- Armenian Literature, History, Religion in in Russian

Luigi Villari


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WHILE the Armenian people have not constituted a definite political State for nearly a thousand years, they have yet remained a nation with distinct racial and social characteristics, and this fact is chiefly, almost exclusively, due to the Gregorian Armenian Church.* That Church has been the focus of the Armenian national spirit, the inspiring force which has kept the people together through centuries of war and bloodshed, revolution and political separation, and many foreign invasions, and still maintains them a nation, although scattered throughout three unfriendly Empires. In some ways it is to-day the most living of all the Churches of the world, for it is all in all to the people who belong to it. It is the refuge and the hope of this sorely-tried nation, and has held aloft the banner of Armenian nationalism throughout the terrible persecutions which the people have suffered and are still suffering. It is in every sense a national Church ; none but Armenians belong to it, and even the Armenians who profess


* I must acknowledge my indebtedness for the architectural details on Etchmiadzin to Mr. Lynch's Armenia (vol. i.), as well as for some of the facts of Armenian Church history.

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Etchmiadzin. Outside the Walls.

[caption] Etchmiadzin. Outside the Walls.


Etchmiadzin. The Reservoir.

[caption] Etchmiadzin. The Reservoir.

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other religions have a sentimental and patriotic affection for it.

The headquarters of the Gregorian Church are at the great monastery of Etchmiadzin, near Erivan, the Rome of the Armenian Church, where the Katholikos or Primate of the Armenians resides. During the recent troubles, as in every other critical phase of their history, the Armenians have looked to Etchmiadzin for guidance, to the Church which for close on sixteen hundred years has been their beacon and their hope. A visit to Etchmiadzin enables us to understand the tenacity of this people and their devotion to their faith better than a whole library of books.

The drive from Erivan to Etchmiadzin is one of the most beautiful in the world, and I quite endorse Mr. H. F. B. Lynch's enthusiastic statement that “ like the journey to Italy, it ought to be included in the programme of a liberal education.” I started at nine o'clock on a brilliant October morning, together with Father Karapet Ter-Mkrtchian, who was going to visit the Katholikos on business matters. The road, after leaving the last mud walls of Erivan behind, descends sharply into the gorge of the Zanga, which it crosses, and then ascends a bank on the same level as Erivan itself. The gleaming white tents of the encampment of the Baku Regiment occupy a shelf close to the river. For a mile or two beyond this point the road is flanked by vineyards and orchards, watered by countless streams, and then emerges into the broad desert plain under the glorious autumn sun. To the right and to the left the vast sandy expanse

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spreads out absolutely flat, shimmering with golden light, ablaze with colour. To the north the great boulders of Alagöz, to the south the mysterious twin peaks of Ararat. Once beyond the vineyards we pass no more human habitations, but we meet numbers of people along the road, mostly peasants, Armenian or Tartar. A few of the latter, mounted on their high-mettled horses, eyed us suspiciously, and Father Karapet cheerfully informed me that they were quite capable of “ letting fly” at us, although the presence of a European was a restraining influence. He himself does not fail to take precautions in the shape of a loaded revolver; the Church of Armenia is bound in self-defence to be a Church militant. We had driven for nearly two hours when we came to a spot where a side track led to a group of ruins to our left. They are the remains of the church and monastery of Zuarthotz, which have been recently unearthed. We stopped for half an hour to inspect them, and they are quite worth a visit. The church is said to have been founded by the Katholikos Nerses III. in the V. century, and to have been destroyed by an earthquake in the X. century. It aroused great admiration at the time it was built, but in the course of ages it had fallen into ruin and was completely buried in the sand ; the work of excavation was commenced in 1893, but it was not undertaken seriously until 1900, when the Archimandrite Khatchik proceeded to unearth the remains bit by bit. The foundations now stand out clear, and give one a good idea of what the building must have been like. It is a fine example of the round style described in connec-

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tion with some specimens at Ani,* a form particularly common among the ancient Armenian ecclesiastical buildings, and consists of an outer circle of walls supported by piers of masonry, and an inner circle with four large piers connected by rows of columns, surrounding a square enclosure within which stands a stone altar. Of the columns only the bases remain, and some of the capitals which are lying about on the ground, the former adorned with an interlacing pattern. The other ornaments and mouldings are all of a solid simplicity characteristic of Armenian architecture. There are flowery designs, eagles, anagrams, and many fragments of writing in various Oriental scripts, and one or two in Greek. Bits of tessellated mosaic pavement have also been discovered. An old monk lives alone in a little hut adjoining the ruins, and carries on the work of excavation, for there is still much to be done. The foundations of other buildings near the church—refectories, monks’ cells, &c.—are being brought to light, and every year new discoveries are made.

