Investing in culture

Levon Agopian is Armenian and a professor of Russian literature at the University of Yerevan. Other than the Russian classics, he also teaches his students Greek, which he learned as a scholar of ancient Greek civilization – a subject warmly embraced by many in the Caucasus – and practiced while visiting the country. I met Agopian on the sidelines of the Greek president’s recent visit to Armenia, as he wandered around the room looking for someone to talk to. He told me all about his students’ desire to learn Greek, about the 2,500 ethnic Greeks in Yerevan who speak Pontic Greek and about the time he spends outside university hours giving Greek lessons to children. Levon Agopian does all this on a monthly salary of 250 euros, moreover without any teaching material or technical assistance, such as a satellite dish that would allow his pupils to listen to Greek and be better equipped to learn the language. The Greek Embassy in Yerevan does help, but it is not enough. What the professor needs is technology and good, engrossing reading and teaching material. There are many like Agopian throughout Southeast Europe and the Caucasus who are single-handedly trying to disseminate Greek culture. In many cases their success hinges on them having to beg for help from the Greek state. However, when this does come it is often due to the initiative of a particular embassy or the good will of a diplomat. In Pristina, for example, Ambassador Nikos Kanelou was responsible for getting Homer’s «Iliad» and «Odyssey» translated into Romany. When such help is forthcoming however, it is often piecemeal in nature. The collapse of the Eastern bloc presented new market opportunities and fertile ground for Greek investment, and the state rightly supported and continues to fully support Greek entrepreneurs. The changes also heralded the re-emergence of an interest in Greek culture, letters and the arts, which for centuries had flourished and played a vital role in the intellectual life of the broader region. We must not allow this growing interest to wane. Greece’s greatest regional strength does not lie in its financial investments – which tomorrow may raise their anchors and set sail for richer waters – but in its culture, a culture that is so deeply rooted in the psyche of our neighbors.