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.