Amatuni Virabyan (photo Aram Arkun)

Virabyan Expanding and Making Armenia’s National Archives More Accessible

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YEREVAN — Anyone who has had occasion to use the National Archives of Armenia (http://www.armarchives.am/) has come into contact with its hearty and energetic director Amatuni Virabyan. He has worked for many decades at the archives and has left a strong imprint on the institution.

The decision to establish the state central archives in the Soviet period took place in 1923. By 2006, after various stages of organization, the central archives came to have 11 provincial branches (including also a film, photo and audiovisual archive in Yerevan; http://www.armarchives.am/en/content/69/ and 29 regional offices http://www.armarchives.am/en/content/73/. They contained at that date, according to the official website of the archives, 5,759 fonds (record or archival groups) preserving 3,419,353 documentary units.

The oldest document in the archives is a 1607 deed signed by Shah Abbas I of Persia on land benefits to the Armenian meliks or princes of Kashatagh. The archives contain documents from Tsarist Russian times, but the main materials originate from the Soviet period to the present.

The National Archives, in addition to its own materials, was expanded in recent times to include the Department of Sociopolitical Documents, which used to be the archive of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, and the Central National Archive of Films, Photographs and Sound-Recording Documents, which itself was created in 1943. It therefore contains thousands of movies.

According to a 2004 law of the Armenian National Assembly, the National Archives became a part of the Ministry of Culture, Youth Issues and Sports, which today is now the Ministry of Education, Science, Culture and Sport.

Virabyan stated last October that there were 325 employees at the archives. In addition, there were some 70 additional archivists at the Armenian presidential archive, the government and the ministries, so that the total staff comes to approximately 400. Of this total, only roughly 30 are researchers.  He said, “I always joke that there are more employees in China’s archives than inhabitants of Armenia. There are over 3 million archival personnel in China.”

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Collection and Preservation

There are always new materials being sorted through, Virabyan said. “Not everything is kept,” he continued. “We take out the ones which have historical and scholarly value.” They come from the presidential staff archive up to April 9, 2018, the date when Serzh Sargsyan’s presidency ended. Material continues to be brought to the archives from the government, the ministries, from individuals and intellectuals.

What is decided as significant is transferred to storage. Virabyan said, “Whatever is open, all are free to study. Whatever is categorized as secret might remain as such for 10 or 30 years. One day, after sufficient time passes, these items will also be accessible. It appears that Armenia is the only country where the documents of the president until 2018 are found in the archives and researchers can study them.”

As far as the Armenian Genocide is concerned, Virabyan said that the archives already possess whatever is possible on it, including copies of materials in other major archives except from Turkey, due to obvious difficulties of access. He noted that even Turkish citizens do not have full access to the Turkish General Staff’s military archives. He also stated that the Iranian archives remain to be explored by Iranian language specialists, of whom there are not enough at present in Armenia.

He said that there may still be a certain amount of material in people’s homes, but this is not that much. In 2004-5, for the 90th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, the archives carried out an oral history campaign in the Talin region among families from Moush and Sassoun, and recorded 50 hours of testimony.

Special measures have been taken to prevent fire or flood from damaging the archive holdings. Virabyan said, “We have special systems in place for this. There is no electric current if people are not present and there is no water. We heat the storage area in winter with hot air and in the summer cool it with cold air.”

Furthermore, there is a laboratory or restoration center, where 25 people work daily to repair damaged documents.

Amatuni Virabyan

Digitization

Virabyan stated that one of the most important aspects of the work of the archives at present is the digitization of documents. It began in earnest in 2010, but, Virabyan said, “as there are around 400 million documents, and roughly 200,000 pages are scanned per year, you can imagine how much time is necessary to do everything.”

Digitization solves two issues, he said. First, you can find information quickly, and secondly, you do not touch the original documents any longer. The document will not get damaged by users. The archive is different from libraries because each document is unique and an original, whereas books might have hundreds, or hundreds of thousands, of copies.

In the past, the Armenian archives would film certain documents and then the microfilm could be accessed through special machines but this has been replaced by digitization.

