Of the Institute of Medical Genetics: breaking through the “iron curtain”


Having taken up a job as a translator at the Institute of Medical Genetics, I was confronted with many difficulties. Firstly, I had not received adequate linguistic training, so I was admitted there “up front,” so to speak. Fortunately, my work did not imply simultaneous interpreting (at least, in the beginning), and I was mainly in charge of translating official correspondence. Secondly, the field of study dealt with at the institute, was quite foreign to me. There were many laboratories there, and the researchers working in, say, the molecular genetics laboratory had a vague idea of what was going on in the neighbouring laboratory, say, that of cytogenetics, or population genetics. But, having graduated from the Moscow State University’s Faculty of Philosophy, I was an expert with encyclopaedic knowledge. In particular, I remembered lectured delivered by Boris Gryaznov, who, while explaining to us Kant’s teaching, said that any science is essentially mechanics, and there can be nothing in it that, in principle, cannot be understood by man. Besides, the institute’s workers were mostly cultured and well-wishing people. They would forgive my faults and would always offer me a helping hand, so I gradually found my feet. My initial lack of professionalism was made up for by such important traints as reliability and trustworthiness.

Безимени-7Structurally, my position belonged to the Institute’s international relations departments, so, along with translating proper, my job involved a lot of paperwork and also some organizational work. That was also when I learned typing blindly with 10 fingers both in Russian and in English (maybe, that’s why I managed to keep up my piano playing skills). There, I was not commonly supposed to make public performances, which had run me into the ground before. Yet, being present at work from 9 am to 6 pm was pure torture for me. I was so badly in need of some respite, in the form of a siesta or a “library” day-off, and I would rejoice at any opportunity, when I could take a nap on the subway, going somewhere on an errand.

Certainly, I wanted to learn more about genetics. It was a young science then. In Stalin’s Russia, it was banned, and its many advocates were labelled as “Weismanists-Morganists” and killed, including the renowned academician N. I. Vavilov. Fate turned out dramatic for another eminent Soviet geneticist, N. V. Timofeyev-Ressovsky, who was teacher of some of the Institute’s researchers. He worked in Hitler’s Germany, was taken to a Gulag camp after the war, but was eventually released to get involved in scientific research to develop the atomic bomb. His fate was described in Daniil Granin’s novel “The Bison.” Later, a serial film, “The White Robes,” appeared (after Vladimir Dudintsev’s novel) devoted to the fate of genetics and geneticists in the Soviet Union.

Medical genetics is mainly engaged in the study, prevention, and treatment of hereditary diseases. So, the institute had a special unit, that of clinical genetics, where patients were received and genetic counselling for young married couples or women was provided. At the time, the institute was headed by Nikolai Pavlovich Bochkov, who was also a head of the laboratory of mutagenesis. A quite good, constructive relationship was established between us. I even happened to visit him at his home, when I accompanied foreign guests, and his wife, the charming and gentle Diana Nikolayevna, treated us to the thinnest pan-cakes baked by her. N. P. Bockov’s deputy was Vladimir Ilyich Ivanov, who also headed the laboratory of experimental genetics. V. I. Ivanov was a highly cultured and erudite person (by the way, he was a pupil of Timofeyev-Ressovsky), and we developed very warm relations. The 3d member of the triumvirate ruling the institute was Alexander Fyodorovich Zakharov, who headed the laboratory of general cytogenetics. He was a gentle and modest hard-working scientist. Always wearing a smock gown, he looked like a thoughtful doctor. Among other things, he studied the origin of malignant tumors, but, unfortunately, it failed to safeguard him against early death, caused by the disease. I still keep “The Atlas of Human Chromosomes” prepared at his laboratory and given to me by him.

I was also in charge of preparing documents for sending our coworkers for a business trip abroad. What a great number of certificates and forms I had to collect and fill in for each candidate! It is enough to mention the so called “obyektivka” form alone: it should be submitted in 5 copies and contained such items as “your mother’s maiden name,” “the place where your parents were buried,” and “whether you or any of your the relatives had resided in the German-occupied territory during the war.” Purchasing air- and railway tickets for our business travellers was also left on me (thank God, not out of my own pocket).

