Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Death of Keri (May 15, 1916)

Keri, a veteran leader of the Armenian liberation movement at the turn of the twentieth century, became also a prominent military figure in the last years of his life.

He was born Arshak Kavafian in 1858 in Erzerum, where he graduated from the local Armenian school. He was twenty-four when he entered the short lived self-defense organization “Defender of the Homeland,” founded in 1882. He adopted the pseudonym Keri, meaning “uncle.” He went to Kaghezvan, in the province of Kars (under Russian rule), in 1889 and unsuccessfully tried twice, in 1889-1890, to cross the Russian-Turkish border into Western Armenia with groups of fedayees. He became a member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation soon after its foundation in 1890, and was active in the region of Kars from 1891-1892. In 1893 he finally was able to go to Erzerum with a group of freedom fighters, and in 1895 he led an armed group that protected the locals and the prelate during the Hamidian massacres.

In the early 1900s Keri was back in Kars under the command of the local A.R.F. committee. In 1903 he moved to the region of Sasun and participated in the Sasun uprising of 1904. After its defeat, he went to the region of Van and back to Eastern Armenian in 1905.

During the Armeno-Tatar conflict of 1905-1906, Keri was one of the leaders of the self-defense I in the region of Zangezur (Siunik), where he mostly fought in the front of Angeghagot. Afterwards, with fifteen years of fighting experience in both Ottoman and Russian empires, he went to Persia, where he fought alongside Yeprem Khan, one of the leaders of the Persian Constitutional Revolution, from 1908-1912. Yeprem was killed in battle in May 1912 and Kavafian had his killers liquidated, taking the leadership of the Caucasian troops until the end of the conflict late that year. 

After the declaration of World War I, Keri joined the Armenian volunteer movement attached to the Russian army as the commander of the fourth battalion in 1914. He led his battalion in the battle of Sarikamish, between the Ottoman and Russian armies, in late 1914-early 1915. The courage of the Armenian soldiers and Keri’s military genius was crucial in the Russian victory.
Keri's career came to an end on May 15, 1916, when he was on his way to Mosul. Surrounded by Turkish troops and separated from a Russian detachment, Keri led the charge of his soldiers in the middle of the night and was able to break the Turkish encirclement, but he was killed in the battle. His body was transferred to Tiflis and buried in the Armenian cemetery of Khojivank, along two other freedom fighters, Nikol Duman (1867-1914) and Mourad of Sepastia (1874-1918). A procession of 30,000 people participated in the burial. However, the cemetery was mostly leveled during Soviet times, and Keri’s tomb also disappeared.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Death of Catholicos Gosdantin I of Partzerpert (May 9, 1267)

Catholicos of All Armenians Gosdantin (Constantine) I’s long tenure, one of the longest in the history of the Catholicoi of the Armenian Church, was marked by complex historical issues.

The son of a certain Vahram, probably born in the 1180s, Gosdantin of Partzerpert or Mavrian was educated in the monastery of Mlij, near Tarsus (Cilicia), which was a renowned center of manuscript copying, and then in the fortress of Hromkla, the seat of the Catholicosate of All Armenians from 1203-1292.

The Kingdom of Cilicia was in turmoil after the death of King Levon I in 1219. His daughter Zabel, who was four at the time of his death, was the heir of the throne, under the regency of the powerful prince Gosdantin the Bailiff (son of Levon’s maternal uncle). To add more complications, in 1221 Hovhannes VI of Sis passed away. Although Gosdantin of Partzerpert was an ecclesiastic deserving such honor, according to the historians, it appears that the regent suggested or handpicked his namesake as successor to the late Catholicos. He is said to have been the bishop of Mlij, which was a monastery and not a diocese, and thus it is likely, according to Maghakia Ormanian, that he was the bishop of Partzerpert.

The marriage of Zabel to prince Philippe of Antioch in 1222 ended in a failure, since the Latinophile policy of the Catholic prince alienated him from the nobility, and the next year Philippe was imprisoned. He died in prison in 1225 or 1226, and Gosdantin the Bailiff decided to marry Zabel to his own son Hetum. Catholicos Gosdantin I married them, both aged eleven, in 1226. In 1252 he would preside over her funeral procession.

