My friend and I had just hitchhiked into Gyumri in Armenia, from Georgia. Night had fallen but the streetlights were off. The city, if you could call it that, was in darkness. We had the address of Luis, a Portuguese Couchsurfer who had said he would put us up for a couple of nights. Finding his place, though, was proving difficult. After wandering around following vague and contradicting directions from various men we asked on the street, we found ourselves walking just behind a bloke in his early twenties who told us that he would lead us to where we wanted to go. This seemed a bit strange, but it didn’t stop us from following him. He looked exactly like the two lads that had driven us in to the city: Short black hair, thick dark eyebrows, large brown eyes, and dressed completely in black. He didn’t speak at all, just kept walking ahead of us, turning around every so often to check that we were still in tow. Eventually we entered a large unlit block. The man knocked on the door of one of the ground-floor flats and a little old lady answered. The man spoke to her in Armenian, and just like when we had crossed the border earlier we clearly picked out the word ‘American,’ despite neither of us nor our host being American. As soon as this word was put out there, though, the lady sprang into life; she knew exactly what we wanted. We wanted the American who lived upstairs. Our guide led us up to the second floor and knocked loudly on a door. It was answered by a man who looked Portuguese.
“Yes. Welcome. Come in.”
We thanked our guide and entered the flat, to be met by a group of ten or so energetic young things in their late teens, all drinking from a large punch bowl and speaking to each other in second-language English. We introduced ourselves to everyone. There were girls from Austria, Germany, Poland and Romania; and guys from Denmark, France and Portugal. All had been placed in Gyumri by the European Voluntary Service, a European Commision project that gives young people the opportunity to volunteer in a developing country for anything up to twelve months.
“We’re about to go out to a club,” one of the group told us, “You’re coming with us.”
“I’ll just jump under the shower quickly before we go, if that’s alright?” I said.
My words were met with laughter from everyone.
“One of the wonders of this city is that we only have water for a couple of hours each morning, and then for an hour in the late afternoon,” Luis told me.
“The water’s only heated in the morning? That’s no problem, I don’t mind taking a cold shower. I feel pretty dirty. It’s been a long day on the road.”
“No, that’s not what I meant. We have no running water of any kind for most of the day. You can’t even flush the toilet here. If you use the toilet, you pour water into it from this,” Luis pointed to a bucket full of water as he spoke. “We fill it up in the morning when the water is on.”
“Oh. Right. And does the same apply to the club we’re going to?”
“No. They are allowed running water.”
I was quite desperate for a shit, so was pleased with this answer.
“Okay, well let’s go then!” I said, perhaps a bit too enthusiastically.
Everyone put their coats on and we made our way out on to the street and headed in the direction of Gyumri’s only nightclub. As we walked, Luis and Iustina – a larger than life, both physically and in character, Romanian girl – gave us a bit of a local studies lesson. Gyumri, it seemed, was a strange place.
“The reason you don’t see any women or girls on the streets is that there is an unwritten rule here, a curfew for females. All women must be home for 7 in the evening, and they aren’t allowed to go out again until the morning. Nor are women allowed to smoke cigarettes, at least not in public. I teach Spanish here, and I have to hide my smoking because if one of the parents saw me with a cigarette they would judge me as a woman of low morals and stop their child from coming to my class. Women and girls here get a pretty shitty deal,” Iustina explained.
“What about young people, do they go out on dates?” I asked.
Iustina smirked, before continuing, “dates? No way! Girls here don’t date; they marry. The norm is to marry in the teens. And if you are a girl, you must remain a virgin until marriage. If you lose that virginity before, no man will take you and you will spend the rest of your life alone, being thought of as a whore. You will shame your family. This isn’t a place where you want to be a woman. At least 60 per cent of Armenian women suffer regular domestic abuse from their husbands. Actually, the number is probably higher than the official figure, because most women don’t report it. Domestic violence is seen as a private matter and there are no real laws against it. Women can’t escape by divorcing their men, either, as to file for divorce causes social disgrace. It doesn’t help that girls are so badly educated; they don’t have the tools to protect themselves. This country is almost as backward as Saudi Arabia when it comes to the status of women.”
It was hard to tell if my guide was exaggerating to shock the foreign visitor – Me.
As we walked, the four of us chatting, the rest of our group walked ahead in smaller groups. Closest to us were two German girls, who were being trailed slowly by a white Lada, both the driver and his mate in the passenger seat leaning out of their windows and speaking to the girls, but not close enough for me to hear the subject. On these completely unlit streets it looked sinister. I turned to Luis.
“Bit dodgy, innit? Shouldn’t we intervene? These guys have been stalking the girls for 10 minutes already.”
