During one of my many visits to Moscow I had met and befriended a Michigan State University language professor who, after listening to my story, asked whether he could be of any assistance to me. I asked if possible, would he contact my parents and tell them that I am in good health and in good spirits.
The professor, probably in his forties, who taught Russian (Slavic Languages) said that he would gladly carry the news back home. “Anything else?”
I thought for a moment, “No. Not really.”
He said he would be attending a program at the American House the following evening and asked if I would be his guest. I was flabbergasted by his invitation, and initially refused the generous offer. I had heard about the exclusive building from my Soviet friends and knew that it was a building that the KGB had in its sights twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. To get into the building, one had to produce an American passport. I again thanked the professor and reminded him that, though born in the United States, I did not have an American passport and was considered by the Soviets to be a Soviet, not an American, citizen.
“You would be my guest,” the professor repeated. “I don’t think the Soviets would want to create a scene on what is considered American property.”
That remark piqued my curiosity. If I was on US property could the Soviets demand that the Americans hand me over to them? I had had my run-ins with Stalin’s NKVD and Khrushchev’s KGB and was still standing on my two feet. I told the professor I was ready to risk it, if he was.
Although the professor spoke Russian fluently, I felt certain that he was not an informer. I trusted him implicitly because of his knowledge of Michigan. The Soviets knew that Detroit made cars but they didn’t know what state Detroit was in.
I accepted the professor’s invitation. He told me it would be best if I wore a suit, white shirt, and tie. It would draw less attention to me by the KGB who patrolled the area leading to American House.
I smiled and said I understood.
We breezed past the Soviet guards and reached the door where several people were waiting to get inside. We went in and I was greeted by a mysterious harmony of music and laughter – people actually laughing. My God how I had missed it. How I had forgotten the special joy that laughter brings to the heart. To the soul. People do laugh. People do smile. People do greet one another.
Into a dimly lit room I rushed like a child in Toyland. The door closed. I prayed that I would never have to go back into the street. I knew I had left the valley of the death. In one corner I spotted something that I had not seen in ages – and I rushed over and hugged it. It was a juke box. I stood there listening. The songs and the singers were new – but it was American. Before me a buffet laden with the fruits and food of my past opened up. I rushed to the table and immediately learned that all was free. Eat all you want. And I did. I couldn’t stop. Somewhere between the juke box and the food I lost the professor.
It was a crucial mistake to lose contact with my host. Seconds later, when I walked up to the bar and the bartender asked, “What will you have, sir?” the knell sounded for me. I had heard of, but never had Scotch and Soda, so I ordered it. The bartender asked, “Do you want that on the rocks?”
I paused for a second, not knowing what to say. “On the rocks?”…what did it mean? I did not want any rocks in my drink, I told him. He returned my puzzled look with a look of suspicion. I caught him looking over my shoulders into the dark corner of the room. Quickly I was surrounded by two muscular men. One asked if I was an American citizen.
I answered that I was born in Detroit.
“That’s not what I asked,” the man said with a tone that definitely meant business. He demanded to see my passport.
“I don’t have one on me.”
“Show me your driver’s license or any ID.”
The only identification I had was my Soviet internal passport and I surely wouldn’t show them that.
Both men looked at me and the one who was asking all the questions invited me to leave the premises. If fact, the other grabbed me by my arm and led me to the door.
I was fortunate; he didn’t toss me from the building.
I had not realized it at the time, but the prolonged absence from my native land created a cultural abyss that I would have to bridge before I would be accepted back into the culture I once knew so well.
In March, 1983, speaking to the members of the National Association of Evangelists in Orlando, Florida, President Reagan labeled the Soviet Union “The Evil Empire.”
I sincerely believe that the president maligned a nation of freedom-loving people.
Furthermore, it is one of my deepest beliefs that there are no ‘evil empires’. The People who make up a nation…and empire…are not evil; it is their leaders’ ambitions and greed that lead to aggression and war. Their names are many. Down through history we have read of the evil czars, and czarinas, and evil kings and queens, Sultans, and emperors. Yes, there are even evil presidents and vice presidents – but the people, in general, are like you and me – law abiding, peace loving, praying to live the number of days we have been allotted, free of oppression and fear.
I lived in the Soviet Union for thirteen years, but never discovered that empire Reagan spoke of. I did find hard-working men and women, who strived to create a better life for themselves and their families, who wanted peace not only in their time, but for their children. They too sought happiness and prosperity and hatred war for what it was – massive murder of the innocent and destruction of what took lifetimes to create and build.
War does not have to be eternal.
