The Relic Radiation of Mathematics

Machine assist­ed translation

How Russian mathematics lost to the war

Is there any chance, in the con­di­tions of exter­nal iso­la­tion, to pre­serve a liv­ing sys­tem of math­e­mat­i­cal knowl­edge in Russia through inter­na­tion­al sol­i­dar­i­ty, per­son­al con­nec­tions, and secret online teach­ing? This ques­tion now con­cerns those who have left and those who have stayed behind.

Lost championship

In July 2022, one of the most impor­tant events in world sci­ence was to be held in St. Petersburg: the International Congress of Mathematics. Traditionally, it has been held every four years since the end of the 19th cen­tu­ry. The main math­e­mat­i­cal awards of the world are pre­sent­ed there. Winning the right to host the con­gress is as hon­or­able as the right to host the Olympic Games or the FIFA World Cup. This is exact­ly the scheme that Russia used when it fought for the right to host the con­gress. It had only hap­pened once before, in 1966, when Moscow was one of the world cap­i­tals of mathematics.

In 2018, the Russian gov­ern­men­t’s bid to host the con­gress was over­seen by Arkady Dvorkovich. Russian math­e­mat­ics was rep­re­sent­ed by two Fields lau­re­ates: Andrei Okunkov and Stanislav Smirnov, both of whom had worked abroad for a long time, but had close­ly coop­er­at­ed with Russian uni­ver­si­ties. This tac­tics suc­ceed­ed — St. Petersburg won the bid against Paris. And then work of the orga­niz­ing com­mit­tee began. A spe­cial series of satel­lite con­fer­ences in var­i­ous Russian and European cities was planned, films were made about the Congress, books were pre­pared for print­ing, and work began on arrang­ing spe­cial visas for math­e­mati­cians, sim­i­lar to visas for soc­cer fans. However, the efforts of hun­dreds of remark­able sci­en­tists were in vain: a week after the begin­ning of the war, the International Mathematical Union announced that it did not con­sid­er it pos­si­ble to hold the con­gress in Russia. As a result, for the first time in the cen­ten­ni­al his­to­ry of the con­gress, the sci­en­tif­ic ses­sions with reports were held online, and the Fields Medal award cer­e­mo­ny was moved to Helsinki.

«The Nobel Prize in Mathematics,» as the Fields Prize is often called, went to the Frenchman Hugo Duminil-Copin, the Briton James Maynard, the Korean-born June Huh work­ing in the United States, and the Ukrainian-born Marina Vyazovskaya work­ing in Switzerland. During the Fields Medal cer­e­mo­ny, Vyazovskaya was speak­ing in her speech about the Russian inva­sion of Ukraine. She gave the cash equiv­a­lent of the award to help her homeland.

There, in Helsinki, the award for pop­u­lar­iza­tion of sci­ence, the Lilavati Prize, was pre­sent­ed to Nikolai Andreev, head of the Laboratory for Popularization and Propaganda of Mathematics at the Steklov Mathematical Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences (MIAN).

Within Russia through­out the coun­try, most of the math­e­mat­i­cal con­fer­ences timed to the con­gress did not take place. A num­ber of sci­en­tists who par­tic­i­pat­ed in the prepa­ra­tion of the con­gress left the coun­try. Andrei Okunkov ter­mi­nat­ed his aca­d­e­m­ic lead­er­ship of the International Laboratory of Representation Theory and Mathematical Physics at the Higher School of Economics (HSE). His per­son­al page on the uni­ver­si­ty web­site is now delet­ed. Together with eight thou­sand sci­en­tists from Russia, he signed the «Open Letter of Russian Scientists and Scientific Journalists against the War with Ukraine».

Stanislav Smirnov remains a research super­vi­sor at the Faculty of Mathematics and Computer Science in St. Petersburg State University, but most of his time, accord­ing to his col­leagues, is spent in Switzerland at his main place of work.

Petersburg. Disrupted mycelium

By 2022 a math­e­mat­i­cal ecosys­tem nec­es­sary for the healthy growth of sci­ence had formed in St. Petersburg. The St. Petersburg branch of the Steklov Mathematical Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences (POMI) was high­ly active; the best sci­en­tists were engaged in cut­ting-edge research here. The new Faculty of Mathematics and Computer Science at St. Petersburg State University was gain­ing pop­u­lar­i­ty and attract­ed the best stu­dents, includ­ing par­tic­i­pants of International Mathematical Olympiads. On the base of the fac­ul­ty and the aca­d­e­m­ic insti­tute, the Leonhard Euler St. Petersburg International Mathematical Institute was revived, and in 2020 it received the offi­cial sta­tus of a world-class math­e­mat­i­cal cen­tre. The cen­tre was sup­posed to become a point of aca­d­e­m­ic mobil­i­ty, the Russian ana­logue of the Oberwolfach math­e­mat­i­cal cen­ter, where sci­en­tists from dif­fer­ent coun­tries came for tem­po­rary posi­tions to par­tic­i­pate in con­fer­ences and sem­i­nars. The mon­ey allo­cat­ed for its cre­ation was unbe­liev­able by the stan­dards of math­e­mat­i­cal sci­ence — more than a bil­lion and a half rubles ($20m).

