R.J. Marks II, "Marks on Marx on Rostov-on-Don", EE Alumni Newsletter, Department of Electrical Engineering, University of Washington, pp.8,10-11, (Summer 1993).


by Robert J. Marks II

The RNNS/IEEE Symposium on Neuroinformatics and Neurocomputing was held in Rostov-on-Don in Russia from October 7 through October 10, 1992. I flew into Moscow with Wes Snyder of Bowman Gray School of Medicine who served as the Symposium Program Co-Chair (the most demanding position in the conference) and Dmitry Kaplan of Quantum-Siemens, who was the Finance Chair (the second most demanding position). Dr. Witali Dunin-Barkowski of the Neurocybernetics Research Institute, Rostov State University, Russia, served as the conference's General Chair. I was the International Chair.

The Moscow airport appeared glum, gray and gloomy. Uniformed immigration officials sat in bleak glass cages with "do not bribe the officials" signs on them. I had read that officials had been requiring tourists to pay money to pass. The signs were a response of the government to dishonesty. Honesty is always impressive. The official looked at my passport photo taken six years earlier when I had a beard and longer hair. He looked at me, crinkled his brow and rubbed his chin - indicating I no longer had a beard. I smiled uneasily, waiting to be tapped on the shoulder by a KGB agent. I made some motions that were supposed to resemble shaving and smiled meekly. Confrontation was to be avoided at any cost. Later, as I learned more about the people, I became quite comfortable in Russia. Their culture remarkably resembles that in the United States. At the airport, though, my impressions were based on my vast experience of Russian culture based on Dr. Zhivago, the Cuban missile crisis, and H-bomb drills they made me do in grade school. The immigration official put the card down, and did nothing. Nothing. For about half a minute. Later I found out that some Russian workers do this to kill time so they don't have to work hard. My visa was stamped and I was waved through.

Immediately inside the airport terminal, there was a cluster of about fifty people, some holding signs with people's names on them. The group was divided by an aisle traveled by newly arriving passengers. There was no sign for us. We retrieved our luggage and stacked it in a safe place. While Wes and Dmitry stood guard, I returned to the crowd and began to look for the sign from the side. People were packed, groping to see the new arrivals. I was pushed from behind with a number of short abrupt bumps. Somewhere, I had learned to associate this with pick pockets. Sure enough, when I focused attention, there were fingers doing a dance around my posterior cheeks. I swung around and came eye to eye with the pick pocket. I glared at him. He froze, turned his head, walked away, stopped, looked at me, gazed away, fidgeted, pulled out and lit a cigarette, looked at me, turned, and walked away - a classic study on how to look guilty.

Wes had found our ride. Our driver was accompanied by Dr. Dunin-Barkowski's wife whose name was also Dr. Dunin-Barkowski. She lives in Moscow and is an MD, but speaks little English. Dmitry, though, speaks native Russian. He was born in Kiev and immigrated to the United States as a teenager. The trip would have been incredibly awkward without Dmitry. He confided that his return to Russia, the first after his immigration, was done with apprehension. Although he intellectually knew there would be no problem, his memories of the oppressive Soviet system were deeply rooted.

The next day we flew Aeroflot from Moscow to Rostov-on-Don. The only good news was that smoking was banned on the airplane and we arrived safely. In an apparent move to cut costs, Aeroflot planes have no oxygen masks. The floors of the plane are made of wood overlaid with a peeling rubber floor cover. Aeroflot also has no enclosed overhead bins. Carryons are placed in an open rack above your head - the kind you would find on a bus. Most airlines require enclosure. In turbulence, falling luggage can really hurt.

The refreshment on our short flight was club soda served in a plastic bowl. In Europe and Russia, mineral water comes with or without "gas", meaning CO2 bubbles. The smell of some kind of soup was in the plastic of the bowl that held my colorless soft drink - probably the aura of refreshment from some previous longer flight. It added flavor to the otherwise tasteless mineral water.