The Russian people had had its fill of the Romanovs. In 1917, US President Woodrow Wilson, would note in his Declaration of War against Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany:
“Does not every American feel that assurance has been added to our hope for the future peace of the world by the wonderful and heartening things that have happened within the last few weeks in Russia…The autocracy that crowned the summit of her political structure, long as it had stood and terrible as was the reality of its power….now has been shaken off and the great, generous Russian people have been added in all their majesty and might to the forces that are fighting for freedom in the world, for justice, and for peace. Here is a fit partner in the League of Honor…”
Few today remember that the last czar of Russia, Nicholas II, was known to the world as “Bloody Nicholas”.
If one man named Adolph Hitler had not given the orders to exterminate all of the Jews in Europe, would the SS have dared carried out the policy?
If Enver Pasha had not ordered the extermination of all Christian Armenians in Turkey, would the Turkish Army dare carry out the mass murders of 1.5 million Armenians?
Children play together in playgrounds, swim together in pools, until they are taught not to.
War, be it religious or military in nature, offends the conscience of all who respect life.
When will we make peace eternal?
He was born in Germany at the height of Hitler’s power.
I was born in Detroit the year before the Great Depression.
After World War II, he chose America and attended the University of Michigan, becoming a prominent architect.
After World War II, I chose the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and became a teacher who earned prominence playing basketball.
We met in May in Petoskey, Michigan, at McLean & Eiken Booksellers where I was signing copies of my book. I will confess I was more anxious to hear his story than sign books. He wanted to know why I would leave a country like the United States to live under a despot as evil as Joseph Stalin. My answers mystified him.
Our conversation drew more people around us than either of us expected.
I asked him about Hitler and life in Nazi Germany. “When we were winning all was well; when we were losing, all was hell.” He then offered the following…“We were losing the war and, at 15, I was called upon to do my duty for the Fatherland. They trained me as an anti-aircraft gunner and I spent the last days of the war futilely trying to shoot down planes. But, you know we also had a lot of planes…even jet planes…but we didn’t have enough pilots to fly them.
When his family found out that the Russians were at the gates of Berlin and they made a frantic rush to escape to the West. “And then we came to America. Why would you go to such an evil place as the USSR?”
I did not know it was evil, I told him. The Soviets were our friends, our allies, and I did not understand how a ruler could be evil. After all I was born in a democracy and believed that the world enjoyed the same rights as we did.
“Did you not know or read about the mass arrests and killings…Hitler, yes, was evil, but there are no words to describe what Stalin did to his people and to his enemies.”
My argument was the argument that most fellow travelers, socialists and communists at the time used, the Soviet Union was so great an ally during World War II, that Stalin and the Communist Party offered work and security and did not discriminate while capitalism had crushed the creative forces of labor and was constantly subject to the explosive whims and greed of those forces who controlled Wall Street. Capitalism had served its purpose and it was felt that it needed to be replaced by a system that would serve the masses, the working people.
Like him, I, too, had lived most of my youth surfing tidal waves of radical idealism, hoping to find a utopia that does not exist.
He asked whether there were any regrets on my part. My answer was short and truthful, “No.” The Soviet experience has made me the man I am today.
“A teacher may forget a student; but a student will never forget a teacher.” I found that to be true over the years, for many of my former Soviet students have continued to keep in touch with me.
One such student, who was on staff at the BBC in London, serving on the Russian Bureau until he recently retired, contacted me by phone from Paris to tell me how much he enjoyed the book.
“I knew all of the characters in the book, Mr. Tom,” he said. “I am so happy that you are alive and found time to write it. Do you remember who I am?”
I conceded that the four decades of separation had dimmed my memory.
“Do you remember when the Harlem Globetrotters came to Tiflis and you had picked ten players to go watch them play?”
I admitted that I remembered when the professional black basketball team visited the USSR, but I did not remember the incident of choosing my players to attend the exhibition game. “That was so long ago.”
“It doesn’t matter, of course,” my former student said, “but I was No. 11, and I didn’t get to go. And I cried all night and that’s why I remember it so well.”
I profusely apologized for the sadness I had inadvertently caused, and told him I was very sorry.
“Oh, I ready didn’t care…I was just happy playing for you.”
Curious, I asked, “Do you recall what the administration at the school said when I didn’t show up in the gym to conduct my class?”
“Oh, yes, yes, of course, I do. They said that Tavahrishch Tom was sick, and that you have been taken to a sanatorium to get some rest. And that you would soon come back.”
Interesting, I thought. “Did you and the others believe what they said?”
“Of course not, Mr. Tom.” There was a pause. “We knew better. We knew you were somewhere in Siberia.”
How could anyone praise such a murderous dictator as Nikita Khrushchev?
