Chapter 7 - Return to Russia
As Zworykin’s television activities became more known in the scientific world, and his thereby achieving notoriety as "The Electronic Wizard," he was finally contacted by Russian officials who inquired if he would return to the USSR. The conditions offered him were very flattering, and he was assured that in spite of his past, he would not be subject to any form of recrimination. He refused at once stating that he was now an American citizen and had not the slightest intention of ever changing his status.
However, in 1934, he received an invitation from Moscow to come to the USSR and deliver a series of lectures on television. He was, of course, anxious to go. He had not seen his family since 1918, and was most curious to see how far television work had progressed in the USSR.
All of his family and friends were against the trip, citing numerous examples of ex-patriots [sic] who had returned only to be detained or even worse. He consulted with David Sarnoff who was personally in favor of it and thought, from RCA’s point of view, Zworykin might even develop some business projects from it. Sarnoff saw little danger of Zworykin being detained because he would have visas in both directions. The State Department had no objection either, but cautioned that they did not extend their protection to U.S. citizens returning to the country of their origin.
Ever the adventurer, he accepted the invitation.
I entered Russia by train from Berlin and on the border was met by an engineer from the Communications Trust, who remained with me for the rest of my visit. I also was supplied with food coupons and rubles; my dollars were registered in my passport as was my camera. I had received written instructions about what was forbidden to photograph, and my new companion was rather explicit in recommending that I strictly follow these rules. In general, he was very pleasant and we remained on good terms, although several times I frightened him by disregarding some of the rules. (p. 93)
The first city I stopped in was Leningrad, a city l knew very well under its two previous names and where two of my sisters were still living. In New York, during the processing of my papers by the Soviet Embassy, I secured official Soviet permission to visit them as well as my brother in Tbilisi, in the Caucasus. The first person to greet me at the railroad station was my brother-in-law, D. V. N., a professor in the Institute of Mines who had been with me during the expedition to Turgay.
My first impression of Leningrad was that it had not changed at all in the past seventeen years, but was taken over by country folk. In my student days, this was the best-dressed city in all of Russia, with the streets full of people, good horse carriages, and many automobiles. What I saw now were few carriages, almost no automobiles, and streets filled with shabbily dressed people. Another peculiarity I noticed was that before the city was very formal, the pedestrians were on the sidewalks and horses on the streets, now they were completely mixed together giving the impression of a country fair.
I was taken to the Astoria Hotel which used to be one of the best hotels in the city; I remember my father used to stay there on his visits. The Hotel gave the same general impression: no visible changes outside, but shabby inside. I was given a sumptuous three room suite in fairly good condition with a large bathroom in working order. This, I found later, was not quite the usual condition of hotel bathrooms of that period. What surprised me was the number of good paintings and porcelain bric-a-brac on the chiffoniers. I found out later that this was one of the suites reserved for foreign dignitaries.
Since it was early morning and my companion left me saying that he would pick me up later, I had breakfast in the restaurant, which again appeared very familiar, including the uniform of the waiters. The menu was quite elaborate and since I had to pay by food coupons, I ordered riabchik, a sort of game bird that was very favored in the old days. This, however, I did not receive, and had to be satisfied with something more simple like soft boiled eggs.
As soon as I finished, my companion appeared with two engineers and a prepared schedule for my visit. The schedule was very elaborate, with as many lectures as days I stayed, several visits to laboratories, and several formal dinners. I also found that I was the guest of communication industry and, thereby, the government, and not as I assumed of universities as was explained in the formal agreement. By bargaining a little and shifting the beginning of the days to earlier hours, I succeeded in including a few hours for sightseeing and visiting my sisters. I agreed to lecture in Russian, although at the beginning I found it somewhat difficult, (p. 94) particularly since the new subjects, electronics and television, required new words that I never knew in Russian. I soon discovered however that by using English words with Russian grammar, I was well understood. Even before the revolution many foreign words had crept into and become part of the Russian technical language. The audience universally was very interested and eager to learn, and question periods often were longer than the lectures. What surprised me was that the audience was very disciplined, compared to the disarray of my student days. Everybody stood up when the lecturer came in and remained up during the introduction by the head of the institute. They seated themselves only after he asked them to do so.
The several laboratories I visited did not impress me very much, since they changed little from what I had known before. They were located mostly in old buildings and poorly equipped, contrasted to the new well equipped laboratories in the United States. However, I saw many original experiments and results not familiar to me.
Of course, I inquired about Professor [Boris] Rosing but most of the people I asked had never heard of him. Finally, I learned that he was arrested at the beginning of the revolution, was exiled to Archangel, and died soon after.
