Robert Thomsen Interview

Lab-to-Lab: US-Russian Lab-to-Lab Collaboration Story [Archived]

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Robert J. Thomsen in conversation with Paul C. White and Alla Kassianova

January 31, 2017, Los Alamos
RT: Robert J. Thomsen; PW: Paul C. White; AK: Alla Kassianova

Robert J. Thomsen is a dermatologist practicing in Los Alamos, New Mexico. He participated in a medical exchange program between Los Alamos and Sarov funded by the United States Department of State, and was active in many community exchanges through the Los Alamos Sarove Sister Cities Initiative.

AK: Please tell how you became interested in the contacts with the Russians?

RT: I am trying to think of it, where I was when this first came up. I think that the first was when I somehow was present when the people were saying, We’ve got this group of Russians coming, and we need places for them to stay.

PW: Do you remember what year was that?

RT: No, I don’t. But I remember that Olga Augustson stayed with us. It was her first visit to the United States, and I still remember her standing at the window, looking out at the valley at night, saying, “I just can’t believe I am in the United States”. And so, we hosted her and participated in few of their activities. When it was time for Olga to leave to return to Russia, she of course said, Bob, come and visit us, and I said, “Olga, I will if I can”, but in my mind, there’s no chance that that’s going to happen, and so I thought that was the end of this interaction.

It was very interesting for me though. I was born in 1950, and so, growing up, was very much a product of Cold war. I remember the day that Nikita Khrushchev either died or was out of power. I remember literally looking up to the skies, thinking, OK, is the war going to happen now? And even younger than that, worrying that there were going to be Russian soldiers coming into my bedroom. I once related that tale to one of my Russian friends, they looked back and said, What?? This was a reality to a kid during the 50s and 60s.

Family smiling for the camera

AK: Were you growing up here or somewhere else?

RT: Iowa, which was a strategic mark, of course, in a young mind. So, I’ve seen a chance of being involved with rapprochement, with what I considered to be very important national adversary. I have no Russian blood in me that I know of, probably some Slav blood, some Viking, but no Russian heritage, nothing like that.

AK: When did you come to Los Alamos?

RT: We came here in 1981. I am a physician, a dermatologist, and my wife has a lab connection, she is a space physicist.

AK: And being in Los Alamos, did it reinforce your awareness of the Soviet Union being out there?

RT: No, I don’t think so. I was more realistic by that time.

AK: So Olga was the first person staying in your home, but probably not the last.

RT: There were many visitors since then. And I felt truly blessed to have those friendships and interactions.

AK: And this stream of Russians, staying in your house. Did you come to form an idea of some common traits, some sort of Russian character?

RT: I think there are Russian traits. I am not sure I can really say what they are. I had swung radically back and forth between saying, Oh, Russians are just like us! We are all the same, all the same people, and – by the way, I think Russians have the same sense of humor as Americans, that’s been steady, and then, swinging to the other side, saying, Wow, they are really different in how they think about things, anticipate things, and look at things and then, of course, we are somewhere in between.

AK: Let us return to this a little later, and continue to follow how you did get into Sarov at some point?

RT: Before I became involved with Sarov itself other than Olga’s visit, there were two physicians from Los Alamos who visited Sarov; they were the first physicians to visit. I am not sure exactly how that got initiated – they were Donald Blossom, pediatrician and Phil Hertzman, a family practitioner. Somehow, I was at the right place and the right time, and again, I don’t have a mental image of where that place was, when it was, or what the circumstance was, but somehow it came to my awareness that they were planning a second visit and I raised my hand – I’d like to do that. And so, in May of 1998, Don Blossom, the pediatrician who did the first visit and John Eilert and I went to Sarov for two weeks. And that was my first visit there.

AK: And that was a Sister Cities visit, or not?

PW: The Sister Cities existed, but I was not directly involved in Sister Cities then, so the possibility exists that that was not sponsored by Sister Cities, because it was direct medical professional visit.

RT: Somehow, I think it was a community to community visit, but I don’t know. To jump ahead for a moment, we established LASSCI, Los Alamos-Sarov Sister City Initiative, because we realized that there was no central organization to create these visits, to have an umbrella for the planning of those visits. So before then, how did they happen? I don’t know. They just seem to have gotten organized.

AK: Did you pay for your visit?

RT: Yes.

AK: So, the people who volunteered were supposed to cover their trip and everything. And with the later trips, were they covered at all by programs?

PW: There was a cost sharing arrangement that came along. Things like transportation, to and from Russia, that was always paid by the traveler, the hotel accommodations, lodging in one or another city was sometimes paid by the host, and sometimes paid by the traveler; meals were usually provided by host. We usually said, Get to the state of New Mexico state line, and we’ll take care of you. And that also applied to Sarov city.

