Latvia has always distinguished itself from the other countries of the Baltic area. Since the independence of the 1990s, after 25 years, Latvia presents itself in a more European appearance. Much has changed here, but one thing has remained the same: tolerance. Although Armenian traces are not so old here, yet they are stable and show trends of development.
The Armenians appeared in Latvia at the end of the nineteenth century. According to reports, 49 Armenians lived in the province of Livonia (Vidzeme) in 1897; thirty-six were in Riga, while fourteen had settled in the neighboring province of Curlandia. Their number had climbed to 121 in 1913. They belonged both to the Armenian Apostolic and Catholic churches. Those Armenian merchants mostly came to Latvia from the Ottoman Empire, Iran and Russia.
A group of Armenian students studied at the Riga Polytechnic Institute in the 1900s, including famous revolutionary Stepan Shahumyan, who studied chemistry in 1900-1902. However, he was unable to graduate because he was expelled due to his creation of a Marxist group and his revolutionary activities. As the editor of the “Ararat” magazine of Riga, Alexandre Geronian, says in an interview with me, unlike the revolutionaries, the “Sevan” Union of Armenian Students, established in 1887, had a more nationalistic direction. Many of its members were affiliated to the Armenian Revolutionary Federation. During the First World War, many of them left their studies and returned to Armenia to fight the Turks.
The first Armenian cultural figures appeared in Riga at the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1920-1940, when Latvia was an independent state, the Caucasus Union was established, formed by people from Armenia and Georgia. Anahit Jurgenson and Alexander Asriyants were co-chairpersons; among the members were Grigor Belikyants, a trader of dyes; Sarkis Elbek, the owner of a trading house owner; Vera Sosieva, and businessman Georgi Shakhnazarov. The most famous Armenian was perhaps HelēnaTangijeva-Birzniece, a ballet dancer and teacher, and later the general ballet master of the Latvian National Opera and Ballet Theater. The Armenians were also proud of their compatriot Yuri Yurovski (Sarukhanov), a Russian drama theater actor and teacher. In 1933 many Armenians from Tiflis were members of the Georgian Union of Latvia.
After Latvia was annexed to the USSR, many rich Armenians were considered class enemies and exiled to Siberia. Among them was Petros Arabkertsiyants, the director of the “Deka” leather factory, well-known in Latvia. He had received his education in Berlin and moved to Latvia in 1923. His large family was sent to Siberia along with him.
After World War II, General Hovhannes Baghramyan lived in Riga. In the postwar period, he stayed as the commander of the Baltic Military District. In 1954 he was appointed General Inspector of the Ministry of Defense and in 1955 he was Deputy Minister of Defense of USSR and became Soviet Union Marshal.
New Armenian community of Latvia
The Armenian national cultural organization, called Latvian Armenian Union, was established in 1988 with the aim of bringing together local Armenians, preserving national traditions, and introducing the Armenian culture in Latvia. The Riga community of the Armenian Apostolic Church was founded in 1993, and the construction of the St. Gregory the Illuminator church began in 1997. It was finished in 2002.
In 1959 the number of Armenians in Latvia had reached 1,060, and became 3,070 in 1989. According to the priest, Father Khosrov, there used to be 6,000 Armenians in Latvia and now the number has lowered to a little over 2,000. During the years of economic crisis, many Armenians left Latvia. According to Mkhitar Mkhitaryan, chairman of the Armenian Church Parish Board, although the number of Armenians reaches 3,000, only 1,500 are active. Editor Alexandre Geronian says that 80 per cent of Armenians live in Riga, while the rest lives in Liepaja, Jurmala, Jelgava, Ventspils, Daugavpils, Valmiera, and other cities. They are engineers, teachers, public health employees, industry leaders, government employees, businessmen, musicians and artists. In the Soviet years, however, Armenians did not have a community structure, and they only managed to register an Armenian community organization during the perestroika period.
The founding congress of the Armenian Society of Latvia (ASL) took place at the Moscow House of Riga (former Culture House of Railway Employees) on November 30, 1988. Professor Suren Gasparyan, a specialist of international studies and Ph.D. in Economics, was elected as the first president of this organization. The organization was later headed by musician Raffi Kharajanian; businessmen Norbert Sover and YeghisheHarutyunyan, lawyers Suren Vardanyan and Hrayr Hambardzumyan, and engineer Spartak Ter-Avetisyan. The organization was once again headed in 1999-2001 by Professor and Doctor of Arts Raffi Kharajanian, who in 2008 changed the name of the ASL into Armenian Cultural Center of Latvia. It has been registered as Armenian Cultural Center of Latvia since, with Raffi Kharajanian and Hasmik Nurijanyan as co-chairpersons.
In 2001 a group of Armenians split from the organization and created the Armenian Union of Riga (AUR), headed in different years by businessmen Gitun Baghdasaryan, Arthur Isakhanov, and Arno Ter-Saakov, as well as journalists Valery Ter-Ovanesov and Alexandre Geronian. Now the head of the Armenian Union of Riga is Arno Ter-Saakov, who heads the “Alida Tūrs” travel agency. He participated twice in the Saeima elections as part of the “Best for Latvia” Latvian organization and received the support of the Armenian community. In 2010 he climbed Mount Ararat with the Armenian flag on the 20th anniversary of the independence of Armenia. Arno was born in 1970 in Riga and is an engineer, with a doctorate in sciences.
The Armenian community representatives participated actively not only in the Forum of Nationalities of Latvia, but also in the Congress of Armenian communities of the USSR, organized in 1989 in Simferopol. Alexandre Geronian says that the 1988 earthquake of Spitak and the Karabakh war unified the community. “Armenians were not only sending money to Armenia, but also humanitarian aid: some builders left to the earthquake zone. They received children from Armenia and accommodated them in resorts and sanatoriums of Cīrulīšu and Jurmala,” he says.
