June Callwood visits The RUSSIAN AMBASSADOR
FAMOUS FAMILIES AT HOME
Dr. and Mrs. Amasasp Aroutunian are tearing up the Russian reputation for taciturnity. While she struggles to learn English, he is ready with fluent opinions on working wives, education, child discipline and the dilemmas of diplomacy
The Soviet Embassy in Ottawa is housed in a raw stone building with rows of identical windows. Its face is fit for poker, stiff, blank, shutdown. Until recently, except for infrequent receptions, few Canadians—and fewer reporters—had been inside the embassy.
Suddenly, with an abruptness not usually found outside nature, a thaw has occurred. The new ambassador, who arrived in January, is a merry, intelligent and gregarious Armenian, Dr. Amasasp A. Aroutunian (pronounced Arro-/oo«-ian), who within a few weeks of presenting his credentials had talked with more people than most of his predecessors met during their entire tenures. During his first trips to the Canada that lies outside Ottawa, including three each to Montreal and Toronto, Dr. Aroutunian kept stressing that his mission is to develop better understanding between Russia and Canada, adding that his government considers personal contact one of the best methods of achieving this goal.
An art collector, he spoke of his eagerness to see Canadian galleries. A friend of some of the Soviet’s greatest musicians, he was appreciative of Lois Marshall, Canada’s finest singer, Jacques Beaudry, French Canada’s famous conductor, and Glenn Gould, Canada’s finest pianist. A former university professor, he’s been meeting some of his Canadian counterparts.
On a bright frosty morning early in March, I called on Dr. and Mrs. Aroutunian at the Soviet Embassy. Before his wife joined us I talked with the ambassador about his childhood, his attitude toward women having careers, his theories on raising children, and education. A handsome, swarthy man with a quick, white smile and brown velvet eyes, he appears younger than his fifty-six vyears. He talks with an animated face, using his hands a good deal and displays a substantial vo-
cabulary in moderately accented English and an irreverent sense of humor.
Mrs. Aroutunian, who speaks little English but is taking lessons, is his second wife. Her favorite sport is volleyball and she gives the impression that she would play a withering game. She is a forceful capable-looking person with no-nonsense movements and a rich zest for activity. Her manner of dress indicated that her taste, like her husband’s, is darkly conservative and sedate.
“Is your readiness to meet Canadians a reflection of a changed Soviet policy or of your own personality?” I asked Dr. Aroutunian. An impish expression came over the ambassador’s face. “Both,” he grinned, pleased with the neatness of his reply. We sat down on a sun-dappled sofa in
a corner of the room and the conversation began.
The room where we talked was sparsely and oddly furnished. Ballroom-sized with crystal chandeliers and a finely parqueted floor, it has ill-sorted clumps of chesterfield suites arranged in lonely islands along one wall and a superb soft-toned rug afloat in lovely isolation in its geometric centre. A grand piano, adorned with a carved wooden stag on a lace doily, had been pushed against one wall and a Westinghouse hi-fi record player against another. The walls arc hung with sombre postcard landscapes, recently painted by Soviet artists, which bear strong resemblance to Canadian scenery. Dr. Aroutunian is accustomed to visitors marveling at the similarity.
“That one over there
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continued from page 25
“With a revolution brewing, young Aroutunian listened to older students talk of socialism”
looks like — wait I’ll remember — the Fraser River country. Right? It is the Urals. And that one is like Muss . . . Muskoka. I believe it was done somewhere near Moscow.”
During most of my interview with the ambassador, Mrs. Aroutunian remained in their two-bedroom apartment in the embassy. The building seemed as if empty. The photographer who was with me, Ken Bell, and I had been admitted by an intelligent-looking attractive young woman, who doubled her duties as switchboard operator with the responsibility of releasing the front-door lock. Except for the ambassador’s family, his secretary and a servant who brought coffee, we saw no one else until we had said our farewells and were waiting inside the glass-windowed front doors for our taxi. Then several people brushed past us, coming and going with closed faces. A door beside us opened briefly, revealing a sparsely appointed office with maps on the walls.
Just as we were leaving, the ambassador’s tiny son appeared, bundled roundly against the winter cold. He was escorted by a burly, thoroughly policelooking man whose face grew sharply anxious as we stooped to talk to the little boy. The child’s tiny mittens dangled from the sleeves of his thick coat. I knelt and began pushing on one of the mitts, struggling to get the thumb in its proper compartment. The secret-service man — if that’s what he was — knelt on the child’s other side, having even more difficulty with the other mitten. When we had both succeeded, we grinned at one another, pleased with ourselves and simultaneously amused that the accomplishment that gave us such pleasure was so trivial.
For a time when Dr. Aroutunian and I had begun our talk, his private secretary, Igor K. Laptev, a heavy-set blond man with a discreet face, sat with us. Laptev speaks English in a soft voice with only a slight trace of accent, sprinkling through his speech such colloquialisms as “okay.” At the ambassador’s suggestion, he left briefly and returned with gift packages of Soviet cigarettes for Ken Bell and me. Mine were in a midnight-blue box bearing in raised gold Russian lettering the word Sputnik. The design on the box was a gold satellite.