That was one of several questions leveled at me during one of my book talks in the city of Oscoda, Michigan, where a group of citizens had invited me to speak. Most in that group knew their history; some even had helped write a few chapters with their participation in the Korean and Viet Nam wars.
“This man (Khrushchev) took part in murdering thousands of innocent people,” the sandy-haired veteran of the Korean War said. “He wanted missiles in Cuba. And where do you think those missiles were aimed and intended for? How could anyone write in praise of that man?”
I understood and could identify with what the veteran was asking. Admittedly, I had praised the Soviet First Secretary in my book. And I do not regret it. I was looking at Nikita Khrushchev from the other side of the Iron Curtain. I had lived in fear for 13 of Stalin’s 26 years of rein. Chairman Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party, in Moscow in February 1956 before thousands of diehard Stalin sycophants and supporters changed the course of history. It was the beginning of the end of the Communist regime in the USSR. Who would ever again believe in communism after what Khrushchev revealed? Latter day Communist chairmen – Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin – were only the pallbearers of the corpse that was communism.
And about missiles in Cuba and Third World Wars, I asked the veteran why we, the United States, was so adamant against Soviets placing missiles in Castro’s Cuba, when we seek to build missile launches in Poland. His answer came in the form of a question, “Do you know the difference between an offensive and defensive weapon?”
I admitted I did not.
“Our missiles are for defensive purposes.”
I guess I just don’t get it; aren’t all weapons created ‘just for defensive purposes’?
She sat there in the living room of our Southfield, Michigan, home her eyes glued to the book. Not once as she was reading did she glance at her husband, who was sitting directly across from her. I had left to make some tea and when I returned with a cup and saucer she was in tears.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, “Why the tears?”
“Your story brings back memories. Tragic events that I had long since forgotten.” And then she told her story.
“My father was employed by the NKVD and the event you mentioned here, about the massive round up of dissidents that night, he was ordered by the ministry to help out. When he returned early the following day I could hear him sobbing and shouting and then he sat at our kitchen table pounding his head. He said he felt guilt for those he had arrested and conveyed to the train depot. They were just ordinary people. Innocent people who were as loyal as he was to the Party were arrested during another one of Stalin’s reign of terror.
“’Why! Why!’ My father sobbed over and over again.”
In the spring of 1949 thousands of Soviet citizens and hundreds residing in Soviet Armenia, including repatriates who had earlier belonged to the nationalist Tashnag Party or to the Ramgavars, but returned after World War II to their homeland in hopes of building a better life for their families, were rounded up and exiled.
She continued her story, “The next day I went to school and when I entered my classroom I looked for my two closest friends. I thought it strange, for they were never late. I took my seat and waited. When our teacher entered the classroom, we stood, as we usually did, and greeted her. She asked us to take our seats. I continued to look at their empty desks, they did not come. Noticing my gaze, the teacher ordered me to pay attention.
“They will not be attending class today,” she said firmly, the words being directed at me. “Their families are enemies of our state. I have wasted my time on them.”
She said that it was on that day she had vowed she would marry someone who would get her out of the Soviet Union and take her to a land where she and her family would not have to fear the government.
Why would anyone from Ireland want to read a book about an American-born Armenian who repatriated to the USSR in 1947 and spent 13 years of his life behind the Iron Curtain?
That was the question I had asked, via e-mail, of B.K. of Cork County, after he sent us an order for a copy of “The Repatriate”. The request for a book pleasantly surprised me; Brian’s response was equally surprising. Apparently he had spent several years in Armenia, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. His task was to administer a multi-million dollar foundation grant to help the young republic install a social security program and also weed out corruption in government. However, every time he questioned his Armenian co-workers about life during the Soviet regime, or about life under Stalin and the KGB, they would lower their eyes to the floor, turn, he said, and walk away from him. He became very frustrated with those he worked with.
“I want to know more about why these people lived in fear at that time. And I can’t find enough books to answer my questions.”
The fear of the secret police apparently continues to haunt the citizens of the former Soviet Union.
He also noted, “Our housekeeper’s mother in Armenia was a returned Armenian from Greece. “And she did not want to discuss the Greek phase of her life…always changed the subject and when we lost a set of keys, she travelled across town, although there were several locksmiths nearby, to get the key recut. The place on Nalbandian Street (a building that housed the former NKVD/KGB offices) I know quite well.”
I was truly surprised and heartbroken to learn from the e-mail that the one of the buildings, the Pioneer Palace, where I spent years as a teacher-coach, teaching and coaching Soviet youngsters how to play basketball, was demolished in 2006.
