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Gayane Shagoyan met Samvel Gevorgyan (pic 1) on 24 May, 2012 in the village of Panik, Shirak marz. Samvel, born in 1949, is the principal of the village school (pic 2) and teaches history.

“Most of our villagers come from Khastur Village of Alashkert [currently in Turkey]. They were already Catholics at the time of relocation and resettled all together – the entire community. My grandparents, however, hailed from Erzrum and they were not Catholics. When they came here, the church was already functioning and they converted to Catholicism, which did not cause any problem at all. I tell you about the events of 1860s. My father’s grandfather was born here. Before that, when the family was on the way to this village his father got separated and lost his 4 brothers on the way. He managed to reach this village and settled here alone. Years later we found the other brothers in Akhuryan region.

My ancestors came here in 1860 but the village was founded in 1812. Our family was from the outskirts of Erzrum and quite wealthy. In those years the wealth was measured by the number of carts one possessed. The family arrived with 2 carts, which meant they were rather prosperous. The family was large; my grandfather’s father had many daughters and two sons. My grandfather was a Dashnak police officer but after [19]20-ies, when the Soviet regime was established, they did not mention that publicly. Years later, in [19]60, I found his ARF membership card and he was struck with fear, “My boy, don’t rake over the past, they will arrest me”. The fear still had him in its grip.

Nobody ever informed on him. He was a kind person and worked as a foreman in the kolkhoz. He used to help many people. He never joined the Communist party but was a collective farmer; he became a foreman and helped a lot of people during the years of famine. Even a handful of wheat was a great help then and nobody informed on him for that. He was on friendly terms with the others. They had come from a completely different city – from Erzrum, but they got along with the people of the village. Grandpa’s wife – my grandmother, was a Catholic. She was a local, a village girl. Grandpa was born and baptized into Catholicism here. My great grandpa was also a Catholic born here.

In [19]41 my father finished school and in December of [19]41, at the age of 17 he went to war (pic 3)… Dad was born in [19]24. His name was Gevorgyan Suren. At the end of [19]42 both he and his cousin were taken prisoner. A very interesting story ensued: the Germans took them to France to work in Ruhr lands. My father was a little crafty and knew languages pretty well. He spoke German, English and very, very good Russian. He said to his cousin, “Gourgen, we have to get out of here”. They organized the escape and fled to France. By that time France was already partly occupied and they fled to the French controlled zone. There Soviet chekists intercepted them and took to a spy school. By that time he had already learned French as well. In a week’s time father suggested that they should escape from there too. However, Gourgen was reluctunt this time, arguing that they had nowhere to go and should they get into the hands of their own, there will be no slavation, they’ll definately be executed. Father left him behind and made it out on his own. He reached America and there got a proposal from a wealthy person who was willing to give his daughter into marriage to him. Dad was a bachelor that time but he refused, got into a ship and sailed home through Africa. As arrived to Armenia in [19]44, went straight to the recruitment office and reported about his captivity and escape. They redeployed him to the frontline, until in [19]46 he was demobilised and returned home. He married in [19]49 and I was born in the same year on May 28.

I was only 15 days old when they exiled me in June. My father was not in the village: he was working in Zugdidi, Georgia so they exile my 20-year-old mother and me. Dad was unaware of our fate for 2 months but he returned home as soon as he learned about us. He immediately went to the recruitment office and asked to send him to his family but they refused because my parents’ marriage was not officially registered.

My mother had been living in the family of her husband and although they didn’t have official registration that much was considered a sufficient basis for the exile. When they were taking us away, our relatives were there. My father’s nephew was standing at the door not to let my mother escape: they must have already known that we were to be exiled. He was Niko’s son Yerem. Yerem was a Communist activist. They had appointed him to guard the door so that we couldn’t escape… I have cordial relations with his son now, we are very close. After all we are relatives, how can I not. Yerem didn’t enter the house. He just came and stood at our door. He didn’t know if we were in or out. He had just come to guard. They were activists then.

My mom used to tell that I was the youngest person in the train that carried us to Syberia. The whole train had 20 freight cars with no seats and no bathing facilities. Whenever the train stopped people from our car would run out and fetch hot water from the steam engine to bath me. The locomotive ran on water and they would bath me with that water. They hadn’t allowed my mom to take any belongings except for some cloths for me, nothing else. Four families were exiled from our village in [19]49. All four were families of war prisoners. They had the lists.

