Her name is Masevich, Alla Genrikhovna Masevich

Categories
Media
Soviet astrophysicist Alla Genrikhovna Masevich and her daughter, Natasha Josifovna Friedlander. Sam Schecter, “Deux Canadiens en Russie – Rencontres avec l’élite russe.” Le Soleil / Perspectives, 26 September 1959, 11.

Hello, hello, and hello, my reading friend. As part of the year of space that is 2019, yours truly wishes to offer you a topic which will, at least this is my hope, be of interest. And no, there will not be a test.

My employer, the colossal Canada Aviation and Space Museum, in Ottawa, Ontario, being what it is, it is also my hope that you will not be outraged by the topic I chose for this week. Said topic has to do with astronomy, a field in which the museum should be involved in. Dare I say such a move would be a great step forward? But enough twaddle.

At some point in 1959, 2 gentleman from Montréal, Québec, a journalist / impresario / insurance broker / artistic advisor and one of the best and most famous portrait photographer of his generation, spent some time in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Samuel “Sam” Schecter and Joseph Gloria Gabriel “Gaby” Desmarais met quite a few members of the élite of that country. Schecter’s article, illustrated by photos taken by Desmarais, was published, in both French and English, in publications like Perspectives, the weekly illustrated supplement of newspapers like Le Soleil, of Québec, Québec, and La Tribune, of Sherbrooke, Québec – yours truly’s homecity.

Would you believe that Desmarais photographed individuals as important as Clément Eugène Jean Maurice Cocteau, not to mention Charles André Joseph Marie de Gaulle – 2 gentlemen mentioned in a July 2018 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee (Cocteau), as well as in March 2018 and June 2019 issues (de Gaulle)? But back to our story.

One of the individuals met by Schecter and Desmarais was / is at the heart of this week’s issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee.

Alla Genrikhovna Masevich was born in October 1918, in Georgia, a territory whose independence who soon smothered by the USSR. Worse still perhaps, she was born in a wealthy upper class family, not the sort of people that Soviet leaders of the time were very fond of. Indeed, both of her siblings got into trouble more than once. In spite of the several marks against her, Masevich seemingly sailed through it all. She attended a German school in Georgia and got a very good education, for example, especially in mathematics and physics.

Around 1931-32, Masevich came across a pretty entertaining book on physics, one of several written for children and teenagers by a Soviet physicist and professor at the Leningradskiy Politekhnicheskiy Institut, Yakov Isidorovich Perelman. She wrote him a letter containing a few questions. Perelman graciously wrote back. Masevich was thrilled. As the weeks turned into months and years, he sent her books as well as problems to solve. Even then, she knew her future laid in astrophysics. The 2 met around 1936-37, during Masevich’s first year at the Moskovskiy Gosudarstvenniy Universitet. Sadly enough, Perelman died during the Second World War.

In later years, Masevich readily acknowledged her great debt to Perelman. Indeed, her correspondence with him convinced her of the importance of such letters in the life of children and teenagers. Masevich herself corresponded with numerous children and teenagers in later years. Some of them became geophysicists, geologists or astronomers.

After completing her bachelor’s degree in physics and mathematics in 1940 or 1941, Masevich embarked upon graduate studies on astronomy and geophysics. The devastating German attack on the USSR, launched in June 1941, cut short her efforts.

In November, Masevich married a metallurgical engineer by the name of Josif N. Friedlander. The couple had met only a few days before, in a shelter, during a German bombing raid. They had a single child, several / many years after the end of the Second World War. And yes, my observant reading friend, that child was Natasha Josifovna Friedlander, the young girl in the photo at the beginning of this article. But back to our story.

When Friedlander’s employer, an institute of physics and metals, was evacuated far from Moscow and the frontline, in late 1941 or early 1942, Masevich went with him, and not with her professors and fellow students of the Moskovskiy Gosudarstvenniy Universitet imeni M.V. Lomonosova, a new name adopted in 1940. During her time in the southeastern USSR, she studied at an institute of physics, taught astronomy at the local teacher’s college and studied English in the evenings.