B.K. says that he has been honored by local officials. He was named as an honorary citizen of Vanadzor, and because of his admiration of the Armenian people, he still maintains an apartment in Yerevan and frequently he and his wife visit the country.
“I will certainly write to you when I have read the book but I know, at this stage, that I love it,” He wrote back.
I was sitting alone in the university’s cafeteria near a window that overlooked the snow-covered steppes covering the graves of thousands who had paid the ultimate price in turning back Field Marshal Friedrich Von Paulus’ Sixth Army. Earlier that week my teammates and I were given a tour of Stalingrad and visited the “Univermak” where Von Paulus, refusing to heed Hitler’s orders that the army must fight to the last man, surrendered to his Soviet counterpart, Marshal Zhukov, thus turning the tide of the war.
My thoughts were interrupted by a young Soviet military officer who I immediately recognized as one of the players from Dynamo, a team whose red asses we had just whipped thoroughly on the basketball court. Dynamo usually brought the best out of me. The sports club was funded by the Ministry of the Interior, which housed the NKVD, the predecessor of the KGB.
The officer, with a bottle of vodka (yes, they sold liquor in the Soviet universities) said he was from Saratov, and wondered if I wished to share it with him. I told him that I was one of a few American Armenians who had repatriated to Soviet Armenia in 1947.
We were in Stalingrad for a seven-game series and before our team, the Institute of Physical Culture from the city of Erevan (capital of Soviet Armenia) had spent nearly two weeks in the city where the Soviets turned the tide against Hitler and the Nazi war machine.
We sat there talking about Stalingrad, about the war, about America and the Soviet Union. Every nerve in my body was rebelling. I wanted to ask him how his country and his people could sacrifice so much, fight so hard against the Nazis, to defeat the murderous, evil dictator that Hitler was and come home and live under the oppression, and kowtow to an equally murderous dictator like Stalin.
It was now my turn, as the culture required, to purchase a bottle.
And the second and third went down smoothly.
I feared that he could be an informer, that whatever I said would wind up in my ever-thickening dossier.
He said, “You know, Tommy, you can beat us…” and I thought he was about to play a rerun of the basketball game, but he had something else on his chest. “America has the atomic bomb, and common sense would tell us all, if they use it, the world will end. And if you try to find us on our land, as Napoleon and Hitler tried, you may again be victorious. The Nazis and Napoleon’s armies destroyed our towns and villages and cities. Look at Stalingrad – there was nothing left. We are rebuilding this great city of ours.”
“If we cannot live on earth in peace, do we truly deserve to live on earth?” he ended.
“Will you write the sequel?”
That is the question often asked by readers attending events I have given across the United States.
I had just spent the last five years of my life cooped up in a cardboard box called my work room at Hubbard Lake, Michigan, writing a 1,013 page odyssey of my life behind the Iron Curtain in the USSR. I cringed as editors with their fancy computers, delete keys at the ready, sliced words, then paragraphs and manipulated chapters to their liking. The story about my repatriation wound up in 500 pages with photos. “People just don’t read long, drawn out books these days,” was their justification for the massive disecting, my editors informed me.
‘The Repatriate – Love Basketball and the KGB‘ – is already in it’s second printing since its official release in December 2008. And the E-mail is coming in from all-around the world: Ireland, France, Lebanon, Canada, and the United States – asking for…no, demanding…the sequel. The readers want more.
Truly, I need more time to think. Do I really want to commit the time to write the sequel – The Repatriate II: Love, Hate Mail, and the CIA?
You see, the transition was not an easy one.
After thirteen years in the Soviet Union, I came back to an America that had changed. After the hugs and kisses from my loved ones, there was still the FBI and the CIA to contend with. And who would hire an American-born who had lived behind the Iron Curtain for so many years? Especially the McCarthy years.
One day as I strolled down Clark Street in southwest Detroit wondering why I returned home to a land that apparently would not accept me as I was, I was approached by a gentlemen who asked, “Aren’t you Tom Mooradian?”
The man was a complete stranger. I studied him. Initially I believed that he was a basketball fan who may have seen me during my high school playing days. I nodded and waited patiently for the next question. He did not mince any words, “I’m from the FBI. There are a lot of people who are interested in talking to you. Do you have time to accompany me to the Federal Building?”
I responded, “If you have been following me, you know that I have nothing but time on my hand.”
He smiled, waved his hand, and a car pulled up. He opened the door for me and we got in.
As we sped away I became nervous and chuckled softly.
“Do you want to share that laugh with me?” he asked.
I smiled, “For a moment I thought I was back in the Soviet Union.”
He insisted that ‘they’ would not detain me for more than an hour.
Strange, that was the same thing the NKVD said when they arrested me.