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Lawry and Alice Mann in Conversation with Sig Hecker, Paul White and Alla Kassianova

Los Alamos, Feb.1, 2017 at the home of Lawry and Alice Mann.

LM: Lawry Mann; AM: Alice Mann; SH: Sig Hecker; PW: Paul White; AK: Alla Kassianova

AK: Lawry, besides the lab visits, Los Alamos maintained active community exchanges with Sarov. For how many years now?

LM: We’ve had over 40 exchanges over 15 to 20 years. Official city exchanges occurred from 1995 through 2014. Besides the scientists, we were the first. 

First we had youth exchanges; young people from high school, juniors and seniors. We also sent one person from a local Indian pueblo, for every youth exchange. The one who went first was Glenda Fred - she's been one of the movers and shakers. She now works for the lab. We actually sent three girls from the pueblos. This really opened their vistas and they all went to college.

We also had city official exchanges; the first visit was in 1995. Those were county council, staff, administrative, or library people. Then we had 8 exchanges through the Open World program, which is sponsored by the Library of Congress. They were focused on social services, accountable government, youth programs, environment, librarians, two on economic development and one on women leaders. Then we had exchanges with medical doctors, you are going to talk to Doctor Bob Thomsen about them.

PW: In the early 1990s, when we just began to interact on a scientific basis, you played a very important role in launching the relationship with Sarov beyond just the scientific interactions. Why do you think that was important? What was your motivation?

LM: I was the chairman of the County Council, and I thought that we needed to support the transition. We had some of the same interests. I have to give a lot of credit to the scientist who was first to visit, Irv Lindemuth. The first time he invited me to go was because I was the chairman of the council. I told him I’d go only if they allow Alice to go too. And they agreed, they said you (Alice) are an elderly pediatrician. We had to have some excuse for her to come.

AM: I worked in a day care program with handicapped adults, but they did not read the handicapped adults, they read the daycare program, so they thought I worked for children. We have a program for elderly people in Los Alamos. It is called “Day Out” and it is located over by the Senior Center. It’s a very nice program. They have lunch, arts and crafts, and all that.

LM: I remember our mothers, who were still alive then, were reluctant for us to go.

AM: They were afraid of Russians.

LM: They said, we’ll be worried about you, but go ahead. We got over there, and of course we were treated like royalty.

AM: They became like our long-lost relatives.

LM: Once we took that trip, we were hooked. We did other things because it was so rewarding for our community. I was still on the council. I thought they had very similar worries to what we did, and people like Sig were trying to get them jobs. They did not want a handout, they helped as much as they could. They paid for their people to come, and after they got here we took care of them. Then, when we’d go over there, they gave us really good deals to reduce our travel expenses.

SH: Lawry, you said that you were hooked. In the end, the County Council had to spend money for that program. How difficult it was to convince the County Council and, for that matter, the community of Los Alamos that it was a good thing to do?

LM: When I was the chairman, I had a lot of support. When I decided to do something, the council would go along with me. The people of Los Alamos are really globally minded. They come from all over –you (Sig) came from Austria to the U.S. The people in town, they are from all over the world.

AK: So you always had full support for the Russian programs and funding for the trips.

LM: We paid for a lot of that ourselves, because I always wanted to do that, I wanted to make sure that we did not have any politicians tell us what to do, so we always made sure that they were minority stockholders. If our budget was $ 20,000, we used 5 or 6 or 7 from them, but I did not want them ever to be the majority stockholders, as I wanted us to do things without having to go through a lot of red tape and everything.

SH: Lawry, what do you mean by the “minority holders”?

LM: Well, that means they could not tell us what to do because we were an independent organization.

SH: In other words, the County Council put up money that was less than half. Control was in your hands outside of the county council. How long were you the chair of the County Council, which is the de-facto mayor of Los Alamos?

LM: I was chairman for four years, and I was vice chairman for three years, I was on the council for 10 years, most of the time I was in a leadership position. I don’t have the energy anymore, but I wish we had more international days in which we feature people around the world, the Chinese, the Japanese, Russians, for better mixture. We don’t mix as much as we could,  I think.

AK: You said the people you met in Sarov were like your long-lost relatives. Tell us some stories about your encounters there.

LM: Alice, tell us what happened when you went to the children arts center and taught.

AM: Yes, I taught. They had this after-school program that was really good, and they had a lot of different kinds of projects like science club. Just about 20 different clubs, and one of them was a gardening and floral arranging type of club, so I demonstrated Japanese flower arranging. I gave them a lot of books and brochures on it, and the lady instructor was really happy with everything.

