Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage

Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage

by Albert Glinsky
Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage

Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage

by Albert Glinsky

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A creative genius and prolific inventor, Leon Theremin almost single-handedly launched the field of electronic music in 1920. The theremin—the only musical instrument that is played without being touched—created a sensation worldwide and paved the way for the modern synthesizer. But the otherworldly sound that entranced millions was only part of Theremin's epic life. 

As a Soviet scientist, Theremin surrendered his life and work to the service of State espionage. On assignment in Depression-era America, he worked the engines of capitalist commerce while passing data on US industrial technology to the Soviet apparat. Following his sudden disappearance in 1938, Theremin vanished into the top-secret Soviet intelligence machine and was presumed dead for nearly thirty years. Using the same technology that spawned the theremin, he designed bugging devices and a host of other electronic wonders, including an early television and multimedia devices that anticipated performance art and virtual reality by decades. 

Albert Glinsky's biography places the inventor at world events stretching from the Russian Revolution through the Cold War to perestroika. Throughout, he spins whimsy and treachery into an astonishing drama of one man's hidden loyalties, mixed motivations, and irrepressibly creative spirit.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252072758
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 02/02/2005
Series: Music in American Life
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 480
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Albert Glinsky is an award-winning composer whose music has been performed throughout the United States, Europe, and the Far East. He is a research fellow and professor of music at Mercyhurst University. Robert Moog(1934-2005) developed the original Moog electronic music synthesizer and was the president of Moog Music Inc., the world's leading manufacturer of theremins.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Soviet Power Plus

Electricity will take the place of God. Let the peasant pray to electricity; he's going to feel the power of the central authorities more than that of heaven.

—Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, 1918

Homes were searched, and thousands of citizens were seized and rounded up without warning by lieutenants, sergeants-at-arms, spies, and other informants. In jail, the will of the arrested was quickly worn down by hunger and lack of sleep. Legal counsel was denied them, and they would never learn the identity of their accusers. They were usually quick to admit to their alleged crimes at a tribunal. If not, any attempts at self-defense were met with Draconian measures, including torture, to exact a confession of guilt—the only admissible verdict in the end. Punishment was life imprisonment or execution. In either case, the goods and property of the convicted were confiscated, condemning their descendants to a life of penury.

    Such was the fate of the Albigensian sect of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, routed in southern France by a bloody Inquisition. The Albigenses were heretics who denied the veracity of Christ's redemptive power, the authority of the pope, and the teachings of the Roman church. They believed only in the constant struggle between good and evil. They preached that human souls, like Satan, had been cast out of heaven for rebelling against God and had been condemned to imprisonment on earth in physical bodies. Purification of thesoul at death was their single goal. Any worldly perpetuation of the race—marriage, procreation—or any material want, was to be shunned. Suicide by starvation was encouraged in anyone who had reached a pure or "perfect" state, and those who were still "impure" at death were thought to transmigrate to a lower life form. The killing of animals was therefore forbidden, and meat and dairy products were thought to be contaminated.

    The Inquisition left the Albigenses' homeland—the province of Languedoc, near Toulouse—virtually cleansed of their sect at the end of the fourteenth century. A scattered few managed to escape, and among them was a group bearing the name Théremin—a name that translated literally as "bath attendant," a Christian metaphor, ironically, for the "cleansing of the soul."

    Reinventing themselves, the group adopted the metaphor literally and converted to Christianity as Huguenots, only to suffer persecution under the French monarchy in the sixteenth century. But their iron resolve sent them fleeing where they had to, repeatedly adapting for survival. They fanned out to Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, Prussia, and, in 1793, to St. Petersburg, where a Russian branch of the family was established.

    The generations of Theremins that followed were a diverse lot. One offshoot flowered into a line of Protestant priests; some became rebels, storming the Bastille and fighting in the American Civil War; still others were artists, musicians, and professors, and a few distinguished themselves in law and medicine. One family member had been blessed by Calvin himself, while his brother was slaughtered in the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of 1572.

