Exile to Siberia

Illustration by Armine Shahbazyan.

Հայերեն 

Աքսոր Սիբիր

Between 1946 and 1949, a mass post-war immigration drive sought to repatriate Armenians to Soviet Armenia. Around 90,000 took up the offer; they were families that had been displaced from their homes in the former Ottoman Empire during the Armenian Genocide. Some may have been partial to socialism, but most of those boarding the ships in Beirut were looking for a place where they belonged, an Armenian homeland, even if it was no longer independent. The historical event was known simply as the Nergakht (The Immigration).

Upon arrival, the situation they faced fell short of their dreams. They were viewed with suspicion as outsiders to the communist system. In 1949, the deportations began.

* * *

“Almost all the Armenians of Tbilisi—and there were more Armenians than Georgians in Tbilisi—had gathered not far from our parking lot. Everyone was shouting, crying, looking for their relative, brother, sister, mother, wife, bride, acquaintance. Men and women, old men and children alike were crying. I had never cried like that in my life… And how could you not cry when unexpectedly, in an hour, so many peaceful residents were being exiled from the city.”

-Arpenik Aleksanyan, (Siberian Diary: 1949-1954)

* * *

On July 8, 1949, Konstantin Bziava, the Minister of Internal Affairs of the Georgian SSR, wrote a report to Vasily Ryasno, the Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs of the USSR:

July 8, 1949

Top secret

N 1/00479:

The operation of receiving the special contingent and sending them by echelons was completed on June 18 of this year. The preparatory work was carried out in an orderly and organized manner. 76 officers took part in the operation. No violations of public order, anti-Soviet or other manifestations were reported during the operation.

A number of technical inaccuracies were recorded during the operation. Due to the uncertainty of defining and registering the contingent, their number was more than had been planned for, requiring an additional 5 echelons.

At the request of the State Security of the Georgian SSR, more than a 100 people were removed from the contingent and sent back on June 17 and 18. Due to the unplanned dispatch of the contingent, there were crowds at the reception points of Eshera and Kelasuri in the Abkhazian SSR.

A total of 25 echelons have been sent.

In total, 8,143 families (36,451 people) were sent from the Georgian SSR, including Turks – 762 families (2,500 people); Greeks – 6,692 families (31,274 people); former ARF families – 689 families (2,777 people).

One of the 689 families mentioned in the report was that of Arpenik Aleksanyan. Her father was not a “former ARF member”, but in the 1910s he moved from Turkey to Russia in search of employment. In the mid-1920s, he received Soviet citizenship. But the authorities were not interested in facts; in 1949, he was exiled to Siberia, together with his family.

On the night of June 14, 1949, tens of thousands of people in Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan and other Soviet republics, including many Armenians, were loaded on freight trains at about the same time and sent into the unknown. At the heart of this great tragedy of deprivation and human destiny was Order No. 00525 of the USSR Ministry of Internal Affairs, dated June 2, 1949, and bearing the “Special Importance” and “Top Secret” classifications.

It read: “According to Order No. 2214-856ss of the USSR Council of Ministers dated May 29, 1949, Dashnaks, Turkish citizens, stateless Turks, former citizens of Turkey with Soviet citizenship, and former Greek citizens who now have Soviet citizenship will be exiled for life from the territory of Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia and the coastal regions of the Black Sea.”

Order No. 00525 defined the areas to which the exiles were to be transferred:

In order to implement the decision of the USSR Council of Ministers accurately and on time, I am ordering deportees from the Georgian, Azerbaijani, Armenian, Ukrainian SSRs, Krasnodar Territory and Crimea region to be exiled and resettled for life:

Dashnaks to the Altay Territory – 3,620 families (13,000 people)

Turks to the Tomsk region – 1,500 families (5,400 people)

Greeks to the Jambul region – 6,000 families (21,600 people)

Greeks to the South-Kazakh region – 1,500 families (5,400 people)

 

-USSR Minister of Internal Affairs, Colonel-General S. Kruglov

Order No. 00525

The Ministers of Internal Affairs of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan—Karanadze, Grigoryan and Yagubov, respectively—were instructed to organize the reception of the deportees at the stations. A special representative of the Interior Ministry was assigned to each echelon to assist the guards and the echelon chief. The latter received food and medical services for the displaced, the daily cost of each person being 5 rubles and 50 kopeks.

