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Pride and Promise. Youth perceptions of national identity in a changing Armenia
Pride and Promise. Youth perceptions of national identity in a changing Armenia

Pride and Promise

Youth perceptions of national identity in a changing Armenia


With a heritage spanning millennia, Armenians have cultivated a strong sense of identity shaped by history, language, religion, and experiences of enduring challenges and triumphs. At the core lies a deep connection to the land, where ancient churches, historical monuments, cultural legacy, and majestic landscapes stand as lasting symbols of national pride

While certain elements remain steadfast, individuals’ self-perception is continuously influenced by shifting socio-political dynamics and government agendas. The current generation of Armenian youth, often dubbed the “independence generation,” mirrors the experiences of their parents, who witnessed the collapse of Soviet rule. Yet, growing up in a free Armenia, they’ve absorbed traits typical of post-Soviet societies, like a renewed interest in religion and heightened national pride in Armenian history and culture, spurred further by the 2018 Velvet Revolution, prompting youth to reconsider their civic roles. Regrettably, Armenia’s independence generation has faced formidable challenges—the 44-day Artsakh war resulted in the expulsion of Artsakh’s people, along with profound losses of land, homes, and loved ones, leaving lasting emotional scars on their psyche and identity.

Understanding the viewpoints of Armenian youth regarding their national identity and its defining values is important, especially as the Armenian state finds itself at a historical crossroads of shifting geopolitical alliances and economic prospects on the one hand, and enduring impacts of past wars and ongoing security threats, on the other. To that end, in March 2024, a series of focus group discussions with 60 young adults, ages 18-29, were conducted. This qualitative focus group study was commissioned by AGBU and designed and implemented by an independent research team to open a window into the future of Armenia in terms of its younger citizens. The groups were broken out by gender and location, Yerevan and the regions.

The goal was to elucidate the younger demographic’s attitudes and opinions since the Artsakh War and its aftermath through 2023, based on an earlier quantitative study, conducted in 2016 and 2022, by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in cooperation with the Faculty of Sociology of Yerevan State University (YSU). In that study, the anonymous responses of 1,200 young Armenians to a written questionnaire established key identity markers and valuable insights into their evolving perceptions and enduring values.

 

Norms and Values

In the 2016 baseline quantitative study, the Armenian youth primarily identified themselves by their Armenian ethnicity and Christian faith. Values like personal pride, honesty, loyalty, and patriotism were cornerstones of their value system.

Although the perception of personal virtues remained consistent in the 2022 follow up quantitative study, there was a significant change noted. Respondents are now strongly associating themselves with citizenship in the Republic of Armenia while still valuing their ethnic and religious identities. This was reiterated in the 2023 focus groups, in which participants were quite vocal about their current state of mind.

“Today, the first thing that keeps us Armenian is our state, in my opinion. Christianity, language, etc., these are the seasonings, but statehood is primary,” stated a female from Yerevan. “There were many ancient nations that today have no territory, let alone statehood.”

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Armenian youths march in Yerevan with torches during the candlelight march to the cemetery in Yerablur, to honor the Armenian soldiers who died in the 2020 war.

Armenian youths march in Yerevan with torches during the candlelight march to the cemetery in Yerablur, to honor the Armenian soldiers who died in the 2020 war.
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Armenian youths march in Yerevan with torches during the candlelight march to the cemetery in Yerablur, to honor the Armenian soldiers who died in the 2020 war. Photo Credit / SOPA Images Limited/Alamy

Today’s youth generally see Armenians as a hospitable, diligent, creative, resourceful, enthusiastic, intelligent, and quick-witted nation. “I remember the words of our legendary Armenian military hero General Nzhdeh. He said, “there are two powers in the world that never get tired: time and Armenians. Time destroys while Armenians create…We are a nation that never gets tired, we build again, create something new, we think and invent,” states a male respondent from Yerevan.

Personal dignity (arzhanapatvutyun), patriotism, fighting spirit, courage, love for family and friends, and a deep connection to the roots emerge as defining values. While every group emphasized the former two values, the fighting spirit was predominantly mentioned by those residing in border regions, such as Goris in Syunik, Sevkar in Tavush, and Nerkin Getashen in Gegharkunik. Additionally, Tavush and Syunik youth take pride in Armenian resilience. “Very few people would say they want to leave the country because, in reality, we are as strong as our mountains. It’s part of our character,” (female, Goris). Conversely, young females often emphasize qualities like empathy and a willingness to assist others as manifestations of humanistic values.