    The Theremin family history was laden with leitmotifs: war, persecution, flight, emigration, spiritual fortitude, encounters with the nobility, disdain for material pursuits, artistic excellence, scientific and philosophical inquiry, and, above all, the perpetual interplay of good and evil. Tumbling down through the generations, these manifold fortunes, and the whole familial legacy of the sacred and the profane, the victorious and the tragic, would eventually be the single inheritance of one, extraordinary individual, set apart in every way, even by his earliest recollection:

I remember myself before my official birthday.... there was complete darkness. Something was always turning, and it seemed to me I was falling into a neighboring place. I remember sounds gradually becoming louder, and at the end I saw a little red spot start to get bigger and bigger, brighter and brighter, and suddenly it was so big that my eyes were hurting. I was afraid. The spot changed color from red to white. Something began to push me from behind, and finally it pushed me out. The light was so bright that I tried to close my eyes. There were so many sounds around me. That was the day of my birth.

    That day was August 15, 1896, by the Old Style, Julian calendar. It was St. Petersburg. The boy's father, Sergei Emilievich Theremin, a graduate of St. Petersburg University and a respected lawyer, was the son of the tsar's court physician. Sergei's wife, Yevgenia Antonova Orzhinskaya, part Polish and part Russian, was of noble birth and liked to dabble in music and the arts.

    The boy remembered: "I was held in someone's hands. Now I know it was my father. Everyone around me was talking loudly. Then I was put down. It was cold. Now I know it was cold water. It was my baptism."

    He was christened Lev Sergeyevich Termen (pronounced "Tair-MEN," with a flipped "r"—the Russian adaptation of the ancestral name, although the proper non-Cyrillic spelling remained "Theremin"). He was born into the responsibility of a heraldic tradition: atop the family emblem, lilies and a crown were meant to signify nobility. A shield with Christ's monogram and two olive branches denoted a high spirituality. Across a ribbon at the bottom, the rule of the "golden mean" echoed the motto of his medieval French forebears: ne plous, ne moeins—"no more, no less."

    Life in the twilight years of the tsarist empire was cozy. Lev lived with his parents, grandmother, and younger sister, Helena Sergeyevna, in five comfortable rooms at 50 Nicolayevska Street, apartment 4. The family was close-knit. They were religious—Russian Orthodox—and read prayers together every morning and evening, but they rarely attended church. Lev shared a small room with his grandmother. On the surface, his childhood might have seemed as unspectacular as countless others playing out across the Russian capital at the turn of the century. But there was an odd intensity to Lev, a peculiar sense of drive and purpose for a child. When his father encouraged him to explore their big study, Lev quickly discovered a spinning bookshelf with the famous Brockhaus and Efron encyclopedia. "At three I tried to read this encyclopedia," he recalled, "and was fascinated by what I found. None of the other books were real to me." He puzzled over velocities and mechanical things. "I had blocks, and built walls and slides, and studied a pendulum on a rope." His father often took him to rummage through the used-goods stands at the Nevsky, Prospekt market for tools and small odds and ends, and by seven, Lev was dismantling and repairing his father's gold watches. Electricity fascinated him.

    His parents played four-hand arrangements at the piano and Lev coaxed lessons out of them when he was five. At nine he took up the cello. He loved music, but he was impatient with the conditioned muscular training needed to extract even the simplest tunes from these instruments; it seemed to limit his inner expression. "I realized there was a gap between music itself and its mechanical production, and I wanted to unite both of them."

    When he entered St. Petersburg's First State Gymnasium, at the end of Nicolayevska Street, Lev stood out in a class of thirty boys. At the first physics lecture, he took issue with the instructor. "The teacher began to speak about the principle of pendulums. I felt he didn't explain things correctly, and it wasn't professional." Lev was called to repeat the explanation in front of the class, but his perspective was so unlike the teacher's that he found himself mumbling. He received his first failing grade. Two days later he was asked to try again. This time, measuring his words, he made a case for his own viewpoint, disarming the instructor. "He was very interested and asked me where I had learned all these things," Lev recalled. The teacher sweetened the praise with an invitation to do independent electrical research in the gymnasium physics lab.