That was when I started communicating with the outer world, namely, with the West. Those were the early 1980s. Because of the “iron curtain,” our ideas of the West were pretty scarce and often distorted. Owing to massive propaganda, Russia’s common people, as a rule, hated the West, whereas the intelligentsia tended to idealize it. Among the artistic elite in vogue was Pavka Korchagin’s paraphrased monologue from the book “How the Steel Was Tempered”: “Life is given to man but once, and he must live it there...  At the time of my university studies, I had a chance to travel to the “socialist” Bulgaria. But, to be entitled to take part in it, one had to pass a test on the history of the Bulgarian communist party. So, I decided not to strain myself. Those, however, who took part, did not find anything special in Bulgaria. Mainly, they would recall only one episode, when some of our girls blushed, having seen the sign-board “Писалки” /Pissalki/, which turned out to mean as little as “Pens.”

Nevertheless, one of my pals managed to take a trip to the USA to collect data for his thesis, and I had a chance to get first-hand information about a capitalist foreign land. To my direct question “Well, did you like it there?” he responded evasively “Something I did, and something I didn’t.” But much more informative were his sporadic remarks spoken thereafter. When we entered the subway and were exchanging our 10-kopeck coins into 5-kopeck ones, he remarked: There, slot-machines exchange any currency denominations, both coins and banknotes at once.” When we descended to the platform, he said: “There, each line’s got two tracks: one for frequently stopping trains, and the other, for fast trains. Besides, the subway there works round-the-clock,” – he added.

Letting himself go, my pal, would tell me about excellent American highways, which are fenced so safely that even a mouse will hardly slip through it. He would tell me about bus stations, from where you can start on your journey in a half an hour’s time to any destination within the USA on a bus having a toilet, a wash-stand, and an air-conditioner. He would tell me about telephone booths, where you can always find a yellow pages directory, from where you can make a collect call and also receive a call from anywhere in the USA. He would tell me about numerous cafeterias and stores, where there was a special access for the disabled, that there were toilets everywhere, where you would be admitted irrespective of whether you’ve bought anything there or not, that there always was toilet paper in the toilets, sometimes even with a caricature of president Reagan on it. He would also tell me that nearly any problem that needed a great deal of red tape to be solved here, would be solved there quickly and by phone, kind of: hello, OK, bye-bye. When I asked him if communists were persecuted there, he answered: “Actually, to be a communist in the USA is much safer than not to be such here.” “And most of all, – he went on with some strange ardour, – their well-being is for majority… You see? For majority!” Behind all this circumlocution, I could pick up a cry of the soul, corrupted by communist ideology, which had suddenly realized the asshole we lived in here and also the fact that the millions of lives laid on the altar of this fucking Communism had been in vain. But even more demonstrative were the recordings made by my pal from “their” FM radio programmes: advertisements were sung there in different voices, being organically intertwined into the necklace of pop-music pearls of the time:

Eventually, the time came for me to get in touch with the West, without, however, leaving the boundaries of our unbounded homeland. On top of everything else, my official duties implied accompanying foreign guests. Among the guests I happened to accompany during my employment with the Institute of Medical Genetics were world famous scientists, such as Victor McKusick, John Opitz, James Neel, Luca Cavalli-Sforza, Norman Anderson (USA), James McGee and John Evans (Great Britain), Werner Kalow (Canada) et al. Contacting them brought me invaluable experience and unforgettable impressions.

For me, like for the majority of Soviet people, foreigners were a sort of extraterrestrials, and I was very nervous, when asked to meet my first guest. That was the founding father of human genetics, a health-care advisor to the US president, James Neel. He proved to be a typical “uncle Sam,” both by the outward appearance and the essence, so “geopolitical differences” nearly immediately made themselves felt. It may well be that he was an outstanding scientist, but, to no lesser extent, he was a rather good boor. From time to time, the following kind of dialogue would occur between us:

  • May I ask you to show your passport, please, Dr. Neel?
  • Why should I? Then again, when I was in the jungles of South America, they would also ask me to produce my passport in such cases.

