Back in the U.S.S.R.

Professor Alexander Vilenkin trips through a time portal to the bad old days of Soviet physics, complete with KGB agents and a 70-ton mountain of rotting cabbage

illustration with red star

My father, Alexander Vilenkin, is a physicist at Tufts University, and I, his daughter, am a journalist with no aptitude for physics. That’s in this world. But there is another world where I am the physicist and my father is the journalist. And yet another where I am a chinchilla and my father is a free-style rapper or a Sumo wrestler or Kim Jong-un.

All of these worlds are equally real to my father, who uses the dual pillars of probability theory and the concept of an ever-expanding universe to argue the existence of an infinite number of worlds where an infinite number of variations on life as we know it actually, tangibly exist.

Three years ago, my father received a letter from one of these worlds: an invitation to travel to the Soviet Union to participate in a scientific conference that was taking place in 1956. This was no joke. The invitation was issued by the award-winning director Ilya Khrzhanovsky, a mad genius and enfant terrible of the Russian film scene.

He wanted my father to play the role of a Soviet scientist in the bio-epic he was currently filming about Lev Landau, the Russian physicist who won the Nobel Prize in 1962 for his pioneering work on superfluidity. And so it was that my father announced he was returning for the first time to the Ukrainian city that we left as political refugees in 1976.

I asked my dad what my mother thought of this idea. “She doesn’t like it,” he replied.

Lev Landau himself used to head the physics department at the Kharkiv State University, the same department from which my father would later earn his degree. Dau (his nickname and the title of the film) was also a born iconoclast who practiced free love, dared to correct Albert Einstein in a public lecture and narrowly avoided falling victim to Stalin’s purges for denouncing the Soviet government. As a man of extremes, Landau would probably have approved of Khrzhanovsky’s outsized vision.

To recreate the setting of Landau’s work, Khrzhanovsky had built a 130,000-square-foot model of a Soviet scientific institute, which he populated with a “cast” of cafeteria workers, party officials, janitors, clerks and scientists who fulfilled their “roles” simply by living and working there as though the year were actually 1956 and they were really faithful drones of the Communist regime.

Those who did not perform their tasks with the utmost fidelity to history were either fined or fired. As Khrzhanovsky told GQ’s Michael Idov, “When the cleaning lady had to mop the same toilet floor every day for two years, she will do it differently when she’s doing it on-camera.” Here Khrzhanovsky is also alluding to the film’s epic production schedule: the cameras rolled on the set of Dau, almost nonstop, from 2008 to 2011. Khrzhanovsky’s production company has refused to comment on when—if ever—the film will be released.

Comrade Dad

With the exception of the three lead roles, all the characters in Dau were played by their contemporary doppelgängers—physicists played physicists, former KGB agents played KGB agents, former Communist bosses played . . . you get the idea.

The set consisted of a Stalin-era scientific laboratory, cafeteria, seminar room, library and communal living quarters where every morning the cast and crew enacted very Soviet-style arguments over the shared bathrooms. In other words, 35 years after leaving Kharkiv, my father returned only to immerse himself in a version of the Soviet Union far harsher than the one he had fled.

Upon arriving on the set, my father’s bags were searched by an actual former KGB agent, who confiscated any item manufactured after 1956; he was forced to surrender everything, from laptop to lighter, as well as all of his clothes. He was then issued a set of Stalin-era clothing—a suit with suspenders, watch, briefcase, hat and trusy i maiku (a sort of Soviet T-shirt and boxers)—and handed 200 Soviet rubles in spending money. The one thing he was allowed to bring inside was a cigar, but only after he cut off the modern label—with a knife made before 1956.

Khrzhanovsky went to exhaustive lengths to infuse the institute with the atmosphere of paranoia that was the Soviet regime’s trademark. When he gave my father a tour of the set, they were trailed the whole time by a “KGB agent” (his sinister mien left no question in my father’s mind that this guy was the genuine article) to the accompaniment of piped-in cello music my father later described as “the soundtrack of impending doom.”

In his student days at Kharkiv State University, my father’s life took a dramatic turn after a very real interaction with the KGB: they asked him to become their informant. When he declined, he was promptly blacklisted.

His health exemption from the military was revoked, and he was sent to do hard labor with former convicts in the Soviet army. Upon his return, no physics graduate programs would grant him entry, nor was he able to publish his work in Soviet journals. So he bounced from one odd job to another, the most memorable being a stint as a night watchman at the Kharkiv Zoo.

