Country of Dust

Episode 7: Barev dzez, barev dzez

August 22, 2023 Country of Dust Season 1
Episode 7: Barev dzez, barev dzez
Country of Dust
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Country of Dust
Episode 7: Barev dzez, barev dzez
Aug 22, 2023 Season 1
Country of Dust

After the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine, Armenia woke up with thousands of Russians moving here – escaping the draft, political crackdowns and economic uncertainty. Many of them were young creatives, a few dozen of whom ended up staying at an old Soviet factory in a small town in northern Armenia.  We spoke to Arseniy Zykhowski and Lisa Khoreva, two artists living there, about their journey to Armenia, the unlikely corner of the country they ended up in, and how it’s been going.

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Show Notes Transcript

After the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine, Armenia woke up with thousands of Russians moving here – escaping the draft, political crackdowns and economic uncertainty. Many of them were young creatives, a few dozen of whom ended up staying at an old Soviet factory in a small town in northern Armenia.  We spoke to Arseniy Zykhowski and Lisa Khoreva, two artists living there, about their journey to Armenia, the unlikely corner of the country they ended up in, and how it’s been going.

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LYOSHA: You want to come take a tour?

NYREE That'd be wonderful.

HOST: That’s Lyosha. He’s showing us around an abandoned factory in a remote town in northern Armenia, called Tumanyan. As we walk, we have to step over pieces of plaster that have fallen off the wall, there are swallow’s nests on the ceiling, and there’s a cage set up so you don’t fall down an old elevator shaft. But also, you’ll walk by a window with a gorgeous view of the green hills. The contrast between the crumbling Soviet structures and the natural beauty surrounding us is really hard to describe. It’s magical.

LYOSHA: It was a full cycle factory of clothing so they made fabrics and cloth garments out of the fabrics.

HOST: It was actually a schoolhouse, originally. Then it was converted into a textile factory. It lay dormant for decades. And now, it’s taking on a new life, as an artists’ residency called “Abastan”. We’re here in September 2022 and the program is just a few months old.

Residents like Lyosha have been cleaning up the building as they also work on their art. They do yoga in a big room on the 3rd floor, they have a communal kitchen. Conditions are a bit rough, but I can see why a group of artists would want to live here. 

Abastan means “shelter” in Armenian. The program was conceived soon after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as a place for creatives fleeing the conflict. It’s open to anyone, but most of the residents are Russian. Because here in Armenia, the most obvious effect of the war in Ukraine is that there are a LOT of Russians here now. 

I remember at the end of February 2022, I stepped out of my apartment one day and something in the city had just shifted. All of a sudden, everywhere I looked, there were Russians. And there were question marks on their faces. Like they somehow just landed in Yerevan, but a week ago, would have never thought they’d be here. 

That first wave happened overnight, as soon as the war broke out. And over the course of the past year and a half, there has been wave after wave of Russians coming to Armenia. Some use it as a stepping stone until they can figure out their next move, but many have stayed. It’s impossible to say how things will go in the long run, but for now - the mass migration of Russians to Armenia is changing the landscape of the country - socially, economically, even linguistically.

It’s complicated. There’s a lot to grapple with. But for this episode, we’re just going to tell you the story of two people. Of their journey to Armenia, and the unlikely corner of the country that they ended up in. 


Welcome to Country of Dust: stories of a changing Armenia 

This episode: Barev dzez, barev dzez

I’m Nyree Abrahamian

When the artists moved here to Abastan, the building had basically been frozen, unused for decades. It was like a time capsule of Soviet Armenia. And everywhere you go there are remnants of this former life. We come to a room filled with old clothes and fabrics

JEREMY: Oh wow, there's so many different kinds of cloth in here.

LYOSHA: Yes, the remnants of production of what was produced here.

NYREE: It's actually really cute. I'd wear it! 

JEREMY: So all these all this cloth all these clothes, were just sitting here for 30 years?

LYOSHA: Yes. And yeah, they survived

HOST: As the residents have cleaned the space up, they’ve made art out of what they’ve found. This room has a line of panties hung up, artfully blowing in the breeze. Other rooms have sculptures made of old machine parts, and murals carved into the plaster.

One of the other artists who lives here is Arseniy. He came to Armenia right after Russia invaded Ukraine.

ARSENIY: I'm a pretty eccentric person. I wear crop tops, I wear short shirts and I speak strangely, sometimes. 