Since deportation was taking place mainly from the border republics of the USSR, Lieutenant-General Stakhanov, Head of the Main Border Troops Directorate of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, was instructed by the same order to strengthen border defense during the deportation.

The echelons were organized according to the groups of deportees, and each of them had to have 30 armed guards. Prior to the deportation, local authorities had compiled lists and verified their places of residence.

During the night of June 14, 1949, groups of 5-6 people went to the houses of all the deportees, giving the family 1 to 1.5 hours to gather their most necessary belongings. Each family was allowed up to 1,000 kg of cargo. People and household items were then loaded onto trucks and transported to the station, where they were immediately loaded onto freight trains. The wagons had no windows and there was a lack of basic necessities. Under these conditions, innocent people were transported over 15 to 16 days to Siberia and Kazakhstan.

“On the morning of June 15, just before dawn, several trains on the Yerevan-Julfa and Tbilisi-Baku rail lines, consisting of hundreds of freight wagons with faces visible through their windows, were moving toward us. Reaching Alyat, the trains stopped for a few minutes and then started moving toward Balajar station,” writes Abram Kisibekyan, who had been exiled from Nagorno-Karabakh with his wife and 80-year-old mother.

Kisibekyan writes that Mir Jafar Baghirov, Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan, was implementing the decision of the Soviet government efficiently and with great eagerness: “In his venomous speech at the plenum of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan in early 1949, Baghirov called out for the eradication of known and unknown ARF members.”

On July 16, 1949, Yakubov, the Minister of Internal Affairs of the Azerbaijan SSR, reported to the Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs of the USSR Vasily Ryasno on the deportations from Azerbaijan. He reported that, in order to provide the necessary assistance to the state security bodies, appropriate instructions were given to all interested state structures, and all the military units of the border districts had been put on high alert:

“As per the agreement reached with the Ministry of State Security of the Azerbaijan SSR, we have received the deportees at two points—Kirovabad and Alyat stations. The deportees were brought there accompanied by the troops of the Ministry of State Security. Major Zikov, head of the regional unit of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, was sent to Kirovabad to help the heads of the echelons and the guards, while Lieutenant-Colonel Savchenko, head of the 1st special unit, and Lieutenant-Colonel Batluk, representative of the patrol troops of the USSR Ministry of Internal Affairs, were sent to Alyat. … 3,058 people (750 families) were admitted from the bodies of the Ministry of State Security, of which 323 were Greeks, 1,045 were Dashnaks, and 1,690 were Turks. The Greek, Turk and Dashnak deportees were placed separately in the echelons. Both echelons went to Makhachkala to receive orders for the final destination. There have been no incidents on the territory of the republic during the operation.”

Nevertheless, no matter how organized the deportation was, there were many shortcomings. On the road, people who had been mistakenly included in the lists of deportees, or whose relatives had been able to secure their release by various means, were taken off the echelons. “The chiefs of the echelons received 1,803 families (5,233 people) from the bodies of the Ministry of State Security of the Krasnodar Territory, of which 4,396 were Greeks, 673 were Turks, and 164 were Dashnaks,” reported Samusenko, instructor of the Special Settlers’ Department of the USSR Ministry of Internal Affairs, on July 1, 1949. He also reported that the train was stopped twice while transporting those being resettled in order to let those who had been deported by mistake to disembark and be sent back.

“On June 18, 1949, Major Avetisyan of the Ministry of State Security of the Armenian SSR, who had arrived by plane, appealed to us. He had submitted a solicitation to the Ministries of State Security and Internal Affairs of the Georgian SSR to allow his mother and two brothers, who had been mistakenly deported from Tbilisi, to disembark from the echelon. Major Avetisyan’s family disembarked and was handed over to the representatives of the Ministry of State Security to be sent back to Tbilisi,” reported Samusenko.

