Antonina Mahari (Photo courtesy of www.yus.am)

A Critical Exclusive: Antonina Mahari on How to Survive Fascism and Communism — and Being Married to an Armenian!

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“That’s how the world is arranged: they can take anyone’s freedom from him, without a qualm. If we want to take back the freedom which is our birthright — they make us pay with our lives and the lives of all whom we meet on the way. They can do anything, but we cannot. That’s why they are stronger than we are.”

― Georgi Tenno, The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation

NEW YORK — Born in 1923 into an educated family of the Vilnius bourgeoisie, Antonina Pavlitayte spent her early twenties during the Nazi occupation that devastated her home country of Lithuania during WWII.

Much of the country was stripped of its freedom and people — often the most accomplished members of society — were summarily executed at a whim. The Gestapo imprisoned Pavlitayte on trumped-up charges. She watched members of the country’s leading intellectuals and artists, many of them her friends, mercilessly tortured until they perished rather than confess to crimes that they had never committed. Pavlitayte decided to remain in Lithuania after the war despite warnings from many of her peers who fled to the West. This was a decision that the young writer and thinker was later to regret when an even greater threat descended on her nation in the form of the Soviet Russians who drove out the Germans from this once powerful Baltic kingdom.

After having watched so many of her fellow Lithuanians murdered and tortured by the Nazis in the most abhorrent ways, the young Pavlitayte discovered that if any group of people could perhaps equal the Nazis in vicious ideological warfare and abject threat, it was perhaps the Stalinists. Antonina had a heart of gold and a will of steel, but seeing her fellow countrywomen psychologically tortured and publicly accused of being everything from traitors to their nation to common street whores, was even more difficult. One might have expected such behavior from Fascists who after all placed the nebulous entity known as the “Nation” above all individuals – and over the concept of freedom itself. But Fellow Travelers and the original Marxist-Leninists both had dreamt of a brotherly utopia where societal resources and individual wealth would be shared equally by all — the fall seemed even greater yet. How then to reconcile any of this with Louis Althusser’s observation that “Ideology… is indispensable in any society if men are to be formed, transformed and equipped to respond to the demands of their conditions of existence.”

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Arrested almost immediately once the Russian secret services entered Lithuania, Pavlitayte was jailed and interrogated for months. One of the hardest things she described was watching both the proud and the weak perish under the strain of human cruelty — the aristocrat shorn of her honor and standing, the innocent young girl who cannot find the energy to fight back on any level. Pavlitayte was eventually sent to a Siberian labor camp in the Krayonarsk region where she met the love of her life, the Armenian poet Gurgen Mahari. He was from the warm lands of the Caucasus, she from the frigid North, both communicating in Russian, a language that wasn’t theirs, and perhaps most serious, he already in his 50s and twice her age, so old that he felt compelled to tell her that life had dealt him one last cruel blow — to undoubtedly die years before his beloved Antonina.

Gurgen Mahari

She would spend ten years in the Siberian camps, and he seventeen. During those years, Mahari grew sickly from illness and malnutrition. Several times he almost perished of illness, but each time Antonina nursed him back to health. She describes the pain as well of being a writer/artist imprisoned under such stark conditions, robbed of everything that they valued: their friends and family, the sun, their work — all creativity forever extinguished. And yet Pavlitayte not only survived but she eventually thrived, even when faced with the worst that her jailors could do to her. While in Siberia and tending to chores all day, Gurgen wrote Antonina love poetry and made exile bearable for her. Eventually they were able to safely reach Yerevan, where they brought up their only son, Sasun. But Mahari’s health was still poor and he faced a backlash from other writers such as Paruyr Sevak for ideological reasons and most probably out of jealousy, turned on him. Mahari’s masterpiece, The Burning Orchards, about the flight from Van during the Genocide, was famously purged due to its unflattering portrayal of Armenian Marxists and because it appeared in parts “too nationalistic.” Mahari was accused of having glorified the partly futile resistance of the fedayis against the Ottoman Empire, or conversely for describing some Armenians’ deep if perhaps misplaced sense of loyalty to the Sublime Porte.

The changes in the book combined with the outcry against it in both Soviet Armenia and the Armenian Diaspora, sent Mahari into a deep depression.

Mahari’s ultimate revenge lies perhaps in the fact that the original unexpunged version of The Burning Orchards is now considered one of the great books in the Armenian canon, alongside Abovian’s Wounds of Armenia and the poetry of Charents.

Wall of photos at the home of Antonina Mahari

But time and again it was Antonina’s inner strength and determination that saved both her and Gurgen. The value of Mahari’s memoir lies both in his accurate descriptions of historical events in the Soviet republics and also in what it teaches us about the human spirit. It also suggests that good and evil are not just opposites but can both be deeply enmeshed within the human soul. Mahari makes it clear that in many ways Soviet rule was perhaps far worse than the Nazi occupation in Lithuania. Armenians rightfully think of themselves as having suffered unbearably at the hands of their Ottoman oppressors who murdered over half of the world’s Armenian population, but here are some sobering numbers. Of the two million Lithuanians alive at the onset of WWII, 500,000 (including 90 percent of the country’s Jewish population) were massacred by the Nazis and an additional 150,000 were deported by the Russians and sent to die in Siberia. Altogether some 35 percent of all Lithuanians were massacred. While comparative victimology is not of much interest in the end, these numbers are telling. It will come as no surprise then that Antonina prefaced her book with the following sentence: “I dedicate this autobiographical narrative to my unforgettable friend of harsh and anxious days — to Gurgen Mahari, with whom I walked along these most agonizing roads.” Here Antonina seems to implicitly acknowledge that just as she saved Gurgen’s life on many occasions that he ultimately may have saved hers as well. Rising above ideology and nationalism and religion, above material concerns and the desire to be wealthy or all-powerful: pure love.

A True Odyssey

Mahari completed the original Russian-language manuscript of My Odyssey in 1972 while still living in difficult conditions in Soviet-controlled Yerevan. As editor Ruth Bedevian relates in her foreword, the book was smuggled out of Soviet Armenia and published in Western Armenian in Beirut in 1994. The final Russian manuscript was published in Yerevan in 2003 and only in 2007 was it translated into this present English-language edition. It will be of particular interest to Armenian readers because of the love story at its core between one of Armenia’s greatest writers and one very smart woman from a different land whose amazing devotion to her husband is touching indeed — as was his devotion to her. And the story as well of one woman’s unfaltering belief in justice that triumphs over almost every form of evil imaginable, she who once said, “If I am not worthy of respect for who I am, then turn your gaze away. Mahari lived a long an eventful life before passing away in 2017 at the age of 95 in Yerevan. She did outlive her husband by quite a few years, as he had feared, but after his death she converted his house into a museum and devoted herself to his memory and to writing the unvarnished truth about life under Soviet Communist rule.

My Odyssey was published as part of the Armenian International Women’s Association (AIWA) Press series of woman writers, and their editors are to be commended for including this work, for the window that it offers us on another Soviet Republic, as well as for the light it sheds on the life of the great Gurgen Mahari. Finely translated from the original Russian by Jaklin Ekmekjian and Gohar Arsenyan, what the prose sometimes lacks in pure elegance it more than makes up for in passion and historical detail.

Purchase My Odyssey at https://aiwainternational.org/product/my-odyssey/

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