This is a view of the area from west to east. The Arax River is visible flowing through the canyon. Nakhichevan is on the right side of the river. The ribbon of the railroad track is visible snaking along the Nakhichevan side of the river. The Soviet and Iranian border crosses through the river center. The trio of friends crossed the river at the spot where the railroad passes the closest to the river. (Google Earth 3D)

The Great Escape: Punching through the Iron Curtain

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By Philip P. Ketchian

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

This was not what he had struggled to come so far for. The water was ice cold. His legs were numb and not responding. He thought he had a remedy for that, so he slashed his legs with his sharp knife. That was no help and he was drowning. Instead, refusing to panic, he took a deep breath, dived down and crawled on the river bottom. After repeating that a few more times he resurfaced the last time to witness a scene straight out of a Hollywood horror film. A dragon-like object belching steam and smoke was trundling into view from the east. It was lit up with multiple searchlights in all directions turning night into day. The roar of its engine echoed back and forth against the canyon walls. He heard Surik call out to him to dive so as not to be spotted. It was the Erevan train out of Baku rumbling down the tracks. Border guards positioned on the train, with submachine guns at the ready, were scouring the area searching for anyone foolish enough to try to illegally cross the Soviet border in either direction. It was a passenger train and they would be confined under the watchful eyes of the soldiers to their seats the entire stretch of the trip, so that they could not attempt to leap off the train as they traveled so close to the international border. Those searchlights would also be illuminating the plowed strip of land between the railroad tracks and the river revealing the footprints the three friends had made crossing it. An alarm would be raised and border guards armed to their teeth and with trained dogs would be headed there very soon. He came up for air once more to see the end of the train disappearing around the bend in the distance. They had made it out safely! It was three o’clock in the morning on October 26, 1957; exhausted and shivering, they fell down prone on the ground on the Iranian side of the Arax River.

Hagop (Akop) Yeremian, at right, with Philip Ketchian (Aram Arkun photo)

Just minutes before, the trio of friends had been standing atop a 3,500-foot-high craggy peak, and with the faint glow of the waxing crescent moon spotted the shimmering ribbon of the Arax River some 1,200 vertical feet below. Freedom was on its far shore. Little did they know, at the time, that the famous Julfa Armenian Cemetery was located a short distance to the east of them. Also visible were the railroad tracks and the plowed strip of land with the barbed wire fence behind it. This was the closest the Erevan-Baku rail line came to the river. First, however, they would need to climb down the steep and treacherous slope, the surface of which was made up of crumbling rock. It was tougher than they could have imagined. They had no ropes or any other special equipment. So they lay on their backs and inched down careful not to dislodge any of the stones that could create a rock avalanche on its way down and send a warning to the border troops. Halfway down the slope they spotted a lone soldier walking along the track. Had any rock fallen down at the time they would have been immediately discovered. They gave him enough time to go out of earshot range. Next to a large rock they undressed  and left all unnecessary items there and continued their descent. When they finally had reached level ground at the foot of the hill just shy of the rail tracks they could breathe a sigh of relief. They cautiously looked about and along both sides of the rail line. The coast was clear. Surik put on his gloves and the trio ran helter-skelter across the rail tracks, over the plowed strip of land toward the barbed wire fence. With his gloved hands Surik grabbed the lowest electrified barbed wire and the second wire above from the ground with the other and separated them just enough for them to squeeze through. Only one final obstacle remained in front of them, and that was the Arax River flowing some 15 feet below at an elevation of some 2,350 feet above sea level, and about 250 to 300 feet wide at this spot. Not leaving any time for hesitation or second thoughts, like zombies they had plunged into the water.

Hagop (Akop) Yeremian was born in Peristeri, a suburb of Athens, Greece, in 1938. His father, Barsekh, a Genocide survivor from Ushak, had a construction business, and his mother, Eli, was an ethnic Greek. He also had an older brother and a sister. The neighborhood was inhabited mostly by Armenians, and Hagop attended the school established by the Armenian Church. His father was successful in his business and his expertise was much in demand during the post-WWII reconstruction boom in Greece. But the wave of repatriation also hit the Armenian diaspora with the force of a tsunami and the Yeremian family got caught in it just like the many hundreds of their neighbors.

