WATERTOWN, Mass.—Clara Russian of Arlington, Mass, one of the last Armenian Genocide survivors and past active member of the Watertown Armenian community, passed on Oct. 5. She was 101 years old.
Clara Movsesian Russian was born on Oct. 28, 1914, in the village Yegheki, Kharpert province, Armenia. Her mother, Haigouhi Echmalian had moved to Yegheki from Hussenig to work as a teacher and was matched with Nishan Guetchudian, who had just returned from America to find a bride.
The couple was not married two years when Turkish gendarmes entered Yegheki in Spring 1915 and marched the men out of the village. Nishan was never seen again. What followed was an arduous, sometimes grueling journey through Anatolia, the Middle East, and Europe, across mountains, gorges and seas, spanning 10 years, from Yegheki to Agn, back to Yegheki, on to Aleppo, Marseilles, and then Cuba.
Along this journey Clara faced malnutrition, great poverty, and hardship, and with her stealthy, resilient mother, continually evaded the inferno of genocide.
They changed their last name to Movsesian hoping to evade persecution. Clara was fortunately blessed with having some pleasant, carefree childhood memories along the way, during her brief stays in Agn and Aleppo. Later, just as they were leaving Aleppo bound for Marseilles, Clara, who was then seven or eight, took gravely ill with typhoid and was in bed with a severe, life-threatening fever for four weeks. After her incredible recovery they finally made it to Marseilles, where they stayed for one year.
In Cuba they were greeted by Haigouhi’s sister Teriz Kalousdian, who had already emigrated to the U.S. many years before, arranged a means for them to enter the United States. While in Cuba as guests in an Armenian acquaintance’s home they briefly met a funny young man with jade green eyes and strange wavy, kinky hair named Hagop Rousyan, who worked as a shoe shiner. Clara would 15 years later randomly meet this same man again, now a successful grocer based in Somerville, Mass., known as Jack Russian, and marry him. Jack himself was a Kharpertsi, born in 1904, from the village of Sousoury.
Clara and Haigouhi finally entered the U.S.in spring 1925 and they settled in Providence, R.I. Clara grew up in a loving home and she was an excellent student. But she would see turbulence in her life again after the assassination of Archbishop Leon Tourian in 1933 and the subsequent schism of the Armenian Apostolic Church. The entire family was expelled from the church, where her mother taught Sunday school and Clara sang in the church choir.
During the Great Depression Clara was obliged to work in various positions including in her uncle Haig’s grocery store, although she made the Rhode Island Honor Society and was eligible to attend the Rhode Island College of Education free of charge. In high school Clara had been a promising graphic designer and was inclined to-wards the fine arts.
Clara and Hagop married in 1940 and eventually moved into a colonial house in Arlington, Mass. Clara lived in that same home up until a week before her passing. Together they ran the grocery store, Cedar Market, which was situated on the corner of Cedar and Summer streets near Davis Square. They had two children, Arsen and Linda, and enjoyed several cats and dogs over the years. Both Hagop and Clara were dedicated to the Watertown Armenian community and were very active. Hagop had served in the ranks of the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF) and Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) for most of his adult life, and their children grew up in the AYF and the church.
Clara was a devout Christian her entire life and studied the Bible daily. In the mid-1950’s, she was asked to serve on a special exploratory committee tasked with establishing a new Armenian church in Watertown. The committee met in a tent that was pitched on the current site of St. Stephen’s Armenian Apostolic church. Clara would dutifully serve for over two decades as a member of the St. Stephen’s Ladies’ Guild and served in other capacities.
Clara was known for her wit. She had a deadpan humor, often dropping one-liners that killed everyone in the room. She loved to joke and laugh and enjoyed every moment of her day. Clara had many hobbies and interests including stamp collecting, knitting, and painting. She was also an investor and closely followed the stock market daily. Her mornings were not complete without having completed a crossword puzzle and eaten a breakfast of boiling hot percolated black coffee, feta cheese, Kalamata olives, and wheat toast or her famous choreg.
She was an excellent cook who specialized in kheyma, or chi kufta, kharpertsi kufta, sini kufta, roast stuffed lamb, an out of this world yalanchi sarma and numerous other signature dishes.
She was devoted to her children and grandchildren, and she was their confidant and role model. Clara was inspirational to scores of people throughout her life and she wasn’t even cognizant of that fact. She was a humble, kind and thoughtful human being who was revered and respected by people from all parts of the world—from Argentina to France, Lebanon and Syria to California. Even well into her 102th year, suffering from both vision and hearing loss, she was always on her feet, cooking, cleaning, and doing the laundry, climbing and descending a flight of 20 steps. She was truly an extraordinary, strong-willed woman who lived to the fullest extent of her abilities, day by day.
Clara is survived by her son Arsen; her daughter and son in law Linda and Khosroff Adanalian; grandsons Christian and Sevan; first cousin Theresa Brundage; and the many members of the Kaloustian, Russian, Bogosian and Trask families of Rhode Island and Massachusetts.