Some of Peter Molnar’s memories of Vitaly Ivanovich Khalturin from 1971 to 2007

Many of those who read this text will not perceive the state of the world in the early 1970s, when several of us Americans started working with Soviet scientists in Garm, Tajikistan, at the Complex Seismological Expedition from the Institute of Physics of Earth in Moscow.  Although American anti-Soviet propaganda was sufficiently strident to instill doubts of its veracity in the mind of any thinking person, the stereotypical Russian man was for many of us a stiff, macho, humorless guy, perhaps with a slight inferiority complex, no matter how intelligent or strong he might be.  Then on the first few days of my first visit to the USSR, my initial experiences, which included being picked up and being detained by the police in Leningrad, not only left me questioning my rejection of that propaganda (as our government sent troops to Vietnam to fight a war and denied people of color equal rights), but they reinforced that stereotype of the Russian man.

In Garm, we Americans all promptly met, and never forgot, Vitaly Ivanovich Khalturin, who instantly dispelled any stereotypes we might have had of Soviet citizens, or Russians specifically.  Largely through the atmosphere that Vitaly and his wife, Tat’yana (Tanya) Glebovna Rautian, created for us, Russians morphed quickly into friends with good hearts and compassion, not an enemy we had been urged to fear.

Vitaly and Alyosha Nikolayev in the Peter the First Range, December 1973.

Once while visiting Vitaly and Tanya at home in Garm, they showed me some family photos taken from the 1940s or 1950s.  One left an indelible impression.  Russians habitually assume a serious demeanor when photographed.  This photo was a family portrait.  With three or four rows of people and the senior members of the family in the center foreground radiating outward to the youngest on the fringes, the photo resembled one of Goya’s paintings of Spanish Royalty, but rendered in a modern setting by wearing not 18th Century royal costume, but mid-20th Century poorly tailored Soviet suits.  In the upper right corner, however, stood a tall slender guy with somewhat unkempt beard and hair, as if his left hand were inserted into an electric socket, and eyes that that radiated zest for life and unquenchable curiosity.  The contrast portended what would be my own recurring experiences with him.

Vitaly’s nickname when a child had been “Talik,” which, it turns out, refers to unfrozen ground within a permafrost area.  (The word is derived from the root verb, Tait’, meaning to melt in Russian.)  Did Vitaly’s family know what an impact he would have on the Cold War relations with Americans?

I was fortunate to meet Vitaly while attending the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics (IUGG) meeting in Moscow in August 1971.  I had planned to participate in a field trip to Lake Baikal after the meeting, but it was cancelled because of flooding.  With encouragement from Lynn Sykes, Vitaly arranged for me to join another field trip associated with the meeting: to Tajikistan with a couple of days in Garm. 

Vitaly praised the talk I had given and showed a sincere interest in interacting with me.  Perhaps I benefited from a rude lesson he had just learned, for he had eagerly sought out Keiiti Aki, whose work he knew and admired.  He asked Kei, “How do you like our Russian hostility?”  Those of us who knew Kei can picture his befuddlement as this towering giant stood over him and asked such a strange question.  Subsequently, I have heard of other Russians substituting “hostility” for “hospitality,” English words that seem so similar to them.  (The mistakes we make can be more embarrassing.)

I soon learned the extent to which this error belied Vitaly’s fascination with language.  Largely self-taught from the radio - BBC, Voice of America (whose propaganda left little imprint), and other English medium broadcasts – his communication in English hardly ever proved to be an obstacle.  That said, he would occasionally fill in logic and syntax where idiomatic hyperbole played tricks.  I remember well in December 1973 his standing over Tanya Atwater with teapot in hand, when she visited Garm for two weeks, and when he received more practice in English than ever before; he asked her, “May I drop you some tea?”  Tanya was so charmed that she chose not to acquaint him the idiom. 

On the field trip in 1971, he insisted on riding in the same jeep with me.  Not one to push himself to the fore and hob-knob with the stars, he eagerly sought scientific exchange with a young scientist with common interests, as we bounced along bumpy dirt roads in the back of an open jeep.  To facilitate communication he brought English-Russian and Russian-English dictionaries, each 500-page tomes weighing a kilogram or more.  As we bounced along, he would thumb through one or the other in search of the right word.  The Soviet Union’s failure to print pocket dictionaries would not blunt his eagerness to communicate.

