Making of a Conference: APL92, St.Petersburg, Russia

By Erkki Juvonen, former chairman of Finnish APL Association,
Program Co-chair of APL92

APL92 was a most extraordinary event in the history of all APL conferences. Its idea was born in Copenhagen during APL90, by chance. It was condemned impossible by many, schizophrenic by some. It met many obstacles, including an attempted coup. It was planned to take place in Leningrad, Soviet Union, its final venue was St.Petersburg, Russia. It had the most international, most experienced, most widely distributed organization and program committees ever seen. It became a great success, thanks to the enthusiasm of many APL activists and conference veterans around the world. The conference week was like a big festival. After the fruitful and very enjoyable meeting we all agreed that the Russian APLers had joined the worldwide APL community and been accepted in it, with enthusiasm. This is the whole story of it.

It all began in Copenhagen, “APL90 - For the Future”. I don’t know what the organizers had exactly in mind with the slogan, but for me it was going to change my future dramatically and for a number of Russians as well. Per Gjerloev, the Program Chair of the conference had invited me to his committee. [1] Selecting papers, we found two papers coming from the Soviet Union. They were interesting, and the possibility to get Russian speakers, first time in the history, attracted the members. The papers by Andrei Kondrashev and Aleksei Miroshnikov were accepted unanimously. Then I had to interrupt the chairman saying: “ We have now accepted those papers, but it is not that simple. It is assumed that the authors will present their papers in the conference. Travelling abroad, the Soviet citizens need a passport, a good reason and a special permit to leave the country, a visa for Denmark, money for flight tickets, conference fees, accommodation, and meals”.Chairman: “Erkki seems to be best informed about the formalities. Could you take care of these men?” This is what may happen when you open your mouth. Seven months was available till the conference. A letter to Moscow or to Leningrad took five weeks to go in each direction, I had no information about phone connections, and the authors were supposed to format their papers to our standards.

The authors were immediately informed of the acceptance of their papers and of the steps required of them. The communication with them looked practically hopeless. Even the phone calls had to be ordered 24 hours in advance thru operator. However, I managed to speak with Aleksei quite soon and deliver the message. In April, the dial-up connections to Moscow and Leningrad were opened, but it was no big deal, because there were too few lines and they were always busy. I learned to call at six o’clock in the morning, and mostly managed to get thru, even if it took twenty or more attempts. For letters I started using “courier”. The Russian railway conductors accepted to carry my letters. Aleksei met the train in Leningrad late in the night. He forwarded the letters to Moscow in the internal mail. [2]

In May, I managed to meet Aleksei in Viborg, near the Finnish border, and in June we arranged a meeting in Leningrad with several Russian APLers from Moscow and Obninsk. Andrei’s wife Olga was there, too. She was English teacher, and she was found indispensable as interpreter and helping to edit the papers. I learned that Obninsk was the capital of Soviet APL. It had been a secret and closed science city, the centre of nuclear research and a pioneer of nuclear power plant technology. There APL was one of the most important programming tools. Suddenly, I understood, why we had not heard of Soviet APL users in the western world. The main “product”of Obninsk laboratories were the power reactors for the nuclear submarines. Atomic Submarine, in Russian “Atomnaya Podvolnaya Lodka” or “APL”, was such a hot concept that no paper that mentioned that word could leave the country. Now, the “glasnost” (openness) was even a hotter concept, the gates of Obninsk were opened, and the people were eager to create contacts with other countries.

The papers were finished in time. The passports and the visas were in the bureaucratic process. In Sunday 12th August, 1992, in Copenhagen, I was waiting for the flights from Moscow and Leningrad at the airport. It was not at all sure they would come. Andrei and Olga should have got their Danish visas in Friday, but I had not been in contact with them for the last couple of days. They arrived, they had received the visas in the last minute. [3] There they were on the Danish ground, first time in their life. Aleksei arrived, too, stupefied after having spent an hour in the transit hall of Stockholm airport. FinnAPL and the Danish Data Association had found sponsors and supported the Russians directly for the conference fees and accommodation.

Both Aleksei’s and Andrei’s presentations gathered full rooms, and after the presentations there were questions more than the time permitted. I was the session chairman for both of them, and I had to reject many impertinent questions. I encouraged people to continue the discussion offline. It really happened. At the end of the conference they showed me their collections of business cards, more than fifty cards each. They were rather confused, because it was impossible to connect the cards with the people they had met and the discussions.

