Part II: Unsuccessful Repatriations to Armenia, Past and Present
By Markar Melkonian
This opinion piece is a follow-up to my article that appeared in Hetq on July 17.
That article, in turn, was a response to a fifteen-part multi-author series in Hetq, published between late May and late June of this year, about the sad fate of around 100,000 Armenians who immigrated from the diaspora to Soviet Armenia in the decades following the Second World War.
My July 17 response to that series focused on the historical background of the “repatriation,” notably the decimation of the Soviet Union and Armenia during WWII, which had taken place just before the first wave of arrivals. The authors of the fifteen-part series, in their haste to provide the required Free Market moral of the story, omitted to mention this “detail.”
Despite all this spilled ink, much of what needs to be said has been left unsaid. But perhaps readers are tired of this topic. In the present piece, I will limit myself to three points with a direct bearing on the repatriation, and I will try to be brief.
First Point: Deafening Silence on Post-Soviet Emigration:
The five authors of the fifteen-part “Repatriates”series (let us call them the “series authors”) have devoted much attention to the thousands of emigrants who eventually returned to the diaspora after relocating to Soviet Armenia. But they do not acknowledge the catastrophic emigration that has taken place since Armenia returned to the capitalist fold. The demographic hemorrhage is well documented. So far, more than one million Armenians have left the region since the victory of the counterrevolutionaries in Yerevan.
It would be helpful to know how many diasporan Armenians have relocated to the Republic of Armenia in the past quarter century, and how many of them remain in the country to date. In the absence of firm figures, we will have to fall back on rough estimates, but even rough estimates will serve our present purposes: conservatively speaking, ten times the number of Armenians have left capitalist Armenia than left Soviet Armenia—and they have left in half the time. Meanwhile, birth rates and life expectancy figures have plummeted in Free, Independent Armenia, while suicide rates, especially for women, have skyrocketed.
Most recently, Armenia’s National Statistical Service (NSS) reported that, as of 1 July 2017, the permanent population of the country had declined by15,000 since a year ago (Diana Ghazaryan, “Armenia's Population Drops 15,000, Says Official Report,” Hetq Online,August 1, 2017).
A 2005 United Nations report predicted that Armenia’s population would drop by another half a million by 2050, and subsequent studies have born out this general trend (“Armenia: Troubling Demographic Data” Hetq Online, June 5, 2017). During the Soviet period, by contrast, Armenia’s population increased dramatically. In 1989 the population of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic was 3.3 million, having almost quadrupled from 880,000 in 1926.
The vast majority of the recent emigrants have been deghatsiner (from long-established native families), not akhbarner. Most of them have left capitalist Armenia because of unemployment, poverty, and lack of opportunity, and most have settled not in the opulent West but in Russia.
Privatization of land and industry; the cessation of industrial inputs; the necessity suddenly to pay market prices for oil and gas; embargo by NATO Turkey; the devaluation of the ruble; global recession—all these factors, clearly, account for the demographic catastrophe that has taken place in Armenia after its return to capitalist rule. All these factors are clearly and demonstrably the result of Armenia’s return to capitalist rule, and none of these developments fit into the picture that the series authors are hawking.
The country is following the same path as five-dozen other impoverished, diminished, and dependent countries of the south: dispossession, urbanization, and emigration. (Or are we to believe that an evil, mystical Soviet mentality or “inertia” is also responsible for emptying out Honduras, El Salvador, Ghana, Greece, and dozens of other capitalist countries that have undergone the same mass emigration as Armenia?) By ignoring these global realities and tossing around doltish epithets about iron curtains and totalitarianism, the series authors are saying more about their own myopia than anything else.
Second Point: Operating Reality versus Declared Reality in the West:
Time and again the series authors compare the war-devastated USSR unflatteringly to capitalist countries. For example, one of the authors writes: “The repatriates entered the Soviet Union from places where the operating reality on the ground was equal to or quite close to the declared reality.”