Rostov is a city of about a million people. We were met at the airport by Witale and some of the local arrangement volunteers on the organizing committee. Witale is a delightful man, full of energy and prone to eruptions of deep guttural laughter. He is fun to be with.

Left to right: Dmitry Kaplan, Witali Dunin-Barkowski, Wes Snyder, Boris M. Vladimirsky and me in front of the A.B. Kogan Institute for Neurocybernetics at Rostov State University. Witale is the director.


I first met Witale in Seattle. When I served as President of the IEEE Neural Networks Council, we hosted a Presidents Dinner at our annual meetings. Witale, as President of the RNNS, attended this dinner at the 1991 Seattle IJCNN (International Joint Conference on Neural Networks). With Wes Snyder and Dmitry Kaplan, we put together the Rostov Symposium and got it approved by the Council. Witale later returned to the United States and, in order to work out the details of the conference, stayed with the Snyders in North Carolina. During his visit, the attempt was made to kidnap Gorbachev and overthrow the government of the Soviet Union. There was apparently no connection between this and Witale's visit.

Our Rostov hotel was nice. Each floor of the hotel was graced by a "key lady" who sat at a desk close to the elevator. It was her responsibility to guard your key when you left (if you wanted her to) and sell you sundries, such as cigarettes and mineral water (with and without gas). A key lady was on duty 24 hours each day.

Breakfast at the hotel was great. Three of us had a breakfast of rice pudding, scrambled eggs, sausage, grape juice and coffee for 34¢, or about 11¢ each. I graciously agreed to pay, under the condition that Dmitry pick up the lunch tab in Copenhagen on our way home. The low price was due to the weak ruble. When Dmitry was a boy in Kiev, a Ruble was worth about a dollar. During the conference in Rostov, $1 cost about 360 rubles. About a month later, it cost 400 rubles. In 1992, a professor in Russia made about $160 per year. It has gotten worse.

The conference was great. I learned a few things about technology and a number of things about Russian people. On the first day, we held the opening ceremonies with greetings from the mayor, conference chair, etc. Due to the dominance of American technology, English is the official language of all international technical conferences. This was the first meeting in English that had been held in Rostov this century, or, for that matter, ever. At the opening ceremony, Witale feverishly translated the comments of the Russian speakers into English and the English speakers into Russian. During my stay at the podium, I gave the obligatory positive remarks about the conference. I then related a story, not original, about the common labeling those who knew many languages as "multilingual". Similarly, those who knew two languages were referred to as `bilingual' whereas those knowledgeable of only one language are known as "Americans." Witale gazed up, searching his memory bank for equivalent Russian words as he translated in parallel. At international conferences, I have found a mild and reserved resentment of the forced English language. Properly conveyed self depreciating humor can transform this into good natured back-slapping collegiality. The audience laughed at the Russian translation and many smiling heads bobbed, acknowledging truth in the humor.

In the middle of the ceremonies, I was whisked outside to be interviewed on a local television station, Rostov TR (television-radio), Channel 2. A young English professor from Rostov State served as the translator and stood between me and the Russian speaking reporter. We stood in the sunlight on the entrance to the convention sight in front of a cameraman. Only benign questions were asked, and I gave standard diplomatic answers. "What are neural networks?", "Why is this conference being held in Rostov?", "What do you think of Russia?". Watching the interview on television later was strange. They only aired the last few words of my eloquent response to the questions. Then the translator would talk at length in Russian to the reporter. The reporter then asked a prolonged question in Russian. The translator turned to me and only got out about half a sentence in English. Cut to me giving the last half sentence of my response. They had, for reasons now obvious, edited most of the English out of the interview. Almost none of their audience spoke English.

