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Ruben Vardanyan: “I don't want us to stop comparing ourselves to the best”

“A dream cannot be achieved if one initiative doesn’t pull the others along”

Ruben Vardanyan Aurora Humanitarian Initiative UWC Dilijan College, Armenia IDeA (Initiatives for Development of Armenia) Revival of Tatev (Armenia) “Wings of Tatev” (Armenia)

Date: 10.09.2015

With his various initiatives in Armenia, ambitious and requiring large investments, it seems that the entrepreneur, philanthropist, and co-founder of IDeA Foundation Ruben Vardanyan is trying to return to local Armenians the charm and advantages of living with wide prospects and long-term plans.

IDeA Foundation's various projects – UWC Dilijan College, the Tatev Revival program, which began with the construction of the Wings of Tatev cableway, and the large-scale 100 LIVES project, which also includes a multilingual multimedia website and other small and large projects – began from a dream, Vardanyan says.

“It’s a simple dream: I want people in Armenia to be happy to live, grow, and create [here],” he says, being confident that there is no potential greater than a nation pursuing the same goal and having the same desire.

Vardanyan remarks that Armenians have always strived to follow the best examples (in education, art, business, communications, and other industries), but they now live with fairly limited expectations.

Striving for the best and aligning yourself with the best is the kind of propulsion that, regardless of the circumstances and social issues, presumes knowledge. Simply put, if you possess information and have a purpose or dream, you can’t allow yourself to work sloppily.

Vardanyan finds that this same approach works in not only business, but also in the media, where exemplary models are needed.

Each news outlet and journalist defines this model for themselves, striving to be a visionary and to align their own work with international standards.

All of your Foundation’s initiatives are rooted in locations far away from the capital. For example, the school in Dilijan. Is this as a matter of principle?

– Of course, compared to Yerevan, Dilijan is a small city, but I think the existence of the school is a big event for this city.

The first goal is the revival of the city of Dilijan as a center for culture and education, as well as health. Our objective is to create several particular “havens” in Armenia: Tatev-Goris, Stepanakert-Shushi [in Nagorno-Karabakh], Dilijan-Gyumri. We hope that with these places we can boost the development of all of Armenia.

The Foundation also supported and funded the Armenian participation in this year's Istanbul Biennial, and before that the Venice Art Biennale, where Armenia's national pavilion “Armenity” won the Golden Lion award. If we can be so blunt, why are you doing it?

– This decision was connected to the centenary of the Armenian Genocide. We believe that especially this year it’s necessary not only to talk about the tragedy that happened a century ago, but also to remember and recall how much, as a nation, we've given to the world. And we can still give. In this sense, it’s very important to support contemporary artists (both Armenians and non-Armenians) who in their work address the presence of, place occupied by, and contributions of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.

This year is very important in terms of realizing who we are, what happened to us, and what paths we choose.

The 14th Istanbul Biennial’s theme was “Saltwater”; that is, the reality and dreams that are tied to the sea. After all, we love to dream (for example, about “an Armenia from sea to sea”) and often forget about more earthly and realistic goals. Don’t dreams interfere with living in the present?

– I can firmly say that dreams only help, especially ambitious dreams, when the dreamer looks not back, but forward. I, for example, see no dream around which the nation is united and looking forward. I don’t mean nostalgia for the past and for “an Armenia from sea to sea” (we’ve had Tigranes the Great; we were the first Christians). I want to see more expectations and goals for the future.

It seems we tie all our successes not to the future, but with the past. And this means we don’t have a dream, which I consider quite dangerous. After all, if we truly dreamt of an Armenia “from sea to sea,” we should have acted, at least taking small steps to achieve our dream. But we don’t because we don’t have a dream.

I, for example, dream to see Armenia as a prosperous country – all my initiatives are steps to achieve that dream. Neither the Dilijan international school nor the Tatev aerial tramway are ends in themselves. I myself am not terribly enamored with aerial tramways. I simply want Armenia to become a country in which people will be happy to live, grow, and create.

