Igor Efimov: “It will take decades to restore Russian science after Putin…”

Igor Efimov, pro­fes­sor of bio­med­ical engi­neer­ing and med­i­cine, has been involved in heart treat­ment almost all his life, has lived in the USA for more than 30 years and was the first pres­i­dent of the RASA Association. In the last year and a half, the orga­ni­za­tion has acquired a new, even more impor­tant mis­sion - help­ing sci­en­tists from Ukraine and Russia. How Russian-speak­ing sci­en­tists work in America today dur­ing the war in Ukraine, why it is impor­tant main­tain con­tact with col­leagues from the coun­tries of the for­mer USSR; what awaits Russian sci­ence after Putin? We talked about these and oth­er top­ics with Igor Efimov, pro­fes­sor of bio­med­ical engi­neer­ing and med­i­cine at Northwestern University in Chicago. 


Igor Efimov was born in Zheleznogorsk, Krasnoyarsk Territory. In 1986 he grad­u­at­ed from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology. After grad­u­at­ing from MIPT, he worked at the Institute of Biophysics of the USSR Academy of Sciences and defend­ed his PhD the­sis on car­diac bio­physics at MIPT. In 1992, he moved to the USA with his family. 

He began his career in America at the University of Pittsburgh. Then he worked at the Cleveland Clinic, as well as at the uni­ver­si­ties of Cleveland, St. Louis, and Washington (DC). Professor Efimov is a mem­ber of the National Academy of Inventors and the American Institute of Medicine, an hon­orary mem­ber of sev­er­al sci­en­tif­ic asso­ci­a­tions. He is also the edi­tor-in-chief of the Journal of Cardiovascular Engineering and Technology. 

Dr. Efimov has found­ed sev­er­al com­pa­nies, includ­ing Cardialen (2008) to devel­op low-ener­gy implantable elec­trother­a­py for the treat­ment of car­diac arrhyth­mias and NuSera Biosystems (2020) to devel­op soft wear­able and implantable elec­tron­ic devices. Now Igor Efimov works as a pro­fes­sor of bio­med­ical engi­neer­ing and med­i­cine at Northwestern University in Chicago.

T-invari­ant: Igor, the 14th sci­en­tif­ic con­fer­ence for Russian-speak­ing sci­en­tists, orga­nized by RASA. But you were its first president? 

Igor Efimov: Yes, I was the first pres­i­dent of this orga­ni­za­tion. Then I laid down therules that we do not have a sec­ond pres­i­den­tial term. That is, the pres­i­dent is elect­ed for two years, and there have been no cas­es of any­one stay­ing longer than two years. And this is very impor­tant, because I know exam­ples of oth­er orga­ni­za­tions, I will not point a fin­ger, where, unfor­tu­nate­ly, there was irre­mov­abil­i­ty of lead­er­ship. Simply, irre­mov­abil­i­ty leads, in gen­er­al, to stag­na­tion, and orga­ni­za­tions actu­al­ly die. It is unac­cept­able. Fortunately, I real­ized this quite ear­ly in my career, and we see how the orga­ni­za­tion has exist­ed prac­ti­cal­ly for 15 years and lives, despite the most dif­fi­cult times.

 At the RASA con­fer­ence in Chicago in October 2023. Photo: Denis Cheredov

T-invari­ant: My next ques­tion is about dif­fi­cult times. Would you like to see a lot more Russian-speak­ing sci­en­tists at the con­fer­ence today? Is not it? 

IE: Many par­tic­i­pants whom we invit­ed in pre­vi­ous years said that with every­thing where the word “Russian” appears, they don’t want to have any­thing gen­er­al. In gen­er­al, there were such sen­ti­ments, unfor­tu­nate­ly. And, in par­tic­u­lar, and for this rea­son, we had few­er par­tic­i­pants reg­is­tered than usu­al, in my opin­ion, 80 peo­ple, if I remem­ber correctly. 

T-i: Now we are talk­ing with­in the walls of Northwestern University in Chicago, where you work. And here, after Russia’s inva­sion of Ukraine, did you feel that they were some­how wary of Russians? 

IE: I don’t feel any­thing at all. The only thing is, on a per­son­al lev­el, some peo­ple would not want to be direct­ly asso­ci­at­ed with the word “Russian”, espe­cial­ly if they are not from Russia by ori­gin. But from the point of view of the uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­tra­tion, from the point of view of rela­tion­ships with oth­er peo­ple, pro­fes­sors, stu­dents - no, I don’t feel any­thing like that.

