Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Terrorist attack on the National Assembly of Armenia (October 27, 1999)

The election of Karekin II as Catholicos of All Armenians had just been held on October 27, 1999 in the afternoon when the news of a terrorist attack on the building of the National Assembly in Yerevan came to Holy Echmiadzin.

At around 5:15 p.m., five men led by journalist Nairi Hunanyan, armed with AK-47 assault rifles hidden under long coats, stormed into the building while the government was holding a question-and-answer session. The group included Hunanyan’s brother Karen and uncle Vram, as well as Derenik Bejanyan and Eduard Grigoryan.

The main target was Prime Minister Vazgen Sargsyan (1959-1999). According to reporters who witnessed the shooting, the men went up to Sargsyan and said, "Enough of drinking our blood," to which he calmly responded, "Everything is being done for you and the future of your children." The Prime Minister was shot point blank several times. Seven other people were also shot dead. The list included National Assembly Speaker Karen Demirchyan and two Deputy Speakers, Yuri Bakhsyan and Ruben Miroyan; Minister of Emergency Affairs Leonard Petrosyan, and MPs Henrik Abrahamyan, Armenak Armenakyan, and Mikayel Kostanyan. Some 30 people were injured.

The group claimed they were carrying out a coup d'état in a "patriotic" act. They claimed that Armenia was in a "catastrophic situation" and that "corrupt officials" were not doing anything to find a way out. The gunmen held around 50 hostages inside the building, surrounded by policemen and army forces personnel positioned on Baghramyan Avenue. After overnight negotiations with President Robert Kocharian, the gunmen released the hostages and, after a standoff that lasted 17-18 hours, they gave themselves up on the morning of October 28.

President Kocharian declared a three-day mourning period. The state funeral ceremony for the victims of the parliament shooting took place from 30-31 October 1999. Their bodies were placed inside the Yerevan Opera Theater, with high-ranking officials from some 30 countries attending the funeral.

According to a poll carried out by the Center for Sociological Studies of the National Academy of Sciences on October 30-31, 56.9% of respondents said that the October 27 events were a crime against statehood and the country's authorities, and 63.4% believed that the terrorist group consisted of assassins–traitors and enemies.

Armenian American journalist Garin Hovannisian described the aftermath of the attack in the following terms: “For weeks the Armenians mourned in silence, but from their grief a startling theory began to evolve. The assassinations had been pinned on the terrorist leader, an ex-journalist named Nairi Hunanyan, but the public was not satisfied. The fact was that Prime Minister Sargsyan and Speaker Demirchyan had recently created in parliament an alliance for democratic reform, and they were the only men who commanded the resources and popularity to challenge the president one day. Of course, there was no actual evidence that Robert Kocharyan was complicit in this monstrous crime against the Armenian people, but it was clear that he emerged from the bloodbath with absolute power.”

A stamp commemorating the victims of the terrorist attack on the Armenian Parliament on October 27, 1999 issued by the Republic of Armenia in 2000.

From early June to late October 1999, the Unity alliance forged by Demirchan and Sargsyan, which controlled the military and the legislative and executive branches, had become the pillar of the political system in Armenia. Their murder disrupted the balance of power and the political arena was left in disarray for months. The assassination hit Armenia's international reputation and resulted in a decline in foreign investment. Political power was transferred to President Kocharyan.

The motives behind the attack were never fully explained. While the gunmen claimed to have acted on their own initiative, no convincing evidence was disclosed to suggest that any political leader or party was behind the attack, although abundant conspiracy theories flourished to prove that there had been a sabotage of a Karabagh peace deal. Aram Sargsyan, who briefly succeeded his elder brother Vazgen as Prime Minister from 1999-2000, stated in March 2013 that, "I have never accused this or the former authorities in being responsible for October 27. I have accused them in not fully disclosing October 27."

The five men were charged with terrorism aimed at undermining authority on October 29. The investigation was led by Chief Military Prosecutor Gagik Jhangiryan. At its end, the case was sent to court on July 12, 2000. The trial began on February 15, 2001, in Yerevan's Kentron and Nork-Marash District Court. The judicial case was transferred to the jurisdiction of Prosecutor General Aghvan Hovsepyan and his office, which finally closed the case for lack of evidence. Nairi Hunanyan and his co-conspirators were sentenced to life in prison on December 2, 2003.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Birth of Armin Wegner (October 16, 1886)

Armin T. Wegner was the German writer and human rights activist who documented graphically the Armenian Genocide. At the end of his life, he described it “as a solemn pledge to do everything possible to maintain alive the memory of the Armenian fate.” He was also one of the earliest voices to protest Adolf Hitler’s treatment of the Jews in Germany.