I had a unique opportunity, in Formula-I terms “the pawl position”. I had recently been selected as the chairman of FinnAPL. We were celebrating the tenth anniversary, and we had reserved some funds for international publicity. Now, there was a door open to conquering a new country, another APL culture, perhaps a new market. There was a brilliant chance to build bridges, create new contacts, and above all, help our Russian APL colleagues and friends to create contacts, globally, absolutely vital for them and very fruitful for all the others. All of this in the name of FinnAPL. I discussed with my Finnish colleagues, and we decided to invite a representative group of our international APL friends for a special dinner in the Sailing Club restaurant. Andrei and Aleksei were with us, of course, and were introduced as special guests. Our publicity allowance was exceeded by hundred percent in that one evening, but nobody could imagine any better use of the money. [4]

The Russians mixed very well with other participants and got a good picture of a typical APL conference. In some occasion I mentioned to them, maybe more jokingly, that perhaps it would soon be time to organize such a conference in the Soviet Union. They had more APL activity in their country that we had in Finland, and we had already done “our duty”. The reactions were frustrated: “ It is not possible!” Those are other people who organize international conferences, and they know nothing about APL. I said that we in FinnAPL are interested of smaller scale cooperation, like seminars etc. It seemed worth considering.

Later during the same year we continued communications with the Russians. They had a national association of APL users, SovAPL, with Andrei as the chairman. They suggested a Finnish-Soviet APL seminar in Obninsk, where there are excellent facilities for such. I said that we would prefer Leningrad, because it is only about three hours by train or by coach from Finland, thus taking less time and saving money. In October, thirty FinnAPL members went to Leningrad by coach, meeting about twice as many SovAPL members in a two-day seminar. We lived in a hotel, and the seminar was held in a modern and practical technical education centre. Our hosts had organized excellent catering during the seminar, and in the second evening the guests were invited to a very nice dinner in a restaurant. Speeches and toasts were given, the idea of an international conference was discussed. Strange ideas were thrown into the discussion: whether FinnAPL and SovAPL could jointly organize such a conference in Moscow or in Obninsk, whether I could be available as the chairman of the conference, etc. When travelling home after the seminar, our group had a long and lively discussion about the forms of cooperation and about the conference ideas. Most of the members were against any projects requiring financial or work contributions. Anything like the usual international APL conferences would be doomed to become a failure. We could not do much, if anything, in the Soviet Union, because we should not have any freedom of action. [5]

Towards the end of October I received a telex from the Soviet Academy of Sciences, in which I was asked to come to Moscow in order to discuss the possibility of organizing the conference. Their opening proposal was to share the responsibility between FinnAPL and SovAPL on 50-50 basis, in Moscow. I told them that FinnAPL has no resources and no possibilities for operating in the Soviet Union. FinnAPL can only offer consulting, practically only my experience and my international connections. I can promise only my own work as contribution. Next day, we had an audience with academician Viktor Ivannikov. Andrei Kondrashev, the Chairman of SovAPL, introduced me to him and told him about what he had experienced in Copenhagen and afterwards, and about SovAPL conference ideas. Kondrashev asked Ivannikov, whether he would accept to take the chairmanship of the program committee, if the conference were organized in the Soviet Union. He said he could accept a shared chairmanship with me. It was a big honour to me. How could I have rejected the offer? This is how I became the program co-chair and there was a green light for the conference in Soviet Union. [6] Having academician Ivannikov in the leading group meant much more than his formal position in it. The conference became a project of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, which gave it a high status and guaranteed priority access to many resources.

The afternoon I spend with the SovAPL top team trying to find out how to approach SigAPL with our intentions. I had a copy of the application form codifying the plan, mainly in budget terms, and the same from the Copenhagen conference, that presented us guidelines on the expenses. Making the budget and meeting the rules set by ACM seemed hopeless. For example the demand of equal fees of all participants was unreasonable. The currency exchange rate dollars to roubles was a moving target. There was an official rate that was of no use. The current “real” rates were changing from day to day. The resources offered by the Science Academy had normally no price tag, most of the commercial services were available only by dollars. I created a new concept, the “parallel conferences”. We told the SigAPL that we should be organizing two separate conferences, the international one with a dollar budget, and another, national, conference priced in roubles. These two conferences would be held simultaneously in the same location and having the same program. This proposition was too schizophrenic for the SigAPL finance people even to try to understand. [6.5] Maybe nobody dared to admit that he did not find any sense in it. As we know, the plan was accepted.

