Elena Bunina: «I was saved by mathematics»

Machine trans­la­tion

«I will not go back: I can­not work in a coun­try that is at war with its neigh­bors,» Elena Bunina, CEO of Yandex Russia, wrote to her col­leagues in ear­ly March 2022 and did not return to Russia from vaca­tion. D. in Physics and Mathematics, Professor of Higher Algebra at the Department of Mechanics of Moscow State University, Elena Bunina cre­at­ed the School of Data Analysis at Yandex since 2007, was involved in per­son­nel man­age­ment since 2011, and from 2017 was the CEO of the Russian legal enti­ty of the com­pa­ny until it became clear that the war would rad­i­cal­ly change the entire IT-industry.

Bunina’s name is asso­ci­at­ed with a long his­to­ry of train­ing the high­est pro­fes­sion­als in the Russian IT indus­try; two flag­ship edu­ca­tion­al cen­ters were cre­at­ed with her par­tic­i­pa­tion: the Faculty of Computer Science at the Higher School of Economics and the Faculty of Mathematics and Computer Science at St. Petersburg State University. Her per­son­al pro­fes­sion­al tra­jec­to­ry as a math­e­mati­cian has been con­nect­ed with the Faculty of Mechanics and Mathematics at Moscow State University all her life.

Now all three strongest depart­ments are cal­cu­lat­ing the loss of fac­ul­ty and stu­dents, Yandex is open­ing more and more hubs abroad in order to keep employ­ees, and Elena her­self is now a pro­fes­sor of the math depart­ment at Bar Ilan University and the sci­en­tif­ic direc­tor of the edu­ca­tion­al ser­vice Practicum in the Israeli part of Yandex, or rather the part that will remain after the legal «divorce» is completed.

We sit in the meet­ing room of a still unnamed com­pa­ny on the 39th floor of the Ayalon Tower in the office sec­tion of Tel Aviv, where speech can be heard in Russian, English and Hebrew, and talk about the repro­ducibil­i­ty of human cap­i­tal in the IT indus­try, in math­e­mat­ics, in uni­ver­si­ties, schools, cor­po­ra­tions, and we also cal­cu­late — not only loss­es, but also gains.


T-invari­ant: More than a year ago you left Russia, but you did not leave Yandex. How did Yandex sur­vive your depar­ture? How did you sur­vive it?

Elena Bunina: I have already left Yandex in the sense that it exists in Russia. I now work in the part of the com­pa­ny that is to be rebrand­ed. I have lost touch with the Russian Yandex dur­ing this year. I lost it com­plete­ly. For exam­ple, I stopped being inter­est­ed in inter­nal news, although I still for­mal­ly have access to it. The hard­est months were the first months of the war, when I was hand­ing over the busi­ness. When it’s your baby, it’s not easy.…

T-i: You hand­ed things over as CEO, did­n’t you?

EB: As CEO I had to hand over the right to sign and wait after the res­ig­na­tion let­ter when it went into effect in a month, noth­ing else. I hand­ed things over as HR direc­tor — that was the main role — and as direc­tor of edu­ca­tion­al projects. And so the inter­na­tion­al part of the edu­ca­tion­al ser­vice Practicum moved with me. And I left the big­ger Russian edu­ca­tion­al part in Russia, it was the most expen­sive and painful part­ing with it.

T-i: What is the for­eign Yandex? How does the divi­sion take place?

EB: The Russian Yandex is the Yandex that the whole world knows, includ­ing all the ser­vices that exist in it. And our for­eign, sep­a­ra­ble part will be most­ly ded­i­cat­ed to arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence. And autonomous cars, and rovers, and cloud tech­nolo­gies, and train­ing for pro­fes­sions relat­ed to arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence — this is just our Practicum out­side of Russia. Several small ser­vices specif­i­cal­ly relat­ed to machine learn­ing — all of this will most like­ly (I say «most like­ly» now, because, after all, the legal process is not over yet) be com­bined by a small com­pa­ny, the size incom­pa­ra­ble to Yandex.

T-i: Will the new com­pa­ny focus on the glob­al mar­ket or the Israeli market?

EB: Global, of course. The Israeli mar­ket is very small, and we see huge oppor­tu­ni­ties for arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence around the world.

T-i: Let me ask you, as a for­mer HR direc­tor who was involved in employ­ee relo­ca­tion. How did the sep­a­ra­tion of peo­ple take place? Geographically? Ideologically? Did a per­son come in and say, «I’m against the war, so I want to go to the Israeli part of Yandex or what­ev­er com­pa­ny it turns out to be»?