LM: What was very moving was that Alice gave them all these arranging tools that she brought with her, and the lady broke down and cried. It was really, really moving. And the children all brought their mothers, too.

AM: Yes, they brought all their mothers. It was the first American they had ever seen.

AK: Lawry, share some of your recollections from your visits to Russia.

LM: I prepared some stories. We were invited to help celebrate the end of the Great Patriotic War (that’s how they refer to World War II). As far as the Russians are concerned, the war was over after Germany surrendered on May 9th. It was the 50-year anniversary of the end of the war in 1995. I was asked to speak, and just as I went to the microphone, a communist ran up in front of me and grabbed it, and he proceeded to tell what the United States had done. He said for instance that we only joined the war when we figured out who is going to win, then he did a body count of all the people who died, 20 million Russians. He did not mention the ones that Stalin killed, which is even more than that, but anyway. Then he went down the list, and of course we were at the bottom of the list. He did not mention the fact that we spent more money than anybody else on the war, and he conveniently forgot the Chinese who lost more than anybody. They probably lost more than 30 million people during that time.

AK: Did you get to speak at all?

LM: Well, there were two disadvantages for me speaking. One was, they gave me a very senior interpreter who was not very good. I had practiced with a really good interpreter, Elena. And my talk had some subtleties in it I don't think he ever did justice to, and the Communist guy had already taken up most of my time. So I just sort of gave a short talk.

I once went to Russia with the mayors of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, Idaho Falls, Mound, Ohio and Carlsbad, NM, all cities with DOE facilities. We visited the cities of Siberia, and Snezhinsk in the Ural Mountains. The funniest thing was the reaction of one of the American mayors who had been briefed by the FBI to prepare him for the trip. He was advised to bring his own food and he thought all the rooms were bugged and everything. They finally got him to drink some Russian beer on the last day.

On this trip, we traveled with the mayors of the Russian energy cities. We also had a bunch of notables from the Kremlin there for our meetings. I don't think I remember anything we got out of the meetings, but after the Kremlin guys left, the Russian mayors said to our mayors, now let's talk about our problems. They were especially concerned about their apartment buildings where there was just one thermostat, and one meter, they were trying to break it down so people could have their own readings. I knew something about utilities because as the chair of our County Council I had to deal with the county’s utilities. They asked me what do you do if people don't pay? I said first make sure there are no little children living there. If not, you give them a warning, and if they don't pay after one month, you just turn the heat off. They thought that was somewhat cruel, but I told them, that's what you have to do.

We also went to a banquet in which they gave talks and since we don't drink, I learned from Alice I just hold my cup of water, and then I do the toast with water. This one Russian mayor, I became pretty close friends with him, said, “You know, I am willing to suffer through the transition. We may have some hang-ups, we may not have food, we may not have work, just to get the freedom, it's worth it to me.” And then I said to our interpreter, “How do you feel about that?” She was a lady, a school teacher, with a supplementary income as interpreter, a single mother. She said, “I like the old days because I knew I was guaranteed such and such. I did not have to work two or more jobs.” So, it was interesting. And the mayor of Carlsbad decided we would drink the Russians under the table. We had to carry him to bed.

I had quite an experience in Sarov. I went to their museum, and they showed us a variety of bombs and the man who was retired had been the head of all nuclear testing for Russia. He told me the story of how the Russians developed the bomb. Stalin had told them this better work or you go to Siberia. So the first one they tested was the American design, because they could blame it on us if it didn’t work. And then my host took me to see this gigantic bomb, one hundred megatons tons I think.

SH: Yes, it was rated at a hundred megatons approximately, but they tested it at half yield at 50 Megatons.

LM: He said when Khrushchev saw that he just turned white. My host said after that Khrushchev seemed easier to deal with internationally. He did not want to have to face that sort of destruction.

SH: As the story goes, when Sakharov went to see Khrushchev, he tried to convince him not to test the bomb. Sakharov in his memoirs, tells the story how Khrushchev told him, “Look, you stick to the science. I’ll decide what to do with the bomb.” And they went and tested it, but Khrushchev did accept Sakharov’s proposal to put in dummy materials to test it at half yield instead of full yield. What Sakharov was concerned about was the fallout for something that big. So, he did get Khrushchev to back off some.

AK: I can see you have photos and paper clippings of Boris Nemtsov. This was at the time he was Governor of Nizhny Novgorod region.

LM: One of our favorite people in Russia was Boris Nemtsov.

