Alexei Maschan

In his role as deputy director of the Federal Clinical Research Center of Children’s Hematology, Oncology and Immunology in Moscow, Russia, Professor Alexei Maschan has always dreamed of finding the “cure for death.” Alexei has devoted his whole life to helping others, partly in tribute to the memory of a deed that saved his own family. Alexei’s family survived the Genocide thanks to the kindness of a Turk – a selfless act that is still fondly remembered today.
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In his role as deputy director of the Federal Clinical Research Center of Children’s Hematology, Oncology and Immunology in Moscow, Russia, Professor Alexei Maschan has always dreamed of finding the “cure for death.” Alexei has devoted his whole life to helping others, partly in tribute to the memory of a deed that saved his own family. Alexei’s family survived the Genocide thanks to the kindness of a Turk – a selfless act that is still fondly remembered today.
Alexei Maschan was born in Moscow in 1962 to a family of engineers. The family came to possess the small wooden house just off of the famous Arbat Street when Alexei’s great-grandfather Stepan moved to Moscow with his brother Armenak. They came to the Russian capital from Alexandropol, now once again known by its ancient name of Gyumri. 
The Maschan family was forced to give up the house in the Soviet times, when it was converted into a communal apartment — Alexei, his brother Mikhail and their parents lived in a single room, albeit the largest. Other relatives, who once lived with them, gradually moved away and all sorts of new people came to live in the family’s former home.
Alexei’s grandmother, Susanna Maschan, maintained the family’s ties to Armenia. She was a graduate of the Moscow Institute of Philosophy, Literature and Art, and a friend of many wartime poets. Moreover, she was a wonderful storyteller and spoke willingly about the family’s history. Alexei says she did a lot to reconstruct the past, and even drew up a huge family tree in the last years of her life.
Alexei was just six years old when he first visited Armenia with his grandmother. In Yerevan, they went to see the recently opened memorial to the victims of the Genocide, built on Tsitsernakaberd hill. “There were lots of people near the memorial, and far away, in the blindingly blue sky, I could see Ararat,” remembers Alexei. “Of course I told my grandmother that I wanted to go up there, and was very surprised when she answered that Ararat is in Turkey.” A few years ago, Alexei Maschan went back to Armenia and visited the memorial again, but this time he didn’t see a single person there. 
Eternal memory
One side of Alexei’s family comes from the town of Kars. In 1915 his great-great-grandfather, Amazasp Nokhratyan, was killed in the Genocide along with his son George. At the same time, Alexei’s great-great-grandmother, Hripsime Nokhratyan, fled to Yerevan with their three youngest children – her daughters Nadezhda and Goarine and her son Koryun. The journey was so dangerous that Koryun had to be disguised as a girl to avoid unwanted attention along the way. A compassionate Turk helped them to flee. First he hid the family and then found them a route to Yerevan, which was part of the Russian Empire back then. Nobody knows why he decided to do this, but the family still remembers him with gratitude. 

                                               Stepan and Goarine Maschan

From Yerevan, Hripsime Nokhratyan moved to Moscow. By this time, her daughters had grown up. Soon after moving to the capital, Goarine (born in 1896) met Stepan Maschan, and in December of 1916 their first daughter, Margarita, was born. Their second daughter, Susanna, was born in 1921. 
Although the story of Hripsime and her children’s escape from the Genocide was passed from generation to generation, the tragedies of that time weren’t a regular topic of discussion in the Maschan family. The older generation preferred to forget it, while to the younger generation, it sounded like ancient legend. Nobody experienced it on an emotional level. In the Soviet Union, there was very little talk about the attempted extermination of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.

