Pietro Shakarian is a PhD in History candidate at the Ohio State University, currently working on a biography of the prominent Soviet official of Armenian descent Anastas Mikoyan. Мikoyan was the only Soviet politician who managed to remain at the highest levels of power from the latter days of Lenin’s rule, throughout the eras of Stalin and Khrushchev, until his retirement in the first months of Brezhnev’s rule. Shakarian responded to Emil Sanamyan’s questions by email.
Q. Can Mikoyan be called the most important Armenian in the Soviet Union? To what extent was he still “Armenian” after almost half a century in the Soviet leadership?
A: Mikoyan can easily be called the most powerful Armenian in the USSR. And he strongly identified with his Armenian roots right up to his passing in 1978 and was heavily involved in Soviet Armenian affairs. In short, Mikoyan was effectively a “national communist.” At one point, he was a Bolshevik and an internationalist, but he also strongly identified with Armenia, the Armenian people, and the national culture. He never forgot who he was, or from where he came. And, as I also argue in my dissertation, Mikoyan’s Armenian background greatly informed his approach toward the post-Stalin nationality policy, which he played a major role in forming.
Q. What was Mikoyan’s role in the Civil War period and the resolution of territorial disputes between Armenia and Azerbaijan?
A: Mikoyan’s major role in the Civil War was in Baku. It was there that he actively participated in the Baku Commune as a staunch and loyal supporter of Stepan Shahumyan, his hero and revolutionary mentor, better known today as the namesake for the capital of Karabakh. Mikoyan loved to vividly recount the details of those Civil War years, including to American journalist Harrison Salisbury, who called Mikoyan’s experiences “the most dramatic episode of a life that was crowded with dramatic episodes.” It was by a simple twist of fate that Mikoyan escaped execution along with the other Baku commissars at the hands of the British and their Socialist Revolutionary allies in 1918.
After Shahumyan’s death, Mikoyan worked to preserve his memory, writing articles in his honor as early as 1919. He also maintained very close ties with the Shahumyan family and treated his children as if they were his own. Salisbury noted that Mikoyan “never tired of talking about Shahumyan.” Especially during the Thaw years and afterwards, Mikoyan would frequently invoke Shahumyan and the multi-ethnic character of the commissars, stressing the fact that they all overlooked national differences for the greater aims of the revolution and building a more egalitarian society. Part of the reason for the lasting strength of Shahumyan’s presence in Armenia today is due to Mikoyan’s relentless efforts.
As for the contested regions between Armenia and Azerbaijan – Nakhichevan, Zangezur, and Karabakh – Mikoyan was not directly involved in determining their fate. He did write a letter to Lenin on May 22, 1919 in which he criticized Dashnak efforts to “annex” Karabakh to Armenia and stressed the region’s economic ties to Baku and not Yerevan. But that must be viewed in the context of Mikoyan’s adherence to Bolshevik internationalism and ideological opposition to the Dashnaks.
Q. What was Mikoyan’s role in the Red Terror and Stalin’s Purges in Armenia?
A: I have written a meticulously researched history of this pivotal episode, drawing on materials from the Armenian and Russian archives, including the FSB Central Archive that I acquired via Memorial Society in Moscow. Contrary to popular belief, Mikoyan’s role in the terror in Armenia was relatively minor. However, it was not insignificant. Moreover, it was consequential to subsequent developments in Soviet Armenian history, especially Mikoyan’s Yerevan speech of March 11, 1954, and the process of de-Stalinization in Armenia.
First, it is important to provide the context. The events of September 1937 are rooted in those of July 1936, when Aghasi Khanjyan, the popular First Secretary of Armenia, was murdered by Lavrentiy Beria, then First Secretary of Soviet Georgia and the Transcaucasus. Although Beria attempted to frame Khanjyan’s death as a suicide, an official February 1956 Soviet investigation concluded that Khanjyan had in fact been shot by Beria. After Khanjyan’s death, Beria’s henchmen Amatuni Amatuni and Khachik Mugdusi assumed the reins of power as the First Secretary and the head of the NKVD.
