The RNNS/IEEE Symposium on Neuroinformatics
and Neurocomputing was held in Rostov-on-Don in Russia from October
7 through October 10, 1992. I flew into Moscow with Wes Snyder of Bowman
Gray School of Medicine who served as the Symposium Program Co-Chair
(the most demanding position in the conference) and Dmitry Kaplan of
Quantum-Siemens, who was the Finance Chair (the second most demanding
position). Dr. Witali Dunin-Barkowski of the Neurocybernetics Research
Institute, Rostov State University, Russia, served as the conference's
General Chair. I was the International Chair.
The Moscow airport appeared glum, gray
and gloomy. Uniformed immigration officials sat in bleak glass cages
with "do not bribe the officials" signs on them. I had read
that officials had been requiring tourists to pay money to pass. The
signs were a response of the government to dishonesty. Honesty is always
impressive. The official looked at my passport photo taken six years
earlier when I had a beard and longer hair. He looked at me, crinkled
his brow and rubbed his chin - indicating I no longer had a beard. I
smiled uneasily, waiting to be tapped on the shoulder by a KGB agent.
I made some motions that were supposed to resemble shaving and smiled
meekly. Confrontation was to be avoided at any cost. Later, as I learned
more about the people, I became quite comfortable in Russia. Their culture
remarkably resembles that in the United States. At the airport, though,
my impressions were based on my vast experience of Russian culture based
on Dr. Zhivago, the Cuban missile crisis, and H-bomb drills they made
me do in grade school. The immigration official put the card down, and
did nothing. Nothing. For about half a minute. Later I found out that
some Russian workers do this to kill time so they don't have to work
hard. My visa was stamped and I was waved through.
Immediately inside the airport terminal,
there was a cluster of about fifty people, some holding signs with people's
names on them. The group was divided by an aisle traveled by newly arriving
passengers. There was no sign for us. We retrieved our luggage and stacked
it in a safe place. While Wes and Dmitry stood guard, I returned to
the crowd and began to look for the sign from the side. People were
packed, groping to see the new arrivals. I was pushed from behind with
a number of short abrupt bumps. Somewhere, I had learned to associate
this with pick pockets. Sure enough, when I focused attention, there
were fingers doing a dance around my posterior cheeks. I swung around
and came eye to eye with the pick pocket. I glared at him. He froze,
turned his head, walked away, stopped, looked at me, gazed away, fidgeted,
pulled out and lit a cigarette, looked at me, turned, and walked away
- a classic study on how to look guilty.
Wes had found our ride. Our driver
was accompanied by Dr. Dunin-Barkowski's wife whose name was also Dr.
Dunin-Barkowski. She lives in Moscow and is an MD, but speaks little
English. Dmitry, though, speaks native Russian. He was born in Kiev
and immigrated to the United States as a teenager. The trip would have
been incredibly awkward without Dmitry. He confided that his return
to Russia, the first after his immigration, was done with apprehension.
Although he intellectually knew there would be no problem, his memories
of the oppressive Soviet system were deeply rooted.
The next day we flew Aeroflot from
Moscow to Rostov-on-Don. The only good news was that smoking was banned
on the airplane and we arrived safely. In an apparent move to cut costs,
Aeroflot planes have no oxygen masks. The floors of the plane are made
of wood overlaid with a peeling rubber floor cover. Aeroflot also has
no enclosed overhead bins. Carryons are placed in an open rack above
your head - the kind you would find on a bus. Most airlines require
enclosure. In turbulence, falling luggage can really hurt.
The refreshment on our short flight
was club soda served in a plastic bowl. In Europe and Russia, mineral
water comes with or without "gas", meaning CO2 bubbles. The
smell of some kind of soup was in the plastic of the bowl that held
my colorless soft drink - probably the aura of refreshment from some
previous longer flight. It added flavor to the otherwise tasteless mineral
Rostov is a city of about a million
people. We were met at the airport by Witale and some of the local arrangement
volunteers on the organizing committee. Witale is a delightful man,
full of energy and prone to eruptions of deep guttural laughter. He
is fun to be with.
