Repatriate Mooradian Relives His Time Back in the USSR


By Anna Yukhananov
Special to the Mirror-Spectator

BELMONT, Mass. — When Tom Mooradian graduated from high school in 1947, he wanted to go abroad to see the world. His older brothers had served in the navy during World War II, and Mooradian wanted his own taste of adventure. A rising basketball star — named player of the year in Michigan — and ranked five in his class of 310, Mooradian was at the brink of a bright future.

But instead of traipsing through Europe, Mooradian chose to go to Armenia, then part of the Soviet Union. He would remain there for the next 13 years, in often-brutal conditions.

“Why would anyone want to go to Soviet Armenia? I’ve been asking myself this question for many years, and I still don’t have an answer,” Mooradian said.

He spoke about his experiences of repatriation during a book talk for his memoir, The Repatriate: Love, Basketball, and the KGB, at the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR) last Thursday.

Mooradian said the Soviet Union first attracted him because it was a US ally in World War II, but relatively unknown in the West. He may also have been affected by the ideas of his father, an ardent Communist, and the tempting propaganda of the Soviet Union.

Get the Mirror in your inbox:

“I thought, they’re not going to harm me,” he said. “So many Soviet people died in Stalingrad, so I thought, these people cannot love war. These people are friendly.

“But once I got over there, the entire picture changed. We were the enemy.”

Along with 150 other Armenian-Americans, Mooradian got on board the Soviet ship Rossiya. While the journey to Turkey was beautiful, after they entered the Black Sea the ship started to run out of food. When the passengers complained, the sailors explained that ports did not want to do business with Communists.

“We accepted their excuse,” Mooradian said. “They claimed that it would be better when we got to Yerevan. And we believed them.”
Instead, upon arrival, the repatriates received only bread and water. Fifty of them were placed in a newly-built apartment complex, “which was falling apart even before we got there,” Mooradian said. “There was no water, no electricity. And this was December. The conditions were hell. “I think I can say for everybody in my building, that from the first day, we all wanted to go back. What they had promised us was not fulfilled.”

Mooradian described a typical day during the first year and a half of his stay: he would get up in the morning and try to get a loaf of bread — which was usually filled with sawdust and stones to make it heavier, and thus worth more.

If the initial hunt for bread was unsuccessful, he would walk seven or eight miles to the city center, then trudge from store to store. A long line meant it might be possible to obtain some bread, or butter and sugar.

As Mooradian spoke neither Armenian nor Russian when he arrived, he sold his belongings for money.

“But I was running out of things to sell,” he said. “So I decided to try out for the basketball team.”

For the next 10 years, he would be a star on the Soviet Armenian team, playing to audiences of thousands, and was thus  allowed the luxury of traveling to other republics within the Soviet Union.

Mooradian was lucky. Many other repatriates were less fortunate. One of the women at the event, Alice, chimed in with her own story. After coming to Armenia from the United States, she spent six years in a labor camp, an ordeal she does not like to talk about.

“He went through nothing,” Alice said of Mooradian’s experience.

Mooradian said he was a good basketball player, “a coach’s dream,” because he spent most of his time on the court.

“Most nights, I didn’t want to go back to my crowded apartment, and I didn’t want to hang around in the street,” he said. “I only felt safe in that rectangle where we played basketball. I would practice eight, ten, hours a day.”

On one of his visits to Moscow, Mooradian met with an American correspondent from the Associated Press, who wanted to record his story.

“He said to me, you’re wearing nice clothing, you’re staying at a nice hotel, why would you want to go home?” Mooradian said. “I said just one word: freedom.

“He did not believe that I would ever get out.”

Yet, after many futile attempts, in May of 1960, Mooradian was shocked to learn that he had been granted an exit visa to return to the United States.

He said he was still unsure why the KGB, the Soviet intelligence service, allowed him to leave the country, while so many others’ applications were denied. Mooradian said it may have been because of his status as a basketball star, or because his father was a Communist who raised money for the Soviet Union.

Mooradian returned to the United States in July 1960, amid hugs from his overjoyed parents and friends, but also hate mail from those who said he was a traitor to his country for going to live in the USSR.

“My teacher wrote and said I was her favorite student, and how could I betray America like that?” he said.

Despite the difficult conditions during his time there, Mooradian said he “fell in love with Russia.

“It is such a beautiful place, everywhere I went,” he said. “There are evil kings and queens, czars and czarinas, evil presidents and vice-presidents.

But the people, the people are like you and me. They want to live, to work and eat, to send their kids to a good school. That it what the people wanted, and they did not get it.”

Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: