Sassounian: Exhibit of Armenian Artifacts a Century after Rescue by Russians

On my way back from the Centennial events in Yerevan last week, I stopped in Saint Petersburg, Russia, to attend the inauguration of an unprecedented exhibit of Armenian artifacts rescued by Russian ethnographers from Western Armenia during the genocide.

Here is the incredible background story of that unique exhibit. In 1916, during the Russian military campaign that temporarily liberated Western Armenia from Ottoman Turkey, Saint Petersburg’s Russian Museum of Ethnography sought Czar Nicholas II’s permission to dispatch a scholarly expedition to the Van area to collect Armenian artifacts from imminent loss. The Czar gave immediate consent in his handwriting: “Approve. Need to hurry.”

A small team of ethnographers led by Alexander Miller arrived in Van on June 10, 1916, after a lengthy and perilous journey. During their 2-week stay, they managed to purchase from local inhabitants a total of 513 objects: 396 Armenian, 110 Assyrian, 5 Kurdish, and 2 Turkish. The artifacts included traditional Armenian costumes, jewelry, and carpets from the city of Van, the towns of Alur, Bitlis, Moks, Mush, Shatakh, and neighboring villages. During their visit, the scholars took 60 photographs of natural landscapes, historical monuments, buildings, and some residents. All of these materials were hauled back to Saint Petersburg under the protection of the Russian military.

Surprisingly, these painstakingly collected cultural objects remained in the Russian museum’s basement for 100 years and were never displayed! No one seemed to remember their existence, until two years ago, when Armenia’s Consul General in Saint Petersburg Vardan Hakopyan learned about these artifacts and informed the authorities in Armenia, local community leaders, and the Armenian Jewelry Association.

After extensive joint efforts between the Armenian Jewelers Foundation and the Russian Museum of Ethnography, the items that were kept in storage for a century were finally put on display in Saint Petersburg last week. The Jewelers Foundation and the Russian Museum published an impressive catalog titled, “Treasures of Western Armenia,” which showcased the artifacts collected from the region of Van in 1916, before its recapture and genocidal destruction by Ottoman-Turkish forces.

The exhibit was officially opened on April 27, 2015, at the Russian Museum of Ethnography. It was attended by Vigen Sargsyan, the Armenian president’s chief of staff; Olga Kazanskaya, the vice governor of Saint Petersburg; Vladimir Grusman, the director of the Russian Museum of Ethnography; Pierre Akkelian, the chairman of the Armenian Jewelers Foundation; Gagik Gevorkyan, the president of the Armenian Jewelry Association; and Karen Mkrtchyan, the Armenian community leader of Saint Petersburg.

Not surprisingly, after it became known that the Museum of Ethnography had in its possession valuable artifacts from the Van region, the Consulate of Turkey in Saint Petersburg contacted the museum claiming that these items werethe property of the Turkish Republic and sought their return. The museum’s leadership rejected the Turkish request, as the objects were purchased from their owners in 1916.

It is ironic that Turkish diplomats had the audacity to request these Armenian artifacts, after having killed their owners, burned their homes, and stolen their possessions! One would hope that the Turkish government would be foolish enough to go ahead and file a lawsuit against the Russian Museum, in an attempt to claim these items. Such a lawsuit would further publicize Turkish responsibility for the Armenian Genocide, the looting of Armenian cultural objects, and occupation of their ancestral homeland!

One hundred years later, another expedition should be dispatched to Turkish museums and libraries to locate and recover all Armenian artifacts, manuscripts, and other valuable items plundered during the genocide. Lawsuits should be filed against all Turkish institutions holding such Armenian materials. If local Turkish courts reject the demand, Armenians should then appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in order to recover these long-lost and precious fragments of Armenian cultural heritage. Such a legal effort would be yet another means of seeking restitution for the massive genocide-era losses suffered by Armenians a century ago!

The Russian Museum’s remarkable exhibit should go on tour to Armenian communities around the world: to Athens, Beirut, Berlin, Boston, Buenos Aires, London, Los Angeles, Montreal, Moscow, New York, Paris, Tehran, Toronto, San Francisco, San Paulo, Sydney, Yerevan, and many other cities. Let the world see a small sampling of the vast quantities of valuable cultural artifacts that the Armenian nation lost during the genocide in addition to the 1.5 million human souls.


Harut Sassounian

California Courier Editor
Harut Sassounian is the publisher of The California Courier, a weekly newspaper based in Glendale, Calif. He is the president of the United Armenian Fund, a coalition of the seven largest Armenian-American organizations. He has been decorated by the president and prime minister of the Republic of Armenia, and the heads of the Armenian Apostolic and Catholic churches. He is also the recipient of the Ellis Island Medal of Honor.


  1. {In 1916, during the Russian military campaign which temporarily liberated Western Armenia from Ottoman Turkey, Saint Petersburg’s Russian Museum of Ethnography sought Czar Nicholas II’s permission to dispatch a scholarly expedition to the Van area to collect Armenian artifacts from imminent loss. The Czar gave immediate consent in his handwriting: “Approve. Need to hurry.”}

    Thems nefarious Rooshans: obviously they were attempting to erase all traces of Armenian presence in Armenian lands so they could fill them with Russians: the good old “Armenia without Armenians” policy.

    • How many Armenians “saved” were later sent to Siberia to die? How many Armenians were ignored by Russians during the programs in Baku and Sumgait? Communism was almost as bad to the Armenian nation as the Genocide. What about all the modern Russian weapons sold to the Azeri’s today? Trust no one including the Russians..Trust the Armenian Army.

