Stefano Morelli

2017 - 2018

Ararat Valley, Armenia.

We are in Armenia, the least extended of the fifteen former Soviet Socialist republics. About thirty kilometers from Armenia’s capital city of Yerevan, and twenty from the Turkish border, sits the antiquated Metsamor nuclear power plant. Under the communist regime the region had had a strong industrial impulse, especially in the transformation of raw materials and semi-finished products, which exponentially had increased its need for energy. So, in 1969 the construction of the Oktemberyan nuclear power plant began. The plant, located in a town also called Metsamor, has long been a cause for concern for at least two reasons: It was built without containment vessels, and it sits in a seismic zone. In fact, it was closed in 1989 after a devastating earthquake, which claimed twenty-five thousand victims, hit nearby. The epicenter was in fact only seventy-five kilometers away. In 2011, National Geographic even suggested that it might be the world’s most dangerous nuclear plant. According to a 1995 Washington Post article the plant was reopened because Armenia was desperate to have energy after its neighbor, Azerbaijan, imposed an energy blockade. According to the article, back then, “As many as one-third of Armenia’s 3.6 million people have left, for months at a time or longer, because winters are unbearable and factories stand idle.” Despite the risks, the power plant is still open, and people still live in the town created for the plant’s workers. There seem to be few alternatives, considering that the plant produces a significant chunk of the country’s energy. According to the World Nuclear Association the power plant provided 31 percent of the total electricity for the country in 2016. I visited the town in January 2017 for the centenary of the Russian Revolution, to document its way of life. What I found was 10,000 people, 1.000 who still work at the plant, living in a town of old Soviet buildings, caught in suspension between doubts and fears, between poverty and survival, between life and death. In 2018, when I returned to carry out my project, I was blocked by police that prevented me from being able to approach even to Metsamor town, otherwise I would have been arrested. My work had not been appreciated by the Armenian Government and the secret services considered me an unwelcome person in Armenia.

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  • Metsamor, Armenia.
    View of Metsamor from the bedroom of Valodya, 69, a former nuclear plant worker.

  • Arshaluys, Armenia.
    Manvel, 59, has lived in Arshaluys with his wife Ruzan, 52, for 30 years. They are farmers and survive thanks to the vegetables and fruits they cultivate and sell. Arshaluys is a town in the Armavir province located around 8 kilometers from the Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant.
    Manvel told me how he preferred to live during the USSR era, because people who lived near the nuclear power plant did not pay for electricity. They felt more protected by the State and there were more job opportunities.

  • Metsamor, Armenia.
    Valodya's little nephew, Levon, 8, looks at his uncle Arayik, 31.

  • Armavir, Armenia
    The chimney of an old disused Soviet factory seen from the window of working-class building in Armavir. Armavir is a town and urban municipal community located around 10 kilometers from Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant, which is the Province.

  • Arshaluys, Armenia.
    A Yazidi woman fills up plastic bottles with water in the center of Arshaluys. The Yazidi community is very numerous in Armenia, in fact the world's largest Yazidi temple is under construction in a near small village named Aknalich (according to a 2016 The Guardian article).

  • Metsamor, Armenia.
    Goge, 69, a Yazidi shepherd, brings his sheep to eat the little grass left by the ice of the winter, in the gardens under Metsamor’s buildings.

  • Metsamor, Armenia.
    A woman buys a newspaper at a newsstand.

  • Spitak, Armenia.
    On 7 December 1988 a devastating earthquake in northern Armenia killed 25,000 and left hundreds of thousands homeless.The 6.8 magnitude quake affected an area 80km (50 miles) in diameter. Spitak, a town of 25,000 inhabitants, was completely destroyed.Seventy-five kilometers from the epicenter is the Metsamor nuclear power plant.In the epitaph of the cemetery one of the victims.

  • Metsamor, Armenia.
    Students attend a traditional dance course at a school in Metsamor.

  • Metsamor, Armenia.
    A view of the Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant.

