Chapter 3 - War
The summer of Europe was at an end, and with it a phase of Zworykin’s life. He seems to have passed (unlike most of his class) from one psychological millennia (pre-1914 Russia) to this new and fateful one relatively unscathed. In this transition he was undoubtedly aided by his youth, his openness to anything new, and perhaps his newly acquired urbanity. Whatever, when war was declared, he immediately returned to a Russia that was never again to be anything remotely similar to the country of his youth.
His engineering training qualified him for entry into military radio-communications, a natural adjunct to his own communications interests. He spent the next few years in this and allied fields while using his considerable powers of improvisation both to accomplish his many missions and also to stay alive.
For a Russian it was impossible to remain in Berlin, but equally difficult to return home. I finally succeeded in reaching St. Petersburg through Denmark and Finland, and was immediately mobilized into the Russian Army. As an engineer having foreign post-graduate work, I was assigned to the radio communication school and after brief training, was sent, still as a private, with a small group of specialists to replace casualties at the front—near the city of Grodno. The Eastern front was in utter confusion due to the big defeat and retreat of the Russian army back to its fortified lines. The location of the unit that we were to join was unknown, so we found ourselves completely isolated. No commander was willing to accept a group of about thirty specialists he neither needed nor could feed.
I soon found myself in a rather peculiar position. The sergeant who was officially in charge of the group had great difficulty in dealing with the officers, who paid little attention to him. Although being a private, I had on my tunic an engineer’s badge, and since engineers were always held in great esteem in Russia, I had a better chance (p. 34) to deal with army personnel. So I became a sort of unofficial leader of the group. Furthermore, before leaving St. Petersburg, I received from my Father a considerable sum of money “in case,” so I was able to buy food for all of us when nobody wanted to feed us.
In our search for the unit to which we were attached, we entered Grodno where an incident happened which, although it appeared to be unimportant at that time, had a strong influence on my activities for the next two years. As we were marching along a street in Grodno, in a haphazard formation, dirty, and practically in rags, we met a colonel in an Army Engineers’ uniform who stopped us and upbraided us for our disheveled condition. He demanded to know who we were and what we were doing. The sergeant reported our predicament, but since he was used to relegating the authority to me, he quickly referred the colonel to me. This of course was against military regulations since a sergeant was supposed to be in actual charge of the platoon. When the colonel saw the Engineer’s insignia on me, he changed his abusive way of talking and inquired who I was and why I was referred by the sergeant, etc. When I told him we were a replacement for radio specialists in the Nth division on the Eastern front (which evidently disappeared after the defeat) he became very interested and said we were exactly the type of personnel he needed in Grodno since they did not have a radio station. They had the equipment, he said, but they had no specialists to operate it. So on the spot he made me a quite unusual proposal.
“If, Private, you will find the equipment which is here somewhere on our railroad yard, and if you will install it and make it work by tomorrow noon, I will put you in charge of the whole outfit.” After all our troubles, this kind of offer seemed a godsend and we immediately agreed and asked where we could get information and papers to find the equipment. We received help in the staff headquarters and immediately went to the railroad yard, searching for the cars with the radio equipment. After prolonged searching, we found the equipment. In the meantime our sergeant (p. with another part of the group) located a house on the outskirts of the town with a yard suitable for our purposes. With the aid of people from the general staff, the yard and the house were requisitioned. After frantically working through the whole night, we not only were able to make the field equipment operative by the next morning, but we succeeded in establishing contact with the next fortress in the city of Kovno, a few hundred miles from Grodno. We made this contact without using the military code which we did not know.
I reported immediately to the general staff quarters as was agreed, but could not locate the Colonel. I finally found him in bed, sound asleep, evidently feeling very badly from a party the night before. At first he was very indignant that I woke him up. When I explained what we had done and that the station was ready and operating, he flatly refused to believe me. Only when I took him to our quarters and showed him the station actually operating, and we called Kovno in (p. 35) his presence, he was convinced and then he became jubilant. His enthusiasm, however, evaporated when he noticed that we were operating without code. He immediately told me that I could be court-martialed for this infraction. Of course we did not have the code because he did not give it to us. Also, being a private, I did not have the right to have the code, so we spent the rest of the day in general quarters with the high officials of the staff, discussing the problem. The solution was found by encircling our station with an infantry company in the charge of a captain, who would be responsible for the code, and essentially to keep our group in virtual isolation. In such a manner we were in Grodno for over a year.
