The Armenians of Lithuania Are Struggling for their Identity
The Establishment of Armenians in Lithuania: Structures and Organizations
We start the introduction with the Armenian communities of Baltic republics with Lithuania. Lithuania, once a part of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth (Rzeczpospolita), declared its independence on March 11, 1990, the first one among all Soviet republics. Now it is considered the most powerful Baltic state and is a EU member since 2004.
The history of Armenians in Lithuania dates back to the 14th century. At the time, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania expanded its borders at the expense of the Golden Horde in the south, including a large part of Ukraine, where Armenians were already established. According to historical sources, the Armenians started serving in the army of the Lithuanian Grand Duke and participated in all major battles, including Grunwald (Žalgirio mūšis in Lithuanian). Incidentally, a celebration dedicated to that battle is currently organized in Poland, including the participation of a regiment composed by Polish Armenians. The Armenians were fluent in Oriental languages and rendered diplomatic services to the Grand Dux and, later, to the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth (Rzeczpospolita). For a long time, Armenians were the main players in its trade with eastern countries, as well as within the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. During our conversation, the Vice-Chairman of the Board of National Communities of Lithuania, Ruslan Harutyunyan, said that, according to the Lithuanian archives, at the beginning of the seventeenth century a workshop of leather-makers functioned in Vilnius, where the Armenians were founding members. There is also some information about the Armenian jewelers, tailors, shoemakers of Vilnius. Armenian Catholics lived in Vilnius in the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. The Armenians, as well as Jews, Tatars, Karaims and Gypsies were considered their “own foreigners” in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth (Rzeczpospolita)
The New Armenians of Lithuania
In modern times, the Armenian community was formed in the 1950s. Some Armenian soldiers remained in Lithuania after World War II. Armenian experts from different cities of Soviet Union arrived by special invitation and also settled here. While in 1959 there were only 471 Armenians in Lithuania, in 2003 their number reached 2500. In 2015, according to preliminary data, 1300-1500 Armenians reside in Lithuania, within a total population of 3 million, as in Armenia. According to the Armenian ambassador to Lithuania, Ara Ayvazyan, the number of Armenians is 2000. In Ruslan’s opinion, these numbers are always different and it is difficult to give precise numbers. “There was not an organized community until 1988; we used to gather in some restaurant with no music on April 24, and that was the way Armenians were acquainted with each other. Most of them work in the business sector. Communication increased from 1989 on,” Ruslan Harutyunyan recalls in an interview with us.
According to him, the Armenian Cultural Association “Garun” (Spring), led by Oleg Isayev, was registered in the spring 1988. The Lithuania-Armenia Union was founded in 1992 under the leadership of Ruslan’s wife, poet and Armenologist Marite Kontrimaite. The St. Vardan community of the Armenian Apostolic Church was established in 1994. The formation of “Garun” was considered the basis to celebrated in 2014 the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Armenian community in Lithuania In late 1993 Ruslan Harutyunyan was elected president of “Garun” cultural union. In the spring of 1994 “Garun” was transformed into the Armenian Community of Lithuania, presided by Ruslan Harutyunyan until May 2000. He was also the chair of the National Council of Lithuania for two terms (2000-2006). Since 2012, he is the deputy chairman of the Board of National Communities of Lithuania. According to Harutyunyan, this Board is a representative and consultative body consisting of 25 members, formed by the Ministry of Culture. Unlike Latvia and Estonia, there is not an “Association of National Minorities” here. “Such facilities exist in the cities, but not on the scale of Lithuania. In my opinion, it is true that both structures exist,” Harutyunyan mentions. “The level of activity of the Lithuanian Armenian community is average: neither too high nor too low. The Armenian communities of Latvia and Estonia do not fall back, but we are in better shape than they are. Among us there is much work made by our own means,” he adds.
This topic is continued by businessman Arayik Tunyan, the current leader of the Lithuanian-Armenian community and president of the Armenian Union of Lithuania, who settled in Vilnius on April 1, 1986. During our conversation, he recalls those years: “I had a desire to come to Lithuania, since I had seen that Lithuania was an interesting country during my military service. I came, I saw, and stayed.” Tunyan is a graduate from the Polytechnic Institute of Armenia and, by distance education, from the Kharkiv Automobile and Highway Institute in Ukraine. He worked from the age of 22, rising from workshop worker to supervisor, and then he switched to business. “We were longing our homeland and wanted to be useful to our compatriots. Unfortunately, the earthquake of Armenia unified us. It brought Armenians together, and we showed good organization skills. I began to be involved in Armenian issues after the earthquake of 1988, when Lithuania gave its helping hand and received school children from Vanadzor, Spitak and Gyumri. I was appointed headmaster of one of the Lithuanian holiday homes and helped in those endeavors. On 15 December 1988 we created a committee, which was registered in 1989 as “Garun” Cultural Center and operates until the present as the Armenian community of Lithuania. It also became the founder of the Armenian Union of Lithuania, having representatives in different cities. I was on the board. In 1993 I was the deputy leader of the community; in 2001-2002 I was elected as the president of the Armenian community and in 2003 I was elected as the president of the Union of Armenians of Lithuania.
In 2006 we repaired the only chapel-like structure in Vilnius and in 2008 we turned it into the church (address: Juozapaviciaus 11). Now, after the appointment of Father Khosrov Stepanyan as religious leader of the Armenian Church in the Baltics, we aim to extend and expand the church. Masses are held once every two months, when the priest comes from Riga to Vilnius. He is the pastor of the three Baltic states and represents the Holy See of Etchmiadzin. Father Khosrov says: “We want to expand the chapel and in 2015 we will begin to build a nice little church nearby. We are going to hold a new congress in Lithuania and choose a new board. Arayik Tunyan is the chairman of the Parish Council, a very dedicated person.”
In past years, the community has implemented a number of cultural programs. As Arayik Tunyan says, “Everyone participates in this small community and one can feel the small contribution of everybody to the common work. The Armenian feels himself Armenian. During the last years we celebrated the 100th anniversary of Aram Khachaturian. We organized the presentation of the Lithuanian translation of “Book of Lamentations” by Grigor Narekatsi and the novel “Forty Days of Musa Dagh” was also published in Lithuanian.”
In 2001 a khachkar (cross-stone) was erected by the Armenian communities of the three Baltic states in the Hill of Crosses, Šiauliai. A pilgrimage to that khachkar is organized on May 26 of every year. It is dedicated to the 1700th anniversary of Armenia’s adoption of Christianity.
“If you do not want to stay Armenian, then no organization will make you.”
To my question “What is the situation of Armenians in today’s Lithuania,” Arayik Tunyan answers:
“Communities operating in various cities make up the Union of Armenians. We have very friendly and business-like relations, and we cooperate in the preservation of the Armenian heritage. Our friends have not been changed for many years and we know each other. The company has resulted in the establishment of good relationship. We have joint events, but rarely. We hold board meetings; we do organize meetings also in the towns. The community organizations work to ensure that people who are not involved in the communities are in touch with Armenians. There are some experiments, but the results are not so great. People communicate mainly in the virtual field and have broad ties. If you do not want to stay Armenian, then no organization will make you. Our children compare Armenia with Europe, and this becomes an incentive for them.”
Since 2011 the Ambassador of Armenia in the three Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia) is Ara Ayvazyan (residing in Vilnius), who makes the following assessment: “There are small, but active communities in three countries. Some have been operating for 20 years as registered communities. For example, we recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of Armenian community in Kaunas. The vast majority of expatriate communities are made up of our fellow countrymen from Armenia; some of them came here to study in the Soviet era and stayed, beginning a career here. A new wave of immigrants came in the late 1990s.
Everyone tries to keep his uniqueness and to have his own word in community life. There is the Union of Lithuanian Armenians, and unions in Vilnius, Kaunas, Šiauliai and Visaginas. The first three years were full of mutual recognition, cooperation and clarification of programs. I am glad that there are also individuals, each of them represents Armenia, due to which in these countries are very positive image of Armenians has been established.”
“It is hard to compare the traditional and new communities,” the ambassador of Armenia continues. “Each community has its own peculiarities of development. The difference is big, but it is wrong to believe that only from traditional communities should be learned. Even in those small communities we had some experience, which could be useful for experienced communities. The Armenians wherever they may be, should be able to create a network. In communities they live not just by structures, but also outside the institutions. A successful person is not involved in community life. That also requires sacrifice.”
Armenian-Lithuanian relations. Why among former Soviet Union republics Lithuania was the first to recognize the independence of Armenia?
In 2011 the Ambassador of Armenia to Lithuania Ara Ayvazyan opened the embassy in Vilnius. Previously, the Armenian Embassy in Poland had been in charge of bilateral relations with the Baltic states.
“We have a long way to go. We are rather late, because these countries have an important international role within the EU in both bilateral and multilateral relations. It was right that the embassy was opened geographically not in Latvia, but in Lithuania, in the most vigorous and powerful among Baltic countries,” the ambassador of Armenia says.
