Thirty years have passed since the devastating earthquake that shook Armenia’s north. The earthquake occurred at a vital point in Armenian history; there was a national revival associated with Karabakh, but also a renewed sentiment of victimhood, reinforced by the pogrom in Sumgait.
At the time when it occurred, the earthquake made headlines around the world. Indeed, it was one of the more widely known natural disasters of the last decades of the 20th century. Even stand-up comedian George Carlin mentioned it in his 1992 special Jammin' in New York. The memory of the earthquake was so great that, 21 years later, in 2009, then-president Serzh Sargsyan told the BBC: “We don't want people to know Armenia just for the earthquake and the genocide.”
To get a sense of how foreigners viewed Armenia in December 1988, I decided to take a look at the coverage by the New York Times, one of America’s most reputable newspapers.
The first reports of the earthquake coincided with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit to the U.S. On December 8, the Times informed its readers that Gorbachev’s visit had been cut short due to the “vast Soviet quake.” Citing Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, the paper wrote that “thousands had been killed in the republics, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan.” This was a mistake, perhaps, resulting from the usage of the term “Caucasus” or “Transcaucuasia” that puts the three neighbors in the same basket.
The horrifying aftermath of the earthquake was publicized in the U.S. by footage from Soviet TV, showing “buildings … split in two and piles of apartment house rubble was topped by the twisted remnants of balconies.” Shevardnadze, also in the U.S. at the time, noted that Armenia’s nuclear power station was not damaged in the worst earthquake on Soviet territory since the 1948 earthquake in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan.
Most of the focus of the Times remained on Gorbachev in the days immediately following the earthquake. The paper explained that Armenians were “estranged” from Gorbachev's government due to his opposition to Armenian demands to unify Karabakh with Soviet Armenia. To lessen tensions, he sought to create a public image of a leader who is “sensitive, involved, engaged, and moved by the deaths of the Armenian parents and children.”
The Soviet leader visited the affected area of Armenia on December 11. The central government estimated at the time that at least 45,000 people were killed, 12,000 injured and half a million left homeless. It was evident by day five that there was a shortage of medical treatment centers, “breakdown in the transportation system, insufficient rescue equipment and the knowledge that every hour more victims buried in the debris were dying.”
On December 10 the cover page of the Times declared that for the first time since World War II, the Soviet Union received American aid—medicine and medical equipment. The article also listed the names and addresses of organizations (including Armenian-American ones) that were taking aid donations. The next day, President-elect George H. W. Bush visited the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C., with his wife, Barbara Bush, to sign the condolence book.
The Times also covered the reaction of Armenian Americans to the disaster. The story from California, where an estimated ¼ million Armenians resided at the time, cited Hollywood-based Archbishop Vatche Hovsepian as having said, “Spiritually, emotionally, and physically this has totally destroyed us.” In the New York Armenian community, a forty-day period of mourning was declared and all celebrations, including Christmas parties, were canceled. Comparisons to the genocide were not uncommon in the Diaspora. Times reporter Ari L. Goldman wrote that the earthquake is “another tragic episode in the life of a people whose national psyche has been deeply etched by tragedy.”
The Times gave broad coverage to the international aid to Armenia, which came even from countries like Cuba, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Israel, and Mongolia. Political scientist Robert Legvold noted that "for the average Soviet citizen, the outside world, often seen as hostile, turns out to be compassionate." In an outstanding case, in Chicago, the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) raised $1 million in three days, of which 80 percent came from non-Armenians.
On December 17, the world-famous Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich held a benefit concert for the earthquake victims in London’s prestigious Barbican Hall, which was attended by Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales. “I have many close friends in Armenia and feel that we must do everything to help,” said Rostropovich days before the concert.