    At home, Lev conducted experiments with high-frequency currents, optical devices, and magnetic fields, and he began studying astronomy by investigating all known stars. In the vegetable garden behind his parents' summer home, just outside the city, he constructed his own observatory where he discovered a new star. When he reported his find to the Astronomical Society, it must have turned a few heads, coming from a fifteen-year-old boy.

    The next year he was invited by the principal of his school to stage a whimsical display for the gymnasium students and their parents—a foreshadowing of his future caprice and fancy in science. Ten feet over the heads of his audience he strung electrical wires receiving a high-frequency electrical current. Volunteers were each handed a Geissler tube—the earliest sealed glass vacuum tube containing two electrodes. When high voltage was applied, a wayward spray of electrons from current flowing between the electrodes would hit the inside wall of the tube and cause a green fluorescent glow. Participants were asked to rise individually and aim their Geissler tubes at the suspended wires. As the raised tubes came within eighteen inches of the wires, they entered the electromagnetic field and lit up. The participants were transformed into Statue of Liberty-like torchbearers.

    When Lev was sixteen, his cousin, Kirill Fedorovich Nesturkh ("Kirusha"), invited him to witness the master's thesis defense of a rising star in Russian physics, Abram Fedorovich Ioffe. Lev never forgot that day in May 1913. He and Kirusha, a physicist at St. Petersburg University, jostled their way to front row seats as the hall filled up. Even the eminent physicist Vladimir Lebedinsky rushed to claim one of the remaining places at the back. It was a weighty event in the physics world—Ioffe's work was controversial. His thesis topic was "the photoelectric effect and magnetic fields of electrons," and Lev was struck by the unusual approach. It seemed to him "unlike others who operated more with mathematical indices, expressions, and formulas shaded with symbolism. It was about objects around us connected to our feelings ... and perceived directly by our sensory organs." Ioffe's approach was an eye opener to Lev. "It was calling me to the real scientific—not the abstract—knowledge of the essence of matter, and probably life." His pulse raced at the possibilities of empirical investigation—the thrill of experimental physics, of drawing back curtain after curtain from the mysteries of the physical world.

    Kirusha tracked down Ioffe afterward and presented Lev to him as a young experimenter in physics and a future student at the university. Lev was young and impressionable, but he was sure he had met his role model. "Abram Fedorovich looked in my eyes with a friendly smile and gave me his hand, which I shook with great affection. I thought how wonderful it would be to work under his leadership as an adult."

    Lev graduated from the gymnasium in 1914 with a silver medal. In the fall he was to enter the School of Physics and Mathematics at St. Petersburg University. Astronomy and physics would be his concentration, but he hoped to keep a hand in music as well. Among his parents' coterie of friends, the cello soloist of the Imperial Ballet Orchestra, A. Garpf, agreed to audition him for the St. Petersburg Conservatory as his own pupil.

* * *

On August 1, with little warning, the motherland was ignited by the spark of the First World War when Germany declared war on Russia. From the urbane, insular world of intellectual circles and scientific thought, Lev found himself at the epicenter of a cataclysm. Things began shifting and transforming themselves all around him—even his beloved St. Petersburg was rechristened with the more Russified name of "Petrograd." Fifteen million young men were suddenly mobilized and marched off by the tsar. At Tannenberg, the Germans crushed the first Russian offensive in a bloody, costly defeat.

    Lev hoped the war would end swiftly, and he managed to begin his studies at Petrograd University. At the same time he was juggling classes at the conservatory in music theory and wound up in Professor Garpf's cello class. The physics circle he joined at the university was mostly made up of older students—the residue left behind when the draft swept away the majority of his peers.