                                     Margarita, Goarine and Susanna Maschan

The Holocaust was a much more familiar topic for Maschan. The second side of his family was affected by this terrible event. Alexei’s maternal great-great-grandfather, whose last name was Chernov, was shot by the Nazis in the town of Starodub. He was more than 100 years old. Alexei’s paternal grandfather Abe (Alexander) Levin was badly burned in a tank near Smolensk, and was discharged from the war early due to his four wounds, one of which narrowly missed his heart.
He left for the war as a young father — a year and a half earlier, his wife Susanna Maschan gave birth to Alexander, Alexei’s father. Great-grandfather Stepan was very concerned that the Maschan family would die out, so Abe and Susanna decided that their first child would have the Maschan name. In 1945, two months before the end of war, twins were born and given their father’s last name, Levin, although the boy, Alexei’s favorite uncle, was named after his Armenian grandfather Stepan. Alexei’s eldest son has the same name.
“Our family is made up of two peoples who suffered greatly in the 20th century, so we can never forget either Genocide,” says Alexei. 
“Just like any human atrocity, this is something you should always think about. A teacher of mine used to say: ‘People only remember when they forget.’ These are things that shouldn’t be forgotten, so that it never becomes an effort to remember it. But I would say that the grief that I feel over both of these Genocides has nothing to do with my family heritage. It’s a universal grief.” Alexei Maschan doesn’t consider the difficult story of his family a particularly tragic one: “On the contrary, I would say that it’s a story of a family that survived.”  
A cure for death
That same tenacity and cheerfulness help Alexei Maschan in his work. It’s a difficult task to treat critically ill children, especially when there is so little hope for recovery. Not everyone can cope with constant conversations with grief-stricken relatives, always facing up to human pain. Many give up. “There is no textbook approach to this job, everyone finds their own way. I simply try to think that, first of all, I’m doing everything I can for these people and, secondly, I’m doing things that few other people are able to do. This helps me worry less — if there is anything that can help you worry less when a child is so sick.”
Even as a child, Alexei Maschan wanted to become a doctor. “My parents didn’t force me into it,” he says. “It’s just that from when I was about six years old, I knew I would be a doctor. We used to constantly discuss how I would grow up and find the ‘cure for death.’” Alexei graduated from Moscow’s Second Medical Institute (now the Pirogov Medical University), did his training and began to work at the Republican Children’s Clinical Hospital in southwest Moscow (now the Russian Children’s Clinical Hospital). In the late 1980s, when he was still a young doctor, he was invited to join a research team specializing in children’s hematology, created at the hospital that treated kids affected by the fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
In 1992, when the Iron Curtain came down, there were new opportunities for professional exchanges. Alexei had a unique chance to take up a residency in France. When the invitation arrived from Paris, it turned out that he was the only one at the institute who spoke French. “My parents sent me to the Polenov School, which has a specialist French program, simply for the aesthetics of the language. Back then, it was impossible to imagine that somebody from our family would ever get to visit France. Personally, I couldn’t imagine ever needing to speak a word of French in my life,” he recalls. 
But that year in France turned out to be one of the most important steps in Maschan’s career. He ended up in one of the country’s best hospitals, l’Hôpital St. Louis. “This year showed me the gap between Western and Russian medicine — decades behind the Iron Curtain had stifled our progress,” he recalled. “Only seven percent of children with leukemia recovered in the Soviet Union, while in the West the norm was 70 percent at that time. There were about 120 bone marrow transplants done in the French hospital in a year — more than we did in the whole of Russia over five years. This internship allowed me to make a leap forward in my professional development. It was my first real education and I am grateful for this chance.”
After Maschan’s return from Paris his research group managed to bring recovery rates for childhood leukemia cases up to Western levels. That was the foundation of the future Center of Children’s Hematology, Oncology and Immunology named after Dmitry Rogachev. 
The center, which opened in 2011, was envisioned as a place where every child would be taken care of. “When we were establishing this center we thought about how we would want our own children to be cared for,” Alexei explains. “This center embodies everything that my colleagues and I dreamt about for many years. We are really proud of it.”
Many members of Maschan’s family boast illustrious achievements in different professions. His great-uncle Georgy Nakhratyan was the deputy chief designer of the Ilyushin Design Bureau; his first cousin once removed, Armen Medvedev, was a supervisor at the Department of Culture at the Council of Ministers of the Soviet Union and the head of the State Cinema Committee. In Yerevan, his great-grandmother once removed, Anait Maschan, was a leading actress in the city’s principal theater and earned the title of “People’s Actress” for her portrayal of Lenin’s mother. 

Stepan Maschan, his sister, actress Anahit Maschan, her husband, director Armen Gullakyan and their daughter Susanna, a philologist.

There was even another doctor: his mother’s aunt, Rebecca Chernova, who went to war in June 1941, straight after graduation. She was awarded the Order of the Patriotic War and two Orders of the Red Combat Banner.
Alexei was the first doctor from his family’s younger generation, but he isn’t the last. His younger brother Mikhail followed in his footsteps, and they now work at the same center. Mikhail Maschan heads the bone marrow transplantation unit. “I am very happy about this, he’s a great doctor,” Alexei smiles.
As for that childhood ambition? Well, Alexei never found a cure for death: it became obvious that cancer is too diverse to be conquered by a single remedy. But he is happy with the progress that hematology and oncology keep making. “We see that in a just a few years, revolutionary scientific breakthroughs are turned into practical ideas that help sick people. We live in a time of constant miracles, both in science and in medicine.”
The story is verified by the 100 LIVES Research Team. 
Child oncologist and descendent of Genocide survivors looks to cure death
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Elizaveta Surganova
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