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.
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.
Tom 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!