Alexis T. Bell with his grandfather Aslan and uncle Henri Troyat

Prof. Alexis Bell: A Descendent of Circassian Armenians Visits Homeland


By Artsvi Bakhchinyan

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

YEREVAN — While working on my study “The Armenians in World Choreography Art” I learned that Olga Tarassova (1902-1982), the sister of famous French writer of Armenian origin Henri Troyat, was a ballet teacher in New York City. In 2009, through an online search, I succeeded in finding Tarassova’s son, Alexis Tarassov Bell, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, and asked him to provide me information about his mother. Bell sent me biographical data and valuable photographs. In October 2011 while in San Francisco I had a chance to meet him in person and enjoy his and his Russian wife, Tatyana’s, hospitality.

Bell was born in 1942 in New York City. He received his BS and ScD degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1964 and 1967, respectively. During the course of his career he has established himself as a leading scholar through his scientific contributions to the field of catalysis and chemical reaction engineering, in recognition of which he has received many professional awards and has been elected to the National Academy of Engineering (1987), the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2007), and the National Academy of Science (2010). He has also been awarded an honorary professorship in the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences (2001) and an honorary professorship of the Broeskov Institute of Catalysis in Novosibirsk Russia (2018).

Alexis and Tatiana Bell

In early June of this year the Bells visited Armenia. This was their second trip to Armenia. My conversation with Alexis is about his ancestors and his links to the Armenians.

Artsvi Bakhchinyan: So, Alex, nice to meet you in Armenia. You are an established scholar, known in academic circles in the US, you teach in Russia, China and other paces, but for the Armenians you are associated with your family roots going back to Armenia, more concretely – Tsghna village of Nakhijevan, now in territory of Azerbaijan. Your uncle Henri Troyat-Lev Tarasov was quite famous in Armenia; some of his novels have been translated into Armenian. You are a person of mixed background. Although the connections with the Armenian roots were not so close, however, what can you tell about it?

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Alexis Bell: Most of what I know about my Armenian roots comes from speaking with my mother when I was a child. Her father’s family came from the Circassian Armenians (Cherkesogays in Russian, gay is hay – Armenian) who lived in Caucasus mountains for centuries until the middle of 19th century, when they descended to what is today Armavir in Russia and helped in establishment of the city in 1839. My mother was born in Armavir, her parents were mixture of Circassian Armenians, Armenians from what is today Krasnodar, as well as some German, Georgian and Russian blood from my grandmother’s side. We have seen Abesolomov house in Tbilisi: my grandmother Lidia was from that family. Going one generation back, my maternal grandfather Aslan and his wife spoke mainly Circassian, not Russian. In fact, my great-grandmother knew very little Russian. But they were part of Armenian church. By religion they were Armenians, by language — Circassians and Russians. This is the background through which I am related to the Armenian culture. My father, Vladimir Belsitzman, was born in Tbilisi in 1900 and grew up speaking Russian and Georgian. Both sides of his family were Jewish immigrants, who had moved to Georgia from Russia several generations earlier.

Artsvi Bakhchinyan: So we can say you have Caucasian roots. How they reflected on your personality?

Alexis Bell: I think it is expressed in my openness towards the people, a feeling of communality in Caucasian music and dance, certainly, with food, because I experienced it since my childhood, as my father was a very good cook. He liked to prepare both Caucasian and Russian dishes.

Artsvi Bakhchinyan: I know your mother was a parishioner of the Gregory Illuminator Armenian Apostolic church in New York City.

Alexis Bell: When I was born, mother had me christened in Armenian Church but I don’t remember visiting that church more than on one occasion. When we did go to church that was not by insistence of my mother, but to celebrate Easter.

Artsvi Bakhchinyan: What memories you have from your grandparents Aslan and Lydia?

Alexis Bell: I remember my maternal grandparents very well. I first met them in 1945, when I was 3 years old, and then saw them subsequently every two to three years, when my mother and I visited France. My grandfather, Aslan, liked to tell stories about his life in Russia, about his house in Moscow on the corner of Skatertnaja i Medvezhii pereulok, and raising horses, some of which he sold to the czarist army. He even remembered the names of the horses that he himself owned. One consequence of grandfather’s love of horses was that my mother became an avid horsewoman in her early teens and rode until the family left Russia. Both my grandfather and grandmother always dressed well and more or less formally. What I remember most about my grandmother, Lydia, were her elaborate hair arrangements, which she did every morning, and the smell of her powder. She was also very much the head of the household. Every morning she gave her housekeeper a list of groceries that needed to be bought for the day or next couple of days, since the only way to preserve perishables was either a small ice box or putting things out on the balcony located just outside the kitchen. Afternoon tea was a family event, which involved pouring a small amount of “zavar” (brewed tea leaves) from the teapot sitting above the samovar and then adding hot water and, of course, there were also some sort of jam or sweets to accompany the tea. On those occasions when mother and I spent a month with the family in France, a house was rented in either Britanny or the Cote D’Azur, so that all members of the family could live under one roof. Here too, grandmother was in charge and enjoyed tremendously having her three children and five grandchildren with her.

Artsvi Bakhchinyan: There are few Cherkesogays. Have you ever met others? Whom?

Alexis Bell: No, unfortunately, I never met any Cherkesogays, other than the immediate members of my family.

Artsvi Bakhchinyan: You bear also your mother’s family name — Tarassoff. Part of this family remained in Russia. The name of Russian businessman and political activist of Armenian descent Artyom Tarasov who died last year was quite famous. Were you in touch with your family members in Russia?

