On Inauguration Day 2013, a few minutes after 12 p.m., Raffi Hovannisian stood before a massive crowd at Liberty Square in the heart of Yerevan, Armenia. Thousands of Armenians had gathered in the capital to cheer on their leader: “Raffi! President! Raffi! President!” The man before them was tall and dynamic, his fist thrown into the air like a high-school football star. He drew himself to the microphone and thundered over the crowd: “Armenia! Armenia!” The people whistled and cheered. Many of them did not notice that they were being surrounded by riot police with red berets, reinforced by special units of the armed forces.
At exactly the same time, a few kilometers up a hill, Serzh Sargsyan was taking the oath of office for the presidency of the Republic of Armenia. The entire government was in attendance—all the church leaders, too. The official results had been clear about the incumbent’s victory, with 59 percent of the vote. The man on stage was short, with silver hair and the disciplined expression of a military commander. He spoke solemnly about the challenges still facing the country: unemployment, poverty, emigration.
It was a sunny day. The ancient circular city glowed gold and pink in the biblical valley of Mount Ararat.
That day, April 9, there were two ceremonies in Armenia; the country was divided, and we had to choose which Armenia we belonged to. For my part, I was standing with the man at the square.
I looked to my father. He had already raised his right hand. The other Armenians, too, had raised their hands. They were holding up the Constitution, apricot ribbons tied around their wrists, and repeating after my father:
I, a citizen of the Republic of Armenia,
Hereby dissolve my bonds with the current authorities.
I declare that I do not recognize false rulers,
I cannot submit to false laws,
I shall not obey false commands.
I am authorized by my natural rights,
Protected by the Constitution.
And I am not afraid.
And I cannot be bought.
And I shall not surrender.
Raffi K. Hovannisian was born on November 20, 1959, in Fresno, California, and from the beginning of his life, his grandfathers Kaspar and Hovakim predicted that he would have a special destiny. The Armenian word they used was jagadakir: “the writing on the forehead.” There were just a few problems standing in the way. The boy’s father, Richard, was only a history teacher at the local junior high school; his mother, Vartiter, was still a medical intern at the county hospital. And they lived in a little wooden house. Kaspar had bought it in foreclosure, lifted it off its foundations, and hauled it by truck to a vacant lot on Alta Avenue, which cut through a working-class neighborhood of Armenian refugees.
It was difficult to explain to the children why the Armenians had come to the San Joaquin Valley in the first place, and why they had built their schools and red brick church and even their cemetery. Many parents didn’t even try. The children were set free of their pasts and sent running into the vineyards and orchards of this new land: “the strange, weed-infested, junky, wonderful, senseless yet beautiful world” dramatized by the Armenian American writer William Saroyan. He had already won the Pulitzer and an Oscar by the time my father was growing up, but he could sometimes be seen, with his big mustache and mischievous smile, riding his bicycle through the streets of downtown Fresno.
But still there was the secret fermenting underneath it all, and a boy could only guess at it. Sometimes, late into the night, my father would hear his grandfather Kaspar screaming in his sleep.
Many people had nightmares on Alta Avenue. They saw burning villages and death marches. They saw their mothers being raped by foreign soldiers and their fathers hanging from the gallows. They saw themselves running through vast desert landscapes. It was my grandfather Richard’s destiny, even before it was my father’s, to come to terms with those nightmares. In 1963, Richard moved his family to Los Angeles, where he defended his Ph.D. at UCLA and eventually established an endowed chair in modern Armenian history. He became not only a pioneer of Armenian studies in the United States but also, in time, an internationally recognized authority on those secret events of 1915 replaying in his father’s subconscious: the Ottoman Turkish government’s efficient deportation and slaughter of a million and a half Armenians and the destruction of their ancient homeland.
For the time being, though, my father was living out a childhood unburdened by the history his father was writing. He joined the Boy Scouts and took piano lessons, lifted weights and wrote minimalist poetry. He played the line for the Palisades High Dolphins and became a firebrand member of the student council; he campaigned to get stalls put up in the boys’ bathrooms. He was ripped and mysterious and charismatic—“a golden boy,” according to his Pali High yearbooks, “a kind, thoughtful gentleman,” “a rare man with class and charisma,” “a hunk of man.”