It was during this time that some of Armenia’s greatest cultural figures – Charents, Bakunts, Mahari, Alazan, and Norents – fell victim to the purges. However, in the zeal for mass murder and “unmasking” so-called “enemies,” Amatuni and Mugdusi made a fatal miscalculation with the arrest of prominent Armenian Bolshevik Sahak Ter-Gabrielyan. In the process of his interrogation by Mugdusi, Ter-Gabrielyan died either by jumping, or being pushed, from the fourth-floor window of the Armenian NKVD headquarters. Stalin discovered this and became enraged that the Armenian leadership neglected to inform him. He dispatched Georgy Malenkov and deputy head of the NKVD Mikhail Litvin, to Armenia to purge the Armenian leadership. Mugdusi was then arrested and subsequently executed. Stalin – who closely supervised everything from Moscow – already decided that Amatuni was guilty of “treason” and wanted Malenkov and Litvin to produce proof.
Malenkov and Litvin had already been in Armenia, when Stalin decided to send Mikoyan, who was the most prominent Armenian in the USSR, so his presence was intended to send a signal to the local authorities. However, Stalin also wanted to use this mission to test the loyalty of Mikoyan, who had a negative view of the purges and who saved, or attempted to save, many individuals from repression. It was at that time that Mikoyan delivered a speech on-the-fly, speaking against Amatuni. An eyewitness testimony of the proceedings noted that Amatuni tried to defend himself and even attempted to reach for a pistol. Beria was in the audience, witnessing the downfall of his deputy. In his memoirs, Mikoyan recounted that he then was forced to sign a list prepared by the Armenian NKVD of 300 names to be repressed and that he even crossed out one of the names (that of Danush Shaverdyan), but to no avail.
However, even this list was apparently not enough for Armenian NKVD. In light of local allegations of “mass sabotage” in Armenia, Mikoyan had to sign off on an order, together with Malenkov and Litvin, to increase Category 1 repressions (i.e., immediate arrest and execution) set for Armenia at 500 by an additional 700 people. They forwarded their request to Yezhov, who topped them with an additional 1,500 people, for a total of 2,200 repressions, an order approved by Stalin. Mikoyan carried the guilt for this episode for the rest of his life.
Ironically, this intervention signaled the beginning of the end of the worst period of the Terror in Armenia. Beria proposed appointing Grigory Arutinov, Second Secretary of the Tbilisi City Committee, as Armenia’s new First Secretary. For Beria, Artutinov was a palatable successor to Amatuni, and he served as a convenient means for Beria to rid himself of a political rival. Mikoyan then put the proposal before Stalin on behalf of himself, Malenkov, and Beria. Stalin and Molotov approved the proposal in a joint letter. Arutinov went on to serve as Armenia’s First Secretary for over a decade. Meanwhile, Mikoyan assumed the position of a Supreme Soviet Deputy for Nationalities representing Yerevan. He would use this position as a “shield” to protect Armenia from another episode of purges.
Q. What was Mikoyan’s role in Soviet Armenia’s development?
It was very significant. After Stalin’s death, Mikoyan used his position to guide Armenia’s development and raise its material well-being. In his view, success in his homeland reflected the success of the Soviet nationality policy and of the Soviet system generally.
Amid his work on the international stage and Soviet high politics, Mikoyan became increasingly involved in Armenian affairs during the Thaw, regularly visiting the republic, and assisting the Soviet Armenian leadership on everything from major infrastructure projects, such as the Arpa-Sevan Canal, to development of village economies. He was particularly concerned with developments in his native province, Lori. In fact, Mikoyan traveled all over Armenia, assisting with various projects in several cities, towns, and villages. His stamp can be seen throughout Armenia today.
He was a major advocate for the forestation of the republic and frequently advised Armenian officials to expand green space in Yerevan and to plant trees in various parts of the country. For instance, the road connecting Yerevan to Sevan that we know well today, is lined with trees and that were planted on Mikoyan’s advice during his 1954 trip to Armenia. Mikoyan also encouraged the development of resorts and the construction of hospitals, schools, and rest homes throughout the country.
Other major projects in which Mikoyan played a significant role included the Alaverdi Copper Smelter, the Kirovakan Acetate Silk Plant, the Arzni-Shamiram Canal, the Hrazdan Stadium, and the Talin Canal. So important was Mikoyan’s role in Yerevan’s relations with Moscow that Soviet Armenian officials frequently consulted with him. Sometimes, as in the case of the Arzni-Shamiram Canal, a quick discussion with Mikoyan could change Moscow’s mind about a project that was “impossible to fund.” Thus, Mikoyan advised Yakov Zarobyan to only request the costs for the tunnel that would bring water from Arpa River into Lake Sevan and exclude the costs of the associated infrastructure needed for the project, thus making it more palatable to Khrushchev.