This was a special occasion for many, for few Russians had had close contact with foreigners, and then suddenly a large group of us, followed by a smaller one of eminent scientists, introduced them to us.  Yet, our presence surely was closely watched, and time together was sparing.  In the four-hour (100-km) ride from Garm to Khait, the site of a devastating earthquake in 1949, Vitaly probably spent more time with an American than he had in his whole life until then. 

Vitaly and Tanya had gone to Garm in the early 1950s, ostensibly to establish a seismograph network.  Deeply committed to helping others, he joined the communist party as a means to achieve more than he might otherwise.  His father, Ivan, had become active following the Russian Revolution in 1917, as a librarian, then newspaper editor, and later a teacher in an orphanage, at a time when optimism ran high, and the opportunity to help others was rewarded not only by those who were helped.  At least, until approximately 1927, when Stalin seized control, and idealism gave way to other priorities.  He then found work as an editor of books for children.  Apparently, Ivan and Vitaly discussed Ivan’s experiences only sparingly.

Software: Microsoft Office

Vitaly with three Tajik friends from Shul’, the village near Garm on a hike in June 1974.

The Russians had a joke: “All Soviet people have three qualities, but each Soviet person has only 2 of those qualities: The Soviet people are very intelligent; the Soviet people are completely honest; the Soviet people are members of the Communist Party.”  Again Vitaly stood out as the exception to the rule.  Whereas so many party members used their membership to advance their own personal lives, Vitaly, like his father, saw it as an expeditious route toward helping others.  This most clearly manifested itself among Tajiks in their villages or in the hills.  When we hiked together, invariably a shepherd (putting down the book he was reading) would call out “Vitaly Ivanovich, where have you been?”  The entire countryside seemed to know Vitaly and seek him out when he was within shouting distance.  On the first such occasion, after Vitaly responded with words totally incomprehensible to me, he turned to me and said, “I follow the Tajik courtesy of speaking the other person’s language.”  The Tajik spoke Russian, and Vitaly spoke Tajik.  (I am sure that many of my friends, particularly those who know English well, would be happier if I tried less often to imitate Vitaly’s adoption of that courtesy.)  When Vitaly entered a nearby village, or a schoolyard, people eager to catch up with him immediately surrounded him.  When I returned to Tajikistan in 2007, a few months after he died, I had many conversations with people who had known him; all already knew he had died, and all conversations turned somber at the reminder. 

Software: Microsoft Office

Vitaly with kids from the school in Shul’, the village near Garm, in September, 1975.

Every year I went to Garm, I would try to take gifts - phonograph records, tapes of music, or books - to friends, including Vitaly and Tanya.  I once smuggled in three thick volumes of Osip Mandelshtam’s forbidden poetry.  Vitaly’s eyes doubled in width at the sight.  Yet, invariably, a year later, all were gone, including all three volumes (which I later learned actually lay in a huge pot in the kitchen, a place where the KGB might not look during their routine searches).  He would loan them out to friends, who no doubt kept passing them along.  Vitaly was not into acquiring stuff of any kind.  Communism might work if all shared his communal spirit.

The sincerity of Vitaly’s selflessness manifested itself most clearly on the few occasions we dined in restaurants.  He was obviously ill at ease.  Allowing others serve him made him uncomfortable.  In his house, however, he was on his feet continually with tea, food, books, or whatever he could offer to serve to his guests.  For years, I argued that Vitaly was the only real communist in the Soviet Union – someone who not only espoused the ideals, but also lived consistently with them. 

So imbued was he with this sense of equality of all humans, that he found it hard to force us Americans to follow the Soviet system’s ways of isolating foreigners.  Intourist, the official Soviet travel agency, set aside special rooms for foreigners at airports so that we did not mingle with the Soviet hoi polloi.  We foreigners always passed through such rooms and were then taken to the planes separately and first.  When planes landed, all Soviet passengers waited patiently for a signal that they could stand up and exit the plane, after we foreigners had been escorted from the planes.

In 1977, I was to fly from Tashkent to Tbilisi, Georgia, at 5 in the morning.  So, Vitaly and I rose early, and at ~3:00 AM we went out onto a dead quiet main boulevard.  There seemed no hope of getting to the airport on time, until an empty bus came toward us.  Vitaly hailed it and explained our predicament.  The bus driver made a U-turn, took us to the airport, and then presumably returned to his route.  At the airport, Vitaly then told me that I did not need to go to the Intourist room.  So, I boarded the plane with the Soviet passengers, and no one seemed to care, or even notice.  The passengers next to me were a bit surprised by my limited command of Russian, but they did not realize that my traveling with them was unorthodox.  Fortunately, my Georgian friends decided that the Intourist official in Tbilisi might have been misinformed when he told them that no foreigners were on the plane.  They waited until all of the luggage was delivered, and I had walked the necessary 300 m, suitcase in hand, to the Intourist office. 