«On February 24, it became clear: what we have been doing for the last twen­ty years is bro­ken, — says math­e­mati­cian Andrey P. (name changed) from St. Petersburg. — We had been restor­ing math­e­mat­ics after the pover­ty of the 1990s, we were fight­ing for young peo­ple, for mean­ing­ful projects, for mon­ey so that we could enter the inter­na­tion­al mar­ket with them and attract for­eign sci­en­tists to St. Petersburg. And we man­aged to do this. Postdocs from France, Canada, and America came to us. We had a live­ly aca­d­e­m­ic atmos­phere. We were prepar­ing for the Congress, there were many oth­er activ­i­ties asso­ci­at­ed with it, an exten­sive pro­gramme of con­fer­ences, and young peo­ple were active­ly engaged in the his­to­ry of sci­ence. After all, we have the archives of Euler, Kepler. And we began to pre­pare pub­li­ca­tions rep­re­sent­ing the tra­di­tion of math­e­mat­ics in St. Petersburg from the 18th cen­tu­ry to the present day.»

For now, almost all con­fer­ences at the Euler Institute have been can­celed. Some still want to come, but tech­ni­cal­ly it is now so chal­leng­ing that few are will­ing to over­come the dif­fi­cul­ties of trav­el­ling. And for some, it has become com­plete­ly pro­hib­it­ed. So in the sum­mer of 2022 there was a con­fer­ence on math­e­mat­i­cal hydro­dy­nam­ics, ded­i­cat­ed to the 100th anniver­sary of Olga Ladyzhenskaya. There is a sci­en­tif­ic school asso­ci­at­ed with her in Sweden, so the Swedes real­ly want­ed to come to St. Petersburg, but they had an admin­is­tra­tive ban on going to Russia. Also the Euler Institute lost fund­ing from a large pri­vate Simons Foundation.

The abrupt cut­off of inter­na­tion­al con­tacts sent a clear sig­nal to active researchers, whose sci­en­tif­ic life is impos­si­ble in iso­la­tion. During the last war year about half of the pro­fes­sors of the Faculty of Mathematics and Computer Science at St. Petersburg State University, found­ed at the ini­tia­tive of Stanislav Smirnov with the sup­port of Gazprom, Yandex, and oth­er large com­pa­nies, left Russia. Neither in the fall of 2022, nor in January 2023, did the State Duma Defense Committee sup­port the ini­tia­tive to defer mobi­liza­tion for scientists.

«A courier in an expensive car brought me a huge bouquet in the form of a Voronoi diagram»

Olga (name changed) got her PhD at a Swiss uni­ver­si­ty, after that she worked as a post­doc in Belgium. In 2018 she returned to Russia, as she got a place at the new­ly cre­at­ed by Stanislav Smirnov Faculty of Mathematics and Computer Sciences at St. Petersburg University. She passed the com­pe­ti­tion for the posi­tion of senior lec­tur­er and then asso­ciate pro­fes­sor with a con­tract until 2025. She also used to work at the Euler International Institute and par­tic­i­pat­ed in the Congress prepa­ra­tions. Today she is in Switzerland again, but this time as a par­tic­i­pant of the Scholars at Risk program.

«From the first days of the war there was a state of night­mare. It was my birth­day at the begin­ning of March, but I could­n’t cel­e­brate and just cried all day. My good friend and for­mer col­league from Europe told me to leave and not go to protests. His genet­ic mem­o­ry (and he was Jewish) told him that those sur­vived who hid and fled, not those who open­ly opposed the regime. Nevertheless, I decid­ed to go to the anti-war ral­ly the next day. By the time the meet­ing began, Gostiny Dvor was already cor­doned off by the OMON. If any­one stopped, even for a minute, he was imme­di­ate­ly detained. In front of me a man pulled out an Ukrainian flag, and I start­ed to count: they detained him in ten sec­onds. In the crowd I met a woman who had rel­a­tives in Ukraine. She could­n’t believe it when she heard them talk­ing about the bomb­ing and killing, and it was­n’t until just before the day of the ral­ly that she real­ized that the war was real. She was in shock, and I want­ed to sup­port her. In the ped­way we bought yel­low and blue hats — we just had to express our atti­tude toward what was going on. We weren’t wear­ing these hats for long — police caught us right on the Kazansky Bridge.»

Olga spent the night at the police sta­tion. The police­woman at the sta­tion did not respond to the fact that Olga had chil­dren and under the law a woman can­not be detained for more than three hours. My advo­cate was told, «If she has no one to leave the chil­dren with, we’ll call a patrol, take the chil­dren away, and give them to the child pro­tec­tion ser­vices.» The next day she was tak­en direct­ly to court from the police sta­tion. They found her guilty, fined her and let her go home. «And at this point I final­ly matured the deci­sion to leave Russia. I post­ed pic­tures of my deten­tion on Facebook and wrote that I was look­ing for a job abroad.»

Detention of Olga N. at an anti-war rally

Almost imme­di­ate­ly, a Ukrainian col­league from her last job respond­ed. Although he now com­mu­ni­cates with Olga only in English, it was he him helped her apply for the Scholars at Risk pro­gram in order to go to Switzerland. Before return­ing to St. Petersburg, Olga was not at all inter­est­ed in pol­i­tics. Her for­ma­tion as a sci­en­tist took place in Europe, where she was busy with her chil­dren and sci­ence and did not fol­low the news.

