By Markar Melkonian
Part I – Ignoring the Apocalypse
Readers of Hetq might have noticed a recent series of articles describing the sad fate of some 90-100,000 “repatriates” who relocated to the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic from Europe, the Middle East, and the United States between 1946 and 1960. Hetq has published fifteen articles in this series, from 23 May to 29 June 2017. The several authors of these articles describe how the “repatriates,” or akhbarner as the locals came to call them, quickly soured on life in the ASSR.
From the day of their arrival the “repatriates” came face to face with the true nature of the Soviet system: “It was crude, authoritarian, and totally indifferent towards the dignity and fate of the individual,” one of the author tells us. “The system was full of violence, fear, and barriers.” (Aghasi Tadevosyan, “Soviet Socialism and the Difficulties of Repatriate Integration,” Hetq, May 25.) Most of the “repatriates” or their children eventually left Armenia and returned to the diaspora, bitterly disillusioned.
This series of articles comes on the heels of several high-profile projects about the ill-fated “repatriates.” Other projects include Hazel Antaramian-Hofman’s current multi-media presentation, “Stream of Light,” at the Armenian Center for Contemporary Experimental Art in Yerevan, and “My Genius of Humanity” (2015), a full-length play written by Richard Kalinoski and commissioned by the Fresno State University Theatre.
I have not seen Kalinoski’s play, but according to the promotional material, it tells the story of the Davidian family, who were among the “few hundred Armenian Americans” who were “seduced by the Stalinist regime of the Soviet Union to resettle in their homeland, Armenia, in 1947 and 1949.” Instead of the promised paradise, the family arrives in “a place of grinding poverty dominated by a stubborn communist bureaucracy and infused with an insidious paranoia.” There, “the food is terrible, the lines for bread are long, and the lack of privacy is piercing and humiliating.” And so on.
We have heard the parable many times: naive diasporan Armenians, raised in an atmosphere of prosperity and freedom in the West (or in Western-influenced countries of the Middle East) make their way to an advertised socialist utopia, only to encounter bitter disappointment. Thus disabused of their idealism, they try desperately to extricate themselves from the trap. After much travail, most of them return to the West, with a new appreciation for Democracy and the Free Market.
The Inconsequential Slaughter of Tens of Millions
So far, the series in Hetq on the “repatriates” consists of a total of approximately 21,000 words. In all of these words, there is almost no mention of the fact that, at the height of the immigration to Armenia, the country was trying desperately to claw its way out from under the ruins of World War II. Let’s take a slightly closer look at the condition of Armenia in the late 1940’s.
Hitler’s massive invasion of the Soviet Union, launched in June 1941 (just five or six years before the beginning of the largest wave of “repatriation”), was the largest military operation in history. The invasion took place along a 2900-kilometer front, from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. The invading force comprised 134 divisions of Hitler’s military machine, the Wehrmacht, at full fighting strength, plus more than 73 additional divisions deployed behind the front, plus 650,000 troops from German allies. (By comparison, the USA and the UK together faced 2 German divisions during their heaviest fighting in Sicily.) The Wehrmacht deployed some 600,000 motorized vehicles and more than 4000 aircraft in the first stage of the attack. In the course of four years Hitler’s forces decimated 1700 Soviet towns and cities, 70,000 smaller towns and villages, 31,800 factories, 1900 collective farms, 84,000 schools, 43,000 libraries and 65,000 kilometers of railway. The invaders razed agriculture and industry, maimed tens of millions, and killed more than 26 million Soviet citizens (Max Hastings, Inferno, Vintage, 2012; William Moskoff, The Bread of Affliction, Cambridge UP, 2002).
Armenian casualties alone - more than a quarter million - equaled the total American casualty count from the European and Pacific theatres put together. (Let us recall that the USA finally joined the war--despite widespread pro-Nazi sympathy among American politicians and corporate leaders--more than five months after Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union.) Almost every family in the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic had a member who fought or died in the war, and even those who did not fight lived under conditions of deprivation, including dire food shortages, and the threat of invasion by a vicious enemy at the gates.
Hitler’s forces laid siege to the city of Stalingrad, on the way to the oil fields of Baku. Historians believe that it is likely that if the Wehrmacht had succeeded in taking Stalingrad and capturing those oil fields, the Republic of Turkey would have joined the Axis Powers. If that had happened, Turkey might well have resumed its territorial offensive against Armenia, and for the second time in 27 years, the survival of the Armenian nation would have been up in the air.
The war ended less than two years before the first big wave of immigration to Soviet Armenia. Yet the authors of Hetq’s series on post-war emigration have managed to tiptoe around this overwhelming reality. Their most sustained reference to WWII is a parenthetical note from the 13 June installment: according to the author, some of the new arrivals rationalized the difficulties they faced in Armenia, because “just recently the country had been at war.”
We also read a passing reference, in the 27 May installment, to “soldiers taken prisoner in the war or who had served in the Armenian Legion.” The author provides no follow-up explanation about the war or the Armenian Legion. The term “the war” appears in the May 30 installment; the phrase “after World War II” appears in the 3 June installment, and the two words “war loses” appear in the 16 June installment. And that is it: out of the fifteen installments in this series, composed of 21,000 words, fewer than 30 scattered words refer to the devastation that had just taken place in the USSR and Soviet Armenia.
