I did not anticipate, nor was I prepared to immediately answer, the question. Over the years the memory of the events had been relegated to the farthest corners of my mind. It would take time to recall the story. And one thing a speaker doesn’t have when facing a group is time.
I had been on a coast-to-coast talking tour to promote my book, The Repatriate: Love, Basketball, and the KGB. This particular event was sponsored by AGBU/Chicago.
A petite, Victorian-dressed, French-speaking Armenian in Chicago had asked in a patois, consisting mostly of French and English and Armenian words, “Whatever became of the French women who had repatriated in 1947? I was to go with them,” she continued, “but at the final hour our family decided not to go.”
I pondered the question, as she provided me time and stirred my memory, “You mentioned in your book that there were French odars (non-Armenians) married to Armenians living across from where you lived. Do you know if they ever got out of the Soviet Union?”
Her distinctive accent led me back in time, to Kalinin Street, to the courtyard and the communal cistern where we would wash, brush our teeth, and chat with our neighbors. It was there on a daily basis the French and the Americans would pause and chat. Never behind closed doors for it would draw suspicion and possibly a visit from the secret police.
I had stored so many of those events away that it took several seconds to search my memory and recall what had happened. I told her the following story:
The French Armenians, especially the French women, were the most courageous of our lot, I began. In public, they were a silent, struggling hard to feed their family, and washing clothes at the cistern where they managed to learn some of their Armenian.
Then, an unprecedented chain of events in 1956 placed these French women in the international spotlight. In February, during the 20th Session of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev unmasked Stalin for his crimes, and within weeks it appeared that the Iron Curtain had dissipated. Later that year, French Premier Guy Mollet, and his Foreign Minister Christian Pineau were invited to visit Moscow to discuss with the Soviet Premier and other top Soviet officials the future relations between the two countries.
Pineau, I had been told (but I can’t find any supporting information to the rumor), was born in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. During a social evening, the French foreign minister apparently expressed a desire to visit “the city of his birth” and Soviet Minister Anastas Mikoyan informed him that that could be arranged. Little did Mikoyan realize at the time that he had opened up a Pandora’s Box.
News that the two top French diplomats planned to pay Yerevan a visit reached Soviet Armenia before their plane’s motors were even warmed up in Moscow. Scores of French Armenian repatriates prepared an unprecedented greeting at the airport and there would be no stopping them.
In the meantime, the French women were busy at home planning their own party. Their greeting went beyond the wildest thoughts of the KGB. During the evening, the women had come together to sew blue, white, and red cloth – the tricolors of the French Flag and made banners, embracing “Liberte”, “Equalite”, and “Fraternite”. Arm-in-arm the following evening, they marched down Abovian Street, the main thoroughfare of the capital, to the Intourist Hotel, where the distinguished diplomats were staying.
Confronted by the secret police and ordered to disband, the women stood their ground, and began to sing the “Marseilles”, the French national anthem. The commotion and the song reached the ears of the French diplomats who appeared at the balcony of the hotel, and looking upon a sea of faces below, most in tears as they sang, were moved by the crowd.
It is said that Pineau apparently rushed down to the street and met with the women. One stepped forward and said, “We are French. We want to return to our homeland. The Soviets have refused to allow us to go.”
The shocked Socialist Foreign Minister listened to her, and to the others who presented their grievances. The French Premier vowed he would help. And apparently did. The French would be the first to return to their homeland. There would be many, many others.
I believe I was the first of 300 Armenian Americans who would leave the USSR. And I also am convinced that if it were not for these courageous French women none of the rest of us would have been granted exit visas.
It is rather interesting to note that only one – just one – Armenian American, who had married a Russian and raised a family there, remained behind when he had an opportunity to get out Tragically the one who didn’t return home would, in the years to come, succumb in the disaster the world would know as “Chernobyl”.