Thursday, June 14, 2018

Deportation to Altai (June 14, 1949)

The great wave of repression of 1936-1938, which cost the lives of millions of Soviet citizens, had several thousands of victims in Armenia, including many people who were exiled to Siberia. During and after World War II, a second, less well-known wave would shatter many areas of the Soviet Union, including Armenia.

The preparations, in utmost secrecy, started in January 1949. By command of the Ministry of State Security of the USSR, lists of former Armenian Revolutionary members (Dashnaks), former war prisoners and members of the Nazi-sponsored Armenian Legions, repatriates, and their families were prepared.

On May 28, 1949, the ministry gave the order, and the next day, the USSR Council of Ministers, with Stalin’s signature, approved the “extremely secret” resolution No. 2214-856: “On the transportation, repopulation, and work allocation of those expelled from the Georgian, Armenian, and Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republics, as well as the coastal areas of the Black Sea.”

A group of high-ranking officials of the Ministry of State Security arrived in Yerevan, led by Lieut.-Gen Yuri Yedunov, deputy head of the Second General Committee. The latter was well experiences in these matters, since he had managed the expulsion of the so-called families of “bandits and kulaks” of Latvia (28,981 people) on March 25-28 of the same year.

On the night of June 13-14, 1949, the unexpected happened. Both the locals, who already knew the Stalin inferno, and the repatriates, who took pains to get used to the whims of the totalitarian regime, were taken by surprise. Deportations were common as punishment from the 1920s, but they had skipped Armenians so far. That night, 2,754 families (12,300 people) were exiled from all regions of Soviet Armenia to the Altai territory, in the southeast of Western Siberia. Around twelve percent (1,578 people) of the deportees were repatriates. Of those families, the greatest number came from Yerevan (461) and Echmiadzin (182). Interestingly, the massive expulsion had no ethnic grounds; the deportees were known by the label of “Dashnaks.” The targeted repatriates were those with former Greek and Turkish citizenship.

They were sent by train in cargo wagons, and traveled for about two weeks until they were placed in the collective farms and state farms of the Altai region, without knowing why they were moved and what their fault was. The mass deportation was legalized much later, from November 1949-June 1950. A special committee adjunct to the Ministry of State Security prepared documents in the name of the elder of the exiled family or the member of the family who was the cause for exile.

The deportees were told that there was no return and they would stay there until their death. They were warned about leaving their area of residence, which would be penalized with 20 years of prison or forced labor. They had to present themselves once a week at the guard’s office to sign papers that confirmed their presence.

The exiles wrote letters addressed to the highest hierarchy of the country (Stalin, Beria, Malenkov, Voroshilov), as well as Grigor Harutiunian, First Secretary of the Armenian Communist Party, asking for leniency and explaining that they had committed no crime to deserve such a punishment. However, most of the time, those letters were useless, and the response was standard: “Your issue is not subject to review.”

The exiled families were involved in lumbering or farming. Neither their education nor their expertise counted. The repatriates, in particular, had big issues with language, since they mostly did not speak Russian, and this complicated their interactions at work and with the authorities. The children received their education only in Russian.

After Stalin’s death, the life of the exiled had some improvement. They were not allowed to return, but they could make “illegal” movements within the region of Altai, change their residence, find another job, et cetera. The authorities started giving encouraging responses to the letters written after Stalin’s death. A special commission was set up in 1954 to review the cases of the deportees. In the next two years, they were absolved of their “crimes,” and by 1956 the overwhelming majority of the exiled families were back in Armenia.

There is very little documentation about this tragic episode of Soviet Armenian history. It remained totally unspoken until the fall of the Soviet Union. Since 2006, June 14 is commemorated in the Armenian calendar as Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Repression. A memorial complex to the victims of repression during Soviet times was opened in Yerevan on December 3, 2008. Today there are some 6,000 victims of repression from 1937 and 1949, and 8,400 descendants of those victims living in Armenia.