Tag Archives: Armenian Repatriation

Of Fathers and Sons

Boghos Mooradian, Tom's Father
Boghos Mooradian, Tom’s Father

In the Armenian family, the father stands as tall as Mt. Ararat.

It is he, the father, who provides for the family, has the wisdom and the knowledge of the ages. It is he who you turn to for advice and help and consult before making life-changing decisions.

And it was my father, when I turned 18, who I approached and consulted before making the final decision to join a group of 150 other Armenian Americans two years after World War II had ended to “repatriate”. They made up the first caravan from America to resettle in the Armenia Republic in the Soviet Union.

Though my father did not encourage me to go, he did not place any obstacles before me. His voice and words resonate to this day on his sentiments, “You are now 18. You are now a man and it is your decision, and only yours, to make. However you decide, you will have my support. You, moreover, and only you will have to live by that decision the rest of your life. Whatever you decide to do, you will remain my son. Nothing can or will change that.”

Father believed that the life experiences would provide me with a better understanding of the world and the people who inhabit it. But the world I was heading to was hostile toward the West, especially those born in the United States. It was a world that Winston Churchill said was veiled behind “An Iron Curtain” and what President Reagan would later remark was “An Evil Empire.”

Following the release of The Repatriate – Love Basketball and the KGB one of the common questions raised has been “After your return, did your father and you ever sit down and discuss your experiences in the Soviet Union?”

Many are surprised by my answer.

In short, it was several years after my return and not until my father laid upon his deathbed that the subject surfaced. And it was he – not I – who brought up the topic.

Rushed to his bedside during those final minutes of his life, I sat there in silence and only could speculate upon what his final thoughts were. He was a true Marxist. He did not believe in a spiritual life. He had made his peace with my sister and brothers and asked them to leave the room as soon as I entered. The discussion was a painful one for him, I realized. He wanted to apology for the unhappiness and the pain he believed he had caused me. He said he had heard from his Soviet friends and others of the hostility, the hardships, and the trauma the repatriates suffered and he was sorry that my young life had to witness that tragedy. Before he died he asked forgiveness.

I reminded him that it was my decision, not his, to go to Armenia. True, I said, I have regretted many things in my lifetime and have oft wondered what and who I would have become if I stayed in the United States, but my life has been filled with many friends, on both sides of the so-called Iron Curtain. “Someday,” I said, “I hope to write of my Soviet experiences.”

He nodded and said that I had an obligation to do so. His final words were that he was proud of me and he would like to sleep. And then his eyes closed for the last time.

***

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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Harut Barsamian: Resurrection with Cane and Shoe

The Man With the Cane

For years, I had seen him, cane in hand, limping along the streets of Yerevan, Armenia, USSR. On occasion, I would find him in “the weeping park” where most repatriates took refuge from the perils of living under a dictator. The cane hung on the back of his chair while his eyes were focused on a chessboard or a game of backgammon. I surmised he was excellent in both games and the conclusion was drawn by the frustrated look on the faces of his opponents.

Dark-haired, slim and always in his double-breasted brown suit, the Man with the Cane was in his early twenties and definitely a repatriate…but not American.

Little did I know that as a child of ten this man was a mathematical genius.

Shahumyan Park was renamed by the repatriates because here they came to complain about their Soviet life – their dreams of living in a Working Man’s Paradise shattered. Here they could sit and play cards and games and bemoan that their dream of the Motherland had turned into a nightmare.

I would never engage in a discussion in that park out of fear that what I said would reach the offices of the NKVD.

In the Soviet Union I lived in, one usually didn’t talk to strangers. It could be detrimental to their health. After all, Stalin’s informers had to justify their existence. The Gulags had to be filled. Slave labor was an economic necessity…a windfall.

Most in the park were survivors or the sons of survivors of the Turkish genocide, who returned to Soviet Armenia to help rebuild the war-torn country. Many quickly became disenchanted by Soviet reality: Work? Yes, but your monthly wages could not meet the cost of living. Bread lines. No indoor plumbing. Electricity, maybe an hour or two – if lucky – during the day. Warned by those who knew by experience not to complain about the lines of people waiting throughout the night to purchase their meager rations of bread and sugar because complaints were considered anti- soviet, some paid the ultimate price for attempting to escape.

Playing chess and backgammon seem to be better options.