Part of his motivation was strategic. In his meetings with the architect Mark Grigorian, Anton Kochinyan and Yeghishe Astsatryan, and even with President Kennedy, Mikoyan would express concern over Yerevan’s proximity to the Turkish border. Therefore, he believed that, for the sake of Armenia’s security, development had to be spread throughout the country.
Mikoyan’s work in Armenia was not limited to major economic projects. During his 1962 visit, he also met with Armenian historians, who sought his input on their book Sketches of the History of the Communist Party in Armenia. Particularly noteworthy is Mikoyan’s view of the Caucasus Front of World War I. Although Mikoyan characterized the war itself as an imperialist war, he argued that the Caucasus Front constituted a “national liberation” struggle for Western Armenia. “The advance of the Russian army on the Turkish front objectively played a progressive role in the struggle of the Armenian people against the Turkish enslavers,” he argued. In the same meeting, a contrite Mikoyan also criticized his earlier “national nihilistic” views on Armenian national sensitivities as expressed during the Civil War years.
Armenians viewed Mikoyan as a success story and proof positive that anyone, even an Armenian from Sanahin, could rise to “become the [de jure] president of the multiethnic Soviet Union” in 1964. “For the first time in our centuries-old history,” wrote Kochinyan in his memoirs, “an Armenian had risen to the throne. He made every Armenian proud.”
Mikoyan fervently believed that Armenia was best served by being a part of the USSR. He also felt that the First Armenian Republic’s partnership with the Western powers was naïve and dangerous, and that the 1915 Genocide committed by the Ottoman Empire painfully demonstrated that the Armenians needed the protection of Russia.
Q. In 1965, Martiros Saryan – on Bagrat Ulubabyan’s urging – is said to have raised the Karabakh issue with Mikoyan, and reported the following response: “Why do you need Karabakh? If you want people to live richly and happily, we will present you with several factories so that people can live and work. As for Karabakh… Karabakh doesn’t concern you…” Can you confirm that quote? What was Mikoyan’s attitude towards the dispute over Karabakh and how did it evolve?
With regard to the first part of that question, I have not seen that quote confirmed, but I would not be surprised if he indeed said that, especially by 1965. Mikoyan’s attitude toward the Karabakh problem shifted throughout his career and these sentiments were tied to political shifts occurring within the USSR on a large scale and within the Caucasus specifically. It is especially important to consider that, within the Party leadership of Azerbaijan, you had two factions – the “Turkic” one that viewed the Azerbaijan SSR essentially as a Turkic nation-state, and the “Bakinstsy” one descended from the revolutionaries of the Baku Commune, who viewed Azerbaijan as more of a multi-ethnic republic. The second faction was especially influential during the 1920s but lost significant influence during the Stalin era.
As Azerbaijan became more “Turkic,” the attitude of Baku toward the Karabakh Armenians became more chauvinistic, and pressures to assimilate Karabakh and reduce its autonomy increased. Mikoyan was well aware of these trends. He received information about them from Soviet Armenian officials with connections to Karabakh, such as Yeghishe Astsatryan, Deputy Chairman of Armenia’s Council of Ministers and a native of Chartar in Karabakh’s Martuni district. In his memoirs, Astsatryan recalled Mikoyan inquiring about the situation in Karabakh with great interest during a meeting with him in Pitsunda in September 1963. Although Astsatryan highlighted the efforts of Chartar collective farm director Suren Adamyan to improve the situation of the Armenian population, he could not disguise the reality.
“The economy of Karabakh is at its lowest point since the 1930s,” Astsatryan told Mikoyan. “There are no roads, and no funds for irrigation, electrification, and mechanization of agricultural work. Despite the over-fulfillment of the Five-Year Plan in the rest of the country, the economic development of Karabakh is largely behind that of Azerbaijan. The same is true of education and culture. The youth is being forced to leave the region and move away.” He added that Baku aimed to “force the inhabitants to emigrate from Karabakh as they did from Nakhichevan.”
Notably, in his memoirs, Mikoyan’s son Sergo also recalled one incident at the family dacha in the early 1960s in which his father angrily reprimanded an Azerbaijani official for Baku’s treatment of the Karabakh Armenians. Sergo specifically recalled his father saying that Baku “failed to create jobs and higher and technical educational institutions and that, in general, they appeared to be doing everything in their power to push the Armenians out of Karabakh, just as they had pushed them out of Nakhichevan.” Mikoyan told the official, “it is very bad if you have such a goal in Baku. In that case, the Karabakh Armenians can be easily understood.” Mikoyan saw Baku’s actions toward Karabakh as an expression of chauvinism and a very blatant violation of the spirit of the Soviet nationality policy. It angered him, because he understood how such a scenario could lead to conflict, which it eventually did.
