EDITOR’S NOTE: Esteemed scholar, Dr. Rubina Peroomian, made the presentation below, “Richard Hovannisian in Memoriam” during the “Helen Fein, Roger Smith, and Richard Hovannisian Tribute Panel” on July 14 at the International Association of Genocide Scholars Conference in Barcelona, Spain. The panel was initially organized to honor the memory of Helen Fein and Roger Smith, two newly deceased founding members of the organization, but Hovannisian was added to the topic after his passing on July 10.
BY DR. RUBINA PEROOMIAN
I have had the honor to introduce Prof. Richard Hovannisian on many occasions, at conferences and at events where he was honored. This will be the most difficult. I would never imagine speaking about him in the past tense. He was an icon in the field of Armenian Studies. And icons don’t die.
I will try my best to give you a brief introduction into the life and work of this unique scholar, trailblazer in Armenian historiography and Armenian Genocide studies in the West, mentor, diligent researcher, great inspirer, motivator and organizer, human rights advocate, and cultivator of generations of scholars following his footsteps.
But before that, I’d like to pay my deep respect to the memory of Helen Fein and Roger Smith, pioneers of Genocide Studies whom I have had the bonne chance to meet in IAGS conferences and admire their work.
On March 7, 2020, the Armenian National Committee Western Region Education Committee honored Prof. Hovannisian with the Legacy Award at Genocide Education, and I was given the task and the privilege to introduce him. After the event half-jokingly, he said to me “send me your text. It will make a nice obituary.” He was right again. The idea was farfetched and inconceivable to me at the time, but overwhelmed with emotions as I heard the sad news of his sudden death and burdened with the heavy schedule of this conference, I found myself searching that text in my computer to shape my tribute speech today.
Richard G. Hovannisian, Professor of Modern Armenian and Near Eastern History at UCLA, my mentor, my role model, my inspiration. It was because of his sincere and strong recommendation letter, not knowing me personally, just trusting my desire and motivation, that the holder of the Armenian language and Literature chair reluctantly agreed to accept a 43-year-old civil engineer from Tehran in the graduate program at the UCLA Near Eastern Languages and Cultures Department, Winter Quarter, 1980.
I remember my first exam in the class of History 112B. I filled up the Blue Book entirely and waited for the result. And the result was B+ for the content, C- for the language. That was my first shocking encounter with this hard grading, demanding professor. No, he was not an easy A professor unlike for example the Turkish history professor who was famous for his high grades just to attract students to his class.
This last few days Facebook is inundated with remarks and remembrances, celebrating his life, eulogizing his legacy. A former student of his wrote, “Lectures from Professor Hovannisian transported us, turning distant histories into cohesive and captivating stories. His storytelling brought the subject to life with all its twists and turns, pivotal moments, tragedy, and triumph. Stories that he told over and over to generation after generation, imparting a passion and lifelong curiosity for Armenian History.”
Richard G. Hovannisian was born and raised in Tulare, California, into a family of Armenian Genocide survivors. He earned a B.A. and an M.A. in History from UC Berkley, and a PhD. in 1966, from UCLA. His dissertation, Armenia on the Road to Independence, was published in 1967 to become the precursor to the four-volume monumental work The Republic of Armenia, 1918-1920, published between 1971-1996. With these 5 volumes he broke the ground for a national, post-Soviet Armenian historiography still in the stages of development today.
He had joined the UCLA Faculty in 1962 earning numerous awards and prizes as a dedicated teacher and a prolific historian. He earned the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship and medals of honor from Armenian and non-Armenian institutions. He served on the Board of Directors of national and international educational institutions and was one of the first members of the Armenian National Academy of Sciences outside Armenia.
In 1987, he became the first holder of the Armenian Education Foundation Endowed Chair in Modern Armenian History at UCLA, which after his retirement was named in his honor as the Richard Hovannisian Chair in Modern Armenian History.
