The Armenians Of Estonia. From Khachatur Abovyan to the Present Day

  • 31.01.2022
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The Establishment of the Armenians in Estonia

It is well known that Armenians have settled in Estonia since the nineteenth century. Among the first there were people like writer Khachatur Abovyan, publicist Stepanos Nazaryants, poets Rapayel Patkanyan, Gevorg Dodokhyan, Kerovbe Patkanyan and others, who studied at the University of Dorpat (Tartu) in the 1830s. The growth in the number of Armenian students even led to the foundation of a Union of Armenian Students. According to various sources, around 200 Armenian students studied at the University of Dorpat in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Rafik Grigoryan, president of the Armenian National Union of South Estonia in Tartu and chairman of the Estonian Union of National Minorities, wrote down the 170-year-old history of Estonian Armenians in his book The Armenian Diaspora of Estonia (2000). According to him, the entrance of the Armenians in Estonia could be called cultural and enlightening, because the Armenians had come to study. On September 3, 1830 Khachatur Abovyan arrived in the University of Dorpat by invitation of university rector Parrot and stayed until 1836. For the author of Wounds of Armenia, Estonia became a place for spiritual revival, where he studied sciences and languages, and got acquainted with the life of Estonian people. Here Abovyan thought about making spoken Armenian into literary language. “There is an auditorium named after Khachatur Abovyan at the University of Tartu, which had been closed in 1992, and was only reopened in 2010 after a long struggle,” Grigoryan says. Abovyan’s bust is also placed in the auditorium. In 1859-1866 the second flow of students came to Tartu due to the intercession of Gabriel Khatisian. They even set up a small student community. A total of 370 Armenians lived in Estonia from 1830-1917. Grigoryan mentions that the “Armenia” student organization functioned in Tartu from 1912-1916. But in 1918-1940, during the independent period, the connection between Estonia and Armenia was severed.

After the end of World War II, many Armenians settled permanently in Estonia. In the 1960-1970s a new wave started. Armenian specialists from Russia and other republics of Soviet Union came to work here. According to the census of 1989, 1,600 Armenians resided in Estonia. As Razmik Ivanyan, the president of the Armenian National Union of Estonia notes, according to the census of 2011 the number of Armenians is 1404. This, indeed, does not include the number of Armenians from mixed marriages or newcomers from other countries. In this case, the total number would reach 2000.

Armenians live in Tallinn and Tartu, and there are smaller numbers of them in Narva, Pärnu, Rakvere, Haapsalu and other small towns. They are mostly intellectuals, engineers, programmers, physicians, teachers, journalists, cultural figures, business executives, businessmen and constructors.

Community organizations

Community life began at the end of the 1980s, when the democratic movement was underway in Estonia and the Karabakh movement began in Armenia. In 1989 the Armenian cultural unions were registered in Tallinn and Tartu. The Cultural Union of Tallinn actively participated in the activities of the Union of Nations of Estonia, which supported the restoration of the independence of Estonia.

The Armenian community of Tallinn

There are no Armenian political parties in Estonia. Community life is run by the national associations of Tallinn and Tartu. Razmik Ivanyan has been the leader of the Armenian community of Tallinn for eight years, and he is also the head of the Armenian National Union of Estonia. According to him, eleven Armenian organizations are registered and active in Estonia, of which eight are part of the Armenian National Union. Those organizations are: Armenian National Organization of Tallinn, Armenian National Union of Estonia, “Nairi” Cultural and Sports Organization, Armenian-Estonian Friendship Association, the “Cilicia” Society of Tallinn, the “Komitas” Society, the “Atlas” Society, and the “Yerevan” Society. There are also the St. Gregory the Illuminator Church Community Council, the “Ararat” Cultural Union, the Armenian Youth Union of Estonia and the Armenian National Union of South Estonia in Tartu. Each of these organizations has its orientation: music, sports, school, etc.

“Previously we had only two organizations in Tallinn and Tartu, but when the state adopted a decision according to which national minority organizations received financial support if they were involved in one Union and their number was at least five, other organizations were registered as well,” Ivanyan says. The Armenian Cultural Center was opened in Tallinn, along with a community library and school, on March 4, 1999.

Ivanyan, after six years of military service in Germany, moved to Tallinn in 1987 and easily integrated into Estonian society. His twenty-eight-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter speak Armenian at home, although they attended Russian and Estonian schools. His son Manuk helps him in the family business, a pastry shop and a restaurant. The daughter, Lilit, also attends Armenian Sunday school.