Armin T. Wegner, 1916 in Bagdad.

Wegner was born on October 16, 1886 in the town of Elberfeld / Rhineland (Wuppertal) in Germany. His father was a civil servant employed by the German Imperial Railroad and his mother was a suffragette and pacifist. He studied law and political science at the universities of Zurich, Paris, and Berlin, receiving his doctorate in jurisprudence from the University of Breslau in 1914. He also attended theater director Max Reinhardt’s acting school in Berlin between 1910 and 1912, and began his career as a freelance poet and journalist shortly before World War I.

At the outbreak of World War I, he enrolled as a volunteer nurse and served in Poland during the winter of 1914-1915. He was decorated with the Iron Cross for assisting the wounded under fire. From the autumn of 1915 to November 1916, following the military alliance of Germany and Turkey, he was stationed in Turkey as a member of the German Sanitary Corps. He served as a medical officer on the Baghdad staff of Field Marshal von der Goltz with the Sixth Ottoman Army. He witnessed and recorded with pen and camera the systematic deportation and annihilation of the Armenians, despite explicit Turkish prohibition. In late June 1916 he was arrested by soldiers of the German military mission in Turkey because of censorship violations and reassigned to serve as an orderly in cholera barracks in Baghdad. Taken ill with typhus, he was sent back to Berlin in November of the same year. Hidden in his belt were his photographic rolls with images of the genocide.

A photograph of Armenian orphans at a makeshift camp on the deportation road taken by Armin Wegner.

He completed his first two volumes about his experiences in Turkey by early 1917, and they would be published in 1919-1920. His first volume of poetry appeared in 1917, but it was banned. He did some editorial jobs in 1918-1919, and after the revolution of November 1918, he was able to openly publish fiction as well as articles and manifestos about the Armenian annihilation. In January 1919 he published an open letter to President Woodrow Wilson, where he protested against the atrocities perpetrated by the Turks and appealed for the independence of Armenia. Wegner delivered several illustrated slide lectures about the Armenian massacres in October 1919 and his short stories appeared throughout 1920-1921 in the press. He published several books related to the Armenian cause during the 1920s.

In 1930 he received a subsidy from the Prussian Academy of the Arts to complete his Armenian novel The Expulsion, in four volumes, which he never finished. He had married Jewish poet Lola Landau in 1921 and had lectured actively on the pacifist circuit, as well as published various travelogues. In 1927 he visited Soviet Armenia.

After the Nazi accession to power, Wegner’s works were banned, his books purged from the shelves of German libraries, and some were burned in the May 1933 book burnings. He addressed a letter to Hitler where he warned him that Jews would survive the danger and “the shame and misfortune will however be allotted to Germany and will not quickly be forgotten, even in the future.” He asked the German chancellor “to protect Germany by protecting the Jews.” The result was Wegner’s arrest and imprisonment in jail and then in various concentration camps from August 1933 to the spring of 1934.

After his liberation, Wegner followed his wife, who had fled to London with their daughter, but later returned to Germany. He also followed them when they immigrated to Palestine in 1935, and visited there in 1936 and 1937, but was unable to secure permanent residence. Wegner and Landau drifted away and were divorced in 1938.

Wegner, later in life.
Wegner was allowed to migrate to Italy in 1938. He lived with his common law wife Irene Kowaliska (he married her in 1945) in Positano and managed to survive periodical German persecution during the war and to live upon minor income until the end of the war. His prodigious literary productivity was severely affected. Most of his projects were never fulfilled. He returned to Germany for the first time in 1952, but found out that after twenty years, he could no longer return to his native land. He moved to Rome in 1956. The same year, he was awarded the Highest Order of Merit by the Federal German government. His birthplace Wuppertal decorated him with the prestigious Eduard-Von-der-Heydt prize in 1962.

His photographs of the genocide were rediscovered by the press in 1965. He also wrote a commemorative essay in the same year. In 1967 he was awarded the title “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem in Israel, and in 1968 he received an invitation to Armenia from the Catholicos of All Armenians and was awarded the Order of Saint Gregory the Illuminator.

Wegner made a lecture tour of the United States in 1972, at the age of 86. He passed away in Rome on May 17, 1978. In 1996 part of his ashes were taken to Armenia, where a posthumous state funeral took place near the perpetual flame of the Armenian Genocide Monument.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Birth of Rouben Mamoulian (October 8, 1897)

Film and theater director Rouben Mamoulian has been perhaps the most influential Armenian artist on the world stage. His pioneering impact on direction, particularly in the 1920s-1940s, has been widely acknowledged.