EB: No, it had noth­ing to do with any ide­o­log­i­cal things. In Yandex even now there are many peo­ple who work for Russia, but live abroad and work in for­eign hubs. Although, of course, the polit­i­cal and mobi­liza­tion fac­tor had a strong influ­ence, because there were peo­ple who were trans­ferred to oth­er ser­vices. For exam­ple, hav­ing left for Israel, one wants to work in some­thing that works for the world or for Israel, not for Russia. Some sort of rota­tion took place, but it was dif­fi­cult, very dif­fi­cult… And now it remains complicated.

T-i: Now the hubs of Russia’s Yandex are in Armenia, Kazakhstan, Serbia and Turkey. So the Yandex man­age­ment is loy­al to the fact that their employ­ees are local­ized in dif­fer­ent coun­tries and in fact this is how they escape mobilization?

EB: Yes, these hubs are quite offi­cial. There is a detached part of Yandex in Israel, in America, in Holland. And then they are scat­tered around in dif­fer­ent places.

T-i: You’ve been train­ing high­ly qual­i­fied spe­cial­ists for the com­pa­ny since 2007. Now, a year after there were two waves of depar­tures, how do you assess the indus­try’s loss­es — those of young peo­ple and those who were already work­ing in the market?

EB: Let me give you some exam­ples. Our School of Data Analytics (SAD) from 2007 to 2022 has trained and grad­u­at­ed more than 1,200 spe­cial­ists. These are top-spe­cial­ists, and here then «spe­cial­ists» replace with «pro­fes­sion­als DATA sci­en­tists». At the start of the war, we knew that about a third of our grad­u­ates lived and worked abroad, about two-thirds were in Russia. Many of them worked at Yandex. For the most part these were grad­u­ates of old­er years who were already adults. Newcomers did not get abroad so quick­ly. That was the pic­ture at the begin­ning of 2022.

But we have a SAD alum­ni chat room in which we do peri­od­ic sur­veys. After two months of war, we asked who was where. By that point, only half of the alum­ni remained in Russia, and half were overseas.

The next time we did a sur­vey was after the mobi­liza­tion in the fall of 2022. This time only one-third stayed in Russia, two-thirds work abroad. That’s the rate of the first year of the war about adult professionals.

With stu­dents it’s a slight­ly dif­fer­ent sto­ry. If a stu­dent is, let’s say, in his third year or sec­ond, he is strong­ly bound by the lack of a degree and the long-term plan­ning of edu­ca­tion­al pro­grams at for­eign uni­ver­si­ties. So it takes a lot of deter­mi­na­tion for him to leave and lose years of study. Not many peo­ple are will­ing to do that.

T-i: Also, most stu­dents’ depar­tures depend on their par­ents’ money.

EB: Of course, the stu­dent depends on the uni­ver­si­ty and the par­ents, so we haven’t seen all the stu­dent depar­tures yet. My friends polled a group of fourth-year human­i­ties stu­dents at a strong uni­ver­si­ty in Russia: almost 100% of the group intends to go abroad.

I can assure you that the mass depar­ture of stu­dents is yet to come.

The main fac­tor that we all saw when the employ­ees of Yandex went abroad is that it is about a thou­sand times hard­er to get a work per­mit, res­i­dence per­mit, ─ any­thing ─ with­out a high­er edu­ca­tion diplo­ma than with one. So stu­dents wait for their diplo­mas as long as they have a defer­ment of mobi­liza­tion and as long as the bor­ders are not closed.

T-i: And do you have an expla­na­tion for the strange fact that the State Duma grant­ed stu­dents a defer­ment of mobi­liza­tion and twice reject­ed amend­ments to the law on the mobi­liza­tion of researchers and uni­ver­si­ty teach­ers? Don’t you think the log­ic is absurd: let the teach­ers and sci­en­tists be killed or maimed, but let the stu­dents stay?

EB: It doesn’t.

“Teachers will be killed” is the State Duma. Teachers are their peers. The deputies sit there and think, “Why should we release these peo­ple?” And the stu­dents are their chil­dren. The author­i­ties, deputies, min­is­ters, gen­er­als have chil­dren. You can’t tell every­one from the mobi­liza­tion; it’s eas­i­er to tell all the students.

I think it’s a pure­ly emo­tion­al thing. But do we expect them to make ratio­nal decisions?

T-i: Your whole life is close­ly con­nect­ed with Russia’s best high­er edu­ca­tion in math­e­mat­ics and com­put­er sci­ence. What can you say about the state of the MSU Department of Mechanics and Mathematics (mech­math), the Higher School of Economics, and the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science at St. Petersburg State University after a year of war?

