Museum Exhibits Armenian Artifacts a Century after Rescue by Russians

Harut Sassounian
Harut Sassounian

Harut Sassounian


On my way back from the Centennial events in Yerevan last week, I stopped in Saint Petersburg, Russia, to attend the inauguration of an unprecedented exhibit of Armenian artifacts rescued by Russian ethnographers from Western Armenia during the Genocide.

Here is the incredible background story of that unique exhibit. In 1916, during the Russian military campaign which temporarily liberated Western Armenia from Ottoman Turkey, Saint Petersburg’s Russian Museum of Ethnography sought Czar Nicholas II’s permission to dispatch a scholarly expedition to the Van area to collect Armenian artifacts from imminent loss. The Czar gave immediate consent in his handwriting: “Approve. Need to hurry.”

A small team of ethnographers led by Alexander Miller arrived in Van on June 10, 1916, after a lengthy and perilous journey. During their two-week stay, they managed to purchase from local inhabitants a total of 513 objects: 396 Armenian, 110 Assyrian, 5 Kurdish, and 2 Turkish. The artifacts included traditional Armenian costumes, jewelry, and carpets from the City of Van, the towns of Alur, Bitlis, Moks, Mush, Shatakh, and neighboring villages. During their visit, the scholars took 60 photographs of natural landscapes, historical monuments, buildings, and some residents. All of these materials were hauled back to Saint Petersburg under the protection of the Russian military.

Surprisingly, these painstakingly-collected cultural objects remained in the Russian museum’s basement for 100 years and were never displayed! No one seemed to remember their existence, until two years ago, when Armenia’s Consul General Vardan Hakopyan in Saint Petersburg learned about these artifacts and informed the authorities in Armenia, local community leaders, and the Armenian Jewelry Association.

After extensive joint efforts between the Armenian Jewelers Foundation and the Russian Museum of Ethnography, the items that were kept in storage for a century were finally put on display in Saint Petersburg last week. The Jewelers Foundation and the Russian Museum published an impressive catalog titled, “Treasures of Western Armenia,” which showcased the artifacts collected from the region of Van in 1916, before its recapture and genocidal destruction by Ottoman Turkish forces.

The exhibit was officially opened on April 27, 2015, at the Russian Museum of Ethnography. It was attended by Vigen Sargsyan, the Armenian President’s Chief of Staff, Olga Kazanskaya, Vice Governor of Saint Petersburg, Vladimir Grusman, Director of Russian Museum of Ethnography, Pierre Akkelian, Chairman of Armenian Jewelers Foundation, Gagik Gevorkyan, President of Armenian Jewelry Association, and Karen Mkrtchyan, the Armenian community leader of Saint Petersburg.

Not surprisingly, after it became known that the Museum of Ethnography had in its possession valuable artifacts from the Van region, the Consulate of Turkey in Saint Petersburg contacted the Museum claiming that these items are the property of the Turkish Republic and sought their return. The Museum’s leadership rejected the Turkish request as the objects were purchased from their owners in 1916.

It is ironic that Turkish diplomats had the audacity to request these Armenian artifacts, after having killed their owners, burned their homes, and stolen their possessions! One would hope that the Turkish government would be foolish enough to go ahead and file a lawsuit against the Russian Museum, trying to claim these items. Such a lawsuit would further publicize Turkish responsibility for the Armenian Genocide, the looting of Armenian cultural objects, and occupation of their ancestral homeland!

One hundred years later, another expedition should be dispatched to Turkish museums and libraries to locate and recover all Armenian artifacts, manuscripts and other valuable items plundered during the Genocide. Lawsuits should be filed against all Turkish institutions holding such Armenian materials. If local Turkish courts reject the demand, Armenians should then appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in order to recover these long lost and precious fragments of Armenian cultural heritage. Such a legal effort would be yet another means of seeking restitution for the massive Genocide-era losses suffered by Armenians a century ago!

The Russian Museum’s remarkable exhibit should go on tour to Armenian communities around the world: Athens, Beirut, Berlin, Boston, Buenos Aires, London, Los Angeles, Montreal, Moscow, New York, Paris, Tehran, Toronto, San Francisco, San Paulo, Sydney, Yerevan and many other cities. Let the world see a small sampling of the vast quantities of valuable cultural artifacts that the Armenian nation lost during the Genocide in addition to the 1.5 million human souls.