RT: Especially that at least the people coming here stayed at people’s homes.

AK: So what happened during this first visit, do you remember it?

RT: I remember it quite well. I remember going over to Olga’s house and I remember saying, Olga, do you remember I said I would come if I can; and she said, Yes, I remember that, and I said I never expected it, but here we are. And I believed that it was in this visit, also, when she kind of ambushed me and said, I want you to talk to my student. So she took me into a back bedroom with one of her students and made me speak English with her, because that was the student that Olga felt was very good in English, but was too tentative and did not want to say something that was not correct, and so never said anything as a result. We had a lot of other visits in Sarov. During that first visit, with Don Blossom being there, we saw more pediatric clinics than I ever seen in my life. We went to a number of clinics and hospitals; it was a doctor visit, and I actually got to spend a half day in a dermatology clinic there which I obviously enjoyed.

AK: And for you, what was the motivation? Not just curiosity I think, but did you have any other set of motivations to go there?

RT I think curiosity is the thing. I don’t believe that I had a particular agenda other than trying to promote good relations between the two cities.

AK: It’s already more than curiosity.

RT: Yes, I think it was the agenda; to see what kinds of things we could do together. One interesting little visit was I arranged to have a meeting with one of the Orthodox priests. And I was thinking maybe we can do some exchanges between the churches, maybe not physical people exchanges, but exchanges of thoughts and ideas. He said, It’s great to talk person to person, but if we talk church to church, we have to get permission from Moscow for that. OK, so I was starting to understand a little bit of bureaucracy here. I also said something like, We have 37 churches, and none of them agrees with each other, and he, in all seriousness, said, I think that the Orthodox church can help you to agree. And I laughed, and I noticed he was not laughing. He was very serious about it.

AK: I understand that you played an active role, an organizing role. Was it at that time already or later on?

RT: It was later on. That was in May 1998, sometime in 1999, because there was a Sister City relationship, and because there were these two visits, the AIHA, the American International Health Alliance, which was funded by the state department was putting out feelers for Sister City relationships in terms of medical partnerships, and we applied. And again, I was present and raised my hand and Phil Hertzman raised his hand at the same time, so we became two co-directors for that partnership which involved quite a number of visits. I was quite involved with that. The focus was educating of care providers.

AK: Describe a typical visit within one of these programs.

RT: I’ll speak for one of the programs where I was the manager, that is dental project. Dental health was fairly miserable in Russia. I recruited one of local dentists here, Joe Mathews, who since moved to Phoenix. The project involved visits of Russian dentists to here to learn how dental care, dental hygiene care are provided, and we took a couple of dentists to Albuquerque and a couple of dental hygienists over to Russia.

We made presentations and they would demonstrate techniques, and especially the hygienists would demonstrate techniques. The Russian dentists were at one point skeptical about this notion of dental hygiene. They were worried that if dental hygienist would do their job, they would lose their job because there would be nothing to do. We assured them that there was no need to worry about that. You’ll never be out of the job. So it was hands-on training and also when they came here it was hands-on training.

AK: Do you think you got the situation better in Sarov? Sarov is a small place.

RT: I really don’t know. I really don’t know whether we have a good way of measuring the baseline in order to see changes. We just did it and hoped that it was the right thing to do.

AK: What response did you get from his doctors who participated?

RT: I think they were very enthused. At least they they said the words that they were appreciative of learning these things and new ways of looking at things.

One of these funny cute stories I’d like to share we were at the subway in Moscow and the one of those dental hygienists was sitting down next to Russian woman and I was standing, separated from them by some people. I could see them but I didn’t hear them and I saw that they were talking back and forth and even showing each other photographs, and I thought that is great that they having this conversation; and then she called me over and said, Bob could you tell her that her child is very beautiful? They were not talking English or Russian; they was talking woman; and that was very touching to my heart to see it.

AK: When did you go to Sarov last?

RT: 2007

AK: And after there were more people coming?

RT: No, that program, the medical program ended in 2004. We actually had a one-year extension of the whole program so that and it ended relatively speaking fairly soon.

AK: And it was after that that you started to look around for other things to do.

PW: And there was a lot.

RT: Yes, there was a lot for a while. Let me back up and it’ll do the first visit. I went there no in 5 words in Russian knowing DA, NET, and spasibo and pozhaluista, and vodka. Those were my 5; and I came home knowing 5 more. I learned five words there. I thought, this isn’t enough. So I studied Russian and tried to learn some of the Russian language. Unfortunately, I did not use it often enough to get really fluent in it. I would tell visitors, I understand about 2% of what you’re saying but I’m not going to tell you which two. They were absolutely convinced that I understood more than I let on but I wasn’t. Making the effort really did open doors for me. Just making the effort.