One might have thought that understanding the consequences of the war would help us to make sense of the “repatriates’” experiences. If one were to take the devastation into account, for example, the reader might gain an insight into why the local population, having just emerged from four years of hell, might have resented the well-dressed and relatively wealthy late-arrivals from the diaspora.
Surely the brutality of the war had something to do with the “violence, fear, and barriers” that the new arrivals confronted a few years later. The new arrivals encountered an entire population suffering from what psychologists today would call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Under these circumstances, is it really so surprising that newcomers would perceive the locals as crude, authoritarian, and indifferent towards the dignity of the individual? Is it really so surprising that a country that had just lost 26 million citizens to a foreign invader would be “infused with an insidious paranoia?”
(Consider, by way of comparison, America’s “insidious paranoia” after the 7 December 1941 Japanese attack on the American Naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii: 110,000 ethnic Japanese, mostly U.S. citizens, were sent to interment camps. Or consider America’s “insidious paranoia” after the Al Qaeda bombings of September 11, 2001: in response, America enacted the Patriot Act, mobilized the Department of Homeland Security, ramped up the practice of torture and the extrajudicial killings of American citizens, monitored hundreds of millions of its citizens personal communications daily, and extended its archipelago of secret prisons across the globe—all in response to an attack that caused fewer than 3000 deaths.)
One can already hear the commentators objecting: to point out that 26 million Soviet citizens had been killed by a foreign invader six or eight years before the “repatriates” arrived is just to make excuses for communist totalitarianism!
For the record: yes, Joseph Stalin was a tyrant and a mass murder. (Let us keep in mind that the first of his millions of victims were communists: among other things, Stalin killed Lenin’s closest comrades, decimated Lenin’s party, and destroyed the October Revolution.)
But let us also remember that the USA, depicted in the series as the antithesis of Soviet “totalitarianism,” has had more than its share of tyrants and murderers, from before Andrew Jackson to the present day. The Dulles brothers, John Foster and Allen, for example, caused the deaths of more unarmed civilians that Stalin did—and in less time. John Foster and Allen Dulles, as U.S. Secretary of State (1953-1959) and head of the CIA (1953-1961) respectively, presided over violent coups and mass killings, from Iran to Guatemala, Congo, Cuba, and beyond, and set the stage for many millions of deaths in subsequent years.
But Americans do not let their history of genocides, slavery, and wars of aggression get in the way of their patriotic celebrations. When it comes to the Soviet Union, by contrast, we are supposed to take literally the sardonic comment of Fidel Castro Ruz, the late President of the Republic of Cuba: the Soviet Union, he said, is the only country in history that had no enemies, only victims.
Enemies of Idealism
This series on the “repatriates,” we are informed, was “financed by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).” The NED describes itself as a “private, non-profit foundation dedicated to the growth and strengthening of democratic institutions around the world.” As it turns out, this “private foundation” is in fact funded by an annual allocation by the U.S. Congress, through the U.S. Information Agency. (Google it.) Here we have yet another example of western-funded “nongovernmental” organizations that are, as a matter of fact, blunt projections of foreign state power.
The NED is not an organization devoted to scholarship. In the course of its thirty-four years of existence, the Endowment has embraced all manner of rightwing tyrants, including perpetrators of dirty wars in Latin America, supporters of apartheid in South Africa, and murderous regimes in Central America. Throughout the entire series, the irony is there for all to see: our NED-financed authors commit the very same sin that they denounce when it comes to “totalitarian” Soviet officialdom: these authors themselves grotesquely misrepresent reality, spreading half-truths and officially sanctioned “lies and falsifications” (Hetq 23 May), in the course of serving an agency of a brutal state.
When we are denied an accurate and balanced understanding of the historical context of the post-war wave of immigration to Armenia, we are left with little more than Cold War clichés about the evils of Bolshevism and the foolishness of pursuing any goal loftier than personal enrichment and the consumption of commodities. The terribly sad story of the “repatriates,” torn out of its historical setting, becomes yet another skewed narrative that saps the idealism of our young compatriots and denigrates the honorable sacrifices of their grandparents and great grandparents, both “repatriates” and native-born Soviet citizens.
* * *
To be continued - The series on “repatriates” published in Hetq stressed the cultural differences that separated them from the local population. I will take up this topic in Part Two of this presentation. I will also say a few well-chosen words about the experiences of more recent “repatriates” who have tried to make their lives in the post-Soviet Republic of Armenia, and about emigration from Armenia since its return to capitalist rule.
Top photo: Between 1946 and 1947, 100,000 Armenians left their homes in Europe, the Americas, and the Middle East to settle in Soviet Armenia. (Photo taken at an Alexandria port in 1947, courtesy of AGBU Alexandria)
(The article is an opinion piece, and the opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of Hetq, its editors, or its publishers.)
Markar Melkonian is a teacher and an author. His books include Richard Rorty’s Politics: Liberalism at the End of the American Century (1999), Marxism: A Post-Cold War Primer (Westview Press, 1996), and My Brother’s Road (2005).