As the Soviet armed forces managed to contain and push back their opponents, various organisations evacuated in 1941-42 began to return to Moscow. One of these was, you guessed it, the aforementioned institute of physics and metals. In 1943, Masevich enrolled in the Gosudarstvennom Astronomuheskom Institut imeni P.K. Sternberg to work on her doctorate. She got her degree in 1946 and became a scientific secretary at the Moskovskiy Gosudarstvenniy Universitet imeni M.V. Lomonosova. Masevich became a professor of astrophysics at that institution around 1948.

And no, Pavel Karlovich Sternberg was in no way related to Charles Hazelius Sternberg. The former was / is a Russian / Soviet astronomer and revolutionary. The latter, on the other hand, was / is an American amateur paleontologist and fossil collector active in the United States and Canada.

In any event, Masevich left the Gosudarstvennom Astronomuheskom Institut imeni P.K. Sternberg in 1952 to become deputy chairman of the astronomical council of the Akademiya Nauk Sovestskogo Soyuza. She remained in that prestigious position at the academy of sciences of the USSR until 1987.

This being said (typed?), in early 1957, Masevich was put in charge of the optical observation team set up to keep an eye of the Soviet satellites whose launches began in October of that year with Sputnik I, a spacecraft mentioned in several issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee since July 2018. If truth be told, Masevich developed a whole network of tracking stations, more than 65 perhaps, throughout the territory of the USSR, in less than 6 months. Said network, the very first in the world, performed flawlessly.

Incidentally, during that same month of October, during a trip to Paris, Masevich wore a hairdo inspired by said Sputnik I, with a few “antennas” sticking out of the hair. Her hostesses and hosts loved it.

A February 1960 lecture tour in the United Kingdom made by Masevich and organised by the Obshchestva kul’turnoy svyazi mezhdu narodami Britanskogo sodruzhestva i SSSR / Society for Cultural Relationship between the People of the British Commonwealth and the USSR proved equally flawless – and very successful. A slide talk in London on the conquest of space and Soviet space research attracted no less than 2 500 people, who had to pay a small entrance fee. By comparison, a free presentation by a British professor / researcher was attended by little more than 30 people. The common folks, not to mention the British scientific community, knew very well who was ahead in the conquest of space.

If I may be permitted to digress for a few seconds, Masevich seemingly made a very interesting statement during a press conference. More than 15 000 people from many countries and many walks of life (workers, students, schoolchildren, scientists, priests, engineers, doctors, etc.) contacted various Soviet organisations between the late 1950s and February 1960 to see if they could have a seat aboard the first piloted spacecraft. Masevich herself apparently volunteered her services. End of digression.

In 1961, when Masevich was responsible for vetting / censoring space-related publications, she accidentally allowed the publication of an article which hinted that Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin, the first human ever to go into space, in April 1961, had parachuted out of his space capsule. While this statement was absolutely true, it contradicted the official story, which was that Gagarin had landed aboard said space capsule. And yes, Gagarin was mentioned in several issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee since July 2018. While Masevich was relieved of her vetting / censoring duties as a result of this mistake, her career did not suffer.

Between 1961 and 1966, for example, Masevich chaired a working group for the Committee on Space Research of the International Council of Scientific Unions. The United Kingdom’s Royal Astronomical Society granted her a foreign membership in 1963. The following year, Masevich became a member of the International Academy of Astronautics. At some point in the 1960s, she became vice-president / deputy chairperson of the Institut Sovetsko-Amerikanskikh Otnosheniy / Institute of Soviet-American Relations, a position she seemingly occupied until the late 1980s, if not until the dissolution of the USSR, in December 1991. And yes, my scholarly reading friend, this organisation became the Obshchestvo “SSSR-SSHA” / USSR-USA Society in 1976.

Founded in 1960 by a large group of eminent Soviet personalities from various walks of life, both artists and scientists, as well as some Soviet citizens who were ordinary, yes, very ordinary, definitely and absolutely, the institute / society was an international group which advocated general disarmament, peaceful cooperation between nations, etc. It also promoted the breaking down of barriers preventing the transport of microbrewery beer across provincial borders in Canada. Sorry. Sorry.