According to him, the Armenians have been known for a long time. “We have partners from the European Union, but the Baltic countries are unique for us, because since Soviet times, living within one country, they are well aware of our thinking, our lifestyle, our challenges, our reality; we sense that we know each other well. In the three countries the Armenians participate actively in the councils of national minorities; even in Latvia the representative of our community Rafi Kharajanyans leads the National Minorities Council. He is not only a well known musician, but the only Armenian who has been awarded the highest order of Latvia,” the Ambassador says.
As about the treatment towards state, it does not remain hardened: the world is being changing, as well as the interests and challenges do. “During the Soviet era, the struggle for national liberation and independence began in the Baltic countries, Armenia and Karabakh,” the ambassador continues. “I found a letter of 1989 addressed to Gorbachev and the Soviet Union General Prosecutor on behalf of the national fronts of the three Baltic countries about the release of the members of Karabakh Committee. The fourth paragraph of the letter called for the implementation of the constitutional right of self-determination of Nagorno-Karabakh. Today some political forces here have forgotten about it. At the time, the Armenian National Movement and the representatives of the Baltic democratic movements were in close relations, Lithuania headed that movement and there was mutual support. In 1990 a tragedy happened next to the TV station of Lithuania and some people perished. Then, the president of the Parliament of Armenia, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, called on Soviet President Gorbachev that the USSR Supreme Soviet delegation visited Vilnius and prevent the bloodshed. The plane of the delegation led by Ter-Petrosyan was kept in Minsk and arrived late, but they did everything to prevent clashes between Soviet troops and demonstrators. The head of Lithuania Landsbergis said that the Lithuanian people would never forget it. As a result, on August 14, 1991, Lithuania was the first country to recognize the independence of Armenia.
The Republic of Armenia signed the first international agreement with Lithuania. It was not a coincidence, but a symbolism. Unfortunately, the situation has changed in 23 years. Baltic independence and statehood are based on the idea of getting rid of the occupation of Soviet Union, on expulsion, on the concept of genocide. It is no accident that the relations between the West and Russia are strained in an extreme form, and the Baltic countries, especially Lithuania, have adopted the toughest stance towards Russia. There is great attention to the South Caucasus, particularly to Georgia. There was a morbid treatment toward Karabakh before, but it is more balanced now.”
In the opinion of young economist Rena Saribekyan, “In Lithuania people think Armenia is a small country that lacks independence and the geopolitical situation is grave.”
The “Armenia-Lithuania” forum, active in Vilnius since September 2012, also aims to strengthen Armenian-Lithuanian relations. It is headed by lawyer Armen Hayrapetyan, a native of Artsakh. In 1988 he moved to Lithuania and graduated from the Faculty of Law. Now he is the chief advisor to the Director General of the Public Television of Lithuania. Hayrapetyan says they have created a website, www.lt-am.lt, which gives information on Armenian-Lithuanian relations. They issued a declaration, signed by eminent Armenian and Lithuanian individuals. The forum has included the whole Lithuanian elite. They actively cooperate with the Embassy of Armenia and the Armenian friendship group of the Lithuanian Seimas. Along with the embassy they organized a joint painting competition, “I Love Armenia,” which was attended by numerous schoolchildren who drew pictures on Armenia. Two thousand students aged 5-14 studied the culture of Armenia and created 1600 pictures, and a professional jury selected the best ones. They even used the letters of the Armenian alphabet. At the end of the competition they published a joint album with the embassy, including the best works. Then they gathered the winners on a ship and gave them lectures about Armenia. With the assistance of the embassy, the fourth issue of 2013 of the “Krantai” cultural magazine was completely dedicated to Armenian culture and history.
In 2014 a lobby organization was established, called the Armenian Alliance of Baltic Countries. It is comprised of professional and knowledgeable young people who also bring great support to the embassy. Among the coordinators of the Alliance are attorney Armen Hayrapetyan and film director Marat Sargsyan.
The Alliance of Baltic Countries aims at developing the historic and cultural heritage in Lithuania and in other Baltic countries. Through seminars, they show our culture, our history, our language, and the history of our ancient capital. This is the platform of the Armenian Alliance of Baltic countries, which currently comprises 6 members from Lithuania and Estonia.
One of the leaders of the Armenian Alliance of Baltic Countries, Marat Sargsyan, presents the history of establishment of the Alliance: “After the opening of the embassy, a group of Armenians, including Armen Hayrapetyan, Rena Saribekyan, Gayane Kalashyan (from Tallinn), and myself, gathered around the embassy and registered the organization in June 2014, with the purpose of keeping and introducing the Armenian culture.”
The Armenia’s ambassador said that in 2013 Lithuania presided the European Union and a number of cultural events were held: the exhibition of Parajanov museum in 2013; the Armenian film week, together with the Union of Cinema Professionals of Lithuania; in 2015 Golden Apricot International Film Festival of Yerevan presented films dedicated to the Armenian Genocide in Vilnius. The film by Vardan Hovhannisyan about Karabakh was broadcasted by Lithuanian television.
The Armenians and Lithuanians: What is the attitude of Lithuanians towards Armenians?
Arayik Tunyan, businessman, Vilnius. “The attitude of Lithuanians towards foreigners is not so good. The society is nationalistic. Seventy to eighty percent of Armenians are integrated into Lithuanian society; they are dynamic, kind people, friendly with their neighbors. We live together with Lithuanians and there are no conflicts, excluding, of course, some domestic disputes.”
Alexander Boyajian from Kaunas believes that it is very easy to communicate with Lithuanians. All Armenians speak Lithuanian. They do less in mixed marriages, but there is a desire to speak Armenian.
The activity of the Nansen club can be considered an initiative of Armenian-Lithuanian friendship. Honored hockey coaches, Hrach and Hrant Petrosyans, who are twin brothers, founded the Nansen club in the Lithuanian city of Daugai . The main goal of the club is to organize the “Nansen games.” Such games were already held in 2013-2014. The main aim of the games is to establish contacts among the youth of different nations through sports and cultural programs in neighboring countries, Ukraine and Russia, Latvia and Estonia. They also purchased a plot of land, which will be called Nansen state, where the heirs of those who received the Nansen passports can visit and lay flowers on the memorial.
Hrach Petrosyan, from Gyumri, lives in Lithuania since 2012. “We always wanted to return to sports, because the situation was hard in Armenia. We had gone for business to make money and fund sport projects. Thus, together with my brother, we initiated the “Nansen games,” uniting sports and culture. Why Nansen? Because the Nansen passports saved the lives of many people after the Armenian Genocide. Nansen did not give any money, but helped people be able to earn their living by their own work.”
Hrant Petrosyan, who has currently returned to Armenia after living for many years in Novosibirsk, says: “I gathered a team from the children of Gyumri orphanage and started coaching. Since the nationalists and populists stood by their nations to take off, we decided to organize a contest between teams of girls of Belarus, Ukraine and Russia, and turned these games into a three-day fest. Although an Armenian team did not participate, the group from Kaunas sang and danced. Lithuanian musicians also participated. Our goal is that in the future teams of different nations perform together.” On July 2015 the third “Nansen games” will be organized, dedicated to the centennial of the Armenian Genocide and in memory of the victims.
Lithuania has recognized the Armenian Genocide.
In December 2005 the Lithuanian Parliament adopted a resolution on the Armenian Genocide of 1915. The resolution says:
“The Seimas of Lithuania, commemorating the 90th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide and condemning the Armenian Genocide in Ottoman Turkey in 1915, calls on the Turkish Government to recognize the historical fact.”
Both Ruslan Harutyunyan and Arayik Tunyan ensured that the recognition took place as a result of the joint and determined lobbying of community and parliament, which had its own propaganda and practical parts. Now Ruslan Harutyunyan, together with his daughter Vega, studies the articles published by Lithuanian newspapers on Armenian Genocide since the massacres of 1894.
“I have not read all of them yet, but the common feature is that the state of the Armenians was compared with that of Lithuanians, and there was a trend to educate the Lithuanian political figures and the youth by the example of the Armenians. This is a serious topic, and the study is not over,” Harutyunyan says.
Azerbaijani and Turkish lobby and the Armenians
According to Ambassador Ara Ayvazyan, the Azerbaijani lobby used to work very competently in Lithuania. “We entered into the period of independence with a very good heritage, and we were somewhat relaxed. A moment came when Azerbaijanis understood that these states are the bulwark of Europe for them, and they can shape the mood within the European Union through them. Azerbaijan used the moment cleverly to put into circulation the idea that Armenia, the satellite state of Russia, has occupied “their land” – Karabakh, in the same way that the Lithuanians were occupied by Russians. They were also “subjected to genocide,” citing the so-called Khojalu events. At the time of opening our Embassy, 73 out of 141 Parliament members were ready to vote for this resolution. Lithuania could become the first country that would accept such a resolution, but we were able to stop it. These years were a very interesting period and it was a good teaching moment for us. We succeeded in changing the situation sharply and we were able to make our policy more comprehensible.