    In the spring of 1915 he heard that Ioffe was presenting his doctoral defense. It was a public lecture again, and afterward Lev nabbed the physicist in the corridor and let forth a storm of questions. "Ioffe listened attentively to me and commented on the importance of experiments with big electric and magnetic fields to determine the parameters of atomic and molecular structure." Lev hung on every word. Seeing the student's earnestness, Ioffe took a chance and arranged for Lev to have his own room in the university's Physical Institute building to do independent research—an unheard-of honor for a second-year student, but obviously an endorsement of a new protégé.

    Lev was in his element, but he kept a nervous eye over his shoulder, fearing the long arm of the draft would find him before long. The war was dragging on. By the autumn of 1915, the Austro-German army had driven the tsar's troops out of the Baltic provinces, pushing the Russian lines back hundreds of miles. In desperation, the tsar hurried to the front himself to supervise the army, leaving behind the Empress Alexandra and her erratic adviser—the mystic faith-healer Rasputin—to run domestic affairs. As the war escalated, the monarchy—haughty and unresponsive to rampant hunger among the masses—appeared to be crumbling.

    Lev finally received the call early in 1916, but his prodigious electrical knowledge saved him from the front lines: the physics and astronomy deans maneuvered him into the Nicolayevska Military Engineering School in Petrograd, an avenue open only to fourth-year students. It was a blessing, yet it had taken him away from his ideal métier of practical research. He was unable to mask his disappointment. Ioffe took a philosophical outlook: "He comforted me that the war wouldn't last long, and my military engineering experience could be used successfully for the aims of science."

    Lev was tossed into the cogs of the raging war machine. He was pushed through a six-month shortened course at the Military Engineering School and relayed immediately to the doors of the Graduate Electrotechnical School for Officers to major in military radio engineering. When he graduated, late in 1916, he was fed back into the school's Radio Technical Department to instruct the next wave of recruits. His well-trained hands were also needed for transmitter work, and simultaneously he was cast in the role of lieutenant in the Reserve Electrotechnical Battalion. His first charge was to oversee the construction of a powerful radio station for the front at Saratov, on the Volga River, to open strategic communication with Moscow four hundred miles to the northwest.

    Erecting radio towers was a far cry from Lev's dream of practical physics, but for the moment it offered sanctuary from the sorry lot of the tsar's troops. By late 1916, enemy blockades had stemmed the import of vital goods, and the railroad system was collapsing. Agricultural production was shrinking after hordes of peasant men were drafted into the war. Hunger was spreading among the population. Food riots, antigovernment strikes, and street demonstrations began to foment a climate of revolution.

    Lev also perceived a seismic movement in the ideological ground beneath him. The lawyer's son would have to face up to the corrupt political and moral fabric of a society he had taken for granted: "It was the last year before the Revolution, and there was mental fermentation in the army. People had various personal opinions, often at odds with their officers. There were different political circles organized in the Battalion. I wasn't a Bolshevik yet, but we all expected changes in the life of our country. My strongest sympathies were with the Marxist circle."

    Discontent in the army set off mass desertions, and in February 1917, the tsar's soldiers began joining ranks with demonstrators. "Bread and freedom" became the cry. Police stations, courts, and jails were raided and burned. Cities all across Russia fell into the hands of insurgents. On March 2, Tsar Nicholas II, recognizing that his authority was in eclipse, abdicated the imperial throne, ending the three-hundred-year reign of the Romanovs in Russia.

    A Provisional Government was rushed into power, but its cabinet consisted mainly of intellectuals hoping to preserve private property and delay decisions affecting the working classes. The opposition, waiting in the wings, was the Petrograd Soviet and other soviets that sprouted around the country: governing councils of rank-and-file leaders elected by workers, peasants, and military personnel, with an ideology more in step with the needs of the masses.

    In the midst of these upheavals, Lev managed to complete his degree from Petrograd University in 1917; at the same time he received a "freelance artist" diploma from the conservatory.

    After another devastating rout of the Russian army by the Germans in July 1917, the Provisional Government suffered a loss of confidence, and the Bolsheviks gained a majority in the Petrograd and Moscow soviets. Of the leftist factions vying for power, the Bolsheviks were more radical than their Menshevik and Socialist Revolutionary counterparts. They advocated a true socialist state organized by and for the proletariat, against the bourgeois society. A showdown was imminent.

