Gourgen YanikianFriday, January 15, 2021
Gourgen Mkrtich Yanikian or in Western Armenian Kourken Mgrditch Yanigian (December 24, 1895 – February 27, 1984) was an armed militia and an Armenian Genocide survivor best known for the assassination of two Turkish consular officials, Los Angeles Consul General Mehmet Baydar and Consul Bahadır Demir, in California in 1973.
Sentenced to life imprisonment, Yanikian was released on parole in January 1984. It is widely believed that Yanikian's act was the inspiration for the founding of the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia, the Armenian militant organization of the 1970s and 1980s which staged attacks on Turkish diplomats in retaliation for the Armenian Genocide.
Yanikian was born in Erzurum in 1895, at the height of the anti-Armenian massacres that had taken hold of the eastern provinces of the Ottoman Empire. His family was able to flee to a safer location, but when they returned to Erzurum eight years later to retrieve personal possessions they had hidden in a barn, his elder brother Hagop was killed by two Turkish men. Yanikian was studying to be an engineer at the University of Moscow when World War I broke out. After learning of the Turkish persecution of Armenians during the genocide, he traveled to the Caucasus in the spring of 1915 and joined a volunteer regiment of the Russian Army to find out the fate of his family members, whom he had not heard from since the outbreak of the war and who were living in the Ottoman Empire. He was assigned to an engineering unit that was tasked with mapping out the geography of the terrain ahead of the regular troops. 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. He said that in the court of the genocide, he lost twenty-six members of his extended family.
Yanikian went on to complete his education in Russia and in 1930 moved to Iran together with his wife Suzanna. They settled in Tehran where Suzanna opened a gynecological clinic while Yanikian set up a civil engineering company called RAHSAZ. Amongst other construction projects, he oversaw the building of a railroad across Iran during the Second World War, as part of Allied efforts there, and became quite affluent. He emigrated to the United States in 1946, via France. He and his wife arrived in New York and moved to Beverly Hills where he opened the Yanikian Theater. The theater did not do well.
The couple moved to Fresno, CA, where there was a large Armenian community. He claims he was a radio host in Fresno. After some years, he and his wife moved to Santa Barbara, CA. He began developing properties, using his substantial savings. Things did not go well however, and he lost most of his money in the project. All the while, he had been writing and publishing several novels including The Triumph of Judas Iscariot, 1950, Harem Cross (1953) and The Voice of an American (1960). 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 his dependency.
A final straw came for him late in 1972 when the U.S. State Department wrote him a letter that he should make no more attempts to communicate with their office. Yanikian had been attempting to collect money owed him from Iran for projects he had done during World War II. Yanikian had 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 there.
As a matter of fact, in 1944 the Iranian court issued an award in favor of Yanikian against Iran's Ministry of Roads, which stipulated that the Ministry was to compensate Yanikian for the implemented construction works by 26 November 1944, but the Ministry failed to pay the award until 15 August 1948, and Yanikian sought to recover the damages for the delay in payment. The Iranian government stated that Yanikian was paid in full, and the Iran–United States Claims Tribunal dismissed in 1985 the claims of Yanikian's attorneys citing the lack of jurisdiction over items of the claim. His despondency about the general state of his life has been thought to be a major factor in his act of planning and killing the Consul General and the Vice Consul General.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.
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, he became a symbol for many Armenians of their resentment toward the Turkish government for refusing to acknowledge the Armenian genocide. Upon his death, one of his attorneys, Bill Paparian, remarked that Yanikian "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 and JCAG 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.
According to Khachig Tölölyan, "[Yanikian is] not understood in the context of his life, of his real biography, or even in the context of the brief autobiography we can glean from his utterances. He is assigned a regulative biography, and understood through it... enlisted in a resonating roll-call that blurs history, context, and nuance."