Catholicos Chorekchian: the path to the legend

In the empty darkened corridor, the footsteps of the guards echoed loudly during the changing of the guard. In one of the offices, two men sat on either side of a table. One — with reddish moustaches, freckled, in a smock — was smoking a pipe and looking attentively at the one sitting opposite. The head of his interlocutor was covered with the pointed klobuk of an Armenian priest. In his hands, he held a bunch of grapes at both ends, like corn. And he was eating with unmistakable pleasure.

“Holy Father, it is so inconvenient for you to eat,” the freckled one finally couldn’t help saying.

“And how is it more convenient, my son?” responded the priest.

“Well, you should pick it off one berry, one piece at a time.”

“You’re talking about a pear, my son,” the interlocutor remarked in a gentle, condescending tone.

The freckled man didn’t know what to answer. He examined the clearly non-working class hands of the priest and searched for words to extricate himself from the awkward situation. The man sitting at the table with him was someone who had ensured millions of remittances to help the Red Army from the workers of Soviet Armenia, from the Holy Echmiadzin. And two tank columns, built with money received from the Armenian diaspora — “Sasuntsi David” and “General Bagramyan”.

According to the tellers of this tale, on that distant wartime April evening in 1945 in the Kremlin, the Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Red Army, Stalin, was treating Catholicos of All Armenians Gevorg IV Chorekchian to grapes.

This is exactly how Armenians called their Catholicos during the war years – by his surname. Also by his surname, we remember another great Catholicos, whose name is associated with another war and another diplomacy – Mkrtich Vanski – Khrimyan Hayrik. Difficult times require popular leaders. Mkrtich Khrimyan was of the people and remained so until the end of his days – a simple, caring father of his children, his flock.

Gevorg Chorekchian was a representative of a different environment and a different generation. He was a contemporary of Tumanyan and Komitas, born in 1869 in New Nakhichevan to a well-off, prosperous family. After finishing the local parish school, he continued his education in Echmiadzin, from where, through the efforts of Catholicos Makar, he was sent to Leipzig in 1894, where he enrolled in the local university’s Department of Philosophy and Theology, as well as the conservatory. Three years later, Komitas was sent to Berlin.

The most active years of his ecclesiastical-administrative activity fell on the last decade of tsarist power and the first decade of the Soviets. World War I, working in the “Brotherly Aid Committee” in Echmiadzin alongside Tumanyan, organizing its work, hard, seemingly unnecessary, persistent work collecting manuscripts and equipment from ruined, destroyed churches, caring for orphans and refugees. Neither he nor his associates considered themselves heroes or benefactors. They strived by the call of the heart, they were remembered and still are. Chorekchian’s work was considered a call of duty, he had to do it, and who knows, perhaps for this reason so little was said and written about him?

Then there was work in Georgia. Being a native of the heart of the empire, he knew all the hidden threats and underground currents in the life of national minorities. As the head of the Georgian diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church, he did a lot to prevent the closure of churches and parish schools due to the “small number and poverty of the flock”.

Across the entire Union, the church was separated from the state and deprived of the opportunity to participate in spiritual or public life. But the nationwide opposition seemed to erase all the drawn boundaries of the permissible, and the state leadership accepted the new state of affairs. After the mysterious assassination of Catholicos Khoren Muradbekyan, Chorekchian was elected the locum tenens of the Catholicos of the Armenian Apostolic Church. This happened in April 1941.

When discussing the participation of the Armenian people in the Great Patriotic War, one must bear in mind our particularity – we fought not only in Soviet troops and partisan detachments, but we fought in all countries where there is even a small Armenian community. The entire diaspora fought against the Nazis, and today, talking about the participation of the Armenian people in this war, we do not divide ourselves into “Soviet” and “non-Soviet”. The Catholicos has great merit in this. As a true leader of the people, he managed to unite everyone in the fight against a common enemy. The tide of war was turned back not only for the Germans near Stalingrad. According to the plan, after the fascists crossed the Volga, Uretz forces were to cross the Araks river.

The four years of war were very long. In April 1945, Chorekchian requested an audience with the Supreme Commander. To express gratitude from the workers for the warm telegram of the Leader, for his words of appreciation for the help provided to Soviet front-line soldiers. And to discuss the plan for the return of Armenian lands that were part of the Russian Empire in a private conversation. And the repatriation of the population. Soviet tanks are already in Berlin, victory is near, victory is great, victory is honor and dignity.

Stalin looked at the Catholicos. At his paternal wrinkled, but still well-groomed hands. The whole image of the old man in no way correlated with the war, hunger, cold April, and past events. He seemed to have stepped off the canvases of the tsarist times, glorifying the strength and power of the state. And indeed, this bunch of honey “hardji” really looks like corn. Everything depends on who holds it and how they hold it. And the end always justifies the means. Moreover, the issue of repatriation can be considered at the all-Union level.

Of course, everything happened quite differently. But this story was recalled by Armenians every time “those times” were mentioned over the next 50 years. The lands were not returned to us, but repatriation took place. Almost one hundred thousand Armenians returned home. Few remembered, and probably few knew, that Gevorg VI of Novo-Nakhichevan restored the Etchmiadzin printing house, returned the Geghard monastery and the Ripsime temple to the church, established the publication of the scientific journal “Etchmiadzin”, and much more. But everyone knew the fable about the grape and pear.

And indicators of people’s love and recognition were always those fables and anecdotes that were told and passed down from generation to generation. Scholars call this “folk creativity” and claim that this is exactly how legends, tales, epics are born…

Historian, translator, teacher of Armenian language Nune Mkhitaryan especially for the Armenian Museum of Moscow.

Translated by Vigen Avetisyan

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