Six years ago, 45-year-old economist Nerses Ter-Petrosyan and his brothers and sisters, natives of the Armenian village of Goght, erected a monument to their grandfather and 16 other villagers who died or were exiled during Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s 1936-1938 Great Terror, a gruesome time when hundreds of thousands of people throughout the Soviet Union were executed, imprisoned or sent into exile; often for little or no reason at all.
Their monument was significant. Even in a country with a deep sense of history, descendants of the tens of thousands of Armenians who died under Stalin do not often speak publicly about their families’ experiences. A memorial to these individuals was erected in Yerevan only in 2008.
Part of this has to do with a sense of collective guilt for such excesses; part a fear that digging into this dark past will lead only to bitter recriminations against those whose own ancestors played a role in the Terror. Armenia’s overwhelming focus on another massive loss of life -- Ottoman Turkey’s 1915-1923 massacres of ethnic Armenians, recognized as genocide -- also diverts attention.
But the Ter-Petrosyans decided they had a duty to remember the victims of the Stalin era.
In 1938, a firing squad had executed Petros Ter-Petrosyan, a publishing-house worker, for alleged anti-communism. (The fact that his great-grandfather had been a priest presumably influenced their actions.)Arrested while his wife was pregnant, he never saw his son, Ter-Petrosyan’s father.
“My father says that none of the villagers would visit or communicate with them,” says Nerses Ter-Petrosyan. “Their relatives would bring food at night, secretly.”
The Soviet government decided only 20 years later that there had been no grounds for Petros Ter-Petrosyan’s execution.
The father of 82-year-old Senik Sargsyan, another Goght native, was more fortunate, but remembers firsthand the consequences of his father’s arrest. In 1937, his father, Simon, an agronomist, was exiled to the Urals (the Russian village of Sukhobezvodnoye) for supposedly being a member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation Dashnaktsutyun, the party which had opposed the imposition of Bolshevik rule in Armenia in 1920.
“The villagers were laughing at us. They were calling us the ‘sons of Dashnaks.’ We were treated badly at school,” Sargsyan says. “Very rarely were we getting letters from my father. He used to write very short letters, like ‘I'm alive.’”
In 1943, Simon Sargsyan returned. He was one of only three people out of the 17 villagers arrested during the Great Terror who did so, his son claims. “Most were killed during the first or second month of exile,” he says.
Nerses Ter-Petrosyansees the monument in Goght, located about 35 kilometers southeast of the capital, Yerevan, as a way to show that such suffering is not forgotten. He says he chose its location – on the road leading to the village school -- to teach youngsters about this painful part of their past.
Armenia’s textbooks contain little information about Stalin’s repressions, claims Lusine Kharatyan, director of the Armenian branch of DVV International, an international adult-education organization which, together with the Hazarashen Armenian Center for Ethnological Studies, has created a database of Armenian victims of the Great Terror.
“[S]tate institutions and media outlets are not very willing to cover this topic or discuss it in various circles,” she says.
Last September, the government closed an exhibit about the victims of Stalin-era repressions at the state-run Hovhannes Tumanyan House-Museum, citing its alleged “politicization.” (It later reopened in a private gallery and online.)
Speaking with reporters, Culture Minister Armen Amiryan asserted that no public museum has the right to set its own policy. Only one parliamentary faction, the opposition Way Out (Yelk) group, criticized the ministry’s claim.
The government’s reasoning surprised Meruzhan and Andranik Tovmasyan.
The two brothers, born a decade apart, represent two distinct chapters in the Stalin system’s repeated punishment of their father for alleged “anti-communism.”
The elder, 72-year-old Meruzhan, was born after their father, Yegishe Tovmasyan, a former Communist Party member and head of a kolkhoz, or collective farm, in the region of Kotayk, returned to Armenia in 1946 after 10 years of hard labor in the notorious Vorkuta prison camp, not far from the Arctic Circle.
The younger, 62-year-old Andranik, and his brother, Garnik, were born in Siberia after their father was again sentenced for “anti-communism” and sent into exile along with thousands of other Armenians on June 28, 1949. In the Krasnoyarsk village of Yeniseysk, Tovmasyan worked in a coal mine and had, as was common among divorced exiles, re-married.
In 1961, after the massive so-called “rehabilitation” of those convicted under Stalin, he finally returned with his new family to Armenia for good. Before it his Communist Party membership had been restored and he had been elected to a regional council in Russia.
Waiting for him at Yerevan’s train station was a teenaged Meruzhan Tovmasyan. “When I was 14, they showed me a man and told me that he was my father,” Tovmasyan recounts. He had not seen him since he was two.
The stories he told his Armenian-born son made a lasting impression.
At Vorkuta, “[t]hey would throw bread crumbs both to the dogs and prisoners at the same time,” Meruzhan Tovmasyan says his father told him. “Probably the first Hitler-style concentration camps were in the Soviet Union.”
“Now, Russia justifies the [rule of ] ‘the beast,’ ” Tovmasyan continues, angrily referring to Stalin. “How does that make sense?”
During his father’s 12-year exile, Tovmasyan was barred from joining the Young Pioneers, the Communist Party’s all-encompassing youth group.He also remembers being called “a son of Trotsky,” a dangerous reference to the late Leon Trotsky, Stalin’s chief political rival, who was assassinated in 1940 as an enemy of the Soviet state.
Ironically, though, Tovmasyan went on to head a sovkhoz, or state-run collective farm, in two of the same villages (Voghjaberd and Geghadir) where his father had headed a kolkhoz before his 1936 arrest.
Human-rights defender Artur Sakunts, an outspoken government critic, believes that if state structures and schools refuse to confront such stories head-on, Armenia itself cannot progress.
“This [reticence about the Stalin era] negatively affects the research of history and education. This misinterpretation shows that . . . the science of history is still [held] in the claws of Soviet heritage in Armenia.”
Filmmaker Hovhannes Ishkanian, whose 2015 documentary “Family Album” examines the Stalin-era executions of his great-grandfathers, agrees that these brutal crackdowns remain a closed topic in Armenia. “During filming, a lot of people were not interested in this story. . . ” Ishkanian says.
DVV International’s Kharatyan believes that Armenian civil society now has a stronger interest in this topic than in the past, but she regrets the absence of more definitive measures. In 2010, neighboring Georgia, she notes, passed a law aimed at scrapping Soviet symbols and preventing former state-security police and Communist Party members from holding government positions.It also contains a museum that details many of the abuses Georgia suffered under Soviet rule; a period referred to as the “Soviet occupation.”
“In our case, we don’t have either a policy [on how to represent the Soviet period] or the opposite of it,” Kharatyan says regretfully. “It is very hard to say whether there is a state position against [remembering the Stalin-era repressions] or not.”
Filmmaker Ishkanian sees one critical solution: “[T]he human tragedy of that historical period needs to be promoted. If it is discussed more actively, people will start to talk in their families about hiddenstories.”