«My moth­er was wary of my idea to return to Russia, she tried to explain some­thing, but her argu­ments did not seem sig­nif­i­cant to me. In Switzerland, I heard that some­thing had hap­pened to Crimea, and I was also sur­prised that the guys from Ukraine, with whom I stud­ied, sud­den­ly switched to Ukrainian with me. But I did­n’t pay much atten­tion to this. And when I came to Petersburg, I quick­ly real­ized that it was hard not to think about pol­i­tics here. Too many things point it out to you. Work and admin­is­tra­tive process­es are crooked, every­one breaks the rules, you can’t do any­thing by law, and it’s scary to bypass the law. And soon, in our uni­ver­si­ty, Associate Professor Sokolov killed and dis­mem­bered a grad­u­ate stu­dent, who also hap­pened to be his lover. And I had a ner­vous break­down back then. It was impos­si­ble to accept the fact that this deranged man open­ly lived with his grad­u­ate stu­dent, behaved inad­e­quate­ly, all saw and knew it, but no one even tried to pre­vent the tragedy. This seem­ing­ly inter­nal uni­ver­si­ty sto­ry affect­ed me a lot. And when Navalny was poi­soned, I devel­oped a final and def­i­nite atti­tude toward the Russian state as a machine that destroys peo­ple».

At the time, Olga was a mem­ber of the Coordinating Council of Young Scientists under the President of the Russian Federation. The admin­is­tra­tion of the fac­ul­ty asked her to join the coun­cil, in an effort to help get some help for the con­gress in particular.

«I agreed, not real­ly under­stand­ing what I was get­ting into and what kind of orga­ni­za­tion it was. Imagine, a spe­cial man in uni­form came to our uni­ver­si­ty and per­son­al­ly brought a let­ter from the Administration of the President with a request to send me to Moscow to meet with the lead­ers of the Council. So they had mon­ey for this man with shoul­der boards, but they had no mon­ey for my tick­et to Moscow. I was sum­moned to Staraya Square [where the Administration of the President of Russia is locat­ed. — T-i] and asked what my goals were. It was the wildest con­ver­sa­tion I ever had. I start­ed telling them some­thing about math­e­mat­i­cal prob­lems, about how I want­ed to cre­ate my own research group. They grinned: “We do not real­ly like your answer. On the con­trary, the girl before you, she wants to win the Nobel Prize, that’s a real ambi­tion. And they made no secret of the fact that the Coordinating Council was free labor pow­er for them. It was, we did do some tech­ni­cal work, for exam­ple, the cal­cu­la­tion of sci­en­to­met­ric indi­ca­tors in the pro­cess­ing of appli­ca­tions for a gov­ern­ment prize. They need­ed our work for free, even though they had mon­ey for incred­i­ble things. Once, for exam­ple, for my birth­day they brought me in an expen­sive car a huge bou­quet in the form of a Voronoi dia­gram. However, I did­n’t par­tic­i­pate in most of the Council’s events and I did­n’t go to meet­ings in dif­fer­ent regions, either. Once in a gen­er­al chat room, Council mem­bers joked that if we hold a meet­ing in the Crimea, we will know who is ours and who is not ours.»

Olga was expelled from the Council in August 2020 right after she expressed her opin­ion about what hap­pened to Navalny in social net­works. She was not warned about any­thing, they just sent her a copy of the rota­tion order signed by A.A. Fursenko [Assistant to the President of Russia, for­mer Minister of Education and Science. — T-i]. Olga con­tin­ued to teach at the uni­ver­si­ty and help pre­pare for the Congress, until the February 20 meet­ing of the Security Council of Russia, after which she received clear sig­nals from her for­eign col­leagues that there would be prob­lems with the Congress in Russia. On February 24, the math­e­mati­cians in St. Petersburg real­ized that it was not just Congress that was cancelled.

Members of the fac­ul­ty admin­is­tra­tion had dif­fer­ent approach­es to the sit­u­a­tion: some clear­ly and loud­ly expressed their neg­a­tive atti­tude toward the aggres­sion, while oth­ers stern­ly warned that the fac­ul­ty was out of pol­i­tics and that no state­ments could be made on behalf of the staff. Nevertheless, an open let­ter from employ­ees of the entire St. Petersburg State University in sup­port of the war in Ukraine soon appeared, signed, among oth­ers, by one of the fac­ul­ty members.

There were even ideas of orga­niz­ing a math­e­mat­ics depart­ment in exile. But it was hard to find out how many staff mem­bers were real­ly will­ing to par­tic­i­pate: it seemed that no more than half. So they left, who­ev­er they could, with the help of rec­om­men­da­tions, which were writ­ten, in part, by the fac­ul­ty lead­ers. Far few­er stu­dents left than fac­ul­ty mem­bers. No more than a quarter.

«First of all, it’s hard­er for them to get off right away; you usu­al­ly have to apply in advance for aca­d­e­m­ic pro­grammes, explains Olga. — And sec­ond­ly, we had very spoiled stu­dents, these are the Olympiad stu­dents, they were told from child­hood that they were the smartest, pro­vid­ed with excel­lent con­di­tions. I found for one grad­u­ate stu­dent the pos­si­bil­i­ty of visa sup­port to Belgium, but he said to me: “Why would I want to do that? I’m attached to my home­land. And why is Europe telling us how to live?” He was­n’t ready to go to war, though, and decid­ed to hide from mobi­liza­tion inside the coun­try if nec­es­sary.»

