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Richard Hovannisian, Prominent Armenian Historian, Dies at 90



The funeral service will be Saturday at 11 a.m. at Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church, 2226 Ventura Ave., in Fresno, (GV Wire Composite/David Rodriguez)
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A pioneer in the field of Armenian Studies and an internationally recognized historian with roots in the San Joaquin Valley, Dr. Richard G. Hovannisian passed away on Monday, July 10, 2023, in Los Angeles.

Barlow Der Mugrdechian Portrait

Barlow Der Mugrdechian

Dr. Hovannisian was a professor of Armenian and Near Eastern History at UCLA for more than 50 years, and the first holder of the Armenian Educational Foundation Endowed Chair in Modern Armenian History at UCLA. He was also a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University.  Hovannisian played a pivotal role in the development of the field of Armenian Studies in the United States and throughout the world.

The national funeral service will be held on Saturday, July 22 at 11 a.m. at Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church, 2226 Ventura Ave., in Fresno.

Dr. Hovannisian was born and raised in Tulare, California, in a family of Armenian Genocide survivors. His father, Kaspar Gavroian, was born in 1901 in the village of Bazmashen, now called Saricubük, near Kharpert in Western Armenia (modern-day Elazig in eastern Turkey). Kaspar’s odyssey of escape and survival against all odds as his mother and siblings were herded on death marches and father murdered outright eventually landed him in the United States, where he changed his last name to honor the memory of his father, Hovhannes.

Images provided by the Armenian Studies Program at Fresno State. (GV Wire Composite/David Rodriguez)

Kaspar married fellow Kharpert native, Siroon Nalbandian, whose family had immigrated to the United States just before the Genocide, and together they faced the challenges of juggling their Armenian and American identities, striving to build secure and prosperous lives for their children in a new land, free of the trauma of genocide… the promise of the American dream.  The need to claim his Armenian identity would later become a driving force in young Richard’s life.

Richard Hovannisian, together with his older brothers John and Ralph, and younger brother Vernon, grew up on the family farm, where they helped to harvest the crops, thus learning the value of hard work.  He dreamed, though, of becoming a teacher, and was determined to learn about the history of the Armenians, taught in none of his schools.

Graduating from Tulare Union High School, Hovannisian attended Fresno State College, where he was involved in many international clubs. He met his future wife, Vartiter Kotcholosian, at a California Scholastic Federation conference in 1950 and again at Fresno State as part of the Model United Nations club. He later continued his education at the University of California, Berkeley, graduating with a B.A. in history in 1954.

Moved to Lebanon to Master the Armenian Language

It was then that he made a decision that would affect his future career. He decided to attend the Nishan Palanjian Jemaran in Beirut, Lebanon, to further his knowledge of Armenian history and to master the Armenian language. There he met Simon Vratsian, the last Prime Minister of the First Republic of Armenia (1918-1920), who guided Hovannisian in this endeavor.

Following his return, Hovannisian served a two-year stint in the United States Army, and then began to study for his Master’s at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1957 he married Vartiter Kotcholosian, one of only two women in the graduating class of the University of California, San Francisco Medical School. In 1958 Hovannisian completed his master’s degree in history as Vartiter earned her medical degree.

Taught at Local Schools

Hovannisian taught for several years in local Fresno schools, including Longfellow Junior High School. In the same period, he also drove to Tulare every Saturday with his sister-in-law Nazik Kotcholosian to teach Armenian to the children of family and friends.

In 1960, he was invited by the UCLA Near Eastern Center to teach two extension courses on Armenian culture and language at the then Fresno State College campus. He later joined the UCLA faculty in 1962, where he would go on to develop the Armenian history curriculum. He completed his Ph.D. in Russian and Near Eastern History in 1966.

Hovannisian’s early scholarly work focused on the history of the First Republic of Armenia (1918-1920) and his Ph.D. dissertation was published under the title Armenia on the Road to Independence in 1967. His four-volume The Republic of Armenia was a decades long effort stemming from his Ph.D.

Huge Impact on Armenian Studies

Over the span of his more than sixty years of teaching, research, and public speaking, Hovannisian made an indelible impact in the field of Armenian Studies, and more particularly modern Armenian history and the Armenian Genocide. Through his efforts and a small group of other scholars, the Society for Armenian Studies (SAS) was established in 1974. Hovannisian served six times as its President. Through his efforts Armenian history became a mainstream area in the broader field of world history.

Hovannisian served as the Associate Director of the G.E. von Grunebaum Center for Near Eastern Studies from 1978 to 1995.  Professor Hovannisian was appointed the first holder of the Armenian Educational Foundation Endowed Chair in Modern Armenian History at the UCLA. He has written, edited, and published more than forty books, including The Armenian Image in History and Literature (1981), The Armenian Genocide in Perspective (1986), The Armenian Genocide: History, Politics, Ethics, and edited a series of books on Historic Cities and Provinces. He has also published more than seventy scholarly articles.

Between 1972 and 2000, Hovannisian and his students at UCLA collected over 1,000 oral history interviews with Armenian genocide survivors and their descendants, primarily in California. The Richard G. Hovannisian Armenian Genocide Oral History Collection, housed today at the USC Shoah Foundation, is the largest existing collection of voices of Armenian genocide survivors.

Dr. Hovannisian is survived by his son Raffi and Armenouhi Hovannisian and their family, his son Armen and Elizabeth Hovannisian and their family, his daughter Ani and Armenio Kevorkian and their family, Garo and Arsineh Hovannisian and their family, his sister-in-law Nazik Kotcholosian Messerlian and her family, the families of his brothers John, Ralph, and Vernon Hovannisian (Fresno-Visalia), his in-laws the Takouhi Khatchikian family, the Zabel Aranosian family, the Seda Artounians family, the Zohrab Kevorkian family, as well as his relatives, friends, colleagues, and students.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Orran (Center for Underprivileged Children in Armenia), c/o 2217 Observatory Ave., Los Angeles CA 90027 or the Richard G. Hovannisian Scholarship Fund/Holy Martyrs Ferrahian High School, c/o 101 Groverton Place, Los Angeles, CA 90077.

About the Author

Barlow Der Mugrdechian is the Berberian Coordinator, Armenian Studies Program, and director of the Center for Armenian Studies at Fresno State.


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