Some archival documents confirm that more people were displaced than had been planned. It was pointed out in the 1949 report of Captain Hakobyan, Deputy of the 1st Department of the Special Settlers Department of the USSR Ministry of Internal Affairs, that 57,154 people were deported instead of the intended 45,400. The deportees were distributed in the Ghezel-Ordin, Taldy-Kurgan, and Alma-Atay regions, as their numbers were significantly higher than was planned for, and it was not possible to accommodate so many people in the South-Kazakh and Jambul regions. A total of 14,167 families (57,154 people) were admitted and resettled. [1]

***

After the resettlement, the USSR Ministry of Internal Affairs continued to exercise special control over the displaced. Relevant reports were sent to Moscow about the moral and psychological mood among them, the state of inter-ethnic relations, and various conflicts and other incidents that were taking place.

On August 20, 1949, Shakhov, the head of the Altay regional department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, reported that during the months of June-July, 4,999 families (19,770 people) from Moldova had arrived in the Altay Territory, of whom 5,698 were men, 6,907 were women and 7,165 were children. Among them, exiled Dashnaks accounted for 3,848 families (15,700 people), of which 4,757 were men, 5,354 were women and 5,589 were children.

It was very important for the Soviet authorities that the deportees be employed in their places of exile, and involved in collective farms and public works. Shakhov reported that “11,315 of the adult migrants are able to work, 10,162 of them are involved in daily work, 753 of them are mostly housewives and do not work all day, due to having large families and young children.”

The collective farms and state farms also employed minors, who were mainly engaged in collecting grain. “Thus, 12,660 of the resettled Dashnaks and deportees from Moldova are working,” concluded the head of the Altay Regional Department of Internal Affairs.

Those who had come from big cities were mainly intellectuals who were not accustomed to hard physical labor and sought to work in their profession rather than on village farms. “It is impossible to provide all the settlers with jobs in their profession, especially teachers, accountants and engineers,” the same report states.

Abram Kisibekyan

Abram Kisibekyan, who was a teacher, writes that they also tried to send him and his wife to work on a collective farm, but they resolutely refused. “The next day, the director came… He suggested we go and work in the state farm’s fields or tractor stations. Five of us refused. One morning, the commandant came and ordered us to go to the field as well; we refused. The commandant suggested I work as a night guard, but I refused,” writes Kisibekyan.

Shakhov also noted that among those who refused to work on collective farms were many “people who had come from abroad,” referring to repatriates. The latter, according to the report, “are obviously dissatisfied with the move to Siberia and are dissatisfied with the actions of the party and the government, slandering the political system of the USSR.”

There was also a reference to the living conditions of the settlers, some of whom—113 families—had not been able to find a suitable home and were living in tents, which could be fatal in the harsh climate of the Altay Territory.

Shakhov also mentioned that a number of collective farms and enterprises had promised to provide accommodation for the settlers, but had not fulfilled their promise. “Upon hiring, the ‘Altayles’ trust signed a contract with the Altay Regional Department of Internal Affairs, according to which all settlers were to be accommodated in apartments adapted to winter conditions by August 15. That obligation has not been fulfilled at this time. A study of the living conditions of the settlers shows that the construction of a barracks will not be completed by September 1 due to a lack of construction materials. The construction of private houses by the settlers themselves is slowing down due to the lack of building materials, such as glass, boards and nails.”

It should be noted that the repatriates were not the only ones dissatisfied with their move to Siberia; it is understandable that this initiative of the Soviet government, which had a political component, could not have been welcomed by the deportees.

“Communications from agents and trusty informants testify that there is dissatisfaction among deported Dashnaks, especially the urban intelligentsia and those who had come from abroad in 1946, about being moved to Siberia and their living conditions. Some are trying to undermine labor discipline on collective farms, preaching the inevitability of a new world war between the USSR and the United States and, moreover, expressing confidence that the imperialist camp will win,” wrote Shakhov, the Head of the Altay Regional Department of Internal Affairs.

Ashot Grigoryan, who had settled in the Zalesovsky district, had stated that moving them to Siberia meant that a new world war was inevitable, which would end with the defeat of the USSR.

