After the Name of the City

by Tatiana Bonch-Osmolovskaya

There were eight tanks in the radiator in my bedroom. I was a kid there. The radiator was burning hot, boiled water inside it. I heard the water running and gurgling inside cast iron tanks. They stood next to my bed under the window. The contrast of hot metal and cold air from the wooden window frames was responsible for my extravagant dreams.

Outside the window, there was a tall pine tree with a dead burnt top. Neighborhood girls said the top burnt because of radiation from the nuclear accelerator and the nuclear reactors. The Nuclear Institute was the main enterprise in the city.

My parents worked in the Institute for Nuclear Research, not on the accelerator, but in the laboratory under the guidance of Ilya Frank.

My mother got weekly coupons for milk as compensation for the adverse conditions. The coupons were worth 15 kopek each, you could exchange them for a bottle of milk or anything else available in food stores. In the seventies, the supply of food was constantly declining, but in our town of physicists, it was almost as good as in Moscow. In the late eighties, to feed my son I was lucky to buy a live chicken. She laid eggs almost every day. But in the sixties, communism was shining brightly in our future.

In 1967, George Flerov’s research group experimenting with ion bombardment of nuclei 243Am element by 22Ne ions discovered the 105th element of the Mendeleev system.

That was the year we moved to the town. I went to a childcare centre and my sister to a nursery day care. We lived in a one bedroom, one living room apartment in a Khruschevka style building. There was a cellar to keep wood for an apartment stove. My father chopped wood into chips and put them into a bathroom stove, and we bathed in turns while the water was still hot. To wash dishes, we boiled water in a kettle and mixed it with mustard powder. There was a large gas cylinder for the kitchen needs. We exchanged it for a new one when it ran out of gas. There were cast iron centrally heated radiators under the rooms' windows except for the kitchen: there was a closet to keep the food cold. Once a titmouse flew into it and my mother was horrified thinking it was a mouse.

It took the researchers three more years to prove their discovery and publish an article in the Nuclear Physics Journal. They reported a 9.40 MeV and a 9.70 MeV alpha-activity and assigned the decays to the isotopes 260Db or 261Db.

In 1970, I went to a primary school. We lived on Peace Street, parallel to Kurchatov Street, both crossed by Vavilov street. On the facade of a building, there was a ten metres mural saying “Atom is not a soldier, Atom is a worker”. I thought I knew what “atom” meant. How could it be “a soldier” or “a worker”? An atom was an atom.

I liked mathematics, music and literature. I also liked to ride a bicycle, play table tennis, street football and hockey. We played in felt boots without skates. They were for little girls doing figure skating. Unusual for the Soviet Union was the population of our city: people from all around CMEA countries, the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, worked in the Nuclear Institute. There was probably the only city in the Soviet Union where you could easily meet a foreigner on the streets, only from the socialist countries, but still a foreigner. In our school, there were kids from East Germany, Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Vietnam, North Korea, and Cuba. One of my friend was Hungarian. One summer holidays, he went to Athens. I loved ancient Greek myths. Twenty seven years later, I’ve also seen Athens. In 1976, the researchers used thermal gradient chromatography to identify the product of decay as definitely the 260 pentabromide. They proposed to call the 105th element after Niels Bohr. Another group proposed to name it after Otto Hahn. Another – after Joliot-Curie.

I should have mentioned there were Joliot-Curie Boulevard and Square in the town. My friend lived on Joliot-Curie Street. We drove our bicycles to a beach on the bank of the Volga River, or to the dam on the Moscow Water Channel. On the bank of the canal, there was a huge Lenin statue made by sculptor Sergei Merkulov. It was 37 metres high counting the foundation and weighed 450 tons. Young couples came there straight from registration of their marriages in the registry office, to put flowers to the pedestal. When I got married, we also put a bouquet of roses to the statue’s feet.

On the opposite bank of the canal stood an empty pedestal where once was a Stalin statue. They blew it up after the 22nd Congress of the Communist Party. In my childhood, no one asked about it and no one told the story of an empty pedestal. Neither did we know about the thousands of victims who died during the construction of the channel.

I finished high school, then graduated from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, then earned a PhD in literature.


In 2013, during the literary festival in Cheboksary, the organizers put us in an Airbnb Khrushchevka apartment exactly of the same kind as my childhood apartment. There were four of us, men settled in a living room, and I and another woman slept in the back bedroom. She asked where I wanted to sleep, by the window or by the door. I chose the bed by the window, to feel the heat of the radiators, to see the dreams of my childhood.

After great physicists George Flerov and Ilya Frank died, two crossing streets in the town were named after them.

As for the 105th element of the Mendeleev table, it was called by its number, unnilpentium for some time until everyone agreed to name it Dubnium, after the name of our city.

Tatiana Bonch-Osmolovskaya was born in former Soviet Union and moved to Australia in 2002. She is an author of a number of publications in Russian. Her poetry in English appeared in Can I tell you a secret?; Across the Russian Wor(l)d; Bridges Anthologies; London Grip; The Disappearing; Journal of Humanistic Mathematics; The POEM; Rochford Street Review; Four Centuries. Russian Poetry in Translation; Poetry International journal. Tatiana has been awarded by Symmetry Festival (Budapest, 2003), International Burlyuk Mark (2009), Booknik’s short story contest (Moscow, 2009), Okno literary journal (2010), Nora Gal literary translation contest (short list, 2015), Novyi Mir literary contest for Osip Mandelstam anniversary (2015), Russian Prize contest (short list, 2015). She is interested in representation of strict mathematical forms in arts; in ordered and chaotic structures; in writing and creating art objects on formal language and literary restrictions.


April 2018

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