An Interview with Leon Theremin (Continued) Part 3
Mattis: Is she alive?
Theremin: Yes, she is.
Natalia Theremin: She has been
dancing, lately even. Five years ago she was still dancing. The
wife-- She has her own studio in the Hawaiian Islands [sic: should
Theremin: There were many magazines
she used to send. We had a good relationship.
Mattis: You divorced her?
Natalia Theremin: No. There
is still no divorce. She was planning to come to the Soviet Union,
but it happened that she didn't come. They have no divorce still.
Theremin: Then I came here on
Mattis: Where is here?
Theremin: --to the Soviet Union.
After some time, I had the opportunity to marry again. So I married
again in 1947 or '46. Then, I had two children with her, born together
[twins]. One was older than the other by 40 minutes. One is older,
Lena [Helena], and the second one is Natasha [Natalia]. Here she
Mattis: Where is Lena?
Theremin: She is in Moscow.
I have two grandchildren there. And I have two children, two daughters.
This is my daughter.
Mattis: So you were married
Theremin: Yes. My wife [Maria]
passed away in 1970.
Mattis: Why did you leave New
Theremin: I left New York because--
Of course, I was there on assignment all the time, but the assignments
dealt with seemingly unimportant issues for military purposes. But
at that time the war was coming. The military troops of the fascists
were approaching Leningrad, etc., and I asked to be sent to the
Soviet Union so as to make myself useful. I asked many times. For
a whole year I asked to be sent back. The war had already started.
And they didn't send me, they didn't send me. Then at last they
permitted me. They assigned me to be an assistant to the captain
of a large motor ship. So I went home, but they did not take my
Mattis: So what happened then?
Theremin: They took me on this
ship, yeah. And after I arrived, my wife--they would not send her.
We exchanged thirty letters. Then I was arrested, and I was taken
prisoner: not quite a prisoner, but they put me in a special lab
in the Ministry of Internal Affairs. There I worked in this lab
just as others worked. Topolev [airplane designer] was imprisoned
in such a way too, if you know about that. He was considered to
be a prisoner, and I was considered a prisoner too.
Mattis: So what did you do in
Theremin: Electronics and other
different things that were mostly associated with military matters:
television and other types of communication.
Mattis: Weren't you in a camp?
Theremin: No, I was in a special
lab. At one time, on the way to there [the laboratory], I was sent
to a camp, where they did road construction. I was assigned to be
the supervisor over the prisoners. From there, after eight months
on the road construction, I was sent with Topolev to the Aviation
Institute. Many important people worked there; Korolev worked there
Mattis: Why were you arrested?
Theremin: I was arrested, first,
for them to find out-- We were all under suspicion, all the people.
And I as a suspicious person was assigned to be under investigation.
The investigator was occupied with my case for about a month or
more. He and the magistrate asked me all kinds of questions. This
was all very formal, and they congratulated me [and said] that everything
was O.K., but they said that unfortunately there would be a second
investigation. There was a second investigator, who also asked [questions].
And they wrote down that everything would be fine. But after that,
together with the other prisoners, I went with Topolev. Officially
I was considered a prisoner, but as soon as I arrived they made
me the supervisor of a group of prisoners.
Mattis: What did you do after
you became free?
Theremin: I stayed in my lab.
First I was under some supervision, and then I became the director
of the lab. I remained in the same place. I had some new things
that I invented. I received a big bonus; I received an apartment.
It was at that time that I got married. Eight years elapsed while
I was there.
Mattis: Why was your name not
mentioned in the West? I have one book that says that you died around
Theremin: Somebody invented
Lemoine (interpreter): How
do you explain the fact that everyone thought you died in 1945?
Theremin: Because at that time
my arrival was kind of secret. At the end of the long situation,
a long time passed, about half a year, and then there was a procedure
[that was] standard with many people who were under suspicion. At
that time it was quite accepted for people to be detained in such
a way. I was allowed to be detained then, and I was appointed to
be in charge of the laboratory. That was fine, but it was written
that they could detain me as a prisoner. They used a word not as
terrible as "prison", but I was imprisoned there for eight years.
Lemoine: And then?
Theremin: After the eight years
I remained in the same place.
Lemoine: Why, when all this
was over, why in 1947 did still nobody know that you were alive
in Moscow and about your work?
Theremin: Before 1947 I lived
in complete secret. After 1947 I was free, not in secret. I've been
allowed to write and have conversations since 1947.
Natasha Theremin: No, no. Only
after 1960 did you start receiving letters. Before that you didn't
have any correspondence. In the 50's, until the 60's, you had no
Theremin: Well, maybe there
were no letters.