Family remains an enduring and paramount value, with the word itself often used to describe close friends as reliable and trustworthy. In their words, the Armenian family is a steadfast anchor, providing a sense of security and belonging. A male respondent from Vanadzor thinks, “For Armenians, it’s different; if you get married, you have an obligation for the given person all your life—to care for them, love them, always be by their side, and even give your life for them. And they take divorce too hard.”

Very few people would say they want to leave the country because, in reality, we are as strong as our mountains. It’s part of our character.

In contrast to other countries where individualism prevails, the groups particularly emphasized the model of the extended traditional family, where grandparents play an integral role within the household. “If we compare it with other countries, there are many nursing homes and babysitters, but they are not common here. Grandmothers and grandfathers are part of families,” (female, Goris).

 

War and Patriotism

Of all the virtues cherished by Armenians, patriotism holds a distinct position, deeply ingrained in its citizens from a young age through the state-run public school system. This enduring concept has historically served as a potent motivator, inspiring numerous individuals to honor their homeland worldwide.

The expression of patriotism manifests in diverse ways and is shaped by the state’s sociopolitical context. While common liberal societies of the West may express patriotism primarily through respect for human rights, civic activism, and tolerance, in Armenia, it is predominantly associated with reverence for the land itself.

As Harutyun Vermishyan, PhD, Chair of Theory and History of Sociology at YSU, mentions, before the war, patriotism was often framed in the context of the decision “to leave or not to leave Armenia.” Individuals were generally deemed more patriotic if they opted to remain in their homeland despite the challenges they encountered rather than choosing to migrate.

Strong ties to the land is also evidenced by surveys conducted among ninth-grade students in different periods, where a majority identify patriotism as the most essential characteristic of every Armenian. However, while before the war, it was primarily defined as love for one’s country, post-war reflections predominantly emphasize it as a willingness to sacrifice one’s life for the homeland.

 

Mining for Meaning

While the majority viewed the 2020 Artsakh War as a demonstration of patriotism, some also observed a general decline in patriotism and pride, especially in the light of uncertainty clouding their minds.

“People tend to unite during challenging times, such as in 2020. I recall how everyone set aside their personal concerns and focused on the welfare of our homeland, echoing sentiments like, ‘we are our homeland,’” expressed a male respondent from Lori. His counterpart from Yerevan said, “I experienced a profound sense of patriotism when we were deployed to Karabakh on October 6. Despite being informed that we might not return and had little chance of surviving, none of us hesitated to press forward. This sentiment was shared by both myself and the entire army, totaling over one thousand soldiers.”

Armenian youth’s ultimate trust in soldiers has never wavered, especially considering the army’s longstanding status as the most trusted institution among the youth in Armenia. Instead, there is a prevailing sense of disillusionment among the youth, who feel misled by the media and authorities during the 44-day war, fostering a false sense of victory.

I remember the words of our legendary military hero General Nzhdeh. He said there are two powers in the world that never get tired: time and Armenians. Time destroys while Armenians create.

A male from Gegharkunik shared, “Before the war, people simply greeted soldiers and moved on, but now they approach them, offer food, and engage in conversation; soldiers are now even more valued.” Female respondents echoed this sentiment: “When we hear the names of our fallen heroes, we feel immense pride and responsibility, knowing they sacrificed their lives for us.”

They do mention a decline in pride when considering the outcome of the war, where feelings of uncertainty and disappointment predominate. Other bittersweet emotions rush forward as they view their towns and cities through a more sentimental lens, cherishing every moment they live there and every person with whom they have the chance to interact. Ironically, while the current youth is seen as the future of Armenia, they do not perceive the future to be in their hands. They avoid making long-term plans and focus on living for the present day.

However, these changes also make them a generation more critical of patriotism, focused on improvement rather than driven by blind or shallow pride. They now see things more realistically.

One participant remarked, “I don’t agree with the stereotypical notion that Armen-ians are above all nations. But if we were born Armenians and we are the youth of this region, we should live with dignity, worthy of our country.”

Notably, representatives from border communities felt more optimistic. A female from Tavush emphasizes, “I will mention our resilience as a virtue to be proud of. Amid so much pain, we can still smile, look ahead, and try to progress. Given everything we have gone through in the last ten years, maybe other nations would not have found the strength to do so.”

I experienced a profound sense of patriotism when we were deployed to Karabakh on October 6. Despite being informed that we might not return and had little chance of surviving, none of us hesitated to press forward. This sentiment was shared by both myself and the entire army, totaling over one thousand soldiers.