Shakhov continued, “A clergyman from Armenia has settled in the Ordzhonikidze collective farm located in the Krayushkin region. Settlers often gather at his place. During religious ceremonies, the clergyman preaches not to apply to the collective farm, where, supposedly, they do not earn anything and will be condemned to starvation. Some of the settlers blame the local Soviet structures of their former settlement for the deportation. Thus, the settler Hovhannesov, who settled in the Krayushkinsky district, stated in a conversation with the collective farmers: ‘I had a good house in the centre of the village. The village council asked me to sell my house, and when I refused, I was deported to Siberia. The local government is my enemy.’”

* * *

The legal status of “special settlers” was established by the decision of the People’s Council of the USSR on January 8, 1945. Settlers could not leave their area of residence without permission from the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Such cases were considered an attempt to escape and those found guilty were prosecuted. On November 26, 1945, another decision by the presidency of the USSR Supreme Council imposed a 20-year penal labor sentence for attempted escape.

“On July 2, the head of our region’s political department came to us. He was a middle-aged Russian man named Yerofeyev. We were all sitting on the ground, anxiously waiting for what he was going to say to us. ‘As a representative of the state, I apprise you of the purpose for which you were brought here, what rights and responsibilities you have. You are called ‘expelled’ and you must stay here forever, your rights as Soviet citizens remain inviolable and they are not limited. Here you only recognize Comrade Jhidenko, who is your commandant. You have to get permission from him to go anywhere.’ Then he pointed out to a cluster of trees a few hundred steps away from us and said, ‘Do you see that garden? It is out of our district. If any of you goes there, even by mistake, he will be imprisoned for 20 years without trial,’” writes Abram Kisibekyan.

Shakhov also mentioned that a number of collective farms and enterprises had promised to provide accommodation for the settlers, but had not fulfilled their promise. “Upon hiring, the ‘Altayles’ trust signed a contract with the Altay Regional Department of Internal Affairs, according to which all settlers were to be accommodated in apartments adapted to winter conditions by August 15. That obligation has not been fulfilled at this time. A study of the living conditions of the settlers shows that the construction of a barracks will not be completed by September 1 due to a lack of construction materials. The construction of private houses by the settlers themselves is slowing down due to the lack of building materials, such as glass, boards and nails.”

It should be noted that the repatriates were not the only ones dissatisfied with their move to Siberia; it is understandable that this initiative of the Soviet government, which had a political component, could not have been welcomed by the deportees.

“Communications from agents and trusty informants testify that there is dissatisfaction among deported Dashnaks, especially the urban intelligentsia and those who had come from abroad in 1946, about being moved to Siberia and their living conditions. Some are trying to undermine labor discipline on collective farms, preaching the inevitability of a new world war between the USSR and the United States and, moreover, expressing confidence that the imperialist camp will win,” wrote Shakhov, the Head of the Altay Regional Department of Internal Affairs.

Ashot Grigoryan, who had settled in the Zalesovsky district, had stated that moving them to Siberia meant that a new world war was inevitable, which would end with the defeat of the USSR.

Shakhov continued, “A clergyman from Armenia has settled in the Ordzhonikidze collective farm located in the Krayushkin region. Settlers often gather at his place. During religious ceremonies, the clergyman preaches not to apply to the collective farm, where, supposedly, they do not earn anything and will be condemned to starvation. Some of the settlers blame the local Soviet structures of their former settlement for the deportation. Thus, the settler Hovhannesov, who settled in the Krayushkinsky district, stated in a conversation with the collective farmers: ‘I had a good house in the centre of the village. The village council asked me to sell my house, and when I refused, I was deported to Siberia. The local government is my enemy.’”

* * *

The legal status of “special settlers” was established by the decision of the People’s Council of the USSR on January 8, 1945. Settlers could not leave their area of residence without permission from the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Such cases were considered an attempt to escape and those found guilty were prosecuted. On November 26, 1945, another decision by the presidency of the USSR Supreme Council imposed a 20-year penal labor sentence for attempted escape.

