Vahan Totovents was one of the prominent members of the Armenian intelligentsia killed during the second “April 24” of the twentieth century: the Stalinist purges of 1937-1938. A prolific writer and translator, he had settled in Soviet Armenia in 1922.
Totovents was born in 1889 in the Western Armenian city of Mezre, close to Kharpert. His parents were originally from Akn; the Totovayents were a well-to-do family of Akn that moved to Mezre in the eighteenth century.
At the end of the nineteenth century, the province of Kharpert was going through a process of economic and cultural development. The Euphrates College, founded by American missionaries, was centered in Kharpert and the National Central College (Azkayin Getronagan Varjaran) had been created in Mezre, where a group of intellectuals such as Rupen Zartarian and Lerukhan (two writer who would be victims of the Armenian genocide), among others, gave particular momentum to education. Young Vahan entered the National Central College in 1897.
As many other writers, he first wrote poetry and in 1908, after he graduated from the school, he departed to Constantinople, where he published two booklets of poetry in 1908 and 1909. In 1909, he traveled to Paris and from there to New York. Members of his extended family had already settled in Saint Paul (Minnesota) and Totovents worked for a while at the Oriental rug shop of his maternal uncle, writer Bedros Keljik. He also studied literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison from 1912 to 1914. In those years, he became a member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation.
In 1915, he was among the hundreds of Armenian Americans who embarked to the Caucasian front to fight in the volunteer battalions against the Turkish army. Disillusioned with the A.R.F., in 1917-1918 he edited the independent newspaper “Hayastan,” published by General Antranig, in Tiflis. During the war years and after the war, he continued to publish poetry, stories, articles, and satire. He also published several books.
In 1920 he left the Caucasus and went to Constantinople. He got married and after living again in the United States for a while, in late 1921 he returned to Constantinople, where he was an editor of the periodical “Joghoverdi Dzayne,” which belonged to the newly founded Armenian Democratic Liberal Party. In late 1922 he settled in Yerevan.
He was a professor at the University of Yerevan from 1924-1926, a newspaper editor and a translator. During the 1920s and 1930s, he published many novels, stories, and plays; among them his best works, such as the memoir “Life on the Old Roman Road,” the collections of stories, “Doves,” “Pale Blue Flowers,” the short novel “Burned Papers,” etcetera. He also translated several plays by Shakespeare into Armenian. In 1934 he participated in the First Congress of Soviet Writers held in Moscow. Decades later, several of his books were translated into English and some of his stories were turned into films.
Following the assassination of Aghasi Khanjian, first secretary of the Communist Party of Armenia, by Laurenti Beria, Stalin’s henchman in the Caucasus, a wave of repression started against many prominent intellectuals. Totovents was among the first to be arrested on July 18, 1936. He was interrogated and tortured several times, and after a summary mock trial, he was shot on July 18, 1938. His only son, Levon, died in the Soviet army fighting against the Germans in 1942, during World War II. Totovents memory and standing were rehabilitated in 1955, after the death of Stalin.