In those dark and dangerous political days of the Stalin regime repatriates did not mix with strangers. Meetings on the street or in a park could be interpreted as “plots”, but these elders believed they now had nothing to lose. Past friendships were sparked that kindled the hope and hope was the only thing left.

I chose my friends among the American-Armenian community who had been on the same ship with me. They, I believed at the time, could be trusted.

I occasionally would venture into the park after touring the small of stores hoping to find something that would appease my stomach. And it seemed that the Man with the Cane would always be found sitting there, straight-faced waiting until his opponent made the move.

The stranger, I later found out, was a student, then a professor, at the Yerevan Polytechnical Institute. And he helped build and introduce computers to the Soviet students and assisted scientists to solve some of the most challenging problems in their quest to conquer space.

And, he told me years later, his father was arrested by the KGB and charged as “an agent for the French government.” In reality, his father was a prominent bootmaker in the Middle East and, while in Aleppo, made special boots for General Charles DeGaulle and DeGaulle’s top staff member during World War II. He also had made boots for his Excellency Joseph Stalin, president of the Soviet of People’s Commissars of the USSR, and Stalin was so grateful for the gift that the Soviet premier sent him a letter of gratitude. The father had Stalin’s letter to prove it.

But he was found guilty and the Man with the Cane’s father was sentenced to 10 years in Siberia. He survived the ordeal thanks to Nikita Khrushchev, who offered political prisoners amnesty in 1956, three years after Stalin’s death.

Now, fast-forward to the year 2011; I had returned to my homeland, the United States of America in 1960. My dear wife and I are on a book talk tour. On this one particular October day, I am scheduled to speak to the students at the University of California, Irvine. We are walking across the campus parking lot, heading for the auditorium when a car pulls up, stops along side of us, and this elderly stranger gets out and shouts, “Tommy…Tommy Mooradian. Wait…”

My wife and I turn and watch this Man with the Cane get out of his vehicle and, with a he smile on his face, limp up to us. He drops his cane, grabs and hugs me, and kisses me on my cheek, a common reaction by Armenians who haven’t seen each other for a long time.

“I was your greatest fan in Yerevan and in Moscow. I have come to hear you speak,” he said.

“I am Harut Barsamian. We have much to discuss. Let us go. I want to hear you speak. I want to hear about your experiences.” My wife gave me that “Who is this guy?” look and I smiled and shook my head, “I really don’t know.”

My mind races back into time…wandering through the maze of memories that have been bruised and battered and at times altered. As if awakened after a dream I realize that this is the Man with the Cane sitting in the park, playing chess. Definitely him, but without the double-breasted brown suit. He is in American-tailored clothes.

As we approached the entrance, I happened to glance up at the wall of the building and in large letters in bronze was the name – Harut Barsamian – in English and Armenian. I was definitely impressed.

Later, after I had addressed the audience, Mr. Barsamian commandeered the speaker’s dais and delighted the audience with stories about basketball in the Soviet Union.

Harut Barsamian: Resurrection with Cane and Shoe
Harut Barsamian: Resurrection with Cane and Shoe

I would also learn that Mr. Barsamian is an internationally-known scientist who had traveled and lectured at many of the prominent universities around the world. His life story is documented is his memoir… Resurrection with Cane and Shoe and it is a must read for historians and student of Soviet and Russian History.

Mr. Barsamian left the Soviet Union six years after I did…in 1966, eventually taking up residence in Waterford, Michigan. He joined the scientific community in California shortly afterwards. The income from his book is donated to the “Scholarship Fund for Handicapped Students”, which he established. The fund is administered by the Western Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America, headquartered at 6252 Honolulu Avenue, La Crescenta, CA 91214.

Not too long ago I tried to contact Mr. Barsamian to tell him that I planned to write a blog post about him, but learned from friends that he had died a year ago. Though saddened by his passing, I hold dear to his memories and kind words and will never forget the moments in the “Weeping Park” where, hunched over the chess or backgammon boards, Harut took on all comers and sent them away with that sardonic smiled on his face.

Each and every one of us has a story to tell, and never has there been a better time to tell it than now…see you here next week.

***

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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Tears of joy

Ararat-Eskijian
It would be my first of seven talks in California that I would give on The Cold War and my recently published book, “The Repatriate: Love Basketball and the KGB”. Our first stop was Mission Hills, a serene senior citizens community that has a notable museum, the Ararat Eskijian, on its spacious and plush site.