The first spring-monument in Latvia, made of Armenian tuff, was installed in Cīrulīšu in 1989. The following year, a cross-stone made of tuff was installed in the Basteja square of Riga (sculpted by Samvel Muradyan) on April 24, 1990, dedicated to the victims of Armenian Genocide and the earthquake of Spitak. A beautiful architectural complex was later built in the neighborhood of the cross-stone. In 2010 another cross-stone was erected in the yard of the Armenian church in Riga “in memory of the deceased.” “All those who left their deceased in Armenia can come and pray at the cross-stone,” the religious leader of Latvian Armenians, Father Khosrov, says.
Ara Ayvazyan, Armenian Ambassador in Latvia, says: “During the 25 years of independence of Baltic countries, connections were established between the newly formed communities and Armenia-Diaspora relations developed due to joint efforts, while Latvia distinguished itself by the fact that the local community built an Armenian church.”
During a meeting with His Holiness Garegin II on December 11, 2009, Latvian President Valdis Zatlers thanked him and said: “The Armenians, as loyal citizens of Latvia, contribute to the development of the country.”
The “Havatk” (Faith) Armenian Union was founded on February 1, 2002. According to Spartak Ter-Avetisyan, its chairman, the organization presented the Armenian culture and history in European countries. Its activity includes conferences, newspaper and book publishing, celebrations of Armenian heroes and national holidays, and cooperation with various international organizations. “Havatk” is in closely collaboration with the Fridtjof Nansen Foundation of Norway. As a result of their joint efforts, a stone cross was erected in Bergen in 2007. “As a result of our collaboration with NGOs from Nordic countries (Norway, Sweden, and Denmark), we were able to present our national culture in these countries through brilliant performances of talented young musicians from Artsakh. The St. Virgin church, built in Stockholm, the Swedish capital, by the joint effort of us and the local Assyrian community, has become a stimulus for Armenian-Assyrian brotherly relations,” he says.
“Unfortunately, people in the Riga community do not participate actively in holidays. Indifference among Armenians does not allow for large-scale events. In 1990-1991 the Armenian community of Latvia had about 4,500 members; there were four Armenian societies, one magazine and one newspaper, and a school with 3 classes and 55 pupils. Some 2,200 people remain today,” Ter-Avetisyan says. And according to Father Khosrov about 300-400 Armenians participate in church holydays.
Armenians in Latvia have founded a Backgammon Federation and organized an open backgammon tournament in Riga, with the participation of foreigners. They also organized chess tournaments, one of which was dedicated to the 90th anniversary of Armenian chess player Vladimir Bagirov, who has lived in Latvia.
According to Alexandre Geronian, “The Armenians who came in 1970-1980smaintained family friendship and organized meetings. When the community structures started to be set in the 1990s, the Armenians were also divided into two groups: internationalists and supporters of the National Front. At the meetings they were adamant to speak only Armenian, not Russian. Maybe that was the reason that, if the first meeting was attended by about 500 people, the following meetings never had so many participants. The community life is based on the enthusiasm of an active sector. Many people travel to European countries and America, especially young people. Those coming from Armenia get in touch with their relatives for work. What remains here is an amorphous mass. They gather at the church in Christmas and Easter, play backgammon, drink coffee. Children participate in the sport contest of ethnic minorities every year.”
In 2013 the Armenian community of Latvia celebrated the 100th anniversary of Nelson Stepanyan, the military pilot and double Hero of the Soviet Union, who perished in the airspace of this Baltic republic on December 14, 1944 during World War II. A conference devoted to Nelson Stepanyan was held in Moscow House in Riga. The hero’s remains are buried in the port city of Liepaja. His statue, erected in Liepaja in Soviet Times, was dismantled after the collapse of Soviet Union and moved to Kaliningrad.
Among the well-known Armenians of Latvia were also tailor John Kosoyan; swimmer Arsen Miskarov, who competed in the 1980 Summer Olympics; physician Natalia Baghramyan, granddaughter of Marshal Baghramyan’s uncle; dentist Dmitry Petrosyan, who heads the Tetarium firm; and physicians Maria Khachikyan, Georgy Stepanyan, and Georgy Vardanyan. who have moved to London. Violinist H. Nalbandyan has also left Riga. Nelly Sarkisyan is a violinist of the Symphonic Orchestra of Latvia and also teaches at the EmīlsDārziņšMusic School. The names of lawyers Yuri Sahakyan and Atom Khachatryan, and engineer Eduard Asaturyan, businessman Robert Hovhannisyan are also known in Latvia.
The Armenian Church
The construction of St. Gregory the Illuminator Church in Riga began in 1997. The current space was privatized and transferred to the Armenian Apostolic Church by the Ter-Saakov family. The pastor of St. Gregory the Illuminator Church was Markos vardapet Hovhannisyan; he was succeeded by Father Khosrov Stepanyan in 2005. The construction of the church was finished during the latter’s tenure. The church was consecrated by Catholicos of All Armenians Garegin II on June 30, 2011.
Mkhitar Mkhitaryan, who has been the chairman of the parish council of the Armenian Apostolic Church of Latvia since 2012, is the manager of the “Baltikov” egg production company, the largest in the Baltic countries. He graduated from the Stepanavan boarding school, where he studied for eight years, and then moved to Georgia. He has lived in Riga since 1985; he graduated from the Faculty of Law and initially worked as a lawyer, but after independence he entered the business world and now manages “Baltikov,” considered one of the largest egg producers of Eastern Europe. They also have an energy research institute, which works mainly on orders from Russia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
Mkhitaryan links the development of the community with the existence of the Armenian Apostolic Church, because, according to him, there is finally a gathering place, where they are able to meet each other, communicate, and maintain ties with compatriots.
