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An Interview with Leon Theremin

Mattis: Why did you leave New York?

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 wife.

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 that lab?

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 for me.

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 1945!

Theremin: Somebody invented that.

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 correspondence.

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 like Topolev.

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 Soviet composers?

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 composers.

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] Smirnov.

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 you 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]

[Copyright: © Olivia Mattis. Reprinted by permission of the author.]

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