“On July 2, the head of our region’s political department came to us. He was a middle-aged Russian man named Yerofeyev. We were all sitting on the ground, anxiously waiting for what he was going to say to us. ‘As a representative of the state, I apprise you of the purpose for which you were brought here, what rights and responsibilities you have. You are called ‘expelled’ and you must stay here forever, your rights as Soviet citizens remain inviolable and they are not limited. Here you only recognize Comrade Jhidenko, who is your commandant. You have to get permission from him to go anywhere.’ Then he pointed out to a cluster of trees a few hundred steps away from us and said, ‘Do you see that garden? It is out of our district. If any of you goes there, even by mistake, he will be imprisoned for 20 years without trial,’” writes Abram Kisibekyan.

“One day the leaders of the Tomsk Ministry of Internal Affairs appeared. They gathered everyone. The colonel stood on a mound and began to talk about us. He talked of our misfortune, ‘According to the Decree of the Presidency of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR of November 25, 1948, you are exiled for life, without the right to leave the Parbigski district of the Tomsk region.’ The colonel read various decrees and then said that, if anyone escapes after hearing all this, they will receive 25 years imprisonment. And if they give refuge to a fugitive, they will receive 5 years,” writes Arpenik Aleksanyan.

In exile, special settlers were hired for low-paying and menial jobs. They were also included less in public and political life. The relations between the local population and the special settlers were also unregulated, and there were often serious conflicts. This was especially typical of the Kazakh SSR, where the settlers from the North Caucasus and Transcaucasia were concentrated. In July 1949, a fight broke out between locals and resettled Greeks in the Kirov district of the South Kazakh region, in which 200 people took part; three Greeks were killed and many were wounded. In another fight in the town of Leninogorsk in the Eastern-Kazakh region, 34 Chechen settlers were killed.

Many of the children of special settlers did not go to school. As of 1950, 91,943 children did not attend school due to a lack of winter clothes and shoes, the poor financial situation of parents, and a lack of schools in some regions.

Arpenik Aleksanyan, 24 July 1951.

Reason for Exile

Scholars still express different viewpoints in trying to explain the purpose of the 1949 exile. Some consider it to have been based on national security considerations amid the possibility of conflict against the West. Others view it as an economic initiative for developing the remote regions of the USSR.

Historian Zohrab Gevorgyan thinks that the roots of the exile of the late 1940s lie in the period of collectivization: “Collectivization or deprivation of private property was not just an economic phenomenon, but an intention to transform the management of state resources into a pyramid structure. Collectivization first of all affected a person’s independent thought because, when you change the economic management system and deprive a person of private property, you also deal a very severe blow to his way of thought and worldview. By losing his private property, a person loses his independence. The 1949 exile was a continuation of the same process; it simply included other strata after the war.”

Considering the economic reasons for the exile in the late 1940s, Gayane Shagoyan, a cultural anthropologist and researcher at the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography of the National Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Armenia, notes that resettlement was used as a means to secure cheap labor: “The state was solving the issue of modernizing the economy. This was not so much a political as an economic issue. It is another matter, as to how productive it was to use people who could be useful in different spheres as blue-collar workers.” Shagoyan goes on to note that a number of Eastern European states were able to achieve economic development without using the tactics of exile and resettlement employed by the USSR.

The professional abilities of the displaced were almost disregarded; the vast majority were employed in the collective farms, and in forests as lumberjacks. “The professions of the people being resettled were not specified at all, except for the ‘sharashkas’, which were specialized closed institutions [secret R&D labs]. For example, the arrested or resettled physicists who worked on projects to create a nuclear bomb,” said Gayane Shagoyan. She mentions that, although there were also other resettlements from Armenia and other republics of the USSR, the one in 1949 was the largest. During the war, a large number of people were deported on ethnic grounds—the Kalmyks, Chechens, Ingush, Kabardians and others.