“Communication and faith are the most important things. You should go to the church even if you do not like the Armenian standing next to you,” he says. “The main problem of Armenians is that they should have faith. They should learn the history of church. Only church can unite Armenians,” Mkhitar Mkhitaryan says.
“The Armenians have no other choice; they should study, and wherever they live, they should be better than the locals. We try to instill them this idea through the church too. We built a new church in Riga after the Soviet era. No other nation has built here a church,” Mkhitaryan says.
I ask him whether his children speak Armenian. “My daughter does not speak well; my nephew lives with us and he speaks good Armenian. I do not speak good Latvian myself, but the new generation should be well aware of the new language, other than English. I am always ready to help in learning. We should take an example of the Jews. We do not have any other choice.”
About the community, he thinks the potential of young people is bigger and they are more open.
The Armenian priest of Latvia and the Baltic states, Father Khosrov, says: “I was appointed as parish priest for Latvian Armenians in 2005. We belong to the Diocese of Nor Nakhijevan in Russia. I was appointed by Archbishop Yezras; I came here from the city of Kirov, in the Kirov region. Incidentally, my maternal grandmother was writer Ghazaros Aghayan’s granddaughter.” The priest shows some of Aghayan’s personal belongings.
“When I came here, there were 4-5 communities that had nothing to do with each other and that they were actually disturbing each other. The church became the leader of those communities; it took a year to get familiarized with the people. The church was open even during construction. One time, when we gathered to discuss how long the construction of the church would take, people basically agreed on 7 years. The walls were erected, but left unfinished. I said that they did not know for what act of heroism they are ready. Construction was finished in one year and two months in 2008, and His Holiness consecrated our church in 2011.”
Father Khosrov said that the Armenian community was integrated in the last decades, but not assimilated. “I can happily say that the church land was purchased for 160,000 dollars during the mandate of the Latvian former president. The land was bought by Edward Ter-Saakov. The church benefactors were Vachagan Poghosyan, Aram Avetisyan, Sergey Avetisyan, Arthur Isakhanov, Sergei Isakhanov, Robert Hovhannisyan, Pavel Sayadov, Mkhitar Mkhitaryan, Ara Davoyan, Artak Danielyan, Artur Antonyan. The work was supervised by Vachagan Sakanyan. Spartak Ter-Avetisyan was in charge of the church building.”
“I told everyone: if you want to help us, please, just do not disturb us. I started everything from scratch. Twice a month I offer a service in Riga and once a month I travel to Estonia and Lithuania.”
The school and the knowledge of Armenian
An Armenian Sunday school was founded in Riga in 1989. Hasmik Baghdasaryan was in charge of the school in 1989-1995. The number of children subsequently reduced, and the school was closed.
The “Ghazaros Aghayan” Sunday school began its operations in 2010 attached to the St. Gregory the Illuminator church. Russians and Latvians who have family ties with Armenians also study there. Through the Armenian language, they try to be close to the Armenians. In the ground hall of the Church, men play backgammon and hold Armenian language and dance classes. The school is led by the priest’s wife, Liana Kirakosyan. The Armenian language teacher is Susanna Petrosyan. There is an eight-people choir.
Susanna Petrosyan worked as a teacher in Armenia. She came to Latvia in 1994. “At first, I was missing Armenia, but now I have adapted. Many people came and left, they could not adapt themselves, but I stayed. We have two classrooms, three age groups, and a dance group consisting of six people,” Susanna says.
“I live near Jurmala, and I teach handmade works in the Latvian school. Every week I come to Riga to teach the children. Our children know at least four or five languages,” proudly says the teacher. “I have lived a community life for twenty years. We are a very poor community, they do not help us,” she says. At the school, the beginners are taught the letters, and those who have a good level write, read, and tell stories.
Lusine Tumanyan also learns Armenian. She was born in Kirovakan (currently –Vanadzor); at age 3 her parents moved to Riga. Her brother plays duduk and currently serves in the Armenian army. Initially she only spoke Russian, but now she also speaks Armenian. She is in the eleventh grade of the secondary school; she wishes to study at the medical university and then return to Armenia.
Nina Zilabyan was born in Riga. Her mother is Russian, but attends classes of Armenian. Nina is a second year university student and studies finance and economy. She is a member of the Armenian dance group, along with other young people. Nina believes that if you know what you want, then you will get everything.
In the book “Children of the Diaspora,” published in 2007 in Riga, eight-year-old Arianna Khachaturyan made the following comment in Russian: “I was born and raised in Latvia. I speak very good Latvian and Russian. I am also learning English. But I consider Armenian my native language. At home, my mom and dad speak only Armenian. We have to preserve the native language. If we do not speak Armenian, the language will die as a living being, which has been forgotten.”
The “Luys” (Light) informative bulletin in Russian was published in Riga in 1989. The first issue of the “Ararat” newspaper, also in Russian, was published in 1991, but was stopped afterwards. When the Riga Armenian community was founded in 2001, the publication of “Ararat” was resumed under the editorship of Alexandre Geronian. The newspaper has been published in the past as a monthly and distributed for free with the help of sponsors. Now the situation is not so good, and the newspaper is published four or five times a year. Since 2014 Geronian also edits the “Krunk” (Crane) magazine in Russian, published several times a year to summarize the events of the Armenian communities in the three Baltic states. The magazine is published as an organ of the Armenian Congress of the Baltics. However, again due to financial difficulties, only three issues have been published.
Alexandre Geronian settled in Riga in 1986. He moved from Baku to Yerevan, where he worked in the “Komsomolets” newspaper. In Latvia he also publishes the “Our Generation” newspaper for children in Russian. He is also the author of two books: “Children of Diaspora” and “Armenia.” The book “Children of Diaspora” is an attempt to link the new generation of Latvian Armenians to Armenia. It includes some excerpts from essays of Latvian Armenian children describing how they imagine their ancestral homeland. Their warmth and sincerity towards Armenian culture and Armenia is obvious. The book is illustrated with drawings of those children that depict Armenia. It also contains Geronian’s memories about how he was formed as an Armenian, along with the writings of children.
