By Anna Arutunyan
I have an Armenian name. I got it the same way most Armenians get theirs: I was born with it. Along with the name, there's a history: my father's father's father's fathers were priests in Artashat, one of Armenia's ancient capitals, at the beginning of the 20th century. But I carry other ethnicities not reflected by that name. There's as much Jewish blood as Armenian: on my mother's father's side, our family has roots in modern-day Vitebsk region in Belarus and central Ukraine. My Russian blood, on my maternal grandmother's side, comes from the southwestern Russian city of Oryol.
My name doesn't reflect those ethnic tangles, nor the fact (which I sincerely regret) that neither my father nor I speak or understand Armenian: we were both born in Moscow.
Nor does my name reflect central experiences in my life that have shaped my identity. Born in Moscow, I grew up in the United States, spending seven years in Oklahoma before moving on to Texas and, eventually, New York. In the United States I was often asked why my name doesn’t sound Russian. Saying my name was Armenian generated even more confusion: in the neighborhoods where I was growing up, a lot of the time people asking the question had no idea such a country existed.
My Russianness and Jewishness were more out in the open: I was an immigrant from Russia, while the Holocaust was studied in schools. By contrast, there was never room to think about things Armenian. When confronted by the legacy of the genocide as a teenager, I packaged it away, neatly, not to think about it, not to go there.
It wasn't until I was back in Moscow, working as a journalist, that the question of whether I actually had an Armenian identity began to arise. Russians, unlike Americans of the Midwest, know where Armenia is. Often enough, negative stereotypes come to light, as do positive ones. As a journalist with an Armenian name in my byline, I encountered both..
When my book on Putin's Russia came out, I was surprised to find myself actually irritated by some readers trying to identify me as an Armenian author, trying to assume that being Armenian affected the way I put words together on a page. What kind of Armenian am I? I don't speak the language. I had barely visited the country twice in my adult life. How could things Armenian have possibly impacted or colored what I write? It wasn't about pride or shame, as I was always raised to be proud of having that little bit of Armenian blood in me. It was just that I felt that it was somehow wrong to claim this identity, like a huge responsibility, without first putting a great deal of work into it – work I had not yet done.
But then it crept up on me, the Armenianness within, suddenly and from the earth, first while I was visiting Yerevan for a writers' conference in 2012. During the conference, I was incidentally finishing up a particularly difficult chapter of my book, one that delved into primordial attitudes to power and religion and how history shapes human mentality. Maybe it was the visit to Khor Virap, the descent into the dungeon where St. Gregory the Illuminator was imprisoned for 13 years, or the scent of the brown-orange earth, or too many weird conversations with poets and anthropologists, or the discovery that my book – despite a great deal of interest from Armenian publishers – would not come out in Armenian for political reasons. But suddenly the floodgates burst and I felt immersed in a terrifying abyss of blood and history. The blood and history were not unique to Armenia: I was, after all, the product of three brutalized races, two of which had genocide inflicted upon them by others, and one of which had inflicted genocide upon itself. But here, in this brown-orange earth, all that was somehow distilled and concentrated in an intoxicating dose.
In my writing, these themes turn up again and again: mass repression, military conflict, collective PTSD. I had realized, during those trips, that it would be naive to assume that they had nothing to do with the heritage of the person who was writing about them, a person who, at the very least, wore a name, knowing that name carried with it all these endless implications. We don't know, exactly, how blood impacts identity. But I can no longer claim that it doesn't.