A view of some of the interactive exhibits at the original site of the Armenian Museum

Moscow Armenian Museum Showcases Armenian Genocide, Culture and History

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WATERTOWN — Wherever Armenians have established communities in corners of the world distant from their homeland, they have built churches. After that, in many places come schools. Museums are another way of preserving and presenting Armenian culture to the world and to new generations of Armenians too. The Armenian Museum of Moscow and Culture of Nations has begun to play this role in Russia. Museum founder Ruben Tsolakovich Grigoryan related the complicated circumstances of its development.

Grigoryan was born and educated in Yerevan, while his father’s family originally came from a village in Moush (Western Armenia). After graduating from the Polytechnic Institute in Yerevan as a radio engineer, Grigoryan moved to Moscow in 1986 and worked in an educational institution, teaching specialties such as engineering and electronics.

Museum founder  Ruben Grigoryan

After a period in Germany, he returned but the Soviet Union collapsed, so Grigoryan went into the real estate business, primarily in investment, construction and management, and soon became quite successful. He also graduated from the State University of Management in Moscow in 2002 with a doctoral dissertation on small business management and authored several books starting in 2017. He has carried out various philanthropic projects in Armenia and Karabakh.

The Construction of the Cathedral Complex and Museum

In the Soviet period, only one Armenian church was permitted to operate in Moscow. After the Soviet collapse, as the Moscow Armenian community continued to grow, it decided to build a cathedral and a surrounding complex of buildings, in which eventually a museum was to be established. Grigoryan said that thanks to the initiative of several prominent Armenian businessmen, the Russian authorities had provided a wonderful plot of land in the center of Moscow for this purpose in 1998. It is located in the Meshchanskiy District.

There are probably over one million Armenians now in the Moscow area, Grigoryan estimated, but they live all over and there are no special Armenian neighborhoods. For this reason, the location of the church complex in a central location is important because it can be easily accessed via metro and other public transport, as well as driving.

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The construction began under the direction of Murad Sargsyan, who was well known for constructing the Ararat Park Hyatt Hotel in Moscow, but by 2009 only the basement of the cathedral complex had been built. The reason, said Grigoryan, “was connected to the lack of cooperation and disunity of the Armenian community.” The dismissal of Archbishop Tiran Kyureghyan as Primate of the Russia and New Nakhichevan Diocese of the Armenian Church in 2000 and the appointment of a new Primate, then Bishop Ezras Nersisyan, brother of the current catholicos, also impeded the construction process.

Meanwhile, Murad Sargsyan fell deathly ill from cancer. In 2009, Grigoryan explained that with the agreement of Sargsyan and the new Primate, and taking into consideration his experience in the real estate field, he and his company Rutsog-Invest were asked to take on the project for the church complex, including all the construction planning and management. The work he carried out from this point cost approximately 10 million dollars. The construction plan was completely changed, Grigoryan said, and he obtained the approval of the government for this. Several dozen Armenian builders joined the work. In addition, as the construction progressed, many more Armenian benefactors joined the project. The cathedral was completely finished and consecrated in 2014, six months prior to the centennial of the Armenian Genocide.

Moscow’s Holy Transfiguration Armenian Cathedral

In five years, they succeeded in completing the entire complex, which at 25,000 square meters was a very large one, including the Holy Transfiguration Cathedral, the Holy Cross chapel, conference hall, library, and a large parking facility, as well as a museum, which was to be opened on the centennial of the Armenian Genocide.

A centennial committee was planning ceremonies, academic lectures, studies and other activities, but Grigoryan said that he felt this was not sufficient. He said that if you only say something in words and do not show it, people are not able to picture it. The concept of the museum was to show what the Yeghern, or Armenian Genocide, meant for mankind. He said, “If you can easily annihilate so many innocent people – including children, women and elderly, then humanity is destroying itself through that logic.” Hitler, he pointed out, was able to say that no one remembers how the Turks killed the Armenians and proceeded to boldly destroy the Jews. Grigoryan exclaimed, “There is the moral and human side. We must show that if we go this way, not only Jews but many others can be killed and destroyed. In other words, humans must be sane, not living like animals, so that they understand they cannot do this.”