Since 2012 the news on Latvian Armenians are also published on the website www.karap.lv (in Russian, Armenian and English), maintained by Raffi Kharajanian and Hasmik Nurijanyan. Hasmik is also the correspondent of the Yerevan-based Russian newspaper “Golos Armenii” (Voice of Armenia) in the Baltic countries.
The “Arevik” (Little Sun) 30-minute Armenian radio program has been monthly broadcasted by “Dom Square” Latvian radio channel since 2008. The program was founded by Raffi Kharajanian; the author is Hasmik Nurijanyan. They run the program together in Armenian and Russian and make interviews, focusing on cultural news. They run live talks with listeners in Armenian and Russian, complementing each other. “We dedicate a whole program to the genocide in April, we broadcast news on Armenians from the world, festivals, and community activities,” Hasmik says. The program is also available on Internet: http://lr4.lsm.lv/lv/lr4/peredachi/peredachi-nacionalnih-kulturnih-obschestv/
On April 24, 2005 the “Havatk” Union published a magazine with the same name, whose first issue was fully dedicated to the 90th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. As the founder, Spartak Ter-Avetisyan says that, because of financial difficulties, the magazine was published until January 2008. The monthly publication has been now indefinitely suspended. The editor-in-chief was Irina Ter-Tachatyan. The magazine was mainly focused on the construction of the Riga church and various subjects of Armenian history and the Armenian Genocide. Spartak was among those who spearheaded the construction of the church.
Some Armenian-born journalists work in Latvian media. The names of Angela Gasparyan and Karen Margaryan are known among them.
Journalist Angela Gasparyan worked in the social and political department of the Latinfo state news agency, a branch of TASS. After working for six or seven years, she moved to Jurmala, where she worked in local newspapers and on television, and she is now in the “Business Class” magazine. She is a member of the Union of Journalists of Soviet Union and Latvia, and a member of the “Svetoch” literary union; she writes poems and short stories, and has published books. Her collection of short stories “Have You Ordered a Woman?” in Russian may be read in one shot.
“I was born in Riga. My father was a military doctor; he was sent here to work in 1946. My mother was from Baku. My father went there and married her. My parents used to speak the Armenian typical of Baku Armenians, and when we moved to Yerevan in the third year of university, I tried not to speak in that way and use literary Armenian. Anyway, I was told that my Armenian is kind of ‘sweet’,” she says.
“I started writing on Armenian subjects when I was working in the “Jurmala” newspaper. We formed a team in our newspaper and went to Yerevan for writing about the earthquake, the culture, and Karabakh. One issue of the newspaper was completely dedicated to Armenia. The Azerbaijanis came out against us. Later, in the mid-1990s, I wrote an article about Armenia titled ‘The Bitter Word of Freedom,’ which was very sad,” Angela shares her thoughts.
“I do not know how much I preserved my Armenian identity, but in my younger years I wanted to move to Yerevan, yet my parents were against that. My father was an honorary doctor in Latvia. But even then, they changed the apartment and we moved to Yerevan, where I graduated from the university. I felt my Armenian identity very strongly. We have changed over the years. Now we are accustomed to the European average identity. My son Sergey does not have any Armenian feelings yet. I guess it is my fault. So far he wants to travel to Armenia by motorbike,” Angela continues.
I ask her about the attitude of Latvians toward the Armenians. “By the 1990s it was OK, but in the beginning of the independence they were not so good. When you defend everything Latvian, they like you,” Angela says. Regarding the Armenians, she thinks that they do not like to live in peace; always some problems come up and they need to work collectively.
Armenian-Latvian relations have their origin at the end of the nineteenth century. Several stories of Armenian prose writers Vrtanes Papazian and Raffi were translated into Latvian. Janis Rainis, the great Latvian poet, made translations from Armenian poetry and wrote articles on the history of Armenia and the Genocide. A number of Armenians studied in the universities of Riga, while some Latvian students studied in Yerevan. Latvian art critic Inguna Kurcens lived in Yerevan for some time and worked at the National Gallery of Armenia and Yervand Kochar’s museum, also contributing to Armenian media. She defended her Ph. D. thesis on Minas Avetisyan (published in 2014 in Yerevan, in Russian) in Saint Petersburg. Kurcens has lived in the Latvian city of Alūksne since 2000. On the 1700th anniversary of the adoption of Christianity as state religion in Armenia, Anna Galstyan’s book, “The Loving Virgins of the Lord,” was translate by Valda Salmiņa into Latvian.
Latvian conductor Aleksandrs Viļumanis conducted the performance of Aram Khachaturian’s ballet “Gayane” at the Riga Opera and Ballet Theater in 1976, with Khachaturian present at the premiere. In 2002 the Latvian and Armenian televisions broadcasted the film “A Road to the Church,” shot by Latvian filmmakers on a script by Raffi Kharajanian about the Latvian Armenian community and their connections with Armenia.
The collection of poems “Presents,” by Sweden-based Latvian poet and translator Juris Kronberg, was published in 2008 in Yerevan, translated by Gohar Aslanyan. In 2008 the tales of Imants Ziedonis were published in Naira Khachatryan’s Armenian translation. A Latvian-Armenian phrasebook by Valda Salmiņa and Klara Aslanian was published in 2002. Valda has also engaged in linguistics and written a book about how Armenian names should be written in Latvian. In 2010 she published “My Heart’s in the Highlands” by William Saroyan in Latvian. After becoming a graduate of Yerevan State University, Valda started to translate “The Book of Lamentations” by Grigor Narekatsi into Latvian. The Latvian Cultural Foundation financed her translation project for four years, and Salmiņa has published twelve chapters of Narekatsi’s work in Latvian in several magazines.
