The Soviet Patient: “My Heart is Black without a Grease-Paint”
There are two things keeping the Soviet Union alive in the Sevan psychiatric clinic: one is the star built by German POWs on one of the walls and opened from under the plaster on it. The other, Rafik Zhamkochyan, set fire on the building of the KGB, and may be Armenia’s only legitimate political prisoner not yet released.
Maybe fate had prepared a destiny of a poet for him, but poetry became the shadow that just accompanied him, during the days tasting of medicines, as he says in one of his poems.
But did he override the fate on a moment of juvenile rebelliousness or of mental unbalance? One night in 1978, at the age of 18 he threw a bottle with burning gas on the KGB building in Gyumri (the building is featured on the 1,000 dram bill). The fire spread only on the wooden balcony.
The court recognized Zhamkochyan mentally ill suffering from paranoiac schizophrenia; he was sent to the psychiatric clinic of Geghavan (which no longer exists) for compulsory treatment.
What made him to set fire to the Soviet symbol of repression? Was it a failure in studies? He tells there were three friends who went to Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) to apply for university. He wanted to become an archaeologist. His two friends later managed to enter the university. But he could not even apply. “I returned from Leningrad broken, disappointed, we didn’t even try to apply.”
Maybe it was nationalism, or the truth heard on the Voice of America? Or maybe the reason was his parents who had thrown their only son in the street?
“If I had got education, my parents had taught me to read, had forced me to study, helped me enter the philological school, my life would be different now. They did not give me any direction; I did everything that came to my mind, all on my own.”
Maybe the Molotov cocktail was made of several reasons born by the Soviet state? “I could not even give an explanation when they caught me.”
Deputy Director of the psychiatric clinic Aram Alexanyan says if Rafik had caring parents his psychological problems would have been treated maybe he would not have wound up in clinics – his “home” for 30 of his 48 years.
“That was the regime. He did something illegal as his mental condition was distorted for a minute and the response was that he has been here up to this day,” says the doctor. Life, Rafik wrote, “is a short-necked hag”.
The extract on the diagnosis says he also tried to cross the Soviet border, but Rafik denies it saying he did not attempt to get out of the USSR.
The only attempt of escape was done when he entered the clinic for the first time: “It was a concentration camp. You can’t compare it with Vigen Chaldranyan’s film (about a psychiatric clinic called ‘The Symphony of Silence’). The film had nothing to do with the reality. There was symphony there, but here there was not even a symphony. There were 50 abnormal people, a toilet room, and a plate of borsch with two slices of fat. That’s when I really hated the Soviet state.”
After 1.2 years of compulsory treatment Rafik was released upon a medical conclusion. He graduated a technical college getting qualification of a turner in Gyumri. But being in the list of mentally ill people he was frequently taken to check-ups and was taken to the Sevan clinic in 1981 that he never left.
His body and arms are covered with self-made tattoos – the pictures of anarchist Mahno and Vardan Mamikonyan, the mounts Masis and Sis and a swastika. “I have made them after I was brought here for the second time. I was locked up, the conditions were terrible and I wrote on me everything that came to my mind.” The Sevan psychiatric clinic he describes does not exist any more: “Here, in Sevan, it was harsher, there was none of those 2 or 3 normal people (political prisoners). The place for exercise was behind a high fence and they would give us two hours for walking. It was cold, wet, with disgusting food, famine, the supervisors were cruel and abusive.” Cold and authorities are identical in his poem:
The winter… came.
Like a state official,
And butted the strings of love.
He was later moved to a department where the regime was freer, he was taken to work and the cruelty gradually faded away.
In 1995 Rafik was accepted for work at the clinic as an electrician, had an affair with Emma, a woman from the other side of the fence and decided to marry her. “My folks were against it, because they didn’t want to have two of us,” Emma says. But Alexanyan persuaded them to agree.
On the farther section of the clinic is their apartment, Rafik repaired the uninhabited closet, draws water through a pipe and made a toilet. Emma twice failed to give birth to child, and has no hope to have baby any more.
Emma’s parents have bought an apartment in Sevan but they will hardly move into it. The psychiatric clinic has become their home; they don’t pay for food here. Their income is the pension they get for disability, they get 25,000. ($81) drams together, as well as Rafik’s 28,000 dram salary that suffices for life, but they would prefer to get a bit more to save. ($91)
Alexanyan says Rafik can leave the clinic whenever he wants; he has no problems as a patient and stays there not by doctor’s prescription. There are even officials with his diagnosis. He has not done anything improper since 1981 when he first appeared there. There are patients in the clinic, healthy or treated like Rafik, who can check out, but don’t.
Would Rafik like to live outside the clinic? He has no relatives, his parents are dead, and his only close one is Emma and his 50 poems. What would he do outside the clinic? He thinks: “I would like to live outside [the clinic], to sit in the Paplavok (café), to see how strong I am in literature.”
The Paplavok café was the place of gathering for poets in the Soviet times; now it’s not, it has become a restaurant with live music after reconstruction. But Rafik is not much aware of the post-Soviet changes. In his rare visits to Yerevan he looks at Paplavok with hope as he gets on the Sevan minibus (the bus stop is just in front of the café). The online literary journal Inknagir (www.inknagir.org) plans to publish his poems. Maybe after that he’ll be invited inside.
My tree is an autumn…
Let their be flood
My tree is an autumn
It’s late… Noah…