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In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:
Interview of Viktor Abalakin by Steven Dick, David DeVorkin, Ron Doel, and Robert McCutcheon on 1994 January 14,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
Topics discussed include: education and career in astronomy.
Better to ask Viktor [???] he is like the diplomat here, and ask, well, you could tell anything what you want, but please avoid the provocative questions, and I told him well, I would put a provocative answer so [???]
Okay. Why don't we formally begin the recording session. I am Ron Doel. It is the 14th of January, 1994, and [???] recording at the United States Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. with Viktor Abalakin. There are three other people here doing the interview with me. I should ask each of them to identify themselves in turn so that we know when they speak later on the tape.
This is Bob McCutcheon.
And Viktor Abalakin.
I would like to mention that we have today the New Year's Day on the Juyen [?] calendar for the Russian Orthodox Church.
[???] [foreign language].
Okay, why don't we begin. The first thing we'd like to know is when you were born and a little bit about your parents. Who were they, and what did they do?
I was born in 1930, August 27th, into the family of the engineer Kusmah [?] Abalakin and my mother was the teacher of history, Marie [???] Nasakolova [?]. And I was entering the school as I was six and a half years old in Odessa and before the war I have finished four classes for forms in that school. But then I was in occupation of Romanian [?] troops have entered the Odessa region on October 16th, 1941.
I wonder. Before we get too much further into that period of time, was there much discussion about science in your household? Did your parents —?
[???] more about the parents. A little bit more social status, economic.
Yeah. My father was the naval architector [sic] and he was also metalographer [?], and we have a very good library in our house. As I remember, the majority of the foreign books were in German, so when I was very small I began to have interest to these letters and being able to read. With five years I asked my father what [???] not familiar to me. Was it [???], was it letters, and he has taught me the German alphabet. It's a Latin alphabet. So I began to try to ramble through the dictionaries. It was very interesting for me, and I think it appeared quite useful for my future life. And he worked at the factory on producing the projectors for cinema in this —
This was after the —?
No, before the war. Before the war.
You said he had been an architect for the navy?
Yeah, but [???] —
And that was before the Revolution, or when was that?
No. He got to the education of naval architecture, ship building. But because his fate was so that he worked just on that factory for the cinema projectors, so —
So he had his education before the Revolution?
No. After the Revolution.
After the Revolution.
Yeah. So-called Rub Fak [?], the worker's faculty [?].
So his original background, had he been from the peasantry or from —?
He was the peasant, peasant, yeah, from Tambov [?] district, or Tambov government.
The Tambov Province.
Province. Yeah, yeah.
That was a region where — not to go too far astray, but there had been some peasant rebellions in fact.
Yeah. But he was not present there. I think that his family could be there. He was drafted during the war, First World War, and he was in the aviation detachment as a mechanic. Then he moved to Kramia [?], then the Germans took the people who were there in their [???] of prisoners of war, and they—
During the German Occupation?
Yeah, it was during Occupation. It was 1918. And then they moved to a rural district to be exchanged on the German POWs. So then he came to Odessa. To Konson [?] first, then to Odessa, and he entered this Polytechnic [?] Institute of Odessa on the Worker's Faculty.
During as I recall the civil war in Ukraine was very intense with the different armies coming through. In Odessa you had the French at one time, you had —
Yeah, there were many of them.
How was your family affected [???]
I think that they were okay. My mother's family was by the time in Odessa, and so she entered first the university for the law [?] and then she wanted to be the teacher. But actually she worked as a bookkeeper, book counter even, not bookkeeper in real sense of the word.
Yeah. An accountant.
How many languages were spoken at home? How many languages did you hear?
We spoke Russian, and being in Ukraine I also listened to the Ukraine, but it was not regular Ukraine. I read Ukrainian very correct, and genuine Ukrainian language, and at the school I learned Ukrainian too. So my father spoke a little German, so he could teach me the alphabet and then give the first impetus to German reading, and my mother was not so good as I could judge now, but she was [???] French. And we had some books, manuals of regular verbs in French, so although I couldn't read properly I also touched these books and came through. But the most, my hobby was to ramble in the vocabulary in the dictionary over German-Russian [???] dictionary.
What sort of books do you recall reading during your early childhood?
Early childhood, that was the fairy tales of the Uncle Remus. Uncle Remus books, in Russian translation of course, and then I was very eager to find the original things, because I felt that they were very poor just from the point of view of expressions. Because the translation was very plain. And then perhaps in 40 years I convinced myself that I was right, because I have now the original version of Uncle Remus fairy tales and it's very interesting to read and to guess sometimes the words of the [???] people language.
Was your first interest in astronomy then as a young boy, or when [???]
Yeah. Because I was a friend of one of the boys whose father was a vice director of Odessa Observatory, I came sometimes to the observatory and then compared — and unfortunately I had feeble sight, not a good sight, and I couldn't decipher the constellations, what I have seen in the maps in the stellar atlases. So coming to —
What does decipher mean? You couldn't decipher? You couldn't read the [???]
I could not see, because there was a rather hard time I was [???] I had no glasses, and being shortsighted, I could not see proper constellations which I have seen on the paper.
Yeah. And so I was more interested with the mathematical side of the astronomy. And I read very many books, but I did not understand them properly. There was also classics [???] to read, relativity [?] for instance, but it gave me the false feeling that I know that. And only when I was a student of the Odessa University I just have discovered that what I thought first was wrong. Just not, [???] very superficially in that reading of very serious books which were in our library. But I think it was very useful, because it gave some fundament, some basis for the future.
Maybe two questions. To remind us, who was the director and vice director at the Odessa Observatory at that time?
