March 10, 2015

Ruben Vardanyan: “We should surprise and break the biases”

On the threshold of the Armenian Genocide Centennial, Mediamax continues a series of interviews with the intellectuals of Armenia and the Diaspora. It is an attempt to collect opinions as to whether the Armenian Genocide Centennial will serve a certain “New Beginning” for Armenians or not.

mediamax.am On the threshold of the Armenian Genocide Centennial, Mediamax continues a series of interviews with the intellectuals of Armenia and the Diaspora. It is an attempt to collect opinions as to whether the Armenian Genocide Centennial will serve a certain “New Beginning” for Armenians or not.

Our today’s interlocutor is the Co-Founder of IDeA Foundation Ruben Vardanyan

- Tremendous intellectual and organizational efforts preceded the launch of 100 Lives project. As a result, a project, which, as you say, blends together the past, present and future, was born. Could you please present this concept in details?

- Active preparation for the launch of 100 LIVES project started nine months ago. My team, including me, spent much time and efforts on trips and talks - we have traveled to almost all major centers of the Armenian Diaspora and discussed the idea of the project with various people, among them not only Armenians, but also representatives of many other nationalities. We spoke not only about the project itself at these meetings, but also about the situation in the world in general and in the Armenian word in particular. I view 100 LIVES project as a link between these two worlds.

The project was born from the story of my own family. After the tragic events in the Ottoman Empire in 1915, my grandfather, just like many other children whose parents did not survive the Genocide, appeared in an orphanage, received education there and became a prominent historian and professor at the Yerevan State University. My grandfather did not speak much about what he had to go through – people were forced to conceal much during the Soviet period as stories about the support of foreigners, especially of that of Americans, for the Armenian children were not welcome for reasons that were well understood.

On the whole, the topic of genocide is painful and dangerous. Few of the survivors are willing to tell about it and if they do tell, they mainly focus on the brutalities and horrors. In my opinion, all talks on genocide miss one important thing – we won despite the entire severity of the tragedy that occurred 100 years ago when Armenians were deprived of their ancestral lands and property, and importantly, when the ¾ of people living on these lands were exterminated. We won because we managed to save ourselves despite all difficulties and troubles and made strides in various areas and countries. Yes, we should remember and honor the memory of the victims and the recognition of the Armenian Genocide by other countries, particularly by Turkey, is important for us, but our main message to the world is that we are alive and we are strong. And to remember and to demand one should be alive and strong.

Through 100 Lives project we aim to express our gratitude to those who stretched out a helping hand to Armenians 100 years ago and owing to whose efforts the principal aim of the genocide perpetrators wrecked – the extermination of the entire Armenian nation. I believe only a strong nation recovered from the victim’s syndrome can be thankful. Within the framework of our project, we combine three elements, which correlate with our past, present and future.

First of all, we are trying to preserve the past helping digitize hundreds of thousands of pages of archive materials not only in Armenia but also in the Diaspora. Besides, we are gathering the personal histories of Genocide surviving Armenians as well as those of who reached out to them. Presently, little is known in the world about what many nations, and particularly Americans, did for the rescue of hundreds of thousands of Armenian children who became refugees and orphans as a result of Genocide. However, we ourselves are not much aware about it. Surprisingly, even in the U.S. very few people know that the fundraising held in order to support Armenians was the first example of large-scale charity in this country. Millions of ordinary Americans took part in it and around USD 115 million was raised. Today this sum would amount to billions of dollars, and this number grasps the imagination! We must and we want to tell the current generation what all those people – Americans, Danes, Norwegians, the Swiss, the French, Russians and many others – did to save our nation.

Unfortunately, back then Armenians did not manage to express their gratitude to them in full measure and we want to do it now by linking the past to the present. That is why the second component of 100 Lives project refers to an annual and international humanitarian award – “Aurora Prize For Awakening Humanity”, which will be awarded to people committing efforts to save lives in this day and age. The award is named after Arshaluys Mardikyan who, after the Genocide, was rescued by the Russian Army in 1915 and who then moved to the U.S. and took the name Aurora Mardiganian.

She wrote a book called “Ravished Armenia”, which presents those dreadful events. This book was taken as a basis for the movie in which Aurora played herself. For many years this movie was a crowd-puller in the U.S. and it played an enormous role in raising awareness about the Armenian Genocide. The award ceremony will be held annually in Yerevan on April 24. The first award ceremony will take place in 2016. The Genocide is not in the past; unfortunately it is being committed today as well. A monetary award to the tune of USD 1 million will be mainly aimed at the support for activities of people who are struggling against it and help those who suffered. The award nominees will be selected by the jury comprised of prominent and outstanding people coming from various countries.

And lastly, the third component is expressing our gratitude through specific projects. For example, in many countries, such as for example Egypt, Syria, Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, children are not able to get education. We will provide scholarships for these children. In particular, we are going to offer 100 scholarships for them to study at UWC Dilijan College. Children should grow up with the understanding that someone helped them, with a sense of gratitude and with a desire to help others. This component of 100 Lives project is related to the future.

- Can we suppose that the trips to the main centers of the Armenian Diaspora as well as meetings with its various representatives have become a revelation for you even though you also are a Diaspora representative, even if not a “classical” one? Could you please share with your main impressions – both positive and negative?

- I am probably not a typical Diaspora representative. I grew up in Armenia and got molded in Russia, but the international aspect of my business was granting me an opportunity to cast a broader look at the world.

The first impression I got during trips and meetings was the profundity of disunity of Armenians. For instance, answering my question as to why he never mentions the Armenian community in Russia in his reports, a respected person publishing a magazine in the Diaspora said: “They do not speak Armenian and English, and I do not know anything about them”. At these moments, you realize that there are grave fractures in what we picture as a consolidated Armenian Diaspora.

