Our organizations were not attractive. We ourselves were not tempting. We could not attract the masses, as the leaders of the Karabakh movement did. They had found the key. They felt the breath of the times, we were anachronistic. Our main drawback was being ahead of time. On September 18, 1981, Navasardyan Ashot and I were recognized as particularly dangerous recidivists, state criminals for demanding a referendum. Ten years of imprisonment under the prison regime. Because we demanded a referendum. Exactly ten years and three days later, a referendum was held in the Republic of Armenia, where 99.9 percent of the participants said yes to the independence. Now that I think of it, at that time in 1991, they should have called me (to the square) and said, "This, he dreamed of this ten years ago, now it has come true."
In 1981, Ashot Navasardyan and I wrote a letter to the Supreme Soviet. We demanded that a referendum be held to find out what percentage of people in Armenia were in favour of independence. The letter was in the form of a leaflet. We distributed several hundred or a thousand of them, took one copy and went to the prosecutor's office. We held a demonstration. We asked for a meeting with the supervising prosecutor of the KGB cases, who knew us personally, Papin Tokhyan. He summoned us to the prosecutor's office, asking how we were, what was going on, why we wanted to see him. We said that we had written a letter to the Supreme Soviet and that we had brought a copy for him to pass on.
Yes, he said, read the leaflet, got up from his chair and collapsed back on it. He said, “I will burn this letter now, and our meeting did not take place, go home. I’ll burn this into ashes, and you go home.” We said no, we had distributed it in the form of leaflets. He said, “This is a death sentence, call it back, collect all the leaflets, burn them. I will not report to anyone.” We said it won't happen. He called his boss on his red phone and said that there is a very important problem. He left us in his office, those who were previously sentenced under strict regime, and told me he had to go and report to the boss. He came in fifteen minutes later and said that ten people from intellectuals (we had dropped the leaflets in the mailboxes of Armenian intellectuals: Union of Writers, Union of Architects) had already handed it in, they called the KGB saying they found a leaflet with anti-Soviet content in their mailbox. He said, well, you guys are gone, you're gone forever. The KGB came and took us away.
We all knew, both the heads of the country, and the students and schoolchildren that an injustice had happened, and the Soviet Union regularly recognized it. For example, when Yeghishe Charents was “brought back to life.” In other words, the banned Charents came back through his works "Erkir Nairi", "Book on the road", "My sweet Armenia", "Lenin and Ali". The Soviet Union apologized to us. Aksel Bakunts was “rehabilitated” and acquitted. The government was constantly in dialogue with the society, a soft dialogue. The Soviet Union needed a loyal ethnic group.
- From a distance of time, have you ever disputed that particular action (burning Lenin's picture) as a wise move?
- No. It’s another thing entirely that the action did not succeed. We wanted November 7th to be an important day for them, that is, we are against your holiday, we are against Leninism, your main saint, your main hero, we are against it. We hit you where it hurts the most. It was important. We were drawing a boundary, we were drawing the highest boundary, that is, we can do the worst against you, because you have mistreated us. It was Lenin's picture, at the square, we were saying with it, “We will pierce you in your hearth, in your most protected place. If we’re doing this, there are forces behind us, and you will see how they will treat you.” I think that it was correct and it should have been on a larger scale. That action is exemplary for today as well, we must be brave today.
We thought that we have a short life. We will not live long at all. We knew that we were doing something dangerous, we were delivering a bad blow, and they would not forgive us. [We knew] that whatever happens [meaning Independence], will happen later, and we will not see it. In 1965, the goal of a young romantic was to do something daring, to do something that others were not doing. Then when we matured, the years added up, we realized that we have no future. We have nothing to lose. What we had left was to keep our dignity, leave something behind, hurt the opponent, serve as an example. So that they could not say that the Armenian people were asleep for seventy years. We believed in it. If we didn't believe, we wouldn't do it. We believed that we were doing a lot of damage. We pierced and left a sample for the future.
My forefathers have been winemakers, we supplied wine to the royal army. Even now, those gardens are named after our great grandfather in Margara village. A hundred years have passed, but the name has stuck. My family liked to make wine and drink it. During those parties, they expressed their opinion about the Soviet government without censorship. We were children too, we listened. The women said, “There are children, what are you saying?” They answered, “Let our children know.”