My father went to the Military Commissariat where he was told that the time had passed, and he was free to decide for himself – go or not go. Of course he had earned money in Georgia but it was not nearly enough to undertake the journey and besides the officials didn’t even give him an accurate address. All they said was approximate coordinates in the Altai Krai. Dad’s family was also against his plan, especially my grandmother, who was afraid that she’d lose him as well. Dad explained to them that his family had been exiled because he was a POW and that we were innocent.  He persuaded the family to support him and travelled for 5 months in freight cars until he found us. He had never seen me before because at the time of my birth he was away. He found us in Aleysk sovkhoz, of Aleysk region in Altai. It was a big settlement divided into three parts. Each part was something like a village by itself. The school was in 10 minutes walking distance from the barracks building where we lived. We returned to Armenia in [19]60 when I finished my 4th grade.

We lived in the barrack from [19]49 to [19]56 and stayed in someone’s house for another 2-3 years until we came back to Armenia. Yes, we lived in a barrack from [19]49 to [19]56 or 57. We had only one room and a part of a corridor adjacent to the room. The corridor could not be used in winter and our only heater was in the room… Each family had one room. Ours was in the end of the barrack and there was a window in the upper part of the barrack, right in our section of the corridor. The cooking place was in the yard or in the corridor in summer but in winter it was indoors. I guess there were at least twenty rooms in the barrack,  for example, Keto’s family, the uncle of the singer Davit Amalian who was in exile as well, they were in the same building with us. His name was Kerob, but people in the village called him Keto. They were probably given two rooms because their family was larger. They had grown up sons of military service age and daughters of marriage age. There was also another family who had two rooms. I would go to them very often and I have a lively memory of their room because they used to arrange their matrasses one over the other in order to make more space and would often put me ontop of those. I do remember that.

It was not allowed to speak Armenian there. We couldn’t speak  Armenian there. My mom couldn’t utter a word in Armenian for the fear of being overheard and informed on. All the inhabitants of the barrack were Armenians but they could not speak Armenian. Nobody was allowed to speak our language. Mothers could not even reproach their children in Armenian.  Our first childish prattle was  in Russian, in fact. I didn’t understand that I could speak Armenian. Even now when I speak, in my head I think in Russian. I attended school until I was 18 and until the fifth grade my main language of instruction was Russian. How could I know Armenian better? I guess the ban on speaking Armenian remained up to [19]55. Speaking Armenian with us was pointless, because we were children, Russian speakers and did not have the conciousness to learn a second language. My parents were also speaking Russian to each other, lest someone should eardrop on us. In the end, when we were finally allowed to return they started talking in Armenian. I was old enough but did not know a single word in Armenian. My parents did. The neighbor housewives would gather in the barrack or at the front door and would speak Armenian. When we came to Armenia, my sister learned the first word in Armenian “sherep” (scoop) and came to me asking if I knew how to say scoop in Armenian. She pronounced “sherep” with hard “r” like the Russians do. My cousins, all of them guys, listened to her pronunciation and started to call her “sherep”, “sherep”. The first 2-3 months we spoke neither Russian nor Armenian until we went to school and began to study the language. Nobody bothered us in exile. I don’t remember how the procedure of re-affirming our presence was when I was little, but in [19]54-55 my dad used to take us by his service car, he was the director of an oil depot by then, somewhere once or twice a year to let them know that we were there. The place was probably the Prosecutor’s Office…

Although I was young but I still remember Stalin’s death in [19]53. The people of the barrack were all Armenians and they all gathered to mourn and cry for his death. Perhaps they were crying of joy but, of course, nobody would reveal their true sentiments and it was as if they were mourning. We came back to Armenia in [19]60 although we were released earlier. My father was a sovkhoz director. He finished the VePeSha and had joined the Communist party there: he was not a deportee. Only my mom and I were exiled, he was a Communist and was living with us. At first, he was an ordinary state farm worker, then he worked in the store, after that he was appointed director of the oil depot and later headed the sovkhoz. The territory of that farm was larger than the town of Artik. He worked there until [19]60. In [19]60 we returned to Armenia. My mom insisted on our return to homeland. I was at school then, 11 years of age. My sister and my brother were also at school. My other brother was 4 years old. Only my youngest brother was born in Armenia after our return.  We were 4 brothers and one sister.

My father had a good job. My mother was a housewife. I must say that we were not prohibited from communication with the locals. There were Chechens and some other people as well, although I don’t have a very detailed memory of them: we did not socialize that much. There was a very nice woman Frosya living in a house close to our barrack. She used to visit us and we would pay her a visit. I do remember that, maybe that was in the last years but I remember her. There were Georgians, Chechens and Armenians. The whole barrack was inhabited by Armenians. If I am not mistaken, there were 20 families from different places of Armenia. From our village there were only two families; our family and the family of Hrach.

