With few options at home, Armenians return to Russia for work

Journalist: Karin Manukyan

Edition: Labor
Topic: Employment

In the tiny Armenian village of Litchq, nearly 30 percent of the adults go abroad to work. 

“If the family has someone able-bodied in the household, that person will work abroad,” notes Hayk Hokhikyan, the settlement’s head of administration.

Most of the estimated 1500 residents who leave the village depend on jobs in Russia, according to interviews with locals. While Litchq has one of the highest concentrations of migrant laborers in Armenia, it reflects the overall trend in the country.

A 2022 report by ARMSTAT, the state statistics body, found that the majority of the 218,400 citizens who left the country from 2016 to 2020 (the latest data available) were men. Russia is a common destination; in 2021, $866 million in remittances were sent from Russia, the largest source. The United States was in second place with $580 million in remittances, followed by a total of $663 million from other countries, according to the Central Bank of Armenia.

Smbat Gegamyan, 38, has been traveling to Russia for work since 2005. 

“I come from a hardworking family. I have two brothers and one sister. My father worked; he raised us to the working-age when we needed to study and begin working, but we were unable to do so as we did not have enough money,” he says. “So, we opted to work abroad.”

Like most villagers interviewed, Smbat adds that he would prefer to stay at home. “We will remain in our homeland countries if we believe we have a job that allows us to live and provide for our families,” was a common refrain to Chai Khana’s questions.

But with few businesses operating in the village and limited resources, most feel they have few options but to go abroad.

Zhora Khachatryan, 60, has been going to Russia, where he works as a foreman on a building site, for many years. He plans to go back in May. 

Zhora first went to Russia as a young man to serve his mandatory two years in the Soviet army. He stayed for university but ultimately returned to Litchq to work at a nearby factory. “We love our land and water. We would not be here today if it weren't for that love,” he says.

Eventually, that factory, which employed 5,000 people, shuttered. Other factories followed suit. 

“Our factory brought a lot of revenue to the country… Later, due to new rules, the factory was unable to be maintained and was shuttered. The entire system of electronic manufacturing was shut down, and we all became unemployed,” Zhora recalls. “At the time, there were no jobs in our village. So, I began working abroad.”

Gnel Grigoryan, formally a deputy head of the village, noted that even when the factories in the region operated, they did not provide enough jobs for the local residents to stay in the area. 

“There was a state farm, and some people worked there, but most of them went to work abroad because there was not enough work,” he says. “We used to have a mineral water factory with around 100 employees, the most of them were women. The rest of the population was engaged in agriculture, animal husbandry, or going abroad for work.” 

Remittances from residents have helped the community develop: migrant labor provides the resources to build houses, pave roads, repair water lines and build a church. 

Igor Arzumanyan, 57, has been going abroad for work since he left the Soviet army in 1987. He notes that the past two years have been difficult for migrant laborers due to the pandemic. Now, with the Russian war in Ukraine, he fears jobs will be few and far between in Russia. 

Armenia’s central bank has also warned that the war and international sanctions against Russia mean fewer jobs for the country’s labor migrants. In March, it predicted unemployment would be around 16.7 percent in 2022 due to decreased demand for workers in Russia. 

Igor agrees. “This year is going to be even worse. Because of the war, sanctions, and bank issues, if there were no jobs in the years following the coronavirus, there would be fewer this time,” he says.

But he has few choices: he didn’t travel to Russia in 2020 due to the pandemic but needs to earn money to help his four children pay for their university education. 

“This year I can go but expect to earn just enough to cover basic things,” Igor says.

This article was produced in the framework of Chai Khana Fellowship program - Spring 2022

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