The director of the observatory was Professor Prokrofsky [?], Constantine Deremedontavich [?], and the vice director was Boris [???]ovich Novaposhany [?].
Also, the books you are describing. Were those books in Russian or were they books written in German that —?
No. In German I have read some textbooks and scientific books we had not at the home at that time, except some journals for engineering, which were written, were published in Germany, and my father had a few copies of them.
Were there other friends as you were growing up who shared an interest in science, of your interest in [???]
Not so many. They were more playing soccer, yeah.
Was there an amateur astronomy group at the observatory in Odessa?
There was before the war, but I never met them. During the wartime and Occupation, some people came having an interest for the amateur astronomy, but mainly Viktor N[???] and his son, Vladimir [?] and me, we were interested in small instruments — the universal instrument, the lamps, the oil lamps, fixing them to where the observations sometimes, and mechanic was a very good expert in mechanics, Nicoli [?] Yoshpovich [?] Chimchenko [?], the son of the famous imperial mechanic Yosef [?] Andre [?] Chimchenko, who was inventor of the cinema in Russia. And also he made the first vacuum ever created, a case for the clock, for the astronomical clock, and making the clock itself too. So that was some very [???] I have seen this, but I had interest for astronomy, just admiring the skies and the moon. It was a great delight for me to observe the moon in the binocular. It was just field glasses.
At what point did you decide you wanted to do astronomy as a profession?
Oh. It was after I graduated the school, I met another friend of mine, [???] Jayev [?], who told me that he is going to be enrolled into the astronomical department of the Odessa University. And so we applied, I applied my documents on the very last hour and last day and very last hour of this acception of the documents by the office of the university. The next day I was passing the examination in mathematics.
What year would that have been? What year?
It was in 1948.
Yeah. August 1948.
How much training did you have in science when you were in school? How comprehensive [???]
I was very lucky. I had wonderful teachers in mathematics. They were [???]ovich Rubenstein [?] and Vladimir Urivich [?] Vosko[???]kof. They were friends.
This is before university?
Before university. Yeah, yeah. And so they gave us the initial knowledge of the infinitesimal calculus, of the calculus. So having at home the books on calculus, I was pretty well was in engaged in reading and trying to understand all this about the sequences, about sets, what was written. We had also the Felix [?] Kleins [?] elementary mathematics viewed from the point of view of the [???] I don't remember [???] mathematique [?] from the [???], so it was very good to be at the school with these very distinguished teachers.
What class were you in when the Romanian Occupation began?
Yeah. I frequented one year to the Leechel [?] Debuyette [?], this [???] of — sometimes [???] It's a boy's school, yeah, [???] Because of this switching off, sometimes you lose the contact with your cells and brain. [laughs] And but — no, no, not much, because then there was very dark time of this transition before the Romanians left, and they must leave to the Germans. The Germans would overtake the power in the city because of the advance in Red army. So the [???] was just finished. And I entered the seventh form after the war.
So during the war did you [???] —
Almost three forms, almost two forms, two classes. It was formerly one class and something, and so I entered the seventh class.
I'm curious if you remember any differences in the way the school ran, what school was like before the war under the Romanians and Germans.
Yeah. The main difference was in the number of the schoolchildren in one class. Before the war we had perhaps 30 persons, and during the Occupation it was also 30-35, and the first day I attended this school it was 78. We were sitting perhaps in fours. The normal desks form for two schoolchildren. But then perhaps in two or three months [???] people left, the schoolchildren left, because it was not possible for the parents to have them being taught. They preferred that they go to the professional schools or to the military schools where they could get the clothes and some food during the daytime. In our school it was also, we got small pieces of bread and small packages of cane sugar. By the time the sugar came from the United States, and so they distributed this, oh, I think it was something like 20 grams of sugar and perhaps 50-70 grams of bread. It was during the daytime we got some fortifying meals.
So that was American sugar that you got from the Romanians or —?
No no no no. It's after the war. I told you that 78 people were after the — it was after the Occupation, after the liberation of Odessa by the Red Army.
But during the Occupation did you continue in school, or did the school continue to function?
No, it was a new school. It was [???] for boys, boys school, organized privately by somebody who was director, and so they tried to overcome the difficulty in the interruption of the education and enlightenment of the children.
Shall we go on to the university years, what your influences were there, what your course of study was when you went into the university, who were the major influences on you.
The major influence was by Professor Constantine Nicholi [?] Sofchinka [?], who taught the celestial mechanics and theoretical astronomy and orbital determination. Then there was also mathematics professor Gydzak [?] Mironovich [?] Meerakyan [?], who was an excellent teacher, and actually when I entered the university I got the highest mark. By us it was five, the highest, and five plus, and then I was summoned to the director of the university who was a very interesting person, and he asked me in Ukrainian whether this Meerakyan is my relative, and I answered no, and he asked me, "Then why he has given you the [???] five plus?" I told him, "Well, I don't know. You could ask Gydzak Mironovich himself." So it was rather — the first days were just beginning with this.
This was an astronomy department?
It was a physical and mathematical department, and we had a small group of astronomers. It was eight persons of this —
On the faculty or the —?
In the faculty of physics and mathematics.
And how many students?
There was perhaps 40 students in general, physicists and mathematicians.
So your specialty was celestial mechanics —?
It was astronomy.
But then on the third year I precisely determined that the definitive will be in celestial mechanics.
Sorry. Could you remind me. This was Odessa State University?
Odessa State University still, yeah. Until the graduation in Odessa.
When did you graduate?
