Emigrating to Soviet Armenia and Back, 1949-1965: the Story of an American -Armenian Family

Emigrating to Soviet Armenia and Back, 1949-1965: the Story of an American -Armenian Family

18 March 2015

The following account was written by Diran Meghreblian in 1999. We are reprinting it with two additional sections added by the author.

* Diran Meghreblian was born in 1945 in Troy, New York, USA. When he was four years old the family went to live to Soviet Armenia where Diran received a Russian education at school and college level in Yerevan. After the family emigrated to France in 1965, he continued his studies at the Sorbonne University in Paris graduating in 1969. In 1970 Diran was invited to England to work at the BBC's World Service as a Russian broadcaster. He took early retirement in 1999. In addition to nearly 30 years' experience as a radio-journalist Diran has done considerable voice-over work, both in Russian and in English. He has also worked in cinema appearing in the 1999 James Bond movie "The World Is Not Enough" and in a thriller  called "Revelation."

This is a story of idealism and hope turned into bitter disillusionment, and yet a story with a happy ending for most of those involved because, having endured years of Soviet totalitarianism, they succeeded in returning home to America.

It all began exactly 50 years ago, in the winter of 1949, when a group of over 160 American-Armenians emigrated to Soviet Armenia. This so called “repatriation” was in fact a misnomer. Very few, if any, of those who chose to go were returning to the country they originally came from. Yet for these Armenians it was meant to be a return to their “ancestral homeland”, rather like the Jews of the Diaspora going to settle in Israel. Having been dispersed throughout the world as a result of the mass murders committed by the Young Turk government in the Ottoman Empire in 1915, the survivors of those terrible events were longing for a homeland and safety for themselves and their children. Soviet Armenia, the only Armenia in existence, seemed to be offering both. It was going to be a unique opportunity to preserve their language, culture and traditions, to contribute towards the development of the country of their forefathers. Soviet propaganda skillfully played upon the patriotism of the Armenians in the Diaspora, encouraging them to come and settle in Armenia. In 1947-48 no fewer than seven and a half thousand French Armenians yielded thus to Stalin’s siren songs and left for Soviet Armenia. In the same year a far larger number of Armenians said goodbye to Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Greece, Romania and Bulgaria. Approximately 150 people also left from the United States in 1947 in what was called “the first caravan.” It was clearly a major coup for Moscow to persuade all these people to leave the “Capitalist” West in order to settle in the so called “Workers’ paradise”, the USSR.

The original departure date from the US was July 1948. The ensuing seven month delay and the “Departure that very nearly didn’t happen”, was a saga in itself. The emigrants were all set to go, having left their homes in New York state and NY City, the Boston area, Rhode Island, California, Detroit and Richmond, Virginia.  A specially chartered ship, “The Pobyeda”, (Victory) had arrived to take them all the way to the USSR. However, the NY port authorities refused permission to board because of insufficient numbers of life-boats. The “Pobyeda” left without its intended passengers, but was due back in six weeks better prepared. In the meantime through the efforts of American-Armenian organizations the would-be emigrants were housed at Lakewood, New Jersey, at a hotel called “Morningside”. This was a hotel at a winter resort closed in the summer and due to re-open after Labour Day weekend. Not only did the 162 Armenians pay for their stay there, but they had to do self-catering: shop for food, cook, and clean. Through a tragicomic mistake most of the group had inadvertently acquired Soviet citizenship thus effectively burning their bridges with America. Then, by a quirk of fate, word came from Moscow towards the end of August that “repatriation had come to an end”. But even that didn’t dampen the Armenians' enthusiasm. Numerous appeals were made to the Soviet government by the group’s leaders and by Armenian Communist sympathizers to allow them in. While this was going on, the 162 had to move to another temporary home, the hotel “Vendome Plaza” at Longbranch, also in New Jersey. This was a summer resort hotel on the Atlantic coast that had just closed for the winter. They were there for another 5 months on the same self-catering terms. Finally around Christmas 1948 permission to travel to the USSR was granted and a date set, January of the following year.

This long 7 month wait was to pay an important and beneficial role in their future lives. It gave the families, and especially the young, a chance to get to know each other, to build friendships which were to stand them in good stead in a new, strange land.

It was on January 21, 1949 that the 162 Armenians finally left New York aboard a passenger ship going to Naples. There a Romanian cargo ship was supposed to be picking them up straight away. It failed to materialize.  After a week spent at a Naples hotel to which they were taken under police escort because none had Italian visas, the Armenians embarked on the final leg of their journey on board a cargo ship carrying cork. The few cabins were allocated to women and children. The men slept in the ship’s dining-room in cots (camp-beds) bought in Naples. The journey to the Soviet Black sea port of Batumi took 10 days. Having spent 3 nights there at a barracks-like warehouse barely fit for human habitation, the Armenians travelled by train to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, where they arrived on February 25, 1949.

