"I Will Never Forget Armenia": an Expedition of a Russian Writer to Turkey During the Armenian Genocide
Illustration: Anna Khaninyan
Sergey Gorodetsky is a Russian writer and poet who happened to be in the hearth of events taking place in Western Armenia during World War I. Being an officer of the Russian army and a correspondent he had the right to move around Western Armenia without encumbrance. Not only did he see with his own eyes the mass annihilation of the Armenian people and obliteration of their tracks on the historical homeland, but also took an active part in rescuing the population. His essays and articles about Western Armenia were very important documents of the era, unique annals of the Armenian genocide. They were published by the efforts of Irma Safrazbekyan, Doctor of Literature, and granddaughter of prominent Armenian writer Hovhannes Tumanyan, who was on close friendly terms with Sergey Gorodetsky.
Our route stretches up the river Kotur (a river in Western Armenia, ancient Kotor – ed. note) from Persia to Turkey. Somewhere in the gorge the state border between the two ill-fated countries has disappeared into the blue. The gorge broadens, the mountains one after another make their broad bold backs. The mountain pass is not beautiful. Here is the first Turkish town Saray. The ruins are not dreadful: The flags of “Red Cross” and All-Russian Union of cities are fluttering over them. But dreadful is the recollection of sufferings inflicted on by a person to a person. Not in the war! Sufferings are not dreadful in the war. Unbearable is the thought that hundreds of thousands of peaceful, defenseless people were tormented by people in an unheard-of villainy, their bodies and souls were put to the very-finest torture... The feeling you have standing in the place where the massacres took place is second to none to any grief. Irrecoverable misfortune, indelible disgrace, powerless anger for abusing humans; these are the first feelings that Turkey gives you. You do not even want to look at the nature. You do not see any beauty; you do not hear the birds.
With beautiful nature and rich history Van was a blossoming city before the war. The Turkish main guns and rage of people have turned this paradise into pile of ruins. How unbearably sad it was to go to Van in spring, on the anniversary of its conquest by the Russian troops! The current population of Van is a ghastly sight. There are no more or very rare native inhabitants of Van. The misfortunes spoil people. They can lie down motionless in the same place for hours. These people are heavy and sick at heart. They need to be revitalized. We must make them believe that it is still possible to live under the sun that the fruits of their labor will not be swept away instantly and that their life and reputation will not be taken away.
The volcanoes Khori and Tandurek watch over the Abagin valley. I drove through it with a beautiful company of a small group of Armenian volunteers from America. It has to be said that at the very beginning of the Turkish war around three hundred American Armenian enthusiasts gathered in America, were armed and equipped at their own expense, arrived in Russia and went to the Turkish front line. They were advanced reconnaissance unit and conferred a big favor to our troops. Experienced, graceful on strong horses... As soon as we reposed the horses, we were surrounded by the tragic elegy of war: ruins of villages, burned trees, uncollected grain. The captain raised his eyebrows. He came from Turkish Armenia, grew up and received education in America. How hard it was for his European heart to see the savage ruins of homeland...
One autumn day at five o’clock I approached Panza: the first village on the shore of lake Van. The water was smooth like polished marble and was shining in a milky-amber color. Downhill Panza I was beset by two covered wagons harnessed by oxen and overcrowded with refugees: the oxen were stuck in the mud. Covered with rags the wagons looked like houses. They were homes for Armenians torn by the storm of war from old haunts. The wind opened the curtain and I saw the interior of the wagon. There was a whole family there: from the gray haired patriarch to the happy bunch of babies black like beetles: grandchildren, or as is often the case with Armenians, great grandchildren. It is the family that keeps Armenia living although being systematically annihilated in the years since the Sasoon massacres. And the families in Turkish Armenia are ancient and huge. I just met two such families who had endured the departure and were returning home. Despite the hardships on the road they all looked cheery; although the homeland was ruined, but they were returning to homeland. There was a victory over the death in the child’s carefree divine laugh.
