He was simply known as “Amatuni” when he briefly showed up at the top echelons of Soviet Armenia in the 1930s, but his name became infamous for those who are acquainted with the horrors of Stalinism.
As an irony of history, his actual name was Amatuni Vardapetian, so he descended from a doctor of the Church. There were several Bolshevik militants whose last names show a religious connection, and they would become its greatest persecutors.
Amatuni was born on October 24, 1900, in Elizavetpol (Gandzak, nowadays Ganja), in the region of Lower Gharabagh. His biography is relatively sketchy. He became a member of the Communist Party in 1919, and probably at this time he adopted his first name as his last name.
After working in some positions of leadership within the Communist Youth, Amatuni studied at the Institute of Red Professorship in Moscow (1926-1928) and then returned to Armenia, where he was head of the department of propaganda of the Central Committee of the local Communist Party, then secretary of the provincial committee of Yerevan and of the Central Committee itself. He later moved on and from 1931-1935 he worked in Tbilisi and Baku in similar positions.
Meanwhile, the death of veteran Bolshevik Sergei Kirov, assassinated in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) in December 1934, was a signal for the repression of the following years, as it was ascribed to a mythical “right-Trotskyite” center. The latter supposedly responded to Lev Trotsky, who had been expelled from the Soviet Union following his defeat in the power struggle with Stalin. A special committee created during the 20 th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1956 noted in its report that from 1935-1940 a total of 1,635,000 people had been arrested for anti-Soviet activities, of which 688,503 were shot to death. Almost ninety percent of those arrests happened in the period 1937-1938.
Amatuni, a henchman of Stalin’s right hand in the Caucasus, Laurenti Beria, was sent back to Armenia as second secretary of the Central Committee from 1935-1936. The repression started in Armenia with the arrest of Nersik Stepanian, director of the Institute of Marxism-Leninism, in May 1936. Stepanian was charged as the leader of the “right-Trotskyite” center, which supposedly aimed at ending the Soviet rule in Armenia, separating the country from the Soviet Union, and declaring independence, and shot in July 1937. On July 9, Aghasi Khanjian, first secretary of the Central Committee, was summoned to Tiflis for a meeting with Beria and committed “suicide” (many decades later, it was found out that he had been murdered by Beria himself). On the day of his burial, July 12, there was a meeting of the “party active,” where 23 participants declared that Khanjian was a traitor, chauvinist, sponsor of anti-revolutionary elements, and so on and so forth. He was replaced with Amatuni, who unleashed a series of arrests of party members, intellectuals, clergymen, members of the military, et cetera, with false charges orchestrated by Khachik Mughdusi (Astvatzatrian), Commissar (minister) of Internal Affairs.
This first wave of repression, which lasted until September 1937, included many former party leaders in Soviet Armenia and even many veterans of the sovietization period in 1920-1921. Many famous writers, like Yeghishe Charents, Axel Bakunts, Gurgen Mahari, Vahan Totoventz, Zabel Essayan, and others were also among those who were summarily condemned to death and shot, died in prison, or were sent to exile in Siberia.
The repressors soon became the repressed. The second wave would start with the plenary session of the Central Committee on 20-22 September 1937, with the leading participation of Beria from Tiflis, and Georgi Malenkov and Anastas Mikoyan from Moscow. Amatuni, who had been hailed on September 5 in the party newspaper Khorhrdayin Hayastan as the one who had helped disclose the “wreckers,” was accused of having become the new leader of the “right Trotskyite center” and arrested during the plenary, together with Stepan Akopov, second secretary of the Central Committee, and Mughdusi. He was replaced with Beria’s protégé Grigori Arutiunov, who would last until the death of Stalin and the fall of Beria in 1953.
Nikolai Yezhov, head of the NKVD (the predecessor to the KGB) from 1936-1938, addressed a letter marked “secret” to Stalin on September 22, 1937. He wrote: “Comrade Mikoyan asks to allow shooting a supplement of 700 people with the goal of cleaning Armenia from anti-Soviet elements . . . I suggest to shoot 1,500 people, for a total of 2,000 people including the previously approved number.”
From 1937-1938, a total of 8,104 people became victim of the repression, including former members of the three Armenian parties (Armenian Revolutionary Federation, Hunchakian Party, and Ramgavar Azadagan Party), and of Socialist parties. The list shows that 3,729 were indicted for anti-Soviet activities, 1,333 for A.R.F. activities, 508 for anti-revolutionary activities, 109 for being Trotskyites, and 9 for chauvinist activities. Almost sixty per cent of the victims of repression (4,530 people) were shot.
Seventy-one of the 106 participants in the “party active” meeting of July 12, 1936, were subsequently liquidated, as well as many executors and witnesses of the crimes committed from 1936-1937. Among them was Amatuni, who was shot in Moscow on July 28, 1938.