June 14 - 15, 2023 | 2023 Ralph and Ruth Fisher Forum for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies

Co-organizers: Donna A. Buchanan (Professor, Music, Anthropology, Slavic Languages & Literatures); Maureen E. Marshall (Associate Director, REEEC; President, ARISC)

Location: Levis Faculty Center, Room 210
(919 W Illinois St, Urbana, IL 61801)

Levon Abrahamian – Keynote Speaker
Professor and Chair, Department of Contemporary Anthropological Studies
Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, National Academy of Sciences
Yerevan, Armenia

“Revisiting Armennianness: Memorials, State and Folk Rituals in Post-Soviet Armenia”

In post-Soviet Armenia, a trend to get rid of Soviet identity and regain “pure Armenianness” was one of the most visible among the changes in the new worldview. In the lecture, I will try to demonstrate this with the example of memorials, both old and new, re-evaluating Soviet and anti-Soviet heroes according to their national origin. The fight with Soviet idols, namely the monument of Lenin, will be discussed from an anthropological perspective. The special focus will be on the ambiguous figures of Anastas Mikoyan and Garegin Nzhdeh and the discourse over their non-realized and realized monuments. Among the revisited statuary symbols of Armenianness, the commemoration of the Armenian alphabet in 2005 will be presented as a state-initiated mass ritual – a round dance encircling Mount Aragats, another symbol of Armenianness (together with Mount Masis/Ararat).

Dancing around the mountain initiated from above (Prosecutor General) will be compared with the ethnographic dance groups with national and nationalistic backgrounds as opposed to the dance and music accepted as national from below (Rabiz). “National” dances are presently discussed as a school program establishing national identity from childhood. Ethnographic dances, like other ethnographic objects, meet a specific problem when being presented as a national product. This is the problem of exoticizing and self-Orientalising. I will demonstrate this in the example of presenting Armenian national dances during the Folk Life Festival at the Washington D.C. Mall in 2018. As a general problem, the modern role of the anthropologist (musicologist) will be discussed in the context of transcultural and national.

Knar Abrahamyan
Assistant Professor of Music Theory and Race
Columbia University

“Socialist Verismo and the Pastoral Idyll of the Armenian Kolkhoz
(To be delivered remotely)

Launched by Joseph Stalin in 1928, collectivization presented a defining feature of building socialism. As socialist realist art was meant to address “the contemporary Soviet thematic,” opera composers and librettists turned to plots that showcased village life and kolkhoz (collective farm) labor. This paper examines what I term the reinvention of the pastoral idyll in Haro Stepanyan’s Herosuhi (The Heroine, 1950) and Andrey Babayev’s Artsvaberd (The Eagle’s Fortress, 1957). The first opera celebrates farming labor in a post-World War II Armenian village where collectivization is already completed, while the second stages the process of collectivization. I explore the tensions and paradoxes that emerged at the juncture of socialist realist claims that art depicts reality and the fact that accurate depiction of contemporaneous events, or early Soviet history, was politically untenable. Drawing on archival materials to highlight the collective nature of opera-making itself, I argue that the rediscovered pastoral idyll carefully combined political ideology with textual and musical considerations to (re)present and reconcile the dire kolkhoz reality with Stalin’s, and later Nikita Khrushchev’s, utopias of agrarian modernization and economic progress. To address the post-Soviet reception of these works, I turn to the 2013 staging of Babayev’s Artsvaberd in Shushi, Nagorno-Karabakh, and ask: What might the grand universalizing rhetoric in the marketing of the opera reveal about Armenia’s reckoning with its Soviet past?

Armen Adamian
PhD student, Ethnomusicology
University of California at Los Angeles

“The Taron Underground: Performing Exile and Resistance in Post-Genocide Soviet Armenia”