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  1. April 24 @ 24/7/365 said:

    Nothing surprising about the fact that these cultural objects remained in the Russian museum’s basement for 100 years and never displayed. The communists were as much anti-Armenian as the Ottomans. They arbitrarily gave away lands and repressed our culture. Great military heroes of Sardarabad such as General Movses Silikyan, Daniel Bek-Pirumyan and Christophor Araratov were charged with “nationalism” and executed in Nork gorge. Their awards were stripped from them and their family members sent to labor camps in the gulag. The men were removed from acknowledgement in history books.

  2. Harutik said:

    Knowing what Turks were up to in the area, these people went out of their way – and risked their lives in the process – to preserve elements of Western Armenia’s cultural heritage. The fact that they made this valiant effort speaks volumes about their ethics and respect for Armenian culture. God bless the great Russian nation. God bless their great leader, Vladimir Putin. And may God help strengthen and deepen Armenia’s alliance to the Russian Bear. Although it pains me to do so, I often think of what would have been had the Bolshevik revolution never took place and Russian-Armenian forces held on to Western Armenia.

    • April 24 @ 24/7/365 said:

      It’s one thing to be acting in self interest, but praising and bending over backwards to promulgate the master-slave relationship is simply pathetic.

    • April 24 @ 24/7/365 said:

      Something else you might want to further look into.

      “A 19th-century Russian explorer, Vasili Lvovich Velichko, who was active during the period when the Russian tzarism carried out a purposeful anti-Armenian policy, wrote “Armenians are the extreme instance of brachycephaly; their actual racial instinct make them naturally hostile to the State”.

    • Random Armenian said:

      “God bless the great Russian nation. God bless their great leader, Vladimir Putin.”

      Ugh. Seriously? Do you live in the USA btw? So when is this great Vladimir Putin going to recognize Karabakh? For that matter when is Armenia going to officially recognize Karabakh?

      “And may God help strengthen and deepen Armenia’s alliance to the Russian Bear.”

      I think you mean “reliance” and not “alliance”. You really think Armenia has an alliance with Russia? Russia practically owns Armenia.

      • April 24 @ 24/7/365 said:

        These so-called modern day Russophiles are no better than the treacherous Armenian communists of the past. Their primary goal is to advance Russian national interests at the expense of Armenia. As evident of their position, they are advocating the display of a statue of Mikoyan in Yerevan. If they’re truly nationalistic, then let them demand primus inter pares (first among equal). We can respect the seniority, but we can not accept their superiority over us.

  3. hye said:

    turks-red genocide, russians-white genocide. First one kills you with bullet and taking you to desserts, 2nd one kills you psycholigically and ecomomically and pretends to be your brother.

    • April 24 @ 24/7/365 said:

      The second is still ongoing. It was not only a communist agenda, it is a Russian imperialistic doctrine.

  4. Norserunt said:

    Other than a handful of assimilated Americans of Armenian ancestry (like commenter April 24 and all his aliases) most Armenians are forever indebted to the Russian nation for all they have done for Armenia throughout history.

    • April 24 @ 24/7/365 said:

      Very well thought out comment. Interesting that you conveniently glossed over the documented history of Russian transgression of Armenian lands, heritage and culture. I guess executing heroes, suppressing nationalism, and transferring Nakhichevan and Artsahk to Turkic tribes qualify as thing we must forever be indebted for. Perhaps we should encourage another 4 billion dollars in weapons sales and more soldiers killing our citizens as a repayment towards our forever indebtedness to the Russian nation.

    • hye said:

      I truly don’t mean disrespect, but please do some research on issue.

    • hye said:

      Please check history of how keys for Kars were handed to turks. Please check how many Armenians got killed in world war 2, how so many Hamshnahays were sent to Uzbekistan and sibiria, and waht happened to them. Please check how many families live apart, some in turkey(women from Armenia doing all kinds of work to support their families). Please check to avoid Kars, 1993(you probably don’t even know what that means), check to see why in Krasnodar russians would not let armenians have genocide related banners(ask yourself why). Or you could worship russians.

  5. Mabuballah said:

    Putin has been reported on this website (asbarez) as suggesting that Russia recognize Nagorno-Karabagh (Artsakh) if the same would join the EEU. Since Armenia itself already has, why not put Mr. Putin to the test? And if he does, take that, Mr. Nazarbaev (among others)!