“Both before and after the war, social groups that were perceived as disloyal to the government were being moved from border zones into far flung regions of the country. In the case of the exile of Armenians, two accusations were usually presented; one was cooperation with Nazi Germany, which was formulated as a ‘participant-member of the Armenian Legion’. However, the resettlement lists included those who had simply been taken prisoner, regardless of whether they were in the Legion or not. The second large group were the Armenians who had had other citizenships. In the case of Armenians, it was very unfair, because people who had had to flee the Ottoman Empire because of the Genocide were exiled to Siberia on charges of being citizens of the former Ottoman Empire,” said Gayane Shagoyan.

As for those who repatriated in 1946-1948, according to Gayane Shagoyan, they made up 10-12% of the total deportees from Armenia.

Arpenik Aleksanyan’s diary, which was published in 2007 under the title “Siberian Diary” is the most remarkable testimony of the 1949 exile. The book is also extremely valuable because it is Arpenik’s daily record; thus it contains direct and reliable information about the resettlement—starting with leaving her home and ending with her return in 1954.

“My mother was studying at the medical university. She had passed four out of seven final state exams and was going to become a certified doctor. She was an Armenian girl from Tbilisi who bore the culture of that time. Everyone in exile knew that Arpenik was keeping a diary, but they did not inform anyone. Nor did they hand it over to the authorities. They understood that there was someone who was recording their lives, the lives of those in exile,” recounts Arpenik Aleksanyan’s son, Harutyun Marutyan, who is now the Director of the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute.

“In exile, they tried to recruit my mother. They even threatened her at gunpoint, but she refused to cooperate. She remembered that episode until the end of her days. Instead of fairy tales, she told my sister and me stories of Siberia,” says Marutyan.

Despite all the tragedy and difficulties of exile, there is still humor and endless optimism in Arpenik Aleksanyan’s book. Even in the harsh conditions of Siberia, young girls were trying to live, to be happy and were confident that, one day, the misfortune would come to an end.

Arpenik Aleksanyan’s certificate of having being exiled, issued in 1995 by the Republic of Amrenia. 
Arpenik, her mother and younger sister, 1952. 

Homeward-Bound

The light at the end of the tunnel came in March 1953, when the state radio announced the news of Stalin’s death.

“After a while, the loudspeaker announced that Stalin was dead. We did not want to believe it. An inner instinct seemed to dictate, ‘Do not believe it, it is a conspiracy!’ We immediately left the room and went to the square, where people were talking in a happy mood, but some were very upset and confused. … We, the exiled teachers, were very concerned about what tomorrow would bring for us. Exiled Armenians were convinced that, as long as Beria was alive, we had no salvation; at the same time, his loyal comrade-in-arms Baghirov could do nothing without Beria. … One day, when four or five of us were gathered in my room once again, talking, the loudspeaker announced that Beria was the enemy of the people and had been imprisoned. This time, we could not restrain ourselves, and a powerful and piercing ‘hurray’ erupted, and the rays of liberation and hope penetrated the depths of our souls,” writes Abram Kisibekyan.

* * *

Only after Stalin’s death, and a few months after Beria’s arrest, in 1953, did the USSR begin to reconsider its treatment of the settlers. They were granted certain freedoms, and in 1954-1956, people gradually returned to their birthplaces. Kisibekyan ends his Siberian story with the following passage:

“On November 3, 1955, we left Shipunov. The train was speeding, and we were emotional and thinking, ‘Six and a half years ago, they brought three of us here. Now it is just the two of us returning.’ Ill-fated mother … We were leaving her forever. We were leaving this victim’s grave in this foreign land, forgotten by her relatives. My mother was not alone in this situation; tens of thousands of mothers, who had not committed any crime, were in the same situation.”

 

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[1] История сталинского Гулага. Конец 1920-х — первая половина 1950-х годов: Собраниедокументов в 7-ми томах. Т.5. Массовые репрессии в СССР. — М.: РОССПЭН, 2004.

Repatriation | N10 

Armenia, a place that is many things to many people also has a gravitational pull; it is multicultural in the most covert ways, a landlocked country who has an Ayvazovsky. Whether you are moving forward by moving back or moving away, you are in its orbit. This month’s issue is dedicated to the concept of repatriation.

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