EB: It is dif­fi­cult to assess the final pic­ture, because no one adver­tis­es the sta­tis­tics. Let’s start with the mech­math. There were about 17 peo­ple in my depart­ment of high­er alge­bra. During the covid, almost all the pro­fes­sors over 80 years old died. That was the first loss. And as soon as the war began, sev­er­al more left imme­di­ate­ly. Students from mech­math leave less than from oth­er depart­ments, there is a six-year spe­cial­ty, every­one is vir­tu­al­ly locked in, and if you are torn with­out a diplo­ma, it is a shame to start study­ing all over again. But I know that many of my stu­dents, who are about to grad­u­ate, are look­ing for grad­u­ate school abroad. At FCN at Vyshka, they say a lot of fac­ul­ty have left because FCN pro­fes­sors are excep­tion­al­ly com­pet­i­tive, they can just work as pro­gram­mers. At St. Petersburg State University the sit­u­a­tion is sim­i­lar with the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science, almost half of the teach­ing staff was lost there. Moreover, pro­grams and uni­ver­si­ties abroad are grad­u­al­ly open­ing up that are ready to take Russian teach­ers and stu­dents with instruc­tion in Russian. Paphos in Cyprus now takes 80 stu­dents from Russia, Bremen also takes 80 stu­dents from Russia. Russian stu­dents are also accept­ed by Harbour.Space. But this is a pro­gram for Olympiads, of which the largest per­cent­age leave.

T-i: What has Israel done?

EB: The uni­ver­si­ties in Be’er Sheva and Ariel opened bach­e­lor’s pro­grams in Russian, which Russian stu­dents can enroll in even with­out English cer­tifi­cates. And now the uni­ver­si­ty where I now work, Bar-Ilan, has also been open­ing a Russian-lan­guage pro­gram since September.

T-i: But edu­ca­tion in Israel has to be paid for…

EB: If the stu­dents are new repa­tri­ates, all the edu­ca­tion will be paid for by the Ministry of Absorption/​Sokhnut, and if there is no right to repa­tri­ate, then you have to find mon­ey from par­ents or edu­ca­tion­al foun­da­tions. The main thing is that you can be a Russian with­out Jewish roots and find not very large amounts of mon­ey for tuition. Moreover, one does not need to have doc­u­ments for pass­ing exams, which are required for ordi­nary Israeli school­child­ren to enter a uni­ver­si­ty. Instead they require a very uncom­pli­cat­ed test in Russian. I am now, as a math­e­mati­cian, respon­si­ble for mak­ing it up. Let’s say you have to cal­cu­late light deriv­a­tives, some com­bi­na­torics, trigonom­e­try, and pass a lit­tle inter­view. Then in the first year, the stu­dents learn physics and math­e­mat­ics in Russian and are giv­en a par­al­lel Hebrew course. And from the sec­ond year, they already go to the sec­ond year with the reg­u­lar Bar-Ilan stu­dents in Hebrew for physics, or for math­e­mat­ics, or for a joint physics and math­e­mat­ics pro­gram, as they wish. Our pro­gram was formed in a few weeks, we did­n’t even have time to run an adver­tis­ing cam­paign, and we received 70 appli­ca­tions from stu­dents right away. The Ministry of Absorption was even will­ing to pay for 200 students.

Here, then, is an exam­ple of a rapid response to the flight of stu­dents from Russia. So oth­er coun­tries are grad­u­al­ly begin­ning to offer con­ve­nient options for tak­ing Russian youth out of the country.

T-i: In a recent inter­view with Forbes, Alexander Auzan, a col­league of yours from Moscow State University and Dean of the Faculty of Economics, assessed the biggest eco­nom­ic loss­es of this year as loss­es in human cap­i­tal, since these are the most dif­fi­cult to repro­duce. Specifically, he says: «I am the pro­duc­er of this human cap­i­tal. You ask me, ask me, how this can be eval­u­at­ed.» He esti­mates the repro­ducibil­i­ty of this year’s loss­es to be some­where between sev­en and ten years. Do you agree with him?

