Visit of the French president, May 2014: center, from left, President Serzh Sargsyan of Armenia, President François Hollande, Dr. Hayk Demoyan

Genocide Museum’s Demoyan Seeks to Chart Original Path


By Aram Arkun

Mirror-Spectator Staff

WATERTOWN — Hayk Demoyan came into prominence as the director of the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute (AGMI) of Yerevan in 2006. He not only appeared as a public figure dealing with the topic of the Armenian Genocide but also spoke up on other social and political issues. When he came to the United States this fall, many wondered what that meant for his position and future. After writing three opinion pieces for the Mirror-Spectator, Demoyan in this interview reflects on his career and future plans.

“Last year I applied to the US Fulbright Visiting Scholar program. I was accepted for a period of 10 months to carry out research. I selected the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University,” Demoyan said. He chose the topic of identity transformations in post-Soviet Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan for his research, which, he said, he began studying 10 years ago. He followed the trends in identity transformation in the three Caucasian republics, including memory and linguistic policies, the creation of new diasporas, the invention of new calendars of the independence period. Demoyan said that “Harvard is a wonderful place because there are a lot of data bases and available materials. Accessibility makes work easy, but at the same time complicated because of the huge amount of materials you have to deal with.” The final product will be a book of at least 400 pages, in English.

Hillary Clinton’s visit to Tzitzernakaberd Armenian Genocide memorial, 2010

From Karabakh to Genocide

Demoyan graduated from Yerevan State University in 1998 as a cultural anthropologist, working on ethnopsychological studies on the Caucasus. As a doctoral candidate (somewhere in-between the US master’s and doctoral stages) he studied economic and social reforms in Turkey in the 1980s, especially the so-called miracle period of Turgut Özal during which Turkey began to turn into a leading world economy from a position of bankruptcy through political will and leadership. His doctoral dissertation was on the Karabakh conflict and Turkish foreign policy, with a comparation between the situations at the start and end of the 20th century. He defended it in 2011 and produced a Russian-language monograph, which he hopes to see published in English in 2018.

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Obviously he was not a specialist on the Armenian Genocide, and he entered this field relatively late in his academic career. Vladimir Barkhudaryan, vice president of the Armenian National Academy of Sciences at the time, contacted him. Demoyan said, “I was 31 years old when I received the invitation, which turned into insistence, to accept the position of director of the AGMI. I wanted to enjoy my academic freedom to research and understood well the challenges to be faced in that position. My research was mostly on Karabakh, not on the Genocide at that time, although as a doctoral student I was dealing with Turkish Studies. This meant that I had to make a big shift in my work. I tried to resist, but after the third time, the seriousness of the situation was explained to me. I finally thought, why not.”

Apart from a feeling of responsibility, Demoyan said, he had to consider whether he could change what was missing or wrong there as a historian. This was in the fall of 2006, and since then, he worked to alter the world’s perception of AGMI through conferences, a new website, publications in multiple languages, visits to colleagues, cooperation with various other museums, institutes and academic centers, the development of a new concept of museum exhibition and visualization of the topic of the Genocide, and many other changes. The collections of the museum were expanded, in part through collaboration with collectors throughout the world and many donations, which reached 100,000 in number by 2017. Scholars from outside Armenia were encouraged to work on the Armenian Genocide in Armenia through the Raphael Lemkin Scholarship program, which supports two researchers a year for one-month visits.

Demoyan is particularly proud of his work during the centennial of the Genocide, with exhibitions in nearly 40 countries and numerous books printed in four languages. The museum was expanded and its permanent exhibition was thoroughly revised in 2015 with a new modern design and interactive facilities. That same year the International Journal for Armenian Genocide Studies ( was launched, featuring double-blind peer review and articles written in English. Furthermore, he was appointed as secretary of the coordinating commission created by the government of Armenia in 2011 to promote the commemoration of the centennial of the Armenian Genocide (see

Demoyan declared, “A lot of people who visited the museum are giving positive responses to all these changes, which makes me happy. Furthermore, nearly every day over the last two years we have had Turkish visitors. This year alone we had about 300 so far. Even they come and say thank you for our detailed approach.”

Ceremony of plaque dedication in memory of Clara Barton with former US ambassador John Heffern, May 2012, at right

Demoyan said, “I cannot imagine my life without Tzitzernakaberd [AGMI].’ He retains his position as head of the scholarly council of AGMI and continues to work long-distance as director while is in the United States, though temporarily Gevorg Vartanian is filling in for him. Demoyan said that his absence is only physical. He said, “It does not mean that I am not in touch. Just before entering the Baikar Building [for this interview], I was talking about things happening with the museum and I am in contact with the staff every day. I edit some papers, and provide instructions before VIP visits to the memorial complex and the museum. We are preparing events for next year, including exhibits in connection with the centennial of the first Republic of Armenia for April, the Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity, the centennial of Homenetmen, and the summit of the heads of Francophone counties in Yerevan in October 2018.