In March 1991, most of the organizing issues were cleared, ACM/SigAPL agreement, the conference site, and financing. In April, SovAPL had its five-year anniversary meeting in Leningrad. About thirty foreign guest were invited. The meeting took place in the Education Centre of the Nuclear Power Institute (= company). The Centre had also hotel class accommodation facilities for all participants. The organizers had already been able to reserve the entire complex for July 1992. I had the honour to announce the APL92 conference site, dates, and the organizers. The visitors were taken very good care of with fine food, exquisite parties, and cultural sightseeing in the great city.

APL91 in August at Stanford University, California was very important for Russians as a rehearsal and as a forum to make publicity for APL92. Those who had been in Leningrad in April were eager promoters and also managed to find sponsors for Russian participation. I managed to get four return tickets from Finnair as a part of a barter agreement giving Finnair the status of “Official Carrier” of APL92. Four Russians presented their papers, nine people participated in the conference experiencing, learning, and promoting APL92. They created much goodwill and many Americans promised to come to Leningrad. John White, the President of ACM, let his house to the accommodation of a number of Russian participants. Jim Brown invited us for barbecue party in his house in San Josť.

The group of Russians returning to Moscow after the conference experienced a shock as their friends meeting them told that in the same morning there had been a coup d’etat and that the Soviet Union was under communist rule. When I heard the news, I was in Tahiti. Three days later I was able to contact Andrei, who told that the situation was normal again and the conference work could continue. [7] It was very difficult to figure out what the reactions of this incident would be among the potential participants of APL92. In my marketing I used the approach “come to see the country where the history of the 20th century is being made”. At the end of the year 1991 the dissolution of Soviet Union was a fact. For the conference operations it went almost unnoticed. All the important functions in Moscow and in Leningrad remained within the Russian Federation and the continuity was guaranteed. The name of Leningrad was changed to St.Peterburg, so the conference stationary was changed accordingly.

At the same time with these dramatic events affecting the entire world, something was going on in Finland unnoticed but crucial for the most important phase in the conference preparations. I was given an early retirement offer by my employer. I negotiated an agreement that allowed me to keep my office and all facilities, including communications, without charge, till the end of next August. With this act, IBM Finland became one of the main sponsors of APL92 by providing a fully equipped conference office and all technical operations free of charge. I myself was working full time in the office. The call for papers had been out for a few months, and I was busy duplicating and distributing papers to the referees. [8]

In January 1992, the Program Committee came to St.Petersburg to its main meeting for choosing the papers for presentation and to compile the entire program and the schedules. I anticipated problems. This was the first time when two conference cultures were coming together, the Russians with prof. Ivannikov, the chairman, and the other Russian members had certain expectations, while the “western”group, experienced APL conference organizers around the SigAPL “core” had a rather fixed pattern in mind, formed in dozens of APL conferences. Even if there was no confrontation, I felt that I was looked to as a mediator. We were making a Russian APL conference, not an American conference in Russia. Or rather the ideal result would be an optimal blend of both, something that nobody had implemented, yet. I did not want to fill the program with paper presentations. I had some novel ideas that were aimed to encourage cooperation and interaction between the groups that did not truly“ speak the same language” (because of different cultural backgrounds). Fortunately, we had “APL - the Language in Common”. One of the ideas was that of workshops. They really were able to inspire discussions between people sharing the same interests and to create lasting contacts across borders and other barriers. We had enough submitted papers and were able to select 34 papers to be presented. Thereafter the committee work stuck in futile discussions where no real progress seemed to be possible. The Russian hosts were anxious to show their hospitality resources that they understood would be important for the success of the conference. Finally, a number of experienced conference organization people continued what they knew had to be done. They formed small teams that worked diligently. When we finished, we had a sketch of the program, but much detail planning was still open. [9]

After returning home, most of the committee members had mixed feelings. At least one of them was in real panic, as he wrote a long report of the meeting to selected people. He expressed his concern of the conference. In his opinion the conference, if it ever would happen, would become a catastrophe. [10] The letter was, in fact, very necessary to wake me up. I wrote a long letter to all people involved in the conference with an appeal to do their best to improve the details of the program, marketing and promoting the conference in their respective countries and areas of influence. In Russia, or in Finland, we could do very little to convince people in other countries and continents to participate. Only the local opinion leaders and trusted people could do it. I heard reassuring voices from many of my friends that the interest in the field is normal.