    The Bolshevik party leader, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, orchestrated a complete army insurrection, disarming the government and commandeering bridges, government buildings, communications, transport services, and munitions supplies in Petrograd. On the evening of October 25, revolutionary forces seized the Winter Palace—the former headquarters of the tsar—and arrested the cabinet of the Provisional Government holed up there. Later that night, a manifesto drafted by Lenin was read before delegates to the Congress of Soviets: a Revolutionary Soviet Socialist Government was to be formed immediately. It would secure prompt withdrawal from the war and seize private and church land for the soviets, to be parceled up and distributed among the peasants. The "October Revolution" was complete.

    As the new head of the Soviet government, Lenin signed the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty with the Central Powers in March 1918. Russia's involvement in the First World War was over.

    Lenin's deputy comrade in arms, Leon Trotsky—president of the Petrograd Soviet, and second in command during the staging of the October Revolution—was the new people's commissar for war. Trotsky was charged with rebuilding viable Russian armed forces for the Soviet state. In 1918, he formed the nonvolunteer Red Army, largely from peasants and workers—a force that burgeoned into the main defensive arm of the new regime.

    To keep the seat of government farther from the border, Lenin moved the Soviet capital from Petrograd to Moscow. The gesture was also a symbolic one. St. Petersburg had always been "Russia's window on the West," a European-style metropolis associated with the tsar and his aristocracy. Moscow, on the other hand, embodied Russia's Asiatic heritage, and a retreat from Western influences. The move resulted in Lev's reassignment to Moscow to serve as deputy chief of the new Red Army's Military Radiotechnical Laboratory—the Soviet reincarnation of the old Reserve Electrotechnical Battalion. As a job, it was a lateral shift, but there was one small change: he was wearing a Bolshevik uniform now. He had stepped into a realm with no exits.

    When the Bolsheviks seized power, their victory left a large, disaffected faction of former upper and middle classes—Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks—that rallied under its own military commanders to topple the Lenin-Trotsky leadership. These "White" forces were a serious threat, but Lenin felt if he could destroy them, he could destroy the bourgeoisie at the same time. In the spring of 1918 he precipitated a civil war that was, in reality, a class struggle against the "Whites." To accomplish his ends, Lenin met his adversaries with a monstrous barbarity that reduced his leadership to a nightmare of paranoia, repression, and terror.

    Coupled with this, Lenin sanctioned one of the most notorious acts of regicide since the French Revolution: the assassination of the tsar and his family by a band of Bolsheviks in Ekaterinburg, where the former monarch was in custody. On July 17, 1918, the family, along with their physician, cook, and other attendants, were shot at point blank range in a relentless volley that wiped out the entire Romanov dynasty and any future threat it might pose, with a single, sudden act of terror.

    For the Bolsheviks, terror was not merely a matter of combating resistance. It became a mandated state policy that transformed the Russian consciousness, turning the society virtually overnight into a frantic police state of arbitrary violence and mass repression. "The dictatorship," Lenin wrote in 1920, "means ... unrestrained power based on force and not on law." In December 1917, he founded the Cheka—the Extraordinary Commission to Combat Counterrevolution and Sabotage—an intelligence and secret police organization that carried out investigations, arrests, and executions. The Cheka was responsible for the extermination of tens of thousands, including many Bolsheviks, and became the model for later state terror organizations under Stalin. Working independently, the Cheka had its own internal system of justice and ultimately answered only to the head of the Party.

