From the beginning, it has been made clear that certain segments of our nation detest the 44th President of the United States, Barrack Obama, I have heard the wild rumors about this President in our dining rooms, our coffee shops, on the radio, and TV. This President is not acceptable because of the color of his skin and his life among the Moslem community. Some people are and will remain prejudice when they don’t understand and are ignorant of those who have not touched their lives. There is little anyone can do to change their attitudes, except hopefully they will in time overcome their fears.
This is after all a democracy. A republic. A country whose Constitution guarantees free speech…if you do not violate the rights of others you may continue to live the way you wish. We also have in this country due process. Thank God we are free to “think” what we will and write what we want without repercussions.
But there are certain codes of ethics. Certain rules of conduct. Certain manners we are taught from Day 1 – we don’t go around calling people liars in print or in speech, unless we can prove it. Slander and libel laws prevent us from tainting the reputations of even those who are in public office.
When Congressman Joseph Wilson, a South Carolina legislator, disrupted our President’s address to the nation the other night, and called the president a “liar” he violated every code of civility, decency, and political protocol there is. His shameful conduct was followed up later with an apology to the President.
I, and I believe millions of others, were stunned by Wilson’s outburst. And shocked. Shocked because the legislator did not show respect to the person speaking, to a nation, or to the office he had. In this case the man happened to be the President of the United States.
Wilson’s defamatory remark ranks with the Iraqi journalist Muntadhar al-Zurdi’s shoe-throwing disrespect for former President Bush. Wilson has fallen into the nadir of his legislative career, and he is a disgrace, an embarrassment to the State he represents. If not recalled, he should be censured by his Congressional colleagues.
The seemingly unperturbed and unnerved President Obama, showing greatest aplomb, calmly continued to present his argument for a national health insurance program to the nation.
Historically, in our country, legislators publicly and nationally do not offend their Presidents. The action by Wilson is unprecedented. They may criticize, even ridicule those who differ from their political views, but they usually have the decency to allow the speaker to express their view before they offer their opposing viewpoints.
I am reminded of another great American patriot, Patrick Henry, who patiently waited for one speaker to finish his pitch for loyalty to the Crown before he retorted “…I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend with my life the right for you to say it.” This philosophy is a sacred cornerstone of this great nation’s foundation. Though many may not think so, we are the envy of the world. I know for I have seen the eyes of those who covet the right to join us here in this land.
Personally, I fought the leaders and the ideology of the oppressive Soviet Union for 13 years before they granted me permission, the privilege, to return to my native land. I believed then as I do today that a man or woman has the right to express his or her opinion, without repercussion or humiliation. He or she does not have the right to disrupt others while they speak, let alone those we have elected to office.
We look to our elected officials and statesmen for guidance. That is why they are in office. They have, I believe, the qualifications, the wisdom, and the intelligence to lead our country. If they show otherwise, we, the people, have the right to put them into the unemployment lines.
If he truly believes that the President was lying, Wilson has an obligation to present his case to the people of the United States. I am sure the Media and the Press will be eager, as they have shown in the past, to interview him.
As Emil Ludwig points out in his brilliant biography of Napoleon, “In his highest embodiment, the statesman shapes all our destinies.”
These past eight years it seems that Congress has shown us there are not many statesmen in their midst.
The President has accepted Mr. Wilson’s apology, but the people, especially the voters of South Carolina, should not. Do we need yet another legislator of spurious character in Washington?
Wilson should feel fortunate that he lives in the US. If I had the power to take him with me back into time…to Moscow…to the Stalin Era…and those frightening evenings when we all feared those knocks on our apartment doors at midnight. If Wilson had publicly called Stalin a liar during an open forum, surely he would have been visited by the KGB and, before dawn, Wilson would have stood before an execution squad.
Free speech is a sacred altar where all freedom-loving people bend their knees in prayer.
I watched and listened for nearly one hour to the 44th President of the United States’ speech and, yes, I, too, questioned some of his arguments specifically where this nation would get the money to pay for the massive overall of a much-needed national health and medical program. And we await our legislators presenting this program to us. Let us hope the plan is a viable one.
