Ani Manukyan, 30, has been married for 10 years, but if we subtract the time that her husband has been away, it would only be half of that time. You can see how she longs for her husband in her eyes husband. She consoles herself with the children and is looking forward to the day when the head of the family returns.
“Our child was born on November 12th of last year, but my husband saw Rimma for only three months. He was here only when our son was born. He didn’t see our children grow up, he didn’t see them take their first steps, nor did he hear their first words. He is far from his home and family. We can only communicate via Skype. Almost all of the women in the village have a similar situation,” says the mother of three children.
Ani also lives in the Lichk village, in the Gegharkunik Province, which is situated on the bank of the Sevan Lake. In this village there is the highest rate of labor migration. People leave to go to different cities in Russia in early spring in order to resolve their social problems and they return late in autumn.
1,000 out of 5,300 male residents in Lichk, aged 18-65, leave the village in order to earn their living. According to Gnel Grighoryan, the head of Lichk village, they mostly travel to Russia, often to the remote Siberia, and a few people go to Ukraine.
“There are no jobs here, but there are whole brigades of our villagers who moved abroad long ago. They have purchased equipment, arranged their own land and now invite their friends and relatives. Among other things, they also lay asphalt there.”
However, the economic crisis and inflation in Russia have had an impact on the labor migrants from Lichk. Many of them left to find jobs after taking out bank loans.
Rimma Hayrapetyan, Ani Manukyan’s mother-in-law, says that each time she talks to her sons, she persuades them to take their families with them.
“It is hard to provide for the family. What they brought this year was just pocket change. We have had to pawn our gold so that they would be able to leave again. I took out a 800,000 AMD ($1,700 US) loan and Ani took out a 1 million AMD (over $2,000 US). We were paying only interest for three years when the rate of the Ruble was dropping. Nevertheless, jobs are only available there. Putin feeds us,” says Rimma, pointing to the potrait of the Russian President on her T-shirt.
The women of Lichk village complain about their husbands’ absence and, at the same time, pray for their well-being Russia, since land cultivation and cattle farming is not enough to make a living off of.
Only a few men work in the fields during hay harvesting. According to the head of the village, there are almost no men who can operate farming equipment. Therefore, the women have had to take up scythes.
Anna Saakyan, 30 and who is 8 months pregnant, is collecting hay.
“Who else will do it, if not me? Everybody does it in our village. I’m doing my best for my children’s sake. My husband has been in Moscow to earn a living for us for 8 years. This year, he has been jobless for three months. There were years when he returned home with a good wage, but now he doesn’t even send a kopeck,” says Anna, mopping her brow.
Anna’s children, Rimma, age 7 and Boris, age 4, try to help her. She had to pay 35,000 AMD (approx. $70 US) for someone to mow her 0.5 hectare field. They collect the hay themselves. Each bail, made by a binder, costs 150 AMD ($0.30 US).
“We live on cattle, potatoes and our plot of land. We have a lot of hay and we sell some of it. However, we will hardly be able to make a living from it if our son doesn’t also go looking for seasonal jobs. He pawned his sister’s gold chain and left for Russia,” says Rimma Goroyan, 55, Anna’s mother-in-law.
The noise of an electric mowing machine can be heard in different parts of the village. This is the hottest working season for Aghasi Asatryan, from the village of Astkghadzor in the Gegharkun district. He has already mowed 300,000 AMD (US$630) worth of grass.
“They pay off their debts upon their return in autumn. Sometimes they pay back their debt the following year. If they happen to come back and are down on their luck, without any money at all, there's nothing that can be done for them. We mow on credit for those who are short of money, and free of charge for those who have no money at all,” says a 37 year-old father of four children. As he told us, he travelled to Russia for work, but the drop in the Ruble made him refrain from going there this year.
Having left a row of mown grass behind him, he says that it’s impossible to make a living without going somewhere to work. I couldn’t provide for my family only with the income from potatoes, which are the main source of income in the region.
“Find someone and ask whether he has achieved anything by selling potatoes. Has anybody built a house by cultivating potatoes? No way. Once you see a new house in the village, you can be rest assured that it has been built with money brought back from Russia.”
The district named ‘Putinka’ was built in Lichk village within the past 20 years, at the expense of labor migrants’ earnings.
“If people don’t go to Russia, they will not live. They will merely exist. There is no industry here. People used to be employed at state-owned farms. There was a mineral water plant, and people used to work at the Martuni and Gavar plants. It should be noted that going somewhere to earn one’s living has been a tradition here since Soviet times. 50% of the population was even leaving the village to earn money then,” says the head of Lichk.
As he noted, even people with salaries amounting to 100,000 AMD (approx. $200 US) are hardly able to provide for their families.
“We have large families here, with 5-7 members each, and there also some families with 12 members. Each family is sent 1,000 RUB, but that's not even enough for a sack of flour. Two years ago, 1,000 RUB could be exchanged for 12,000 AMD ($25 US) and one could buy two sacks of flour with that amount. Now, you need 2,000 RUB to buy that same two sacks. We can’t even collect taxes this year. So, we are waiting until autumn when the men return.”
Having gained a firm foothold in Russia, natives of Lichk have built a church, spending $350,000 US on it. According to the head of the village, it is good that churches are built, but it would be better to invest the money in things that would provide the villagers with job opportunities.
Two schools are operating in Lichk. 90-100 children are born here annually.
Ani Manukyan tries to justify the husbands who leave the village to earn a living. “It’s not easy for them. When they return home, their children don’t recognize them. However, if they stay here, they won’t be able to provide for them. We stuck in a corner. This probably going to be the new model for an Armenian family.”
Ruben Yeghanyan, a demographer, notes that labor migration (30-40,000 seasonal migrants) was something that was common in Armenia in Soviet times, when the regional development policy had been actively pursued. It should be noted that it was particularly common for the residents of mountain regions to do this:
“At that time, migration was a strategy to gain prosperity, whereas now it’s a strategy of survival. It’s the only rational way for people to provide for their families. The number of seasonal migrants nowadays total 80,000-100,000.
Men make up approximately 85% of that number. It is worthy of note that the majority of men are of an active working age; there are many young people among them. Over 95% of migrants leave to go to Russia, which is the area's key migration partner.”