    As part of Lenin's "cleansing" decrees, landowners and the middle class were singled out for special persecution. In 1918, he directed the people's commissar for food production to take twenty-five to thirty hostages from among the rich in every grain-producing district to be executed merely for belonging to the wrong class. In a cable to Trotsky he urged "remorseless destruction" in Kazan, and he directed the commissar for oil in a Caspian city to prepare to burn down the city completely in the event of resistance. He directed another commander to "carry out relentless terror against the kulaks [wealthy peasant farmers], the priests and the White Guards," and among his own military commanders he purposefully sowed the seeds of fear and paranoia to discourage any dissent. "From now on we're applying the model of the French Revolution," he cabled Trotsky, "and putting on trial and even executing the senior commanders if they hold back and fail in their actions." In May 1919, nearly eighty thousand Red Army deserters were reportedly arrested.

    After two separate attempts on Lenin's life, many former ministers of the Provisional Government were publicly executed. Former tsarist officers were arrested as a matter of course and imprisoned along with their entire families, including aunts and uncles. By 1918, Lenin began organizing concentration camps for those lucky enough to be spared the bullet. His new policy of forced labor became a potent weapon in the terror campaign that saw thousands of men, women, and children dying on their way to the camps, or as a result of conditions within them. By now, Lenin had extinguished any hopes of a democratic, decentralized Soviet state. He could cling to power only with a centralized dictatorship that held its own self-preservation over the interests of anyone, proletarian or otherwise.

    In 1919, Lev was relocated to Petrograd. Like it or not, he was now at ground zero of an Armageddon, recruited to aid the Red Army's struggle for Bolshevik supremacy. The burden of trust he was shouldering was daunting: he was appointed broadcast supervisor (chief of the transmitter) at the most powerful radio station in the country. The installation was situated fifteen miles south of the city, in Tsarskoe Selo, a town where the tsar had lived with his family part of the year in the luxurious Alexander Palace.

    The Petrograd Lev returned to bore little resemblance to the noble city of his youth—it was unrecognizable. Under siege from White forces led by General Yudenich, the city's Bolshevik defenders were forced to mobilize every available man, including seventy-year-old veterans. Plans were underway to close all factories so workers might be sent to the front. "Women will undergo military training," the New York Times reported, "and be formed into a medical corps, according to the same order." Describing the city as a "hell" where "history's greatest tragedy was now being played," a recently escaped soldier recounted the situation in Petrograd in a cable to the paper on October 25, 1919—the second anniversary of the revolution:

For a long time most of the necessary victuals have been lacking, and if one did not possess at least 18,000 rubles a month it was impossible to get any but moldy bread and rotten herrings.

    Many thousands are dying of famine and cold. The lack of coal and wood is now terrible. All wooden buildings are being torn down for fuel. Even the famous wooden pavement of Petrograd has been used and the streets are impossible for traffic....

    The nights are more than terrible. Every moment houses are searched by mariners or bands of factory girls, stealing everything eatable and dragging the inhabitants into the courts, accusing them of every crime.

    All men have been forced into the Red Army, now a couple of hundred thousand in Petrograd alone.... Sickness of all kinds, especially cholera and typhoid fever, have had an immense number of victims, and it is now estimated that only a quarter of a million of civilians are alive in Petrograd. On account of the lack of wood there are no coffins, and corpses are heaped on big wagons and thrown into open graves.

    In a dispatch from London issued the day before, the New York Times reported that Trotsky's entire staff had been captured at Tsarskoe Selo, and that Trotsky himself had "escaped by clinging to a railway car and later fleeing from the scene in an automobile." Pursued by White troops firing on his car, he managed to reach Petrograd safely.

    Inside the radio facility, Lev obliged a tour to Alexander Chernishov, a professor he knew from university days. Chernishov hoped to pick Lev's brain and return to his colleagues at Petrograd Polytechnical Institute with a state-of-the-art knowledge of transmitters—a sign of the high respect Lev garnered from academics. On his way out, Chernishov mentioned that he worked with Ioffe now, who sent his regards and hoped that conditions would allow them all to collaborate in the future. Lev remembered that the words hit him like a thunderbolt: "This unexpected contact with my distant past brought up intense emotions in me. Until then, I considered that my past, which I held so deeply in my memory, had died in me forever. During this time, in my private life, there were many events which were very far from my university activity, far from my studies and my specific research desires. And suddenly it was back. Suddenly it became so real and very close."