But I also sat and listened in awe at Obama who continued his delivery unnerved and undaunted by the rude and inappropriate outburst by one who embarrassed me and his constituents in South Carolina by his inappropriate behavior.
I know not how other Americans feel, but for myself I am proud to say that I am confident in this President and that I know in this moment in time I have a President in office whom I can truly trust, can be proud of, and who I can believe in and respect.
To paraphrase another great president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was in office at the worst of times, who, after four years of trying to lift his fellow country men out of the Great Depression, said during his second inauguration speech, “…this generation of Americans has a date with destiny.”
This President and this Congress also have a “date with Destiny”.
And I personally believe when historians look back on our times and study the incredible challenges we faced and conquered – the financial collapse of our financial institutions, the world-wide unemployment, the famine, and the end of wars and genocides…that they, too, will stand in awe of this generation and place us among the greatest generations in American History.
As a stunned American U-2 spy pilot Francis Gary Powers was heading for the frozen tundra of the Siberian nether world, I was on a Soviet jet soaring high above the clouds over Moscow, flying to Copenhagen and to my freedom. Below me were blocks upon blocks of drab, depressing, monotonous Soviet-build apartment complexes that I had known so well.
After 13 years behind the Iron Curtain, someone in the elite Soviet oligarchy decided to set his – or her – signature on a piece of paper that would eventually set me free. I was returning to my birthplace, Detroit, after living in the Soviet Republic of Armenia for more than a decade.
I had had all of my earthly possessions with me before I arrived at the airport: $100 dollars and a one suitcase filled with clothing. That was what the Soviets allowed its citizens (former citizens) to take out of the country during the Khrushchev Era. But the $100 mysteriously disappeared from my wallet during a drinking party with some Iraq pilots training in the USSR.
It all seems like a dream now, but it wasn’t then; it was a nightmare. The question that continues to haunt me and had remained unanswered over the years: Why, during the height of the Cold War (The Cuban Crisis was still to come) did the Soviets allow me to leave the country? Rest assured that I am grateful everyday.
But as the plane touched down in the capital of Denmark, I could only say “Thank God I made it!
Once safely inside the US Embassy in Copenhagen, I knew the 13 years of Soviet repression was behind me. I would be home soon. That was all I cared about.
The US Consulate official informed me that I would depart from Denmark that evening, for New York and then for Detroit. He asked if there was anything I needed or wanted and all I could think of at the time was that I wanted to go home. Since there was plenty of time before my departure, would I like to see the city? I hesitated to answer but found myself saying that it would give me a glimpse of what Europe looked like. The official offered to accompany me, but I said I would prefer to go alone. He nodded as if he understood.
I strolled onto the street and immediately everyone and everything looked strange. The people were better dressed, smiling and all seemed to be moving on bikes. There were only a few cars. Then, something very unusual caught my eyes. I came upon a bakery…there in the display window was bread. All kinds of bread. Cakes. All kinds of cakes. And pies and… there were no lines. No people pushing and shoving to get into the store to buy bread. And I moved closer to the window and pressed my nose to it. My God, the entire store is filled, there are no empty shelves. Only my pocket is empty. Not one ruble. Not one penny. Not one franc. My heart was pounding like a drum. I swear I could have eaten everything in that bakery.
I continued my stroll.
Men, women, old and young on bikes, whizzed past me as I strolled on the sidewalks of this fairy-tale city. I arrived at a park. Tired from my ordeal, I sat down on a bench to ponder my fate. My eyes suddenly caught a glimpse of a bright object in the calm waters before me. There, bathing in the silence of a July afternoon was the copper statue of the Little Mermaid. She greets visitors with a subtle smile and listens to their secrets, never revealing or uttering a word. It is this glorious icon made immortal by Hans Christian Andersen that I would share the most unforgettable, most wonderful day in my life. I would share my most inner thoughts, my greatest joy…if only you could understand…that truly was the happiest days of my life. Destiny had brought me there, before that sweet, gentle statue. If it was a dream, I begged that no one would shake me back into the world where I had been. I had aged much. Lost my youth. I felt like “Alice in Wonderland.” If I had awakened back in Erevan, I knew it would truly be the end.
