Thirty-one years ago, a small delegation from Bowling Green State University and its program in the photochemical sciences visited what was then still the Soviet Union. Then-President, Paul Olscamp, and the chair of the Board of Trustees, Dick Newlove, carried the flags and signed the agreements. I was there as a tag-along, invited to join because they were to visit Mendeleev Institute of Chemical Technology in Moscow, and I was an organic chemist and the founder of our Center for the Photochemical Sciences.
BGSU went there because Mendeleev and BG’s history department were making a second attempt at something called a ‘space bridge’ -- a satellite connection between undergraduate students to bridge the then-information gulf that existed between a university society that had only recently begun to tolerate open dialog, and ours. The space bridge was to focus on one topic of common interest: global warming, or as it is more often called today, climate change.
The idea has been started by the late Martin Sherwin, a professor of history at Tufts University whose later book with Kai Bird, American Prometheus:
The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Knopf, 2005) won a much-deserved Pulitzer Prize.
BG later gave Sherwin an honorary degree and an honorary degree to Natasha Tarasova, the scientific connection at Mendeleev. Later I had the honor of being named an honorary UNESCO professor at Mendeleev.
The trip paid off. For more than a decade, students came from Mendeleev to our new Ph.D program in the photochemical sciences. At least 100 students at various levels, including some in other areas, came to Bowling Green in those years. That program would not have had the impact it did had it not been for those students. At last count, students from our program have started and own and manage at least 10 new businesses.
All are in the United States, except for one in Germany. These businesses employ hundreds and combined probably have a net worth of well above $1.25 billion. What’s more, every single one of those former students is now an American citizen. Their children are excelling in our schools. The adults are active in our schools, universities, community projects, and other areas.
One of our alumni works for a company that led the way in developing tests for the COVID virus when it first appeared. Another is a leader in virus research at the National Institute of Health Institute in Frederick, MD. Still, others are taking on and mastering the challenges of 3D printing, imaging, and medical analyses.
That simple trip to Moscow we took in 1990 probably ended up being at least a $3 billion win for America -- mostly because students there saw opportunities here that they could take advantage of and live the American dream.
Did I form friendships in Russia? You bet I did. The first person I wanted to talk to on September 11 was the friend I made in Moscow, Natasha Tarasova, now the director of the Institute of Chemistry and the Problems of Sustainable Development at Mendeleev. I worried the terrorist attacks here would be followed by counterparts across the world. When my wife Sue passed away last summer, one of the first people I heard from was Natasha, my Russian colleague.
She knew the importance of history; her father was an officer in the Soviet army that liberated Berlin in April 1945; her mother had been a doctor who traveled with the armies to nurse the wounded. Natasha talked all the time about the great revolution of the people. Her mother, who was still alive, was her role model. Her father, who had passed away by 1990, had risen to become a member of the ruling Communist Party’s Central Committee. Natasha Tarasova, who is now 73, has done very well herself; besides her university position, she is today president of IUPAC, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry. If you’ve ever had a chemistry class, that is the organization that sanctifies all those numbers on the periodic tables.
That trip was followed by others in which Natasha and I would talk often of managing to achieve peace, one student at a time; and we were appalled together one morning in May, 1998 when Pakistan detonated a nuclear device.
Natasha is a pure and proud Russian. But though I have not talked with her since the war against Ukraine began, it is clear to me that she was and is dedicated to humanity. And I cannot believe her intellectual or emotional self can approve of seeing her Russia turning back to the excesses of Stalinism.
Vladimir Putin is a former KGB operative who seems to have reverted to the era of high Stalinism; I question his sanity.
We have to hope, I think, that Russians will rise to the occasion and remove him, as they overcame and removed the Soviet hardliners who attempted to turn the clock back in August 1991. A world and a continent that has been basically at peace cannot tolerate Hitler-like behavior, much less a major war.
We have to hope Putin will soon be gone -- and worry that if he feels trapped, he might do much worse.
The world should never have allowed this to come to pass.
Douglas Neckers is an organic chemist, the McMaster distinguished professor emeritus and the founder of the Center for Photochemical Sciences at Bowling Green State University. He is also a former board chair of the Robert H. Jackson Center in Jamestown, N.Y.
Photo by Elena Mozhvilo on Unsplash