A Young Man’s Journey to the Homeland: An excerpt from Arra S. Avakian’s diary of a trip to Europe and Armenia in 1935 — Introduction by Armine Mortimer



In 1934, under President Roosevelt, the United States recognized the Soviet Union, and travel to the Soviet Socialist Republics became possible. Armenia in 1935 was not technically a Soviet Socialist Republic, but was part of the Transcaucasian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic, which consisted of the republics of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. When the Transcaucasian Republic was dissolved in 1936, the three states were each made Soviet Socialist Republics. The Soviets encouraged the world’s Armenians to “return” to the “homeland,” and it was in this context that Arra S. Avakian traveled to Armenia, inquired about staying and finding work, and wrote a diary that recorded both his curiosity about life in the Transcaucasia region and his struggle to decide about staying there.

At the time of his trip, July 5 to September 12, 1935, Arra Avakian had just earned his doctorate in mathematics from MIT, and he was twenty-three years old. Born in Boston to immigrant parents, Arra must have sensed their regret at having to leave their homeland. Idealistically thinking he might support them and his three siblings by teaching mathematics to university students, Arra had consulted with an Armenian assistance agency indicated in his diary by three Armenian capital letters spelling HOK (HՕԿ in Armenian). It becomes clear, however, that HOK had advised him poorly. His hope to emigrate to Armenia gradually fades, or more exactly gets eroded by the bureaucratic maze in which he founders and loses confidence in himself and the country. The progressive illumination he achieves provides some of the most intense pages of his diary.

And that understanding is certainly related to his keen observations about the conditions of life under Soviet administration. Intourist, the official state travel agency of the Soviet Union founded in 1929 by Joseph Stalin, handled Arra’s tour of Soviet countries, providing near daily excursions that took him out of Erevan to collective farms, newly built villages lacking water or electricity, unfinished dams. On his own, he finds his way to rich and poor dwellings and new constructions. He meets many people, including government officials and writers, as well as poor people, and sees everything with the intelligent but naïve eyes of the enthusiastic youth.

Economical in every aspect of his life including space on the page, Arra regularly omitted articles and pronouns, so that verbs read like infinitives (when they are not lacking), resulting in choppy sentences—for instance “Back to garden” instead of “I went back to the garden.”

One Armenian word occurs frequently: Հայ or հայ, the word for Armenian (in shortened form), often with the English s added for the plural. It is pronounced “hi.”

* * *

[In the train from Moscow to Ordjonikidze, Georgia]

Jul 23

Spent the day among people in our car. It is a real jolly crowd. An experience I should never have wanted to miss. 2 boys play an accordion. There is singing and dancing. The people in the train are so happy, full of fun, it is great enjoyment being with them. We get along in understanding quite easily through Armenian, German, French, Persian, Turkish, English and Russian. The people at each stop (and there are so many, every 15 or 20 minutes) run out for water and for purchases of fruit, cucumbers, tomato, ice cream, milk. They spend many rubles doing that ’cause the prices are high. Soon I had to run out for water at each station like the natives. The lunch that Intourist put up for us was just plain rank, most we threw out of window. Got along on a minimum. The countryside is beautiful, just exciting. See Ford cars quite regularly in all towns. People flock to the train to sell to the passengers. It is dusty, and the weather becomes continuously warmer. It is an exciting day.

Jul 24

Another day much like the first on the train. Only now I’m fearfully dirty. Get to know people better and it is more fun. This business of purchases at each station is quite a regular thing. Our shortage of food becomes now a problem. We are behind schedule, train is slow. Path is from Moscow-Kursk-Kharkov-Rostov-Beslan-Ordjonikidze. We skirt the Sea of Azov. It is beautiful. Don’t see the Black Sea.

Jul 25
Ordjonikidze

Have been meeting many of the other հայs in train. Some are nice. Am now so dirty all over that I look like a coal miner. Am resigned to it. At Beslan our car breaks off from the rest of the Tiflis bound train, and after much delay arrive at Ordjonikidze attached to a freight train of about 8 cars. After another delay the Intourist takes us to the hotel. The city is a country type city. Very beautiful in its way. Many հայs. And the clothing—either it is European and better even than Moscow—or it is the old Caucasian, just like we wear in the Armenian plays, even to the dagger at the belt. Oh! They are perfect pictures. Am greatly excited. It is wonderful.

Learn a strange thing from Intourist—the Georgia Military1 is washed out by a 30 minute fierce rain, worst ever. Either we can go by aeroplane for $18 more (cost Intourist $45, 4 hours, to Baku—then Tiflis, not over mountains) or bus to the washed out part, camels to carry luggage, we walk, meet bus at other side and ride to Tiflis, 10 kilometers to walk—or wait 8 or 10 days till road is clear—or train back to Beslan and train to Tiflis via Baku. I jump at walking.

Evening in Ordjonikidze. First a bath—ah! wonderful bath, as inconvenient as it was, water irregular, hard, no suds, no towel. But did I feel and look a different man. A dandy meal, in separate canopies in a garden behind the hotel. Exquisite! Oriental music! Walk in the city’s park. Fine! Went with an Intourist guide. Back to garden. Magnificent Caucasian dancing by fine looking young couples, Armenian and others. 3 boys, 3 girls. Oh! they danced so beautiful. They perform at intervals till late in the night, but I must write and go to bed early. Even now the real Caucasian music comes to me, with kamanche, and tar.2 It is all so magnificent! I would love to stay here long, everything is so beautiful, restful, clean. Plenty Armenians about, in Intourist too! Ah! It is life here. So tomorrow up early so with the music still going I have to retire to rest for the walk tomorrow, 7 miles over rough country.

Jul 26
In the Caucasian Mountains

Up early to find it raining. Breakfast, and start out at 8:30 a.m. in 3 Russian Fords with party of 6 to walk the detour. Arrive where we cross the stream in a cradle hung from a wire cable. All party with 3 guides carrying luggage cross and now walk in rough mountains. Road is clear up to where the bridge is out 5 or so kilometers further, but this is the only crossing mode. In other words we could have driven to within 100 feet of where the bus was waiting to take us on to Tiflis, but there we could not cross. So we walk, climb, cross little streams on rocks and logs. An elderly woman and a younger woman with us tire quickly and make progress slow. I found it simple.