On leaving Zuarthotz we resumed our drive towards Etchmiadzin, and were soon transported from the contemplation of forgotten mediaeval ruins to the realities of modern Russia, by the sight of a long procession of peasants, some of them in chains, escorted by Russian soldiers : they were political prisoners who had been arrested for complicity in the recent troubles. One of the escort proceeded to abuse our driver, and to threaten him with his bayonet for not clearing off the road to make room for the


* See Chapter xv.

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column of prisoners, as is the rule in Russia; had there not been a high ecclesiastic in his carriage he might have been arrested himself. However, we were allowed to pass unmolested, and soon came in sight of a green oasis of trees, above which the conical domes of Etchmiadzin cathedral arose. We passed through Vagarshapat, now a dusty, straggling village, and the seat of the Russian district authorities, but the capital of Armenia at the time of King Tiridates, and finally came upon a broad space, at one end of which is a long, high wall of grey mud. It is very Persian, absolutely plain and devoid of all ornament. The line is broken by bulging rounded projections at intervals, but there are no towers. A massive portal is opened, and we enter the celebrated monastery of Etchmiadzin. It is a vast quadrangular enclosure containing many buildings, of which the most important form an inner rectangle surrounding the great court. In the middle of this stands the cathedral of St. Gregory the Illuminator.

I was ushered into a stone building reserved for strangers, and deposited my belongings in a large and not uncomfortable room carpeted with some beautiful Eastern rugs. It opens on to the roof of a lower building, whence one enjoys another wonderful view of Ararat. Here I found G. B., who had preceded me. The monk deputed to look after us has been in the United States inspecting Armenian churches in that country, and spoke English. The Oriental educated in America and speaking American is quite a distinct type with which I was already familiar from my experiences in Bulgaria; he is a curious mixture

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Etchmiadzin. Cathedral of St. Gregory the Illuminator.

[caption] Etchmiadzin. Cathedral of St. Gregory the Illuminator.

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of elemental Orientalism and transatlantic push, but is usually honest and very friendly. This particular specimen, whose name I regret I have forgotten, was a charming man, and most willing to oblige in every way. Our meals, which were served in a small ground-floor room, were shared with him and another Russian-speaking monk, besides an Armeno-American married couple who had come over on a pilgrimage. We were fed right royally and generally treated with great hospitality during our short stay. There is no fixed charge, but each visitor on leaving presents a donation, according to his means, to the monastery.

We were then conducted to the great court. It is said to be the largest quadrangle in the world, being 349 feet 6 inches in length, and 335 feet 2 inches in width.* The buildings surrounding it are of stone or plaster, two stories high, and of very simple architecture. The greater part of them are occupied by the cells of the monks, each monk having a set of two or three small rooms with his own private stairway into the court, not at all unlike an Oxford college. On the south side there is the refectory and library, on the west the residence of the Katholikos. In the middle rises the cathedral of St. Gregory the Illuminator—a church which may be called the St. Peter's of the Armenian world. It marks the spot where, according to the tradition, St. Gregory the Illuminator received a vision of Jesus Christ; the name Etchmiadzin signifies “the Only Begotten is descended.” A church was built to commemorate the descent in


* Lynch’s Armenia, vol. i. p. 243.

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the IV. century A.D. ; but important restorations were made in 483 by the Katholikos Vahan Mamikian, and others by Komitas in 618; to the latter date may be assigned the essential features of the present edifice. The porch over the west entrance was added in the XVII. century. The building is a rectangle of grey stone, with four apses, of which one is hidden by the porch ; each is surmounted by an open cupola and a belfry in red stone. The roof is very low, almost flat, but there are two depressed domes at the east end. There is a large conical dome supported on a polygonal drum at the crossing of nave and transept. The general effect suggests great solidity and strength, but the building as a whole is unusual and interesting rather than beautiful, and altogether inferior to many other Armenian churches, the subsequent restorations having considerably altered its original character.