It was our good luck to have among the members of our group several skilled mechanics, recently mobilized from factories, and two former telegraph operators. Our little gas motor generator operated satisfactorily and the operators were able to adjust themselves quickly to code transmission and reception. The communication traffic developed fast and we worked twenty-four hours a day, receiving and transmitting military radiograms. My time was mostly spent ciphering and deciphering the radiograms, asking the captain for the code book, and returning it immediately after. However, after we established a general routine, I found some free time, and since it was impossible for me to go far from the station (since each time I left I had to get permission from the captain in charge) I stayed at the station and occupied myself with the improvement of the equipment. I soon discovered that the weakest link was the motor generator, since we did not have any spare parts and it was improbable we could get them from the general depot. Since the city of Grodno had an electric power station, I got the idea to electrify the radio transmitter. I went to see the engineer at the city power station. He said he would string up for us a special power line for the transmitter, but that it was up to us to find a suitable motor. This created another problem. First of all the station did not have the funds, and there was no motor available. On the advice of the same engineer, I located a proprietor of a closed printing shop that had a suitable motor, hidden to avoid the military requisition. After long and arduous bargaining, I succeeded in convincing him that this was a purely personal deal and would be kept entirely confidential. I bought the motor from him with my personal money.
The radio equipment we had was of the field type and therefore everything, including the radio transmitter, was mounted on two-wheel carriages. We took the equipment apart and remounted it on benches in the largest room of the house. We coupled the motor generator to the newly purchased motor. The gasoline engine was kept as a spare in case the city power station failed. I was very proud of what we were doing so I kept the work very confidential in order to surprise Colonel G. Thus, when he saw what we did, he was surprised. His (p. 36) first reaction was that we had committed a most outrageous crime, since we dismantled military equipment without the proper authority and permissions signed by suitable military controls. This was the second time I ran afoul of military regulations. The colonel was actually frightened. He departed to report to his superiors to see how to get out of the situation and keep me from being court-martialed. It took considerable time. A lot of military personnel visited, inspecting and comparing the dismantled pieces with the specifications of the station, before a very simple solution was suggested by some smaller official in the control office. He suggested the old equipment be condemned as damaged in action because a few days before, a bomb from a zeppelin had exploded near us. We could write an order to rebuild the new station from the salvaged parts, without cost to the government.
However, this was not the end of my troubles, and as usual, I myself was responsible. Since the equipment now operated perfectly, I spent considerable time using the spare receiving equipment listening to other stations, besides the one with which we were in contact. In this way, we were the first to learn of the Russian victory over Austria under Przemysl. On the spur of the moment, I telephoned this news to the staff. After the initial jubilation, someone asked me how I got the news, since it was transmitted by a code which I did not have and why the captain did not know anything about it. I admitted that, since I used the code to decipher telegrams day after day, I had memorized most of it. This again was very irregular. So in order to avoid more problems, the colonel proposed I be promoted to a commissioned officer, thereby having the right to possess the code. Somebody pointed out that this was also irregular, since in order to do this I would have to be sent to St. Petersburg first, because I was in the engineering branch. They were afraid to send me there for fear of losing me to another unit.
The next complication came from the fact that I could receive the Nauen radio station of the German general staff. Every day the station broadcast news bulletins containing tremendous amounts of information, only a part was received from the central station in St. Petersburg, and then with almost a day’s delay. At first I kept this discovery to myself, until one day I inadvertently told the colonel some news he did not know but heard the next day from official sources. He was immediately suspicious and questioned me as to my source of information. I should add that the army was always fearful of espionage, therefore any new information not received through official sources, was deemed suspicious. So I told him my source and this time the colonel got a very bright idea. He ordered me to regularly receive this broadcast, translate it from German, and reproduce it on a hectograph machine. This was an additional and a tremendous load for our little group, so we promoted some of the apprentice operators that we were training as replacements and also obtained some additional personnel from general headquarters. (p. 37) We began delivering to the general staff a daily copy of the translation from the German general staff broadcast. This of course brought tremendous attention from the official to our little station, and I was able to gain many favors for the crew both in order to keep their morale up and also complete the very heavy work in which we became involved.