“Nah, it’s fine. It’s what the men here do. The girls will probably get in the car in a minute and let them drive them to the club, and then possibly let them buy them a drink,” Luis told me matter-of-factly.
“That sounds a bit, um, prostitutey,” I said.
“Yea I see what you mean. But it’s innocent enough. Nothing bad will happen. The girls use it as a free taxi service and a way of getting free drinks, and for the men, well, they get to have some interaction with the opposite sex; something they can’t get with Armenian girls. It’s just how it is.”
As I listened, it suddenly dawned on me that we were heading to a club. Who was going to be there if women weren’t allowed out after dark? I wasn’t up for a sausage party. I asked Luis what the story was.
“We’re going to a place called Relax. It’s the only club in the city. Armenian girls, because of the curfew, aren’t allowed to go there. It would be too dangerous for them, because women out late at night are seen as legitimate targets for sexual attack. And the local boys don’t really go there either, because it has a bad reputation, and also there’s no point them turning up if there are no women. So the men you find in there are either from the local Russian military base – there are 3000 Russian soldiers based here in Gyumri – or are local gangsters. The Armenian gangsters dress in leather coats; the Russian gangsters wear sports gear, mostly fighting brands such as Everlast and Lonsdale. It’s pretty funny to observe.”
“But what’s the point of them going if there aren’t any women? It all sounds a bit testosterone heavy.”
“Well, there are some women. A few prostitutes earn their money in there. They’re mostly Russian, although sometimes you get an Armenian one. They show up a bit later in the evening,” Iustina continued.
“But what about you and the other girls, don’t you get pestered?” I asked.
“Nope. That’s the funny thing. The men here have a weird code that they adhere to strictly. They want to dance with us and talk to us, but they won’t do it without first being given permission by the men we are with. Tonight that will include you. What will happen is the soldiers will come and do everything they can to make friends with you. They’ll tell you that you are their brother. And then they’ll ask to sit down. If you let them, they’ll eventually ask your permission to take one of the girls to the dance floor, or just to sit with her and chat over a cigarette. They think we are your property. Women are seen as possessions of men here. But these guys are harmless enough.”
We arrived at the place and made our way through the gang of young Russians standing around the battered wooden door. The club looked even worse from the inside than it did from the outside. In fact, it looked like a replica of the youth club I used to knock about in as a kid. The walls were painted bright red; there was a large floor-to-ceiling mirror covering one of the walls; the dance floor was empty, as the few patrons stood around the outside in small groups, chatting and smoking fags; at the near end of the dance floor, close to the entrance, a fat Russian DJ stood behind his CD decks, wearing a Tap-Out cage-fighting vest, playing cheesy Russian dance music and occassionally spitting some words into his microphone, in the style of a wedding reception DJ; and at the far end there was a bar that looked like it should be selling bottles of Panda Pop and sweets.
We made our way across the dance floor to the bar. A tall, blonde Russian Barbie Doll, one of only a couple of women in the building that weren’t part of our group, reached out and tapped me on the elbow. I turned to her, she smiled, and I carried on to the bar. No point wasting her time; I wasn’t going to give her any trade.
A bottle of the local beer, according to the price list, cost 400 Dram (about 55 English pence, or 80 US cents), but according to the barman and also to the fact that I was a foreigner, ended up costing 500 dram ($1 US). I found this out when asking for my change from a 500 Dram note.
“There is service charge. 100 Dram,” growled the barman.
“It doesn’t say that anywhere on the price list,” I replied.
“It doesn’t need to.”
“fair enough. Where’s the toilet?”
“Customer toilet out of order. You can use staff toilet. Follow me.”
I was led through a door that took me into a dirty kitchen hidden away behind the bar. An old babushka sat on a wooden stool watching me. In the corner was a white door, and on the other side of that door was a bathroom the size of an airing cupboard, containing a toilet, a few rolls of sand paper that Armenians call toilet paper, and a little sink and mirror, with a load of used disposable razors on a shelf. I did my business and made my way back out into the club. I was greeted by the sight of a group of European volunteers, dancing together in a circle, along with a cheery prostitute in a blue dress, circled by a group of large men, all dressed in black, watching them like a pride of lions watches a herd of antelope. The scene instantly reminded me of the disco held in the mental hospital in the film Bronson.
I declined the invitation to get involved, opting instead to go and sit at a table to drink my beer and smoke a cigarette in peace. At least, that was the plan. Three lads approached me, all cleanly shaven and in their late teens or early twenties. They pulled up chairs next to me and shook my hand, before proceeding to gabble away at me in Russian. I picked up the word ‘brat,’ which I knew meant ‘brother’. This was what Iustina had prepared me for. They wanted the women that I’d come with. They seemed like decent lads, and not how I had imagined Russians soldiers would be. They weren’t brutish, but rather childlike and innocent. Just kids, out relaxing after a no-doubt strenuous week of training. There were about ten of them in total, all dressed in blue jeans and casual t-shirts, apart from one lad of Kazak appearance who had obviously come straight from duty, as he was still dressed in full uniform.