But the scenery is magnificent. I don’t think I have seen anything as fine in the mountains. The drive along the whole Georgia Military Highway is all the same way, beautiful. This is the highest mountain range in Europe. Passed near the Kazbek, the highest peak (7694 feet), snow cover, white broken clouds covering a section below the top. It was all so grand I was ever in ecstasy. We followed up the Terek River, very swift always, sometimes partly underground. Our walking was done in about 2½ hours. There at the other end we saw what had taken place. Melting glaciers (we saw and were above some small ones) brought down rocks and dirt and filled across the roadway and under the bridge and diverted the river on the far side against the opposite mountain wall. There the stream washed away the road meeting the bridge and undermined for 150 ft the ledge on which the road lay.

That was the total extent of the washout and we walked 5 kilometers, but I liked it fine. There we met the bus and started driving the rest of the highway. Little past noon. We continue to climb. It is all a thrill which I cannot describe. The mountains are so green, and various shades, covered over with thick short grass, little shrubbery, no trees, looks like tended lawn. We climb up to 6000 feet to the divide and start down trip. Many sheep and cattle, some horses grazing on the steep slopes. Along the road only several cars we passed, one bus load of tourists to take the return trip. Near the break, several more places with debris across the road washed down, but somewhat cleared and packed. Pass many wooden 2 wheel and 4 wheel carts drawn mostly by horses but often by oxen and sometimes by water buffalo. The people are the typical mountain Kurds, Inguishes, Georgians. They are a beautiful picture. Just like I have seen in pictures of old, no different. In rags, fur caps, handmade crude moccasins.

Passed many villages. All have many new buildings, they look like old but they are new. Made of stone, plastered, white-washed, copper roofs. Copper roofs everywhere, all painted dull red, they look fine. Some cases see the new village built right beside the old abandoned village, made up of the old huts. Stone, dark, roofs flat made with branches covered over with packed dirt and mud, the characteristic old home in the Caucasus. They’re quaint. Pass a mineral water spring where bottling is done. Little kids offer drinks, they don’t want money, they all want pencils, they ask for pencils from all tourists. Interesting!

And so the ride went, just packed with beautiful views all magnificent. Saw in one valley one of those old houses on fire, the wooden parts. Much later we met a truck carrying men, evidently firemen heading back toward the burning house, it was a 2 or 3 story pueblo type house (as most of the larger old type houses were). Stopped in a small town at 5:00, had dinner. More and more we see հայs. Last hop into Tiflis. Arrive in Tiflis when it is dark. What a thrill to come upon a sea of lights in a valley nearly enclosed on all sides by mountains, only 2 passes down, and up the narrow valley which widens where the city is. It is a pleasant city. People are dressed quite well. Many fine new buildings here. On all shops signs are written in Russian and in Georgian. Few Armenian stores.

Jul 27
Tiflis

From mountain top view city and find a panorama of red copper roof tops. Walk the streets and go window shopping. Prices are not so low. Thought there was in Tiflis a statue of Sayaat-Nowa3 near the spot where he stood at the door of the church in which Armenians of Tiflis were waiting in defiance of the order to accept Mohammedanism, and defied the attackers with words, “My church I shall not quit, my Christ I’ll not denounce” according to my translation from Valery Brussov’s “Poetry of Armenia.” In evening make preparations to leave. City is lit up, looks pretty. A high hill right out of the city has an elevator system, 2 cars tied by a cable over a powered pulley, up the steep side just out of the city.4 Garden on top.

Jul 28
Armenia
Erivan

When I awake we are already in Armenia. Armenian air, Armenian soil, but the Armenian soil is not so good. All that early part was mountainous, and where there were flat parts, they were covered with stones, rocks, stones. Oh! it looked terribly unproductive, and it is. We see just meagre, queer shaped patches of meagre wheat. These do get a little better as we get further into the valley. Mountains all around. See first, of the high peaks, the Arakadz or Aliagaz. On our right going essentially south is a winding river which is visible for many kilometers. It is the boundary and on the other side of it is Turkey. So for a couple of hours we are in sight of Turkey, at times very close and once not more than 150 feet from the railroad. On the banks at a few places are soldiers, guard houses, both sides. See people working on both sides. The other side is far better land. Besides the rocks that must be removed, we need irrigation badly.

Pass Ani, the once city of One Thousand and One Churches.5 But I thought some ruins still resembled old churches. However, there appeared only part of a wall of a fortress, nearly all the rest, what there is, is underground, for years. No one lives in the vicinity. I was amazed, thought even a few people might live about. Pass Etchmiadzin station, but Etchmiadzin is way off and can’t be seen. Had passed Karakilisee in early morning.

About noon suddenly see before me on right in Turkish territory, the Ararat, magnificent. Snow covered. The small massis6 just recently lost all its snow, but the large massis retains its all year. Day was a bit hazy, so mountain outline was faint except the white top, the snow, which might look much like a cloud in air, that’s way it suddenly appeared, when from afar the mountain profile was invisible in the haze.

Arrive at Erivan. City is all in construction, dust is thick, no roads yet paved. Abovian Street, main street, is still cobblestones, though lined by no old buildings. But some of these new ones are old new ones, like 10 years old, and they already look old. The city is very dusty, from the lack of pavement, the construction going on, and the regular afternoon-evening wind that comes in from the mountains.

Jul 29
Erivan

Meet many Sepastatzis.7 Two from America 9 months ago and staying. They gave many suggestions as to what I should do. Go first to HՕԿ, Vartanian, chairman is away on vacation. Decide not to talk to other sub-officials, so wait around. Do much waiting around.

Evening learn by phone that the Dr. Gamsaragan is in so walk there —- in the wind and dust. This wind and dust is a terrible thing. Occurs every night, and fierce. The dust will not cease till building ceases and roads are paved. There is not a single paved road in Erivan, all rocky. See the Doctor. He is not too enthusiastic. Says with him day after tomorrow will go to see the director of the university and there I must talk with him, Vram Gosdanian, that that is the first thing. To see if they need me at the university. Also the Doctor said the question of a room in which to live will raise a difficult problem. He even asked if I intended to live on local money or money from America. Visiting him at the time was an elderly man who, the Dr. said, was the one who suggested and made the changes in the Armenian spelling, the new orthography.