After describing some of the hardships that Soviets and Armenian American repatriates faced daily, the long bread lines, the night vigils at stores waiting for them to open in hopes of finding sugar or butter or any edible items in the morning to place on the table for their families, I spotted an elderly woman in the crowd with tears in her eyes. I continued with my talk, though I paused briefly to tell the woman that my story did have a happy ending – that I actually survived 13 years in the USSR. She smiled, but one could see torment on her face.

I was not there to arouse anger, or pity, or any other emotion…I was there to provide information about a group of 151 Armenian Armenians who in 1947 made history by returning to their ancestral lands, controlled by the Soviets at the time, to help rebuild a war-torn nation, a nation that was, incidentally, an ally to the USA during World War II.

“There was a lot of disinformation spread on both sides of the Atlantic,” I told the gathering. “The US was also eager to stop the repatriation of Armenians to a country with which it was now locked in an ideological war. I produced an article published in 1951 in a prominent Armenian publication that noted that the Soviets seized from Armenian Americans all their cars, refrigerators, stoves, and valuable possessions upon landing on Soviet soil. That was not true.

“But, after a month in the Soviet Union, living in fear of the secret police, and hungry, most repatriates would have gladly given up all of their possessions if the Soviets would have granted them exit visas.”

Shortly after my talk, the woman whose eyes betrayed her emotions, came up to me, hugged and kissed me on my cheeks – a typical Armenian greeting. She apologized for interrupting the talk, “You see, Mr. Mooradian, I was 11 at the time. My father had also decided to take us on that first ship, but my mother told him he could go but she and her two daughters would not leave America. We stayed here. I have heard many rumors and stories about what happened, but you have given me a first-hand account. I thank God that we stayed here. And I truly am sorry or what you and the others had to go through.”

***

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 little girl with brown eyes

Tom Mooradian, Armenian Repatriate
There was a flush of questions that immediately dominated my thoughts as I listened to the woman’s voice on the other end of the telephone.

“This is the Shirley Temple look-alike, you wrote about in your book,” the voice said. It was a voice I had not heard for more than a half of a century. “And I want you to know that I do not have blue eyes; they are brown.”

Before my burst of questions to the caller began, she identified herself as Christine Karibian. “I loved your book, especially your description of me, but for the record my eyes are brown and not blue.” Christine went on to say that she had heard I would be appearing in the Providence area, and that she and her friends would definitely be attending the talk. Unfortunately, her brother, the lanky, sandy-haired Michael, would not. He had passed away in the USSR several years ago.

Christine and Michael were among the youngest of the Armenian American repatriates. Their father, Harry, and mother, Jean, who was of Polish descent, left Detroit in 1947 to live in Soviet Armenia. Christine’s father unsuccessfully attempted to get his family out of the USSR and was arrested after leaving the US Embassy in Moscow. He was tried and convicted as an “enemy of the state”.

“Dad survived the gulag,” Christine said. “In fact, he and mom actually made it back to the States. When you get here I’ll tell you the whole story.”

Christine married an Armenian American repatriate, Ara Lafian, and they had two children while in Armenia. The Lafians made it back to the United States and settled in Rhode Island.

***

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 Cup of Love

Papazian-raising cups

“When you become frustrated with our world and yearn for your world, drink from this cup, it will take away your problems and life will become beautiful.”

The voice belonged to Armen-Dei and his words still ring in my ears. His wrinkled, ageless face is as vivid in my memory as if he were still sitting on his bench in the garden behind the Pioneers Palace in Yerevan, Armenia.

Made of obsidian, Armen-Dei’s cup was actually filled with wine, and the wine was an invitation to friendship. He called it a “Cup of Love.” Although I hesitated at first, Armen-Dei smiled and said, “Our children are born with wine in their blood. That is why they are so beautiful.”

In the days to come Armen-Dei would convince me that I, too, should have wine in my blood. Our friendship would last more than a decade.

Armen-Dei would never, ever reveal his age, but he laughed as he drank from the cup…and ate the lavash bread with cheese.

“I am older than…” he would start and then break into laughter, “Do you know that we Armenians are descendants of Noah’s son, Shem. In fact, I am named for one of Noah’s grandson’s, Armen.

What could I do but humor him? And then he would remind me that Noah lived to be over 900 years old.