My future co-worker Pakhchanyan, a member of one of such tragic fated families was waiting for me in Panza. He was the head of a tea house which was either opened or closed. Rarely shaved with a crooked eye, cribbage faced, if not clumsy, he conceived under his looks a very kind heart, vivid humor and the ability to work hard. He could not understand the difference between the words “rice” and “lynx”, treated me with “lynx” and convinced me to drive “rice”, he had also an amazing ability to label the inventory items. It was a delight to read the inventory written by him. His life destiny is quite interesting. We were going by idyllic hills, along the paths straight ahead. Pakhchanyan was going before me. I looked at him and noticed that he had a completely Russian simple back of the neck. I asked him why did he have such back of neck and the response was the following story.
About two hundred years ago a Russian peasant, his last name is unknown, killed his landlord for torturing the peasants. He managed to escape and reached Persia. They wanted to detain him there, he ran away to Armenia, got on well and accustomed to there, married an Armenian girl and started a family. He answered to all the questions concerning his name the same way: Pakhchan, which means a runaway. And the last name derived from there Pakhchanyan: a very fertile one that has offspring in Russia and in America. My Pakhchanyan lived with his father, mother, brothers and sisters in Van; the family was very big. The Turks killed everyone except him and his brother who were rescued. What dismal feelings I had for the mankind when Pakhchanyan squinting with a damaged eye showed me the places where he was looking for his father among the deformed corpses and found him only because his father was very tall … He had cried all his tears, he had gone through all the pain. With a smile that is frightening Pakhchanyan was telling me what happened on the idyllic shores where we were going…
From the letter addressed to Hovhannes Tumanyan:
What we are witnessing is the end and the beginning of the process. The withdrawal of the Caucasian army from the borders where it reached through unbelievable acts of bravery, from the borders, that alone can guarantee security to Transcaucasia, from the borders, owning which means will make the dream come true for all the rational humankind to liberate Armenia, unreflective, herdlike withdrawal of the army from these borders does not mean deliberate destruction of the Armenian Question but only a dark, unperceived conformity to the spontaneous forces, that are controlling Russia. The army is creeping like lava, like sand, it does not it understand what it is doing.
And if all the army left taking with itself all the Russians, and if I stayed all alone in Transcaucasia, I would not be afraid to take responsibility in front of you for all Russia, for all the Russians, for all the Russian affairs here: we are here. Russia did not leave.
Pro Armenia, for it, for its defense. Not only the title, but all the speech could be written in Latin. Not because this classic language is quite appropriate to write about this ancient nation. And not because the brazen sound of Latin is better tailored for the tragic events that walloped Armenia reminding the tocsin of the human conscience. The conscience of the previous centuries. O, no, not present-day! The current panhuman, international conscience, if it makes sound then it is not copper but some other metal. That is why we can use Latin to write about Armenia, as nobody hears these speeches; people have closed their ears, have lowered their eyelids on the eyes not to see the horrifying, deafening, unbearable chain of events. There was a nation and now it is being annihilated in front of everyone. As if it is an overcrowded theater where everything is perfectly visible and audible from all the places, and where the theater rule requires everyone to follow closely the events, worry about everything, but not to do one thing only: not move from his/her place.
But that is a theater! The hero is killed, the curtains go down, and he, who was just dead, appears for the applauses smiling. And this is life. The hero is killed, the history draws the curtains and that is the end. The predators take on the corpse and then the weather-worn bones turn white in the desert.
And it is impossible to act as if you are in a theater with the tragic events in Armenia. And everyone, each for their own reasons, act as if there are in the theater. Russia is sitting in the gallery, festive Georgia in the pit stalls, the diplomats and German officers in the loge. And in front of everyone is not a performance of murder, but a suicide. Chilling details! Here is one of them.
Armenia with its national instinct treats children with special love, affection and care during all its inflictions. One should have seen the child’s carts, the children’s shelter, that were hastily arranged on the frontline every time a city was destroyed, the governesses, the nannies, and especially the young teachers to understand how beautifully the sense of adversity turns into the sense of love for the orphans. It is understandable. Deprived of their territories, uprooted from their native areas, a refugee obviously sees its future in children. Indeed there are so many orphans in Armenia, that there are no more there: their mother is the state. To have a mother is a rare personal happiness; child-rearing is a nation-wide purpose.