I felt so alive there.
Before the sun would rise again, I was home. In America. And the nightmare that was the Soviet Union was no longer mine…yet there are times when the memories haunt me.
It was also in Vilnius (Lithuania) that I saw my first ‘man of color’ in years.
It would be lesson-learning, one of my strangest encounters in the Soviet Union. I would not see anything like it until much later when Porky & Bess was staged by an American troupe during the Khrushchev Era in Moscow.
It happened on a bright August morning. From my third-floor room window in the hotel I could see a flower garden which displayed a calendar created by row upon row of a variety of colored roses. Each morning a team of elderly women – babushkas – would rearrange these flowers to indicate the month and the day. I was fascinated by their labor of love.
One morning as I watched them work, however, a person, a black person, strolled past these women. The black man stopped, exchange words with the workers, and then continued his stroll. Black, as in Negro. American Negro, I thought. An American in Vilnius! I ask for your indulgence for a moment when I say that I had not seen nor heard a person of color speak now for more than three years. I quickly tossed on basketball warm up sweat pants and jersey, opened the door, raced down the corridor, down a flight of stairs into the street. A teammate, who shared the room with me, startled at my quick movements, sat up in his bed. I was down on the street face to face with this stranger before my teammate caught up to me.
Speaking in my beloved English, so rarely used, I asked the stranger if he was a tourist…when he was going back to the States and what he was doing in Vilnius. Unsettled, the stranger looked at me as if I was mad. He responded with a litany of Russian words that expressed his dissatisfaction of my behavior. I was intimidated by his Russian, but I continued to question him in English. Alas, to no avail. I became extremely frustrated.
Sometime during my monologue my teammate joined us. He pointed out to me that the stranger spoke Russian fluently and that the stranger believed that I needed help from the medical profession. My teammate apologized to the stranger and pointed out to him that I was one of the repatriates. He learned that the stranger’s father was an African diplomat who sometime ago had moved to the USSR and had married a Russian. He lived in Moscow and was studying to be an actor. He walked away and disappeared from my view and I thought that would be the end of this story.
Years later, the two of us would meet again. The encounter would take place in Soviet Armenia, on the main street, Abovian. Now an actor, the gentleman was leaving the Hotel Intourist, where he and several other Soviet actors had rooms. They were in town filming a Russian movie about life in America and since there were so many repatriates in Armenia who could be used as “extras” the Soviet crew believed Erevan would be the ideal place for the shoot. The actor was no longer a stranger to me, for I had seen him on Soviet movie scenes usually in cameo roles, playing the exploited, horse-whipped slave, begging for, but never getting mercy from his white Southern plantation owners.
I don’t think he ever won an Oscar.
It was an age of suspicion. It was a time within the Soviet Union that all foreigners, especially an English-speaking foreigner and more so an “American” came under immediate suspicion by the NKVD. Americans and those who knew or had relatives in the West had to be shunned, after all, the USSR was surrounded by its enemies.
Stalin and his sycophants had spoken, and their words were sacred to the Soviet masses.
Enter this young, naïve, 19-year-old American-born, educated in Detroit, into the Soviet world to learn about the Soviet culture. Ah, the lessons he would learn. Old textbooks would not help; Soviets played by different rules, rules they made up as the game of life was played out daily. This was a world of dialectic materialism, of “he who works, eats”; of socialism where everyone is paid according to his ability, not yet of communism when everyone will be compensated according to his needs (and who would determine my needs, dear comrade?)
It would take time for me to digest this and the black, sawdust-stuffed, water-drowned bread to digest.
Despite the intense and increasingly aggressive anti-American propaganda and its omnipresent billboards, depicting Americans as rattle snakes or rats, parasites crawling and gnawing at the carcasses of the working class, the word “American” continued to carry some respect among those who somehow knew the truth. No amount of Soviet propaganda apparently could erase from the minds of the Russian people the fact that had it not been for the United States and its Lend Lease program, the geography of Europe may have been different.
In the summer of 1950 as a member of the Institute of Physical Culture’s basketball team, I took my first trip into the heartland of the USSR. I traveled by train from Erivan to Vilnius, a journey of more than a thousand miles. Vilnius is the capital of what was then the Soviet Republic of Lithuania and remains the capital today of a free and independent Lithuania.