When? In 1953. Yeah. And we had some appointment. I got to Moscow to work in [???] Shmidt's group in the Institute for Geophysics. He tried to make foundations of his cosmogonical [?] theory in all respects.
One question before you get there. How was it that you joined his group? Was that where you were —? Because I know when you graduated at Soviet universities you were usually assigned a place to go to. Was that your assignment?
Yeah, yeah. It was an assignment. Some people could get the assignment with teachers, some with the researchers, and there were the representatives of the institutes which are very interested in having new workers. So I had some interview with the representative of the Geophysical Institute Academy of Sciences. Boris Alexander Alakavich [?] Miltov [?], who was later on in geophysics he was in the [???] of satellites.
Before we leave Odessa completely, were there any teachers besides those that you have mentioned, or other involvements with other students that were particularly memorable for your scientific career?
Yes, yes. It was Tatiana Unaginominda [?], the teacher of French, and Ledo[???] Noplastomaki [?], the teacher of English. And she was a wonderful inspirer of the students to have a real, vivid, genuine interest for the language. But perhaps I was also was few who were infected by this enthusiasm. In me, I met some and just after the Occupation ceased, the POWs liberated from the camps, the Canadians and British were shipped through Odessa port via Marseilles [?] to Canada, and first to Great Britain. And so I got this sound of English. It was just, I wanted to speak very eagerly, and we had also the [???] at home, the old RCA type, big one, one of these metal tubes, do you remember RCA tubes? And I listened to the Voice of America in English, because they began to jam very soon after the end of the war, unfortunately Russian. But so I got used to the sound. To read I couldn't, because — I read, but with very big blunders. Because I never had it [?] regular, but being in the university I got the real way of reading English, and I enjoy reading, so I was in the library mostly and being also in the reserves, which was not permitted, but the librarians had confidence to me, and so I enjoyed just access to the shelves, rambling through the shelves and reading [???] there.
My understanding has usually been that it was difficult very often in libraries to get into the stacks.
Yeah, but in the University of Odessa, there was a rather liberal atmosphere, and for instance all the professors knew all the students of the faculty, so it was not a formal, just a [???] nobody knows who was, and they knew their students very well. And sometimes you met them in the street, and they begin to — It was real, like in the United States I think, that people are constantly could be under the attention of professors or in the canteen or in the sports [???].
So it was possible for you, or occasionally you would meet professors after the regular day at school?
Yes. Just in the street, and we could have a chat about science or about something.
Were there any seminars that you went to [???]
Yeah, yeah, there were seminars.
What were your living arrangements like?
Were you still living at home at that time, or were you living —?
No no, I was at home. It was a great thing — I would consider that all these students dormitories, they are no good, because they interrupt the family procedure of bringing up the young human being. And so they are on their own, so they sometimes deviate from, if not from science anyway from some moral [?] or something like that.
So that going away to university wasn't an option for you? You never thought about going to another university like Moscow University?
No. Because it would be difficult first to find the flat, to find the shelter [?], and then it was not possible, because the family was rather poor and it was just at that place.
And Odessa had the course of study that you wanted anyway.
Yeah, yeah, because it was just — Of course, people in Moscow University that I could judge, or in St. Petersburg, Leningrad, they had better school in celestial mechanics, because they had more access to practical things, and then it was more finance and the university. So, but for me it was enough to be in the university, because I made the study basically myself autonomously.
Was there any kind of study that you wanted to do but found you couldn't when you were still at Odessa?
No, no. It was just what I wanted. Of course I wanted to read some new manuals I have read about in a few magazines we got, but it was impossible. But [???] to say, it was a very rich, old literature of the subject, so it could be compensated for the lack. By the time it was a great development, I think by the time I had to finish the university. There was a great development of competition and techniques in the United States, Yale University, and people were brought up under the guidance of Clemens [?] and Brower [?], and so my dear friends now, they are Ray Duncum [?] and George Wilkins [?] and Kavalofsky [?]. They enjoyed the lectures of these professors.
When you were still in Odessa, did you know what researchers at other universities were doing —?
Yeah, because there was some in the library, where the astronomical journal had —
The Soviet astronomical journal?
You mean the American.
The American astronomical journal. And I remember Michael Valinko [?], who was one of the editors here. You know the name? Michael Valinko. He took part of the estate of his wife to establish the stipend for the Russians who were studying in America. So I knew about it from some people who knew the emigree's families. It was also to— From the first days of my being the school boy or student, I had contacts with people who had relatives abroad, so I was not entirely indoctrinated and making sooey [?], made sooey by this philosophy of Soviets. And because I was in Occupation, I had read a lot about the atrocities of Soviets. It was a very interesting process of getting with ability of what is good and what is bad. Also the religion was taught in the [???], so it was also, in addition to the family you had also a great resource in going to the lessons of religion and reading the books and being in church. So it's very interesting that you were not just spoiled from the Soviet point of view. And having also — I had much sympathy with people who left Russia. Also they perhaps leaved under good conditions.
When was the first time you had access to western literature?
Astronomical, it was when I was in the observatory with my friend. It was 1943.
'43. Yeah. There was a big library in the observatory, so I —
You were 13 years old.
Yeah, I was 13 years old.
Okay. So when could you see Sky and Telescope, for instance?
First I have seen Sky and Telescope in 1952, because there was [???] Professor Stosevich [?], who was a lecturer in astrophysics at the university, and he was the director of the observatory, he got I think subscribed to Sky and Telescope, so he was — he was a very generous person, so it was just in his study, you could come and sit in his desk and see what is new in Sky and Telescope.
Do you have any recollections when you first started reading Sky and Telescope of what attracted you? What were your impressions of it?