And here is a detail from the recent life of Armenian children. There was a story from Suram published in the newspapers: children were brought to Suram from Bakuriani, children got ill, the illness was considered as an epidemic, and they were chased off from Suram. It is all typical for our days and it is terrible but there is one detail that is hideous. The doctor of the shelter wrote why the children got sick. They got sick due to switching from grass nutrition to a normal one. It is enough for those that understand. In Bakuriani children were eating grass.
And there was also news that Andranik found somewhere several Armenians who were eating grass in the fields. And another news: in Echmiadzin mothers threw their children to the ponds to save them from the torment of starvation. And such news is endless. One is more horrible than the other; one is more severe than the other one. There is a villainous process going on. A piece of land is being taken from the Armenians.
It seemed that outside Turkey Armenians will lead a peaceful life. But no. The border became a dream. There is no border... It is only in the diplomatic papers and on the old maps of Russia. The regions one after another fall into the hands of the enemy. Eventually the treaty of Batumi allocates “to Armenia” a piece of barren and deserted land, with poor subsoil, with a bare surface, somewhat a symbol of state. People want to concentrate here to defense their existence through the potential of circular forces, but the confines of the nest are also unsteady and there is no tranquility and possibility to lead a peaceful life.
Hour by hour the population of Armenia falls into two huge groups: the dead and the refugees. Being under this kind of pressure, people are becoming demoralized.
As per the bad old habit nations have friends and enemies. And if the enemies rejoice watching Armenia bleed, the friends of Armenia anxiously keeping an eye on its fate can be proud of it. In general nations do not perish. And never do die nations who know how to preserve national dignity in hours of worst disasters and humiliations. Neither will perish Armenia.
A new wound
The article is written in response to decree on abrogation of Armenian organizations in the Soviet Russia (1918).
At the moment when the Armenian nation exerts itself to establish the basis for its statehood under the threat of annihilation and with complete insecurity of state borders and lives of people the agonizing Bolshevik Russia stabs in its back again: by the decree of Lenin all the Armenian national councils, defense committees, military-revolutionary committees and etc. are abolished.
The truth is that the attitude towards the outlying districts, self-identifying nationalities is one of the most vulnerable points for bolshevism. Here there is an important coinciding point with the prerevolutionary government. Bolshevism displayed the same fear for the freedom of ethnic groups typical for the tsar government. Unable to guarantee life and progress to the so called “small ethnic groups”, Bolshevism just like the previous government wanted to keep them under its control forcefully, and from the very beginning did not tolerate any “self-determination”, by calling it “anti-revolutionary”.
Lenin used Engels’ phrase “the state is violation itself” as the main lever of his political activities and pressed this lever when it came to the matter of nationalities. One of the outcomes of this policy is the decrees about the Armenian organizations. To assess the cynicism of the decrees we need to renew in our minds the current tragedy of Armenian people.
People who were banished from their motherland and now persecuted from the last small piece of land, just like an animal that is being kicked out from his covert. People who are being annihilated since the beginning of the war, scattered throughout the world, and not perishing purely for their powerful perseverance. These people had some organizations in Russia: councils, committees and so on. Of course those weak dams would not be able to resist the flow of misfortunes washing off Armenia from the earth but nevertheless these organizations were engaged in small activities aimed at self-defense.
If the author of this horrible decree met at least an orphan kid, the eyes of a distracted girl from the horror she had encountered, I am sure that the abrogation would not take effect. But bolshevism is far away from this, it does not see it, it is out of it, and invents laws to subdue the historical events storming around us. The bleeding Armenian nation is inflicted with a new wound and because this wound was inflicted by Russia, even though Bolshevik one, it is specifically painful.
There is one outcry that lives in my soul forever and inseparably. In the tortures of the hell, in the bliss of paradise, whenever I remember it, everything fades away: the fire, the blue sky and the flowers...
We left Van for the third time.
