OSA | Living History

Jarus Quinn Memoir: I Didn't Do It

Jarus Quinn

Despite my appearance in Leningrad in April of 1991, I deny any responsibility for the coup that befell the government of the Soviet Union in August of 1991. The relationship of the Optical Society of America (OSA) with the Soviet scientific community had beginnings in the 1950’s when the OSA began its translation and publication of the Soviet journal Optics and Spectroscopy. This journal contained the work being done in basic research by scientists throughout the USSR . There was no formal agreement with the Soviet publishers for the translation and republication, but all involved saw the advantage of the dissemination of the results. Early on, before subscriptions grew, the translation was supported in part by a U.S. government agency, whose purpose was intelligence. Among the early subscribers was the Library of Congress, but its subscription was canceled when a southern member of Congress introduced legislation that banned such Soviet propaganda in the nation’s premier library.

The relationship between OSA continued at arm’s length until the 1980’s. There was some knowledge of a much larger Soviet investment in applied optical technology, but little was known about the scientists and engineers or the location of the work. A number of U.S. researchers suspected that the prime center for the research was in Leningrad. A member of OSA, Lewis Hyde, managed to secure a visa to visit the city in 1959, but he was unable to find anyone who admitted to knowing anything about such a center. Towards the end of the 1980’s, “glasnost” (openness) arrived along with “perestroika” (restructuring) and the free world learned of the existence of the State Order of Lenin and Order of the October Revolution S. I. Vavilov Optical Institute. GOI, as it is now known, was founded in 1918, the first scientific institute founded after the Revolution. In 1990 there were 8,000 people employed at the institute’s primary headquarters in Leningrad and 2,000 more in other parts of the city. In addition, an offshoot of GOI was located in the city: the Leningrad Optical-Mechanical Association (LOMO). Its role was the manufacture of optical products and it had 20,000 employees. Optics was a big deal in Leningrad, bigger than any place else in the world.

In 1966, OSA was able to acquire a subscription to the Soviet Journal of Optical Technology, a journal devoted almost exclusively to the research that takes place at GOI. Translation of the journal and publication of an English edition soon followed. This was the beginning of a mutually advantageous set of agreements that came to fruition with the Institute during the Gorbachev era to help balance the loss of support that ensued.

An agreement was developed for OSA to publish the two Soviet journals with the translation done in Leningrad and payment to be made in dollars. There was no legal or reliable way to transfer payment, so I asked for a continuing stream of visitors to GOI to hand carry payments. Some funds were retained in Washington to pay for the travel expenses of visiting Russian scientists. After several successful years, I, the paymaster, was invited to visit what had become St. Petersburg.

My arrival in St. Petersburg in April, 1991 began a non-stop week of activities. The first stop was the door of an old building on Vasilevskii Island in the heart of St. Petersburg. Behind the door, I was greeted by Michael M. Miroshnikov, who had resigned as director of GOI in 1989. The headquarters of GOI and most of its laboratories were housed in a variety of buildings on the island. Naturally, I was expected to visit each one and make the acquaintance of most of the workers. The best stop was at the office of the director of the division of physical optics, Evgeni Alexandrov. He was also the editor of Optics and Spectroscopy as well as my primary contact for securing translators for the journal. I don’t know whether it was me or the envelope of cash in my pocket that elicited more pleasure from him.

The next day we were off to visit several laboratories located off the island and to the LOMO factory. I ended the afternoon at the optical materials laboratory directed by Gury Petrovsky. He invited me to have dinner with him, asking if I had a taste for mushrooms. He received an enthusiastic reply from a child of Pennsylvania’s mushroom country. The walk home to Gury’s apartment took us through a lovely park, and he carried a bag which he quickly filled with mushrooms gathered along the path home. It wasn’t quite the same as going to the mushroom houses in Kennett Square and buying a box of buttons. The varieties were numerous and dinner was delicious, though it took a bit of courage on my part to believe that Gury knew which varieties were known to poison the consumer. My parents had never allowed me to harvest in the wild because of their fears.

Entertainment followed dinner: Swan Lake performed by the Kirov Ballet. A review is not within my competence, but suffice to say that no performance since has ever matched that evening. The next day I was promised a bit more recreation with a visit to the Hermitage Museum. I had heard that there was no equivalent museum in the world and was anxious for the visit. We arrived before the museum was open to the public and were greeted by the director of the museum. He had been informed that I was the parent of two artists and he would like the privilege of escorting me through the museum. Where he got the information, I do not know. The KGB perhaps? Off we went at a fast pace, beginning with the earliest collections. About noon time we reached a glorious gallery filled with French impressionists. I began to slowly traverse the perimeter of the room admiring paintings from a period of unbelievable creativity. I had traversed about 5% of the collection, when the director took me by the arm and explained that we must move on if I was to see every one of the museum’s galleries. On we went until we reached the exit, but it was the one gallery that I remember most.

The next day was devoted to a bit of relaxation and to a tour of a gallery which was opening an exhibit of paintings by local artists. My host for the day was Yuri Denisyuk, the inventor of the white-light hologram. We went slowly through the collection, in contrast to the prior day’s tour. We came upon a painting which was a scene of the destruction of Leningrad during the siege by Nazi troops during World War II. Yuri turned from the picture, grasped me tightly, and broke down into tears. Through his sobbing, he related that living through that horror is a memory that he has done everything possible to suppress.

Next day it was back to Washington and earning a living. It was possible to repay the hospitality of my Russian hosts in part by inviting several of them to attend the annual technical meeting of OSA in September of 1992. The meeting was held in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and among the attendees was Michael Miroshnikov. He took me aside after dinner one evening and asked if he could discuss something very personal. I agreed and he first related the nightmare that the Russian society had been through since the resignation of Gorbachev, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the installation of the government of Boris Yeltsin. In particular, he noted the problems with medical care. He had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and was on the waiting list for an operation. Was there any way that I could find a physician that could check the diagnosis since he felt he few symptoms? I found a urologist at the University of New Mexico who was willing to check him out (for free, would you believe?). The diagnosis was that the problems were minor, and no surgery was warranted. Miroshnikov’s return to Russia was a bit brighter than the trip over.

After retiring from OSA in 1994, my contacts with my Russian colleagues continued on a more personal basis. The transition from communism has been extremely difficult for them. The employment at GOI has dropped from 10,000 to less than 2,000 and the salaries, when they are paid, are well below the poverty level. Fortunately for a few, there have been opportunities for sponsored research and cooperative ventures with Western corporations. From these old colleagues, the memories of past events are regularly recalled, sometimes with visits, but in the main with e-mail.

By Jarus Quinn