Meantime, the Russian Eastern front was retreating northward and finally Grodno became headquarters for the commander of the Eastern Front. Evidently somebody discussed our station with the Front commander because he expressed the desire to visit us. So one day our colonel, very excited, told us to start scrubbing everything and even gave orders to replace some of the worst uniforms of the group. We started to rehearse what we were going to show the general. It was his idea that we tune in Nauen, since the visit was timed for the beginning of their broadcast, and show him the reception of the German bulletin maybe even supply a running translation. Everything was arranged. We were inundated by a group of the highest ranking officers including generals, colonels, and lesser ranks. Our colonel explained what we were doing and emphasized particularly the work of recording and translating the German staff bulletin. The whole presentation was made from the point of view of our getting some German secrets, which was of course not true.
After I was introduced to the general, I handed him the headset, in which I already heard the Nauen broadcast. I noticed that the operator was writing down the bulletin and starting the translation. Suddenly I saw the general become rather red in the face. He glared at me, threw the headset on the table, stamped his foot and bellowed, “How dare you try to fool me, I didn’t hear anything.” I grabbed the headset and heard very clearly the broadcast continuing. It occurred to me that maybe the General was slightly deaf or possibly had a deficiency in high pitch sound. Although I was scared almost out of my wits, I remembered that I had placed one of my operators near the ground wires with a buzzer so if we had trouble he should wait for the signal and start transmitting simple Morse code. So I gave the signal and immediately heard, blanking the reception of Nauen, the hoarse sound of the buzzer. I looked at the general and saw that he heard this too. “That is different, he said as he left, but I still don’t believe a single word.” The most amusing part of the whole incident was to watch the expression on the faces of the surrounding officers. When the general exploded, everyone who had been trying to be close to us to witness the demonstration, suddenly moved away leaving a sort of a vacuum around me. At that point, the colonel’s face was completely white. He was tremendously relieved when the general actually agreed he heard something. But no one even looked at us as they followed the general out. (p. 38)
Zworykin now alludes to a fact that has been generally overlooked (p. in the West, at least) in the cataloging of ills we are so familiar with concerning post- revolutionary Russia. Namely—that fear, suspicion, and paranoia were not the exclusive by-products of the Bolshevik revolution but were abundantly prevalent as subterranean and potentially explosive forces in pre- revolutionary Russia. Indeed, with this in mind, and considering some of the predicaments Zworykin’s many talents got him into—it is surprising he survived at all.
Fear and suspicion on spying permeated the armed forces from commanding staff to common soldier. As a result of our successful operation of a radio station, which at that time was a very unfamiliar art, we were forced to take part in other mysterious problems connected with communication. One of the first was to help to explain the uncanny knowledge the Germans seem to possess about all aspects of life in our front trenches. It started in the front lines near Grodno, where Germans would post signs over their trenches telling us when and which commanding officers were going to visit this particular sector, when replacements were coming, and even what food they were going to have for dinner. This created near panic among the troops, since their possession of this information was attributed to espionage. We succeeded in tracing this information to our own field telephone lines. In order to prove it, we stretched lines behind our trenches and were able to overhear the telephone conversation between our posts. Since in some places our own and enemy trenches were quite close to each other, obviously the Germans could do the same, using this as some sort of psychological warfare. I wrote a report describing simple methods to avoid such leaking of information. Immediately after, I was ordered to investigate and find a remedy against operating personnel of intermediate telephone switchboards listening to the commanding officer’s conversation.
This was a much more complicated task until I finally found a way to identify the switchboard where such a connection occurred. Since I was convinced that this practice was due to simple curiosity, I decided to warn the telephone operators before sending in my report about methods of identifying them. I organized several lectures to familiarize them with radio during which I explained, using information from their own instruction books, how easy it is to identify the origin of clicks from various switchboards. This produced the desired effect for I never heard any more complaints. (p. 39)
These and similar activities gave me a rather dubious reputation and our colonel told me one day that I would be transferred to another unit, which I understood was connected with intelligence service. This I did not like at all.