The hotel gets me a ticket to the 11:00 performance of “Bebo” the latest and best film of the “Haikino.”8 Went to see it. Theatre just a plain hall, plain chairs, but fine screen. Big crowd. Found it very difficult to understand the spoken part. Reasons: poor sound recording, mixed with Russian at times, and Tiflis dialect. Lucky I faintly remembered the story. It exaggerated and made the present ideology stand out. The audience was typical 20 years ago American in that each told the other what was taking place (no titles to read out loud). Many must have seen it before.

Jul 30
Erivan
New Malatia
New Sepastia
Nubarashen
New Harpoot

Today is general day of rest. Once in six days! Not staggered as in other parts of the Union. No business in Erivan takes place today. After breakfast arrange with Intourist for a trip to some of the new villages named after the old ones in Turkey. Intourist doesn’t ordinarily take outside of city on regular sightseeing. We have a wild bumpy ride out to New Malatia. We stop and look about. These villages are out in nearly desert land. Here about 20 buildings, done. Walls, clay, mud, plastered on mud-clay bricks, also mixed with straw, very sandy. Flat roofs. Have electricity, no water. Water comes by truck from Erivan. Homes look pretty fine though. All 1 floor. Has ungraded school, 1 teacher, 3 assistants. There is the factory and the Golkhoz.9 The factory spins cotton goods, sweaters, stockings, and some rayon goods. Mostly hand, or small machinery, mostly American. Then there is the agricultural Golkhoz. Population is 223.

Over to New Sepastia, nearby. Here a couple of factories, a silk factory being built, they have 70,000 mulberry trees already set in. The present factory weaves, cotton, silk. Hand and machine looms. Does prints. Here they cut from wood the stamps for the prints. Machine embroider sewing, for embroidered little hats. Also shoes made. Here also the Golkhoz. Here the nursery. Some 2 story buildings. The new schoolhouse, ready in the fall, 2 floors, clean white interior walls. Here all electricity, water from Erivan by truck. This water situation is tough. This land is nearly all arid, hilly, rocky, dry. Population 450, 22 bldgs; a couple of homes are 2 story, 14 homes in all.

But we are moving very slowly on our tour, our three hours are already up. Much delay and back to town. We had been told New Harpoot was on itinerary and we wanted to see it. Guide said we had to return, but we overruled, and started even a worse bumpy, dusty, journey out of town in a slightly different direction. Drivers are not sure of way. We ride in barren, dry, dusty, rocky hills, following hardly a semblance of a road. After quite a while (45 minutes) we found Nubarashen10 in a perfectly arid piece of land in barren mountains. Here 600 people, 130 families, 44 buildings complete, and 16 more incomplete. Of the 44, 30 were very fine buildings, clean, white, flat tops, stone foundation, best we’ve seen outside Erivan. But here they are in bad state. No electricity yet, but poles are in, they use oil now. Have limited supply of water, some is brought, what they have serves only for drinking and sometimes stops flowing. Only activity here is some rug weaving, besides building activity. That at present is their main activity. This village started in 1932. People have come from Bulgaria, France and ? They are building a school. For 2 months now they have not received their wages from the government. Ordinarily they get all their food by purchase from Erivan, farther than nearby villages on opposite side of their hills from Erivan because of price. Those people are in low spirits, they come from far more developed countries. Though they were not well off there, it was better, but they came as Soviets and must stay. The good part is their fine buildings. (Lost a lighter pencil there as I ran back to bus to leave, I think.)

On a little further and get to New Harpoot. There 7 or 8 long, low, one floor buildings, mostly built of logs, lath, and a terrible plaster that looks and sticks on like mud. Many bared parts with lath showing, and therefore open to the inside since lath are placed not touching. 3 or so of these buildings had whole walls out, only poles holding the roof like a 3-walled barn. One building had a star on it, must have been an official building. There were no people around, not a soul. Guides said most stay away during summer and come in winter, or some are working. But I saw no means for winter living. There were only few windows with glass, some broken (glass seems to be a problem, even new buildings in Erivan have many windows out and they remain so). Inside these buildings there seemed to be nothing. Nearby it was quite barren, but further down, in the valley it becomes again quite green.

Near Harpoot is a stream, artificial, which is part of the river which runs through Erivan, and part of which runs in a cement slough built up about 60 feet above the old level which also contains water, this was done by forking the stream up higher in its course, and directing the new part not so rapidly downward. This is a famous success of the new program. Finally leave Harpoot and skirt the hills in which we were, in the greener (but not too green and fertile) valley to Erivan.

In New Sepastia the children in the children’s school (while mothers work) seated at a table sang songs for us. They were well-trained for what they performed. So our tour today showed us many interesting things. Saw these newly made factories in these new villages. We shall leave Erivan, with its organizations, its factories, its industrial “Ardels,” its agricultural “Golkhozes” and “Solkhozes” till later. The weather is very hot. Out in the desert-like regions around Erivan it is fierce. It is a typical summer, but it is a beautiful day despite the heat.

From all places, beautiful, magnificent Ararat can be seen, its high snow-covered peak, always surrounded by white clouds, its low peak, now clear of snow quite clear. Also Alakiaz or Arakadz with its four less majestic partly snow-covered peaks, more nearly clear against the sky! Other peaks, lower ones, surround the city at fairly large distances.

Aug 3
New Arapker
Ashdarag
Etchmiadzin

On Intourist tour to New Arapker, near hydro-electric plant, better road there. Arapker is way ahead of the other new villages. 10 years old. Pop. 1000, some fine bldgs, school, nursery, shower, barber shop, library, and factory. Factory is pretty large. Also weaving. There there was more greenery, not so dry. Met the writer Zabel Essayan11 there, and actor Manuelian, on a visit of their own. Talked long with the town folk.

After dinner, somebody offered to take us to Etchmiadzin. I jumped at offer. Started out in ’29 Ford touring, got a flat, it was fixed after quite a while. Pump was in bad condition. Went on and on, in hills, barren land, upon a village. But not Etchmiadzin, but Ashdarag. Stayed there awhile. After much delay, started out, learned after a while that we’re heading toward Etchmiadzin. We were taking circuitous route back through Etchmiadzin. Get there in dark. See nothing, it’s very late, but these people have no regard for time. I have noticed it often. They are not punctual, they fail at engagements, they care not for other persons’ engagements, they care not about promises to return at a certain time as here. They got us to hotel at 11:00, should have been 8:00. Not concerned they. On the way twice we saw caravans of burdened camels, only about 5 camels in each group. They travel with the men in the pitch darkness. So do some horseback riders along the road at night. We drove with headlights but what a road it was, bumpy! dusty! We had to stop often for water, the radiator leaked. The gas they had filled up. But the driver was a good driver.

