Richard Hovannisian, left, and Beka Kobakhidze, in Tbilisi, Georgia, 2013

By Beka Kobakhidze

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

The greatest historian of the Caucasus, the founding father of the historiography of the first republics of Transcaucasia, Richard Hovannisian, has passed away. He was a professor emeritus at the University of California Los Angeles.

His grandfather, Hovannis Gavroyan of the village of Bazmashen, Kharpert vilayet, died in the genocide in 1915. His 13-14-year-old father, Kaspar Gavroyan, managed to escape and made a long journey to California. Arriving in America, he changed his last name to Hovannisian in honor of his tragically deceased father. Richard was born in 1932 and grew up in a farming area near Tulare, California. He entered the faculty of history. He did not know Armenian. This is how he remembered this period: “at the end of every book, I opened the index pages and looked for Armenia if it was mentioned, but I couldn’t find it anywhere; I barely saw ten books where my historical homeland was mentioned. I had a dream that Armenia would become independent and I would be its foreign minister. When I was in New York, I used to go to the UN headquarters and dreamed of seeing the Armenian flag there.” Therefore, he decided to write his doctoral dissertation on the foreign policy of the first Republic of Armenia. For this he needed to learn Armenian. He moved to live in Beirut, Lebanon, where the Armenian political emigration took refuge. He studied Armenian and talked every day with Simon Vratsyan, the last prime minister of the first Republic of Armenia, the commander-in-chief of the Armenian army Drastamak Kanayan (General Dro) and other emigrants.

His love for the Armenian republic was growing, but while writing his dissertation, he realized that not only could he not include the history of two years of independence in one book, but he could not even reach the declaration of independence. Therefore, the title of his dissertation and the first book published in 1967 became Armenia on Road to Independence, which covered the period until May 1918. After that, he researched the history of the republic for another 30 years and published the four-volume set of The Republic of Armenia. He was joking about himself: “I was studying two years of independence during 35 years.” When he was doing this project, he visited several continents, dozens of countries and even more archives. He also learned new languages for the same purpose. At the end of this long journey the USSR collapsed and he was admitted to the Soviet archives. He did not become the foreign minister, but he still fulfilled his dream – his son, the first foreign minister of independent Armenia, Raffi Hovannisian, raised the flag of independent Armenia at the UN headquarters in New York.

In addition to researching the Republic, Richard took advantage of his American citizenship and traveled throughout Turkey, describing the Armenian footprint in every important city and region, while it still existed. Thus, he published 16 volumes on “Turkish Armenia.”

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One may think that 90 years is a long-enough life, but for Professor Hovanesian, 120 years would be too little, because he never retired. He wrote and researched until the end of his life. In 2021, Armenian Communities of Persia/Iran was published under his editorship. A two-volume textbook The Armenian People from Ancient Times to Modern Times was published under his editorship, which my students know well, because I use it as a textbook for the history of the Caucasus.

And those handful of ten books which Richard mentioned when talking about the beginning of his career turned into hundreds of monographs. During my scholarly journeys to the United States, I met Richard’s students and disciples, now over 70 years old, who have staffed the best universities in America. They have become professors, and they have written a good number of books. His legacy is limitless. Now the number of books written about Armenia in Western historiography is comparable to that of great nations.

His research style was encyclopedic and thoroughly precise. One of his friends joked, while editing the monograph, that Richard argued for half an hour about one of the commas, whether it should be put there or not. He wrote with a broad regional and transnational context. Therefore, he wrote about the foreign policy of the first Republic of Georgia much more than Georgian historians had done until very recently. Although he was a patriot of Armenia, his judgments were balanced not only about Georgia, but also about the first Republic of Azerbaijan. He honestly wrote about the arguments of the Georgians during the Armenian-Georgian war and about the arguments of the Azerbaijanis in relation to Karabakh; but he himself, of course, was a patriot of Armenia. He taught me about this: “patriotism is good, but you should also always present the arguments of the other side.”

With his entire career, writing style, and scholarly interests, Richard was, is, and will remain a role model for me. Last year, in one of the interviews, he mentioned that a generation of historians is growing in Georgia, who will become “Georgia’s Richard Hovannisians.” When I heard that, I walked around with a shining face for a week. Yes, we the Georgian historians have to travel Richard’s way. We are decades late, but we need a similar school of historiography which Richard founded for Armenians and our students should publish their books at Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard and Berkeley, like Richard’s students have already done.

