Delivering Water of Life, Warming It Up In Your Hands

Delivering Water of Life, Warming It Up In Your Hands

Philosophers Ruben Vardanyan
Ruben Vardanyan Philosophers

Pythagoras taught, ‘People run in every direction meeting sorrow after sorrow. Why? Because they’re disconnected from themselves’. W.B. Yeats’s famous line describes the humanity of today excellently, ‘Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold’. Still, there must be something that can prevent the human civilisation from collapsing. Wealth or power cannot, as everyone’s life is to sink into the Lethe. Then, how can we preserve our identity, the awareness of being part of a whole, and let our children inherit a world, not of material but true values? Russian entrepreneur and philanthropist  Ruben Vardanyan, a co-founder of the International Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity and
UWC Dilijan College in Armenia, the initiator, a co-founder, and the first President of Moscow Skolkovo School Of Management discourses upon heritage.

There are certain social taboos in this country. One is talking about one’s last will & testament because it suggests sad things: death, grief, and mourning. If viewed from another angle, it’s not about the end but, vice versa, continuation, taking care of your dear ones, the succession of generations, and continuity bridging the past and the future. Delivering Water of Life, without spilling it over or letting it get muddy so it could nourish your posterity – that’s what it’s all about, in my view.

We all try to answer the existential question: Who are we? It’s no easy matter.

We come into this world and leave it naked, so what remains of us is our children and the memory of our acts. If we manage to leave the world a little less cruel and crippled by passions but a bit healthier, having taught our descendants to take care of it, we do make a difference. 

Researchers say many businessmen start thinking about the meaning of life around 65: with my children grown up and living their own lives, my business well-established, and my main achievements already made, what am I going to leave behind? We all try to answer the existential question: Who are we? It’s no easy matter. Sometimes, it’s a torment. For many, finding their place in the world and the reason to live becomes the challenge of a lifetime. For thousands of years, humanity has been looking for an absolute answer to understand why we come into life but so far, alas, to no avail. Perhaps, our mission is to convey information to the next generation. Thanks to our ability for abstract thinking, we, humans, can, unlike animals, transmit to our offspring not only genetic or natural information but also such an essential as a spiritual heritage, creating a more or less favourable environment for their existence.

Unfortunately, in the current climate, it’s not that easy. Riccardo Muti, a famous Italian conductor, explains why: ‘With a symphony orchestra’s price less than a footballer’s, what kind of heritage will our children get? Culture is not about profit-making. Its aim is upbringing. If nothing changes, the superficial and the dangerous will prevail over the future generations.’

Funnily enough, heritage and inheritance are confusables. With stocks, money, and real estate, everything is clear. But what about your Mom’s favourite teacup or that old Grandpa’s pocket watch? As cultural artefacts, they may be worthless, but to you, they are more precious than all the world’s wealth. Family photo-albums, New Year & Russian Christmas family reunions, and many unwritten rules of behaviour are also part & parcel of the nonphysical heritage. There’s also a memory of your acts. The nonmaterial heritage we leave behind may deal a painful blow to our posterity. Can robbers’ and murderers’ children and grandchildren live normal lives? What happens to an individual learning that in the 1930s, after having breakfast and kissing his wife and children, his grandfather would go to work, say, at Auschwitz Death Camp or set the secret police after dozens of his neighbours and colleagues? Such things are, indeed, hard to get over.

Well-known examples of such a nonmaterial heritage are family names, genealogical trees, and archive records of family histories. In the olden days, occupations, such as the gondolier’s profession in Venice, could be handed down from father to son, while in France and Japan, the son would inherit the father’s bought tax collector’s patent. Even though such traditions are history now, few can become Venice gondoliers as their number is limited to 430.  

Many traditional professions have disappeared, their unique heritage is lost, and only a handful of enthusiasts are trying to revive it.