The woman’s liberation movement was only just gaining a foothold in the USA when I became friends with Vitaly.  At that time, the median family size among Russians reputedly included only one child, and when there was only one, more often than not that one was a boy.  Vitaly and Tanya were famous through the Soviet geophysical world for their five daughters.  With a wife who was arguably an even more accomplished seismologist than he (Rautian’s “energy scale” for earthquakes is the Russian equivalent of the Richter magnitude), Vitaly showed only pride and never jealousy.  Throughout my time in Garm, he served as a poster-child for a modern father – one who shares the chores at home. 

His limited experience with boys did confound him on one memorable occasion.  Once when his one-year-old grandson Gleb, son of his daughter Ira, was visiting, I found Vitaly mopping the floors.  He explained that he lacked experience with boys, and specifically with toilet training, which was generally accomplished by the timely placing of the child on a large pot on the floor.  Neglecting one vital organ, Vitaly was having trouble preventing Gleb from soaking the entire dining-room, despite the timely placement of Gleb on the pot.

Software: Microsoft Office

Vitaly and Tamara Guseva in the Runou Valley, across from Garm, and with the South Tien Shan behind.

Vitaly was trained (self-trained) in the era when the seismogram not only contained nearly all seismological information, but also could be read with little more than a ruler.  A quick look was sufficient for him to know the location of an earthquake, and stored in his head were the locations of regions of high and low Q, as well as sources of highly scattered waves and clean sharp signals.  His research took him in the two directions that attracted most connoisseurs of the seismogram, the earthquake source and structure of the earth.  While working together, often disputes would arise among Vitaly, Tanya, and me.  The solution was always the same; we went to the office and looked at the seismograms.  He would announce, “Yes, Peter.  We are all of the school of Jack Oliver [my advisor who had instilled in me that conviction that an unprocessed seismogram was purest form of seismological fact].”

During my first extended visit to Garm, 5 weeks in 1973, my objective was to understand how seismologists from Garm had been able to show precursory variations in the ratio of Vp (P-wave speed) to Vs (S-wave speed).  They had reported a drop in Vp/Vs before major earthquakes (4.5 < M < 5.5) in the Garm area.  I went to the USSR with the goal of spending 3 months in Garm to examine what they had done, but Soviet bureaucracy proved to be a barrier, and I was lucky to work as many as 5 weeks on this.  Vitaly was to be my host, and as only he, Tanya, and one other person (among 40-50 people) on the base spoke English at that time, he was a logical host.  Neither he, nor Tanya had studied Vp/Vs.  As someone unwilling to doubt others’ integrity, Vitaly did not question the observations of his colleagues.  He often said that Semenov, who had first reported the anomalies but no longer worked in Garm, was a serious scientist.  Tanya, in 1971 reticent to express an opinion, but later more blunt in her opinions, eventually and cautiously revealed her doubts about the inferences, largely on the basis of simple physical reasoning: the Vp/Vs ratio should depend on the medium, not the earthquake source.  Little did I know, however, that while working in Garm in 1973, I was on trial, watched closely by my future colleagues and maybe somewhat nervously too.

I made a big mistake, at least so I thought until recently when I learned that what follows had not been my decision.  I studied Vp/Vs ratios in the region near the largest earthquake to have occurred in the Garm region, which had occurred less than a year before I arrived.  Hence it was not an earthquake that Semenov or others had studied.  Thus, I did not examine the seismograms whose measurements had stimulated so many in the west.

I found no anomaly.  Although it still seems likely to me that the Vp/Vs ratio does change in the hypocentral region before some earthquakes and in some subspace of the region surrounding them, the subjectivity needed to extract such a signal from the data left me unconvinced that this was a topic worth pursuing.  Presentations of my deductions, when I returned to the USA in January 1974, brought little respect, for I had neither confirmed, nor discredited any of the published Soviet results.  In 2005, however, I learned that I had passed a test among Vitaly, Tanya, and other Garm seismologists, for they had long perceived the veracity of precursory Vp/Vs anomalies to be exaggerated.  My taking an independent view and finding no support left them convinced that I would not blow a trumpet in the bandwagon that was drowning out peeps from the doubters.  On the positive side and much more importantly, they then were eager to work with me.