    But at the moment, anti-Bolshevik forces led by General Yudenich were closing in on Tsarskoe Selo. Lev and others at the station were compelled to make quick decisions. "Yudenich was coming to capture the radio station," he remembered, "and announce through it to the whole world his victory over the Bolsheviks who 'illegally took power.' We immediately started preparation for transmitter evacuation to the East. For six days, with no sleep, we loaded everything on railway cars, and sent them toward the Ural Mountains. With the last train I left for Petrograd, and blew up all 120 meters of the radio mast."

    At Petrograd, Lev was put to work equipping an international-reception radio station under the transmitter tower of the Electrotechnical Institute. Simultaneously, he was pressed into service as an engineer-instructor for the radio department of Narkompochtel (the newly formed "People's Commissariat of Post and Telegraph"). "In addition to that," he despaired, "I read lectures to prepare radio specialists. It was a difficult time. It was difficult for food, and difficult to carry on technical work, especially the design of a radio station on a high technical level. Visiting specialists looked on everything with pessimistic eyes. It was not easy to work with them on the design of new machines needed for our country." Before long, he recalled, "on a day when my disappointment and hopelessness about overcoming philistine resistance were the strongest, I had a phone call. It was the voice of my beloved Abram Fedorovich [Ioffe]. He suggested I come to work under his leadership at the newly created Physico-Technical Institute, on the premises of the Polytechnical Institute."

    The next morning, Lev mounted his bicycle early for the long ride out to Sosnovka, at the outskirts of the city. Beyond the "Finland" stop on the tram—the last outpost of civilized travel—the institute was an additional five-mile hike, and students and workers routinely covered the distance on bikes until the fall muddy season claimed the road and the trek had to be made on foot. At number 2 Lesnoi Prospekt, Lev sprang up the steps of the "Polytechnic," two at a time, for his promised "negotiation." Ioffe was in his office. "He found me very grown up," Lev remembered,

and was pleased to see I was still energetic and cheerful. He sat me on the couch and began to tell me about the newly organized Institute, and its technical and scientific challenges for the near future. He explained that we live at an important time for starting a new Soviet science to improve life.

    He suggested I take an active role in the work of the Physico-Technical Institute, and asked me to supervise a laboratory for high-frequency oscillations. It seemed I had again returned to that world I had felt the loss of for so long. I wanted to kiss him—but it wasn't acceptable—so we shook hands, and agreed that the next morning I would be given a room for my work.

    For Lev it was an innocent bargain. But under the banner of noble invention he had unwittingly been ushered to the inner sanctum of the Soviet machine, the nerve center of covert strategies and horrific mandates.

    Ioffe knew that his own career, if he were to have one, would continue at the pleasure of the Bolshevik ideologues and their capricious schemes. He set about recruiting for the Physico-Technical Institute, attracting a host of the country's top scientists and engineers sympathetic to the revolution. A new Soviet science had to be raised up from the ashes if the fledgling Communist state were to become competitive in a world the Bolsheviks viewed as inherently hostile.

    The institute, soon to be one of the largest research academies in Russia, was also a place of sanctuary. The revolution had sought an unprecedented leveling of the classes, and the Bolsheviks hoped to reconstitute the Russian people as a single class of manual laborers and peasants with no constitutional power or representation. The gentry, clergy, professionals, and the bourgeoisie ceased to be recognized as legitimate groups. Added to the confiscation of their private property, they received reduced food rations and were legally discriminated against. "Civilized" society as it had previously been known was disappearing. But among these newly persecuted intelligentsia, scientists could find a safe haven at the institute, as long as they were fulfilling a useful purpose in Lenin's plan.

    Lev's first assignment was to observe the crystal structure of objects using X rays of various wavelengths. He supervised physics students and sometimes dabbled with hypnosis. Ioffe urged him to bring his findings on trance-induced subjects to the physiologist Ivan Pavlov, who invited Lev to perform joint experiments at the Military Medical Academy.