“That’s a fact. You read the Bible, don’t you?”

A Bible! In an atheistic country! A Soviet citizen could be prosecuted as “an enemy of the state” if he possessed a Bible. All the churches had been closed and the believers sent off to Siberia.

And, then Armen-Dei went on, “We are supposed to be a free people. Our constitution says that we have the right to free speech, to a free press, and are guaranteed a job. Is that not so?”

The Soviet Constitution did do that and more, I agreed.

Armen-Dei had survived in the ungodly world of the Soviet Union and lived in a world surrounded by children, orchards, vineyards, and the mountains of the Caucasus. In his courtyard, filled with laughing children during the summer months, he would tell of the times that were and the times that would be. He would retell the story of Noah and the Ark and God’s Covenant. He would offer me a cup of love.

“The hatred within us – all of us – is the progeny of stupidity,” he would tell me. “It is nurtured and it grows with the help of its twin, prejudice…this government we all must serve, one day, will collapse. One day…as all governments which deceive and exploit their people will do….”

Armen-Dei would stop and hand me the cup and say to me, “Drink.”

And I learned to do so.

In a country whose citizens were restricted from owning land and producing anything outside the collective farm, Armen-Dei had created an acre of organic tapestry where mulberry and cherry trees, a vineyard, tomatoes, cucumbers and corn would flourish.

Armen Dei must have been over 100-years-old when I first met him in that courtyard. I was but 20, alone in a strange country, a repatriate living in my ancestral homeland in Soviet Armenia. His eyes had seen the rise and fall of Czar Nicholas II, World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution, and the rise and decay of Stalin. He had also watched a young Armenian Republic struggle for independence and on the right road to democracy when the Soviets armies marched in and destroyed freedom in the guise of building a “workers’ paradise”.

The transformation from a capitalistic to a socialistic system proved deadly. Untold suffering for all was not what the Soviet citizens and the working class had expected. But that is what they got. Miraculously shutting out the rest of the Soviet world, Armen-Dei built his world with a panoply, created of his own hands – a rose wall made of Armenia’s natural stone, tuff. Ironically, on the other side of the wall, stood a foreboding three-story Gothic building, the office of the KGB (nee NKVD).

“Today our people are again in chains. But someday we will – and you will – again be free. Look, look to the mountain. It was there, atop Mt. Ararat, you will find the answers. God made his covenant with Noah there. With all of us. Remember His message, “Whoever sheds the blood of man… by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God has God made man…”

A few years ago, I returned to free Armenia. I visited the courtyard near where I had spent part of my youth teaching youngsters to play basketball. And stood at the spot where I had first met Armen-Dei.   The trees are still standing, but the bench, the garden, and the vineyard were gone.

I stood there for awhile, dreaming of those days that were, and the desire to have just one more day with him, to tell him I’ll never forget. The sun glistened from some small objects in weeds. I strolled to the spot, and there I saw the pieces of the obsidian. His cup. I picked up the pieces, brushed them off and smiled. He has been here all these years. I glanced up at the towering mountain that stood in the West and for one brief moment I was sure that I saw him standing there on the deck of the Ark. I wanted to shout, “Come back…come back! Your orchards and your vineyard need you – I need you!” And I am certain that I heard his voice say, “Come, drink from the cup.”

***

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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Death Is So Disruptive

Tom Mooradian Armenian Repatriation
Death, oh how disruptive it can be!

With my byline appearing under the headlines of more than three hundred homicides I have had been assigned to cover for a western Wayne County newspaper in the great state of Michigan – and with an uncountable number of church services I have attended for departed friends and loved ones – I believe I can attest to the rude and cruel behavior of this obscene, inhumane, dark, vile, voiceless, vandal called Death.

This omnipresent creature that preys and craves all living things, appears suddenly, without invitation, then indiscriminately proceeds to destroy lives of everything it touches. Death cares not if the harvest is from the wise or the wicked, the powerful or the poor, the scholarly or the illiterate, the rich or poor – when it calls, it owns the scene; it has the final say.

Nations may stand in tribute for the fallen heroes or shout in joy when an evil tyrant falls. From ancient to modern times we have tomes of literature in praise and in awe of Death…but…oh, death can be so disruptive, so destruction to those who stand at the grave to mourn. Rest assured that time on the remarkable station called earth has no warranties or guarantees.

