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Aso Tavitian (1940-2020) and Rouben Shougarian (1962-2020):

A Personal Remembrance

Nearly 20 years ago I was invited to teach in an innovative Fletcher program that brought to the School fifteen mid-level officials from the Armenian government to study in a semester-long, multidisciplinary curriculum. Their tuition and living costs were fully paid by the program’s benefactor, Aso Tavitian, and their Fletcher education would soon be guided by the program’s mentor, Rouben Shougarian. Both died, astonishingly, within hours of each other in the cruelty of this April. Both provided in-the-flesh embodiments of generosity and courage. I remember both with painful joy. 

Aso’s life would be dismissed as fiction if it were dramatized by Hollywood. He was born in Bulgaria 80 years ago. His parents had escaped the 1915 genocide in Turkey. When the Communists came to power after World War II, his family was wiped out. At age 19 he went to Lebanon to study. To qualify for a scholarship, Aso needed to learn English. In the effort to do so he came to study under a high school teacher whom he, like everyone else, referred to simply as “Sir.” Sir was a dapper, demanding, erudite Armenian, who saw unusual promise in the young man. Aso quickly developed the requisite proficiency in English. He later discovered, accidentally, that the funds that made his education possible had been provided not by the school, as he had believed, but by Sir, who, living on a meager teacher’s salary, had confidentially provided the money. The Tavitian Foundation, Aso said, was his way of returning Sir’s generosity.

Aso, ready to cast his lot in the world, then gained admission to Columbia and worked his way through driving a taxi. He received a degree in nuclear engineering. The newly-emerging puzzles of computer software held greater intrigue for him, however, and he dropped out of a doctoral program to found a software company. The magnitude of Aso’s philanthropy reflected its success.

Aso was a soft-spoken, gentle man. He listened intently. He was slow to speak and quick to smile. He collected portraits because, he said, he liked people. That affection transformed Armenia. Today over 300 Armenians, many in high positions within both the government and opposition, have studied at Fletcher. Armenia’s Fletcher alumni club is the largest in the world outside of Washington, DC; leaders on both sides of its 2018 velvet revolution number among the Tavitian program’s alumni.  President Kennedy said that one man can make a difference and every man should try. Aso made a momentous difference. He multiplied a drop of generosity shown him 60 years ago into an ocean of beneficence that has lifted the lives of untold numbers of people. With a hundred Asos planet Earth would be a different world.

No one could better have personified the qualities that Aso sought to recognize and promote than Rouben Shougarian. As Armenia gained its independence from the Soviet Union the former philosophy professor became the wunderkind of the Armenian diplomatic corps, rising in his thirties from the position of spokesman for the president to deputy foreign minister and then ambassador to Spain, Italy, Portugal and the United States (Armenia’s first). Rouben had stardust about him; his future knew no limits. 

In 2008, Rouben’s world changed. Tainted presidential elections would be held in Armenia and challenged by thousands of angry protestors. Ten unarmed demonstrators would be killed when troops fired into the crowd. During the run-up to the election the government was accused of widespread corruption by opposition candidates. In response it sharply limited media coverage of their parties, sparking criticism by international organizations and human rights groups. Rouben, then in Rome, co-signed a letter asking that opposition parties be allowed to have their say. The consequences were instantaneous. “In ten minutes,” he told me, “I lost everything.” Rouben was booted out. But Armenia’s loss was Fletcher’s gain–Aso and Fletcher’s dean, Steven Bosworth, saw the chance to grab a star and acted quickly. The rest, as they say, is history. Rouben and his wife, the celebrated concert pianist Lilit Karapetian-Shougarian, moved with their sons to the United States and he settled in to teach at Fletcher.

In Rouben I found a fast friend. He loved Armenia and was slow to criticize either individuals or countries, least of all his own. But Rouben was a child of the Enlightenment. He rankled at the memory of heavy-handed autocracy, self-dealing, and the stifling conformity and self-censorship of Soviet times. An elfin smile crossed his face when his instinct for diplomatic restraint confronted an equally strong instinct for candor. He always took the long view. Rouben framed insights into current events and political figures with the perspective of an ever-curious scholar immersed in the wisdom of ages past. Every year I invited Rouben to guest lecture in my classes, and every year the students and I came away amazed by his ability to bring coherence to the tortuous history and byzantine geopolitics of the South Caucasus. He was old-school in word and manner, a throwback to the gentility of earlier times, an authentic intellectual utterly without pose or pretense who read omnivorously, far beyond the fields in which he wrote and lectured. A volume of English literature or poetry picked randomly from a shelf was likely one with which Rouben was fully conversant. 

The world of ideas and public affairs was not his only domain. Rouben had a comedian’s fascination with the human condition and was a colorful raconteur, drawing on droll incidents from his diplomatic life that he related with flawless timing and wit. He recalled that, when he was Armenia’s Ambassador to Italy, it became clear  that Pope John Paul’s health was failing.  Rouben was aware of the significance of a papal funeral, which would of course be attended by all the leaders of the free world, and knew that the fledgling state of Armenia ought to be represented at the event.  When the regrettable news arrived, Rouben, having made all the necessary arrangements in advance, replied at once that an Armenian delegation would attend.  On the given day, Armenia’s president was seated in the front row, internationally prominent, next to British Prime Minister John Major.  As Rouben explained it, the seating chart had apparently been drawn up on a first-reply, first-seated order.  More likely, I think, Rouben’s counterpart at the Vatican was as captivated as we were by his warmth and humanity, and elevated the position of the young state out of regard for its prepossessing young emissary. Rouben was in every respect the person that a proud government would select as representing the best its country has to offer. In dignity, grace, and sheer charm, he defined the term ambassador. 

Aeschylus wrote:

And even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget

falls drop by drop upon the heart,

and in our own despair, against our will,

comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.

Long after the heartache of their deaths is behind us, the glow of Aso’s and Rouben’s memory will fill Fletcher’s halls, as it will the councils of Armenia’s government.

Michael J. Glennon
Professor of International Law
The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy
April 26, 2020