But at home, in his father’s corner office, there was always the furious clattering of a typewriter and the clashing of Beethoven symphonies. Raffi understood that, through those long nights, a terrible history was coming to light—except this was not a dead history. It was a past that Turkey aggressively denied and, because of its well-funded efforts in Washington, a past that the United States and other allies refused to condemn. It was a past that inspired Armenian boys in the 1980s to kill Turkish diplomats in Los Angeles and blow up Turkish Airlines airport counters in Paris. On April 24, every year, tens of thousands of Armenians would march on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles and converge upon Times Square in New York and surround Turkish consulates across the United States to protest the continuing denial and silence surrounding the Armenian Genocide of 1915.
It was a silence that had disastrous consequences not only for the Armenian people but for all the genocide victims who came afterwards. “It’s a matter of indifference to me what a weak Western European civilization will say about me,” Hitler told his generals just before invading Poland in 1939—adding, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
It was a past that was, in its own way, catching up to my father, too. At Pali High, he founded the Armenian Club. He founded other Armenian clubs everywhere he went after that: Berkeley, UCLA, the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Georgetown Law. By day, he worked as an international lawyer in the high offices of downtown Los Angeles, but at night he was creating the Armenian Bar Association. He was helping draft the Armenian Genocide resolutions being submitted to Congress every year. He was conducting interviews with genocide survivors for his father’s oral-history collection at UCLA and teaming up with his father to testify before the State Assembly in Sacramento. Together, the two Hovannisians succeeded in getting a lesson on the Armenian Genocide into California’s public-school curriculum. In 1985, my father married my mother, Armenouhi, also the descendant of survivors. They named their children after the cities and villages of old Armenia, on the western side of Mount Ararat, which had been dismantled in 1915.
The first thing I remember about my father is his voice, singing songs of war and revenge. This was the beginning of my education. Every night my father told me stories of our ancient homeland. For thousands of years our kings had ruled over an empire stretching from the Mediterranean to the Caspian Sea. It was a beautiful and mountainous land; according to the Bible, Noah’s Ark had landed upon Mount Ararat—which meant the world had ended in Armenia and then been given a second chance. Thousands of years ago, we had entered our own covenant with God.
Now we did not have a homeland anymore. Instead we had churches and private schools and community centers scattered across a vast diaspora. There were entire blocks on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles lined with Armenian bakeries selling melted-cheese boreg and honey-soaked pakhlava. Long before Kim Kardashian, we had the Las Vegas tycoon Kirk Kerkorian and the French-Armenian singer Charles Aznavour. We’d had an Armenian governor in California, George Deukmejian. We could claim Jack “Dr. Death” Kevorkian, if we wanted to, and half of Cher, Andre Agassi, and the chess champion Gary Kasparov. When my father took me to the movies, we would stay for the closing credits and cheer at the Armenian last names, with their “-ian” and “-yan” endings.
But all along there had been another Armenia, too. This was an alternative homeland, hidden behind the Iron Curtain on the eastern side of Mount Ararat. That Armenia, with its capital of Yerevan, had actually survived 1915. It had even enjoyed two years of independence—a brief miracle of democracy that was the subject of Richard Hovannisian’s sprawling four-volume magnum opus, The Republic of Armenia. Then its destiny had also turned. In 1920, the Red Army had advanced upon Eastern Armenia and slashed it into pieces; the territories of Artsakh, or Mountainous Karabakh, along with its majority Armenian population, had been transferred under Joseph Stalin’s seal to Soviet Azerbaijan. What remained was a rugged country of 30,000 square kilometers—a land-locked Communist republic under the control of the Kremlin.
Increasingly, though, it was Soviet Armenia that tugged at my father’s imagination. Armenians actually lived there. The Armenian language, an eastern dialect of it, was still spoken there. And one day my father read in the newspapers that hundreds of thousands of Armenians had flooded Opera Square in Yerevan to begin a powerful intellectual mass movement against the Soviet authorities. Except they were not chanting about the past—about recognition for 1915—as we were in the diaspora. The Armenians in Yerevan were chanting about their future. They wanted Mountainous Karabakh back from Azerbaijan. They wanted sweeping democratic reforms from the Kremlin. It seemed, at times, that they even wanted independence. When Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev learned of this, he immediately declared martial law and shut down the demonstrations. The movement appeared to be finished.