HOST: He shows us around a studio space that the artists use. On one wall, there’s a giant sheet covered in paint. Arseniy tells us that it was painted by a bunch of residents who took off their clothes, put paint all over their bodies, and used themselves to paint the canvas.

ARSENIY: You can’t restrict art. Art is a free thing. 

HOST: He shows us one of his pieces

ARSENIY: There is an old broken chair that I melded. There's a lot of clay. I don’t know what does it mean but it was sorta aggressive

HOST: He says he made it during a time when his family was going through some difficulties. He was frustrated that he was here in Armenia and couldn’t be with them. He’s from an industrial city east of the Ural mountains. 

ARSENIY: I spent all my life in Russia. And most time in my home city. I'm from Chelyabinsk.

HOST: We sit down on the steps in front of the factory to talk with Arseniy. No matter what direction we look in, the mountains around us are stunning. 

Over the years, I’ve come to know this region pretty well - I’ve hiked through these hills, visited the old monasteries. I’ve spent time in the villages. For the most part, things around here haven’t changed in years. It’s unexpected to be sitting here, now.. with Arseniy. Who would have thought that his life would intersect with this place?

Arseniy is a multidisciplinary artist. But his path toward art was a bit… unconventional

ARSENIY I was doing business. I was a businessman.

JEREMY: You don't look like a businessman. 

ARSENIY: Right now. I'm not looking like a businessman. 

HOST: He’s wearing a cropped T-Shirt with a drawing he made on the front, rolled up pants with suspenders, and sandals. 

NYREE What kind of business were you doing?

ARSENIY: Um let's say that I bring some stuff from some guys to other guys. Well… it wasn't legal. Yeah. So now I feel better. Because I left everything behind me. And now I'm a different person. Art changed by life.

HOST: He’d do this work at night, but during the day, he got involved in underground theater.

ARSENIY: And the more I visited theater, the more it changed me

HOST: And as time went on, he started doing more and more art

ARSENIY: So I'm a poet. I'm a painter, I'm a dancer, I'm a performer director. I'm a musician, I'm a composer, etc. So any medium of art is me.

HOST: In March 2022, after Russia invaded Ukraine, He did a street performance as an act of protest. 

ARSENIY: It was an immersive play. I asked for volunteers. And they were blindfolded. And they try to feel what it's like to be blind. 

HOST:  It did not go over well. 

ARSENIY: I had confrontation with local authorities. After they came to my home, Did a little bit of torturing. And after that I use my diplomacy abilities. And they gave me one day to flee. And I'm here.

JEREMY: I'm sorry,

ARSENIY: No worries. I've had worse.

HOST: He took off the next day. It was his first time leaving the country. 

ARSENIY: I left everything that I had in Russia.

HOST: It’s easy for Russians to come to Armenia: there are regular flights, they don’t need a visa to enter, they don’t even need a passport, just their internal ID. And with so many doors closed to Russians, it was one of the few places Arseniy could go. 

ARSENIY: I was just stressed out. I was really in deep stress. I didn't have a way to earn money. I didn't have a place to live. I tried to book myself a hostel, but I wasn't able. I was just, like, knocking on hostels asking if they have a place that I can stay.

HOST: Since so many Russians were coming to Armenia at the time, everywhere was booked. And it wasn’t just hostels. Rents skyrocketed overnight. Many people I know were evicted and it’s still a huge problem. 

A lot of the Russians arriving here had high paying tech jobs, but Arseniy couldn’t afford an overpriced apartment. He eventually got connected to an anti-war organization that was helping Russians settle in different countries.  

ARSENIY: Yeah, they found me a hostel. I lived there for like a month, because I need to find job to find the place to live

HOST: It was a lot to deal with, to have left his home country, for the first time, under such stressful circumstances. But,. Arseniy was fascinated with Armenia. And guess what he noticed as being different between Armenia and Russia:

ARSENIY: In Russia when you walk down the streets, it's you rarely see a smiling person. And in Armenia, they smile way more often and they are way more open to people

HOST: I thought this was hilarious. When I first moved here in 2007, I had the opposite impression - that people in Armenia, at least publicly, are so severe. I remember I had to actually code switch my resting facial expression, from pleasantly neutral, in Toronto, to a slightly cross don’t-mess-with-me face in Yerevan. You don’t just go smiling down the street here. People will think there’s something wrong with you! 

