The Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh has its own constitution, president, parliament and army, but it's a sovereign country only on paper. Without Armenians from Armenia-proper like Ruslan willing to pay and die for the cause, Karabakh would never hold its own against the Azeris next door.
"So, do you think the Turks are going to try to take Karabakh back? Do they have a chance?" I asked.
"I don't know," Ruslan replied. The "cool road mix" CD that his friend handed off to him looked like it had been ground against asphalt and was skipping on every track, but he was intent on getting Shakira back on. Even when we went out drinking in Yerevan the night before, I had to drag his army stories out of him. He seemed bored as he told the story of how his army pal shot down a female Azeri sniper from a tree with a few blasts from his AK.
"If they were to attack, would you fight for it?" I asked.
"I don't know," he repeated. "But if they do, I can tell you that we're not going to stop at our borders of Karabakh, like we did last time. If they attack, this time, we're marching to go all the way to Baku."
Making peach samogon
We took a detour to stop by Ruslan's family's village about an hour outside of Yerevan. They were also bakintsi and were smart enough to trade in their standalone house in Baku when they fled for a few acres of farmland and a couple mud brick shacks in what used to be an exclusively Azeri village within Armenia. After they arrived, Ruslan's uncle went off to fight in Karabakh and never came back.
Ruslan's grandmother gave me a skewed look when I asker her if any Azerbaijanis still lived in the village. "No, there are no more Turks living here. Everyone in the village are Armenians from Baku," she said. 600,000 Azeris from all over Armenia and Karabakh were booted or fled from Armenia following the Karabakh war. In return, 250,000 Armenians were sent packing back to their historic homeland.
In Azerbaijan, Ruslan's family was made up carpenters, plumbers and housewives. But in Armenia they went native and took up farming. Just like Ruslan's natural gas option, it wasn't by choice.
While Ruslan's grandmother laid the table, his grandfather showed me his samogon gear. He just began distilling a new batch from homegrown peaches.
"If you lived in the city, how did you learn to farm," I asked him.
"We had to, so we learned."
Ruslan's grandmother set the table exclusively with homegrown produce. The bread, the apricot jam, the fresh pears, the kefir, the cheese, the eggplant spread and the vodka were all domashnye . They still raised chickens and when the grandfather had more energy, he used to have a few cows.
"Ah! Who needs that Karabakh," is all I got out of gramps on the subject. He lost his son there and so preferred to explain his samagon distillation techniques.
Gramps was a broken man. He'd never been to Karabakh and didn't plan on going. In fact most mainland Armenians had never visited the place. Why waste the fuel? What's there to see? Why did they even fight for it?
But that evening, after we were waved passed the Karabakh's border control without having our documents checked, I finally saw why Nagorno-Karabakh was worth fighting for. The place is like a condensed version of the best scenery of Northern California and the Sierra Nevadas put together: 6,000 ft mountains, rolling golden-sunburned pastures, sandstone hills, steep limestone cliffs, and mountain streams. It's easily the most beautiful region in Armenia. Even the women were better looking there than in Armenia proper: thinner, taller, and shapelier.
Ruslan promptly introduced me to two of his army buddies, Vadim and Veretan. Vadim rolled up to my hotel in his father's 80's 3 series BMW. He was clearly privileged: his father used to be the KGB director for one of Karabakh's districts and as a result Vadim had a cushy job working as an ambulance driver. Veretan worked as a technician at Karabakh's only TV station that broadcast its signal a few hours each day.