The village of Ashdarag was a very primitive sort of place, one post-revolution bldg, one story, otherwise the stone, mud-brick homes. People seated about so lazily. Oxcarts, some drawn by ordinary steer, the wooden wagons, 2 and 4 wheel, called sayl! Then the abundance of donkey, old young, all riding them sitting atop already a burden on the beast. They look so funny, feet dangling in front from the load, man and load much larger than donkey.

Aug 4
Kanaker

Kept another appointment. Plans not going ahead so well.

On tour to Kanaker. There to see one of the new series of power plants. Lake Sevan with its Zangoo River drops into the valley with a great drop in level, such that it is possible to build a whole chain of hydro-electric stations in steps. Kanaker is seventh. Ninth lower down is done and is already serving. Numbers 1, 2, or 3, not sure which, too is done. Kanaker is to be done in 6 months. It will have 4 turbines, 4 generators at 15,000 horsepower, it will have an annex of 2 generators at 35,000 HP. Kanaker will have 130,000 HP total power. Kanaker is entirely modern as a hydro-electric plant. Really fine. But this electrification plan of Sevan to valley is a temporary thing. The water of Sevan will be used for irrigation and power. The lake has now 2 ports, 1 at a depth of 50 meters, the large; the other at a depth of 75 meters. After ten years the water will drop 2/3, 75 meters to 25 meters. The large port will be all gone, the small will become smaller. Now an equilibrium should hold the new lake at depth of 25 meters. That will mean not 2/3 water gone, but about 7/8 or more. After 10 or more years, they will hope science will have advanced to the stage that it will take energy elsewise, and thus Sevan will need no longer to supply the ten power stations. All machinery at Kanaker is Soviet built.

So with George Avedisian to his parents’ home. It was one of those clay brick huts. These are really genuine scenes, the real old life, but they dress differently, a little better. Out with all their people to a hillside vineyard. There, in all, 40 people, there is a real old-fashioned gathering, in honor of George’s homecoming, also as parting party to George. They have killed a lamb. All the women are hard at work preparing the feast. It is quite exciting to watch. Not much different are our very Armenian picnic gatherings, here everything real genuine. On a stonewall sectioned hillside covered with grapevines, some fruit trees, overlooking Erivan. Cool, pleasant. The musicians, “sazantourner,”12 with their Kamancha, Tar, Toof (daf) furnishing the music. Later another orchestra, for change, with Zoorna and davool.13 Sometimes one then the other.

Toward dark the banquet begins and we see the technique of a real old-fashioned toasting party. There is cognac, wine, and lemonade. Cognac is awful. Food on the table before us, set on ground, of course. Cucumbers, tomatoes, bread, cheese, drink. Toast after toast, singing, dancing. They drink to the health and success of us, those from abroad. And we, too, are asked each to make a statement, and we try. It was a pleasant evening except that their hospitality was overpressing. Here these people give a real time, they spare nothing. They are genuine sincere people, but who under the slightest influence of drink and merriment cannot understand that anything might be important except merriment there. They wouldn’t let us go; till eventually rudely we walked off alone, one of the boys, the most sensible, came and helped us out the rest of the difficult way from the hillside.

We are getting experiences here, not in our bargain, but rich indeed. After, the whole affair was very amusing, with its accompanying oddity. Here young men are quick to assume too much. They feel they have a claim of a girl if she has given merely a smile and they are ready to be jealous, and sullen, and very quickly hurt, very sorely too, if their claim shows any sort other of interest. We saw it tonight, even with a middle aged man, and he says he has wife and kids. Also these men are very early in intimacy, and it seems the morals are not so good as they are made out to be (with the marriage and social relation and “no bourgeois-prejudice” systems), in fact bad, but this not certain.

Aug 5
Lake Sevan

Today, out to Sevan Lake in morning. Seventy kilometers about. Road out very bumpy, dusty, but land is little more arable than near Erivan and it all didn’t look so barren. Pass many small villages. Nearly all these are still the old village, with much apparent inactivity about. Reach the lake. The surroundings are not beautiful, in fact it is all quite plain. But the lake is beautiful because the water is clear and blue. It is a large lake. The regular boat to the only island was not running so we took a small motor launch. The lake was much rougher than usual, and we had quite an exciting ride in the little launch. All along I’ve been getting these special experiences that are not in the usual program. The one island is not large.14 There there are houses of rest so-called, for the families of responsible workers. Most of the island is a high hill, atop are 2 old small churches, from 8th century. Very interesting inside. Altar made of brightly colored wood pieces, thousands, placed in puzzle-fitting fashion.

Ride back to mainland, also rough. By bus further around the lake a few kilometers and at shore we have our lunch. Because of our height we are in the clouds, and the clouds sit right on the water, it is a beautiful sight. Some fields of wheat nearby, being picked by hand by a mother and daughter. We go over and help awhile, do very little though. It was getting cool and so we left early, no swimming. Ride back feels even more bumpy than when going. Begin to feel pretty sick and sore. Finally arrive at hotel with a broken spring on the bus. Was an interesting trip though. On way we saw many little villages, saw some bulls or oxen being shoed, saw steel tires being shrunk on the wooden wheels for wagons. Saw hard work being done.

Aug 7

On tour with the large group of Americans. To the “Ararat” winery and the Solkhoz experimental station for wines. There they have 100 varieties of grape. We tasted ten different wines. The table wines are the low alcohol wines, up to 12% alcohol and they are the sour wines. The dessert wines are from 12 to 18% alcohol and they are the sweet wines, up as high as 28% sugar. The Ararat wines are pure wines, no mixing of any sort is done. The cognacs are made by certain distillation processes on wines. Some wines are ripened in the sun for quicker maturing. Here the temperatures are higher than in places such as Spain and Greece, and slightly different wines are produced. I played interpreter to the group, from Armenian.

