Armenia at the time was part of the USSR and at war with a neighboring country, Azerbaijan, over territory. Hence the destruction was greater than the small country of eleven million could absorb.
On December 7, 1988, an earthquake of magnitude 6.9 suddenly struck over 40 percent of the territory of Armenia while it was still part of the USSR, three years before it became an independent republic. In 1988, Armenia had a population of eleven million, including 400,000 children, and it was still involved in a war with Azerbaijan over the ownership of territory. Four principal towns of the affected territory and fifty-eight villages were severely damaged. Nearly 70 percent of all buildings were knocked down and the entire town of Spitak was almost totally destroyed. Soviet officials estimated the death toll as being 25,000. More than half a million people were left homeless.
The children suffered more than adults because they were in school at the time of the quake. According to the Armenian National Mental Health Research Center, children and adolescents constituted almost two-thirds of the total number of deaths. School and kindergarten buildings were inadequately designed and could not withstand an earthquake. For example, there was a school with 302 children 285 of which were killed by the quake. In all, 380 children’s and youth institutions were seriously damaged or totally destroyed. After the quake, 32,000 children were temporarily evacuated into different parts of the Soviet Union and 6,000 of these were lost in the post-disaster chaos. Some were discovered later and brought back to their families.
Spitak, a town of 25,000, was completely destroyed and could not be rebuilt. A new city had to be rebuilt over the wreckage. The city of Leninakan, with 290,000 inhabitants, and the towns of Stepanavan and Kirovakan in the northern area of Armenia, were also severely damaged by the earthquake. The main environmental problem that led to so many deaths was the concentration of so many people in high-rise buildings, closely spaced in many places. These homes had not been built to standards that could ensure survival in an earthquake.
The Soviet Union, in recognition of past failures, promised to build a new Spitak with much better materials. In addition, contrary to much of its past practice, the Soviet Union appealed to America, Asia, and Europe for help and help of all kinds poured in. Mikhail Gorbachev, Soviet president at that time, was in the United States when the earthquake struck. He cut his trip short and went directly to Armenia to visit the quake-affected areas.