I recently published a blog post about my experiences with the Russians in London over 50 years ago. Unfortunately, I left off a photo of our family returning from Britain on the SS United States in 1967. Well, here it is.
You can see our youngest son, Mark on his mother’s lap in the bright sunshine as we crossed the Atlantic heading for New York. Tomorrow, Mark will be 53 years old and I would like to wish him all the best in his many pursuits of photography, music and art on his birthday. With love from Dad.
We leave Moscow and take a long train ride across Russia to the Black Sea
In Moscow, we were like country bumpkins, enjoying the tourist sites, waiting in line to see the embalmed body of V.I. Lenin and posing in front of famous landmarks. We photographed everything but were most impressed with the excessive width of the streets. Then it was off to the station to board the widest train we ever saw. Everything was wide !
We made the journey across the Soviet Union to the Crimea in wonderfully comfortable trains travelling on wide tracks and drinking tea from glasses held in silver holders. This was the stuff from books by Paul Theroux and Bruce Chatwin and we loved it. Fortunately, we did keep diaries so I do remember certain details, like buying a watermelon through the window from a Russian peasant woman for a one ruble when the train stalled somewhere in the middle of the countryside.
When we arrived in Sevastopol on the Black Sea we had to share a room with a Russian couple who did nothing but drink vodka and sleep. As young Americans to whom this invasion of privacy was unheard of, I think we managed pretty well. Apparently, there was an overbooking of accommodation in the sanatorium where we were staying and there was nothing we could do about it. It became another fascinating part of our education.
There were some exciting elements to our visit to the Black Sea. For example, the great Russian writer Anton Chekov had a dacha on the shore which we could see in the distance. Apparently, he wrote his classic play The Three Sisters whilst holidaying here. Another vivid memory was that after taking second place in a talent contest in the resort by singing a duet from a Broadway musical, we became instantly popular with the local Russians.
Later we met a tall and beautiful Russian woman named Vera on the beach and she spoke a little English. She seemed quite intelligent, energetic and sociable. We were quite aware of the peculiar nature of the relationship between the Russians and Americans in the midst of the Cold War, so the meeting with Vera was slightly awkward. Nevertheless, there were moments. For example, I had brought with me one of the new half-dollar coins from the United States minted in 1964 which had the impression of the head of John Kennedy. We had decided that if we met someone special on this Russian trip, we would give him or her the Kennedy half dollar. One night at the bar, I decided that Vera was the person and Pat agreed. Vera took the coin, held it up to the light and burst into tears. She then went to the bar and bought a round of champagne for everyone in the place. It was the most remarkable demonstration of pure joy that I have ever seen in an adult. These were indeed memorable scenes for a young couple from New Jersey.
In subsequent conversations, Vera told us how much she wished she could travel abroad and had requested the authorities over and over again to visit the great cultural capitals like London and Paris. She wanted to buy books by the great Western writers which she knew had been translated into Russian. She even knew of a bookshop in Paris on the Rue de la hachette frequented by Russian emigres where one could purchase Russian translations of Ernest Hemingway, Albert Camus and James Joyce. When we parted with hugs and kisses on our way to catch the train back to London, I promised Vera that the next time we went to Paris we would purchase several of these great classics and post them to her at her flat in Moscow. She enthusiastically wrote down her address.
If the reader is wondering what this diversion has to do with the main thesis of this tale, please be patient as the meeting with Vera forms a key element in this strange saga.
We returned via Ukraine and a visit to the City of Kiev. Since I had taken on the role of organiser of the group’s activities, I was immediately attracted to the billboard announcing a concert of the music of Shostakovich in Kiev that very night. I quickly enquired about the program and was pleased to find that not only did the offerings include one of the great man’s most famous works – the 5th Symphony – but the conductor was Shostakovich himself ! It turned out that the conductor was the composer’s son, Maxim. Nevertheless, we were excited to see a 100 piece orchestra spilling off the stage in a room lit by dramatic gilded chandeliers.