In 2015 “The Sandcastle Girls,” the novel about the Armenian Genocide by famous American-Armenian writer Chris Bohjalian, was published in Latvian, translated by Yerevan-based Latvian translator Ilze Paegle-Mkrtcjana.
Economic and cultural relations have recently developed between both countries. On November 18, 2015 the Minister of Culture of Armenia and the Ambassador of Latvia signed an “Agreement about the cooperation between the Ministry of Culture of Latvia and Ministry of Culture and Youth Affairs of Armenia for 2015-2018.”
Ara Ayvazyan, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Armenia in Latvia, comments on the current state of Armenian-Latvian relations: “They year 2015 was marked by preparation activities for Latvia’s presidency at the European Union, which culminated in the 4th Summit of the Eastern Partnership in Riga on May 21-22. We have recorded developments in political, parliamentary, economic and other relations with Latvia. In recent years, mutual visits of ministers of foreign affairs and political consultations between foreign ministries have become regular. In 2013 Riga hosted the first session of the Armenian-Latvian intergovernmental commission; the following session took place in late 2015, in Yerevan. The inter-parliamentary ties have also become active: in 2013 the head of the National Assembly of Armenia paid an official visit to Latvia; in 2014 two vice speakers of the Latvian Saeima were in Yerevan, while in March 2015 the Vice President of the National Assembly of Armenia visited the three Baltic states. Our cooperation is gradually expanding in other fields, such as science and education, culture, public health and others.”
To my question “How the Latvians treat the Armenians?,” Alexandre Geronian answers: “Generally well, since we are both small nations and they do not show arrogance. When the Karabakh movement began, they were proud of Armenia and showed respect for us.”
The Armenian Genocide issue and Latvia
In 2009 the Latvian Saeima unanimously passed the Armenian genocide draft resolution in its first reading. However, it was said at the Saeima that the text was too long. It was sent to commission, and thus the resolution has remained untouched for five years. Raffi Kharajanian says that the Latvians said that, since the Zurich protocols had been adopted, every decision could hinder their implementation. But this resolution has remained dormant until now.
On May 27, 2005 the international conference “The Armenian Genocide: A Look from the 21st Century” took place in Riga. The reports have been published as a separate book. The Latvian-Russian bilingual volume “1915” was published on the 90th anniversary of the Genocide in 2005.
Each year, various events, demonstrations or vigils are also organized. A large exhibition dedicated to the Centennial of the Armenian Genocide was organized at the National Library of Latvia in 2015.
The Armenian art professionals
Well-known Armenian artists live and work in Latvia, including Ashot Partizpanyan, Garush Hakobyan, Hrayr Avetyan, Varuj Karapetyan, Babken Stepanian, Alexander Stepanian, Yelena Akopian, Levon Ohandjanyan, Lendrik and Arthur Hakobyan, A. Tonoyan, Gregory Lalayants, Gevorg Mkrtchyan, Karine Paronjanc, etc. Their works are exhibited in various galleries.
Babken Stepanian, for example, presents his collage works in the well-known ANITEX exhibition hall. Alexander Stepanian is also featured here. The works of both artists are often exhibited together. Babken Stepanian, a master of structured collage, was born in 1953 in Yerevan and moved to Riga in 1983. He first studied at the Saryan College and then graduated from the Polytechnic Institute. In Armenia he worked in the area of industrial architecture, while in Latvia he has worked in various institutions. He is a member of the Artists’ Union of Latvia. He considers visual and mathematical conceptualism his direction in art. Having four children from his five marriages, Babken nevertheless manages to maintain his creative zeal. He speaks Armenian at home with his son Martin. His elder son Vazgen, 35, has joined him from Yerevan. He is a designer, deals with mandalas (“circle,” in Sanskrit), and is going to publish a book. Incidentally, popular movie star Richard Gere is counted among the buyers of Babken’s works.
Alexander Stepanian was born in 1949 in Azerbaijan. He has lived in Riga since 1966. He graduated from the architectural department of the Riga Polytechnic Institute and in 1979 from the department of design of the Latvian Academy of Arts. Along with Babken Stepanyan, he is a member of the “Free Art” group of Riga. He is also a member of the Artists’ Union of Latvia, has had numerous exhibitions, and his paintings are in various collections around the world. His works created from motives by Gustav Klimt are especially known. He is mainly a landscape painter.
The Karapetian cultural family
Fifty-six-year-old noted painter Varuzh Karapetian settled in Riga with his family in the 1980s. Our meeting took place in the Armenian church of Riga, whose stained-glass windows have been created by Varuzh. He has specialized in several areas: landscape, still life, portrait, and thematic composition. He also works in monumental art: mural, encaustic painting, stained-glass painting, and artistic design of glass. The album “Varuzh” is a vivid manifestation of this. He has had numerous solo exhibitions in Latvia and abroad, and his works are in private collections around the world. Varuzh first graduated from the Gyumri Fine Arts College and the Panos Terlemezyan College of Yerevan in the 1970s, and later graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Riga. He settled in Riga to continue his education. His wife Hasmik Baghdasaryan says: “After we got married, we came to Latvia in 1982. Varuzh entered the monumental painting department of the Latvian Art Academy. We thought we would return after 6-7 years, but it did not happen: first, because of the earthquake; afterwards, the Soviet Union collapsed and destroyed all our plans. We began to plan from scratch, although we wished to go back to Armenia in heart and soul. Now we can say that we are adapted, but still we will return.”
