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Report from Another Revolution

Armenia glories in a fresh flush of independence

Photo by Artur Sargsian. Liz's work colleagues celebrate the Revolution in Yerevan's Republic Square.

    As Chesapeake Country celebrates the Fourth of July, raising beer bottles and crab mallets to the heroes of America’s Revolutionary War, so here in Armenia — where I’m serving as a Peace Corps volunteer — people are celebrating a revolutionary action of their own.
    In April, following mass protests and nationwide marches, Armenia’s best known and least-loved politician was forced to resign. He was hounded out of office by 2.5 million people who had had enough of corruption, nepotism and constitutional tinkering designed to keep power and money in the hands of very few. Now Armenia has a new prime minister, the leader of a peaceful “velvet” revolution, known lovingly and universally by his first name, Nikol. The head of police was immediately fired. My former Armenian teacher became minister of culture.
    A powerful oligarch was arrested yesterday. His alleged crime? Stealing care packages sent to soldiers and taking them to his palatial home to feed bears and other savage creatures in his backyard menagerie. This greed in a country where most people live on less than $3 a day. This callousness where young boys of 17 must spend two years in the army, risking their lives against sniper attacks from their Azeri opposites. This excess in a country where everyday people must grow kitchen-garden food and patch their roofs with rusted corrugations to survive.
    My job as a Peace Corps volunteer is not to relate the entire, complicated story of the revolution.
    But it is one of my jobs to help my people — the people of America and so of Chesapeake Country — understand the people of Armenia better. So I can tell you this: It feels like everyone here has suddenly exhaled. Even cynics can’t keep the joy from their voices and the hope from their eyes. They stand a little straighter. They exult at the news that natural gas prices are going down nearly as quickly as their now-handcuffed higher-ups. They dare to hope their own belt-tightening days will soon end.
    The organization I work with here runs an annual contest for English-language learners aged 12 to 17. This year more than 700 students took part, reciting with precision, comprehension and verve the poems of Mary ­Oliver and Sylvia Plath, Robert Frost and Langston Hughes. The national finals of the Poetry Recitation contest had to be postponed because every self-respecting student was out waving banners and dancing in the streets to block the path of armored Caddies and Lexuses driven by despots.
    With the new prime minister installed, the contest was rescheduled. One after the other, the young men and women took to the platform and used the words of great writers to voice their hope for Armenia’s future — and to share the standards they set for themselves. Most popular was Maya Angelou’s battle cry, Still I Rise. Their enthusiasm and optimism was irresistible.
    It was left to the Irish poet Louis MacNeice to sound a note of caution to the people of this small country in the Caucasus who hope their new leader — one man, new to government — can lead them straight and true to a great tomorrow. “In brute reality there is no road that is right entirely,” wrote MacNeice ruefully in his poem Entirely. MacNeice was the choice of only two of our finalists.
    It is fascinating to live in Armenia at this time. I wish these people all the luck in the world for what happens next. Revolutions are rarely simple.

This is Shady Side resident Liz Barron’s fourth report from the U.S. Peace Corps in Armenia. Follow her ­experiences on her blog, marigoldmoment.com.