Later we toured the city and went to the old mosque which is now restaurant in its court, and its side rooms once used by those who came on pilgrimage to spend a night are now permanent residences. Went up into the 2 minarets, the lower one for ordinary days, and the higher, more elaborate, harder-to-climb one for special days. The mosque is being restored for keeping as art of the past.

Aug 8

Guide takes me to where the opera house is being built.15 Went into the office. Met the architect himself A. Tamanian.16 He told me all about the work. It is now going rapidly, to finish in 1939. It is oval. Cut across the short diameter it becomes 2 halls, one side for winter, capacity 1500, other side for summer, capacity 2000. It has many special features. The main stage (which can be cut across the middle, separated sound-proofly into 2 sides) is circular and made in sections which can be raised and lowered. Then 4 auxiliary circular stages 2 on each side of main stage in each theatre, also movable. Everything is electrically controlled. The front section of seats to the first balcony for both sides can as a whole body be inverted, turned thru’ 180° and make a floor flush with the stage the result being one great clear arena from 1st balcony to first balcony, open clear through with a length of 60 meters. This then can be used as an arena for athletic games, demonstrations, etc. From sides autos may drive right in from ramps, across and out, and thousands of people may march so.

It is a grand and elaborate scheme, conceived as early as 1925, approved and started in 1926, but work went slow then. Now it is too small, Erivan has grown so. The building is part of a big plan of public attendance buildings and courts, there will be great courts, terraced mountain side with water falling from stone terrace to stone terrace, long colonnades enclosing immense courts behind the opera house. Quite magnificent. Walked through the construction itself, had an assistant head engineer, young fellow 4 years out of Erivan Univ., all for my guide. There will be no toof17 here, that isn’t as permanent as the concrete faced with granite and marble as this will be. All granite and marble is Armenian. They have no steel columns, I-beams, all columns and cross beams are reinforced concrete. They are nearly ready to pour concrete for the main floor level. The deep pits under stage, foundation, pits for the great quantity of machinery, these are all done.

Saw there a nice relief map of Erivan. It is the projected city plan, the circular effect of the wide boulevard encircling the city exists yet only in plan, also the park plots are still plain. When the plan is completed Erivan will be a beautiful city.

Aug 9

Today another appointment which says staying is impossible, but I have other more important people to see, by chance. Had plenty time in morning so wandered over to printing establishment and got in and luckily met a man I had already once met, Manoogian, Deghagal18 of Editorial staff, and thru him I was arranged a private escort to take me thru plant. He is Onnig Kasargian, chief of proof-reading, member of party, dancing school master, social organizations, president of MOBR which is organization for aid to foreign unemployed workers. He took me thru plant.

The main press for newspapers has capacity of 34000 an hour in two parts. Is a German press, once the only one of its kind in USSR 3 years ago, now USSR makes its own of that type with improvements. Here is only Kurdish press in world besides in Baku. Here they print in Armenian, Russian, French, German, English, Latin, Spanish, Turkish, Kurdish, also music scores. Met Chopoorian, member of HՕԿ, member of gov’t, chief of whole plant, thru’ his efforts the plans were made, approval got to build, and building started of the whole Bedhrad,19 the whole gov’t press which is a large building and does all kinds of printing. They have 11 Linotypes. Saw their lithographing, all done there. Separate job printing, color printing, all kinds. Book binding! Hand-set type made there, have big hand setting dept for special texts as math, chemistry, and they draw their own letter forms to make the type. The plant is wonderful and modern, only the paper they use is poor.

It was a wonderful trip, but best part is this, which came just by chance and luck. Kasargian, still quite young, took an interest in me and asked my affairs. I told him my troubles about arrangements, difficulties of interviews with right people. He learned my situation fully and started right out to help. He got good machinery started. Thus I met important Chopoorian who is a wonderful man. With him I shall see Yeghiazarian. They felt very displeased that so much of my time here should have been wasted by inefficient appointments and passing of responsibility.

[Visited people outside the city.] One of the old homes, pretty poor, in a very poor, all old section. In such a part of the city we see the lack of cleanliness, little sheds, as toilets, right by the walk. On way out see an interesting sight, in trolley a mother was nursing her baby. Have seen it before in yards, etc. There are not so many pregnant women, but quite a few. But all girls are well built up, as a rule, although, at least in one case, it is due to false stuffing, it looks terrible. The girls here are pretty forward, though they, like the men, are quickly jealous. Girls don’t use much powder, nor rouge, but they certainly murder the lipstick, with exaggerated cupid bow shape, and dark red.

Aug 10

Go to keep 10:00 appointment at Foreign affairs. Thru three people there find staying is impossible except thru application thru dept of Foreign affairs with their recommendation to the dept at Tiflis or Moscow, or, since that would delay for President won’t be back till 2 days, to go perhaps myself to Tiflis and make application there in person to Foreign affairs, telling my whole story, or also taking with me recommendations from important people here. So to go to Tiflis? Questioned Gedoyan of Intourist on it! $10 one way for foreigner, but only 40 rubles domestic money for, presumably, the citizen (or worker on contract too, I suppose) here.

Learn about wages for teachers. It is all by hours taught with wage all the way from 1.15 rubles per hour in the low grades to 15 rubles per hour in university. The grade teacher may only get 120 rubles a month with about 175 rubles after 10 years teaching. In university, prof may get as much as 1200 rubles a month.

Have my shoes shined, charged double, 2 rubles by the fellow who talked continuously and who claimed to be best shiner in world, though he did do a good job.

Aug 11

Stop in at Haideghegank, Armenian information booth. There also were the 3 հայs, new from Istanbul, really trying to stay, cause there, life was hard, full of hatred, hard to get work, and they were known for communist activities. They said that if they returned, they would be thrown in jail. [The secretary] kept suggesting that they had come for a visit and would return, what they should see, what they should learn; he just passed off the subject of staying, while they, the three, on the other hand kept telling of bad conditions, how badly they want to stay. It was interesting to watch, the secretary, not till after much time, did finally discuss the matter of staying. He talked of fine political relations with Turkey etc. It seems it will be nearly impossible for those three to remain.

Aug 12

Today rest day and most people and all cars leave town. They certainly take their rest day seriously, everyone who can goes to Sevan or some other resort or just to the country. Today to go to Etchmiadzin had to awaken people who were going. Some mess as to how we should pay, finally Gedoyan agrees to take us free of charge, as a regular sightseeing tour. With Ford V-8 out there, with the 3 young հայs from Istanbul.