The entrance to the original site of the Armenian Museum of Moscow

Grigoryan said that he carried out the construction of the museum in an intensive fashion from September-October 2014 until April 22, 2015. Its construction cost 1.5 million dollars. The Armenian Museum of Moscow and Culture of Nations opened on April 22, 2015 with a 2,000 square meter high-tech museum with a 3-D movie theater and interactive exhibitions. Armenian dignitaries, Russian academics and Russian government officials such as Stanislav Govorukhin, chair of the culture committee of the Russian State Duma, were present.

Grigoryan said that over the next six months or so, as many as 100,000 people, including many Russians, visited the museum, and nearly all left with tears in their eyes. The Armenian Genocide exposition has several screens on which different episodes are simultaneously shown for 40-45 minutes. Three walls and the ceiling of the room are used so everywhere there are pictures. It explains what happened in three languages, Russian, Armenian and English. It is called “The Armenian Dantesque” after the Armenian-language poem by Hovhannes Shiraz of the same name. Survivors, scholars, and children of survivors speak. The images of Armenians who were killed along with the creative works that person did, are shown, Grigoryan said, so that people understand what culture was lost.

A room dedicated to the Armenian Genocide victims at the original site of the Armenian Museum

The Armenian Museum was able to get what was necessary to prepare its genocide exhibits from the museums of the Armenian State Pedagogical University, the Armenian Genocide Museum Institute, and several other Yerevan museums or institutes.

Some of the modern art at the original site of the Armenian Museum

When all the work had been completed for the church complex, Grigoryan said that the Armenian clergy, led by Archbishop Ezras Nersisyan, the local Primate, declared that the complex must be owned and controlled by the clergy. This forced Grigoryan and his collaborators to move the museum in December 2015 to another location in the same area, while another museum, which became called Tapan [“Ark”] remained in the complex.

Collections

The museum in its new location, Grigoryan said, hosts a library with rare books and publications. It has a number of Armenian medieval manuscripts, and a collection of Armenian costumes. It has ancient artifacts such as a vessel from the 3rd to 2nd centuries B.C., found during excavations in Syunik, Armenia.

3rd-2nd century B.C. vase from Syunik, Armenia

However, the physical artifacts in its collections primarily date from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Among these is the medal “Capture of the Erivan Fortress,” which was issued to commemorate the conclusion of the Russo-Persian War of 1826-28, which led to the annexation of Eastern Armenia to the Russian Empire. The charter of the Lazarev Institute of Oriental Languages (1855) and the illustrated magazine Mayak of Armenia (1881) are part of exhibits on the Moscow Armenian community.

The medal “Capture of the Erivan Fortress,” which was issued to commemorate the conclusion of the Russo-Persian War of 1826-28
The book Fraternal Assistance to Armenians Injured in Turkey, 1897

A number of publications and artifacts displayed concern the massacres of Ottoman Armenians under Sultan Abdulhamid II and the Genocide, including an issue of the magazine Le Rire [The Laughter], published in Paris in 1897 with a caricature of Abdulhamid, the “Bloody Sultan,” and the Russian-language anthology entitled Fraternal Assistance to Armenians Injured in Turkey including the writings of various writers, scholars and historians published in Moscow in 1897 by Grigory Dzhanshiev [Krikor Janshian].

Postage stamps “Petrograd to Armenians” and “Help to the Middle East” are in the same section along with the medal “Armenians and Russians in the Year of Trials” (1915).

Interactive Displays

The emphasis of the museum is on virtual interactive displays. In addition to the Armenian Genocide exhibition mentioned above, there are several other important sections. For example, there is an online interactive globe which provides information on Armenian communities throughout the world. When the globe is turned, on the screen the location of local Armenian communities appear. Zooming in, information on the numbers of Armenians living there, and their institutions, including schools, churches and festivals, appears.

Interactive globe with information on world Armenian communities at the original Armenian Museum site

Another similar virtual exhibit showcases contemporary Armenian painters, with their works, biographies and explanations. Grigoryan said that the museum is working to turn this into a 3D exhibit.

Grigoryan noted that the latter part of the name of the museum includes “And Other Nations” because of the importance of world cultures. He said, “We must place our Armenian culture in the context of all world culture. That is possible when you have expositions comparing it with other cultures and human values.” Furthermore, he added, “If you only show yourself you are merely praising yourself.”

