“ Aside from what I have said during the preliminary investigation and here in this courtroom, in my given testimony, I announce that I have not undertaken any directive against the USSR on behalf of French intelligence, I have not carried out any assignment and have done nothing bad against the Soviet Union. I am guilty of the crimes I have committed; I am more misfortunate than any other woman criminal. I am beseeching the court to take into account my honest confession and give me the opportunity to atone for my sin and all those mistakes I have made. ”
This is how writer, literary critic and public figure Zabel Yesayan concluded her remarks on January 23,1939 to the questions posed by the court before receiving her verdict. A year and a half had already passed since her arrest on June 27,1937. Yesayan, who, throughout her public and cultural activities – from Constantinople to Paris to Soviet Yerevan – embraced all the difficulties of her life and horrific historical events with dignity, who was deeply conscious of her mission to serve national objectives, was now exhausted by the seemingly endless interrogations, torture, prison conditions, shortage of food and from the consistent deprivation of a writer’s weapons – pen and paper.
Yesayan, who, was one of the most notable Armenian intellectuals at the beginning of the 20th century, earning her “honorable” place on the Young Turks’ infamous list of April 24, 1915, often met life’s challenges head on and took upon herself to document the Armenian Genocide, care for the orphans, disseminate and promote Armenian literature in Europe, found refuge from the damp and dark walls of her cell by holding improvised lessons of French literature for her cellmates. Her book “In the Ruins” is a heartfelt and sober depiction of the 1909 Adana massacre of the Armenians, published only two years after the events took place, in the midst of growing tensions in Ottoman Turkey.
Yesayan, who, even when Turkish gendarmes came to her door in Constantinople to arrest her, did not stumble or become flustered, but rather to the question, “Are you Zabel Yesayan?” calmly replied that Zabel was inside and then managed to escape. For months she hid in one of the hospitals of Constantinople, from where, she was able to flee to Europe with her son, leaving her place of birth once and for all. Even in Paris she was not able to avoid welcoming danger by collecting and publishing, under a male pseudonym, the eyewitness accounts of those who had escaped the Genocide, and thus continuing her mission of documenting horrific events.
And now, years later, Zabel Yesayan is standing before a Soviet courtroom acknowledging her guilt, no longer having the strength to battle against the endless disparagement. Guilty not of spying, of which she stands accused, but simply for having a connection to those who had already been proclaimed the “people’s enemy” or were suspected of spying – people, writers that she, Yesayan, had never been suspicious of but something which had become the singular sin she could attribute to herself as a result of more than a year of interrogations.
Years later, in 1956, when Zabel’s son Hrant Yesayan requested that her case be reopened, one of the people who provided testimony would be her cellmate, Karine Gyulikekhvyan: “Sometimes It was done in such a way that they would bring her in for questioning several times a day. After returning Yesayan, Zabel would appear empty and embarrassed. She would say that various absurdities were added to her accusations, about which she had no idea, that they had accused her of spying.”
All of this would take place in the Soviet republic which Zabel Yesayan had preferred over Paris and abandoning her European prospects, had moved with her family to Yerevan in 1932.
Yesayan, center, with fellow Armenian intellectuals.
In Paris, during the declaration of the first Armenian Republic, Dikran Yesayan on the left, in the middle Sofie, and Zabel and Hrant on the right. Source
“ The center of human development has been relocated to the capital of the Soviet Union. Progressive humanity is from Moscow, which waits for it’s impetus; Soviet literature and the arts are called upon to fulfil the role that Athens, Renaissance Italy and later Paris, through the mist of centuries, were able to do. And that role, that Moscow is called upon to realize and which it is already realizing is much bigger, more fundamental and even more conscious. ”
This is a passage from Zabel Yesayan’s speech, which she delivered during the convention of Soviet Armenia’s Writer’s Union
In that same speech, Yesayan analyzes the course of contemporary literature in the world and in Armenia – symbolism, futurism, impressionism – she touches upon Medzarents, Bakunts, Charents. “Yeghishe Charents is the greatest poet and that is undeniable for everyone; his talent, like a sparkling light, dazzles us all,” she said, repudiating the severe appraisals of Charents by the Union’s President Drastamat Ter Simonyan, knowing full well that the criticisms leveled at the poet were the expressions of political pressure. At the end of her speech, she once again underscores the greatness and value of Charents.
A passage from Zabel Yesayan’s speech, which she delivered during the convention of Soviet Armenia’s Writer’s Union. Source – National Archive of Armenia. Translation below.