But I guess it’s all relative. Arseniy says that here, people are friendlier than what he’s used to.

ARSENIY:  Armenian sort of magicians of a small talk, I don't know why? Here you talk with a person for, like, for several minutes he will invite you to his home. It's hard to get used to it because I'm not a hospitable guy. But in hospitable country you learn it.

HOST: Hearing him say this makes me so happy.

ARSENIY: I came to Armenia with one bag. I had everything I needed. Warm clothes, my notebook, my midi keyboard, brushes, paints. But you can’t put important things in your bag. You can’t put people, you can’t put your relatives. Some things just doesn't fit in the bag.

HOST: To process his feelings, he decided to do a street performance in front of the Russian Embassy in Yerevan.

ARSENIY: It helped to release something inside me that I wanted to tell. And I had it it wasn't a thing to tell in words, it was in actions

HOST: He had just escaped Russia for doing a political performance, and now he was going to do the same thing in the country he had escaped to. Not knowing what the repercussions would be.

ARSENIY: I had to do it.

HOST: He called the performance “Stone”

ARSENIY: It was sort of a dance. I was covered in clay in front of the Russian embassy and I was doing nothing. Like actively doing nothing.

HOST: He shows us pictures. It’s pretty intense. He looks like a deconstructed gargoyle or swamp creature. Even his feet are covered in clumps of hardening clay. He was trying to mimic the way people in Russia respond to politics - to actively do nothing. 

A crowd had gathered. He assumed he was going to get arrested. 

ARSENIY: Because I live in Russia. I know how police do things. 

HOST: The police did show up and they approached his friend, who was taking photos.

ARSENIY: One of security asked the photographer, “Who is this? Is this actor? Performer? Dancer? And there was a police. And they asked photographer, “And what do we mean by this? You want to say that human is no more and there is only clay?” And I was like “What!?” It really blew my mind how things works in here.

NYREE: Like they were trying to understand the art?

ARSENIY: Yeah, trying to understand the art. They was open minded.

HOST: He couldn’t believe that they were analyzing his performance instead of arresting him.

ARSENIY: I came from a place where I was extremist because I'm doing things, to place where I'm considered an artist, not an extremist. It blew my mind. 

HOST: Shortly after that performance, a friend told Arseniy about Abastan and he was off to Tumanyan. 

He’s really fallen into a rhythm here. 

ARSENIY:  So I’m making paintings, I’m making sculptures. I’m making music. I’m writing a screenplay, I’m sort of IT specialist, I’m making AI tool for performance. I always dance. So it's wake up and I dance. Or when my girlfriend doesn't sleep I also sing so it's a way of living to me.

HOST: His girlfriend came down from Chelyabinsk to live with him at the factory. She’s an artist too. 

ARSENIY:  I sometimes I tell her tales. Just like from my mind what came to me just to let her sleep easily.

HOST: While Arseniy’s really gotten into a groove here,  he’s still learning the magic of Armenian small talk.

ARSENIY:  I'm not very talkative. It’s sort of a town village and everyone is saying  “Barev dzes,” “bavev dzes.”

HOST: And he’s not the only one who’s blown away by the friendliness in Tumanyan.

LIZA: It’s just like you walking and “Barev dzes,” “barev dzes,” “barev dzes.” And everybody's smiling to you. 

HOST: Liza is another resident at Abastan. 

LIZA: Of course, like for people who's living in the village, we’re all weirdos. But they are not trying to change us. And they're accepting us with this, like, the loving and warmth. 

HOST: She really loves Tumanyan

LIZA: Every morning I have the view from my room on this mountain. And every morning, I'm really surprised. I'm just like, “Whoa! I'm actually here! This is amazing!”

HOST: Liza is a ceramicist. She’s been working with the local kids. They draw pictures on tiles with glaze, and she fires them in the kiln. The night before we got here, she glued the tiles up around town for the kids to find.

LIZA: I felt like Santa Claus a little bit. I will make a map and it's going to be, like, a quest for them. So they can run around the city and look for these tiles.

HOST: She doesn’t know Armenian and they don’t know Russian very well

LIZA: But we have the common language art.I love children's drawings. Because like now we’re going to walk to my favorite one. This guy. He's really a future artist. I'm pretty sure. He couldn't sit in one place for too long. And he was drawing like Jackson Pollock, I don't know. Just like, really randomly and fast.