During my lecture at the Polytechnic Institute, I was surprised to see my friend P. L. Kapitza whom I knew for a long time and whose laboratory in Cambridge, England, I had visited before. He was in the company of Professor [Abram F.] Ioffe whose lectures I used to attend as a student. I asked Kapitza when he expected to be back in Cambridge, since I planned to be there on my return trip, but he was noncommittal which surprised me. Later I found that he was not permitted to return, so he stayed in Russia and was given the post of Director of the Institute of Physical Science in Moscow. I learned this later, after I had returned to the United States, otherwise, I would not have been as sure of my own return either.
I also visited my "alma mater," but did not find a single person that I knew before. The Institute had changed considerably. Several evenings I went to the theaters and saw several operas and ballets which I found as supreme as I used to know them.
I visited my sisters and found them well, although they seemed much older than I had expected. My brother-in-law was now a full professor in the Institute of Mines and corresponding member of the academy which I found was a great honor in Russian academic life. Their present status was very satisfactory, but it was clear that they had a hard time in the past, and they were reluctant to speak of those times. They had a son and seemed very happy. The other (p. 95) sister, Maria, lived not far from them. She abandoned her medical career and was working as an illustrator at the Institute. Since my departure abroad she had married, had a daughter, and lost her husband who died during the revolution. From them, I found that my Mother had also died in Murom during the civil war. Their contact with the rest of the family was very poor and they knew little about them.
My week’s stay in Leningrad passed very quickly and I soon found myself on the train to Moscow. This particular train, "Red Arrow," left Leningrad at midnight and arrived in Moscow on schedule at seven o’clock the next morning. The cars were clean and comfortable and hot tea and biscuits were served in the compartment. In Moscow we were taken to a hotel, where I had once stayed before, but the name was now changed. Here my schedule essentially was repeated. I lectured practically every day, went to the theatre in the evening, and sought out and visited some of my relatives.
Moscow changed more than Leningrad; there were more new buildings and a subway under construction. By special request and the efforts of my companion, we were permitted to walk through the partly finished tunnel between two stations. Even unfinished, it was clearly an undertaking of very grandiose scale.
In Moscow I was interviewed by the head of the communication industry who was interested in knowing if the American company I worked for would be interested in selling and installing a television transmitter and a number of receivers in Moscow. I answered that I was only a research engineer, did not have any authority in commercial matters, but if he wished I would pass on this inquiry to the head of RCA.
While in Moscow, Zworykin had one of the strangest, most terrifying experiences of his life. He was, of course, excited by this visit to his homeland, but it was a vastly different country than the one he remembered. The psychological toll of revolutions, civil war, and the growing Stalinist repression on the Russian people were evident to even the most casual observer. Zworykin confronted this situation in the most personal of terms while attending a performance at the Moscow Art Theatre. The play was Days of the Turbins, a post-revolutionary [piece by Mikhail Bulgakov]. (p. 96)
My host was the head of the Communication Trust and he was accompanied by several engineers, some of whom I had met previously while visiting various laboratories. We were sitting in the first row and one of the principal characters was played by the famous actor [Vasili I.] Kachalov who was so close to us that he created the impression of personal contact. I was sitting between the head of the Trust and a person who for some strange reason appeared vaguely familiar to me. However, I could not place him, neither who he was nor where I had met him before.
During the intermission we started a conversation and I asked him what part of the country he was from and what was his profession. When he answered that he was from Ekaterinburg and had been formerly a dentist, I suddenly recognized him as my interrogator when I was there in jail. I was sure that he did not recognize me, otherwise the situation would have been very embarrassing for both of us. Still, I was upset, and when in the next scene of the play a monologue occurred describing an intellectual caught between revolutionary sentiments and patriotic feeling, I came under the spell of the play. The situation closely resembled the one I had been in myself in Kiev. I began to sense an approaching danger and my only desire was to escape. With considerable effort I remained in my seat, clutching frantically to the arms of the chair.
From Moscow, I was taken by airplane to Charkov [Kharkov], Kiev, and finally to Tbilisi. My impression of these cities was not as vivid as before, mostly because I was not as familiar with them as with Leningrad. The civil aviation service was still in the process of being organized, so the runways in airports were mostly grass and airport accommodations were very primitive. I remember while landing on one of the intermediate airfields, the pilot spotted a few pigs on the landing strip and had to buzz them several times before they ran off thereby permitting us to land. On the other hand, I saw a few four-motor military planes of a design I was not familiar with.