There is a fair­ly long his­to­ry of ties with Russia. I men­tioned this a lit­tle at the open­ing of the con­fer­ence. Here, for exam­ple, from 1930 to 1952, one of our great chemists, Vladimir Nikolaevich Ipatiev, lived and worked. He made enor­mous con­tri­bu­tions to the devel­op­ment of chem­istry, poly­mer chem­istry, high tem­per­a­ture chem­istry and catal­y­sis. And he was also one of the main devel­op­ers of mod­ern meth­ods of oil refin­ing and gaso­line pro­duc­tion, in ness. He lived here in Chicago, lit­er­al­ly two blocks from here. By the way, I just bought an apart­ment in a house that stands on the very spot where Ipatiev once lived. And, in gen­er­al, at our uni­ver­si­ty there is a lab­o­ra­to­ry named after Ipatiev, there is an endow­ment for a pro­fes­sor named after Ipatiev, and there is the pres­ti­gious Ipatiev Medal of the American Chemical Society. That is, in prin­ci­ple, all these tra­di­tions exist. 

T-i: I con­grat­u­late you on your new home, and with such a story!

IE: This is our fourth house in the USA. I have moved sev­er­al times dur­ing my career, because often some­one offered me inter­est­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties, and I some­times agreed. That is, I moved, I lived in five dif­fer­ent cities, worked at dif­fer­ent uni­ver­si­ties. And every time you come to new oppor­tu­ni­ties, you nat­u­ral­ly buy a new house, and sell the old one. So I sold a house in Arlington near Washington and bought it here now.

T-i: Let’s go back to the con­fer­ence. What, in your opin­ion, is its main feature? 

IE: I real­ly liked what Elena Shevchenko said (chem­i­cal sci­en­tist, works at Argonne National Laboratory - edi­tor’s note). At the begin­ning of her report, she said that this con­fer­ence opened her eyes and she became con­vinced that there are much larg­er sci­en­tif­ic and tech­no­log­i­cal spaces in which one can live and per­ceive new ideas. Because usu­al­ly in a tra­di­tion­al sci­en­tif­ic career we are focused only on our field of science. 

We con­stant­ly go to con­fer­ences, but they are all only in our region. A lit­tle to the side and we don’t under­stand any­thing: the lan­guage is com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent. We do not have an under­stand­ing of the sci­en­tif­ic lit­er­a­ture of oth­er fields. And in this regard, this kind of con­fer­ence is unique; it pro­vides an oppor­tu­ni­ty to look at a very wide range of the uni­verse of knowl­edge. We saw dif­fer­ent reports here: from Tolstoy’s lit­er­a­ture to chem­istry and high-ener­gy physics. This is very impor­tant because it expands intel­lec­tu­al hori­zons. You begin to under­stand that sci­en­tif­ic thought is much broad­er than our pro­fes­sion­al field. 

And this is one aspect. And the sec­ond aspect is actu­al­ly how it is passed down from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion. That is, nat­u­ral­ly, as I already said, turnover is the only way to sur­vive. When we live, we are immor­tal, so a change of gen­er­a­tions is need­ed. And in sci­ence this is espe­cial­ly impor­tant, and in such sci­en­tif­ic orga­ni­za­tions it is espe­cial­ly impor­tant. We have been very lucky this year. The young sci­en­tist Eric Rytkin (works in the lab­o­ra­to­ry of Igor Efimov at Northwestern University in Chicago - edi­tor’s note) made a great con­tri­bu­tion to the orga­ni­za­tion of the RASA con­fer­ence. In gen­er­al, in fact, almost all the reports were at a very high lev­el. Fortunately, almost all the reports are under­stand­able to me, because I am a physi­cist by train­ing and stud­ied high-ener­gy physics. Now I’m doing bio­med­i­cine, so I under­stand this too. I under­stand spec­troscopy and a lit­tle chem­istry, and am also inter­est­ed in lit­er­a­ture and his­to­ry, includ­ing even writ­ing his­tor­i­cal arti­cles. Therefore, in prin­ci­ple, the entire spec­trum was very inter­est­ing. We, the orga­niz­ers, asked the speak­ers to speak in a lan­guage under­stand­able beyond their spe­cial­ty. They, in prin­ci­ple, tried to do this. 

T-i: You have a very clear posi­tion on the war: you con­demn Russia’s full-scale inva­sion of Ukraine. How do you live here with such a position?

IE: The first thing I will say: my wife is Ukrainian, she is from Poltava, there­forethere are no ques­tions here. And when the war began, nat­u­ral­ly, I prac­ti­cal­lyinter­rupt­ed all con­tacts with Russia, although before that we had some joint ones. “font-weight: 400;”>projects, for exam­ple, on human phys­i­ol­o­gy. All this end­ed because of the war against Ukraine. 

