Meeting Tupolev at Pugwash, by Mira N. Mataric

16 Jul

Dr. Mira N. Mataric has 42 books (poetry, short stories, novels, memoirs and translations), published in two languages, with numerous citations in publications of Europe, America, Asia and Australia. Her works have been translated into several languages, and she is the recipient of over 20 international awards, including five presidential medals for volunteer work in education.  

She has taught world literature, creative writing, and foreign languages to youth and seniors for many years, edited a literary magazine, and founded and chaired Women in the Arts, Inc., a non-profit organization (for 20 years). She is active as a public speaker, a facilitator of workshops and at public poetry readings.


September 1963, Belgrade, in the now non-existent Yugoslavia. Clear, sunny autumn day. I am on the bus, filled to capacity, standing, not having to worry that I may fall—there is nowhere to fall. We are like sardines in a can transported to our daily work. Finally, the bus stops at the most beautiful and famous spot, Kalemegdan Park with a Fortress on the high hill and a view of the two rivers’ magnificent confluence. The Sava flows all the way from Slovenia and joins the Danube, the second longest European river after “Mother Volga” (as it’s called by Russians). The Danube comes from the Black Forest in Germany. By the time it pours its waters into the Black Sea, it passes through nine countries: Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova and Ukraine, and through four capital cities: Vienna (Austria), Bratislava (Czekia), Budapest(Hungary) and Belgrade (Serbia). The Danube is 2,860 km long (1,780 miles) when it finally, at the widespread delta, mixes its water with the salty water of the Black Sea.

Every inch of soil and water here is pure history and old culture, from the Neolithic era of Vinča (near Belgrade), to Roman, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, all worth studying through the plentiful archeological findings. To this day, valuable remains are found unexpectedly during the building of new sites.

I am one of young librarians, proud to work here during the re-birth of a new National Library of Serbia, whose staff in the past involved famous writers and intellectuals. The old building of the Library is at the end of Knez Mihailova (Prince Michael’s) Street (lovingly known as the Bond Street of Belgrade). The street is filled with ornate 19th century edifices, museums, galleries, the Serbian Academy of Science, elegant stores and famous restaurants, some with a long history, like this one, once a fine restaurant and night club, facing Kalemegdan Park. Its popularity included the fact that the King of Serbia used to play chess and billiards there. Now it is the National Library of Serbia but we hope that is only temporary. The original Library was burned and leveled in the merciless bombings announcing the beginning of the German “Blitz Krieg” invasion of Yugoslavia on Easter morning of April 1942.

At work an unusual surprise waits for me. The director of the Library, Čedomir Minderović 1, calls me to his office. He is a renowned writer and poet, ex-diplomat, in his youth a partisan fighter during the Second World War.

I sometimes write his business letters in English (though he speaks good English). He usually gallantly adds, “You will do it better than I,” then spends time talking about literature, which we both prefer doing. I actually enjoy writing letters to the Library of Congress, British Museum Library, Bibliotheque National in Paris, and others. Now he is sending me, as a translator of English and Russian, to Dubrovnik for the International Pugwash Conference on the Peaceful Use of Atomic Energy.

Dubrovnik?! One of the most beautiful historical Mediterranean cities and year- round, prime international resort. Wow! The President of Yugoslavia, Marshal Josip Broz Tito, has a villa there. Like other people, there I enjoy summer vacations with my family. Pleasant memories of the Adriatic Sea with its clear waters ranging from azure to turquoise to deep navy blue, transparent for over 45 meters in depth immediately surface.  The romantic Mediterranean nights filled with cicada-symphonies and lavender fragrance splash over me in waves.

But atoms? What do I know about atoms except small size and big power? I am not an expert in that field. I can translate literature on the spot, any time, but for speeches and papers of internationally renowned scientists and engineers, my brother would have been a much better choice.

I try to explain it to the director, but he knows it already. His wife is also a translator and interpreter of English. With a friendly smile, he tells me: “I know you will do your best. That will be enough.” That calms me temporarily. I love challenges. He wishes me a good trip and I go back to my room planning what I need to pack.

Now in Dubrovnik, greeted with mild September sunshine, I confirm that the Sea is cold and no one swimming. Hotels are filled with participants of the Pugwash Conference. That’s why they are here. You too, I remind myself.