The Armenian community of Tallinn is twenty-six years old, and the Armenian National Union of Estonia, sixteen. The Armenian community of Tallinn has about 600 members, of which a hundred or two hundred are active. “There are people whom we do not even know. They have lived here for 30 years, but do not interact with the community,” the president of the association says, noting that they mainly work to ensure that children learn their native language and know national traditions, but also be able to integrate into Estonian society. The association organizes events dedicated to significant dates of Armenian history and celebrates all the religious holidays of Armenia; they celebrated the Independence Day of Armenia in the Estonian Parliament. The aim of the association is to support the preservation of Armenian language and culture among Estonian Armenians, to get them into contact with Estonian culture, and to promote the friendship of Armenian and Estonian peoples. They publish articles in Estonian newspapers on the Armenian Genocide and the struggle of the Artsakh Armenians.

In the city of Haapsalu, a hundred kilometers from Tallinn, the “Days of Culture of Armenia” have been held twice. On September 22, 2014 the community organized a ceremony of consecration of a khachkar (cross-stone) dedicated to the victims of the Armenian Genocide and in memory of Anna Hedwig Büll (Büll Mama), an Estonian missionary, who saved orphans of the Armenian Genocide. This Estonian missionary is one of the heroes of the documentary “Map of Salvation” (on an idea and ​​production by Manvel Saribekyan, and the direction by Aram Shahbazyan). The film presents five European humanist missionaries: Karen Jeppe (Denmark), Maria Jacobsen (Denmark), Bodil Bjørn (Norway), Alma Johansson (Sweden), and Hedwig Büll (Estonia). On April 29, 1989, the association had installed a commemorative plaque in Armenian and Estonian on the wall of the house where Anna Hedwig Büll spent her childhood.

According to the community leader, the position of Estonia on the Armenian Genocide is difficult to reverse because it is under Turkish influence and affected by Armenia-Russia rapprochement, as the attitude in Estonia towards Russians is quite inflexible.

Every year the Armenian community commemorates April 24.

“Much has also been made by my predecessor, Garik Iknojan, who has helped much in the issues of community organizing. He was the president of the administration of the Union from 1998 and the first honorary consul of the Republic of Armenia in Estonia from 1999-2005. Unfortunately, he died in 2013,” Ivanyan says. By the way, Iknojan did a good job in Armenian-Estonian relations, as he was known and had good relations, being an honorary citizen of Tallinn. His wife, the Estonian Mare Iknojan, is a renowned photographer in Estonia.

The name of Armenian National Organization of Tallinn was adopted on April 8, 1997. The former one, Armenian Cultural Union of Tallinn, which had been already registered on April 23, 1989 (it operated since 1988), was ceased in 1995. This organization has been headed by Artem Davidjants, Yuri Vardanyan, and Razmik Ivanyan since 2007.

Since its establishment until 2003, Artem Davidjants, who was the board chairman, established the structure. He said that the Armenian organization was first registered as a branch of the Estonian Association of Preservation of Monuments. The ministries began helping; they published the newspapers “Vahagn” and covered expenses of Armenian the school.

A specialist of Russian language and literature, Professor Artem Davidjants got acquainted with an Estonian woman in 1973, married, lived in Yerevan for two years, and moved to Tallinn after the birth of their first child. Born in Baku, he taught Russian language and literature at Tallinn Pedagogical Institute for many years and defended his Ph.D. thesis. In 1994 he opened his own translation office with his wife and was greatly successful. His wife Inge is known in Estonia as a writer and translator; his daughter Kristiina is a filmmaker and made a film about writer Sergey Dovlatov, which won an award in the Golden Apricot Film Festival in Yerevan; the other daughter, Jaana, studied in London, writes Estonian books, and also deals with design. The third daughter, Brigitta, is a musicologist and is writing her doctoral dissertation about Komitas. She is a member of the “Atlas” Ensemble, formed by Armenians and Estonians, and is also engaged in journalism. The son, David, is a musician and also a student at drama department, who wishes to make a try in that field.

“After independence, the situation had deteriorated. Many in the community had lost their jobs. Despite this, we did register the church and renew the organization. We have very good relations with local authorities; the government helps in some expenses and we also submit some projects and receive grants. Now, we have a very good young, educated generation: lawyers, economists, internet programmers, bankers and builders. Twenty-five years later, their children will enter the Estonian elite and will be fully integrated Estonian citizens. We are small in number, but we are a self-sufficient community and we do not want anything from anyone. Now the situation is more stable, the hard years are gone,” Artem Davidjants says.

