My grandmother talked about her grandfather Ivan Aivazovsky all the time

Professor Andrew Miller Source: Courtesy Andrew Miller

Armenia, Russia and Ukraine, with commemorative stamps, coins and exhibitions, are commemorating the 200th anniversary of the birth of the world-famous seascape artist Ivan Aivazovsky (Hovhannes Aivazian. Յովհաննէս Այվազեան in Armenian). It was a pleasant surprise to learn that descendants of the famed marine painter live in Australia. My first contact was Amanda Rogers, who gave me details about her family’s links to Ivan Aivazovsky. Later she put me in touch with her cousin Prof. Andrew Miller, a radiation oncologist from Wollongong. The first interview concentrated mainly on the family history and the links to Ivan Aivazovsky. This is the transcript of the interview that was aired on SBS Radio Armenian program on Tuesday July 25, 2107.

SBS Armenian: Before proceeding to the main subject of the interview, could you introduce yourself, talk about your career and interests?

Andrew: My name is Alexis Andrew Miller. I was born into a family which on my father's side was quite Australian for 3-4 generations, but with a mother who was born overseas. I am a radiation oncologist living in Wollongong NSW. Although my mother spoke many languages, I only speak English. In the 50s and 60s it was un-Australian to teach your children a foreign language if not needed. In fact, my parents’ generation used their foreign languages so that we could not understand what was being discussed.

SBS Armenian: What can you tell us about your family background and heritage?

Andrew: My mother was named Sultana Alexis. She was born in Turkey of Russian parents. The name Alexis came from her father, Alexis Samoilov. In fact, there is an Alexis in each generation now. My eldest daughter is also Alexis. The use of the name Sultana was to attempt to lessen the prejudice of Muslim people towards Christians in that area at that time. My grandmother told me that they were called "Christian dogs". This was real as my grandmother almost killed her children as they were starving. Fortunately for me, she did not take action on the thought and the event led to significant changes in her life, eventually meeting and marrying a British naval officer, William Henry Rogers.

Sultana Alexis
Sultana Alexis Miller (daughter of Varvara Lampsi)
Andrew Miller

My grandmother was born Varvara Lampsi. Her father was Ivan Lampsi and was Aivazovsky's grandson through his daughter Alexandra. In fact, Ivan's wife died soon after birth, Ivan was unable to care for the baby and so his brother Kolya and grandmother Alexandra raised her in Aivazovsky's mansion in Theodosia. We have a picture of Vava sitting on Aivazovsky's knee from 1896 when she was ~2 years old.

Varvara Ivanovna Lampsi
Varvara Ivanovna Lampsi (circa 1937)
Andrew Miller

SBS Armenian: How you discovered your families’ heritage links to Aivazovsky?

Andrew: I spent about half of my childhood living with my grandmother, so the Aivazovsky link was well known to me for as long as I can remember. She spoke of him as if he was her grandfather, and she recalled his house and character often. She had this way of telling us that "we have no idea", and finding out more about her living circumstance with the privileges of wealth, I increasingly understand what she meant. The echoes of many famous people occupy the family mansion.

My cousins have only come into the knowledge of Aivazovsky more recently. Having been immersed in the knowledge of IKA, it never occurred to me that they didn't know.

SBS Armenian: Did you know much about Aivazovsky, his work and how revered he is in Armenia and Russia?

Andrew: I did not see any of Aivazovsky's works until I was already out of school. The only publications about IKA were Russian and not available in Australia. My mother took an overseas trip in the 1970s, and she brought back a book and some prints for each child. Unfortunately, mine has bleached nearly completely. However, to find how revered he was, that was far more simple. One only needed to ask a Russian or Armenian! "No-one paints the sea like Aivazovsky!" was the common reply.

SBS Armenian: Since discovering your family’s links to Aivazovski, have you done any research about Aivazovski and his family?

Andrew: While my grandmother was alive, she was the prime source of information but she was very good at keeping what she thought should be a secret. Now we want to shout everything from the rooftop, but their generation knew about shame and intrigue. My sister was told many more stories that I was! There were always holes in the stories that I was told. So I was told "they met", my sister was told "they had an affair"! I was told "he was a friend", she was told "He wanted to marry me!"