Paradoxically it was only now, upon entering Khrzhanovsky’s bizarre simulacrum, that my father got to finally enjoy the privileges once reserved for elite Soviet scientists. He was given a driver and access to special canteens that served up limitless quantities of caviar and Georgian wine. In the material sense, this fictional Soviet life was far cushier than my father’s actual Soviet life, where his family often had to resort to newspaper for toilet paper.

That Haunted Look

My father, who has given talks in places as exotic as Istanbul, Kyoto, Rio de Janeiro and Abu Dhabi, could have gone back to Kharkiv any time after the fall of the Soviet Union, but never showed the slightest interest until this most cosmically absurd opportunity arose. Once there, Kharkiv, his one-time prison, became a place of wonderment.

For the week my father spent on the set of Dau, the only “acting” he was required to do was to give a talk on his actual work and attend the talks of other physicists—an august group that included the Nobel prize winner David Gross—in the evenings.

During the day, he was free to explore. So he visited the zoo where he’d worked and discovered the animals looked “much less sad,” their cages newer and bigger. And he went to the city synagogue, which he’d known only as a sports club where he once took fencing lessons. Dazzled by its restoration, he asked the rabbi whether he might take a photo. “A Jew asking to take a photo in a synagogue on Sabbath day,” the rabbi tsked. But I’m a Jew in the atheist Soviet Union of 1956, my father should have explained.

Khrzhanovsky did hope the raw act of immersion in his brutalist tableau vivant would induce within his actors a metamorphosis into some form of Homo sovieticus. As my father later told me, “It was all designed to press on your psyche, but I don’t think it really worked for me. It didn’t feel like I was back, trapped in the Soviet Union.”

In fact, when Khrzhanovsky asked him how he found the city after his 35-year absence, he told the filmmaker he thought Kharkiv looked good—greener—and that the people seemed happier. It used to be that he could tell a Soviet citizen even from behind, by a certain hunched and hunted look. But the people on the street in Kharkiv looked just like the people on the street in Lexington, Massachusetts, where he lived now.

But Khrzhanovsky waved off my father’s explanation: “They are only pretending,” he insisted. “Kharkiv still has the spirit of the old Soviet Union.” Three years later, Kharkiv emerged as one of the conservative strongholds agitating for secession—who knows, maybe Khrzhanovsky was on to something.

The filmmaker needed his staged scenes to blend seamlessly with archival footage of Landau from the 40s and 50s, but his fidelity to the past far eclipsed all pragmatic and cinematic concerns.

Despite a modest budget of $10 million, Dau disrupted daily life in Kharkiv to the extent of shutting down the airport, which serves a population the size of Philadelphia, paralyzing Freedom Square to accommodate crowd scenes of upwards of 4,000 costumed extras and requiring a change of all the signage along the city’s central avenues from Ukrainian back to Russian. “Oh, it’s the Soviet era again,” Kharkiv citizens must have thought to themselves as they rounded a corner only to discover a 70-ton mountain of cabbage, sprayed with wet concrete to look as though it was rotting.

Knowing my father, I could understand why he’d be drawn to experiencing in person what he had spent so many years theorizing about on paper. A parallel universe—dropped right into the city of his birth. And I also had to ask myself whether the father who returned was same one who left. Was he somehow imperceptibly different? Slightly more Soviet? A touch more grim and distrustful?

As was the custom in Soviet times, my father was given an assortment of gifts when he left the institute, and the next time I visited home he showed them to me. Because 1956 was a deficit year in the Soviet Union, even the most quotidian items were cherished, and my father’s gifts reflected that fact.

He left the canned meat and jams at the hotel, but brought back with him an avoska, the mesh bag all Soviet citizens carried should they happen upon a line at any time for goods of any kind. Some vintage matchbooks from the 50s (one featured a drawing of an alcoholic happily hugging a bottle of vodka). And then there was something my father described as his new prized possession.

He led me to his study and there it was, displayed on a shelf alongside the sculpture his colleagues had commissioned on the occasion of the Tufts Institute of Cosmology’s 25th anniversary: an ordinary roll of Soviet toilet paper.

He held it out to me and laughed, a bit like a mad scientist. Yep, same Dad.

This article first appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of Tufts Magazine.

Alina Simone, J97, is the author of the essay collection You Must Go and Win and the novel Note to Self, both published by Faber. She is a regular contributor to Public Radio International’s The World.

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