Mamoulian was born in Tiflis (Georgia) to an Armenian family with roots in Lori and Nakhichevan. His father Zakaria was a former member of the Russian military and a banker. His mother Vergine Kalantarian-Mamoulian had been president of the Armenian Dramatic Society of Tiflis and an amateur actress on the Armenian scene. The Mamoulians spoke Russian at home, but Rouben learned to speak and to write Armenian at an early age. His primary education was at the Lycée Montaigne of Paris, where future French director René Clair was one of his classmates. Later, he continued his studies at the Russian high school of Tiflis and the School Law of Moscow University, while he also took classes at the theatrical courses opened by Armenian director Evgeni Vakhtangov at the Art Theater. He returned to Tiflis in 1918, where he opened a theatrical studio with Levon Kalantar and Suren Khachaturian, and published theatrical reviews in Russian and Armenian newspapers. He also wrote poetry in Russian.

Mamoulian moved to England in 1920, where his sister Svetlana was married to a Scottish soldier. He first directed Austin Page’s play The Beating on the Door in November 1922. Favorable reviews in the London press made him known in France and the United States. Russian opera singer Vladimir Rosing brought him to America the next year to teach at the newly founded Eastman School of Music (created by George Eastman, the founder and owner of Kodak Company) in Rochester (New York) and was involved in directing opera and theatre in 1924-1925.

In 1925, Mamoulian and American modern dancer Martha Graham together produced a short two-color film called The Flute of Krishna, featuring Eastman students. They both left the school shortly thereafter. He began his Broadway director career in October 1927 with a production of DuBose Heyward’s Porgy, which made his international fame at once for its characteristics. He directed the revival of Porgy in 1929 along with George Gershwin’s operatic treatment, Porgy and Bess (1935). He was also the first to stage such notable Broadway works as Oklahoma! (1943), Carousel (1945), and Lost in the Stars (1949).

His first feature film, Applause (1929), was one of the earliest talkies. It was a landmark film owing to Mamoulian's innovative use of camera movement and sound. These qualities were carried through to his other films released in the 1930s. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) considered the best version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s tale, benefited from having been made before the Production Code came into full force, the same as Queen Christina (1933), the last film that Greta Garbo made with John Gilbert.

The image above is a screeshot from a video of an interview in 1984 where Mamoulian talks about directing Greta Garbo in "Queen Christina". The first 30 seconds are in French, but Mamoulian's speaks in English thereafter. Click here to link to the video.

He directed the first three-strip Technicolor film, Becky Sharp (1935), based on William Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair, as well as the 1937 musical High, Wide, and Handsome. His next two films, The Mark of Zorro (1940) and Blood and Sand (1941), starred Tyrone Power. These were remakes of silent movies that earned him wide admiration. Blood and Sand used color schemes based on the work of Spanish artists such as Diego Velázquez and El Greco. His foray into screwball comedy genre was a success: Rings on Her Fingers (1942) starred Henry Fonda and Gene Tierney.

In the early 1930s the Armenian film studio Armenfilm negotiated with him to film a movie in Soviet Armenia, which never happened. Mamoulian was going to direct the 1935 Metro Goldwyn Mayer version of The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, which was stopped due to Turkish pressure on the U.S. State Department.

Mamoulian was recruited in 1936 by King Vidor, co-founder of Directors Guild of America (DGA), to help unionize fellow movie directors. His lifelong allegiance to the DGA, as well as his general unwillingness to compromise, contributed to his being targeted in Hollywood’s blacklisting of the 1950s. His last completed musical film was the 1957 version of the Cole Porter musical Silk Stockings, with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. His film directing career came to an end when he was consecutively fired from two movies, Porgy and Bess (1959) and Cleopatra (1963).

He lived and created outside the Armenian milieu, but he was frequently in contact one way or another. In an event in his honor held in 1932 at the Nubarian Library of Paris, he noted: “The fact that I have not forgotten my being Armenian, despite living in a foreign environment, is very natural; the contrary would be unnatural.” He rejected all proposals to have his name changed or shortened, at a time when ethnic surnames were not so favored in America.

In the summer of 1971 Mamoulian visited Soviet Armenia, but except for a quick visit to the main tourist attractions, he did not enjoy any official reception and journalists were banned from meeting him. The reason was that he had been denounced as an enemy of the Soviet Union for having filmed an anti-Soviet movie (Silk Stockings, where the KGB spy Ninotchka did not return to the Soviet Union).

