November 29, 1937, Yerevan.
Thousands of people are celebrating the 17th anniversary of Soviet Armenia. Yerevan’s Republic Square is decorated with the portraits of Lenin, Stalin and other members of the Politburo of the Communist Party. Maro has just returned home. A car appears in front of her house. She knows that they have come for her.
"Two Chekists* knocked on my door. I opened the door and one asked me to follow them to the Ministry of Internal Affairs. My heart was foreseeing my future arrest, so I asked, ‘Are you going to arrest me? Please, tell me, I’m not afraid.’ ‘No, no, Mrs.Muradyan, you haven't committed any crime to be arrested,’ was the answer. ‘Unfortunately, you are arresting people that have not done anything wrong,’ I continued. ‘What was my husband's crime or poor Varya Bakunts’ [writer Aksel Bakunts’s wife] crime to be arrested?’ There was no response to my question and I followed them. Soon, the huge iron gate opened and the car appeared in front of the Ministry of Internal Affairs."
During Stalin's repressions in the late 1930s known as the Great Purge or the Great Terror, extreme persecution and oppression reigned throughout the Soviet Union. The NKVD spared no one - from Kulaks (wealthy peasants), clergymen, former oppositionists, to leaders and members of the Communist Party, Nepmen (those who were engaged in private enterprise during the New Economic Policy of the 1920s), members of the Red Army and the intelligentsia. In Soviet Armenia, hundreds of intellectuals, scientists, writers, doctors, politicians and public figures were arrested, tortured and charged as counter-revolutionaries, nationalists, and enemies of the people. Some were killed, their bodies never to be found.
A year before, in 1936, Maro’s husband, Vahram Alazan, a poet and literary critic and head of the Writer’s Union at the time, had been arrested along with writers Gurgen Mahari, Aksel Bakunts, Vagharshak Norents and politician and journalist Drastamat Ter-Simonyan.
While much has been written about Armenian intellectuals who fell victim during the repressions of the 1930s, the persecution of their wives and other family members have been lost in the pages of history.
Maro was one of them. Together with Aksel Bakunts’ wife, Varya, and Yeghishe Charents’ wife Izabella, she was arrested and tortured for being the wife of a “counter-revolutionary” and “nationalist.”
In the 1970s, Maro would write her memoirs. She would describe every important event in her life and call her two-volume diary, “The Tragedy of My Life.” She would categorize her life in stages - each one marking a particular tragedy that would haunt her for the rest of her life. In the process of writing, she would tear off the mask of the Soviet regime and narrate her horrifying experiences starting from the 1915 Armenian Genocide to her arrest and later, her long journey to Siberia in search of her deported husband.
“We heard the loud conversations and laughter of Kurds. My horrified mother immediately hid me under the huge folds of her skirt. Two tall young Kurds broke the door, entered the house and started looking at us with threatening faces with their hands on their daggers. One of the women implored, ‘Please, save us, we are poor people.’ In response to this they grabbed a nine-year-old girl, tied her hands and legs and hoisted her on the horse’s saddle. She was crying the whole time. The girl’s mother started to kiss the Kurdish soldier’s feet and asked them to free her daughter. But the Kurd took his dagger and beheaded the woman. The girl was still crying…”
The third stage of Maro Alazan’s tragedy begins with the description of her arrest and dreadful treatment by the Soviet government. After her husband’s imprisonment, Maro became the victim of a concerted effort of harassment and persecution by the Soviet Government. They forced her to testify against her husband, fired her from her job, kicked her out of the medical university where she was a student… Her friends and relatives started avoiding her because they too were afraid. And finally, on November 29, 1937, she was arrested.
“You are arrested citizen Muradyan,’ said Chekist Abulyan when I entered one of the rooms of the Ministry. ‘Ah, it’s already been two years now that I have been isolated from society, I’m not surprised, neither afraid. I prefer to be in jail rather than to be free under your regime,’ I proudly announced. After half an hour, the Chekists took me to my cell. Soon a woman entered my cell. She ordered me to take my clothes off and then started examining every piece of clothing, as if trying to find something. I was shocked.Then she started examining my hair, again trying to find something.