Our forces are extremely scarce; in addition to me, two more diplomats work at the Embassy for three countries. In each country we have to give a reminder about us, since the work done previously is being forgotten too quickly. Today, relations between states are determined by economic relations. The Azerbaijanis change the economic interests into political.”
In the opinion of Arayik Tunyan, the leader of the Lithuanian-Armenian Union, a few years ago everything was calmer in the political arena. After the opening of embassies of both countries, that movement became more active, as it would be expected. The financial situation of Azerbaijanis is better than of the Armenians, so they are able to fund several activities. “We manage to counter somehow, we use our old ties. But the Turks and Azerbaijanis have aggressive young students in Lithuanian universities,” he says.
According to Vilnius-based writer Vahagn Grigoryan, the Lithuanians were well aware of our problems before and used to understand us: in 2005 Lithuanian Seimas recognized the Armenian Genocide. However, when Azerbaijani money entered in Lithuania, some anti-Armenian sentiments emerged and the Armenia-Russia relationship began to be used to sharpen anti-Armenian propaganda. “Some articles even raised the question of withdrawing the Genocide recognition,” he says. “Several websites in Lithuania are simply sold; they have turned into a microphone of Azerbaijani-Turkish interests. With great difficulty, after writing several letters to the editor, I was told that my article would be published. But for the past two years, none of four articles have been published, and the Lithuanian-Karabakh friendship at the Seimas and its leader Dalia Kuodytė have become the targets of aggressive attacks.”
Film director Marat Sargsyan continues the theme. “While forming the Artsakh group at the Lithuanian Seimas we screened a film and a scandal arose. We showed the films “Baku,” “Maragha,” and “Sumgait.” We already have a very formidable opponent. We spend most of the time on anti-Azerbaijan lobbying. After the opening of the Embassy we already have a position on the offense. The Azerbaijani people are not strong in terms of human resources, but rather in terms of money, and present topics through the points of view they deem to be correct. For example, they claim that if Armenians could be closely allied to Russians, then they are automatically against Lithuanians. They shot an anti-Armenian film with Lithuanians, spending one million dollars, which has no artistic value. One of the editors even refused to work. Thus, Azerbaijanis bribe everyone with their oil money.”
Kaunas Armenian community
The head of the Armenian community in Kaunas, Alexander Boyajian, came to Lithuania 33 years ago and married a Lithuanian woman. He was born in Armenia and lived in Tbilisi, where he graduated from high school and university. He is a Doctor of Technical Sciences. He is engaged in new technologies of metal processing and so on.
In 2014 the community celebrated the 20th anniversary, which had an all-Lithuanian character and was attended by representatives of the Armenian communities from all cities. “We published an Armenian-Lithuanian phrase-book by our own means and also a calendar. In 2006 we created the “Hayrenik” (“Fatherland”) Armenian song and dance ensemble, which has offered 90-100 concerts in Lithuania and Latvia. Many of the group members visited Armenia for the first time and participated in the “My Armenia” festival,” Alexander Boyajian says. “We are very active; if they invite us and there is a demand, we introduce our culture, songs and dances to the Lithuanians through the dance group. They participate in many folk festivals throughout Lithuania. The group also includes Lithuanian women who sing Armenian and dance Armenian dances. The locals see how integrated we are, what kind of culture we have, and that even their compatriots are in our ensemble. We are highly respected and loved.” Armen Sargsian,who established himself in Kaunas after the Gyumri earthquake, was a musician and then a computer programmer. He is the musical director of the “Hayrenik” group: “Along with Armenian folk songs and dances we also have contemporary pieces, which are well accepted by the audience. Both children and young people dance very enthusiastically. After our concerts the support grows.”
There has been an Armenian Sunday school is Kaunas for 16 years. “Every Sunday children of different age groups attend the school. Even adults come to not forget the language and teach it to their children,” Boyajian says.
A hundred and fifty Armenians live in Kaunas. There are families both of Armenian and mixed marriages. The majority of Kaunas Armenians speaks Armenian. “In our city, Lithuanians are 95 percent of the population. They keep us like gold. There are Armenians with different backgrounds; some have shops, a hotel or a coffee shop.
Our first president, Valery Jilavyan, was a painter. Svetlana Poghosyan is involved in engraving and we often organize her exhibitions. The Lithuanians had not tradition of this art and it was a novelty for them.
Not everyone is active, but more than sixty people are. In 2015 we commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. Because we do not have a church here, on April 24 we as for a Mass in Catholic churches, to commemorate the anniversary of the Armenian Genocide,” Boyajian says.
Klaipeda Armenian community: VAN
Manvel Galstyan, the head of the Armenian community in Klaipeda, graduated from Yerevan Polytechnic Institute in 1987 and was hired to work in Tallinn, Estonia. Soon he was appointed the head of the Klaipeda branch of their company and established himself in Lithuania. Still in Tallinn, he married a Lithuanian.
He says the following about the local Armenian community: “The Klaipeda Armenian community was registered in 2003 and has about 200 members. There are 50 families, with 50 young people. Many have gone abroad to study or work, mainly in England, Germany, and Denmark. Young people are in touch with community and do not refuse to maintain their Armenian culture. Activity is different here. There are many mixed marriages. In some families, even Lithuanians speak Armenian. They are used to Klaipeda. Here the atmosphere is different; there are different nations and there is not a strict control over Lithuanian language. If you ask a question in Russian, you will get a response. There are also elderly Armenians who do not know Lithuanian well.
Among famous Armenians in our town, we have pianist Nara Stepanyan, who often presents concerts both here and in Armenia. Her family moved from Yerevan four years ago. We have also football players in the Klaipeda team. There are musicians who play in different orchestras in Lithuania. We have physicians, for example, Albert Albertyan, who is the co-owner of a clinic. Most Armenians are in the restaurant business and there are also constructors. I am involved in design and also work with other European countries. My children speak Lithuanian at home and Armenian with me. Now they are studying in the Netherlands. Those who stay here participate in our events.
Twelve children aged 7-9 attend Sunday school. We have dance and theater troupes; young people write the scripts for performances.
Klaipeda Armenians also attend events of national minorities and Armenian holidays; we celebrate Vardavar (the feast of Transfiguration). We organize exhibitions, creative evenings of Armenian composers, and invite foreigners. On April 18, 2015 we put a stone cross in the Klaipeda center dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.
Visaginas Armenian community
Bardukh Amiryan, the head of the Visaginas Armenian community, moved from Yerevan to Lithuania in 1972. In 1995 he settled in Visaginas (previously Sniečkus). “I owned a café, and after independence, a shop and bar. When the economic situation in Lithuania worsened, my production was shut down. In the past, life here was very good. Now, with the nuclear plant closed, life has become difficult for people; five thousand worked at the plant. Currently, 16,000 out of 28,000 peooke remain; young people go to Europe or capital city, as there is a shortage of labor. In recent years, two Armenian families left, now we are 28. Previously, the head of the Armenian community was Artyom Hamamjyan, who worked actively together with Gayane Arakelyan. While their young people were still here, they organized many concerts.
Armenians have different specialties: we have a chief power engineering specialist at the furniture factory, businessmen, taxi drivers, while others are retired. Thanks to the President of the Union of Armenians in Lithuania, Arayik Tunyan, we feel comfortable. Through him we participate in all-Lithuanian events,” Bardukh Amiryan says. He sees his future in Armenia. “As time goes by, I want to spend the rest of my life in Armenia,” he says. “In 2014 I took my daughters to Armenia and we returned fascinated. One of them lives in Italy with her Lithuanian husband. They liked Yerevan very much, we have seen many changes and warmth, and my heart called me to go back to Armenia. That was after a long break, we were surprised by the changes. I will go only to Armenia, nowhere else. You cannot find the flavor of Armenia anywhere,” Amiryan says.
Šiauliai Armenian community
Rafik Ghazaryan, the head of the Šiauliai Armenian community, notes that some 30 families live in the city. A community formed in 2001 works actively in Armenian issues. The city authorities consider Armenians as most organized among national minorities and cooperate with them with various issues. In 2012 they opened the Armenian book reading room in the City library, supplied with Armenian literature. On April 25, 2015, in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, a great wooden cross was placed in memory of the victims. The Cardinal of the Lithuanian Catholic Church and the Patriarchal Delegate of the Catholicos of All Armenians participated in the event.
The young people and their future: the revolution of Rena Saribekyan
How is the new generation of Lithuanian Armenians? What kind of interests and preferences it has? As a result of our conversations, we realized that we have a well-educated, young people who speak several languages. The main task is to gather them into a single structure.
Ambassador Ara Ayvazyan: “Here the first generation is growing up. We have young professionals in a variety of sectors, ranging from international relations, law, and economics to the arts. The main staff of the embassy works with young people, and with them we solve problems that cannot be solved otherwise.”
