What is patriotism?
At the border crossing between Armenia and Karabakh the guard looked over my papers and noticed that I didn’t fill out the address column.
“Where will you stay?”
“Wherever I can find a place” I gave the straightforward answer.
“You must have a place. Give me the name of the place.”
“I don’t have any place yet, I’ll get one tonight.”
He looked me over, his hard face and five o’clock shadow making him fierce. Without a smile he said “If anyone asks, you are staying at hotel Armenia”. His stamp bolted down on my passport, he handed it to me.
We left and headed to Stepanakert, the Capital of the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh. Karabakh isn’t exactly a country. If you look on a map, it is part of Azerbaijan. Nevertheless, the roads, villages, cities, ruins, and people, are all within heavily fortified borders of Karabakh.
Karabakh was once a state of Armenia, but then the Soviet Union came and devoured the caucuses. Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan fell and became states of the Union. For political reasons the USSR handed Karabakh over to Azerbaijan. When the Soviet Union fell, Karabakh broke free and tried to rejoin with Armenia. Azerbaijan retaliated with extreme force, which almost escalated to world war three.
In Armenian, countless veterans told me pride filled stories about their heroics in defending their land. According to them, Karabakh was not a real country. It only existed because of technical issues with international law. They might have been right, even today, half of the Karabakh military comes from the ranks of Armenian conscripts.
We arrived in drizzling rain and meet by a friend of a friend, Maruch. Maruch is a tall, emaciated, 30 something democracy worker. Karabakh is a democracy in the sense that they have elections, but not in the sense that any party other than the ruling party ever gets a chance to win those elections. Maruch’s thin bearded and even thinner hair, combined with his tired, deep-set eyes, makes me think that if Karabakh becomes a real democracy, it will be because of him.
The streets, cold and mop water-grey, were empty. The buildings were new. All of them. Their communist red bricks, pink stucco walls, and thin, slitted windows, glowed in the clouded light. Rain drowned the street. We fled to the smooth, unchipped sidewalks. The shouldering wind heaved rain, it pelted our faces like galloping hooves.
Maruch took us back to his office and welcomed us with the Karabakh tradition of offering shots of 110 poof Mulberry vodka and vegetables to new guests. After our shot, he brought us out a tray of tea and snacks and left us to ourselves. After a long moment he returned. He gave a sad sigh. There were no vacant hotels or guesthouses for any reasonable price. With a bit of hinting on out part, Maruch decided that we should stay with him that night.
To celebrate, we drank some more. We all had a shot, then Maruch and me, then just Maruch, then Maruch again. Dazzled, we went out, through the sprinkling rain. The Marbury vodka had its effect. Maruch marched down the street, slapping his feet with hollow thumps, his voice bursting with pride as he sang his national anthem and songs from his childhood. The beauty he drew smiling eyes from every shop window.
When we arrived at his place I began asking him questions. Eventually I asked one that moved his soul. I asked him about the war. His happy, drunken eyes muted as he told us how as a child he looked out the window to see the beautiful fireworks as they arched over the sky and then collided with distant buildings. Oranges and reds shot off of apartment blocks. Bombs paraded through his city with thunderous applause and terrified screams.
His hands were trembling, his eyes downcast. He continued, his words snapping as they left his cold lips.
“They bombed and bombed and bombed. They never stopped. The ground shaked, the windows cracked. Explosions of fire ate everything. Buildings fell. My mother grabbed me we ran down”
With apartment blocks collapsing around them his family retreated to the inner safety of their building’s lowest floors. The walls shook, the earth was tearing apart. Screams were distant and muffled, lights flickered and died. For weeks, thousands of rockets crashed into his city, destroying his world complete and Absolut.
He became quite, motionless; his eyes downcast his brain remembering something words could not bear.
“What about Armenia, they came to help you right?”
His eyes moved to mine, they welled with emotion. He spoke again, this time his voice ice. “Yes, they came. Armenia is full of patriots. Do you know what patriotism is? It is when you live on the first floor and your neighbor above, the little old lady, who forgets everything, leaves the sink on and the water is leaking through the floor and dipping on to your head. Drip. Drip. Drip. You, get angry and go up to her door and beat it. ‘Fix your damn sink, its dripping on me’. And then the problem is fixed because you did all the work. The patriot is the guy on the third floor, the guy who did nothing and wasn’t involved. He comes to you and tells you that you did a good job, that he supports you, that your actions were the correct ones and if you need any help, next time, he will be there. He will be there only when it is too late, but he is a patriot. Patriotism means nothing, action means everything.”
I left him alone and soon he curled up and went to sleep.
Armenia did aid Karabakh during their war with Azerbaijan, but they arrived amidst ruins and death. It had been the locals, outnumbered, and out gunned who fought to end the nightmare. And it had been the locals who had suffered the most. By the end of the war, nearly a quarter of the counties young were dead.