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LEGACY: A SON RECALLS A DIFFERENT KIND OF `SURVIVOR' By Vahan Ishkhanyan ArmeniaNow reporter
Editor's note: In this year of honoring Genocide survivors, it is worth remembering that Armenia's brutal history includes victims of another sort - those who survived persecution when this was a Soviet Republic. Reporter/author Vahan Ishkhanyan shares his personal account of one such family and its impact on his perspective . . .
One tragedy cannot be contrasted to another. That is why my mother's story does not fit our program of honoring `survivors'.
Her story does not include the word `genocide'. The word `murder' was not even applied to those who faced the perils she faced. During the Soviet times it was called, very softly, `the years of the cult of personality'. Now they also say that it was Stalin repressions, or is described merely with the year - 1937, although the persecutions were not limited to that year only. 1937 was the culmination. That `other' does not have a remembrance day, nor do today's elite have a plan for remembering. A survivor of this other genocide is my mother, Byurakn Andreasyan, whose memory I present below.
I didn't see my father. A year after I was born, in January 1928, he was executed by a firing squad in Tiflis' Metekhi jail. My father was one of the founders of the Armenian scout movement and football. In 1920, at the invitation of Republic of Armenia Minister of Education Nikol Aghbalyan, together with his two friends, he came from Constantinople to Alexandropol (former Leninakan, now Gyumri) to develop local sport life. Part of the orphans who survived the massacres were concentrated in Gyumri at that time. My father organized their sport education. After the sovietization of Armenia, although his friends left, he did not wish to leave his charges, and stayed in Armenia.
I had a very happy childhood in Leninakan. Until I was 10 my mother Vardanush Cheraz was in my life. She brought me up very liberally. I would bring home cats and dogs from the street. I brought tadpoles in a jar, put it on the window-sill and was waiting for them to grow into frogs. And my mother never set prohibitions to me, did not tell me what to do or not to do. She was always buying children's books for me. And now I like reading a lot thanks to my mother. Celebrating a New Year during those years was not encouraged, it was considered to be bourgeois. But my mother was always celebrating, and at night I was finding presents around my bed. Generally, I liked a lot to make my family happy. Despite the fact that I lived with my mom only until I was 10, her influence on the formation of my character was decisive. Unfortunately, I did not enjoy the presence of my mother for long.
On one horrible night in 1937 Cheka officers (predecessors to KGB) broke into our home, rummaged through it, and took my mother. In a pajama, barefoot, I was running after the car. I've never seen her since. Later, a 10-year-old girl, I was going to prison, standing in a queue to get food to my mother. When it was my turn, I was told that there was no such person there and advised to go to Cheka. When it was my turn at Cheka, I was told that she was not there. And so I could not get anything to my mother. With a two-month delay I got a postcard from my mother - she was asking me for warm clothes. We went to the prison, they told us that she was no longer in Leninakan. The replies to my numerous applications were that she had been convicted and sentenced to a 10-year exile by the troika (a three-member committee), without the right to correspondence. Later I learned from a woman released from jail that she had been killed in one of the prisons of Yerevan. She was arrested as she had dared to be the wife of Vahan Cheraz, and that her brother lived in Paris.
I did not go to school for several days. I was an A-student, and my photo was on the board of honor. When I entered the school, I saw that my photo was no longer there. I was already considered a daughter of the people's enemy.
The family of my younger uncle, Vardges Andreasyan, lived with us. My surname was Cheraz. My uncle's wife, fearing that my surname could entail new troubles, adopted me, changing my surname into Andreasyan.
My mother had gone through all the disasters that fell to the share of Armenians in the 20th century: her first husband, a school principal, was torched by Turks together with his pupils at school during the 1915 genocide. She met my father, Vahan Cheraz, on the roads of deportation. Eight years later, in 1924, they got married in Echmiadzin. A few days later Cheraz was exiled to Siberia. In 1926, my father returned, and two years later he was again arrested and shot dead. My mother survived the genocide, but was martyred in her own homeland.
Ever since my childhood I have listened to my mother's stories about her childhood. She is always with her mother, even today. Not a single day passes by without her remembering her mother. Above her bed there is a photograph of my grandmother, a girl in the lap of her mother, my mom appears to be five years old on the photograph, with white bows. And separately - my grandfather's photo in a volunteer's uniform.
I can write endlessly about my mother's stories, how her friend's parents prohibited her to communicate with their daughter, how some of my mother's relatives were afraid to visit her, how her uncle's wife was nagging at her, making her toil from morning till dark, did not allow her to read books, even wanted her to stop attending school to do domestic chores only. To quote from the book written about my grandfather `Vahan Cheraz and His Song to Armenia', from the memories about my grandfather told by people released from Metekhi prison. And when I read English novels describing difficult childhood (Jane Eire, David Copperfield, Oliver Twist), I thought to myself - can I become a writer to write about my mother's story?
I don't know whether it was providence or regularity that my mother married an orphan like herself. My father's father, Avetis, was gunned down in 1937.