Then, on December 7, 1988, the day my mother was sworn in as a lawyer in Los Angeles, she and my father came home to find me sitting with the babysitter and staring at the television. I was mesmerized by the images of the earthquake: falling buildings, freezing bodies, the town clock stopped at 11:41. “Armenia is hurting,” I tried to explain; I was two years old. By the following day, my father was on board an emergency cargo plane belonging to the State Department—heading for the ruins of Soviet Armenia.
The following year, my father quit his job and defied his parents by moving our family to Armenia. My mother and I were there to see the statue of Lenin come down at Lenin Square, which the people renamed Republic Square, and to join the new wave of protests at Opera Square, which the people renamed Liberty Square. We were there, too, for Independence Day—September 21, 1991—and then the inauguration of Levon Ter-Petrosyan, the professorial figurehead who became Armenia’s first elected president. And we were there when my father received the phone call of a lifetime. The president himself was at the other end of the line, asking if my father would serve as the new republic’s first minister of foreign affairs. The job would pay 600 rubles, $143, a month.
That is how a family of American citizens came to unlock the doors of an abandoned Soviet building on Baghramyan Boulevard, which was to be our ministry. I ran out behind my parents as they walked the dark corridors, which opened up to rooms filled with stone statues and paintings of frightening men: the ghosts of Communists past. When we arrived at my father’s office, there was nothing there except a fax machine. My father smiled his deep American smile. He plugged in the machine and knocked on it with his fist until it came to life. Then he took out a pen and scrawled a few words across a white sheet of paper. We huddled around the fax machine and the transmissions began, to one foreign government after another: Armenia is free. Please recognize.
As I settled into one of the mansions in the government compound with my mother and my two younger brothers, my father began his ministry. We followed him mostly on television, as he traveled the world to negotiate diplomatic relations with every major democracy. At summits of international organizations, he was making the case for an independent Mountainous Karabakh, where Armenian guerrilla forces were fighting an improbable war of liberation against the armies of Azerbaijan. He was raising Armenia’s red, blue, and orange flag at United Nations headquarters in New York. Then, in September 1992, at a Council of Europe meeting in Istanbul, my father broke the genocide taboo and demanded justice for 1915 in the very heart of the Republic of Turkey.
That night there were celebrations in Los Angeles, Paris, Beirut, and other cities where Armenians had sought refuge after the genocide. The Los Angeles Times called Raffi “the most popular man in the newly reborn Republic of Armenia,” and reported that “a recent poll in the Armenian newspaper Epokha found that he enjoyed a mind-boggling 96 percent approval rating, more than President Ter-Petrosyan.”
While the public approved of my father, the president increasingly did not. Even before the Council of Europe meeting, Ter-Petrosyan and his foreign minister had clashed over ties with Turkey. The president wanted to normalize relations with Turkey and be more strategic on the Karabakh issue; he said that Armenia’s good standing with neighboring countries was necessary for Armenia’s security and survival. The way he saw it, Raffi’s performance in Istanbul was an act of sabotage against that conciliatory foreign policy.
A few weeks later, in a private meeting at the presidential office, Ter-Petrosyan accepted my father’s resignation. Overnight, my father became a dissident in the very republic he had spent his life dreaming about.
“Inch g’nenk hos?” The question was whispered late at night. It was the end of 1992 and we were covered in sleeping bags in a 10th-story apartment that smelled, as the entire city smelled at that time, of kerosene. These were the “dark and cold years,” as Armenians still call it, when breadlines wrapped around city blocks and starving dogs howled through the night and caskets with boys were delivered every morning to sleepless mothers across Armenia. Azerbaijan’s senior ally, Turkey, had sealed its border with Armenia, and grain shipments had stopped coming in. Our apartment hadn’t seen light or water for days. And so it was not at all unfair for my pregnant mother to be asking, “What are we still doing here?”
It’s a dangerous thing when survival becomes the defining instinct of a people. That is what happened to the Armenians: Within two years of achieving independence, they lost their hope, their cause, their national vision. They were not as generous as they used to be. Their newfound freedom began to rot. And the old Soviet symptoms surfaced again. On the streets of Yerevan, a generation of child beggars emerged. Policemen waved batons for $2 bribes. Teachers worked for bribes, too; many of them accepted money from parents in exchange for better grades. Adversaries of Ter-Petrosyan’s government were imprisoned. And the mass exodus began. In the next decade a million and a half Armenians would choose the path of voluntary deportation.
