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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Walk in the Polish Woods Leads to Baku

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In 1944 a new physics instructor named Ryzhanov turned up at the Caspian Higher Naval College. The day before he had been spotted in the uniform of a rank-and-file soldier. Then the brass raised him to the rank of lieutenant, stuck silver shoulder-boards on him and sent him to lecture the cadets.

It would have been difficult to find a more awkward officer than Lieutenant Ryzhanov. His uniform fit him like a saddle fits a cow, and his service cap looked like a pancake.

He knew his physics, but his lectures weren't exactly tailor-made for cadets. We cheated on exams as Ryzhanov sat at his desk writing learned scientific papers and paying us no mind. One day a cadet walked up and asked a question. Ryzhanov raised his head and regarded the cadet with amazement, as if to say: "Where in the world did you come from?" He answered the cadet's question by saying: "It's very simple, young man. Just plug Pi r squared into the formula." Having said this he immediately immersed himself in his writing once more.

Once, when Ryzhanov was the duty officer at the college, he told us how he had come to be a physics teacher in Baku.

"I was called up in 1943 and sent to the front somewhere in Belarus," he said. "On the second or third day I was wounded. After three months in hospital I returned to my unit, which was fighting in Poland by then. During a break in the fighting one afternoon a buddy and I decided to go for a walk in the woods. It was eerily quiet. No gunfire anywhere. And everything was covered in snow. We came across a small earthen hut and decided to have a look inside."

"When we opened the door we saw three German soldiers sitting around a table eating lunch," Ryzhanov continued. "I shouted: 'H?nde hoch!' The Germans put their hands in the air, and we began leading them back to our unit. They walked slowly at first, then suddenly shot off in different directions. We didn't shoot them. We fired our guns into the air and hurried back to our unit. We told the company commander what happened. He called in a counterintelligence officer who bawled us out, accused us of trying to cross enemy lines and surrender to the Germans, and threatened to have us court-martialed. We were taken to division headquarters, where the commanding officer ordered us to a forward position on the front. I was wounded on the first day. When I was released from hospital someone found out that I was a physicist and sent me here to Baku."

Ryzhanov didn't stick around at the college for long. The last we saw of him was in 1945. A year later I learned that he had been named a corresponding member of the Azeri Academy of Sciences.

Vladislav Schnitzer is a journalist and pensioner living in Moscow.