As at the fac­ul­ty, at the Euler International Institute the admin­is­tra­tion object­ed to an anti-war state­ment on behalf of the orga­ni­za­tion, argu­ing that it would mean the imme­di­ate dis­so­lu­tion of the staff. Preserving the inter­na­tion­al cen­ter in the form in which it was designed was unlike­ly to be achieved through silence. Under con­di­tions of iso­la­tion from European, American, and Canadian uni­ver­si­ties, it is impos­si­ble to real­ize the idea of an inter­na­tion­al math­e­mat­i­cal hub, where advanced knowl­edge is accu­mu­lat­ed. But the mon­ey for its real­iza­tion remains.

And this sit­u­a­tion is exact­ly the oppo­site of the sit­u­a­tion in the 1990s, when sci­en­tists were leav­ing pover­ty for sta­ble posi­tions in European, American, and Canadian uni­ver­si­ties. Today, on the con­trary, many of those who got into short-term tem­po­rary posi­tions abroad have lost sta­tus and mon­ey. Except for those who accept­ed invi­ta­tions from China, the Arab Emirates, Pakistan, India, and Brazil. One math­e­mati­cian, who want­ed to remain anony­mous, received from the UAE a lux­u­ri­ous offer of a con­tract com­pa­ra­ble to that of a soc­cer play­er in terms of con­di­tions and salary. He declined.

«First of all, I’m too old to change my whole life. I have a very strong attach­ment to St. Petersburg. We have won­der­ful stu­dents, so who am I going to leave them for? I am con­vinced that the war will pass, but math­e­mat­ics in Russia must sur­vive. And some­one has to stay in the shop,» — as Ludwig Faddeev said in the 1990s, when ‘maths Petersburg’ was half-emp­ty.»

Indeed, since the ear­ly 1990s, more than forty peo­ple left the St. Petersburg branch of the Steklov Mathematical Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences (then LOMI) out of one hun­dred unique spe­cial­ists in all fields of math­e­mat­ics. Academic Ludwig Faddeev was one of the main cus­to­di­ans of this «shop» and par­tic­i­pat­ed in its revival as much as he could, right up to ski­ing with Putin, to lob­by for math­e­mat­ics, to main­tain its pres­tige, and to explain to the author­i­ties the need for its devel­op­ment. He lived to see the moment when, through his efforts and the efforts of dozens of col­leagues, St. Petersburg once again became the world cen­ter of math­e­mat­ics. Ludwig Faddeev passed away in 2017, with­out see­ing forty peo­ple leave his beloved POMI again in just six months in 2022. In the 1990s, «sit­ting in the shop,» sur­viv­ing math­e­mati­cians wait­ed for mon­ey and young peo­ple. And what can they wait for now?

«We now, unlike in the 90s, have a lot of mon­ey and many bril­liant stu­dents, — the sci­en­tist con­tin­ues. — But they have closed the door to big inter­na­tion­al sci­ence for us. However, Russian sci­en­tists are used to this. In the gloomy 1920s and 30s, Russia had the high­est math­e­mat­ics. One of the great­est con­fer­ences on alge­bra­ic topol­o­gy was held in Moscow in the ter­ri­ble year of 1935. Kolmogorov and Alexandrov made two pow­er­ful talk there. During the same years in Leningrad, Yakov Perelman wrote his pop­u­lar books on math­e­mat­ics. Mathematics in Russia has seen a lot and will sur­vive this as well. But we active­ly write rec­om­men­da­tions to any­one who wants to leave. We find both stu­dents and asso­ciate pro­fes­sors. China is a par­tic­u­lar­ly pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tion.»

In the very first months of the full-scale war, at the ini­tia­tive of one of the most influ­en­tial Chinese-American math­e­mati­cians, Yau, invi­ta­tions were sent to dozens of young and mature Russian sci­en­tists from Chinese uni­ver­si­ties with lucra­tive long-term con­tracts. The Chinese paid for good hous­ing and offered mon­ey that exceed­ed the aver­age American uni­ver­si­ty salary. Many took advan­tage of this offer.

«It was unbearable to see it»

Nikita Kalinin grew up in St. Petersburg, wrote his PhD the­sis in Geneva, then worked in Mexico. In 2017 he decid­ed to return to St. Petersburg, want­i­ng to get into the same new fac­ul­ty of math­e­mat­ics. But due to the high com­pe­ti­tion, Kalinin was not able to get a job right away, and he got a job at the Game Theory Laboratory of the St. Petersburg branch of the HSE. Two years lat­er Kalinin was hired at St. Petersburg State University.

«Mathematics was devel­op­ing very dynam­i­cal­ly in St. Petersburg at that time. Professionally, I was absolute­ly sat­is­fied. I love to work with stu­dents, and our stu­dents were just incred­i­bly smart.»

At the begin­ning of the war, Kalinin was work­ing simul­ta­ne­ous­ly at two uni­ver­si­ties and was prepar­ing a book on the his­to­ry of math­e­mat­ics in St. Petersburg, timed to the Congress. The book should intro­duce the bright­est names who worked in St. Petersburg from the time of the Bernoulli broth­ers and Leonhard Euler to the present day. The book has not yet been pub­lished. But if any­one decides to con­tin­ue this chron­i­cle in the future, the year 2022 will go into it as the year of great losses.