I think he was 36 years old when we met him and he was a very successful governor of Nizhny Novgorod. Let me tell you a story. We got there and we met and the interpreter with us said, “Do you want me to stay?” and he said, “No, I don’t need you.” He sent us down to the Volga River and there we watched the air show. They were practicing for the big show the next day, and the planes were flying upside down and straight up; it was just magnificent.

When I got back, he said to me, “Well, what do you think about Russian planes compared to yours?” I said, “I don’t know, I’ve never seen ours up that close.” Then he started to tell us stories. He said that he has a soft spot for Americans because his mother told him stories how we dropped food at the end of the war. He said it was the first time he ever had fresh strawberries. He was very proud of the Russian automobile, the Volga. They had the longest manufacturing line in the world. He was also interested in what we’ve done in Levittown, a U.S. project that made single-family housing available that people could afford. He said he’d like to get his people out of the Soviet-style apartments into houses of their own. He talked about that quite a bit, and then he had us to lunch, where we had a really good borscht. He said to us, “I want you to know, I paid for this, it did not come out of state money or anything.” He also told us, when he got into office, he made all these officials trade in their Mercedes for Russian cars. He told us he was proud of this. In my opinion, why Yeltsin chose Putin as his successor instead of him, was he knew Nemtsov would stand up against corruption and Yeltsin had plenty of it himself. Had Yeltsin picked Nemtsov, it would have been a much better world today, in my opinion.

SH: I remember the story about how he supervised their street construction work, namely, repaving the streets. Nemtsov came out to check how good a job they did. What he reputedly had done, he took a shot glass of vodka and put it on the hood of the Volga and he said to the street workers, “So, if you did the street work the way you were supposed to do it, drive this stretch of the street, if the vodka is still in the glass, you did a good job.”

LM: I remember that story. When I prepared for this interview and saw these Nemtsov photos, I shed tears again for him. He was such a good guy. He visited Los Alamos. The photo was from his second visit. It was featured in the Los Alamos Monitor. I also worked on getting Nemtsov, when he was still a governor, to have an exchange with our governor, Gary Johnson. I had it arranged so they would play tennis together somewhere. Our governor was also quite an outdoors person. They were both tennis players. They would have had good time together. But, in the meantime, Nemtsov was promoted to Russian Premier and the U.S. State Department moved in and nixed all that.

AK: In these interactions in Russia and with the Russians visiting Los Alamos, what did you learn from each other?

LM: The Russians asked me one time why we pay so much attention to the seniors and we don’t pay as much attention to youth, like they do. They asked me, why, and I said, “Because seniors can vote.” They have great youth programs in Sarov. I thought it was a good example for us. We learned a lot from how well they managed these programs. We built a youth center that now resembles some of the aspects of theirs; it was a good example for us.

SH: The comments you have just made are interesting. As the Russians reflected what they saw here, their observation was, “Look, you pay a lot more attention to the old people rather than attention to the youth.” You told them, “Oh yes, because they all can vote.” But then you said that now we do more with the youth in town. Was any of that actually result of what you saw in Russia or not?

AM: The Russians were better in what they had there for their youth. This after-school program with fifteen different things that the kids could do – a science club, or just dancing and music, a lot of different activities. What was it called, the Palace of the Arts. They really did a lot of after-school programs for the kids.

LM:  To answer your question, yes, I believe so. Because the County Council chair and the county administrator went to Russia. They saw this. And they pushed for youth programs. Yes, I think it did a lot of good.

SH: What is interesting about that, is that Los Alamos had historically had problems with kids of high school age having nothing to do. That often got them into problems with drugs and other things and so the county had struggled for years about what do you do with young people. How do you make it more interesting for them. Most of the young people really enjoy the outdoors, and sports, but beyond that there was not much to do. What was interesting is, county officials going to Russia and the exchange back and forth actually found a similar situation. The city of Sarov is closed, it is still fenced in. At Los Alamos the city is open, but no one comes up the hill unless there is a specific reason. So, in a similar situation, with both cities isolated, for somewhat different reasons, what do you do with the young people, and what you say, Lawry, is we learned from the Russians.

LM: We learned a lot from each other. Let me share something about the conversion of Lyubov Markova, the most senior member of the Sarov delegation. That was at the first economic exchange here in Los Alamos. She had resisted coming, feeling it would be a waste of time. She had still very strong Communist leanings and when she got here, I tell you we managed to convert her. She enjoyed all the things that we had and when she went home, she reported that she learned a lot. For her, it was the opportunity of a lifetime. Her stereotype of America and its way of life was been erased. She was to come again and bring her family. She was the one that Sarov sent to Kremlin to argue their budget, so that lady was really an important person. She listened to Roger Waterman of the Finance Committee and a Los Alamos business man. So when she went home, she set up a loan for entrepreneurs which had the city government  pay half the interest rate. Their interest rates were pretty high there, 10-12 percent. The City agreed to cover 6 percent to get people started. I think that was really something that came out of the visit.

