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Pioneering scholar in Armenian history

History professor Richard Hovannisian marked his 40th year as a teacher

UCLA history professor Richard Hovannisian
Richard Hovannisian

Although Richard Hovannisian’s father never spoke of the Armenian genocide, his family knew the Tulare County grape farmer was deeply traumatized by the atrocities that had claimed his father, brother and pregnant mother.

“He didn’t talk about it, but in his sleep he would call for his mother,” Hovannisian, the holder of an endowed chair in history, recalled recently. “That’s the way with the aftermath of genocides — it’s not there, but (is) there at all times.”

Hovannisian has dedicated his life to documenting the history of the 1.5 million people — more than half the Armenian population living in the Ottoman Empire — killed between 1915 and 1918. The historical event continues to elicit controversy and is still being disputed today by Turkey.

UCLA recently marked the 40th anniversary of the historian-s career, which began with a UCLA Extension course he taught in 1960. Two years later, he joined UCLA’s then-2-year-old Armenian Studies Program, one of the first in the nation. Together, the man and the program rose to prominence.

More than two decades before Steven Spielberg launched the Shoah Foundation to document the memories of survivors of the Holocaust, Hovannisian was taping the recollections of the survivors of his culture’s holocaust.

Supporters cite his ground-breaking research, including “Armenia on the Road to Independence” and “The Republic of Armenia,” whenever issues relating to modern Armenian history are raised. Of the 15 or so university faculty nationwide now teaching Armenian studies, six were Hovannisian’s students.

Yet, the pioneer initially rejected his immigrant background.

“I was growing up only 15 years after the genocide, but it seemed like it happened a thousand years earlier,” Hovannisian recalled. “We were American kids growing up in a whole different world.”

Still, he remembers feeling “wounded” every time his teachers discussed the history of seemingly every culture but his own.

By the time he graduated from college with a B.A. in history, he had been able to find only one class that even mentioned the Armenian people, and that only over the course of two lectures.

If Armenian history and culture were ever to find their way into history classes, Hovannisian soon realized, he would have to put them there.

Even today, the 69-year-old holder of the Armenian Educational Foundation Chair in Modern Armenian History remains very active. In addition to organizing nine conferences since 1997, he is trying to bring his archive of 800 survivor interviews — believed to be the largest of its kind — into the 21st century. With community donations, his students are transferring the collection onto CDs.

“Of the 800 interviewees, no more than 20 or 25 are still alive,” he said, “so it makes the effort all the more important.”

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