The interior is impressive; there is a high altar surmounted by a canopy in the centre of the church under the dome, on the very spot where Christ descended, and one in each of the apses except that on the west. The windows are small, and the light is therefore dim. A large part of the walls and piers are covered with paintings of no great merit. Behind the east end of the church is an annexe containing the treasury and reliquaries. Among the objects here preserved are many relics greatly venerated by the Armenian people, such as the hand and arm of St. Gregory, a fragment of the Ark, the head and arm of St. Thaddeus the Apostle, the relics of St. Rhipsime the martyred Roman virgin, and a carved portrait of

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Christ, attributed to St. John the Apostle. The examples of Armenian and other Oriental silver and goldsmith's work are very interesting and of great antiquity. There are also many recent gifts of Russian Tzars to the Katholikoi and Church of Etchmiadzin.

Another interesting building is the Academy or Seminary. The lower Armenian clergy are very ignorant, only the Archimandrites or vardapets being men of learning, but the more recent Katholikoi have determined that this reproach shall no longer be deserved, and the academy was founded primarily for the education of future priests, but also for boys not wishing to enter the Church. The idea was originated by Nerses V. in the middle of the XIX. century, but it was not carried out until 1873 under the pontificate of George IV. The academy is open to all Armenian boys, and is a unique institution in the Armenian world, for it includes not only a school curriculum, but a course of higher education as well. The pupils are about 200 or 300, and as a matter of fact only a small proportion of them enter the priesthood. They are educated and maintained free of charge, although those who can afford it pay their expenses. The building is clean and well kept, and the discipline seems excellent. The course includes history, geography, mathematics, Armenian literature, and foreign languages. One had the opportunity of seeing the different types of Armenian boys here collected ; although the traditional swarthy type with large aquiline nose and intensely black eyes and hair is predominant, there were some as fair as English boys.

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There are, in fact, two distinct types among the Armenians, besides several minor varieties.

But the most interesting feature of Etchmiadzin is the Church organization and the clergy themselves. The Gregorian Armenian Church is believed by its adherents to be the oldest established Christian Church in the world, having been founded by St. Gregory the Illuminator, who converted the Armenian king by means of a miracle. Christianity was adopted as the State religion in the III. century, thirty years before it was officially established in the West. From that time onward the two powers in the Armenian kingdom coexist, viz., that of the Kings and that of the Katholikoi, or heads of the Church, of whom the first was St. Gregory himself. Both dignities were at first hereditary, for celibacy was not enjoined on ecclesiastics until subsequently. The Armenian kingdom collapsed a century later; it was revived in the VIII. century, and crumbled to dust in the XII. century, never to rise again; but the ecclesiastical primacy survives and flourishes to this day. In the IV. century hierarchical government was introduced more or less in the form in which it still exists. The separation from the Western Church was partly due to geographical and partly to national causes. The Armenians had been represented at the first three Councils, but not at that of Chalcedon, and they rejected the compromise there effected admitting the dual nature of Christ. They held a Synod at Vagarshapat in 491, in which they solemnly cursed the Council of Chalcedon. The doctrine proclaimed at that Council that Christ by His Godhead is of one

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Etchmiadzin. Armenian Boys ; Archimandrite in the Center.

[caption] Etchmiadzin. Armenian Boys ; Archimandrite in the Center.


Etchmiadzin. Armenian Boys at the Academy.

[caption] Etchmiadzin. Armenian Boys at the Academy.