The chaotic and poorly organized nature of the Soviet authorities’ emergency management was evident very early on. Foreign rescue and relief efforts were slow, mostly because of the local bureaucracy that waited for orders from the top. In some cases, foreign relief crews were stuck in Moscow because the authorities did not know where to send them. One journalist noted that “thousands of people came here of their free will, and sat for two or three days at the airport in Moscow.” An American specialist in emergency medicine noted that most of the medical help from the United States and the outside world had been of little value because it arrived too late.
The crash of a Soviet military plane in Leninakan, with 78 on board, just days after the earthquake added additional focus on Soviet incompetence. The plane was carrying soldiers and other personnel who were to join the 20,000 soldiers and 85,000 civil defense workers already at the site.
The government of Gorbachev, instead of addressing its own shortcomings, pointed accusatory fingers at former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. The Communist Party newspaper, Pravda, attributed the wide-scale destruction to the low-quality building standards of Brezhnev’s period of stagnation: ''Practically everything constructed during the years of stagnation collapsed,” wrote Pravda.
Even the issue of orphaned children was politicized. Many Armenians believed the children were being given to non-Armenian families, which was unacceptable for them. Gorbachev himself denied this was happening and blamed the Karabakh Committee for "instigating the rumors and of exploiting the tragedy."
Rescuers came from numerous countries. For instance, the French team consisted of almost 500 rescuers and was led by the composer Pierre Schaeffer. They were asked by the authorities to leave by mid-December. Even by then, numerous survivors remained in Leninakan and "engaged in a hellish scavenger hunt for relatives, belongings, mementos or booty," wrote the Moscow bureau chief of the Times Bill Keller.
The search for survivors essentially ended on December 20. Soviet Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov noted that the financial damage of the earthquake was far more than the initially reported $8.3 billion US (around $17.7 billion, adjusted for inflation). The authorities reported severe damage to 58 villages, 380 educational sites, 800 thousand square meters of housing space and 84 rural hospitals and clinics.
Officially, all rescue activities ceased on December 24, when clearing of the rubble began on a large scale. Overall, the paper reported that some 18,000 people were found in the ruins in Leninakan, of which 8,000 survived.
Jeb Bush, the son of the U.S. president-elect, and his 12-year-old son, visited the disaster zone, namely Spitak, on December 26, bringing with them relief supplies. On the same day, Pope John Paul II remembered the victims of the earthquake in his Christmas message that was—for the first time ever—televised live in the Soviet Union. President Ronald Reagan, too, mentioned the earthquake in his final Christmas message and praised Armenians “for [they] are made of hardy stuff.'' Two days earlier he had honored the 45-member U.S. team of rescuers at the White House.
The coverage continued, at a slower pace, into January 1989 and then declined considerably. Perhaps the most jaw-dropping story of rescue was made on January 11, more than a month after the earthquake, when six men were found in the basement of a nine-story apartment building in Gyumri. They survived on the pickles, canned fruit, jam and apples that were stored there.
By mid-January it was clear that Spitak, the epicenter of the earthquake, “will never rise again on its present site.” A local official called the city the Armenian Pompeii. Of the estimated 20,000 residents some 4,500 were killed in the earthquake.
The Times paid special attention to Jewish and Israeli aid in the summer of 1989. More than 60 Armenians, amputees and patients with multiple fractures, were treated in Israeli hospitals. Their treatment was funded by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which raised some $700,000 to pay for medical expenses and the airlift. For the first time since Israel’s creation in 1948, El Al, the country's flag carrier, flew to the Soviet Union. The earthquake served to improve relations between Israel and the Soviet Union.
The last article on the aftermath of the earthquake was published by the Times more than two years later, in March 1991․ It noted that the Soviet reconstruction project of the disaster zone had largely failed and some 80 percent of the surviving victims were still living in “makeshift huts and tents two months past the two-year reconstruction deadline.”
In 1993 the Times published an op-ed by Rouben Shugarian, Armenia’s ambassador to the U.S., in which he appealed for the same international “outpouring of support that occurred five years ago at the time of our great tragedy” to help Armenia overcome the blockade of Turkey and Azerbaijan.