In East Berlin, I fulfilled a long-held dream to enjoy a Bertolt Brecht play performed by his own company – The Berliner Ensemble. We sat in the famous theatre and watched his company perform the classic play Mother Courage and Her Children. Pat took a photo of me outside the theatre which I now treasure. Shortly after, we visited Alexanderplatz and made our way back onto the train and travelled through the notorious Friedrichstrasse boundary. A day later, strolling along the electric Kurfürstendamm after three weeks without seeing a billboard, a commercial or a sexy advert selling deodorants, lingerie or Coca Cola, we were shell-shocked by the adverts. We were in West Berlin !
Before we knew it, we would be back in London and the trip would seem a dream. When we did get back, I was soon contacted by Alexander who wanted to know all about our trip. Of course, I gave him a glowing report and indicated that we had met some Russians whom we found to be very friendly and interesting and were pleased to have had the opportunity to do more than just attend the low temperature physics conference.
Alexander had a surprise for us. He had obtained tickets to a football match for me and Pat to attend with himself and his wife. Now this was the first time we were to meet Alexander’s wife which was quite a breakthrough. But what was the football match? This you will not believe, especially if you are a fan of international football. He had tickets (believe it or not) for the final of the World Cup match between Germany and England. So, right on schedule, Alexander and his wife pulled up in front of our flat in WC1 in a black limousine and we all travelled to Wembley Park on 30 July 1966 to witness the most important match in the history of English football.
We sat at midfield and watched, cheering for England, not at all appreciating the significance that this game for English fans. Pat proudly displayed a rosette marked ‘England’. European Football, (we would call soccer) was a whole new experience for us and one that was frankly, pretty boring. During the match, I do recall that one of the English players seemed to be getting all the goals, a man named Geoff Hurst who scored three times – a ‘hat trick’. We enjoyed the crowd, the atmosphere, and the excitement . . . but for two Americans familiar with the high-tech pro football of the NFL or even US college football, it was almost a dull game. After decades trying to get enthused about European football, it does still not compare in pure excitement to my own interest American football.
I haven’t told many of my English friends about attending the World Cup Final with my Russian friend because I am very much embarrassed that I had no sense of how important this game was for English fans. We have been to many important events both before and after this match, but as I look back now at the many anniversaries which have been celebrated on England’s greatest day in football, I am embarrassed by the lack of enthusiasm we displayed as we sat with such wonderful seats watching England defeat Germany in the replay of the two world wars earlier in the century.
Now, the new academic year was now upon us and the pressure intensified to complete my thesis, return to RCA and renew my work for the company this time with a well-earned PhD. But there was a problem. I had collected an enormous amount of data from my experiments and now I was compelled to analyse the material and put it into some sensible format . . . no easy task. The easiest way out of this challenging situation was to ignore the ordeal of the writing for now, pack everything up and return to America, promising everyone to complete the project in due course. Fortunately, I was the protégé of a marvellous physicist and most sensible colleague named George Cody from the RCA Laboratories in Princeton. During a very serious trans-Atlantic telephone conversation, he told me in no uncertain terms not to leave Britain without the PhD thesis completed. I have never received more valuable advice in my entire life ! But this is getting ahead of the story.
I refused to meet Alexander during the new academic year. He wished to bring more visitors but I refused, claiming that I was too busy. In fact, I was very bored with his company and the nosy Russian scientists photographing and drawing my apparatus and sifting through the hundreds of measurements that I had made investigating the effects of magnetic fields on superconducting metals.
To the regular readers of this blog, I apologise for the excessive length of this posting. I have broken the text into a few parts.
London newspapers are repeatedly reporting the skullduggery of the Russians around the world and this has made it interesting to tell this story of our early days in London dating back to the 1960s. My wife has convinced me to come clean with the details of this particular absurd and farcical tale which had become part of our family folklore. So, here goes !
In the mid 1960s, my wife and I arrived in London with our two young sons from the United States where I began my PhD research at the University of London’s Imperial College working in low temperature physics of metals, namely superconductivity. We were excited with the opportunity to spend two or three years in London and I was very pleased to be associated with the prestigious research group in Imperial’s physics department with offices on the 10th floor in Queensgate, South Kensington.
