Category Archives: Armenian Repatriation

An E-Mail from Ireland

Ireland Flag
Image courtesy of Pixabay and Etereuti

Why would anyone from Ireland want to read a book about an American-born Armenian who repatriated to the USSR in 1947 and spent 13 years of his life behind the Iron Curtain?

That was the question I had asked, via e-mail, of B.K. of Cork County, after he sent us an order for a copy of “The Repatriate”. The request for a book pleasantly surprised me; Brian’s response was equally surprising. Apparently he had spent several years in Armenia, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. His task was to administer a multi-million dollar foundation grant to help the young republic install a social security program and also weed out corruption in government. However, every time he questioned his Armenian co-workers about life during the Soviet regime, or about life under Stalin and the KGB, they would lower their eyes to the floor, turn, he said, and walk away from him. He became very frustrated with those he worked with.

“I want to know more about why these people lived in fear at that time. And I can’t find enough books to answer my questions.”

The fear of the secret police apparently continues to haunt the citizens of the former Soviet Union.

He also noted, “Our housekeeper’s mother in Armenia was a returned Armenian from Greece. “And she did not want to discuss the Greek phase of her life…always changed the subject and when we lost a set of keys, she traveled across town, although there were several locksmiths nearby, to get the key re-cut. The place on Nalbandian Street (a building that housed the former NKVD/KGB offices) I know quite well.”

I was truly surprised and heartbroken to learn from the e-mail that the one of the buildings, the Pioneer Palace, where I spent years as a teacher-coach, teaching and coaching Soviet youngsters how to play basketball, was demolished in 2006.

B.K. says that he has been honored by local officials. He was named as an honorary citizen of Vanadzor, and because of his admiration of the Armenian people, he still maintains an apartment in Yerevan and frequently he and his wife visit the country.

***

bookTom Mooradian was one of 151 Americans who traveled to Soviet Armenia to repatriate during the 1940’s. Thought to be a spy by the KGB, Tom miraculously survived 13 years behind the Iron Curtain winning the hearts of the Soviets through his basketball prowess.  Filled with political drama, romance, and intrigue, Tom’s autobiography, The Repatriate reads like a novel, and will have you guessing how Tom managed to return to America alive.
The Second Edition is now available on Kindle and in Paperback!

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An Armenian-Speaking Imposter

Soviet Mens and Womens basketball team

During a trip to Los Angeles, my host asked if I would like to chat with a mutual acquaintance, who happened to be a former Soviet basketball star. The woman, now in her late seventies, immigrated to the USA and is presently living in the North Hollywood, California area. I told my host that I would be delighted to speak to the woman, but I reminded him that my Armenian remained rusty for I had little practice over the past four decades, besides the former star may not remember me.

My host smiled, picked up the telephone and dialed Lena’s number. As I waited, I recalled the many pleasant days and weeks I had spent with her. In the late 1940’s and during the decade of the 1950’s, Lena was definitely one of the premier basketball players of Soviet Armenia, if not the Soviet Union. Lena had represented the Armenian Soviet Republic in more tournaments that I could count. And I was elated to know she had survived the Soviet régime and was alive and in good health.

In the former Soviet Union, women and men’s basketball teams usually traveled together and played in the same tournaments when they represented their republic in national tournaments. Much like brothers and sisters, teammates got to know each other quite well.

My host finished dialing and there was a brief exchange of words in Armenian before he handed me the telephone. Since Lena did not speak English, the entire dialogue took place in Armenian. I immediately introduced myself to and asked about her health and welfare and how she was adjusting to the American way of life. There was no immediate response from the other end. Lena’s first words to me, in Armenian, were: Eddie (Edward) is that you?

I immediately repeated my name.

Lena was not convinced. “Edward, quit playing your silly games with me. I know it is you!”

“But…this is Tom.”  And I tossed in my father’s name as is accustomed in the Russian culture to convince her. “This is Tom Boghosovich…Mooradian. Lena, don’t you remember me – we went to so many tournaments together. “

“Impossible!” Lena shouted back into the phone.

I was now completely frustrated and was about to return the telephone to my host when I decided to try one more time. I thought maybe my language skills were so bad that I had not made myself clear. Speaking slowly and deliberately I again repeated my name and conjured up certain stories that she and I had shared. I explained that I left the USSR in 1960, that she and I attended the same university together, that she – and then I named off a few of her teammates – used to wash my socks and shirts when we were on the road.

There was that nervous pause again before she shouted, as many Soviets do during telephone conversations into the phone. “Impossible!”

“Why is it impossible? Do you think Tom is dead?”

“No! I know he is alive. Abraham has told me so. But you can’t be Tom because Tom didn’t speak Armenian as well as you. Whoever you are you are a good imposter.” And she hung up.

I was speechless. I handed the phone back to my host. He smiled and said, “You’ll be back in October. I will make sure that Lena attends one of your talks.”

***

bookTom Mooradian was one of 151 Americans who traveled to Soviet Armenia to repatriate during the 1940’s. Thought to be a spy by the KGB, Tom miraculously survived 13 years behind the Iron Curtain winning the hearts of the Soviets through his basketball prowess.  Filled with political drama, romance, and intrigue, Tom’s autobiography, The Repatriate reads like a novel, and will have you guessing how Tom managed to return to America alive.
The Second Edition is now available on Kindle and in Paperback!

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An Angel with a Dish of Pilaf

Generosity
Image courtesy of Pixabay and John Hain

I was hungry. My stomach craved, demanded food or it would definitely rebel. And there were no rest rooms or toilet facilities on the court adjacent to the building where I was assigned to teach.

I had had my stove-toasted, sawdust-filled, black bread early in the morning before I raced to my coaching job at the Pioneer’s Palace. I had taught two classes and it was now noon, and I had nothing to eat. I sat there on a tree stump waiting for my third and last class of the day to assemble, and wondered how I would make it through the day. The cold and refreshing water from the spring-fed stream by the Ararat had nourished me, but how much more water could it take. My stomach grumbled and rumbled and if I had to demonstrate another drive-in lay-up, I am sure that the water would squirt out like a water pistol.

My God, how I missed my mother’s cooking; how I missed America. My country was my soul, and I had sold it to the devil.

I sat there in agony. It was my second year in the USSR. How many more would pass before the Soviets would open the door?

Could ‘they’ be watching me? Couldn’t they see that I was not ‘a sleeper’? Didn’t they know I had no secret means to exist; no American contacts? That I was but a young foolish fool?

They’d questioned me; they have released me. Was this their punishment? I would prefer death to starvation.

I looked up, there was a white-haired, elderly woman with a white flock standing before me.

“My son…my son…” she said. “Here, take this. Eat. Eat. We have been watching you. You look weak. And hungry.” She was one of the cooks who was charged with feeding the infants and the children at a nearby kindergarten (magabardez).

I could not accept the food. I knew it was meant for the children. But I thanked her.

She looked at me and said, “You must eat. You don’t have the strength to work. And I pray that wherever my son is, some mother will make sure he, too, is fed.”

I accepted the dish graciously. It was pilaf, a traditional rice dish, and made just as my mother would have.

The Soviets lost five million troops and more than 20 million civilians in their war against the Nazis. I would eventually learn that no family would be sparred and each would mourn in silence.

I had quickly learned to hate Stalin and the communists and what they stood for, but the people… the Soviet people were the most generous and courageous I have ever known.

***

bookTom Mooradian was one of 151 Americans who traveled to Soviet Armenia to repatriate during the 1940’s. Thought to be a spy by the KGB, Tom miraculously survived 13 years behind the Iron Curtain winning the hearts of the Soviets through his basketball prowess.  Filled with political drama, romance, and intrigue, Tom’s autobiography, The Repatriate reads like a novel, and will have you guessing how Tom managed to return to America alive.
The Second Edition is now available on Kindle and in Paperback!

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An Apology to the Repatriates

Armenian Repatriates 1947
Image courtesy of Zabel Chookaszian Melconian 2013

There is talk about the present freely-elected government of the Republic of Armenia apologizing to those who suffered the indignation and down-right cruelty inflicted upon the repatriates. I, for one, don’t need one. I felt that, despite the hardships and the discrimination, I came out of the foreboding turmoil a better person with a better understanding of the world and its politics.

But Armenia does have to apologize to those who gave up their homes and packed up their families and relocated in Soviet Armenia. The Soviet, specifically the Soviet Armenian, government betrayed the trust of their own people. Most who went back were survivors of the genocide only to be further persecuted as Tasnags or Trotskyites or members of the elite bourgeoisie. The Soviets blundered badly, making enemies of the new arrivals who somehow managed to get the message back to their adopted lands about the conditions they had found themselves in.

The repatriates gave up everything for the Soviets and received in return a dagger in their backs. If Armenia is ever going to find a place among the civilized nations of the world, it must recognize the debt it owes to those who had embraced the country, returned to it to help rebuild it only to be imprisoned by the system.

Today, Armenia is hemorrhaging – losing its population in vast numbers – because its citizens do not trust those in high office. The president and the parliament must prove to the people that they can be trusted, and they have to heal the wounds inflicted on those who once believed in their Hyerenek. Though Armenians are not known for forgiving past injustices, an apology to the repatriates would be a move in the right direction.

***

bookTom Mooradian was one of 151 Americans who traveled to Soviet Armenia to repatriate during the 1940’s. Thought to be a spy by the KGB, Tom miraculously survived 13 years behind the Iron Curtain winning the hearts of the Soviets through his basketball prowess.  Filled with political drama, romance, and intrigue, Tom’s autobiography, The Repatriate reads like a novel, and will have you guessing how Tom managed to return to America alive.
The Second Edition is now available on Kindle and in Paperback!

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An American in Vilnius

On the Soviet Basketball Court

It was an age of suspicion. It was a time within the Soviet Union that all foreigners, especially an English-speaking foreigner and more so an “American” came under immediate suspicion by the NKVD. Americans and those who knew or had relatives in the West had to be shunned, after all, the USSR was surrounded by its enemies.

Stalin and his sycophants had spoken, and their words were sacred to the Soviet masses.

Enter this young, naïve, 19-year-old American-born, educated in Detroit, into the Soviet world to learn about the Soviet culture. Ah, the lessons he would learn. Old textbooks would not help; Soviets played by different rules, rules they made up as the game of life was played out daily. This was a world of dialectic materialism, of “he who works, eats”; of socialism where everyone is paid according to his ability, not yet of communism when everyone will be compensated according to his needs (and who would determine my needs, dear comrade?)

It would take time for me to digest this and the black, sawdust-stuffed, water-drowned bread to digest.

Despite the intense and increasingly aggressive anti-American propaganda and its omnipresent billboards, depicting Americans as rattle snakes or rats, parasites crawling and gnawing at the carcasses of the working class, the word “American” continued to carry some respect among those who somehow knew the truth. No amount of Soviet propaganda apparently could erase from the minds of the Russian people the fact that had it not been for the United States and its Lend Lease program, the geography of Europe may have been different.

In the summer of 1950 as a member of the Institute of Physical Culture’s basketball team, I took my first trip into the heartland of the USSR. I traveled by train from Erevan to Vilnius, a journey of more than a thousand miles. Vilnius is the capital of what was then the Soviet Republic of Lithuania and remains the capital today of a free and independent Lithuania.

When we arrived in Vilnius, the Soviet capital, our team was driven from the train depot by bus to what appeared to me to be once the stables for Nicholas II’s cavalry unit. My teammates accepted the accommodations without comment. Even if I had known the language, I would not have complained. One just didn’t complain in Stalin’s Russia.

I placed my duffel bag on a cot and sat down and waited for further instructions from our coaching staff. As I sat there wondering where the other teams would be housed. My thoughts were interrupted by my coach who ordered the team to gather our belongings for we were going to be moved to another site. I was told that maybe our coach, a decorated World War II hero, had complained and the Lithuanians decided to upgrade us to the university’s facilities.

A few minutes later, a bus pulled up and we boarded it. The driver drove to a newly-opened hotel, located in the central business district in Vilnius, and our players got off the bus, entered a beautifully decorated hotel and were assigned two to a room with all the modern conveniences including running water and a toilet. The food was edible.

I was stunned at the reception our team would receive during the next 10 days. Later, I asked one of the players what caused the Lithuanians to change their attitude toward our team.

The player responded, “You did.”

“Me?” I was speechless. I had done nothing and, in fact, had stayed out of sight most of the time. My teammate explained…one of our team members let it be known to the hosts that “There was an American on the team.”

And that one word “American” apparently commanded the respect of the Lithuanians. It was obvious to me that no matter what the Soviet propaganda machine churned out here, there were those who remained profoundly grateful and respected the people of the United States for what they have done for them over the years.

***

bookTom Mooradian was one of 151 Americans who traveled to Soviet Armenia to repatriate during the 1940’s. Thought to be a spy by the KGB, Tom miraculously survived 13 years behind the Iron Curtain winning the hearts of the Soviets through his basketball prowess.  Filled with political drama, romance, and intrigue, Tom’s autobiography, The Repatriate reads like a novel, and will have you guessing how Tom managed to return to America alive.
The Second Edition is now available on Kindle and in Paperback!

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Promises, promises, and promises

Let me tell you a story about a country whose national constitution and its leaders promised each and every citizen free room and board in an apartment complex, a tuition-free education from K-14 and college, and that the government would provide a monthly stipend to the student if they maintained a grade of “C” or better during the semester.