In the 1220s, during the first years of his pontificate, the construction of St. Sophia, the royal church of Sis, the capital of Cilicia, was finished. Gosdantin I led a policy tending to maintain the independence of the Armenian Church. Catholicos Gosdantin I was also a man of culture. He opened new schools, founded congregations, and encouraged the production of manuscripts, including works by famous miniaturist Toros Roslin. After 1236, Greater Armenia fell under Mongol domination. In 1242 the Catholicos participated in the first negotiations of the Cilician kingdom with the Mongols. In 1247 the Catholicos sent archimandrite Teotos to the local Mongol general and obtained his agreement to rebuild the monastery of St. Thaddeus in the region of Artaz and found a congregation.

Meanwhile, the situation of the church in Cilicia led Gosdantin to gather an assembly of Cilician bishops in 1243. The ecclesiastic assembly was held in Sis, but the representatives from Greater Armenia were not invited. The assembly approved rules for consecrations, priesthood, moral issues, and so on and so forth.The Catholicos could not accomplish his project of going to Armenia himself and obtaining the agreement of local ecclesiastics. In 1246 he sent historian Vartan Areveltsi to Greater Armenia with such a mission.
In 1254 archimandrite Hagop Klayetsi represented the Catholicos in negotiations with Byzantine emperor John Vadakes and Greek Orthodox Patriarch Manuel aimed at establishing a temporary reconciliation between Cilicia and Byzantium. In the 1260s Gosdantin I engaged in heated controversies with the papal legate in Cilicia and Pope Clement IV himself over doctrinal issues.

After a forty-six year reign, Catholicos Gosdantin I passed away in Hromkla on May 9, 1267, where he was buried. He was succeeded by Catholicos Hagop I Klayetsi.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Death of Panos Terlemezian (April 30, 1941)

Both an artist and a patriot, Panos Terlemezian made a remarkable contribution to Armenian fine arts in the first half of the twentieth century. He was born in Van, in the Armenian-populated suburb of Aygestan, on March 3, 1865, the son of a farmer. His love for painting was born during his studies in the local elementary school and then in the Central College of Van (1881-1886).

He graduated with honors and, afterwards, he taught drawing, aesthetics, and geography in the schools of Van from 1886-1889. Meanwhile, he became a member of the first Armenian political party, the Armenagan Organization, formed in Van. In 1890 he was arrested on charges of political activities against Sultan Abdul Hamid II, but was freed six months later for lack of evidence. In 1891 he was arrested again and sentenced to death, but two years later he was able to escape prison and go first to Persia and then to Tiflis. After doing menial jobs, in 1895 he went to St. Petersburg to follow studies at an art society school with a scholarship granted by Catholicos Mgrdich I (Khrimian Hayrig).

His studies were interrupted in 1897, when the Russian police arrested him in Reval (now Tallinn, the capital of Estonia) upon a request of the Ottoman government. He was transferred to half a dozen prisons until he was secretly exiled to Persia in 1898. He managed to escape again to Batum, in Georgia, and leave for Paris. In Paris he entered the famous Julian Academy, from which he graduated in 1904.

Upon his return to Eastern Armenia, Terlemezian, who had already participated in collective exhibitions in Paris, created various paintings inspired by his visits to Etchmiadzin, Sanahin, and other places. He settled in Tiflis, where he taught at the Nersessian and Hovnanian schools, and participated actively in cultural life from 1905-1908.

He traveled to Egypt and Algeria in 1908, and then resided in Paris for the next two years, where he continued painting. In 1910 he settled in Constantinople, where he would live until the beginning of World War I. Here he befriended some of the most prominent intellectuals of the period, and shared his residence with Gomidas Vartabed. In 1913 he gave his first individual exhibition in Constantinople and won the golden medal at the international exhibition of Munich. Returning to Van, he was one of the leaders of the resistance of April-May 1915 against the attack of Turkish regular troops. After the retreat of the Russian troops, he went to Etchmiadzin with the Armenian refugees and then to Tiflis. In 1916-1917 he became one of the founding members and organizers of the Society of Armenian Artists in Tiflis and its branch in Rostov-on-the-Don.

