayil, but they had to retreat north as the Azerbaijani military advanced. They ended up in the Hadrut region. 

KOLYA: So we were on one of the mountains surrounding Hadrut

HOST: They got an order from their commander to retreat further

KOLYA: and in that moment, where it all happened, there was a panic. were initially like a few 100 people. And then some died, some were wounded, some ran away

HOST: His entire group was encircled and it was chaos. They lost contact with all their officers. After everything calmed down he was stuck with 20 other soldiers in Hadrut - and 3 of them were wounded. 

KOLYA: So we were just trapped in that position. We couldn't move because the guys three people couldn't walk. And so we were just waiting

HOST: They were in an area now controlled by the Azerbaijani military and there were soldiers everywhere. They had to make sure they weren’t discovered.

KOLYA: We could hear them, we could see them. Always.

HOST: The group was able to contact Armenian officers who said the army would come to them. But no one came. Then they lost all communication. And they couldn’t move without leaving the wounded soldiers behind. So they were stuck - without any food or even any water. After a few days Kolya heard a cow moo and had an idea - 

KOLYA: And I was like, I was so thirsty at that point. I was like, I will go and milk her and everyone would laugh at me but I was like what's wrong with you? We're gonna die. They're like have you ever milked a cow was like no, go and try they were like, can you imagine azeris finding you milking a cow. And I was like okay, maybe not. 

HOST: Instead - he and 2 other soldiers left the forest and went to a nearby village to try and get supplies to keep their group alive.

KOLYA: And at night me Arman, Artur would go to to the village for food for 21 people so that's a lot of food on on all night would carry it back to the forest

HOST: But to find enough, they had to look through more and more houses, farther and farther away from where they were hiding. And the further they went, the more likely it was that they would be found.

KOLYA: At that point, we had already no connection with Armenia, nothing, we're just already, maybe a month we’re trapped. Like it's a very bad situation.

HOST: They were so close to Azerbaijani troops that they could hear them talking. Then one of the 3 wounded men died. They were out of options.

They ended up splitting into 3 groups. One tried to make it back to Stepanakert. One chose to stay in the forest. And Kolya’s group of 6 decided to move into the village where they had been gathering food. Of the 14 soldiers who weren’t in Kolya’s group, only 2 survived. 

Kolya was now cut-off in Azerbaijani-controlled territory with 5 other soldiers: Davit, Artur, Ruslan, Arsen, and Arman. Arman was their unofficial leader. They were still hoping that the Armenian military would take over this area again. 

KOLYA: we found this house in the middle of the village, it was good location. It was good roof.

HOST: They started camping in the attic - Kolya calls it a roof - they hoped that would keep them from being found if Azerbaijani soldiers searched the building. 

KOLYA: And we decided we can stay there. It's because it was getting already cold. 

HOST: It was the beginning of November and the temperature was getting close to freezing. They felt trapped. 

KOLYA: it was very depressing to stay all day at the roof. Like it was kind of I want like freed I want to feel myself not a victim of the situation. 

HOST: All they had to drink was what they could find in people’s cellars -  homemade fruit juice and brine from pickle jars. To pass the days, Kolya would come up with culinary experiments. Like once when he made pancakes with pickle juice. But one dish was his crowning achievement.   

KOLYA: So one of the days I decided to cook ghapama

HOST: Ok, so if you’ve never heard of ghapama, it’s this extravagant Armenian dish that you make as a showstopper to put in the middle of the dinner table. It’s an entire pumpkin that you core-out, stuff full of rice, nuts, dried fruit and honey, and then bake whole. There’s even a song about it:

(Song plays)

HOST: It’s over-the-top and takes a lot of work to make - and that’s when you aren’t in the middle of a war. Kolya had never made ghapama in his life but he thought he could wing it. 

KOLYA: we had pumpkins a lot of pumpkins during that season, and we didn't really know what to do with the pumpkin.

HOST: There was an oven inside the house they were hiding in. But they were in the attic, and going down to the main house meant they were much more likely to be discovered. Making ghapama takes hours and Arman argued that it went against all reason.

KOLYA: That night, he came to me and said “I heard some cars in the village” And he said, “we're not doing that ghapama.” And I said, “we are doing ghapama.”

HOST: When Arman realized he wouldn’t be able to convince Kolya, he went downstairs with him, and sat by the door - rifle in hand, for the entire time it took to make the dish.  

KOLYA: You know, I, when I think about it, it was very dumb of me, I get it. But I was very determined to cook it. Because I felt like you know, we need to live, we need to live and live good

HOST: It was incredibly risky - but Kolya insisted it was important. 

KOLYA: All those stories, I think, is the reason why we came out and why right now we don't really have any PTSD or something. None of six has major problems. We never stopped living. And also because we loved each other very much.