(I have written about these years in a previous blog. See: A Sonnet for Sir Laurence.
It all started one day when I received a call from the secretary of the department asking if I would mind if some Russian scientists visited my laboratory to talk about my work in superconductivity. The Russians were very active in the field and had some of the leading researchers of the day in my particular speciality, the effect of a magnetic field on the ability of a superconducting metal to carry electrical current. This had been completely explained by elaborate theories published by Russians.
Of course, I was pleased to entertain these visitors. As a liberal-minded and enthusiastic American who thought the Cold War was ridiculous, I wished to show my generosity of spirit . . . perhaps more enthusiastically than I should have as the unfolding tale will indicate. And so they came, three Russians who were unknown to me, into my laboratory along with the scientific attaché of the Russian Embassy. This last gentleman figures hugely in this story. His name I shall never forget: Alexander Alexandrovitch Benjaminoff. Secretly, I called him Alexander Squared.
The Russians were very impressed in my lab, or at least they seemed to be. They asked many questions through their interpreter, Alexander, which I answered generously and without any hesitation. They took pictures of my apparatus and left copies of their own work. However, their papers were in Russian and thus of little interest to an American whose language skills were already being stretched with the new demands of British pronunciation of words like laboratory and schedule.
Yet, two weeks later there was another request for more Russian scientists to visit my laboratory and again I agreed enthusiastically. This time, Mr Benjaminoff appeared with four Russian scientists. These men were brusque and crude and intent on extracting any bit of information they could from my work. Ironically, I was studying a specific problem in low temperature physics which had been first elucidated by a group of important theorists working in Moscow under the leadership of the great Russian mathematician, V.L. Ginzburg.
I believe I had three separate visits before the ominous phone call one afternoon in which Mr Benjaminoff himself called me directly and asked if I would like to meet him for lunch. As an adventurous and perhaps naïve American of 28 years, I agreed and suggested a favourite restaurant of mine in South Kensington which I knew would not take too much time away from my work. The restaurant was a hangout for Polish emigres called Dacres where I knew Alexander could get a good bowl of borscht if he desired. When we met there, I ordered an elaborate lunch and was trying to determine why my newly-found Russian acquaintance was interested in developing a friendship with an aspiring PhD candidate like myself.
I should point out that I was not so naïve in dealing with Benjaminoff that I did not realise he would receive certain kudos by reporting to his superiors in Moscow that he was developing a friendship with an American who was a staff member on leave from the well-known research institute of the RCA Research Laboratories in Princeton, New Jersey. Under the circumstances of the complete non – secretive classification of my own work and its irrelevance to any kind of weapon system, I found the whole situation absurd and was intrigued to find out why the Russians might be interested in me.
During the first lunch at Dacres I realised that I was entering into a situation which was to be very entertaining. For example, the first thing Alexander wanted to know was what I thought was so remarkable about the United States. I gave a firm answer. Namely, that I took pride in my own native country which had to do largely with its liberal attitude, its tolerance and freedom which had been developed by the early American colonists and guaranteed by the constitution. I gave a clear example.
I told him that recently there had been demonstrators in front of the White House in Washington DC where protesters were carrying large placards reporting that ‘President Johnson is an asshole’. The police and security guards in Washington had protected these demonstrators from any harm. Alexander gave me a puzzled look when I told him this and said, ‘but Joseph if someone were to walk around Red Square with a placard indicating that President Johnson is an asshole, nobody would bother him’. I laughed heartily and was relieved to find that at least he had an intelligent sense of humour. However, I soon realised from the way Alexander responded to my own laughing that he had taken this quite literally and had missed the irony of these statements. I was flabbergasted and bit my lip. That was the beginning of a series of farcical incidents which I would report to my dear wife who was clearly entertained by the occasional lunch meetings I had with the Russian.
I eventually determined that his request to dine with me at some of London’s top restaurants was in order to help him become familiar with the dishes and wines which would pay the best compliment to him and impress his political and scientific visitors currently from Moscow. I recall once having a gorgeous prime rib at the famous restaurant Rules at which he and I gorged ourselves and washed it all down with some of the best wines I have ever had drunk in my life. He took notes throughout these dinners and was very impressed with my ability as a gourmand which was indeed at a very elementary level in those days.
