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In Memoriam: Richard Hovannisian (1932-2023)

In Memoriam NAASR Richard G. Hovannisian

NAASR, with sadness and in solidarity with the worldwide community of scholars, friends, family members, and indeed the entirety of the Armenian people, mourns the loss of Richard G. Hovannisian, and offers thanks for the gift of his long and incredibly productive life.

“We deeply mourn the passing of Prof. Richard Hovannisian,” stated NAASR Chairperson Judith Saryan. “He was a true pioneer in Armenian Studies and a great friend of NAASR. His contributions to the field are invaluable.”

Richard G. Hovannisian was Professor of Modern Armenian and Near Eastern History at UCLA. He was born and raised in Tulare, California, into a family of Armenian Genocide survivors. After receiving his B.A. and M.A. in history from the University of California, Berkeley, he went on to obtain his Ph.D in 1966 from UCLA. His dissertation was published in 1967 as Armenia on the Road to Independence 1918 and would serve as a prologue to the four-volume history The Republic of Armenia (1971-1996).

Having joined the UCLA faculty in 1962, he was also an associate professor of history at Mount St. Mary’s College, Los Angeles, from 1966 to 1969. He served as the Associate Director of UCLA’s Center for Near Eastern Studies from 1978 to 1995 as well as becoming the first Holder of the Armenian Educational Foundation Chair in Modern Armenian History in 1986, a chair which is now named in his honor.

Hovannisian speaking at NAASR's 40th anniversary celebration, 1995, as Founding Chairman Manoog S. Young looks on.

Sebouh D. Aslanian, who holds the Richard G. Hovannisian Chair in Modern Armenian History at UCLA, remarked that “Dr. Hovannisian was a mentor to several generations of scholars and a recipient of numerous awards and prizes, including a distinguished Guggenheim fellowship. As the present holder of the chair, I am profoundly indebted to his distinguished contributions to the teaching of Armenian history and for establishing Armenian Studies in North America on a firm foundation—a legacy that will be carried forward in future generations.” Click here to read Prof. Aslanian’s full remarks.

 Left: Ad for Hovannisian's first NAASR lecture, February 1963.

Right: Presenting his final publication, Armenian Communities of Persia/Iran, to volume contributor and NAASR Library Curator Ani Babaian, prior to lecturing on May 6, 2022.

NAASR Board Member Anna Ohanyan, the Richard B. Finnegan Distinguished Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Stonehill College, writing from Tbilisi, Georgia, pointed out that “this is a loss not just for the Armenians and the Armenian Studies, but also for those who research the Caucasus in general. He has stimulated the historiography of the Caucasus region in the early 20th century, mentored scholars from the region, and worked closely with the historians of the region, in and outside of the South Caucasus.”

Hovannisian served on the board of directors of many scholarly and civic organizations, and following his retirement from UCLA was an adjunct professor at USC, advising the Shoah Foundation on its Armenian Genocide testimony collection. The massive Hovannisian collection of Armenian Genocide survivor interviews, conducted by Hovannisian and his students in the 1970s, is now part of the Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive. With Nina Garsoian, Dickran Kouymjian, Avedis Sanjian, and Robert Thomson he was one of the founders of the Society for Armenian Studies (SAS) and served three times as its president. Click here to read SAS Past President Bedross Der Matossian's tribute to Hovannisian.

Hovannisian with Elyse Semerdjian, Hovann Simonian, Arpi Siyahian, and Talar Chahinian at SAS 35th Anniversary celebration, UCLA, 2009.

A passionate advocate for research on and education about the Armenian Genocide and genocide and human rights in general, he served on the boards of the Zoryan Institute, Armenian National Institute, and Facing History and Ourselves, and was involved in many other efforts of the same kind. Click here to listen to Hovannisian speak on “Teaching About the Armenian Genocide in public and Private Schools” in a program organized by NAASR and Facing History and Ourselves in 1986.

Hovannisian speaking at NAASR program "Turkish Armenian Dialogue and the Direction of Armenian Studies," September 2006; also shown, Kevork Bardakjian and Rachel Goshgarian.