Eventually Ter-Petrosyan was forced to step down. Under the presidency of Robert Kocharyan, businessmen came to rule Armenia. One of them took the monopoly on gas, another the monopoly on sugar and flour. All of them had nicknames, armies of bodyguards, and fleets of luxury cars escorting them ostentatiously through the city to their offices in parliament. They were billionaires, although they had incurred great debts to the original oligarchs surrounding the Kremlin in Moscow, to whom we’d been outsourcing our security, selling our gold mines and electricity plants. In 1999, during a session of parliament, gunmen assassinated all of Kocharyan’s political adversaries.
These developments did not frighten my father; to him, they only proved the necessity of staying and struggling in the homeland. In 2001, he gave up his American passport for good. And he remained stateless until the authorities finally signed off on his papers, a full decade after he had submitted them. He founded Armenia’s first independent research center and, some time later, a political party called Heritage.
Starting around that time, my father and my mother stopped being invited to appear on Armenian television; their journalist friends told them the orders had come straight from the top. My mother ran an organization called Orran, a humanitarian center for impoverished children, and the Armenian authorities investigated it for financial misconduct. Heritage headquarters were shut down. Party members, especially in the rural regions of Armenia, were harassed and threatened with unemployment. It was in this atmosphere that Heritage entered the 2007 parliamentary race and narrowly cleared the minimum 5 percent of the vote needed to enter parliament. It did so again in 2012. These were important victories for my father, establishing him not only as a member of parliament, but also as the voice of the opposition.
When people spoke admiringly of my father, they often said that “his eye is full,” which meant he had seen the world and he wasn’t in politics for the money. But people also said that he would never make it in Armenia. He was too much of a romantic. And it was true. All around us, the authorities were growing richer and more powerful. Every day, the country slipped deeper into economic recession. Emigration rates soared. Things got so bad that, in the presidential elections of 2008, the people looked for salvation in Levon Ter-Petrosyan again. Instead, Kocharyan’s successor, Serzh Sargsyan, ascended to the presidency amid massive protests alleging that he’d falsified the election results.
So what kept my father in Armenia? Was he, as my grandfather in Los Angeles called him, an Armenian Don Quixote? Was he, as some government-run media outlets insinuated, an American spy? The Americans were just as puzzled by Raffi as the Armenian authorities. Cables from the U.S. Embassy in Armenia to the State Department in Washington, published by WikiLeaks, show successive American ambassadors grappling with the question of my father’s identity—and his fate in Armenia:
Hovannisian is an aberration in the rough-and-tumble politics of post-Soviet Armenia. While Armenian-born politicians run fast and dirty, Hovannisian has remained faithful to his decades-long goal of transforming Armenia’s deformed political culture. … It is widely assumed that the authorities will never permit the reformist Hovannisian a chance at the country’s top posts. One gets the impression in speaking with him that Hovannisian realizes his boat has sailed.
In the summer of 2010, my father led our family through the lands of Eastern Turkey, which we know as Western Armenia. The ruined medieval kingdom of Ani had once been known as “the city of 1,001 churches.” Now, only the corpses of those churches remained. From the signs, in Turkish and English, we would not have known that Armenians had ever lived or prayed in this place. We peered into the waters of the Kemakh Gorge. In 1915, survivors tell us, these waters turned red from the tens of thousands of Armenians who were butchered there. But the nearby plaque recalled only the martyrdom of some Turkish soldiers. In Mush, we could not find the old church of St. Garabed. My father told me to look carefully at the walls of the city’s homes and their embedded orange stones with engravings of crosses and angels. The Muslim town was built of Christian rock.
A strange sensation began to dawn on us: We were not supposed to be here—we were not supposed to be alive. Whatever happened in 1915 had been intended not just to erase a people and a homeland, but to erase retroactively the entire history of their existence. They weren’t just planning to kill us; they were going to make it look as though we had never been born.
According to Article 301 of Turkey’s criminal code, it is still illegal to “insult the Turkish nation,” and that includes any talk of the Armenian Genocide. Textbooks inform Turkish students that during the First World War, there were treacherous Armenians who sided with Russia and dead civilians on both sides of the conflict. Students don’t learn about the hundreds of thousands of deportees who were marched through the Syrian desert, the burnings of villages and mass drownings of children, the camps where people died of dysentery and starvation. Turkey’s own Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk and many other Turkish intellectuals have been persecuted for writing about the Armenian Genocide.
