At Detroit Southwestern High School, Tom Mooradian was an academic all-star in the classroom, and captain of the school’s 1946 public school league championship basketball team.
A year later the All-State basketball player was on a Soviet ocean vessel bound for the Armenian Soviet Republic.
And for the next 13 years the Soviets refused to grant Mooradian an exit visa , but he never gave up in his quest to get back to America.
When Mooradian boarded the ‘Rossia’ docked in the New York harbor, he was the youngest member of a group of 151 other American Armenia’s who willingly, but unknowingly, had renounced their American citizenship to "repatriate" to the then Soviet-ruled Armenia.
Mooradian was only 19 when he renounced his American citizenship, a fact he realized too late once the Rossia was plying the waters of the Atlantic bound for the Georgian Black Sea port of Batume.
When word spread through two of Southwestern’s student hangouts, the "Sweet Shoppe" and the "Bee Hive," that Tom had renounced his American birthright citizenship for the Soviet Union, his friends were baffled by the decision. Why would he give up so much to go to communist-controlled Armenia. He had everything going for him at the time. The kid from blue-collar southwest Detroit had made the All-City" basketball teams at Detroit’s three daily papers, and was a scholar and affluent public speaker. The Free Press tagged Tom its "Player of the Year."
But Tom’s dream was to earn a college degree in Armenia, then a Soviet-subjugated country and teach them how to play American-style basketball. He had been convinced by his father that terror and denial of free speech in the Soviet Union was a capitalist-driven myth.
Though he had all the smarts of a bright young scholar, his father’s political influence had taken its toll. Tom’s father was a strike organizer at Kelsey-Hayes and active member of the Communist Party of America.
Since returning to America in 1960, Tom refrained from writing about his personal survival behind the "Iron Curtain" to protect those who helped him through 13 years of self-imposed exile in the old Soviet Union, which Ronald Reagan during his presidency had branded as "the Evil Empire."
Now 79, the retired suburban newspaper sports editor has opened his heart to share the doom and gloom of life behind the Iron Curtain in a 500-page autobiography appropriately titled "The Repatriate – Love, Basketball and the KGB."
When the Soviets granted Mooradian an exit visa in 1960 I was a reporter for the Detroit Times. A week after Tom was back with his family, I interviewed my old classmate for my paper. Tom graduated in 1947, a year before me. Somehow Tom survived beatings by the KGB, and was able to live with the knowledge that only he had himself to blame for the self-imposed nightmare he had been forced to endure.
In the interview for my story in the Aug. 21, 1960 Detroit Times, Mooradian told me there was no freedom of speech in Soviet Armenia or any other Soviet republic. "You always cringed with fear when there was a knock on the door," Tom related. Even then, now in the safety of the family home in southwest Detroit there was the look of fear in the eyes of my old school friend. But he never mentioned the names of his friends to me or any one else. He was still fearful of what the communists and the KGB would do to his old sports pals in Armenia and Russia. He didn’t know why the Soviets finally let him "to fly the roost" to freedom.
Not until the collapse of Soviet rule in 1991 did Mooradian express any hope that freedom would be restored in what was then the Soviet Union. For the peoples of the Baltic States nations – Ukraine, Georgia, Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, the demise of the "Evil Empire" meant freedom to guide their own destiny.
That’s why Mooradian’s book is must reading for young Americans who only know of the chilling expressions that are remembered as the "Iron Curtain," the "Cold War" and the "Evil Empire."
His stirring account of life in the old Soviet Union, when the Kremlin-led Communist regime ruled with the fear a knock on the door meant the KGB had come to take you to its slave labor camps in Siberia was a real life experience – not just expressions of the past from a handbook on the Bolsheviks. Mooradian also tells us how Soviet citizens stood in long unruly lines "hoping to purchase a kilo of black, damp, saw-grain filled bread." And always fearful of the knock on the door after the midnight hour.
His first encounter with the NKVD, the Soviet Secret Police, came shortly after his arrival in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. He survived a severe beating, and felt the barrel of a loaded revolver placed to his head – then released when he was certain his life on earth was about to end.
He was armed with a petition he had authored and signed by several other American Armenian repatriates who were also seeking the help of the American Embassy in Moscow to get back to America.
That brush with death convinced him he had to accept his fate and fight for survival.
Mooradian’s salvation was his stellar basketball skill and willingness to teach young Soviet athletes how to play the game the American way.
Soon Mooradian’a basketball prowess captured the hearts of the Soviet people and by his own admission, "it saved my life and gave me the strength to retain my sanity."
The nights when he was haunted by the nightmare of being trapped in the Soviet Union, by his own self-imposed exile, his thoughts flashed back to 1946 when he led his high school team to a 30-28 overtime win over the heavily-favored Miller High at Olympia Stadium.
As for repeated attempts to get to Moscow, without the fear of the NKVD dragging him into a cellblock, Tom’s basketball talent had given him limited freedom within the Soviet Union – especially in 1953 after he paced an all-star Armenian basketball team to victory over a towering visiting team from Red China.
In looking back in life, Tom says "basketball was not a part of my life: it was my life. It saved my life."
After defeating the Chinese team, Mooradian was now a member of an all-star national Soviet team that played against other Soviet teams – and on every visit to Moscow, he popped in the American Embassy.
They told me I could only return to America if the Soviets gave me an exit visa.
But he needed help.
On Sept. 5, 1957 while in Moscow, he was told Eleanor Roosevelt was at the National
By a miracle while dining with a friend he spotted the wife of former president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt at another table . Unable to approach her table, the following morning he seized that opportunity in a crowded stairway and appeaed for her help. She took his name and noted that the American from Detroit was just a minor when he signed away his citizenship rights in 1947.
The Soviets thought highly of Mrs. Roosevelt and to this day Tom has no idea if the former First Lady spoke to Soviet officials to grant "the young American" an exit visa.
Two and a half years later with his 32nd birthday approaching, a college professor told him:"Mooradian, the Soviets are letting you leave for America. Get ready."
The nightmare was about to end. On July 31, 1960 Tom was on his way to the
Sheremetyev International Airport.
He cleared customs with a Soviet exit visa, and one-way ticket to America with a stop in Copenhagen to receive an American passport.
Mooradian left Detroit at age 19, a minor. He returned on his 32nd birthday.
Soon after he completed his quest for a degree from Wayne State University, with a major in journalism.
Tom preferred and excelled in sports writing while reporting for suburban newspapers in western Wayne County.
Tom and his wife Jan, a retired Detroit school teacher, divide their time between homes in Oakland County and Hubbard Lake.
They have two grown daughters, Jennifer and Bethany, and three grandchildren.
How my old school pal survived 13 years behind the "Iron Curtain" is a miracle in itself
let alone the mystery surrounding his release by the Kremlin.
I’ll have to read his book again, between the lines, for a clue to unravel the mystery.
Tom has a simple answer:" The Soviets not only took away my youth, but they also made it impossible to sleep. The worst part was the Soviet night. The nightmares. The midnight pounding on doors."
The nightmare is over.
(Editor’s Note: Signed, prepublication copies of ‘The Repatriate’ can be ordered from the website www.tommooradian.com. In December the book will be available from Wayne State University Press, Barnes & Noble.com; Borders.com, and Amazon.com. )