Demoyan revealed that the AGMI will have a new status starting in 2018. It will no longer be part of the Armenian National Academy of Sciences but will instead have an autonomous status like the Matenadaran, as a non-profit foundation with a board of trustees. Demoyan said, “This will present new opportunities for us.”

Leaving the Academy was one of Demoyan’s initiatives, he said.

Standing One’s Ground

Demoyan declared that he has been always able to maintain his independence in his post in Armenia despite all types of pressures. He said that he was able to do this for two reasons. First, he said, “It was my voluntary decision to take this position. Everybody in Armenia knows that. … I am not indebted to anyone. Secondly, my work was successful on a professional level.”

When asked about his interests in politics, Demoyan replied, “I am a person who has no political ambitions. I am an academician. The Armenian state can feel comfortable and relaxed concerning visiting VIP guests because I know how to deal with them. I know languages, but that is not the main thing.”

Demoyan said, “My case is very unique for the Armenian situation. Subordination and dependence are fixed in Armenia. … I realized that after I said my bold yes to accept my position, some people tried to control me and dictate to me their own rules. A schism or breaking point occurred after I recognized that I cannot realize my own ideas if I follow those restrictions. Unfortunately, the person who tried to convince me to hold the position of director of AGMI, after two years openly said to me: ‘You work hard and because of that you are always in the center of attention. Just weaken your zeal because you overshadow your colleagues from the other institutions.’ Yes, this was said to me, and I realized that the time to cut the ties with Academy of Science had come.”

Demoyan pointed out as an example of his resistance to political interference the attempts to sell the 100 acres of land the AGMI controls, which is one of the largest green areas in Yerevan. He said, “It would have been easy for me to say I do not want a headache with this green area — irrigation, trees, animals, garbage and so forth — let someone else deal with it. But my understanding of environmental security and maintenance led to me conclude that it could be a dangerous decision to abandon it, so I permanently am in a fight with people who have plans on for this territory.”

A final point of no return for Demoyan took place in 2012. He said, “The presidium of the Academy of Science targeted me to destroy my doctoral dissertation in order to open the way for others who are more obedient and tranquil. In my opinion, it was one of the most shameful episodes in the history of the Academy of Science. In short it was a clear case of corruption with the involvement of many high-ranking officials, who had their own calculations and intentions before the Genocide centennial.” He added that more recently, AGMI critiqued the eight-volume history of Armenia series being published by the Institute of History of the Academy of Sciences, focusing on the volume which deals with the Armenian Genocide and related matters, but a head of the Department of the Armenological studies of the National Academy tried to convince him not to publish this review. Afterwards Demoyan himself was criticized for his criticism. The critical review of the AGMI was printed as a 110-page publication with an ISBN, but his opponents refrained from publishing their own response officially so that it could be easily found.

Despite, or perhaps because of such issues, Demoyan participated in several public bodies. He was appointed by President Serzh Sargsyan as a member of the 36-person advisory Public Council of the Republic of Armenia in 2009, and was elected in 2013 to the 65-person Yerevan City Council of Elders as part of the Republican Party faction.

Concerning these two positions, Demoyan said, “I had only one motivation — to change something if I can, alone or with my friends.” He wanted to work closely with the city council on the preparations for the Armenian Genocide centennial, which, he said, “was very productive.” The second reason for his participation was to take care of the issues concerning the Tsitsernakaberd park around the memorial, and the third was in order to raise the issue of seismic security in Yerevan. Demoyan felt he was not successful in the latter, and bewailed the fact that the lessons from the 1988 earthquake have not been learned.

He said, “I survived that earthquake. I know what it is to feel it and have it pass through it. It is for your whole life. And now it is horrible that multilevel buildings still appear in Yerevan close to each other.”

This year he did not renew his candidacy because of his research plans.

Demoyan said that the Public Council is not a politically-based body. It was founded with 12 initial members in 2009, including himself, and then broadened to 36. He said, “When I was elected, I was in Providence, and the telephone call was a surprise to me. There was a lot of hope. After the March 2008 events [the violent crushing of protests about the presidential election, leading to at least 10 deaths and many arrests], society was in a desperate situation. Everybody tried to find a solution. … The Council was regarded as a place where people can discuss and try to solve issues.”

However, Demoyan said, he was disappointed overall with the quite modest impact of that advisory body.

