Yerevan in the summer is like a ‘poor man’s Paris’, or maybe Paris in the 50s, after the war had ravaged the economy and the country was recovering from German occupation but there was renewed hope and the nostalgia of memories involving Hemingway and Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound and Pablo Picasso. A city of writers. For Yerevan, the war was more recent – ending only in 1991, and it was not a war as Paris saw the war. Jackboots on the pavement, looting of the Louvre. It was a war of the spirit and of the mind. GPU peering through holes in hotel walls; listening to phone calls; spiriting away dissidents to the cold soulless expanses of Siberia. The Gulag. But Yerevan is an old city, and absorbs the shocks of the next in an endless line of assaults with a degree of resignation and a joie de vivre product of the understanding that Yerevan is the eternal capital of every Armenian and must always remain so. Cafes and green spaces under the imposing supervision of the National Opera Building. Painters square where the amateurs – better than most artists anywhere hawk their wares.
Walking along the sun-drenched streets under the canopy of leafy trees beside vendors selling corn on the cob and flowers I found a used book-tent where I stopped. Among the piles of dusty tomes in Armenian and Russian, down the narrow aisles piled high and listing dangerously toward the center there are treasures to be found, unknown to the world beyond the iron curtain and still as of yet undiscovered in a country that has opened herself up at last. Moscow Progress Publishers; Foreign Language Press; Raduga Press – book-houses run during the Soviet time in their frenetic efforts to make the case that their system was better, before it all fell away.
I learned of Antonina Mahari in that indirect act of discovery which is always so rewarding; we all love the story of hidden treasures and the quest to find them after so long a time hidden away. Moving aside the piles, blowing away the dust I discovered an English language book titled “The Warmest Country”, a compendium of short stories and essays by famous Armenian writers – anchored by an essay from Gurgen Mahari narrating the glory days of Armenia’s modern literary genesis. In the 1920s, just as the Bolsheviks had overthrown the Tzar and then the Mensheviks and put an end to the Transcaucasian Republic, a group of young Armenian writers – most of them survivors of the genocide (escapees from Van, for example) began to write. They were communist sympathizers, if not party members, in that utopian way that affects the young and the artistic. Yegishe Charents; Gevorg Emin; Aksel Bakunts; Paruyr Sevak; Kamari Nonoyan – Gurgen Mahari. They would meet at Aipetrat Publish House, a soviet publisher in Yerevan of which they were all members; they would drink at the Intourst Hotel (now the Grand Hotel), and would then cross to the Moscow Theater to watch the newest propaganda films from Moscow. It was a literary flowering – but behind an iron curtain and in a language so incomprehensible as to make the naissance of modern Armenian literature invisible.
And, alas, communism suffers no success. And its totality doesn’t account for talent, not even national treasures allowed any latitude for the joy they bring to the world, for it is not about joy or beauty (or poverty or even ‘justice’ as the modern commies declare so loudly). Control, that is what communism wants – orders received and obeyed by men thick and stupid and violent. Yegishe Charents was disappeared in the night, and his grave remains to this day unknown and unmarked. Aksel Bakunts was executed – only in his 30s.
Gurgen Mahari was sent to Siberia for 17 years. There, the great writer became a pig farmer; and there he met the love of his life. Antonina Mahari was a Lithuanian dissident and student activist who spent a year and a half imprisoned by the Gestapo during the Nazi occupation of Vilnius; then came the Bolsheviks. Antonina assumed, as a Nazi political prisoner, she was to be set free. However it was not too be, the Bolsheviks held her as well for another year and a half: torture and humiliation and privation and murder. Then she, too was sent to Siberia.
“My Odyssey” is Antonina Mahari’s story. A story none of you probably have ever heard of; but a story so compelling with such humanity, a tribute to courage and resilience and love in the face of extraordinary adversity. It is a journal of sorts, an autobiography for sure. It is a profound love story, of a young Lithuanian girl caught by the brutality and violence of revolution but in that tragedy discovering an undying love for a frail Armenian poet who also became a victim of the madness. And how she saved his life; not once or twice but every day. The joy of release from Siberia after Stalin finally died, the tragedy of losing their small child upon return to Yerevan. The fear that the KGB would find the manuscript which she smuggled to and fro from Lithuania (a manuscript we at last have which has become “My Odyssey”). The book is laced with bitterness, how could it not be? She pulls no punches as she describes the Bolshevik system of mind control, brutality and torture and its victims she was forced to bury in the frozen tundra of Siberia. The final death of Gurgen, after the final controversy arising from having published “Burning Orchards”, an extraordinary book about the genocide which was not well received.
Antonina Mahari died in Yerevan in 2018, a full 49 years after her great love. She had never remarried, living in a little apartment in downtown Yerevan one room of which she had converted to a museum to Gurgen Mahari. His manuscripts, his fountain pens, his wooden suitcase which he hauled hundreds of miles up and down the length of frozen Siberia. She was desperately poor, unable even to sell any of the works of Mahari in a country that also was poor. She lived on a $50 pension and another $10 from the Armenian Writer’s Union. On cold nights she would sleep in her neighbor’s house, unable to afford the heating of her own.
Nestled into the book are the real titles to this tremendous work of life: “Always to remain a human being…”, “We too, like you, were people…” or perhaps “To remain a human everywhere and under every circumstance…”