Edmond Y. Azadian
While Armenians around the world are gearing up to commemorate the centennial of the Genocide, another calamity in our history must not be overlooked: the atrocities perpetrated against our beleaguered nation during the Stalin period.
It would not be historically proper to draw parallels between the two tragedies in terms of cause and effect, but the net outcome in both cases was the destruction of the creative minds of our people.
It is ironic that the executioners of history seem to be well versed enough in literature, arts and scholarship to be able to pick out the cream of the crop and target them for extermination — or else they employ advisors with enough intellectual capacity for this grisly selection.
Similary, Stalin and his henchmen targeted literary luminaries such as Axel Bakuntz, Yeghishe Charents, Zabel Yessayan, Aghassi Khanjian (**) and many others. Recently, a film clip was distributed on the Internet citing the names of Armenian victims of Stalin’s purges — and the count was raised to 7,000.
Armenians had barely survived the first genocide of the 20th century, after losing their entire leadership and creative geniuses, when they succumb yet again to a second calamity under Stalin.
The occasion for comparing the two tragedies occurred to me on November 22 in Yerevan, when I was asked to announce the winner of the literature category of the Tekeyan Cultural Association’s annual literary and artistic contest.
The winner was a 447-page monumental literary monograph by David Gasparyan on the life and works of Gourgen Mahari, whose creative life was interrupted at its prime for 17 years when he was exiled to Siberia to endure hard labor. Mahari was one writer who bridged the two calamities; he was born in Van at the turn of the 20th century and soon he was exiled from his native land to be dropped from one orphanage to the other in emerging the first Armenian Republic and during the early years of Soviet Armenia.
His life as an exile from his native land and then from Soviet Armenia to Siberia is reflected in the entire body of his literary output. Despite the suffering and interruptions, he managed to produce an impressive amount of poetry and exquisite prose: novels, novellas and short stories.
One of the most punishing periods in Siberia was when he was banned from touching pen and paper — a sadistic punishment for a prolific writer.
In addition to symbolizing the bridge between the two calamities, Mahari utilized a new brand of literary language deriving from the rich heritage of his Western Armenian roots and building on them with the colorful idiom of the Eastern Armenian dialect.
The writer was also a trailblazer and literary polemist, always in search of new paths in literature. His creative career was encouraged by his mentor, Yeghishe Charents. Maybe that was one of the reasons that he was accused of being a “terrorist,” “nationalist,” and a “plotter to kill Lavrenti Beria,” Stalin’s security chief, and eventually exiled to Siberia twice.
Literary competitors also had their role in his destiny and in the loss of Charents, Bakunts, Yessayan and Vahan Totovents, all of the latter were accused of being “nationalists,” an unpardonable crime in the Stalin era. Woody Allen has a very appropriate statement regarding the cowardly net of fellow writers. He says, “Intellectuals are like the Mafia; they only kill their own.”
All of the exiled and convicted writers and intellectuals were exonerated during the later Khrushchov era in the USSR, but for many of them, it was too late. Thus, the death of a large crop of intellectuals under Stalin’s tyranny came to compound our earlier losses at the hands of Talaat Pasha.
Of course, the entire nation laments that monumental loss. But little action has been taken by the authorities in Armenia to discover the burial sites of Charents or Bakunts.
Gasparyan, who had written earlier a monumental volume on Charents, a literary detective work, has undertaken excavation campaigns on the outskirts of Yerevan, where the bodies of two writers are rumored to be buried, defying the police ban, but to no avail.
Some people tend to justify this inaction, arguing that all the nationalities of the Soviet empire were subjected to Stalin’s terror. Even Ukraine’s “potato famine” in the 1930s is ranked as a genocide.
In addition to being Stalin’s victims, Armenians suffered some 300,000 casualties during the Great Patriotic War (World War II) against Hitler.
But what is dissimilar to all other nationalities is that Armenians had already experienced a Holocaust — too big a loss to follow it up with a further loss of such magnitude.
When Poland joined the European Union, its president officially asked for additional seats in the European Parliament to represent the 25 million martyred Poles, killed by Stalin and Hitler.
Although there was no such provision in the charter of the European Union, no one dared to criticize the request.
On November 22, upon presenting the award to Mr. Gasparyan, I seized the opportunity to come up with a proposal, as two government ministers were attending the ceremony. Using the formulation of the late poet Paruyr Sevak, I said, “I implore you like demanding” that the time has come to erect a monument in Armenia commemorating the collective loss of the Armenian creative mind during the Stalin era.
The eve of the Genocide centennial makes the issue that much more compelling. A memorial simply named, “A Monument for the Just.”
"The Armenian Mirror-Spectator," November 29, 2014
Notes by "Armeniaca"
(*) Indra (Diran Chrakian, 1875-1921) was a Western Armenian writer who was not targeted by Talaat Pasha. A while before the genocide, he had become a born-again Christian and abandoned literature. His preaching made him a suspect to Turkish authorities and he was arrested in 1921 and exiled under custody. The maltreat suffered during this exile march caused his death.
(**) Aghassi Khanjian (1899-1936) was not a literary luminary, indeed. He was the first secretary of the Communist Party of Armenia from 1930 to his death at Beria's hands in 1936.