He first joined NAASR in 1963 and was an honorary life member. He spoke many times for NAASR over the course of 60 years—the first in 1963 and the most recent in 2022—was a trusted advisor, and served as scholarly leaders of several trips to Historic Armenia organized by NAASR with Armen Aroyan between 2009 and 2013. In 2016, on the occasion of the celebration of NAASR’s 60th anniversary, Hovannisian with Nina Garsoian were presented with the NAASR Founders’ Awards for Outstanding Contributions to the Field of Armenian Studies. Watch video of their remarks here.

Former NAASR Chair (2016-2022) Yervant Chekijian said that “Richard’s monumental academic work educated the world about the Armenian history and has made a major contribution towards the respect and positive recognition that the Armenian Republic receives from the world community. On a personal note, I traveled with Richard four times to Historic Armenia and Cilicia. I will cherish that forever.”

Participants and leaders of 2009 NAASR Trip to Cilicia and Historic Armenia. Seated: Mary Aroian, Van Aroian, Richard Hovannisian; Standing: Carol Yeghiayan, Raffi Yeghiayan, Yervant Chekijian, Armen Aroyan.

Nancy Kolligian and Richard Hovannisian, NAASR 2011.

Nancy R. Kolligian, former NAASR Chair (2002-2009), reflected, “I am at a loss for words other than to say that I loved him and had the greatest respect for Richard as a human being and gifted scholar. As Armenians we are indebted to Richard for his relentless pursuit of bringing our history to the forefront of world history.”

Hovannisian edited and contributed to more than thirty-five books, including 15 volumes (2000-2021) of proceedings from the UCLA conference series “Historic Armenian Cities and Provinces,” an invaluable set of publications that chronicle Armenian history and culture throughout historic Western Armenia and other long-established communities.

Among his many other edited volumes such important works as The Armenian Holocaust: A Bibliography Relating to the Deportations, Massacres, and Dispersion of the Armenian People, 1915-1923 (1978), The Armenian Image in History and Literature (1981), The Armenian Genocide in Perspective (1986), Remembrance and Denial: The Case of the Armenian Genocide (1999), Enlightenment and Diaspora: The Armenian and Jewish Cases (with David Myers, 1999), Looking Backward, Moving Forward: Confronting the Armenian Genocide (2003), The Armenian Genocide: Cultural and Ethical Legacies (2007), as well as the landmark two-volume The Armenian People from Ancient to Modern Times (1997). He also was a contributor to many volumes, academic journals, and other publications, and literally gave too many lectures and conference talks than can be counted.

Richard Hovannisian was born on November 9, 1932, to Kaspar and Siroon (Nalbandian) Hovannisian, both survivors of the Armenian Genocide. Being the son of genocide survivors played an important role in his academic path. The family’s saga from genocide in Western Armenia to a new life in California is told by Richard Hovannisian’s grandson Garin K. Hovannisian in Family of Shadows (2010) and also has been the theme of several of Richard’s talks in his later years.
Vartiter and Richard Hovannisian with Simon Vratsian; at right, Kaspar Hovannisian, Tulare, 1958 (Courtesy of the Hovannisian family.)

In 1957, he married Dr. Vartiter Kotcholosian and had four children: Raffi, Armen, Ani, and Garo. He was predeceased by his beloved wife and partner in 2021, and is survived by his children, their families, and a large and loving extended family.

Hovannisian’s career as a scholar roughly coincides with the development of the field of Armenian Studies in the U.S. He is among the first generation of scholars who shaped the field that was in its infancy when he was a graduate student. In 1969 he became the first professor of Modern Armenian History in the U.S. and eventually the first to hold a chair in modern Armenian history.
Henry Theriault, Richard Hovannisian, Armen Marsoobian, and Marc Mamigonian, Worcester State University, 2014

What set Richard Hovannisian apart from most of the other early figures in Armenian studies who took their places in the developing field in the 1950s and 1960s was his focus on modern Armenian history; and it is mainly through his enormous efforts that the study of modern Armenian history developed and gained credibility. Through his efforts as a researcher, teacher, and mentor, the study of modern Armenian history flourished.

In a remarkable and unfortunate coincidence, Mary Kilbourne Matossian, whose valuable The Impact of Soviet Policies in Armenia, published by Brill in 1962, was one of the few significant works on modern Armenian history in English before Hovannisian’s work, passed away on July 9, one day before Hovannisian.