No Politics, Please

Demoyan stressed his lack of affiliation with any political group in Armenia (or abroad). He said, “I have never been a member of any political group, and I am not going to be a member of any political party in the near future. A non-partisan status makes your life both interesting and complicated in Armenia. If you want to solve personal issues, concerning business, personal or reputation, you have to be a part of certain groups. But I did not find a milieu I can be part of. My personal, subjective thinking is that political parties make more wrongs and are harmful in the Armenian world than bring benefits.”

As an intellectual, he said, “I hate being a conformist. One of the dangers of Armenian society is being conformist and cautious to speak out. A lot of people know what is wrong but they keep calm and shut their mouths. Why make trouble [they think]; people can then make trouble for you.”

He added that he did not like mindless criticism. “Criticism must not be just for the sake of criticism. In other words, you have to be constructive with your criticism, not destructive. I call this intellectual, not political, opposition.”

He added, “Everyone knows I can vote against the majority. If someone wants to label me as opposition, I can accept that term for me as an intellectual. I think the person who is thinking and writing must be free. The intellectual is an internally free person, not biased or conformist. In terms of opposition, I think that every intellectual by default is an oppositionist — not only against the government but against anything that is wrong in his or her opinion, and for the common benefit or state security.”

Demoyan said, “Some circles of the government label me as a troublemaker, a person who is not calm, who is not obedient. Some of them try to explain to me that as a public person I should refrain from making public declarations and statements. Isn’t it funny? My intent is not to call attention to my person. I do not need additional attention. I am not going to apply to be a member of parliament or another public position. I want to direct the attention of the public and the government to issues which touch everyone, to problems which harm the overall security of the country.”

He gave several examples when he spoke out. First, he was upset with the prominent advertisements of casinos at Yerevan’s airport, which led him to write “Pari Yegak Casinoland” [Welcome to Casinoland]. This led to change, and now there are no such advertisements, which, incidentally, were not even in Armenian but in Russian. A second episode was his personal vote against the erection of a monument to Anastas Mikoyan, the Soviet leader, whom many considered an important political figure because he is an Armenian.

On the other hand, there are eight advertisements of vodka on Mashtots Avenue when you come to Yerevan. Demoyan said, “My eyes see this and I have to speak. I criticized this, but those 8 modern advertisement panels with illumination are still there. If I say I am Armenian, and I respect my culture and heritage, but when the main avenue which carries the name of the creator of the Armenian alphabet, starts with vodka ads and ends with the Matenadaran, I cannot stand it!”

He added: “Believe me, when you work in a place called the Armenian Genocide Museum, when nearly every day you deal with episodes of the tragedy which happened to your nation, your sense of justice and motivations to cope with injustice are different than others, especially when you witness how injustice is committed by your compatriots against other compatriots.”

Demoyan’s Harvard research, which examines attempts to bring back Soviet values and ways of thinking emanating from Russia to parts of the former Soviet Union, leads him to wonder what will happen in the next 10-15 years, when the generation with a Soviet way of thinking and nostalgia will no longer be the main decision makers for society due to age and the passage of time. He said that a lack of dialogue and attempts to re-Sovietize might lead to new polarization in Armenian society, as there is “a deepening gap between the authorities and citizens of the Republic” (see more in the summary of his 2016 lecture in the Mirror-Spectator, /2016/10/20/demoyan-warns-of-dire-situation-in-armenia/).

He added that a related problem was that in Armenia, “this is a society of forgetting, of oblivion. It is planned that you should not remember what happened last week, a year ago, or ten years ago.”

Demoyan wants to avoid revolutionary change, but finds that evolutionary change is too slow. He said, “I am a critical optimist,” and concluded, “Our only hope is that the current government will understand that the situation is in a deadlock…and the deadlock cannot continue as it will lead to the collapse of the state. The peaceful rotation of elites, enabling others from the generation of independence to be involved in the government, is one of the crucial solutions but not the main one.”

Demoyan, while in the United States, is also focusing on a different set of Armenian-American issues, though connected with his research on identity transformations. Next year is the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Martin the Armenian to the New World, to Virginia back in 1618. He said that “unfortunately, we have no museum on American Armenians or illustrated volumes to show that rich history, though some academic works exist. As there are no high-profile exhibitions, having gathered a lot of visual materials, I started to work two years ago on an illustrated catalogue, which will be completed early next spring: The Armenian Legacy in America: The 400-Year Heritage.” This work will be some 600 pages long with 2,000 illustrations, mostly previously unknown.

(All opinions expressed in the above article by Hayk Demoyan are his alone and have no connection to the US Fulbright Visiting Scholar program.)

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