For example, young Rena Saribekyan, who successfully graduated from the University of Economics and works in a prestigious company, expressed the desire to advance the economic interests of Armenia. In June 2014 she was appointed the representative of the Armenian Development Agency in Lithuania. She organized a business forum with participation of our businessmen, where a number of documents were signed.
Rena Saribekyan works at the International Economic University. She graduated from the Faculty of Business in International Marketing and defended her thesis on International Relations in Berlin. Since 2014 she is the representative of the Armenian Development Agency in Lithuania and works with Haytekh BOD Group International Union. She also lectures at the University on global economy. According to her, there are other Armenians in global companies that come from Armenia, work for a few years, and go back.
Rena’s family moved to Vilnius in 1991. Her father opened his own business and started production of industrial dyes. She has a brother who also studies at the University of Vilnius and helps his father.
Rena says: “We have no organization in Lithuania that works with Armenia. Before working in this company, I was working for the company of Lithuanian Industrialists, a big lobbying organization including 2,200 companies. We worked on various exporting projects, including the Malaysian project. I realized that I could implement such projects with my country, Armenia. The reason for this decision was not only patriotism, but also logic. The meeting with Ambassador Ara Ayvazyan gave a positive result. I went to Armenia for a week and had meetings with leaders of various economic sectors, followed by an Armenian-Lithuanian business forum in Vilnius. Hundred percent of Lithuanian economy is tied to export and to those countries that are associated with new geopolitical changes. It is possible to cooperate in the areas of chemical textile and products. Today, our goal is to develop the Armenian-Lithuanian Business Council under the auspices of the Confederation of Industrialists. It will help our country. Lithuania is the gateway to Europe for Armenia.”
I ask Rena: “You have lived here for 20 years. How much you have managed to retain Armenian traditions and identity, and how much you are integrated into Lithuanian society?”
Rena answers: “Of course, it is impossible to not be assimilated here, because the Lithuanian reality is different from Western European, as it is still dominated by post-Soviet mentality. I am grateful to my parents for I was able to keep the ideas about family, friendship. Here, my friends from different countries understand that we are different from them, because we are freer, friendlier, and more welcoming in communication. Our friendships and family relationships are completely different from theirs. It comes from our historical heritage and it is important to preserve it also today. People left Armenia and they looked for all possibilities for self-realization in abroad. We still remain a global nation, because we are everywhere, and although we are altogether 10 million in Armenia and Diaspora, we all think similarly about family and friendship traditions, and the preservation of our culture.
I do not think that an Armenian should be in some community to be able to maintain his identity. It is first connected to his mentality. If that were so, the Armenians would not remain a global nation. Every person must preserve his/her identity first and understand who s/he is and what s/he wants. Either in business or economy, s/he must understand that instead of him or her no one will keep his/her identity.
The Armenian community is very important, but it is not for people to come and understand how they need to maintain their national heritage. Every person should have his or her own idea of preservation of Armenian identity and then gather and discuss how those identities should be jointly maintained. People do not need to gather and submit for the first time, but they should have in their mind a mature understanding about Armenia and Armenians. Many people do not understand what Armenia and Armenians are. They should understand that the nation does not only exist in a barbecue or in a bottle of wine: of course, they are also important, but first and foremost the Armenian identity is in our mentality. There are well-known Armenians in the business world. We have world-renowned businessmen, while 80 percent of Armenians does not know them. We need to tell our success stories about our Diaspora, and introduce our writers, our artists, and our businessmen. Today we look at Armenia as a mall, a country with rich shops and restaurants, but Armenia is not that. Armenia is our historical heritage, and we must preserve and introduce it today.
We work with our young people to integrate them into the Lithuanian, Latvian, and Estonian cultures. Now we are very busy with new projects, and we hope that in the future we will be more active,” Rena says.
Arayik Tunyan, the president of Union of Armenians in Lithuania: “The new generation is on an innately developed, educated, and beautiful height. They have to get mature and organized. If they see a positive result, time will come when they all will be involved in community institutions. Now they feel inside and come to church. Coercion always counters.”
In the view of Alexander Boyajian, head of the Kaunas Armenian community, “Young people are very capable, and many have graduated universities in various specialties. My daughter graduated from the Academy of Music and my other two daughters from the Foreign Language department at the university. The majority of young people have higher education. They also speak Armenian and Russian.”
Young Emma Boyajian, who was born and raised in Lithuania, graduated from the Academy of Music. “The Lithuanians treat us very well, with great interest and respect, especially the younger generation; there is no discrimination against us.
The Armenian community has all the conditions to keep your identity, but language does not become the main means of communication, because each one has a different level of knowledge of Armenian. We only speak Lithuanian, as well as Russian.”
Asked how they imagine their future, she replies concerned: “It is a very difficult question, since we have already made our families. It will be difficult for the dance group as well, as after giving birth to children, many will leave the ensemble. We want that our children continue our work.”
According to lawyer Armen Hayrapetyan, “It is difficult to unify the youth. They generally communicate in social networks,”
“In any case, what is the potential of the Lithuanian Armenian community? Can youth be the bearer of Armenian values and identity?,” I ask director Marat Sargsyan, who responds: “This is a complicated issue, and I want to be optimistic, but I cannot. Several times we tried to create a youth organization, but it was unsuccessful. I think one of the ways is that the founder should just deal with it or be so patriotic as to devote his time devote to this cause. It should not depend on one person. These are two reasons I could not give my time and just deal with it. We created our Alliance to replace those old thoughts. There are a few people, while the whole background is empty. No other nation has so many famous people as we do. Our people simply do not want to do group work. The best one is the Klaipeda community, whose members are united.”
In answer to my question about what should be done to link the youth to the Armenian issues and to Armenia – as it is not possible to satisfy their demands only making demonstrations on April 24 and organizing some event – writer Vahagn Grigoryan says. “The issue of change of generations is complicated. At a young age, children come to Sunday school with their parents, singing, playing, learning the alphabet, reading, and writing a little, but adolescence comes and the opposite process of alienation begins, which goes further in the following years. The reason is more than simple. A child born or raised out of Armenia who enters life beyond the family appears in a reality with a different language, different customs and relationships, where it is not necessary to preserve your Armenian identity in order to achieve something. Everything remains on the level of inner demand, and that demand is weak because in their past, unlike the past of their parents, grandmother and grandfather, there is not spiritual and real Armenia, and there is no nostalgia. Listening to the parents’ demand or request, he will attend, let’s say, a meeting on Easter, for example, but will remain indifferent or observe the enthusiasm of his parents, their friends and relatives with an indulgent smile, because it is alien to him. I say this about the first generation born and raised outside; it is better to not speak about second and third generations. There are, of course, exceptions, when somebody, regardless of community activities, family education, even in spite of everything, not only remains Armenian, but also becomes supporter of Armenian identity. But it happens as a result of personal circumstances that are not projected outside.”
Language and school
Arayik Tunyan, the head of Armenian Union of Lithuania, says that the Armenian Sunday school of Vilnius was opened in 2001. “We make an effort that our children learn Armenian. They speak Armenian in the families, but children use the local language or Russian. They understand Armenian, but one can feel that they do not use the language of Armenia. Unfortunately, the language problem is more crucial in mixed families. My son, Hayk, studies Armenian at the Sunday school. We send the child to Armenia in order that he speaks Armenian, but they speak Russian with him instead.
A generation has passed already and now the next one has come. There are problems, lack of teachers, which comes from financial means. It is also our fault, because we always try to speak foreign languages during our event. We have to hold our events in Armenian and provide a simultaneous translator. It is a form of language support. I am against holding the whole event in Lithuanian because of one or two guests. The language issue is really a problem. Even in Armenian families people may speak Lithuanian. But what we can demand from Lithuanian Armenians if the television broadcasters of Armenian TV speak broken Armenian?”
Vilnius-based artist Armen Babayan says that his children were taught to speak Armenian at home. Now they want to continue their studies in England. “There are very few Armenians in Lithuania who speak literate Armenian,” he says.
Dariko Khachatryan, teacher of Armenian Sunday school in Vilnius, moved to Lithuania in 1989 with her husband, who is a pilot. Her three children already live outside of Lithuania, in Great Britain, the United States, and Germany. Everyone has studied here, but they all speak Armenian with their children. They have a good understanding and aspirations. According to her, there are many mixed marriages in Lithuania.
A classroom, entirely decorated with Armenian pictures and flags, is provided in the building of a high school in Vilnius. When one enters the classroom, he sees maps of Armenia, portraits of Armenian writers, and Armenian images everywhere.
“In 2001 many pupils were attending this school and there were 32 children of different age groups, but now they are not so many. Besides Armenian language, we also teach history, songs, music, painting, and ceramics. There are also adults who want to learn Armenian. The old Claudia, who was adopted and raised by an Armenian family, tries to learn Armenian.”
I talk with the children.
Ani speaks sincerely with me. “I speak Armenian, because I am Armenian.” Levon learns the letters to know how to speak and write. Sahak believes that, as an Armenian, he should know his language well. “We try to teach the letters through games, so they do not get bored, we teach them also rules of conduct and forms of communication,” the teacher says.