Yeah, yeah. I think it was Ashbrooks [?] I think, the articles, historical articles.
Yeah, a scrapbook. And then I was very impressed by all these gadgets of astronomy which were like world war surplus — available for [???]
Yeah, 49.95 M-17 [???] and telescopes. Cost government millions. Yes. [laughter] So that's right, that's right.
Yes, and it was also some very strong magnets to take something from the depth of the sea.
Right. What about the international geophysical year?
Yeah, in 1957.
Yes. But Sky and Telescope had a whole series, I mean it just constantly reported on preparations. Were you aware? Did you read those? Could you read those?
No. But at the time we got some that is to say salaries, increased salaries. The salary in the observatory was very miserable, and due to the geophysical year we got salaries, it was a thousand and fifty rubles [?], but before —
That was before the currency reform.
Hundred five rubles for the junior scientific researcher.
As I recall, currency reform was in 1960.
It was a factor of ten.
Of ten, yeah.
So the thousand and five rubles back then would have been like a hundred and —
A hundred five. Yeah.
But we should back up and ask you where you went in 1953 when you graduated.
I'm still interested in —
To Shmidt group, to Shmidt to department.
Sure. I jumped ahead a little bit there, because I wanted to know how far back you started reading that, but I would like to get back to it. Why don't you go back to the chronology? Because I would like to know more about your impressions of the IGY [?] as a crew and of the Americans' stated purpose of putting something into orbit, and we can do that a little later.
I am still — One question on how you did go to Shmidt's laboratory. I mean I have heard horror stories about people who graduated universities and then were sent to two years to Siberia or Cheeta [?], so for you to go to Moscow, that sounds like a [???]
Yeah. It was a [???]. Yeah, yeah. But we had no apartment. We hired a so-called corner, just the bed in the corner, behind some wardrobe.
In someone's apartment.
Yeah, yeah. Some acquaintance has recommended us in Moscow.
You say us. Was it just yourself who went or —?
No, no, with Vera [?].
With Vera. So you were already married at that time.
Yeah. We were married by the time.
When were you married?
In 1953, just after the graduating from the university. And she got the assignment for Novgorord [?] for the Palegocial [?] Institute, but then it was rewritten to the Geological Institute in Moscow.
The Geological Institute.
Yeah. So were in Geophysical and [???]ical Institute. [laughs]
What were your options in '53? Were there many things that you could have done?
Because we were astronomers, so it was rather easy for Professor Tosavage [?], who was somewhat a tutor for us, he made an agreement with directors of other institutions that we could come. And because they [???] on the spot, so he has offered me this position. Dr. Milktov [?]. And other people could be assigned also, according to the letters from the appropriate institution asking for this assignment for such and such a person.
What did you know of Otto Shmidt at the time that you —
Otto Shmidt. Otto Shmidt. Yes, I knew of course before I knew only by name. He was the —
Because he was a famous figure.
Famous figure because of the polar expeditions, and then I have found also he is — well, a teacher was Professor Dmitri Gravee [?] from the Kiev University, and in his higher algebra you'll find a theorem [?] of the student Shmidt [?]. And then I got to him, because he was a famous explorer of Antarctica, of Arctic, and then he was working as a mathematician is cosmogony. So I came to him with some — I wanted to work with him, and but there was not, for me it was not good, the atmosphere around him. They flattered him, people around him. And they wanted to publish some papers. He was an academician [?] so he could submit without any reference.
Without any referee?
Yeah. Referee would be — They were good papers, but otherwise they would be delayed in publication. So some atmosphere, I hadn't tried [?].
Who else was there at the time? Was Levin there?
Levin, Boris [???] Levin was, he was amateur astronomy, and we had some talk with him about the matter in the space and the orbit calculations, Oepik's method of — you remember that how to judge about the density according to the velocity of the acceleration of the meteoric body.
Had you met Oepik at that point?
No, no. Oepik was by the time in Arma [?] Observatory. He left 1944 Estonia [?] with the retreat in German troops. He [???] from Doppart [?].
The whole idea of the use of meteor trails to examine the upper atmosphere and also to better understand meteor orbits working back and forth, something Fred Whipple was doing.
Yeah, yeah. But Oepik has done this work in Arizona University, when he was in Arizona. Or he was also in Maryland University.
That's much later.
Much later, yeah. But he was I think on expedition to Arizona.
That's right. The Harvard-Arizona meteor expedition in the early 30s.
As I remember.
He was very high esteemed in Dorput [?]. He was a poet-composer in addition to being an astronomer. And they used in the department, I mean Boris Levin, much of the work of Oepik for the analysis of this process of fragmentation. They wanted to make clear what was going on after the cloud of particles and gas was captured by the sun.
Did Shmidt exercise a lot of authority over the kinds of research that was done in the institute?
Yeah. Just in his department. He was very sick. He had consumption, tuberculosis, and so practically he appeared very seldom, and the seminars sometimes he appeared. And but he was an influencing figure.
Were you aware at the time that his theories and his work were considered controversial in the West and that —?
Yes, because I have read the paper by Weidzecker [?] published in 1943 about this vortices series [???] Heinek [?] has taken and developed further. So he had these sets of parameters to describe the inner planets and outer planets, Shmidt I mean, so it was not so as to say homogeneous, the approach or the description. But anyway, I worked with Fransovich Hilmig [?], who had the task of justification of the capture by means of topology and the [???] sets. The problem was to prove the set of initial conditions leading to the capture is not empty. So they worked on that problem, and I was also with [???], but I was very interested in minor [?] planets, and so I was just like an outsider there. And I got the invitation of Professor Subotnik [?], who was director of the Institute for Scientific Astronomy to return. Because in 1952 I worked in Leningrad at the institute before graduation of the university.