After the first shocking experience in the Ministry, Maro was taken for an interrogation. She was asked to talk about her husband’s anti-government activities.
“‘Maro, you have been talking for about three hours, yet you haven't said anything that is vital for us,’ said the investigator. ‘But what do you want me to tell you?’ I asked. ‘Hm, you said only positive things,’ he continued.”
During the Stalin repressions, the representatives of the Soviet regime were not only imprisoning people for imaginary crimes but were also trying to persuade the public that these people were a threat to the society.
“It was late night, and I could not sleep. Suddenly the door opened and Izabella Charents entered my cell. ‘Maro, they caught me near the tram station and forced me to leave my little daughters,’ she cried, ‘Oh, God, what is going to happen with my babies? I’ve begged them to take my daughters home but they did not let me. I will go mad, will I see them again Maro?’ She was in shock. She could not stop crying.”
Soon, the Chekists appeared and ordered Maro, Izabella and the other prisoners out of the cell. They were viciously hurled into a waiting car. After several minutes they arrived in front of the Yerevan Central Prison.
“We were walking through a dark and narrow corridor. There were dozens of locked prison cells. Soon the Chekists showed us a small cell, saying that it would be our new ‘home.’ Oh, the smell was awful...It was so dark that we did not understand that the room was full of dirt and human feces. ‘We can’t live in these conditions,’ I started to shout. Soon the guard of our ward brought a lamp, water and a broom and we started cleaning our place.”
Maro Alazan writes that the cell was so small that they could not lie down to sleep, nor were they able to walk. The only way to find some comfort, was to sit. This lasted nine months. The food was wretched, the rooms were damp and there were no windows.
“We were inside the cell all the time. We were afraid we would not be able to walk anymore. We would go to the toilet in front of each other using a close-stool. It was horrible. We were spending our days telling each other about our destiny and life. Sometimes I would sing to make my friends happy. Almost everyone was smoking. They were smoking day and night. But it did not affect me. I wanted freedom….freedom, people and the world. My heart was flying out from the locks of the jail.”
Fortunately, Maro and her friends were soon transferred to a new cell which was clean and full of light. After nine tortuous months, they were able to walk, to breathe some fresh air and were finally taken to the bathroom. Maro, a fearless 27-year old woman at the time, took out the pencil that was hidden in her hair and left a message on one of the walls in the corridor.
“I decided to leave a message for my Alazan. I wrote ‘My dear Alo, I’m here, and everything is alright with me, don’t worry.’ Then I wrote another message on one of the walls in the bathroom. The message was ‘My dear Alo, take care, I’m in the first cell and everything is alright.’”
Yet Maro’s innocent messages were not left without punishment. The guards discovered her messages and threatened her to stop. But she refused. Moreover, she started receiving notes from her husband in the form of little poems. They started to leave hidden messages and show their love through numerous writings on the bathroom walls.
“I did not have anything to write down those beautiful poems, so I asked my friends to learn each line by heart. The whole cell knew those poems.”
Unfortunately, Maro’s heroism was soon awarded by a cruel beating. She was beaten so badly that she did not recover for weeks. Even Alazan wrote her a letter to stop writing messages on the wall and be an “obedient prisoner.”
“The guard Zakaryan entered our cell and started beating me. He hurled me to the floor and continued beating with his huge boots. His assistant joined him. I only remember my friends crying and asking them to stop. I was lying on the bed. I did not know how many days I spent like that. My whole body was battered. One of my friends was trying to give me some water, the other was putting a wet cloth on my forehead. I could not sleep because of the horrible pains. I could not see for some time-period."
Even after being beaten, Maro did not stop. She had found other ways of communicating, such as beating on the walls according to Morse code. When they were told of Charents’ death in 1937, she comforted Izabella all the time and managed to arrange an event in memory of the poet.