So had Hrant Dink—the Armenian editor of the newspaper Agos, who continued to write about the Genocide until he was shot and killed by a teenage assassin in front of his newspaper offices in Istanbul. In January 2015, two police officers were arrested in connection with the murder; according to Agos, the judge stated that “the suspects had had prior knowledge of the assassination and had not acted to take necessary precautions.”
The past was not entirely dead, and my father always knew where to find it. He told us to watch the veiled faces of Turkish and Kurdish women, to search for the sad hazel of Armenian eyes. In the dialect of the Hamshens, the descendants of Armenians who had given up their religion to survive 1915, we heard familiar Armenian syllables. In Vakif, the lone Armenian village of modern Turkey, we met the last survivor of Musa Dagh, an epic Armenian resistance in 1915. The writer Franz Werfel had written a bestselling novel, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, and MGM had tried to make a movie of it starring Clark Gable. But the studio scrapped the project after Turkey pressured the U.S. government to shut it down.
Given Turkey’s history of burying the past, we were surprised to find, at least in these eastern provinces, that there was no denial about who we were or what we were doing there. Everybody knew there were Armenian bones in the soil. Town mayors received us with open arms. Kurdish rebels, whose ancestors had participated in killing ours, now embraced us as their brothers. And everywhere we went, little Turks and Kurds greeted us with the same inquiry: “Para? Para?” They were asking for money, but not for the usual reason. They believed we had returned for the buried treasures of our ancestors, who might have hidden them before leaving their villages a hundred years ago.
Toward the end of our voyage, we stopped in the city of Erzurum. The Armenian name for it is my name: Garin. My father took out a map and we followed it to a house built of gray and white stones. He knocked on the door and a thin, dark man with a mustache opened it. Behind him, an older woman vanished into another room.
“Hello,” my father said. He was polite, but firm. “This is my grandfather’s house.”
The man stood still for a moment, sizing us up. Then he placed his hand upon his chest and took a bow before us.
Back in Yerevan, my father would sometimes spend half a day on the balcony on his exercise bike. He would bite into a cigar as he peddled, and gaze out over the city and toward the mountains of Ararat. He could not get enough of that view. I sat at the coffee table beside him, trying to make sense of the man. He no longer seemed to be my father. I was working on a memoir called Family of Shadows, and in the course of it I had started to reflect upon Raffi not as a son toward his father, but almost as a novelist toward his own invented character. And it was now becoming clear to me that our book was in need of an epilogue—a final chapter wherein the hero risks everything to fight the battle of his life.
In September 2012, my father announced his intention to compete for the presidency of the Republic of Armenia. The term of the next president would include the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide in 2015.
For the record: Few people believed a successful campaign for the presidency was possible. The incumbent’s expected challengers—the ousted president Ter-Petrosyan and the beer magnate Gagik Tsarukyan—withdrew from the race in December, presumably fearing humiliation. Opposition parties and civil-society groups declared boycotts of the elections. There was no interest from the diaspora, either; the re-election of Serzh Sargsyan was a foregone conclusion, especially to Serzh Sargsyan. Shortly before the campaign started, a motley crew of Russian-speaking pollsters from Gallup International (not to be confused with the Gallup you’ve heard of) announced the results of one of its surveys: Raffi Hovannisian, 10 percent; Serzh Sargsyan, 66 percent.
Political experts offered ideas about what our strategy ought to be: exude power and confidence in victory. Dress your candidate in the finest suits. Surround him with bodyguards. No more stops in villages to plant trees and such. The Soviet psychology doesn’t respond to Western notions of childish compassion—only to fear, to power, to reality.
What these experts didn’t consider was that my father had no concern for reality. He would be campaigning against reality itself. He wanted to displace not just a president but also the entire culture of fear and cynicism that had taken root in his land. As his director of publicity, I wasn’t planning to run a political campaign, either. I wanted to present my father as a living embodiment of what it meant to be an Armenian—noble, defiant, emotional, even self-contradicting. We were determined, in short, to run a campaign of complete fiction: the first literary presidential race in history.
The other candidates, by contrast, were pragmatic; this was clear from their campaign slogans. Sargsyan emphasized caution: “Toward a safe Armenia.” Hrant Bagratyan, an economist and former prime minister, promoted his 100-point platform: “Only 100 Steps.” Paruyr Hayrikyan, a onetime dissident who had been imprisoned by the KGB, promised “Faith by Actions.”