Terlemezian went abroad in 1920. He lived for a few years in Constantinople, Italy, and France, and in 1923 he settled in the United States, where he lived and presented individual exhibition in New York, Fresno, San Francisco, and Los Angeles during the next five years. He also participated in the Biennial of Venice (1924).

In 1928 he was invited by the government of Soviet Armenia to return. He would live in Yerevan until his death. He gave individual exhibitions in Yerevan and Tiflis. In 1930 he was given the title of Emeritus Artist of Soviet Armenia and became a member of the Society of Painters of the Soviet Union in 1932.
Panos Terlemezian passed away on April 30, 1941. The art school established in Yerevan in 1921 was posthumously named after him. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Death of Raffi (April 25, 1888)

One hundred and thirty years after his death, Raffi has long become a classic of Armenian literature. He was born Hakob Melik Hakobian on September 5, 1835, in Payajuk, a village in the district of Salmast, in Iranian Azerbaijan. He was the eldest of nine siblings. His paternal family had been meliks (hereditary lords) of the village for many generations. His father was a wealthy farmer and merchant.

His education began in the home of the village priest. There, in a small cramped room adjacent to the barn, boys of all ages and levels of learning were taught under pressure of corporal punishment. In 1847, at the age of twelve, his father, who had always harbored a deep respect for education, sent him to Tiflis, a major center of Armenian intellectual life at that time, to continue his secondary education at the Nersessian School. Since the school had been shut down due to a cholera outbreak, the future writer enrolled in a boarding school run by a distinguished Armenian teacher, Garabed Belakhian. This school was administered under the aegis of the Russian gymnasium of Tiflis, and its curriculum was adapted to requirements for entry into that institution. Here, the young village boy learned literary Armenian and Russian, and acquired a privileged education. In 1855 he started drafting his first novel in Classical Armenian, which he later transposed into vernacular Armenian and would be posthumously published as Salbi (1911).

In 1856, when he had still a year to complete his gymnasium studies, he was forced to abandon his formal education and return home to help his ailing father with the family business. In 1857-1858 he visited Western Armenian, particularly the regions of Van and Mush, and acquainted himself firsthand with the plight of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. In 1863 he married Anna Hormouz, the daughter of an Assyrian Protestant family. They had two sons and a daughter, who died at a young age. However, the death of his father in 1865 sent the family into ruin. Hakob Melik-Hakobian had to work as a sales clerk and accountant in Tiflis to try to take care of his extended family.

From 1872-76 he contributed to the newly published Mshak daily in Tiflis. He debuted with the penname Alexander Raffi, which would later become just Raffi. He subsequently took teaching posts in Armenian language and history at the Armenian school in Tabriz (1875), where he put into practice his modern educational values. Two years later, he had to leave the city due to his conflict with the conservative establishment, both Armenian and Persian. He took a teaching position in Agoulis, in the region of Nakhichevan, but in 1879, his progressive views became again a matter for clashes with the local wealthy sponsors, and he settled in Tiflis for good, where he continued his prolific work for Mshak . The newspaper would publish many of his novels in serialized form. A year before he had published to great acclaim his first book, Jalaleddin, a novel depicting the massacres of Armenians by a Kurdish chieftain in the southeastern corner of Western Armenia. The next critically and popularly acclaimed book would be the novel The Fool (1881), whose subject was the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-1878. In the following years, the patriotic imagery and episodes of both novels would inspire many young people to devote themselves to the cause of the liberation of Western Armenia, which would end in the creation of revolutionary groups and then political parties.