When we arrived in Vilnius, the Soviet capital, our team was driven from the train depot by bus to what appeared to me to be once the stables for Nicholas II’s cavalry unit. My teammates accepted the accommodations without comment. Even if I had known the language, I would not have complained. One just didn’t complain in Stalin’s Russia.
I placed my duffle bag on a cot and sat down and waited for further instructions from our coaching staff. As I sat there wondering where the other teams would be housed. My thoughts were interrupted by my coach who ordered the team to gather our belongings for we were going to be moved to another site. I was told that maybe our coach, a decorated World War II hero, had complained and the Lithuanians decided to upgrade us to the university’s facilities.
A few minutes later, a bus pulled up and we boarded it. The driver drove to a newly-opened hotel, located in the central business district in Vilnius, and our players got off the bus, entered a beautifully decorated hotel and were assigned two to a room with all the modern conveniences including running water and a toilet. The food was edible.
I was stunned at the reception our team would receive during the next 10 days. Later I asked one of the players what caused the Lithuanians to change their attitude toward our team.
The player responded, “You did.”
“Me?” I was speechless. I had done nothing and, in fact, had stayed out of sight most of the time. My teammate explained…one of our team members let it be known to the hosts that “there was an American on the team.”
And that one word “American” apparently commanded the respect of the Lithuanians. It was obvious to me that no matter what the Soviet propaganda machine churned out here, there were those who remained profoundly grateful and respected the people of the United States for what they have done for them over the years.
During my recent trip to Los Angeles my host asked if I would like to chat with a mutual acquaintance, who happened to be a former Soviet basketball star. The woman, now in her late seventies, immigrated to the USA and is presently living in the North Hollywood, California area. I told my host that I would be delighted to speak to the woman, but I reminded him that my Armenian remained rusty for I have had little practice over the past four decades. I was also concerned that the former star might not remember me.
My host smiled, picked up the telephone and dialed Lena’s number. As I waited, I recalled the many pleasant days and weeks I had spent with her. In the late 1940’s and during the decade of the 1950’s, Lena was definitely one of the premier basketball players of Soviet Armenia, if not the Soviet Union. Lena had represented the Armenian Soviet Republic in more tournaments that I could count. And I was elated to know she had survived the Soviet régime and was alive and in good health
In the former Soviet Union, women and men’s basketball teams usually traveled together and played in the same tournaments when they represented their republic in national tournaments. More like brothers and sisters, teammates got to know each other quite well.
My host finished dialing and there was a brief exchange of words in Armenian before he handed me the telephone. Since Lena did not speak English, the entire dialogue took place in Armenian. I introduced myself and asked about her health and welfare and how she was adjusting to the American way of life. There was no immediate response from the other end. Lena’s first words to me were, “ Eddie, (Edward) is that you?”
I immediately replied, “Lena, this is Tommy, Tommy Mooradian.”
Lena was not convinced. “Edward, quit playing your silly games with me. I know it is you!”
“But this is Tom!” And I tossed in my father’s name as is the custom in the Russian culture to convince her. “This is Tom Boghosovich Mooradian. Lena, don’t you remember me? We went to so many tournaments together.”
“Impossible!” Lena shouted back into the phone.
I was now completely frustrated and about to return the telephone to my host when I decided to try one more time. I thought maybe my language skills were so bad that I had not made myself clear. Speaking slowly and deliberately I again repeated my name and conjured up certain stories that she and I had shared. I explained that I left the USSR in 1960, that she and I attended the same university together, that she – and then I named off a few of her teammates – used to wash my socks and shirts when we were on the road.
There was that nervous pause again before she shouted, as many Soviets do during telephone conversations into the phone. “Impossible!”
“Why is it impossible? Do you think Tom is dead?”
“No! I know he is alive. Abraham has told me so. But you can’t be Tom because Tom couldn’t speak Armenian as good as you. Whoever you are, you are a good imposter.”
I was speechless. I handed the phone back to my host. He smiled and said, “You’ll be back in October. I will make sure that Lena attends one of your talks.”