EB: Alexander Auzan is a very intel­li­gent man, and I could­n’t agree with him more. As for the exact fig­ures, a lot depends on the region. This may be true in the field of eco­nom­ics. In math­e­mat­ics, the pic­ture may be a lit­tle bet­ter. Mathematics is the least depen­dent on pol­i­tics, at least in a for­mal sense. I’m sure they won’t rewrite the course of math­e­mat­ics or alge­bra accord­ing to the course of the par­ty. And per­haps, like in Soviet times, tal­ent­ed peo­ple will go into math­e­mat­ics to hide from ide­ol­o­gy. It will be the same with pro­gram­ming, with physics. This is where I see the dif­fer­ence in rela­tion to the sit­u­a­tion with econ­o­mists. The sec­ond dif­fer­ence rel­a­tive to econ­o­mists is that math­e­mati­cians, physi­cists, chemists, pro­gram­mers are more com­pet­i­tive to leave than econ­o­mists from a coun­try with a spe­cif­ic eco­nom­ic sci­ence, if, of course, the bor­ders are opened. But even if the bor­ders are closed, math­e­mat­ics can secede, then still rejoin the world sci­ence — it is not wait­ing for such a trag­ic fate as eco­nom­ics and oth­er social sci­ences or human­i­ties. Although I read an arti­cle in your T-invari­ant just recent­ly about how math­e­mat­ics becomes provin­cial if a coun­try clos­es down. But it still would­n’t look as dra­mat­ic as it does with the social sciences.

T-i: Do they do math for ten years on Russian Island? Are you say­ing that the effect of Soviet math­e­mat­ics behind the Iron Curtain will be repeated?

EB: We will, and even more so with the Internet. I can’t imag­ine that math­e­mati­cians in Russia won’t know what their col­leagues abroad are doing. Another thing is that young math­e­mati­cians and physi­cists will leave faster and more often because of the com­pe­ti­tion, and in this sense I share Alexander Auzan’s pes­simism about high­ly qual­i­fied spe­cial­ists in gen­er­al. I see math­e­mati­cians leav­ing, for exam­ple, for Israel. This depar­ture is more mas­sive than in the oth­er sci­ences because math­e­mat­ics is the same all over the world. There are few­er math­e­mati­cians phys­i­cal­ly, the com­mu­ni­ty is tighter, the human bonds are stronger.

There is such a thing as a «Russian math­e­mat­i­cal mafia»; it is more vis­i­ble and influ­en­tial than in the oth­er sci­ences. And so it is all over the world, in the United States, in Europe.

I’m not even talk­ing about Israel. In Israel it seems to me that every sec­ond pro­fes­sor of math­e­mat­ics is Russian-speak­ing. The first time I came to a meet­ing of the Department of Mathematics at Bar Ilan University, I thought, «I know this one, this one, and this one: they are Russian-speak­ing.» And then oth­er peo­ple began to turn around to me — these look like Israelis — and address me in Russian! And it turned out that almost half of my col­leagues speak Russian.


T-i: What do you see as the dif­fer­ence in the aca­d­e­m­ic Russian and Israeli environments?

EB: I have not been in Israel that long, and so far I can only draw on per­son­al expe­ri­ence. I am absolute­ly amazed by the envi­ron­ment, by the atmos­phere in the depart­ment of math­e­mat­ics at Bar Ilan: how friend­ly and ther­a­peu­tic it is, I would even say so.

T-i: Therapeutic?

EB: Absolutely ther­a­peu­tic. Everyone sup­ports each oth­er, includ­ing me, ask­ing, «What can I do for you? Do you want me to do this for you?» — «I prob­a­bly don’t need it yet.» «You do, you do! Let me do it for you.» People did feats for me that I had nev­er seen in my life at MSU. As a result, I now have warm rela­tions with col­leagues, not only Russian-speak­ing, faster than dur­ing my years at MSU. Although mech­math is my alma mater, and here I am only six months as a new employ­ee. The sec­ond char­ac­ter­is­tic that struck me is that here, when you meet col­leagues, the first thing they do is tell you how many chil­dren they have, what ages they are, what they do, show pho­tos, and expect the same response from you.

T-i: They share the most expen­sive things first?

EB: Yes, with each new acquain­tance, ten min­utes are still devot­ed to dis­cussing chil­dren. There is no such thing in Russia. I also real­ly like the cam­pus, qui­et, with lawns, with­out the impe­r­i­al sweep. Although I real­ly loved the MSU cam­pus and I still feel nos­tal­gic for it.

T-i: And if you com­pare the students?

