Elisabete Taivane (photo by Ralfs Kokins)

Elizabete Taivane: About the Big Armenian Family and Nerses Shnorhali

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YEREVAN — Elizabete Taivane is a Latvian expert in the field of religious studies, specifically Buddhism. She is an associate professor at the University of Latvia in Riga, where she has been teaching since 1996, and is the author of several articles and books on religion. Since 2021 she has been visiting Armenia, the country of her maternal grandfather, on a regular basis.

I met her through a mutual friend, and the following conversation ensued. After greetings in Armenian, we switched to Russian, although our correspondence continues in English.

Elisabete, I always wonder what circumstances lead to someone’s exploration of their unknown side. How was it for you?

My story began in Moscow, where I was born and lived for 19 years. But from a young age I missed Latvia, where my father came from and where our relatives on his side lived. We traveled there quite often, usually in the summer. I always felt a connection with Latvia, even though my dad did not teach me Latvian. In my teenage years, when my personality was forming, I started to learn the language on my own. Thanks to moving to Latvia shortly before country’s independence and enrolling in the University of Latvia, I managed to complete my Latvian in a short period of time. So, my first identity was Latvian, which I loved with all my heart. Looking back, I can say that at that time in my youth I did not realize that my inner constitution was Armenian, not Latvian at all. At the same time, I had practically nothing to do with Armenia. I only knew that my grandfather Hmayak Arakelyan, a well-known photo correspondent in Rostov-on-Don in the 1950-60s, was a pure-blooded Armenian and a native of the small village of Por, which is located near Vaik in Armenia. Unfortunately, my beloved grandfather died before I was born, but I know him well from letters to my mother, which she carefully keeps until now.

But did you have any Armenian traditions in your family?

Only in the kitchen. My mom cooks tolma and gata, which she calls kiata (Vaik dialect). She remembers a little Armenian, some phrases, she told me about my grandfather who loved her and her sister fondly, but that’s about it. My mother was not interested in her Armenian relatives, living in Russia and being surrounded by numerous relatives from her mother’s Polish-Ukrainian side. When I was already a student at the Theological Faculty of the University of Latvia, one day I got an Armenian greeting card in my hand. The Armenian script aroused an interest and some emotional attachment in me. I approached my father, Leon Gabriel Taivans, Professor at the University of Latvia, and told him I would like to learn Armenian. My father found the Armenian Sunday school in Riga. There I was equipped with primers and some books in Armenian, which allowed me to start learning Armenian on my own. I met Valda Salmiņa, Latvia’s only Armenian translator, and that was a great asset. I developed a warm friendship with Gohar Aslanyan, who studied at the University of Latvia and now translates literature from Latvian into Armenian, as well as her colleague Naira Khachatryan. I had big plans to write a doctoral thesis on Armenian theology, but things did not work out with my supervisor, and I had to reorient myself to comparative religion. No doubt it was an excellent choice for my career, but doctoral studies, delving into the tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, intensive teaching at several universities, and the birth of my children Anush and Dominik separated me from Armenia for years.

Elizabete Taivane with her husband Ramūnas, daughter Anush and son Dominik

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Yet, your interest in Armenian issues never faded.

My encounters with Armenian topics were very sporadic until 2020. At one of the conferences on Armenia at the University of Latvia about 15 years ago, I met my dear friend Irina from Yerevan, who has been living in Riga for many years. She supported me in the Armenian way in an extremely difficult moment of my life. Finally, four years ago, when my youngest child turned four years old, we ventured to Georgia, which completely captivated my heart. Literally a week after arriving from Tbilisi to Riga, we purchased tickets to Armenia, but we were not destined to go there in 2021 due to the covid-19 pandemic. The desire to see Armenia became an obsession. I went back to studying the Armenian language on my own. For an Armenian environment, I have not done very well in these three and a half years, but I can already read the Bible in Armenian and read simple texts. I practice oral Armenian only here in Armenia, and it’s only two or three weeks a year. That is not enough, but I am happy. In these last two weeks that I have been in Armenia, I have started to understand spoken Armenian much better. I always have a notebook with me, and when I wake up in the morning, in the bus and between lectures, I repeat the Armenian words written down in it.

How was your first trip to Armenia?

I should start with the fact that first I searched for my Armenian relatives and my grandfather’s grave in Rostov-on-Don, and then I had a plan to visit Armenia. I had no clue; all ties with my relatives were lost. Miraculously, among my old papers and notebooks I found my grandmother’s letter to us from 2000, mentioning the surname Davtyan and the address in Rostov on the envelope. At that address I found our relatives in Rostov. Unfortunately, assimilation had done its work; they do not speak Armenian. It turned out that all these years they had been taking care of my Armenian grandfather’s grave. Through them I managed to install a decent monument on my grandfather’s grave, writing his name on it in Armenian. All this happened a year before our first trip to Armenia in 2021. We traveled around Armenia from the north to the south, visited almost all the famous places, and since I had dreamed of going where my grandfather was from, we went to the village of Por. There we spent three hours at the home of the chairman of the village, Mesrop, with whom we later became very good friends. He tried to call someone and eventually found my relatives. It was already evening when two men from Vaik arrived. In one of them I instantly recognized my own blood, and I was not mistaken. Then my relative Harutyun from Yerevan arrived. We carefully checked the genealogy and talked a lot. He took us to Yerevan, where the whole family was waiting for us at the apartment at a late hour: his brothers and sisters with their children. We had never experienced such hospitality. My husband was absolutely amazed by this reception. And this is exactly what I have been missing since I was a child. I always told my mom that I wanted to have a big Armenian family. And now I have a big Armenian family. I love Latvia, but because of the emotional restraint of Latvians, I have always felt the lack of warmth of heart on their part. Latvia’s extremely secular European spirit also gets in the way. Here in Armenia, I finally feel happy. I love my relative Harutyun, whose family welcomes us so warmly every time we are here, with all my heart like a brother. I must say that my children have also become very attached to their Armenian relatives. My youngest, Dominik, cries when he leaves Yerevan.