During this period, I began to have trouble with insomnia. It probably started with fatigue since I quite often listened for hours to all kinds of Morse code dispatches, partly for my own interest, but mostly to keep our operator from talking to neighboring radio stations without code, which was strictly forbidden but which they were often very apt to do. This developed into some sort of continuous dream of receiving and decoding radio dispatches, mostly about carloads of hay, grain, ammunition, etc. that were going from one place to another. It began to bother me because it interfered with my sleep, and finally I confided my problem to the medical doctor who periodically inspected our outfit. This doctor had become a very good friend of mine, both because he was interested in what we were doing and also because he had found someone he could discuss the theater and literature with, things he was deprived of in Grodno. I have already mentioned the fact that in spite of the accomplishments and many other engineering services that I undertook for the military at their request, I was kept a virtual prisoner in the radio station compound. The military valued my services and did not want to lose me; they therefore were unwilling to send me for the promotion I was entitled to after a year and a half of service and actually being in charge of the radio station. The station itself became more and more important because the front was receding and it was rumored that Grodno might be evacuated. So, when the doctor heard my complaints about my dreams, he got a very bright idea and wrote an order sending me to a psychiatric hospital in St. Petersburg. This of course ended my service in Grodno. Not long after my departure, the front receded even more and Grodno was evacuated; our beautiful radio station was blown up. Although the crew scattered, I met some of them much later under quite different conditions.
When I returned to St. Petersburg, I first reported to the Officers’ Radio School as per my orders. While I was waiting in the reception room, I met my old acquaintance Colonel M. [Ilya E. Mouromtseff] who was second in command and in charge of educational personnel at the school. He asked what I was doing there. I told him my predicament, of being sent to the psychiatric hospital and frankly the reasons which lead to it. He was very sympathetic and told me he needed someone for the teaching staff in the school and took it upon himself to present my case to the authorities. Next day I was absolved of the necessity of going to the hospital and was enrolled in the teaching staff of the Officers School of Communication. A few weeks later, I was commissioned an officer. (p. 40)
About this time an important event occurred in my life. I fell in love with a girl, a dental school student, and after a whirlwind courtship married her, informing my family by telegram after the wedding had occurred. To my surprise they did not object or complain that I had taken such a step without notifying or consulting them. Such things could happen only during war when life is out of normal channels and most conventions are upset. Even in Murom, life had been changed by the war - in answer to my telegram, I received congratulations and presents for my wife. Of course my life radically changed. We leased an apartment and began the life of a married couple.
As a result of my marriage, my work also changed. It happened at this time that a French Communication Commission arrived headed by General Ferrie. The mission brought information and samples of the newest radio equipment including improved high vacuum amplifying valves. My assignment was to become acquainted with the performance of these valves and to become a contact man with the Russian branch of the Marconi Factory in St. Petersburg where the Russian version of this type valve would eventually be produced. This opportunity let me acquire a few valves, and since I did not have a suitable location at the school for a private laboratory, I brought the equipment to my apartment and used a spare room for the laboratory.
At the same time I received a new British book on radio communication by Eccles and was able with its aid to assemble a radio telegraph transmitter with valves that I soon rebuilt as a radio telephone. This experiment led me to more trouble which I will describe later. To test the transmitter, I put the receiving equipment in the kitchen and asked my new orderly, Konstantine, to help me. He was a recently mobilized typical village boy, and although able to read, he was essentially half literate and full of all kinds of superstitions. He seemed very amused by the radio equipment, but could not understand it, in spite of all my efforts to explain how it worked; he believed that its operation involved some kind of magic. He helped me by counting 1-2-3 etc. into the microphone, while I was trying to improve the performance of the receiver in another room. As time progressed, I began to be more and more involved and interested in the work and Konstantine more and more tired of counting in to the microphone; he believed that I was doing this just to annoy him.
The result of my work in vacuum valves influenced my future activities because I was assigned by the Officers Communication School to the Russian Marconi factory, located on the outskirts of St. Petersburg where radio equipment was being built for the Russian army. Incidentally, the name of the city was changed to “Petrograd” at the beginning of the war. At the factory I met many interesting people including the director, Dr. S. M. Aisenstein [later references indicate that this is not Sergei Eisenstein], and two very remarkable scientists, Dr. [Nikolai D.] Papaleksi and Dr. [Leonid Isaakovich] Mandelstam. (p. 41)
Both were very able physicists with a number of original works to their credit. Dr. Papaleksi was in charge of the development and production of a valve similar to Dr. Round’s valve, of the British Marconi Company. I was attached to the factory as an inspector of the radio equipment being built for the Russian army. Since this organization was doing very good work and did their best to supply the equipment needs of the army as fast as they could, there was no reason for any friction between me and the factory management, and very soon I was on the best of terms with most of the staff.