Mattis: Why were you considered
such a criminal so as to be in this situation?
Theremin: Which situation?
Lemoine: You were in a special lab.
Theremin: I was in the lab.
Lemoine: We don't understand
why you were arrested.
Theremin: I was arrested just
Natasha Theremin: At that time
it was common for normal, good people to be arrested.
Theremin: Even when I was interned
I was treated well. I was not considered to be in prison, but worked
as a normal person. I was the head of the lab, and when they liberated
me I still worked in the same lab. Then I got married. It turned
out that when I was free it was much more difficult to work in the
lab. When I was considered to be imprisoned I had a supervisor,
and they would say to me that I had to do this and that. Then, when
I was freed, I had to do it myself. Then I had to fuss, do much
more paperwork, keep an office in order; the work became much worse.
Mattis: Did you work with any
Theremin: I cannot say that
I worked with composers. I had many acquaintances [whom] I remember.
I worked in an organization, and then sometimes I worked on secret
projects, until 1966 or 67--I'm afraid to say exactly when. After
that, I retired from that important organization [KGB]. I went on
a pension in 1966 or 67. Then I started to look for an organization
where I could work. The first place I came to work was at the conservatory,
Moscow Conservatory. They gave me a space, and I started to work
on the electronic musical instruments and the dancing instruments
at the Conservatory. By that time the children had grown up, from
1947 to 1967. So by then they were 20 years old.
Mattis: With which composers
did you work?
Theremin: I collaborated with
some at the Conservatory. There were meetings. Should I tell you
what difficulties there were?
Lemoine: No, it's not necessary.
Mattis: With which composers
did you work there?
Theremin: I did not work with
Lemoine: You just said that
you had meetings with composers.
Theremin: With those composers
who were there--I am afraid to say right now with whom. I was there
in a special lab. We could do different things. At that time I started
working with my apparatus; I made a kind of thereminvox. I was working
again on my instrument the Terpsitone. I had a special studio for
studying these instruments. There was one young composer, [Vladimir]
Mattis: Did you make a new instrument?
Theremin: Yes, I had a new instrument.
There was a very unpleasant situation that I'm going to tell you
about. I was working there. Svishnikov, the director there-- When
they learned in America that I was working at the Conservatory,
a man who was one of the journalists from the newspaper The New
York Times came to Svishnikov. He said, "We thought Theremin was
dead, but it turns out that he's working here. I would like to meet
him, to see him, to find out what he's been doing." So Svishnikov
called me into his office, and I talked to him. So I showed the
man the musical instrument, a good thereminvox that I had made,
and the dancing instrument. He liked them very much. In the newspaper--
I had a space there [at the Conservatory]. Svishnikov had an assistant
who was in charge of administration, and who did not know what I
was doing there. And then it happened that a month later the newspaper
arrived, containing an article that Theremin is doing this and that,
electronic musical instruments in the Conservatory, dancing instruments
for dancing. This very newspaper got into the hands of Svishnikov's
assistant, a man by the name of Nuzhin. That's how he learned that
electronic musical instruments were being made in the Conservatory.
He announced that "electricity is not good for music; electricity
is to be used for electrocution." So he ordered that all these instruments
be removed from the Conservatory, and Theremin too, and that all
these things should be thrown out, and there should be no more such
projects at the Conservatory.
Mattis: What year did this happen?
Theremin: It happened in the
early 1970's, I don't quite remember now. We should look it up.
1972 or 73. Something like that. [Actual date: 1967]
Mattis: Now, your arrival at
this festival [Bourges Festival of Electroacoustic Music] is the
first time you've left the Soviet Union since you left America?
Theremin: The first time.
Mattis: Do you have a message,
now, in 1989, that you would like to convey to the Western World?
Theremin: What words! I knew
the Western world pretty well. I haven't been ever-- Only here I
see some of my friends, so I don't know to whom to say anything.
The only thing I wanted to ask, maybe of some people (if it were
allowed by the Soviet government), is that I be allowed to promote
my instruments. You must make the impression that I came here--
that I was allowed to come here. It seems that there will be no
punishment for me if write in the newspaper about all I have told
you. I hope-- We'll see what happens. The same with my invention.
I want to stress to you that all this needs to be done in a disciplined
way, and that when people will be asking about me and writing about
me, that all this be done in a responsible way. But if you write
that I have said something against the Soviet government and said
that it is better to work elsewhere, then I shall have difficulties
back home. [ironic laughter]
End of interview
Reprinted by permission of the author - Olivia