As a result, Mikoyan increasingly warmed to the idea of transferring Karabakh’s jurisdiction to Soviet Armenia and supported the successive initiatives of Soviet Armenian leaders Grigory Arutinov and Anton Kochinyan. However, their efforts were vetoed by the authorities of Soviet Azerbaijan. This detail is especially important when considering the transfer of Crimea from the Russian SFSR to the Ukrainian SSR in 1954. There was mutual consent on the side of both republics in the Crimean case, in contrast to Karabakh where Azerbaijan refused to consent to the transfer of any territory. Mikoyan raised this precise point with Astsatryan in their September 1963 meeting in Pitsunda. When Astsatryan proposed the idea of having Moscow directly manage the Karabakh economy, Mikoyan responded that “the Azerbaijani leadership does not want such a scenario, the Karabakh leadership cannot ask for it, and Armenia has no right to interfere in the sovereign affairs of another republic.”
In addition, as Sergo Mikoyan emphasized in his writings, his father had certain limitations in terms of what he could and could not do, even as a Kremlin high official. He may have been the most powerful Armenian in the USSR, but he was certainly not omnipotent. So, it is certainly conceivable, especially by 1965, that Mikoyan came to terms with the idea that Karabakh would not be returning to Armenian governance any time soon.
It is also worth noting that many years later, during perestroika, it was Mikoyan’s son, Sergo, who became a leading voice for the reunification of Karabakh with Armenia.
Q. Has Mikoyan ever been to Karabakh?
He never visited the NKAO, but he did visit the southern part of present-day Kashatagh district of Artsakh during his March 1962 trip to Armenia, as part of his visit to Zangezur. He traveled there with an entourage that included his son Sergo and Soviet Armenian leaders Zarobyan, Kochinyan and Astsatryan. They took the overnight train from Yerevan, through Nakhichevan, to Meghri. After their visit to Meghri, they stopped in Zangelan before continuing to Kapan. Mikoyan was met by the Deputy Chairman of Azerbaijan’s Council of Ministers A. G. Kerimov and other officials. Mikoyan spoke wishing the Azerbaijani comrades well and delivered a toast “in honor of the indestructible friendship of the peoples of the Soviet Union.”
There was also a similar episode during Mikoyan’s trip to Azerbaijan in March 1964. He visited Sumgait, where he was welcomed at the Chemists’ Palace of Culture. The locals gave him a standing ovation, and local pioneers presented him with flowers. In his opening remarks, Sumgait Party Committee Secretary N. Balakishiyev welcomed Mikoyan to Sumgait, “the city of the friendship of peoples, in which representatives of over 40 nationalities live and work as one big family.” One of the speakers proclaimed Mikoyan to be an honorary citizen of Sumgait. In his speech, Mikoyan praised the working class of Baku and Sumgait as the “bearers of the ideas of class cohesion, of internationalism, and of the friendship of peoples, and not of national disunity.”
Q. What would you say were the main cornerstones of Mikoyan’s legacy?
A: I would say that these were his contributions to (1) de-Stalinization, (2) international diplomacy, (3) the development of modern Armenia, (4) the Soviet nationality policy, and (5) the Soviet food industry. Of these, I already discussed Mikoyan’s contributions to Armenia, so I will focus on points #1 and #4, which are not well-known, in contrast to points #2 and #5.
On the first point, Mikoyan played a leading and pivotal role in de-Stalinization, a process intimately associated with democratization in the Soviet Union and successor states. Mikoyan’s involvement in this process began almost immediately after the death of Stalin and arrest of Beria in 1953. At that time, he began receiving several requests for rehabilitation from family members of Gulag prisoners and victims of the purges. The majority were in some way connected with Mikoyan’s old Baku revolutionary circle, and included Armenians, Slavs, Jews, and Georgians. The sheer number of letters received encouraged Mikoyan to act.