The knowledge, know-how, skills, and traditions, for centuries handed down within families, are also part of a nonphysical heritage. Why did artisans’ families use to be so strong? Tricks of the trade accumulated by generations of, say, carpenters gave them a competitive advantage that helped develop their business. However, the XXth century saw many traditional family functions, such as transmitting knowledge, skills, and customs, taken over by governments, while industrialisation and high-volume manufacturing pressed and practically killed artisan production. Many traditional professions have disappeared, their unique heritage is lost, and only a handful of enthusiasts are trying to revive it. 

Is one’s ancestor’s social status inheritable? Regretfully and fortunately, it is not. If a parent was well-regarded, it does not mean their children are also worthy of respect and honour. Sad examples of outstanding people’s offspring deserving no respect or manifesting their mediocrity are not rare. Parents’ glory, just like their wealth, may become a heavy burden for children. In this respect, the Western and the Oriental traditions are quite different. In the West, the nobler and more ancient the ancestry, the higher is the descendants’ status. Jonathan Swift, a famous satirical novelist, poured ridicule on this custom, likening members of aristocratic families to potatoes whose values are buried in the ground. According to the Oriental perspective, the next generation must compete with the previous one to make their family mightier and more glorious. In other words, it must both preserve what’s been created by the ancestors and multiply it.

Children renouncing parents, and parents repudiating children, connected, say, with ‘public enemies’, was common practice under Stalin’s rule.

In this respect, as usual, Russia is unusual. As a Russian proverb goes, we’ve turned into ‘Ivans, oblivious of their ancestry and denying their roots.’ After the Revolution of 1917, especially in the 1930s, it became customary to conceal kinship ties with ‘class and ideological aliens.’ Many, especially those with aristocratic or clerical roots, were afraid – and for a good reason — that their social background might harm them or even cost them their lives. Among my acquaintances, very few know about more than three generations of their families. I remember in the Soviet times, when I was a child, my relatives were reluctant to tell me about my grandfather, whose ancestors had been Georgian and Armenian noblemen, fearing I might, by chance, let the cat out of the bag. Children renouncing parents, and parents repudiating children, connected, say, with ‘public enemies’, was common practice under Stalin’s rule. The abortion of such spiritual traditions of succession and heirdom, as one’s mother tongue, moral values, and norms of behaviour, as well as the material ones – the private property was annihilated for almost a century – is a great tragedy for this country. Its catastrophic consequences, we are likely to face very soon.

This is why I think so. For the first time in the last hundred years, there’s a generation owning 70 % of the country’s wealth and able to leave a legacy for their children. However, most of these capital and asset owners have neither considered bequeathing it nor drawn their wills. With the bequeathing culture and traditions lost, many of them have no idea how to go about it. The scale of the problem has yet to be realised. No doubt, the lost knowledge must be regained, but education alone is not enough. Learning about the best practices as well as accumulating and adopting them is a must-do. But, first & foremost, knowing there’s no single recipe for all cases, one must consider their particular situation most thoroughly. There’s no simple answer to the question of whether or not to follow one’s parents’ trade either. In countries with well-developed legal systems, wills may consist of several chapters on many pages. Still, they are often disputed.

In Medieval England and most of Europe, majorat — the eldest son inheriting the title, estate, and wealth  — was common practice. Younger brothers would embrace a soldier’s life, join the Crusades, or take the gown, while daughters wouldn’t be even taken into account. The system was essential for keeping the family land  – the most valuable resource at the time – impartible. Interestingly enough, in the XVIIIth – XIXth centuries, majorat was also practised in Japan, where land is scarce and, thus, was valuable then. Now, land as a resource has lost its former status, the number of children in families has decreased, so majorat has become history.

