OVIR - No Exit for Outsiders (Part 2)
Soviet Jews had the most problems related to state secrets. For many working in the sciences and technical sector, emigrating from the Soviet Union, or more correctly, repatriating to Israel, was a real dilemma. Despite their struggle to leave, replete with protests and petitions to various Western bodies, the Iron Curtain remained closed to them. These people were called “refusniks”.
We only know of one Armenian refusnik – Hrach Hovsepian. His family moved to Armenia from Lebanon in 1946. Hrach graduated university in Armenia and worked at the Yerevan Computer Research and Development Institute (YCRDI), more commonly called the Mergelian Institute. He was the chief engineer on the Nairi generation of computers and, along with his colleagues, won a USSR State Prize. But he had issues with institute management and relocated to Moscow, where he has given a suitable, but not, comparable position. Hovsepyan’s progress up the professional work ladder came to an end, and his life inexorably changed after his family (mother and brother) moved to the United States and sent him an invitation to resettle there as well, even though he warned them not to send. Hovsepyan couldn’t refuse the offer. In such cases, people like him didn’t only have to refuse the invitation, but they had to publicly disavow their relatives. But he couldn’t emigrate. They were denying him the chance. From the end of the 1970s, Hovsepyan, with the status of a refusnik, was working as a coal stoker. At the same time, he struggled for freedom of movement and the right to reunite with his family. His struggle lasted ten years, ending in 1990 when the Soviet Union was in its final throes. Hovsepian finally left for the United States.
There weren't many Armenian repatriates who wanted to leave and found themselves in a similar situation, even though an Armenian academician was able to emigrate in the early 1970s. To stem the brain-drain, the Kremlin came up with a unique “punishment”. It primarily targeted the Jews, most of whom had received a free university education in the USSR. Soviet authorities would tell them – “Look here. You’ve received a free education. Please be so kind to pay us back before leaving.” The minimum “ransom” was 5,000 rubles, an unimaginably large sum at the time considering that a master engineer’s annual salary just about reached 1,500.
None of the Armenian repatriates who allowed us to interview them (around 100, most of whom later left Soviet Armenia), ever confirmed this demand for a “ransom”. By studying the emigration of Jews, Germans and others, it seems that it was a special lever to be used, or not, based on the state of international relations or domestic convenience at the time.
Even though it was an “evil design”, many Soviet citizens who wanted to leave saw a silver lining. They thought that if the Soviet Union was demanding a repayment for their education, it was accepting, by default, the right of Soviet citizens to move about freely, to emigrate, and to reunite with their families, rights backed by the Helsinki Accords. In 1975, then Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev signed off on those rights and passed the burden of noncompliance to the bureaucracy of OVIR, to which he provided various tools.
The most ludicrous was the demand that those wishing to leave had to obtain a positive conduct letter from their place of employment. The question arose as to why someone wishing to leave the Soviet Union needed a positive conduct evaluation. Many who left jokingly recount that they took proof of having participated in various public and work-related events to OVIR as a sign of being upstanding citizens. To get such documents, potential emigrants had to convince management at the job site or the local Communist Party committee (existing at all plants and factories) that they really missed their auntie and that they harbored no ill-will towards the Soviet Union. After being denied once or twice, the applicant would repeat the process.
Applicants also had to get the consent of parents. Clearly, this demand was simply to complicate the process. It was unheard of to call the parents into account for the actions of their adult daughters or sons. Most repatriates had no issue with the demand. Oftentimes, children and parents filed joint requests to leave. But if the spouse of an applicant was a local, the bureaucratic machine started to work its magic. Throughout the 1960s, 70s and even 80s, in-laws of repatriates applying to leave, considering their ages, had to have lived throughout the entire reign of Stalinist terror. This accumulated experience, the fear of opposing the state in the slightest, was enough for them to deny such consent. There was also the concern of not threatening the career prospects of those left behind. Just having relatives overseas was a sign of disloyalty.
A man born in Armenia, who emigrated with his repatriate wife and settled in Los Angeles, told us the following in a private, off-camera conversation.
“My father was diametrically opposed to my leaving. He even told me that if I went he would contact the police or use other methods to keep my kids. If the kids stayed, their mother wouldn’t leave. I didn’t know anything about America, nor did I know the language. But my wife was an only girl, and wanted to be with her parents. In a word, my father never gave that document. I went to OVIR without it. They said it wouldn’t happen. I asked them if they required a parental note when somebody was accepted into the companty. They said, no. So I asked them, ‘Why do you need one now?’ They said it was the law. And they refused my request. My father died. My mother had already passed away. My big brother got involved but what he had to say had no impact. In 79, we went to America.”
They also demanded such a document in the case of a divorce. One’s former spouse had to agree. This is understandable and legal when there are minor children involved. If there are no children, such a demand is simply designed as an obstacle to prevent people leaving, given that divorced couples rarely are on good terms.
The modus operandi of OVIR, with all its bureaucratic baggage, had one aim in mind – to wear out the applicant and dissuade them of the idea of leaving. One important component of this approach was the “cozy advice” aspect - something outside the regulations (if, of course, any of this was regulated at all).
Many of the repatriates remember the “advice” given by OVIR employees. Antranig Pilibosian, who moved to Armenia in 1946 and now lives in Granada Hills, California, recounts: “The guy (OVIR employee) said, ‘Where are you taking those two girls?
Have you asked them what they want?’ I gave him a good answer. I said, ‘You know what? When my father brought us here, he didn’t ask us what we wanted. I came with him. Now I want to leave. When my girls grow up and they don’t like America, let them return here. Understand?’ I got a bit irritated at the end because I went off on a tangent instead of getting my application moving forward.”
To be continued
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).