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nature with God, and by His humanity, apart from sin, is of one nature with man, was rejected. The Armenians held that Christ became man in every sense ; and that in Christ there is one Person and one Nature, one will and one energy, and in their liturgy is contained the passage : “ O God, holy God, mighty God, everlasting God, who wast crucified for us.” They also probably accepted the view that the mortal body of Christ was incorruptible. Otherwise their dogmas closely resemble those of the Eastern Church. Their ritual and liturgy, however, differ considerably, having been developed on quite independent lines. Since the separation the Eastern Church has made many attempts to absorb that of Armenia, but without avail. The attempts made in very recent times by the most powerful branch of the Eastern Church — that of Russia — to draw the Armenians into its fold have met with no better success. The Armenians are devotedly attached to their Church, and although it differs so little from the Orthodox Church in essentials, they realize that its independence is indissolubly bound up with their own separate existence as a nation. Their devotion to Christianity is truly admirable. No other people has known such persecution, and every inducement has been offered to them to abjure their creed. In Turkey conversion to Mohammedanism would at any time have ended their sufferings and placed them at once among the ruling classes. In Russia acceptance of Orthodoxy would have earned them the approval and support of the bureaucracy. But, except for a small number of Catholic and Protestant Armenians, the

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bulk of the nation has remained true to its ancient Gregorian faith. Both in Russia and in Turkey they form a separate religious community with a distinct organization. The Armenian Church as it is constituted to-day is based on two main institutions, the position of the Katholikos and the influence of the laity in matters ecclesiastical. The whole of the Armenian community is under the spiritual authority of the Katholikos at Etchmiadzin. Under him are the Katholikos of Sis (Cilicia), and that of Aghtamar (an island in Lake Van), who claims the supreme dignity, although in this he is only recognized by a small section of the population, the Patriarchs of Constantinople and Jerusalem, and the bishops, of whom there are fifty-two in Turkey, or counting the monastery bishops fifty-seven, six in Russia and two in Persia. There are in addition twelve bishops attached to the person of the Katholikos residing at Etchmiadzin. The synod, an ancient institution, revived and strengthened by the Russian Government as a means of placing the Church under the control of the State, consists of eight priests, who advise arid assist the Katholikos. The clergy are divided into three classes—the bishops, the monks and priests, and the deacons. By another more practical distinction they are divided into black and white, as are those of the Orthodox Church. The black clergy are the monks; they are bound to celibacy, and from them alone the bishops are chosen. To be admitted as a monk it is necessary to have passed through a seminary, where the title of Vardapet, or doctor of theology, is conferred; but the culture of the bishops

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and the vardapets of the great monasteries is much higher than that of the ordinary monks. They wear long, black robes, and tall, cylindrical hats. The white clergy, or parish priests, are married. While the bishops are appointed by the Katholikos, the priests are elected by the laity and merely ordained by the bishop. The most important manifestation of the influence of the laity is to be found in the election of the Katholikos himself, although since Etchmiadzin was incorporated in Russian territory the Russian Government has a considerable say in the matter. On the death of the Katholikos all the Armenian dioceses are invited to send each a lay and a clerical delegate to Etchmiadzin within a year's time. These delegates, together with the synod and the seven senior bishops resident at Etchmiadzin, meet in the church of St. Gregory and elect four candidates, who are reduced by a second ballot to two. Their names are announced to the Viceroy (or Governor-General) of the Caucasus, who transmits them to the Tzar. The latter confirms one of them Katholikos, and issues an ukaz to that effect. The Katholikos is then consecrated. His power, however, is limited to some extent by the synod, each of whose numbers is appointed by the Tzar out of two names presented by the Katholikos. The Tzar is represented on the synod by the procurator, a Russian official, who examines the validity of the synod's decrees, and in all matters not purely spiritual these are subjected to the approval of the Minister of the Interior. These and other questions concerning the relations of Church and State are regulated by the Polojenie or Regu-

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lating Statute enacted by Nicholas I. in 1836. The bishops are appointed by the Katholikos, but in the case of those in Russian territory they must receive their exequatur from the Tzar. The interregnum of a year between the death of a Katholikos and the appointment of his successor offers plenty of opportunities to the Government to intrigue and extend its powers over the Church. The Church is maintained by the voluntary donations of the community, and by the income derived from its estates. Of these the greater part are situated in Russian territory, as the pious donors thought that they would be safer under a Christian Government than in the hands of a Mohammedan Sultan. But this very circumstance enabled the Russian bureaucracy to carry out its persecutions most effectually during the Kultur-kampf. A sum of £10,000 a year is devoted to the maintenance of Etchmiadzin, and the salary of the Katholikos is about £1,000.