    In a few months—by early 1920—space in the X-ray lab became tight as desks and tables began spilling over with circuits. Across the street, a former medical building recently occupied by the Roentgenology Institute of the Polytechnic's physics department (named for Wilhelm Roentgen, discoverer of X rays) had space available due to a shortage of students. Ioffe found Lev a large, unheated third-floor drafting hall with twenty desks, fourteen windows—patched together in spots with plywood—and two shielded X-ray chambers standing in the middle of the room. Lev was to clean up the space, arrange it to his liking, and assemble a research laboratory for radio oscillations under his direction.

    Lev and his new assistants cobbled together two large brick stoves for heat, directing the smoke and soot out through openings in the windows with iron pipes. In the bone-chilling winter outside, Petrograd was withering under the ravages of famine and pestilence, but inside there was just enough warmth to take the nip off the drafts and put the mind to the revolutionary tasks at hand.

    It was an irony that Lev's wartime broadcast work—which he so resented—had, in truth, prepared him for the path he would ultimately follow under Ioffe. Investigations of atomic and molecular structure would be put in abeyance, but perhaps his mentor sensed a more urgent need for utilitarian radio skills. It was a natural choice for him: the technology of radio itself had matured in tandem with his own childhood.

    A mere nine years before Lev's birth, the very existence of electromagnetic waves, and their capacity to travel through the air, had been demonstrated for the first time by the German physicist Heinrich Hertz. In a simple lab experiment, Hertz had released a burst of energy by inducing a spark to jump across a gap between two electrically charged rods. The spark radiated electromagnetic waves into the atmosphere, which were received and registered as a second spark between two wires across the room. This was essentially the first transmitter and receiving antenna. For Hertz, the experiment also proved the existence of the "ether," the medium scientists had earlier postulated as filling all space, serving as a carrier of electromagnetic waves, since they could travel through a vacuum, without air. The term "ether waves" became associated henceforth with any form of radiated electrical energy.

    In 1896, when Lev was born, the electrical beeps of telegraphic dots and dashes coursing through wires were the lone grammar of global communication. Three years later, those signals became airborne for the first time when the young Guglielmo Marconi sent a message across the English Channel in a landmark display of wireless telegraphy. Marconi's spark gap transmitter—a sophisticated version of Hertz's original experiment—produced weak, damped waves that were sufficient for Morse code signals but were incapable of transmitting voices or music through the atmosphere. A "continuous wave" transmitter generating high-frequency oscillations was needed to carry more sophisticated sounds.

    By the time Lev was ten, shipboard operators off Brant Rock, Massachusetts, had picked up the first strains of speech and music riding the airwaves. Phonograph music, a Bible reading, singing, and violin playing—heard on Christmas Eve 1906, in what might be the first "broadcast"—were beamed out by Reginald Fessenden, a Canadian scientist testing his new alternator for General Electric. The device, essentially an ordinary electric generator stepped up to spin at twenty thousand revolutions per minute, made an effective high-frequency transmitter, but its technology left much to be desired. The centrifugal force of the mammoth rotating mechanism nearly tore apart the housing, and the horsepower required of its steam turbine engine was staggering. But "radiotelephony" was born, an infant science. By then, the term "radio" had superseded "wireless," suggesting the radiating of high-frequency signals.


Table of Contents

Foreword by Robert Moogix
1. Soviet Power Plus Electrification9
2. The Greatest Musical Wonder of Our Time50
3. Capitalism Plus Electrification73
4. A Theremin in Every Home92
5. The Ether Wave Salon129
6. Alarms, Magic Mirrors, and the Ethereal Suspension149
7. "I, Leon Theremin "168
8. Yowsah, Yowsah!194
9. On the Yauza: Screws, Politicals, and Radio Street203
10. Free Music: New Waves on the Home Front243
11. Mailboxes and the Invisible Man256
12. In the Vanguard: Perfume, Sci-Fi, and Hobbyists275
13. A One-Room Flat and the Microstructure of Time298
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