Many of the repatriates came from Egypt and Iran. It might be interesting to discuss the “operating reality on the ground” in those countries. Other repatriates came from Greece, which at the time of the repatriation was just emerging from a civil war. The Greek anti-fascist resistance, led by the Communist Party, beat the Italian and German occupiers of their country, thanks to their superhuman valor, and at enormous cost. As soon as they had won this victory, though, the UK and the USA imposed a regime of former German collaborators, sparking the civil war that ended in fascist victory in 1949. In the following years, Greece labored under the burden of Western-imposed dictators and juntas. All of this in the name of Freedom, of course--in a country where, according to the authors of the series, “the operating reality on the ground was equal to or quite close to the declared reality.”
Other repatriates came from France. Starting in 1948 and continuing for the next four years, that country benefitted from the Marshall Plan. At the same time, some two million men, women, and children starved to death in a famine in French Indochina. We might also compare the “declared reality” of liberté, égalité, fraternité to the “operating reality” in the prisons and torture chambers of the French “province” of Algeria.
Turning to the far side of the Atlantic, let us remind ourselves that for the two decades after WWII, the Land of the Free was a land of lynching, Jim Crow, blacklisting, and the persecution of dissidents.
As of 1947, there were more than seventy-one nominally sovereign states, fewer than ten of which were in the socialist camp (including East Germany and Bulgaria, but not yet China). Of the remaining sixty-plus countries and their colonial possessions, most (much of Asia including India and China; almost the entire continents of Africa and Central and South America) were dirt-poor and dominated by various tyrannies. For poor people, workers, and non-white people under imperialist domination and capitalist rule, the “real rules dominating life” were quite different from the “declared reality” of the series authors.
And they still are. One of the authors extols Basket III of the Helsinki Accords, which urged the participating states to “deal in a positive and humanitarian spirit with the applications of persons who wish to be reunited with members of their family,” and do that “as expeditiously as possible.” (Shirinyan, “Helsinki Final Act, 1975. Reunification of Families Divided by International Borders”, Hetq Online, June 16,2017)
Perhaps someday these provisions will apply to the tens of millions of refugees that the warmongers in Washington D.C. have created in the past ten years. Or to the hundreds of thousands of Mexican families on both sides of the north-south border, torn apart by poverty and U.S.-demand-driven drug wars that have claimed the lives of 160,000 of their compatriots.
Third Point: Unsuccessful Repatriation in Capitalist Armenia
One of the series authors concludes that, with reference to the immigration campaign during the Soviet era, “we are dealing with what can be called ‘unsuccessful repatriation.’” Time and again, akhbarner interviewed by the series authors described the “culture shock,” conflicts, and resentment of native-born locals towards them. In an informative article that was not part of the Repatriates series, Hetq’s Hrant Galstyan quotes Hazel Antaramian-Hofman, the organizer of a recent exhibit,entitled “Stream of Light,” about the Great Repatriation:
In some of the interviews that I had they talk about how they came and had local Armenians looking at them suspiciously. They were ridiculed. So even if they felt like the hayrenik (homeland), but here the brothers and sisters weren’t welcoming them – ridiculing their clothes, the way they talked, because it was the western Armenian dialect… It was almost like they weren’t even Armenians to Armenians.”
(“Yerevan Exhibit: The Not-So-Small Problems of the Great Repatriation,” Hetq Online, June 17, 2016.)
The stories of local hostility, culture shock, and disillusionment apply to later “repatriates,” too. We have heard of the businessmen from the diaspora who set up shop in Free Independent Armenia, only to pack up and leave a few years later; of the volunteers and charity workers who arrived full of hope, only to return to their countries of origin after years of disillusionment; of new arrivals arrested on trumped-up charges; of others jailed for their political beliefs; of an Armenian-American businessman who devoted time and treasure to charity work, only to be injected with ketamine, strangled to death, and tossed in a ditch. Sadly, the list could go on and on, and readers will add their own stories to the list—stories of impunity, duplicity,shakedowns, selective taxation, cronyism and bribery in the court system, and the sort of unresponsive bureaucracies that prevail today across the impoverished global south.