In Dr. Aisenstein, I found a very imaginative, well-educated, and receptive person. We spent considerable time discussing some farfetched ideas in electronics, including television which I told him I had explored with Professor Rosing and which still held tremendous fascination for me. So we decided that as soon as our military work came to an end I would join his organization and form a group to develop electronic television. But our dream never came to fruition.
However, I did succeed in interesting Colonel Mouromtseff and other radio school officers in my work with tube radio transmitters and was permitted to test it on airplanes. Since the circuit was built at home, everything was loosely tied to a wooden board. I placed it on the floor of a single-motor open cockpit plane assigned for this test. The rest of the equipment (battery, telegraph key, microphone, and antenna) was loosely connected by wires. I sat behind the pilot and was supposed to hold this loose assembly with my feet. The pilot, a young captain who loved acrobatics, was anxious to demonstrate his skill to me. I begged him to behave during the test, which he promised to do. But as soon as I began the test, the bracket holding the antenna wire broke so I asked him to land. Communicating with a pilot in an open plane is always difficult, so the pilot misunderstood my request to land for repair and thought it was the end of the test, deciding he could now show me his skill in barrel rolling the plane. Suddenly I noticed that all the equipment began to slide along the bottom of the plane; the heavy storage battery landed on my feet and acid began to leak out. It took some time before the pilot realized what had happened and landed, but not before I was covered with acid and wrapped in the tangled wires of the radio equipment. This, unfortunately, was my only chance to test the equipment because I was soon reassigned to another duty.
I received a telephone call from Colonel Mouromtseff telling me that the Communication School was in the process of forming a special unit to be sent to Turgay, a small desert town near the border of Chinese Turkestan. The town was besieged by rebellious native Turkmen who had cut all the communication lines. A military expedition had been organized to relieve the town, and three radio stations were to be set up to reestablish communications.
He needed (p. 42) somebody to head this unit who was particularly well acquainted with the newest equipment, which was to be supplied by the Russian Marconi factory. Furthermore, someone had to train as quickly as possible operators to work with this equipment. Would I take the assignment? The possibility of visiting so far away and practically unknown an area and also taking such a responsible job appealed to me, so after consultation with Dr. Aisenstein, I accepted. My decision was also partly affected by troubles in my personal life. Because of persistent arguments with my wife, I thought that such a temporary separation might do us both some good.
Zworykin has always freely admitted that the life of a dedicated engineer left much to be desired when the demands of a husband were pitted against the demands of the laboratory. Here, very early in his marriage, even with the accelerated and disjointed nature of a society at war, his personal and professional conflicts had begun to surface. He has often said that the life of such an engineer’s wife is most difficult in that she is constantly alone and even when he is with her, he, more often than not, is still occupied with his scientific problems. Such a situation became a recurring problem throughout most of his professional life.
The next few weeks were rather hectic, instructing personnel, forming units, and finding suitable officers to head them. Incidentally, one of the officers, selected as head of one of the stations, happened to be my brother-in-law (who eventually became an internationally known scientist and member of the USSR Academy of Science). At that time he was a young associate professor of geology at the Institute of Mines in St. Petersburg. He had been recently mobilized and requested this assignment because of his interest in traveling to such undeveloped regions.
Finally, the equipment and crew departed. I followed them a few days later catching up to them at the end of the railroad line, from where the expedition was to continue on horseback. On my way, as I changed trains in Orenbourg, I noticed tremendous excitement at the station and my first thought was that the war was over. However, I found that the elation was due to the news that Rasputin had just been assassinated. The streets were crowded, a celebration was in progress, and the general consensus was that all the Russian troubles were over and the life would be better. Of course, this was not the case. (p. 43)
When I caught up to the crew, they were scheduled to start early the next day. As prearranged, one of the radio units was already deployed near the railroad station and was in good working condition, ready to operate. Since I was not needed at the station, I decided to join the troops departing on horseback. The expedition consisted of several hundred Cossacks, one squadron of hussars, two pieces of artillery, and the radio groups which were to proceed on horsedrawn wagons. I received a spare horse from the hussar unit. Although I was used to horseback riding, I found the military saddle uncomfortable and the horse very big and exceedingly rough. After three days of riding, I was completely incapacitated and had to be transferred to a wagon to the grand merriment of all the officers and Cossacks. After a few days, however, the expedition was attacked by mounted Turkmen and in an ensuing fight a few native horses were captured. I was given a small horse with a very quiet gait and a native soft saddle, thus I was able to continue on horseback without much difficulty for the rest of the trip which lasted about two more weeks.