Special Exhibitions and Lectures

Over the past six months, according to the staff of the museum, 20 lectures and temporary exhibitions were held in the museum’s lecture hall and exhibition space. Among them is the exhibition of the People’s Artist of Russia Valery Polotnov “Armenia. Russia. With love…”.

There were several events dedicated to the anniversary of the Second Artsakh War — a photo exhibition by war correspondent Rostislav Zhuravlev called “Black Gardens of War,” screenings of the documentaries by war correspondents Timofey Ermakov and Mikhail Axel Unbroken Artsakh and Armenia after the War, and an art exhibition by Samvel Hakobyan.

Poster for Alexander Shchemlyaev’s photo exhibition on the Armenian earthquake of 1988 last December

On the 33rd anniversary of the Spitak earthquake, the museum hosted a photo exhibition by Alexander Shchemlyaev, “December-88. Earthquake in Armenia,” presenting previously unpublished photos from Spitak and Gyumri.

Among past lectures, we can highlight the lectures of Natalia Tigranovna Pakhsaryan, Doctor of Philology and Professor of Lomonosov Moscow State University, about two French writers of Armenian origin – playwright Arthur Adamov and novelist Henri Troyes. Architect Tigran Harutyunyan on different occasions spoke on the national symbols and urban space of Armenia after the collapse of the USSR, while cinema expert Georgy Nersesov’s presentation was on Sergei Parajanov’s classic film The Color of Pomegranates.

Advertisement for the Arseniy Kotov exhibit

In February, the museum inaugurated a photo exhibition of Russian photographer and traveler Arseniy Kotov called “Architecture of Armenia: Soviet Heritage,” dedicated to the monuments of Armenian architectural modernism of the Soviet era. Immediate plans also include an exhibition by artist Marie Gevorgyan and an art exhibition dedicated to the 107th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.

The Arseniy Kotov exhibit this February

Lectures and events are generally held in Russian. If there are talks in Armenian, as in the case of lecturers from Armenia, simultaneous translation is provided into Russian. Videos are also in Russian, and sometimes subtitles in Armenian or English are provided.

Staff and Cooperation with Other Museums and Institutions

The staff of the Armenian Museum includes a director, a curator of exhibition spaces, and editors. They supervise the work of the museum’s website, lecture hall and exhibition space, as well as dissemination of information on social networks, along with visual design. It also includes a photographer, videographer, editor and technical specialist. In all, according to Grigoryan, there are some 15 people.

Many freelance correspondents who study Armenian history and culture also contribute to the museum’s work. They are from different parts of Armenia, Norway, Italy, France, Lebanon and the US. The museum frequently publishes articles on cultural topics.

Furthermore, according to Grigoryan and the museum staff, the museum interacts with a large number of cultural institutions in Russia and Armenia. It has worked in Armenia with the National Gallery of Armenia, the Russian Museum, the Saryan Museum and the Parajanov House Museum. It has carried out a variety of joint exhibition projects with the Ministry of Culture of Russia, the A[leksandr]. S[ergeyevich]. Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Avetik Burnazyan Federal Medical Biophysical Center Museum, Moscow Museum, Moscow Union of Artists, Greek Cultural Center in Moscow, the Culture Fund “Actual Art,” the project “Mania Cinema,” the Russian State Library, the Museum of Russian-Armenian Friendship in Rostov-on-Don and the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow.

The museum also cooperates with various institutions in other countries in Europe, including France.

Grigoryan said that it has as many as 200,000 followers on social media. The number of physical visitors per month will depend on the types of events and presentations at that time, but on average it is 250-300 people, mostly Russians and Armenians. There are periodically also groups of Georgian, Greek, Iranian or Yezidi visitors.

Turkish and Azerbaijani Relations

Grigoryan said that Turks or Azerbaijanis never tried to halt the creation of the museum or exert direct pressure. However, on social media, like Facebook, they protest its posts and attempt to close its sites, while in exchange the museum registers its own protests. If there are constructive discussions, however, the museum staff replies to the substance of comments.

Recently, when the museum screened a film about Garegin Nzhdeh made by Armenians in the Russian language, Azerbaijanis made a lot of noise because they said Nzhdeh was a fascist who worked with the German Nazis, but Grigoryan said that the museum responded with its own articles showing that this was false.

A video tour of the original museum site follows.

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