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.