After a few more skirmishes, our expedition arrived at Irgiz, the town situated between the railroad and Turgay, where the headquarters of the commanding general and the second radio station was established. After a few days rest, we went on to Turgay, a provincial town with an administration office for this part of Turkestan and a total population of a few thousand Russians and natives. Our first job was to establish the radio station and make a connection with Irgiz and the railroad. That was done within a few days. After the installation was completed, and since the station had its own officer, my assignment was finished. However, the arrival of new troops and particularly of new communication in a city which hardly had any communications before, and especially radio for the first time, resulted in our becoming rather famous people. Both officers and men were deluged with invitations from the local nobility who tried to dine and wine us continuously. After living in this atmosphere for a couple of weeks, I realized that I would better become crazy or a drunk if I remained in Turgay. So when I sent my report to the commanding general, I requested permission to return to Irgiz. Permission was promptly denied on the grounds that to return safely I would have to be accompanied by a troop convoy, which was not available. Therefore I was told I would have to wait until spring, when they expected the entire expedition would return home. Since it was only January, this prospect did not appeal to me, so on the advice of the local administration, I decided to return alone with a native guide. The trip was organized by the local administration who supplied me with three horses, one for pack, one for the guide, and one for myself. The guide was one of the local native judges who had a very good reputation among the local population. He had a brother, also in Turgay, who was kept as a hostage until my safe arrival. (p. 44)
This plan, including all the preparations, I reported to the general in Irgiz, requesting again permission to leave which again was promptly denied.
Since I officially was not in the general’s unit, but was attached to it only temporarily as an instructor, and since in general the discipline in the army at that period was very slack, I decided to disregard the denial of a permit and leave without one. My plan was to start very late in the evening and travel only at night, staying more or less hidden during the daytime. The guide, whom I found very congenial, assured me there would be no trouble in reaching Irgiz safely. However some officers in the expedition found out about my plan, and were afraid that they would be blamed for it by the general and tried to persuade me not to leave. Failing this, they decided to have a formal celebration on the day of my departure, hoping to either drink me out of the trip or delay it as long as possible. In this they partly succeeded because they left my lodging about four o’clock in the morning, and I was able to start only after daybreak.
At first we made very good progress but when we started to look for a suitable place to hide for the next day, we were spotted by some horsemen and before long we were surrounded by about fifty mounted natives. After some argument with the guide, they ordered us to proceed to their local “khan” (tribal head). Under convoy, we were delivered to a conglomeration of felt tents. They brought me to the largest one where I was told to dismount and go inside where I found a meeting of about twenty natives in progress. Before leaving Turgay, I knew from my close contacts with radio communication, that the uprising which was fomented by German agents was subsiding and some of the tribes were already discussing terms of a peaceful settlement. Some of their representatives were already in Irgiz discussing it with the general; therefore I was not very much alarmed, hoping I would meet one of them.
As was the native custom, no direct questions were asked at the beginning. First we were served a native drink which was made of compressed tea, very thick, with sheep fat and milk, and some sort of very hard homemade biscuits. The biscuits and small lumps of sugar were distributed by the chief who threw them to the destined person who was supposed to catch them. After this, questions were asked about how the weather was in Turgay? How was our health? Where are we going? It was useless to lie because the only place we were able to go from there was Irgiz. Therefore I promptly admitted it. The next question was—what for? Here I had a bright idea to tell them that my main purpose was to report to the general about some native tribes that were anxious for a peace settlement, which was quite true and already reported to us by radio. Since they knew about this, they were surprised how I could know, being isolated for two hundred miles by the desert which they controlled. Here I had the opportunity to deliver my first lecture on radio. I did not know how much they understood, but they (p. 45) had seen our radio masts which were visible from great distances, and I put particular stress that by this method we could talk with the general in Irgiz. This impressed them and after a discussion among themselves, they asked, what was I going to tell the general? I answered that it would depend on what they told me and therefore made myself some sort of self-appointed envoy. Evidently they were eager to start such a discussion, since they accepted my explanation and told the terms by which they would agree to reestablish the mail service (done in this part of the country by horses and sleds), reinstall the telegraph poles, and disperse the bands.