Hakop’s mother was reluctant to make the move. However, to keep the family together she went along. Mr. Yeremian signed up to go to Armenia, to rebuild and apply his expertise to the development of Armenia. This was despite the many pleas from the Greek Government for him to remain and lend his expertise to rebuilding the local infrastructure. Thus, he packed his belongings in crates and headed for the harbor to board the Soviet ship “Chukotka” in November 1947. Unbeknown to him at the time, he had done something that would end up being a lifesaver for his family. The house that he had built for his family in Peristeri ended up far too large for his current needs. He, therefore, had opened a grocery store in the unused portion. Now, not knowing what to do with all that foodstuff, flour, beans, olives, olive oil, canned foods etcetera, he loaded the entire inventory into crates and shipped it off with the rest of his belongings. Only once he was in Armenia did he realize what a treasure trove he had.

This is a view of the area from east to west. The Arax River is visible flowing through the canyon. Nakhichevan is on the left side of the river. The ribbon of the railroad track is visible snaking along the Nakhichevan side of the river. The Soviet and Iranian border crosses through the river center. The trio of friends crossed the river at the spot where the railroad passes the closest to the river. (Google Earth 3D)

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After a stormy passage through the Black Sea they disembarked in the Soviet port city of Batumi. In Erevan they were temporarily taken in by relatives who had repatriated back in the 1930’s.

Yeremian soon took the 30,000-ruble loan that the government provided to the repatriates for building a new home. Being familiar with the business was crucial for them to move out, since their relatives were treating his goods as their own. Hagop’s father was thoroughly familiar with the latest European construction techniques, so he was able to apply that knowledge for completing any project faster, cheaper, and of better quality. He was soon made responsible for the construction of a number of important industrial projects.

Meanwhile, Hagop entered school. It was day school for the first seven years and night school for the last three. He played soccer with the neighborhood boys whenever he got a chance.

While assisting his dad he had met Surik and Dikran. Surik Bagdasarian was 27 years old and from the small village of Bardzruni, situated a short mile from the Nakhichevan border. Dikran Karapetian was 21 and from the Nubarashen district of Erevan. Both Surik and Dikran were born in Soviet Armenia. As it turned out, Surik was an avid listener of banned foreign radio broadcasts, and was beginning to broaden his views of the outside world.

Another influence on him were the repatriates who had recently arrived in Armenia. It was clearly evident to him that these fellow Armenians had come from countries with higher standards of living and greater freedoms. Hagop and Dikran would also listen in from time to time. Hagop had had firsthand knowledge of his own to that, and was probably able to reinforce that thought. Eventually, Surik began making brief walking trips from his native village of Bardzruni over into Nakhichevan surveying the terrain. Detailed maps were not available to the public in the Soviet Union but he had a passable physical map of Soviet Armenia, which also included the Nakhichevan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. Nakhichevan has always been an Armenian province until Stalin and his Bolsheviks handed it over to Azerbaijan. It’s not clear how far Surik had reconnoitered into Nakhichevan on his own or whether he had had assistance from any other source, but he had made a crude sketch of a possible route to follow on that map. Sworn to secrecy, the three friends did not utter a single word to any family or friends.