In Russia, everything is complicated. With our legal mechanisms far from perfect, testators can’t bequeath their property, say, to their pets, as in the West, because their heirs can dispute it. With no last will drawn, things get even worse. Imagine a business owner’s four heirs, one wishing to follow the father’s trade, another having a good mind to sell the company, the third one desiring to manage it individually, and the last one having no idea what he wants. Nonetheless, they have to come to terms somehow or other lest they find themselves in the situation described in Ivan Krylov’s fable ‘Swan, Pike, and Crawfish’. The no-one’s-left-out principle doesn’t work in all cases either. For one, how’s a flat located within the Garden Ring in Central Moscow to be divided for four heirs? Does each get a 25% share? But what if the flat’s not only a property but a historical and cultural heritage site too? 

Accumulating a fortune used to take years. Ours are curious times as one can end up rich without access to resources or creating anything outstanding. So, a 17-year-old blogger, who, by and large, has done nothing of value, becoming a millionaire, surprises no one.   

Wanting to leave something for your family, you risk to cause psychological problems in them, as a capital is a heavy yoke.

Still, there’s no point thinking young millionaires care nothing for the fate of their capitals. I, for example, drew my first will at 32, and it had nothing to do with apprehensions but with my sense of responsibility. Your wealth is not only a chance to live a comfortable life, now and then, buying, say, a Rolls-Royce or a gold toilet, but it’s also your obligation towards others. Wanting to leave something for your family, you risk to cause psychological problems in them, as a capital is a heavy yoke. If it’s essential for you that your business should go on, you’ve got to make sure your nearest & dearest do not feud with each other after your departure, and your company with its hundreds or thousands of workers, suppliers, and consumers, keeps on operating and avoids the plight of Andrey Trubnikov’s companies, torn by corporate conflicts after his sudden death.
Many well-off people are aware of that, while my wealth formula consists
of three principles: trust, responsibility, and succession.

Studying legacy transfer and acceptance is a must-do. About ten years ago, Skolkovo Business School launched Wellness and Philanthropy Management Centre for research and future heirs’ and successors’ education. There’s a difference between the two notions: heirs may be many while the successor is always one and only. It’s just like accession to the throne in Tsarist Russia, where a crown prince, the future monarch, was prepared for enthronement since childhood. Training a successor takes time and patience, as he has to study the business from top to bottom lest he ruin it after taking charge. A successor runs a lot of risks. If he’s not privy to everything of essence, shady partnerships and agreements might come to light. Besides, illegitimate siblings, of whom he may not know, are as legitimate to the legacy as those born within wedlock. 

Complicated cases are no rarity. In 2014, when Russia was hit by a financial crisis, my ex-classmate suffered a stroke and fell into a coma. Soon, his three business partners asked his wife to act as guarantor lest their business be lost. The lady’s only asset was a flat, which she shared with her child. So, she faced a dilemma: if she became security, but the business couldn’t be saved, she might lose her flat, and if she didn’t, her husband’s business would be lost. What’s the best way out in a situation with no single decision and both options having their advantages and disadvantages? In cases like this, it’s vital to have a professional, as trustworthy as your family doctor, to turn to for help. It’s to deal with just such forks in the road that we’ve established Phoenix Advisors Company. Our professional team helps capital owners protect their family wealth, manage it, and prepare succession plans.    

What we do at Noôdome is also closely connected with succession and inheritance issues. Besides, since our society is very diverse, people of different ages and occupations can exchange their various experiences. Wealth and inheritance are rather sensitive matters, so few are prepared to discuss them openly. However, doing it in different formats is a must-do, as it helps people trust each other.

The Armenians have left a rich spiritual and cultural heritage all over the world.

In my view, heritage is all about one’s identity. Losing it is a threat all nations of the world are facing today. We keep ours, among other things, by restoring historical and cultural monuments. The most well-known project of the kind, my business partners and I’ve been on, is reconstructing Tatev Monastery in Armenia. The Armenians have left a rich spiritual and cultural heritage all over the world. We take pride in the Armenian Quarter, one of the four – the other three being the Jewish, the Christian, and the Muslim Quarters – in the Old City of Jerusalem. The Armenian Quarter cannot survive by itself so we must maintain it if we want our children to be proud of it too, and if we are to retain our identity and let the Armenian heritage, created for centuries, be of use and bring joy not only to us but to the rest of mankind as well. 

