Marshal Bagramyan in Newly Rediscovered Film Talks of His Pre-Soviet Life

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By Haykaram Nahapetyan

Mirror-Spectator  video correspondent

“The Red Army was as multiethnic as the Soviet Union, but its generals were overwhelmingly Russian. Very few non-Slavs reached high rank and the highest proportion of those who did were Armenian—from the smallest Soviet Republic in area.” wrote British scholar Geoffrey Jukes about Marshal Hovhannes (Ivan) Bagramyan in a book edited by Harold Shukman called Stalins’ Generals (New York, 1993).

Jukes’s observation was ultimately correct given that more than a half million sons and daughters of Armenia fought bravely and covered themselves with glory during the World War II. Suffice to say that the only non-Slavic commander of a front in the Red Army was Armenian—Hovhannes Bagramyan.

December 2017 marked the 120th anniversary of Marshal Bagramyan’s birth. During the Soviet era several biographies of the high-ranking commander were published and media outlets would feature stories and news about him frequently. However, the Communist-era publications generally tended to depict Bagramyan as a purely Soviet and Communist officer, offering only few (if any) details of his Armenian profile. However, recently the archive service of the Public TV Company of Armenia discovered and published a video segment (click here) on Bagramyan in which he himself tells the story of his life prior to becoming a Red Army Commander. His memoirs, published in Yerevan in 1979, also provide certain details related to his pre-Soviet life and struggles.

Bagramyan volunteered for the Czarist army in the fall of 1915, when he was only 17 years old. As a technician at the Transcaucasian Railroad he often saw Russian trains arriving from the Western Armenian front that transported Genocide survivors. “Trains from Kars would carry…thousands of refugees, overwhelmingly elderly Armenians, women and children. Those were the handful of ‘lucky ones’ that escaped the Turkish yataghan with the help of the Russian Army,” wrote Bagramyan in his memoirs. Such heartbreaking images of suffering Armenians might have affected his decision to join the war.

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First, Bagramyan was engaged in the battles against Ottoman Turkish troops in Persia. Then, as a private of Russia’s Caucasian Expeditionary Force, he walked hundreds of miles from Persia to Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq). After the revolution in Russia in 1917, he participated in the self-defense struggles against the Turkish troops in Sarikamish. That is when Bagramyan met the legendary Andranik (Antranig). As he recalls in his memoirs, Andranik watched Bagramyan’s detachment (he had become a cavalry officer by then) and praised his service. Andranik had been appointed to command the defense of Erzurum (the historic Armenian fortress of Karin). Unfortunately, in February of 1917, Erzurum fell into Ottoman Turkish hands. According to Bagramyan’s biographer Aramayis Mnatsakanyan, after learning that Erzurum was lost Bagramyan burst into tears. “That’s when I realized the scale of the forthcoming disaster,” he wrote later in his memoirs.

The future marshal fought courageously in the battles of May 1918, particularly in Sardarapat. The 100th anniversary of this historic fight will be celebrated in 2018.

After the Sovietization of Armenia, Hovhannes Bagramyan joined the Red Army and advanced rapidly in his career. He was the most educated high-ranking commander of the Soviet Army. Bagramyan graduated from 10 schools and academies in total: the local school of his native village of Chardakhlu, a school in Elizavetopol (currently, the town of Gyanja in Azerbaijan), attended cavalry classes in the town of Armavir (a settlement in Russia named after the historic Armenian capital), the Armenian gymnasium of Armavir, Red Army Academies, and others.

In 1937, during the Great Purge he was on the verge of arrest: Bagramyan’s service in the Armenian national units prior to the 1917 Revolution had not been forgotten. His junior brother Aleksey was arrested by Soviet Azerbaijan’s NKVD state police. Bagramyan was fired from the Red Army and worked as a draftsman for few months.

The late 1930s was a period of rapid militarization of the Soviet Union and the numerical expansion of its military personnel. The Red Army lacked educated commanders and the variety of schools Bagramyan attended, as well as the support from politician Anastas Mikoyan and his military comrade Georgiy Zhukov saved his career and possibly his life. He was reinstated to active service.

At the early stage of the Great Patriotic War (the name by which Nazi Germany’s attack against the USSR in World War II was known in the Soviet Union), Bagramyan was the chief of the operational department of the Southwestern Front (Ukraine). He moved rapidly from one commanding position to another and by late 1943 became the commander of the First Baltic Front: an important front that would eventually advance to Eastern Germany and capture Koenigsberg, the capital of Eastern Prussia and the second capital of Nazi Germany.

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It was during this period that Bagramyan received a letter from the United States. A woman with the same last name as his, Anahit Bagramyan from New York, but originally from Van, was looking for her brother Hovhannes, who joined the Czarist Army in 1915. However, General Bagramyan was not from Van. He was born in Chardakhlu, a village situated in Northern Karabakh. The general’s daughter suggested that he confirm that he was that woman’s lost brother in order to make her happy and not disappoint her. However, according to writer Hrachya Kochar’s story, “The General’s Sister,” Bagramyan declined her proposal, saying that he couldn’t lie to her.

Instead, the general wrote back to Anahit as follows: “My dear sister, I was not born in Turkish Armenia, but in the Caucasus, and up until now never had a sister Anahit. But from now on you can consider me your brother. It was not the same mother that gave us birth, but it was the same nation that did it. We do carry common sentiments and feelings. Now I know that I have a sister overseas and I am in debt to her. Your brother Hovhannes.”

I am interested in Hovhannes Bagramyan’s biography and I am working on a book about this prominent marshal. I would be glad to learn if the descendants of the general’s “sister” Anahit Bagramyan know about this story and by any chance have kept the letter from the prominent military man.

In July of 1944 Bagramyan was awarded with the Golden Star Medal of Hero of the Soviet Union, and later in 1955 he became Marshal of the USSR (there were only 41 military officers during the entire history of the USSR who became Marshals). In 1977 he received his second Golden Star Medal of Hero of the USSR.

Even though national Armenian heroes of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were not very welcome in Soviet historiography, an exception was made for Andranik Pasha. Andranik was fairly well known to the masses. This author may dare to assume that this was thanks to Bagramyan’s efforts in large part. Bagramyan spoke several times of Andranik, and praised him in his book of memoirs. When in 1976, during a meeting at the Yerevan State University he was asked to tell about Andranik, after Bagramyan’s few first words: “Andranik was a brilliant and courageous commander, a true hero…”, the audience suddenly burst in applause. In 1972, during his working visit to France, Bagramyan went to Pere Lachaise cemetery, where Andranik Ozanian was buried. He placed a wreath on his grave and saluted his former commander.

It was during this trip that France’s TF1 invited Marshal Bagramyan to appear on French TV, where he was interviewed regarding the 1943 battles around city of Kursk. With the help of Armenia’s First Channel’s Paris correspondent Mariam Ter Gulanyan, we were able to find the copy of the video, a portion of which can be seen above.

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