Michigan High Beat - Mooradian’s ‘The Repatriate’ Reveals True Life Behind Iron Curtain

By Betty Apigian Kessel

"The Armenian Weekly", Volume 74, No. 46, November 22, 2008

 

You’re a young, handsome, 18-year-old, coming from a close knit Armenian immigrant family. You are a gifted Southwestern High senior recognized as one of Michigan’s finest basketball talents. The year is 1947 and you are facing a bright future. So why do you decide to go to Soviet Armenia to seek an education?

Author Tom Mooradian’s cathartic The Repatriot, Love, Basketball and The KGB answers that question in this revealing, must-read novel of one man’s painful discovery of what life was really like behind Stalin’s Iron Curtain for an incredible 13 long years. If his Armenian parents wanted their son to receive an Armenian education, did they in reality know the price he would have to pay to get it?

He was one of a group of 150 Armenian-Americans who were the first of two groups to repatriate to the USSR heeding the call of the Armenian Progressive League of the United States to help “rebuild the Motherland.” It was an untrue pipe dream a sacrifice that robbed Tom of his youth, and a yearning to return to the freedom of his beloved United States.

Mooradian was joined by 80,000 other Armenian repatriates from around the world in this adventure to return to the homeland.

Mooradian puts down his move to accept Stalin’s invitation to repatriate to Soviet Armenia as youthful folly, a stubborn and regrettable decision. He quickly discovered just how regrettable when, en route, his American passport was removed from his possession. It was only a shadow of the reality he and other Armenian repatriates from around the world would soon face.

This anchor to a before known life of freedom and plenty became a prelude to long bread lines, unbearable living conditions and the constant watchful eye of the secret police. It was only a shadow of the reality he and other Armenian repatriates were forced to face. Tom was taken into custody, threatened with a revolver held to his head by NKVD officers and beaten when a plan hatched by him and several others to send Tom to Moscow to seek help at the American Embassy. He was refused until he could obtain exit visas from the Soviets, which did not become a reality until 1960.

The young basketball star lived under the reigns of Stalin, Beria, Molotov, Malenkov, and Khrushchev. Those of us who remember the headlines from that era know what an ordeal life for young Mooradian must have been. But he survived.

Now ensconced in cramped living quarters with two other men, he came to the realization that it was the scare tactic maneuvers of the Politburo that controlled the lives of the Soviets and its republics. Life was cheap and those who did not comply disappeared or were killed outright. The name of the game was life lived with constant fear.

Basketball was Mooradian’s savior, a way out from the depression he was now going through. Adapting to Soviet life meant learning to talk, act, and drink like a Soviet and even being complicit in romancing the ladies along the way. After all he was a man; a young one at that.

He became a star basketball player again, going on to win 10 consecutive titles and represent the republic in the USSR nationals for a decade. Standing room only games were the rule and they doted on the American, Tom Mooradian. This newfound celebrity status gave him opportunity to travel throughout the Soviet Union and, as an elite, gave him entree to a finer lifestyle than the everyday citizen.

Mooradian miraculously finally got to leave Armenia in 1960 and return home but his respect for those friends he left behind the Iron Curtain curtailed him from writing the revealing book till now. He did not want to jeopardize their lives by telling his story and how his youth had vanished with that decision he made in 1947.

Tom had had a fulfilling life as a professional journalist in Detroit where he still resides. His other home is in northern Michigan at Hubbard Lake, which he shares with wife Janice whom he credits for her professional acumen in writing of this book.

Tom also credits Alice Nigoghosian for her guidance and encouragement as a well-known member of the Detroit community’s intelligentsia. Nighosian is a retired assistant Director of the Wayne State University Press. She, like Tom and his long-time friend Macomb Daily editor Mitchel Kehetian, are fellow Keghetzis.

An over-flow crowd recently attended a book talk at the Dearborn Armenian Community Center hosted by the St. Sarkis Church Fellowship Club introducing Mooradian and The Repatriate to an enthusiastic audience. This will be followed by a discussion of the book by the author on Dec. 12, at 7 p.m. at Borders Book in Birmingham, Mich., to be followed immediately after with an afterglow “Meet The Author” at Hagopian’s World of Rugs directly across the street. Let’s show Borders how we support our Armenian authors. Let’s produce an overflow crowd. Your fun pre-holiday evening will be spent amongst many friends.

Give yourself a treat and attend the Borders/Hagopian events, I promise you will enjoy meeting the former basketball star and his Jan. Moreover, I promise you will enjoy all 459 pages of Mooradian’s book. What a great way to launch your reading regimen for the winter. It will make for a memorable Christmas gift at a very reasonable $25.00.

It came as a surprise to Tom when I notified him that I had discovered in the Aug. 19, 2008 issue of Bounce Magazine that he had been named to the All Decades Detroit Teams 1940-1949 era along with Aram Sarkisian from Detroit’s Southwestern High School. Quite an honor. Congratulations! The Soviets recognized a star when they saw one.