Left to right: Dmitry Kaplan,
Witali Dunin-Barkowski, Wes Snyder, Boris M. Vladimirsky and me in front
of the A.B. Kogan Institute for Neurocybernetics at Rostov State University.
Witale is the director.
I first met Witale in Seattle. When
I served as President of the IEEE Neural Networks Council, we hosted
a Presidents Dinner at our annual meetings. Witale, as President of
the RNNS, attended this dinner at the 1991 Seattle IJCNN (International
Joint Conference on Neural Networks). With Wes Snyder and Dmitry Kaplan,
we put together the Rostov Symposium and got it approved by the Council.
Witale later returned to the United States and, in order to work out
the details of the conference, stayed with the Snyders in North Carolina.
During his visit, the attempt was made to kidnap Gorbachev and overthrow
the government of the Soviet Union. There was apparently no connection
between this and Witale's visit.
Our Rostov hotel was nice. Each floor
of the hotel was graced by a "key lady" who sat at a desk
close to the elevator. It was her responsibility to guard your key when
you left (if you wanted her to) and sell you sundries, such as cigarettes
and mineral water (with and without gas). A key lady was on duty 24
hours each day.
Breakfast at the hotel was great. Three
of us had a breakfast of rice pudding, scrambled eggs, sausage, grape
juice and coffee for 34¢, or about 11¢ each. I graciously
agreed to pay, under the condition that Dmitry pick up the lunch tab
in Copenhagen on our way home. The low price was due to the weak ruble.
When Dmitry was a boy in Kiev, a Ruble was worth about a dollar. During
the conference in Rostov, $1 cost about 360 rubles. About a month later,
it cost 400 rubles. In 1992, a professor in Russia made about $160 per
year. It has gotten worse.
The conference was great. I learned
a few things about technology and a number of things about Russian people.
On the first day, we held the opening ceremonies with greetings from
the mayor, conference chair, etc. Due to the dominance of American technology,
English is the official language of all international technical conferences.
This was the first meeting in English that had been held in Rostov this
century, or, for that matter, ever. At the opening ceremony, Witale
feverishly translated the comments of the Russian speakers into English
and the English speakers into Russian. During my stay at the podium,
I gave the obligatory positive remarks about the conference. I then
related a story, not original, about the common labeling those who knew
many languages as "multilingual". Similarly, those who knew
two languages were referred to as `bilingual' whereas those knowledgeable
of only one language are known as "Americans." Witale gazed
up, searching his memory bank for equivalent Russian words as he translated
in parallel. At international conferences, I have found a mild and reserved
resentment of the forced English language. Properly conveyed self depreciating
humor can transform this into good natured back-slapping collegiality.
The audience laughed at the Russian translation and many smiling heads
bobbed, acknowledging truth in the humor.
In the middle of the ceremonies, I
was whisked outside to be interviewed on a local television station,
Rostov TR (television-radio), Channel 2. A young English professor from
Rostov State served as the translator and stood between me and the Russian
speaking reporter. We stood in the sunlight on the entrance to the convention
sight in front of a cameraman. Only benign questions were asked, and
I gave standard diplomatic answers. "What are neural networks?",
"Why is this conference being held in Rostov?", "What
do you think of Russia?". Watching the interview on television
later was strange. They only aired the last few words of my eloquent
response to the questions. Then the translator would talk at length
in Russian to the reporter. The reporter then asked a prolonged question
in Russian. The translator turned to me and only got out about half
a sentence in English. Cut to me giving the last half sentence of my
response. They had, for reasons now obvious, edited most of the English
out of the interview. Almost none of their audience spoke English.
The Russian Neural Network Society
(RNNS) is one of many national professional neural networks societies.
