top of page

Russia 1982

I spent the period 9 March-11 April 1982 in the Soviet Union (USSR as it then was) on a Royal Society/USSR Academy of Sciences exchange visit, at the invitation of  Grigory Isaacovich (Grisha) Barenblatt, who arranged everything with meticulous care and attention to detail.   The country was still under the firm control of Leonid Brezhnev, with as yet no hint of Glasnost.  It was still a regime surviving under military and police control that was everywhere in evidence.   The Soviet economy was at that time going from bad to worse, and one could sense the widespread disillusion of the people with the oppressive system that controlled their lives.


My journey took me to Novosibirsk, Irkutsk, Leningrad (as was) and Riga, as well as Moscow.  I visited 12 different research Institutes and gave 12 lectures.  The questions raised during these lectures were challenging, and I soon learnt to appreciate the Soviet tradition, whereby a 'seminar' based on a one-hour lecture could well extend to two or even three hours through animated audience participation. 


My host in Novosibirsk was Vladislav Pukhnachov whom I had first met in Trieste in 1973.  He met me at the airport in a blackout due to power failure, and took me in a battered Siberian Academy car to Akademgorodok, the site of no less than 35 research Institutes of the Soviet Academy of Sciences.  I stayed for a week, based at the Lavrentyev Institute of Hydrodynamics, where I met Vladimir (Volodya) Vladimirov, with whom I have enjoyed close friendship ever since.  


The temperature in Akademgorodok was -20 C throughout my stay, with hard-packed snow on the ground and  crisp sparkling weather.  My hosts the Pucknachov's (Volodya and Tanya) taught me the elements of cross-country skiing at the weekend and took me to the Novosibirsk Ballet one evening.    They entertained me at their home with caviar and Armenian cognac, Siberian ravioli and rowan compôte; all most delicious!


On Saturday 20 March, Volodya accompanied me by plane to Irkutsk, where we were met by Sam Vainshtein (who, with Zel'dovich, had introduced the 'fast dynamo' concept).  The next day, we visited Lake Baikal, still covered with two metres of very clear ice, and witnessed the arrival of a long thin line of skiers completing a 40km annual challenge ski-run across the lake.  


Vainshtein worked at SibIZMIR (the Siberian Institute of Geomagnetism, Ionosphere and Radio Wave Propagation).  I lectured there with some difficulty, because there was no overhead transparency projector, the blackboard was primitive, and the chalk was a lump of calcite newly hewn from local deposits.  The discussion was however animated and altogether it was an exhilarating encounter.


Back in Moscow, I had stimulating discussions over the next few days with  Arnol'd and  Zel'dovich; the timing was perfect because it gave me advance knowledge of the book Magnetic Fields in Astrophysics by Zel'dovich, Ruzmaikin & Sokoloff,  published one year later in 1983.


On Friday 26th, following a memorable dinner at the home of Zel'dovich,  he put me on the night train to Leningrad, with a sly parting wink for I found myself sharing a sleeping compartment with a beautiful devochka. It occurred to me that this might be a honeypot, an uncharitable thought because I arrived  in Leningrad unscathed the following morning!  There I was met by Eduard Mikhailovich Drobyshevski who took me to the huge modern Hotel Moskva overlooking the River Neva on which great blocks of ice were still floating down towards the sea.  


It was a particular pleasure to renew acquaintance with Olga Alexandrovna Ladyzhenskaya, who was my guide to Pushkin and Pavlosk, and at the Ermitage over the weekend.  I lectured at the Mathematical Institute two days later on the question of whether the Euler equations do or do not develop a singularity within a finite time.  This is a question that still remains open to this day; massive computational power has been thrown at the problem, but has still failed to provide a definitive answer, yes or no.  Discussions with Ladyzhenskaya and V.A.Solonnikov were thought-provoking, as they had an original approach to existence problems of this kind.


I went on by train to Riga, capital of Latvia, still then of course part of the Soviet Union, although the Latvian spirit of independence was very evident in the intensely nostalgic  Latvian songs sung by choirs in local costume.  Here I visited the Riga MHD laboratory in Salaspils, at that time the best of its kind in the world.  My host was Olgerts Lielausis, and I was interested to meet also Agris Gailitis, leading dynamo theoretician, who was pioneering the experiments in a closed circuit of liquid sodium that eventually led to the 'Riga dynamo'.  


My final week was spent back in Moscow at Barenblatt's Institute of Oceanology, and at the Institute of Atmospheric Physics where A.M.Obukhov, famous student and colleague of Kolmogorov, showed me his experiments in which vortices are excited in a layer of electrolyte by 'Lorentz manipulation'.  Here I met Akiva Yaglom and  Gyorgii Golitsyn;  also Evgenyi Novikov, who was to defect to the USA in dramatic circumstances the following year during an IUTAM Symposium in Kyoto. 


Grisha Barenblatt was wonderfully supportive at every stage, taking me at the weekend to his dacha in Abramtsevo and to the ancient monastery at Zagorsk, and later to the heavily guarded Novodyevichy cemetery in Moscow where politicians, Academicians, composers, and generally  the Soviet elite, are laid to rest, each tombstone bearing an appropriately chiselled bust.  See here for the tombstone of Vladimir Igorovitch Arnol'd (12 June 1937-3 June 2010).


I returned to Cambridge after this month of non-stop scientific, cultural and social, activity, exhausted and exhilarated in equal measure. 

bottom of page