HOST: There are people at Abastan from all over Russia, but Liza is from Chelyabinsk, like Arseniy.

LIZA: It's a big factory city, which is quite environmentally dirty because they have lots of factories. But most of my life, I lived in Moscow because my parents moved there when I was a child.

HOST: But she never really liked it there. It was too huge, too busy, too many people. Cities stress her out. She prefers quieter places, like Tumanyan. 

Liza’s been gone from Russia for longer than most Abastan residents.

LIZA: I left Russia two and a half years ago, because I felt this dictatorship. Dictatorship was a big thing. Why I left it. 

HOST: She went to Tbilisi with a small backpack. She wasn’t planning on staying for long, she just wanted to leave Russia for a while. But then, the Pandemic hit, and she stayed put, working at a ceramics studio.

LIZA: And it was nice but then the war started.

HOST: It was hard for her to understand what her country was doing. 

LIZA: Can I say curse words? I thought like, fuck, I remember I was repeating out loud “It's a war. Russia started the war. Russia started the war.” And I just tried to understand it and I couldn't for a really long time. 

HOST: Liza had left Russia because she didn’t like what her government stood for. But once the war broke out, she really had to come face to face, not just with what Russia was doing, but also with how Russians are sometimes perceived. 

LIZA: I love Georgia, but here's lots of grafiti's like, “Fuck Russians,” “Fuck Putin” “Russians go home,” “All Russians have to die.” And I thought - okay, I'm just gonna ignore it.

HOST: She understood where the anger was coming from, she was angry too. And she was doing what she could - making protest art, raising money for Ukrainians - but in Georgia, she felt guilty.

LIZA: And just like “I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I'm really sorry that I have to speak this occupant language.”

HOST: She felt bad just speaking Russian. 

LIZA: I felt sorry, all the time. I tried to pretend that I'm not looking like a person from Russia. And in Georgia, it was really hard, and I know why. And I'm not like, I'm not saying that it's bad. It's just it was tough emotionally for me. 

HOST: In May 2022, she came here to Tumanyan for a friend’s wedding

LIZA: And they told me, “Look, here's the art residency, and you can apply and come here and just work.” And I came here, and I felt lighter, much lighter. Because here, nobody was judging me for being a person with a Russian passport. 

HOST: She says that once she came to Armenia, she didn’t feel like she had anything to prove anymore. The anti-war exhibitions she had been putting on in Tbilisi - they were from the heart. But it was beginning to feel as though, as a Russian, she would be judged for making anything that wasn’t in direct response to the war and it was stifling.   

LIZA: And here is just a freedom of expression and of the thoughts and it was, it's a really healing process for me

HOST: Like Arseniy, Liza is embracing life at the factory. 

LIZA: Living here, it's a dream. It's actually a dream because we're like children who sneaked into an abandoned house and started living there. I feel like I'm from Peter Pan. Hiding from this grown up world. And like making your own rules. And at least here in this small community in this building you can control something. I really fell in love with this place. I feel the connection with this factory and the building with the people. It becomes like a family.

HOST: As for her family back in Russia, who she hasn’t seen in over two years, it’s complicated. She misses them a lot, but their relationship has been strained since the war started. They want her to come back

LIZA: They always like, "Why you’re not coming??" Family questions. The war raised up these things which we try to ignore, like our political views. And now we just can't shut up. We just can't. And sometimes my mom, she's starting to scream at me, “I love you! I love you!! We're not gonna fight because of our views on the politics! I love you!!”

HOST: But, for now she doesn’t want to go back to Russia

LIZA But I just at the moment, don't feel strong enough to like to put the wall between me and all this like in the regime. And I want to come back there at some point. But I feel now that it's not going to happen in the next year or two or three. Because it's still painful. Really.

HOST:  We ask Arseniy what it would take for him to move back to Russia. 

ARSENIY: The change of regime. The end of war. And if it's not going to happen it's perhaps the death of close relative. Because my family is super important to me.

HOST: For now, he sends the money he makes from selling his art back to his family.

ARSENIY: I sold already two of my paintings, for a good price. I have a stipend, I have some grants. So money's not a problem for me. So my girlfriend can get herself everything she wants. So if she's okay, I'm okay. I don't need much money. If I have cigarettes and coffee in the morning, I have a good life. I don't need anything else.

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. 

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 so much for listening! If you like what you’re hearing, we’d really appreciate it if you’d help us spread the word.