I requested that the city of Tbilisi be included in my itinerary because my elder brother Nicolai was living there. Probably on his insistence, the local engineers who were to attend my lecture, suggested that we come first to Piatigorsk, on the north side of the Caucasian Mountains where they met us in an automobile. From there we drove, via a picturesque military highway, over mountains to Tbilisi. I had never made this trip before so I was very thankful for this short break in an otherwise monotonous trip. I was installed in the best hotel in town and the same evening went to see my brother, after almost twenty years separation. He was married a second time and it was the first time I met my new sister-in-law. He had established himself in Tbilisi long before the revolution, as a construction engineer, and had built a number of dams, hydroelectric stations, and irrigation canals. After the revolution, he remained in the same capacity as an expert. (p. 97) However, two years previously he was arrested like many other engineers on some very indefinite charge of sabotage and spent several months in jail. Since some of his projects were under construction, he was permitted to work when in jail and later he was allowed to have some of his assistants, who also were arrested, to help him. Finally, when construction had reached a critical stage, the whole group was sent to the place of work. When it was successfully completed, they were freed and never arrested again.
At the time of my visit, Georgia (of which Tbilisi was the capital) was prospering since [Josef] Stalin, who was a native, granted many privileges to his native land. I spent a few days in Tbilisi and was very well received by a local group of engineers and officials. At one of their dinners I was introduced to Mr. [Lavrentii] Beria, the Chairman of the Georgian Communist Party and a personal friend of Stalin. His name and his inglorious end became familiar many years later. He was very pleasant to me and asked what else I would like to see in the Caucasus, to which I answered that I would like to go to the Black Sea shore, even though my time was short since in a few days I would have to start on my return trip. This he said could be easily arranged if I flew, and he immediately ordered someone at the table to arrange the flight. There were no scheduled passenger flights at that time from Tbilisi, but my companion and myself were flown by a single motor, open military plane and two hours later we landed at Suhumy (on the eastern shore of the Black Sea), a resort in the Republic of Abkhasia. The local officials, who were informed in advance of our arrival, met us at the airport and lavishly entertained us during our two days stay. Afterwards, we were taken by automobile to Sochi and from there by regular flight to Moscow.
In Moscow, I attended several meetings with communications officials, mostly concerned with the possibility of purchasing from RCA a complete installation of television equipment for Moscow. After several days of these consultations, I embarked on the train to Berlin.
During all my travels throughout the USSR I never was questioned about the circumstances of my previous departure from the country, nor did I feel any hostility; still it was a great relief when all my papers were cleared and I was installed in my train compartment. My sister, several of the engineers whom I met in Moscow, and my faithful companion E____ came to see me at the train, everyone expressing their hope to see me come back again. (p. 98)
My sense of security was upset next morning when we were about to cross the border. I have already mentioned the strict regulation about photography and that my camera was registered in my passport. I had a new Leica that my nephew greatly admired, so I gave it to him on my departure. When preparing my papers for inspection at the border I read, for the first time, what was written in my passport about the camera and found that it should be declared on return and in case of loss one should have a certificate from the police. The person who fails to do this is subject to three months in prison and three thousand rubles fine. Just as I finished reading this, a military police officer came and took my passport. After putting his stamp under my exit visa, he read about the camera and asked where it was. I could not tell about giving it to my nephew since that also was forbidden, so I remained silent. At that moment, the officer looked on the leather box with projection slides for my lectures, mistook it for the camera case, put a stamp on it, and departed.
I have already mentioned my uncle Ivan, a Professor of Physics at Moscow University, whose scientific reprints I found when I was a child on the mezzanine of our house in Murom. I was always told that he died while very young from tuberculosis. During this trip I heard another version of his death from an entirely unexpected source. Before returning to the United States, I made a trip to Greece in order to see my cousin and childhood playmate Ivan, who was at that time a professor of agriculture at the University of Athens. While dining in a restaurant, we were approached and joined by an individual whom Ivan knew slightly. When he discovered that we were cousins, he volunteered the information about the death of our mutual uncle. He told us that in 1887 he himself was an assistant to the chief of police in Moscow. The police suspected our uncle of revolutionary activity and thereby kept him under surveillance. One night they came to search his apartment, but our uncle refused to open the door and shot himself when the police tried to break it. That would explain the mystery of my uncle’s death, but of course it might be just another story.
I returned to the United States via London. The first thing I did in England was to telephone Kapitza in Cambridge. I was told that he had not yet returned and they were afraid that he was being detained. I also found out that Dr. C. [S.?] M. Aisenstein was now living in England and was the Director of the English Electric Research Laboratory. However, he was out of town so I was unable to see him during this trip. After I presented my paper before the Institution of Electrical Engineers, I returned by boat to the United States. (p. 99)
After Zworykin’s return from the USSR, he met with David Sarnoff to discuss his conversations with the Russian Communication Officials and their interest in purchasing television equipment for a station in Moscow. Formal contacts were made via the Soviet Embassy and two years later a special Commission arrived to inspect and accept the equipment built for them by RCA. (p. 100)