blame my parents for bringing me into this awful
world. I think in the first place they are guilty
and then Chekists (former KGB member)," says
80-year-old Antonina Mahari wrapped in several
coats. Siberia comes to her Yerevan apartment
with the cold: at this moment its zero degrees
Celsius in the apartment. Sometimes it changes
to minus 1 or plus 1.
"It is chilly here, but it is good I am
nor very hungry. Besides, I put on many clothes
to stay warm. But here I cannot have a shower.
There they were taking me to a bathhouse every
"There" is Antonina's reference to
Siberia and her memories of exile.
Siberia hasn't left her alone even after returning
from exile. In one case it comes in the form of
cold and hunger as it is today. And in another
case in the shape of an inquisitor, as it was
in the 1970s, when her husband Gurgen Mahari's
novel "Burning Gardens" was burned under
their window. In other ways it comes as the death
of her daughter or her son's madness.
Siberia became a symbol of trouble which accompanies
her till today. And it is never far away.
Siberia started to crawl into Antonina's life
in 1945, when Soviet authorities replaced the
German army and began purging Lithuania of its
Chekists arrested 22-year-old student of Department
of Law Antonina Povilaytity on Vilnius's Street,
for her involvement in forming a patriotic group
to defend independent Lithuania.
"While being arrested my only feeling was
pride. I was proud that I was also a hero. Why
wouldn't they arrest me when all the others were
being arrested? This is what youth means."
There were 45 women in GPU (the former title
of KGB) building's basement taken to interrogation
every day and beaten. Men that "pleaded guilty"
and sentenced to death were waiting for implementation
of the penalty in the lower basement.
"They were beating so terribly during interrogations
that it was impossible to stand it. One girl went
crazy. A Polish countess arrested for being a
noble couldn't stand beatings and died. My face
was black of thrashing, but I was very quiet and
I wasn't afraid of their beating and cursing."
In 1940 when the Soviet Union first occupied
Lithuania Antonina watched as people with their
families were put into wagons and sent to exile.
Now, it was her turn together with thousands of
"When they were taking us streets were deserted.
There was an impression that they took everybody.
They threw us into wagons, as we were some commodities,
closed doors and the train started."
She was sentenced to five years in prison and
was first taken with other prisoners to Autonomous
Region Komy, and then further to Omsk in Siberia.
They were placed in the barracks and taken to
work, which was 10 kilometers away on foot and
in the evenings taken back again on foot every
day. They were fed "balanda" (liquid
with few pieces of cabbage drifting in it) and
were let to have some sleep to go to work the
"The snow was starting to melt in May. It
was terribly cold there. I was cleaning hollows
of the trees from snow with a wooden spade for
men to saw them. Now I cannot stand snow.
"Many exhausted prisoners unable to cope
with the work were falling down and were shot
by guards right there."
These 60 years later, she remembers a Lithuanian
teacher that was walking on his way back and suddenly
fell down, got a bullet to his forehead and never
"I was looking to the mirror and admiring
myself - bright blue eyes and long black hair,
which was rare among Lithuanians. And I couldn't
imagine I would die there."
The wife of a Minister of the Republic of Lithuanian
couldn't tolerate the torture and confinement
and hanged herself.
had traveled all over the world. She told us what
to do to remain an interesting woman at a diplomatic
meeting two hours long, and that one must always
be in a good form. She couldn't imagine eating
without a serviette. She was used to the high
society life. Siberia wasn't for her and she didn't
cope with it. And I always had a hope to return
to Lithuania again, and then to escape abroad
and free myself from Bolshevik's authority forever.
Hope was empowering me."
Antonina tried to escape but was captured and
sent to another camp where she lost consciousness
for the only time in her life.
"There was a cruel face of the nurse in
front when I opened my eyes, and I regretted that
I was back to this world. There was a saying in
Siberia: 'Lucky is the one who wasn't born'."
Five years of imprisonment were passing and Antonina
was counting days left to return to her homeland.
But the Chekists had determined a completely different
destiny for her. After imprisonment she was sent
to Derzhinsk, where in the yard of an administrative
building a GPU officer declared: "Here will
be your life and grave." She was sentenced
to life in exile.
"Even that time I still had a hope that
one day I would be released. I felt there is nothing
eternal in this world."
In 1952 Antonina was sent from Derzhinsk to a
neighboring collective farm (kolkhoz) to bring
in the harvest with her exiled friend. This obligated
work was very depressing for women. Stableman
tried to cheer them up and said: "Don't be
so sad, there is a poet here, who looks after
The pig tender was Gurgen Mahari, and one year
later Antonina married him.
Gurgen Mahari was among Armenian writers who
were arrested in 1937. Charents, Bakunts, Totovents
and Zabel Yesayan were killed (some shot and some
beaten to death). Mahari was sentenced to 10 years'
confinement, returned in 1947 and one year later
He was in hospital with a stomach ulcer and tuberculosis
and a nurse was expecting him to die in a few
days. But Antonina brought him back from the edge
"If a person there stays alone and there
is nobody to stretch a hand to him he will die.
Our Lithuanians were bringing milk to him, and
even eau-de-Cologne. Other patients envied Gurgen.