In 1989-1991 the “Vahagn” monthly newspaper, in Armenian and Russian, was published in Tallinn, edited by engineer and programmer Andranik Gyulgyulyan. The printing run was first of 1,500, and then of 3,000 copies. Fourteen issues were published, and it was disseminated not only in the Baltic countries, but also in Russia. The newspaper covered Estonian-Armenian community life and published articles on the history of the Armenian people and events in Armenia and Artsakh. It first published articles on the Armenian case in the Estonian press. Due to financial problems, the newspaper ceased publication in 1993.

The Armenian community of Tartu

About 160 Armenians live in the city of Tartu, says Rafik Grigoryan, who is a pillar of this community. Thanks to his efforts, on March 18, 1989 the Abovyan Armenian Cultural Association of Tartu was established, which became the Armenian National Union of Southern Estonia, with 75 members, on January 19, 1999. The goal of this organization is to introduce the spiritual values of the Armenian people and to create conditions for Estonian Armenians for studying their native language, history and national culture.

Grigoryan, who was born in Gyumri and studied history in Saratov, was invited to the University of Tartu in 1974, after which he remained there. He teaches at the Faculty of Philosophy. “At the time, many people knew about Armenia; Gyumri and Tartu were twin cities and cultural groups and delegations were being exchanged. Then everything came to a halt. Even the name of the Armenian street was changed after a general law that established that street names should not bear non-Estonian names,” Grigoryan says. He actively participated in the establishment of the Popular Front of Estonia, as well as the national forum, and is also the vice-president of “Lira” public association of national minorities.

՚In 1978 the gift of Gyumri – a monument devoted to Armenian-Estonian friendship, sculpted by Hakob Jivanian, was installed in one of the central parks of the city. There is a legend in three languages on this monument, made of tufa stone: ​​“Dedicated to the friendship between the Armenian and Estonian peoples, in whose basis great illuminator Khachatur Abovyan stands. Leninakan-Tartu, 1978.”

“Local people, who have been in touch with the Armenians still in Soviet times, know Armenian people and its culture very well, but the new generation does not know. The Armenians mostly came to study here and they stayed in that way. Howeer, not everyone has found a job in their profession. Some started small and medium-size business. There are Armenian cafes and a restaurant. The adults do not master Estonian, but the new generation speaks very well,” Grigoryan says.

Vachagan Khachatryan, who had left Armenia already in 1993 and lived in various countries before settling in Tartu in 2010, has opened a sewing workshop here. His daughter Karina was born in Tartu. She is five years old and speaks Armenian to her father and Russian to her mother, because the latter is an Armenian born in Russia and does not know Armenian well.

“The ‘Dvin’ ensemble of the Tartu Armenian school has presented the Armenian culture in Estonian festivals many times. The Estonians received it very well and are interested in our culture,” Vachagan says. The ensemble won the first place on the Estonian TV; for the first time, the Armenian songs sounded on television.

Armen Shahbazyan has lived in Tartu for 30 years, since age 14. He worked as an engineer until the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now he has a computer store. His wife is Russian, but they speak Armenian with their children and actively support the Armenian school. Their children perform in the “Dvin” ensemble and participate in various programs of the Ministry of Diaspora of Armenia.

There is no law on national minorities in Estonia. Instead, there is a law on cultural autonomy. Rafik Grigoryan, the chairman of the Estonian Union of National Minorities, notes that they rent a room for the school with state support.

Interestingly, there are 196 nationalities in Estonia, with a population of 1,200,000 people, and 210 national organizations are operative. Armenians participate actively in national congresses organized in Estonia.

“We tell our children to study hard, so in the future they may easily enter into social and political life,” Grigoryan says.

Church Community

The community of St. Gregory Armenian Apostolic Church of Estonia was officially registered in Tallinn on November 11, 1993 and is a member of the Estonian Council of Churches. In 1994 the Council of the Evangelical Church in Estonia handed to the Armenian community the St. Jaan poorhouse building in Tallinn for 99 years, which was renovated and currently functions as an Armenian church. The Church Council was first headed by Gagik Iknojan, succeeded by Karen Ter-Hovhannisyan. The spiritual leadership of the community has been carried since 2005 by Father Khosrov Stepanyan, the religious leader of the Armenian Apostolic Church in the Baltic countries, who comes from Riga to Tallinn once a month to celebrate mass.

In an interview with me, Father Khosrov notes: “The religious holidays in Tallinn are celebrated on a high level. We cooperate with Razmik Ivanyan, who is also in the Church Council. The church is in need in three Baltic countries. The people are in a very difficult situation too. We cooperate with both students and elderly in different areas. We give great room to the idea of family.”