Pokaždé, když jsme v naší podzemní organizaci o něčem diskutovali, dohodli jsme se, co prozradíme vyšetřovateli. Až teď opustíme tuto místnost a vyšetřovatel u dveří se nás bude ptát, co mu řekneme? První věc, o které jsme diskutovali, bylo, co kdo má říct.
- We were taught at home not to follow the same path. Do not punch the nail with a fist. That was our main hypocrisy. We were told that we all know the truth, but we shouldn’t punch a nail, break down a wall with a head. When those family parties were over, they said, “Whatever we have done against the Soviet Union, we were punished for it, you don't do that.”
- But in the end, the wall did collapse with heads
- With heads and fists. Yes.
- Don't you think that the authorities of the Armenian SSR were a little more sympathetic to the dissidents than the authorities of other Soviet countries?
- We knew that. There was a law on language in the constitution, there was the right to develop the city of Yerevan, there was the Academy, there was the Fine Arts, and in some respects there was freedom of speech.
We had several rules of ethics that we did not want to violate. We didn't want to get involved in fights. We decided not to do it. We were surrounded, we knew that those who had such a task were instructed to communicate with us and have good relations with us, to be friends with us, hire and encourage us. It was a special assignment to be with me. I had to be secretly under surveillance. In other words, KGB agents were supposed to be by my side, and I knew it.
There were people who were very honest. For example, our neighbors held a spontaneous meeting, we got together and told them what to do, because all the guys in our neighborhood were involved in underground activities in one way or another. There were prisoners of war, there were kulaks, every type of person was among our neighbors. A delegation came to our house, they put bread, cheese, wine, and onions on the table and said, "We respect you very much, but we will pay the house rent, let Azat leave our neighborhood, and we will put in three rubles each with the neighbors." And they kicked me out of our neighborhood. These were the honest ones. There were neighbors who said, “Let him not go, let him stay.” These were the neighbors who were getting bribes for following me.
Navasardyan Ashot, Hayrikyan Paruyr, and I were the only sons in our families. We were from traditional families, and we were told, “You are simply destroying our future, you are the future of our family.” They used to say, “Should our generation not continue, even in the way you want?”
At the time, my parents were working in Nairit and in Hayelectro. In other words, we were ordinary children, living and growing up. Of course, being an Octoberist was very important, because if you were not an Octoberist, it meant you are mentally retarded. It was a label. Being a pioneer was a ceremony, tying a tie in Lenin Square was a ceremony, we practiced at home, my parents taught us how to tie that red tie, and I had difficulty tying it. I was practicing. And not being accepted into the Komsomol meant that you were out of the ranks of those who were moving forward. It meant your rank goes down, that you become second rank. I even went to the pioneer camp of the Union, "Artek".
Our family was a family of kulaks, they were exiled. Our elders were officers of the Russian Empire during the First World War and the Civil War. In Zangezur, they fought against the Turkish and Russian armies. How should I say that, how should I say that my grandfather, artillery officer, battalion commander, dug Belomorkanal? These, my family said, are forbidden, no one should know.
Azat Arshakyan was born in 1950 in Yerevan in a family with anti-Soviet views. Although, as he says, they were able to criticize the Soviets at family parties without censorship, he was told that he should not stand out at school, that his family background should be kept a secret. From the age of 15-16, he communicated with dissidents in Armenia.
He met his fellow brother-in-arms, dissident, political prisoner Paruyr Hayrikyan in a pioneer camp. As a teenager, he joined the National United Party, becoming the only minor member of the party. In 1973, he was one of the organizers of the protest action to burn the large picture of Lenin placed in Lenin Square (now Republic Square in Yerevan). He was sentenced to seven years in prison and three years of exile.
He was sent to a political prison in Mordovia to serve his sentence. He was released on parole in April 1977. Later, in 1981, he was arrested a second time for anti-Soviet activities. He was recognized as a particularly dangerous recidivist and was sentenced to eight years in prison and three years of exile. In 1987, due to Gorbachev’s Perestroika, he was released. Since 1989, he has actively participated in the social and political life of the country.