Group photo

Thomsen with the Russian group.

AK: Tell us how it worked.

RT: One time, months later, we were in Siberia and one of the Russian ladies said, Oh, he can speak in sentences not just some words! That was a great honor for me to hear that. One boy in Russia, in Sarov, heard that I studied Russian and he said can I help you? I said, No, I have the book so I just have to put in the effort and he gave me the most sage advice that I ever had. He said, Russian isn’t hard once you know it. I just cling to that.

AK: So you put in the effort to learn the language. Did you have classes or one-on-one instruction?

RT: Mostly classes. Maybe the first class I had was with Olga, Olga Martin now. Olga was teaching a class here in UNMLA, and Olga Augustson taught both at her home and in UNMLA. Later we had classes with another woman, an American woman, here in Los Alamos who does Russian translation. With a small group of faithful people like Molly Cernicek we all slogged through that.

AK: Do you read some Russian now? do you watch Russia Today in Russian?

RT: No I don’t. Even at my best I wouldn’t not have been able to. I tried to read books for small children. I discovered that they were filled with idioms, even children’s books, not so straightforward. That avenue for me dried up pretty quickly.

AK: Let me ask you how did you relate to this new Russian world both professionally and personally?

RT: The problems were very much the same that translated well into the same kinds of things that we deal with here. They dealt in Sarov with infectious diseases, psoriasis, that sorts of things. I do remember one time we were visiting a school for children. It was May, a very nice day and they had children out in the sunlight, and I asked the guide, Do they use sunscreen? They looked at me and said, Bob, we have 30 days of sunlight here. So the sun damage is a sort of thing that was not applicable there.

So the problems were the same but I found that the approaches were quite different. One of the social economic limitations was that they didn’t have the expensive medicine available to them. I can sympathize with that. Another observation that I made about Russian physicians was that they are pretty inbred: they don’t read a lot of international journals, they don’t go to big national or international meetings where there’s input from other places, they just learn from each other and that keeps it fairly parochial in that way.

I also observed fairly consistently that most of Sarov physicians were women and the administrative people were men. That was the case through a lot of professions not just in medicine. In fact, I was just constantly impressed by the Russian women that they maintain a full-time job and then they go home and maintain a full-time job at home. And Russian men demand a lot it seems.

AK: You spent a lot of your professional and personal time on that. Did you see that it was something that you took away from your other personal and professional responsibilities?

RT: Yes.

AK: And how did you negotiate between this and the other ones?

RT: I don’t know the answer to that. I just do it. I do a lot of other things. I’ve done a lot of other things, for instance Boy Scouts.

AK: So it is the way you are, the fuller the better. Did it provide you satisfaction?

RT: Pretty much. I learned a lot, I learned a lot about myself, and this country of Russia. When I came first time I said to myself I’m here to learn how this country works. I know that I was pretty naive.

AK: Did you get a better insight?

RT: I got a few insights. I think one insight has to do with the notion of win-win situation. I had a notion that a lot of Russians don’t understand the win-win situation. They thought if you were winning then they were losing, and they did not want to lose. That made some of things difficult.

AK: Can you tell a little bit about the personal relationships or maybe the professional relationships that you formed. There were a lot of people who came to your house, whom you met. Was there anyone with whom you formed an ongoing friendship?

RT: There was only one, she was one of the translators. She was a teacher in school number 2; her name is Tatiana Satiokova. Tatiana and I became very good friends, we still exchange Christmas letters.

AK: Do you want to say something about which you have not asked yet?

RT: Well, some of the things that I learned in visits. One was a banya. That was a very pleasant experience. We later built a banya in our house, and the sauna, then did banya sort of parties.

I mentioned humor before. Toasts! I learned the toasting protocol. I learned that the second toast is always to the women present, and later toasts become longer and longer as the level of vodka goes down the bottle.

AK: Did you thrive in this toast tradition?

RT: Yes, I did! However, I read and I took to the heart the advice concerning drinking with Russians. It was advised do not try to outdrink a Russian. You would not do it. I was very careful about just sipping.

Another thing is I write poetry. One of them was Unfinished Poem of Sarov and Los Alamos. Unfinished in the sense that we realized that we were just beginning a relationship, and that there was more to write in this poem. Each of the alternating stanzas deals with what Russians might be saying on one side of the page and what Americans might be saying on the other. I refer to them as occasional poems: they were written on occasion.

