Returning to the Symbolic Motherland



Returning to the Symbolic Motherland

The repatriation of the Armenian Diaspora was a unique event in the History of Armenia, an exceptional one in world history and can probably only be compared to the emigration of Jews from the Diaspora to Israel in scale. Repatriation changed both the lives of Armenians from the Diaspora and the face of Yerevan: the capital city of Soviet Armenia received cultural influences from Armenians who came from all over the world and they brought with them various traditions, knowledge and habits. But the process was not easy, especially for the ones who came to Armenia.

Text : Tigran Zakaryan


Symbolic Homeland

Soon after World War II was over, the greatest wave of Armenian repatriates began. In two years, the wave brought 100,000 Armenians from the Diaspora in the Middle East, the Balkans, France, USA and other countries to Soviet Armenia. The emigration of thousands of Armenians was caused not only by the unprecedented growth of the country’s image due to the victory of the Soviet Union in WWII, causing them to overlook the totalitarian system within Armenia, but also by the upcoming accession of Western Armenia, or at least the Kars province to Soviet Armenia.
It ended as suddenly as it started. According to rumors, in 1948 Stalin “advised” Malenkov to be wary of saboteurs among the repatriated Armenians. The next day Malenkov reported to Stalin that some repatriated Armenians left the “Pobeda” steamship in Batumi after placing a bomb on it. With this information, repatriation was halted and was resumed only after the death of Stalin.
Separated by the “iron curtain”, Armenians from the Diaspora and Armenians living in Soviet Armenia, knowing very little about each other, meant that they were unprepared for their their first meeting.
Despite using the term “repatriation”, there was no consensus of what constituted the real homeland (Patris) of the immigrants. Many of them were born in Western Armenia, Kilikia or other cities of the Ottoman Empire with large Armenian populations, Iran, and some of them were born in places where their parents were accepted and adopted elements of the local lifestyle and culture, which were totally foreign to Soviet Armenia.
Thus, to the majority of repatriates, Soviet Armenia was a symbolic homeland, a place where they were excited to come to but had no idea about the local realities. For many of them, Caucasian, Russian and Islamic elements in the Soviet Armenian culture were unacceptable, compelling them to gather in repatriate’ “ghettos”, usually with internal groupings similar to their previous places of residence. For example, the “Greeks”, “French” and “Bulgarians” who were solely urban residents abroad and had significantly integrated into their host country’s society, looked down at those who came from the Middle East, particularly Syria and Iraqi villages or provincial cities, as the average European would look at people from the Middle East.
Around 7000 of the repatriates were from France and formed a kind of “upper class” among the repatriates. Later they were the first ones to become disappointed with the Soviet reality and asked for support from France to help leaving USSR.

Soviet deception

The first encounter with the Soviet Armenian reality was like a cold shower to many. Queues for bread, the poverty, poor clothing, the criminal environment, intolerance and provincialism, laced with elements of Soviet propaganda, made a hard impression on many of the repatriates. They remember the first encounter with the homeland as a combination of excitement and rapid disappointment. It can best be summarized in a popular joke of the century. According to the context, the repatriate had just arrived in Armenia, got off the train with their luggage , put aside their bags in excitement, bowed down and kissed the ground. He then puts his head on the ground for a while, but when he got up and went to pick up his luggage, he discovered that it had already been taken away.
Many of the repatriates were disappointed by the suspicious, and often discriminatory treatment that they experienced. Some of them, especially the older generation coming from rural regions of the Middle East might not speak Armenian at all, while the Russian language was totally unfamiliar to everyone. Although the Soviet authorities organized language (Eastern Armenian and Russian) and Communist Party courses, particularly those with ideological content, taking into account their complex language, were basically useless.
The Communist Party’s doors were closed to the vast majority of immigrants (of course, except Diasporan members of the Communist Party), military service was not obligatory for them, because they were considered “suspicious elements”. An immigrant was not trusted with high positions, head positions or responsible jobs. Even one of the immigrant communists would say: “The communists we know are totally different, these ones say and do different things”.
The Soviet reality was vividly expressed in another anecdote. Several months after arriving in Armenia, a repatriate wrote a letter to his friend. Describing the situation and conscious of the censorship he was trying to avoid . “We have everything in Armenia, the shops are full of goods, we all live here very well, we eat caviar every day, earn a lot of money,” he wrote, and then added, “I write this, you understand the rest.” a few days later, the security agencies called the repatriate and demanded an explanation for the last sentence in the letter. “Uh, what do you want? I wrote this all for you, can’t I even write a single line for me?” marveled the repatriate.

The underground capitalist network

Migrant workers, especially tailors and cobblers, secretly undertook private business at home to make life more tolerable, hiding their business transactions from the “tax service” and the financial departments of regional councils.
Such business activities were undertaken, for example, by my relative, Master Jacob, a shoemaker from Plovdiv, Bulgaria. In 1946, when he moved in, he quickly understood that the situation in the Soviet Union was significantly different from what he had initially pictured. Later, he was confused recalling how the Soviet officials on the migration ship were urging them to throw their bread into the sea, as they “would be given plenty of bread.” Many did so, but Jacob didn’t. He was given a place of residence in Akhuryan borough but Jacob moved to Yerevan on his own initiative and funds. Soon he resumed his ‘semi-secret’ business again. By registering as a worker at a shoe factory and literally giving away his product free of charge, he was somehow able to generate income for his small business. It is noteworthy that his clients were high party officials, ministers and other government officials, and the “local official” frequently visited the house of Jacob, the “Bulgarian” master, to order a pair of shoes for himself or a member of his family.