And, upon graduation from college, there would be a guaranteed job anywhere they chose to live in that country. Oh, one moment please…did I forget to mention that the government also guaranteed its citizens that in addition they would receive free medical and hospital and dental care?

Where is – or was – this Paradise?

Obviously it is not here in these United States.

Just sign here on the dotted line and the government will issue you a passport.

But, before you sign, please read the small print, you may not be in a hurry to pack and leave. In that small print, it states: The recipient shall forfeit their US citizenship to board and pledge alliance to the USSR.

Like myself, thousands did sign away their rights and disappeared into the land of unbelievable promises.

I do not know how many Jews left America for Birobidzhan, an area in the Soviet Far East, but some did. The Soviets promised them a homeland. I also do not know the actual numbers who picked up their families and slammed the doors to their homes in France, Greece, Iran, Iraq, Syria, China and from the four corners of the earth. But I do know that there were more than 300 Armenian American families that had given up on America and had accepted Stalin’s invitation to “repatriate” to the USSR. I was in one of the two groups that left the land of the free and the home of the brave…

The Soviet Union and its leader Joseph Vissarionovich Djugashvili aka Stalin needed manpower to rebuild the war-devastated country and anyone who could pick up a shovel was welcomed to get into the employment and bread lines.

They answered “Uncle Joe’s” call because many believed “capitalism” was had outlived its purpose and that communism would indeed, some day, lift the pathos of the exploited workers of the world. Aside from the many promises, the Soviet Union had also emerged from World War II as a “superpower”. Stalin had gobbled up most of Europe and, in 1949, when Mao Tse-tung ‘s Red Army forced Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek to move the Cabinet of the National Government to Formosa, (nee Taiwan) one need not crack a fortune cookie to read the future of the Chinese people.

There suddenly were Communists everywhere…at least the young Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy maintained that was so.

The Western World was sick of war and no power, not even the newly-established United Nations was willing to say “Nyet” to Stalin.

And we, the children of the Great Depression, who saw our fathers lose everything, including their hope in the country, wept for those we cherished so dearly. Bread lines in America? No jobs! Work two hours or two days, if lucky, on WPA projects!– Looking for food, even scraps, in the empty boxes at the Eastern Market..these are the images of America in the 1930’s.

Who among us that survived the bloody clashes between the strikers and scabs and police to bring in the Labor Unions will ever forget! The blood stains are still there…on the concrete at the Rouge Bridge where UAW strikers and Ford’s henchmen, led by the sadist Bennett, battled for the write to organize a union at the Ford Motor Company. Who among us will forget the Flint sit-down strike? The Republic Steel Company and the Memorial Day massacre in South Chicago where police fired upon strikers leaving a pool of a blood at “Little Steel”.

Around the negotiating tables that brought together Labor and Corporate Mangers came agreements that changed not only the lives of American families, but made the United States the envy of the world. As GM’s Charles Kettering, Chairman of General Motors, noted in his time that “the world hates change, yet it is the only thing that has brought progress.” And it is interesting to note that there were more that 11 million labor union members on corporate America’s payrolls during the 1940’s and 50’s, and these workers helped make this nation the greatest nation in the history of mankind.

Even in democracy’s darkest hours, when most of Europe had mourned the loss of its freedom, and was under the marching heels of Hitler’s army, America, yes, America provided the world with a gleam of light, of hope. The man who would enslave the world, and his Fascist madmen, inevitably felt the deadly sting on a united America.

When the challenge appears formidable, our nation and its leaders have always responded. Presidents did not have to “practice being `presidential’.’’ They were ready when called upon to act. I can still hear the scratchy sounds of the words of FDR coming from the radio as he addressed the nation during the dark days of the Great Depression. Those words ring clearly now as when they were uttered. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Or who can forget FDR’s opening statement on Dec. 8, 1941, which began, “December 7, 1941, a day that will live in infamy…”

A united nation, whose army still relied on the horse-drawn artillery, rolled up their sleeves, and industry coked up their furnaces, and steel became tanks and ships and fighter planes and bombers and the weapons that would defeat what was considered an undefeatable Nazi Germany and an Imperial Japan.

Never again would we be caught off guard.

There have been other breathless moments – the Cold War, The Korean Conflict, Viet Nam, the Bay of Pigs, Cuban Missile Crisis, and it goes on…

In the 1960’s a young, handsome senator named John F. Kennedy reminded us, “The most powerful single force in the world today is neither Communism or Capitalism…it is man’s eternal desire to be free and independent…”and he became our president. And he made us believe in his Camelot, that he would take us to the moon and beyond.