To become the esteemed, reputable, and world-renowned scholar that he was took more than knowledge, or relentless research, or intense labor and perseverance. It took more than self-discipline, objectivity, or meticulous and selective treatment of the sources. It was all these, but more importantly, an aspiration, a genuine and undying urge to serve the homeland of his dreams.
We owe it to his unswerving zeal and dedication to the Armenian Cause to have had systematically organized conferences devoted to the provinces and regions of historic Armenia, bringing to life these places where Armenians live no more, 17 conferences over the years and 15 volumes of the proceedings of these conferences he edited and published. 3 conferences dedicated to the Armenian Genocide and publication of papers presented. He also edited the two-volume The Armenian People from Ancient to Modern Times, a classic Armenian History textbook published in 1997. He edited and contributed to more than thirty-five books impossible to enumerate them here.
He introduced the Armenian oral history course at UCLA in 1970s, and together with his students he interviewed about 1000 Armenian survivors of the Genocide. Each student was assigned 10 interviews. I did 15 and the longest ones. In 2018 he donated the collection to the USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive, where they are being digitized and indexed for different themes and are available for researchers anywhere in the world.
His aura, his reputation, and his powerful and convincing presentations in multiple forums, paved the way for the inclusion of the Armenian Genocide in the school and university curricula and in international deliberations.
With his academic output, his pursuit of unbiased, national historiography, his activism in the world recognition of the Armenian Genocide, and the pivotal role he played in the gathering of survivors’ testimonies and advancing the Armenian Genocide Education, he left a legacy that will live forever and guide many more generations to come.
He was a target of the deniers of the Armenian Genocide, but he stood strong and battled against denialism, distortion of history and pretended Turkish altruism.
Richard was the son who did not fit the macho mold his father, Kasbar of Bazmashen village in Kharbert, a young soldier in Andranik’s troop, had created. “That son of a gun,” his father would say, unlike his brothers “he’ll never amount to anything.”
His road was the one less traveled.
Richard had felt on his own skin how painful it was to be the child of a survivor of a great catastrophe, the son of a tormented soul who woke up screaming frantically in the middle of the night, calling his mother, “Վայ, մայրիկ, վայ.“ Kasbar was on the banks of the bloody Euphrates, where a Turk had snatched him from his mother’s embrace.
Announcing the birth of his first son, Raffi, to his mentor, Simon Vratsian, Richard wrote, “Raffi is growing…. He is laughing. He does not know what the future has in store for him. He does not yet know that he has been born into a race in which all children, if they are good, must suffer.” He had suffered, and he knew very well that the suffering would not end with the next generation. And by the way, Raffi would become the first Minister of Foreign Affairs (1991-1992) of the newly independent Republic of Armenia.
In my studies of the second-generation’s perception of the Armenian tragic past and the inherited trauma, Richard’s response was rebellion, escape, but not alienation and assimilation. His Armenian identity was kindled in San Francisco Armenian Youth Federation and forged in Jemaran, in Beirut. He returned home to dedicate his life and career to building a monument of remembrance through his many academic publications, teaching and activism, always having his loving wife Vartiter on his side to help, to encourage, to support.
Այս հողեղէն աշխարհում, վաստակդ շատ, վարձքդ կատար սիրելի Ռիչըրդ: Դու կրեցիր քեզ ժառանգութիւն հասած ցաւագին անցեալի բացած ու չսպիացող վէրքն ու հոգեբանական տուայտանքները, բայց յառնեցիր ո՛չ իբրեւ զոհ, այլ՝ քո գրչով եւ գործունէութեամբ, իբրեւ մարտնչող՝ հայ ժողովրդի դէմ գործուած եւ անպատիժ մնացած ահաւոր ոճրի արդար դատաստանի եւ հատուցման նուիրեալ:
Յարգանք քո անցած ճանապարհին։
Յարգանք քո յիշատակին։
Dr. Rubina Peroomian is an independent scholar author, formerly of UCLA.