Traveling to Stepanakert, The Heart and Capital of Artsakh

 We took a trip to Stepanakert in June right before the snap parliamentary elections in Armenia. Here’s a truthful recollection of (almost) everything we saw.

Right before we arrive in Stepanakert, Russian peacekeepers stop our minivan and ask the young man with short hair to step out. Two Artsakhtsi ladies sitting next to him protest: “He’s not a soldier, he’s a sportsman.” In response, a youthful peacekeeper cites the trilateral agreement: “The peacemaking forces of the Russian Federation shall be deployed concurrently with the withdrawal of the Armenian troops.” The Artsakhtsi lady curses Pashinyan. We leave the boy to be taken back to Yerevan and ride off.

Stepanakert Artsakh Up Close Narek Aleksanyan

The roses in the Freedom Fighters’ Park are blooming. The tiny library has a small selection of old books and “Without you, there is no spring” scribbled on it. Hope it’s dedicated to a random school crush who’s going out with someone else now.

Stepanakert Park Narek Aleksanyan
Stepanakert Park library

The Renaissance Square has two walls. One begins with a “We…” and has many bouquets of artificial flowers in front of it. The other says “Russia, help to bring back our loved ones” in Russian.

Stepan Shahumyan, that very Stepan from the first part of “Stepanakert,” a famous Armenian revolutionary and literati, is looking over his domain.

Apparently, today is high school graduation day and there are dressed-up schoolchildren wandering in groups, snacking, and taking photos all over the town.

Sayat Nova Music School of Stepanakert has some peculiar paintings. One even depicts one of Montserrat Caballé’s many visits to Artsakh.

A graduating pianist is rehearsing for the Final Concert tomorrow. We’re invited!

Sayat Nova Music School of Stepanakert

Time for a caramel popcorn break.

Cities, in contrast to villages, are more direct and textual. Stepanakert says “Will power is the weapon of strength,” “Our mountains give rise to our victories,” and urges you to “love and look after fatherland.”

Then there are names and ages: Leonid was 19, Sergey was 20.

In a labyrinth of yards, we come across a dove keeper with 70 years of experience–something to put on a CV, for sure. He tells us the exact number of his doves (78) and then shows which dove is whose daughter or son.

It is mulberry season in Artsakh, and kids make the most of it.

Mulberry Season Stepanakert

A grandpa is playing with his granddaughter on a swing.

Grandpa and granddaughter in Stepanakert

I note that Artsakh has preserved in a way the Soviet style. It is especially evident in the classical flowing dresses of Artsakh women.

Stepanakert women

It is Artsakh TV’s 33th birthday. The journalism students of Artsakh State University head there to cover the anniversary.


Shy at first, they gradually become bolder, ask more questions and explore more rooms. One of the veterans of Artsakh TV, when asked what he wishes for Artsakh TV, answers without hesitation: “Shushi back.”

Stepanakert dog
Stepanakert at night

It’s getting darker, and we’re trying to find Bardak, Stepanakert’s one and only pub. 

Bardak Pub Stepanakert

Azat, the owner of the pub who was wounded during the Second Artsakh War, has recovered. He is laughing with his friends, as we chat with locals about Mount Mrav and what it would take to bring back Hadrout.

Bardak Pub in Stepanakert

The day after is Sunday, and we wake up early for mass at the Holy Mother of God Cathedral.

Catholicos Garegin II, the supreme head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, is here for a visit, so it’s a big deal and everyone’s at mass, including Araik Harutyunyan, NKR’s current president, as well as all former presidents.

Artsakh Politicians
Holy Mother of God Cathedral mass in Stepanakert

Garegin II makes a speech praising the resilience of the Armenian people and expresses hope that we will rise from ashes like a phoenix. A woman wipes her tears. A few soldiers cross themselves.

Holy Mother of God Cathedral mass in Stepanakert
soldiers praying in Stepanakert by Narek Aleksanyan

After the mass, we go into one of the many flower shops of Stepanakert. The woman who sells us oriental lilies says she opened a shop after the war for his son who lost his leg to fill his time. In Artsakh artificial bouquets are very common: It is customary to always have flowers on a grave but buying fresh ones every day would be quite expensive.

flower shop in Stepanakert

In the evening, we attend the Graduation Concert at the local music college. The girls sing about a snowdrop that wants to bloom despite the winter cold and despite the many warnings that it’s dangerous.

Qanun is the audience’s favorite, it seems. Russian peacekeepers in the audience ask each other what is this instrument and film the performances on their smartphones.

The accordions, the sax, and the violin performances are also well-received.

The concert ends when it’s already dark out. We pay a visit to a good acquaintance whose great-grandpa was the first optician in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Stepanakert nighttime
Garik Dadayan optician Stepanakert

The walls of the optics shop are an homage to Garik’s ancestors. “All last names are Armenian,” I note satisfied, although, of course, why wouldn’t they be?

Outside the optician’s the concrete has been damaged with cluster munitions. We notice plants are starting to grow out of them. Nighttime in Stepanakert is tranquil and triumphantly hopeful.

cluster munitions Stepanakert
Stepanakert nighttime

The next day we visit “Tatik-Papik (Grandmother and Grandfather),” the iconic monument of Stepanakert. There’s a woman in a white dress having her photos taken in front of it, and her dress is as if made of clouds. Tatik and Papik, grimly resolute and grounded, keep staring straight ahead.

One last look at a map with all of Artsakh’s sacred sites before we leave for Yerevan, all covered with dust and political slogans.

Artsakh Republic map

Photos by Narek Aleksanyan

Written by Nare Navasardyan

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