EUGENE "JENYA" NESMEYANOV
Meet Eugene ("Jenya") Nesmeyanov
by George Behe
Note: This interview is with Eugene ("Jenya") Nesmeyanov, a prominent Russian Titanic researcher whose recent books include the English language “The Titanic Expeditions: Diving to the Queen of the Deep 1985-2010". This book is a highly detailed survey of the various expeditions that have dived on the Titanic wreck site for the purpose of either photography or salvage, and we hope our readers will enjoy getting to know the man who wrote this carefully-researched and beautifully-illustrated book. – G.B.
1. How did you become interested in the Titanic disaster, and when did your interest first awaken?
It can be said that I inherited an interest in this subject from my father, who is a senior naval officer (now retired). Due to its historical significance, the Titanic disaster is quite frequently mentioned in Russian maritime literature, both professional and popular, even in some textbooks for navigators. So my interest was sparked by books at first, and then of course came the movies: “S.O.S. Titanic” was aired on Russian television in the early 1990s, and in December 1997 James Cameron's blockbuster movie hit the theaters (I watched it at the cinema in early 1998). By that time, I already had my very first Titanic “book” in the form of a manuscript (dated to 1996); well, it was more like a child's test of the pen, a rather clumsy attempt (but with my hand drawn illustrations). Since then I've been dreaming of writing a real Titanic book someday.
2. Do you have any special areas of interest regarding the Titanic disaster? If so, what are those special areas, and how did they first grab your attention?
At first I was interested in all things Titanic, absorbing information like a sponge from books and documentaries (there was no generally available internet in Russia until the late 1990s or the early 2000s). But since I have always had a pronounced humanitarian orientation (my favorite subjects at school were history, literature, biology and English), I quickly realized that I'm more interested in studying the people of Titanic, rather than her mechanical equipment or physical appearance. Albeit I have a great respect for those Titanic scholars – they are known as “rivet counters” – who are able to find something new in the technical field, and I try to follow the news in this area too. However, I should honestly say that I don't have particular interest in people’s individual biographies, marital statuses and careers. I'm mostly focused on their actions, observations and behavior strategies immediately before the collision and in extreme conditions of the sinking. For example, I'm interested in the actions, “our intentions” and relationships of J. Bruce Ismay and Captain E. J. Smith (in my last published book (in Russian), there is a large essay devoted to this debatable topic in the broader context of the Titanic's speed and revolutions). I'm also interested in how the situation below decks, in the steerage, developed during the evacuation (it is clear to me that this situation was far more complex and chaotic than is commonly believed). I also have a great sympathy and respect for Frederick Fleet, the lookout; in my opinion, his figure and witness accounts are somewhat underestimated by Titanic researchers (in favor of Charles Lightoller, for example).
My interest in Fleet naturally grew into interest in such topics as 1) binoculars, or, more precisely, the “lookout glasses”, on Titanic, and 2) the dynamics of the collision process.
Other areas that take an important place in my research are the angles of the ship's trim and list; and the break-up. These are perhaps the most technical of all.
3. What are some of the most important (or most surprising) historical discoveries you've made while researching the Titanic disaster?
Maybe the word “discovery” is too strong; but if you have studied this topic seriously for more than 20 years, you will most likely dig out something new or at least interesting, something that is not widely known or talked of – there are many “discoveries” as well as “closures” in the “Titanicology”, I dare say.
Somewhere in the course of a person’s studies, there is a natural point when quantity turns into quality, and it cannot be artificially accelerated. For me, this moment came when my research led me to believe that, for instance, the “lookout glasses” were most probably intended for use by Titanic’s lookouts along with bridge officers, and with the approval of the latter. Although no one can say for certain whether or not this fact played any vital role in the disaster, Fleet believed it did but we simply don’t know. Therefore, I urge you not to believe anyone who gives an unequivocal and definite answer to this complicated question.
Another interesting tidbit is that there is a good reason to believe that the freeboard of Titanic had some minor physical contact with the iceberg at the level of D to E decks during the iceberg encounter. This of course could not cause any structural damage, but it helps us to better understand how the collision occurred and how close the ship was to the iceberg.
