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ArmeniaNow article

Armenia Now, Armenia September 3, 2005

Baltic "yans": A visit with the Armenians of Latvia

By Suren Musayelyan ArmeniaNow reporter

Editor's Note: Staff writer Suren Musayelyan recently visited relatives in Latvia, where he found a small, but vibrant community of Armenians . . .

"Ani", "Ararat", "Artsakh", "Erebuni", "Kert", the names of Armenian landmarks might be expected on restaurants in the popular Diaspora regions such as Glendale, Tehran, Montreal . . . But Riga?

(Latvia is situated in Northern Europe and is one of the three Baltic states along with Estonia and Lithuania that were occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940. Latvia regained its independence in 1991. It has a population of about 2,300,000. The largest national minority is Russians, about 28 percent).

With an Armenian population of about 2,500 in Riga (3,000 in the entire country), the capital of Latvia is home to about two dozen Armenian restaurants - approximately 1 for each 100 Latvian-Armenians.

According to one of the elders of the community, Karlos Shekoyan, this detail only stresses that "the Armenian community, although not very large, is very diverse."

The Armenian community is represented by a khachkar in Riga.

The 84-year-old, a well-known tamada (toast-master) among the Latvian Armenians, who was brought to Riga by his fate in 1949, says that the members of the community try to rally around the church.

"We all have families: children, grandchildren, but it is the meetings in the church that are spiritual communication for us, bringing us closer to our historical homeland," says Shekoyan.

The religious organization of the Armenian Apostolic Church called St. Gregory the Illuminator Church appeared in Riga in 1993. And the construction of the church began in late 1997 (the church is situated in 6 Kayusalas Street). Construction is not complete yet, but services are already being held. The church is being built exclusively on the donations of the parishioners.

Father Markos (lay name - Hrachya Hovhannisyan) also emphasizes the role of the church in the life of the community thousands of miles away from their historical homeland.

"The Church is the core of our unity. It is heroism for such a small community like ours to purchase such a large territory for the construction of a church," says Archimandrite Markos, who came to Riga in November 2002 and was appointed prior of the St. Gregory the Illuminator Church.

According to Fr. Markos, Armenians in Latvia can be found in practically all spheres of activities, but there are especially many Armenians engaged in arts and culture.

According to him, there were Armenians in Latvia before the sovietization of the republic in 1940, but they were very few and disorganized. Armenians, who now live in Latvia, mostly came to this Baltic state during the Soviet times, after 1946.

The first public organization - Latvian-Armenian Cultural Society - was founded here in 1988.

The Armenian community of Riga was established on the basis of the Latvian-Armenian Cultural Society in 2001. This community is a member of the "Commonwealth" union of public organizations of Latvia's national minorities and receives financing from the state.

Its chairman Artur Isakhanov has lived in Riga since 1979. He says that the community faces lots of challenges in trying to preserve their identity, including differences within the community itself. But he says what they have actually achieved inspires him with optimism for the future.

"It is for the first time in 50 years that only our community here in the Baltic states has managed to purchase land and build a church there. It happens very rarely in these parts, practically never," says Isakhanov. "We have already got permission for the privatization of the land and soon this land will belong to Holy Etchmiadzin."

The church in Riga is the first Armenian church to have been built in the Baltic States (which include churches in neighboring Lithuania and Estonia, which, however, unlike the one in Riga were not built like Armenian churches but were converted into them).

Isakhanov says that it is important for them to see the community centered around the church. The local Armenians also plan to build a cultural center and a school near the church.

The Armenian community in Latvia tries to keep abreast with their compatriots in other Diaspora communities across the world. They now have their own newspaper, "Ararat" (printed in 2,500 copies), close ties with the Armenian communities of neighboring Estonia and Lithuania and participate in many international pan-Armenian conferences and forums.

According to Isakhanov, there is an Armenian lobby in the Latvian Parliament and among the Armenian lobbyists are even extreme right-wing deputies, such as Chairwoman of the Seim (the Latvian Parliament), Ingrida Udre.

In spring, when Armenians across the world commemorated the 90th anniversary of the Genocide, the Armenian community in Latvia arranged a whole series of events, including an exhibition on the Genocide at the Seim of Latvia.

Even though the Armenian lobby failed to push a declaration on the genocide through the Latvian legislature this spring (only 15 of the 100 deputies supported it, including 11 rightist (Latvians) and four leftists (Russians)), they are determined to initiate the same declaration next year. Isakhanov says they will continue to work in this direction in the future.

"The president of Latvia recently met with our ambassador and said to him: 'Perhaps you shouldn't remember the past, but should look into the future,' to which he replied: 'Then why don't you want to forget your problems with Russia in the past?'" says Isakhanov, calling it a policy of double standards.

There is a khachkar in the very center of Riga, placed by the Armenian community in 1989 in memory of the victims of the massacres of Armenians and the earthquake in Spitak. In 2001, on the occasion of the 1700th anniversary of Armenia's conversion to Christianity, the khachkar was reconstructed and re-consecrated.

Armenians in Latvia, whether they have a citizen's passport or don't, mostly come together at church meetings and other events organized by the community.

Anahit Sargsyan recently celebrated her 80th birthday with her compatriots in the church yard. Originally from Tbilisi, Georgia, Anahit has lived in Latvia since 1953.

"All my friends here are already dead. I have made new friends here in the community, which is a family for me. I feel very sad when I miss a single Sunday church service," she says.

Preservation of language is another challenge, especially for the younger generation of Armenians in Latvia.

Tigran Bogoyan, 29, was born and raised in Riga. A graduate of the Department of Economy at the Latvian University, Tigran runs an accounting firm. He says he often goes to Yerevan where he has relatives. He speaks Armenian a little.

"I try to speak Armenian with anyone who speaks Armenian. Although I was born and lived all my life in Latvia, I feel more at home in Armenia," says Tigran.

There is a Sunday school in Riga available to Armenians who want to learn the language. The school was established in 1989, but according to Isakhanov, this school needs more attention both in terms of financing and interest towards it among the members of the community.

Headmistress of Riga's Armenian Sunday School Elza Mirzoyan says that besides the Armenian language they also Armenian history and culture. But she says they have fewer children attending the school than they would like to see.

"The Armenian language is spoken less and less by children. Their parents speak the language, but the children do not. Unfortunately, this tendency is observed throughout the Diaspora," says Mirzoyan.

The Armenian boys and girls attending the school also participate in various school competitions among Latvia's national minorities and their headmistress says that performing under the Armenian tricolor they feel that their ancient historical homeland is behind them.

"I am sure that our children will grow to become real patriots of the Armenian nation," Mirzoyan concludes.