Years ago, during the reign of Josef Stalin and the Soviet Empire, I unwittingly wrote my own death warrant in the form of a petition to the Ambassador to the United States Embassy in Moscow. At the time I did not know that it was a fatal mistake for a citizen of the USSR to contact a foreign embassy; the belief that it belittled the Soviet regime, therefore a crime under Soviet law. I paid the consequences, but survived. A wise and older woman who always had her Bible at her side (also a crime under Soviet law) cleansed my wounds and helped me back to life, assured me daily during the healing process that my mission on earth was not over. “You still have much work to do,” she said. She renewed my faith in humanity, and also reminded me that, although we live among the atheists, the demons who are the messengers of the Devil…that our God is omnipresent and omnipotent. God defeated evil and the Devil and He will guide you home one day, she promised me.

She was among those who were taken away on that unforgettable night in 1949 when thousands were taken from their homes, tossed into trucks, driven to train stations, and transported to Siberia never to be seen or heard from again.

Evil – it is alive and lives in the hearts of many. It can be defeated.

Was not sinister Dorian Gray granted his wish by the Devil? And did not disillusioned Gray end his own life? After he was strangely enough given eternal life? And did not Mr. Daniel Webster beguile and dupe the Devil and save the day for the hard-luck New Hampshire farmer Jabez Stone? Mr. Webster’s arguments on behalf of his client, Stone, convinced Lucifer’s hand-picked jury that the farmer’s contract with the Devil should be tossed into the flames of Hell. His words saved the day and Stone’s soul. And reportedly the Devil never again showed his face in New Hampshire. (Of the latter I am not sure for some citizens of the Granite State reported that they saw the Damned One on stage during the recent presidential caucus.)

But would a man or woman seeking the highest office its people have to offer the use of profanity? Naw…

Unfortunately I must stop here. Death has intervened. My dear wife has just called my “dungeon” and informed me there is “breaking news” of national and international importance: Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has died and I must leave this page to get the updates. If news sources confirm the report, our sympathies go out to his wife, Maureen, and the family. Death is so disruptive…

See you next week.

***

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 Slave to Nightmares

Russian PassportRead more about Tom’s return to the US in A Person of Interest Part 1 and Part 2

Inside the walls of the days and nights of my past I became a slave to my nightmares. I had been in the shadows of the KGB for so many years their ghosts became real and they were the masters of my mind.   The encounter with the FBI raised my anxiety level. I sought psychiatric help. Stopped after one session after I found out how much it cost.

There was no place for me to hide. To run. I felt exposed. Scorned. An outcast in my own country. And I dared not reveal my secret life to my family. They would not understand.

I had always walked with confidence at my side – the two agencies took that away from me. No one, I believe, would read this prose without stamping it the work of a paranoiac. But, in the final analysis, it was my life. I know the truth.

Did the KGB make a conscious effort to follow up on the threat it had made to me in Moscow that, if I became a “tool of the capitalists” there would be repercussions?

Did the FBI interrogate me after my return?

And did the KGB walk in my footsteps when I walked the streets of Detroit?

It will be you who will judge and decide upon the evidence.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, there appeared in a newspaper article published in the now free republic of Armenia that carried the headline: “What Happened to Basketball in Armenia…” In that article, which did not have a byline, the writer describes the rise and fall of the sport in Armenia and goes on to mention the names of some of the top players of the 1950’s. My name appeared in that list. For all of the others mentioned, statistics and playing information was recalled, but following my name, there were intimate details of my personal life in America. A good editor would have asked the writer: “What the hell does this all have to do with basketball” and edit the paragraph out of the story.

I do believe the KGB made a conscious effort to monitor my actions in America. It is obvious that the FBI also considered me a “person of interest” until, like their counterparts in Moscow, interest waned. But, the evil that lived and thrived throughout the 20th century – suspicion, ambition, greed, hunger, exploitation and segregation – lives on unabated in the 21st century.

Despite all of the political nonsense we hear today from those who would be president, even those who advocate “Making America Great, Again”, I have always cherished and loved my country and have celebrated its achievements.

I would say to those who celebrate our country and wish to “Make America Great, Again” that America Has Always Been Great.

Let us all work together to “Make America GREATER!”

Read more about Tom’s return to the US in A Person of Interest Part 1 and Part 2

 ***

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!

Save