The Hye-Phen

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And When You Laugh, Laugh Like Hell

by | Jan 31, 2021 | Essay

Elizabeth Mkhitarian is a published writer in both Armenian and English. Her work explores people and language in displacement, often showing the prayer-like-hope that emerges from inherited stories of trauma and survival.

The Soviet era takes space in your home in the form of comic relief. It blares from your iPad each morning through a pipe-smoking wolf in Ну,погоди (2) and a sirening sing-song sound of Фильм, Фильм,Фильм (3).

Your niece is rewatching the ‘68 depictions of Soviet filmmaking. Her favorite animation opens with a screenwriter preparing for suicide. As the dreamlike noose wraps around the writer’s neck, he’s interrupted by a topless and large breasted muse. The director grabs the unfinished screenplay and the joyful shout FILM, FILM, FILM reminds you to relax and to enjoy the entertainment. You, and now the generation following, are shaped by these sobering relics. Unlike your friends, you didn’t watch Popeye’s muscles swell from spinach. Your Saturday mornings were reserved for VHS tapes of a wolf smoking an entire pack of cigarettes in a single puff—a ritual interrupted by your grandpa’s knock on the door, never delayed, with the fresh loaf of bread he picked up on his way over.

Artush was a nuclear chemist for the USSR—one of the few allowed to travel past the crimson borders to noncommunist territory. Accompanied by a wall of KGB, he moved with a kind of freedom and frizzy haired, kind-eyed charisma you attribute to Einstein. You hold in your hand the black and white image of him your grandmother, Rima, gathered in Algeria with scientists and monkeys surrounding them; the entire cast equally excited. These colleagues would later die young from exposure to toxic chemicals.

Artush’s first stroke was in Fresno, the year you were born.

You only knew the chemist with brilliance dimmed and preserved inside photographs. Like the one erect on Rima’s nightstand of Artush shaking hands with Saddam Hussein. A picture the KGB warned him not to share, a picture Artush kept tucked in his suit jacket to show everyone he met, right away. Now a souvenir of the first person to teach nuclear chemistry in Afghanistan.

Your niece laughs louder in suspense of the most explosive and climactic scene. Achild is instructed to pick flowers for the camera. She nods her head in acknowledgement of the task, the director yells rolling, she stares blankly.

After the fifth occurrence, the director’s head turns red and steam fills the screen; the production is over budget, and she won’t act.

Rebellion is the rejection of performance. That’s what Artush possessed before he laid unnoticed under the Fresno sun, before he hit his head on the shower floor, before the photographer handed him the image, before the soviet decided who was more free.

Artush was the last of his colleagues to pass. You were eleven and you couldn’t imagine the person capable of living a thousand lives in a given day could relinquish even one. You didn’t say goodbye.

He passed and the guilt of your absence stains the memories. You try not to talk about the feeling in your gut that the person who taught you the formula for water and carbon dioxide at age four is gone and you didn’t tell him how much that meant to you. You wanted to tell him you would miss his daily quizzes, the ones that made you smarter and faster than your brother, the ones that made your teachers ask how you knew what you knew after sleeping through class. You point to Artush.

Artush never had a son, but your mother came close.

As a toddler, she looked identical to Lenin and nothing made your family more proud. Nothing made her more proud. Svetlana, Stalin’s youngest daughter, your mother’s name.

Before the wall collapsed, Sveta left and become a teacher’s assistant in Los Angeles working for 15 years at a local high school making minimum wage with a master’s degree in mechanical engineering. Sveta got sick from the mold in her classroom. Sveta got spat out for speaking up. The day they asked her not to return, she looked at the principal with a strength you learn in displacement and said, “I was told in a capitalist society, they will use you until they have no more use. I didn’t understand that until today.”

What title or wall could hold them in? This city, this country, young and just as broken as the other.

The principal’s apology. The politeness in being disposed of, in sorry’s that could never feed you;

the cartoon wolf smokes a pack in a single puff, drinks the bottle, and lives.

You feel like the smoke being exhaled and forgotten. Artush, Rima, Sveta, names you transcribe on your skin as a reminder that no political movement or party can prevent your suffering. You bury your head in equations and photographs to remind yourself of a community-about-to-hope.

Artush, the nuclear chemist who picked wildflowers for you and wove them into crowns; Artush, who planted figs and lemons along your suburban driveway; Artush, who stood in the ration lines for bread and never forgot; Sveta, who held you in the room you shared wondering how she’ll afford rent. Your niece, who won’t speak this language of loss but will laugh all the same.



1. (On this piece’s title) From “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze” by William Saroyan
2. “Well, Just You Wait!” is a Soviet, later Russian, animated series produced by Soyuzmultfilm.
3. “Film, Film, Film” is a 1968 Soviet satirical animated short film directed by Fyodor Khitruk.
Elizabeth Mkhitarian
Elizabeth Mkhitarian is a published writer in both Armenian and English. Her work explores people and language in displacement, often showing the prayer-like-hope that emerges from inherited stories of trauma and survival.