Anna Kaleshyan drives her sheep to a roadside market in the town of Lichk in Armenia. (Karoun Demirjian/The Washington Post)

From late November through February, the stone church in this rural community in the country’s poorest province churns out new couples with the frequency of a Las Vegas chapel.

Winter is wedding season in Lichk because as soon as the snow melts, all the adult men here — and in the nine other towns served by its little church — leave to work in Russia.

For years, these villages have been like countless others in former Soviet republics, where able-bodied men are lured to Russia by seasonal work and higher wages. But stiffer laws for foreign workers and Russia’s worsening economy are making many migrant laborers reconsider their annual journey. For the men of Lichk — and other Armenian workers, who as members of the Eurasian Economic Union don’t need special work permits in Russia — it has meant working abroad longer but sending less money home.

The years of migration have also reduced local industries around Lichk to practically nothing and left local women to choose between their increasingly difficult lives in a manless world or following their husbands to Moscow.

“If these great men would not go and work in Russia, we would not have this church as they built it,” Father Simon Kahana Ter-Mkrtchyan said in a special blessing to the town’s dependence on Russia, now so ingrained it has become part of the standard wedding ceremony in Lichk.[ad id=”1838″]
ArmeniaImm-wedding“Our women, they understand that this is the way it is,” Ter-Mkrtchyan explained later. “The men will go earn money outside, in Russia. And everything else is going to fall on her shoulders.”

‘There are no men here’
“The women are like men here,” said Gayane Shakhverde, as she watched the sheep and cows she and her friends brought to the roadside market on the main highway outside Lichk one recent Sunday morning.

Raising and selling animals is just one non­traditional responsibility women have assumed in their husbands’ absence. They also till gardens for food, organize family finances­ and work construction projects as they arise.

“The men send money,” Anna Kaleshian said. “But if there is no man or boy in your house, it can get very hard.”

Kaleshian and Shakhverde, now middle-aged, barely question the system anymore. They’re so used to doing everything that even when their husbands come home, they are reluctant to hand over their manly responsibilities, including chasing skittish sheep frightened by cars.

Some of Lichk’s younger women do manage to steal a girly moment when their husbands return.

“Everything happens in seasons here. There are weddings in the winter, and all the babies are born in the late summer or the fall — for obvious reasons,” said Angela Bunyatyan, 33, who cuts, curls and sprays hair for 12 hours or more a day during the winter months in her small salon at the edge of town.

For more than a decade, her husband, Araik, 34, has been traveling the 1,400 miles to Moscow with his brother to find jobs in construction or laying asphalt — two industries Armenian workers have dominated in the Russian capital.

Bunyatyan worries about running their 10-person household — the brothers’ families live together with their parents — on whatever they are able to send home. She also worries about the kind of accident that incapacitated her neighbor Barsegh Vartanyan, 42, whose family is in massive debt because he can no longer work. Almost every family in Lichk is one misstep away from a similar fate.

But when Araik goes, Bunyatyan trades her hair dryer for a shovel and plants potatoes in the family’s fields.

So does Tatevik Ispiryan, 28, who also taught herself to drive, fix irrigation systems and work a threshing machine so she can more efficiently harvest the wheat her family grows.

“Everything is resting on my shoulders, and there are times when I feel I am extremely in need of my husband and father’s help,” she said. “But I feel that I’m stronger when I’m alone because I make the decisions.”

Ispiryan, who was married at 15, now tries to pass that independent spirit to her 11-year-old daughter, pushing her to think about a career and not to get married before she turns 30.

But that message hardly matches the realities of life in Lichk.

“There are many cases when women start to think and do something independently, people start to gossip,” said Anahit Gevorgyan, director of the Martuni Women’s Community Council.

Only a few women like Bunyatyan have businesses — and her salon shuts down when the men go, as people would wonder who her customers are primping for. Bunyatyan won’t even wear sunglasses, she said, because it draws too much negative attention.

Gossip can have serious consequences in a place where, despite women’s unisex work roles, men still call the shots from thousands of miles away.

“Our husbands can get very jealous,” said Dzaghig Melkonian, 27, explaining that even when her husband was in Russia, she had to ask her mother-in-law’s permission to leave the house for any reason except to pick her kids up from school.

Many women also grapple with the nagging worry that if they upset their husbands, they could be left alone. Gevorgyan estimates almost half of the men have mistresses or second families in Russia, and some have abandoned their families entirely. Without the remittances, a local woman’s ability to work like a man counts for almost nothing: It is still a below-subsistence existence that needs to be supplemented to support a family.

Such fears keep women’s aspirations of independence in check.

“Our main concern is if the young unmarried boys go and get connected to Russian women. That’s why many parents make their sons get married early,” said Melkonian, who was married at 18. In the process, the practice locks the region’s daughters into their support role.

Nothing at home
Armenia is not the only former Soviet republic sending migrant workers to Russia: Kyrgyzstan’s and Tajikistan’s national incomes depend even more on Russian remittances.

But in the area around Lichk, there really is no other option.

Some Lichk families renovated their houses and purchased cars with their Russian earnings, leading people in the region to refer to Lichk as “Putinka.”

Now, even if they wanted to, it is difficult for Lichk residents to break their Russian bond.

“We will have to work double now, because the ruble isn’t worth as much,” Araik Bunyatyan said. “I worry about my wife very much. Each man is supposed to provide for his family. The longer I’m gone, the more my wife and mother will have to do all the work here that I should be here doing.”

Facing the possibility of months or even years apart, the Bunyatyans are starting to talk seriously about leaving Lichk.

“We cannot have any expectations. We just have to wait until the spring,” Angela Bunyatyan said. “But if life would be better in Russia than it is here, I would like to go.”

Marianna Grigoryan contributed to this report.