«“In the first days of the war there was a sur­re­al feel­ing, as if I had been caught up in a bad movie. I still have it, though. I felt that my head had been cut off. It was imme­di­ate­ly clear that this was the end of every­thing. Everything nor­mal. And that it would last for a long time, for ten or twen­ty years. My wife and I made the deci­sion to leave at once: it was unbear­able to see it. I was haunt­ed by the bib­li­cal image of a herd of pigs run­ning to the lake to drown. And the only thing left was to try to get away from this herd some­where.»

Kalinin quick­ly received an invi­ta­tion from his col­leagues to Rio de Janeiro. And then he soon received an invi­ta­tion to China. China was cho­sen because there was three times more mon­ey than the Brazilians, the uni­ver­si­ty pro­vid­ed a large apart­ment, and the con­tract itself was poten­tial­ly open-end­ed. Together with Kalinin, anoth­er col­league from his fac­ul­ty went to the same university.

It took Kalinin and his fam­i­ly two ago­niz­ing months to reach the uni­ver­si­ty in Guangdong province, which is the Chinese branch of Israel’s famous Technion University. It was dif­fi­cult to obtain a Chinese visa in St. Petersburg — it was impos­si­ble to sign up to apply, due to the large num­ber of appli­cants. When mobi­liza­tion came, he decid­ed not to wait for a Chinese visa here and flew to Israel.

«I wrote to the Technion in Haifa that I could either run to Uzbekistan or go to them, since they were my employ­ers. They replied: come to us for now, you’ll get your visa here. In Israel they gave us a visa in three days, but we were able to apply for it only when the October hol­i­days were over. So we lived in Haifa for over a month, mov­ing from apart­ment to apart­ment, and then we had a quar­an­tine in Shanghai, when you count the min­utes to get out. Travelling for almost two months with an inter­mit­tent­ly sick young child is not easy.»

Kalinin has long since resigned from the HSE and from St. Petersburg State University, but con­tin­ues to teach a spe­cial course for stu­dents remote­ly. Although he under­stands that this will not last long, because online teach­ing does not achieve the nec­es­sary effect, unlike face-to-face com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Whether the sys­tem of math­e­mat­i­cal edu­ca­tion and the selec­tion of strong stu­dents will be able to sur­vive in Russia at all, he does not understand.

«Russia is on the edge of a precipice. And this whole sys­tem of addi­tion­al edu­ca­tion, cir­cles, Olympiads, can be washed away in six months. For exam­ple, if infla­tion hits 200%, all young math­e­mat­ics teach­ers will leave to work as pro­gram­mers. Life in gen­er­al has lost its pre­dic­tive pow­er. I don’t under­stand what will hap­pen to Russia, and I don’t under­stand what will hap­pen to China. I have found myself in a coun­try that may itself start a war against Taiwan tomor­row. In this case, as we were reas­sured, the Israel Defense Forces will come for us as employ­ees of an Israeli uni­ver­si­ty.»

The hope for the IDF is not in vain. In 2022, Israel accept­ed more run­away Russian math­e­mati­cians than any oth­er coun­try. Today almost every major uni­ver­si­ty in Israel, such as the Technion, the University of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv University, the Weizmann Institute, and Haifa University, has had math­e­mati­cians from Russia.

Suitcase, Terminal, Uzbekistan, Israel

Victor Vasiliev, an aca­d­e­mi­cian of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the chief researcher at the Steklov Institute of Mathematical Sciences, one of the first to sign the anti-war let­ter of sci­en­tists, fled to Uzbekistan soon after mobi­liza­tion began, togeth­er with his sons of con­scrip­tion age. Conditions were close to a night shel­ter. Upon learn­ing of this, Sergey Yakovenko wrote to him about a spe­cial pro­gramme for sci­en­tists from Russia and Ukraine at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot. It was an oppor­tu­ni­ty to get away quick­ly and think about what to do next.

RAS Academic V.A. Vasiliev in Uzbekistan
RAS Academic V.A. Vasiliev in Uzbekistan

«Sergey, in his own words, works full-time as Grandpa Mazai, who urgent­ly res­cues sev­er­al dozen hares in dis­tress. When I arrived in Israel, I imme­di­ate­ly found sev­er­al key staff mem­bers of the HSE math fac­ul­ty next to me. It is dif­fi­cult to say exact­ly how many staff mem­bers have left HSE, because every­one is try­ing to make sure that the edu­ca­tion­al process remains intact. And not so many employ­ees have left from Moscow’s Steklov Institute, although only a few of them open­ly sup­port the aggres­sion in Ukraine. Most, as I under­stand it, hope to sit it out and live until bet­ter times.»

In the ear­ly days of the war, the Weizmann Institute respond­ed to the call of inter­na­tion­al sci­en­tif­ic orga­ni­za­tions to accept refugee sci­en­tists from Ukraine. However, there were few of them, because the exit of men from the defend­ing coun­try was closed. Then Sergei Yakovenko, a pro­fes­sor in the Weizmann Institute’s Faculty of Mathematics and Computer Science, along with his col­leagues con­vinced the Institute’s admin­is­tra­tion to give access to this pro­gram not only for Ukrainian col­leagues, but also for Russian ones:

«Unlike European air­lines, El-Al did not can­cel flights to Russia, but, on the con­trary, increased their num­ber and set up an air bridge. And my col­leagues and I pressed the admin­is­tra­tion and the President of our insti­tute to start to help refugees from the Russian-Ukrainian war with­out spec­i­fy­ing sides or nation­al­i­ties. They decid­ed to accept every­one.»