Generally, I had a hard time with him to the max. He would continually moralize with me at every step. When I retorted politely (or not very politely), he would utter with an air of superiority: “When you reach such a level as we have, you’ll understand our problems.”

Yes, our country is backward. But we had a great culture. And it is not our fault, and not even our woe, but, rather, a peculiarity of our historical fate, or, if you like, our chosenness, that this culture degenerated into the Communist Idea, with all its catastrophic consequences. Therefore, presenting Russia as “the Upper Volta with rockets” is not quite correct.

Sometimes, Dr. Neel would seem to say something funny, but his jokes were really strange. For example, when we were confirming his return flight, he suddenly said: “What if I stay and ask for a political asylum?” I was not slow in assuring him that shelter would be provided for him, should this occur.

Fortunately, Dr. Neel proved an exception to the rule, and my subsequent guests were the personification of courtesy. And we had different type of dialogues with them, such as:

  • Sorry, but we haven’t got a lift here (when we were meant to walk up to the 4th floor).
  • No problem. Walking is very healthy.


  • Sorry, but this museum is closed for stock-taking.
  • No problem. Something should be left for the next time.


  • Sorry, but because of bureaucratic problems, your visit to the Institute of General Genetics cannot take place.
  • Don’t worry. American bureaucracy is as bad as Soviet bureaucracy.

Should they look out the window overlooking a garbage heap, whey would exclaim: “What a wonderful sight opens up out your window!” Certainly, one could suspect them of insincerity, but even so, it was much better than outspoken boorishness.

Dr. and Mrs. McGee, the stylish Jim and golden-haired Anne, made up a brilliant couple. Our acquaintance began with an episode, when I inadvertently mispronounced their surname (apropos, in full compliance with the English grammar rules), as [mәkˊʤı:]. Anne immediately rushed to defend her identity:  “[mәkˊgı:], [mәkˊgı:], – she lectured at me. Then I was surprised at Anne’s “bad” pronunciation, and initially I took her for a Jew. But soon it turned out that Anne and Jim were true-born Scots. It also turned out that there was the Scottish (Gaelic) language, which had nothing in common with English, and, actually, the English were conquerors, while Scots (as well as the Irish and the Welsh) were the true indigenous Britons.

When we were driving in a car to an international conference to be held in the ancient Russian city of Suzdal, I unwrapped my breakfast and asked just for the sake of propriety:  “Maybe, who’d like a boiled egg or a sandwich?” Anne and Jim politely refused this offer. Nevertheless, in a matter of minutes, Anne let herself go: “May I have a boiled egg?” It was my pleasure to share my breakfast with my guests, and our journey now did not seem so wearisome.

Suzdal charmed all of us. After conference sessions, we would visit the city museums, and just wander down the streets and along the embankment of the Kamenka river. Anne was always afraid to rub her feet and get blisters, since she had not got used to walking long distances in Woodstock, where she had only driven her car. But everything turned out well, and we all reached the finish line unharmed.

At the farewell banquet, the table was heaped with viands. Nevertheless, each guest turned up with his or her own gift. Jim brought a bottle of whisky, a guest from Holland, a truckle of cheese, a guest from Finland, a Salami sausage, from Austria, a box of “Mozart” chocolates. Toasts were proposed to friendship and cooperation. I wanted to do something special for our guests. I came up to the orchestra and asked them to perform the song “Yesterday.” But they replied that they it was not in their repertoire. Then I suggested them the harmonics, they started to play, and I performed the vocal part – to the rapture of all those present.

On our return to Moscow, we again wandered, now through Moscow streets and museums. When in the Tretyakov Gallery, Anne seemed to prefer classical paintings, whereas Jim turned out a fan of modern art, in particular, G. Braque (then I learned that their son, Damon, was a painter, too). When we visited cathedrals the Kremlin, Anne showed a lively interest in Russian history and would ask me questions that puzzled me, like: “How many children did Empress Anna Ioannovna have?”

