The death of Aghasi Khanjian, First Secretary of the Communist Party of Armenia from May 1930 to 1936, unleashed the beginning in Armenia of the Great Purge, the Soviet campaign of political repression orchestrated by dictator Joseph Stalin from 1936-1939.
Khanjian was born in Van on January 30, 1901. He studied in the Central School of Van. His family emigrated from the city after the heroic defense of 1915 and settled in the Caucasus. Between 1917 and 1919, he was one of the organizers of Spartak, the Marxist student’s union of Armenia. At the time of the first Republic of Armenia, he served as the secretary of the Armenian Bolshevik underground committee, and in 1920, became secretary of the Yerevan city committee.
From 1922-1928, Khanjian worked for the Communist Party in Leningrad (nowadays St. Petersburg). He was transferred to Yerevan in 1928 and rose rapidly in the party ranks because of Stalin’s patronage. In 1930 he became first secretary of the party and was able to remove the old Bolshevik leaders who had been in charge since the early 1920s.
He was a friend and supporter of many intellectuals, such as Yeghishe Charents (1897-1937), Axel Bakunts (1899-1937), and fellow Vanetzi, Gurgen Mahari (1903-1969). The three would be victims of Stalin after Khanjian’s death: Bakunts was shot, Charents died in prison, and Mahari was exiled to Siberia for ten years and then six more years.
However, Khanjian had one formidable opponent, Lavrenti Beria, the chief of the party in Georgia and very close to Stalin, who was on his way to turn Transcaucasia (he was regional secretary of the party) into his personal domain. The traditional Georgian-Armenian rivalry and Khanjian’s level of popularity in Armenia were enough to turn him into a potential rival.
In his memoirs, Vahram Alazan (1903-1966), another Vanetzi writer who was victim of the Great Purge, wrote that, when Khanjian had gone to Moscow for a plenary conference of the Communist Party, one of Beria’s henchmen, Khachik Mughdusi, who was in charge of the NKVD (the future KGB), had arrested several prominent party intellectuals, among them Nersik Stepanyan. Stepanyan was brutally beaten and forced to “confess” that he had a counterrevolutionary, Trotskyite, and nationalistic group, which was supposedly led by Aghasi Khanjian. Beria’s agents sent Stepanyan’s “confession” to Tbilisi. Khanjian returned from Moscow to Yerevan in early July 1936.
"Two days after our conversation, on July 9," Alazan wrote, "Beria invited Khanjian to the session of the presidium of the Transcaucasian Regional Committee in Tiflis. In that session, Beria made public the testimony extorted from Nersik Stepanyan and demanded Khanjian’s confession that he was a nationalist and had sponsored N. Stepanyan’s nationalist group."
After that session, Beria killed Aghasi Khanjian in his office and declared officially that Khanjian had ostensibly committed suicide to trigger enmity between the Armenian and the Georgian people."
Khanjian’s body was brought to Yerevan and buried on July 12 in an insignificant cemetery of Yerevan. Political attacks had already been orchestrated in the press and his death marked the beginning of a wave of terror that would end with thousands of Armenian political leaders, intellectuals, officials, and even ordinary people shot, imprisoned, exiled, or labeled “enemy of the people.” This wave of terror, that would last until early 1939, has been sometimes labeled a second April 24.