Although my 5 weeks in Garm had failed scientifically, the friends I made and the recognition of an extraordinary data set drew me back for summers of another 4 years, to work with Vitaly, Tanya, and others.  I returned for 2 months in 1974 to work largely with Vitaly, Tanya, and Vladik Martynov on the seismic source.

Before the digital revolution, Vitaly’s colleagues developed a system of band-passed filtered seismograms that allowed the simultaneous recording of 8 adjacent frequency bands, called ChISS (Chastotno-Izoberatelnaya Seismicheskaya Sistyema, or Frequency Selection Seismograph System).  Thus with a ruler to measure amplitudes, one could obtain 8 samples of the spectrum of the various phases on the seismogram.  Vitaly, Tanya, and colleagues had used these to study the sources of events in the region surrounding Garm, and they discovered how sources in different areas radiated body waves with different spectra.  I don’t think our work together had much lasting influence, but I did help them with another study that did.  Armed with illustrations that they prepared, I helped them assemble a text, submitted it, revised it after reviews, and saw it through publication.  This was their widely appreciated paper on the seismic coda from local earthquakes, which exploited the capability of ChISS to its fullest [Rautian and Khalturin, Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, 1978].  This work had been carried out largely in ignorance of the theory and analysis by Keiiti Aki and his colleagues in the USA.  The agreement between Rautian and Khalturin’s results with those of Aki sent the latter into a state of exuberance rarely seen in the halls at MIT, when he read a preprint of the paper. 

Twenty-seven years later, I learned the other half of the story.  Soviet scientists were forbidden to publish work in foreign journals until the work had already been published within the USSR.  Rautian and Khalturin’s work had not yet been published in Russian.  Vitaly and Tanya were first asked how this work had been published and then suffered aggressive interrogation by the KGB (though by no means the kind that has occurred at Abu Ghraib or Guantánamo).  Apparently, they underwent repeated criticism, but already inoculated against such abuse, they seemed to have taken it in stride.   (At least that is how they described it to me 27 years later.)

Over the years, Khalturin had made it a habit of studying the characteristics of the waveforms from different regions.  He guided a young seismologist, A. I. Ruzaikin, in the study of Lg propagation across Asia [Ruzaikin et al., 1977], and that study also led to an unusual relationship with the Soviet authorities.  We had access to very good seismograms from a “temporary station,” whose location was never clearly specified.  Innocently, I asked Sasha Ruzaikin where it was, and he waved his hand across a part of a map with a scale of 1:20,000,000 or so and said, “Somewhere here”: i.e., somewhere within an area  > 2000 km across.  (From the locations of earthquakes and the intervals between P and Lg arrival times, any seismologist could locate the station better than that.)  So, as was done on other occasions, Vitaly took me for a walk off the base and explained that just as the USA had secret stations, so did the USSR.  The station was not temporary. 

It was under such circumstances that he also told me how his father had abandoned communism in 1927, perhaps, though he did not know, because of Trotsky’s exile then.  He also told me that in 1956, on a walk in the forests outside of Moscow, a friend had told him of Khrushchev’s “secret speech,” in which he denounced Stalin with accusations that surprised most Russians.  Although to my knowledge, Vitaly never revealed state secrets to me, his sense of integrity made inscrutability anathema to his concept of social interaction.

Software: Microsoft Office

Brian Tucker, Maya Khalturina, Vitaly, and unidentified friend in front of Vitaly’s house on the base in Garm, July 1977

In 1973, Clarence Allen found himself alone with Khalturin in a room surrounded by maps, and asked, “Would you mind if I took a photo of this map?”  In his inimitable form of honesty, Khalturin replied, “Would I mind?  No.  Nersesov [the head seismologist of the base] might mind, but I don’t mind.”  Not surprisingly the Soviet system kept a watchful eye on him, and it was not until the end of the Cold War that Khalturin was granted a visa to visit the USA.

Although Vitaly surely was under no illusion that he was carefully watched, I think that in 1975 I witnessed an awakening in his perception of the system in which he lived.  My visit to Garm was to be interrupted to attend an international meeting in Irkutsk, Siberia.  I was to meet Paul Tapponnier there, return to Garm for another few days, and then go with Paul to Afghanistan.  Paul had reserved, but never paid for, a tourist trip through Central Asia for the period while I was to be in Garm.  This seemed a poor way for him to spend time, and I asked if Paul could come to Garm for those few days between the meeting in Irkutsk and our departure to Afghanistan.  Nersesov said it was fine with him.  Then someone said, “Would he need a visa?”  Nersesov replied, “Of course,” which was as certain a “No” to the first question as anything else he could have said, but we decided to try.  Of course, the task of getting a visa fell on Vitaly.