On the McGees’ departure from Russia, correspondence sprang up between us, which lasted more than 30 years. Not long ago, Anne left this world. But staying alive is Jim, with whom we have in due time exchanged New Year greetings.


There was yet another charming coupe that I had occasion to look after. They were Norman Anderson and his wife Mary from the American city of Rockville, Maryland. Norman headed a biotechnological laboratory, which, at the same time, represented a commercial business. To provide funds for his research, he had to be busy as a bee, coming up with various projects or striving to take part in the already existing ones, funded by large corporations or by the government. Those issues were, in particular, dealt with during negotiations held at the USSR Academy of Sciences, initiated by Norman, where I was an interpreter. His pressure of work, however, did not go as far as to detriment his purely human qualities – he Безимени-4always remained a loving husband and a responsive friend. Influenced by his personality, I even developed an idea of the ideal Human: he should be an expert; he should be a businessman; and he should be humane, that is, a human proper.

Dr. Anderson’s wife, Mary, was bashful and taciturn, and if she happened to say anything, she did it very quietly. However, there was hearsay that she had a brown karate belt (apparently, this fact made it unnecessary for her to say anything at all). This hearsay may have been groundless, though. But, just in case, I tried to be especially obliging to her. Also, Mary could never understand that “Tanya” (that was our secretary’s name) was not actually “Titania,” but just a diminutive from “Tatiana.”

Thanks to yet another guest – John Evans – I got acquainted with the Welsh culture and Welsh language. Our acquaintance started, again, with my mangling, this time, of his birthplace. That was the city of Llanelli, which I, nothing doubting, pronounced as “Llanelli.” Prof. Evans immediately corrected me: ɬaneɬı. The point is that double “l” in Welsh is pronounced as a voiceless sound “l” (I seem to have heard something similar in the Adyghe language). Then I learned that “How are you?” in Welsh will be “shud ichi” (with a throaty [h], while “Hello” will be “iechyd da” (again, with a throaty [h]). Prof. Evans also confirmed that the village bearing one of the longest names in the world was located in Wales, too:

Soon after Prof. Evans’s departure to his homeland, I received from him a parcel containing a Welsh dictionary, and also a cassette tape of Welsh songs.

I retain the warmest memories of Luca Cavalli-Sforza and his wife Alba. Luca was the leading expert in population genetics. He made an immense contribution to the study of the genetic roots of man a biological species, and also the origin of different human races. In his research, he paid special attention to the so-called “cultural anthropology,” having put forward the theory of “gene-culture coevolution.”

I can recall our talks “about life” somewhere at a hotel restaurant after a busy day. Alba would often complain of how lonely they, Italians, felt in America. You know, how you may want to pour out your heart to someone! But the Anglo-Saxes commonly avoid heart-to-heart communication, and as soon as you touch on personal issues, there is always a “wall” arising between people. Therefore the Cavalli-Sforzas kept company mainly with Jews, who were closer to them by temperament (subsequently, I had a chance to meet one of them – that was an eminent medical geneticist, Errol Friedberg).

Luca was a titan of science tending both towards popularization and philosophical generalization. As one of the examples of such an approach to science came his book “The great human diasporas (the history of diversity and evolution)”, which was written jointly with his son, and which he presented me with.

His research caused an ambivalent reaction in the world scientific community. Subsequently, his was accused of neocolonialism, bio-piracy, and even of creating an ethnic bioweapon. But the truth is that the process of cognition cannot be stopped, and any scientific discovery can be used both for the good of mankind and for its perdition. Albert Einstein suggested the release of enormous amounts of energy during nuclear fission, but it was not he who devised an atomic bomb. Knowing Prof. Cavalli-Sforza’s high moral principles, I, without going into the details of his research, will always be siding with him and will defend him against any attacks by all available means.


But is it really my lot in life to only receive guests? The time will come, when I will manage to see the world for myself. But for me to do so, a revolution was supposed to happen in Russia…


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