Raffi, who underwent a brief search and house arrest by the Czarist police in 1883 under suspicions of being a revolutionary, met the relentless criticism of the Armenian conservative press. A jubilee for the twenty-fifth anniversary of his literary activities was planned in 1884, but forbidden by the authorities. His next novels, Davit Bek (1882), The Golden Rooster (1882), The Diary of a Cross-Stealer (1883), Sparks (two volumes, 1883-1884), and Samuel (1886), which depicted historical and contemporary issues, further cemented his fame. Raffi’s novels would transcend his time and become mandatory reading for the next generations.

In 1886, while Samuel was received with great enthusiasm by the public, Raffi’s health had started to decline. In 1888 he published his last book, The Five Melikdoms of Gharabagh. His lungs were failing, and he passed away on April 25, 1888. He was buried in the Armenian cemetery of Khojivank on April 29, with an enormous mass of people attending beneath a downpour. As another novelist, Shirvanzade, wrote years later, “Raffi’s was the first great public funeral. Never before had there been anything like it.”

Anna Raffi, the writer’s wife, later moved to London with his sons Aram and Arshag. She would be instrumental in the publication of Raffi’s unpublished works, as well as reprints of his already popular novels. Her sons would have an important literary and political activity in the British capital to the benefit of Armenian causes. Raffi’s works, prohibited in Soviet Armenia during Stalin’s time, were published in huge multivolume editions afterwards. Presently, there is a school as well as a street named after Raffi in Yerevan. His works have been translated into several languages, such as English, French, Spanish, and others.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Birth of Anatole France (April 16, 1844)

Anatole France was a Nobel Prize winner and a member of the French Academy, but he also was a humanist, and as such, a staunch defender of the Armenian Cause.

He was born François-Anatole Thibault on April 16, 1844 in Paris. He was the son of a bookseller, who also became a bibliophile. He studied at the Collège Stanislas, a private Catholic school, and after graduation he worked at his father’s bookstore, specialized in books and papers on the French Revolution, and frequented by many notable writers and scholars. He later secured the position of cataloguer at various libraries, and was appointed librarian for the French Senate in 1876. The next year, he married Valérie Guérin de Sauville. They had a daughter in 1881 and would get divorced in 1893. He would have various relationships and affairs, and finally he married his governess, Emma Laprévotte, in 1920.

He started his literary career in 1867, writing articles and poetry with the pseudonym Anatole France. He became famous with his novel The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard (1881) , which earned him a prize from the French Academy. Other novels cemented his fame, and he was elected as one of the “forty immortals” of the French Academy in 1896, at the age of fifty-two.

In 1896 the country was rocked by the Dreyfus affair; Alfred Dreyfus was a Jewish army officer who had been falsely convicted of espionage in a case that had anti-Semitic overtones. France fought along another fellow novelist, Émile Zola—the author of a famous piece, “J’accuse” (I Accuse)--in defense of Dreyfus. He wrote about the affair in his 1901 novel Monsieur Bergeret. The scandal ended with Dreyfus being proven innocent.

In the aftermath of the Hamidian massacres of 1895-1896, Anatole France, always an activist for human rights and just causes joined the pro-Armenian movement and raised his voice to condemn Sultan Abdul Hamid II and defend the Armenian rights. In 1901 was one of the co-founders of the periodical Pro-Armenia, sponsored by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, and continued his speeches and political rallies in favor of Armenian until 1907. Anatole France also had a close friendship with famous writer Arshag Tchobanian and painter Edgar Chahine.

In 1908 France published his novel Penguin Island, which satirizes human nature by depicting the transformation of penguins into humans, after the animals were baptized by mistake by a nearsighted ecclesiastic. It was actually a satirical history of France from the Medieval time to the novelist’s own time, concluding with a dystopian future. Another celebrated novel, The Gods Are Thirst (1912), was a wake-up call against political and ideological fanaticism. It depicted a true-believing follower of revolutionary Maximilien Robespierre and his contribution to the bloody events of the Reign of Terror of 1793-1794, following the French Revolution of 1789. He published his most profound novel, Revolt of the Angels (1914), at the age of eighty. It was loosely based on the Christian understanding of the War in Heaven, and told the story of a guardian angel who fell in love and joined the revolutionary movement of angels.