In a tiny cubicle, a cell useless for anything but focusing on atoms in two languages, none of which is my mother tongue, I am hot, my head hotter and after a while aching. Who ever thought this was an easy job? My colleagues in the Library now envy me. I am in Dubrovnik, they at work. We forget, things are not what they seem to be.

At the end of the day, tired and numb, we gather at a common table for dinner and a friendly chat. I am sitting next to a short, chunky man, far from young yet looking strong like a hippopotamus. He smiles and introduces himself, but I am barely listening. I do that often, then during the conversation regret but dare not ask again for the name. Tonight, all I want is to go to bed. Suddenly, I turn to him ”Tupolev2 ? Did you say Tupolev? “I cannot believe it. My brother and his colleagues, aeronautical engineers, pronounce his name with respect like Nikola Tesla’s.3.  This is the most famous Soviet aircraft designer and a high officer in the Air Force!

Now I regret not knowing at least something about him. All I can do is smile my noncommittal smile and listen more carefully from now on. I feel like a ditzy blond smiling because it’s all she knows how to do.

Luckily, he is not even mentioning airplanes or atomic energy; he’s chatting about things that interest me too. What a man—a gentleman, in fact. He is more than double and plus my age but has energy and good manners to entertain a woman whom he knows he will never see again.

Now I notice more. There is another, tall, slender, good looking man, thirtyish or so, standing close to him. They came together, but this man does not sit with us, or talk to anyone. He just stands like a post, a statue. Very strange.

First, I talk to Tupolev in English but change to Russian as soon as I realize who he is. He answers brilliantly in both languages. When I drop in a Serbian word here and there, he understands. I am impressed. He is making this evening comfortable and relaxing, instead of my doing it for him, as a guest. This other man is just here, not really looking as if he hears or understands. Like a portrait. His face stays the same. Expressionless. I wonder, would he change expression if I pulled his nose? Would he smile, laugh, be surprised, participate, be with us?

He has to be a Russian. An outstandingly good-looking man. I do not want to say that he is a waste of good material, yet Russians usually like to talk, sing, even dance Kozachok4 if you ask them—especially if they drink first. I would prefer to sing, maybe Podmoskovskie vechera, Ryabinushka or Ochi Chornie. I believe all of the people around us, tired and just eating, would sing at least E-ey uhnyem, which is almost an international expression of hard toil and working together. Music is an international language, like numbers—we could all be happy together before we go back to our rooms and never see each other again.

I am not happy with myself. Tupolev was so nice with me. I could not reciprocate on his level. I wish my brother were here. They would have enjoyed talking about airplanes, propulsions, and such. The dinner is finished and I will never see this fine man again. Famous people are usually so full of themselves they do not notice anything else. Not pleasant to others at all. This man designs airplanes. For him the skies are not too big, too high or unknown. What a perspective!

But we get up, smile and leave with a few nice words. The two Russians leave together.

But, oh, it is not the end yet! More surprises tonight! Their room is next to mine! What a coincidence, I think. Then, finally in bed, I sink into a deep sleep.

Early, too early, in the morning, something strange wakes me up. Muted and hushed but active. In the room next to mine. Scraping little sounds and dull thumps like a body pulled on the floor. It is not stopping, but becoming stronger and stronger. I am listening and all the dark movies I have ever seen come to mind. What are those strange sounds—and why so hushed? I do not like it. It is not stopping. I cannot take it anymore. Should I call the desk or the Police? Better to apologize for a silly mistake than regret not calling before it is too late. Hamlet’s tragic flaw was thinking too much, not acting enough. I will call now.

Just a second  for a quick look from the balcony outside. The Sea is quiet. Nobody around. It is still dark and everybody asleep. But, oh, down there, two dim silhouettes come out from the hotel and quickly run to the Sea: one short and stocky, the other tall and slim. They jump into the water and swim together as fast as possible. Where? They swim and swim, fast, becoming smaller and smaller in the cold early morning, until they reach the open sea where big ships pass. I remember, sharks always follow them, their tails sharp like an always ready guillotine because the ships throw a lot of food overboard, a real feast for all of them.

The two swimmers now are two tiny needle heads far, far away. They don’t seem to be afraid. Are they unaware of the sharks? Have they seen them, as I have, always following ships with a good reason? They better start swimming back soon. Such a huge distance will take some time. It is not safe. However, I cannot believe how strong and fit they are. One of them is not young at all. How do they do it? What gives them such energy?

