BY MITCH KEHETIAN
GLENDALE, Calif. –When Tom Mooradian arrived in California for a book-signing tour in October, his stop for a talk at the Abril Booksore here turned into a reunion of fellow “repatriates” who had endured chilling lives behind the infamous Iron Curtain of the former Soviet Union.
But with the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the suggestion that a reunion of former Armenian repatriates be held at the Armenian Embassy in Washington, D.C. won favorable reaction among those who once lived under the veiled threat of the dreaded communist-driven KGB.
For Mooradian, now 79, the “reunion with former repatriates to Soviet Armenia” was “an inspiring chapter” in his senior life and for the eight other “former repatriates” who came to visit with their old friend who had taught them the American style of basketball in the 1950s.
While author Mooradian’s reunion with fellow repatriates was a highlight of his visit to this Armenian stronghold in southern California, his former Soviet Armenian basketball teammates and students had a surprise of their own for “the Amerikanzee from Detroit” – a prearranged phone call to Yerevan put Mooradian on line with Carlin Manoogian, another former Soviet Armenian basketball teammate.
Manoogian, a native of Leninakan, (now Gumri) went on to direct the Department of Basketball and Volleyball at the Institute of Sports and Physical Culture in Yerevan. “Carlin could not believe it was me. I was thrilled to talk with my old teammate. The last time we talked was more than 50 years ago. We cried,” the emotionally inspired Mooradian shared after the call to Armenia.
Mooradian’s book, ‘The Repatriate, Love, Basketball and the KGB’ is a memoir of a star high school athlete-scholar who gave up his American citizenship in 1947 by signing for a resident visa application to then Soviet-controlled Armenia.
After 13 years the Soviets finally consented in 1960 to grant Mooradian an exit visa. A KGB agent in Moscow gave him the message to “pack your bags. You can go home.”
The “nightmare” was over – but the chilling fear of the KGB never left Mooradian, who at age 17 had captained his high school basketball team in 1946 to win the Detroit public school championship. One year later he joined 150 other Armenian Americans bound for the Soviet Union, believing he was still an American citizen who would go to college in Armenia. Unknowingly the teenage basketball star from Detroit had signed away his American birthright citizenship. “I was just plain stupid. It almost cost me my life,” Mooradian shared at book signings in Fresno, Los Angeles, San Francisco and here in Glendale.
As fate would dictate, it was Mooradian’s basketball talent that saved him from further KGB physical harassment.
Before returning to Detroit, Mooradian suggested to his former teammates that a “reunion for repatriates” should be held at the Armenian Embassy in Washington, and that the historic reunion of Soviet Armenian repatriates be called by Dr. Hranush Hakobyan, Armenia’s Minister of Diaspora Relations.
In dramatic fashion at a writers conference in Yerevan last year the Diaspora minister publicly apologized to all repatriates and their families for the botched attempt by the Soviet Union at repatriating Armenians to Soviet Armenia.
It was the first time a ranking Armenian government official addressed the failed repatriation movement during the tense post World War II years of 1946-48. She also revealed that many of the repatriates were exiled to Siberia on orders from Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
“When a member of our repatriate community was whisked away by the KGB for questioning, they just vanished. If you inquired about the person’s disappearance, you would be next on the pretext suspected anti-communist Dashnaks had infiltrated the repatriate movement — which was how the communists created their state of fear,” said Mooradian, a retired suburban Detroit newspaper editor.
Support for Mooradian’s bold call that a reunion for repatriates be held at the Armenian Embassy was also endorsed by Abraham Hamamdjian, who captained the Armenian basketball team that upset a highly touted team from Red China. He was finally granted an exit visa to leave the Soviet Union in 1980. Hamamdjian, from Cairo, Egypt had repatriated to Soviet Armenia at the age of 17. Like his friend Mooradian, he too believes “basketball was our survival in the old Soviet Union.”
After his playing career, Hamamdjian coached the first Armenian basketball team allowed to travel out of the USSR. “We won all 11 travel games in Syria and Lebanon. The Soviets knew no one on our team would defect. We all had families in Armenia,” he added.
As for Mooradian’s suggestion for a national repatriates reunion in Washington, Hamamdjian said “the repatriates and Tommy’s students here for his book tour signing are proud Armenians. What happened during the bungling repatriation movement was the fault of the oppressive communist bosses in Moscow. A reunion at our Armenian Embassy would bring closure to what we endured during the Iron Curtain Era and would be good for Armenia, now a free nation again.”
Joining the welcome to their “Amerikanzee” friend from Detroit included Melik Besnelian, a repatriate from Syria who went to Armenia in 1947, played basketball with Mooradian, coached at the Institute of Sports and Physical Culture, and was a basketball referee at championship games in the old USSR before coming to America in the late 1990s.
Other repatriates from Syria were Joseph Aivazian who came here in the early 1970s . He later earned a degree in pharmacy, while Avetis Bayramian who went to Armenia in 1946 was a graduate of the Polytechnic Institute and taught in Yerevan before gaining an exit visa to leave Soviet Armenia in 1990. A year before Armenia regained its independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Bayramian covered sports for the Armenian Nor Or newspaper here, and authored a book focusing ‘Famous Armenians in the World of Sports.’
Hagop Hagopian, a repatriate from Greece recalled his student basketball days with “Coach Tommy in Yerevan.” After his playing days Hagopian became a fencing coach in Armenia.
Also taking part in the “mini-reunion” at Harout Yeretzian’s Glendale book store was Robert Hamamdjian of Egypt who went to Armenia in 1947. He too played basketball with Mooradian before earning a degree from the Institute of Physical Culture – and was an established mentor of top-ranking junior basketball teams in Armenia.
For Aramis Gharibian, when given the chance to leave Armenia, he opted out for America rather than return to his birthplace in Iran. An excellent player and coach, Gharibian turned to a career in broadcasting soccer matches in Armenia, a talent he still utilizes on Armenian television in Los Angeles.
Though not a repatriate, Armen Hovsepian, a native Armenian, came to the United States in 1994, but before his new life in America he taught English at Armenian schools, at the theological seminary in Etchmiadzin, and as a second language in Glendale’s Unified School District.
Before leaving Glendale, Mooradian recalled the past with former teammate Girard Minassian at the Egyptian-Armenian repatriate’s home. ” He was a outstanding shooting guard on our championship Soviet Armenian team. We embraced, and thanked God for giving us the strength to survive the veiled threats of the KGB and its network of citizen informants,” Mooradian stressed.
As for his call to Dr. Hakobyan that she host a reunion of former repatriates at the Armenian Embassy, Mooradian said: “It would help to heal some old wounds …”