In a small apartment a few blocks from Lenin Square, within view of Mount Ararat, the national symbol that rises like a tantalizing mirage on the other side of the border in Turkey, four men spent a recent evening dicussing Armenia's survival.
Of the four, only one lived here. The others were from the far-flung corners of the Armenian diaspora -- Los Angeles, Syria and Montreal. But they, too, spoke fluent Armenian, considered themselves Armenians and agreed that this smallest of the Soviet Union's 15 republics is the last outpost of their "homeland."
"The torch of Armenian civilization is here. Period. It's that simple," said Osheen Keshishian, editor of an Armenian paper in Los Angeles.
Across borders, continents and political divides, the world's 6 million Armenians have kept their bonds, which have given the 2.7 million Armenians in Soviet Armenia links to the outside world enjoyed by few others in the Soviet Union.
Since World War II, more than 200,000 Armenians -- mostly from the Middle East -- responded to Soviet calls for "repatriation" and came here to settle, 22,000 in the last eight years. In the late 1970s, the flow went the other way, as several thousand Armenians emigrated to the United States, 6,109 in the peak year of 1980.
As with Soviet Jews, the emigration of Soviet Armenians has slowed to a trickle, although many are still trying to leave.
But if fewer are coming here to live, thousands of Armenians are diligent about coming to visit, sometimes with the purpose of finding an Armenian wife or husband. The Yerevan airport has daily flights to and from Beirut connecting to the large Armenian community there. At night, the bar of a downtown hotel fills with young Armenians from Jerusalem, Syria, Lebanon and Greece -- "by way of South America." And of the 17 members of a visiting American tour group, all but two had relatives here.
When they come, the visiting Armenians make the rounds of their extended families, bringing clothes, jeans, baseball hats, Sony radios and other yearned-for articles from the West. In return, they are feasted with lamb, spiced meatballs, fresh coriander and basil, eggplants and freshly made lavash, the paper-thin unleavened Armenian bread, and toasted with endless rounds of the region's famous brandy.
"We are an international people. we always have been," said one woman with relatives in Los Angeles.
The three men gathered in the Yerevan apartment of Armenian writer Hrant Matevosian had come for the 700th anniversary of the ancient Armenian university at Gladzor, another milestone for a people whose history is one of the oldest in the world. The city was covered in posters marking the Gladzor commemoration; a cigaratte pack was issued in its honor, and an estimated 30,000 people gathered at the ancient site for a symposium.
To Roupen Boghossian, a lawyer from Syria, the glorification of Armenian accomplishments seemed excessive. "They're exaggerating nationalism too much, stressing our superiority throughout history," he said.
Given their recent history, few Armenians in the Soviet Union object to dwelling on the glories of the past. In 1920, after two precarious years of independence and with vivid memories of massacres and mass deportations by the Turks during World War I, Armenia joined the Soviet Union, in part for self-protection.
Today, the republic is one of the Soviet Union's most homogeneous. Of its 3.1 million people, 89.6 percent are Armenian: Russians make up less than 3 percent of the population and statistics show that an ever-increasing number of non-Armenians living here speak fluent Armenian -- 70.7 percent, according to the 1979 census.
And while the city itself -- grown from a large town of 35,000 in 1920 to more than 1 million today -- has less of a distinctive national character than Tbilisi, capital of the neighboring Georgian republic, less Russian is heard here than there.
Matevossian, whose novels focus on the vanishing traditions of rural Armenia, is convinced of the "indestructability" of Armenian culture.
An intense man, well versed in American and European literature, Matevossian spoke carefully, occasionally turning to his young son for the translation of an Armenian word into Russian.
"After living in Moslem conditions which were more savage, more predatory, we feel gratitude to the Russian people," said Matevossian.
"The reason I don't criticize the situation now is because I don't have any alternative -- I have no dream of what else could be."
The balance between nationalism and national pride has been a delicate one for Soviet Armenians and those who tipped the scales too far have ended up in jail on charges of anti-Soviet activities.
For their part, the Soviet authorities have recognized the intensity of national feeling and when necessary, given it a loose, albeit controlled rein.
In 1965, a mass demonstration in Yerevan demanding official recognition of the 1915 murders of Armenians in Turkey produced a monument on a hill above the city, now the site of annual ceremony. An attempt in 1978 to drop Armenian as the republic's official language was recognized as a mistake and promptly abandoned.