It was sort of an internship.
Yeah, but it was just prolonged, very prolonged. It was a great interest with me in this computation [?] of work, so I —
Why don't we just pause for one moment and we —
...at a time. Yeah. We could continue. [laughs]
We just needed to turn the tape over. One thing I was curious about, before we move into the period when you were at the institute, do you remember while you were with Shmidt at the institute discussions about theories of the structure of the earth? The late 40s/early 50s was a time when people were —
You know, there was some discussion, cosmogenic discussion in the 50s, and I followed it using the official books which were proceedings. And when I was with Shmidt I was with him three or four times. Frankly speaking I avoided speaking about these hypotheses because I didn't like it, and he spoke about linguistics, because he was editor of many dictionaries. So [???] I liked, so [???] discussing, but it was not so [???], because he was sick. So I came to him, discussing what is [???] on my own study, and then switching over to the [laughs] — It was very ridiculous. One time I was too late with him sitting in his study and he had — the transportation was poor. These electric trains from his—
Where in fact was his institute, his —
No, he was outside, out of town in his daccha [?], and I missed the electric train, so I took the steam commuter, the I think a cargo train being in some sort of white suit, because it was in summer, and it was much of ashes from the chimney of the locomotive. So I arrived in B[???] just smoked. [laughs] Like smoked salmon. [laughs] And I lived in [???] people just, and in the night I washed my only suit, and in the morning it was wet, but I put it on and ran to the work. But it was just in summertime, so it was [???] okay.
What was the name of the institute where Shmidt was? Did I miss that?
The Institute of Geophysics.
Geophysics. Geophysical Institute of Academy of Sciences of USSR. Previously it was Seismological Institute.
And you were there for how long?
I was two years. Two years [???].
And the institute itself was in Moscow?
Where was [???]
[???] zoo is just on the — from my window I saw, I have seen the pond with all these swans and ducks and other swimming —
And how many people were at the institute? How big?
Oh, it was a big institute. I think it was more than 1500 people.
Fifteen hundred, yeah. Because many expeditions were in the institute.
All scientists, or some part support staff?
No, it was also — all the staff. No, no, yeah, yeah. [???] seismological department and atmospheric department. Some things were very hush-hush, and people standing with guns on the landings not letting you to the first floor or story.
What do you think was back there?
It was I think [???] atmosphere rocketry. It was just that time. Miknevich [?] was working, Vera Miknevich, you know perhaps by the name, and Meerta [?] was working there. And Krassovsky, [???]anovanovich, and —
Was there any talk at that time already of a satellite into outer space?
I have not heard about it by the time. But the rocket sounding it was just the [???] display I had read about the White Sands experiments —
Did you read about that —? That gets back to my question about Sky and Telescope and the IGY.
No, no, no. Because I think it was not regular that Professor [???]vich got the Sky and Telescope magazine. And in the library we had not because of lack of money to subscribe in the observatory in Odessa. In Geophysical Institute, I think it was, but somebody could take and you never found. They'd, "Oh, it's just busy."
Have you covered those two years then, or should we go onto the —?
Well I guess before we leave the subject, just knowing the time period in Soviet history, this is the time just before and around the time of Stalin's death. I'm just wondering what you remember from the period of the late 1940s and the campaign against cosmopolitans —
— and how did you react to the Stalin [???], and how did outside influences influence your reaction to [???] at the time?
I was very sad about — so I have taken some protocols. [???] have stoned them, because they were striking [?], and I thought it would be very useful to have them later on to reveal the truth about this regime. I told you. But people were scared. You never got some response if you wanted to have some conversation about the subject. They put it aside, these topics.
So when you say that you were stealing documents, already at that time do you mean that you were trying to collect evidence of —?
Yeah, yeah, evidence against. Also I had some suspicion that for instance the great patriots in Chile and Brazil, I thought they are agents of Soviets, and so it was [?]. I have found, I have not shown you that there was some — we have [???] you remember, that book, some small booklet explaining the basic results of the [???]. And I have found —
Basic result of the —?
Of the thesis, thesis.
A summary, a summary of dissertation.
Of a thesis, yes, okay.
Yeah. And I found a very interesting document. It's very interesting for you. The great, excuse my English, impoverishment, getting poor of peasants in Brazil due to the big capitalistic [???] great estates —
Yeah, plantations, and it was written by Andre Mikelovich Seevalobof [?]. At the end of the booklet you find the references, and they were designated the least of papers published by the dissertant [?], by author in the Soviet periodical literature. And there was the first. Andre [???], and then in parenthesis I am Seevalobof, Journal Bolshevik, the same title as —
So he was referring on to his own work.
Yeah. But he was under some disguise. Andre Silva Paraguasoo [?]. And I told the people that perhaps [???] Titelbaum [?] or somebody there, they were just shipped agents, have another name. It was just evidence for me. So I have it then until now. So it was [???] by me to have this [???] basis to —
But already this is in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
You already had your suspicions about —
Yeah, yeah. Not suspicious, I was sure, but I wanted to have this collection that somebody who gets suspicion to be convinced. But not —
Were you scared doing this?
Wasn't this a dangerous sort of thing to do?
Well, sometimes I never thought about it. Just having it and —
Given that you were living, as you said, at least at first, in a corner of someone else's apartment, I have visions of you [???].
No no no. There was later on when Stalin's [???] I have found this, seized [?] this.
So that was a little bit later when [???].