Another thing to add before I get to more specific things is the church, the Russian Orthodox Church. I’ve never been exposed to their practices, it was all new to me and I was really drawn to it. I wasn’t drawn to convert or anything like that, but we established a relationship with the Orthodox Church here. In fact, in one of my visits, I jogged down to the site where supposedly Serafim Sarovski had his hermitage and I found a stick about this long (4 feet), and I ran back to my hotel and cut it in the right place so I can get it in my suitcase and I made a little Russian cross to give it to church. As close to a relic as you can get. And a PostScript to this story I just got an email from Joe Matthews, the dentist who moved to Phoenix. He converted to Orthodoxy two year ago and he said this process started during one of our visits.

To add a couple of examples of how our programs have affected people. One of them was before I came on the scene. There was a young woman whom Lawry Mann may have mentioned, this young woman from the valley who went on one of his visits before me and later went to the Russian studies; and one of the people who went, another woman named Sarah also has gone to the Russian studies as a direct result of her visit to Sarov. So it makes a difference for people.

AK: So what do you think is happening now? Do you have any personal feelings towards this state of affairs?

RT: I just accepted it as what it is. I am a little discouraged that the people who were involved in this in the busiest times – Lawry, Paul, Fran Berting, other people – we’re not going to be around, and it will have to be completely reconstructed from scratch, I am afraid. As Sig said in his lecture in Fuller Lodge, how long will the good will last? It will last maybe as long as the people who experienced it, but when these people are not around, it will be all gone.

AK: Do you think that there is a real possibility that they would be an end to this relationship?

RT: Yes, I can see into it. Again, people who don’t have an idea what the program was about or that there was a program, people who don’t know their history, will not know that there is anything to reconstruct. And it wouldn’t occur to them to do and have such a thing. I have no idea to where the present Administration is going to go, but I think there is a possibility of what happens at the city level will be directed by that.

AK: What do you think, Paul?

PW: Yes, I think it could end. I think there are some things we could do to mitigate this possibility, but they’re limited. I think I mentioned that we continue to stay in touch with some individuals. We were very fortunate to have a person like Alexei Golubev as the mayor. He’s a younger person than we are. We stay in touch and we express mutual regret that the things are what they are today. One specific possibility is if this International Sister City Conference takes place later in Spring. It’s an attempt to get together all Russian and American sister cities in one place. The driving energy is the sister city group in Gainesville Florida. It’s been postponed twice. It’s back on the table, and I think the key thing would be if we can persuade Sarov representatives to come. Maybe not more than a couple of people and I would like to see two Los Alamos representatives, one of the current generation but also somebody younger who can carry the torch. There has to be some way to hand this off without me or you or Lawry just dumping a pile of files on somebody.

It has to be personal. If somebody has not met Alexei face-to-face, that’s not going to happen. So there’s a real possibility it could tank and it would be very hard to revive it in the same way. It would have to be almost finding a new way of planting something and growing it.

AK: What other cities in the world is Los Alamos related to?

PW: None.

AK: None. It’s exclusive?

PW: It’s exclusive on both sides.

AK: So to get the brighter side, can you define what kind of value is out there for both sides to interact?

RT: I’m about to jump through very generalized things and I’ll see if anything more specific comes out. I have always had this strong feeling that peace happens person to person, one relationship at the time, and that if you’re able to consider the others as people rather than dehumanizing them, then you’ll be dealing with them at a much better level. I think that’s value of establishing person-to-person contacts and person-to-person understandings.

Just one of these experiences. We’ve always taken groups to Bandelier, to the main site, so one can see the ruins, and we usually have picnics. One time I was in charge of the picnic, so I brought all the bread and the meat and all the stuff. I found a picnic place, and set of all this stuff on the picnic tables, and then they arrived. Of course, my expectation was that we would set these things out and everyone would make their sandwiches, and that would be it. That is how we would do it. Well, that’s not how it worked! For one thing, the women took over. The men … they went off to pee or something, I don’t know what they did. They disappeared. It was women who did the work. They said, ok, how many are there? There are 11 people, ok, we got 23 pieces of bread, that means, there is enough for two each. They put out 11 plates, put two pieces of bread on each plate. Ok, how much meat do we have? How much of lettuce? And pretty soon they built a lunch, and they said, ok, we eat. And except for people taking as many chips as they wanted, or fruit, I don’t remember what the exceptions to the rule were, but basically everyone got the same lunch. And I thought, that’s something. I brought the building blocks, but they did something completely different to that I did, and what an interesting metaphor that was. My expectation was that everyone would take what they need. Is not something everyone does? I was not judging it, no. It was an eye-opener for me.

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