Levon Chookaszian
Doctor of Arts, Professor, Head of Chair of History and Theory of Armenian Art, Yerevan State University

“At the Crossroads” is the most interesting paper of all that I have read in recent years, be it historical, fictional, or any other literary genre. I was doubly excited as I was also thinking a lot about the issues raised by the authors and the solutions found in the paper. While being abroad (in Diaspora) and communicating with other nationalities, I tried to find the answers to those questions. The topics you covered in the paper are very close to my heart. At the same time, I have discovered new realities.

“At the Crossroads” is the most interesting paper of all that I have read in recent years, be it historical, fictional, or any other literary genre. I was doubly excited as I was also thinking a lot about the issues raised by the authors and the solutions found in the paper. While being abroad (in Diaspora) and communicating with other nationalities, I tried to find the answers to those questions. The topics you covered in the paper are very close to my heart. At the same time, I have discovered new realities.

Currently, I am doing research on the works of the Armenian jewelers, dispersed all over the world. I have seen jewelry in many countries, including Poland. While reading through the paper, I suddenly realized that the export of gold from the Carpathians was in the hands of Polish-Armenians for several hundred years. This fact slipped my mind.

Now I would like to present my views and make observations on the paper.

Let us start with migration flows of the Armenian people. I would like to mention that the Eastern European route of the Armenian emigration extended to Hungary, rather than Romania. Three out of five leaders of the Hungarian Revolution against the Austrians were Armenians. Monument dedicated to them is erected in front of the Hungarian Parliament.

I would like to make an observation: in 1965 “Pravda” newspaper (“Truth”, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union – editor’s note) was issued in two versions. The first one included an article on the Armenian Genocide and was issued for Armenia, while the second one, without the article, for the other Republics of the Soviet Union. I would like to mention that “Pravda” had always been published in two versions with substantive differences. Ordinary people just were not aware of that, until the fact eventually got revealed.

You state that from generation to generation young people become more and more indifferent to the Armenian Genocide issue. Psychologists say that one hundred and fifty years after great cataclysms, the catastrophes get faded away and forgotten. Given that, we have little time left.

The paper refers to the fact that the first (partially also the second) generation of the Armenian Diaspora, having realized the importance of the preservation of their national identity, opened Armenian schools, churches and centers (scientific, educational, cultural, etc.). This was not the case in America. The first generation of the Genocide survivors donated all their money to the Armenian schools and orphanages in the Middle East. The children of the first generation (my relatives included) had no command of the Armenian language. The closure of Melkonian Educational Institute and Murad-Rafaelian college was due to the fact that the children of rich Armenian families of the Middle East (Iran, Lebanon) used to study there, but when the things went awry, they left their countries or lost their wealth. In general, I think the recent breakup of the colonies in the Middle East was a major tragedy.

As the paper rightly points out, one of the most crucial issues is the involvement of the Diaspora Armenians in the revival process. At present, barely one million of seven million Armenians are involved in the Armenian affairs. How can one engage and involve them? The statue of David of Sassoon by sculptor Varaz Samuelian is located in front of Fresno County Hall of Records (California, USA), and is considered as one of the most prominent symbols of the Armenian identity in the United States. The concept behind the statue is interesting. David of Sassoun astride his rearing horse, barely holding the sword in his hands, resists the dreadful assimilation force. He gets strength from his feet – from the Armenian culture (symbols of Armenian cultural history are carved in the base – editor’s note), rather than the Armenian land. He draws his strength from the Armenian alphabet, the Holy Cross Church on Akhtamar, and miniatures. It is the Armenian culture that gives him strength to fight. That symbolism is very essential and is of primary importance to us.

Repatriation is yet another major topic I want to cover. The “At the Crossroads” paper states that “tens of thousands of Armenians from Greece, Syria, Egypt, Iran, France, and the US relocated to Soviet Armenia as a result of <…> targeted policy of repatriation”. After World War II, people came to Armenia from Romania and Bulgaria. There were many Romanian Armenians and Bulgarian Armenians in Armenia, and they still live here. Very few Romanian Armenians returned to Romania, as to Bulgarian Armenians almost everyone remained here. With the launch of the targeted policy of repatriation J. Stalin pursued several objectives. One of them was to invade Turkey, and it was not a coincidence that propaganda campaign was launched with calls to return historical lands from Turkey. However, Stalin’s second goal was to weaken the Armenian Diaspora. His Armenophobia knew no boundaries, and he succeeded to some extent. Soviet Armenians spoke poorer Armenian over time, which was fraught with challenges. In this context, the reinvigoration of Grabar (Classical Armenian language – editor’s note) is of utmost importance. I emphasize this because Grabar in its beauty can revive the culture. Religious education is taught in schools, but it is not enough. Religious education can be taught in Grabar, thus a whole new level of quality education will be achieved. Without speaking fluent Grabar, without learning it in schools, we just cut off and lose connection between our past and present, lose touch with our roots.

