Richard Hovannisian is widely considered a pioneer of Armenian Studies in American Academia. Hovannisian was born and raised in Tulare, near Fresno, California, in a family of Armenian Genocide survivors. His father, Kaspar Gavroian, was born in 1901 in the village of Bazmashen, now called Saricabük, near Kharpert in Western Armenia (modern-day Elazig in eastern Turkey).
Gavroian would eventually change his last name to honor the memory of his father, Hovhannes, who, like thousands of other Armenian recruits, was murdered while serving in the Ottoman army.
Hovannisian received his B.A. in history in 1954 from UC Berkeley and his Ph.D. in 1966 from UCLA. He joined the UCLA faculty as a young scholar in 1962, and in 1986 was appointed the first holder of the Armenian Educational Foundation Endowed Chair in Modern Armenian History at UCLA.
Hovannisian's early scholarly work focused on the history of the First Republic of Armenia (1918-1920). His Ph.D. dissertation, “Armenia on the Road to Independence,” was published in 1967.
It served as a prologue to a four-volume tome that is still considered the most scholarly and well-received work on this topic.
Hovannisian is a Guggenheim Fellow, having received numerous honors for his scholarship and the advancement of Armenian Studies. His biographical entries are included in “Who's Who in America” and “Who's Who in the World,” among other reference works.
Hovannisian serves on the board of directors of many scholarly and civic organizations, including the Facing History and Ourselves Foundation; the International Institute on the Holocaust and Genocide; the Foundation for Research on Armenian Architecture; the Claremont McKenna Mgrublian Center for Human Rights; and the Society for Armenian Studies, which he initiated in the 1970s. In 2011, Hovannisian received the UCLA Alumni Association's "Most Inspiring Teacher" award. He is also well known for his involvement in Armenian civic and political action and for his work integrating the Armenian Genocide at the Shoah Foundation.
Since 1997, Hovannisian has organized and led a remarkable set of conferences at UCLA on the historic provinces of Western Armenia and Cilicia, which have gathered leading scholars from around the world to make multidisciplinary presentations on this violently destroyed Armenian world. His son, Raffi Hovannisian, was the first Foreign Minister of the (Third) Republic of Armenia, and his grandson Garin is a filmmaker and writer living in Los Angeles and Yerevan. His other children, Armen, Ani, and Garo, are active in Armenian community and civic endeavors.
Opportunistic Kurds and Bedouins as saviors
Sometimes one becomes grateful for things that wouldn’t necessarily seem to be very positive at first. Such is the case when Professor Richard Hovannisian discusses how his father Kaspar Gavroian survived the Armenian Genocide.
Kaspar Hovannisian (born Gavroian), Richard Hovannisian’s father, in the 1920s.
As students of history and the Medz Yeghern know, Kurds were often involved in the massacres of Armenians that took place from 1915 to 1923, acting as hired butchers whom the Turkish government enticed with great rewards to do its dirty work, along with the Turkish army and civilian population.
But in certain cases, these same Kurds sometimes unwittingly helped to save a generation of Armenians, as when they took the prettiest Armenian women and turned them into domestic servants and concubines, forcing them to bear children. Many of these women eventually escaped captivity and were able to resume their lives as Armenians.
While growing up on a small farm near Fresno, an area with a large Armenian population in the agricultural hub of the San Joaquin Valley, Professor Hovannisian recalls that his house was always open to all Armenians—even perfect strangers—who were welcomed to stay overnight and have dinner with his family, where they would sit around a very large table and share stories. Here and at large communal picnics, where as many as 5,000 Armenians would gather near the Kings River, the aroma of shish kebab and the sounds of Middle Eastern music could be deciphered from a great distance.
Hovannisian remembers sometimes being scared at these gatherings as a child, seeing the tattoos that some women survivors had on their faces.
“These women had been taken off the deportation routes by Bedouins [i.e. semi-nomadic desert Arabs], and in order to mark them as property and at times to make them unrecognizable to Armenians who might come to reclaim them, they had tattooed them. Large blue curls or medallions that went down the sides of their faces. And their lips were sometimes entirely blue. This was long before tattooing came into vogue for young women,” Hovannisian says. “But at least they survived.” The story of Professor Hovannisian’s heroic and truly fascinating father offers a variant on this narrative.
Kaspar Hovannisian, born Gavroian
Richard Hovannisian’s father Kaspar Gavroian was only 13 years old when his entire family was deported from Bazmashen near Kharpert (Bazmashen means “village of many homes” in Armenian). Merely an adolescent, Kaspar set out with the deportation caravan, along with his pregnant mother and two-year-old brother, marching southward to the Syrian Desert and certain death. At one point, Kurdish tribesmen spotted him.
They knew a good thing when they saw it: Gavroian was a sturdy young man and the Kurds planned to use him to do chores and forced labor.
He was separated from his mother and little brother, who were driven with the rest of their villagers to meet an unknown end. Kaspar remained enslaved for two years. But he was also clever, and at one point in 1917, he made a run for it, escaping his Kurdish captors.
He later heard somewhere that the legendary Armenian General Antranig had reached Erzinga (Erzincan). With a little money and provisions he had managed to scrape together, he made his way through the Alevi stronghold of Dersim to Erzinga and the Russian front lines, where he joined and fought with the other volunteers in Antranig’s army. In 1918, Antranig retreated to the Caucasus. Gavroian made it to the North Caucasus but got caught up in the ongoing Russian Civil War between the Reds and the Whites. Imprisoned for a time, he was released in 1919, and somehow made it all the way west, some 600 miles, to Constantinople. Through an uncle in California, he made contact with an American relief agency in the Turkish capital, which provided him with $50 to get to New York in steerage class.
The wedding of Kaspar and Siroon Hovannisian
Hovannisian marvels at his father’s tenacity and cleverness – a young man who had lived through all these things before turning 20. “What did he pay the Alevis for safe passage to Erzinga? Money? Goods?? I am not sure. The Alevi population of Dersim was and remains home, it is said, to many people of Armenian origin, and they were helpful to Armenian survivors or those who fled from their captors and helped them to reach the Russian lines.”
When asked whether he is grateful to those who might have helped his father along, even if it they had to be bribed, Professor Hovannisian replies: “You know…denial is preventing Armenians from acknowledging the good Turks, and there were a lot of them. I've conducted more than 800 oral history interviews with survivors, and in almost all cases a righteous Muslim helped, or attempted to help them. Whether this help lasted a day, a week, or a year, it meant that an Armenian survived.” He then pauses and adds: “Thankful?…Let’s just say that I am appreciative.”
The story is verified by the 100 LIVES Research Team.