“In a way I am satisfied with my career, I can freely create here.” Varuzh says, “My friends treat me very well, I have no problem in being involved. I have not noticed any discrimination. During my studies at the Art Academy of Latvia they treated me very well. They listened to Komitas at the Academy, and they knew Narekatsi, who is a saint of all saints for the Latvians. Later, I was very close with Latvian poet Māris Čaklais. Our joint book on the 800th anniversary of Riga was published by state sponsorship in 2000, including Māris’ poems and my paintings. He said that he came back from Armenia recharged, refreshed, excited… He loved Armenia very much.”
In Riga, Hasmik specialized in psychology of the arts. I ask her how she would characterize the emotional state of Armenians. She answers: “We Armenians are an anxious people, a self-centered nation, especially males. The latter issue is more serious and deep and is a particular topic. The Armenians who came with us in the 1980s have adopted the European peace and morals over the years; they are more balanced, see Armenia better from the distance with its advantages and shortcomings. A lot of criticisms may be said about the community, but there are also good things. At the time, I was in charge of the Armenian school (from 1989-1995). It was the first Sunday school of the most established national minority school in Latvia. After the church was built, Father Markos came and strengthened it, and then Father Khosrov came and made it move forward. However, in my opinion, the subject of global pan-Armenian church building needs a very serious consideration.”
Their daughter Knarik is a viola player; she graduated from the London Royal Academy of Music and has a specialization of master violist. Still in her student years, she had given concerts at Carnegie Hall, Albert Hall and many other famous concert halls along with the European Youth Symphony Orchestra. Now she lives and works in London, and gives concerts around the world.
Their son Aik (Hayk) Karapetian, 32-year-old, is a noted film director. He was warmly welcomed by the Latvian film after his first film and his direction of an opera performance. Aik studied at Russian school and graduated from the Latvian Academy of Arts and the Latvian Academy of Culture. He also studied in Paris Film Academy (ESEC). “My first film, ‘People Out There,’ in Russian language, is about the youth. The next one is a horror movie, ‘M.O.Zh.,’ which was also received with positive reviews. I will soon start shooting my third film. Except for ‘M.O.Zh,’ my other two films have been funded by the state. Now, at the same time, I work on staging the opera “Faust” at the Latvian National Opera,” Aik says. His first film was shown at fifteen film festivals, including Karlovy Vary, Golden Apricot, and Gothenburg international film festivals. He received the Best Director award at the Baltic Sky Film Festival. In 2007 he received the top award of the year, “Big Kristap Prize,” for his first short film “Disgust.” His horror film “M.O.Zh” had more success in America, where it was considered one of the best horror movies of the year. I ask him how he sees his future. “I am a Latvian film director, but I am an Armenian. The cinema has characteristics that you cannot work out in one country only. I will shoot wherever it will be possible to work, including Armenia. The future will show it,” Aik answers. In 2011 he stage Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” at the Riga Opera and Ballet Theatre. It has been recognized as the best opera of the year and is in repertoire until now. Aik was also recognized as the Best Director of the year and won the audience prize. He staged Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” at the Latvian National Theatre.
The most famous Armenian of Latvia: Raffi Kharajanyan
Raffi Kharajanyan is probably the most famous Armenian of Latvia. He is known by Latvians, Armenians, and other nationalities. He has been not only engaged in the Armenian community, but he also led the National Association of Minorities for 25 years. He was re-elected to this post in 2015, receiving the full support of members for another three years. It is known that the Azerbaijanis promised 150,000 euros to the Association board members to not elect Kharajanyan, but time has shown that no one paid any attention to these promises. More than 25 unions are members of the Association: Polish, Jewish, Lithuanian, etcetera. Raffi Kharajanyan says: “After long efforts, we got a building in 1992 as the property of the Association, which is an architectural monument (ANKOL). We organized the “Unity of Diversity” Festival. The Ministry of Culture has conveyed some programs to us, included running a festival with participation of ethnographic groups. One of the features of our organization is that we are not satisfied with organizing barbecues.”
The Armenian Cultural Center of Latvia – which operates since 2008, but was officially registered on 31 October 2011 – has gathered Latvian Armenian intellectuals. The co-chairpersons are Raffi Kharajanyan and Hasmik Nurijanyan, husband and wife. They are the organizers and initiators of many Armenian concerts, exhibitions and cultural events in Latvia. As it was mentioned before, they also manage and run the website www.karap.lv and run the Armenian Radio Hour of the Latvian Radio.
Raffi Kharajanyan (Haradžanjans in Latvian) was born in Yereva and, graduated from Tchaikovsky Musical School. His father was a conductor; his mother, a musicologist. In those years, he already performed with the Armenian Symphony Orchestra under the conduction of Ohan Durian. Now Raffi is a professor at the Riga Music Academy. He combines teaching with concert activity. For forty-one years he performed in duo with pianist Nora Novika, his first wife. Kharajanyan tours with his former students Reinis Zariņš and Ruslan Perezhilo; in Riga he performs with Elena Lihvare. In 2014 he toured the U.S. with pianist Armine Grigoryan, director of the Aram Khachaturian Museum in Yerevan.
Hasmik Nurijanyan adds: “Raffi is not only a brilliant pianist, but also a phenomenal teacher. His students – from Japan to the Czech Republic and Russia – have always got awarded. For example, pianist Reinis Zariņš was awarded the first prize at the Smetana competition in Prague.”
“I am glad that Latvia has become a member of the EU; there are difficulties, but our young people are free to travel everywhere. My elder son Aram, who is 34, lives in Copenhagen. He has married a Russian from Riga. Aram speaks Danish fluently. He is fond of music and loves art, but has his own business. He has received a good education,” Kharajanyan says. “I myself learned Latvian in Soviet time. Now I speak more fluently,” he says.
“Latvians understand that our history has been difficult, but overall their attitude to us is good. Armenians have good work here, we have intellectuals, musicians, artists,” Hasmik says.
