Country of Dust

Episode 4: We shall prevail

August 01, 2023 Country of Dust Season 1
Episode 4: We shall prevail
Country of Dust
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Country of Dust
Episode 4: We shall prevail
Aug 01, 2023 Season 1
Country of Dust

The nation’s hopes rose with the 2018 Velvet Revolution, then came crashing down during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War. Ruben Malayan is a calligrapher who not only lived through these ups and downs but, through his art, helped shape them. 

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Show Notes Transcript

The nation’s hopes rose with the 2018 Velvet Revolution, then came crashing down during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War. Ruben Malayan is a calligrapher who not only lived through these ups and downs but, through his art, helped shape them. 

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HOST: We’re about to talk politics. This episode - and the next one - are about grappling with the 2018 velvet revolution. They’re about the hope that came out of that moment, and the aftermath that Armenia is living with today.

When it happened there were real fears that it would end in a violent crackdown. People had died at the protests in 2008. I remember later that year, seeing military consultants having brunch in Yerevan, they were there to advise the Armenian government on “crowd control”. I took it as a bad sign. It felt ominous: the oligarchs seemed to have an endless grip on power. So when the revolution happened - it seemed like the impossible had come true: That Armenia was this epicenter of democracy.

But I also remember hearing a refrain: “That was the easy part, Now it’s time for the hard part.” Not that it was easy to remove those oligarchs who had run the country for decades. But: that getting people to agree that “things have to change” - in a general sense - is easy. The hard part is agreeing on what to change - and how to do it: Identifying specific problems, finding reasonable solutions, making difficult compromises. Governing a country is messy, complicated work - and that’s in the best of situations.  Try to imagine a country you know - any country - remaking itself. That is tough. Armenia has had to do it while fighting a war and living through ongoing hostilities with its neighbor.

So the years since 2018 - that’s been the “hard part”. 

We have these two stories with two people who have different perspectives on what has made it so hard. We’re focusing on one person in each of the next two episodes.

Both were part of the protests that overturned that last government. Both had pivotal roles during the 2020 war. Both are deeply frustrated by politics in the country. And both are passionate about Armenia. 

The biggest difference between them is how they feel about the current government and Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. One thinks he has the country’s best interest in mind, the other thinks he can’t be trusted.

5 years out - how did Armenia do on “the hard part”?

Welcome to Country of Dust - stories of a changing Armenia

This episode: “We shall prevail”

I’m Jeremy Dalmas.

It’s a little odd to be saying “revolution” in this episode - because Ruben Malayan doesn’t even use that word.

RUBEN: I don't think it qualifies to be called the revolution. I think it was a shift of power, where a system remained, and it was just replaced by other people. Revolution is about changing the status quo is about changing the system. If the system remains the same, and it's just different people, then it's not a revolution. It's just a shift of power. That’s it. That’s what it is.

HOST: If you’re meeting Ruben at his studio, you have to walk up 5 flights of stairs in this old, Soviet era building. 

On the way up, you see his writing on the walls

RUBEN: I wanted like, also to give some people who come here for the first time, some visual guide.

HOST: On one floor it says “imagine”, then on the next “keep going”.

RUBEN: Because like, you know, it's five stories, no elevator. I do that twice, three times a day. And yeah, it's not easy. It's kind of like, it's encouragement. Okay, one more, one more, and you're here.

HOST: Ruben is a visual artist and a university lecturer. He’s from Yerevan, but he’s spent a lot of time abroad living and working in Israel, Canada and the Netherlands. He’s best known for his calligraphy - and these old walls make a perfect canvas. His studio is in the corner of this gigantic room with huge windows. It’s the kind of place that’s boiling in the summer and freezing in the winter. They used to make state of the art optical equipment in here before the Soviet Union collapsed. But now it just has a bunch of broken machines, and decades of dust.

RUBEN: Every day 800 people would come to work here. Every day. It's been 30 years that this place has been decaying. 