“The communities of the three Baltic countries are more alike than different. We carry out joint initiatives. Every year, on the last Saturday, we gather in the Hill of Crosses in Lithuanian Šiauliai, with the participation of Armenians from the three Baltic countries,” Father Khosrov says.

Armenian-Estonian Relations

Diplomatic relations between Armenia and Estonia were established in 1992. Armenian ambassador Ara Ayvazyan was appointed concurrent ambassador to the Republic of Estonia and the Republic of Latvia, with residence in Vilnius, on March 23, 2012. He has been representing Armenia in Lithuania since 2011. Ambassador Ayvazian told us: “The concurring post in Latvia and Estonia has its advantages, as regular visits to the two countries allow making a comprehensive picture of the characteristics and commonalities of the countries of the region. The three Baltic countries are our important partners and perhaps have better knowledge on our problems, challenges and opportunities among European Union members. I would like to mention the patriotic activities of the Armenian community in Estonia and its leader Razmik Ivanyan. They organized events dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. On March 12, within the scope of the concert series “With You, Armenia,” the Embassy of the Republic of Armenia in Estonia and the Armenian community of Estonia organized a classical concert of the famous Estonian state male choir “Hortus Musicus” at St. John Church of Tallinn. In March 2015 the exhibition “The Armenian Genocide on the Front Pages of the World Press” was jointly organized by the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute of Armenia and the Armenian Embassy in the national libraries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Although Lithuania is the only Baltic country that has recognized the Armenian Genocide (2005), on April 23-24, 2015 parliamentary delegations of the three countries participated in the official commemoration events in Armenia. These new small communities have gained some experience in 4 years, which can be instructive and helpful to our traditional communities,” the ambassador said.

Estonia also offered unprecedented support in the 1988 earthquake of Armenia, sending rescuers and doctors, as well as constructors. More than a dozen came to Tallinn and Tartu from the disaster area.

Translator and writer Yuri Shumakov (1914-1997), who in the 1930s made the first Estonian translations of works by Armenian poets, lived in Tallinn. Estonian professor Lembo Tanning’s book “The Armenian Problem” (Armeenia probleem) was published in 2005, followed in 2009 by the small book “The Armenians,” published in Tallinn as the sixth publication in the book series “Nationalities of Estonia,” launched by the Integration and Migration Foundation of Estonia.

As well-known Estonian writer Kalle Käsper told me, “Previously the Estonians knew much more about Armenia than now. In the past, there traveled often. They had a very warm attitude. Now they politicize more and have a more pragmatic attitude.”

In 2011 the premier of Riho Västrik’s documentary “Voyage to Ararat” took place in Tartu and Tallinn. It is about a group of Estonians and foreigners who climbed Mount Ararat in 2009, on the 180th anniversary of the first climbing by Abovyan and Parrot. The activities of historian Priit Herodes are also connected to Armenia: he is the president of the Estonia-Armenia Friendship Society, and has been many times in Armenia and Artsakh. He always speaks about the common features of Armenian and Estonian peoples. In 2012 writer and critic Mare Sabolotny traveled to Armenia and also wrote about her impressions: “Armenia seemed more close to me than any Western European country.” Estonian painter and sculptor Felix Burman, who lived in Yerevan for a while and participated in the Artsakh war, built a monument in Yerevan, dedicated to Armenian-Estonian friendship, in 2009. He returned to Estonia in 2010.

A big Armenian-Estonian cultural project was implemented in 2013: three hundred art professionals from Estonia went to Yerevan and from Armenia to Estonia. The initiator of the public diplomacy project “Everyone is Going to Yerevan” was Estonian businessman and public figure Melis Kubits. It highly contributed to the restoration of relations.

In 2012 Tartu University professor Jaan Einasto was awarded the “Victor Ambartsumayan” international prize in astrophysics and astronomy (550,000 US dollars).

“Tsitsernak” Radio Hour and the Vardanyan family

Thanks to the efforts of Goharik and Yuri Vardanyan, on May 28, 1992 the Estonian State Radio began to broadcast the “Tsitsernak” Armenian radio hours. It was originally aired one hour per week by the Estonian national Radio 4 channel, and now it is broadcasted for 45 minutes, but only on the last two Sundays of each month. According to Gohar Vardanyan, they speak about the political and cultural events in Armenia and Artsakh, and prepare programs on science, history, religion, music, and the Diaspora. The historical, cultural and religious programs are in Armenian, while the news on Armenia, Artsakh, and the Diaspora are in Russian. It gives an opportunity to a wider audience to get familiar with the Armenian news. “Yuri reads political news and interviews with different personalities, while I am responsible for musical and cultural news. We do not have any obstacle,” Goharik says.

“I think that our listeners are not mostly Armenians, but all Russian speakers. It can be heard not only in Estonia, but also in southern Finland, the western part of St. Petersburg, as well as in the north of Latvia and in the ships of the Finland Gulf. It is broadcasted also by FM and Internet. We do receive positive responses from many radio listeners. The reason for this attitude is that it gives balanced materials,” Yuri says.

It all started in 1992 when one day they got a call from the Estonian radio and were offered to open an Armenian radio hour. “Twice a year, we travel to Armenia and make interviews to present Armenian culture on Estonian radio. The Armenian radio has supported us with radio recordings,” Goharik says. “We chose the name ‘Tsitsernak’ – ‘Swallow.’ The swallow is one of the Estonian national symbols, and the author of the lyrics of the Armenian song ‘Swallow’ was Gevorg Dodokhyan, who studied at Tartu University,” Yuri Vardanyan continues. The Armenian radio hours have started for 23 years with the sounds of “Swallow”: it is available on the website

“I met my husband in 1987 in Tallinn and we married three years later. I was born in Yerevan in 1952, in the Muradyan family, emigrated from Western Armenia. I am a professional cellist and I worked for 20 years in a music school, leading children’s chamber orchestra, which did not work here, because classical art was discarded after the collapse of the Soviet Union. I was also tired of music school work, and my dream was to work in radio. My dream has come true,” Goharik says. In addition to the radio, she started to paint. The work in radio had an impact on this art. “One day I woke up and began to draw. I do not know the reason. The requirement to draw was dictated by the fact that here I did not find myself in music, and the musical instruments roared in the form of paintings. I mainly painted violin and cello. I am also involved in computer graphics and photography.”

“What is the attitude of Estonians towards Armenians and Armenian culture?,” I ask. Goharik answers: “In 1993 Estonian director Karin Rait staged William Saroyan’s ‘My Heart is in the Highlands’ as a joint project of the Estonian Youth Theatre and Russian theater. We received positive feedback afterwards. Our art is sustainable, and people appreciate us,” Goharik says.

The Vardanyan couple was actively involved in the formation of community organizations. “We had a long active participation in community life. In 1990 we organized ‘Armenian Days.’ We rented a three-storey building in downtown Tallinn and opened “Home to Armenia,” where for local and Armenian musical groups gave concerts for ten days and exhibitions were held, including Martiros Saryan’s works. Our mission was to show Armenia in a proper level,” she says.

Yuri Vardanyan, born in 1946 in the city of Viljandi city, grew up in the Estonian environment and graduated from Tallinn Polytechnic Institute. An engineer by profession, in the last years he has been involved in translations and also gives lectures on labor law. By the way, Khachatur Abovyan’s son, Vardan, worked as teacher in Viljandi at the end of 19th century. He was the first prominent Armenian in the city, while the second Armenian was Yuri Vardanyan’s father Movses, who was a native of Artsakh (Karabakh) and appeared in the city after graduating from Yerevan State Medical University in 1941. Since the formation of the Armenian community in 1989, Yuri Vardanyan was vice-president of the Armenian Cultural Union of Tallinn, and afterwards he was an active member of the Armenian National Board of Tallinn and its leader from 2003-2007.

Regarding the future of the community, he says: “Our hope is the youth who will come and hand the community life.”

Yuri considers himself a bearer of three cultures: Armenian, Russian and Estonian. He masters Estonian to perfection, and knows the history and culture, the mentality and the sufferings of this nation. He participated actively in the independence struggle of Estonia. “Estonia is my homeland. I know and I continue to explore the history and culture of the Armenian people, I live with the joys and tragedies of Armenian people, I have been even affected as an Armenian, but I was always proud of being Armenian and that I was able to do something for my people and for Armenia. Armenia is also a homeland for me. Because I mainly studied in Russian, I also know Russian culture and mentality very well.”

Community schools

As previously mentioned, the first Armenian Sunday schools in Estonia have operated since 1989: the school adjunct to the Armenian Cultural Union of Tallinn (founded and directed by Artem Davidjants) and the Mashtots school of Tartu (founded by R. Grigoryan). Rita Keshishyan was the former principal of the Armenian Sunday School in Tartu, and since 2008 the position has been managed by Janna Shahbazyan despite her later move to Tallinn. The number of children attending school constantly changes, but there were about 20 students in 2014. The number of students amounts to forty in both schools. The subjects include Armenian language, history, culture, dance and music.