After the beginning of World War I and the Armenian Genocide, Anatole France returned to the political scene and was one of the keynote speakers at the April 1916 “Homage to Armenia” held at the Sorbonne amphitheater with the assistance of 3,000 people. In his speech, France included the much-quoted passage: “Armenia is dying, but it will survive. The little blood that is left is precious blood that will give birth to a heroic generation. A nation that does not want to die, does not die.”

Anatole France was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1921 in recognition of his brilliant literary achievements, characterized as they are by a nobility of style, a profound human sympathy, grace, and a true Gallic temperament.” He passed away on October 12, 1924, and his funeral was attended by a crowd of two hundred thousand people. He is buried in the Neuilly-sur-Seine cemetery near Paris. A few days ago, on March 30, 2018, the French International School in Armenia, founded in 2007 in Yerevan, was renamed after him.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Death of Lili Chookasian (April 10, 2012)


Lili Chookasian was one of the world's leading contraltos during the 1960s and 1970s with a long and celebrated career at the Metropolitan Opera.
She was born in Chicago on August 1, 1921, the youngest of three children to immigrants from Sepastia. Her family was a survivor of the Armenian Genocide. Her first language was Armenian, and she would acquire her English proficiency after attending school.

After high school, Chookasian began studying singing seriously, and earning money singing in the choirs of Armenian churches and on the radio. She began performing professionally as an oratorio and concert singer in the 1940s, mostly in Chicago but also occasionally out of town. The main highlight of her early concert career was her performance as soloist for Mahler's second symphony with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, directed by Bruno Walter.

In 1956 Chookasian was diagnosed with breast cancer, and her physicians gave her six months to live. She underwent a radical mastectomy, which was further complicated by a widespread infection that required additional surgeries. However, she fought her way back to health. She would have another breast cancer scare in 1961, which forced her to another mastectomy.

At the age of thirty-eight, in 1959, Chookasian made her first opera appearance and a resounding success as Adalgisa in Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma with the Arkansas State Opera. In 1961 she was hired for a concert performance of Sergei Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky with the New York Philharmonic. Shortly thereafter, she was offered a contract with the Metropolitan Opera but turned it down because of family considerations. After successful performances in Italy and Baltimore, she finally accepted a second offer to join the roster at the Metropolitan, where she debuted in March 1962 in Amilcare Ponchielli’s La Gioconda.   

During her 24-year-long career at the Met, Lili Chookasian sang many principal contralto roles and a number of secondary parts in operas by Giuseppe Verdi, Richard Wagner, Claude Debussy, Gounod, Mussorgsky, and many others. While working at the Met, Chookasian quickly became one of the leading contraltos performing on the international stage during the 1960s and 1970s, singing under the best conductors of that time, like Leopold Stokowski, Leonard Bernstein, Herbert von Karajan, and many others. She was particularly admired worldwide for her performances in Beethoven’s ninth symphony, Gustav Mahler’s symphony Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), and above all Giuseppe Verdi's Requiem.
In September 1967 she traveled to Armenia, where she performed in two productions mounted in her honor at the Alexander Spentiarian Opera Theatre: Amneris in Verdi’s Aida and Parandzem in Dikran Tchouhadjian’s Arshak II. She received the prize Bedros Atamian of the Ministry of Culture of Soviet Armenia in 1981.

During a performance of Kurt Weill’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny in 1984, she suffered a minor heart attack on stage and was unable to continue. Her career slowed down and she performed for the last time at the Met on February 17, 1986 in Charles Gounod Romeo and Juliet, which became her farewell to the opera stage.

After retiring, Chookasian joined the voice faculty at Yale University’s School of Music. She taught there and resided in Branford, Connecticut. In 1987 she lost George Gavejian, her husband of forty-six years, with whom she had three children. In 2002 she was awarded Yale’s Sanford Medal. She was name Professor Emeritus of the School of Music in 2010.

Lili Chookasian passed away at her home in Branford on April 10, 2012. 

