Prof. Richard G. Hovannisian

LOS ANGELES — Richard G. Hovannisian was a titan in the field of Armenian Studies — an academic discipline that he shaped with his groundbreaking scholarship and professionalism. He died on July 10 at the age of 90, leaving behind a legacy that is impossible to capture.

He lived the life of a public intellectual. He became a historian with a mission — to promote the study of the Armenian Genocide as a consequential 20th century event. His research and publications cemented the place of the first Republic of Armenia in Armenian history and world history. Yet, he never lost sight of his two other responsibilities, teaching and community building.

He was a professor who shaped multiple generations’ ideas and outlook on what it means to be Armenian. He and his life partner, Dr. Vartiter Kotcholosian Hovannisian, were an unrelenting, resolute presence in the developing Armenian-American community of Southern California — which always included the California Central Valley where his Genocide survivor father settled.

Prof. Hovannisian at the USC Shoah Foundation

His name has been omnipresent in academia for nearly seven decades, making space for Armenian scholars at institutions once out of reach. Hovannisian’s time at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) birthed new scholars through the graduate program he founded in Armenian history. Hovannisian also provided  opportunities for students of all disciplines to have hands-on experience collecting, transcribing, and translating the invaluable oral histories of Armenian Genocide survivors. In recent years, he was also a presence at the University of Southern California, after entrusting his large collection of oral history interviews to the university for preservation and public access. The interviews were among the first to be conducted with genocide survivors.

His father, Kaspar Gavroian, was born in in the village of Bazmashen near Kharpert in 1901. Unlike others, he survived the Genocide and arrived in the US. He changed his last name from Gavroian to Hovannisian after his father Hovannes. In 1928, Kaspar married Siroon Nalbandian, the child of Genocide survivors. They had four sons: John, Ralph, Richard and Vernon. Richard was born in Tulare, on November 9, 1932. Being the son of Genocide survivors played an important role in his academic path. In 1957, he married Dr. Vartiter Kotcholosian in Fresno and had four children: Raffi, Armen, Ani, and Garo. Raffi would become the first Minister of Foreign Affairs (1991-1992) of the Modern Republic of Armenia.

Hovannisian began his academic life in 1954 by earning a BA in history, followed by an MA in history from the University of California, Berkeley. In 1966, he earned his PhD from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). His dissertation was published in 1967 with the title Armenia on the Road to Independence which was the precursor to the four-volume magnum opus The Republic of Armenia. Hovannisian played an important role in establishing the teaching of Armenian history at UCLA. In 1987, he became the first holder of the Armenian Education Foundation Chair in Modern Armenian History at UCLA, which after his retirement was named in his honor as the Richard Hovannisian Endowed Chair in Modern Armenian History, with Prof. Sebouh Aslanian as its first incumbent.

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Hovannisian was a Guggenheim Fellow and received numerous prestigious national and international awards for his service to the field and civic activities. He served on the Board of Directors of multiple national and international educational institutions and was a member of the Armenian National Academy of Sciences. After finishing his four-volume The Republic of Armenia, he dedicated his research and career to battling the denial of Armenian Genocide, resurrecting the history of Armenian towns and villages of the Armenian Provinces of the Ottoman Empire, and writing textbooks on modern Armenian history. Although not a scholar of Armenian Genocide, he has contributed more to the discipline than many others in the field. He edited multiple volumes on different facets of the Armenian Genocide, including historical, literary, and artistic perspectives. Hovannisian also spearheaded a monumental project to preserve the eyewitness accounts of the Armenian Genocide survivors.

Hovannisian in his illustrious career, produced numerous books that are considered foundational, including The Republic of Armenia, Volumes I-IV; and The Armenian Holocaust. He wrote, edited, or contributed to dozens of other books, scholarly articles, and journals on Armenia and Near Eastern society and culture. He trained many young scholars who have gone on to become experts in the study of Armenia from ancient to modern times. Over the years, he earned many fellowships and honors for his commitment to educating the world about Armenian history and culture through his teaching, writing, research, and public lectures.

Having joined the UCLA faculty in 1962, he was also an associate professor of history at Mount St. Mary’s College, Los Angeles, from 1966 to 1969. He served as the associate director of UCLA’s Center for Near Eastern Studies from 1978 to 1995 as well as becoming the first Holder of the Armenian Educational Foundation Chair in Modern Armenian History in 1986, a chair which is now named in his honor.

Besides his contribution to the field, Hovannisian also mentored and educated multiple generations of scholars and thousands of students. He was a strict mentor who demanded that his students work to reach their full potential. He wanted to make sure that they would survive and thrive in the tough terrain of the academic job market.