 

Identity Markers

In any scenario, once patriotism and national pride are ingrained, they persist. Regardless of the war’s outcome, Armenian youth have demonstrated pride in various cultural, historical, and religious facets of Armenian identity.

 

History and Landscape

Young people of Armenia consistently expressed pride in Armenia’s history and rich and intact natural landscapes. “When we talk to foreigners, first we introduce what an old nation we are; we tell them that Yerevan is 2,800 years old. We talk about ‘sea to sea Armenia’ of Tigran the Great’s reign and Christianity, as well as about our culture and architecture, which Armenians have developed since ancient times,” (male, Yerevan).

In particular, males residing in Yerevan highlight Tigran the Great’s era, the Fedayi movement, the Battle of Sardarabad, and the creation of the Armenian alphabet. Conversely, young individuals in the regions focus on events such as the founding of the First Republic of Armenia, Armenian involvement in World War II, and Armenia’s significance as a major industrial center within the Soviet Union, with Vanadzor notably serving as an industrial hub.

When asked what sights they would recommend to foreigners and tourists, the most popular destinations include the Garni Pagan Temple and the Tatev Ropeway, the longest documented in the Guinness Book of Records. Other notable places include Geghard and Noravank, Khndzoresk with its swinging bridge and caves, Mount Khustup and Armaghan, Kotavank monastery, the waterfalls in Meghri, Lake Tsakkar, the caves of Syunik, the Metsavan Reservoir, and Hnevank, among others.

Cherished Yerevan landmarks sited include Cascade Complex, Matenadaran, Kond, Tsitsernakaberd, the Erebuni Museum, the History Museum of Armenia, Northern Avenue, and Victory Bridge.

In addition, Armenia’s natural beauty and abundant freshwater resources are sources of pride. They hold a discussion about branding Armenian water for economic gain, but the prevailing sentiment is that water is too valuable a resource to export.

 

Culture and Religion

The resurgence of religion and culture is a notable trait among post-Soviet generations, manifested by an eagerness to get closer to the roots. Armenian youth exemplify this trend, underscoring specific areas that have experienced reinforcement.

Discussions on religion uncovered a range of perspectives and viewpoints. While many see Armenian Christianity as a unifying influence, others acknowledge that the return to religious practices is still in its early stages. “We are just beginning to return to our religion after the Soviet Union,” (female, Tavush). This sentiment is followed by criticism of the practice of Christianity, with one participant stating, “Our Christianity is limited to bearing a cross and building churches,” (male, Vanazdor). Such feedback shows that youth are open to enhancing their religiousness.

Initially perceived as antiquated during the early years of independence, Armenian traditional attire, known as taraz, is now experiencing a newfound appreciation as a cultural symbol like never before. The sentiment holds true for Armenian traditional dances as well.

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Vardavar. Photo Credit / Scout Tufankjian

Vardavar. Photo Credit / Scout Tufankjian
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Vardavar. Photo Credit / Scout Tufankjian

“I’ve noticed online that brides increasingly wear Armenian taraz or incorporate traditional details into their attire during weddings. It’s a symbol of Armenia that should be upheld,” (female, Yerevan).

“Over time, the importance of cultural values has grown. For instance, five years ago, our national dances were unfamiliar to many. Only Kochari was somewhat recognized. However, due to the dedicated efforts of individuals like the late Gagik Ginosyan, our national dances are now even part of the school curriculum,” remarked a female from Goris. “Previously, young men would hesitate to join girls in dancing our national dances, but now they actively participate in dances like Tamzara,”(female, Sevkar).

National holidays and festivals, including Vardavar, Zatik, and Trndez, are celebrated with enthusiasm.

I don’t agree with the stereotypical notion that Armenians are above all nations. But if we were born Armenians and we are the youth of this region, we should live with dignity, worthy of our country.

 

Music

Music and dance discussions frequently revolve around esteemed figures such as Komitas, Aram Khachaturian, Charles Aznavour, Arno Babajanian, and Sayat-Nova. Modern interpretations of traditional Armenian music and emerging genres like Armenian rock and jazz are gaining popularity. Notably, young people in Vanadzor take pride in local rock bands such as Clocker, Vordan Karmir, and Lav Eli. Armenian jazz also holds a special place, as expressed by a female respondent from Yerevan: “When someone visits Armenia and steps into Malkhas jazz club, they often become regular patrons, as the unique jazz experience offered there is hard to find elsewhere.”