I was very proud of myself to have a genuine Russian friend – in fact one who was in some ways associated with the Russian embassy – although I could never got much out of Alexander about his particular position. All I knew was that he was the scientific attaché. I can date these months of our gourmet dining in the West End which I reported back to my wife quite accurately because her sister was visiting us in the winter of 1965. In fact, I even brought Alexander home one night to have a drink and a meal at our flat in Mecklenburgh Square. We were living in a flat (formerly occupied by D.H. Lawrence, no less) which was part of a wonderful cooperative supported by the British government for scholars from the Commonwealth and the United States. Clearly, meeting Alexander once a fortnight, introducing him to restaurants that I could not afford, seemed all very harmless to me, my wife and her sister.
As the winter and spring of 1965 passed by, a remarkable coincidence arose. I was able to attend the 10th international Low Temperature Physics Conference in Moscow (LT 10) in August 1966 with my thesis advisor Gavin Park, now since deceased. We had made some basic discoveries important in the very special field of the magnetic properties of superconducting metals and were to present papers on our work. My wife Pat – pregnant with our third son to be – and myself joined a group of students from Imperial College studying Slavic languages and were able to afford a three week holiday by rail which included Moscow during the days of the conference. It was possible to include a long journey to the Crimea on a Russian holiday on the Black Sea and pay for the entire trip with just the stipend given by the London University for attending the conference.
We remember vividly the journey across Eastern Europe with a stop in Warsaw and Berlin before travelling to Moscow. The contrasting attitude towards controls and regulations by the Poles with those of the East Germans was dramatic. (It was, after all, 1966 and Brezhnev was in charge). Pat still laughs when I repeat the roll call which the East German guard shouted through the train in the middle of the night as they boarded our train at the border : . . einen moment bitte . . . Roused from a dead sleep on the train, we had to produce our passports and answer innocuous questions about our journey. The Poles on the other hand, were quite blasé. I recall our Polish guide stating that the best view of the city of Warsaw was from the top of the Palace of Culture because from there one cannot see the stalinesque architecture of the building. These are fond but vivid memories of a trip which we took over fifty years ago.
At the conference in Moscow during my own talk, I was amazed to hear a simultaneous translation of my words from behind a screen at the back of the auditorium as the speaker’s remarks were instantaneously translated into Russian and beamed through the room. For Russian speakers, the same was done into English. I remember a question and answer session after my paper in which I spoke to Russians as if with gift of tongues, by putting on my headphones and hearing the questions translated into English. I answered the questioners in English and could hear what I had said in Russian only a few seconds afterwards. Those remarkable translators who were employed for the conference over 50 years ago, still amaze me. I am sure technology has improved considerably on this phenomenon since then but the memory of that day will stay with me forever.
As physicists attending the conference, Gavin and myself had a little more freedom than most and I recall a remarkable evening eating and drinking with Russian scientists. One of the Russians remarked whilst holding up a glass of Georgian wine that ‘it was the old boy’s favourite’. It was the first time I ever heard a favourable reference to the man who we in the West considered such a monster . . . Stalin himself.
I pause here to break up this very long blog into a few parts so the reader won’t get bored. I’ll pick it up again when we reach the resort of Sevastopol on the Black Sea where we went for a short holiday after the LT 10 conference.
Several years ago, when I was the owner/director of a travel company based in London, I organised several trips to Egypt for my American ex-patriot clients. The tour was called The Pyramids and Nile Cruise. I personally took the trip several times and became a great fan of this incredible part of the world. I grew very fond of the many Egyptians who helped me with the tours – particularly my dear friend Hassan from Aswan, a remarkable, trustworthy man. I often think of him when retelling this story.
I had read a lot about the boy king Tutankhamun and, in particular, about the British archaeologist Howard Carter who discovered his famous tomb in 1922. I was particularly fascinated by a book written by the Director of Metropolitan Museum of Art, Thomas Irving called . . .