We met Janna Shahbazyan, the head of the Tartu School and the “Dvin” ensemble in the Armenian community of Tallinn. She said that she goes to Tartu once every two weeks. She has already created a children’s choir in Tallinn, which has given concerts: they mostly sing Armenian folk and pop songs.

Janna’s field of specialization is physics and mathematics. She has taught these subjects at school for 30 years. Her husband is Belarusian, and her children, Mikael and Tamara, are members of the “Dvin” ensemble; they write, read, sing, and dance in Armenian. Her daughter decided to take classical vocal training; she has actively participated in cultural festivals in Armenia, and in Olympic games on Armenian studies.

Art professionals

Exhibitions, concerts, and other events are regularly organizes in prestigious venues of Estonia by initiative of Armenian organizations in Tallinn and Tartu. The names of famous artists include Ashot Tandeljan, Vahan Ananjan (Kerib-Vahan, now deceased), Ashot Jegikjan, Albert Mamjan, sculptors Rafael Harutyunyan, Rafael Danielyants, artist Anahit Kljan and her son, painter and sculptor Arsen Kljan, who also opened in 1991 the first private art school in Tallinn: Kljan School of Fine Arts. Arsen Kljan, who established himself in Estonia in 1980s, is known as a master portraitist. His works have been exhibited in many European countries. After graduating from the Terlemezyan Arts School in Yerevan, he also studied at the Art Academy in Tallinn. He is a member of the Estonian Artists’ Association.

Aragatz Kalachian, painter

The gallery of painter Aragatz Kalachian is located in the old city center of Tallinn. It was one of the first personal galleries opened in the Estonian capital in 1986. Aragats established himself in Tallinn in 1979. He studied at Yerevan Fine Art College and graduated with excellence from the department of sculptural ornamentation of Yerevan Institute of Art, where he was the student of Iranian Armenian sculptor Hakob Hakobyan. He came to Tallinn by train, saw the old city, and was delighted. “The architecture had a big impression on me, I was drawing for myself; afterwards, I had exhibitions, made friends with the artists, and was accepted by them very well,” he says.

“There were more Armenian artists in the past; many went to other countries and many are not in touch with the community.” Since the establishment of the community, Aragats has been a board member and participated actively. He married an Estonian. “I speak Armenian with my daughter; she is already married, and I have a grandchild who speaks several languages. Every week I played chess and checkers with him, and we spoke Armenian,” Kalachian says.

Rafael Danielyants, sculptor

I met Rafael Danielyants in his studio.

“I was born in 1951 in Baku and graduated from the Fine Arts College. I served in the army in Yerevan and, after moving here in 1977, I graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Tallinn with excellence. The situation before perestroika was good, we were getting lots of commands and I worked for museums.

I was integrated; my wife is Estonian and my children speak Estonian. I have three sons and even a grandchild. My elder son is an artist, but does not work in his specialty. The other son is a sailor, and the youngest one graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts like me. My children first read Armenian after they learned Estonian. In the past years they used to tell me to leave Estonia, but I stayed, even though I live in Armenia with my soul.”

He is a member of the Artists’ Union of Estonia. He participated in numerous exhibitions in the Union of Artists and also had personal exhibitions. “Now I have five or six ideas that I want to accomplish,” he says, showing his new sculptures.

“I have worked for so many years that my mentality is formed, and the Armenian, the national one is in me, it is so deep inside me, since I am connected with my Armenian roots. My approach is European, but the root is Armenian, although I do not represent myself as a typical Armenian sculptor with my works,” Rafael says.

Andranik Kechek, composer and pianist

Composer and pianist Andranik Kechek moved from Yerevan to Estonia in 1994 to study. He stayed in Tallinn and studied creative improvisation. Kechek organizes various concerts with the “Komitas” Estonian-Armenian National Association.

“The Estonians received me well. I did not know Estonian, but they showed great support, for which I am grateful. I suggested a technique of improvisation, which was accepted; I made progress in that realm and we organized several festivals and competitions. Now I teach,” he says.