I made the acquaintance of several of the vardapets at Etchmiadzin, all of them men of culture and intelligence. One, Father Galust, has studied at the Sorbonne, and speaks excellent French; although a cripple, his mind is keenly active, he is a learned scholar, and is greatly interested in all the political questions of the day. Father Komitas has studied in Germany, and is an accomplished musician ; he was transcribing the Armenian Church hymns and popular songs into modern notation, and has organized a boys' choir which gave concerts at Tiflis and elsewhere. Several others are authors of scholarly works either in Armenian or in foreign languages. There is an

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Armenian printing press at Etchmiadzin, which has done much to propagate education among the people. The whole atmosphere of this place is that of a centre of learning and culture, like some great Benedictine abbey of the Middle Ages. It was a striking experience to find oneself in such a cultivated society here in this blood-stained and barbarous Eastern land. But the most impressive figure of all is that of the aged and venerable Katholikos, Father Migrtich Khrimian, or Hairik as his people are wont to call him. My interview with his Holiness was unfortunately of the briefest, as he was in bad health, but it was sufficient for me to realize the wonderful fascination of this “ Grand Old Man” of Armenia, to which all who have had the privilege of knowing him bear witness. He was born eighty-six years ago at Van, in Asia Minor, and in his early years he travelled much in the Middle Eastern lands ; afterwards he lived at Constantinople and Sis, where he maintained himself by trading, and also brought out several volumes of poetry. His wife having died, he decided to enter the Church, and in 1834 be became a vardapet. He continued his literary labours and edited a review called the Eagle of Vaspurakan. In 1855 he was appointed Archimandrite of the monastery of Varag, where he established a printing press and set to work to arouse the national spirit of the Armenian people and to prepare them for coming events. The effect of his preaching and writing was miraculous, and the Armenians, who had long forgotten their past traditions as a nation, suddenly awoke and realized that what the other oppressed

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peoples of the East were doing they might do also. In 1869 Migrtich was appointed Patriarch of Constantinople—a position of great political as well as ecclesiastical importance, for it implies the headship of the Armenian millet, or nationality, in Turkey. But in 1874 the Turkish Government became suspicious of his activity and influence, and forced him to resign. After the Russo-Turkish war of 1877, when the hopes of all the Christian peoples groaning under the Turkish yoke were awakened, he was chosen to represent Armenia at the Berlin Congress, and obtained certain promises which were inserted in the Treaty, but never carried out. He also visited England and other European countries at that time. These activities made him less a persona grata than ever at Constantinople, but he continued to preach and write in Asia Minor, until in 1889 he was exiled to Jerusalem. Three years later he was elected Katholikos of Etchmiadzin by the unanimous votes of the whole Armenian nation. The Turkish Government did not wish to let him leave Jerusalem to accept the position, and it was through the intervention of the Russian Government that the difficulties were overcome. Russia thus posed as the friend and protector of the Armenian Church, deriving much prestige thereby. Since his election to the supreme dignity he has been the official leader of the Armenian people, and has guided them with unerring tact and whole-hearted devotion through their terrible trials. His people venerate him and love him, as indeed he fully deserves. First came the awful massacres of 1894-96 in Turkey, when over a hundred thousand

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Armenians were butchered in Asia Minor and in Constantinople, followed by more oppression. Then there was the long series of persecutions on the part of the Russian Government, less brutal perhaps but more insidious and dangerous than the actions of the Turkish Government. When the late M. von Plehve inaugurated his policy of destroying the Armenian Church, ably carried out by Prince Golytzin, the Katholikos solemnly protested in the name of his people and defended their rights to the last. In 1903, after the ukaz confiscating the revenues of the Church, Prince Nakashidze, the Vice-Governor of Erivan, went himself to Etchmiadzin with the police-master to superintend the seizure of the title-deeds, and submitted the aged and venerable prelate to gross indignity; when the latter was returning to the monastery from the church of Rhipsime, where he had gone in the afternoon as was his wont, the gendarmes on duty insolently forbade his entrance, and he was forced to go back to Rhipsime for the night. When asked to give up the keys of the safe where the papers and title-deeds were kept, Migrtich refused, saying, “ The property is not mine to give ; I hold it in trust for the whole Armenian nation. If you wish to take it I cannot prevent you, as you are the strongest, but I shall never willingly surrender it.” The safe was broken open and the property confiscated, as I have told in another chapter.