  2. Turkey’s audacious yet baseless demand reflects its warped perspective of reality. How wonderful it is that Russia managed to save these treasures from Van which is the city from which my grandparents came. So many of their relatives died at the hands of the Turks before and during the Armenian GENOCIDE.

  3. What a marvelous find! What a treasure! I hope the exhibit does go on tour!

    1I hope the exhibit does go on tour.

  4. “Plundering the Dead”
    Is called what the Turkish Government tried to do at St. Peterburg. It´s unbelievable what turkish criminal activities are able to undertake. Which
    other nation worldwide would ever develop such a criminal mind ? Maybe the
    turkish people is developing, but only backwards.

  5. I had the honor of participating at the Global Forum “Against the Crime of Genocide” on April 22nd and 23rd at the Demirchyan Hall/Yerevan. One of the
    speeches I appreciated most were the executions of Mr. Cengiz Aktar. For more than half an hour Mr. Aktar explained to the auditorium which manifold successes the development of parts of the Turkish society made in the last years especially concerning to the Armenian question. It was very good to hear what is already possible now, at least in the bigger cities.

    And now this ! Is there absolutely NOBODY in the whole Turkish government
    who has a clear conscience like people of all other Nations have ?
    Y E S : Ne mutlu türküm diyene ! ! !

  6. “Not surprisingly, after it became known that the Museum of Ethnography had in its possession valuable artifacts from the Van region, the Consulate of Turkey in Saint Petersburg contacted the Museum claiming that these items are the property of the Turkish Republic and sought their return.”

    Let me guess. They claimed the artifacts were “Anatolian”, trying to erase any Armenian connection.

  7. Knowing what Turks were up to in the area these people went out of their way – and risked their lives – to preserve elements of Western Armenia’s cultural heritage. The fact that they made this effort speaks volumes about their humane ethics and respect for culture. God bless the great Russian nation. God bless their great leader, Vladimir Putin. And may God help strengthen and deepen Armenia’s alliance to the Russian Bear. Although it pains me I often think of what would have been had the Bolshevik revolution never took place and Russian-Armenian forces held on to Western Armenia.

  8. Meanwhile, our Anglo-American friends are fully engaged in white genocide of indigenous peoples of Asia Minor, in collaboration with the Turkish Denial Machine:

    To wit: British Museum “Room 54” is labelled “Ancient Turkey.”
    Yep, not one word about, you know, those actual ancient peoples like Armenians, Assyrians, etc.
    No: nomadic tribes from Uyguristan who arrived in Asia Minor in 1000AD are apparently “ancient” in Imperial British mythology.

    To wit: it practically took an act of Congress for the White House to agree to display the Armenian Orphans rug.
    Apparently President Obama was begging Neo-Ottoman Sultan Erdogan for permission: that’s why it took so long.

    What a disgrace.
    What an insult to the Founders of this great nation.
    The Founders spat on the threats coming from the King of the superpower of the day, and signed their names under the Declaration of Independence.
    A virtual death warrant.
    US President Obama is cowering in fear from a tin-pot nothing of a neo-Sultan: how degrading.

    • “The Founders spat on the threats coming from the King of the superpower of the day, and signed their names under the Declaration of Independence.”

      Quite right. The rhetoric surrounding recognition needs to add this self-interest dimension. Not only is recognizing the Armenian Genocide the correct thing to do morally, but, given Turkey’s constant threats, it would also be an act of self-interest, because it would show the world that America stands up for itself.

      If this is how the United States buckles to threats and blackmail from its ally, imagine how it would buckle to threats from its enemies.

  9. As I recall, when some Armenians complained about that exhibit on “Ancient Turkey”, they replied with something to the effect of “well those people of Asia Minor may not have been Turks but they weren’t Armenian either”.

    This is why I say there is an active, anti-Armenian campaign in history being quietly waged, hoping that no one takes notice, by the likes of self-appointed “historians”, “scholars”, etc, headed by, who else, nefarious Turkophile Brits. Funny in the 19th and early 20th centuries they actually did have good researchers, as did the Germans. The Germans kept their tradition and integrity and are fairly honest in scholarship, while our friends in London took a plunge into the gutter and cover up for it by relying or hiding behind their established so-called “good reputation”.

  10. US has nuclear bombs based in Turkey on Armenian soil. Turks act as buffers against Russians and Iranians. No sitting US prez will appease Armos at the expense of Turks. The US has become an ubber evil empire.

  11. Armenia has every right to play with the same games Turkey is doing, and demand ALL ancient “Anatolian” artifacts be repatriated to Armenia from Turkey and England and the USA, including Hittite artifacts, Mitanni, Phrygian, Urartian, etc. Because these were all in the ehno-genesis of the Armenian nation, and no other people exist today that can make the same claim.

    Its time Armenian institutions in Armenia get aggressive and demand the rights of the nation, history and culture. Committing Genocide and illegally confiscating an indigenous people’s land does not mean that the relics and artifacts of those ancient people belong on the artificially created country through acts of Genocide.

  12. I’m happy to know the opening of the exhibition in a Russian museum dedicated to Armenian artifacts.
    The Armenians all over the world must know that we, in France, have a beautiful collection of artifacts: the FRINGHIAN Museum. But unfortunately the museum is closed since a long time according to “security problems”. The artifacts are in boxes with no access for nobody AND the locks of the building have been changed by the head of GUIMET Museum. The Armenian museum was supposed to be opened for 2015.but It is not the case, the French minister of culture did not nor does she answer to any question.
    The situation is explained, in different languages on:
    Thanks for signing it.
    Prof. G. BOSSIERE

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