  • Metsamor, Armenia.
    Inside the Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant, in the control room of Unit 2. It is the only nuclear plant in the Transcaucasian region.
    According to European Union 2016 Action Document for Armenia Nuclear Safety Cooperation:
    “Originally Unit 2 was scheduled to be finally shut down in 2016, but according to the current plans it will continue operation until the new unit is commissioned, but at least until 2026 (this is equivalent to 10 year service time extension).” And: “Despite numerous safety improvements that had been implemented at the ANPP (Armenian National Action Plan) in the last 20 years, including several projects under international donor funding programmes, the European Commission is of the opinion that this reactor type cannot be upgraded to meet internationally accepted nuclear safety standards fully. The position of the European Commission is that the plant should be closed down as soon as possible and it does not therefore support efforts to extend the service time of the reactor beyond 2016, when its original design service time (30 years) expires (note that Unit 2 was first connected to the grid in 1980, but between 1989 and 1995 it was in shutdown state for more than 6 years).”

  • Metsamor, Armenia
    Chief engineer Ashot Ordubekyan is seen in his office inside the nuclear plant.

  • Metsamor, Armenia.
    Frozen river on the outskirts of Metsamor. 2017 winter has been one of the coldest in Armenia in recent years, with temperatures reaching -20 ° C during the night.

  • Metsamor, Armenia.
    Valodya, 69, a former nuclear plant worker, smokes one of his many daily cigarettes in his living room. On 2017 Dec. 31, Valodya, retired after 20 years at the nuclear plant. His co-workers organized a dinner in his honor at a restaurant in Armavir. Valodya died suddenly of a heart attack in May 2018.

  • Arshaluys, Armenia.
    A view of the Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant from the house of Manvel and Ruzan.

  • Armavir, Armenia.
    Small vegetable and fruit market behind Armavir train station. Vegetables from the Ararat Valley are considered the best in the whole Armenia. Vegetables are sold to the supermarkets in Yerevan, restaurants and private families.
    According to a FAO research: “Armenia has 2.974 million ha of land, of which 2.043 million ha is considered agricultural land (0.69%). The total area of arable land is 446.0 thousand ha (21.8% of agricultural lands), out of which 68.1 thousand ha is concentrated in Ararat valley (15.2 %). More than 57% of agricultural land in Armenia is pastures and meadows. Around 29.1% of cultivable land is not utilized for various reasons. According to census results from 2014, in average 33 % of arable land in holdings without legal status and 38 % of holdings with the legal status are aban-doned. At present, the agricultural sector remains essential for the economy of the country. Agricul-ture is the main source of economic activity in rural areas and significant contributor to GDP. It produces 14.9 % of GDP (as of 2017) and employs about 36.6 % (2017) of the working population of whom nearly 56% are female farmers. Women are over-represented in seasonal and precarious employment and 82.1% of all women working in agriculture do so informally. This informality, which leads to a reduced access to social protection schemes, along with limited access to land and other agricultural assets compared with men, leave women in a vulnerable situation.”

  • Armavir, Armenia
    Yepraksia Gevorgyan, 110, is the oldest person still alive in Armenia. Yepraksia is resting sitting on the bed in her bedroom. She gets tired easily and rarely leaves her house in the village of Armavir, where she lives with her grandson and daughter. Yepraksia survived the Armenian Genocide by crossing the Aras River. She watched Ottomans kill Armenians, throwing their bodies into the water. According to a 2016 The Guardian article: “During the first world war, the Ottoman empire initiated a policy of deportations, mass murder and rape to destroy the Armenian presence within its borders. By the war’s end, more than one million people had been killed. To date, 29 countries have officially recognised the killings as genocide, but the Ottomans’ heirs in the Turkish government don’t fully acknowledge it.”

  • Lernamerdz, Armenia.
    Just 25 km from Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant, there's an outpost of communist nostalgia.
    In Soviet times, the village of Lernamerdz was one of the few places in Armenia that did not have a statue of Lenin. The villagers say that they were fairly passive communists and that there were only seven communist activists amongst them. But then, after Armenia became independent, and statues and busts of the great leader were taken down all over the country, in 1996 the people of Lernamerdz, almost all farmers, erected a basalt bust of Lenin in the middle of the village. Lernamerdz is known as “Little Cuba” in Armenia. For Azat Barseghian, 77, secretary of the local communist organisation, Lernamerdz is the only village in Armenia where socialism still survives.

  • Arshaluys, Armenia.
    A farmer looks for his wife in their field of flowers.

  • Yervandashat, Armenia.
    View of the Aras river that flows along the borders between Turkey and Armenia. The Aras River valley is famous to be the more fertile agricultural region of Armenia.