Tutankhamun The Untold Story
I became fascinated by a particular section of the book in which Irving describes Carter’s intention to take a certain artefact found in the tomb back with him to England. It was a carving in wood of the head of the young pharaoh in the style of a lotus flower. As Irving wrote . . .
On the twenty-ninth of March, Pierre Lacau, accompanied by four aides and a carpenter, arrived at the site and had broken down the doors of a tomb which Carter had used for storage and an occasional meal. They entered, made a hasty inspection, then closed the door and resealed it. The next evening, however, Lacau and his party returned to compile a list of the contents of the storage tomb. They discovered that objects had been tentatively labeled and numbered personally by Howard Carter in three separate places: on the outside of each box, again on the inside, and a third time in the entry booklet set on a table nearby. The Egyptians had been visibly impressed with Carter’s precise methods.
Then, far back in the storage area near a stack of empty wooden crates from Fortnum and Mason, they came across a crate marked ‘red wine’. They almost neglected to open it. But Lacau instructed them to do so. The crate seemed to be stuffed with surgical gauze and cotton batting. Intrigued, Lacau lifted the layers of wrapping. What he found within caused him to utter a sharp exclamation of astonishment. He could not believe his eyes. It was a work of art. Hurriedly, he removed the object from its nest. The Egyptian members of the commission, who had gathered when they heard Lacau’s exclamation, looked at one another dumbfounded.
What Lacau had come across in the wine case, unlabeled and clearly uninventoried was a near life-size wooden head, covered with a thin coating of plaster and painted so delicately that the figures seemed almost able to breathe. It was a marvel of ancient sculpture. The face, exceedingly handsome, with sensitive lips and large limpid eyes of the deepest black, must have been that of a child nine or ten years of age. The head emerged from a small pedestal carved with the petals of the sacred blue lotus of the Nile. The child was portrayed as the Son God, springing from the flower which according to the ancient Egyptians was the first of all to grow from the pool of creation. But its strength and competence marked it as more than a mere child. Here was a king as Sun God, without question, Tutankhamun.
I went on to read about Carter’s fascination with the wooden carving of Tutankhamun and discovered why he wanted to take the carving with him back to England. He was not interested in the invaluable treasures of gold that he had uncovered in the Valley of the Kings but simply this beautiful carving which he thought would be his reward for the hard work he had done in the Valley of the Kings.
His reasoning for the ‘theft’ had to do with the fact that he thought the Egyptian authorities would not preserve the carving very well because it has to be kept in a very dry and controlled environment. He believed that that they would simply place this piece with all the other items that he had uncovered which were primarily made of metal, namely gold, and not subject to environment control as much as the this elegant small piece of wood.
However, when he was about to leave Egypt with his belongings to go back to London, his materials were searched carefully and indeed the wooden carving was found. Because Carter was causing a great deal of controversy at the time, he was not allowed to travel with the piece.
So on one of the trips I made with the clients on my tour company I decided I would make a visit to the Cairo Museum to see if I could find the carving and see how it was displayed in the collection. It was with a great deal of apprehension that I approached the section on Tutankhamun and I did eventually find the glass case with which contained the carving in question. My chin must have dropped completely when I saw the pitiful condition of the wooden carving.
As Carter imagined it would be if left to the Egyptian authorities, it was in very poor condition. I photographed the piece and almost burst into tears when I saw it . Indeed Carter had predicted its fate accurately. The museum authorities had merely placed the piece in a normal environment of dry air which caused it to crack and split in several places as can be seen in the photograph which I took at that time, some twenty-five years ago.
In some ways this sad tale reminds me of the attitude of Lord Elgin who took the marbles off the top of the Parthenon because he felt that the Greek authorities would not protect them and keep them in good condition. They are now in a special room at the British Museum.
But what are we to do? We must have respect for the world’s great works of art and it is only the large, wealthy institutions who know how to handle them. Yet, we cannot take all the great treasures of the world to London, New York and Paris and so forth. It just can’t be done as it is so unfair. Another great conundrum of modern life.