EB: The stu­dents in Bar-Ilan sur­prised me just as much as the teach­ers. In Russia, every­one told me, «Well, of course, you won’t teach stu­dents like that any­more. There you will teach who knows who.» But so far all the stu­dents I have encoun­tered are just as smart as the Russian stu­dents, but much more out­go­ing than the aver­age math­e­mat­ics stu­dent in Russia.
In the fall, I led a spe­cial course for under­grad­u­ate and grad­u­ate stu­dents, among whom there is a clear­ly pos­i­tive selec­tion process in Israel, because no one escapes from the army with the help of grad­u­ate and post­grad­u­ate cours­es, as in Russia. And I had excep­tion­al­ly strong math­e­mati­cians, all the while being very socia­ble. I taught in English. For some of them it was their first course in English ever. But so was mine! We became friends, talked a lot, and some stu­dents start­ed help­ing me. One guy made me a dic­tio­nary of trans­la­tions of math terms from English into Hebrew. At the same time I also helped a lot of Ukrainian stu­dents, paid by the uni­ver­si­ty. These are the guys from the Ukrainian math Olympiad team, and with them anoth­er guy from Moscow, also an Olympiadnik. They are very fast thinkers, but lis­ten­ing to the cours­es in Hebrew is still dif­fi­cult for them, so I addi­tion­al­ly stud­ied with them in Russian. And in the spring I start­ed a course in math­e­mat­i­cal log­ic for dif­fer­ent ages, includ­ing bach­e­lors. And again I had good stu­dents, but they were socia­ble and open-mind­ed. So I’m not at all dis­ap­point­ed with the stu­dents so far.

T-i: I often hear that schools in Israel are bad, the aver­age lev­el of edu­ca­tion is low, and there is a ter­ri­ble lack of teach­ers. Do you under­stand where strong stu­dents come from? We know how it worked in Russia, where there is a strong tra­di­tion of math­e­mat­i­cal edu­ca­tion and selec­tion of capa­ble chil­dren. For more than sev­en­ty years, a sys­tem of cir­cles, Olympiads, and cor­re­spon­dence schools was formed there, in which strong chil­dren were drawn in dif­fer­ent ways. If a child in Russia has at least some abil­i­ty to math­e­mat­ics, he will be tak­en out of the vil­lage and brought, if not to Moscow State University, then to a good uni­ver­si­ty in Tomsk, Novosibirsk, St. Petersburg. Is there some­thing sim­i­lar in Israel?

EB: The first thing I found out is that schools actu­al­ly have a selec­tion process for math­e­mat­i­cal­ly tal­ent­ed chil­dren. In the sec­ond grade, chil­dren take a spe­cial test in the fall, after which those who pass the first round go to the sec­ond round in the spring. While the first round is in Hebrew, the sec­ond round is in Russian, French and English for those who haven’t lived in the coun­try for very long. Then after the spring round some per­cent­age of the best stu­dents are sent direct­ly to a sep­a­rate class in some cities. That’s how a math class is formed for the lit­tle ones. And in some cities that don’t have that class, they send them out once a week to take extra class­es. And as ear­ly as sixth grade, there’s still a repeat of this test. New kids can come in at that point. Also, almost every city has math class­es for high school stu­dents. My mas­ter’s stu­dents told me that they just went to the best math class­es in their city.

T-i: So the selec­tion sys­tem works, too?

EB: It may not be as stream­lined as in Russia, but it works. In high school they may say: «Oh, you’re so clever! You need to go along with high school to study for your first degree at uni­ver­si­ty.» There are spe­cial streams for high school stu­dents at uni­ver­si­ties, where stu­dents study after class­es, in the evenings, slow­ly into the stu­dent pro­gram. And the most tal­ent­ed ones get a full first bach­e­lor’s degree by the end of high school or by the end of their year of mil­i­tary deferment.

T-i: And go into the army?

EB: They may not. They still have the right to go to grad­u­ate school and only after that go to the army. Here I have two grad­u­ate stu­dents who have not been in the army yet, pre­cise­ly because they stud­ied under this sys­tem. I also know a col­league of mine, Sasha Tolesnikov, who runs a train­ing camp for the Israeli math Olympiad team: it does exist! By the way, he man­aged to get the Bar Ilan University to finance it and to bring chil­dren from Ukraine here. He trains 50 peo­ple all over Israel. Of course, this is not the Russian scale, but you have to remem­ber that the entire pop­u­la­tion of Israel is small­er than the pop­u­la­tion of Moscow.

T-i: So there are no prob­lems with math­e­mat­ics edu­ca­tion in Israel?

EB: Not real­ly. What’s the down­side of this sys­tem? That the selec­tion exists, but in order to get into it, the par­ent has to be per­sis­tent. The par­ent has to think about it, he has to keep it in his head and ask the teacher to send the child to tests and con­tests. For exam­ple, a par­ent comes in and says, «I want to enroll my child in this test.» And the teacher says, «What if it’s going to be stress­ful for him? What if he gets ter­ri­bly ner­vous? What if he cries from this test? Maybe don’t do it.» I’ve heard this more than once from peo­ple I know who have been told this by teach­ers. At the school where I sent my son, one of the best schools in Tel Aviv, the sit­u­a­tion was sim­i­lar. Everyone was qui­et­ly silent about this test, and I ran and asked: «Write it down!» — Only after that did they write it down.