The first thing that has to be said is that Armenia was in no position to absorb such an influx of extra people in such a short time. For, let us remember, an estimated 150 thousand Armenians had arrived there from all over the world between 1947–49. This small country could barely cope with feeding and housing the existing population, let alone newcomers. Consequently right from the start the predominant feelings among the American-Armenians were not elation or happiness, but disillusionment and despair. What awaited them was a relatively primitive country; a cruel totalitarian system with its atmosphere of fear and suspicion and informers among one’s neighbours, colleagues or even friends; shortages of literally everything; and a fairly hostile local Armenian population envious of the “rich” newcomers. To cap it all, these sincere, patriotic, if naïve, “repatriates” found themselves being treated by the authorities as ideologically suspect simply by virtue of having come from the West.

Within weeks of arrival 3 men were arrested by the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, during night raids. All three were exiled to Siberia for various lengths of time, one spent a year-and-a-half in prison. Mercifully most families escaped that particular fate, but there were plenty of other hardships to endure. My own family (my parents, my 19-year old sister and I, three at the time) was duped into thinking it was going to be allocated a small 2-room apartment. An “IZVESTIA” newspaper correspondent in Yerevan even wrote a story about the warm welcome the American-Armenians were supposedly receiving upon arrival. For this he took my parents to a show-case apartment in the centre of town. In reality the four of us were housed – if that’s the right word – in one large room forming part of a 3-room apartment with 3 different families in each room. It meant 12 people sharing one bathroom and one kitchen. We lived like that for the first 10 years and it was by no means untypical.

This uprooting was a traumatic experience for the newcomers, especially for the young people who were born and brought up in the US.  There were about 25 – 30 of them, some fresh out of high-school, a few just starting their college studies. Quite apart from anything else, the culture shock was enormous for them. It was easier for the children my age of whom there were a few. We didn’t know any better, we didn’t have anything else to compare our lives with, except through what our parents told us about America. Of course, we as kids were treated by the locals as being “different” too, and also made fun of by our peers and adults. One abiding memory of mine is having my American baseball cap taken off my head and torn into shreds by my school principal when I was 10 – 12 years old. “How dare you come to school in that?” My father’s subsequent protestations were in vain; on the contrary, he was reprimanded by the principal for “bringing me up badly”.

My becoming aware from an early age that Soviet Armenia was a country of hardships and shortages was in no small measure due to the fact that from time to time I used to accompany my virtually blind father on his daily food shopping rounds in Yerevan. This entailed much queueing, but meant that with luck (if this or that state-owned store didn't run out of a particular item before one's turn came), we wouldn't return home empty-handed. A small triumph! I should explain that because of my father's disability (he had glaucoma and had been gradually losing his eye-sight for many years), he couldn't work but received a state pension, a fairly good one relative to wages. Thus the time he could devote to queueing for food was a big contribution to our family's well-being.

It was during one of those shopping "trips" with my father, on March 4, 1953, that we heard the news that the then Soviet leader Stalin was gravely ill. I was seven at the time but recall vividly the eerie atmosphere on the streets of Yerevan. Loudspeakers installed in several places in town broadcast Radio Moscow's bulletins interspersed with solemn music. The following day came the news of his death which was greeted with most people crying openly. For a boy of seven to see adults crying en mass was bewildering, to say the least.

The other thing I learnt early on was not to repeat outside what I heard said at home. This puzzles me to this day because I don't recall my parents or my older sister telling me not to do so. I suppose I learnt this Orwellian double-speak or double-think by osmosis, by observing how careful they themselves were when talking to anyone outside the immediate family and close relatives. With time this mind-set became second nature; one either kept one's mouth shut or said nothing remotely critical of the regime and the prevailing conditions outside one's close-knit family circle.

I mentioned before that having arrived in Armenia at the age of 3, I had far fewer problems fitting in compared to the adult American-Armenians. I attended a local kindergarten, first briefly an Armenian-language one, and later - for over two years - a Russian one. My parents had the necessary foresight to realize that I would learn Armenian anyway, but that Russian was the lingua franca for the whole of the Soviet Union and would put one in an advantageous position career-wise in later life. My spoken Russian also improved greatly thanks to the Russian-speaking daughter of own age of one of the families we shared our communal apartment with. She was my playmate. At the age of 7 I started school, a Russian one, naturally.  The added advantage of these schools - of which there were not many - was that at the time the Armenian elite preferred to send their children there. Consequently I had contact, and made friends with, what one might call a better class of children.

I was keen on sports from early on taking up swimming and fencing. At the age of 11 I began playing basketball at a local club in Yerevan and made fairly rapid progress. At the age of 14 I was included in the Armenian Junior National team remaining a member for the following 4 years. Even at this level sport in the USSR was taken seriously: we had practice sessions 3 times a week and took part in competitions. The best thing about basketball was that it gave me a chance to travel outside Armenia (but still within the Soviet Union) for various tournaments. It also conferred unheard of privileges on me and my team-mates. For example, if a particular competition took place during the school term - which it was sometimes - we were allowed to skip classes. But the most amazing privilege I benefited from was that at the age of 17 I got special dispensation and didn't have to sit school graduation exams...because the Armenian Junior team was travelling to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, to train in preparation for Spartakiada, a version of Olympics within the USSR involving young athletes in different sports from all 15 constituent republics. There would have been about 6 or 7 pretty arduous exams to sit and I certainly wasn't looking forward to the slog of preparing for them. How much more pleasant to spend nearly a month away from home in a different country (that's how Lithuania seemed to us) with friends playing basketball!