The pro­gram cov­ered an aca­d­e­m­ic vis­it of up to three months to the Weizmann Institute. The Institute pro­vid­ed free lodg­ing, paid for the flight to Israel, and gave $100 a day for food. Decisions were made with­in 24 hours. All that was required was a proof of aca­d­e­m­ic status.

«We had no account­ing or bureau­cra­cy, no votes, no com­mit­tee meet­ings, no CV stud­ies. There was no report­ing required in the final. We had two goals — to get to know peo­ple and to give them a tem­po­rary break. We assumed that some would be able to find a posi­tion in oth­er coun­tries with­in three months, some would decide to repa­tri­ate and use the time giv­en to find a suit­able job at one of the Israeli uni­ver­si­ties or col­leges, and some would be so great that we would want to take them to the insti­tute for good.»

And all three of these tra­jec­to­ries worked. In the first wave, about 50 sci­en­tists and their fam­i­lies arrived between March and the end of the sum­mer. Some of them had already gone to the U.S., and some had found jobs at uni­ver­si­ties and col­leges in Israel. And the pro­gram was about to be closed, but in September, with the announce­ment of the mobi­liza­tion, the sec­ond wave broke out.

«And here the main prob­lem was not to find new mon­ey, but to stop our intra-uni­ver­si­ty “bull­doz­er.” The fact is that we were set­tling refugees in the insti­tute’s old ser­vice hous­ing, which accord­ing to the long-agreed recon­struc­tion plan should have been demol­ished in December. And then 50 new peo­ple arrived with their fam­i­lies. Where would we put them? And here I had to warm the tele­phone receiv­er with my cheek.»

Then the Weizmann Institute decid­ed to extend the pro­gram for refugee schol­ars until March 31, 2023. Israel’s aca­d­e­m­ic sys­tem for Russian schol­ars, both young and old, was much more flex­i­ble than in oth­er coun­tries. Students who did not have a bach­e­lor’s degree had begun to be accept­ed into Master’s pro­grams, giv­ing them the oppor­tu­ni­ty to take the exams they lack before com­plet­ing their degree in Israel or at their home uni­ver­si­ties «remote­ly.»

Researchers over the age of 60 were offered at least tem­po­rary jobs for a few years, even though in the old days they would­n’t have had a chance. The most dif­fi­cult thing was to find a solu­tion for mature math­e­mati­cians, already crowned with world fame, but approach­ing the retire­ment age of 65. In Israel at this age, pro­fes­sors are oblig­ed to retire, pass­ing into an emer­i­tus state and mak­ing vacan­cies for the young. This is a huge prob­lem (labor and pen­sion laws are the same for every­one), but var­i­ous uni­ver­si­ties have begun to look for cre­ative ways to solve it in indi­vid­ual cas­es. An under­stand­ing of the excep­tion­al­i­ty of the moment and the need to find unortho­dox solu­tions has emerged.

«I long ago stopped divid­ing math­e­mat­ics into Russian, Israeli, European, American, — Yakovenko says. — Good math­e­mati­cians are like an endan­gered species of some rare whales, and if a new whale is born some­where, we care­ful­ly pass it from flock to flock so that it becomes part of the whole species, not part of an indi­vid­ual flock. Conversely, if an old whale finds itself in dif­fi­cult con­di­tions, the oth­ers just instinc­tive­ly gath­er and nudge it with their noses to keep it afloat.»

Similar pro­grams have start­ed up at oth­er Israeli uni­ver­si­ties. Thus, dozens of math­e­mati­cians from Skoltech, Moscow State University, HSE, and POMI have tem­porar­i­ly land­ed in Israel.

«Goal-setting is lost»

Boris Feigin received a posi­tion for a year at the University of Jerusalem, but did not with­draw affil­i­a­tion of HSE.

«Now the HSE is in a wait­ing posi­tion, but it is not clear what exact­ly it waits for. It has become impos­si­ble to work in the for­mer mode, because the goal-set­ting has been lost. Previously there was an ori­en­ta­tion to the glob­al sci­en­tif­ic world, the glob­al edu­ca­tion­al mar­ket, now it is either impos­si­ble or even pro­hib­it­ed. Moreover, there are instruc­tions from the Ministry of Science to estab­lish an upbring­ing process among stu­dents. But the admin­is­tra­tion of the HSE under­stands that it will not be pos­si­ble to pre­serve the struc­ture of the uni­ver­si­ty in this case, and so they are not doing any­thing about it.»

According to Feygin’s esti­mates, about 20% of lec­tur­ers have left the fac­ul­ty of the Moscow State University, but many more are leav­ing. True, most of them are try­ing to keep at least an infor­mal con­nec­tion with the fac­ul­ty. No one wants to leave scorched earth, and there is a desire to put the process on pause. Many are will­ing to return should the polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion nor­mal­ize, though they under­stand that it will take years to rebuild the math struc­ture that was destroyed in 2022.