HOST: It's a good spot for contemplation and to make art. And Ruben’s art feels really dynamic. You can see the brush strokes in the thick lines that he uses to write his letters, and they’re surrounded by these great splatters of ink. They look like they were just made and are still wet. You really feel the moment of creation - the confidence there.

It’s a great fit for a political poster.

And During the revolution, he used to make them and pass them out in the streets. They were each one-of-a-kind, and drawn by hand. 

RUBEN: I would purposely do them on PVC boards that are light and easy to hold. And even if they are large still, you know, one person can hold them and I’d make a bunch and just go out on the street and say like who wants one. People would look at them like smile and say, Yeah, give me one.

HOST: Ruben takes us over to a stack of his work and shows us some of the posters from that time

RUBEN: This one is very symbolic because it says “We paved the road by walking"

NYREE: I remember this one

HOST: Another had the word “No” written in English, but with a circle of barbed wire for the O. He made over a hundred of these posters over 4 weeks. His goal was to hold up a mirror to the people in the streets; to represent what he saw them saying. If you collected them all together, they would end up making a timeline of the revolution, a snapshot of the energy from each day.

RUBEN: I didn't have a studio then I was working at home and I remember specifically one moment when I realized that so called Revolution has won. All the roads were blocked. There was no traffic at all. And then I heard this incredible sound coming like a vibration of a sound coming from the outside and I realized something happened 

HOST: It was the moment that Serzh Sargsyan resigned. April 23 2018. 

RUBEN: I mean the vibration of that sound. It actually reached me and I was far away from the street. And I felt that vibration on my body with my body. So it was incredible, yeah.

HOST: Imagine a whole country cheering at once. It was a political earthquake that people could physically feel. How often does that ever happen?

Before the revolution, when Serzh Sargsyan was in charge, Ruben felt like there were 2 sides. You were either for the people running the government or against them. That’s what mattered. Not your commitment to the country - your commitment to the handful of oligarchs who ran Armenia.

RUBEN: The key to get into the system is loyalty. You have to show them loyalty if you're loyal. That's it. Your professional qualities come second. First is loyalty

But after that cheer, and Sargsyan had resigned, Ruben was energized about the future. He had hope: things would change now.

RUBEN: We thought that we are now at the break of dawn, of a new age, new era, everything's gonna be different now. I mean we were in heaven

HOST: What did he think would happen? That he would believe in the government: like really trust them to make the Armenian people their priority, and not just do whatever they could to stay in power. He also believed that there would be deep institutional changes, and that everyday people like him would help decide what was going to happen. 

RUBEN: I mean, we're, we're just dreaming. Like it was, it was a dream. But like any dream, you wake up from it.

HOST: There was a specific day that he remembers: the day he realized how he felt about the new administration. They were trying to pass a series of constitutional changes and they wanted branding to help sell it. So they put out an open call to designers. 

RUBEN: And everybody I know did work.

HOST: But the group that ended up getting the job was this design agency - that he had never heard of - who had copied their submission from an old design. It was plagiarized.

RUBEN: And when everybody found out that this is not a genuine design, our prime minister went on and started to justify this. If he knows the true story, apologize. condemn people that steal and plagiarize others' work - condemned them publicly - and pick a work that genuinely deserves to be won.

HOST: To Ruben, Pashinyan was more interested in saving face than in doing what was right. This was the first seed of dissatisfaction for him, the turning point when Ruben began to doubt that the work of the revolution had actually changed anything. 

RUBEN: And we, I think, believe that we're on the right path. Because we thought that the system is going to change now that we're going to break the wheel.

HOST: He brings up a Game of Thrones reference to explain how he feels about what happened.

RUBEN: Like in Game of Thrones - remember that the last step is break the wheel? There the wheel remains. It's just different people.

