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The long periods of foreign rule, often accompanied by religious persecution, led to the Armenian people becoming widely scattered and not comprising a majority in any territory. What distinguished them as Armenians was their Church and their language. During the 19th century this changed as a result of the Russian conquest of eastern Armenia. There was a deliberate Russian policy of encouraging Christian immigration and Muslim emigration. Although the Tsarist regime was initially tolerant of Christians who were not Orthodox believers this changed as a consequence of increasing Armenian nationalism as well as more general concern about national feelings and socialism in the Russian Empire. By the end of the century a policy of deliberate Russification of subject people was being applied.

The movement of population resulted, at the start of the Bolshevik regime, in the new Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic having an Armenian majority but with a significant Azeri minority. Similarly Azerbaijan had many Armenians within its boundaries, a number increased through the boundaries being deliberately gerrymandered. There was little Russian immigration to Armenia in either Tsarist or Soviet periods but the large population movements during the conflict with Azerbaijan between 1988 and 1994 resulted in massive emigration of Azeris and immigration of ethnic Armenians from Azerbaijan.

Perhaps because the land is so difficult to live on, very few people move to Armenia. Unlike its neighbors, Georgia and Azerbaijan, Armenia never saw much immigration from people in other Soviet republics. As a result, the people are almost exclusively native Armenians. The country has 3.8 million people, about the same as the state of Iowa. Ninety-three percent are ethnic Armenians. The remaining 7 percent of the population are Russians and Kurds. While Armenians are not a diverse people, there are small pockets of people living in the mountains that do not share the typical Armenian heritage. For example, about 60,000 Yezdi live in the highlands surrounding the Aragats and Hoktemberian peaks. This Kurdish sect remains isolated and practices Yezidism, a faith heavily influenced by Islam but also devoted to the ancient religions of Mithraism and Zoroastrianism.

With farming only a small industry in Armenia, and most of the country’s mines being located within a few miles of a small town, it is not surprising that most of the native Armenians live in urban centers. More than two-thirds of the population live in cities and towns, while just 1.2 million people live on about 8,000 square miles of countryside. Most of these people are farmers in the valleys surrounding Mount Aragats. The isolation this country and its people endure also has created a unique language. Armenian is an Indo-European language, but has no links with any other surviving language. It has borrowed some words from Persian and Turkish during the last two centuries but is most likely a combination of the many different trade languages spoken by the people traveling through the country in previous centuries. Because the country is so separated from its neighbors, the language was able to evolve and survive.

Although most people today speak Armenian at home and in the workplace, Russian remains an important language as Armenians seek to maintain a place in the broader world. Most Armenians also are well educated. Because of the Soviet government’s emphasis on free education, nearly all adults can read and write. Primary and secondary school are still free of charge and mandatory, even for people who live in rural areas. Many also go on to college or trade school. Because the country has good supplies of precious metals, the colleges produce many engineers. Likewise, because it has a tradition as a central trade route between the Middle East and Russia, the country also produces people well versed in international business. Perhaps because the country’s geography presents so many challenges, Armenians have the reputation as quick-thinking, purposeful people. Their roots lie with nomadic traders who set their sights on goals and worked to achieve them rather than assuming something was impossible. As a result, Armenians view themselves as self-reliant, even though the country’s poor economic conditions continue to make them largely dependent on Russia.

Population Accurate population figures are a matter of some debate in Armenia. In 2005 the population was estimated at 3,215,800 people. There were 3.8 million in 1979; another census was held in 1989 but the figures were disrupted by the 1988 earthquake. With the departure of the Azeris and the arrival of Armenians from Azerbaijan pushing the total as high as four million in the early 1990s, it means one million have left since independence, or a quarter of the total. There has been a large exodus from rural areas isolated by the new frontiers, such as Syunik and the Shamshadin region, to Yerevan and abroad. About one third of the population lives in Yerevan, and more than half in the Ararat Plains within a 60km radius of the capital. Armenians make up 93% of the population, Russians 2%, and Yezidi Kurds, Assyrians and Greeks make up the rest. There is a small diasporan Armenian community in Yerevan, sometimes called repatriates, different from earlier diasporan generations who arrived after WWII.

The National Psyche - Visitors are struck by how European Yerevan feels – with cafes, swish clothes, chamber orchestras and churches – but out in the countryside the social attitudes are quite Middle Eastern. The alphabet and language support a deep Christian piety and an intense love of learning and intellectual achievement. Russian poet Osip Mandelstam (1891–1938) said the Armenian language has boots of stone that won’t wear out. There is also a sadness to Armenia that underpins the enjoyment of sunshine, music and brandy. Peace with Azerbaijan over Karabakh seems as distant as ever, and the Turkish land border looks no closer to being opened. People feel this suits a small number of import barons to the exclusion of anyone else. Armenians are famously relaxed and unbothered by upheaval; when asked why Armenia hasn’t had a postindependence revolution a la Ukraine or Georgia, the answer is all too obvious – after an hour of riveting talk everyone would end up back at their favourite cafe.

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