I met Professor Hovannisian in 2013. That year we won a summer school grant and held a one-week summer school, “The First Republic of Georgia,” at the National Archives of Georgia. At that time, my young friends and I were generally unknown people, but we managed to invite important international guests. The main one was Richard Hovannisian. We became friends and after that he stood by my side like a grandfather to a grandson. We have exchanged hundreds of letters, and when I was going somewhere abroad, he would send a letter to his academic friends at one or another university to the effect that “my boy is coming and you should see him.”

Richard Hovannisian, left, and Beka Kobakhidze, in Tbilisi, Georgia, 2018

In 2018, I invited him to Georgia two more times. On May 29, an event dedicated to the centennial of the republics was held in Ilia State University. The speakers were Richard Hovanesian and Stephen Jones (currently Director of Georgian Program at Harvard), and I was privileged to be moderating a discussion between the two major scholars of the South Caucasus republics. Richard did not hesitate to come from California to Tbilisi again in just three weeks for the conference and summer school dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the republics. Based on the reports of this forum, a comprehensive collected volume was published, authored by Steven Jones, Ronald Suny, Winfried Baumgart, Charlotte Alston, Irada Bagirova, Eric Lee, Andrew Andersen, Haji Murad Danogo, Adrian Brisku and Georgian historians of the first Republic (old and new generation) . Richard wrote the foreword for this book and entitled it Unfinished Symphony. So far, it is his only – and worth reading – Georgian publication.

From left, Richard Hovannisian, Stephen Jones and Beka Kobakhidze

In 2019, I was at the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES) conference in San Francisco. He told me that I should go to Los Angeles, UCLA would purchase tickets for me, I would be accommodated at the UCLA guest house, and I would be paid a honorarium for delivering a lecture at UCLA. It so happened that the only possible time to deliver a lecture was a day before Thanksgiving Day. He told me that from the Los Angeles airport I should go straight to his place to attend his family dinner. Due to Thanksgiving, the airport was completely paralyzed and the taxi did not come to pick me up for three hours. Meanwhile, it was 11 p.m., and I had to go straight to the hotel. Then an 87-year-old man came to see me with food and drink at almost midnight. He told me “you must be hungry now, and where would you buy food here?” Those little things are very telling and revealing of Professor Hovannisian’s personality as to how a legendary man treated a young and unknown scholar.

Richard Hovannisian, left, and Beka Kobakhidze in Los Angeles, 2019

Anyone who knows America will know that Thanksgiving is a holiday of similar importance to Christmas and New Year. It is simply impossible to bring someone to a university and especially to listen to a lecture a day before Thanksgiving, but who could stand against Richard’s request?! He gathered the Dean, administration leadership, students, and he himself came with his family and made those poor people listen to me. Then he asked his friends to show me Los Angeles and at the end of the day he took me out to dinner with his young students.

That is where I saw his personality once again. Richard’s wife, the late Vartiter Kotcholosian, had dementia. In the past, she was a doctor of medical sciences, a well-known doctor, but dementia turns a person into a small child. Richard took her everywhere we went and I will never forget how he took care of her, talked to her all the time and looked at her with loving eyes. Last year, after the death of Vartiter, he kept repeating to me that he could not accept and would never accept the fact that she was no longer alive.

Richard left not only books, but also his family. His children and grandchildren are all successful people: writers, directors, politicians, attorneys and so on.

While I was in America, I called him every week and “reported” to him on my work in progress, shared with him my impressions, and asked for his counsel. I will always regret the fact that he did not see my book published on the foreign policy of the first Republic of Georgia; a book that he had been supporting for 10 years and which I wrote guided by his books and through his invaluable counsel. It will be published next year, but Richard will not see it. I also regret that I could not introduce this epochal person to my students.

He lived a glorious and impressive life, but he refused to write memoirs. He claimed that he felt uncomfortable with writing about himself but instead others should speak about him. That is why I decided to write this text, because everyone should write their share about Richard Hovannisian at length.

Every nation would be proud of and rich to have Richard Hovannisian. I express my most sincere condolences to the Hovannisian family, Armenian community of America and the whole Armenian nation.

This heavy loss is shared by my and Richard’s common academic friends from Georgia and they join me in expressing condolences: Stephen Jones, Dimitri Silakadze, Adrian Brisku, Alexander Mikaberidze, Giorgi Astamadze, Irakli Khvadagiani, David Khvadagiani, Sarah Slye, Lasha Bakradze, Dimitri Shvelidze, Otar Janelidze, Mikheil Bakhtadze.

(Beka Kobakhidze is Co-chair of the MA Program in Modern History of Georgia at Ilia State University, and Professor and Georgian Studies Fellow at Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.)

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