In the Armenian family, the father stands as tall as Mt. Ararat.
It is he, the father, who provides for the family, has the wisdom and the knowledge of the ages. It is he who you turn to for advice and help and consult before making life-changing decisions.
And it was my father, when I turned 18, I approached and consulted before making a final decision to join a group of 150 other Armenian Americans. Two years after World War II had ended the group was determined to “repatriate” and made up the first caravan from America to resettle in the Soviet Union.
Though my father did not encourage me to go, he did not place any obstacles before me. His voice and words resonate to this day on his sentiments, “You are now 18. You are now a man and it is your decision, and only yours, to make. However you decide, you will have my support. Moreover , you and only you will have to live by that decision the rest of your life. Whatever you decide to do, you will remain my son. Nothing can or will change that.”
Father believed that life experiences would provide me with a better understanding of the world and the people who inhabit it. But the world I was heading to was hostile toward the West, especially those born in the United States. It was a world that was behind what Winston Churchill called “An Iron Curtain” and what President Reagan would later refer to as, “An Evil Empire.”
After the release of The Repatriate – Love Basketball and the KGB one of the most common questions raised has been, “After your return, did your father and you ever sit down and discuss your experiences in the Soviet Union?”
Many have been surprised by my answer.
It was several years after my return and not until my father laid upon his deathbed that the subject surfaced. And it was he – not I – who brought up the topic.
Rushed to his bedside during those final minutes of his life, I sat there in silence and could only speculate upon what his final thoughts were. He was a true Marxist. He did not believe in a spiritual life. He had made his peace with my sister and brothers and asked them to leave the room as soon as I entered. The discussion was a painful one for him, I realized. He wanted to apology for the unhappiness and the pain he believed he had caused me. He said he had heard from his Soviet friends and others of the hostility, the hardships, and the trauma the repatriates suffered and he was sorry that my young life had to witness that tragedy. Before he died he asked forgiveness.
I reminded him that it had been my decision, not his. True, I said, I have regretted many things in my lifetime and have oft wondered what and who I would have become if I stayed in the United States, but my life has been filled with many friends, on both sides of the so-called Iron Curtain. I told him that someday, I hoped to write of my Soviet experiences.
He nodded and said that I had an obligation to do so. His final words were that he was proud of me and he would like to sleep. And then his eyes closed for the last time.
His father was a well-established merchant whose store for years served the Armenian and Arab community in Cairo, Egypt. He had children whom he wanted to bring up as Armenian so when the Soviets offered him an opportunity in 1946 to repatriate to Armenia, this merchant, according to his son, did not hesitate.
“My father sold everything and converted into gold pieces and, joined nearly 1000 other Egyptian Armenians in that first caravan from Egyptian,” the son would tell me. “When we got to Erevan we were housed in one room, without running water, and, of course, food was very scarce. Instead of the utopia promised by the communists my father found hell. But, like most, he faced the hardships with courage.”
“When times got tougher my father would go out to the bizarre and sell one of the gold pieces and we would manage for a while,” the son said. “But as the government began to crack down, and times worsen, my father realized the grave wrong he had inflicted upon the family.”
There was no relief in sight.
“My father would pound his head against the wall and cry, ‘Why…why…did I do this to my family?’ He died in despair. And we buried him there, among his ancestors.”
The son would be more fortunate than the others. He would graduate from the Polytechnic Institute. He would marry and one day be granted permission to leave the country.
Most of his family, however, would not be as fortunate.
There is talk about the present freely-elected government of the Republic of Armenia apologizing to those who suffered the indignation and down-right cruelty inflicted upon the repatriates. I, for one don’t need one. I felt that, despite the hardships and the discrimination, I came out of the foreboding turmoil a better person with a better understanding of the world and its politics.
But Armenia does have to apologize to those who gave up their homes and packed up their families and relocated in Soviet Armenia. The Soviet, specifically the Soviet Armenian, government betrayed the trust of their own people. Most who went back were survivors of the genocide only to be further persecuted as Tasnags or Trotskyites or members of the elite bourgeoisie. The Soviets blundered badly, making enemies of the new arrivals who somehow managed to get the message back to their adopted lands about the conditions they had found themselves in.