This research documents the political history of resistance inscribed in the music and dance vernaculars of Soviet Armenia’s Taron exiles. When the entire population of Western Armenia fell victim to Ottoman state genocide in 1915, many Armenians from Taron’s Mush and Sasun region survived by escaping eastward into Russian-governed Eastern Armenia. Many of these Taron exiles (re)grouped into communities throughout the Talin region where they maintained and refashioned a sense of homeland belonging via customs of dialect, music, dance and endogamy. When confronted with Soviet rule in 1920, this Taron exilic culture came to accumulate yet another layer of political meaning as Soviet officials coopted and manipulated local histories in service of their ideological and geopolitical goals. Amidst this colonial encounter, the cultural insularity that Talin’s Tarontsi had conceived in the aftermath of genocide afforded them a social sphere that was conducive to the safe production and circulation of hidden transcripts throughout the Soviet period (Scott 1990). Based on ethnographic research conducted in Talin with descendants of Taron genocide survivors, I examine the emic politics inscribed in the music and dance vernaculars of Soviet Armenia’s Taron exiles. In doing so, I investigate the role these repertoires played in the formation of a local underground that covertly contested Soviet hegemony. In demonstrating how hidden transcripts were fashioned and disguised into the Soviet public via Taron music and dance, I asses the enduring cultural legacy of the Taron Underground in (post-)Soviet performances of Armenian resistance.  

Sylvia Alajaji
Associate Professor of Music
Franklin & Marshall College

“‛Armenian Music’ and its Discontents”

This talk will ask what in essence is an epistemological question: what is Armenian music? How have we come to know it as such? Through a discussion of select musical genres that emerged in the post-genocide diaspora and the discourses surrounding them, this talk will serve as a meditation on the emergence, articulation, and negotiation of Armenian diasporic subjectivities and the ways in which those subjectivities have emerged in relation to and in conversation with power structures both internal and external to the Armenian diaspora.

Donna A. Buchanan
Professor of Musicology, Anthropology, and Slavic Languages & Literatures
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

The Journey: Commemorative Choreographies of Bulgarian Armenian Trauma, Testimony, And Transcendence”

On 24 April 2020, the 105th commemoration of the Armenian genocide, the Bulgarian Armenian dance troupe Nairi, together with the Bulgarian ballet company Estreya, premiered a grassroots theatrical production titled Pŭtyat (The Journey) in Sofia. Situated in the oral histories of Nairi’s families and other community members, this multimedia production narrates the forced displacement and migration of western Armenians during the 1915 Ottoman pogrom and their reception and resettlement in Bulgaria. The story is told collaboratively and interculturally, through costuming and choreography designed in Yerevan, contemporary renditions of iconic songs significant to Armenian heritage, recitations of Bulgarian-language poetry that provide a contemplative metacommentary on the production’s message, and artifacts carried by the dancers’ grandparents to their new hostland. Informed by my ongoing ethnographic research with Nairi, with whom I have worked since 2010; my prior fieldwork with Bulgaria’s national folkloric ensembles; and memory, heritage, diaspora, and performance studies, in this paper I examine Pŭtyat and other commemorative Armenian choreographies as testimonial aesthetic practices which, like the cross-stone memorials (hachkar-s) erected in so many postcommunist eastern European Armenian diaspora communities, stand witness, in localized ways, to a traumatic past that has only recently garnered international acknowledgement. I argue that such productions reflect and refract a certain transgenerational “diasporic intimacy” (Boym 2002; Feld 2012) while also decentering and recontextualizing 1915 and its legacy as a means of transcending them. For Nairi, “the journey” is not theirs alone, but a metaphorical attestation to the ethnic cleansing, massacre, and involuntary displacement of besieged peoples worldwide.

Tsypylma Darieva – Keynote Speaker
Senior Researcher, Centre for East European and International Studies, ZOiS, Berlin

“Making a Homeland: Exploring ‘Roots’ Mobility and Armenian Diasporic Engagement”
(To be delivered remotely)

While literature on diasporic identities, heritage and belonging focuses on cultural reproduction and its change after migration, there is a rise of interest in ‘heritage’, ‘roots’ and diasporic homeland-oriented mobility. More than anything else, ties to the homeland and visits ‘back home’ symbolize diasporic continuing of transnational ties to the country of origin. How and why do second and later generations of diasporic Armenians (Armenian-Americans) maintain their attachment to the imagined ‘ancestral homeland’? I discuss new generation of Armenian diasporic homeland-oriented civic initiatives, politics of emotions and experiences of diasporic Armenian engagement with the homeland ‘on the ground’ that generate pathways of diasporic ‘roots’ mobility. Drawing on long-term ethnographic observation in Armenia and in the USA, I discuss the social and political significance that roots mobility acquires when the mythical ‘homeland’ becomes a real place. This relationship may affect youth identity formations and the sense of multiple belonging.