T-i: And how do you explain it?

EB: I have two ver­sions so far. One ver­sion is that this is how the gen­er­al Israeli ide­ol­o­gy works: if you want some­thing bad­ly, get it.

We won’t give you any­thing by default. We already know that a lot of things here are built on this prin­ci­ple. You can achieve a lot, but you have to bang on the wall a few times and find a hole in it.

And the sec­ond ver­sion is that this is how the idea of oppos­ing inequal­i­ty works, that «selec­tion,» «tal­ent,» is some­thing bad that leads to stratification.

T-i: Are you refer­ring to the social­ist tra­di­tion of Israel?

EB: Well, of course. For exam­ple, social­ist ten­den­cies are very strong in Tel Aviv; here, I’m told, they nev­er orga­nize spe­cial class­es. And oth­er cities that are less social­ist, on the con­trary, orga­nize spe­cial class­es. It all depends on the may­or’s office.

T-i: And what about teachers?

EB: Here I’m not opti­mistic at all. I like many things in Israel, in some respects I’m becom­ing a patri­ot, but the teach­ers ter­ri­fy me. In the 1990s, a mil­lion new immi­grants came from the for­mer Soviet Union. Among them were, as every­one knows, many doc­tors, teach­ers, engi­neers, sci­en­tists. Doctors raised med­i­cine in Israel, teach­ers raised edu­ca­tion. Thanks in large part to the repa­tri­ates from the USSR, Israel is a dif­fer­ent place. And Israelis know this very well. Ask any­one on the street: «Which math teach­ers are the best? - Of course the Russians!» But 30 years have passed and those teach­ers have retired. Nothing had grown in par­al­lel, noth­ing! That is, it would have been pos­si­ble at that point, while these won­der­ful teach­ers were work­ing, to orga­nize some kind of school to train new teach­ers for Israel. Nothing happened!

T-i: There was no trans­mis­sion of tra­di­tion, cul­ture, methods?

EB: Yes, the sys­tem has not learned to repro­duce itself. In addi­tion, Israeli teach­ers have quite low salaries, they are con­stant­ly on strike, and there is a huge short­age of teach­ers across the coun­try. There are just phys­i­cal­ly few of them, even the weak ones. It’s get­ting to the point where a math teacher can put a YouTube video on the kids and leave. I can even see it in my son’s edu­ca­tion, and he’s only in sec­ond grade and in a pret­ty good school.

T-i: With your HR expe­ri­ence, how do you see the solu­tion to this problem?

EB: I think we should take advan­tage of the fact that good pro­fes­sion­als are leav­ing Russia and Belarus again. We need to restore the ped­a­gog­i­cal bal­ance at their expense and cre­ate a sys­tem of staff repro­duc­tion. We need a spe­cial teacher train­ing pro­gramme for this. This is why I start­ed work­ing on it. I met with rep­re­sen­ta­tives of var­i­ous branch­es of pow­er and heard the answer: «Yes, yes, we want it our­selves.» If you can find a thou­sand Russian-speak­ing teach­ers who are will­ing to be teach­ers in Israel, it will raise Israeli schools. It’s fun­ny to me to hear that: a thou­sand? Only a thou­sand? If you were talk­ing about a thou­sand in Russia, then…

T-i: No one would notice at all. A thou­sand — this is sent to the con­fer­ence from Krasnoyarsk region, for example.

EB: Of course, but a thou­sand is a lot. And what I did for the exper­i­ment was this: we post­ed a ques­tion­naire, and we dis­trib­uted it on Facebook on our page, there, in sev­er­al chats, that is, with­out any major adver­tis­ing. With the ques­tion, «If you’re a teacher and you want to be a teacher in Israel, here we’re think­ing about a pro­gram to help you inte­grate into one. Tell us about your­self, tell us what you need.»

T-i: And what did you get?

EB: We got 300 appli­cants in a few days. Of those who filled out the ques­tion­naire, two-thirds already live in Israel: in the last year they moved. And a third are mov­ing in the next few months. That is, they don’t need help with the doc­u­ments: they have already decid­ed every­thing them­selves. What are they ask­ing for? All ask for help with Hebrew stud­ies, adding a spe­cif­ic Hebrew course specif­i­cal­ly for their sub­jects. All are ask­ing for help with obtain­ing a teacher’s license and proof of senior­i­ty. And the third thing they ask is for the com­mu­ni­ty to help with employ­ment. That is to gath­er, in fact, inter­est­ed school prin­ci­pals. I think all of this can be implemented.