When Surik announced that the time had come to leave, Hagop caused a delay. His father was building a better home for them and Hagop would not leave before completing the pouring of cement for the ceiling. That done, the trio were ready to hit the road in search of freedom and a better life. Early on the morning of October 21, in total secrecy the three friends left their homes and met at the bus station in central Erevan as planned. They took along some tools with them together with Hagop’s permit for working in the restricted border regions to be able to say that they were traveling in search of construction jobs. Their bus did not leave that day for lack of passengers. Instead, they hitched rides on trucks heading north to the town of Sevan on Lake Sevan and to Martuni from there on the southeastern shore. They blended in and followed a circuitous route. Next they headed south to Yeghegnadzor and halfway to Bardzruni they dismounted and continued their journey on foot from there on. They had to pass by Surik’s village of Bardzuni, some 20 miles south, making a wide arc around it to their right, to assure that they were not spotted and recognized by any of the villagers. Bardzruni is located less than a mile from the Nakhichevan border. Those days the borders of the Soviet Republics were wide open and not restricted. That first day in Nakhichevan they took refuge in the ruins of an abandoned Armenian church, a short distance from the Armenian border. What lay ahead was a wild desolate hilly landscape stretching all the way to the Nakhichevan and Iranian border some 40-plus miles in the distant south. From there on they were walking only at night and hiding by day. The local Azeris would have been suspicious of three Armenians heading toward the border and would report them to the authorities. While traveling through Armenia the trio had been able to scrounge some food, however, from this point onward that would only be a distant memory. Traveling light and fast they had neglected to pack any food or water with them. All they had was a bottle of vodka between them which was tossed out when emptied. That was a big mistake on their part, as water was scarce and lacking any kind of containers or cups when water was even found it was difficult to reach. They had no choice but to drink from whatever brook or puddle they came across, filtering it through their sweatshirts.

The going was tough and they had passed the point of no return. They trudged along up and down the dusty rocky hills, following the route laid down by Surik. One night when nearing the border they were spotted by a pack of dogs. These burly shepherd dogs were aiming at them. The trio took flight for their lives in the opposite direction only to be pursued by another pack coming at them head on.

Once again they altered their escape route. The two packs joined into one and continued the pursuit. Just as it appeared that all was lost, the pack came to an abrupt halt. Hagop took a quick look back and was amazed to see that the dogs had all stopped on a dime. No barrier of any kind was visible anywhere. After negotiating the last three peaks and valleys they had reached the top of that final hill. It had been important for them to avoid the population centers. They had done so by traveling some 40 miles south from Bardzruni and arriving at the border just a few short miles west of Julfa. It appears that due to its rugged terrain and some mysterious stroke of luck, they may have come across one of the least protected spots of the entire border.

Early next morning they were awakened by the sound of barking dogs. Standing over them was a young soldier aiming a rifle at them. The Iranian border guard was shouting a threatening order at Hagop in an incomprehensible language and appeared ready to shoot. That was when Hagop became aware that he was still holding the knife tightly in his hand. Once he dropped it to the ground, the soldier greeted them in a friendly manner and walked them over to their adobe hut border post nearby. Meanwhile, a beehive of activity was taking place across the river. The Soviets were facing a major breech of security, soldiers with dogs were gathered around the spot where they had crossed earlier in the morning. The footprints left in the neatly plowed soft ground would have revealed that three adult males had managed to illegally cross the border. The trio had fled the coop and there was nothing the mighty guardians of the Soviet borders could do about it. Heads would roll back there but the boys were safe. The Iranians at the post met them with dry clothing and food. From there they were moved to Tabriz, and then to Teheran where they were interrogated and treated fairly well.

Iran did not have an extradition treaty with the USSR; however, it was generally believed that it returned defectors back to Soviet custody. But, perhaps, because of the tense relationship between the two countries, after three months they were flown over to Frankfurt, West Germany and handed over to the US Military authorities there. After being shuffled from a luxurious villa to the center of town, they ended up in a labor camp in nearby Kaiserslautern. The camp was mostly inhabited by refugees of all nationalities from behind the Iron Curtain. Here the trio of friends were provided with favorable conditions; it was meant to be a longtime home. Their living quarters were neat and comfortable. The rooms were cleaned and bed sheets changed weekly. They were provided with three meals a day and hired as security guards for the nearby US Ramstein Air Force Base. Outfitted with uniforms and carbines they guarded the perimeter of the base, and picked up their pay twice a month. They were free to leave the camp and go to town on their own time. They were finally free! What more could they want? … They wanted to come to America.