Kechek works in a variety of styles, classical and jazz, and he also introduces Armenian elements. He writes music for theater and film. He wrote music for “Lernavan,” the film of Lithuanian Armenian filmmaker Marat Sargsyan. Kechek also wrote the children musical “Forgotten Fairy Tale” with Toomas Kuter. He interprets the role of the Diaspora Armenian artist in this way: “It is important to introduce Armenian music to everyone. Estonian singers have sung Armenian songs, we have had concerts, and they have been interested in Armenian songs and Armenian language.”

Zhenya Hovsepyan, singer

Singer Zhenya came to Tallinn in 2007 to join her husband. She graduated from Yerevan Conservatory in the class of Gohar Gasparyan. She sang in “Tagharan” ensemble for two years; she was a soloist at the Chamber Music Hall and an intern at the Opera House in 2007. At the age of 23 she sang in the “Sanctus” quartet and she traveled through the Caucasus with this group. She began to sing at the age of 14. “I have sung my entire life and the hand of God always has been upon me. Sacred music is very close to me,” she says.

Her husband Martiros Poghosyan is a dancer and has performed Armenian dances, but now is engaged in business. Zhenya spent two years studying Estonian and tending to her newborn baby. She returned to her professional activity in 2009 as choir soloist and immediately participated as a soloist in two opera performances. She also works on a contract basis with the Estonian Philharmonic. Her repertoire includes European and Russian songs. In 2009 she performed in the Russian music center and also sang Komitas.

“After that concert, people always ask me to sing Armenian songs too. There were no opportunities to introduce Armenian art to Estonians; they were very interested in the originality and sensuality of our melismata. They noted the warmth of our music, and that it is better not to speak about Estonian music after hearing Armenian music,” Zhenya says.

They go to Armenia every year; their little daughter speaks Armenian, Russian and Estonian. “My former colleagues in Yerevan invite me to sing at their concerts. I participate in the famous Estonian festival in Tallinn. With my work it is possible to purchase an apartment in Tallinn, something impossible in Yerevan,” the singer says.

Gohar Markosyan-Käsper, writer

Gohar Markosyan-Käsper’s name became known after the publication of her novel Penelope. I met Gohar Markosyan Käsper – physician by profession, now a known writer and translator – in her Tallinn apartment, where she has lived for 25 years with her Estonian husband, the writer and translator Kalle Käsper. They met in 1989 at the editorial offices of the journal Literaturnaya Armenia in Yerevan, and got married a year later. Gohar was still writing poems at the time, and released her first book in 1990. Her education was Russian; therefore, she writes in Russian. She graduated from the Institute of Medicine, she is an acupuncturist, and has been head of department at the Institute of Physical Therapy. She has a Ph.D. in medicine. She could not find work in Tallinn, as she did not know the language and did not have the right to work. “I tried to work at some private clinics, but there were no patients. I suffered for several years in that way,” she says.

She deepened her literary work in Tallinn. She first published her first and acclaimed novel, Penelope, in the magazine Zvezda of St. Petersburg in 1998 and as a separate book in 2000. It was later published in English, Spanish, French, Italian, Dutch, and German. There is also an Armenian translation, but it has not published due to lack of financial means. She translates her husband’s book into Russian, and her husband translates her books into Estonian. After Penelope, she wrote the novels Penelope Starts the Journey, Helena, and The Caryatids, as well as collections of short stories and plays.

She has her own opinion on emigration. “Some people save their lives; some go to live at the expense of someone else. Emigration is not something new. People with potential go and help others. If I were not married, I would not have left Armenia; I would have stayed and worked as a doctor. Living in a foreign country is not a good thing,” she says.

“The Estonians are very cold. I still have not come to terms with the Estonian life, it is very difficult. My husband is an exception; he is a very warm person,” Markosyan-Käsper says.

Gohar’s husband, Kalle Käsper, tells us that he looks objectively at his wife’s literature and believs that she is a unique phenomenon in Russian literature. “In my opinion, Gohar writes French literature in Russian. There is Armenian spirit is her works; at the same time, the hero of her literature is Russian language. She will remain in Russian literature,” Käsper says.

After our encounter, regretfully, Gohar Markosyan-Käsper passed away on September 10, 2015 in Barcelona after a long illness.

Youth and the future of community

A new generation of educated and developed young Armenians lives in Estonia. There are many programmers among the Armenian youth of Tallinn; at least five out of twenty are programmers. One of them is Aram Sahradyan, born in a family of mathematicians, who settled in Tallinn with his parents in 1995. He attended a Russian school for nine years, and an Estonian school for two. Aram has a good knowledge of Estonian. As a child, he attended the Armenian Saturday school, but started to improve his Armenian after getting acquainted on the Internet with his future wife from Armenia, Shushan, and marrying her.