As the paper rightly points out, Sovietization, along with the ideological confrontation of the Cold War, hindered the rapprochement of Echmiadzin and Cilicia Catholicosates. That is a good point. I have always been interested in this matter. I remember expressing my indignation to one of the members of the Supreme Spiritual Council in the 1980s (who was a dear friend to my father) at the fact of existence of two Catholicosates. In response, he told me that it was a necessity, as Catholicosate of Cilicia has its “unique” contribution in the resolution of some issues. It seemed we had no alternative.

I believe Mount Ararat and the architectural ecology were worth mentioning. Unfortunately, many in Armenia have not even heard about that concept. The construction boom of ugly tall buildings destroyed natural beauty of the landscape. Mount Ararat cannot be seen anymore.

Reading through “At the Crossroads” paper, I realized it was written before Nikol Pashinyan came to power, because after the Revolution Armenia has seen some repatriation. I have been repeatedly told by Armenians that they do not come to Armenia because they do not identify themselves with the ruling elite.

In fact, very few people in Armenia understand what the Diaspora is. In general, only a handful of representatives of the Armenian intelligentsia or elite, who have visited our Diaspora communities, may claim they understand what Diaspora represents. For example, I have visited twenty-two US states many times; I have been to Armenian communities in Europe, Canada, Turkey, and Lebanon. I have visited our communities not just to give lectures, but to get acquainted with Diaspora. I have lived with Armenian families abroad, observed their lifestyle, heard topics they discussed, and seen the attitude of children towards their parents. I am often asked why I not move to another country, and I keep saying that having lived in the United States for about nine months and traveling from state to state, I realized that I do not like the lifestyle.

Development of a hub country model is a very interesting concept, which I will cover later. But in this regards I would like to mention that China and India are key countries to cooperate with.

Armenia positions itself as chess superpower. However, Armenia is not only a chess superpower, but also an art superpower. People do not talk about that as they are not aware. Right now, we have hundreds of artists, namely painters in Armenia.

I had an opportunity to be in a studio of an Armenian painter. He showed me masterpieces by contemporary Armenian artists. If I am not mistaken, I discovered five thousand paintings that day. Who should stand for that heritage, where should the paintings be displayed? In my opinion, exhibition halls should be built, Armenia should be flooded with paintings, the way Paris is with contemporary art.

Even one miniature book is enough to learn about 600 names of the Armenian miniature painters. Another two volumes of works by anonymous miniature painters exist; not to mention the names and number of masterpieces lost in the margins of history. We had thousands of khachkar (Armenian cross-stone – editor’s note) makers. More than 400 buildings, churches and chapels remain in Turkey. That is to say, Armenia was always known for its architects, sculptors, painters, not to mention carpet waivers. We have found tombstones of hundreds of women carpet weavers in Isfahan and cemeteries in the vicinity. Where are their masterpieces now?

Most likely, Armenian merchants sold the carpets in the European countries. Polish princes were bribed with Isfahan carpets. There is even a record on how much each of them was given and for what favors. This was a huge “invisible factory” that was out of our sight. I currently prepare my students to become experts in gravestone interpretation to learn what Armenia can offer in this regard. Turks and Azeris say that Armenians do not have carpet weaving tradition, and state that along with other museums, there is no carpet museum in Armenia. Unfortunately, all the carpets were looted at different stages of history. Thirty carpets stolen by the Germans during the war are exhibited in the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin alone. They plundered not only the carpets, but also many other valuable items.

After World War II, as the Allies in their turn plundered Germany, all the works were dispersed around the world. There was an idea to open an Oriental Museum in Danzig to display works looted by the German soldiers from Turkey. Though, the course of World War II prevented the implementation of that idea. Danzig became part of Poland, and the city was renamed to Gdansk. Today it is not clear where exactly the works got lost. My colleagues revealed that to me when I was in Gdansk.