The Russian Neural Network Society (RNNS) is one of many national professional neural networks societies. There is also the ENNS (Europe), ANNS (Australia), SNNS (Swiss), JNNS (Japan) and the CNNC (China Neural Networks Council). At the Rostov Symposium, I met Dr. Alecsander F. Lavrenjuk, President of the Siberian Neural Networks Society. Dr. Lavrenjuk is with the Tomsk Polytechnical University and is doing research on implementation of neural networks using neutron beams. He was specifically interested in whether the IEEE Transactions on Neural Networks, a publication of the IEEE Neural Networks Council, would be open to publish such research. (It is). I whimsically asked if he was doing any research in applications of superconductivity to neural networks. In Siberia, I smiled, it could be done outside. He smiled politely and gave a polite and obligatory chuckle. He had probably heard this and similar Siberia jokes hundreds of times. We continued to talk for quite some time. The caricatured view I had was irreversibly changed. (Although I did I learn that, in Siberia, milk is delivered to your front porch in large unwrapped frozen blocks.)

The conference banquet was a fascinating example of the importance of alcohol in Russian culture. An associate director of Witale's lab, Boris M. Vladimirsky, arose, and introduced Westerners to a Russian tradition. Witale translated. Throughout the banquet, toasts would be offered at intervals of ten minutes. Intervals shorter than this were not acceptable. The time between toasts was to be used to coat the stomach with food, so that more alcohol could be consumed. He made a toast to the conference, drank, and sat down. Around the banquet tables were numerous bottles of Russian vodka and champagne. As a nondrinker, I filled my glass with some queer tasting Russian mineral water and joined in the toast. As forecast, the MC rose again in ten minutes. Witale hurriedly chewed and swallowed as to not be late in the translation of the toast. The MC said that he was sorry that he did not know English, but was proud to learn this day that, as a result of knowing only one language, he was an American. A toast was offered and nearly all drank. Ten minutes later, Witali offered a toast in English, and did his own translation. Ten minutes later, Wes Snyder was called upon to offer a toast to the conference and friendship of Russians and Americans. The next toast, it turned out, was mine. As a nondrinker, I tried to shrug it off. Witale insisted. I stood, hoisted my glass, and bellowed "To sobriety!". By his expression, it was clear that Witale did not know the English work "sobriety". He bent, and Dmitry whispered Russian in his ear. Witali smirked, stood tall, raised his glass and gave the translation. There was a smattering of chuckles as many drank to sobriety. This toasting lasted long into the night.

The next night, there was a reception. I talked at length with a Russian researcher whose name I do not recall. He lamented that, since the passing of the cold war, it had becoming increasingly difficult for him to find the funding to support his work in artificial neural networks. I told him the same thing was happening in the United States. Defense budgets were being reduced, and previously strong funding programs were being cut. He slapped me on the back, and said with his thick Russian accent, "Yes. It was much better when we were trying to blow each other up". He laughed at his own black humor and I involuntarily chortled.

The Americans at the conference were asked to talk to the Deputy Chief of Rostov Region Administration, Mr. Aleksei A. Khomyakov. There were about a dozen of us. Mr. Khomyakov is kind of the CEO of Rostov. He made a presentation on the attributes of the Rostov region and its willingness to interface with American business. This attitude of business cooperation willingness seems prevalent throughout Russia.

One of the most interesting people I met at the conference was Dr. Alexander I. Galushkin, Director of the Scientific Centre of Neurocomputers in Moscow. There are a number of cases where technical concepts have been developed independently in parallel in the United States and the former Soviet Union. The work of Dr. Galushkin and his institute is an example of this. He was training multi-layer perceptrons in the early seventies, long before they became popular in the west. His implementation of neural networks optically and with transputers is quite impressive. His work needs to be studied and placed properly in the young history of artificial neural networks.

A "fresh air" conference session was held aboard a boat that sailed down the Don river. The Don is said to separate the European and Asian continents.


A train crossing the Don river - from Europe to Asia.

Corners of the ship were roped off for a number of parallel technical sessions. I wandered around the boat catching portions of different talks. One scene was quite curious. A Russian researcher was giving his paper in broken English. Listening were a half dozen Russians, each straining to understand the speaker. (I snapped the picture reproduced below). It occurred to me that this was proof positive that the cold war was, indeed, over.

