An Engraver of Soviet Leaders and Armenian Crosses
The iconic Soviet Constructivists, Productivists and Social Realists — Dimitri Moor, El Lissitzky, Alexandr Rodchenko, etc. — are well known to many of us, but the majority of Soviet propaganda artists, writers and designers remain more or less in the shadows of history, if not entirely anonymous. The Stalinist era was a period when art and design served the state at the expense of the creator’s individuality.
And yet the remarkable craft and skill apparent in many of these official artworks are so exquisite as to demand credit. Whether working for the state or a gallery, the true artist and crafts person aspires to attain the highest levels. Even that which is so obviously propaganda cannot be shoddy.
Hrachia Stepanyan, a silver artisan and artist was born in Tabriz, Iran (1915) to Armenian parents. In 1946, years before emigrating to the United States, he lived in Soviet Armenia where he worked for the Soviet state, Orthodox church and Armenian nation. His Soviet work was done because “under Stalin’s rule he would have been considered a nationalist and would spend the rest of his days in Siberia,” according to his granddaughter, Mariya Stepanyan.
I recently began corresponding with Mariya Stepanyan, Hrachia’s eldest granddaughter and a senior graphic designer at a Los Angeles entertainment company, after she sent me a photograph of a silver vase her grandfather design commissioned by the Artists Union of Armenia in 1949 for Joesph Stalin’s 70th Anniversary (a version of which appeared anonymously in Iron Fists: Branding the 20th Century Totalitarian State). “The height was about 20” and was adorned with 6 large medallions with portraits of Lenin, Stalin and the great achievements of the Armenian people,” Mariya told me.
She provided the images below and an inclusive timeline that’s reproduced here almost verbatim.
Hrachia Stepanyan was born November 15, 1915 to Armenian parents in Mushonbar, an Armenian village in Iran. When he was three years old, his father passes. He, his mother and younger sister relocated to Tabriz, Iran. In 1924 he began studies at the Aramian Armenian school. In 1929 he graduates with honors. His mother died that same day. In 1929 he is accepted at the Tabriz central college. After two years, financial difficulties prevented him from moving on. He left school and started work as an apprentice at the Tabriz Van, a silver smith co-op. Once he completed his apprenticeship, he continued working at this co-op, gaining great recognition. He remained there until he was drafted into the Iranian Army in 1939 and served for two years.
In June of 1941, he was released from the army and established his own silver smith studio. As he was well known from his years at the Tabriz Van, success came quickly. In August of 1941 the Soviet Army invaded Iran. Stepanyan was commissioned to create portraits of Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill, with their portraits on one side and their respective state emblems on the reverse. Locals and tourists alike purchased these. Being a dedicated nationalist, from 1941 – 1946 he served as director of the Armenian Youth Foundation, an organization that encouraged Armenian youth living in Iran to return to their homeland. During this period he was producing works, mainly in silver. He sent several sample pieces to the national galleries of Soviet Armenia, Azerbaijan and the USSR, as a token from the Iranian-Armenian colony. During this period, Stepanyan also worked on silver cigarette box etchings. These cigarette boxes were very popular at this time, and his were in high demand. His etchings were also commissioned on silver dining ware. In 1945, in honor of the 25th anniversary of Soviet Armenia, he sent a five-panel foldout silver album adorned with the achievements of Soviet Armenia to the State of Armenia. Sometime later he received a thank you letter, which he takes with him when he immigrates to Yerevan. This letter aided in finding him work in a small atelier in Yerevan. In 1946, taking only his hand-crafted artisan tools and his silver collection, Stepanyan left behind a very successful silver studio, an impressive list of clientele and a beautiful home and moved to Armenia with his wife and two children, a son, Ashot and a daughter, Dianna. (Stepanyan and his wife would have two more sons in Armenia, Varujan and Rostom). Stepanyan also left behind work containing Armenian National subject matter, selling some pieces and giving many away as gifts to avoid accusations of being a nationalist, which, under Stalin’s rule, would have resulted in spending the rest of his days in Siberia. Once in Soviet Armenia, Stepanyan found work at a silver atelier and brought along his hand-crafted tools. When the director of the atelier ssaw the quality of the tools, the man promptly introduced Stepanyan to the Director of the Armenian Artisans Union who gave him a “Communist’s word of Honor” in exchange for all the tools — a promise of either a new set of tools or a fair reimbursement. Neither happens. His work continues at the atelier for a few more months. The shop was forced to mass-produce by hand, paying no attention to quality or detail, and Stepanyan began to lose his sense of touch and artistry – all for minimal pay. In one incident, workers went unpaid for several months, leading Stepanyan to attempt to resign but knowing how talented Stepanyan was, the Atelier director refused to let him go. He promised Stepanyan a separate room to create new gift items with silver provided by the government. These proved to be empty promises, because in order to acquire enough silver to work, the request must be elevated all the way to the Kremlin and the Kremlin denied the request. Stepanyan eventually left.
In the photos below, Stepanyan evidences his skill and artistry with stone cutting and eye for ornamental design. Mariya told me, “He worked mostly in Tuff and Basalt. The monoliths we call “cross-stone” they were essentially head stones, no two were alike. The stone would be lowered by crane into our backyard and Grandfather would get to work. It would take him about three to four months to complete each cross-stone.”
After leaving the atelier Stepanyan was hired by the Armenian Artist Union in the home decorative arts division. His first commission was to design and etch silver lapel pins for the cardiologist symposium that year. To accomplish this task he melted what remained of the silver collection he brought with him from Iran. The pins were a hit, but when the time came to get paid there was a problem, as he could not declare that he used his own silver. He was eventually paid. In 1955, His Holiness Vazken I was installed as Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians. Stepanyan started to work with Vasken that same year, beginning a professional and personal relationship that lasted until the family emigrated to the United States. Stepanyan completes countless commissions for Vasken, including church restorations, monolith cross stones, tombstones, and countless smaller commissions as well as Vasken’s Italian onyx marble throne. During this time, Stepanyan also worked on-and-off at the Yerevan Marble Factory over a period of 15 years. In the late sixties, his oldest son [Mariya’s father] Ashot Stepanyan began working as her Grandfather’s apprentice, whose final commission for the marble factory was to design Olympic souvenirs in marble that were tmass-produced and shipped to Russia for the 1980 Olympic Games. In January of 1981, Grandfather Stepanyan and the bulk of the family immigrate to the United States and settle in Los Angeles. Even though he was retired, Stepanyan donated his skills to St. John’s Armenian Apostolic Church in Hollywood, crafting silver crosses for special occasions and engraving donor names in marble. Sick and hospitalized, Hrachia Stepanyan died surrounded by family on January 28, 1990.
The rosette arch is the entrance to the Mother Armenia Monument in the capital of Armenia. Once again no two rosettes are the same. The corner stone he designed and carved as a tomb stone for the director of Armenia’s Wine Distillery.
The color photograph above of the cross stone was made for the Armenian Catholicos and till this day remains in the courtyard of Etchmiadzin Cathedral.
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