Our history is such that we are accustomed to preserving our identity and overcoming circumstances in order to survive. We expect a great deal from the world (for others to understand us, take pity, condemn the perpetrators), but we ourselves don’t try to become equal with the best examples.

Of course, I don’t expect that attitudes toward Turkey will change after the Biennial, but there are now difficult processes taking place in Turkish society, and many are trying to rethink what happened and what was done on their side.

I hope that the Biennial will also become a small brick that will help Armenia. And the task is for all of the bricks to be connected to each other and placed together. A dream cannot be achieved if one initiative-brick doesn’t pull the others along.

In any case, I can’t work any other way.

And when the Dilijan school is acknowledged as the best European architectural structure, and the school itself is the largest in the region, Armenia cements itself in the international arena as a center for education and becomes an example. Perhaps a very ambitious example, but why not?

School education in Armenia is in quite a lamentable state. Are you familiar with the teaching model, curriculum, and textbooks of ordinary secondary schools in Armenia? Compared to them, the Dilijan school creates the impression of a beautiful and autonomous island.

– Of course I’m familiar with the state of the schools, lest it seem that I’m detached from Armenia’s problems. But you have the wrong impression: the Dilijan school is not an island at all. Rather, it is a model that with its high standards can be an example for other schools.

In general, there are two ways to make changes. Thousands of schools in Armenia can be changed immediately, which requires enormous resources, and, in addition, a governmental stance and willpower. Or you can create an exemplary model, which will set the standard.

There are internationally accepted standards in any sector. And the Dilijan school, on the basis of these high standards, is proposing a new teaching methodology. Many programs will be implemented in the Dilijan school that will allow for intensive cooperation with other secondary schools.

You must understand, though, that two years for establishing a school is not enough for changes to become obvious.

We’re talking about the long road ahead, at least 20 years. Perhaps even 30. Generally, any major change in the educational sector is implemented slowly.

Can we assume that your attention will be directed also to other socially responsible sectors? For example, the media?

– The media plays a great role in shaping and changing public consciousness, but at this stage, as a media project, we’ll limit ourselves with the website, which I think, with its structure and its content in six languages (the first of its kind in the Armenian media industry), will meet our expectations.

Armenia arises before the world through its stories, while simultaneously showing its connection to the world.

What are the future plans for the website? Will the collection of stories continue or will new ideas emerge?

– More interesting stories will emerge. An important component of the 100 LIVES initiatives is the humanitarian Aurora Prize. The prize will be awarded to people who are saving the world today in Sudan, Rwanda and Syria. It’s an opportunity to be grateful and to be open to the world, which is quite important for us Armenians. We can become a capital for humanitarian values.

The problem is that many in Armenia are focused only on themselves. I think we have to change not only ourselves, but also the perception of us that’s been created in the world. The fact is that we’re missing from the world map. And if we want people to hear us and know us, and for Armenians of the Diaspora to want to return to Armenia, for local Armenians not to emigrate and clean toilets in various countries around the world just so they don’t work in their own country, then such a country must be created where standards actually operate.

Even if a small business is established, it must strive for high standards, aspire to be the best. Otherwise, all the good intentions will remain local, without the potential to change the situation in the country.

People must see the best examples in all spheres, or at least know they exist. For example, you can’t open a good restaurant with exquisite dishes and a culture of great service, or a menu without typos if you don’t have good examples.

I believe in small business, but the small business that can’t or doesn't want to learn from the world is doomed to fail.

In my opinion, that’s our problem, that we've stopped comparing ourselves to the best. Perhaps I’m wrong, but the same situation also exists in the Armenian media industry, which is mainly confined to local issues.

Of course, I don’t live in Armenia, and perhaps I don’t have a good grasp of all the concerns of local Armenians who have issues of survival to address. But, all the same, I’m sure that if we don’t try to get out of this insular condition and local framework, nothing will change in our country.

Interviewing Ruben Vardanyan was Nune Hakhverdyan