National Geographic : 2004 Mar
former citizens of the defunct Soviet Union have sunk precipitously, nowhere has the decline been more agonizing than in Armenia. When dawn broke on December 7, 1988, Armenia's scientific institutes were among the most advanced in the entire Soviet bloc. Its farms, vineyards, and factories produced some of the highest quality foods and consumer goods available to a closed market of 286 million people that extended from the Russian Pacific to the Black Sea and the Baltic. Armenia was the California of Soviet high technology, the Italy of Soviet shoe manufacturing, the France of Soviet-made cognac. Within three years Armenia was to be the scene of unremitting devastation. As in so many other moments in the immense stretch of Arme nian history, the turnabout had a biblical res onance, as though it were the act of an angry Old Testament God. At 11:41 a.m. that Decem ber morning in 1988, an earthquake measuring 6.9 on the Richter scale leveled the industrial cities of northern Armenia. When the quake's 46 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * MARCH 2004 pall of dust began to clear a few days later, more than 25,000 people were dead. It was also in 1988 that the first skirmishes erupted in Nagorno-Karabakh between the region's ethnic Armenians and the police and military forces of Soviet Azerbaijan. Then, in 1991, the Soviet Union tumbled into political dissolution, and on September 21 Armenians voted to become an independent state. What few observers foresaw is that its transcontinental Soviet market would also evaporate with numb ing abruptness-or that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict would lead to a strangling blockade on Armenia imposed by Azerbaijan and Turkey, its two principal doors to the outside world, a block ade that has not yet been lifted. By 1994 the former Soviet Union's France, Italy, and California had declined into an impoverished backwater swarming with organized crime gangs and haunted with shuttered factories. "The power stations shut down," engineer Vahe Aghabegians remembers. "High-rise apartment buildings were totally dark at night.