Raffi Kharajanyan is concerned about the future of the younger generation. “When I see our children growing up here that have Armenian eyes and an Armenian heart and soul, but do not know our children songs and forget everything, I feel an enormous pain. Especially since we do not know what their future will be. The future of children always should be connected with their homeland, and the homeland should be ready to lend a helping hand them,” Raffi says with conviction. He looks at the community difficulties more realistically. “We are unified only by our national features. The difficulties come from the differences in the understanding of educational and social issues. It is hard to imagine how the doctor and the merchant can feel themselves as equal members of the community, and people can help each other as much as they can,” the renowned musician and activist concludes.
Other Latvian-Armenian figures
Businessman Ruben Hakobyan has lived in Latvia since 1997. He first went to Moscow from Armenia and moved to Latvia after four or five years. He is a financier by profession. “Since I did not know Latvian, I was engaged in real estate business. It was not so easy, because there was a difference in mentality, but because my mother is Latvian and my father is Armenian, it was much easier for me. I know my maternal relatives very well; we already communicate in Latvian. On time, my mom taught Latvian to my brother and to me, but she learned Armenian very well after living in Armenia for 35 years. She likes Armenia rather than Latvia. My kids went to school in Armenia; my elder child speaks Armenian with pleasure, but not the young one, who understands Armenian, but answers in Russian. He studied Latvian and English. My daughters-in-law learn Armenian dances and attend the Sunday Armenian school. Their desire to learn Armenian is very interesting. I hope my grandchildren will learn Armenian. They already learn Armenian poems; my elder grandson picks the language very easily.”
“I know the Latvians very well, because we have relatives and we communicate with them. Their attitude towards people is not bad; they are neutral. But even if you have a great command of their language, they still do not accept you. It is so difficult for foreigners to enter public service. You only have an opportunity if there is no other candidate. If there were different nations in Armenia, we do not know whether Armenians would treat them negatively. We wish that the community life were more lively and interesting,” Ruben Hakobyan concludes.
Lawyer Gevorg Hambardzumyan came to Latvia from Armenia in 2001. He graduated from the faculty of law of Yerevan State University and worked in the legal department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Armenia. Her wife is a Latvian citizen. “We came here and decided that it would be easier. My wife was born here and works for the Ministry of Defense. I started with much difficulty; to obtain a work permit I needed almost a year. I learned the language and in 2002 I began working at a Latvian bank. For the first five years, I was the representative of the Bank in Armenia and Georgia. I also worked in Russia and Israel, and I was sent to Brussels to work for two years. In 2010 I decided to work by my own and started working as a lawyer with several banks. I know there are Armenians in the middle managerial level of Latvian banks. Vahram Kamalyan is the vice president of ‘Norvik’ bank, while five Armenians work in Retokombank,” Gevorg says.
“After being 15 years outside Armenia, how much you manage to be in touch with the Armenian world?,” I ask. Gevorg answers: “I cooperate in Armenian with people with whom I am in touch for long time. There are not new exciting projects. I try to maintain the connection; I have very good friends, whom I try to help. I visit Armenia two or three times a year. I am interested in Armenia, and I read the news and watch TV. So far I do not intend to return to Armenia. I have been here for 15 years. I got adapted. Because I travel constantly, visiting Russia, Crimea, Belarus, and Europe, I mainly communicate in Russian. I have two children who are still young; we speak Russian, since my wife speaks Russian. In terms of public, the attitude towards the Armenians is very favorable, and there are Armenians in all spheres, especially successful in the restaurant business. If people want to taste delicious meat, they go to the Armenians,” Gevorg said.
Armenian Restaurants of Latvia
Armenians are famous for Armenian restaurants in Latvia. Unlike, say, Czech Republic, where any Armenian restaurant does not function for more than one or two years, there are about 25 Armenian restaurants and cafés in Riga, which are in great demand. Armenian cuisine attracts not only Armenians, but also locals and tourists. Most restaurants have Armenian names: “Aragats,” “Ani,” “Yerevan,” “Artsakh,” “Akhtamar,” “Noah’s Ark,” “Armenia,” and others. Each restaurant also has its own way of representing Armenian people and culture.
“Aragats” restaurant was just a revelation for me. Not only us, but also foreign customers are greeted kindly and asked about their preferences. One can see photos of famous people who have visited “Aragats” on the wall, including the most famous Russian and Soviet actors and singers, presidents and statesmen…
Musician Lyudmila Ghazaryan, the owner of “Aragats” restaurant, remembers that her family was established in Riga in 1990, after the earthquake. She graduated from Yerevan Conservatory, taught piano at the Romanos Melikyan music school, and gave concerts. In Riga she first worked at the local conservatory. “Then times changed, and by the end of 1996 and beginning of 1997 we opened the restaurant.” Lyudmila’s husband died several years ago, and now the whole weight of the business is on the shoulders of Lyudmila and her mother, Mrs. Bella, who is physicist by profession and speaks several languages.
“Anyone who wants to eat a tasty dish can find what he or she wants in our restaurant. It is a part of our culture. When people like something, they ask questions about our culture, our history,” Mrs. Lyudmila says.
Mrs. Bella welcomes guests in various languages. Before the order is ready, she can start a conversation with the customers and tell them interesting stories.
“We were not professionals, but from the first day we cooked as we would have done for our children. This restaurant has been visited by Latvian presidents, prime ministers, employees of embassies, and famous Russian intellectuals. The work is very time-consuming, so it should be fun to get to work.”
The “Artsakh” restaurant, run by the couple of Valeri and Nelli Hayrapetyan, is in the city of Olaine. The population of Olaine is 13,000, of which only 18 are Armenians.
The Hayrapetyans moved here from Artsakh (Karabagh). Nelli graduated from the department of pharmaceutics of the Yerevan State Medical University. She worked at a pharmacy in Karabagh. They came to Latvia as refugees in 1993. The couple greets us warmly and gives us their views like longtime acquaintances.
