Fading - On Being Udi in Armenia

Author: Armine Avetisyan


Vyacheslav Bejanov shuns cameras, eschews interviews. He does not want publicity - the Udi community he belongs to has been on and off under the spotlight of journalists he feels have manipulated them, NGOs using them to attract funding for projects which soon evaporate.

“If you came to listen to our stories and tell them to the world, you are wasting your time, no one remembers us,” he dismisses. 

Yet, soon the initial distrust melts and Vyachislav starts to tell.

“My parents were Udis, they used to live in Vartashen [now Oghuz] in northern Azerbaijan. After the Sumgayit massacre of February 1988, my family, with many Christian and Armenian-speaking Udis, moved to Armenia. We have been living here for 29 years, but we are forgotten, not recognized by anyone,” he laments. 

The 2001 census sets the number of Udis in Armenia at 200. Despite being a tiny fraction of a nevertheless small community of 11,000 spread across former Soviet Union, those were good times. No updated figures are available and a survey carried out by the community itself counted barely 23 individuals in Noyemberyan, one in neighboring Debetavan, two in Bagratashen and one in Yerevan. The wish to gather under a single roof is large. Udis gradually forget their past.

“Udis are not officially recognized as an ethnic minority, a recognition granted to groups which systematically work to preserve their identity,” explains Hranush Kharatyan, Yerevan-based ethnographer who has conducted research on the community. Udis have not worked in this direction and the lack of a clear legislative framework has not helped the group. 

“Our nation is dying out, soon there will be no Udis left,” sighs Vyachislav. “But it’s our fault too. I have four daughters and eight grandchildren. I rarely talk about our past at home. I don’t know why.”

Recent history has not helped. At the end of the 1980s the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno Karabakh spilled. In the Azerbaijani city of Sumgayit, scores of Armenians were killed and Udis who were part of the Armenian Apostolic Church, who had Armenian surnames or spoke Armenian, fled. The USSR was still breathing and soon the Communist authorities tried to push for the Udis to go back to Azerbaijan. A few did, the rest moved to Russia, and some stayed on.

A group of Udis in Noyemberyan.
The ancestors of Vardashen Udis.

“My family is a cultural chaos,” says Bejanov. “I am an Udi and I was born in Azerbaijan and now I live in Armenia. My wife is an Armenian and she was born in Azerbaijan too … what else to tell? We have lived half of our lives in Armenia, and we have become Armenians, and live like Armenians.”

Vyachislav doesn’t remember, or doesn’t want to, the traditions of his people. It is up to Sevil, his wife, to tell Udis’ history, how they embraced Christianity in the 4th century and how they practiced in peace in their native Vardashen, attending ceremonies in the church.

“It’s not a problem to be an Udi here, we have no problems; one may say that no one even knows what it means to be an Udi. It takes long to explain the origins of our family,” laughs Sevil, whose oldest daughter decided to take up her ethnicity - in Armenia it is easier to be Armenian.

Every May, Udis decorate tree branches with thread during their national holiday of Dimbaz. Each thread signifies a wish.
Chicken meat is the basis of many national dishes in the community.

Juliet Asatryan moved to Armenia in the early 1960s. Unlike her brother who fled Azerbaijan in 1988, discrimination was not the reason.

“I came here to study, then I met my future husband and stayed here. I didn’t see the Sumgayit pogroms myself, but my parents told me that in 1988, all the Udis that had Armenian connections were killed. And it’s the Udis with Armenian links who fled. My family told that my uncle was saved by a miracle, as when he tried to help and Armenian woman he was beaten,” explains the 58 year old.

Surik Uruzov is one of the scores of Udis who settled to Noyemberyan from Vardashen in 1988. He dreams that one day Udis would be recognized like any other ethnic minority. 

Surik Uruzov with his daughter Maria.
Surik Uruzov’s wife, Ofelia Gigauri, is Georgian. She’s been living in Armenia since they married in 2004.
The Uruzovs live in precarious conditions.

“We are being exploited for someone else’s gain. People look at us to put together project proposals, they come and encourage us to talk, then they leave and we never see them again,” complaints the 45 year old man, who, like many others, is unemployed. He still remembers how unknown people came to their region, interviewed the community for some kind of survey, promising a summer camp for Udi children. Then, silence. He still hopes that his daughter one day will be able to go to an Udi camp, and with the help of Udi teachers she can gain deeper knowledge of the history of their nation.

In Noyemberyan most are engaged in basic agriculture, many do not have permanent jobs.

“I take any work to support the family, like guarding livestock, working in the fields, manual work, ad-hoc,” explains Surik. “We, Udis, can adapt, we are modest, otherwise we would not be silent.”

The Noyemberyan-based NGO Armenian National Association of Young Christian Women worked on a film-doc about the community in Armenia but essentially there is not much research in Armenia about the community, nor organizations working with its members. As its few members have assimilated into the Armenian society, the main issues remain the language - a lot of them have lost the language and cannot pass it onto the young generation - and isolation.

To read more about Udis living in other countries of the South Caucasus, please click on the map below.