We reached the moon, but it all turned into a nightmare when the president who had challenged the nation, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas on November 22, 1963.

And now I am told by the woman who I must obey, that I must come to the TV set for the “Great Debate”.

I would rather stay here with my readers.

Tell me, my fellow Americans, why should I leave you to listen to and hear the jibbering Donald Trump or the equivocating Hillary Clinton have to say? Haven’t they said enough? Instead of offering words that will provide national cohesion, the two pull the country apart. Neither has really offered a single policy or a word of wisdom that will be remembered down through the decades.

But, then there’s NBC’s Lester Holt – and he’s definitely worth listening to.

Before I end this post: I have noticed that in some sectors of social media there is an outcry for a return to “nationalism”, the evil that follows those lamentable individuals who believe that refugees should not step on US soil and those who were born elsewhere should go elsewhere. I remember the thoughtful words of Albert Einstein who noted, “Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind.”

***

bookTom Mooradian was one of 151 Americans who traveled to Soviet Armenia to repatriate during the 1940’s. Thought to be a spy by the KGB, Tom miraculously survived 13 years behind the Iron Curtain winning the hearts of the Soviets through his basketball prowess.  Filled with political drama, romance, and intrigue, Tom’s autobiography, The Repatriate reads like a novel, and will have you guessing how Tom managed to return to America alive.
The Second Edition is now available on Kindle and in Paperback!

 

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A Love Story

Young Lovers during Armenian Repatriation
Images courtesy of Jeannot and Laura

Which do you believe is stronger – the love of one’s country or the love of one’s soul mate? One young lover was forced to choose between his country of birth, France, or the woman he loved. It was a decision that changed the lives of two young lovers forever.

Jeannot was born in the resort paradise of Nice, France; and Laura, in the Soviet Union. She was among the Soviet elite, the daughter of a much-decorated military officer who served heroically in Stalin’s Red Army. The strikingly handsome young Armenian-Frenchman would meet the poised and beautiful, very serious Laura at the Polytechnical Institute in Yerevan, Soviet Armenia.

Both were excellent students who blotted out their past lives to live in a fantasy world they would create together. Life can seduce those who dream the impossible, despite the fact that each nook was occupied by informants, and the terrifying truth that “Big Brother” is watching, listening and reading each written or spoken word.

Dictators cannot tolerate those who believe in liberty and freedom.

And, it would be unthinkable for the parents of repatriates to bless or sanction such a marriage between a repatriate and local. “Akbars”, the repatriates, wanted to return to the West, especially those who were born in France and/or the United States; and the “deneracities” knew that the repatriates hated the Soviets and denigrated anything and everything about the USSR. There would be no compromises.

And, in 1960, when Nikita Khrushchev had reached the zenith of his political power, he opened a small hole in the iron gates to allow Soviet citizens to crawl through. Some made it to the West. Others waited patiently.

Their patience eventually paid off.

How painful and distressing life became when unexpectedly Jeannot and his mother were granted exit visas. A dream come true. Back to France. Back to Nice.

But Jeannot was in love. He and Laura planned to get married. There would be complications, delays, and maybe a “nyet” by the Soviets.

“I will go,” said Jeannot’s mother who had been widowed several years earlier. Jeannot had never forgotten the world he had left behind when he was just a child. He, too, said that he would go home to France, but planned to return to marry the girl whom he adored loved. The parents would breathe a sigh of relief, while the two young lovers parted. However, they vowed never to forget each other. And they did not.

The Francis Gary Powers Spy Plane Incident and the Cuban Missile Crisis suddenly refueled the Cold War and the two young lovers were left on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain. They would not see or hear from each other for years.

Jeannot eventually found his niche in the business world and managed to accumulate substantial wealth. Not surprising since he had a degree and was fluent in Russian, Armenian, French and the English languages. He married and the marriage fell apart. He knew he had left his heart and soul behind in the Soviet Union.

Laura also married. A professor who taught at the prestigious Moscow University seemed to have given her a life that most Soviets only dream about. She had completed a degree in metallurgy. Neither was ready for what was to happen next in their lives.

One day, Jeannot was asked by his CEO to go to Moscow and negotiate a contract. He eagerly accepted the assignment and the challenge to return to the land of the Soviets. Once the jet landed in Moscow, Jeannot contacted several of his former college classmates, making inquiries about Laura. Luck would have it that a friend knew she had an apartment in Moscow and even had the phone number

Jeannot wasted little time. He picked up the phone, dialed the number and heard a man’s voice.

“I’m an old friend of Laura’s and I would like to talk with her,” Jeannot remembers telling the person.