“My parents did not allow me to speak Russian at home, only Armenian,” he says. He is confident that they will also do the same with their children. His father, Gagik Sarhadyan, has a workshop of basturma and canned barbecue (“Armenian grill”), already known in Estonia.

Aram is a computer programmer and has worked in various IT-oriented companies, including at the Ministry of Interior Affairs of Estonia. He has opened his own company and also engaged in photography, fulfilling his passion from childhood. “In the future, I also want to implement projects in Armenia. One first needs to go to Armenia, contact Armenians, and get to know the situation,” Aram says.

I ask about the attitude of the Estonians towards the Armenians. Aram says: “Armenian reputation is high. They know very well that we are hospitable and family oriented. I like Estonians, because they are punctual and organized. They felt themselves good when you speak Estonian.”

Lawyer Kristine Hakobjanyan, who is chairperson of the Yerevan Cultural Union, was born in 1988 in Tartu. She studied at the Law School of the University of Tartu and currently works at the Scandinavian Bank. Her father, native of Spitak, came to study at the Agricultural Academy of Tartu, but they were unable to return after the earthquake. They thought about returning after the situation improved, but it never happened. In the last years, they opened a small Armenian restaurant in the Estonian city of Pärnu.

Kristine attended Armenian school for five years on Sundays. She speaks Armenian, but she turns to Russian when it becomes hard. “At the same time, Estonians regard me as an Estonian,” she says. “I always show respect for Estonian language and culture. Both my sister and I are well aware of Estonian grammar; even we notice the mistakes of Estonians. Many colleagues send me Estonian texts for copyediting. I write Armenian slowly. Everywhere, at Business School, at Law School of the University, at diplomatic school, I studied English.”

“The preservation of Armenian identity is important. We must do everything to follow our parents. Everything begins at home; if you do not maintain traditions at home, the child does not see it, therefore, will not continue. I do not think that it is possible to keep your Armenianness without knowledge of the Armenian language. For every nation, their native language is important. If everyone thinks that he may remain Armenian without knowing the Armenian language, no one would speak Armenian,” Kristine says.

According to her, preparation programs for youth become more complicated when they grow up and are involved in their family concerns. Some of them are very active, but many among 150 young people are not in contact.

There were and are other successful Armenians in Tallinn as well, such as composer Boris Parsadanyan and ballet soloist Svetlana Balojan, who now lives in the United States. Sergei Dovlatov, a well-known Russian writer of Armenian-Jewish origin, lived and worked in Tallinn from 1972-1975 and contributed to the Estonian press. In 2003 a memorial plaque was placed on the wall of the house where he resided. Estonia is also related to famous admiral Ivan Isakov, Hero of the Soviet Union, whose father was Armenian traffic technician Stepan Isahakian, while his mother Ida Lauer was originally from Dorpat. Jean-Daniel Khangulov, a Russian actor of Armenian descent, founded the Theatre of the Deaf in Tallinn (his parents were deaf). Albert Stepanyan is a famous master of hypnosis and president of the Association of Estonian Parapsychologists; also in 2014 he became the world champion of push-up. Davit Matevosyan has been a karate coach for 26 years and also champion of Estonia. Avetis Harutyunyan leads the “Ararat” football team; he has also taken active part in the Pan-Armenian Games. Swimmer Maria Harutyunyan, double champion of Estonia, won two gold and two bronze medals in the Pan-Armenian Games. The trainers of Estonian wrestling and judo teams were also Armenians. The judo team was led by Vladimir Stepanyan.

The most famous and popular online personality of Estonia is politician Anna-Maria Galojan – Armenian from her mother’s side with a command of the Armenian language – who became particularly popular when she posed nude for Playboy.

Armenians are fully integrated into Estonian life. Armenian lavash bread, basturma, semi-finished barbecues, cheese products, and cognac have invaded the Estonian shops and remain in high demand among Estonians.

Despite its reduced size, the Armenian community is well-educated and organized. Armenians do not complain, but each one lives with his daily concerns, without forgetting the preservation of Armenian roots and keeping the Armenian identity.

Of course, pro-Estonian and pro-Russian internal current and struggle are also present among Armenians.

During our meetings, I felt a major concern: the issue of preserving the Armenian language. All parties agreed that if parents do not follow, no one will teach Armenian to their children. Therefore, community institutions should be strengthened as a place for interaction and meetings. Otherwise, they will forget their mother language very quickly, especially since 40 per cent of Estonian Armenians are families coming from mixed marriages.

Hakob Asatryan




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