The Armenian Church thus found itself without means of support. All schemes of improvement were suspended, and the bishops and monks reduced their expenses to an absolute minimum. But the people

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came forward as one man. Rich and poor alike contributed their share for the upkeep of their Church, and in spite of the prohibition of the authorities, a procession of 3,000 people marched out of Erivan on foot to pay their respects to the Katholikos and assure him of their approval of his action and of their unswerving devotion. For the next two years he was ceaselessly active in opposing the persecuting policy of the Government, and in the wave of tentative liberalism which followed the death of M. von Plehve and the defeat of Russian arms in the Far East, the objectionable decree of confiscation was withdrawn and permission to reopen the schools granted. But if the laws have been changed and the heart of Pharaoh has been softened, there are still the troubles with the Tartars, which are by no means over. The energy of the Katholikos is prodigious. Until about a year ago he performed most of his pastoral duties in the neighbourhood on horseback, and he was perpetually travelling backwards and forwards between Etchmiadzin, Tiflis, and St. Petersburg on business connected with the affairs of his Church and people.

But now at last age is beginning to tell even on his iron frame, and for some time before my visit he had been in failing health. I called one morning at his residence, a very simple apartment furnished in the modern style, but without any luxury; I was told that as he was unwell he could not see me until the afternoon. At five o'clock I drove out with an interpreter to the little church of Rhipsime, a mile or so outside Etchmiadzin, for it was here that the Katholikos had repaired. The church itself is con-

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temporary with the cathedral, but smaller and plainer in design. Close by is the house of the Katholikos, which is more modest than his apartment in the monastery; I was ushered into a large room on the first floor ; his Holiness, attired in a simple black tunic, was lying on a sofa gazing out through the window to the wonderful view of the vast plain with Ararat in the distance. His countenance is one of the most interesting and impressive I have ever seen. Although lying there, shorn of all the outward pomp of his high rank, he had the dignity of an ancient Patriarch or of a Father of the Church. Hair and beard are grey, but by no means white, the features Oriental, almost Semitic, the eyes of great keenness and penetration, the expression full of mental vigour, and at the same time kindly and sympathetic. He received me most amiably, excusing himself for the shortness of the interview he could grant me on account of his health. I spoke to him through the interpreter, for unlike most of the Etchmiadzin clergy, he only speaks Armenian and Turkish. I asked his Holiness a few questions concerning the recent events in the Caucasus, and his eyes lit up with anger against the persecutors of his people. To my question as to whether he was satisfied with the retrocession of the confiscated Church property by the Russian Government, he replied, “ Yes, we are glad, but in what a condition has that property been returned to us ! In their two years' tenure the Russian officials appointed to look after it have done their best to ruin and waste our estate.” The new attitude of the Government seemed to him satisfactory on the whole, “ but,” he

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added, “ if the chiefs are changed, the smaller officials are the same, and there will be much trouble yet.”

We then retired leaving the Katholikos still gazing at that far mountain, the symbol of all the fascinations and mystery of this marvellous Eastern land.


Table of contents
Cover and pp. 1-4 | Prefatory note | Table of contents (as in the book) | List of illustrations
“Chronological table of recent events in the Caucasus”
1. The Caucasus, its peoples, and its history | 2. Eastward ho! | 3. Batum
4. Kutais and the Georgian movement | 5. The Gurian “republic” | 6. Tiflis
7. Persons and politics in the Caucasian capital
8. Armenians, Tartars, and the Russian government
9. Baku and the Armeno-Tartar feud | 10. Bloodshed and fire in the oil city
11. The land of Ararat | 12. The heart of Armenia | 13. Russia's new route to Persia
14. Nakhitchevan and the May massacres | 15. Alexandropol and Ani
16. Over the frosty Caucasus | 17. Recent events in the Caucasus | Index



Source: Villari, Luigi. Fire and Sword in the Caucasus by Luigi Villari author of “Russia under the Great Shadow”, “Giovanni Segantini,” etc. London, T. F. Unwin, 1906
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The Flame of Old Fires by Pavel Shekhtman (in Russian)
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