«The hor­ror is that there will be nowhere to go back to. We will have to build every­thing from scratch, and no one knows how long that will take. And this despite the fact that our math depart­ment is not yet the most dam­aged by the war. That’s who suf­fered a tru­ly irrepara­ble loss, as they used to say in Soviet times, was the Faculty of Computer Science, which was built in inter­ac­tion with large com­pa­nies such as Yandex, Huawei, and Samsung.»

«For myself inter­nal­ly, — Feigin says, — I haven’t solved the ques­tion of a con­nec­tion with the HSE. And I haven’t solved the issue of com­ing back either.»

Until October, Anton Khoroshkin was the deputy dean for aca­d­e­m­ic work at the HSE math fac­ul­ty. Now he works at the University of Haifa. He made the deci­sion to leave in spring, but did­n’t leave the HSE until he was sure that the edu­ca­tion­al process would be set up in the fall. The depart­ment has a hun­dred fac­ul­ty mem­bers and five hun­dred stu­dents. He knows exact­ly who left where, but he won’t talk about it, and he still says «we» about the faculty.

«The loss­es are sub­stan­tial. Imagine if you have three-quar­ters of your alge­braists leav­ing, it’s a seri­ous blow to the edu­ca­tion­al process. We’re still try­ing to save seats for some staff, and I’m not pre­pared to dis­close details. Some have left to wait it out, and some have left for good, slam­ming the door. In March, those who were vis­it­ed at home by the enforcers, left. But they con­tin­ued to teach their class­es remote­ly for the rest of the year. Another part of the staff left in September after mobi­liza­tion, and they, too, con­tin­ue to read remote­ly. Ten per­cent of the stu­dents left. We helped all of the under­grads who asked to grad schools, but the first and sec­ond year stu­dents had the hard­est time leav­ing.»

Khoroshkin was one of the few who got a per­ma­nent posi­tion in Israel. But most live in antic­i­pa­tion of visas to Britain and the United States, where the uni­ver­si­ty labor mar­ket is much wider.

In addi­tion to the HSE, there are still active math­e­mat­i­cal cen­ters in Moscow: the Faculty of Mechanics and Mathematics at Moscow State University, the Steklov Institute (MIAN), Skoltech, and the Kharkevich Institute for Information Transmission Problems of the RAS. They do not form a sin­gle ecosys­tem, as in St. Petersburg, but each of them is on a dif­fer­ent stages of the process of sev­er­ing inter­na­tion­al ties and flush­ing peo­ple out. Some of the math­e­mati­cians had man­aged to leave Skoltech and IITP before the two insti­tutes fell under U.S. sanc­tions. Only a few left Steklov Institute and MSU at first, until the September mobi­liza­tion gave it new impetus.

«In the first week of the war I wrote to my friends in Moscow in Steklov Institute that I was ready to look for some posi­tions for them, but most refused, — says Andrei S. (name changed), a pro­fes­sor at one of Britain’s uni­ver­si­ties. — And in the fall, because of the mobi­liza­tion, peo­ple began to active­ly think about leav­ing. “In the first week of the war I wrote to my friends in Moscow in Steklovka that I was ready to look for some posi­tions for them, but most refused,” says Andrei S. (name changed), a pro­fes­sor at one of Britain’s uni­ver­si­ties. — And in the fall, because of the mobi­liza­tion, peo­ple began to active­ly think about leav­ing. Although almost every­one over forty under­stands that they will not find a nor­mal job in the West, and it is very hard to sur­vive on tem­po­rary posi­tions. Now it is very dif­fi­cult to fit into the Western sci­en­tif­ic sys­tem. Thousands of peo­ple are look­ing for а work, the com­pe­ti­tion is enor­mous. The times of the 1990s, when our sci­en­tists were will­ing­ly hired every­where, are gone. There are no prospects. Many peo­ple under­stand this and are in no hur­ry to leave Russia, where they have a guar­an­teed job until their old age. But we pre­serve sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ca­tion and try to write arti­cles togeth­er. True, I am afraid to go to Moscow because of the mobi­liza­tion, so we decid­ed to meet on neu­tral ter­ri­to­ry in Turkey. Turkish uni­ver­si­ties are hap­py to host us. They have no mon­ey for invit­ing for­eign math­e­mati­cians, but the Moscovites do not need mon­ey, they have mon­ey, because all the mon­ey allo­cat­ed for for­eign trips remained unspent.»

Before the war, Andrei him­self was also a free­lancer at the International Laboratory of Mirror Symmetry and Automorphic Forms of the HSE. He with­drew his affil­i­a­tion with the HSE in the first week of the war.

«In the first days there was the strongest shock: Russia is bomb­ing a neigh­bor­ing coun­try! I real­ized right away that I did­n’t want to be involved in that. And I did­n’t want any prob­lems in Britain. The HSE was, in a sense, the flag­ship of pub­lic edu­ca­tion in Russia, a call­ing card. It was a suc­cess­ful rich uni­ver­si­ty, close­ly con­nect­ed to the gov­ern­ment, and I real­ized that I no longer want to be asso­ci­at­ed with it. For exam­ple, in April, my own grant in Britain was frozen because a col­league from the HSE Faculty of Mathematics was sched­uled to vis­it it. I had to remove him from the grant and replace him with a math­e­mati­cian from Japan, and then the grant was reopened.»