I also tend to think that during the final plunge at about 2.15 a.m., the actual position of the ship's hull in the water was more erratic and swinging then it is commonly believed, and that there was a brief moment when the list to port side had corrected itself and a slight list to starboard had developed – and then vice versa. It seems to me this was what the surviving witnesses (including William Mellors) described as “the rise of the Boat deck”.
It is also very interesting to debunk some of the most popular and persistent myths or widely accepted misunderstandings of the Titanic history. For example, there is a deeply rooted belief that the ship was not steaming “Full Speed Ahead” in a known and dangerous ice region (this belief is based on testimonies of J. Bruce Ismay and C. H. Lightoller); there is a widely-held belief that her navigators allegedly had no intention of arriving in New York earlier (i.e. on Tuesday); there is also the recent fashionable quasi-theory of “super refraction” (one of the brightest attempts to falsify history); and many others.
4. Do you feel that physical salvage of Titanic artifacts has the potential of uncovering important new information about the disaster, or will it merely highlight historical trivia like the color of Titanic's floor tiles or the physical appearance of her Marconi apparatus?
The salvage of Titanic artifacts is an extremely complex and controversial topic, and there are no simple or definitive answers to most questions arising in connection with it.
Minor historical trivia like shades of colors, patterns or arrangement of certain mechanical details can be of extreme importance to visual historians of Titanic, to artists, ship modelers or filmmakers. While at the same time these little physical things may not give us any important knowledge about the causes and course of the disaster.
Retrieving pieces of metal and rust, for example, helped to increase our knowledge of the metallurgy and microbiology of Titanic. The largest recovered artifact, “The Big Piece”, showed us the brutality of the forces that broke the Titanic's hull, even up to small cracks on its surface (unfortunately, I've never seen “The Big Piece” in person, and hardly will).
Recovered paper items (such as Edgar Samuel Andrew's schoolbooks and letters) add interesting touches to psychological portraits of passengers. Bill Sauder and Charles Pellegrino may tell us a lot of fascinating things about the historical significance of some little-known artifacts. (Until recently the sharing of this information was restricted by non-disclosure agreements, but today the situation seems to have changed a bit).
Of all the artifacts in existence, the largest and most important are the two sections of the broken hull that lie on the ocean floor, but these cannot be safely raised to the surface; this is technically infeasible as of today. Their comprehensive archaeological exploration as a wreck site gives us a great deal of essential data on how the vessel broke apart and finally reached the bottom.
In sum, I think that artifact recovery has the potential to add new knowledge, including historical, archaeological, culturological, biological. But only if the recovery is carried out scientifically, in accordance with accepted archaeological standards and practices, and for the benefit of the public and authors/researchers. Therefore, it must be done extremely carefully, on a limited and “transparent” basis, and on a pre-developed detailed plan approved by the court – in the case of each individual artifact. Public opinion should also undoubtedly be taken into account, given the degree of historical and cultural significance of the Titanic wreck and her artifacts. Titanic artifact recovery should unite people in understanding the material and cultural aspect of the tragedy, not divide them and sow enmity.
As for the proposed recovery of the Marconi set: personally I have no strong objections to this plan, for the Marconi apparatus is a piece (or a system) of shipboard electro-mechanical equipment, and is not someone's private property. If its historical significance is recognized by the court, and if it really is under threat, then why not try to save it. But I see so many people are fiercely against this plan (even its final and much more delicate and softened edition). Is it possible to simply ignore their voices? Sometimes I fear that it might not be safe to exhibit this artifact in public (if it is successfully recovered).
5. Are you frustrated about any specific Titanic-related subjects in which people continue to quote outdated research information instead of embracing the latest discoveries?
Since I advocate (and try to practice, to the best of my abilities and resources) a strictly scientific approach to Titanic research, I am very much frustrated and annoyed about some people's attempts of bringing anything except science into Titanicology. That is, elements of show business, commerce, politics and cultness (including personality cults), to name just a few.
When we speak about scientific knowledge, we accept the fact that it is in constant development, change and improvement. It is not frozen like dogma, it is in the process of evolution. Therefore, if you are seriously passionate about Titanic and want to keep abreast of the latest advances in her scientific exploration, you have to keep track of the recent research publications on this subject (books and monographs penned by reputable authors, and articles appearing in thematic magazines). This is very time-consuming and expensive, but this is the only way to protect oneself from freezing in dogma and falling behind. Stepping into the field of scientific study of Titanic, you will quickly see who is who, and you will painlessly part with such doubtful theories as “super refraction”, such concepts as the four-bladed central propeller, such stories as “Third class passengers moving freely between the decks throughout the entire evacuation”, et cetera, et cetera.