The 1930s will be remembered as an era when countless Armenians betrayed their friends and relatives. Less than 20 years after the Armenian Genocide, Soviet Armenian officials deprived hundreds of Armenian intellectuals of their freedom and sometimes, their lives. An entire nation was coerced into calling them enemies of the Soviet Union.
“When we opened the barn door, we saw my brother Arakel whose clothes were still burning. His head was had been severed and his brain was visible... late into the night, the women of our village were trying to take away bodies from the burned ruins of the barn..hundreds of mutilated parts of bodies- without arms, without heads, burned, unrecognizable corpses…”
In 1938, Maro was released from prison but her nightmare did not end. The Soviet government deported Vahram Alazan together with Vagharshak Norents and Gurgen Mahari to one of the coldest regions in Siberia, the village of Boguchany where temperatures would dip as low as -60 degrees celsius. Maro resolved to find her beloved husband. She could not live without him. After several months of traveling, she finally reached Alazan in Siberia and lived with him until they came back to Armenia.
After spending years in exile, the Alazans returned to Yerevan and later had a little girl, Hasmik in 1954. She would become the only bright spot in their life.
“As my mom writes in her memoirs, I appeared in the fourth stage of her tragic life,” says Hasmik Alazan. “After so many years of torture, they could finally live in peace and be happy.”
Unfortunately, Maro’s destiny did not have a happy life in store for her. In 1955, Vahram Alazan suffered a stroke and was bedridden until his death.
“I remember that my parents were always afraid of calls at night or knocks on the door. They were afraid of cars passing by our house. We would walk on our tippitoes not to make any noise...and it has become a habit for me...I still walk like that,” Hasmik recalls.
“My mother was a very strong woman,” Hasmik Alazan says proudly. ”After her horrible journey from Western Armenia during the genocide, after her dreadful experience in Yerevan Central Prison and then her years in Siberia, she could not escape being strong. A girl raised in several orphanages, deprived of parental love... She was very strict indeed. I remember she was always preparing me for bad situations in life…”
“I saw several baby girls lying on cross-like stakes. They had pale faces and I asked my mom, ‘Mommy, are they dead?” She said, “Be quiet Maro jan, the Kurds will hear you talking and will take you away from me like these girls.”
“My mom was called a ‘dekabrista’ [the name comes from the Decembrist revolt in Imperial Russia on December 26, 1825], like the wives of ‘dekabrists’ who fought for their husbands and crossed long distances to find them,” Hasmik explains.“ During Stalin's repressions, many wives were leaving their husbands but my mom stood up for my dad until his death.”
Despite her fate, Hasmik says that her mother was happy. She was loved and spread all the love inside of her. In the 1920s, the Alazans had a life full of culture, discussions with intellectuals and beautiful evenings in “Intourist’ Hotel - the heart of Armenian Bohemia. She was constantly meeting many famous people such as Avetik Isahakyan, Stepan Zoryan, Alexander Shirvanzade, Panos Terlemezyan. She was a close friend of Yeghishe Charents and his family. She was admired by writer Zabel Yesayan. She often dined with Vahram Papazyan and Hrachya Nersisyan.
She was full of life, once. And in the first page of her memoirs she would write:
“Dear reader, I’m not a professional nor a literary or political individual. I don’t know why but many famous writers used to say that I need to sit and write down my life. Maybe because I witnessed the horrific events of the 1915 genocide with the innocent eyes of a child? Maybe because I was in a dilapidated ship of life floating through stormy Lake Bznuniats to the iced Angala? Maybe because I left my beautiful Sipan and reached the cold Siberian taiga? Maybe because I experienced on my own skin the second genocide of 1936-1938? …This is not only my tragedy, this is my nation’s tragedy... Please take from my life and experience things that are important for you, things that are helpful and from which you and your future generations can learn something.”
Maro Alazan died from cancer in 1974, at the age of 66. Today, her two-volume diary is kept in the Yeghishe Charents Museum of Literature and Art.
She had asked her daughter, Hasmik not to publish her memoirs for 50 years. Maro had believed that the Soviet Union would never collapse…