Weeping garden
The first places of integration for repatriates were Yerevan’s “black markets”, where they sold goods that they brought with them (clothes, shoes, etc.) in order to make a living. The markets were also a meeting place where repatriates could exchange news and rumors and share their pain. One such place was the garden in front of the Immigration Committee building (currently near Shahumyan statue), which the repatriates called “weeping garden” (“latsin partez”).


Shortly after World War II, the world was divided into opposing sides by the “iron curtain” again, and soon, after the Diaspora flow stopped, new and extreme repression took place within the USSR. During one night in June 1949 more than 13 000 people, mostly immigrants, were arrested and exiled to Siberia and other remote, unpleasant places. In particular, the target of the repression was immigrants, to substantiate which rumors were spread and materials were printed in newspapers about “sabotages”, the poisoning of drinking water in Yerevan and other “atrocities” organized by the “akhpars” (“brother” in Western Armenian; that’s what they called the repatriates).
They were fired from their jobs without any justification or were under threat of dismissal and were forced to provide evidence against other immigrants’ anti-Soviet activities. They were accused of communicating with relatives abroad, which qualified under espionage activities. All of this gradually contributed towards making the decision to leave the country.
According to a repatriate witness, some strangers arrived in a black car (most likely the Soviet security service) and knocked the door of a house late at night. The poor people were frightened to open the door, expecting to soon become a Siberian exile. In fact, the strangers had confused the address and they left. But it was clear that this fate awaited another immigrant family.
In another case, a teacher from the Diaspora was deported for a comment he made after seeing hungry children looking for food in the garbage. He shook his head, and said “Is this our future generation?”
Such events gave rise to bitter humor. For example, when a repatriate leaving for America was asked why he was leaving, whether there are friends or relatives there, he said, “in 1949 you sent me to Siberia, did I have any friends or relatives there?”

An Armenian repatriate from France
People who grew up and achieved a certain status in the Diaspora, were naturally unsatisfied with the local reality, where sometimes street “hooligans” would damage someone’s fancy suit on public transport, mostly out of envy rather than for a particular reason. My father’s friend, Joseph from France, was one of those Diasporans. Joseph was known for his wit and told many entertaining and real life stories but returned to France in the 1960s. I remember the French lifestyle on display all over Joseph’s house, who was born and brought up in France. At noon and in the evening at the same time, everybody would gather together in the living room on the first floor, prompted by just one call. Once they called lumberjacks to cut and split firewood for winter. Joseph’s mother offered the workers a little rest and she made them some coffee. One of the workers, unaware of what coffee was, quickly took the cup of hot liquid and said “cheers, dear ma’am”, and proceeded to drink it in one gulp. You can imagine what happened next.
Another time, around the 1950s, when olives could be found in Yerevan’s stores, and the demand for olives wasn’t high, Joseph played a trick on a local who had no idea what an olive was. In the shop when he finally asked what it was and how to eat it, Joseph offered him his own “recipe” of the dish - boiled, then fried, with onion and spices. After this experience, the clueless citizen then started to frequently buy olives.

Behind the curtain
As a result of repatriation, Armenia received highly qualified and skilled professionals in many different fields. The health sector gained doctors with specific areas of expertise and specialists in foreign languages who were also needed in schools and universities. Due to the immigrants’ diverse and cultural backgrounds, the cultural life of Armenia was noticeably transformed.
The film “Tzhvzhik”, screened from time to time, can be considered “akhparakan.” Firstly, because the film’s dialogues are only in Western Armenian and the cast is entirely made up of immigrants. I remember as a child how the old repatriates would watch the film and at a minor episode, seeing someone familiar, would leave and start talking about his life and work.
In addition, the arrival of repatriates was an opportunity for local people to raise the “iron curtain” a little bit and get acquainted with the reality beyond it. In this sense, we can say that the Soviet authorities’ fear of repatriates’ “ideological despair” was somewhat justified.

The capital of all Armenians
Repatriation, despite all the disappointments and episodes of intolerance, gave a positive charge to post-Soviet Armenian society. Former Diasporan Armenians, after some initial difficulties and some return processes, integrated into Soviet Armenian society. Some representatives found their places among the upper class of society.
Yerevan’s 1960s rapid urban culture development and ascent are very much related to the presence of repatriates. Yerevan, which was proclaimed “the capital of all Armenians,” finally began to become consistent with this title.


Repatriate jokes

Immigrants have kept memories and even a whole anecdote subgenre of random immigration episodes, the reception they received in Armenia, unpleasant, sometimes funny encounters with “locals” and the Soviet reality.

A repatriate falls into a pit at night, breaking his hand. Another repatriate comes to visit him at the hospital. The first one complains, “In normal countries when they dig a hole, they put a red flag on it, so that people see it and don’t fall in it.” In response the other one says, ‘Eh, akhpar, there’s a big red flag on the border, didn’t you see it when you came here?”

All the time a repatriate is confronted with questions regarding what they had “there”.
— Do you have horses there?
— Yes, we do.
— Do you have cows?
— Uh, yes.
— Are there sheep?
— Yes.
— And donkeys? Are there donkeys?
After thinking for a while, the repatriate said:
— No, they all came here.