But still when he was alive. In other words, you weren't — you were not going out —
Yeah. In the university. I was in the university until it was some session dedicated to the [???], so I found just by chance this, and I took it. Because it was very interesting.
In other words, that was the [???] proceedings [???] —
[???] at these meetings. It's perhaps too — I [???] to you, perhaps.
Something on these [???]ologists.
Yeah yeah yeah. Yeah yeah yeah yeah. That is, that is, yeah.
So after two years you left the Geophysical Institute. Why did you leave and where did you go?
I came to Leningrad, to the Institute for Theoretical [?] Astronomy, working on minor plan — No. It was my very, very sad fate. I wanted to work on minor planets, but by the time they needed somebody in the department for astronomical almanac. So I came there, and I was working on [???] almanac, and —
Why did you not stay with the Geophysical Institute though?
Because I didn't like that business with this cosmogony, and when I got offer from Professor S[???] — I told him that I would like to transfer, in half a year he has invited me. Besides —
This was Professor —?
He was Professor Subotin [?], Mikhail Feldovich [?]. He was the associate member of Academy of Sciences. Besides, we had this, we had no money to pay for, then we rented some room in the overpopulated flat, and I was [???] sometimes to [???] had no inscription Propiska [?], so I was —
Yeah, yeah. I was seen in the [???]. Remember [???]oovar? And I was in frost and until 1:00 a.m., so after 1:00 a.m. they had no right to invade the private apartments, the militia, so they could not find me. So I was back overnight, and then early in the morning running away.
Just to explain first a little bit, I thought it was usual that if you did get work in a given city that you usually would get the Propiska as well —
No, no. Yeah. It was some violation of — because they had no flat or room to give me, they could not —
In other words, because the institute had nothing to give you in terms of accommodations, you were on your own and did not have a Propiska.
No, no, yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah. But because I have this assignment, so I was working. They could of course dismiss me, and I came when I was with [???] Shmidt on this business talking about — He asked me how are you, and I told him, and, "Oh, unfortunately I have lost all my contacts and I am of no use for you in this respect." It was his interesting remark on that.
So this was about '55 when you came to Leningrad [?].
It was '55 I came to Leningrad, and '57 I quit because I had also no, not, no [???], and where I was in Odessa with our son, and I lived in a sort of a dormitory.
She had not come to Leningrad with you?
No, no. First no. And I was illegally in dormitory, because the director was a very kind person and he offered me that I could sleep on the tables in the, by my friends who were regular aspirants [?] —
This is in Leningrad?
In Leningrad, yeah, in —
The dormitory belonging to the institute?
To the Academy of Sciences, yeah.
To the Academy.
Yeah. So I was there, and then I met — This second generation. When I returned to Leningrad again having nothing in '60, in '64.
So you returned to Odessa in '57?
Yeah, I returned to Odessa. Fifty-seven, being a postgraduate student of the Odessa State University. Passed the examinations. Because it was the only way to be again engaged in astronomy.
Another political-cultural question again from this period, moving back one second, but the days when you learned that Stalin had died, how did you feel about that?
Yeah. It was very — I, I waited for this question. It was very interesting. We were, people were gathered, the students, in the court of the university, and there was—
Moved this back to Odessa I think.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, it was just as to say a [???] atmosphere of the meeting. And I was laughing in my soul. People were crying [???]. And I thought, "No, the tyrant is dead! What it will be further on." Yeah.
And how did you —?
But they could not expose it just openly. Just staying in and — yeah. Not beaming with joy, but anyway. [laughs]
People were crying because they were happy?
No, no. They were unhappy because they thought, "Oh. The great father of all the nations and all the times died. What will we do?" [laughs] "We shall be orphans now." [laughs] Yeah. I think it was some psychological deficiency of people who were just brought up in this idolatry. So perhaps now I'm — But I remember very well. It's not that I invent now, that I was just laughing in my soul that now this tyrant is over. Yeah.
When and how did you first learn about Kruschev's [?] secret speech?
It was in Leningrad. We were invited to this big edifice of Academy of Sciences in Leningrad, and to everybody it was openly read, but this —
And when was that?
It was in nineteen fifty —
No no. In '56. No. Excuse me. No no no.
He gave the speech in '57.
Fifty-seven I think, yeah. Yeah.
So you learned about it not long after the speech had been [???]
Yeah, yeah. But I had some American friends of mine. Unfortunately one died. It was Burt Ruben [?], who was in political sciences at Cornell University in Ithaca. And he was in search of Pokonof's [?] books in Leningrad.
Yeah. And we met in the canteen of Academy, and I tried to find them, because he couldn't find in the library. I asked for Pokonof, and besides I had Pokonof at home in Leningrad. And we got like friends, so Burt has brought some, in Russian I think the year of Kruschev [???] or some of post-Stalin era, I don't remember now. It was [???] the States. So I read some things, and I knew in general what was on, because our friends were repressed before the war and actually the wife of our acquaintance, she was repressed, being the agriculture professor for [???] activities in agriculture, and her husband, he was hidden first, and then he appeared, and he told that she is in [???] Bay. It's just the [???] camps yeah.
What was the nature of your work during those two years in Leningrad at the institute?
I was working on the [???] of the inner planets using the Newcomb's tables and on punched card machines preparing some instructions for the operator. And the oldest files were put through and they made these on coordinates and then they gave some sort of [???]ogram to the typist and she made the page of the astronomical almanac.
Now this is the [???] pre-Sputnik years. Was the institute involved in the orbital calculations or anything, preparation for Sputnik?