Recipient of many awards from 1961 onward, Masevich was mainly interested in calculations of star structures and evolution, and space geodesy, in other words the measuring and understanding of the shape, orientation and gravitational field of celestial bodies. If truth be told, no Soviet astrophysicist showed a deep interest in such things before her. Indeed, Masevich taught space geodesy at the Moskovskiy Institut Geodezii i Kartografii between 1970 and 1976.

In 1981-82, Masevich was deputy secretary general of the committee for the preparation of the United Nations Conference on the Exploration and Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, which was based in New York City, New York. The conference itself, known as UNISPACE II or UNISPACE 82, was held in Vienna, Austria, in August 1982. She may very well have attended.

As was written (typed?) above, Masevich left the Akademiya Nauk Sovestskogo Soyuza in 1987. She then became chief scientific officer at Astrosovets, the astronomical council of the USSR.

This being said (typed?), as you must have realised by now, Masevich was / is best known as a teacher, public servant, science administrator and ambassador for Soviet astronomy / astrophysics and space research. Her command of 4 foreign languages, allied with her wit, personality, intelligence, energy, dynamism, charm and beauty, not to mention her great diplomatic skills and ability to make and keep friends / contacts, turned Masevich into a most valuable asset for the Soviet government. Dare one say that this always well dressed woman was a bit of a star, with a lot of admirers?

The truth is, I’m not so sure I should. Yours truly has to admit that a little voice in my head, a voice I do not want to drown out, if I may paraphrase the caddish zillionaire in the 2002 movie Two Weeks Notice, reminded me that other individuals, male individuals, mentioned in other issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee were not saddled with a list of characteristics the way Masevich was. Their looks, clothing or ability to make friends were not mentioned either. Why was / is that so? That’s because I, me, chose to say these things.

As you and I know, a female scientist of international stature like Masevich was all but unique during the 1950s and 1960s. That very uniqueness made her the recipient of adjectives like the ones I found in period articles – and in more recent sources. Piling said adjectives on top of one another for comic effect does disservice to the intellect of a remarkable person who probably had to be thrice as good as the men of her time in order to get half the respect and recognition.

Masevich died in May 2008, after a very long and distinguished career. She was 89 years old.

Peace and long life, my reading friend. See you next week.

Well, actually, don’t go yet. I have a little treat for you.

You may have noted that yours truly chose as a title for this article an expression associated with the most famous secret agent of all times, James Bond, created by Ian Lancaster Fleming. You know, “My name is Bond, James Bond.” I thought it might be amusing to paraphrase said expression. To my great surprise, I came across an episode in the life of Masevich which was more than a little Bond-ish. Let me explain.

And yes, these 2 individuals who were / are not necessarily gentlemen were mentioned in a May 2018 issue of you know what, not to mention in September 2018 and May 2019 issues of that same you know what in the case of Bond.

In May 1961, the USSR launched Venera-1, a probe designed to study Venus from up close and the first planetary probe to actually go beyond the orbit of the Earth without going kablooey. Would you believe that another Venusian probe had been launched in early February? Why, you should. Said launch having ended in failure, the Soviet government covered up the whole thing by stating that it had successfully put a satellite into orbit, the non-existent Sputnik 7, but back to Venera-1.

This Soviet spacecraft was quite innovative, by the way. It was the first designed to perform course corrections in deep space, using a 3 axis stabilisation system that could fix on the Sun and a star or the Earth. Better yet, it was the first spacecraft to use a parabolic antenna to transmit the data it would collect.

As luck would have it, the Soviet ground control team lost contact with Venera-1 in late May. Days went by as the engineers tried to reach their wayward and very important probe. At some point, someone suggested that the radio telescope of the Jodrell Bank Observatory, in the United Kingdom, might be able to make contact with Venera-1. One can surmise that some / many people in the government of the USSR were not thrilled at the idea of admitting to a failure and, on top of that, asking an ideological enemy if it could offer assistance. In the end, however, someone, presumably someone important, gave his blessing to the idea. By the time said blessing arrived, the month of June had begun.

