The Kardashians and Armenian Genocide Awareness: A Match Made in Yerevan, Followed Up in Jerusalem


YEREVAN and JERUSALEM (NY Daily News, Guardian, Jerusalem Post) —

Kim Kardashian and her sister, Khloe, at the Armenian Genocide memorial in Yerevan

Kim Kardashian and her sister, Khloe, at the Armenian Genocide memorial in Yerevan

Kim Kardashian and her sister, Khloe, at the Armenian Genocide memorial in Yerevan

Kim Kardashian and her sister, Khloe, at the Armenian Genocide memorial in Yerevan

Kim Kardashian and her sister, Khloe, at the Armenian Genocide memorial in Yerevan

Kim Kardashian and her sister, Khloe, at the Armenian Genocide memorial in Yerevan

Kim Kardashian, daughter North and husband Kanye West at Geghard

Kim Kardashian, daughter North and husband Kanye West at Geghard

Kanye West, one of the world's most successful singers, gave an impromptu thrilling show  in Yerevan

Kanye West, one of the world’s most successful singers, gave an impromptu thrilling show in Yerevan

For decades, Turkey has resisted pressure to recognize the brutal killings of 1.5 million Armenians under Ottoman rule as genocide. But can the Turks keep up with the Kardashians?

Armenia’s efforts to win over public opinion on one of history’s lesser known black episodes got a major boost from an unlikely source last week: Kim and Khloe Kardashian. The sisters’ visit to their ancestral homeland — their late father, Robert, was third-generation Armenian-American because of ancestors who fled the violence — is, strange as it may sound, a crucial development in Armenia’s campaign to have the genocide recognized.

The tiny country in the Caucasus is doing all it can to draw the world’s attention to the genocide as its 100th anniversary approaches next week. Serge Sargisian, the country’s president, looked on approvingly at the Vatican this weekend as Pope Francis called the killings “the first genocide of the 20th century” and urged world leaders to recognize it as such. Leaders of some of the 25 countries that recognize the genocide, including France’s François Hollande and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, are expected at a ceremony in Yerevan on April 24, the official genocide remembrance day.

Turkey angrily denies having organized the mass deportations and killings of Armenians, which began in Istanbul in 1915 during the dying days of the Ottoman Empire. Though Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, offered Armenians an unprecedented message of condolence last year that hinted at responsibility, the country continues to say the tragedy was the result of inter-ethnic violence during World War I rather than a systematic campaign.

Much to Armenia’s chagrin, Erdogan rescheduled the commemoration of the centenary of the Gallipoli campaign, a key Allied victory in the war, to coincide with the Armenian memorial and draw world leaders to Turkey instead.

Getting the Kardashians on its side may, however, have been Armenia’s biggest coup. The sisters aren’t just the most famous members of the Armenian diaspora, even if they don’t speak Armenian and had never been there before, but some of the world’s most famous people, period. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that Kim’s married to Kanye West, who brought their daughter North with them on the trip. The sheer force of their celebrity ensures that no stone goes unturned in their lives, with camera crews following them at every step.

Accordingly, the Kardashians were treated like returning royalty from the minute they set foot in Yerevan. Adoring fans and masses of paparazzi met them at the airport, where they were offered a traditional greeting of bread and salt. (“Carbs don’t count when you’re on vacation!” read a caption in this newspaper.) Fans kept a vigil outside the luxury hotel where they were staying for the duration of the trip. One elderly woman waited 12 hours just to give Kim flowers.

Armenia’s prime minister, Hovik Abrahamyan, even met the sisters and their cousins Kourtni and Kara, who had also joined them on the trip. Abrahamyan’s office said he “hailed [the] Kardashian family’s contribution to the cause of international recognition and condemnation” of the genocide, and claimed that the sisters were “highly impressed by the friendly attitude shown in their homeland and happy to come to the country of their dream.”

Certainly they were enthusiastic in their mass media messages. Khloe posted a photo on Instagram captioned: “Armenia!!!! We’re here!!!! ❤️ (I wish there was an orange heart emoji so I can show the colors of the Armenian flag but the yellow heart will do for now.)”

She also added another of the crowds, saying: “The love and welcoming to Armenia has been overwhelmingly beautiful!!! I wholeheartedly, can’t believe all of you Angels who are outside our hotel with flowers and smiles. I’m incredibly eager to get some sleep and see Armenia in the day light! I hope I’m able to sleep. I’m so excited to be here!!”

Inevitably, the whole thing smacked of the Hollywood celebrity circus — none more so than when Kanye organized an impromptu concert at Yerevan’s Swan Lake. The show had to be called off early after he leapt into the lake (which is actually a man-made pond) and hordes of screaming fans tried to join him.

But for Armenia, having the Kardashians around actually makes a lot of sense. The message Armenia has over the genocide is compelling enough that it doesn’t need a more eloquent ambassador — your George Clooneys, your Mia Farrows — to get the message across. All they need is the gigantic bullhorn the Kardashian celebrity juggernaut provides. LGBT advocates say that the furor over their stepfather Bruce Jenner’s impending transition to life as a woman is a major milestone in mainstream acceptance and recognition for trans people. Why can’t the sisters do the same for Armenia?

For the Kardashians, too, raising awareness of the genocide is a logical next step. Getting in touch with their roots is the natural thing for any celebrity to do if they want to start being taken more seriously. And since they are Armenian-American already, they don’t really have to do anything new to draw attention to it. For a family that became famous essentially for doing nothing at all, it’s a chance to use that fame to do something good.

Parliament speaker Galust Sahakyan said: “Kim Kardashian is a lady who’s known worldwide. We should be happy she came here.” “Kim Kardashian came to pay tribute to the victims, and she has millions of followers,” the minister for the diaspora, Hranush Hakobyan, told the Guardian. “If she writes or says anything it is amazing PR for us. Most people don’t even know where Armenia is.”

Vahram Ter-Matevosyan, a historian, said: “At the beginning people were uncomfortable with the Kardashian visit; after all, this is a conservative society. But Armenia has never been discussed in the mainstream media like this before. This discourse shows that Armenian identity is still alive.

“I am sure Turkey is having nightmares about it. Some there said that Kim Kardashian was the latest weapon the Armenians are using. Once she leaves, she will be missed.”

After Kanye’s concert, Kim and Khloe flew on to Israel. Kim and her husband Kanye drove straight from Tel Aviv’s airport to Jerusalem’s Old City for the baptism of their daughter at the Armenian Cathedral. As the convoy pulled up to St James Cathedral in a narrow street of the Armenian Quarter, hundreds of fans thronged the car, screaming and wolf-whistling as Kardashian climbed out holding her 21-month-old daughter, North. “It’s a baptism that will take place,” Archbishop Aris Shirvanian told reporters gathered at the entrance to the church. “Kim Kardashian’s daughter will be baptised and she will become a Christian officially and a member of the Armenian church.” The couple disappeared into the church for the ceremony, and left after 90 minutes, an AFP correspondent said.

The couple met for a meal with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat that same evening.”We raised a toast to Jerusalem,” Barak recounted of his encounter with the celebrities at a local restaurant.

The couple left for Paris on April 14 after an early morning visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Reporting for this piece was provided by Max Seddon of the NY Daily News, Ian Black of the Guardian and the Jerusalem Post.