There is also the ENNS (Europe), ANNS (Australia), SNNS (Swiss), JNNS
(Japan) and the CNNC (China Neural Networks Council). At the Rostov
Symposium, I met Dr. Alecsander F. Lavrenjuk, President of the Siberian
Neural Networks Society. Dr. Lavrenjuk is with the Tomsk Polytechnical
University and is doing research on implementation of neural networks
using neutron beams. He was specifically interested in whether the IEEE
Transactions on Neural Networks, a publication of the IEEE Neural Networks
Council, would be open to publish such research. (It is). I whimsically
asked if he was doing any research in applications of superconductivity
to neural networks. In Siberia, I smiled, it could be done outside.
He smiled politely and gave a polite and obligatory chuckle. He had
probably heard this and similar Siberia jokes hundreds of times. We
continued to talk for quite some time. The caricatured view I had was
irreversibly changed. (Although I did I learn that, in Siberia, milk
is delivered to your front porch in large unwrapped frozen blocks.)
The conference banquet was a fascinating
example of the importance of alcohol in Russian culture. An associate
director of Witale's lab, Boris M. Vladimirsky,
arose, and introduced Westerners to a Russian tradition. Witale translated.
Throughout the banquet, toasts would be offered at intervals of ten
minutes. Intervals shorter than this were not acceptable. The time between
toasts was to be used to coat the stomach with food, so that more alcohol
could be consumed. He made a toast to the conference, drank, and sat
down. Around the banquet tables were numerous bottles of Russian vodka
and champagne. As a nondrinker, I filled my glass with some queer tasting
Russian mineral water and joined in the toast. As forecast, the MC rose
again in ten minutes. Witale hurriedly chewed and swallowed as to not
be late in the translation of the toast. The MC said that he was sorry
that he did not know English, but was proud to learn this day that,
as a result of knowing only one language, he was an American. A toast
was offered and nearly all drank. Ten minutes later, Witali offered
a toast in English, and did his own translation. Ten minutes later,
Wes Snyder was called upon to offer a toast to the conference and friendship
of Russians and Americans. The next toast, it turned out, was mine.
As a nondrinker, I tried to shrug it off. Witale insisted. I stood,
hoisted my glass, and bellowed "To sobriety!". By his expression,
it was clear that Witale did not know the English work "sobriety".
He bent, and Dmitry whispered Russian in his ear. Witali smirked, stood
tall, raised his glass and gave the translation. There was a smattering
of chuckles as many drank to sobriety. This toasting lasted long into
The next night, there was a reception.
I talked at length with a Russian researcher whose name I do not recall.
He lamented that, since the passing of the cold war, it had becoming
increasingly difficult for him to find the funding to support his work
in artificial neural networks. I told him the same thing was happening
in the United States. Defense budgets were being reduced, and previously
strong funding programs were being cut. He slapped me on the back, and
said with his thick Russian accent, "Yes. It was much better when
we were trying to blow each other up". He laughed at his own black
humor and I involuntarily chortled.
The Americans at the conference were
asked to talk to the Deputy Chief of Rostov Region Administration, Mr.
Aleksei A. Khomyakov. There were about a dozen of us. Mr. Khomyakov
is kind of the CEO of Rostov. He made a presentation on the attributes
of the Rostov region and its willingness to interface with American
business. This attitude of business cooperation willingness seems prevalent
One of the most interesting people
I met at the conference was Dr. Alexander I. Galushkin, Director of
the Scientific Centre of Neurocomputers in Moscow. There are a number
of cases where technical concepts have been developed independently
in parallel in the United States and the former Soviet Union. The work
of Dr. Galushkin and his institute is an example of this. He was training
multi-layer perceptrons in the early seventies, long before they became
popular in the west. His implementation of neural networks optically
and with transputers is quite impressive. His work needs to be studied
and placed properly in the young history of artificial neural networks.
A "fresh air" conference
session was held aboard a boat that sailed down the Don river. The Don
is said to separate the European and Asian continents.
A train crossing the Don river
- from Europe to Asia.
Corners of the ship were roped off
for a number of parallel technical sessions. I wandered around the boat
catching portions of different talks. One scene was quite curious. A
Russian researcher was giving his paper in broken English. Listening
were a half dozen Russians, each straining to understand the speaker.