The night before the campaign started, our billboards went up across the republic, featuring my father in a black knit turtleneck. He did not show his trademark smile, but instead looked out seriously across the highways of his homeland. Only two words, our own slogan, appeared with that image: “It’s possible.”
Sargsyan and his supporters had at their command the entire machinery of the government. We had the conviction that the orders—handed down through the ministries, barracks, and universities—would not be obeyed. They had vast budgets. We had our family’s life savings of $200,000. They had thousands of offices across the republic. We had 20 mobile offices—rented mini-buses full of young volunteers. They had massive rallies packed with state employees and schoolchildren. Our rallies looked more like football huddles.
The campaign lasted from January 21 to February 18. For 28 days, my father darted down the aisles of fruit bazaars and knocked on villagers’ doors and hiked up the hills to visit monks at remote churches. He said hello and shook hands everywhere. This might be viewed as commonplace campaigning in the West, but in Armenia these tactics bordered on the revolutionary. As the London-based publication Caucasus Elections Watch put it, “He conducted a campaign that verged on the surreal—avoiding controversy, shaking hands, talking of serenity and unity.”
Our election monitors had reported many irregularities including acts of bribery, multiple voting, and ballot-stuffing. But the larger problem was best captured by the government’s own numbers: unusually high turnout—sometimes 90 percent and above—in many rural precincts. According to a February 22 report by Policy Forum Armenia, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. the incumbent had swept those precincts clean, often leaving his challengers with no votes at all. The analysis concluded that, in precincts free of falsification, Raffi Hovannisian had actually defeated Serzh Sargsyan by at least four percentage points.
This was not the first time the incumbent had been accused of committing election fraud. In 2008, Ter-Petrosyan disputed the official numbers, which showed him winning 21.5 percent of the vote, and claimed victory over Sargsyan. The protests went on for days, Ter-Petrosyan was placed under house arrest, and 10 people were killed in the ensuing riots. And now, Ter-Petrosyan, who had clashed with my father years earlier, was publicly declaring that Raffi Hovannisian had been the real winner of the 2013 election.
On February 21, Sargsyan’s Republican Party canceled its scheduled victory celebration in Liberty Square, and thousands of Armenians gathered at the square to rally around my father. He defied police orders and led them to the iron gates of the presidential palace at Baghramyan 26. As people waited at the barricades, we were let into the building and escorted to the presidential chambers.
“You look kind of sad, Raffi,” Sargsyan said.
“No, no,” my father replied. “Rightful and righteous.”
On February 28, my father stood before a massive crowd at Liberty Square and announced the beginning of the Barevolution—a play on barev, the Armenian word for “good day.” It was a movement named after Raffi’s tactic of saying hello to his people.
Everywhere we went over the following weeks, thousands turned up at town squares, especially in cities such as Gyumri, where my father had recorded an official landslide victory. They did not seem to hear the voices of police bellowing through bullhorns: “This rally is illegal. All those who participate will be subject to criminal prosecution.” At night, in local taverns or farmhouses, we’d get drunk on home-brewed mulberry vodka, drinking to our forefathers and their dream of democracy.
The protests—the first in Armenia to be live-streamed online—caught the attention of the diaspora. Armenians in Los Angeles, Brussels, and Sydney camped out at their local consulates to protest the election results. People wrote poems on my father’s Facebook wall and uploaded original songs about the Barevolution to YouTube. Serj Tankian, the lead singer of the rock group System of a Down, wrote an open letter to Sargsyan to say that “the avalanche of people suffering under your rule due to corruption and injustice is tipping the scale for us all.” He dedicated his newly released song “It Is Spring” to “all those in Armenia fighting for positive change.” My grandfather, Richard, flew in from Los Angeles to confess at Liberty Square that he, too, had thought his son’s candidacy was an act of “political suicide.” The professor said he was pleased, at long last, to be wrong.
Most of the speeches at Liberty Square had this kind of confessional ring to them. From the podium, several opposition leaders admitted that they had not voted for Raffi since they had not believed he could win, but that they were there now to show their support. Before the tens of thousands of people who packed Liberty Square, my father’s own speeches were intense, enraged, shamelessly literary. I was responsible for a few of them. That is how the words of Bob Dylan (“Let us not speak falsely now / The hour is getting late”) and Leonard Cohen (“There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in”) came to echo at Liberty Square. I was still enjoying my role as my father’s author. I was writing history—and he was making it.