Moreover, what hap­pened in Israel now is absolute­ly ter­ri­ble. We also have rel­a­tives and friends in Israel. We recent­ly trav­eled to Israel. And now I’m cor­re­spond­ing with all these friends and rel­a­tives, and it’s just creepy what’s hap­pen­ing, because all these friends are most­ly younger than me, they have small chil­dren, some live right where all these events are hap­pen­ing! One of my good friends told me that sev­er­al stu­dents from her uni­ver­si­ty died, all of them were young… they were killed at this music fes­ti­val. So it’s very personal. 

Naturally, now I am help­ing, includ­ing Ukraine. That is, I gave mon­ey to the Armed Forces of Ukraine, I gave mon­ey to help peo­ple. We have friends and rel­a­tives from Ukraine who, in fact, were involved in human­i­tar­i­an aid in the ear­ly stages, when gov­ern­ment assis­tance from the United States and Europe was not yet very devel­oped. That is, we sent human­i­tar­i­an aid by plane: paid for var­i­ous equip­ment, prod­ucts, and basic necessities.

T-i: And before the war, you often vis­it­ed Russia?

IE: Yes, of course. I went there reg­u­lar­ly, two or three times a year at least. I won’t go there now. It’s just that while this Putin is in pow­er, I have absolute­ly no inten­tion of going to Russia. Of course, my fam­i­ly remained there. I have a father and broth­er in Russia, but I per­son­al­ly have noth­ing mate­r­i­al there. I have no apart­ment, no job, no con­nec­tions oth­er than fam­i­ly. In this sense, it’s eas­i­er for me. But before, I was con­stant­ly invit­ed, and I hap­pi­ly went to give lec­tures on car­di­ol­o­gy at uni­ver­si­ties and at var­i­ous kinds of car­di­ol­o­gy con­fer­ences. There were many such con­fer­ences in Russia, gen­er­al­ly not of a bad lev­el, but now, nat­u­ral­ly, it’s all over.

T-i: Can you some­how harm your fam­i­ly with your position?

IE: < /​i>At first I had such fear, I actu­al­ly speak quite harsh­ly pub­licly and, more­over, I went to the social net­work VKontakte. In January of this year, I went there and began to active­ly speak out against the war, for the Armed Forces of Ukraine, and so on. At first, I was afraid that some­thing might hap­pen to my rel­a­tives for this.

T-i: Do you feel com­fort­able here in Chicago?

IE: There is a huge Russian-speak­ing com­mu­ni­ty here. And the largest Ukrainian-speak­ing com­mu­ni­ty in the United States. And here is also the largest Polish com­mu­ni­ty in the USA. Of course, maybe there are more Russians in New York, but still. Therefore, Chicago is a very multi­na­tion­al and mul­ti­lin­gual city. Today, if you go to the cen­ter, you will see protests there. Alexey Navalny has been in prison for 1000 days. And they speak out there almost every Saturday against the war in Ukraine and in defense of polit­i­cal pris­on­ers in Russia. We go there peri­od­i­cal­ly too.

Demonstration in Chicago. Photo: Denis Cheredov

T-i: We told you that after the start of the war, young sci­en­tists were the first to leave Russia. Are you sure to be inun­dat­ed with let­ters? Do peo­ple still want to leave Russia? 

IE: Yes! Moreover, before my eyes peo­ple arrive who were com­plete­ly suc­cess­ful by all cri­te­ria: doc­tors, sci­en­tists, they all, in gen­er­al, every­one I knew. Many left, many sim­ply aban­doned every­thing. People who have 20-30 years of expe­ri­ence, say, in car­di­ol­o­gy, who have saved prob­a­bly thou­sands of lives there, prac­tic­ing car­di­ol­o­gists, they are now here.

T-i: But the famous heart sur­geon Leo Bokeria did not leave…

IE: Bokeria did not leave. But his daugh­ter left long ago. He him­self has been retired for a long time, his daugh­ter has been here for a long time. She brought a lot of mon­ey here. She lives in Philadelphia, I think, if I’m not mis­tak­en. And some­where in Miami there is also some activ­i­ty. Many famous car­di­ol­o­gists in Russia left. 

T-i: Probably young sci­en­tists write espe­cial­ly often…

IE: They write, they write. But, unfor­tu­nate­ly, this is also dif­fi­cult, because not every­one has open posi­tions. That is, we try to help some­how, but this is not always pos­si­ble. And they also write from Ukraine, and we also help. But it’s not that simple.

T-i: What will hap­pen to Russian sci­ence? So much has been done and then there is war. Will it be pos­si­ble to restore something? 