Laptev listened to the conversation for a few minutes more, then excused himself with courtly courtesy and departed.
“I was born in Baku,” Dr. Aroutunian explained in answer to the question. “My father was an Armenian peasant who moved from his village to work in a shop in Baku. His brothers stayed in the village so every summer we went back. My father didn't want to cut his ties with the land. I was the only child; my two sisters had died. I don’t know how; I didn’t know them.”
The boy was fiercely anxious to learn so his father paid his tuition in a czarist school. A revolution was brewing and the boy listened avidly as older students talked of socialism. At fourteen he was carrying leaflets to help them out.
“Were you really interested in the cause or did you do it because it was exciting?”
Dr. Aroutunian nodded. “You’re right. For an active boy it was very interesting to be part of it. but I had good friends who explained to me what is what. And I saw soldiers firing into crowds of people.”
“Were they justified, were the people rioting?"
“There is never justification for such shooting.”
Shortly afterward, he was dismissed from school. “For carrying leaflets?”
“No. they never found the leaflets,” replied Dr. Aroutunian with evident satisfaction. "It was for organizing a pupils* movement. We were asking for free education and student representation on the school board. 1 was doing some read-
ing and finding things out for myself.”
The student then enrolled in a private school, owned and run by a group of liberal-minded citizens. The education was of a high order but the diplomas were not recognized by czarist universities.
"Fortunately," chuckled Dr. Aroutunian. "there was a revolution. I went on to Moscow University to study international economics, international law. After I graduated 1 got in a few years of additional work on my master's degree in economics. It took much more time to get a PhD in economics. It is not so easy in the Soviet to have a doctorate. I had to defend my, how do you say this . . . thesis? I had to defend my thesis before a hoard of very learned people.”
For a time he was professor of economics at Moscow University and then worked with the Academy of Sciences, a research organization in the Institute of Economics. He wrote and edited several books on the history of economic development in the Soviet, writing and studying at home where he had collected a fine library, paintings by Armenian artists. His first wife, whom he met in university, was a pediatrician practicing at a research clinic. The couple had one child, a daughter Marina, who recently graduated from Moscow University and is now a student at the Institute for World Economics and International Relations.
I started there too,” Dr. Aroutunian commented.
' Is she as good as her father?”
"She’s better than her father!” he retorted with pride.
About ten years ago. Dr. Aroutunian’s first wife died. His present wife, whom he met six years ago, was the chief engineer in a ceramics factory employing about two hundred people. We discussed working wives.
"I think it is better for a marriage if a woman has her own interests.” Dr. Aroutunian said, speaking carefully. "There is more interest in the family. A woman can't always be with children and kitchen. For a human being, life is more varied and wide. It is out of date for her to stay home.”
"Is there not a danger of her dominating the household if she works?"
He grinned wickedly. "It depends on the relationship. Sometimes it can bo a serious thing if the man is in control of the family.”
He considered for a moment. "Marriages are not the same today as they were in medieval times. 1 didn't live then hut I don't think it was as nice as it is being pictured now. Our reality is much better. All people are free to choose their own objectives in life."
"Then there is no inner dependency in the family."
"Certainly that's true." he nodded. "There is no question there is less dependency now.
“Family life in the Soviet doesn't have the separate responsibilities that are part of family life in North America," he continued, "We don't separate members of a family. Children must be obedient, but parents must be fair. Punishment must not be exercised to interfere with education.”
"Do you spank?"
He looked baffled. "What's that?"
"Hitting a child,"
"No!" he answered forcefully. “We don't consider that human. If the child won’t listen, it’s because you can't find the key to his understanding. This is the most difficult part for parents. If they fall back on their authority, that's a fail-
tire for them. We must always have friendly relations with children, particularly teenagers because they are becoming self-conscious human beings. Many parents don’t see that frontier when a child becomes a teenager; they continue to treat him as a baby."
Dr. Aroutunian searched for an example of what he meant, found it. "When I was a professor in Moscow I had students who when they graduated became my colleagues. I couldn't treat them as students any more. It would have been awful if I did not then treat them as eq uals.”
"You and your wife now have a twoyear-old son. Dr. Aroutunian. How do you discipline him?”
“Well, he wants toys when he is eating.
I say to him, ‘You have to eat and you have to play, but you don’t do these things together. At the table, you only eat.’ I explain this to him once or twice and then he understands.” The ambassador paused. "It sounds easy when you tell it." he mused, "but at the time it was difficult.”
“Who handles the money in a Soviet family where both husband and wife are working?”
"There are no distinct areas of authority, as I said." he answered. "Money is less important in our life than here. We do not concentrate our education on making money. We believe each one should do good things for himself, for his family, for society—without consideration of whether what he does will earn two dollars an hour or five dollars."