(I snapped the picture reproduced below). It occurred to me that this
was proof positive that the cold war was, indeed, over.
The boat docked, and we all deboarded.
We formed a loose line, and walked about a half a mile to see a Russian
church in the middle of restoration. The countryside was great. There
were sheep and goats and old Cossack buildings. Two older ladies, who
sat on a bench outside of a barn, were living caricatures of Russia,
with their head scarves, multi layers of sweaters and chubby dome-like
figures. I took their picture. They looked up and said something. Dmitry,
who was with me, said something back. We continued to walk down the
path and Dmitry explained, `They asked why we were taking their picture.
They said they have nothing.'
Me and some sheep on the Rostov
countryside. (I'm on the right).
When the conference ended, we flew
Aeroflot back to Moscow. Witale's aunt, Natalia (translated Natasha)
Kucherov picked us up at the airport with our driver. We spent the day
taking a fantastic tour of Moscow, including the Kremlin, Red Square,
and other tourist magnets. The Kremlin now charges admission. The sixtysomething
lady in the booth selling tickets took our money, and, like the man
at the airport, did nothing for about thirty seconds. I have had similar
service in American post offices.
At the Kremlin. Dmitry is waving
at the bottom left.
Expressing my exuberance in the
Kremlin complex. Why is everyone walking away?
The highlight of my trip was dinner
at Natasha's apartment with Wes, Dmitry and Natasha's family. The apartment
was in one of the countless high rises built around Moscow. The architecture,
like most buildings built in Russia this century, is gloomy. The apartment
building looked like it had been built in the 1950's. It also looked
quite neglected. As we pulled in the building's parking lot, a half
dozen men standing around a hole in the ground, glared at us. Although
dressed in work clothes, none of them were working. We entered the building
and climbed the stairs - there were no elevators - to Natasha's apartment.
Inside the apartment, the atmosphere was totally different. Although
small, the apartment was filled with the warmth of a home. Natasha's
teen age son was there. He had been practicing his English, and we talked
a bit. We were soon joined by Natasha's husband, Anatoly. We later learned
he had spent the morning looking for tomatoes for our lunch. Anatoly
is a computer programmer who is working for a new private company specializing
in optical pattern recognition. Natasha was working to establish a Christian
school in Moscow, and asked Dmitry to mail some fund raising material
for her in the States. There is currently a greater freedom of religion
in Russia than the United States. Actions, for example, have been levied
against the University of Washington's chapter of Campus Crusade for
Christ because the organization does not conform to some modern concepts
of political correctness. Christianity and other religions, on the other
hand, are discussed openly and embraced in Russian education and government
institutions. Natasha's attempt to open a private Christian school in
Moscow was impressive. She and Anatoly had been secret Christians throughout
the rule of intolerant atheistic communism. Anatoly told me in broken
English that "Russia has lived too long without Christ."
These apartments in Rostov were
a lot like those in Moscow.
The lunch was splendid. Natasha fixed
a turtle cake, which looked like a bunch of pancakes sprinkled with
powdered sugar stacked in a mound. ("Turtle" refers to shape
rather than content). Sometimes, Dmitry said, turtle heads were fashioned
out of a pancake and added to complete the image. We talked continuously
over lunch. Poor Dmitry didn't get much of a chance to eat. He was the
only always translating. The time spent at the Kucherov's was warm and
open. Except for the language difference, it was like visiting old friends
Natasha and the driver later drove
us to the Moscow airport for our evening flight to Copenhagen. (No,
Dmitry did not buy me lunch there). We were home in two days.
During his visit to Seattle, Witale
said, in regard to the government of the former Soviet Union, "They
lied to us about America. They lied to us". In describing his feeling
about his home in Kiev, Ukraine, Dmitry taught me "There is a difference
between love of country and loving your government". Despite formerly
oppressive rule, Russian people are wonderful and more American in their
culture than many realize.
Most, for example, know only one language.