In Tbilisi, Georgia, we’ve restored St. George’s Church, the local cathedral of the Armenian Apostolic Church and the burial ground of Sayat-Nova,
a famous Armenian ashugh  – singer-poet & bard — who wrote his poetry in Armenian, Georgian, and Azerbaijani. Count Mikhail Tarielovich Loris-Melikov’s tomb is there too. This outstanding Russian-Armenian statesman served as Minister of the Interior at the end of Russian Emperor Alexander II’s rule. He proposed a political reform suggesting steps towards a constitutional monarchy. On 1st March 1881 (Old Style, 13th — New Style), the Emperor told Loris-Melikov the Council of Ministers would discuss his project in four days. Two hours later, Alexander II was assassinated, and the reform, regretfully, was never implemented. For many years, Count Loris-Melikov’s tomb was abandoned, so we’ve seen to its restoration.

By the way, we’ve also had a unique collection of Sayat-Nova’s lyric poetry published in Armenian, Georgian, and Russian, and the Russian translations by Valery Bryusov, Mikhail Lozinsky, Arseny Tarkovsky, Sergey Shervinsky, and other masters were reissued for the first time since the 1980s. Publishing books on Armenian history and culture, the Armenian language, and the Armenian Genocide is also our input into keeping up and strengthening our heritage and identity.

In Venice, for example, we’ve helped restore the library of the Mekhitarists, the Armenian monastic order based on the island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni, i.e., ‘Saint Lazarus of the Armenians.’ The monastery has existed for over 300 years, and its library’s one of the most famous archives of ancient manuscripts. In 2015, we supported the Republic of Armenia’s National Pavilion, participating in the 56th Venice Biennale. Saint Lazarus Island housed the Pavilion, which was awarded a Golden Lion. Our latest Aurora Prize Ceremony — the Prize was co-founded by Noubar Afeyan and the recently deceased Vartan Gregorian – took place on the island in October 2021. And another fact of San Lazzaro degli Armeni’s history is worth mentioning: Lord Byron spent six months there and learnt the Armenian language in the meantime. So, Saint Lazarus Island is, indeed, a unique place bridging times and cultures.

In Singapore, we’ve helped the local Armenian community maintain their church, the oldest in the area. Another similar project was restoring a cathedral in New Julfa, the Armenian Quarter of Isfahan, Iran, a candidate for the UNESCO World Heritage Site listing. Few nations possess such a cultural and spiritual wealth as ours, so taking care of it is our great responsibility.

We try to preserve our history and create new symbols of our identity, eagerly sought-after by the Armenians and representatives of other cultures.

Not only do we support the existing heritage, but we also add to it. In 2013, the Armenian Temple Complex was built with philanthropists’ money in Moscow’s Olympiysky Prospect. The Complex features an educational facility, a guest house, and the Armenian Museum of Moscow and National Cultures. An educational and cultural centre is to be established at St. George’s Church in Tbilisi. Thus, we try to preserve our history and create new symbols of our identity, eagerly sought-after by the Armenians and representatives of other cultures.

I am sure this bright childhood memory is a model of the world our children and their children’s children must have for life.

We take good care not only of our heritage but that of other nations as well, notably, not just Christian but also Muslim. For instance, a friend of mine and I’ve had an old mosque in Shushi, Nagorno-Karabakh, restored. Working on this project, I couldn’t help recalling visiting my maternal Granny and her relatives in Tbilisi. She lived in a large house with a big balcony and a sizable yard under it, inhabited by Kurds, Jews, Georgians, and Germans. And while ascending to her second floor, you would get kissed by everybody you met, and your pockets would be filled with gifts – a warm welcome into a large family. I am sure this bright childhood memory is a model of the world our children and their children’s children must have for life. So, to hand over what you’ve got to the coming generations, you must carefully and lovingly, warming it up in your hands, deliver to them the most important thing  – a world of true values.