First to the library. Saw old hand printed works on parchment, lettered carefully with colorful pictures, like those in British Museum. Oldest were 8th or 7th century. Earlier things have been lost long ago. Out to see the cathedral itself. A Vartabed led us. It is much smaller than I had thought. Outside is like I’d seen in pictures, inside, quite small, no seats about, all stone, but very awe-inspiring. The oldest Christian Church in the world, erected in 303 a.d. at the spot where Christ rose to heaven. It is still the original strong structure, but has been often damaged in invasions, and renewed. The inner part was last decorated in 18th century with hand painted design over the whole inside, but in last wars most of this has been ruined and they want to redecorate that. The structure itself is still quite firm. Saw the altars, the special seats for the Catholicos and other officials, gifts from other countries in 17th and 18th centuries, these are elaborate seats.

Behind the altar on one side we passed into the lesser treasure house. There we saw many old church items, quite valuable in gold, silver and jewels. There also a facsimile of the hand of Gregory the Illuminator. It is a facsimile from the elbow down, clothed to the wrist, made of plaster or iron (don’t know) and gilded. The original supposed the actual forearm and hand of Gregory (which each to-be-ordained priest must kiss) lies in the other treasure room which is opened only with the Catholicos and 4 members of the council. It is rarely opened. Few people see the treasures there. There are the really priceless treasures. During the revolution these were packed in 120 trunks and shipped to Moscow where they were guarded under Lenin’s direction. They were shipped back, presumably with the seals unbroken. There is much gold and silver there, also priceless gems. We couldn’t see that treasure room, nor could we see Khoren I, Catholicos of All Armenians. It was a magnificent tour.

Went out to see the lake, it is rectangular and fixed as a swimming pool, with diving equipment, quite large too. Leave Vagharshapad, village where Etchmiadzin is, and to Zvartnotz, an old church, 645, in ruins from earthquake. Quite massive, designs in stone, and all. Yes, saw Jemaran, school at Etchmiadzin, still in use.

Learned more about New Harpoot. Heard 130 immigrants were coming soon from France (where they will live I don’t know, they say more building will take place there). They wish to start a nail factory in New Harpoot, they have asked for the machines from America, but nothing definite yet. Nails are needed here badly, it cramps the building activity in its lack. There are 30 acres of vineyard there.

This other thought now makes me look upon my staying in a new light. Not really new, but never saw definitely before me, influencing my decision. Is it that I’ve weakened and I’m looking for an excuse? This is it! Assuming I stay! The idea is I must help the family, by bringing them here. But here a person cannot earn enough to support others so that these others will lead a comfortable life in retirement. Here each person must support himself, or else if an elderly person is supported by sons and daughters, the life must necessarily be pretty poor. So Dad and Mom would not lead a comfortable life, Dad would have to continue working, perhaps mom too, even with a good salary that I might get, that is if Dad and Mom are to have a comfortable living; even that is paradoxical for they would be working, and hard. Then if I should stay alone, I can’t help them from here. That is the case I stay permanently. But if I stay only one year or so as an American citizen, and then as a soviet citizen, the above holds. And besides if Dad and Mom came, how about [my brother and sisters]? If I should stay here a year and return I could not take with me any earnings. It would be a wonderful experience for me, to be sure, but that would put me a year behind in getting started back in America, unless if I taught here, the teaching could be counted as experience for public school job. (Although my offer here is not teaching, I only know so far I can get a job in Bedhrad.) So my experience won’t be helping the family very much. It’s a deep problem. I can’t decide what to do. I should have discussed all possibilities before I came. Don’t know why I didn’t. So now I’m nearly helpless. And I haven’t received a word from home to get an idea on things, on how they might be feeling about things. No mail have I got yet at all.

Talked to the հայ from Syria on this. He let me see that there were yet many things I didn’t understand, things that can’t be seen from the hotel, from tours, but are seen only by living with them, actually working with them. I have already gathered that there are many things here, hard to understand; there is such a thing as being on the inside, or on the outside, as having pull, as being favored. It’s quite a proposition. And if I leave I must certainly leave by afternoon of Aug 16th. Too soon, how I wasted time here. I saw so few things, so many I wanted to see, factories, etc. Many people to see again, time is slipping by. Aware further that there is much mysterious here, people are so uncommunicative after a certain point, they shut right up like a clam. They just won’t talk about certain things. Learned the language of Azerbaijan is Turkish and in 1922 they adopted the Latinized spelling and that later Turkey copied it all, nearly in toto. Hope I know my future in tomorrow’s interview.

Aug 13

Days are warming up again. Wander over to “Haikino.” There I explained my person and was given a good reception. A guide took me all around at the special request of the director, Deghagal. No activity going on at present, they are preparing for the filming on Mount Alakiaz, the star-shaped climb and the individual characters. Then they took me in the hall where pictures are censored. There for my benefit alone they showed several reels as they had done for the Intourist group. In the hall came also some of the actors, those in “Bebo” who are around the hotel often. They were dressed in the costumes for the Alakiaz picture, the Rozzesior (or however it is written) was in that hall and they came in for looking over. Saw a news reel, more interesting items than immediate current news. This was talkie. Saw some scenes of old and being-built Armenia, a film of 1930, silent.

Also saw scenes of the reception Moscow gave the polar expedition on its return after being rescued by airship, all Soviet rescue.20 What a grand scene it all was. Just like a grand welcome in N.Y. Big crowds lining the street, confetti, crowds on building, long parade of fine cars, flowers, military music, marching regiments, soldiers, athletes. Thus up to Red Square, where the heroes and the leaders of the rescued on Lenin’s tomb spoke over loud speaking system to the crowds in Red Square in front of the Kremlin, and over the radio. What grandeur. Thousands of cars even, a battalion of tanks, soldiers, athletes, girls, in fine cadence marching by, above squadrons of planes including the beautiful, magnificent, grand, but ill-fated Maxim Gorky, with [Tupolev] himself present. It was all a stupendous display, equal to any any other country has staged. It was wonderful. Thanked the people of Haikino and left.