In Britain, most of the grants for physics, math­e­mat­ics, and chem­istry come from the nation­al Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). In the first month of the war, the coun­cil issued a direc­tive that these grants could not be spent on sci­en­tists with Russian affiliation.

Britain has two major math­e­mat­i­cal cen­ters, the Isaac Newton Institute in Cambridge and the ICMS in Edinburgh. They were harsh­ly told that now you can not only invite Russian col­leagues to short sem­i­nars, but even let them to make a talk on the Zoom. But they could take them out. In Britain, a fund has been orga­nized to help math­e­mati­cians from Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus. In the future, this pro­gram is expect­ed to sup­port any sci­en­tists flee­ing the wars, regard­less of the coun­tries where the wars take place.

Alexander Shapiro, a researcher at the University of Edinburgh, became the coor­di­na­tor of the program:

«In February, I stood out­side the Russian embassy for four days in shock. Then I heard from the head of our depart­ment that the Newton Institute had opened a pro­gram called Solidarity for Mathematicians. The pro­gram is designed so that Newton Institute gives a can­di­date a small amount of mon­ey for a year, who in turn must find an insti­tute in Britain, where he could be accept­ed. But to go to the insti­tute, you have to get a visa, and this is a very com­pli­cat­ed process, which the uni­ver­si­ties in Britain can­not influ­ence.»

So far only one sci­en­tist from Ukraine and two from Russia have come under this pro­gram. Most Russian sci­en­tists can­not get to British uni­ver­si­ties because of visa prob­lems. A sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion devel­oped in the United States, where, unlike in Europe, there are many uni­ver­si­ties, and there­fore many places to work. However, only a few have man­aged to get there. The rea­son is the same — the U.S. gives almost no work visas to sci­en­tists from Russia. Despite President Biden’s state­ment that it is nec­es­sary to make it eas­i­er for Russian sci­en­tists to enter the coun­try, this did not hap­pen in practice.

The out­come of the war year is this. There are mon­ey for math­e­mat­ics with­in Russia. Student loss­es are less than sci­en­tif­ic and teach­ing loss­es. International con­tacts remain at the lev­el of human con­nec­tions. Participation in inter­na­tion­al con­fer­ences is almost impos­si­ble or tech­ni­cal­ly dif­fi­cult. Participation in Western grant pro­grams is for­bid­den. And there are three unan­swered ques­tions: will the sys­tem for the selec­tion and train­ing of tal­ent­ed stu­dents per­sist, who will teach these select­ed stu­dents, and how will math­e­mat­ics devel­op in Russia under con­di­tions of inter­na­tion­al isolation?

While no one has an answer to the first two ques­tions, there are some the­o­ries about the last one. Victor Vasilyev, a Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences and chief researcher at the Steklov Mathematical Institute, believes that math­e­mat­ics in Russia is now at a bifur­ca­tion point:

«Imagine that the cave­men have a storm drown­ing a fire, but the embers in it are still warm. And now we’re sit­ting here watch­ing: could they make a fire out of it, or is there no chance? That’s the ques­tion I ask myself, and I can’t find an answer.»

His col­league at the Steklov Institute, Corresponding Member of the RAS and Professor of the Faculty of Mechanics and Mathematics at MSU Ilya Shkredov thinks that in math­e­mat­ics, which does not depend on equip­ment sup­plies, you can always sit and think about some­thing use­ful, but the gen­er­al trend will be direct­ed toward mar­gin­al­iza­tion and localization.

«My guess is that the young fields of math­e­mat­ics will sur­vive in the near future: the embry­on­ic and rel­a­tive­ly young sci­ences cre­at­ed dur­ing the Soviet peri­od. How long will they last? I think we should not guess here either, but just look at how soon a provin­cial school left by its founder usu­al­ly dies (there are many such exam­ples in Russia), the tim­ing will be com­pa­ra­ble.»

And Andrey Okunkov assessed the prob­a­bil­i­ty that Russian math­e­mat­ics, while in com­plete iso­la­tion, will remain at a suf­fi­cient­ly high lev­el, with the prob­a­bil­i­ty of com­ing out of the black hole alive and unscathed.

In the process of prepar­ing this arti­cle, half of the per­sons inter­viewed, even those already work­ing under con­tracts abroad, chose not to give their names, as they con­tin­ue to teach stu­dents remain­ing in Russia unof­fi­cial­ly. Many hope that the polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion at home will change after the war is over, and so allow the pos­si­bil­i­ty of return­ing home. Mathematics in recent decades has been was shin­ing in Russian sci­ence too bright to for­get its light so eas­i­ly and quickly.


Letter of Russian Mathematicians Against the War

Mathematics has always been one of the few areas of fun­da­men­tal sci­ence in which Russia has main­tained a lead­ing world posi­tion. As proof of this, Russia was to host in the sum­mer of 2022 the most pres­ti­gious math­e­mat­i­cal con­fer­ence in the world, the International Congress of Mathematicians. The International Mathematical Union can­celled this deci­sion due to Russia’s attack on Ukraine. In a sit­u­a­tion where our coun­try has become a mil­i­tary aggres­sor and, as a con­se­quence, a rogue coun­try, Russia’s lead­er­ship posi­tion in world math­e­mat­ics will be irre­triev­ably lost.