Mari Firkatian
Professor of History
University of Hartford

“The Flavors of Cultural Preservation: Armenians Cooking in Diaspora”

The importance of expressive culture, including cooking and art, in preserving identity is part of the larger endeavor of self-identification. The focus of my talk is to note the role expressive culture plays in contributing to the cohesiveness of Armenian culture and the Armenian experience in the diaspora. In my work I explore how the insistence of gustatory preservation, the act of willfully choosing to cook and eat “Armenian,” defines cultural preservation and continuity. That very act of choice transforms into an expression of everyday, active cultural preservation.

While political lobbies work on resolving current national crises internationally, cultural actors, both private individuals who choose to behave as guardians of the culture and those who publicly take up the cause of Armenian cultural preservation, have had to adapt to contemporary realities. Using the senses to preserve one’s cultural heritage and to adapt to diasporic realities is a story of transition, a narrative that bridges the divide between ancestors and their descendants. I propose to show one dimension of Armenianness as an expression of ancient cultural traditions via the transfer of culinary culture to future generations of Armenians. Increasingly, being rmenian is as much a matter of genetics as it is of self-identification. And the more non-Armenians press upon us the fact of our “otherness,” the more we look in to discover our “sameness.” 

For this workshop, I can speak from three distinct perspectives: One as an Armenian in the contemporary world; a second as a researcher and historian of the Armenian past; and a third as an Armenian American who can feel and express what it is like to be both the object and the subject of her own life.

Daniel Fittante
Postdoctoral Research Fellow
Södertörn University, Stockholm

“Diasporic Multiculturalism”

Noting an overreliance on North American and European-based understandings of race and ethnicity, many sociologists have called for research in new spaces. But the same conceptual and regional limitations apply to several other studies. One example of this is multiculturalism. Sociologists tend to associate multiculturalism with international migration and ethnic pluralism. As such, they typically study multiculturalism in the most ethnically diverse (and often most affluent) countries—that is, in North America, Europe, and Oceania. But international migration does not always result in ethnic diversity. For example, diasporic return migration often leads to the convergence of internally diverse co-ethnic populations in ethnically homogenous nation-states. The diasporic “returnees,” who were born outside of their perceived homelands, come through targeted migration policies, face various levels of discrimination, and yet contribute significantly to the perceived homeland’s economic development and cultural diversity. This presentation argues that the multiculturalization of monoethnic nationhood is substantially driven by diasporic return migration. As a case study, the presentation explores this phenomenon—that is, diasporic multiculturalism—in the context of Armenia.    

Natalie Kamajian
PhD student, Culture and Performance
University of California at Los Angeles
Director of Dance, Lernazang Ensemble, Los Angeles

“Choreographing Armenian Goyamart: Dancing Yarkhushta during Wartime Protest”

In September 2020, in the midst of a global pandemic, Turkey and Azerbaijan launched a full-scale war in Armenia and Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabagh) for 44 days, targeting civilians, displacing over 100,000 Armenians, and destroying sacred sites. Viewed by Armenians as a continuation of the Armenian Genocide (1894-1920), the war sparked renewed sentiments of the Armenian political idea goyamart, or “battle for existence.” In the wake of this violence, Armenians across the diaspora incorporated the martial dance yarkhushta into their protests to establish a sense of unity during a time of collective existential crisis. However, performances of yarkhushta were articulated not in its vernacular form, but in an invented Armenian concert dance form, bemakan par, or “stage dance.” In my research, I read bemakan par as a balletic form that invokes the seventy-year Soviet occupation of Armenia and that has institutionalized a cultural hierarchy that marks Russian and European aesthetics as superior, and native aesthetics as “uncivilized.” In this paper, I analyze bemakan choreographies of yarkhushta across multiple protests, and argue that Armenians who claim to be remembering endangered heritage practices are instead reifying colonial legacies of Genocide and Soviet occupation. Through choreographic analysis, ethnographic research, and my own dance practice, I trace how dancing Armenianness attuned to the aesthetics of ballet is akin more so to cultural disassociation and domination, than to cultural preservation. Instead, I suggest that vernacular expressions of yarkhushta function as a decolonial practice that can reinvigorate, corporeally, a strong sense of self against continued dispossession and erasure.