HOST: In the show, Daenerys Targaryen famously promises that she is different from all the other kings and queens and conquerors. She says “They're all just spokes on a wheel. This one's on top, then that one's on top, and on and on it spins, crushing those on the ground. I'm not going to stop the wheel, I'm going to break the wheel.” 

And what ends up happening in the show - spoiler alert - is that despite all her rhetoric, Daenerys is just more of the same. She promises so much, but ends up running over the people underneath her. 

This is how Ruben thinks about Pashinyan and his government. That the Prime Minister is another spoke on the same old wheel of corruption in the Armenian government - just the one that came after Serzh Sargsyan.

RUBEN: The first thing that comes to them is loyalty. Not your professional qualities as a designer, as a politician, as an economist, or whoever you are. It’s that you should show us that you are loyal to us, that means you don't question our decisions. If we decide all of us that this is the right thing to do, that's it, like a ship you will follow. 

HOST: That it is just like before.

RUBEN: And to me it was clear that we are on a sliding slope. I just didn't know how quickly we're going to be rolling down the hill.

HOST: That hill is autumn of 2020.

He remembers the day that the war started in Artsakh. 

RUBEN: Yes, my wife woke me up … and said war broke out and I was asleep and I was just like “what?” And yeah, like I think we had when things like this happen you’re quickly shifting the mode into like Okay, so what do we do now? 

HOST: That morning he started doing what he did during the revolution. Designing. 

RUBEN: I wrote one word in which we all of us truly believed I wrote “haghtelu enk”, which means 'we shall prevail', 'we shall win'. And I turned it into this little logo.

HOST: Other people were using that phrase starting from the moment the war broke out, it became a rallying cry. But Ruben’s design became an iconic version. It’s just those 11 letters

RUBEN: It's rough on purpose, I did not refine it, I want it to be to look like it's just roughly drawn

HOST: The idea behind haghtelu enk is simple, but has a lot of weight. It’s organic and direct and that’s why he thinks it ended up working so well.

RUBEN: Every letter in that sequence reminds me of a person. Every letter is different in scale and in proportion. Like soldiers. You know, if you put soldiers in on the line and you just look at them, they don't look like all of them like carved Apollo's. Like fat people, thin people, short, tall. That's how the writing is and haghtelow enk has got enough letters in it for me to create this visual flow.

HOST: People started using it as their profile picture on social media. And the logo got used for fundraising - it was put on shirts that brought in tens of thousands of dollars for the war effort. It was his way of helping, like the posters during the revolution.

“We shall prevail.” It’s powerful.

But, in the end, Armenia didn’t prevail in this war. 

After the ceasefire Armenia lost much of Artsakh - it was devastating for Ruben. Losing the city of Shushi was especially hard. His Grandmother was born there.  

RUBEN: My roots are from Shushi. Every time I went to Shushi before the war, I felt I'm coming home. It was a very strange feeling. I mean, I never felt that that way, about any place actually. And then it just gave it away as if it was a chair, not needed anymore. That was a knife that was driven right into the heart of all of us. We could not just like we could not believe it that they did this

HOST: Before the war, he had started to lose hope in the new government. But after? That’s when he completely lost his faith. He feels that the administration never thought of Artsakh as part of Armenia’s identity.

RUBEN: So a birthplace of my grandmother means nothing to them. It means a lot to me, but means nothing to them. It was a burden, they wanted to get rid of it

HOST: What was so hard for him to stomach was what the Pashinyan administration didn’t say during the war. They didn’t let the public know how bad the fight was going - that the war was going to be lost and parts of Artsakh would be given over to Azerbaijan.

RUBEN: That they lied to us. Every single day. Lied, lied, lies, endless lies were poured into our ears. Everything's gonna be okay. Listen to the government do what we tell you. More lies, more lies, more disinformation and we just kept swallowing it. Like dope. Straight up. Until one day, boom, it's over.