“What do you want?” the man asked.

“My name is Jeannot… we went to college together…may I speak to her?”

The man repeated Jeannot’s name and Laura overheard it. She rushed to the phone. There was a silence that cripples the senses in such incidents. Laura was the first to speak. “Is it really you?” she asked.

“Yes!” And then unexpectedly and wasting no time, Jeannot asked “Do you love me?”

“Jeannot… I am married,” she whispered back into the phone.

“I did not ask you that. I asked – `Do you love me?’”

“Jeannot, I have a daughter. A lovely daughter. Please…”

For the third, and he stressed would be the final time, Jeannot asked Laura again, “Do you love me?”

There was a long, nervous silence on both ends.

“Yes! Yes! Yes! I have always loved you. I have never stopped loving you…”

Jeannot and Laura were married shortly afterward. And they have been inseparable since Fate reunited them. In a world of chaos, unnecessary bloodshed, and extreme nationalism, it is a joy to acknowledge and share a story of hope…a story of everlasting love.

***

bookTom Mooradian was one of 151 Americans who traveled to Soviet Armenia to repatriate during the 1940’s. Thought to be a spy by the KGB, Tom miraculously survived 13 years behind the Iron Curtain winning the hearts of the Soviets through his basketball prowess.  Filled with political drama, romance, and intrigue, Tom’s autobiography, The Repatriate reads like a novel, and will have you guessing how Tom managed to return to America alive.
The Second Edition is now available on Kindle and in Paperback!

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The French Connection

French Flag painted on bricks
Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net and criminalatt.

I did not anticipate, nor was I prepared to immediately answer, the question. Over the years the memory of the events had been relegated to the farthest corners of my mind. It would take time to recall the story. And one thing a speaker doesn’t have when facing a group is time.

I had been on a coast-to-coast talking tour to promote my book, The Repatriate: Love, Basketball, and the KGB. This particular event was sponsored by AGBU/Chicago.

A petite, Victorian-dressed, French-speaking Armenian in Chicago had asked in a patois, consisting mostly of French and English and Armenian words, “Whatever became of the French women who had repatriated in 1947? I was to go with them,” she continued, “but at the final hour our family decided not to go.”

I pondered the question, as she provided me time and stirred my memory, “You mentioned in your book that there were French odars (non-Armenians) married to Armenians living across from where you lived. Do you know if they ever got out of the Soviet Union?”

Her distinctive accent led me back in time, to Kalinin Street, to the courtyard and the communal cistern where we would wash, brush our teeth, and chat with our neighbors. It was there on a daily basis the French and the Americans would pause and chat. Never behind closed doors for it would draw suspicion and possibly a visit from the secret police.

I had stored so many of those events away that it took several seconds to search my memory and recall what had happened. I told her the following story:

The French Armenians, especially the French women, were the most courageous of our lot, I began. In public, they were a silent, struggling hard to feed their family, and washing clothes at the cistern where they managed to learn some of their Armenian.

Then, an unprecedented chain of events in 1956 placed these French women in the international spotlight. In February, during the 20th Session of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev unmasked Stalin for his crimes, and within weeks it appeared that the Iron Curtain had dissipated. Later that year, French Premier Guy Mollet, and his Foreign Minister Christian Pineau were invited to visit Moscow to discuss with the Soviet Premier and other top Soviet officials the future relations between the two countries.

Pineau, I had been told (but I can’t find any supporting information to the rumor), was born in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. During a social evening, the French foreign minister apparently expressed a desire to visit “the city of his birth” and Soviet Minister Anastas Mikoyan informed him that that could be arranged. Little did Mikoyan realize at the time that he had opened up a Pandora’s Box.

News that the two top French diplomats planned to pay Yerevan a visit reached Soviet Armenia before their plane’s motors were even warmed up in Moscow. Scores of French Armenian repatriates prepared an unprecedented greeting at the airport and there would be no stopping them.

In the meantime, the French women were busy at home planning their own party. Their greeting went beyond the wildest thoughts of the KGB. During the evening, the women had come together to sew blue, white, and red cloth – the tricolors of the French Flag and made banners, embracing “Liberte”, “Equalite”, and “Fraternite”. Arm-in-arm the following evening, they marched down Abovian Street, the main thoroughfare of the capital, to the Intourist Hotel, where the distinguished diplomats were staying.

Confronted by the secret police and ordered to disband, the women stood their ground, and began to sing the “Marseilles”, the French national anthem. The commotion and the song reached the ears of the French diplomats who appeared at the balcony of the hotel, and looking upon a sea of faces below, most in tears as they sang, were moved by the crowd.