“ Coming to Charents’ aspiration for the coming years, he can look toward what is coming with bright eyes. Many of our names will be lost forever, but coming generations will not forget Charents. Perhaps some of our names will be passed onto future generations only because we had, imbued with the values of Charents, been just or unjust toward someone. ”
Yesayan, who was so strong in her convictions and belief in justice, would perhaps not be forgiven for these exact qualities – speaking out against inequality, criticizing the unworthy, praising the one who is worthy, despite the prevailing political mood. Even after her arrest, even during her interrogation she truly believed that there was no alternative to speaking the truth. And when on January 23, 1939, she was standing before the court and received the Russian version of testimony she had given in Armenian, in which the thoughts expressed often directly contradicted her own thoughts and the reality, Yesayan still believed that the charges against her about being an agent of French intelligence was simply a misunderstanding and an error in translation and that clarifications would resolve the issue.
It was in 1928, after her first visit to the Soviet Union – Moscow and Armenia – that she published her novel in Marseille “Liberated Prometheus” where she expresses her enthusiasm for the reforms and promises of the Soviet system. “When I was living France, I had all the possibilities to depart for America; they were even covering my travel expenses, but I declined and came to the Soviet Union with good intentions, I did not have any hostile objective,” Zabel said in the courtroom. “In Soviet Armenia, I see the fatherland of the Armenians, thereby also mine and I believe that I could be found to be helpful in the development of Armenian literature.” And indeed, after moving to Yerevan, Zabel was actively involved in Armenia’s social and political life; she became a member of the Writer’s Union and a delegate to the first convention; she taught French and European literature at the State University, she traveled to the regions of Armenia, visiting factories and becoming acquainted with and documenting the lives, problems and dreams of ordinary people.
“Zabel Yesayan would never lose hope and would say that whatever happens, the truth would win, they would really clarify the details of her case and would lift all the accusations that were shamelessly leveled against her. She would say that she would bear this unjust accusation and would still be of service for Soviet Armenia,” Karine Gyulikekhvyan said recalling her conversations with Zabel in the prison cell.
It would be in that very Soviet Armenia, that a judge in 1939 would have to deliver his cruel verdict as though it was a routine announcement. It was as if the person before him was not Zabel, was not Charents, was not Bakunts, it was not that rich life, that brilliant mind and courageous spirit, but rather a column of faceless, lifeless ghosts… Most likely, that gloomy, monotonous process had already bored the judge, with pointless questions, that the shorter it was the quicker he could add the next name to the same “order” hoping to make it vanish in a burst of gunpowder smoke.
Fragment from the 1939 court verdict sentencing Yesayan to death. Source – National Archive of Armenia.
Some time after the trial, Zabel Yesayan tells Karine Gyulikekhvyan about the hours she spent waiting for her execution…”When she was in the cell for those prisoners waiting to be executed, on the inside of a matchbox using the end of a pin, she wrote with her own blood that she is not guilty of anything, and that it is heavy to depart life, hoping that someone would read it and the truth would prevail.”
From the memoirs of Zabel’s daughter Sofi Yesayan, it becomes clear that the family was unaware of neither the trial nor the verdict. Eight months after the hearing, Sofi wrote of her meeting with Zabel: “I had to see my mother on September 2, 1939. My mother was in the city jail. She was wearing a black robe, her hair was extremely white but psychologically she was uninhibited. She caressed my two-year-old child and said, ‘You will be a Pioneer and you will say that my grandmother was an an-ti- re-vo-lu-tion-a-ry…’ and then contradicting herself said, ‘But, no, you will not say this 20 years later…’ Responding to my brother’s question about whether there had been a hearing, my mother responded, ‘Yes, the first decision was a bit much, the second was nothing.’”
That “nothing” was the “softened” new verdict from Moscow – 10 year imprisonment in response to Zabel Yesayan’s petition, which she had quickly formulated and sent to Moscow, asking them to reconsider the death sentence and provide time to clarify the evidence. Yesayan and her children maintained correspondence for a few more years. The last letters that are in the archives are dated 1943 from Baku, although her son, Hrant, in his appeal to reopen her case, notes that the last letter they received from their mother was in April 1945, afterwhich according to those who had seen her, she was severely ill with dysentery and later died. The precise circumstances of Zabel Yesayan’s death – the time and place – until now remain unknown.
Her ten-year imprisonment would have ended in 1949, and it takes longer than that for the delayed justice to be restored. In the 1956 records of Zabel Yesayan’s case, aside from the testimony of Karine Gyulikekhvyan, there are the testimonials of Stepan Zoryan, Gegham Saryan and Vahram Alazan, all of whom present Zabel in an exclusively positive, patriotic and honest light. Stepan Zoryan’s statement: “In neither her conversations or publications is there any anti-Soviet propensity.” Based on these testimonies and the circumstances in Zabel Yesayan’s case, aside from her confessions, there is absolutely no evidence. She was exonerated in 1957 and the accusations against her removed. Those responsible for her verdict of January 23, 1939 were later reprimanded.
Fragment from the 1975 decision to exonerate Yesayan and remove accusations against her. Source – National Archive of Armenia.
In Lieu of a Conclusion