Jevan Cheloyants was born in 1959 in Grozny, Chechnya. After graduating from Grozny Institute of Petroleum he found a job with Nizhnevartovskneft. His education, business instinct and thorough knowledge of the industry helped him climb to the very top of career ladder, eventually leading the ‘Lukoil’ oil and gas company. But it is his grandfather, a survivor of the Armenian Genocide, who Cheloyants credits with his success.
The Rag that Saved the Day
Jevan Cheloyants paternal ancestors lived in Western Armenia, near Kharberd (present-day Elazığ, Turkey). Back in the times it was customary to have big families, and the clan of Cheloyants was no exception to the rule: the family was huge – and very close. “My great-great-grandfather had seven sons. They all lived in one house, behind the same fence, so to speak: my great-great-grandparents and their seven children, including my great-grandfather, my grandfather’s father,” says Jevan.
Kharberd. Early 20th century
Overall, there were about 50 members of the family. Only three of them survived the Genocide. “In 1915 my grandfather Miran was nine years old. Only he, his mother Saltan and his baby brother survived the Genocide. Just the three of them,” explains Cheloyants.
It was a happy accident that helped Miran to survive. Shortly before his relatives were assaulted, he went for a walk and climbed a nearby hill. From that vantage point he witnessed what happened to his family. Luckily, Cheloyants’ great-grandmother managed to escape the murderers, carrying her baby son. She found Miran and they fled the town together. But their hardship wasn’t over yet.
“They took turns carrying the baby. When it was my grandfather’s turn to carry his brother, there was a wagon going by. The cart man said to my grandfather: “Boy, it’s obvious it’s hard for you to walk. Put the baby on the wagon and walk next to it.” That’s exactly what my grandfather did, and all of a sudden, the Turks attacked. That was the last time he saw his brother,” says Jevan.
One cannot begin to imagine what the boy felt. He just lost almost all his family, and now his brother was gone, too. But till his very last day Miran was hopeful that the baby had somehow survived, and never stopped looking for him, exploring every opportunity to do so. “Grandfather made me write to UNESCO. I tried explaining that his brother was but a baby when he got lost. He didn’t know what his name was, where he was from, what his family name was. He didn’t know anything,” remembers Cheloyants. “But my grandfather insisted that I should write anyway. He always believed his brother was alive.”
In such terrible circumstances Saltan managed to remain calm. She knew she had to find a way to make sure that her last surviving son didn’t let lost, and came up with an innovative solution: she gave the boy a piece of cloth from her skirt and ordered him to keep it at him at all times. “I’ve never met my great-grandmother, but she seems like a very smart woman. When she lost her baby son, here’s what she did: she tore a piece of cloth from her skirt and gave it to my grandfather. If you ever get lost, she told him, wherever you find yourself, you have to go to the road every evening and stand there holding the cloth. And imagine that, my grandfather did get lost after all.”
A rich man took the boy in. In his new home Miran was tending to the cattle and running errands. He did what he could to help although he couldn’t do much – after all, he was only nine years old. But every evening, having completed his tasks, he went to the road and stood there holding his mother’s cloth. One day there was a man walking by who asked for some water. The passer-by was surprised to see a boy holding a rag, so he asked him about it, and Miran explained his mother’s bidding. It was a tragedy, of course, but such stories were quite common in the Armenian community at the time, so the man wasn’t especially impressed. He drank his water, thanked the boy and was on his way in no time.
However, there is something that sets this particular story apart, and that’s a happy ending.
“My grandmother also went to the road and stood there wearing that skirt,” says Jevan. “The man saw her and told her about his encounter.” Miran and Saltan reunited and never parted again.
Together they reached Vladikavkaz, where Miran grew up and got married. After that he moved to Grozny and started a family there: “I was born and raised in Grozny, as were my parents. My grandparents moved to Grozny in 1925 because it was an industrial city with a lot of jobs.”
Thirty, Forty, Fifty
The entrepreneur’s grandmother’s family is also from Kharberd, and it was her who preserved the family legends and made sure her grandchildren knew them. “My grandfather wasn’t much of a storyteller,” explains Cheloyants. And boy, did he have stories to tell, for Miran’s adulthood was not much easier than his adversity-filled childhood. He fought in World War II from its first to the last day, but despite having “enough medals and military decorations to cover his chest” he never liked to reminisce about the past, nor did he enjoy watching films about war. His old wounds often bothered him: “He got all mangled in the war, his whole body was covered in scars.”
Fortunately, Jevan’s grandmother remembered all the stories her husband once told her. It is thanks to her that the younger generation of the Cheloyants family knows the clan’s history. However, in Jevan’s opinion, in order to really know one’s family’s and nation’s history you have to be actively pursuing this knowledge: “It all depends on the person. For instance, my older daughters know some things, of course, but the youngest knows the most. She’s almost like me in that sense. You must be interested. I used to sit next to my grandmother all the time and plead with her – I want to know more, please tell me more”, notes Cheloyants.
Still, it was his grandfather who was the most important person in little Jevan’s life.
“My grandfather has taught me many things in life that I still benefit from to this day”, admits the entrepreneur.
But even his sweetest childhood memories have a bitter undertone of loss: “My grandfather used to ask me to count all the time, and at first I couldn’t understand why. I counted the people sitting at the table. At first there were 20, then 25, 30, 35, 40, 50. Later, when I grew up, I realized that he kept tracking the numbers. I mean, there were only two of them left alive – he always believed his brother was alive. Finally, our numbers were growing, and that was important to him,” explains Cheloyants.
Nevertheless, the businessman refuses to see Armenians as victims and point-blank denies the fact that nation’s historical traumas might still affect its modern reality in any way whatsoever. “Indeed, this was our tragedy, which we’ll never forget, but we were never defeated. We live, we create, we do a lot of things on this planet. We even went to space,” recites Cheloyants enthusiastically. “We are not victims. We have proven that at the Battle of Sardarabad, we have proven that at Musa-Dagh. This is our pain but not our problem. It’s the Turkish government’s problem. Until it addresses it, it will be hard for them to go on.”
Jevan’s maternal relatives are of Jewish origin, so he feels free to draw the parallels between two great tragedies of the 20th century – the 1915 Genocide and Holocaust. He draws his own conclusions on the surviving nations’ attitude towards their past, too: “My mother is Jewish, my father is Armenian,” explains Cheloyants. “Armenians shouldn’t complain. Look at the Jews – more than 6 million of them perished during Holocaust, but they don’t complain. Every people that survived a genocide commands respect.”
As is typical with charismatic people, Jevan Cheloyants can become quite persuasive when talking about things closest to his heart. Naturally, one cannot help but believe him when he fiercely states in conclusion of his story: “The Armenians saved themselves. There were many people who helped, and they must be recognized, but at the end of the day, we saved ourselves.”