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Lav Eli. Photo Credit / Knar Bedian

Lav Eli. Photo Credit / Knar Bedian
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Lav Eli. Photo Credit / Knar Bedian

 

Cuisine

Often delighting guests with a diverse array of delectable dishes, the youth boasts Dolma, Ghapama, and Khorovats, along with Zhengyalov Hats, Harissa, Kyalagyosh, Khashlama, and Gata. They highlight the close ties between the Armenian landscape, nature, and national food, highlighting the unique sweetness of apricots, pomegranates, dried fruits, along with the famous “Jermuk” natural mineral water. Residents of Gegharkunik particularly emphasize Sevan trout. In Goris, young locals mention specialties like pickled veggies (ttu), beans, and homemade vodka, while rural areas boast delicacies such as rose, walnut, and apricot jam, sour lavash, and sweet sujuk. Lavash is heralded as a national emblem.

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Dolma. Photo Credit_Adobe Stock

Dolma. Photo Credit_Adobe Stock
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Dolma. Photo Credit_Adobe Stock

 

Sports

When discussing sports, Armenia’s global reputation primarily revolves around weightlifting, wrestling, and chess. Some argue this is due to a lack of success in team sports like football. While Henrik Mkhitaryan is often mentioned as a source of Armenian pride, his achievements are attributed more to his individual efforts than national traits.

Regarding chess, there is disappointment over Levon Aronian’s decision to stop competing under the Armenian flag, with concerns about its impact on Armenia’s international standing. Still they highly appreciate chess education in Armenian schools. “I believe the main focus for our country’s progress should be on technological advancement, and the strategic thinking fostered by chess contributes to this,” said one respondent.

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Henrik Mkhitaryan

Henrik Mkhitaryan
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Henrik Mkhitaryan.

 

Promising Industries

In contemplating the future, Armenian youth envision specific sectors that could drive economic development and prosperity for Armenia. These areas encompass agriculture, the wine, cognac, and tech industries, as well as several forms of tourism.

There is a belief that Armenian wine can rival even the French variety if appropriately branded. “Given our ample sunshine, our grapes produce superior quality, enabling us to craft exceptional wines,” said one youth.

All unanimously regard Tavush, Syunik, and Lori as prime regions with considerable tourism potential. The presence of ziplines and ropeways is seen as a major contributor to extreme tourism. Youth from Tavush propose constructing a ropeway in Ijevan, while those from Gegharkunik suggest one starting from Mount Armaghan and extending to Lake Sevan. “Mount Armaghan could serve as an excellent location for skiing in winter. Situated on the northern side, it retains snow well into spring, making it suitable for a ropeway,” expressed a participant.

Syunik’s youth emphasize the importance of supporting carpet production and pottery, pointing to local enterprises as models. They also recommend bolstering Armenian clothing manufacturing, with the Zangezur Textile company as a successful example. Similarly, Tavush’s youth underscores the significance of carpet production as their regional traditional craft, referencing the now-defunct Ijevan Carpet Factory. Most highlight beekeeping, dairy farming, and berry and herb cultivation as agricultural specialties that instill pride in their inhabitants.

When we talk to foreigners, first we introduce what an old nation we are; we tell them that Yerevan is 2,800 years old. We talk about ‘sea to sea Armenia’ of Tigran the Great’s reign and Christianity, as well as about our culture and architecture, which Armenians have developed since ancient times.

Youth highlights science and technology as a crucial industry, emphasizing the significance of “intellectual production” for Armenia. Across discussions, they note Armenia’s leading experts in natural sciences, particularly in mathematics, physics, and astronomy. However, they also mention that these specialists are underutilized and in relatively low demand in the Armenian job market. “Armenia wins International Olympiads in mathematics, astronomy, and physics. Unfortunately, talented individuals in these fields are often lured away to other countries,” (female, Goris). Another female participant from Yerevan suggested, “We have the potential to establish our doctors as a renowned brand, similar to Germany.”

Empowered by their deep-rooted Armenian identity and their comprehensive understanding of their cultural heritage, Armenian youth play an active role in strategic initiatives aimed at reinforcing resilience and unity within their community. As numerous studies across nations have shown, youth patriotism serves as a catalyst for fostering a sense of belonging and loyalty to one’s nation. When young individuals are proud of their nation and actively engage in civic responsibilities, they become stakeholders in its progress and prosperity. This sense of ownership translates into a stronger social fabric and resilience against external threats. Reason enough why promoting Armenian pride is always on trend.

Originally published in the June 2024 ​issue of AGBU Magazine. end character

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AGBU Magazine is one of the most widely circulated English language Armenian magazines in the world, available in print and digital format. Each issue delivers insights and perspective on subjects and themes relating to the Armenian world, accompanied by original photography, exclusive high-profile interviews, fun facts and more.