Russia past and present, from a historian in Cambridge
Post-Soviet mathematicians have the world in their hands, and they know all about you. Sergei Brin was born in Moscow in 1973. Six years later, he migrated with his family to the United States. He followed a family tradition by studying maths. Barely grown up, he co-founded Google.
Soviet maths doesn’t need such an extraordinary outlier, who anyway went to school in America, to prove its significance. No academic subject is better suited to the robust and carefully evolving pedagogics of Russian schools. In the Soviet Union, where the demands of central planning and the arms race were so powerful, maths was a state priority. It was celebrated in school-age Olympiad competitions and children’s magazines, feted in slogans and movies. High-level nuclear workers — not university types — were just one post-school group who received an effective grounding in mathematics. Entrance to maths courses at universities and technical institutes was bitterly competitive. In time, computer science would not be far behind.
From the 1950s, cybernetics developed as a serious academic discipline thanks to leading computer scientists such as Andrei Petrovich Yershov. Although it was fenced off from many developments abroad, the men and women who worked in the field were often brilliant. Their education was highly systematic and their research networks well structured, in places such as Akademgorodok (in Siberia), Kiev, and Tblisi, as well as in Moscow and Leningrad. In the middle 1970s, for example, Soviet computer scientists established mathematical models for analysing the structure of the earth’s crust, as well as numerous geological formations. They conducted pioneering meteorological investigations into climate change, including — in the 1960s — into the greenhouse effect.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, the products of this academic system began to see the possibility of a more normal life abroad. The conveyor belt has kept moving over the last twenty-five years. University mathematics and physics departments in many parts of Western Europe and the United States could scarcely function without Russian imports. Russian computer programmers are globally ubiquitous. They are the analytical backbone of many a bank and investment house.
In his book about the (mathematically brilliant) high frequency traders who did so much to cause the financial disaster of 2008, Michael Lewis points out that many such traders were Russians. He tells the story of one of them, Constantine Sokoloff. For Sokoloff, Russians were so prominent in the high-frequency field because, back in the USSR, one needed ingenuity, flexibility, quick thinking and a brass neck to flourish in an economy of shortages and bureaucratic obstruction. Allied to fluency in high-level maths, such qualities ideally suited them to make money for their bosses out of the tiny flaws in the computer systems that run Wall Street.
But the intended consequences of the Soviet economy might have contributed to mathematical excellence in another way too. ‘At a time of Soviet shortages,’ opined one mathematician of Russian heritage to me, ‘pure mathematics was a good choice. To do it well, you only need paper and a pencil.’ As the global financial system, barely reformed and supremely dominant, creaks on, Soviet mathematics might yet wreak a terrible revenge.