In [19]55… no…we were acquitted later. In [19]55 they released us but the rehabilitation came later. We probably were rehabilitated in the post-Soviet period. My mother and I had a certificate of repression but my mother is dead now… and the documents of my father…he died as well. Back in Armenia he took up to seasonal work, he was coming and going abroad and eventually died in a car crash in [19]70s. He passed through the turmoil of war and survived it but… it must have been his fate.

Why did we come back? It was a mistake: my mother pushed us to return. It must have been because our relatives were here. My mother’s family wasn’t that large: she had sisters and a brother here but she was a very sociable person and wanted to be surrounded by her relatives. But when we arrived and her husband died in an accident or when he began to leave for seasonal work she regretted her decision.

By the way, I joined the Communist Party at the age of 18. I was a student then and did not face any complication. On the contrary, when I introduced myself they were astonished that a 15-days-old child had been repressed. My birth was registered in Russia because my parents hadn’t registered their marriage here officially. I got the papers in Russia, the same day and year except for my birthplace was written as Russia. I became a Communist when I was a student, before that I was in Komsomol. The fact of my exile never hindered me.

They say the churches were turned into storages in the Soviet Union. That’s not true. The government never enforced such things, even in [19]37.  Our church (pic. 4) was never closed and nobody compelled us to do so. True, some of the village activists blocked it and damaged the building a bit but people would go to church, those who knew prayers prayed but there were no priests. Clerics were invited to baptize the children in broad daylight, publicly. In Soviet period in [19]70s or the end of [19]60s, the church was renovated by the donations of the villagers. We collected money and repaired the collapsed roof. In [19]71, it was repaired for the second time (pic. 5).We managed to renovate it even in those years (pic. 6).

In [19]66, when I finished school I knew Soghomon Teyleryan’s name, which was prohibited. I learned it at school. Our teachers were telling us about Soghomon Teyleryan. In Armenia even 1 percent of people did not know Soghomon Teyleryan’s name, but we knew it. Each student ought to know the “Lord’s prayer” in [19]60 otherwise he would get a good beating from our late teacher Petros Nahapetyan. Any child had to know the provinces of Armenia by heart. The provinces of Western or historic Armenia were Utik, Syunik, Paytakaran, Tayk, Taron and Vaspourakan etc. Who dared to utter such names in those days? We even learned to rhyme the names, everybody knew them without exception. The regional administration found out and they were coming to our classes with inspections. But what harm did we make?  We were just learning the names of the provinces of Western Armenia or the names of the rivers or lakes.

Now they complain about the Soviets. If I, if we see something positive about the current authorities we’ll forget about the Soviet years. Me and my wife, we were teachers. We built a two-story house on teachers’ salary, we could afford a car and we had enough money to travel each year. I was changing my car every three years. I worked in the village of Panik for 22 years and never thought about vacations throughout that time. When we rejected the Communists in [19]92-93,  my mother said, “My boy, you are the one who suffered most among the villagers; you were exiled when you were 15 days old”. Therefore I have the right to blame the Soviet, right?” Look, we are farmers and we can, at least, plant potatoes, onions, garlic, beans to fill our stomachs. What should the teachers in the city do when they retire and get thirty thousand drams of pension [80 dollars]? How should they hang on? Is it better now than in the Soviets? In those years a Soviet teacher would retire and get a hundred and thirty-two rubles of pension, which made two hundred dollars then. The old hundred dollars would make two thousand dollars now because the dollar has devaluated. That’s why we say we lived better then. We certainly realize that it was an authoritarian regime but what we have now is outright anarchy. The center was feared then but now it’s anarchy.

If I see a better life tomorrow, if the same teacher gets a salary that can afford him a house, a car and a vacation, I will say it is better today than it was in Soviet times. Here is Armenia and there is Kamchatka, you could make a 10.000 km long journey and never come across any mistreatment for being Armenian. Even if someone should misbehave he would get a severe punishment. What is totalitarian here? I speak of a long journey but at present one can travel to Yerevan from here and encounter many problems: I don’t know what would happen if you just scratch an expensive car of a wealthy person, or park the car at the gate of a rich person’s house or park it in front of his store. What would become of you? You say it was a totalitarian country but now it is an anarchic country. Isn’t the totalitarian system better than anarchy?”.

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