Towards Altshuller's 80th birthday
(Narrative of the life of Genrich Altshuller, Part 1)

Y. B. Karasik
Thoughts Guiding Systems Corp.,
Ottawa, Canada.
e-mail:karasik@sympatico.ca

Next year all progressive humankind will celebrate the 80th anniversary of Altshuller. As befit such occasions, there will be numerous recollections about him by various authors. Actually the stream has already started to trickle. Pavel Amnuel, for example, has published his recollections in Russian. I also decided not to lag behind and come up with recollections of my own. In the spirit of the journal they have to be critical of recollections by the others.

All such recollections are based, in large degree, on what Altshuller himself told to their authors. However, it appears that he probably used to tell different stories to different people. There is no consistency neither about the place of his birth (Leonid Filkovsky cites Baku whereas other authors cite Tashkent), nor about the content of his letter to Stalin (L. Filkovsky claims that it was about selling the German Patent Archive to the US, whereas other people say that it was about TRIZ), nor about the number of copies sent (L. Filkovsky cites 19 copies, whereas Amnuel cites 40 copies), nor about his conditions in prisons (L. Filkovsky says that Altshuller was kept alone in the cell while interrogations proceeded, whereas Altshuller himself recalled in 1996 that he had a cellmate who helped him to sleep between interrogations with the help of faked eyes), nor about his activities in the labor camp, etc. That is why I better tell what Altshuller himself told me about all that.

When in 1980 I had job interviews in Tashkent, I was surprised that the name of Altshuller was widely known in this city. Various people during the interviews asked me if I was familiar with him, although the positions I was interviewed for were simply software engineering positions which had nothing to do with TRIZ or innovation. Upon return to Baku I reported about it to Altshuller. He smiled and said: "No wonder ! I was born there. They still remember me." Thus, Tashkent as his birthplace can be considered to be a firmly established fact !

Of his childhood my memory keeps the following episode related by him. His parents used to bring him to a lady that looked after children (for a pay) during weekdays. She was German and used to ask children questions which Altshuller called traumatic. For example, she tortured him with a question whom he loved more, dad or mom ? Altshuller told that he did not know what to answer her. On the one hand dad promised him to buy an expensive thing, which Altshuller craved for, on his birthday. On the other hand, mom gives something every day. He could not decide whom to pick. But the lady pressed for answer. This continued for several days and eventually Altshuller got so desperate that one day set a fire under the bench where she was sitting. He was, of course, expelled and his parents were told what a horrible son they had ! "Since then I started hating Germans", - Altshuller said jokingly.

Regarding the letter to Stalin, Altshuller told that its idea belonged to Shapiro. The latter allegedly dreamed about a lab in Moscow. (I guess a chemical lab because it was said in the context of a narrative about their chemical feats in the late 1940s, such as bringing some gases susceptible to explosion onboard a plane from Moscow to Baku in violation of the civil aviation regulations, etc.) Altshuller told that he allegedly did not want to write. But Shapiro persuaded him. What was in the letter I do not know but Altshuller told that they could not for a long time come up with the first phrase: how to call Stalin ? "Dear Comrade Stalin" seemed to them (or to him) inapproapriate for a serious business letter. Eventually they wrote just "To J. V. Stalin, The Prime Minister of the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics." From the subsequent conversations with interrogators it appeared that this alone triggered their case. As one interrogator put it: "One does not write like this to the beloved leader !"

Altshuller did not elaborate on where his interrogations took place (Butirka, Lefortovo, or else). It was only clear that he was talking about interrogations in Moscow. He mentioned the following episode. Once he was brought to an interrogator who appeared to be unusually upbeat and excited. The Korean war was underway and the interrogator joyfully showed on the map the rapid advance of the Korean forces. They were already closing in on Seoul. Having looked at the map, Altshuller poured cold water on his excitement by saying that the Koreans could be easily cut off by landing troops from the sea in the middle of the Korean peninsula. The interrogator glared at him with disbelief and wagged a finger. "But this was exactly what the Americans did afterwards!" - Altshuller said.

Eventually he ended up in a labor camp but did not plead guilty. Shapiro, conversely, pleaded guilty. This, according to Altshuller, made Shapiro's subsequent release after Stalin's death more difficult. Altshuller did not plead guilty and everything was clear in his case. But Shapiro pleaded and they had to investigate if there were any grounds for that.

About life in the camp, he told the following. The first time he went to work the assignment seemed easy to him: he was ordered to dig out a small pit. He estimated that this would not take much time after which he would return to the barrack to read a book. However, the soil turned out to be frozen and to dig out even a small pit was not easy at all. After that he stopped working hard. In a few days the members of his team told him: "Genrich, you better don't go to work at all than work like this. We get bonuses (in the form of cigarettes, etc.) for overdoing assignments and you are dragging us." After such an advice, he did not go to work next morning and was put into "the hole". To his surprise he even did not have time to get scared there because soon he was fetched from the hole and another prisoner was put into it instead of him. This way he realized that there were too many people in the camp to be put into "the hole" (for various offences) and too few such holes. He decided to exploit this opportunity and do not work. Every morning he was put into the hole and by noon latest he was already hanging around the camp free.

This continued until he was transferred to another camp. After his trick failed there (because it had enough holes), he started feverishly looking for another way of survival. Eventually he noticed that some people from the mine's office were daily busy with replacing some logs that broke down frequently because could not stand the load. He saw that one day they even brought wider logs but could not fit them. Then he came up to the people and told that he could solve the problem. They initially disbelieved him but he convinced them to bring him a text on resistance of materials. After the text was brought, he looked through it and found that a log like this

is less strong than a log like this:

Altshuller suggested to take off portions of the logs on both sides. The people from the office tested his suggestion and after that Altshuller started working in the office.