On the other hand, Moscow issues periodic criticisms of Armenia's ideological slackness, and its free-wheeling habits. Just last week, the Communist Party daily Pravda chided Armenian party officials for failing to pay stricter attention to the population's "atheistic" education and for allowing a "non-class approach" to creep into literature and historical research. Pravda complained that a third of young Armenian Communists were failing to attend party lectures and that instead of training needed engineers and machinists, the republic was producing "jewelers, hairdressers and cooks."
Armenians have survived much worse, as the monument to the events of 1915 attests. That year, Armenians say 1.5 million of their own were killed by Turks, an assertion that Turks deny. In the West, radical Armenian groups, seeking revenge for 1915, have resorted to terrorism against Turkish diplomats.
Here, the official attitude toward the Turks is more resigned. "In the West, they want return of Armenian lands. Here, we say nothing about lands. We understand the complications of the international situation," said Serge Simonian, general secretary of the Armenian foreign ministry.
"We want a compromise . . . , that they apologize, like Willy Brandt apologized to the Jews," he said.
In contrast with the emphasis on Armenian history, Marxism-Lenism is taught only in the 10th grade, as part of a course in sociology.
By adapting, Armenia has kept its heritage and, for someone like Matevossian, that is more important than politics.
"There is something wiser than Marx, Jefferson or Lenin and that is the essential feeling of a national identity," he said. On the outside, "Yerevan may look like any city, but inside there is a spirit, a seed that endures."
The Armenian church, through the ages a national as well as a religious institution, is also said to have greater latitude than churches elsewhere in the Soviet Union. As if in recognition of its dominance, the local counterpart of the Soviet Council on Religious Affairs is called the Council on the Affairs of the Armenian Church.
On Sundays, the service at Echmiadzin, the holy see outside Yerevan, is broadcast out into a surrounding park. The Armenian patriarch, or catholicos, spiritual leader of Armenians here and abroad, lives in a splendid palace nearby -- "the biggest house in the Soviet Union," joked one Armenian.
Baptisms are a common ritual, and in recent years more Armenians are choosing to get married in church, people here say.
But like elsewhere in the Soviet Union, the church is circumscribed and, according to several Armenians, the number of believers is dwindling. Armenians with any official position shy away from religion, relatives from abroad note. And while the Echmiadzin Cathedral was two-thirds full on a recent Sunday, many of the celebrants at the ornate mass were foreigners or people who came to listen to the music.
"It's ironic but Armenians are prospering under this repressive regime," said an American. "It's the first they have had long experience running their own republic, and they have never been as prosperous as they are now."
As in other Soviet cities, new apartment buildings have sprouted on the outskirts of the city. For some families, an apartment is a welcome relief from the older one- or two-story houses, a trade-off between a garden with grape vines and indoor plumbing.
Car ownership is high for the Soviet Union, contributing to the smog that settles in the Ararat Valley.
Several Armenians insist life here is better then in other parts of the Soviet Union. "There is everything here," said an electronics specialist riding the train from Yerevan to Tbilisi, although he admitted that his leather jacket and Yugoslav shoes were bought on a trip to the capital.
Like others, the electronics specialist was quick to point out the differences between Armenians and Russians. Armenians understand that to live well, one must work. Russians, he said, "like to drink and rest."
By contrast, he said, "you won't find any drunks on the streets of Yerevan," a point made repeatedly by Armenians during a recent visit.
At the foreign ministry, a spokesman noted how, without natural resources, the republic has managed to acheive a ranking place in the Soviet Union -- as a producer of electronics, shoes, grapes and of course, brandy. And, he said, "in the winter, we have tomatoes here -- nowhere else."
On the train, as the harsh rocky landscape rolled by, the electronics specialist pointed out the window. "There, our Armenia," he said, as if amazed that such a barren soil -- only 20 percent of the mountainous republic is arable -- could have sustained so much.
Matevossian, chronicler of a village life that he left more than 30 years ago, worries that the Armenia he knew as a child is disappearing, not because of Soviet life, but because of modern life.
"I am the last representative of that village culture; I have to write about it. The relationship of man to land, to animals, to wife and children has changed. The old culture is lost," he said.
"The differences between people are being destroyed and the world is becoming alike. That," he said, "is terrible."