HOST: Months later, when I took Nyree and Jeremy to meet Kolya for the first time, he cooked ghapama for us. It felt so special to savor the pumpkin dish and everything that it came to represent --  the goodness of life, the love they had for each other... and that stubborn faith in light despite all of the darkness. 

One night, after they had been living in the attic for a week, and been stranded for a month total, they heard a lot of gunshots

KOLYA: Azeris were shooting in the sky … like for an hour

HOST: It seemed like it was celebratory gunfire and that there had maybe been a ceasefire. They weren’t sure at first - but then they also stopped hearing any artillery sounds. The war appeared to be over. 

KOLYA: So after a week we were like okay, this is it. Like, we need to do something. No one will come we need to go somewhere

HOST: They had been holding out hope the whole time that the Armenian army would overtake the region. But there was no way that was going to happen now. The war had ended, and they were now in even more danger. Azerbaijani troops were passing through the village every day. The six of them couldn’t make a sound.

KOLYA: We would whisper all the time, we would only whisper

HOST: During the day the group stayed in the attic, and at night they would scavenge for food. They had covered the entrance to the attic with heavy objects to keep Azerbaijani soldiers from being able to open it, come up, and find them.

But the plan wasn’t foolproof. They were in the attic one day… 

KOLYA: We were sitting and eating at that moment

HOST: All of a sudden they heard someone trying to come up to where they were hiding. Kolya looked over to his friend -

KOLYA: And I look at Arman's face, and he's smiling. And I'm like, I'm so pissed at him. I'm like, what, what are we going to do? Like, we tried to whisper somehow, and he's smiling. He's like “no, nothing gonna happen.”

HOST: After moments of tension... the soldier gave up and left.

JEREMY: What would have happened if the guy had gotten into the roof?

KOLYA: That would never happen. Arman knew it. And now I know that he was right.

HOST: I don't want to imagine what would have happened if the Azerbaijani soldiers got into the attic. Kolya and the others could have been killed on the spot or taken as POWs and tortured in prison. That's the answer I expected to hear from him. But he doesn't say any of that. What he says instead is that that wasn’t their fate - that wasn’t how their story was meant to go, and so why dwell on it. 

But they realized they couldn’t stay there any more. That night, they left the attic.

Their plan was to hike west to Armenia but first they needed to get their bearings. They climbed a nearby mountain

KOLYA: And in that in the direction of Armenia, we could hear gunshots, we could hear people. And so we thought like, it's impossible. Like we can't go through those people

HOST: But to the south they saw lights - they knew they were looking at Iran because the power was off in Artsakh

KOLYA: And I had this idea of going to Iran. I was like, it's not that far, we can do that.

HOST: Their goal was to reach the Araks river - which is on the border with Iran - then cross it to reach safety, out of Azerbaijani-controlled territory. 

KOLYA: And yeah, we just went towards those lights, it seems like it's our way to the only way for us to live.

HOST: They started walking, passing over hill after hill after hill. It was the beginning of December and though they had sleeping bags, it was nothing against the freezing cold wind. Once they managed to make a fire in the fog, but most of the time they had no source of heat…  It wasn’t easy…

KOLYA: Cecause imagine, us were like already dying. We had almost no food, no water, nothing

HOST: They had a paper map, but they didn’t have a compass, so they couldn’t be sure what direction they were walking in. And Kolya’s feet were in horrible shape - they were freezing cold.

KOLYA: We couldn't walk, like already our feet were dead. And every step we made, like caused a huge pain. So for us walking wasn't easy. And those hills felt absolutely like mountains. Yeah, our goal was to reach the river but we never reached it. Instead, we reached a village

HOST: After hiking for about 10 days they saw an abandoned village in the distance. 

KOLYA: And we were like, maybe there is something. Maybe. And we were very tired to go all of us together. Arto and Roos volunteered. 

HOST: So two of the guys volunteered to go scout it out. 


KOLYA: And after an hour, so I remember waiting for them. It was so weird. I'm like, What the hell is going on there? And when they coming back, I can see smiles on their face. Like Okay, interesting. And they're like, Okay, you will not believe what we say. There's plenty of canned food, a lot of it ... a lot of water. And then they - Roos opens like, zips down his jacket. And there is like cookies. were like wow. chocolate cookies. And it's insane just all over the place. There is food. There's water. There’s cigarettes

HOST: Then Arman pulled out his cell phone. He had rigged it up so that he could charge it using random batteries they had found in different abandoned houses. But he had never been able to get a signal. He tried one more time. 

KOLYA: And he just looks at it. And he's like “Guys, we have connection.” And we're like, it was insanity. And then Arman calls his brother, and when we heard that, his brother's voice. Remember, we were just six of us. Sitting, smoking and crying.

JEREMY: What did he say to his brother?

KOLYA: It was funny because he was like, “Hey, I don't have time. I need to know how can we do like compass.”

HOST: After over 2 months, they’re finally talking to someone.