The repatriates gave up everything for the Soviets and received in return a dagger in their backs. If Armenia is ever going to find a place among the civilized nations of the world, it must recognize the debt it owes to those who had embraced the country, returned to it to help rebuild it only to be imprisoned by the system.
Today, Armenia is hemorrhaging – losing its population in vast numbers – because its citizens do not trust those in high office. The president and the parliament must prove to the people that they can be trusted, and they have to heal the wounds inflicted on those who once believed in their Hyerenek. Though Armenians are not known for forgiving past injustices, an apology to the repatriates would be a move in the right direction.
Anyone who has read “The Repatriate – Love Basketball and the KGB” – knows my personal hatred for the Soviet agency ‘OVIR’, the agency charged with issuing exit visas. Not only did a Soviet citizen who applied for an exit visa from the USSR have to leap scores of obstacles and face many needless delays, but they had to dig deep into their pockets and come up with kickbacks or their requests would definitely be lost in the maze.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, one would think that OVIR would have gone the way of the Dodo Bird.
But OVIR outlived the Bolsheviks, according to a communication from someone who attempted to resettle in the now Republic of Armenia. (Armenia was one of the 15 former Soviet Republics).
In a communication forwarded to the Investigative Journalists of Armenia, the complainant states that “…Armenia’s Customs Agency and OVIR are deterrents for Armenia’s growth…”
That statement is no secret to anyone who has ever dealt with the likes of OVIR.
The complainant further states, ‘…after being questioned by the custom agent regarding my background and the validity of my Armenian passport, where I was treated more like a criminal rather that someone repatriating from America to live in the homeland, my application was neither rejected nor accepted; instead I was given a 30-day temporary import right until they conducted further research with OVIR regarding my passport…”
“Whether the problem is plain stupidity, iron curtain Soviet mentality, or money-making opportunity for customs agents/brokers which are causing Armenia’s laws and their implementation to be backward, the result is that it is preventing this country (Armenia) from moving forward…for a people that has more of its people living outside than inside, Armenia cannot afford to create road blocks for people’s rights to their own names or access to their own belongings in and out of the country…after all the job of every government is to make lives of its citizens better, and not the opposite, as it currently is in Armenia…” the complainant stated.
I am happy to report that, according to sources within Armenia, the government has allegedly abolished the agency infamously know as OVIR.
There are so many stories that I have come upon during the research for my book, but the following ‘love story’ must be considered among the best.
Christine K. was sixteen when she fell in love and later married Ara. Both had left their native land, America, and had repatriated to the Soviet Union in the late 1940’s. After I managed to legally leave the USSR, the two young Americans decided that they too would try to return home. They weighed the risks, for Christine’s father had been arrested and charged as ‘an enemy of the people’ and convicted by Stalin’s NKVD, but my successful return home convinced them that there was hope.
So, Ara and Christine travelled to Moscow. They met with US Consulate officials who, after hearing their stories, encouraged them to apply for reinstatement of their citizenship. Since they were born in the US and were considered minors when they left with their families, they had no problems. The two were issued US passports.
But the young couple still needed ‘exit visas’, and only the Soviets, via OVIR, had the jurisdiction to grant them that unique Soviet privilege to leave the borders of the impregnable Iron Curtain. When Ara and Christine appeared before the Soviet agency, with American passports in hand, OVIR became outraged. They not only belittled the two but they warned them that Soviets communicating with a foreign power is illegal and that they could be prosecuted.
Christine knew full well what that meant. Under Stalin, her father had been exiled to Siberia and was released only after Stalin’s death. With Khrushchev was at the height of power, and Chairman Khrushchev‘s revelations of his former boss murderous tantrums, surely times had changed. Apparently for this young married couple it had not.
Not only did OVIR reject the young couple’s request for the visa, but the Soviet government reportedly issued an official protest to the US Embassy, chastising the United States for issuing American passports to Soviet citizens.
It would take years before Christine and Ara were give permission to leave the USSR and return to America.
But they did and both lived happily in the East for years to come.