Featured, This Week in Armenian History

Death of Harutiun Surkhatian (April 9, 1938)

The date of death already carries with it the ominous sign of the Stalinist purges, one of whose victims was this noted Soviet Armenian critic.

Harutiun Surkhatian, whose actual last name was Tumanian, was born on May 5, 1882 (May 17 in the new calendar), in the town of Staryi Krym, Crimea. He took his literary name from the medieval name of his birthplace, Surkhat.

At the age of nine, he lost his father and started working in a tobacco plantation. Despite the difficult conditions, he managed to finish the parish school. Then he started a wandering life. In 1895 he moved to Melitopol (in what is currently Ukraine), where he worked as an apprentice in a store, and then did the same work in Kamenskoye. The hardship in his work conditions caused him tuberculosis. He went to Tiflis (nowadays Tbilisi) and thanks to the help of his relative, the composer Kristapor Kara-Murza, he worked in the local choir. But his illness became more worrisome and he left his job in 1900, leaving for Ashkhabad (nowadays Ashgabat), in Turkmenistan, where he taught at the local Armenian school, but he could stay and had to leave, returning to Crimea. He gave exams through distance learning and graduated from the Seminary of Nor Nakhichevan (today in Rostov-on-the-Don).

Meanwhile, Surkhatian had married Ekaterina Martinovna, and in 1907 they moved together to Kharkov. Here he entered law school at the local university, but his health again was an obstacle, and he could not finish his studies. In 1910 he settled permanently in Tiflis, where he started teaching at the local Russian gymnasium and the Hovnanian girls’ school. In these years, other than some minor prose works, he translated into Armenian two works by famous Russian writers: Leonid Andreyev’s “Falsehood” (1906) and Leo Tolstoy’s “Confession” (1911).

After the October Revolution of 1917, he embraced Bolshevism and became a member of the Communist Party in 1918. After the Sovietization of the Caucasus, he worked as diplomatic representative of Armenia in Georgia and then president of the Transcaucasian Committee of Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries. After 1922, the Commissariat of Education of Georgia appointed him supervisor of the application of the Armenian reformed spelling in the schools and technical colleges of the country.

A frequent contributor to the Armenian press with articles of literary criticism and history, Surkhatian was the author of textbooks of literature, which were used in Armenian schools during the 1930s, like the two-volume “Armenian Literature” (1926). He also published monographs such as “Ancient Greek Literature” (1922), “Post-October Armenian Literature” (1929), and “Homer – Shakespeare” (1935). A collection of his literary essays was posthumously published in 1970 under the title “Questions of literature.”

In 1937 Surkhatian had finished a textbook of literature for university level and a study of the Armenian national epic “David of Sassoun.” Both works were lost. The wave of repression of 1936-1938 reached him too. He was condemned to exile in Russia, and he died there on April 9, 1938.