In his lifetime, Hovannisian was especially influenced by two people: his wife Vartiter and Simon Vratsian (the last Prime Minister of the First Republic of Armenia). Vartiter was his life’s partner for more than half a century. Her dedication to Richard and the field of Armenian Studies played an important role in shaping who Richard became. Vartiter was an intellectual companion who read and reviewed every piece that he wrote. She was also a constant presence at every conference he planned or attended. In the early 1950s, Vratsian, the author of a major book on the First Republic, became Hovannisian’s mentor when he studied Armenian language at the Hamazkayin Nishan Palanjian Jemaran in Beirut, Lebanon.

In 1974, Hovannisian along with Dickran Kouymjian, Nina Garsoïan, Avedis Sanjian, and Robert Thomson spearheaded the project to establish a Society for Armenian Studies (SAS). Considered as the pillars of Armenian Studies, the main objective of this group was the development of Armenian Studies as an academic discipline. With access to very limited resources, this group of scholars was able to establish the foundations of a Society that would play a dominant role in developing Armenian Studies in North America and beyond. From a handful of chairs and programs that supported the initiative at the time, today Armenian Studies as a discipline has flourished in the United States with more than thirteen chairs and programs providing their unconditional support to the Society. Hovannisian was the president of SAS for three terms (1977, 1991-1992, 2006-2009). During his tenure the Society flourished and was able to achieve major accomplishments in the field.

Prof. Hovannisian holding the Medal of the City of Lyon in a ceremony in the historic Hotel de Ville (City Hall) on November 8, 2018.

In 2019, the Society for Armenian Studies awarded Hovannisian with the SAS Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition and appreciation for his outstanding service and contribution to the field of Armenian Studies.

He lectured frequently at the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NASSR), dating back to 1963. “We deeply mourn the passing of Prof. Richard Hovannisian,” stated NAASR Chairperson Judith Saryan. “He was a true pioneer in Armenian Studies and a great friend of NAASR. His contributions to the field are invaluable.”

He last lectured there last year about a book he had edited on the Armenian community of Iran.

Prof. Richard Hovannisian at a program on his latest book, the Armenians of Iran, at the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research, on May 6, 2022

Sebouh D. Aslanian remarked that “Dr. Hovannisian was a mentor to several generations of scholars and a recipient of numerous awards and prizes, including a distinguished Guggenheim fellowship. As the present holder of the chair, I am profoundly indebted to his distinguished contributions to the teaching of Armenian history and for establishing Armenian Studies in North America on a firm foundation — a legacy that will be carried forward in future generations.”

The USC Dornsife Center for Advanced Genocide Research Founding Director Wolf Gruner said, “This is a monumental loss. The magnitude of Richard Hovannisian’s impact on the field of Armenian Studies and on generations of scholars, students, and survivor families cannot be overstated. His scholarly contributions will be long-lasting.” The Richard G. Hovannisian Armenian Genocide Oral History Collection of over 1,000 testimonies is the largest existing collection of voices of Armenian genocide survivors. In 2018, Professor Hovannisian entrusted the collection to the USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive. Several of the Center’s research fellows and visiting scholars have productively relied on these testimonies for their work. “Richard was always generous with sharing his expertise,” Professor Gruner said. “He was very open minded and kind and exemplified what it means to be a public historian. He organized panels about the Armenian genocide in museums, public libraries and scholarly conferences, including the pioneering event at Lessons & Legacies, the premier international academic conference in Holocaust Studies, in November 2010, where I had the honor to be one of the presenters.”

The community wake took place on July 19 at Holy Cross Armenian Apostolic Church, Montebello. The national funeral service will be held on Saturday, July 22, at 11 a.m. at Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church, located at 2226 Ventura Ave., Fresno,.

Prof. Hovannisian is survived by son, Raffi and Armenouhi Hovannisian, children and grandson; son, Armen and Elizabeth Hovannisian, children and granddaughter; daughter, Ani and Armenio Kevorkian and children; son, Garo and Arsineh Hovannisian and children; sister-in-law, Nazik Kotcholosian Messerlian and family; brothers John, Ralph, and Vernon Hovannisian families (Fresno-Visalia); in-laws, Takouhi Khatchikian family, Zabel Aranosian family, Seda Artounians family and Zohrab Kevorkian family.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Orran (Center for Underprivileged Children in Armenia), c/o 2217 Observatory Ave., Los Angeles CA 90027 or the Richard G. Hovannisian Scholarship Fund/Holy Martyrs Ferrahian High School, c/o 101 Groverton Place, Los Angeles, CA 90077.

(Sections from this report were taken from Bedross Der Matossian’s obituary of Professor Richard Hovannisian that was published on the Society for Armenian Studies website on July 10, 2023. Der Matossian is a Professor of Modern Middle East History at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and past President of the Society for Armenian Studies [2018-2022])

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