People also applied to OVIR for travel permits. They wanted to see, with their own eyes, those magical foreign lands that were only maligned by Soviet propaganda and praised by those visiting friends and family in Armenia.
But applications to travel to capitalist countries overseas were often denied. Many former repatriates to Armenia, in interviews, said that after being denied travel permits they’d immediately apply for permanent emigration.
Armen Ajemian, a musician who repatriated from Egypt and now lives in Glendale, who was even denied an exit visa to socialist Czechoslovakia to perform at a jazz festival, jokes about the OVIR paradox. “If they denied your application to leave as a tourist, I’d say the following. ‘Hey, what kind of country is this that have no any trust to his citizens. We have to leave this place.’ When they let people go as tourists, they’d go and see the life there and think – No. The Soviet Union isn’t a place to live.”
Many former repatriates confess that the desire to emigrate increased after dealing with OVIR. The conscious effort to delay the permit process, unfounded arguments for refusal, the, to put it mildly, insensitive attitude towards applicants, oftentimes got under their skin.
Suzanne Filian, who immigrated from France and now lives in Paris, recounts: “So my father pointed a finger at the OVIR chief and said that he would douse us with gasoline and leap out the window. He said, ‘Enough already. Give us our papers so that we can go.’ This was my father, who was a communist in France and had saved the lives of many Soviet soldiers.”
Many former repatriates would often speak of bribes, even though none of them ever confessed of having given a bribe. A former top official of Arm.SSR OVIR, who wished to remain anonymous, denied the practice of bribery, noting that money, bribes, had no impact on the granting of exit visas. Bribes only helped in expediting the paperwork. “The decision was made elsewhere,” the official says, without specifying where.
The perception of bribery could have another reason. There was an illegal network of intermediaries operating around OVIR. Certain crafty individuals, knowing the many problems faced by applicants and the constant refusals they received, offered “paid services”. But, there were no guarantees that those wishing to leave would receive their much dreamt about exit visa after paying these intermediaries.
“Yes. There were such tricksters and cheats. How could there not be? They’d take the money and if the permit was granted they’d say- we did it. If denied, those guys would disappear. The applicants couldn’t complain; right? They’d catch you for giving bribes and getting mixed up in nefarious transactions. A new reason to charge you,” says the former OVIR official.
Harutiun Boghosian, who repatriated from Greece and now lives in Glendale, remembers an honest intermediary. “He said I can arranges your papers if each of you pays 5,000 rubles. It was in 1980. We went to OVIR and got a refusal. We gave the money, but the man couldn’t do anything. He returned the money. He had a conscience.”
The former official didn’t give an adequate reply when we asked if there was a predetermined quota of exit permits to be granted per year. “I don’t know about that. It was a process, whose positive and negative results was linked to several issues and a few state agencies. To say, I’ll let ten go this year and twenty next year isn’t rational. But the number could increase or decrease due to certain political changes. Such was the case with the Jews, as far as I know. But, it wasn’t applicable for the republics, just for that nationality.”
It’s a known fact, however, that certain repatriates wishing to leave the Soviet Union moved to other republics by selling their homes and property in Armenia. They’d register in the new city in the hope that it would be easier to leave from there.
Robert Ananikian, who repatriated in 1947 and now lives in Paris cites the example of his brother. “He went to Latvia, Riga, and was quickly able to move to France. For a long time after that, we were still suffering.”
The former OVIR official argues that this wasn’t the result of a quota but the fact that there were few applicants, in some cases none, for emigration in other Soviet republics. “Many moved to Baku or Central Asian cities. There were few applicants there. That’s why permits were given quickly. They were more concerned that the paperwork was in order and that everything be done by the book. Here, where there were many applicants, preventative mechanisms automatically appeared, and for a long time you didn’t know who to refuse and who to let go.”
Those refused by OVIR would make “pilgrimages” to Moscow, application in hand, and visit various state agencies to plead their case. Going to Moscow, having meetings, didn’t resolve the problem for the most part. Exit permits were granted by directives directly from Moscow only in a smattering of cases. Such pilgrimages to the USSR OVIR were mostly a way to exert psychological pressure.
The former OVIR official, however, didn’t agree that this was psychological pressure. “On the contrary. When cases reached the tribunals in Moscow, our work here became easier. Moscow never forced us to resolve a case. At best, all they could do was send us a letter asking us to review a person’s case. If there were no complications, say, problems with the KGB or working for a top-secret enterprise, etc., it was easier for us to let the person leave because they already knew that person and they couldn’t ask us why we let that person go?”
Our anonymous OVIR official says that OVIR was a regular, normal agency and that those seeking to leave had turned into a “monster” to justify emigrating from the homeland. “I’m not saying we were humane. What state agency is? We worked according to the laws and regulations of the country. There are people who I dealt with, who went abroad, and now, when we meet somewhere, we embrace like brothers, saying dear so-and-so.”
To our last question, is it true that almost all former OVIR officials have permanently resettled in the United States, our anonymous official smiles and nods in agreement: “They are people and have their rights as well. They can choose where they want to live.”
When we conducted our first interview for the “Coming Full Circle” project, Martiros Vardanian, who repatriated from Lebanon and now resides in Glendale, suggested that we convince former OVIR officials to talk. “Aleksanyan and Knyazchyan, who made the lives of repats miserable, are now in Los Angeles. Find them.” We tried, only to find that they had already departed this earthly existence.
This article is prepared within the framework of “Two Lives: The Cold War and the Emigration of Armenians” project financed by National Endowment for Democracy (NED).