Armenia: Repat Emigration - Numbers, Facts and Trends
The 1970-1980s are regarded as the period when emigration of the repatriates began.
Often, it is said to have to do with the Helsinki Final Act (1975) and the terms enshrined in it, specifically the clause that specifies the reunification of families separated by borders. In reality, however, repatriates began leaving the Soviet Union much earlier.
Movses Bazaryan, a repatriate to Armenia from Greece who then emigrated to Canada, was an inspector in the Immigration Committee for many years. In his “Letters from Soviet ‘Heaven’” , a noteworthy memoir, he writes about Petros Salryan.
Petros came from a rich Sudan Armenian family. In 1943, he moved to Egypt; in 1947, filled with communist ideas, he moved to Armenia with his wife. In 1949, he was captured for improper statements about Stalin and exiled to Siberia, and in 1959, moved to the U.S.
According to Movses Bazaryan, his early emigration was due to the assiduous efforts of his mother and brother that were abroad. “In 1956, they sent corresponding documents and at the same time turned to international human rights organizations as well as to Moscow-based Soviet authorities,” he is writing.
Tom Muradyan is another early emigrant from the Soviet. In 1949, at the age of 18, he came to Armenia from the U.S. He came all alone, without family. Presently, Muradyan lives in Detroit (Michigan, U.S.) and believes that his emigration had to do with the international and political situation. “Someone from the KGB said to me, ‘Premier Khruchov is going to Paris, he is going to meet with Eisenhower, he is going to meet with McMillan and de Gaulle. Times of change, you are going home.’”
Khrushchev was indeed to meet with the leaders of the U.S., Great Britain and France at the Paris conference in 1960, and the USSR had high expectations from those meetings. And although the conference failed, Tom was granted permission to leave the USSR in July 1960. “A couple of weeks later on July 26-27 a KGB officer appeared and said - you can go home. Why, I don’t know,” he said.
Testimonies regarding 1960s emigration are in the interviews of repatriates we talked to previously, but it’s hard to speak of the overall picture as statistics cannot be accessed yet.
In November last year, we turned to the Passport and Visa Office of the Republic of Armenia (OVIR) requesting information on the archives dated to the Soviet period. The answer was that “the retention period of those documents had expired and so we have destroyed them due to their expiration.” We have no right not to doubt the truthfulness of this statement – after all, the OVIR is a state agency and we got the answer from a high ranking official with the rank of colonel. But it’s hard to believe that documents recounting the emigration of Armenians have not been preserved anywhere, at least in the dim basements of the Moscow archives.
Anyway, we started our own investigation hoping that the official statistics would one day come to light and relevant specialists would undertake to study the Soviet emigration in due scientific manner.
The article headlined “Armenians Feel Insulted in Soviet Armenia” published on Kommersant Russian website on April 18, 2005, said, “In 1965, in a letter sent to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Head of KGB Vladimir Semichastny is writing. ‘At present, we have over 1000 families that are resolute about going back and take every effort to this end.’
The same article also cites word by word an excerpt from the report of the USSR Ministry of Internal Affairs (March 12, 1974), which lacks accurate quantitative data on the emigration scale but it gives us grounds to conclude that the leaders of the country were concerned about the emigration of Armenians. The report also touches upon 25 applications that were satisfied over 1960-1963. According to it, in the period of 1964-1966, 50% of applications were satisfied and in 1973 – 67%. It’s hard to say what numbers lie behind these percentages but statements like “emigration applications of most of Armenians are being denied,” “everything is being done to reduce current emigration-oriented moods” found in the report hint at panic. “Along with that, the number of citizens in this group (Armenian repatriates) wishing to leave for permanent residence is growing in the past years,” concluded the unknown author of the document.
Some data regarding the emigration scale can be found in the 1970-1980s editions of The New York Times American daily newspaper. These data are fragmented, but they can help us get some picture. The period of 1978-1980 is when the American daily newspaper covered this topic most. The increased interest toward this topic is probably due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Moscow Olympic Games.
The article headlined "More Quit Armenia than Arrive", published on June 26, 1978, was an attempt to establish equilibrium between the emigration and immigration trends. Due to the revolution in Iran, the immigration trend was quite dynamic back then. “In the last two years, 3,152 Soviet Armenians have emigrated to the US alone, according to American Embassy officials in Moscow,” wrote the newspaper at the same time presenting an official stance. According to Martiros Melkumyan, then Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic, annually 1,000 people immigrated to Armenia from Iran. Refusing to accept the 3152 number, he then went on to claim that annually a total of 600 Armenians (thus, 1,800 altogether) used to emigrate from Armenia. Not finding the official stance trustworthy, the newspaper wrote that “Armenians is the largest group among those emigrating from the Soviet Union to the United States.”
The U.S. Embassy in Moscow reported that 800 Armenians went to the United States in the first four months of 1979 as compared to the 1100 during all of 1978.
The headline and sub-headlines of the article on the emigration of Armenians published on May 25, 1980, are highly indicative – “Armenians Leaving Soviet for the U.S. Trickle has Become a Flood. Many are Highly Skilled,” “In the late 1970’s Soviet Armenia began losing more people through emigration than it gained through immigration. Western diplomats are not clear about the reasons,” “Many frankly tell embassy Interviewers that they want to make money and cannot do so in the Soviet Union.”
In the next eight years, the American daily newspaper seems not to have covered the emigration of Armenians. In 1988, given the Gorbachev reforms and the country’s democratization period, the topic again gained relevance and on March 5, 1988, the NYT wrote, “Reagan Administration officials report a sharp increase in the number of Armenians trying to leave the Soviet Union, and the State Department has drafted a proposal to admit 12,000 of them to the United States as refugees.” A senior State Department official said, “Soviet Armenian applications for refugee admission to the United States have risen markedly.” According to him, applications to the American Embassy in Moscow rose from about 200 a year in the mid-1980s to 1,400 a month in the last quarter of 1987.
The most striking information regarding the emigration scale is found on the immigrationtous.net website. “Between 1960 and 1984, about 30,000 Armenians fled the USSR, most settling in the greater Los Angeles area. As Soviet control of its republics began to weaken in the late 1980s, thousands more immigrated to the United States. It has been estimated that more than 60,000 came during the 1980s.”
The numbers are doubtlessly indicative, however, we cannot make persuasive general conclusions regarding the scale of emigration, and especially its dynamics. American sources claim only about the numbers of Armenians that moved to the U.S., while between 1960 and 1980, Armenians were also emigrating to France, Canada, Australia and Lebanon. By the way, to most of Armenians, Lebanon was a transition zone, from where they used to move to the U.S. with support from Тhe American National Committee to Aid Homeless Armenians.
Translator Ani Babayan
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).