Monday, June 25, 2018

Birth of Levon Orbeli (June 25, 1882)

Levon (also known as Leon) Orbeli was the middle brother in a family of scientists and an important physiologist, mostly active in Russia, who made important contributions to this discipline.

Orbeli was born in Darachichak (nowadays Tzaghkadzor), in Armenia, on June 25, 1882. He was the brother of archaeologist Ruben Orbeli (1880-1943) and orientalist Hovsep (Iosif) Orbeli (1887-1961). The family descended from the princely Orbelian family, which ruled over the region of Siunik between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries.

The future scientist graduated from the Russian gymnasium in Tiflis in 1899 and continued his studies at the Imperial Military-Medical Academy of St. Petersburg. He was still a second-course student, when he started working in the laboratory of famous physiologist Ivan Pavlov in 1901, the same year when Pavlov developed the concept of conditioned reflex. Orbeli's life and scientific career would be closely connected with Pavlov’s work for the next thirty-five years.

He graduated from the Military Medical Academy in 1904 and became an intern at the Naval Hospital in the Russian capital. He joined Pavlov as his assistant in the Department of Physiology at the Institute for Experimental Medicine from 1907 to 1920. He was sent abroad to do research from 1909-11, working in Germany, England, and Italy.

Afterwards, Orbeli occupied many top positions in the Russian scientific world. He was head of the laboratory of physiology at the P. F. Lesgaft Scientific Institute in Leningrad (the new name for St. Petersburg during the Soviet times) from 1918 to 1957. Meantime, he was professor of physiology at the First Leningrad Medical Institute (1920-1931) and at the Military-Medical Academy (1925-1950), which he also directed from 1943 to 1950.

In 1932 he entered the USSR Academy of Sciences as corresponding member and was elected academician in 1935. After Pavlov’s death, Orbeli became Russia’s most prominent scientist. He developed a new scientific discipline, evolutionary physiology, consistently applying the principles of Darwinism. He devoted particular attention to the application of the principles of evolution to the study of all the nervous subsystems in animals and man. He promoted the study of human physiology, especially vital activity under unusual and extreme conditions. His more than 200 works on experimental and theoretical science included 130 journal articles.

Levon Orbeli was director of the Institute of Physiology of the Academy (1936-1950) and of the Institute of Evolutionary Physiology of the USSR Academy of Medical Sciences (1939-1950), where he was elected academician in 1944. He served as vice-president of the USSR Academy of Sciences (1942-1946), where he founded and headed the Institute of Evolutionary Physiology in 1956. He was an academician of the Armenian Academy of Sciences in 1943 (his brother Hovsep was the founder) and had an important legacy in the development of physiology in Armenia. The Institute of Physiology of the Academy of Sciences carries his name.

He received many honors for his extraordinary scientific work. He was member of many foreign societies and earned the State Prize of the USSR (1941) and two important prizes of the Soviet Academy of Sciences In 1937 and 1946. He was bestowed with many decorations, including the title of Hero of Socialist Labor in 1945.

In the last years of Stalin’s life, sciences became the target of state repression. At a joint session of the USSR Academy of Sciences and the Academy of Medical Sciences in 1950, the official doctrine of “Pavlovism” was promulgated and many prominent physiologists, including Orbeli, were denigrated and blamed for being non-Marxists, reactionaries, and having Western sympathies. Like many others who were victim of these political games, Orbeli would be rehabilitated after the death of Stalin in 1953.

He passed away on December 9, 1958, in Leningrad, where he was buried. A museum in the town of Tzaghkadzor (Armenia), inaugurated in 1982 (picture), on the centennial of Levon Orbeli’s birth, is dedicated to the three Orbeli brothers.

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.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Death of Ara Sarkissian (June 13, 1969)

Ara Sarkissian is considered the founder of Soviet Armenian sculpture.
He was born in the suburb of Makrikeuy, near Constantinople, on April 7, 1902. He studied at the local Dadian School, and after 1914, when his family moved to the neighborhood of Pera, in the city, he attended the Essayan School. After working menial jobs during the war to make some money, he studied at the local Art School from 1919-1921 and then he moved to Rome to continue studies there, but after half year he entered the Vienna School of Masters (1921-1924). In both schools he already showed progress in sculpture, and the impact of World War I and the Armenian Genocide leaned him towards tragic subjects.
Still a student, in 1921-1922 he collaborated in Rome, Vienna, and Berlin in the logistics of the Operation Nemesis, at a time when the liquidations of former Ottoman Prime Minister Said Halim pasha and genocidaires Behaeddin Shakir and Jemal Azmi were being planned. Sarkissian appears as A.S. in the Armenian original of Arshavir Shiragian’s memoirs (1965), although his mention has been eliminated in the English translation. 
In 1924 Sarkissian was granted Soviet citizenship in Vienna and the next year he settled in Yerevan, where he would live the rest of his life. In 1926 he organized the Soviet Armenian chapter of the Association of Painters of Revolutionary Russia and was elected its president. Six years later he became the founding president of the Painters Union of Armenia until 1937. In 1945 he became the founding director of the Institute of Art of Yerevan (now the Art Academy of Yerevan) until 1959, and later he was head of chair and director of the atelier until his death.
In the 1920s and 1930s Sarkissian’s busts of Armenian writers and intellectuals were characterized by their expressiveness. During World War II, he sculpted busts of Armenian soldiers and various patriotic compositions. One of his best works, the statue of Bolshevik revolutionary Sergei Kirov, was installed in Kirovakan (formerly Gharakilise) in 1942, but after the fall of the Soviet regime and the renaming of Kirovakan into Vanadzor, it was retired in 1992. During his life he participated in many exhibitions in Yerevan, Tbilisi, and Moscow.
In 1949 he was elected corresponding member of the Soviet Academy of Arts and became a full member in 1958. In 1963 he earned the title of People’s Artist of the USSR.
Sarkissian’s most recognizable works are the statues of Hovhannes Tumanian and Alexander Spendiarian in front of the Yerevan Opera House (1957), which he co-authored with Ghugas Chubarian, and the statues of Mesrob Mashdots and Sahak Bartev in the courtyard of the main building of Yerevan State University.
Ara Sarkissian's participation in the Operation Nemesis and his involvement with the Armenian Revolutionary Federation had remained unknown in Soviet Armenia for obvious political reasons. However, in the last years it has been disclosed that his dismissal from the post of director of the Institute of Art in 1959 was due to the fact that he had a brother in Greece who was an A.R.F. leader and whom he met that year in Brussels. It is suspected that his sudden death on June 13, 1969, two days after being discharged from the hospital after a surgery for a broken foot, was linked to the previous discovery that the sculptor had been involved in the Operation Nemesis four decades before.
Ara Sarkissian was posthumously awarded the USSR State Prize (1971). The two-floor house that he shared with painter Hakob Kojoyan became a house-museum dedicated to both artists in 1973.