It is said that Pineau apparently rushed down to the street and met with the women. One stepped forward and said, “We are French. We want to return to our homeland. The Soviets have refused to allow us to go.”

The shocked Socialist Foreign Minister listened to her, and to the others who presented their grievances. The French Premier vowed he would help. And apparently did. The French would be the first to return to their homeland. There would be many, many others.

I believe I was the first of 300 Armenian Americans who would leave the USSR. And I also am convinced that if it were not for these courageous French women none of the rest of us would have been granted exit visas.

It is rather interesting to note that only one – just one – Armenian American, who had married a Russian and raised a family there, remained behind when he had an opportunity to get out. Tragically the one who didn’t return home would, in the years to come, succumb in the disaster the world would know as “Chernobyl”.

***

bookTom Mooradian was one of 151 Americans who traveled to Soviet Armenia to repatriate during the 1940’s. Thought to be a spy by the KGB, Tom miraculously survived 13 years behind the Iron Curtain winning the hearts of the Soviets through his basketball prowess.  Filled with political drama, romance, and intrigue, Tom’s autobiography, The Repatriate reads like a novel, and will have you guessing how Tom managed to return to America alive.
The Second Edition is now available on Kindle and in Paperback!

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A Phone Call from Paris

Soviet Basketball team
Some of the students that Tom coached

“A teacher may forget a student; but a student will never forget a teacher.” I found that to be true over the years, for many of my former Soviet students have continued to keep in touch with me thanks to the Internet.

One such student, who was on staff at the BBC in London, serving on the Russian Bureau until he retired, contacted me by phone from Paris to tell me how much he enjoyed the book.

“I knew all of the characters in the book, Mr. Tom,” he said. “I am so happy that you are alive and found time to write it. Do you remember who I am?”

I conceded that the four decades of separation had dimmed my memory.

“Do you remember when the Harlem Globetrotters came to Tiflis and you had picked ten players to go watch them play?”

I admitted that I remembered when the professional black basketball team visited the USSR, but I did not remember the incident of choosing my players to attend the exhibition game. “That was so long ago.”

“It doesn’t matter, of course,” my former student said, “But I was No. 11, and I didn’t get to go. And I cried all night and that’s why I remember it so well.”

I profusely apologized for the sadness I had inadvertently caused, and told him I was very sorry.

“Oh, I ready didn’t care…I was just happy playing for you.”

Curious, I asked, “Do you recall what the administration at the school said when I didn’t show up in the gym to conduct my class?”

“Oh, yes, yes, of course, I do. They said that Tavahrishch Tom was sick, and that you have been taken to a sanatorium to get some rest. And that you would soon come back.”

Interesting, I thought. “Did you and the others believe what they said?”

“Of course not, Mr. Tom.” There was a pause. “We knew better. We knew you were somewhere in Siberia.”

***

bookTom Mooradian was one of 151 Americans who traveled to Soviet Armenia to repatriate during the 1940’s. Thought to be a spy by the KGB, Tom miraculously survived 13 years behind the Iron Curtain winning the hearts of the Soviets through his basketball prowess.  Filled with political drama, romance, and intrigue, Tom’s autobiography, The Repatriate reads like a novel, and will have you guessing how Tom managed to return to America alive.
The Second Edition is now available on Kindle and in Paperback!

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The Readers Have Spoken

Tom and Jan Mooradian, on the grounds of the Etchmiadzin
Tom and Jan Mooradian, on the grounds of the Etchmiadzin

When I landed on the tarmac at the Romulus International Airport in July 1960, after spending 13 years in the Soviet Union, I had seven dollars in my pocket – dollars I had kept during the entire period I lived in the USSR. The $100 issued to me and allowed by the Soviet government to take from the country had undoubtedly been taken from my wallet by one of seven Syrian fighter pilots training in the Soviet Union the night before my departure at a drinking fest. The pilots were my guests at the Hotel National in Moscow.

All of my savings, furniture, the Soviet bonds, and the apartment I had – any and all Soviet rubles I had or banked during my Soviet life – everything, and I mean everything, I had accumulated during those thirteen years as a Soviet were confiscated because “they belonged to the people.”

Even though I had nothing, I was thankful to be home in one piece from a so-called “worker’s paradise”. With really nothing in my pockets but hopes and dreams of picking up the pieces of my life in the “land of the free and the home of the brave,” I began my long search for the American Dream.