I once took the visiting Russian superintendents of schools around and we spent half a day going to great schools, middle school and high school. One of them told me, “You know, in our schools, our kids are much more disciplined than yours, but yours are much more interacting. They participate better.” I remember when I went to their schools, I gave out pins – they like little pins. I gave out pins from the county of Los Alamos to every one of the kids. They said I missed one and the teacher came up and caught me when I was down the line, and I came back and gave a pin for this little girl and gave her something else too – I had missed her.

One more thing, the library. I did not touch on that much. But our librarian went over to Sarov and she talked to the Russians. They had never thought about using volunteers as we did in Los Alamos. The next time we went over there, they were using volunteers, retired people, others, in the libraries. She is the one who got them started doing that.

Now, we had dear friends, Irina and Margarita. When we made a private trip with our daughter to Moscow and St. Petersburg, Margarita and Irina came and helped us in Moscow. They showed us how to use the subway and took us to a great Russian museum and spent a lot of time with us. Margarita’s son was there, going to school in Moscow.  It turns out that my son-in-law was staying in the Ararat Park Hyatt Hotel. Margarita and Irina had bought tickets from the hotel concierge for the opera because they said the ballet was sold out. Well, my son-in-law, knew his way around; he has traveled a lot. He knew he could go out and buy the ballet tickets from a scalper. He went out and bought them. I don’t know what it cost him, probably a hundred dollars. He took this young man with him, and the young man said to him, “How can you do that, just throw away the opera tickets and get the ones for the ballet.” He said to him, “I thought I’ll only be there once, and I know, when I go home, I’ll work a little harder to make up the difference; I don’t worry about it.” And he said, “That’s capitalism for you.” He gave the opera tickets to Margarita and Irina and they had a good time, too.

PW: Lawry, I just want to make sure that we get the names right. Are you referring to Irina Parfenova?

AM: She worked in school Number 2.

LM: We used to call this (pointing down the hall in the Mann’s home) her bedroom. She stayed with us maybe 10 or 12 times. She worked as an interpreter. She came for scientific interpreting too. She is really good. And Margarita came when they did the Open World program once; she was a vice chair of the City Duma in Sarov just last year. She has retired now.

AM: After things got kind of shaky with Russia, we quit exchanging with our friend because we did not want to get her in trouble by sending her a letter.

AK: When did the people from Russia came over last?

LM: I think that last time were the county officials in 2013.

PW: It was the fall of 2013. We had a leadership delegation from Los Alamos to Sarov.

LM: I’ve got to tell you, Paul, we’ve got some money in the bank. It was saved to take our youth to Russia. We have to figure out what to do with that. We’ve got to do something.

PW: The difficulty was from our perspective it would have been our turn to send the youth delegation to Sarov in 2014. Of course, then the Crimea annexation had occurred and there was not a mood among the parents of young people to think about having youth travel to Sarov at that time. And then it became diplomatically and administratively just more and more difficult to do the things that we had long planned and thought about doing. But up until 2013 we had one or two exchanges every year.

SH: In the spirit of what now is possible, certainly what I am picking up from our Russian colleagues is there seems to be almost a euphoria in Russia about Trump having won the election and there will be a new day of relationships. I am not sure how long that will last but at least the mood has changed on the Russian side. I think in 2014 the difficulty was, as Paul was pointing out, Americans actually did not know whether it was safe for Americans to walk the streets of Moscow. It was actually a security concern. You don’t send young people into a situation where you can’t be certain of their security. For that reason, the visit was turned down. By 2015 it was clear Americans were not threatened in Moscow, but not necessarily welcome. And the same for 2016, is also sort of a question mark. That may change now. The Sarov Mayor, Alexey Golubev, wrote an article for the book, and we exchanged Christmas greetings. Yes, the politics has slowed interactions down, but I would say, it has not brought it to a complete end, and there may come another opportunity. The visits through the sister cities program are precisely the sort of thing that help to regenerate good will. They should be continued.

LM: Yes, it is important. We’ve been sort of reluctant because we thought that somebody might be interpreting this as not favorable to the regime or something. We did not want to hurt anyone inadvertently. Our treasurer was on the County Council. I just checked with her. We can sponsor some of them coming here.

PW: In addition to administrator, there is one council person that is very proactive, ready to support anything when we think the time is right.

LM: The people in Sarov are still very close to us.

AM: Like our lost relatives. They are like family.