And Arman’s first instinct isn’t to let his brother know where they are, or the state they’re in. The first thing he does is ask his brother if he knows how to make a compass. They’re in survival mode - the only thing on their minds is they have to get to Iran.

KOLYA: And then he was like, you check this, how to do this, how to do that and call me back. And his brother is like, Hey, wait, wait, what's going on? Where are you? It was funny.

HOST: They had been missing for so long that everyone back in Armenia thought they were dead. 

KOLYA: Yea! 70 days. They have nothing from us. And then, like he calls and actually. Then his brother told us he was scared. Imagine you don't know where your brother is. He's probably dead. And then you receive a call from him. He thought it was an Azeri calling him.

HOST: There were stories of Azerbaijani soldiers calling the families of dead Armenian soldiers to gloat or sending them gruesome photos. Arman’s brother thought: maybe that’s what this was.

KOLYA: So it's very scary and then Arman just shouted at him “how to make compass” you know, it’s funny

HOST: But instead of giving them compass-making instructions - Arman’s brother connected them to the Armenian military. And the Armenian military contacted the Russian military - who had just arrived in the region as peacekeepers. But the Russian peacekeepers couldn’t just say they were going to drive in and pick up Armenian soldiers. 

KOLYA: If they told that that alive people they wouldn't let them go.

HOST: So they told the Azerbaijanis that they were looking for corpses. 

KOLYA: After the war they look for bodies. So that was what they say they're doing

HOST: And that was it. The Russians drove in and collected the six of them

They were taken to a hospital in Stepanakert, the capital of Artsakh, where their families were waiting. 

After a few days, Kolya was moved to a military hospital in Yerevan. He stayed there for months, as he slowly recovered. The war was over, but in many ways this was even harder for him. 

Although he was safe, he was not unscathed. Frostbite had destroyed Kolya’s feet. He had to have his legs amputated, below the knee. Everybody else in his group also lost some part of their legs. 

I had met Kolya years before, but it was during his recovery that we really struck up a friendship. When we’d meet we’d talk about everything: the political situation, our childhoods, Harry Potter…

But I had never told him about the moment I found out he was alive… it came up during our interview. 

GOHAR: I just remember getting a call from my colleague. And I remember exactly where I was. It was dark in the evening, and she called me and said, hey, did you see the news? And I said, Well, what's happened? She was like, oh, you know, they found Kolya and I was like, what? And this was right after the war, right and generally the mood was very like sad those times. It was and she said, it feels like we won the war. And it was like yea does. It was just like such a happy, like we needed something happy. Like, none of us thought that Kolya was alive. Right. And So it was an unbelievable, magical, happy thing that just happened.   

KOLYA: And that's something that I heard the first thing we got to the hospital and Stepanakert the doctors, and everyone was like, that's the first time for a month that we are happy. 

HOST: To give you some perspective on what life was like in December 2020 – just before Kolya and his friends were found, Azerbaijan attacked and took control of two Armenian villages in Artsakh, capturing 64 servicemen. Social media was filled with videos of Armenian POWs being tortured and executed. And the death toll from the war continued to rise as more bodies were discovered. So when the news came of 6 Armenians found alive - after having gone missing for 70 days - it felt like a balm to the soul. 

But - the whole ordeal was incredibly hard on his parents.

KOLYA: Everyone thinks that, I don't know, we suffered a lot, but our parents suffered, like, a million times more. So when we came back, we were laughing, but our parents were not laughing. 

HOST: He says they still have a lot of mixed emotions. Especially his father.

KOLYA: He's proud at the same time. He hates me for doing that. It feels a lot of anger, a lot of confusion, a lot of misunderstanding but at the same time respect as man to man

HOST: Kolya's story touches me for so many reasons. I admire his dedication to Armenia, his commitment to service, and the bond he created with his brothers in arms.

He said he wanted to serve ‘with a rifle and then with a pen’ - and now Kolya is working on a memoir, a book I believe will be his greatest contribution to Armenia yet. Even with everything he’s gone through - the thing that makes him the most anxious is putting his ideas out into the world.

KOLYA: I'm super scared. Now. I'm more scared than before the army. It's much more. It's much scarier. 

HOST: It can be scary to be honest. And one of the things that Kolya wants to do with his writing is be as honest as possible.  Most men in Armenia don’t talk about their military service, maybe because the truth is too ugly. Or maybe because they don’t think talking about these things will do any good. 

But Kolya sees it differently. He wants people to know what life in the Army was really like. And he doesn’t just want to tell his story: He wants it to serve a purpose. 

KOLYA: There are values I think that you have to have in your life. And if you have values you need to defend them. It's as simple as that.

HOST: 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. Graphic design by Nooneh Khoo-dah-verd-yan. 

Thanks to Zulal for letting us use their recording of Ghapama.

And 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 for listening! If you want to support the show, spread the word: Bake a ghapama, invite all your cousins over, and let the people know!