Lawyer Armen Hayrapetyan says: “We try to speak Armenian at home with the children, but they attend Lithuanian school and speak Lithuanian to each other. They also attend Armenian Saturday School, but they are of different levels: one speaks well, while another one has just started to learn.”
The head of Klaipeda Armenian community, Manvel Galstyan, made an interesting observation. “Activity comes from family education. There are active young people who occasionally come to the community. There are families where parents speak Armenian to each other, but for some reason they speak Russian with the kids. It is something incomprehensible, especially in Klaipeda.”
Businessman Yervand Zhamharyan’s son was born in Vilnius. He first attended a Russian kindergarten and school, and English classes. Now studies at the International Management School of Lithuania in Lithuanian. “We speak Armenian at home. My son reads, but writing is difficult for him,” the father says.
Dr. Karapet Babayan says his children speak four languages: Lithuanian, Armenian, English and Russian.
Writer Vahagn Grigoryan shares his own experience: “While in Armenia, we taught Lithuanian to my child and before traveling to Armenia, we taught him Armenian. But today many parents are lazy to bring their children to school.”
Designer Serge Gyanjumyan (Seržas Gandžumianas) speaks sincerely: “My two children were born here, while my 25-year-old son from my first marriage lives in Yerevan. The Armenian identity is very difficult to keep; my children attend a Jewish school, because my wife is Jewish. My mother is Jewish too. They speak Hebrew; Armenian is more difficult for them. Children know Lithuanian, Russian, Armenian, and English.”
Our meetings prove one thing: parents should promote the preservation of the Armenian language; otherwise the kids will forget the language for good.
During my stay in Lithuania I met many figures of the Armenian community. Here we have a well-known opera singer, a writer and a director, a designer, and artists.
Arayik Tunyan, the head of the Union of Armenians in Lithuania, introduces his gallery of contemporary art in Visaginas, where exhibitions of Armenian and foreign artists are organized.
Although Tunyan’s main job is related to economic activities in Vilnius and Visaginas, where he also owns a hotel and a restaurant, he also tries to support the artists. “I try to be close to art. I have always been surrounded by artists and writers. I have been friends with artist Tigran Yukhanyan for 17 years. The chairman of Lori Dzor Patriotic Union, Sergo Yeritsyan, proposed to move the colors of Armenia to Lithuania, and we immediately agreed. We brought 84 works by 54 artists to Lithuania and exposed with support by the Phoenix Foundation and us. We presented Lithuania through the eyes of foreign artists. Thirty-three artists came to Visaginas. All art schools participated. Tigran Yukhanyan and Sergo Yeritsyan have done great organizational work. In the gallery we are ready to present 300 paintings of Armenian artists from different countries. There are also Russian, Lithuanian, Latvian, Belarusian, and Georgian artists. A branch of the Vilnius Academy of Arts is going to be opened next to the gallery. We hope such meetings will be held once every two years.” On April 24, 2015 the project of Armenian painters Gagik Avetisyan and Tigran Yukhanyan was carried out in the central square of Vilnius, drawing on posters placed in there.
Tigran Yukhanyan. A change of minds and values
Painter and sculptor Tigran Yukhanyan has lived in Lithuania since 1994. Life circumstances forced him to move to Lithuania. Over the last five years he has lived in Armenia. He had exhibitions in Moscow and Vilnius, in the Gallery of Artists’ Union, and in private galleries. Recently he sculpted the monument symbolizing the friendship between Yezidis and Armenians.
“When I arrived in Lithuania, I was drawing with Armenian mentality. It was something new for the locals. Each European state and nation has their own way of thinking, and you cannot convince them otherwise. A professional artist should be transformed according to the quality of people of his or her respective area. You may have not been influenced by them, yet you have to accept the surrounding mentality and you have to be more talented than the local artist and sell your works at a lower price in order to be able to survive and endure the competition,” Tigran Yukhanyan says in an interview with us.
“The artist’s work should be of such quality that it would be always hung in the house; it is neither a car nor furniture that could be changed. People live with painting and inherit it. Fine art is the only thing that is not being outdated and distorted. Lithuanians, knowing it, choose the best ones. Here the nationality of the artist is no matter. You win with personal capacity of your hand. The director of the gallery takes what he likes and what he can sell. Thus, you try to give more and better quality works.
I asked what kind of changes Tigran Yukhanyan had when living in Lithuania. “Of course, I have changed in a way that I can no longer live in Armenia. My thinking, essence and values, everything has been changed. At the same time, here my assimilation would be difficult.”
Armen Babayan. Closed Letters to Mother
Artist Armen Babayan, whose works are exhibited in one of the galleries of the Vilnius downtown, settled in Lithuania on the New Year night of 1994-1995, arriving by train from Moscow in Vilnius. Since that day he is in Lithuania with his family. “I spent many hard days abroad and I managed to keep my family through painting,” Armen Babayan recalls. “Back in 1989, when there was curfew in Yerevan, the Fine Art institute sent us to Lithuania. The art of ceramics and decorative graphics attracted me a lot. I was studying at ceramics department and was also attracted by fine art, because I studied in Yerevan Terlemezyan Fine Arts College. We worked for a year and then came back and defended our diplomas. I also wanted to study in Vilnius, but the preliminary exams were already over. I opened my first solo exhibition at Henrik Igityan’s center in 1994. The American Armenians were very supportive of me, especially Matthew Der-Manuelian. The exhibition was very good.”
“Was it easy for you to enter the world of Lithuanian art?,” I ask. Babayan answers: “I was well received. Once I knew Lithuanian artists who were from well-known families of artists. We used to meet often. Now I do not know any Lithuanian artist and I do not want to know any. I feel the same from themselves, although at my studio I know what the developments are in the international scene. I even know who makes copies of my paintings in what countries and spreads them. I do not communicate with many Lithuanians, I give my works to the galleries and they sell.”
“Have you been influenced by the European art school? Are there any similarities?,” I ask. Armen Babayan answers: “I have an influence on them, not the other way around. Some artists copy me. I do not sell works by small amounts, and a Lithuanian or another foreigner will just not give money. They understand the value of art. I do not make works to necessarily sell them. Dozens of pictures may be ready, but not for sale. I felt that there are combinations, coincidences. For many years I tried to be away from everyone. I tried to use the present in a way that does not remind anyone. As the years go by, your guilt increases. With the growth of your skills, you feel guilty with some things. Once your mastery is evident, art suffers.”
Then we walk by gallery halls, and I stand in front of a large canvas on which a closed envelope is painted. Catching my sight, Armen immediately “opens the envelope.” “I cannot ‘make’ a picture. My mother died, and I could not tell her lots of things. Now I paint ‘Letters to My Mother.’ What I did not manage to say to my mother, I write in these letters, put them into envelopes, and sent them to heaven, to my mother. Literature takes time, but painting has no time; the viewer should enjoy while watching.”
Lithuania’s most famous Armenian physician, Karen Babayan:
“When you love the land, the land loves you.”
The famous surgeon and oncologist Karapet (Karen) Babayan is the president of the Laser Surgery Association of Baltic states. He was born in Yerevan. His father Suren Babayan was one of the founders of urology in Armenia; his mother was a teacher of Armenian language. His elder sister is a chemist; the other sister is a programmer in the United States. In 1983, at the age of 16, he entered Kaunas Medical University and after graduation studied also in Belgium and Austria. Returning to Vilnius, he married a Lithuanian. His wife is a well-known plastic surgeon. Oncologist Karen Babayan is one of the founders of laser surgery in Lithuania. For 7-8 years he was the president of the Laser Surgery Association of Lithuania and now is the president of the Laser Surgery Association of Baltic states. He has also taught oncology for 8 years and then left teaching because of overburdened schedule.
“In 1996 we established laser surgery first in the field of oncology and then moved to the plastic surgery center. I was the youngest surgeon at the time; it is considered to be the highest level for a thirty-three-years-old. Now we are building a big center for plastic surgery, which will be ended in 2016 and will become one of the strongest oncology hospitals in Europe,” Babayan says.
Karapet Babayan notes that, in his opinion, he is very well integrated in Lithuania, and Lithuania is the best among Baltic countries.
To my question whether he feels himself a stranger or has integrated faster, he answers: “It is quite a serious matter. At that time there was no immigration, because the Baltic states were considered Europe. Here the situation was different; they were very fond of themselves. I was playing the accordion in the ensemble of the institute, since I had graduated from music school. By doing so, I entered the Lithuanian culture. That culture gives you a lot. In the villages you talk and sing with grandmothers and grandfathers, you get to know the real country, and it helps you to love the country, and the country loves you. Mutual feelings arise in that way. All my life I have traveled under the Lithuanian flag, but Armenia is my historical motherland, I am Armenian, and I will not change it in my life. But Lithuania is also my homeland, because it is the homeland of my family and my children. I cannot even say what is right and what is wrong for Armenia, but I can say it for here. I can tell my professional opinion about the leaders here.”