Maureen E. Marshall
Associate Director, Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
President, American Research Institute of the South Caucasus

“Entangled Assemblage: Armenian Material Culture in an Occasional Collection” 

This paper explores the “Armenian” objects in the collections of the Spurlock Museum of World Cultures at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign. The museum holds over 131 objects associated with Armenia, which span a remarkable breadth of time from the eighth century BC to the nineteenth century. Yet, these objects are not part of an intentional, “Armenian” collection of materials, but rather have made their way into the museum’s collections through a number of different means, most often as part of other donations and collections. Indeed, Champaign-Urbana does not host a notable Armenian community nor the University an Armenian Studies program that might contribute to the collection of Armenian material culture. How then can we interpret this assemblage and what do we learn about Armenian culture and identity from it? Drawing on Ian Hodder’s (2012) notion of entanglement, I investigate the assemblage both in terms of the objects in themselves (their material) and their relationships (with each other, their broader collections, and with people). Drawing on the chaîne opératoire approach, I present several object biographies, examining how these objects are embedded in the social and the historical, and in Armenian experience. Finally, I offer an exploratory comparison of the Spurlock assemblage to objects of internationally recognized cultural heritage as well as other Armenian museum collections and histories, comparing the Spurlock’s occasional assemblage with intentional, self-identifying, cultural-heritage collections. I suggest that while the Spurlock’s assemblage hits on many key elements of Armenian cultural heritage, what is missing is also telling.

Alyssa Mathias
Visiting Assistant Professor of Music
Knox College

“'Bamboo Reeds Bought in Chinatown’: Armenian Music, Racialization, and Inter-Ethnic Histories in 20th-Century California”

Armenians who emigrated from the Ottoman Empire to the United States at the turn of the twentieth century occupied what ethnomusicologist Sylvia Alajaji refers to as a “racial borderland” (2015). Humanitarian discourse portrayed Armenians abroad as fair-skinned, Christian victims of Ottoman imperial aggression, even while Armenians in the US were subjected to ethnic stereotyping and exclusionary policies stemming from discrimination against Black, Asian, and Indigenous populations. With naturalization laws restricting citizenship on the basis of race, questions of Armenian whiteness reached US district courts. This paper analyzes Armenian musical practices in California after the 1925 United States v. Cartozian decision, which categorized Armenians as white in the eyes of the federal government. Songs reveal naturalization and land ownership opportunities afforded by this official racialization, while also commenting on everyday situations in which Armenian racial identities remained considerably more ambiguous. Focusing on Sidney Robertson Cowell’s WPA Folk Music Project archives from 1930s Fresno, I situate the Armenian recordings within local Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, and Tachi-Yokut histories, as well as family stories from my own German Russian relatives in the area. In doing so, I interrogate the role of music in navigating racialized immigrant landscapes, and ask how listening to these recordings in a broad, interethnic context may lend new insights into twentieth-century American Armenian life.

Sabrina Papazian
Research Associate, Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage
User Experience Researcher

“Heritage in the Hostland: Armenian-American Engagement at the 2018 Smithsonian Folklife Festival”

The Armenia: Creating Home (ACH) program at the 2018 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which featured Armenian foodways presentations, artisan craft traditions, and other cultural practices, constituted one of the first international demonstrations of Armenian heritage. Held on the National Mall every summer, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival brings together artisans, musicians, cooks, and storytellers from highlighted countries to demonstrate cultural expressions for international audiences.  Besides globally re-imaging Armenia, ACH provided a unique opportunity for the Armenian-American diaspora to interact with the intangible and tangible heritage of their homeland in ways more nuanced, diverse, and generative than traditional Armenian cultural settings in the United States.

My talk will draw upon my ethnographic research at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and will assess how cultural institutions and programs contribute to the creation of new forms of socio-political relations between diasporic and homeland populations through the presentation, preservation, and dissemination of cultural heritage. Through interview data with Armenian-American donors, visitors, and volunteers affiliated with ACH and corresponding archival research I’ll touch upon several subjects including: What happens when diasporans interact with heritage from the homeland when it is presented in the host nation? What is the role of cultural institutes, like the Smithsonian Institution, in conserving and promoting cultural heritage that incites diasporic and homeland interactions? And what social, economic, and political networks of relations emerge from cultural programs that facilitate interactions between diasporic and homeland communities?