Leo was the pseudonym of an Armenian intellectual who produced an amazing output of historical and literary scholarship at the turn of the twentieth century.
Arakel Babakhanian was born on April 26, 1860, in the village of Karintak, near the town of Khankend (nowadays Stepanakert, the capital of Artsakh). In 1878 he graduated from the diocesan school of Shushi. This was the extent of his formal studies, which he would complement with self-teaching. After graduation, he worked in Shushi and Baku as a scribe for notary work, telegrapher, and manager of the “Aror” printing house.
He was still a student when he started collaborating with the influential daily Mshak of Tiflis in 1877. His views were shaped by the ideological tenets maintained by Raffi, the novelist, and Grigor Artzruni, the founding editor of Mshak. Over the years, he would contribute to a number of publications from the Caucasus to Europe. Initially, he wrote commentary and prose (short story and novel). His most notable literary work was The Daughter of the Melik (1898). He even wrote a historical play, Vartanank, published in 1916.
In 1895 he moved to Tiflis, becoming secretary and contributing editor of Mshak until 1906 . Afterwards, he gradually shifted to scholarship and produced hundreds of articles and dozens of books. First he entered the field of literary criticism, with essays about many contemporary writers, and condensed his views in his monograph The Literary of Russian Armenians from the Beginnings to Our Days (1904). On the other hand, he offered fresh interpretations of many historical issues. He produced a spat of book of history: Armenian Printing (2 vols., 1901-1902), Catholicos Hovsep Arghoutian (1902), Grigor Artzruni (3 vols., 1902-1905), Saint Mesrop (1904), The Armenian Question (1906). After a year of teaching at the Gevorgian Seminary of Holy Etchmiatzin (1906-1907), Leo returned to Tiflis and dedicated himself to scholarship. He produced new books: The Feast of the Armenian Book (1912), The Kingdom of Van (1915), The Documents of the Armenian Question (1915), and the posthumously published Ani (1946). His most ambitious work, which remained unfinished, was the three-volume History of the Armenians, of which he only saw the first volume published in 1916 (the other two volumes were posthumously published in 1946 and 1947). This work of almost 2,000 pages introduced Armenian history from prehistory until the end of the eighteenth century (excluding the 12 th -15 th centuries). While his views were both fresh and sometimes not exempt of controversy, Leo’s works were characterized by an encyclopedic use of Armenian and foreign sources, archaeological, epigraphic, linguistic, and philological materials, travelogues and memoirs, secondary sources, et cetera.
In 1924 Leo moved to Yerevan by invitation of the government of Soviet Armenia and became a lecturer of Armenian history at Yerevan State University until his death. His classes became the first university textbooks of Armenian history, toge
ther with those of professional historian Hakob Manandian. He was given the title of professor in 1925 and became a full member of the Institute of Science and Art of Soviet Armenia (renamed Institute of Sciences in 1930).
While in his pre-Soviet writings Leo gave primacy to the role of the individual and spiritual and geographical factors, in the 1920s he tried to accommodate himself to the new ruling ideology and reversed many of his positions. The genocide appeared to have crushed his views. His work From the Past (1925) offered a picture of the Armenian liberation movement that was completely at odds with his positive approach of his formative years. He repeated his negative evaluation in the two-volume The Ideology of the Turkish Armenian Revolution (1934). In his work The Khoja Capital (1934) he regarded the commercial capital as the moving force of Armenian modern history.
Leo passed away in Yerevan on November 14, 1932, and was buried in the Yerevan Pantheon. A street and a school in the Armenian capital have been named after him. Leo’s bust has been placed at the central building of Yerevan State University.