The boat docked, and we all deboarded. We formed a loose line, and walked about a half a mile to see a Russian church in the middle of restoration. The countryside was great. There were sheep and goats and old Cossack buildings. Two older ladies, who sat on a bench outside of a barn, were living caricatures of Russia, with their head scarves, multi layers of sweaters and chubby dome-like figures. I took their picture. They looked up and said something. Dmitry, who was with me, said something back. We continued to walk down the path and Dmitry explained, `They asked why we were taking their picture. They said they have nothing.'

Me and some sheep on the Rostov countryside. (I'm on the right).

When the conference ended, we flew Aeroflot back to Moscow. Witale's aunt, Natalia (translated Natasha) Kucherov picked us up at the airport with our driver. We spent the day taking a fantastic tour of Moscow, including the Kremlin, Red Square, and other tourist magnets. The Kremlin now charges admission. The sixtysomething lady in the booth selling tickets took our money, and, like the man at the airport, did nothing for about thirty seconds. I have had similar service in American post offices.

At the Kremlin. Dmitry is waving at the bottom left.

Expressing my exuberance in the Kremlin complex. Why is everyone walking away?

The highlight of my trip was dinner at Natasha's apartment with Wes, Dmitry and Natasha's family. The apartment was in one of the countless high rises built around Moscow. The architecture, like most buildings built in Russia this century, is gloomy. The apartment building looked like it had been built in the 1950's. It also looked quite neglected. As we pulled in the building's parking lot, a half dozen men standing around a hole in the ground, glared at us. Although dressed in work clothes, none of them were working. We entered the building and climbed the stairs - there were no elevators - to Natasha's apartment. Inside the apartment, the atmosphere was totally different. Although small, the apartment was filled with the warmth of a home. Natasha's teen age son was there. He had been practicing his English, and we talked a bit. We were soon joined by Natasha's husband, Anatoly. We later learned he had spent the morning looking for tomatoes for our lunch. Anatoly is a computer programmer who is working for a new private company specializing in optical pattern recognition. Natasha was working to establish a Christian school in Moscow, and asked Dmitry to mail some fund raising material for her in the States. There is currently a greater freedom of religion in Russia than the United States. Actions, for example, have been levied against the University of Washington's chapter of Campus Crusade for Christ because the organization does not conform to some modern concepts of political correctness. Christianity and other religions, on the other hand, are discussed openly and embraced in Russian education and government institutions. Natasha's attempt to open a private Christian school in Moscow was impressive. She and Anatoly had been secret Christians throughout the rule of intolerant atheistic communism. Anatoly told me in broken English that "Russia has lived too long without Christ."

These apartments in Rostov were a lot like those in Moscow.

The lunch was splendid. Natasha fixed a turtle cake, which looked like a bunch of pancakes sprinkled with powdered sugar stacked in a mound. ("Turtle" refers to shape rather than content). Sometimes, Dmitry said, turtle heads were fashioned out of a pancake and added to complete the image. We talked continuously over lunch. Poor Dmitry didn't get much of a chance to eat. He was the only always translating. The time spent at the Kucherov's was warm and open. Except for the language difference, it was like visiting old friends in America.

Natasha and the driver later drove us to the Moscow airport for our evening flight to Copenhagen. (No, Dmitry did not buy me lunch there). We were home in two days.

During his visit to Seattle, Witale said, in regard to the government of the former Soviet Union, "They lied to us about America. They lied to us". In describing his feeling about his home in Kiev, Ukraine, Dmitry taught me "There is a difference between love of country and loving your government". Despite formerly oppressive rule, Russian people are wonderful and more American in their culture than many realize.

Most, for example, know only one language.

Since I wrote this, I have returned to Russia with Campus Crusade for Christ. We went to Moscow & Siberia. For a photo essay, click HERE.