In your neighborhood/Opinion

A narrative of genocide

An essay in honor of President Joe Biden finally acknowledging the Armenian genocide on April 24, some 96 years after it occurred

Photo by Richard Asinof

A bottle of three-star Armenian cognac, a souvenir from my visit to Yerevan in 1985.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 4/26/21
With President Biden officially recognizing the Armenian genocide, 96 years after it occurred, the author shares a brief story about visiting the memorial in Yerevan.
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PROVIDENCE – In May of 1985, I traveled to Yerevan, the capital of what was then known as the Soviet Socialist Republic of Armenia, as part of a three-week visit to the Soviet Union. During my stay in Yerevan, I attempted to visit the national monument honoring the Armenian genocide, a park with an obelisk some two miles from the hotel where I was staying.

However, I couldn’t find a taxi driver who was willing to take me there. Twice I tried to engage a cab and each time, the driver refused to take me. So, I put on my backpack and sneakers and decided to walk there, making sure to bring with me a carton of Marlboro cigarettes to use as bakshish if necessary.

It was a hot day, as I recall, and the approach was filled with a number of small hills and gullies, so it took me about an hour to arrive at the memorial. When I walked up to two guards, surprising them, they were initially startled and then angry with me, because I had appeared out of nowhere, unannounced, traveling without an Intourist guide, which was required by all tourists in the Soviet Union at that time.

The guards didn’t speak much English and I didn’t speak much Russian, but they finally understood what I wanted [helped along by my willingness to give them the carton of cigarettes].

For about 30 minutes, I then walked around by myself, in contemplation of the horror that had occurred in 1915. [I had taken a similar journey, trying to find the marker for Babi Yar in Kiev a few days earlier, without success.] I recited the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning, and then found a bus to take me back to a street nearby my hotel.

Narratives matter
Of all the stories I have told about my Russian adventure – and there were many, my visit to the national monument to the Armenian genocide was never one that seemed to appeal to many of my friends back in the U.S.

Twenty-four years later, in 2009, I had the occasion to share that story with Aram Garabedian, then the co-managing partner of the Warwick Mall, who was amazed by the story. He said he couldn’t believe it. He made me repeat it three times. [I was arranging a meeting between Garabedian and a local rabbi who had written a narrative on the holocaust, to share their stories for an interview.]

Garabedian then asked me: Had I ever been to Israel?

No, I told him. But you’ve been to Armenia, to Yerevan? Yes.

And you visited the national memorial? Yes.

Garabedian responded with a big smile.. A cultural barrier had been broken down.

Narratives matter
One of the few souvenirs I still have from that trip to Russia is an empty bottle of three-star Armenian cognac, which, I discovered, is the preferred alcoholic drink over vodka by many Russians.

How we learn about history these days is spotty, to say the least, particularly when it comes to genocide, ethnic cleansing, and violence against the “other.”

What happened to the Armenians, what happened in the Congo under the Belgian King Leopold, what happened in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, what happened at Babi Yar, and what happened in Rwanda, seems to be part of a narrative that always seems to be hidden from our history lessons in U.S. classrooms. Why is that?

I don’t know if this rambling tale has any particular meaning to it, other than the need to tell it, to share it, to believe in the power of story telling, in the belief that our own personal stories are the most valuable possession we have, and they serve as the glue that keeps our sense of community together.

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