In March the invitations were distributed. I attached “A Personal Letter to my APL Friends” in five thousand copies. I assured them that in St.Petersburg they will be taken very good care of, that they will be quite safe there, and that they would experience a very special conference, in terms of the conference program focusing on meeting interesting new people and feeling the exotic atmosphere of Russian hospitality and charm.

In most conferences, the finances are the headache of the organizers. APL92 treasurer had to be a magician to manage the costs. However, fortunately (!), the Russian national economy was in turmoil, maybe at the worst just in 1992. The inflation was very rapid and the currency rates changed daily. The US dollar was heavily overvalued, meaning that for each dollar you could buy more goods and services than ever before or after. We got benefits for example in mailing costs, as the fees did not follow the inflation quickly enough. We paid cents where the budget indicated dollars. Another important cost item, conference office and administration, looked totally different from any other conference in the past. The conference office in Finland operated in IBM premises. In Moscow, practically no outside services were used, either. The work was done by volunteers in Academy of Sciences. Yet, the administration was an unusually demanding task, because we had to assist all foreign visitors in acquiring the visas and with various other problems. ACM paid a considerable sum as conference fee advances. A very big problem was how to transfer the money to Russia. The banking infrastructure was only just an embryo, and you could not be sure what would happen to your money, if you let it in the hands of the banks. In the worst case, you would never hear of it anymore. We found some ingenious, unique procedures that guaranteed a no-loss, safe, and “non-illegal” transfer. [11]

The making of the conference was certainly an adventure comparable to sailing in storm between the rocks of the Finnish archipelago. There were dozens of unbelievers who would not have bet anything for the success. But “You'll See It if you Believe It” (Wayne W. Dyer). Some Did Believe. To myself, personally, this experience made me believe in miracles.

From the very beginning of the project and all the time during it, I felt that I had been given a mission to build bridges between the two APL worlds, the western and the eastern. When you have a mission, you have the belief. When you have the belief, you don't have any doubts, and you can stay calm.

The conference itself falls outside the frame of this report. I only want quote the very first comment after the conference. Ed Shaw wrote:“Congratulations on accomplishing your impossible dream. This conference will prove to be a milestone in the history of APL. Much will come of it.”

Additional notes on the most critical events

[1] First Per Gjerloev invited Gustav Tollet to the committee, but he refused and suggested me instead. Gustav told me later that he would not have pointed out the participation problems of Russians. He was not informed of the details of practices in the Soviet Union.

[2] The Soviet postal services were unreliable and extremely slow.The Russian railway conductor risked being caught for illegal import of documents.

[3] Andrei and Olga received their Danish visas in Friday afternoon. Afterwards, when checking them they noticed that the required signatures were missing. They returned to the consulate finding it closed. Ringing bells and knocking doors, they finally caught someone who was able to help them to get the signatures.

[4] The year was exceptionally favourable for FinnAPL. By exceeding the allowance I took a risk that probably no one else as chairman would have taken. I believe that the dinner was a very important event to bring together and make the VIPs favourable for the Soviet conference.

[5] The criticism and opposition were a signal to me that working with the mandate of FinnAPL I should have hard time and spend too much time. Thereafter I did not ask anything from FinnAPL, but only used the FinnAPL “brand”. Thus, I was a “freelancer”, independent, and my own boss.

[6] As I understand it, the support of Academy of Sciences was absolutely necessary. Andrei Kondrashev, being insider in the organization, organized this support.

[6.5] The concept of “parallel conferences” was only a very much simplified explanation of the Soviet conference practices for ACM/SigAPL. The support of Academy of Sciences and the conference participation costs were internal and invisible posts in the mammoth organization.

[7] If the coup had succeeded, it would have stopped the conference project immediately, for several reasons.

[8] The bill for the conference administration is normally a major post in the budget. In APL92 it was negligible. Both in Moscow and in Helsinki, the work was done by “volunteers”. The real value of the support by IBM Finland was quantified and substantial. My retirement happened just in time.

[9] The program committee meeting was truly a dilemma for me, because of very different expectations of the "parties". I am very grateful to all the members doing a great job without proper coordination.

[10] Most of us must have been frustrated. Only one of us expressed his frustration and kicked off the activities again.

[11] A bank account was opened in a Finnish bank in Helsinki for the conference. All western transactions went to and from this account, but the activities and most of the costs were in Russia. Cash (dollars) had to be used. We had a contract on conference catering with a Finnish company running several restaurants in St.Petersburg. They had a similar problem of money transfer in the opposite direction. We could synchronize the cash transfer operations in Helsinki and in St.Petersburg, thus avoiding moving cash across the border.