There is yet another issue I would like to address, that is the importance of souvenir industry. Developed souvenir industry fosters tourism sector to grow and prosper. We need to position ourselves with new brands. For instance, when one enters Vienna, the spirit of Mozart is in the air; when one enters Poland, the spirit of Chopin is in the air. We also have huge cultural heritage to be turned into brand, but we need to get to the essence of our art and ornament art to properly “sell” it to the world. Some of my students have already started to make souvenirs, such as bags decorated with jewelry, etc. I follow their activities and guide them if need be.

Referring to the “Asset Transfers and Charity” section, I would like to mention that Alexander Mantashev paid for the education of the Armenian students in Germany. Lack of interest in charity today presents a grim picture. Many generations of the benefactors do not continue charitable activity of their grandparents. For example, 8,000 Georgians study in Germany today at the expense of Germany. This means Tbilisi will make significant progress in the future, as it did in the 15th century. I cannot but mention that the Armenians are also heading to Germany to pursue their studies. In general, this critical issue should be under our attention. I encourage my best students to study abroad, and sometimes assist them using my personal connections.

Talking about the vision of the future, we come back to the most important question, “what will unite us”. It is the language only that unites us, not the country. Once we lose our language, we lose it all. It is important to teach the language correctly. Learning the language without the culture is useless. Music is the most spiritual component of the culture, a bridge to the human soul.

The importance of the art of singing is high in Armenia. One hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Komitas has been celebrated. Komitas is neither Hovhannes Tumanyan, nor Levon Shant or Yervand Otyan, whose anniversaries have been also celebrated. The Armenian nation has the greats; three of them are Mesrop Mashtots, who created the Armenian alphabet, Mkhitar Sebastatsi, who made the printing process accessible to Armenians, and Komitas. Komitas, like Mashtots and Sebastatsi, unites the Western and the Eastern parts of the Armenian nation. Thus, when we teach art, we also instill dignity through art. Dignity is a very powerful call to action. The pain of the Genocide is related to the dignity. One can overcome the pain through art. Aram Khachaturian talked about it as well. I learned it when I was very young. Unfortunately, today our art is neglected, no one stands for it. The art has power to present country to the world, attract foreigners, and create financial flows. Our works of contemporary art should be sold to attract large investments to Armenia.

As to the elites, I would like to mention that the existence of the Armenian nation (as the existence of any other nation) depends on that critical two percent, which an elite constitutes. However, there is a need for transformation. In other words, we do have the elite, but it is small and should be transformed. Six hundred Armenian intellectuals deported and exterminated during the Genocide is a critical number, as many families could have been started with their gene fund. Were it not for Stalin’s repressions, many more families would have been started from the repressed people. I have relatives, many of whom have lost their way today. For example, a grandson of a Sorbonne professor, whose wife is a granddaughter of a German nobleman, is a store clerk now. This means we are experiencing significant regress.

As to “Think to Connect: Networking Principles” section, I would like to talk about the role of television, and satellite television, which was mostly used with the purpose of bridging the Armenian Diaspora with Armenia. Unfortunately, “garbage” is on TV in Armenia today. People in Diaspora keep saying that they do not allow their children to watch those horrible soap operas and violent scenes. However, some people watch them. Our major challenge here is to change the content completely. We need to understand how to work with this segment. Such kind of intervention is necessary but not sufficient on the way towards the creation of a network nation. After all, people surf the net and use the phones. And we need to act having this in mind.

While talking about satellite television, we must keep in mind that Armenians, residing in different countries, have dual identity – a topic properly covered in “At the Crossroads”. Any Armenian, who lives in Russia, is partially Armenian, like us, and partially Russian. This is as an advantage. This advantage became even more visible once the repatriation started. Repatriates brought with them the “taste, flavor” and customs of their former countries of residence. I remember Yerevan at that time. I lived in those good times, saw the benefits, saw those people, and talked to them.

As to “Think to Create: Anchor Projects” section and projects being implemented all over the globe, I would like to say that I have chosen five students from my Chair, who have been recording the Armenian artworks in different parts of Romania for six years. We have reached even Transylvania, where Armenian Catholics no longer speak the Armenian language, but are very enthusiastic about Armenia. Different structures and donor organizations contributed to the implementation of this project. Together with the Romanian Academy of Sciences, we held two major conferences. We keep working together.

The second group works in Isfahan. The Parish Council of the Holy Savior Cathedral in Isfahan asked us to modernize the museum of the church. Two more students went there to study ancient manuscripts. Five more went to New Julfa, two went their own way, one of them, my daughter, is studying mural paintings, the other one – contemporary art. Those are different groups; never has such a systematic work been managed before.

Romania and Iran are not the only countries we cooperate with. We are implementing projects in Poland in collaboration with universities in different cities. The Poles themselves have been holding international conferences, dedicated to the Armenian art in Diaspora, for six or seven years.