I guided our conversation according to those conditions I had heard would be acceptable in Chelkar. The chief was a very decent fellow, and after I agreed to discuss his terms with the general, he not only released us, but also gave us a convoy of a few horsemen. We left and on the second night, after the convoy left us, we reached the general’s quarters. When I was brought by the patrol that met us on the outskirts of town, to the general, I found him very agitated because, as I found out later, he had already received news of my departure. His only words were to “turn around and go to the guard house,” meaning that I was under arrest for disobeying his orders.
I was distraught because I was quite proud to have inadvertently accomplished a very important mission even though no one authorized me to do it. Very dejected, I left the general’s headquarters and proceeded to my unknown fate. Evidently luck was still with me because on my way to the guard house I was intercepted by the orderly of the government official in whose house the general was quartered. He told me that Mrs. K____, the wife of the government official, wanted me to return through the back door and see her. The lady, whom I had met before when I passed Chelkar, was very sympathetic and interested in our communication work. She was upset by the general’s temper and hoped that when he had time to cool down, he would be more moderate. She asked her cook to feed me, since I had not eaten the whole day. As I ate she went back and forth between the kitchen and the general’s offices trying to make peace. Finally she came back and said that the general would see me, and advised me not to argue with him.
The first question he asked me was quite amusing, “How would you explain your return by yourself to Petrograd when we delivered you to Turgay with a convoy of several hundred Cossacks and artillery? Will this feat not cast the whole expedition in a ridiculous light?” I answered that, first of all, that was a different time. Since I knew that the peaceful negotiations were now already under way, I had hoped to meet on my way back some of the people who eventually would discuss the peace settlement. Furthermore, I said that I was never instructed to stay as long as I did with this outfit, but (p. 46) was told to resume my work in the laboratories as soon as possible. Evidently the general had already cooled down because he decided that the best way to close this incident was to forget it. He asked me, if I was willing, without seeing anybody in Chelkar, to take the first train to Petrograd and to give him my word of honor that I would not tell anyone about my adventure until the war was over.
Of course I agreed. He gave me a very nice letter of dismissal and orders to return to Petrograd. Without any more problems, I returned to the military school in Petrograd and reported to Colonel Mouromtseff. When he saw me, he was quite astonished saying he had heard some rumors about my being taken prisoner and put in jail by Turkmen. I thereby produced my orders and flattering recommendation from the general which said, among other things that the communications we established were performing beautifully and were of very great value to the expedition.
Again, for a time, I remained in the officers’ school and spent most of my time at the Marconi factory.
One day I received an order to go to Moscow and take some radio valves for installation at the Moscow Radio Transmitting Station. After I accomplished this, I remained there for a few more days, awaiting further orders from the school, visiting my sister Maria who was working in a Moscow hospital.
One day, when I was at the station, we received a telephone message that a big fire had started in the center of Moscow and a pogrom was in progress. Such things had happened in Russia before and usually started as a patriotic demonstration of the Russian People’s Party, an ultramonarchistic organization that was always under the full protection of the police. During the progress of such a demonstration, hooligans and criminals usually joined them, so in the end they would degenerate into a pogrom whose chief victims were Jews, intellectuals, and particularly German nationals. When the demonstrators passed stores owned by persons with German names, the marchers would break into them and begin looting. From that, the demonstration turned into a riot with the burning of stores and the killing of anyone suspected of being German. The result was a big fire in the center of the city and the killing and wounding of many people. The military commandant issued an alert and sent some troops to help the police, confining the rest of the troops in their quarters.
When I heard this, I started toward the center of the city to take photographs of the rioting, but was turned back by a military patrol. From the station we could see the fire in the city, but so I could have a better view for photographing, I asked the crew to hoist me to the top of one of the radio masts, which they did. I (p. 47) was perched on top of the mast with my camera on a trapeze enjoying the view, when I heard some shouting from the ground. At that moment, the trapeze began to fall and of course I fell with it. I was sure that the cable had broken and was quite frightened. When I reached the ground, rather dazed, I was told that the commandant had just arrived at the station and since lifting anybody to the masts without an emergency was strictly forbidden, they had to lower me in a hurry. (p. 48)