Then,  it dawns on me. Yoga. The hushed noise in the room, exercise with chairs, deep breathing, movements on the floor. That is why they can run and swim fast and the water is not cold for them. That is why Tupolev’s age does not stop him from enjoying a full life. What a lesson!

I never saw them again. Andrei Tupolev died in Moscow, December 23, 1972. His bodyguard is now old if still alive. I am a not-that-young, ridiculously naïve girl myself, but old as Tupolev then, but without his greatness and fame.

The world has changed, too. Soviet Union is Russia and there is no Yugoslavia. I live in the Serbian diaspora in the U.S.A. My memories are my capital and I am rich with them.



  1. Čedomir Minderović (Belgrade 1912) , a revolutionary poet and fighter against fascism, imprisoned and tortured as a high school student at age 18,  as a “danger to the State” in 1930. Wrote diaries about his life with the partisans during WWII and revolutionary poems that became popular hymns (after  1945). After the war he became a popular poet and writer, Yugoslav diplomat in India, and Director of the National Library of Serbia until his death in India in 1966. Here Minderovic is with Indian writer Amrita Pritam (1919-2005


  1.  “Andrei Nikolayevich Tupolev (Russian: Андрей Николаевич Туполев; November 10, 1888 – December 23, 1972) was a pioneering Soviet aircraft designer.

“During his career, he designed and oversaw the design of more than 100 types of aircraft, some of which set 78 world records.

“In 1911, Tupolev was accused of taking part in revolutionary activities, including demonstrations and distribution of subversive literature, and was arrested. He was later released on condition that he return to his family home in Pustomazovo and was only allowed to return to IMTU in 1914. He completed his studies in 1918 and was awarded the degree of Engineer-Mechanic when he presented his thesis on the development of seaplanes.

“On October 21, 1937, Tupolev was arrested together with Vladimir Petlyakov and the entire directorate of the TsAGI and EDO on trumped up charges of sabotage, espionage and of aiding the Russian Fascist Party. Many of his colleagues were executed. In 1939, Tupolev was moved from a prison to an NKVD sharashka for aircraft designers in Bolshevo near Moscow, where many ex-TsAGI people had already been sent to work. The sharashka soon moved to Moscow and was dubbed “Tupolevka” after its most eminent inmate. Tupolev was tried and convicted in 1940 with a ten-year sentence. During this time he developed the Tupolev Tu-2,[6] He was released in July 1941 “to conduct important defence work.” (He was not rehabilitated fully until two years after Joseph Stalin‘s death in 1953.)

“Tupolev headed the major project of reverse engineering the American Boeing B-29 strategic bomber, which was the world’s first nuclear delivery platform.

“By the time of his rehabilitation in 1955, Tupolev had designed and was about to start testing his unique turboprop strategic bomber, the Tu-95.

“At about the same time, Tupolev introduced into service the world’s second jet airliner, the Tu-104. The aeroplane was the first jet transport to stay in uninterrupted service.

“After Khruschev’s removal from office in late 1964, the ageing Tupolev gradually lost positions at the centres of power to rivals.” [Source: Wikipedia]


  1. Nikola Tesla (Serbian Cyrillic: Никола Тесла; 10 July 1856 – 7 January 1943) was a Serbian-American[2][3][4] inventor, electrical engineer, mechanical engineer, physicist, and futurist who is best known for his contributions to the design of the modern alternating current (AC) electricity supply system.” [Source: Wikipedia]





  1. Kozachok is a Ukrainian and Russian folk dance.

5. Erih Koš (pronounced Kosh) is the fifth from left (in a swimsuit). Vida Marković sits next to him (fourth from left). She was (Mira’s) University professor of literature. An outstanding scholar and writer, Kos was a member of the Serbian Academy of Science and Arts, poet, writer. They both were in the Pugwash Committee in charge of the organization. The list of all  participants is available online.




The text and some  notes by Mira N. Mataric aka Mirjana N. Radovanov Mataric

One Response to “Meeting Tupolev at Pugwash, by Mira N. Mataric”

  1. Pat Bernstein July 17, 2017 at 10:59 am #

    Fascinating! Thanks :)pat

    Sent from my iPhone


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