My father is not alive, I'd like to write his story as well, for example, how my father failed to recover from Cheka my grandfather's Stradivarius violin. But the length of my story already presses me. Last year my father's book was published. It is a collection of stories where there are several stories about the persecutions of 1937. And so, both of my parents are children of the victims of the Soviet regime, and both, to put it mildly, did not accept the Soviet order. Since my childhood I only heard in what cruel state we lived, and that the country was not even our homeland. Many of my parents' relatives were also exiled or gunned down, and at home they always talked about their experiences, how they lived through the murder of their parents: for example, Aldan did not join Komsomol (Young Communist League), saying: `Until you bring back my father, I will not join in.' And Hrair, whose father was executed, became a Communist party member in pursuit of a career.
My father, with his ear put to the radio, was listening to Voice of America, Radio Liberty, the BBC. The KGB was interfering, trying to jam the broadcasts, my father was delicately tuning in to adjust a more or less audible sound. Until today the jammed sounds of wireless that made noise at our home for several hours every day are in my ears. My father's hearing was weak, the radio was too loud, and it was impossible to hide from the noise. A VEF radio- set was always under the lamp, and stayed under the warmth of the lamplight for so long that in the course of years its corner melted. Foreign voices recited excerpts from novels by Solzhenitsyn and other writers which told about Soviet concentration camps. We learned that from 1920 to 1953, when Stalin died, about 60 million people were killed. And we also learned about political prisoners of the Brezhnev times.
The Soviet Union collapsed, the press became free and there was no longer much need to listen to voices from abroad, but the Soviet victims did not become worthy of remembering. There is no monument where the children of Stalin victims could go to lay flowers.
Why? Because the state propaganda machine is concerned not by victims in general, but only those killed at the hands of Turks or Azeris, and we, journalists risk becoming part of the state propaganda machine.
I am my mother's son. And the principals that put her family at odds with the regime that threatened her liberty, put me at odds with what I see now.
I do not face the same persecution or threat from resistance. But, in some ways that are worth notice, what has changed since the days of exile - since the time when rulers ruled and people obeyed, or else?
These authorities, like the Ottoman authorities, displace people to appropriate their territories. They displace central Yerevan residents for their business projects, and people who threaten their authority are thrown into jails.
On April 12, 2004, authorities did not shoot dead the demonstrators outside the Presidential Palace not because they respect human life. They were restrained, not by personal ethic, but by fear of being excluded from international communities.
Today's power regime need an external enemy - Turks and Azeris, to divert people's attention from the real enemy - themselves. And it is such a familiar story that cannot cheat us, the Soviet generation. We haven't forgotten the Soviet propaganda. When I turn on `Haylur' (H1 newscast) I remember the Soviet `Vremya'. The anti-American propaganda was growing as the Soviet economy was getting deeper and deeper into a crisis. Every day, at 10 p.m. we heard what troubles working-class people living in imperialistic America and Europe had, how they were exploited and that capitalist countries were aggressors.
The next half of `Vremya' was devoted to the achievements of the Soviet people, and the beginning to Brezhnev's meetings (at that time, they said that `Vremya' could be described by three words - praise, gossip and sport). `Haylur' is a precise replica of `Vremya'. Every day at 9 p.m. we see President Kocharyan's high-level meetings and visits, then economic achievements. And then propaganda against Turkey and Azerbaijan - elections in Azerbaijan are rigged, prisons are full of political prisoners, and Turkey is not admitted to the European Union and so on, so forth, alternating with genocide photos . . .
By writing about genocide survivors today, I feel I am participating in the state propaganda aimed at disguising the real pressures. And this, for me, is a paradox, because:
Before my maternal grandfather was shot to death in Tiflis for his anti- communist philosophy, my paternal grandfather was, in 1915, killed by Turks in Trapizon.
They say that he had bought a gramophone with a newly received salary and together with friends, and the gramophone in his arms, was going happily home under the accompaniment of music. And at that time someone from the Turks shot him and his blood was shed on the rotating disc on the gramophone.
(I didn't mention that my great-grandfather Gaspar Cheraz, was exiled from Constantinople on April 24, 1915, and went mad. And I also left out many other things . . .)
Tragedy may become propaganda, a coverup, and something that unifies even those who share no other commonality. Wounds become a political banner.
Worse, the `victim complex' makes it convenient to excuse contemporary wrongdoing. Last week's fraudulent constitutional referendum is an example of the new persecution imposed by authorities more subtle than the Soviet persecutions.
Citizens who in broad daylight on the referendum day witnessed empty streets, in the evening heard from Haylur that people with unprecedented activity had participated in the referendum. I had passed by three polling stations, stopping for a couple of minutes at each of them and waiting - no one had entered the polling station. The emptiness of cities and towns, streets and polling stations is being filled with lies. And in the morning I read in the newspapers the number one news - Robert Kocharyan had signed a decree instituting awards for people who hade made a considerable contribution to the cause of the recognition of the Armenian Genocide. At the moment of the great public tension the president makes a reminder of the external enemy.