Gourgen Yanikian (Armenian: Գուրգեն Յանիկյան) was born on December 24, 1895 in Erzurum (Armenian: Կարին, Karin), eastern Ottoman Empire (now Turkey). It was the time of the anti-Armenian massacres in the Ottoman Empire, but Yanikian’s family managed to flee to safety to Kars, which was a part of the Russian Empire at that time.
When Yanikian was 6, his family returned to the Ottoman Empire to retrieve their personal possessions hidden in a barn, where Yanikian witnessed his brother Hagob’s murder by two Turkish men. Later Yanikian has undergone extended treatment in Switzerland due to his psychological traumas.
After the therapy, Yanikian studied engineering in the Moscow State University, as well as in Rostov-on-Don and Tbilisi (then Tiflis). Besides engineering and construction, Yanikian got involved in theatric art.
Yanikian participated in World War I on the Eastern Front in Armenian politician Drastamat Kanayan’s Armenian volunteer units. He was awarded the Cross of St. George for the elimination of a Turkish armory. As the Russian army advanced, Yanikian witnessed first hand the destruction wrought against the Armenians.
Upon his arrival in Erzurum, he found his father’s business in ruins and recognized the bodies of two of his relatives. In the course of the genocide he lost twenty-six members of his extended family. During the war he took an oath to avenge the deaths of his family and his compatriots.
After the war, Yanikian graduated from the Moscow State University and held different governmental offices in newly established USSR, participated in giving help to starving people in Caucasus and Don.
He was awarded state decorations, and at the beginning of 1930s received an opportunity to move to Iran with his wife Shushanik from the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Joseph Stalin himself.
In Iran, Yanikian set up a civilian engineering company called RAHSAZ while his wife opened a gynecological clinic. One of his construction projects was a railroad across Iran which was a part of Allied efforts in the region, and became affluent deal for Yanikian.
The couple moved to United States in 1946 via France. Initially, they settled in New York where he opened the Yanikian Theater, which did not do well. Soon Yanikian and his wife moved to Fresno, California.
Living in Fresno, Yanikian has researched religion and history of different nations, travelled around the world, met politicians whom he asked to leave their autographs on a rare Turkish bank note he possessed.
Besides that, Yanikian worked on multiple novels which were later translated to multiple languages, including The Triumph of Judas Iscariot (1950), Harem Cross (1953), and the Voice of an American (1960). He has most literary works among Armenian writers in catalogs of large US libraries after Armenian-American writer William Saroyan.
Yanikian wanted to film a movie named “Heaven” with help of which he hoped to show the world the atrocities of the Ottoman Empire and the attitude of other governments towards it. He worked on it with his comrades, including a Greek woman whose grandmother had told her about the inhuman massacres of Turks, and two Turkish students who didn’t share their homeland’s policy.
Yanikian wasn’t able to entirely finance the movie as Iran’s government refused to pay him for the projects he had done during World War II. While in United States, Yanikian exhausted every legal channel and hoped the State Department could evoke pressure for payment of $1.5 million he claimed he was owed for the construction work he had overseen in Iran. U.S. State Department wrote Yanikian a letter that he should make no more attempts to communicate with their office, which was probably due to political interests of United States towards Iran.
By the late 1960s, Yanikian had lost most of his money, was living on welfare and his wife was in a care home with dementia unable to recognize him, even though he visited nearly every day and brought her chocolates. Her medical care became a factor in his insolvency and dependency.
In the memoir ”Purpose and Truth”, written by Yanikian in prison, he tells that memories of the genocide lingered in his mind and visions of his dead brother haunted him for years. The Republic of Turkey’s continual denial of the genocide remained a source of anguish and pain.
Eventually, Yanikian, believing he had little left to live for, resolved to avenge the deaths of his family members and bring greater awareness to the genocide by organizing the assassination of the perpetrator country’s agents, an act that took its cue from the example set by Soghomon Tehlirian fifty years earlier.
Initially, Yanikian didn’t wish to resort to any kind of violence, but then he realized there was no other way for him to draw attention to his case. Carefully thinking through his plan, Yanikian visited consular office of Turkey in United States and introduced himself as an Iranian who wishes to grant the Turkish government a unique Turkish bank note with autographs of famous people, and a painting stolen from the palace of the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire more than a century earlier. The office requested a copy of the bank note and a photo of the painting to send to Ankara, Turkey.
Before meeting the Turkish diplomats, Yanikian sent a letter to an Armenian language newspaper, urging Armenians to wage a war on Turkish diplomats, and gave away all his property. He then invited the Turkish general Mehmet Baydar and vice-consul Bahadir Demir to a cottage at the Baltimore Hotel in Santa Barbara for them to receive the promised items.
On January 27, 1973, during the meeting, Yanikian uncovered his true nationality to the Turkish officials, accused them of the crimes of the Ottoman Empire, and emptied nine rounds from a Luger pistol at them, though none of the wounds were lethal. Yanikian pulled out a Browning pistol from a drawer and fired two rounds into the head of each man, “what he considered mercy shots.”
Yanikian contacted the front desk of the hotel, requesting the sheriff to be contacted as he has “just killed two men”. He hoped that his trial would aid the process of recognition of the Armenian genocide, and that it would be similar to Soghomon Tehlirian’s trial.
Yanikian pleaded not guilty to two charges of first degree murder. Although over the course of the trial he openly conceded that he had caused the deaths of the men, he insisted that he was not guilty of any crime. Yanikian insisted that what he did was “destroy two evils,” as the victims were “not human” for him. In an interview with reporters in a court anteroom he slammed his hands down on the table and declared that other people “have had their Nuremberg but we have not.”
Armenians hoped Yanikian’s trial would provide a vehicle for proving the massacres in a court of law while there were still surviving witnesses, but District Attorney Minier didn’t agree. Only Yanikian took the Armenian Genocide witness stand in the court, accompanied by his friend and interpreter, Santa Barbaran Aram Saroyan, the uncle of William Saroyan.
Yanikian told of coming across mutilated corpses and finding the decapitated bodies of his relatives killed in the massacres, and how he watched in hiding as marauding Turks slit his brother’s throat. He concluded his speech by saying that he killed the Turkish diplomats as representatives of the “government that had massacred his people.”
Yanikian was sentenced to life in prison on July 2, 1973. Despite objections from the Turkish government, Yanikian was paroled on January 31, 1984 because of poor health, and transferred to a Montebello convalescent hospital. He died of a heart attack one month later at the age of 88.
After Yanikian’s death, District Attorney David D. Minier wrote, “Looking back, I regret that I did not allow the genocide to be proven. Not because Yanikian should have gone free, but because history’s darkest chapters — its genocides — should be exposed, so their horrors are less likely to be repeated.”
Yanikian is known to have remarked, “I’m not Gourgen Yanikian but unacknowledged history coming back for the 1,500,000 Armenians whose bones desecrate my invisible existence.” In death, Yanikian became a symbol for many Armenians of their resentment toward the Turkish government for refusing to acknowledge the Armenian genocide. Upon Yanikian’s death, one of his attorneys, Bill Paparian, remarked that he “is now a piece of Armenian history.”
It is believed that Yanikian’s act set off the string of assassinations and targeted attacks against Turkish diplomats by ASALA (Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia) and JCAG (Justice Commandos of the Armenian Genocide) in the 1970s and 1980s.
Yanikian would later be appropriated by ASALA as an iconic figure. At the beginning, it bore the name of “The Prisoner Kurken Yanikian Group”. Because of this association, Yanikian’s slayings have been characterized as “the opening salvo” of the armed attacks against the Turkish government and its agents.