Finally see Ardo Yeghiazarian. Just catch him. Postpone our meeting till tomorrow. Oh, no! Still postponing. It is habit here. People here are still quite backward, they lack politeness in many ways. Here they seemed much more a curious crowd than a sympathetic crowd.

Over to Haik Parsegian’s house. He arranged many books for [others] and he will fix the same list for me. He will get permission from the dept of Educ to take these books out; I didn’t know it was needed, was nearly going to get into trouble, buying them myself. Parsegian is head of the ID cooperative stores for teachers and professors. Either there are many heads of this or that, or I am meeting always important people, because each person I meet is such a head of something. Learned that a 1926 Census gave a total of 2½ million հայs in USSR. Now they estimate nearly 3 million, with 2 million outside for a total of 5 million հայs in world, and we figure less than 3 million. The name of the man who changed our alphabet is Manoog Abeghian, saw him today.21

[At dinner] had a discussion on comparison of US and here with some young fellows. People here have a strange idea of the outer world. They are all amazed to learn there are no foreign schools, no Armenian schools in U.S. How do many people greet one another here? “Keft vonts eh?” “Vochinch.” This word “vonts” and this word “vochinch” get me!22 Hadn’t seen bedbugs till I got to Erivan, now I’m seeing plenty. Even am bit up.

Aug 14

To dept. of educ to wait for friend Ardo. Wait long, sec’y says he will not be around. So another postponement.

Had a little meal with [Armenian acquaintances]. Their place is bad, out in a very poor district, which according to plan will become the edge of the city center. Nearby are being built homes for officials. But the people are coarse. Very coarse. There used to be hundreds of young pickpockets, with their training school, with their leader, all organized. Much less now, which is something. The then (1932) shortage of bread was quite real, people nearly starved, also they had very little clothes. Now they are far better off. That past accounts partly for their coarseness and ill-manneredness. The next plan is supposed to wipe this out. Saw the Ardel garage. They are a transportation company. They do repairing at their own garage, and it is far more than mere replacements.

Out to St. Sarkis church. Built on the plan of the Etchmiadzin except without the altar marking the spot of Christ’s rising to heaven. Also decorated differently and not as old. No chairs or benches, a stone floor, columns dividing main hall in 3 parts. Services started, very brief. 5 clergymen, no laymen, but the worshippers. Oh, it was a poor sight. Nearly all women, mostly elderly, only few in all, moving about during the brief service, all on their own accord, kneeling, praying, crossing themselves, kissing quite audibly the walls, columns, and floor of the church. This continuously, from place to place they would move with this same prayer ritual with the kissing. All a very sorry sight. There too a deceased man was placed in his casket, face opened. Saw him, he was quite dead. Some younger people there; no deep loud wailing or crying. It is a real old church with its old service, just the old timers are followers. Don’t know how high mass is attended. The young people have broken away, they have taken on the new, lively, exerting life.

Then down to my final appointment. This time I do talk to Ardo Yeghiazarian, Commissariat of Peoples’ Education. He says only citizens will teach in their schools. No time to be citizen. Can stay if I go into to productive work (physically productive) but there I have to apply to the proper person, not he. Under any circumstances it is late, no time, but again in any case since the law is Intourist must return, I should go back to U.S. and enter into correspondence from there and make all arrangements. If Mephrap will give me a job then they in that case should stand for recommendation. So I left Ardo with indistinct feeling.

There are still many parts of Armenia of which I know nothing. I have seen Erivan only with its factories and public buildings and new residences, and the surrounding country. I know not of these beautiful fertile parts; also some other old places as Geghart, Dzaghgatzor. Places where churches are hewed out of solid rock in the mountains. Erivan has canning, wines and cognacs, Cautchouc (artificial rubber), sewing and weaving. Also building and trucking cooperatives, also tobacco plant, cotton! The region of the church to which I went is a poor and old quarter. The old primitive life is still there, even the people look different. Saw a woman spinning thread by that old hand spin method. Funny habit here is to be careless about money values, they often haven’t right change and let it go at a few kopeks short. The store gave me 2 kopeks short. In tramway 1 kopek short and when I asked the conductor said “with us there is no rule about single kopeks.”

Aug 15

Up in poor districts again, still different and life there presents quite a contrast with that in town. People there quite wretched in appearance, though I guess the spirit is not so bad, some are even happy. Though even the lack of that wretchedness in town is not complete, the coarseness remains. Learned from the militia at address office that population here is nearly 130,000, they have a paper slip for each individual and any change in person or location must be recorded there, this must be so in whole U.S.S.R. Send telegram home, saying no permit to stay am coming home. Cost about 14 rubles, good!

Learned in Armenia Russian is predominant over Armenian (though it doesn’t seem so, looking at Erivan), also over Turkish in Azerbaijan. But in Georgia, Georgian predominates. Learned here in Armenia are published 72 periodicals, as news mostly. These include the many cooperatives’ own paper.

Aug 16
Train for Tiflis

Last day in Erivan! Am in a daze. Much to do. Say good-byes. Make a few visits, some purchases of food, cards, mail. Have a haircut. Feel quite excited. Pay my Intourist bill. It is about $3. Nearly all of it for laundry. That was exorbitant especially when after asking price before they (as usual) waved it off saying, oh, very little. $2.40 for two orders of laundry, total 10 shirts and underwear and socks. But they didn’t charge for trip to Sevan and so I am quite satisfied. Nor did they charge for 4 rubles I took, so I pay without a kick.

Trip away is more interesting it seems than when I came. Watch Ararat and Alakiaz as they appear and disappear behind other nearby hills. The Ararat is nearly always visible but it is clouded. Alakiaz is nearly always on one side but sometimes the Ararat appears on one side of the train and sometimes another, 180° apart. Watch Ararat disappear partly in haze and partly behind hills, not over the horizon.

Aug 17
Tiflis
Ordjonikidze

Start off over Georgia Military Highway, in open Ford touring. The ride is beautiful. Now we see high Kazbek, very grand, last time it was clouded. It is all snow covered, more than Ararat, also beautiful shape. Magnificent trip. Arrive Ordjonikidze. Took a walk along main street. What a queer town, it seems to be made up only of drink stores, drug stores, beauty parlors and toy shops. Crazy it is.