At the same time, I was happy to see that many Armenians strive to preserve their national identity and are truly proud of their being Armenians.

Assimilation is another major problem. Before and after the Genocide large Armenian communities were established mainly in Muslim countries and the preservation of the national identity, language and culture was one of the ways to survive. In such a situation a child born in an Armenian family was to attend solely an Armenian school – other options were even not being considered. Armenian School and Armenian Church are the centers that allowed Armenians to retain their identity despite the domination of another culture, even if it was not hostile (for example, in Lebanon or Syria). Still, it was different from the Armenian. Many Armenians subsequently moved to Russia, where the Diaspora is presently the largest, to the U.S., Canada, Australia or Argentina. The culture and traditions of these countries were closer to theirs and thus, it led to a situation when people came to have a choice, which they previously lacked. To put it simply, attending an Armenian school in the new environment was no longer axiomatic, especially if that school was not the best in terms of education quality. It turned out if the idea of preserving the national identity is not being reinforced by the possibility to develop, then it fails. The paradox is that more convenient living conditions lead to quicker assimilation. People want to send their children not just to the good, but to the best schools. And if the Armenian school is not as such and is also located tens of kilometers from them, then obviously, the choice will not be made in its favor.

Another overt issue is that many Armenians who left Armenia in the past 25 years voluntarily or not are trying to prove to those around that they took the only right decision. As a result, a great number of representatives of this “new Diaspora” have a subconsciously negative attitude to what’s going on in Armenia and flatly do not want to associate themselves with the Armenian world.

Amid these issues, the question as to “so what does unite us?” gets more serious. At first sight, the answer is clear – independent Armenian state. We have dreamed of independence for hundreds of years and after gaining it, we experienced an incredible wave of inspiration, but at the same time, we also feared not to lose it in the future. Obviously, the establishment of a state requires time and efforts. In any corner of the world people have most easily consolidated amid the tragic events or when their country became an outstanding leader and an example of success. When Armenia was at war or when the earthquake occurred, it consolidated even those Armenians who did not speak Armenian or who had never been to Armenia. Many people will want to associate themselves with Armenia and be part of the history of its success once everything is good in Armenia. However, as a country with present limited ambitions Armenia neither evokes pride among Diaspora Armenians, nor fear for its future. The attitude the Diaspora demonstrates toward Armenia is not about disappointment but about apathy, which in my opinion, is way more dangerous than negative attitude as it lacks emotions.

Besides, there is a wide generational gap. Many people in the Diaspora above 70 have done much to save the Armenian world. We also have a young generation wishing to preserve its identity without at that losing its dynamism. However, a large layer of people aged 40-70 tends not to associate itself with the Armenian world. As a result, there occurs a misbalance – there is not much involvement of people, and a far too small number of active members of this or that community carry too much on their shoulders.

The lack of a dream, which would consolidate people irrespective of where they were bon and what language they speak, makes these issues graver. Thus, huge work lies ahead of us if we want to fully utilize the resources and potential of the Armenian world.

- Who should play the “first violin” - Armenia or Diaspora?

- Nobody should dominate – neither Armenia, nor the Diaspora. There should be maximum permeation and support. Another question is what to unite around. There should be a common dream. Obviously, Armenia needs Diaspora’s support and vice versa, but none of the parties is ready to admit it till the end. Various complexes impede it. Many people in Armenia do not like it that “Armenians from the Diaspora will come and start to teach us how to live”. And there are also such Diaspora representatives who are convinced that donating USD 10 000 automatically grants them certain special rights.

The demand for the use of the Diaspora’s potential should be shaped by the elite of Armenia, which should understand that without the use of this resource with its competence we will not be able to successfully compete at the global level. Unfortunately, this signal comes neither from state officials, nor from media or business representatives. For example, which Armenian media has ever tried to carry out a project with the participation of globally recognized Armenian journalists from the Diaspora? On the whole, Armenia’s business and community model is built on quite a considerable “lock-in”, which does not suggest the necessity to become the best of the best.

Unfortunately one of the scourges of Armenia is mediocrity. Armenians were previously regarded as one of the most educated and talented people versed in several languages. In the times when Armenians were reaching Singapore or Burma, over 90% of people in the world were born, lived and died without ever leaving their native city or village. When the majority of people could not write and read or were hardly able to speak their mother tongue, Armenians spoke several languages. I often joke saying that Armenians invented Facebook long before it was created, as network communication technologies have always been widely used by our people.

In today’s world the borders become more and more formal and the active part of the population has virtually unlimited possibilities in terms of traveling around the world for work or education. At the same time, globalization results in that many young people want to understand who they are in reality. Before, people used to say “don’t give fish, but teach to fish”, and today you should not only give the fishing-rod but also knowledge on how to ensure maximum efficiency of this fishing-rod to catch, say, ten and not five fish.

Knowledge is a key competence in the information society to create a competitive product. Despite their small number, Armenians have always been a nation of pioneers. We have always set high standards for others and for ourselves, and we should not renounce them.

The mediocrity, which has put down roots in our society, is very dangerous in reality. It kills our creativity. In order to overcome this crisis, we need to revolutionize our perception. We should surprise and break the biases. We cannot go mediocre and should spare no effort to be the best in everything we do, in the way we live, in the way we work and in the way we think.

In the history of mankind, the Armenian nation has several times been in leading positions under the conditions of great changes. Today we should do our best to re-morph into a country and nation whose opinion will be heard, respected and taken into account.

I believe we can change everything for the better and turn it to our own advantage. Armenian people have gone through many hard times in their history, including the horrible crime in the 20th century, but we were not destroyed or defeated. We are an example of a nation which has once again successfully reborn and therefore I remain upbeat.
 

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