Hagop had wanted to travel to Greece to visit his relatives there. However, Greece rejected his request fearing that he would spread Communist propaganda. He did request to settle down in the US and was told that that would be possible in the very near future.

Surik and Dikran were rejected their requests mostly because of apparent health problems. That did not suit Hagop and he refused to leave for America without his two friends; after all, they had been together in this from the very beginning. He was able to maneuver things and send them to America a few months ahead. Dikran’s father had not returned home from the war, so he was hoping that his father had somehow survived and immigrated to the US. Assisted by the Tolstoy Foundation, which had been established by the youngest daughter of Leo Tolstoy, Hagop was to follow them a few months later, in October 1959.

In Boston he was sponsored by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation and reconnected with his two friends. He initially found employment at Deran’s Confectionary Company in Cambridge Mass., owned by Deran Hintlian. A bit over a year later he was fortunate to be hired by Haig Merian. A recent immigrant himself, Haig had formed his own successful business, “Merian Carpet Service,” and was happy to teach Hagop the profession. Surik and Dicran were also to join the team soon.

Haig Merian, from the village of Dzovinar, had served in the Soviet Army during WWII and was captured by the Germans. Rather than return to the Soviet Union after the war, where the Gulag was awaiting him, Merian was fortunate to be able to immigrate to the US.

A year later Hagop was drafted in the US Army. After completing service for his adopted country, Hagop returned to work with Merian for another year. By this time he had learned enough of the trade to go on his own and start “Akop’s Carpet Service.”

Hagop married Judith King in 1966, and one year later they had a daughter named, Maro.

I am in the course of including a chapter in my own memoir dedicated to a number of attempts made by members of the Armenian-American repatriate community to escape from the clutches of the Stalinist regime. All such prior attempts, as far as I know, were exposed by the KGB early in the planning stages. Unfortunately, most were arrested and sent to the Gulag. My own father may have been the only one who had taken a further step and visited a village on the border with Turkey. He had, somehow, been able to receive a permit by claiming to visit a sick relative there. That “relative” was able to provide my dad with the rare opportunity, and surreptitiously show him the lay of the land. He had pointed out the multiple lines of in-depth defense the barbed wire fences and the guard towers, the secret observation posts and other security devices the Soviet Border Guards had set up in order to foil or intercept anyone bold or naïve enough to attempt such an endeavor.

My dad was wise enough to realize that crossing the border into Turkey was impossible for him, especially with a wife and two children in tow, and therefore he immediately dropped that plan. We never learned of anyone able to escape from Soviet Armenia in that fashion during our long stay in Armenia. However, upon returning to the US in 1965 and visiting my cousin Armen Dedekian in Watertown. I met with the trio of friends who by then were living and working in the area. Armen had also recently returned from Soviet Armenia and met and befriended them. I was full of admiration for them and their heroic deed. Therefore, when writing my chapter of unsuccessful escape attempts, I included their story. On the other hand, I came to realize that their story is far more remarkable than that and deserves to be retold in greater detail. Nevertheless, I still harbor a suspicion that Surik may have had some assistance in selecting that route.

At this time only Hagop is alive and willing to be interviewed. His memory for details is remarkable. With the help of Google Earth he was able to locate and “walk” me to the exact spot where they had crossed the border to Iran on that fateful October night. There is no doubt that he had been fully aware of the many unsuccessful attempts of escape made by others before him. The risks were high, nevertheless, he accepted this once-in-a-lifetime challenge. When asked whether he is happy for his life in the US, he always answers: “I have been living the life of Riley!” That is even though he still can occasionally wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat not knowing which side of the Iron Curtain he is in.

September 2019

Belmont, Massachusetts

(Philip P. Ketchian is a retired physicist, and presently an associate at the Harvard University Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.)

 

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