In May, the Russian American Foundation (RAF) launched the 12th Annual Russian Heritage month in New York. Among the special events is an exhibition of renowned Armenian artist and filmmaker Sergey Parajanov opening on June 16. Parajanov lived throughout the better part of the Soviet era, from 1924-90.
The irony, of course, is that Parajanov (nee Sarkis Hovsepi Parajanian) was neither an ethnic Russian nor did he ever consider himself Russian. Actually, it was the Russian-Soviet state that condemned him as a public enemy and a criminal, primarily due to his sexual orientation and also his art. He was imprisoned and sent to work in hard labor camps.
So it’s no wonder that Parajanov himself once declared, “Everyone knows that I have three Motherlands. I was born in Georgia, worked in Ukraine, and am going to die in Armenia.” No mention of Russia for obvious reasons.
Today, we know what Russia did to Parajanov’s three Motherlands. Without having to go too deep into history, one can consider the Russian-Georgian relationship and the war, as well as the recent developments in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea by Russia. And then there is Armenia, also under pressure to join the Putin-led Eurasian Customs Union. With Putin’s stated longing for the return of the good old days of the USSR, bringing small, landlocked republics like Armenia back into the fold is one more step in that direction.
To add insult to injury, the Panajarov exhibit has been organized under the auspices of none other than the first lady of Armenia, Rita Sargsyan. So while Putin continues to outlaw the LGBT community in Russia, the president of Armenia, Serge Sarkisian, surrenders his country’s rightful national treasure to homophobic Russia.
True, Parajanov lived and created during the Soviet period. Yet that doesn’t automatically make his art and legacy a part of the Russian culture, just as other ex-Soviet republics cannot claim the creations of Soviet-era Russian artists as part of their cultural heritage.
If the world learned nothing else when the Soviet Union dissolved, it was that each of its republics had never really lost its cultural and ethnic identity after all. So when Armenians in the diaspora consider whether to attend the exhibit, they should ask themselves: If Parajanov were alive today, would he have shown up?
Tamar Gasparian-Hovsepian is an art historian with an MA in urban affairs. She currently works in community affairs and development sector in New York City.