Marat Sargsyan: From TV to the Film
Film director Marat Sargsyan was born in 1978 in Kirovakan (Vanadzor). He appeared in Lithuania in 1994. He came to Šiauliai where his grandfather was engaged in business. “Me and my brother Ashot, who is currently the head of the “Armenia” restaurant in Vilnius, did not want to go to school and without graduating school we came here to help my grandfather and so we stayed,” he says. Now the 91-year-old grandfather is in Vanadzor. “Since age 12 I worked as cameraman at Interkap TV studio in Vanadzor. I remember when the president of Armenia, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, came to Kirovakan, I was entrusted to shoot his visit. I wonder how they trusted me the camera. The presidential guards checked all the cameras, but not mine. When we came to Lithuania, I was in search for a half year, and then I entered Šiauliai TV. Two years later, I was the main cameraman of the news’ transmission. At age 20 I came to Vilnius TV, where an entertainment channel was launched; first I worked as an editor and gradually worked as a broadcaster. After 5 years I said goodbye to TV and went to study filmmaking. I was the most famous non-Lithuanian announcer here. I worked with many TV channels. I had my own show. Later all this bored me and I quitted television. I began shooting music videos. I did not feel any progress. Then I left everything and studied for six years, and received a master’s degree. So far I have two films. In 2009 I shot my thesis work “Lernavan,” it has 9 international awards, including these of Boston Film Festival and Emil Kusturica, prizes from Polish film festival, and two awards from Golden Apricot Film Festival. In 2011 I shot the film “Father.” It won top prizes at film festivals in Nyon (Switzerland) and Krakow (Poland). Now I am working on a feature-length film, “Legacy.” It is about the genocide. I do not advertise it much, so they do not disturb me. It is a different approach. It is in Turkish, and Turks should perform: there are no Armenians.
As for Armenian cinema, it is closed now and experiences stagnation in its overall development.”
Writer Vahagn Grigoryan: “The Armenian is ready to do the most degrading job abroad, but will not do the same in his own country.”
One of the well-known figures of contemporary Armenian literature, writer Vahagn Grigoryan, married a Lithuanian in 1970. For a long time they lived in Yerevan. After the birth of his son the hard economic years began in Armenia, so he sent his wife and child to Vilnius, and remained in Yerevan. “We also had an apartment in Vilnius; my wife found a job with the help of her old friends. In the summers they come with me, in winter I took a vacation and went to see them for a month. In Vilnius we taught Armenian to my son in Yerevan and in Yerevan we taught Lithuanian. According to the ideas of those years we thought that our son, by knowing both languages, could become a translator,” Vahagn Grigoryan remembers.
“In an interview, you said that your life in Lithuania was much closed. What was the reason? Didn’t you want to integrate into the Lithuanian society?,” I ask to the famous writer.
“In the beginning there was no issue of integration. It is true that, when I resigned from my position as secretary of the Writers’ Union of Armenia in 1994, I stayed longer in Vilnius, but I am an Armenian citizen and was not too interested in the Armenian community of Lithuania. It was important that I was with my family, and at the same time (which is not less important) those visits were like creative vacations for me. My ‘business’ was and remains writing. In Yerevan there were many circumstances that distract me from my occupation, but in Vilnius I should just sit by the desk and write, no one and nothing calls me out. Yes, my only desire was writing, because since the political and social events of 1988 there was no time for literature. In front of my desk I do not feel whether I am in Yerevan or Vilnius. What we call integration began in the early 2000s, when I gradually involved myself in community affairs. It coincided with a special decree by the Lithuanian president that granted me, a citizen of Armenia, a kind of honorary citizenship in appreciation of my services to the Lithuanian literature. With my wife, Nora Grigalaviciute, I have translated two outstanding novels of Lithuanian literature, ‘Lost Shelter’ by Avyžius and ‘Saga on Jusa’ by Baltušis. It was the right time to justify spending half a year in Lithuania not just writing, but also being useful to the Armenian community; it was especially time to celebrate Aram Khachaturian’s 100th anniversary and the 1000th anniversary of the ‘Book of Lamentation’ by Grigor Narekatsi. Both jubilees were celebrated brilliantly. The 90th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide was expected. Our efforts to commemorate that anniversary on the best way, as you know, resulted a recognition and condemnation of the first genocide of the 20th century in December 2005 by a special resolution from the Seimas, the Lithuanian Parliament. Yes, for this reason there was also no time for creative work, but I do not regret it; I am proud to have directly participated in that important event.”
“How do you manage to maintain the identity of your children in Lithuania?” I ask.
“I have only one son and a granddaughter. My son was born in Yerevan, lived there around ten years. He spent his school and, partly, university vacations in Armenia, has no problems with Armenian identity, he speaks and reads not bad than me, and actively follows the political and social life in Armenia. My granddaughter is 14 years old, she loves everything Armenian, beginning from the names of Yerevan and Ararat, she misses Armenia, and two years ago she was repeating all the time: “I would like to live here.” She attends cello classes in a musical school; she just recently had a brilliant performance of the “Impromptu” by Alexander Harutyunyan. But I am a realist. I already told about it, now I will go to the details. Simple statistics shows that the second generation in diaspora already begins to keep away from Armenian identity, and from third and forth generations only one quarter speaks Armenian and considers himself Armenian. The reasons are almost the same everywhere: since you live in another cultural milieu, the Armenian language and identity stop being a vital necessity. It was easy to keep the Armenian identity up to the half of the 20th century, almost everywhere there were Armenian schools, satisfying the demands of time. But new times came and it became impossible to get a complete education with Armenian schools having limited possibilities. In Paris, for instance, the last Armenian school was closed in the late 1980s. Being well aware of the Diaspora communities, I can state that in last decades the Armenian communities of West are revitalized due to newcomers from Middle East and Iran. At the same time the donor communities are weakened because of this immigration. For instance, what remains from the famous Armenian community of Egypt? Almost nothing. In the Iranian city of Isfahan there are around one dozen Armenian churches and school buildings lacking Armenian visitors. A community life is something short-lived: so, where are the onetime strong Armenian communities of India and Poland? The Republic of Armenia could become a leading light for the Armenians who navigate in foreign seas, but unfortunately it became a country of emigration.”
“In your last works you are concerned also by the issues of emigration. You are also on that bridge. How do you present that issue in your literature?”
“My book ‘The Last Trip of Vostan’ includes two works: the homonymous short novel and the novel ‘The Free Armenian.’ In the first one, the hero finds himself on the end of his life road. After wasting all his time in foreign countries, he returns to the Homeland by walk. How will this tragicomic trip end? Will he reach his home? Will he fulfill his last wish, which, in any case, regardless of his reaching to his home or not, is an overdue awareness of values, an overdue return of a prodigal son? The hero of the novel ‘The Free Armenian’ is the opposite: a young man who begins his life by wandering in the world. What will he find? What will he lose? An appeal on the website of A1+ pushed me to write this novel: the call by ‘Free Armenians.’ I have no idea who those ‘Free Armenians’ are, but in their appeal, among other absurdities, there was this one: ‘Freedom is above independence and statehood.’ Freedom, of course, is a good thing, but it was amazing that Armenian considers independence and, generally, statehood of secondary importance. In the novel, my hero seeks that freedom outside of Armenia and finally he understands that he can become a ‘free Armenian’ only by throwing down everything Armenian, forgetting his being Armenian. Emigration is one of the most alarming things in Armenia, and unfortunately has objective reasons: moreover, one cannot see when and how it will be stopped. And you cannot condemn anybody for having left Armenia, not being able to survive. The main ‘land of promise’ is Russia, but the need took the Armenians even to Spitsbergen: seven people from Gyumri live in an island where it is night for half a year. On the other hand, I know instances when people leave Armenia just for the sake of leaving, thinking that it is better abroad. The saddest thing is that they are ready to do the most degrading job abroad, but will not do the same in their own country. Two years ago, a young man called me from Yerevan asking me to help him come to Lithuania; he was ready to do any kind of work, even as hospital attendant. I told him that the same job of hospital attendant he can do it also in Armenia. ‘No,’ he said, ‘I will not do that job here, but I will do it abroad.’ I should be proud that I convinced that young man (also some others) to stay in Armenia, make their own fortune at home, and do not run after some ‘firebird’ which does not exist. The reason of total disappointment — except objective and social (a big percentage of families is vulnerable) — is psychological, conditioned by legal, electoral, taxation, and other injustices. Why do not emigrate if the parliament member says: ‘Surely, let they go earn money abroad; this is not the Soviet Union that brought everything and served them.’”
“How much the Lithuanian part of your life has influenced on your literature?”