The policy has been adopted of first digitizing items that are the most in demand. At present, these are documents for people conducting genealogical research. They seek documents about births, marriages, deaths and censuses in order to prepare their family trees.  Whatever is connected to the Armenian Genocide is also in demand and will be digitized.

The digitized materials at present can be used only in the internal network at the archives, but, Virabyan said, in time everything will also be posted on the internet for the public. The legal basis for this has to be established so that problems will not be created. There are issues pertaining to individuals mentioned in documents.

A Historian’s Career in the Archives

Born in Geghanist, a village of Shirak Province, Virabyan studied 20th century history at Kirovakan State Pedagogical Institute’s Faculty of History. His first doctoral thesis (candidate’s) was on “Social-Political Life in Armenia Up to the War,” and his second, full doctoral thesis was on post-World War II Armenia, “Armenia from Stalin to Khrushchev.”  When asked how he entered the field of archives, he replied, “Completely by chance.” He said he did not even know what archives were when he was at the university.

However, the Communist Party at that time was looking for a historian, who had to be a Communist and had to be young, for its own archive. Virabyan said, “They kept looking and eventually found me. They called me, and I was amazed and asked what this was. They explained it to me and I found it interesting.”

He began working in 1990 as senior researcher there and gradually rose through the ranks. It has been 40 years that he has worked in the archives. In 2001, he became head of the archives agency department and in 2003 director of the National Archives. Basically, he said with a chuckle, he has directed the archives of Armenia for the entire 21st century.

Among other things, Virabyan prepares new generations of archivists. He is the director of Museum Studies, Library Sciences and Archival Studies at the Khachatur Abovyan Armenian State Pedagogical University. He works with students over the four years of the baccalaureate and the two years of master’s degree studies, and often accepts graduates to positions at the archives. In 2018, he said, two of his students became candidates of science, the first doctoral level, and in 2019, one more was expected to reach this level.

Virabyan said that usually he assembles the archive’s staff during the winter to work with them further. A new direction that he wants to stress for the archives, he said, is to show how ordinary people lived in the past and look at individuals.

Exhibitions

The National Archives frequently publishes collections of documents in its own periodical and as separate volumes, when financing permits. Virabyan has edited a number of these volumes himself. It also prepares various exhibitions, often working together with other Armenian institutions and museums.

In November, the exhibition “The Rescue of the Armenians in the Middle East, 1915-1923: From National Unity to Revival” was inaugurated at the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute. The National Archives contributed many materials. It continues to April 2020.

In the spring of 2019, the archives worked with the Hovhannes Tumanyan Museum to create an exhibition dedicated to the 150th anniversary of Tumanyan’s birth. Tumanyan was not only a writer and poet but also was an activist interested in all developments in the life of the Armenian people. Virabyan said that he had a hobby of collecting maps, which allowed studying what was taking place in Western Armenia, including during World War I. These were rare maps sometimes not otherwise preserved, which now are in the National Archives. They were displayed at this exhibition.

A parallel exhibit was being prepared with the new Komitas Institute-Museum dedicated to the 150th anniversary of Komitas’ birth. The National Archives, Virabyan explained, contain documents about Komitas’s studies at the Gevorgian Seminary of Echmiadzin, and his later studies in Europe (he was continually in touch with the See of Holy Echmiadzin in order to receive money for his education and to present an accounting of how he spent that money). The archives of Echmiadzin until 1955 are preserved at the National Archives. They also contain further correspondence by Komitas as a vartabed and a teacher until 1911, when he went to Constantinople.

Finally, Virabyan said that a new exhibition was being prepared for 2020 on the World War II victory against Fascism by the Allies (the Soviet Union, United States, Great Britain and France), which Virabyan considers a victory for mankind. He said that the predecessor of the Armenian news agency Armenpress, which was called the Telegraphic Agency, would post caricatures of Germany and its allies, weekly on a wall. People would view Hitler with the visage of a pig or caricatures of Mussolini, Admiral Miklos Horthy of Hungary and other Fascist or Nazi leaders.

In all there were 103 images through 1943, and many were by noted artists. They will be exhibited along with satirical poems that were also printed and posted during that period.

 

 

 

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