Well, I would like to tell you that first it was some people who were — Kulikov, [???] Kulikov, the head of the famous [?] department, he was involved in the preparatory work. Having the security clearance. And I had not, so I was not permitted to study the computers, the programming, and so on, and I was just an outsider, and I had [???] idiosyncrasy [?] against the computers because people who had been privileged of having the security clearance, they got, it seems to me that they changed the attitude toward me, having been something more high. And I have put it on account of the computers. Hated them, because they have robbed me my friends. Anyway, it was until 1978 I was not aware of the computers. It was here just in Europe and the U.S. [???] George Kaplan [?] has given me the IBM manuals and green books. You remember. Twelve of them or something, like 20 pages each, and I got this Principles of Programming. But unfortunately I have lost the time to be more or less handy with the computers.
The director of the institute was involved in the preparations for Sputnik then you said.
No no. It was director of the ephemeris [?] department. But it was secret, and they made this work in Moscow. But first they would admit it, and then the military took this lead [?] from the institute. But they made some blunders in the calculation of ephemeris [?], so they must return this privilege to the institute people. So they started again. And because a big computer was in Moscow, so people were in constant trips, service trips to Moscow to make the work.
One more. How far ahead did you realize that there was a push for a satellite into outer space, or did you realize it at all at the time?
Yes, but you know, I have read just after the launch of the satellite I got I think it is the journal of the British Interplanetary Society with the article of [???]. You remember that name?
Yes, I do.
Yeah. And so he has exposed that [???] the Russians would be the first, if not this arrest of Korilov [?], P[???] and G[???]. It would be impossible to start to launch in '50, '50-'51. And he was also against the statement from Brown [?] that they were well advanced, that Russians were well advanced because they have seized the experts from P[???], and he has written that some trick was played that [???] to the specialists of Germany some wrong data about the development of the things in Soviet Union, knowing that they will be released and they will disseminate this disinformation. You remember perhaps.
You read some —
I read some pages. Very superficial, but still I remember the [???]. So [???] was just —
You read that though just after the launch.
After the launch, yeah.
Before the launch of Sputnik itself, did you have any awareness that it was going to be launched?
There were some rumors about the space work, but it was connected with [???]kovsky. And I have read [???]kovsky well. He is philosophical. You have seen small books published on his expense. And then [???] and [???]kovsky and Goddard [?]. I read it. The [???] we had at home, this book by Renin [?] in 1934.
Oh yes. That series we have over here. Yes, we have it here. A series.
You know that, yeah. You have. And I knew about the possibilities, and some hints were sufficient for me to guess that what it is they are talking about, people.
The reason I asked you about Sky and Telescope last time was that, you know a while ago, was because through the Sky and Telescope, plus the IGY Information Bulletins that were coming out, the Americans were making extensive discussions of [???].
No, I have not read this Sky and Telescope, except a few copies of 1952.
That is too early.
Yeah. I think during the wartime it was also not much of Sky and Telescope.
So you knew nothing about Vanguard or [???]?
No no. I [???] in the [???]. On the radio.
So you heard about Vanguard —
Yeah, Voice of America.
And Project Vanguard [???] the plans for it?
No. Just the facts, that something is —
Is being planned.
Being planned, yeah. It was in frames of BBC Science in Action and, as I remember now, perhaps later on Brian Syslik [?] was covering a lot on science in the Voice of America, breakfast shows we got this program. I was very lucky, because I had not a good receiver, but I wanted to have [???] just to listen with great effort. And [???] not possible to have in Russia. It was also chopped in 25 meters band, so not 19 or 16 or 13.
Were you still in Leningrad at the Institute in October when Sputnik was launched, or had you gone back to Odessa by then?
No, I was in Odessa at that time, and yeah.
And why did you leave Leningrad?
Because I had no flat, no apartment, and there was no prospective.
[???] ask you briefly, did you also get a chance to work on minor planets when you were at the institute in [???]?
Only at nights. I just continued the determination of orbits using the desk calculator.
Were you interested in the theories that were being discussed in the West about the origins of comets and asteroids at that time? [???]
Well, to some extent. I think not so much because I was interested, but no literature was available by the time.
Let me just ask one other quick question. In the early 1950s, was there much discussion in either the Shmidt Institute or in Leningrad about the cancellation of the 1951 Leningrad meeting of the IAU?
No. As I knew that they were too late [?] with the compression of restoration of [???] Observatory, first. And then people like Kukarin [pronounced Kukarkin] and Parinago [?], they told, "Oh, it was great provocation of Otto Struvy [?]," who has just as an enemy of the Soviet regime he torpedoed this, but I know that of course it was perhaps the political reason, but mainly it was that the restoration of Puko [?] was not completed, and the main as to say site for the general assembly, they thought Puko Observatory.
That was '58, did you say?
Fifty-two. Fifty-one. Yeah. It was '52 in Rome.
You mentioned Paranago. How did other astronomers respond to those kinds of comments that Paranago and others were making [???]
I think yes, [???] could [???] Iganson [?], but I was not involved in this conversation with Professor [???] to say that for instance, so I suppose he could also be of this sort of command on that.
I meant more how people were responding [???].
Because first he was very not so content with Sergay Kaposhkin [?], Sergay [???]ovich Kaposhkin [???].
Who was [???]
What do you mean? When was that?
It was just in '52 when I was at the university by that time.
Kaposhkin was of course at Harvard.
Yeah. But he was in variable [?] stars, and Professor [???] was also with [???].
Oh, it's the same. [???] think much of Kaposhkin.