“I said something regarding emigration. I was aware about the classical Diaspora as a result of the Armenian Genocide. The Lithuanian part of my life gave me the possibility of observe the Diaspora of post-Soviet times and its contrasts from a close distance. Otherwise, I would have never written ‘Lavonas,’ ‘The Last Trip of Vostan,’ ‘The Free Armenian.’ This is very obvious, but there is also another book, for which I owe to the ‘Lithuanian part’ of my life. It is ‘The River of Time.’ When in 2004 I was selected (or maybe appointed) as the chairperson of the jury to coordinate events of the 90th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, because of my work I was so immersed in this bitter and harsh subject, I discovered the Genocide and the following 90 years in such new levels, that after the recognition of the Armenian Genocide by the Lithuanian Seimas I had a feeling that I had not done everything, that something remained half-done. Thus, I started to write this novel.”
“The political situation is also important. How much do you let politics enter into you and your literature? What is your attitude towards developments in Armenia?”
“The developments in Armenia are my source of main concern and spiritual pain. Being for a long time in Yerevan, I take part in almost all crucial (or seeming so) elections, unfortunately with the same results that do not make me glad, as my preferred candidate and party lose, or if it wins, finally leaves me disappointed. In 2001 I wrote a satirical novel, ‘The Life and Death of the Leader,’ based on the activity style and content of our political parties. Now I have undertaken a harder one, ‘Poghos Petros.’ I try to analyze and disclose as much as possible the developments of our social and political mind during at least the last two-three hundred years, to understand whether we learn from the mistakes of the past. My researches take me, surely, to even earlier times, to the eleventh and even the fifth century, which were years of collapse of the Armenian statehood. I cannot say that we have not learned anything, but on the other hand, our example permanently raises an objection against the ancient Greeks, who were naïve to say that it is impossible to enter the same river twice. In current times, our biggest achievement was the independent state, about which we dreamt for centuries, and our main task is the development and strengthening of that value, irreplaceable for every nation. This is a task in which we are hobbling today. In one word, the book is about roads that we have passed and will pass; I hope that I will succeed in putting my thoughts and my ideas in convincing artistic way.”
Hovhannes Saribekyan: “My priority is the preservation of the language.”
A cybernetics engineer and now a businessman, Hovhannes Saribekyan moved to Vilnius with his family in the 1990s. “Apparently, no one can say that he passed an easy way. Coming to a new country without anything, we had some difficulties. I think that everybody has gone through a tough way to reach something. When after the collapse of Soviet Union the former research institutes did not provide any work, I also started to engage in individual activities. In 1994-1995 I took my family to Lithuania. First I was engaged in shoes and souvenirs trade. Since 1996-1997 I work in the field of import-export of dyes. We have had our small production for 5-6 years. It was very difficult at time, but the situation changed over time. Since 2003, we have had our own warehouses and offices; a few years ago we built a modern office complex. Since 1998 we are engaged in import-export of dyes with Russia and Belarus. We are the MAF factory distributors in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, and for 20 years the MAF representative in whole Europe and the representative of German ‘Leinfiser’ firm in the Baltic states. The European sanctions have an interesting effect on us. We are in touch with opposing parties. In this sense we have certain progress with German production. Every year we are in touch with Armenia by assisting our friends and “Hayastan” all-Armenian Telethon. We tried to make investments in Armenia and opened a branch, but failed. Now I want to re-open the business in Yerevan and to enter the region through Belarus and German dyes.
I ask him how they maintain the Armenian identity. “The first years I felt physical pain, I remembered Ashtarak, Yerevan, my school and student years. We got slowly accustomed. My priority is the preservation of the language. My children do not speak the language 100 percent, but they speak well. We try to maintain Armenian habits. We visit Armenia frequently. Of course, our mentality has changed; we do not accept many things here, but we also dislike many things among Armenians.”
Serge Gyanjumyan: “Fashion is a form of self-realization.”
Designer Serge (Sergey) Gyanjumyan appeared in Lithuania due to circumstances. “I was born in Yerevan in 1985, graduated from the Polytechnic Institute, worked as an engineer for a year, and realized that it was not my field. However, I did not study design because there was no vacant at Fine Arts Institute. In 1987-1988 I went to Moscow and worked as a costume designer. I met famous designer Zaytsev, who liked my works, but he told me that the KGB had banned hiring representatives of national minorities and advised me to go to Baltic countries. I came to the Vilnius Academy, showed my paintings, and the rector said that even the head of their painting chair does not draw like me. He said that if I passed the exams they would admit me. I passed the exams, entered the Academy, and graduated in 1994. Simultaneously, I worked in a firm, making leather costumes. I had a collection named “Serge.” In 1992 I organized a show in Vienna, and in 1993, in Frankfurt. I attended men’s costume exhibitions in Paris (2000), Geneva (2001), Berlin (2005), and during this period I was in Vilnius. In 2002 we introduced our works in New York with a group of designers. My father and my sister live in the town of Ray Brook, in the United States. I presented my works four times in New York and twice in Paris. For the time being, I do not organize anything as it is too expensive and financially unreasonable.”
“Why did you choose fashion?”
“Fashion was not much advanced in Armenia, and I wanted to develop, that is why I chose this area. I was good in it. No one helped me. I observed, studied, and drew by myself. I could feel form well, as I had been good in drawing since my childhood. My teacher used to say that I would be a good sculptor or designer. I felt distance well.”
“What kind of self-expression fashion gives?”
“It is a good question. It is a form of self-realization. I think I feel the design in other way I feel. My thinking differs. I think beyond fashion.”
“Do they know your name as a brand?”
“Young people do not know as our peers do. The market is small. Customers would often also come from Riga and Moscow. But I do not invest for the promotion of my brand.”
“What are your plans?”
“In 2015 I will probably expose my collection in Vilnius and possibly also in Yerevan, within the frame of Armenian fashion week. What interests me is not only to deal with my work, but also participate in the work of big factories. There are cases when the product was labeled by my name or the name of the factory. For me that is fine. I want a large-scale job.”
Lavashas Armenas: The Lithuanian Footprint of the Armenian lavash
Yervand Jamharyan: Lavash means good job.
Yervand Zhamharyan is in Lithuania since 1994. A builder by profession, today he is one of the producers of Armenian bread (lavash), most popular in Lithuania.
“It was hard for the first few years, with no friends and no knowledge of language. It took a few years to get accustomed, but as long as we live her, more friends we find. Vilnius is an international city. There is no nationalism here. I do not think that we should be separated, just the opposite; the traditions of this nation should be respected.
First we opened a café. Those Lithuanians who know Armenia knew the lavash. I sent my wife to Armenia to study lavash baking. In 1999 we opened a lavash factory. We did not have a concern that if we wrote in Armenian it would not be sold. Baking lavash is a complicated technology. Our equipment was ordered by us. Only the water is not Armenian. We receive special bags for packing from Belgium. Our lavash lasts 12 days, without excessive surpluses; in the refrigerator lasts 30 days, and in the freezer, 2 years. On the package it is written “lavashas armenas.” I am the largest producer of lavash and sell in entire Lithuania. We also bake cookies: gata, baklava. The Turks entered the market and wanted to throw us out, but they could not succeed, because of low prices. The first two years we worked on making people getting used to lavash. In addition, we offer 150 recipes on our website to know what can be eaten with lavash. Now it has become common and is very convenient for receptions and banquets. Even students buy it. We produce 15-20 thousand pieces of lavash per day. The lavash is a brand. Lavash means good job. I have told stories about lavash and tried to lead a campaign that it was created by the Armenians and it should be on 70×40 cm. It is a classic lavash size.”
The Armenian-Lithuanian family: Ruslan Harutyunyan and Marite Kontrimaite
The Armenian-Lithuanian family of Ruslan Harutyunyan and Marite Kontrimaite is among the most famous in Lithuania. In the beginning of this writing, Ruslan Harutyunyan presented his work. We should add that he was born in Armenia in 1950; his parents were from Dilijan. He graduated from the Department of Mathematics of Yerevan State University. He met his future wife, Lithuanian Marite Kontrimaite, in the Yerevan State University dormitory. Ruslan Harutyunyan remembers: “Just in a few months, she got acquainted with Armenian culture, literature, and epic writings, making such an analysis, that I was surprised. At that time, even the figures of Armenian culture did not speak on such matters, but she did bold comments, comparing Armenia to other countries and presenting the Armenians in a positive way. We got married and had a baby; our first child, Vega, was born in Dilijan. After a year, I felt that people around Marite did not accept her, so we decided to move to Lithuania. I thought I would probably get accustomed. I was so emotionally connected to Armenia that to be here was something like an illness or an exile. Initially, even there were no contacts with local Armenians. In 1973, when we came here, there were some old Armenians that had settled here after the war. In 1988 the Karabakh movement began in Armenia, and the independence movement began here. I was active in these matters. The attitude towards Moscow was not so good. Marite participated in those meetings and provided lots of news about Armenia. Because the cultural ties between Armenia and Lithuania were active, we had information and spread it. We performed the role of mediators. We were deputies of assemblies of movements in Lithuania and Armenia. At that time there was no concept of a community. After the earthquake in Armenia, the need to create a community grew. In those days, I went to Armenia and we carried assistance to the earthquake zone. After my return, the community organization was established. I worked as a programmer mathematician, the head of department at the Institute of computers in Vilnius. Social activities were very detrimental to my main work.”