Alexis Bell: Tatiana and I learned about Artyom Tarasoff a few years ago. I wrote emails to him on a couple of occasions explaining our relationship, but he never responded. Somewhat later, Tatiana obtained his cell phone number from a friend of hers. She called him and explained how I am related to him and said that we would like to meet him on one of our trips to Moscow. He said that he would enjoy doing so but could not tell us when he might be able to do so, since he was ill with cancer and was in the hospital when he received our call. Unfortunately, that was the last contact we had with him. To the best of my knowledge, he was the only Tarasoff of whom we are aware in Russia.

Artsvi Bakhchinyan: While migrating to Europe Aslan Tarasoff’s family stayed for awhile in Constantinople and obtained Armenian nationality in 1920 translating their family name into Torosyan. Do you have your mother’s Armenian passport?

Alexis Bell: I think I may have my mother’s Armenia passport. If I find, I will send you a copy.

Artsvi Bakhchinyan: Olga Tarasova is one of the “heroines” of my study “The Armenians in World Choreography Art.” How a Russian immigrant managed to have three ballet schools in such a megapolis as New York City?

Alexis Bell: My mother had a strong character and did not want to be idle once she married. So, shortly thereafter she opened a studio. My first memories of her studio date to the mid 1940s, when her studio was on the other side of the wall from our apartment. My father had rented a loft on the third floor of a building at 142 West 54th Street in Manhattan, and with the help of a friend of his, a painter names Hans Hoffman, he had the loft converted into a small apartment and my mother’s studio. Amusingly, there was only one bathroom for the whole loft, which abutted the girls’ dressing room. One could enter the bathroom from either the studio or by passing through the dressing room. I remember that when my mother wanted to bathe me in the evening, while the studio was being used by other ballet teachers, she would poke her head into the dressing room and ask “Girls are you decent,” and once she got a positive response, she would trot me through for my bath.

Artsvi Bakhchinyan: She was the ballet teacher of Hollywood legend Audrey Hepburn. Has she ever told something particular about her?

Alexis Bell: No, I do not recall mother talking about Audrey Hepburn, but I do recall another one of her famous students, Maria Tallchief, one of a few Native American ballet dancers. On a few occasions when my parents wanted to go out and needed a babysitter, they asked Maria to do so.

Artsvi Bakhchinyan: You remind me of your uncle very much. How were your relations? Do you have a special memory about him? Were you communicating in Russian?

Alexis Bell: I have many fond memories of my uncle, Henri. In my younger days when the whole family would spend a summer month together, he tried to join us for at least a part of the time. He spoke Russian fluently, as well as French. As a teenager, I visited him both his apartment in Paris and his summer home in Peymenade, near Grace. While I did not have a lot of private time with him, I did enjoy speaking about his writing, and he was always interested in what I was doing in my professional life. He also told me that he hated public speaking and tried to do as little as possible. He also told me that when was invited to meet Gorbachev at the Élysée, he at first declined the invitation because he was not sure what he might have to talk about; however, he was finally convinced to attend by his wife.

Artsvi Bakhchinyan: Henri Troyat was born in Russia, but never visited Russia so as not to destroy the image of the country he had in his mind. You, born in the US, have visited not only Russia, but also Armenia. Why?

Alexis Bell: My interest in Russia was formed at an early age, fostered by listening to stories my mother told me about her childhood in Armavir and Moscow, many, many dinner conversation among my parents’ Russian friends, and most notably the children of Feodor Chaliapin – Boris, Tatyana, Feodor, and Lydia. This group loved to reminisce about their childhood and youth in Russia, sing Russian songs, and enjoy Russian food, usually prepared by my father, who was a very accomplished cook. I also have fond memories of spending Russian Easter at Boris Chaliapin’s home in Easton, Conn. These events involved decorating Easter eggs with gold and silver paints, preparing an elaborate Easter dinner, which has done by Boris’s wife, Helcia, and my father, Vladimir, both of whom were Jews. When all was ready, we would pile into several cars and drive to a small Russian Orthodox church to hear the Easter service, and after that return to Boris’ home for an Easter feast.

As I may have told you, my love of the Russian language led me to join a Russian-speaking dormitory in my freshman year at MIT. This group comprised 15 freshman students and a Russian-speaking tutor, David Perlmutter, who had been a translator at the first Soviet-American trade show in Moscow in the late 1950s. At the time that I met him, he was a graduate student in linguistics at Harvard and also an instructor in Russian language at MIT. David and I were the only members of the dorm who spoke Russian fluently, so it was our task to help the other students develop their Russian language skills. In the second year of the dorm, the Slavic Languages department declared that it had run out of funds to support Perlmutter. Since the students in the dorm were very fond of him, we decided to take matters into our own hands and find funds for his salary. At my initiative, we decided to run a Russian film festival on campus. Every week during the school year, I would order Soviet films — mainly classic Eisenstein films — from Brandon films in New York City, show them on Saturday and Sunday nights, and then return them by mail on Monday. This way we earned $5,000, which was enough to pay Perlmutter’s salary.

Artsvi Bakhchinyan: You are in Armenia for the second time. Do you feel already some attachment to this country? Do you have already some places you prefer?

Alexis Bell: My knowledge of Armenia and Armenian culture developed relatively recently, thanks mostly to the efforts of Gregorii Karapetyan, an Armenian community activist from Armavir, who invited us to Armavir in 2014 to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the city’s founding. Gregorii also helped organize our first trip to Georgia and Armenia in 2015, as well as our trip this year. These trips, including visits to the national historical museum, the art museum, the Paradjanov museum, as well as visits to Echmiadzin and Lake Sevan have given me a growing appreciation of Armenia and its people. What both Tatiana and I have found is that Armenians are warm and very hospitable people, who are very proud of their heritage and also quite aware of the hardships that their people have endured over the centuries. I have commented that Armenia is much like Israel, a small nations of very bright and industrious people, surround by nations who are not friendly. All of this has given me tremendous respect for Armenians.

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