I bring these groups together during various conferences dedicated to Eastern Europe. Years ago, in collaboration with the Moscow Institute for Art Studies, we held an event, entitled “Armenia-Russia: Dialogue in the Field of Culture,” followed by a conference in Poland. Armen Khechoyan (Head of the Foundation for Development and Support of Armenological Studies “Aniv”), who has also attended our conference, decided to hold one in Minsk. Later, he organized two conferences there, and one in Moscow. Our objective is to raise the same issues through chain of conferences, exhibitions, and events, and to convey clear messages. Then we held two conferences and an exhibition in Poland and Hungary, entitled “From the Carpathians to Ararat.”

In collaboration with UCLA, we held a major event in the USA. Eleven people from my team participated in the event (they came from Romania, Poland, and Hungary). My objective is to attract foreigners, as we do not have sufficient financial means and time to study and record the Armenian artworks in Eastern Europe. With that in mind we organize international conferences, meet people, and get new contacts.

In fact, we do everything you offer in the “Anchor Projects” section, also in terms of involvement of the foreigners in our projects. Today, young Italians, young Poles, even assimilated Romanians, and representatives of other nationalities come to Armenia.

As to “Think to Act: Platforms for Cooperation” section, I would like to talk about the part that art and visual culture play in social-economic development of the countries. Unfortunately, this is not the case with us. Visual culture is important, as it nourishes thoughts. Especially now, at a time when everyone is online. Hence, it is essential that the phones contain all the visual culture that is important to us. The phones should spread the Armenian culture and “sound” Armenian. We are proud of Charles Aznavour and Komitas. We have already translated Aznavour’s songs into Armenian. But how is it possible that a nation which gave birth to Aznavour, for so many years remained indifferent to his music and did not translate his songs into Armenian? His songs influence and improve the quality of the Armenian song. Who knows, maybe eventually contemporary songs that are meaningless and sometimes consist only of a couple of words will be replaced with meaningful ones. After all, it is the words that define the song. It is important to change the content in the phones, so that it reflects the Armenian culture.

Along with restoration, preservation, and modernization of rich cultural and historical heritage of Armenia, registration of the artworks is essential. Thousands of Armenian artworks are now owned by other nations. For instance, for over six hundred years jewelry market was in the Istanbul-Armenian hands. We have known Armenian jewelers by name since the beginning of the nineteenth century. Hence the record that we do in Romania and Poland should also be done in Hungary and Bulgaria, the countries we are just starting to explore. Considerable work lies ahead in Moldova, as Manuk Bey (prominent merchant and diplomat) lived there. For more than ten years we have been working in Ukraine and have discovered hundreds of works of art.

I think the field of art should be included in the framework of the Foundation for Armenian Science and Technology (FAST).

I do agree that instead of the Ministry of Diaspora we should have the Ministry of Repatriation. I agree that one of the major issues we face today are environmental issues (exploitation of mines among them). I welcome the establishment of such an infrastructure that enables young people who speak many languages to collaborate, to get well-paid jobs, and thus to become role models for others. I have encouraged about forty students to study in different countries, and thus to learn foreign languages. I believe the mentality needs to be changed. One should explore the world and understand the logic behind the development.

In 1987, the Jews organized several exhibitions in Moscow, which led to the emergence of wealthy elite, able even to claim power.

As to “A Harmonious Environment” section, I would like to say that people in Armenia will not be valued until they learn what the insurance is. Only when people realize that human life has supreme value, that their bodies have value, will their attitude to life change. Hopefully, they will quit smoking (smoking is common in Armenia) and break other bad habits.

There is no need to merge Eastern and Western dialects of the Armenian language, as it is not an obstacle to national unification; moreover, each dialect is unique. However, restoration of the original orthography is the issue on the table. Not only will it enable us to maintain connection with the past, but also provide solid basis on which to move forward. After all, original orthography is a sight for sore eyes.

And finally, I would like to make two more observations on how to get people involved and who to learn from. In 1946–1947, when repatriation began, repatriates were given money to build houses; without that financial assistance they will not be able succeed. An adult ant takes care of its pupae by bringing wheat stalk to feed its pupae, which is yet weak.

We should learn from Israel and Ireland with their ancient cultures, from Switzerland with its nation-army model, and from Singapore with its remarkable development path.

Levon Chookaszian

Doctor of Arts, Professor, Head of Chair of History and Theory of Armenian Art, Yerevan State University


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