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An Armenian gift of fortitude

HOW can a small national group such as the Armenians sustain such high casualty figures in the loss of life and material possessions resulting from the recent earthquake? In the long and tragic history of the Armenian people, it is the defeats rather than the victories that are commemorated - the heroic loser and the concept of victory in defeat. This notion is the opposite of what we know as a Pyrrhic victory after Pyrrhus, a king who, in the third century B.C., defeated Roman legions but lost his men.

Armenia has lost so many times in its struggle for stability and autonomy. It is located within a precarious geographic site at the junction of Europe and Asia - a passageway historically for barbarians from the Orient and imperialists from the West. By all historical gauges it should have perished centuries ago along with other nations of its vintage.

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But Armenians' adrenaline power seems almost heightened by disaster. They will rebuild their cities and repopulate them. I would not be surprised if 50,000 couples throughout Armenia conceive a child in the coming months in memory of those Armenians lost in the earthquake. And the orphans of the disaster will quickly be absorbed into surviving family units.

How can I make such predictions? I am judging from past history. It is amazing how many children of Armenian parentage were born during the deportation years of World War I; the rate was higher than in war-torn Europe and war-involved America. And when I was a child, families associating with my parents often seemed to have among their brood an adopted one they had brought along to America.

Three years ago, I was a guest of the Moscow Gorky Institute of Letters, and part of the honor they bestowed on me was to take me for a weekend to Yerevan. I came away with the perception that Armenia was a politically favored sub-nation, a model to display to foreign visitors as well as to Soviet schoolchildren on vacation. What the Soviets admired in this little country was its high productivity and creative intelligence. Moscow was using the example of Armenia to prove subtly the success of the Soviet system. Although I was at the time a high-ranking officer of the International Comparative Literature Association, the fact that my name and facial characteristics were Armenian played no small part in the generous invitation I received.

In that barren land, the Armenian community had brought about miracles: They had plenty of food even if it was not prime beef. They had the intellectual institutions of a highly sophisticated society. There were more cars than were good for them - mountain ridges trap pollution, and they have apparently not heard of unleaded gas. The churches were open and the ceremonies so pristine as to include the ritual of the sacrificial lamb - which made me cringe as I remembered centuries of Armenians prone to martyrdom.

One might think that Armenia has not been favored in the light of its 1,500 years of loyalty to Christianity. But when I look at the stern and controlled face in a New York Times photograph of a woman and her three children rescued after 40 hours in the rubble, I begin to believe that Armenia has the power to rise from its ashes like the mythical Phoenix, the uncanny ability to turn destruction into reconstruction after each shattering setback.

We may hear, I fear, once more in this century the expression ``starving Armenians.'' But it won't last as long as the last time, when the Armenian people were dispersed all over the world. This time they have a country with which to identify deeply, and they have staunch friends inside the Soviet Union as well as outside.

For one of the elements I noticed in my visit was that through the experience of victory in defeat they have acquired profound wisdom. Armenians have preserved their ethnicity, yet as a nation within a greater nation, they have also learned to adapt to the collective tasks and lend their individual talents to the whole. A federation of nations - which makes for the uniqueness of the USSR - cannot function without the fusion of the competitive and cooperative forces.

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In my life work in international perspectives I have been far removed from ethnic preoccupations. But a calamity such as this strikes me in my soul.

Yet, as my heart bleeds, my mind echos with words of reassurance my mother used to give after each family crisis: ``And this will pass away.''

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