Friday, July 20, 2012

Death of Calouste Gulbenkian - July 20, 1955

Calouste Gulbenkian, “Mr. Five Percent,” was a businessman and a philanthropist who amassed the largest collection of art ever owned by one person. In 1940, he was called “mystery man of the Near East oil fields” by The New York Times.

He was born in Scutari (Üsküdar), in Constantinople (now Istanbul), in 1869. His father was an oil importer/exporter who sent him to be educated at King’s College in London, where he studied petroleum engineering. In 1889 he traveled to the Russian Empire to examine the oil industry at Baku; he wrote a book in French on his impressions (Paris, 1891). He escaped the Hamidian massacres of 1896 with his family to Egypt. In 1902 Gulbenkian became a naturalized British citizen and five years later he was involved in the merger that resulted in the creation of Royal Dutch/Shell, from which he emerged as a major shareholder. He earned the nickname “Mr. Five Percent” due to his habit of retaining five percent of the shares of the oil companies he developed.

In 1912 he was the driving force behind the creation of the Turkish Petroleum Company (TPC), a consortium of the largest European oil companies aimed at cooperatively procuring oil exploration and development rights in Iraq, then under Ottoman rule. After Iraq came under British mandate in the aftermath of World War I, the TPC was granted exclusive oil exploration rights in 1925 and an agreement was signed three years later determining the companies which could invest in TPC. It reserved 5% of the shares for Gulbenkian. TPC became Iraq Petroleum Company in 1929.

Calouste Gulbenkian was president of the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) from 1930-1932, but he resigned as the result of a smear campaign by the Soviet Armenian government.

He had amassed a huge fortune and an art collection which he kept in a private museum at his four-story, three-basement house in Paris. In 1938, Gulbenkian incorporated in Panama a company to hold his assets in the oil industry. From “Participations and Explorations Corporation” came the name Partex (now called the "Partex Oil and Gas (Holdings) Corporation,” a subsidiary of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation headquartered in Lisbon, Portugal.

He left France in late 1942 for Lisbon and lived there until his death in 1955. At the time of his death, Gulbenkian's fortune was estimated at between $280 million and $840 million (today this would be $10 billion to $30 billion). After undisclosed sums willed in trust to his descendants, the remainder of his fortune and art collection was willed to the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, with US$300,000–$400,000 to be reserved to restore the Cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin. It established its headquarters and museum in Lisbon to display his art collection. Since its establishment, the Foundation has granted huge sums for Armenian and non-Armenian charitable, educational, artistic, and scientific purposes.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Death of Vahan Totovents - July 18, 1938

Vahan Totovents was one of the prominent members of the Armenian intelligentsia killed during the second “April 24” of the twentieth century: the Stalinist purges of 1937-1938. A prolific writer and translator, he had settled in Soviet Armenia in 1922.

Totovents was born in 1889 in the Western Armenian city of Mezre, close to Kharpert. His parents were originally from Akn; the Totovayents were a well-to-do family of Akn that moved to Mezre in the eighteenth century.

At the end of the nineteenth century, the province of Kharpert was going through a process of economic and cultural development. The Euphrates College, founded by American missionaries, was centered in Kharpert and the National Central College (Azkayin Getronagan Varjaran) had been created in Mezre, where a group of intellectuals such as Rupen Zartarian and Lerukhan (two writer who would be victims of the Armenian genocide), among others, gave particular momentum to education. Young Vahan entered the National Central College in 1897.

As many other writers, he first wrote poetry and in 1908, after he graduated from the school, he departed to Constantinople, where he published two booklets of poetry in 1908 and 1909. In 1909, he traveled to Paris and from there to New York. Members of his extended family had already settled in Saint Paul (Minnesota) and Totovents worked for a while at the Oriental rug shop of his maternal uncle, writer Bedros Keljik. He also studied literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison from 1912 to 1914. In those years, he became a member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation.

In 1915, he was among the hundreds of Armenian Americans who embarked to the Caucasian front to fight in the volunteer battalions against the Turkish army. Disillusioned with the A.R.F., in 1917-1918 he edited the independent newspaper “Hayastan,” published by General Antranig, in Tiflis. During the war years and after the war, he continued to publish poetry, stories, articles, and satire. He also published several books.

In 1920 he left the Caucasus and went to Constantinople. He got married and after living again in the United States for a while, in late 1921 he returned to Constantinople, where he was an editor of the periodical “Joghoverdi Dzayne,” which belonged to the newly founded Armenian Democratic Liberal Party. In late 1922 he settled in Yerevan.

He was a professor at the University of Yerevan from 1924-1926, a newspaper editor and a translator. During the 1920s and 1930s, he published many novels, stories, and plays; among them his best works, such as the memoir “Life on the Old Roman Road,” the collections of stories, “Doves,” “Pale Blue Flowers,” the short novel “Burned Papers,” etcetera. He also translated several plays by Shakespeare into Armenian. In 1934 he participated in the First Congress of Soviet Writers held in Moscow. Decades later, several of his books were translated into English and some of his stories were turned into films.

Following the assassination of Aghasi Khanjian, first secretary of the Communist Party of Armenia, by Laurenti Beria, Stalin’s henchman in the Caucasus, a wave of repression started against many prominent intellectuals. Totovents was among the first to be arrested on July 18, 1936. He was interrogated and tortured several times, and after a summary mock trial, he was shot on July 18, 1938. His only son, Levon, died in the Soviet army fighting against the Germans in 1942, during World War II. Totovents memory and standing were rehabilitated in 1955, after the death of Stalin.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Constitution of the Republic of Armenia - July 5, 1995

Three years before the American Revolution, in 1773, a book called Որոգայթ փառաց (“Vorokayt paratz,” The Snare of Glory) was published in Madras (India). It reflected the thoughts and projects of a group of intellectuals known as the “Madras Group.” Its author was Hagop Shahamirian, who, for the first time in Armenian history, called for a "constitutional republic" as the best way of maintaining democracy and equality in the free Armenia of his dream. He also attached a project of Constitution for a republican and free Armenia.

The first Republic of Armenia, despite its democratic institutions, did not have enough time to draft and pass a Constitution. The Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic had two Constitutions, in 1936 and 1978, which logically replicated the Constitution of the Soviet Union. 

Independence came in 1991 and with it, the need to have a basic document that outlined the organization of the new state and the rights and duties of its citizens. Initially, the Constitution of 1978 remained in effect, except in those cases when legislation had superseded it. A draft constitution was presented in late 1992 by the government. A long struggle between the government and the opposition alternative drafts ensued. The final project of Constitution was voted in a nationwide referendum and approved on July 5, 1995, which became Constitution Day in Armenia. A new referendum amended the Constitution on November 27, 2005.

The Constitution is composed of nine chapter and 117 articles. Its preamble says:

“The Armenian people — recognizing as a basis the fundamental principles of the Armenian statehood and the pan-national aspirations enshrined in the Declaration on the Independence of Armenia, having fulfilled the sacred behest of its freedom-loving ancestors for the restoration of the sovereign state, committed to the strengthening and prosperity of the fatherland, with a view to ensuring the freedom of generations, general well-being and civic solidarity, assuring the faithfulness to universal values — hereby adopt the Constitution of the Republic of Armenia.”  

Click here to view the Constitution of the Republic of Armenia.

A view of the interior of the Armenian Parliament building during session.