In Irkutsk, I periodically checked with the Intourist officials at the meeting.  At first, they replied with a polite tone that made it clear that I was too naēve to be worthy of much attention, but near the end of the meeting, they said that yes, Paul would get a visa.  For reasons that we did not understand, however, Paul could not fly directly to Dushanbe with me, but was forced to follow his planned (but unpaid for) tour, which brought him to Dushanbe a day later.  When he arrived in Dushanbe, a friend immediately took his passport and wrote its number on the visa (a separate sheet of cardboard in the USSR), noting almost inaudibly that the visa had been obtained strictly under the table.  We then drove straight to Garm, “kidnapping” Paul we were later told, because the Intourist officials knew he was on the plane but somehow failed to catch up with him.

When Paul and I arrived in Garm, Vitaly had this incredulous look on his face.  “I could do nothing.  I tried for four days, but I could do nothing.”  I presume that others explained what had been done to get Paul the visa.

After putting Vitaly through four Sisyphean days, we then had to do it again.  Paul and I were scheduled to fly from Tashkent to Kabul on Ariana Afghan Airlines a few days later, and we needed reservations for flights from Garm to Dushanbe and then Dushanbe to Tashkent.  Only Vitaly could do this.

Our Garm colleagues were treating Paul to field trips around the region, while I was trying to finish work with Vitaly, Tanya and others, and then I suddenly fell sick with what proved to be some kind of flu that left me in flat on my back for a day.  At the end of the day, Vitaly returned from the Garm airport to say that my illness was not the only obstacle to completing our work; Paul’s and my flight had been canceled, and we had to fly a day early on Aeroflot.

In preparing for my trip in 1973, I read reports by others who had visited the USSR, and buried in one, by Warren Hamilton as I recall, was a statement that Aeroflot or Intourist would sometimes lie to foreigners to force us to fly Aeroflot.  So, I told this to Vitaly, who clearly found it hard to believe, for he could not imagine such a cynical idea.  Yet, being Vitaly, he returned to the airport the next day to check again on our cancelled flight.  He came back to announce, “No, the flight had not been canceled, but it was full, and you still have leave a day early on the Aeroflot flight.”  We all agreed not to worry.  The three of us went to Dushanbe and then to Tashkent, where Vitaly waved good-bye with his usual exuberance as Paul, I, and perhaps 15 others boarded an Ariana Afghan plane that could carry more than 100 passengers.  (Paul and I each had 6 seats, so that we could race back and forth looking out both windows.)  Vitaly and I never discussed this again, but clearly he saw the weaknesses of his system from a vantage that may never before have presented itself. 

In 1977, when I left Garm, we were told that Vitaly would be among a delegation of Soviet seismologists who would visit the USA the following winter.  On the Friday before the Monday he was to arrive, however, we received a message that he would not be coming.  The KGB (or some equivalent) had decided that he was too much of a risk.  I quit working in Garm, fed up with the Soviet prevarications.  I saw Tanya in Moscow in 1987, when I passed through to another meeting in Irkutsk, and again in 1990 when she visited the USA.  With a twinkle in her eye, she told me in 1987 that Vitaly finally had a son, with someone else.  Then, after a 15-year lapse, I met Vitaly in Talgar, Kazakhstan in 1992.  His son Vanya (Ivan Vitalevich Khalturin), roughly 9 years old, bore a spitting image of Vitaly, with long legs, big ears, and fire in his eyes.  Vitaly, himself, was the same old guy. 

Software: Microsoft Office

Vitaly and Tolya Levshin in the Rocky Mountains, Colorado, August, 2003.

Software: Microsoft Office

Keith Priestley and Vitaly, in the Rocky Mountains, Colorado, August, 2003.

All subsequent meetings were in the USA – in Palisades, New York, in Falmouth, Massachusetts, In Colorado, for the penultimate time in 2005 when Sara, Vitaly, Tanya, and I traveled from Boulder, to the Grand Canyon and back, via Arches, Canyonlands, and Mesa Verde, and later that year in Palo Alto, California.  Clearly, physically slowed by damage to his heart associated with heart attacks, he was mentally alive as ever.  While traveling through the deserts of the American Southwest, Sara and I felt we had taken a big 78-year old kid to the biggest, best candy shop in the world.

Software: Microsoft Office

Tanya and Vitaly at the Grand Canyon, March 2005.


Vladimir Nabokov has been quoted as having said, "Curiosity is insubordination in its purest form."  When I think of that quote, I immediately think of Vitaly.