Mamoulian was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 1981 and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Directors Guild of America in 1982. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

He was not only a director, but also a theoretician of films and theater. He wrote many articles on these issues. He also wrote screenplays, shorts stories, and a version of Hamlet in contemporary English. He died on December 4, 1987 of natural causes in Woodland Hills, California, at the age of 90. The funeral services were held at the St. Mary Armenian Apostolic Church of Glendale and the Armenian director was buried at the Forest Lawn cemetery of Glendale. His wife, painter Azadia Newman, died in 1999 at the age of 97.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Birth of Arshag Fetvadjian (October 1, 1866)

Arshag Fetvadjian was one of the most versatile Armenian artists in modern times. Besides paintings, frescoes, and graphic works, he made designs for theatrical performances, dance halls, paper money, and stamps. He also worked on architectural projects and redecorated churches. He also wrote articles on issues of Armenian architecture, European painting, theater, and culture in general.

Fetvadjian was born on October 1, 1866, in the port of Trebizond. He completed his studies at the local Armenian school, and then he entered the newly opened Imperial School of Fine Arts in Constantinople (1882). He was one of its first graduates in 1887. From 1887 to 1891 he studied at the San Luca Accademia of Rome with the famous Italian painter, Cesare Maccari. In his last year of study, he participated in the national exhibition of Italian painters at the Palazzo d’Arte of Rome.

He moved to Vienna in 1891, where he worked as an independent artist for four years. In 1895 he moved to St. Petersburg, where he became a member of the Society of Russian Watercolor Painters. He was gradually accepted as the premier Armenian painter in watercolor. He participated in collective exhibitions in Russia, as well as in individual exhibitions in the Caucasus (Batum, Tilis, Pyatigors, and Baku) between 1899 and 1902.

Between 1900 and 1920, Fetvadjian traveled annually to Eastern Armenia and painted pictures of churches and castles, fortress walls and civic buildings, as well as portraits of Armenian women in traditional costume. The results of his hard work were 30 large-scale watercolors, depicting Ani and its surrounding monuments, and 1500 pencil drawings of decorations of churches and khachkars. This documentation was very important, as little had been photographed at the time, and many of those monuments do not exist anymore. The same happened with many samples of national costumes worn by Armenian women.

Fetvadjian returned to Vienna in 1906 and published 15 color postcards with pictures of Ani and 10 postcards of his most celebrated oil paintings. He showed his pictures of Ani for the first time in his individual exhibition of 1908 in Tiflis. He was commissioned to decorate the Kamoyants Surp Kevork church of Tiflis, which had been restored from 1900-1908 (it would be destroyed by the Soviet Georgian government in the 1930s), and several other churches.

He made his final visit to Ani in 1917, accompanying Russian scholar Nikolai Marr and a group of Armenian scholars. In 1918 he was in Etchmiadzin painting Armenian refugee women.

The government of the Republic of Armenia commissioned Fetvadjian to design the stamps and the banknotes of the new country. His designs used national symbols, like Ararat, a village woman, etcetera. In 1919 he was authorized to print the stamps in France and the banknotes in Great Britain. However, they reached the country in November 1920, when the Soviet regime was about to be established, and were never put into circulation.

In 1920-1921 Fetvadjian offered exhibitions of his works in Paris and London, which earned the appreciation of the French and British press. In 1922 he settled in the United States, hoping to obtain financial help to publish his works. He gave exhibitions at Columbia University, Chicago University, and Princeton University. An ad-hoc committee was formed to raise funds, however, was dissolved after a year, due to the indifference and cold treatment by the Armenian community.

Manuel Der Manuelian, a consul of the Republic of Armenia in the United States, who lived in Boston, helped Fetvadjian move to Boston, where he lived modestly for the rest of his life. He continued his participation in various exhibitions in Boston and New York. He was commissioned to carve a table and altar for St. Illuminator’s Cathedral of New York, along with an altar painting representing the Virgin and the Child that has remained there until this day.

In 1947 Fetvadjian was invited by the government of Soviet Armenia to return to Armenia. However, amid preparations, the artist passed away in Medford, Massachusetts, on October 7, 1947. His ashes, together with his paintings and archives, were taken to the homeland, where his ashes were buried in Yerevan. His paintings are displayed in the permanent exhibition of the National Gallery of Armenia, and other paintings are in various European and American museums and private collections.