There was a further huge favour reserved for us, "top athletes". All Soviet universities and colleges had entrance examinations. My choice was to major in English at the Yerevan Pedagogical Institute of Russian and Foreign Languages. To be accepted one had to sit 4 exams and because the intake was very small, competition was fierce. Only those with top marks in all 4 exams would get in. However, that year the Institute itself had earmarked 3 athletes it wanted as future students: a top junior tennis player (also coincidentally the son of American-Armenian repatriates), a young female basketball player and me. Provided the three of us got the minimum pass marks, we'd be in. And so it proved. Except that I flummoxed the head of the Institute's Komsomol organisation (the Young Communist League) who was also in charge of Physical Education, by getting a top mark in my English exam. I remember him asking me: "Are you Diran Meghreblian, the basketball player?" I said yes. To which his reply was: "I didn't think athletes were smart enough to get top marks in any academic subject!"

I completed the first 2 years of a 4-year degree course at the Institute. I remember that period with fondness. It involved hard work (and I took my studies seriously for the first time in my life), I made several good friends. We had common interests, such as listening to jazz, and the relatively liberal times (by Soviet standards) of the early 1960s under Khruschev meant one could speak one's mind more freely without fear of repercussions. Just to be clear; the extent of our "political discussions" was to tell each other jokes, most of them anti-Soviet in one way or another!

One final amusing episode occurred during my second year at the Institute. I was approached by the KGB who wanted to employ me as bait to catch "valyutchiki" by posing as a foreign tourist visiting Armenia. These "valyutchiki", usually young men, were after foreign currency (valyuta being the Russian word for currency). They hung around the Intourist hotel offering visitors from abroad more favourable exchange rates than the official one. The KGB must have learnt via the Institute that I spoke good English. So their plan was to install me at the Intourist hotel in Yerevan, wait for me to be approached by a "valyutchik" and arrest him in flagrante. To wriggle out I pointed out that I was far too well known through basketball in a relatively small city like Yerevan (something they hadn't evidently thought of). Also by then members of my family and I had frequented the Intourist Hotel on a number of occasions, meeting a growing number of foreign visitors. "Surely", - I said, "the valyutchiki would have seen me already, the ploy wouldn't work". Thankfully, that was the end of it, the KGB left me alone.

By then my family, minus my father who had died in 1962, was taking concrete steps to apply for permission to leave. We finally managed to emigrate - not to the USA but to France in 1965.

What sustained the emigrants during those difficult years was the dream - hope would be putting it too strongly - of being able to return to the United States one day. Up until the end of the 1950s one couldn’t even mention this out loud for fear of landing into serious trouble. The, around 1957 something happened that gave this vague hope and yearning some substance. A family of French-Armenian repatriates, the Maloumians, were allowed to leave for France. This was like a bolt out of the blue! And although people quickly learnt that this was an exceptional case because – mysteriously – this family had been able to retain their French citizenship while living in Armenia, it was still a breakthrough. My father certainly thought so. But it was only in the early 60s that a few families dares to approach the authorities and expressed the wish to leave. However, various obstacles were put in their way, chiefly the insistence on having close relatives abroad before one could apply for exit visas.  And even then one often came up against the completely arbitrary refusals to grant permission to leave. Nevertheless, starting from around 1963 and up to the late 1970s the vast majority of the American-Armenians succeeded in returning to the Sates, as did the French Armenians too.  One is tempted to say – older and wiser. The dream of settling in what was left of the land of our forefathers was a failure. Admittedly, not a complete one. The arrival of American, French and other Armenians brought considerable long-term benefits to Soviet Armenia. They brought their skills and know-how, Western ways and ideas. A major contribution was the English language which the young generation of emigrants taught at schools and Yerevan University. Perhaps more importantly, their arrival helped to change the outlook of the local population, so brainwashed and conditioned by years of Soviet propaganda. There were some positive aspects for the “repatriates” themselves. They and their children did maintain the Armenian language and got to know their roots, the young received a college education that they might not have otherwise. Some also learnt good Russian; in my case it allowed me to make a living as a Russian broadcaster at the BBC  World Service in London.

Speaking personally, my overall conclusion is that unlike my parents and my sister I benefited from the 17 years of living in Soviet Armenia. Even the experience of living under a totalitarian regime had its positive aspect in that I now appreciate so much more the freedoms afforded to citizens of Western countries.

On this, the 50th anniversary of the fateful departure to Armenia, all those involved will undoubtedly have their own thoughts and views. As for myself, I have only one regret: that my father, who felt deep remorse for having taken his family to Armenia, didn’t live long enough to see it come out and build a new life in the West.


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