He was quiet for a moment with a puzzled expression. "Here I see a boy of eight selling papers. Often he doesn't need the money. He is being trained from an early age to make money."
Dr. Aroutunian then told of a wealthy family in the United States who are friends of his. The children in this family are urged to earn money and bank it in a family account to draw against when buying gifts. The ambassador found this very odd. I explained that many families are concerned that their children develop independence and that this may have been the family’s motive.
“Ah yes. I understand that it is very good to educate youngsters not to depend on their parents.” agreed Dr. Aroutunian. "We do the same thing but we don't accent the earning of money but the doing of useful work. We try to educate a child to do as much as he can. We therefore have very proud young people.”
The photographer. Ken Bell, was moving quietly around, taking pictures of what he later described as a "wonderfully mobile face." The bars of sunlight falling across our end of the room were growing shorter as noon approached. The embassy building was silent around us. as if deserted. The talk moved to the area of art.
“The arts are more sensitive to the feelings of people than anything else." Dr. Aroutunian observed thoughtfully. "I include poetry, music, as well as painting. The artists of our time are trying to understand the change in human life in order to reflect it. They go with the change and try to keep pace. But it goeN so rapidly now that it is very difficult, very difficult."
"Do you regret these changes?"
He answered slowly. "It is not a matter to regret or not regret. It must he accepted as a development of life." He stopped and considered. "For engineers and scientists, it is much easier to go ahead with progress. But for philosophers. it is harder. They are frightened because they are far away, prisoners of their ideas and minds. And their ideas
can already be . . . what is that word?” ‘'Obsolete?”
"Yes, that's it. Obsolete.”
“It’s a sad word.”
“Is it? Perhaps so.”
“What’s diplomacy?" the ambassador was asked.
“It’s international relations," he replied, adding with a grin, "It has a broad meaning.”
"Sometimes it seems to mean evasions.”
“Surely sometimes it means evasions.” He told a story about two diplomats from
countries opposed in policy who met for lunch. They greeted one another with “Good afternoon,” sat down and ate in silence, parting with “Good-bye.” The luncheon was later described as a demonstration of friendly relations. Said Dr. Aroutunian, “That’s diplomacy too.” He seemed to find this story marvellously absurd.
"Besides similar landscapes, what have Canada and Russia in common?”
"We have the same problems in developing natural resources,” the ambassador replied promptly. “Canada’s rate
of industrial development is the highest in the western world. You are growing very rapidly in your own environment, as we are.”
He hunched over his clasped hands. “I have a real desire to accomplish something in international friendship. I am going to work in Canada for a better mutual understanding. Some Canadians believe that the Soviet is hostile. Nothing could be farther from the truth. We have nothing in our mind against Canada. We don't want to fight with the United States . . .”
“But if you do, Canada is involved.”
Dr. Aroutunian’s expression sharpened. “You can be neutral, can't you? Then you’re out of it. If you come in, that’s your decision.”
The sunlight seemed to lose its warmth. We asked if Mrs. Aroutunian and their son could join us and the ambassador left to find her. In a few minutes he was back and in a moment his wife appeared with two-year-old Hovanes, named for her grandfather, Hovanes Toumanyan, one of the greatest of Armenian poets. Little Hovanes. a big-eyed child on the brink of shyness, was reminded of his manners by his parents, who spoke to him softly and reassuringly in Armenian. He approached the strangers slowly, but steadily, and shook hands. He then retreated to sit by his mother.
Mrs. Aroutunian is a composed woman. with inner quiet. She wears her hair drawn severely back from a plainly beautiful face with little make - up. She speaks Russian, Armenian and some French but, as yet, little English. Her husband translated when she was asked if she missed her work. She said she did, very much.
"Does it give you a sense of emptiness or uselessness because you are not working?”
“She says,” the ambassador explained after a flurry of Armenian, "that she feels it is necessary for her to learn English right now. It takes a great deal of her time but she enjoys it.”
“She is a true diplomat’s wife.”
Dr. Aroutunian laughed. “Of course,” he said, looking pleased.
A male servant in a white jacket brought in a tray and set it on the table before us. It bore a soft gleaming silver coffee pot and astonishing cups, lined in gold and crusted on the outside like Ukrainian Easter eggs. With these was a red lacquer box containing chocolates and a plate of tiny chocolate bars wrapped in foil. Hovanes stared, but did not touch.
"What do you want for your son?” I asked.
"The best world,” said his father immediately.
“Well, do you think men should always fight one another? I don't. I work for friendly relations. I’m sure the people of Canada, the American people, as well as the Soviet people, want no war. And right now there are all possibilities of starting to resolve international problems by negotiation. Canada at present can take the initiative among her allies to bring the Cold War to an end. I hope there will never be any trouble.
"If I didn't believe this,” he added, with heavy sincerity, "we would not have had a son.”
The room was quiet, the sunlight felt warm again and the little boy, though not understanding, smiled at the strangers. ★