Mikoyan’s March 1954 Supreme Soviet election visit to Armenia proved decisive. It commenced, ironically, with a visit to Sergey Merkurov’s monument to Stalin in Yerevan’s Victory Park. However, in his Yerevan speech on March 11, he dropped a bombshell by publicly calling for the rehabilitation of the fiery Armenian revolutionary poet Yeghishe Charents. This step was intended to be a signal by Mikoyan to relatives of the victims of Stalinism that he – and by extension, the Soviet state – would be open to reviewing their cases.
Only seven days after the speech, on March 18, the Soviet Armenian government established a review commission in Mikoyan’s name. It included high-level Armenian officials Suren Tovmasyan, Yakov Zarobyan, and Anton Kochinyan, all of whom would assume the task of overseeing rehabilitation requests from Armenia that were addressed to Mikoyan. By April, the number of letters that Mikoyan received from individuals in Armenia and throughout the USSR had mushroomed. He forwarded countless cases to the Chief Prosecutor Roman Rudenko, as well as to Kochinyan and other officials.
It was during this time that Mikoyan also met with Gulag returnees Aleksei Snegov and Olga Shatunovskaya. The latter was a prominent Baku revolutionary who had a brief romantic affair with Mikoyan during the Civil War. They would meet with Mikoyan in the apartment of Lev Shahumyan – Stepan’s son. There, they would open the eyes of Mikoyan to the full horrors of the Gulag and Stalinism. Soon, Mikoyan arranged for Khrushchev to meet Snegov and Shatunovskaya, helping pave the way for his landmark speech at the XXth Communist Party Congress denouncing Stalin in 1956.
In March 1964, during his trip to Baku, Mikoyan attended a meeting with rehabilitated Old Bolsheviks, organized by Azerbaijan’s First Secretary Veli Akhundov. In the meeting, Mikoyan praised Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin. Those in attendance were equally grateful to both Khrushchev and Mikoyan. For example, Jeyran Bayramova, widow of Azerbaijani Bolshevik revolutionary Ali Bayramov, praised Khrushchev “for giving us a second life after rehabilitation” and asked Mikoyan to “convey our sincere regards and even a kiss from all women to Comrade Khrushchev for releasing us.” Among those in attendance was Suren Badamyan, the former Chairman of the Executive Committee of Nagorno-Karabakh, who had been arrested in 1937.
Mikoyan’s legacy also includes developing the Soviet nationality policy in the post-Stalin years. Going back to his March 1954 speech in Yerevan, Mikoyan called for a more liberal attitude toward Armenian national expression, including the republication of the works of Raffi and Patkanyan, as well as the preservation of the memory of Armenian Bolshevik revolutionary Aleksandr Myasnikyan. He specifically advocated for a form of managed national expression, allowing liberalization with certain controls to ensure against national chauvinism. In Mikoyan’s formulation, “bourgeois nationalism” was just as bad as “national nihilism,” i.e., an indifference to national cultures and sensitivities.
The ideas that Mikoyan articulated in his 1954 speech were later reflected in the section on the nationality issue in the 1961 CPSU Party Program. In fact, such a development was not coincidental, because Mikoyan played a key role in developing this section of program, toning down the more utopian character of it and making it more sensitive to the concerns of non-Russian nationalities. For example, Mikoyan strongly rejected the idea of a merger (assimilation) of nations, an idea included in the draft of the Party Program that was ultimately scrapped due to Mikoyan’s staunch opposition. As a result of Mikoyan’s efforts, the text of the final Program was not only sensitive to nationality concerns, but even generous to them.
Mikoyan continued his work in the nationality sphere when he became the chairman of the Nationalities Subcommittee of Khrushchev’s commission for constitutional reform in April 1962. The subcommittee included among others, the First Secretaries of Armenia, Georgia, and Uzbekistan, who grappled with major questions on the ways in which the multi-ethnic state should be governed. Specifically, the committee strongly endorsed greater decentralization, granting more powers to the republics at the expense of the central government. In seeking to undo the excessive centralization of the 1936 Stalin constitution, Mikoyan and the committee members consulted with Soviet lawyers, took into account Western criticisms of Soviet federalism, observed federal models in other countries (notably Yugoslavia), and even took into consideration input from the general public. Unfortunately, their reform efforts were dashed with Khrushchev’s abrupt ouster in 1964.
The big event that brings together Mikoyan’s efforts on de-Stalinization and the nationality issue was his March 1954 speech in Yerevan. In the Armenian context, the speech signaled the start of the Thaw in Armenia and, in many ways, it set the stage for the major demonstrations in Yerevan in 1965, the Karabakh movement, and, arguably, even the revolution of 2018.