And yes, you guessed it, Masevich made a phone call, from Moscow, to a good and slightly older friend, the Isaac Newton of radio astronomy and first director of the Jodrell Bank Observatory, Sir Alfred Charles Bernard Lovell. While yours truly cannot pinpoint when or where these 2 first met (Italy in 1952?), I can state with some assurance that Masevich cultivated Lovell for years, from the 1950s onward, when they met at congresses / conferences / colloquiums. He thought of her as a brilliant person, and good friend, and vice versa.

If you must know, Masevich may have made her first trip to the evil, capitalist West in, yes, 1952.

The USSR’s dreaded secret police / spy agency, in other words the Ministerstvo Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti / Ministerstvo Vnutrennikh Del / Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (KGB), as it was called over the years, trusted her. Mind you, Masevich’s husband and child were staying safely home whenever she traveled, just in case. But back to our lost in space story.

Lovell immediately agreed to help. His influence within British government circles was such that Masevich was able to fly to England the following day, with a colleague, Jouli Khodarev. Within days, and with the help of Lovell, they were able to pick up excruciatingly weak signals that might, I repeat might, have come from Venera-1. That was seemingly as good as it got. Masevich and Khodarev spent some time at the observatory, hoping to pick up signals whose nature they could actually determine. Their hopes remained unfulfilled. Mind you, Masevich and / or Khodarev may have used their time in the United Kingdom to gather as much intelligence as they could. Masevich, for example, became convinced that the British government was using the Jodrell Bank Observatory to spy on the USSR.

Poppycock, you say? Poppycock!? The British government would never stoop so low, you say? The truth was / is that, soon after the launch of Sputnik I, in October 1957, by a barely modified Korolev R-7 Semyorka intercontinental ballistic missile, said government told Lovell to use his radio telescope to keep a lookout for incoming Semyorkas fitted with (thermo)nuclear warheads. Any warning sent by the Jodrell Bank Observatory might have given the Royal Air Force just enough time to launch a number of long range bombers whose (thermo)nuclear bombs would have devastated the USSR and / or much of Eastern Europe. And yes, the Semyorka was mentioned in a February 2019 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee, but back to our Alla.

Masevich’s contacts at the KGB were suitably intrigued by her thoughts on the Jodrell Bank Observatory. Would you believe that someone concluded that it would be a good idea to ask Lovell if he would be interested in touring a number of scientific facilities in the USSR? The British radio astronomer was indeed interested. Some people within the British government undoubtedly pointed out the possibility that the Soviets might try to woo Lovell into defecting. No one prevented him from leaving however. Speaking much later, Lovell himself thought someone should have tried. Mind you, one can presume he was asked to gather as much intelligence as he could. Such an exceptional gesture on the part of the usually very secretive Soviet government should not be missed.

With Masevich at his side, as an interpreter / minder / snooper, for the 3 weeks he spent in the USSR, in June and July 1963, Lovell saw facilities that few if any Western scientist had seen in years, if ever. He was particularly interested in the 3 radio telescopes in Ukraine that no Westerner had ever seen. The director of that space research station was none other than the aforementioned Khodarev.

Toward the end of Lovell’s stay, feeling the time was right but presumably acting on orders she may not have agreed with, Masevich asked him if he would like to work in the USSR. The Soviet government would give him a laboratory, she said, and would pay him very good money. Lovell answered that he was an Englishman and that he wanted to return to England.

Lovell wrote in a personal diary published after his death, in August 2012, that he became ill a few days after his return home. Lovell also wrote that agents of the British foreign intelligence service, in other words the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), or MI6, present at his debriefing, thought that the Soviet government had tried, unsuccessfully from the looks of it, to wipe out all memories of his time near various secret installations, after his refusal to betray his country. Do you think the Russian government would be willing to provide yours truly with information on these allegations?

And yes, the aforementioned Bond presumably worked for SIS.

And you thought astrophysics was boring, didn’t you, nz sfbejoh gsjfoe?

What’s this, my reading friend (wink wink), you do not know what nz sfbejoh gsjfoe means? Come on, my reading friend (xjol xjol), use your noggin.

See ya later.

This writer lines wishes to thank all the people who provided comments. Any mistake or lack of compassion contained in this article is my fault, not theirs.

Author(s)
Profile picture for user rfortier
Rénald Fortier