Murder at the Altar: A Historical Novel
On Friday, May 2, journalist Terry Phillips shared with the spring History Forum audience the background to his historical novel about the murder of the Armenian Archbishop of North America in 1933. As Mr. Phillips put it, “It’s a good story that also happens to be true.” He first provided some helpful background information about Armenia—a nation between the Black and Caspian Seas that has routinely been conquered by other powers—including its brief period of independence from 1918 to 1920 (with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire after WWI), after which it became a small Soviet republic. Phillips noted that the Armenians have suffered a great deal in their history—most notably in 1915 from what most consider the first genocide of the twentieth century, at the hands of the Turks—and that this history is part of the psychology of Armenians.
Difficulties in Armenia over the twentieth century also resulted in significant migration and a large diaspora community. Armenians abroad have gravitated to their church as a center of their culture and identity. This was true in America as well, where some Armenians supported an independence movement, raising the flag of the former independent Armenian republic when Archbishop Ghevont Tourian was scheduled to speak at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1933. This republican flag represented revolution to the USSR, and so Tourian asked that it be removed, as he did not want his speech to be construed as political. Having been sent to the U.S. in 1931, Tourian had not taken sides in the political controversy over Armenia’s subjugation by the Soviet Union, hoping to calm down the intense and revolutionary fervor of some diaspora Armenians.
Later that year (Dec. 1933), while conducting mass at an Armenian church in New York City, Tourian was fatally stabbed. There were nine fiercely anti-communist defendants, though those interested in the details of the trial will need to pick up a copy of Phillips’ book, Murder at the Altar (available at Russo’s Bookstore or at this website). The assassination led to a split among Armenians that holds to this day. There are two different churches, two different headquarters, aligned with two different political parties.
Phillips offered a couple of short readings from his novel before taking questions from the audience. An engaging speaker, Terry Phillips is a veteran war correspondent, having reported for various TV and radio networks from many parts of the world. He was based in Moscow in the 1990s, where he witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union. He currently hosts “Quality of Life” on Tuesday mornings on KVPR (the Fresno-based NPR station at FM 89.1), a weekly call-in show with guests that focuses on issues that affect life in the Valley.
To read about the upcoming Fall 2008 History Forum, click here!