HOST: He had protested in the revolution so that citizens like him could be part of deciding what the country would do. So when this happened, he felt stabbed in the back. And, not just him: many Armenians felt this way. For people who are critical of Pashinyan, this goes beyond just a tactical loss. 

RUBEN: We needed to know how deep are we in trouble. Tell us straight. Tell us. So we know what to do. We know what when we find resources, we need to know what are we dealing with. It was never said to us.

HOST: And beyond that - he feels that Pashinyan didn’t even have the right to let go of the parts of Artsakh that were ceded to Azerbaijan. That the public didn’t give him the power to make a decision with those consequences.

RUBEN: If he knew that this is going to be the eventuality, he had to be honest about it with us and tell us and then let us decide what to do.

HOST: You can hear him hitting his chest. This isn’t just about politics, this is deeper. 

RUBEN: You say this, people decide. Let us decide. Not you. Don't make decisions for us to surrender Shushi, or give up. You don't decide that. You have no mandate to decide that for us. 

HOST: Ruben feels betrayed. His heart is broken.

2 years after the war ended, he still has a “Haghtelu enk” sticker on his car. But it isn’t easy to look at.

RUBEN: And I don't remove it, don't remove it, because I look at it, it hurts me every time. 

HOST: The meaning of it has changed. And even though he doesn’t have faith in the government, he still has faith in Armenia.

RUBEN But I don't remove it from my car. Maybe also ultimately, because I believe we will prevail in the end

HOST: Haghtelu enk was a symbol of determination and togetherness for the war. But now is a different moment. 

If Ruben was going to make a new design for now - what would it be?

RUBEN: It's a difficult, very difficult question. I wish I knew the words that would help people get out of the state of apathy, because I think this is where we are today. I would, you know, “haghtelu enk” meant it was a call to action, right, it was supposed to reaffirm our belief in victory, I would only write today “hayrenik”.

HOST: Hayrenik, meaning fatherland.

RUBEN: It's the only word that. I think, encompasses in it everything that matters to us. And we need to understand what does that word mean. Truly.

HOST: And he has been working with that word.

On one side of the gigantic room where his studio is, there’s an old faded Armenian flag that’s been on the wall for decades. Just sitting there amongst all the soviet equipment that was also left here.

NYREE: Was this flag here?

RUBEN: Yes! This flag was here, I think it has been here for 30 years.

NYREE: It looks like it’s about to crumble.

RUBEN: Yea yes it’s falling apart.

HOST: The flag sags and is dirty - it looks like someone picked it up off the ground after a storm and tacked it on the wall. And underneath it, Ruben has written hayrenik. 

RUBEN: Hayrenik means culture, language, personal interpersonal relationships, our care for ourselves, our loved ones, and a bigger circle.

Haghtelu enk is a rallying cry. It's about what will happen, it pushes people towards big actions. Hayrenik is grounded - it’s about connecting to what is around you right now, and looking back to what you share with others.

RUBEN: We're all part of the same chain. Every link, each one of us is a link in that chain. We're all connected. And chain, you know, sinks all together. If you throw a chain in a water, no links will be left floated loading on a surface, it's going to sink all together

HOST: The work of trying to nurture that unity is “the hard part” that we talked about at the beginning of this episode - the part that comes after a political upheaval. 

The revolution was about uniting for a cause. The war required people to work together. Connections like that are difficult to come by in Armenia right now. With so much that has been shifting in the country, with all the uncertainty - it makes sense to want to focus on the links that connect the people of Armenian to each other. Because if the country wants to live up to the phrase “We Shall Prevail” - it has to do so together.

In the next episode, we’ll continue talking about the Velvet Revolution - and what came after it - with Mane Gevorgyan. But her perspective on the past few years is so different from Ruben’s. During the war, she was part of the government that he was so upset with. And, just like him, she is still living through the aftermath.

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 for the support from

  • Creative Armenia
  • AGBU
  • 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 - the best way to support us is to help spread the word. Have a cup of soorj with your tantik and let her know what’s up!