Well, will soon be leaving this part of the land with its interesting things. Wagons drawn by horses, oxen, bulls, or water buffalos. Many soldiers to be seen everywhere. All pregnant women wearing shawls. Children begging. Especially along the highway at many points children jump out in the street and dance and shout and stand on their heads and yell for money in Russian which they don’t understand (theirs is Georgian or Ossetian), people, children selling fruits along the road, apparently wild uninhabited parts even. Madly they scramble up on the running boards and demand sale, many children demanding “Karandash” (pencils).

What the people of the Caucasus are like in my eyes: Beggars, usually invalids of many sorts, allowed on trains by conductors to amble thru’ cars, begging to get off at the next station and climb aboard the next train back, so many of these and the people all give, some must make more than most unskilled laborers. Squatting to obtain comfort, and where paper is not in vogue. Children running around the streets nude. Bread sold by weight even if a small extra piece must be cut off to give full weight, and carrying this along the street, under the arm, unwrapped. The craze for having restaurants everywhere, and the people who can’t afford them going to them. The amount people drink and smoke. The people who love to dress up, to have good times. The highly jealous males, and the equally jealous females. The queer conception of things non-Soviet. The precise policemen. The impolite and rude people who never know the answer to a question. The contrast between the old outlook and life and the new. The lack of worry about tomorrow. The way people spend money when out on a holiday. The serious way they take their holiday. The utter disregard of appointment, time, or promise. Their positiveness about things they know little about. And others.


1 The Georgia Military Highway is a major route through the Caucasus. It is 208 kilometers long and reaches an altitude of 2379 meters.

2 The kamanche is a Persian bowed string instrument; the tar is a flat-framed drum.

3 Sayat-Nova (1712-1795) is the name taken by Harutyun Sayatyan, an Armenian poet, folk-singer, and composer born in Tiflis. He played the kamanche.

4 The elevated cable railroad on Mount Mtatsminda opened in 1905. It consisted of one track with a mid-mountain siding for the passage of the two cars; the ride took six minutes. The cable railroad was disaffected after a crash on June 1, 1990.

5 Once the capital of a medieval Armenian kingdom that covered much of present day Armenia and eastern Turkey, Ani is now a ruined, uninhabited medieval site just over the border in Turkey. Called the “City of 1001 Churches,” it stood on various trade routes, and its many religious buildings, palaces, and fortifications were among the most technically and artistically advanced structures in the world.

6 The term applies to Mt. Ararat; massis or masis is the Armenian name for the mountain.

7 A Sepastatzi is a person born in the Armenian city of Sepastia, now Sivas, in central Turkey.

8 The Armenian film studio Haikino began operations in Yerevan in March 1924. Bebo (or Pepo) was the first sound film in Soviet Armenia; it came out in 1935 and marked the start of a fruitful period of collaboration between Russian and Armenian cinema.

9 A kolkhoz is a form of collective farming that existed along with the state farming, sovkhoz (mentioned below). Kolkhozy and sovkhozy were the two components of the socialized farm sector that began to emerge in Soviet agriculture after the October Revolution of 1917 as an antithesis to individual or family farming. Another form of peasants’ or workers’ cooperative in the Soviet period is the Artel (or Ardel), especially of members of the trades.

10 Nubarashen was a planned city built in 1930.

11 Zabel Essayan (1878-1943), born in Turkey, was an Armenian novelist who traveled through Europe defending the cause of her people. She was a victim of Stalin’s purges and was deported in 1937 to Siberia; she died probably in 1943, never having regained her liberty.

12 May refer to the string instrument group.

13 Kamancha (or kamanche): a three-stringed bowed instrument. Tar: either a flat framed drum with a 24” deep rim; or a stringed instrument played with a plectrum, the body made with two bowls, the top one being smaller. Toof (doof or duf): a flat-framed drum with a pair of snare strings stretched across the back of the head. Zoorna (or zurna): loud, outdoor double-reed wind instrument made of apricot wood, usually accompanied by a davul. Davool (or Turkish davul, dhol in Armenian): a large double-headed drum.

14 Due to human intervention, the water level of Lake Sevan has dropped considerably, and the island is now a peninsula.

15 The ground breaking of the Opera-Theatre took place on 28 November 1930 during the celebrations of the tenth anniversary of Soviet Armenia.

16 The architect Alexander Tamanian (1878-1936) conceived vast projects such as the reconstruction of Yerevan and several other cities. In his designs for Soviet Armenia, he adapted Armenian sources to modern requirements.

17 Toof, or tuff, is a variety of volcanic stone indigenous to Armenia, of black, red, pink, or yellow, used in construction and sculpture. After the 1988 earthquake, more structures made of toof remained standing than buildings from the Soviet era, and toof was again used in rebuilding.

18 Approximately, second in command, or vice president.

19 An abbreviation for Bedagan Hradarakoutioun, meaning State Publishing House.

20 Otto Yulevich Schmidt led a northwest passage expedition in the specially fitted steamship Chelyuskin, setting out in August 1933 with a hundred passengers. After the ship became frozen in the ice and then sank in February 1934, passengers and crew camped on ice floes until they were found on March 5, 1934, after 28 failed attempts, by aircraft pilots who evacuated all survivors by April 13. The pilots who took part in the rescue were the first to receive the newly established recognition as Hero of the Soviet Union. Two Americans who also helped in the rescue received the Order of Lenin.

21 The spelling reform of the Armenian language was conducted in the Armenian SSR in 1922-1924. Although barely practiced outside of Armenia and the Post-Soviet states because it was not adopted by Armenians in the diaspora (about half of the Armenian population in the world), it is the spelling of the current official language of the Republic of Armenia.

22 Literally, “keft vonts eh?” means “how is your mood,” in other words “how are you?” The reply, “vochinch,” means “so-so.”


***


Armine Mortimer holds a PhD in French literature from Yale. Aside from her numerous scholarly publications about French literature, she is the translator of two books by Philippe Sollers, Mysterious Mozart (2010) and Casanova the Irresistible (2016, both University of Illinois Press), and excerpts from eleven other literary translations are forthcoming or have appeared in 3:AM Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, The Cossack Review, Asymptote, Black Sun Lit, The Peacock Journal, The Critical Flame, Reunion: The Dallas Review, and AGNI. For her distinguished work on behalf of French culture, she was awarded the Palmes Académiques honor in 2009. Arra S. Avakian (1912-2010) was her father.