- BelongingsPeople and Possessions in the Armenian Repatriations, 1945–49
On 9 July 1947, the Pobeda docked in Batumi carrying 2,509 items of hand baggage and 2,548 items of hold baggage. It was followed a few weeks later by the Chukotka, which carried another 2,700 items of hand baggage and a further 3,408 items of hold baggage.1 The owners of this cargo were diaspora Armenians from communities in Greece and the Middle East who had responded to a Soviet invitation to repatriate to their “homeland,” Soviet Armenia. By the time the scheme came to an abrupt end in 1949, almost 90,000 Armenians had gathered up their belongings and embarked on similar voyages toward the republic.2
The arrival of the Pobeda and the Chukotka in the USSR occurred against a backdrop of postwar population movement on a vast scale as prisoners of war, evacuees, forced laborers, conscript soldiers, and many others sought ways and means to go home.3 Yet the Armenian repatriations were distinct from this context of movement in important ways. These [End Page 511] Armenians had not been displaced during World War II; they were the families of Armenians who had been displaced from the Ottoman Empire during World War I and the Armenian genocide. Few had previously set foot in Soviet Armenia. Nonetheless, this process was presented by the Soviet authorities, and accepted by much of the diaspora, as homecoming on an unprecedented scale.4
Armenian repatriates were drawn from a wide range of backgrounds.5 Ninety percent of those who registered to repatriate in Syria and Lebanon in 1946 were said to be needy, unable to repatriate without financial support.6 The better-off, in contrast, were able to plan and provision carefully, and the contents of their cases reflected their hopes, fears, and expectations. In France, Jean Der Sarkissian watched as his family’s savings disappeared into wooden crates. They packed 16 cases, mostly with practical items, such as his mother’s sewing machine and his bicycle. That they also packed emergency provisions such as a twenty-five liter carton of sugar “just in case” is suggestive of underlying uncertainties regarding their future.7
Life in the Soviet homeland did not go smoothly for the Der Sarkissian family, nor for thousands of others. Far from the bountiful land promised in propaganda, repatriates encountered poor housing, shortages, poverty, and isolation. They were also subject to the political repressions of the late Stalin period, and repatriates were among the 12,000 Armenians targeted in deportations in the South Caucasus during Operation Volna in 1949.8 Given [End Page 512] these circumstances, many chose to leave as soon as the Soviet authorities permitted, following the death of Stalin.9 In the short term, however, they had little choice but to negotiate the Soviet system. For some, it was possible to find a sense of belonging. According to Susan Pattie, “within a generation those who have stayed say they are firmly rooted and speak of their dedication to Armenia. They talk of continuing the contribution of their parents to the society.”10
Among the contemporary Armenian diaspora the repatriations are widely viewed as a failure, and often as the intentional victimization of the Armenian population by the Soviet regime. In 2008, in the interest of improving relations, the newly established Armenian Ministry of the Diaspora issued an apology for the shortcomings of the repatriation campaigns.11 That repatriation did not live up to expectations is beyond doubt. In this article, however, I aim to shift the focus from the narrative of Soviet betrayal and Armenian victimhood to provide a more nuanced account of repatriation at the level of both state practice and social experience.
I draw upon the records of the Soviet Armenian committee charged with the organization of repatriation along with a series of memoirs written by repatriates.12 Most of these memoirs were written by repatriates who [End Page 513] eventually left Soviet Armenia and reflect their authors’ critical stance toward the Soviet Union in general and repatriation in particular.13 The traces of a greater diversity of repatriate experiences are evident in the archive of the...