IE: Look at Germany. When Hitler came to pow­er in 1933, he had only been in pow­er for 12 years. During this time, he com­plete­ly destroyed German sci­ence, which, by the way, had pre­vi­ous­ly been the best in the world, in con­trast to Russian sci­ence, which had nev­er been the best in the world. In 12 years it was pos­si­ble to com­plete­ly destroy this mag­nif­i­cent sci­ence. And there are state­ments by Nobel lau­re­ates of German ori­gin who pre­dict­ed that in just these 12 years the Nazis destroyed every­thing so much that it would take two gen­er­a­tions to bring sci­ence to at least some decent level. 

But Germany has not yet regained its lead­er­ship in sci­ence, no mat­ter how many years have passed since 1945. Now German sci­ence is of a good world lev­el, but it is far from what it was before the Nazis. Also in Russia, decades will pass after Putin; at least two gen­er­a­tions will be need­ed to reach the world lev­el in science. 

This will be a very long time, as shown the expe­ri­ence of Japan, Germany, and Italy, Spain and even Switzerland. How did they restore sci­ence? I found this decades after World War II. In all these coun­tries, in order to obtain a pro­fes­so­r­i­al posi­tion at a nation­al uni­ver­si­ty, for exam­ple, for a German to receive a German pro­fes­sor­ship, or for a Swiss or Japanese to become a pro­fes­sor in his home­land, he had to come to America for a post­doc posi­tion and live here for a cer­tain num­ber of years , pub­lish excel­lent arti­cles from an excel­lent lab­o­ra­to­ry, def­i­nite­ly from a lead­ing one. And then he was giv­en a chance to get a good uni­ver­si­ty posi­tion in his home­land. I per­son­al­ly know peo­ple who have gone through this. This was, of course, 30 years ago. Now this is no longer so rel­e­vant, but this is what all post-war recon­struc­tion activ­i­ties con­sist­ed of in these coun­tries. Because in Japan, and in Germany, and in Italy, sci­ence was destroyed. And, by the way, in Spain, Franco also destroyed almost every­thing. But now they have restored sci­ence, they are great. They are now expe­ri­enc­ing great growth in Spain.

T-i: How do you feel about the Russian sci­en­tists who still remain? 

IE: Well, it depends on what their posi­tion is regard­ing Putin’s war. There are sci­en­tists who remained there, and they have a clear pro-Putin posi­tion. I don’t talk to these peo­ple, I broke up with them pub­licly, and I will nev­er shake hands with them.

T-i: Can you name an exam­ple? Have you lost, maybe even friends?

IE: Well, crys­tal­lo­g­ra­ph­er chemist Artem Oganov is one exam­ple. He returned to Russia after the occu­pa­tion of Crimea, we main­tained con­tacts, we were not friends, but we main­tained con­tacts. He is a good sci­en­tist, noth­ing can be said here. But now he clear­ly takes a pro-Putin posi­tion, and prac­ti­cal­ly no one from our asso­ci­a­tion com­mu­ni­cates with him any­more. Fortunately, there are only a few of these in the sci­en­tif­ic community. 

Conclusion: Northwestern University pro­fes­sor and Russian aca­d­e­mi­cian Vladimir Nikolaevich Ipatiev refused to return to the USSR after numer­ous requests, per­sua­sion and threats from the USSR Academy of Sciences and the Soviet ambas­sador to USA Troyanovsky. I read a descrip­tion of these events in the per­son­al archive of aca­d­e­mi­cian and Lieutenant General V.N. Ipatiev, locat­ed in the library of Northwestern University. For this, he and his friend and col­league chemist Chichibabin in 1936 were deprived of the title of full mem­bers of the Academy of Sciences, deprived of USSR cit­i­zen­ship, and received a life­long ban on com­ing to their home­land. Ipatiev and his wife nev­er saw their chil­dren and grand­chil­dren, who lived in the USSR and were forced to pub­licly renounce their father. But Ipatiev made a sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion to chem­istry and to the vic­to­ry over fas­cism, devel­op­ing the best avi­a­tion gaso­line of those years, on which the planes of all allies in the anti-Hitler coali­tion flew. 

Vladimir Ipatiev. Photo: House of Russian Abroad

How long Putin’s win­ter and blood­shed will last, no one knows. But the les­son of pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions of Russian sci­en­tists is before us. You need to do your sci­en­tif­ic work for the ben­e­fit of all human­i­ty, and it will con­tribute to improv­ing the lives of peo­ple and soci­eties of all coun­tries, includ­ing demo­c­ra­t­ic Russia and Ukraine, even through generations.

Text: Denis Cheredov


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