Isn’t it strange for your husband that you aspire to visit Armenian?

My husband Ramunas, a pure-blooded Lithuanian, a native of Lithuania, lives outside his homeland, which he misses very much, so he understands more than anyone else my aspirations to visit my grandfather’s homeland again. It was with his active support that our first expedition was possible, not only in the abstract Armenia, but also to the village of Por. Ramunas has even learned a little Armenian, repeating words after me, and here in Armenia he actively uses these words. We both try to speak Armenian here as much as we can.

And now you, as a specialist of religions, knowing Armenian to some extent, will be able to deal with Armenian topics as well.

I read different courses on religion and Eastern art, and I also deal with issues of modern European religiosity. In Armenia, after seeing ancient temples and chapels, I became fascinated with the topic of folk religiosity in Armenia. This spring I was fortunate to meet Bishop Vardan Navasardyan, the Primate of the Armenian Apostolic Church diocese in the Baltic States. By the way, he is not only an excellent organizer, but also a man with a very big heart. Surprisingly, he finds a common language with everyone, he finds a key to every heart. He talks about theology with world famous Armenologists, and he plays backgammon with ordinary parishioners in the courtyard of the Armenian Church in Riga. That is why Bishop Vardan is always surrounded by people. This fall, together with the Faculty of Theology of the University of Latvia, he will organize an international conference dedicated to the 850th anniversary of the death of Nerses Shnorhali. This is the first event that will be financed by the recently established Armenian Studies Foundation under the auspices of the University of Latvia. We have invited very solid Armenologists from Europe, America and Armenia; the second part will feature participants from Latvia. I am also going to read a paper; it will be on the Christology of Nerses Shnorhali. His work “Jesus the Son” is of special interest from the point of view of comparative religion.

What is your main thesis and your vision of the situation?

Shnorhali’s doctrine of Christ is rather progressive and useful for modern Armenian theology. Shnorhali worked at the crossroads of two cultures, East and West. If we analyze Christology phenomenologically, in the popular consciousness of the Christian East the Savior is perceived more as God, and in the West as a man. It is common knowledge that the two natures, i.e., the divine nature and the human one, were united in Christ, nevertheless at the level of popular mentality the violation of proportions takes place. In Armenia, due to the Eastern perception of Christ and other circumstances (Muslim persecutions, bans on icons), it was not customary to depict Christ. The idea of Christ is mainly connected with cross-stones. Their curious and very rich symbolism, however, seems to have overshadowed the image of the Crucified One himself. Jesus can be seen only on cross-stones called Amenaprkich (All Savior) that are extremely rare in Armenia. It was this visual absence of the image of Christ, imposed on the Eastern idea of him as God, that caused the Savior to become a distant God in the people’s consciousness. In Aram Ganalanyan’s “Legends of Armenia” there are several legends about Christ, which testify to the fact that in the Armenian popular consciousness Christ more often has the features of a righteous judge.  Sometimes he appears as a God of mercy, but the deficiency of the charitable aspect in the folk Christology is obvious.  Modern Armenians transfer this most merciful aspect to the Saints (Sourbs). It is the saints, not the distant Christ, who come into direct contact with people. They appear to them in dreams, help and guide them. This explains the large number of chapels (matours) dedicated to different saints in Armenia. In this way, ordinary people communicate with the sacred realm without the mediation of clergymen, as if directly.

Shnorhali, in turn, offers a unique Christological approach: it is both Eastern and Western. His Savior is both the Almighty (Omnipotent), i.e., the Creator of heaven and earth, and a humble shepherd suffering on the cross as an ordinary man.  In Shnorhali’s interpretation, Christ is one of us, He is close to every human being. A return to the distinctly human image of Christ and the good news of the Gospel is necessary for modern Armenians, who are literally mired in the animistic cults of the Sourbs (saints). And note that the mentioned deficiency in the image of the merciful Christ manifests in the Western iconography as the heart of Jesus, which you can see in every single altar. Therefore, Nerses Shnorhali should be adopted by local theologians for the purpose of revitalizing Church Christianity in Armenia.

Everything you have said is thought-provoking. Do you intend to continue Armenian studies?

Since we have an Armenian Studies Foundation at our university, which will be able to finance the publication of books, I think that with the Armenologist Valda Salmiņa we will make a couple of publications on Armenian topics. First, I would like to write something about the cult of Sourbs, and then we will see. Armenia is a bottomless storehouse for religious studies.

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