More and more, however, my father broke free from his script. Sometimes, when he would pause to reach for a word, the silence would be filled by offerings from the crowd, which Raffi would accept. The back-and-forth made for truly democratic speeches, wherein a leader was creating a new language with his people. He aimed to give them their identities back—to restore their long-lost national vision. “A new flood is rising in the Valley of Ararat,” he declared. “It is a pure but powerful flood in which the fear, the fraud, and the hatred of all Armenians will perish. The flood, however, will pass—leaving in its trail a fertile land upon which a New Armenia will blossom.”
One night in early spring, I woke up in a little tent pitched at Liberty Square. Through the folds of the blankets piled on top of me, I could just make out my father’s silhouette. He was surrounded by Bibles and stone crosses and paintings of angels; his supporters had been delivering them day after day. Father Krikor, a priest with a long gray beard, was reading a sermon over my father’s body. He was the only clergyman in the republic who dared visit us in the square. We were now in the 20th day of my father’s hunger strike. He was getting weaker every day, shrinking into his black turtleneck.
In the daytime, my father sat on a green bench next to his tent, a smile on his unshaven face as supporters came by to sing songs and deliver poems they had composed for him. “Every leader,” he told them, “must feel on his own flesh the pain and suffering of his people.” It was clear by this time that his actions had very little to do with politics. This was a literary statement. In one final symbolic gesture, he chose to end his hunger strike on March 31, Easter Sunday.
The night before Inauguration Day, I was among a small group of supporters who gathered at our headquarters for a final meeting. My father refused to answer any questions about the details of his plan for the following day. The only thing he said is that we would be having an inauguration ceremony of our own, at Liberty Square, and we should be ready to take an oath. Then he looked directly at me and spoke about the relationship between father and son—between character and author. “The book ends tomorrow,” he said.
My father, mother, and I locked arms as we left Liberty Square for the last time. My father was wearing a dark blue suit and a blue-and-gold tie. He was clean-shaven, and his glance was firm as it fell upon the red berets lining the perimeter of the square. A diminutive police captain ran to catch up to us.
“You cannot leave the square, Mr. Hovannisian,” he said. “Respectable Mr. Hovannisian: Please reason with me! Mr. Hovannisian—no!”
But my father did not flinch. He stooped like the lineman he once was and then rose with a sudden surge of power, breaking through the wall of police. We could hardly believe it; during previous public marches, my father had been stubborn but always polite with the police. In fact, even as he called for revolution, he had instructed us to walk on the sidewalks and stop at all red lights. But now he spontaneously led the crowd onto Mashtots Boulevard and along the left curve of Saryan Park toward the presidential palace. At the intersection of Saryan Avenue, we were met by a formation of riot police, special military units, armored trucks, snipers on buildings—in short, a full showing of our state and its awesome power.
Still, we charged the barricades. And from somewhere deep inside the crowd a familiar chant began—“Armenia! Armenia!” I looked over my shoulder and saw the people my father had exalted all my life, locked in their eternal struggle. But these were not the noblemen of the ancient stories, or the heroic genocide survivors, or even the dissident intellectuals who helped take down the Soviet empire. These were the remnant citizens of a collapsing republic. Why had my father believed in them anyway? And how had they come to believe in him? Just beyond the barricade, Baghramyan Boulevard sloped up toward the courts and embassies, the parliament and the presidential office.
That afternoon, as we crashed into the shields of police—as people all around me were being arrested and smashed into the ground—I recognized the absurdity of what we were doing. It occurred to me that we were not actually going to get through to the other side. Of the two Armenias only one would survive that day, and it would not be ours. The fiction we had created would end; reality would rule this republic again. And that faith, which had suddenly erupted in Armenian hearts, would return again to its hiding places.
The evening ended at the Eternal Flame, the official memorial to the Armenian Genocide, on a hill above the city. My father led us there. It was dark when we reached the flame, which is surrounded by 12 stone slabs representing the lost provinces of Western Armenia. This was the Armenia that had vanished in 1915—the Armenia that was still pure in the heart of my father. We laid flowers, lit candles, and prayed together. My father said some hopeful words about unity and the great future we shared. And then he began the national anthem. He stared sternly into the orange and blue fire, and sang:
Everywhere death is the same.
Man will die only once.
But lucky is he, that this should be,
For his country’s liberty.