Marite Kontrimaite is not only an Armenologist, translator, and public figure, but also has a honorary doctorate from the Academy of Sciences of Armenia. In 2008-2012 she was the chairman of the Lithuanian Union of Journalists; she has worked in the Encyclopedia of Lithuania for many years, as well as in the Lithuanian Parliament. In 2015 she was awarded the “Grigor Narekatsi” medal of Ministry of culture of Armenia and granted the title of “Honored Person of Gyumri.”
In our conversation, she told me how she came to study the Armenian language in Armenia and after two years of marriage she moved to Vilnius with her mathematician husband Ruslan Harutyunyan and Dilijan-born daughter, Vega. She has published more than 200 articles in the Encyclopedia of Lithuania and numerous articles in Lithuanian media dedicated to Armenia and Karabakh; in 1993-1994 she was the editor of two issues of the “Armenia” newspaper, where she wrote about their activities in Lithuanian. She also played a major role in the establishment of links between the independence movements of Armenia and Lithuania and in the assistance to zones affected by the earthquake and to Karabakh. She has translated many works of Armenian literature, both poetry and prose; now she intends to translate Gurgen Mahari’s short novel, “Barbed Wires in Bloom.”
I asked how she managed to educate her daughters in an Armenian-Lithuanian family. Marite answers: “First I educated them as Lithuanian nationalists and then I began to introduce the Armenian subjects. They understand, speak, read and write Armenian: the older one, Vega, is better, because she wrote her master’s thesis in Armenia and spent a few months there. The younger one, Justina, did not learn to read and write, but we guided her to the Armenian music, as she was very capable and graduated from the school of talented children in Vilnius, and now she is studying theology in Austria. Justina has a great voice; after her admission exam, the tutors said that a new Gohar Gasparyan had come to them. First she learned to play piano, flute, and organ. After graduation, she worked as a teacher for several years. She began to learn Armenian religious songs (sharakans). I have translated them into Lithuanian, and she gave concerts. Now both my daughters have little children.”
Historian Vega Harutyunyan graduated from Vilnius University. Now she works as a touristic guide, and one of her tours is called “The Multinational Vilnius,” within of which she refers also to the Armenians.
Working with the Science and Encyclopedia Publishing Center, Vega wrote all the articles in the Lithuanian General Encyclopedia about Armenia and its history. Her article “The Armenians in Vilnius” (2007) is frequently cited by history professors. She also presented to Lithuanian historians the role of the first President of Armenia, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, in defense of the independence of Lithuania. Vega lists several articles that have historical significance. One of them is about the belts of Slutsk town (now in Belarus). Here the Armenian masters from Constantinople had established manufacturing under the patronage of Lithuanian princes. The belts produced were used by the aristocracy from Vilnius to Paris. The Armenians also included Lithuanian patriotic motives in their patterns.
I ask Vega how her children are connected with Armenian identity. She replies that she has three children; the last of them was born this year. The elders know where Armenia is and what their connection with Armenians is, but they do not speak Armenian. “I think that the Armenian children’s camp in Lithuania will help them learn more about the Armenian culture, song and dance, and will help them to find new Armenian friends. Sunday school and visits to Armenia will also help in this,” she says.
Vega also notes that more than a hundred articles were published in the Lithuanian press about the Armenians during World War I. The articles by Juozas Laurušas are exceptional in this regard. He introduced the Armenian literature of the nineteenth century in detail and expressed solidarity with Christian Armenian victims in the Lithuanian clandestine media of 1864-1904. Lithuanian intellectuals have always been connected to their homeland, subjugated and divided between Prussia and Russia. They always compared this with Armenia’s division between other countries.
Nevertheless, she says, even today many Lithuanians do not know that in 2005 Lithuania recognized the Armenian Genocide.
Hasmik Grigoryan: “The greatest education is love.”
Hasmik Grigoryan, a famous soprano in Lithuania, is the daughter of two opera singers, Gegham Grigorian and Irena Milkevičiūtė.
In 1999 she graduated from the vocal department of the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theater. She also studied in Nice (France). She won the Lithuanian Golden Cross twice (in 2005 and 2010); in 2010 she was also recognized as the “Creator of the year.” Her role of Violetta from “La Traviata,” performed in Vilnius Opera in 2005, brought her fame. She has also sung in Yerevan and Riga. She performed her best roles at Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg: Desdemona (“Othello”), Prilepa (“The Sleeping Queen”), Violetta (“La Traviata”), Michaela (“Carmen”), Cio Cio San (“Madama Butterfly”), and Liu (“Turandot”). She gave numerous concerts in Lithuania and abroad together with the Lithuanian State Symphony Orchestra, the String Quartet, and the Chamber Music Orchestra. In 2009-2011 she worked at the Lithuanian National Opera and in 2006 she had made her debut at the famous Wigmore Hall in London and at the Bolshoi Theater of Moscow. In 2011-2012 she worked at the Graz Opera in Austria, then returned to Vilnius in 2012-2013 and worked at the Cologne Opera in Germany in 2013-2014. In 2014 she sang the role of Judith in Antwerp and Ghent, and appeared in various performances in St. Petersburg, Graz, Hamburg, and Munich. In 2015 she performed in the Berlin Comedy Theatre, the Komische Oper, and in Wiesbaden.
“It was my father’s dream that I became a musician since my childhood, so he sent me to piano classes. My parents got divorced when I was only one and a half years old. So, I do not remember them together, but they both have always been by my side and each one has their own way of education. I even have two names in my life: my father calls me Hasmik, my mother – Asta. I have a son, Noah. Unfortunately, I am divorced, but we have a good relationship with my ex-husband and we do our utmost to give our best to our son. The greatest education is love.”
“You were born in an Armenian-Lithuanian family. But you manage to speak Armenian living in Lithuania. How did you manage this?”
“I owe that to my father. I have not learned Armenian anywhere, I cannot read, but I am glad that at least I can speak Armenian, although sometimes with difficulties.”
“What is Armenian in you and what is Lithuanian?”
“I think that, as an individual, I am more Armenian than Lithuanian, even though I am educated in Lithuania. I love the Armenian warmth and Lithuanian symbolism. Lithuania loves me, and I love her. I was born here, I grew up here. I have almost no relations with the community, at least as much as they would have desired. But I must say that in my hardest moments community head Arayik Tunyan supported me.”
“How you manage to keep your Armenian identity?”
“By respecting my ancestors, myself, loving my country, its air, and soil.”
“As far as I know you also studied in Italy.”
“I studied in Italy for a year. I got a good musical education. I play the piano since age 5. I specialized in choir conduction, and when I was 17 years old I started to sing. Touring in different countries is characteristic to our work. My songs are in Russian, Italian, French, German and even Czech. I love Dvořak. I consider his Rusalka one of my best roles. I do not have concerts frequently in Yerevan, but I have been there for few times and I have sang in “Anush” and “La Traviata.”
The future of Armenians in Lithuania
“What is the future for the community?” This question is answered by physician Karen (Karapet) Babayan.
“The future is good. Young people have a different level; they are educated, speak several languages, and accept themselves as locals. Young people can travel to other countries and the European Universities will accept them. Europe is strong and has values. The children of rich people of Armenia and Russia also study at European universities, in Oxford or Cambridge. Europe also provides stability. If we do not integrate into Europe, we will lose a market of 500 millions. I have been here for 30 years and I represent Lithuania in various scientific conferences. This is a very polite and developed country. They make very accurate decisions. I do not feel like an immigrant here. Every second person greets me. Knowing me, they change their attitude towards Armenia. They know that I am a foreigner, but at the same time, they respect me. ….The Armenian community is in a very good condition. Here we all came from the Soviet Union, we are of the same age and we have the same mentality. People from independent Armenia are different. Their mentality is different,” he says.
Karen Babayan’s words prove my personal impression. Today in Lithuania a new generation of young people is growing up with higher education, fluent in several languages, understanding their role in Diaspora, and determined to act. They should be just encouraged and organized, and also be provided a field of activity: they will do the rest by themselves.
Ruzanna Katinienė (Grigoryan), the assistant of a deputy of Lithuania in the European Parliament and a 34-year-old resident of a small Utena town, thinks in the same way. Her parents moved from Kirovabad (Azerbaijan) to the Lithuanian city of Visaginas in 1981. As she said in her interview to the Krunk (“Crane”) Baltic magazine (Riga), she married Lithuanian Osvaldas Katinas, moved to his native town, and helped her husband’s party to participate in the European Parliament elections. “My mother was a housewife, and my father, a laborer; they had no connections, but they always taught me to believe in my own capacities. My hard work and diligence resulted in two degrees in higher education and 13 years of experience in management, policy, and finance sectors. I think that my example will inspire Baltic Armenians in order to fulfill their dreams and desires. We are a very old, talented and industrious nation. We should just desire, and everything could be achieved by our own capacities,” Ruzanna says.