6. Could you share one or two of the most emotional or moving moments you've experienced while researching the Titanic?
As an adherent of the scientific approach, I try not to give in to emotions. But this of course is not easy when you deal with the topic related to the death and suffering of so many people, including women and children. This leaves a certain mark on the personality, I think. Also, this gives you an understanding of the fragility of life, transience of business interests, unreliability of technical means.
I remember how touched I was when I saw children attending my book presentation. There are people, including in Russia, who use kids and youth as a grateful and trusting audience, and insert false information and even some extremist ideas into young minds, apparently without realizing the measure of their responsibility.
Another important thing was when working on my third book helped me overcome the consequences of a very painful divorce. So in addition to a damaging effect, Titanic research has an explicit therapeutic effect as well.
But of course nothing of this can be compared to what some of the Titanic survivors went through. I still shudder when rereading John B. Thayer, Jr.'s or Frank Goldsmith's memoirs, letters of William Mellors, or the stories of Rhoda Abbott, Selini Yazbeck and others. The story of Isidor and Ida Straus is a real-life monument of sacrificial love that deserves to be praised and screened.
7. Does your study of the Titanic and/or her passengers overlap with any of your other historical interests? What are your other areas of interest that are independent of the Titanic?
In childhood and early 2000s, in parallel to Titanic, I had some other interests, or hobbies, in the field of music history and in paleontology, plus in drawing and painting. But over the years, Titanic began to consume more and more of my time, effort and resources. Contrary to popular belief, Titanic did not help me improve my financial situation. Nowadays, I simply have neither time nor enough funds to get involved in anything else (even if I wish to).
Nonetheless, I try to study the “Soviet Titanic”, steamer Admiral Nakhimov (wrecked in 1986 in the Black Sea), every time I have an opportunity.
8. Do you have any new Titanic-related projects in the works? If so, could you please give us a sneak peak about the type of subject matter they involve?
I always have one or more Titanic-related projects in the works, large or small, Russian or international, but I prefer not to disclose any details beforehand, before everything is printed/published. In my situation, something can go wrong at any time. Besides, there are people who are capable to spoil or disrupt my work if they know the details. I was already convinced (bitterly) that the Titanic community is unfortunately far from being a circle of friends and well-wishers. However, the last applies to our whole life, not only to the Titanic activities.
9. Were you encouraged by others to write your book, or did you come up with the project all by yourself? Did you receive help or encouragement from any special people during the writing process?
In the case of “The Titanic Expeditions” book, I was encouraged primarily by my good friend George Behe, to whom I'm infinitely grateful for this and many other things. I myself would never have come up with an idea of writing a whole book in English and for English-speaking readers. Then additional help and encouragement came from Dr. Jim Delgado, IMAX filmmaker Stephen Low and members of his 1991 crew, David Concannon and Rory Golden, and some other prominent people who are all listed and acknowledged in the book.
Still, there are a few “special people” and entities who ignored my invitations to take part in this project, or even flatly denied to help me. It was a shock and a painful blow at first, the collapse of the illusion of a friendly, mutually helpful, science oriented community. But today I do not blame them for this; I wish them luck in doing what they think is better or more commercially profitable.
As for my recently published book (“Titanic: Truth and Myths. The Newest Research”), it was in many ways “inspired” by our Russian (and some Western) media, journalists and social network activists who sometimes write amazingly wrong and absurd things. So it was mostly a negative sort of “inspiration”, a work in opposition.
10. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
If we speak about Titanic authors (it's a very special branch of literature), I would advise 1) do your own research (not Googling, but working in archives, libraries and museum collections, or working with those who have access to archives), 2) read as many books, monographs and research articles as you can, 3) spend as little time online as possible, and 4) never think about money, fame or creating a cult following – this has nothing to do with Titanic research.
11. What is the best way for someone to contact you if they have questions?
Facebook, I think, and my own FB group in particular (“Titanic: Secrets of the Lost Liner”).