After she died and I inherited her remaining papers, I began to follow leads as well as I could. Hence the letter to the Theodosia Gallery. However, I do know that Vava burnt a lot of papers in the months before she died because she wanted the secrets to go to the grave with her.

SBS Armenian: Have you found any new relatives?

Andrew: There were four IKA daughters. who married men named Lampsi, Lattri, Hansen and Artseulov. There are relatives in each of these lines.

The Russian Revolution resulted in the dispersal of many of Aivazovsky's descendants. They were stripped of resources and singled out for subjugation. As a result, the Lampsi and Lattri lines became refugees and traveled from Theodosia to land and settle in Gerze on the northern Turkish coast south of Sinop. It is strange how things intertwine but one of IKA's famous naval paintings is the Battle of Sinop, where the Russians decimated the Ottoman fleet. The refugee ship was actually owned by the grandson-in-law of IKA, Everico Mickeladze. He was from the Georgian royal family and a judge in the Crimea. I believe that he escaped on the ship also by I don't have any documentary confirmation of this. My details on the Hansen line are sketchy at present, but Hansen was a German ambassador according to my grandmother, and so would have been immune to the political upheavals of Russia. My grandmother, Vava, and her husband, Alexis arrived in Gerze ~1919-1929 and had 2 children, my mother Sultana Alexis and my uncle Dimitri.

In 1998 I wrote to the Theodosia Gallery introducing myself and asking if there were any relatives known. As best as I could translate the reply, I was astonished to find a relative. About 18 months later in 2000 I received an email from a relative telling me that there were others.

The Lampsi line consists of 27 living relatives in Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra, Hobart and Wollongong. I belong to the oldest generation of that line.

The Lattri line continued and lives in England. Dr Henry Sanford who comes from the generation before mine is 90 and still lives in Chelsea. he has a son, daughter and granddaughter.

The Hanzen line continues but only through marriage. Our prime contact in Russia, Irina Kazatskaya, comes from this line, and was the relative who sent the email in 2000. She told us about the Lattri line and that a great granddaughter of IKA was still alive in Paris.

My youngest brother, David, became very passionate about the family history and in 2002 visited Theodosia and met Tatiana the great granddaughter in Paris.

Through his efforts we know about the Artseulov line. Until recently we know of a musician in NY named Nick Artsay who is a descendant. In the last few weeks, we have heard again from Irina that there are other Artseulov relatives in Moscow. The Artseulov line is famous because the grandsons of that line had stellar military careers. One was a pilot and was the first to document how to get your plane out of a spin.

SBS Armenian: Have you researched about the history of Armenia and Armenians?

Andrew: I have researched some Armenian history. I know of the position of Armenia and the fact that they go against the trend. I know that their history has been proud and distinct but frequently overrun by surrounding nations in their ascendancy. This has always resulted in hardship for the Armenians who seem to me to want nothing more than to pursue their aims of trade to ensure their future and of cultural preservation to ensure their distinctiveness. These desires culminated in the Armenian genocide. I know that Australians, who identify with the underdog, had a special relationship with the Armenians. I have a book about this which unfortunately I have not read yet.

One of my colleagues, Dr Roland Alvandi-Yeghaian was born in Iran of Armenian parents and through him I have learnt of the Armenian Diaspora. He has impressed on me that just one drop of Armenian blood makes you entirely Armenian in his mind!

SBS Armenian: Any other topic not covered and you want to talk about it.

Andrew: After the war, the family consisting of William Henry Rogers, Vava, Sultana and Dimitri decided that they wanted to live somewhere where there was no war and likely to be no war. They selected Commonwealth countries, and as a merchant ship captain started travelling the globe. Australia was the place that fit the bill, and so they stopped in Melbourne, bought a property in Blackburn and remained there until they died in the 1990s. Blackburn is 17 km from Melbourne, and at the time was all orchards. There were two houses on the street. Both William Henry and Vava are buried in Box Hill cemetery.