Sitting with my back to the wall, smoking and observing the scene around me was a strange experience. There was something not quite right about the atmosphere. There were basically four sub-groups of people, none of which interacted with any of the others. You had your Armenian gangsters, who patrolled the edges of the dance floor with Russian hookers on their arms, or who sat at tables, with the whores on their laps, drinking cocktails and sucking faces. Then you had your Russian bad men, all dressed like they’d come straight from the caged ring, who stood in the corner laughing amongst themselves; one of whom would every 20 minutes or so grab a microphone and sing karaoke-style a popular Russian song in the middle of dance floor, which would be enjoyed by his group of mates, as well as the Russian soldiers. These soldiers, though, didn’t want anything to do with their criminal element compatriots and kept themselves to themselves, dancing enthusiastically and with smiles on their faces, looking at the girls of our group but not daring to act on their desires. And then there were the European volunteers, who drank copious amounts and danced all over the place, seemingly oblivious to the fact that there was anyone else in the building.
As the night wore on, more and more of the young Russian soldiers were thrown out of the place by over-zealous bouncers who were indistinguishable from the Armenian gangsters. Supposedly they were too drunk, but as far as I could tell they were no trouble at all. Eventually only three soldiers remained; ironically the three youngest and least tough looking of the whole group. One blond lad and two Kazaks. Still, they didn’t seem to mind or even notice that their mates had been ejected. The Russian bad men decided to call it a night, and left as one.
I returned from the toilet again and noticed that the atmosphere was even tenser than it had been before.
“You just missed the action,” My friend told me, looking upset. “It was horrible. That blonde prostitute over there just deliberately walked into that Kazak kid and almost knocked him over. When he turned round to see what had hit him, the blonde shouted some abuse at him and then before anyone knew what was going on, that big man in the brown coat started a fight with him. The bouncers jumped in and pulled them apart. It wasn’t nice to see. He’s only little, and he didn’t do anything wrong. But the bouncers were ready to kick him out, and yet said nothing to the two that started it.”
I looked over to the dance floor. The three Russians were dancing on their own, the man who had been up for fighting was pacing around menacingly, and the prostitute who had started the trouble lingered in the background looking like a, well, like a trouble-making bitch. I knew instinctively that things were about to kick off. Unfortunately, the Russians didn’t seem to have a clue.
I turned around, took a swig from my bottle of beer, and then turned back to the dance floor. It had kicked-off. Five large Armenians were trading blows with the three young Russians. Fair play to the soldiers, they stood up and fought for each other, but it was never going to be a fair fight. More Armenians came from outside and joined their mates in the assault. The little Kazak was on the floor, his head getting a kicking. His mate in uniform flew in to protect him. The lad managed to get to his feet. Then a glass bottle was smashed on his head. He didn’t go down. The bouncers did a bad job of pretending to be break up the violence. The three Russians took a bit of a pasting, but nothing too horrendous. A character-building beating. And they gave some back as well. All three left on their feet, a bit of claret running from their noses, and the little lad with a large lump above his eye. That little guy was still calling the large Armenian in the brown coat outside to finish it properly. Good lad. The bouncers eventually bundled the soldiers out the door. They had earned my respect over the past few minutes. Not one of them had been out for trouble, but even when outnumbered and facing men twice their size, they stuck together and had a row. It was all over in a couple of minutes, and just like that our night had died. The group I was with collected their coats and bags and we left the now empty building.
On the walk back to the flat Iustina and Luis explained that the fight had probably been race-motivated. The bouncers, in co-operation with the gangsters, had through the course of the night slowly isolated the two Kazak-looking boys, and then once all of their army colleagues had been booted out, the prostitute had done her part and lit the fuse.
Just before closing the living-room door behind me and passing out for the night on the couch, I had one more question for Luis.
“There are no Americans living here, and yet both the lad who brought us here and the lady downstairs referred to the people living in this flat as Americans. The two boys that we hitched the ride into the country with, despite repeatedly being told where we were from, also constantly called us Americans. As did the border guards when we entered Armenia, despite holding our passports in their hands. What’s that all about?”
“Ah you get used to that,” Luis replied with a smile, “Anyone here who is not Armenian or Russian is American. That’s just how it is.”
Kris Mole’s book ‘Gatecrashing Europe’ – where he freeloads his way around an otherwise expensive continent – is published by http://www.valleypressuk.com/ and available on Amazon. Follow him on twitter at @KrisMole.
Copyright © 2015 Kris Mole