T-i: What do you think of the expan­sion of ide­ol­o­gy into Russian schools and uni­ver­si­ties? It began even before the war in recent years. But with the out­break of war there were orders, decrees of the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Science and Higher Education, which are designed to acquaint stu­dents with the «par­ty line.» Will it work or won’t it work?

EB: The answer is known. I came to school in 1983. On September 1 I had a book in front of me about a curly-haired Lenin, whom I was absolute­ly in love with, because that’s how he was described to me. And how he used to make an inkwell out of bread crumbs, and how he mend­ed felt boots in exile - how beau­ti­ful it was! He seemed like an ide­al man to me. I dreamed of becom­ing an octo­ge­nar­i­an, then a pio­neer girl. I was even in charge of polit­i­cal infor­ma­tion in class. One day I came home with my jack­et open (even though it was cold) so every­one could see my Pioneer tie, so proud that I lived in the USSR, that we had Lenin, that we were head­ing toward com­mu­nism. Now every­one says that in the 1980s no one took ide­ol­o­gy seri­ous­ly. Yes, adults did­n’t, but I was sev­en, eight, nine years old. I came home, sport­ing a tie, my dad looked at me and said: «Okay, it’s time to take care of you.» Pulled the books off the first shelf, pulled out what was hid­den behind them, and said: «Go read it, and then we’ll talk.»

T-i: What was on that short list of for­bid­den literature?

EB: It was «The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Soldier Ivan Chonkin» by Voinovich, «The Steep Route» by Yevgenia Ginzburg, and the third book, I think, «The Gulag Archipelago», but I could­n’t fin­ish it and was for­giv­en: too heavy a read for a nine-year-old. At that point, Dad just could­n’t take it any­more: «I can’t see you act­ing anymore!»

But not every­one had dads with samiz­dat, after all. So my per­son­al expe­ri­ence is that, yes, the inva­sion of ide­ol­o­gy in schools is bound to have an effect, can’t help but have an effect!

Everything works on a child. It worked even in the crum­bling 1980s, when not a sin­gle adult took it seri­ous­ly - every­one laughed, they just told jokes.
And chil­dren believed it, because it was nat­ur­al for chil­dren. That’s how a child adapts to the envi­ron­ment, to real­i­ty, to the school where he is most of the time. I don’t think the author­i­ties hope to get 100 per­cent con­vinced chil­dren. Eighty per­cent is enough for them.

And in vain some par­ents in Russia now think, «Well, this is all ridicu­lous, you can think that my child is built in kinder­garten and at school with a let­ter Z. None of us take it seri­ous­ly». No, then you can get some­thing very unex­pect­ed from your child.

T-i: Scientists in Russia are now in a stale­mate. On the one hand, if they keep qui­et about their anti-war stance, they are seen as col­lab­o­ra­tors of the regime. On the oth­er hand, to speak open­ly against the war means going to jail or los­ing your job. On the oth­er hand, it is now vir­tu­al­ly impos­si­ble for sci­en­tists to leave Russia, since they are not giv­en work visas. At the same time, active Ukrainian sci­en­tists are call­ing on the sci­en­tif­ic world to boy­cott their Russian col­leagues. In Israel, acad­e­mia behaves very dif­fer­ent­ly. Here there are no restric­tions or bans on the state, cor­po­rate, or per­son­al lev­el for Russians. Can you under­stand why?

EB: More than once I have heard from Israelis the phrase: «We do not orga­nize boy­cotts, because we know what a boy­cott is.» Many of them have expe­ri­enced it first­hand, and now Israelis try not to par­tic­i­pate in boy­cotts. But there is anoth­er rea­son, which can be seen in the case of math­e­mati­cians and physi­cists. As I said, there are many sci­en­tists in Israel who left the post-Soviet republics in the 1990s and ear­ly 2000s, who have not lost touch with their col­leagues, and who have influ­ence over uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­tra­tions here. So, they always try to explain the real sit­u­a­tion to their Israeli col­leagues. They say, «Well, imag­ine this: there is a young math­e­mati­cian. He has nowhere to go, even though he real­ly con­demns the war. If he speaks open­ly, he will be jailed. So he sits qui­et­ly, writes arti­cles, and teach­es stu­dents. Is it right to con­demn him? I think not.»

T-i: The posi­tion of Ukrainian sci­en­tists is that if this math­e­mati­cian teach­es stu­dents well, then his stu­dents will do just as well in the mil­i­tary sec­tor. And, the bet­ter teach­ers do their job, the worse it is for the world as a whole.

