by Julia Hakobyan
In 1985 Suren Ter-Grigorian, an assistant cameraman for Armenian State Television, had a Church wedding. Soon after, he was summoned to Raikom, the Communist Party Regional Committee, where Ter-Grigorian was strongly chastised and ridiculed for the religious ceremony.
Rather than apologize, Ter-Grigorian replied that “the Armenian people survived due to the church.” The committee issued an order for Ter-Grigorian to be fired. He was, though, a respected professional, and his chief interceded and got Ter-Grigorian’s job back after a month.
Had the wedding taken place 50 years earlier, during the peak of Stalin repressions, Ter-Grigorian would likely have been exiled and the priest persecuted. By the 1980s, conditions had relaxed considerably; however, Communists still were not keen to give religion a place, and especially not among people on the party payroll.
“Religion and communism are opposite ideologies-spiritual and national-and could not exist in one society,” says Stepan Danielian, political expert of Collaboration for Democracy (Non Governmental Organization). “Communists had to suppress religion to introduce a new political system-the cult of personality. There could not be two gods to worship, and atheism, an ancient doctrine, was used as a political instrument against religion.”
Enthroned after the October Revolution of 1917, Vladimir I. Lenin expressed his position towards religion in a well-known letter to the Politburo dated 1922: “The confiscation of values, especially in rich monasteries and churches should be carried out with pitiless resolution, undoubtedly without hesitating in very short terms. The more representatives of reactionary bourgeoisie and reactionary clergy we can shoot, the better.”
The cleansing of Armenian churches started during Lenin’s rule, with hundreds of churches closed and looted and property seized.
But the situation drastically worsened when in 1924 totalitarian dictator Josef Stalin came to power after the death of Lenin. Stalin created a repressive regime in the Soviet Union that dominated all aspects of society. He perpetuated a policy of nationalization of businesses, collectivization of the land, and suppression of political ideology contrary to communism.
The People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD, which produced the KGB), the Soviet secret police, became an execution machine, implementing persecutions and torture of priests or other “anti-Soviet elements.” The NKVD “troika” was a commission of three people charged with administering quick punishment of anti-Soviet elements, without public trial or investigation. Times and places of execution of death sentences were ordered to be held in secret.
“Father of the nation” vs. “Mother Church”
In 1997 historian Armenak Manukian published The Repressed Priests of the Armenian Apostolic Church 1930-1938. Though it was not the first work on that period, the data was significant because it was taken from the archives of the KGB, where Manukian worked from 1991-2003 as the head of the Information Department. (After independence KGB became the National Security Service, but has, colloquially, maintained its title.)
Manukian says he thoroughly studied all the documents related to the repression of priests in that period, which included comprehensive information. The book includes interrogations of priests by NKVD officers.
“It was a desire to shed light on those times, and a response to the subjective impressions and apprehensions of that time,” Manukian says.
According to KGB archives, in the eight years between 1930-1938, there were 208 cases brought against Armenian priests, 148 of whom were censored; 84 were executed.
Manukian mentions that the verdicts against the men were clearly because they were priests. Officially, though, they were not charged for their religion, but for anti-Soviet propaganda, or espionage, or for affiliations to the Dashnak party.
One of the documents, an excerpt from the protocols on Very Reverend Father Titair Dollakian of December 2, 1937, reads:
“…Accused, in 1923 of being an anti-Soviet element with established ties to Armenian clergy, holding the title of Archimandrite. In 1927 he hosted an Italian consul and had with him a curiously long conversation.” The verdict: “sentenced to be shot.” The document, followed by the resolution of NKVD Troika, reports that the sentence was carried out on December 6 at 2 a.m.”
A “directive letter” of NKVD of 1930 concerning the order to repress and eliminate any manifestation of religion says: “We have to take into account that most people in rural areas are influenced by religious ideology…” The letter further reads that the NKVD had a task to crush the churches that were conducting anti-Soviet propaganda. That letter approved use of force on the “enemies of the nation,” and became a license for the State’s machine of torture and elimination of Armenian priests.
The Church was not crushed, but it was unquestionably damaged by the loss of leadership.
In 1932 the Armenian priesthood elected Khoren Muradpekian as Catholicos of All Armenians (Khoren I).
According to NKVD archives, Armenian priests were interrogated and some tortured, but none conceded to NKVD attempts to have statements signed implicating the Holy Father as an Enemy of the State.
The devotion of his priests, however, was not sufficient protection, and Khoren I was murdered in 1938, though the NKVD said he died of a heart attack.
Khoren I was buried by his killers in a common grave. Later, his remains were reburied at Holy Etchmiadzin.
The elimination of the Catholicos was the culmination of widespread persecution in the Armenian experience of the so-called “Great Purge.” Some sources have said that one woman was among those who carried out the assassination of Khoren I.
The KGB archives showed that Stalin killed 14,904 Armenians, the overwhelming number-8,837-were between 1936-1938. During that period 4,434 people were put to death by shooting.
According to other sources, in 1938 alone, 300 priests were persecuted and, in all, 25,000 Armenians were deported to outposts of the Soviet Union.
Those churches which had not been destroyed were turned into barns; religion was derided in newspapers and remaining priests were scoffed. It was a period when using the word “God” or making the sign of the cross could cost a life.
Yerevan resident Anahit Sanayan recalls stories from her grandmother about persecution in a village near Leninakan, now Gyumri.
The grandmother told how Stalin’s henchmen set priests backward on donkeys and sent them through villages. “People were horrified,” she told her granddaughter, “but no one dared to object. The Chekists (executioners of Stalin’s orders) were writing insults in chalk on the priests’ robes, or some communist slogans, or signs showing that the priest had renounced religion.”
It remains unknown exactly how many Armenian churches were destroyed during the period of communist rule. A record had been kept in a book at Holy Etchmiadzin, but the book was lost sometime after 1945. Records maintained at Holy Etchmiadzin do, however, show that between the Genocide and the peak of Soviet oppression, Armenia lost some 5,000 priests-during a period of only about 20 years.
Facts about churches in Yerevan are a little clearer, as today’s landmarks have replaced them.
For example, the Moscow cinema-a prominent landmark in central Yerevan-now stands where the Church of Paul and Peter stood until the late 1930s. (The Apostolic Church was not the only victim. During the purge, the Nikolaevskaya Russian Orthodox Church, the tallest church in Yerevan, was destroyed and in its place was erected a memorial to Stepan Shahumian, the Armenian Bolshevik revolutionist.)
Stalin’s death in 1953 ushered in a period historians call “the Khrushchev Thaw,” when hard-line attitudes against religion were relaxed. According to KGB archives, from 1955-60, 46 Armenian priests received amnesty from charges brought against them. Still, until Armenia gained independence in 1991, the Church was subjected to KGB scrutiny and control.
But after independence, Suren Ter-Grigorian, reprimanded by the Communists for having a church wedding, got a job as cameraman for Shoghakat, the television station of Holy Etchmiadzin.