It seems, then, that the conflicts and resentments continue today, both on the street and in the courtrooms and bureaucracies. Contrary to the picture that the authors have tried to draw, there is little evidence here of anything distinctively Soviet about it.
One of the series authors mentions the case of the most recent wave of immigrants: “Today, the influx of Syrian-Armenians to Armenia and the relative ease with which they integrate into a new environment, is mainly because they can engage in private business” (Aghasi Tadevosyan, “Soviet Socialism and the Difficulties of Repatriate Integration,” Hetq Online, May 25, 2017).
This series author fails to mention that many of the Syrian Armenians were already engaged in private business in Syria, and most of them are refugees, who find themselves in Armenia because they were forced out of their country thanks to massive regime change efforts perpetrated by none other than the USA and its regional surrogates, notably Turkey, Israel, and several Gulf States.
Let us see, then, where the Syrian refugeeswill be in ten or fifteen years.Some of us suspect--and I hope we are wrong about this--that most of them, too, will have emigrated from Armenia.
The series authors create the impression that the Soviet Union is to blame for the on-going demographic catastrophe in Armenia. One of them, for example, writes that, “the inertia of the failure has been preserved to date, thus adversely affecting post-Soviet Armenia.”Let us understand this claim clearly: this author is blaming the Soviet Union, which has not existed for 26 years, for the on-going emigration from the Republic of Armenia today.
Historical “inertia,” it seems is a very selective force. On the one hand, the series authors tacitly deny that the massive destruction that the country had undergone during WWII had any consequences, any “inertia,” when it came to the poverty and repression that the repatriates encountered a few years later. On the other hand, the series authors expect us to believe thata mysterious “inertia” from the Soviet period is to blame for the dramatic catastrophe that has overtaken Armenia during twenty-six years of capitalist rule.
If this interpretation serves to impede an understanding of recent Armenian history, then perhaps the series authors have achieved their aim.
* * *
The fate of the “repatriates” was terribly sad. Many of us have friends and family relations among them. We have seen the dismal conditions under which they lived, and we have heard their stories and their bitter regrets. The series authors portray them as fools and naïfs. Thus, we read, “Those who tried to have nothing to do with the real rules dominating life in the space between the official and the shadow, were called ‘good for nothing’ and ‘less than human,’ ‘not a man’” (Aghasi Tadevosyan, “Locals and Akhpars: Daily Conflict or Culture Clash?” Hetq Online, May 30, 2017).
By contrast, the series writers celebrate the “jeans culture” of impressionable rubes in platform shoes and knock-off pants, and they exalt the “aspiration to have the chance to do business, make money and become rich” (Tadevosyan, “Reasons for Leaving Soviet Armenia, or Unsuccessful Experience”, Hetq Online, June 13,2017).
Thus, the series authors celebrate clownish consumerism and juvenile illusions that fly in the face of economic reality.
A generation coming of age in Free Independent Armenia looks around and sees poverty, injustice, and humiliation. Meanwhile, the ideological enforcers of neoliberalism denigrate the sacrifices of the Soviet Armenians who secured the borders, fed the hungry, defeated the invaders, built the industry, and educated the youth. Thus, the enforcers deny young people today their rightful legacy of pride in Soviet Armenia.
There are those who like to say that money making and patriotism do not conflict. This is a topic for another time, but let us note that the series authors tell a very different tale: if they have done anything, they have illustrated the point that the two purposes do indeed conflict. Their greatest wisdom, it seems, and their most inspiring advice to the next generation is: sacrifice for the greater good is for fools; there is no purpose in life nobler than to do business, make money, and become rich.
But we don’t have to accept their values. We could choose instead to view the post-war emigrants as unsung heroes who paid a steep price for their dedication to their motherland.
We could honor them as patriots who deserve our gratitude, not ridicule from the ideological enforcers of neoliberalism.
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)
Other photos: The 1947 and 1949 Armenian Repatriation - Hazel Antaramian Hofman / Galleries / Media - OsservatorioBalcani e Caucaso - Transeuropa
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).