EB: The log­ic of our Ukrainian col­leagues is under­stand­able, and it is the log­ic that keeps bug­ging me. And it applies not only to sci­ence, but also to Central Bank pol­i­cy and new tech­nolo­gies. They seem to car­ry out con­struc­tive work, but in fact it leads to all sorts of things. But in the case of sci­en­tists, as they say, there are nuances. For exam­ple, let’s imag­ine a man who teach­es math to stu­dents and gets them into grad­u­ate school abroad. And thank good­ness for that. And when we say: let’s boy­cott every­one who has­n’t gone, it sounds not only unfair, but unrea­son­able. Because those who haven’t left can often be more eth­i­cal­ly hon­est than those who hap­pen to leave and get a good posi­tion. This is espe­cial­ly true for those who are at or near retire­ment age. They are the ones I’m most wor­ried about, here they are, prac­ti­cal­ly trapped. They cer­tain­ly have nowhere to go. In Europe, in Israel, the leg­is­la­tion is quite strict in this sense, mean­ing that the retire­ment age is real­ly a retire­ment age. And peo­ple have almost no chance of find­ing a job there. And in Russia, they can still stay in the profession.

T-i: Many spe­cial­ists from dif­fer­ent fields who left Russia after the war had a seri­ous cri­sis of pur­pose. What they had been build­ing all their lives col­lapsed in one day. Did you have a cri­sis of pur­pose? And what are your new goals, if Yandex and Moscow State University are in the past?

EB: Of course, I had a cri­sis of dif­fer­ent waves and dif­fer­ent com­plex­i­ties. It was ter­ri­bly mis­er­able to give up every­thing that had been done. There was self-pity. Then you think, «Well, what am I feel­ing sor­ry for myself? People are being killed, peo­ple’s homes are being bombed, their chil­dren are being killed. You are safe, your loved ones are healthy, you have a place to live and some­thing to live on. Why feel sor­ry for yourself?»

T-i: Did it help?

EB: To be hon­est, not for long. Then you start think­ing, «Wasn’t every­thing you were doing evil?» You start going over spe­cif­ic things in your mind: what if this is now being used in ways you nev­er imag­ined? What if we cre­at­ed the «Yandex tuto­r­i­al,» and the author­i­ties take it away and shove their ide­ol­o­gy in it? Then I feel despair.

T-i: How do you save yourself?

EB: I force myself to zero in and start build­ing anew. I for­bid myself to com­pare my present life with my past life, not only with the scale of tasks, but with the lev­el of life, wel­fare, lev­el of respect - I could list many things… And then — math saved me! While work­ing as a top man­ag­er at Yandex, I suf­fered ter­ri­bly from a lack of time and ener­gy to do nor­mal sci­ence. In those years I wrote one sim­ple arti­cle a year. And after I left, I had time for sci­ence, but I returned to it through pain, with great dif­fi­cul­ty enter­ing the state where you think all the time on the task.

T-i: What did you have to do to your­self to become a sci­en­tist again?

EB: I had to regain my lev­el of think­ing from twelve years ago. Although at my age, that’s not so easy to do any­more. And so last sum­mer, about five months after I left, I got so over­whelmed, I tried to turn myself around and felt my brain fid­dling. And then some­how mag­i­cal­ly it all came togeth­er, and I was back to the lev­el of think­ing sci­ence I had before. I’ve already writ­ten sev­er­al good arti­cles and con­tin­ue to do so. I’m hav­ing such a great time!

T-i: How long does it take you to immerse your­self in your task and start think­ing from where you left off?

EB: It depends on how long ago you got out of it. If you got out yes­ter­day, you don’t need any­thing. If came out a week ago, like an hour is need­ed. If I got out a month ago, you need a few hours, and so on. But I try not to get out of task think­ing for long peri­ods of time. And my new col­leagues help me a lot in this. Professor Eugene Plotkin, who played a big role in get­ting me a job at Bar-Ilan University, does­n’t let me stop think­ing about math­e­mat­ics. He calls and says, «Okay, we have a prob­lem to dis­cuss.» And so I walk an hour to work and think… In my new life, it’s been a life­saver for me.

T-i: Do you keep in touch with any of your Russian students?

EB: Of course. Some stu­dents have gone to oth­er pro­fes­sors, and some infor­mal­ly stayed with me.

T-i: What do you mean «infor­mal­ly»?

EB: Officially I can’t be their aca­d­e­m­ic advi­sor any­more, but I can be like a sec­ond infor­mal advi­sor. So we stay togeth­er: me, the stu­dents, and the math­e­mat­ics. No one can take that away from us!

Questions were asked by OLGA ORLOVA

,   17.04.2023