“Our adaptation was very difficult. We left the town of Martakert when the enemy tanks had entered the area. We did not want to leave our land, but at the last moment we quit out of desperation. I escaped from the pharmacy in my white coat. After I opened a pharmacy in the village of Ptghni, in Armenia, we had a very difficult time; our hope and faith was Armenia,” Nelli says. But her husband came to Riga, found work, and later opened the “Artsakh” restaurant. Their daughter Marine married and moved to the Czech Republic. “In Latvia it is difficult to work as a doctor. In the Czech Republic, my daughter learned Czech and works as dentist. She also speaks good English and Latvian. When we came here as refugees, she could not even speak Russian,” Nelli says.
“The Latvians like our cuisine, especially dolma. They do not eat much, but they love the greens. They also like Armenian lavash,” Valeri says.
Valeri also participated actively in backgammon tournaments, and was a winner.
Young people and their future
Father Khosrov says: “There is some movement among the youth. We have to think about the youth if 2,000 out of 6,000 Armenians have remained in Latvia. Young people leave to Europe, U.S., and other countries. If we talk about Armenian potential, we do not have the right to ignore our youth. We should awake devotion to church and fatherland in them, and encourage their Armenian feelings. Every Armenian is born in debt. He owes to his Armenian roots. He should always be able to speak in high terms about being Armenian. Unfortunately, we cannot use European funds to make some programs. The church cannot be a part of all these. The communities run some activity, but it is far from what we want to see. The small communities should be strengthened. Our efforts must be coordinated. Today, we are not able to send young people to Armenia. Of course, they participate in various competitions and in the “Come Home” program of the Ministry of Diaspora of Armenia, but this is not enough.”
Aram Kosoyan, thirty-three-years-old, believes that “Latvians are people so peaceful that we have become like them. One can already see that the character of Armenian newcomers is different from Armenians who have lived here for a long time.” Aram has graduated from the law school of the Russian Academy of the Baltics and completed a master’s degree in Economics. He currently works at a construction company.
Twenty-three-year-old Naira Kosyan was born in Latvia, studied at the PR and advertising department of the university, and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in management. Her parents live in Jurmala and are in charge of the restaurant “Noah’s Ark.” Now Naira mostly helps her parents. They are from the Armenian region of Javakhk, in Georgia; they came here 30 years ago from the town of Akhalkalaki. Naira says: “There are fifteen Armenian families in Jurmala. They run a backgammon tournament. In 2001 we organized a summer camp in Jurmala and contacted Armenian youth of Lithuania and Estonia, but they came only from Estonia. A Baltic Assembly of young Armenians was held once and then nothing else happened,” she laments.
“In Latvia, our chances are the same as everywhere. I feel good. I speak Armenian at home, I always preach everything Armenian. I took six of my friends to Armenia, we have had a good excursion, they returned delighted,” Naira says.
“I am not ashamed of being Armenian. I am glad that I am Armenian, though my father is Armenian and my mother is Russia. While I have friends trying do not show they are Armenians. For the moment I study tourism and hotel business and I still do not know where will work in the future,” 18-year-old student Alain Geronian says.
Artist, dancer Karine Paronyanc, aged 33, is a top-round young woman. She graduated from the Art Academy of Latvia. Now she has her own studio, and teaches dance and painting. A permanent exhibition of her paintings is open at one of the downtown halls.
“My grandfather came from the North Caucasus, in Ordzhonikidze; my mother is half-Russian and half Latvian. My grandmother, my grandfather, and my father speak Armenian. Currently I am learning Armenian at Sunday school,” says Karine. “In general, we are pleased with Latvia. I feel very well here; I have a lot of friends. I speak fluent Latvian. There is a lack of cohesion among Armenian youth. They make more friends in separate groups. An Armenian singer comes to Riga for a tour and only five Armenians attend the concert. Very few Armenians attend an Armenian film. The general news media is missing,” she explains.
Banker and musician Elvis Mirzakhanyan was born in 1987 in Vanadzor. In 1989 his family came to Riga, while his relatives left for America. He studied management and now works at a bank, but he is interested in music. He writes songs and has released 3 albums. He opened a special channel for Armenians on Youtube. His songs are of hip-hop style. “I perform my songs myself. Latvians already know me, but my goal is entering the Russian market. I have already had concerts,” he says. “My close friends are Armenian-speaking Armenians. I also have Latvian friends and I have no problem with them; they treat us in a very neutral way,” Elvis concludes.
The Armenian champions of pankration
The “Black Bear” sports club in Riga functions under the leadership of Manvel Isajanyan. He came to Latvia along with his parents in 1986, at the age of one. His father was sent to study at the Police School of Riga. Manvel engaged in sports from age seven. First it was aikido and judo; then, boxing and football; now, pankration. In 2010, with a group of friends, he founded the “Black Bear” club, which in five years has been recognized four times as the best pankration club of Latvia, and three times, of the whole Baltic area. The club has five world champions, twelve Eurasian champions, and eight European champions. Among Armenian sportsmen, Martin Simonyan is a bronze medalist at the World Championships of pankration; Arthur Varzhapetyan, a silver medalist; and Harutyun Karapetyan, a bronze medalist. Ruben Asatryan has been a gold medalist twice in the Eurasian pankration tournament. Tigran Baghdasaryan and Tigran Tumanyan became gold medalists at the all-Baltic pankration championship.
In general, young Armenians are distinguished in various fields. Our main impression from the meetings is that the main worry of the youth is the absence of a common structure and coordinated work because of an informational gap. As well as in the other Baltic republics, young people need a permanent coordination. Because young people are actively engaged in professional work, there is not enough time for social activities. As for the future, they are optimistic. They do not forget the national values and want to be integrated into Latvian society. Those who do it conscientiously succeed in their task.