The vans overcrowded with children were ready to set off on a dangerous and distant journey to the north. At the gates were standing people condemned to stay. They pushed one another, pushed themselves forward, and clung to the wheels. They hollow faces expressed despair and anxiety. What was awaiting them? Lingering death, if their enemies do not notice them. Painful death if the enemies have the time and desire to enjoy their anguish.
There was a woman standing aside.
She looked imperial in her rags. The glow of the national costume was stronger than the dilapidation. The patched and shabby clothes kept its exotic greatness.
The grey hair from under the worn headwear and the face: representation of endurance, suffering and hope, such a strong one, that only her voice was stronger that I heard soon...
Wrinkled forehead, aquiline nose, tired-out mouth with a strange expression that one may have in the last phase of suffering that looks like a smile.
And the eyes; sunken deep into the orbits yet vivid, insane, not surrendering eyes. That is her looks.
Unlike the others she did not clung to the wheels, did not push herself forward. She stood aloof. She stretched her dark hands with pointed elbows somewhere upwards and the sharply marked bones on her neck also stretched somewhere in the last strain.
She did not scream, did not move, and that is why I noticed her. And I could not take my eyes off her. There was something ancient, biblical, perpetual and fatal in her stance.
And yet, in spite of everything, an inexplicable hope drove her soul...
The vans set out: one, two, three, there were many vans there. The deathlike light of the cold moon illuminated the road through the empty city. Everything became silent.
And suddenly a shout arose in the lunar silence. The old woman howled.
In a drawling manner, with slowness that begets the hopelessness, with the agony that comes before the death, with some sound that reminds mother’s name that is sometimes close to scream of despair and fading in the notes of horror and supplication. I don’t know how to call this, she was crying, sobbing and howling and that sound spread in the lunar night, covered the demolished houses and the dangerous path.
It followed us persistently like an angel of grief. There was no escape from it; it remained forever in me, as inside other people who heard the last outcry of despair and anguish...
Who did it?
In autumn, 1916 at 5 o’clock I approached Panza, the first settlement on the shore of the Lake Van. I left behind the huge cone of Ararat on the verge of three Asia: Persia, old Russia and Turkish Armenia. I came to Van region, Vaspurakan in Armenian. This country is full of fairy tales and beauty of nature. The waters of Van were sparkling with imperturbable calmness like faceted sapphire. But the country of fairy tales was the country of blood. The shining nature was a cemetery to Armenians and Kurds, annihilating each other because the tsarist Russia was procuring Armenia without Armenians with the blessing of the allies.
The mountain road on which every inch could become a resort due to climate conditions was the road of death of Armenian people. Its rulers were the tsarist generals, the very ones from who I bought matches in the shops after the revolution. But then they traded lives and blood of ten thousands of Armenian people. I remember their lambent last names: Chernozubov and Voronov.
During the setback people were perished massively and I went to collect children and took hundreds of them to Erivan, where many of them were brought up in Soviet homes. There was so much panic and horror during the setbacks that once I lifted a boy and put him on my horse. He was lying not far from the road under the incandescent heat with a fragment of iron sheet in the head crushed down with a stone. He was put there to die by his parents who could not withstand the severities encountering on the road.
During this trip I was among the Armenian people going back to the motherland; Van. On July 25 Bitlis was given to Turks and hundreds of thousands of people were driven to the north. Now those that survived were coming back.
Around two hundred years ago a Russian peasant whose last name is unknown, killed his landlord for torturing the villagers. He managed to escape and reached Persia. There they wanted to detain him. He fled to Armenia, got accustomed to there, married an Armenian girl started a family. He gave one and the same answer to all the questions concerning his last name: Pakhchan that means fugitive. That is where derives the last name Pakhchanyan that has offspring in Armenia and in Armenia.
My Pakhchanyan lived with his father, mother and all the family. The family was big and they lived in Van. The Turks killed everyone except him and his brother, who managed to escape.
Looking asquint Pakhchanyan showed me the areas where he was looking for his father’s body among the deformed corpses and found him only because his father was tall.
Every stone, every mountain road has soaked in the ancient culture and the legends, but the most dreadful was the news of the recent days, the news about the martyred, killed and the drowned.
Sourse: S. Gorodetsky, "Last Outcry."