He was our person, and troubled so much as we
were. This wasn't love as people understand it
now, this was more than love. We were battle mates,
whose love was based on the concern of saving
Mahari wrote in a verse devoted to Antonina:
Why are you late spring-girl?
Why are you late my last anguish?
The most real hope for freedom woke up after
Stalin's death (1953) and the couple was released
from exile one and a half years later. This news
had a curing meaning for Mahari: "This means
I will live," Mahari said.
"We were congratulating each other. But
we were keeping sad faces. It is so good there
is a death without mercy to any dictator,"
They returned to Yerevan in 1954 with their 4-month-old
daughter Nazik Ruta. Two months later Ruta died.
"My poor Siberian beauty. Her death was
my and Gurgen's big tragedy."
Thirteen years later Antonina visited Lithuania,
but couldn't find any of her relatives. She knew
her brother had escaped to America during the
war, but his whereabouts was unknown. There was
no one whom she knew to get information about
her relatives. Soviet and German troops had destroyed
Lithuania so much that many relatives lost each
"I loved my parents very much. I begged
God to not let them die in my presence. I was
getting mad if they were away for a few hours.
And God concealed their death from me."
In 1966 Antonina was exiled again to Siberia,
this time because of Mahari's novel "Burning
Gardens", the story of Van, the writer's
native town and its resettlement of 1915.
The novel became a target of Armenian intelligentsia
and those daring to consider themselves as patriots.
For them, Mahari's supposition that Armenian revolutionaries'
antagonizing the Turkish government might have
been a reason for the Genocide was impermissible.
They also considered it immoral propaganda that
the main character Ohannes Agha had a sexual affair
with his dead brother's wife.
Antonina remembers reaction to her husband's
"They were throwing stones and garbage to
our balcony. The mailbox was full of anonymous
letters: 'Damned Turk'; 'Anyway we will kill you.'
They were throwing books to the fire. Gurgen was
waking up in the middle of night and shouting
'I cannot stand it'."
Mahari wanted to throw himself from the window.
He left this world terribly offended, saying on
his death bed: "I will go to have a rest
Mahari died in 1969 (at age 66), and their 15
year old son, Gurgen, got a mental disease one
said when he saw his father dead: 'Now I understand
what is death. Man doesn't hear anything, doesn't
feel anything, doesn't understand anything.' Then
slowly he started to degrade. Somebody put a spell
on our family for sure."
Mahari's destiny bound Antonina to Armenia, unfamiliar
for her, but with ties knotted by her life of
sacrifice for the Armenian writer.
After exile Mahari kept repeating to his wife
that he would die if she did not come with him
to Armenia. As he was dying, he asked her to stay
in Armenia and tell about her sufferings.
After Mahari's death Antonina was oppressed for
taking a dare and staying in Armenia while being
a foreign woman and for her attempts to perpetuate
the memory of the writer.
"They spat on the front door nameplate saying
Gurgen Mahari. They were knocking at the door
and shouting if I am making a museum for 'that
Turk's dog'. They were telling me to get out of
their country, which was not my place.
"One tried to hit me, but he didn't fortunately.
If Gurgen died surrounded with his relatives at
the top of his fame I wouldn't stay in Armenia.
I became a live witness of his sufferings. Now
I turned this home into a museum, which is being
show by TV from time to time. And I get happy
because in those moments Gurgen comes back to
Gurgen Mahari's furniture, personal items and
old wooden case with exile clothes are preserved
as it was in the apartment. Faded walls of the
sitting room are covered with Mahari's pictures.
Antonina's dream is to publish a book of memories
"My Odyssey" (the short version of the
book was published in Beirut 10 years ago) - her
means of implementing the last will of her husband.
She dreams to return to Lithuania, where former
political prisoners enjoy extraordinary attention,
have privileges and high pensions.
"We cost as much as gold in Lithuania. They
care about us and publish our memories. Nobody
needs me here, nobody is interested in my book,
probably former Chekists still have some influence
and don't want the truth about those years to
But how to return to her homeland? To obtain
a visa she needs to go to Moscow. But where can
she get money and what would she do with her ill
son? It is easier to go to America, then to Lithuania.
There is still another reason Antonina is staying
in Armenia: for Mahari's 100th anniversary to
be celebrated next autumn.
"I am happy that all my life I was with
the defeated. Winners will survive without me."
Defeated Lithuania, defeated political prisoners,
defeated Mahari. And today when Armenia got its
independence and former political prisoners are
winners here, she is again with the defeated poor.
She and her son are among 51 percent of the population
living below the poverty level and among the 16
percent who are the poorest of the poor.
Antonina's pension is 4,500 drams (about $8)
a month. Her son's pension for being invalid is
3,000 drams (about $5), plus they get another
4,000 allotted for poverty - a total of about
$20. The "poorest of the poor" spend
about $1 a day. She and her son live on about
33 cents per day each, eating only oats in an
apartment she doesn't even think about heating.
Exiled for her politics, exiled for love. Exiled
now by indifference and slow solutions to sudden
"Authorities think we are those to expire
soon and don't care about us. Armenians are probably
cruel, as far as only murder and robbery rules
in this country."