Hovannisian’s magnum opus is the formidable and definitive The Republic of Armenia. Hovannisian was inspired by Simon Vratsian, the last Prime Minister of the Republic of Armenia in 1920, who became a mentor to Hovannisian when as a young man he traveled to Lebanon to study at the Nishan Palanjian Jemaran, and who had published the seminal Hayastani Hanrapetutʻiwn (Հայաստանի Հանրապետութիւն = The Republic of Armenia) in 1928.

In a 2020 interview with NAASR’s Marc Mamigonian and Ani Babaian, Hovannisian recalled “I was in Beirut to learn Armenian in 1955-56, and it was a challenge for me because I had determined that this [i.e., Hayastani Hanrapetutʻiwn] was the book I had to read. I got there in September of 1955 and recognized the Armenian letters but I couldn’t read—I could paste words together—and so I spent many hours a day and surprised everybody, including Baron Vratsian, in that I completed reading that book by December.” He continued that:

I did have the conviction that I wanted to write about that period of time, because it was so important and so controversial. Especially in the United States our communities were split apart by the symbolic meaning of the tricolor—one segment virtually idolized it as a symbol of freedom and independence to be redeemed and the others saw it as a symbol of misery and horror that was overcome only by Armenia becoming a part of the Soviet system and having the protection of the Soviet Red Army. They were both right and they were both wrong. We were, in those times, rather fundamentalist we didn’t relativize very much, so I wanted to sort of bring this Republic out of the shadows, the shadows of ignorance and prejudice that prevailed. Because everyone on all sides really didn't know that much about it, and most of us were Western Armenian diasporans who hadn’t lived there and haven't lived through it. So, that was my mission, but I didn't think that I would be doing a definitive history or competing with Simon Vratsian.

Vartan Gregorian, Nazik Kotcholosian, Khenguhi Kotcholosian, Simon Vratsian, Richard Hovannisian, Fresno, 1958 (Courtesy of the Hovannisian family.)
Richard Hovannisian, on Zoom during the pandemic with Marc Mamigonian and Ani Babaian, 2020. (Courtesy of Ani Hovannisian Kevorkian.)

Hovannisian remarked many times that he never intended to be and did not consider himself to be a scholar of the Armenian Genocide. Nevertheless, with the possible exception of Vahakn Dadrian, it is difficult to think of anyone who did more to foster the increasing knowledge of the Armenian Genocide or to understand, expose, and combat genocide denial; and in numerous important conferences and edited volumes he provided a forum for several generations of scholars to develop their work on the subject.

“Richard’s passing marks the end of an era. Along with Dadrian, Richard built a formidable scholarly field on the foundation created by individuals of an earlier generation such as Aram Andonian, Krikor Guerguerian, and Haigazn Kazarian,” said Taner Akçam, the inaugural director of the Armenian Genocide Research Program of the Promise Armenian Institute at UCLA.

NAASR Director of Academic Affairs Marc A. Mamigonian, in remarks given in 2012 when Hovannisian was presented with the ANCA’s Vahan Cardashian Award, observed that “while Richard Hovannisian is a scholar and not a professional activist, much of his scholarship carries with it a message that is sometimes explicit and sometimes implicit. What I understand that message to be is hard to put into a few words, but in my opinion, it is something like this: ‘There is such a thing as truth in history. The pursuit of truth in history is congruent with the pursuit of justice; the two cannot be separated from each other. We must constantly pursue and reaffirm both truth and justice.’” Photo: Richard Hovannisian and Marc Mamigonian at NAASR's 60th Anniversary Gala, 2016

Over the course of six decades, no individual did more to shape Armenian Studies, and certainly no one has done has much to advance and give legitimacy to the study of modern Armenian history, as Richard Hovannisian. A great deal of the progress that has been made in the past 60 years is a direct result of his work, and certainly the study of modern Armenian history and all that it entails would scarcely exist if not for him, or it would exist in a different form.

The void left by Richard Hovannisian’s passing is enormous. We are fortunate, however, that the legacy of his life and work is even larger; and his legacy will endure.
Photo: Richard and Vartiter Hovannisian at NAASR, 2012

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