The following article is based in part on introductory remarks for a panel discussion entitled "Armenian Identity," that took place at a Los Angeles-area Armenian high school on May 11, 2010.



The topic is identity. I'm not sure what ethnic identity is, but I wonder if this has something to do with the people we take to be our role models, our heroes. If so, then I wonder how many generations in the diaspora can sustain a connection to ancestors who are presented to them as mostly victims. Or how long young people are supposed to admire the sort of gangsters who have risen to prominence in Armenia today. Or to admire silly self-absorbed celebrities, or professional politicians, and our several moneygrubbing billionaires. I suppose there’s always a way to dress up swinishness, mediocrity and greed, to make them appear virtuous. But speaking for myself, I would never have chosen to think of myself as Armenian if these were the only role models available. Or these plus the demigods and semi-mythological figures--Medzn Dikran, Vartan Mamigonian, Khrimian Hairig, and so forth. Personally, I’ve never been interested in these guys. The Ancient Ones come off as comic book superheroes, and they only underscore, by way of contrast, the shoddiness, pettiness, and frippery of present-day role models.

In one of his plays, the German playwright Bertoldt Brecht has a character, Andrea, say: “Unhappy is the land that breeds no heroes.”(1) To which the central character responds, “No, Andrea, unhappy is the land that needs heroes.” Brecht would have been the first to agree that we live in unhappy times, that these days every land needs heroes. If you don’t choose your own heroes, Hollywood will provide fictional ones for you.

Three Real Heroes

If I were to ask you what modern-day Armenian heroes you’ve heard of, some of you might say Zoravar Antranik, or Soghoman Tehlirian, or maybe Hrant Dink. But I wonder how many of you know the names Stepan Shahumyan,(2) Hovhanness Bagramyan, Anastas Mikoyan?

Did you know that for years during the twentieth century, the century you were born in, one of the most powerful people on earth was an Armenian, Anastas Mikoyan? (3) He was Chairman of the Presidium (the Politburo) of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR from 1964 to 1965. He was the first Soviet official to visit revolutionary Cuba,and in 1963 he represented the USSR at the funeral of President Robert F. Kennedy. For a while under First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev, Mikoyan was the second most influential figure in the Soviet Union. And the Soviet Union was widely presented, in the East and the West, as the second most powerful state on earth.

Marshal Hovhannes Bagramyan is another name you might not have heard of. In 1915, at the age of 17 or 18—not much older than many of you here--he fought against Ottoman invaders in battles at Asadabad, Hemdan, and Kermanshah. In 1918, he was a member of the First Armenian Cavalry Regiment that fought to defend Armenia from the invading Ottoman army. In May 1918 he fought at Sardarabad. In the twenties he was appointed commander of cavalry in the Soviet Army. In June 1940—one year before Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union--Bagramyan started drawing up plans, in expectation of a Nazi invasion. He fought in Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, and the Baltics. And in 1967, he served in Vietnam as a military expert, helping the Vietnamese people to free their land from tyrants and foreign invaders. Bagramyan received the highest Soviet military honors and decorations.(4)

General David Petraeus I suppose is the nearest thing the United States has to a military hero these days. For all of the praise and decorations heaped on him, Petraeus is a career bureaucrat in a Goliath trillion-dollar military machine, a machine that dwarfs all possible contenders combined. Gen. Petraeus would never order his forces into action unless he were assured of overwhelming superiority on the battlefield. And it should be said that he does not defend people; he defends an imperialist order that has invaded and occupied dozens of countries thousands of miles from U.S. borders. Gen. Petraeus is not even in the same category as Marshal Bagramyan.

Three Heroines, Too

I’ve mentioned three men, but there have been women, too. Some of you have heard of Sose Vardanian (1865-1952), one of thousands of Armenian women who fought on front lines in the Soviet Army. And of course, there are lots of heroes who were neither leaders nor military figures.

For example, there is Maro Vardanian, also known as Maro Nazarbek (1865-1941) She was one of the founders of the Social Democrat Hunchak Party, and a member of the edictory board of their journal, as well as a member of the Central Committe. In the 1900s she met with Russian Reovolutionary Vladimir Lenin. Because of her revolutionary activitivities, whe was arrested, in 1910, and sent to Siberia. After the establishment of Soviet power in Armenia, she returned to the Armenian community in Tiflis, Georgia. In 1925 she became a member of the Communisty Party of the Soviet Union.

And then there is Marietta Shaginyan (1888-1982), an outstanding Soviet author, poet, and playwright. Her novel Hydrocentral (1930-1931) was written about her experiences at the construction site of the Dzore Power Station in Armenia. In 1972 she received the prestigious Lenin prize for her writing. You can read her book about Lenin, entitled Retracing Lenin's Steps, published in English translation in 2001.

And then there is this remarkable woman, Armen Ohanian (1887-1976). In 1905, when she gradutate from secondary school in Baku, she was caught up in a massacre that claimed her father's life. Barely twenty years old, she began a career in theatre, opera, and choreography. Her career took her to Moscow, Tbilisi, Iran, and Egypt. She became famous in European cities, too, and in the United States and Mexico. After settling in Paris in 1912 , she began a writing career--poems, autobiographical sketches, children's literature, and translations of Russian, Armenian, and Mexican literature. Her first book, The Dancer of Shamaka, was published in 1918 in French, and later translated into many other languages. In 1934 she settled in Mexico City with her husband, a Mexican economist and diplomat, and there she founded a school of native dance two years later. For the next decades until her death, she was a writer, a dancer, a translator, and an active member of the Communist Party of Mexico.

* * *

Ohanyan, Shaginyan, Maro, Bagramyan, Mikoyan, Shahumyan. Why haven't we heard of these generous, creative, brave women and men? Reading about them, one gets the feeling that they were happy people; they fought the good fight, they won battle after battle, and it often seems as though they would not have chosen to live their lives any other way. They fought and worked for Armenia, and for the freedom and dignity of other peoples, too, from Russia to Cuba, Vietnam to Mexico.

Google them. And if you want, take them as your heroes, make them part of your identity.



1.) B. Brecht, The Life of Galileo (1943).

2.) You can read about Stepan Shahumyan in Ronald Suny’s excellent book, The Baku Commune.

3.) Born in 1895 in Sanahin; died in 1978 in Moscow. His younger brother Artem, was one of the main designers of the MiG military aircraft.

4.) Two orders of Hero of the Soviet Union; seven Orders of Lenin; the Order of the October Revolution; three Orders of the Red Banner, and so on.


[previous] [more information] [home]