While I remain grateful to God for allowing me to celebrate the miracle of life and, at times, to question some of my youthful decisions, I shall never apologize for my choices, for I discovered early that with each dawn and with each twilight there is a new adventure, a new challenge, and so much to be thankful for.

That this nation is blessed most of us realize and, although the world may have its problems, the people of these United States have time-and-time again stood ready and willing to discharge humanitarian duties, to eradicate injustice, to defeat evil and bury the “isms” of Nazism and Communism. Where would England and Europe and Asia and, yes, the United States be today, if Americans of all race, color, and creed, had not joined the ranks of the Allies in World War I or World War II?

Nazi Germany is now but a mere page in the history of humankind, and the Berlin Wall and The Iron Curtain have disintegrated because men and women are not born to live in shackles. In Thomas Jefferson’s words, “I am not among those who fear the people. They, and not the rich, are our dependence for continued freedom…”

Americans are not easily duped by those political charlatans who lack common sense, point fingers at the media for their own incompetence, ridicule reporters to disguise their own ignorance and ineptness. They not only dishonor themselves but the country they purportedly say they love. To turn one faction against another is not to serve one’s country, but is an attempt to divide it.

In the many years abroad, I have had no occasion to hate any race, or color or creed.

In fact, I am honored to have had the privilege to live among the brave Russian people who shared their bread and cheese with me, even though they, themselves had little to eat. My 13 year odyssey behind the Iron Curtain was painful, yet seasoned with patience. Showing interest in human beings and their culture taught me life lessons that define me to this day.

I visited the homes of the rambunctious Georgians and the gregarious Azerbaijani invited me to their dinner table for a special meal of “shashlik” and rice. Then, in the mountains of the Transcaucasus, around a camp fire, the irrepressible Chechens talked about freedom and liberty. I have dined and shared a bottle of wine with the Jews of Odessa and learned about my ancestors and met an aunt in Armenia who lost three sons in the Greek Civic War.

I spent many days and nights in Riga, and Vilnius, and Tallinn and Kiev. With vodka flowing as silently as the Don, I talked about life in America with those Soviets who were eager to know the truth about the West. I put my neck on the block when I told them that their newspaper, Pravda (Truth), should be changed to “Ne-pravda”. (No truth) Would you believe they laughed!

I shall never forget the Volga and its ruins and the millions of men, women and children who died in the bloodiest battle, for the city of Stalingrad. The Battle of Stalingrad was Nazi Germany’s first major defeat and turned the tide in favor of the Allies in World War II.

I stood on the steps of the shell of a building where Germany’ military genius, Field Marshal Friedrich von Paulus, surrendered the skeleton of his once-considered invincible 350,000 troops to Soviet Marshal Vasili Chuikov. Only 9,000 of the 350,000 Germans returned to their homes and families. During my early days in Soviet Armenia, having nothing more to do, I would visit a park where I sat on a rock and watched for hours as German prisoners of war built a bridge over a river in Yerevan. Ironically, that bridge eventually would collapse because of the faulty design and material used in the construction.

Upon my return home to Detroit, I was picked up by an FBI agent, driven to the Federal Building, then, after an initial interview, asked if I was willing to go to Washington D.C. to discuss my life in the Soviet Union. Having nothing to hide, I agreed to go. The information the FBI and CIA compiled should be as intriguing as a John LeCarre or Dan Brown novel….provided everything has not been redacted.

My hesitation in receiving these files is not without validation. After all, my intention was to journey to Armenia for a few years, not the better part of my youth. I had no concept that once I stepped off The Rossia I would lose all the freedoms I had enjoyed. That I would be watched and followed with severe mistrust.

While the Freedom of Information Act allows individuals to submit requests to see their own CIA and FBI files, who can accurately predict what will come of this inquiry? In today’s severe mistrust of the Middle East, will I re-awaken the government’s interest in my own personal history? Will my wife, children, and grandchildren be safe from their scrutiny?

Last week, I asked readers if I should ask the agency for my dossier. I received many replies, though Facebook, my blog, personal emails, and phone conversations supporting me to submit the request. With unending curiosity and extreme hesitation, I shall make application for the dossier as soon as this is post hits the cloud.

Wish me luck.

***

bookTom Mooradian was one of 151 Americans who traveled to Soviet Armenia to repatriate during the 1940’s. Thought to be a spy by the KGB, Tom miraculously survived 13 years behind the Iron Curtain winning the hearts of the Soviets through his basketball prowess.  Filled with political drama, romance, and intrigue, Tom’s autobiography, The Repatriate reads like a novel, and will have you guessing how Tom managed to return to America alive.
The Second Edition is now available on Kindle and in Paperback!

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