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Birth of Nelson Stepanian (March 28, 1913)

Armenians had an important participation in the Soviet army during World War II. One of the most remarkable names in the Soviet air force was Nelson Stepanian.
Stepanian was born in Shushi (Artsakh) on March 28, 1913. He moved to Yerevan with his parents shortly thereafter and attended Maxim Gorki School. He was a fifth grader when he got interested in aviation and aeromodelism. He won competitions of aeromodelism in Moscow, Kiev, Tbilisi, and Baku.
In 1932 he graduated from the Sergo Orjonikidze preparatory military school of Baku, and three years later finished the school of Military Aviation in Bataysk, where he worked as a flight instructor until 1938. He continued his service in the city of Mineralniye Vodi, in the Northern Caucasus, until 1941.
On June 23, 1941, the day after Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Stepanian was called to service in the offensive aviation of the Black Sea fleet. He entered the 46 th attack squadron and got familiarized with the Il-2 fighter, participating in the defensive combats in Poltava, Zaporozhye, and Odessa. He was wounded by shrapnel flak in his twentieth sortie.
In August 1941 Stepanian was transferred to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) as a member of the second air squadron of the 57 th division and participated in the defense of the city. He was designated ring commander. By decision of the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet, on October 23, 1942, he was decorated as Hero of the Soviet Union, and in November of the same year, Capt. Stepanian became commander of the squadron of the 57 th Assault Regiment. As of November 1942, he was reported to have destroyed 78 German trucks, 67 tanks, 63 anti-aircraft guns, nineteen mortars, 36 railroad cars, twenty merchantmen and warships (including a destroyer), thirteen fuel tankers, twelve armored cars, seven long-range guns, five ammunition dumps, and five bridges.
After he was promoted to the rank of major in 1943, he became the commander of the 47th Fighter Division. He executed about 60 battle flights in the positions of Leningrad and destroyed, together with his men, eight tanks, some 90 vehicles, and more than 60 cannons and machine guns.
During the Crimean offensive in April 1944, Stepanian became commander of the 47 th air battalion, which was fighting in Crimea and Kuban. Under his command, the battalion participated in the fights near Feodosia, Sebastopol, and Sudak. On April 16, 1944 Stepanian, who headed a group of 12 Il-2 fighters, had personally destroyed three landing barges. He participated in the elimination of a German convoy on May 22, although his plane suffered important damage. Prior to the offensive, the 47th Division had destroyed 8 transports, 12 barges, 9 patrol boats, and more than 3,000 soldiers and officers.
In May 1944, after the liberation of Crimea, Stepanian returned to the Baltic Sea with his 47th Fighter Division, where they were involved in the battles of the Gulf Finland. He was awarded the Order of the Red Banner on July 22.
On his final sortie against Liepaja in Latvia, on December 14, 1944, the assault group was attacked by German fighters. Stepanian’s plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire and, though wounded, he rammed his own plane into a German warship. The 31-year-old Armenian pilot died along with navigator Captain Alexander Rumyantsev. The devastating loss hit the rest of the squadron harshly. His fellow pilots sent the following letter to his parents after his death:
“[A] simple and modest man, close and beloved by all; he was a father and teacher to all of us, a friend and a commander....We all wept when Nelson Gevorgovich failed to return on that fateful day. They say that tears bring comfort. But the few tears of a soldier, like the red-hot drops of metal, burn the heart and call for vengeance.”
Stepanian was posthumously awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union title for a second time for his sacrifice. According to Soviet sources, Stepanian undertook no less than 239 combat sorties, sunk 53 ships (thirteen alone), destroyed 80 tanks, 600 armored vehicles, 105 cannons, 130 machine guns, 27 aircraft, and 5,000 soldiers.
Four statues of Stepanian were inaugurated in Liepaja, Yerevan, Stepanakert, and Shushi. The latter was destroyed by Azerbaijanis during the Gharabagh war. The statue of Liepaja was moved to Kaliningrad in the 1990s.
Stepanian’s name is also remembered by school No. 71 of Yerevan, named after him on the tenth anniversary of his death in 1954.