Yeah. No. He was, "Oh, he's like a white guard," and I told him, no white guard. White guards were very educated people, and so it would be also to — But Kaposhkin was a fisher's son who was just by chance came to Turkey and then come into Germany, [???] [???] swimming teacher and then coming to the United States thanks to Cecilia. I think she moved people here to help him to come. You have three volumes of his autobiography?
We have some of them. I don't know —
Three of them.
I don't think I've seen three.
[???] offset I think [???].
Yeah. Mimeograph or xerox.
I've seen one definitely, and I've looked at a second volume. I don't know about the third volume.
First is the one is just the first days and years of his childhood, and how he was, and then those fairy tales you remember mostly for his children he has written in English these.
Yeah. A lot of cartoons and comics —
Yeah. And some obscenities there is also there.
Plenty of obscenities.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Directed at other people.
So he was in some extent, some respect, involved in the development of the American astronomy, and through the knowledge or the acquaintance with Sergay [???] Kaposhkin.
So when you went back to Odessa then, in '57, how long did you stay there?
Up to '44. Sixty-four.
So in '64 you went to Pokolva [?]?
No. To the Institute of Theoretical Astronomy again, because the chief of ephemeris department died, and they invited me to have concourse [?], that there was some sort of competition, and I submitted my papers and quit the Odessa University and Odessa Astronomical Observatory.
So you became the head of the [???].
Okay. And when was your first association with Pokolva then?
First association was in 1952, when I was working in the Institute for Theoretical Astronomy. I visited my friends who were there. But serious, it was in 1964 when I was the head and [???] was the member of the scientific board of the P[???] Observatory. And then when this mafia [?] period in Pulko [?] was, I decided to liberate them [???] in 1982.
What is the mafia period?
For 20 years people were oppressed, the scientists. They came, the vice director of economy and the so-called secretary on foreign affairs, the former KGB officer, to the Pulko Observatory.
In what year roughly?
It's roughly in 1964. Yeah, it's —
Sixty-three even. Because R[???] retired —
Retired in '63-'64.
Sixty-three, yeah. And Kratt [?] came, and Kratt was a very fable [?] person, so it is very interesting from a psychological point of view. There was an opportunity to work abroad. I mentioned already some. And people wanted to go abroad because of higher salaries. So they denounced each other, in order to exclude the rivals. It's a psychology, rotten psychology. And they complained on the activities of the scientific secretary on foreign affairs, who usually was one of the scientists, just fill in the blanks and collecting the photographs for all these foreign affairs for travel. And because of complaints, the KGB has sent their own man, and when he arrived, so he played at being in the Bureau of Inspection — just summon in people who were in the prisoner of war, prisonership of war, Koskissolov [?], and interrogating him for hours. And in one week he again summoned him, and it was repeat, and write how you could get into the prisonership of Finns [?]. So it was much humiliated, and one part of the scientist was in the network of denouncers, and they had more privileged situation in coming abroad.
What did you mean, related to the Finns?
Kissolov [?] was drafted to the army, and he was taken a prisoner of a war by Finnish soldiers. And then he was liberated and took part in the arrest of the military action during the war, and returned to the university and was arrested.
Because he was in prisonership.
He was suspect because he was a prisoner?
That was very common.
No no. He was not suspect. He was just —
[???] in prison in Germany or Finland would be rearrested by the Soviets—
Rearrested. And he served his term ten years. And thanks to Professor Doych [?], he was released and returned to the university and then graduated from the university and was the scientific officer, scientific researcher at [???] until now. And I have forced him to defend the doctor's thesis and to publish his book, because he was afraid that somebody will, because of this psychological mutilation, some deformation that he was persecuted all the time, he didn't want to expose himself.
In a general sort of way, how did all of that affect the scientific work at [???]?
Well, some people were abroad who sometimes were not so expert, but generally, because [???] was fighting with this guy, they were the real sort of people who came to Chile, to Bolivia, but with great efforts to fight this guy who was a — And when I came as a director, the first move of mine was to fire him out, and I succeeded. And then I fired this guy of party and household economy.
The two people, the director of the foreign affairs office and the assistant director for administrative affairs.
Administrative affairs, yeah. And I got the unfortunately the heart attack because the academy [???]?
Oh, had betrayed.
Betrayed me. Yeah, yeah. They promised support, full support, and then the vice president K[???]kov told, "No, we can't, because we were recommended by the central committee of party not to irritate Leningrad [???] committee of party." So it was on my own risk, but I was — You know something, I was acted like soldier Shwade [?] — never asking people of Iran [?] how to do, just—
I think we're down to like 30 seconds left or something.
About three minutes.
Do you think we could get a description very briefly from Viktor on how it was he did become director of Polkava. I know we're jumping over a lot of [???], but at least get that in.
Could you describe how it was that you did become director of Polkava? How did you become [???]?
I was invited by President Alexandrof [?] when I was in Moscow, and he told me that he is going to close the Polkava Observatory.
When was this?
Going to close it.
Yeah. In 1983 or 1982, after the commission was there and I was in the commission.
There had been a commission sent there to investigate?
To investigate the state of things in the observatory. And I told him, "You and me, we have no moral right to close what we have not [???]. I am full of all this papers denouncing each other." He showed me the file of letters, and he asked me, "Are you sure that you could manage, master this situation at Polkava?" "I could try," I told him. Because I thought I will be there two or three months firing these guys out, and I thought that the collective, the staff is sound, and they will work, and somebody else will be director, okay, I return to my Institute for Theoretical Astronomy. But it appeared that it is not the case, because also I was just like the paratrooper throw in, and then the parachute is not open [laughs], until [it hits?] the surface. [laughter]
Okay. I think we better go on down.
But thank you very much.
You are welcome, you are welcome.