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Marquez in the USSR

[Several days after the death of Gabriel José de la Concordia García Márquez, the literary world has been offering up its memoirs of the great author. Here are Tatyana Pigareva’s recollections of Márquez’s visits to the USSR, loosely translated from the article on Colta.ru. Cross- posted in JOST A MON.]

Our university days – at the beginning of the 80s – coincided with the Latin American boom, and among our classmates in philology there was a joke: ‘Whom do you love more – Borges or Cortázar?’ which was answered with ‘Márquez!’ The names of the ‘Holy Trinity’ were interchangeable, but the author of One Hundred Years of Solitude occurred more often not in the question, but in the answer. His fascinating and dramatic novel, appearing in Russia in the magnificent translation by Valery Stolbov and Nina Butyrina, read like a poem in one breath. It became not just a bestseller but a byword for an entire generation, which, having lived an entire age with Macondo, was not much surprised when the Soviet imperium would be ‘swept off the face of the earth by a hurricane’ but not ‘erased from people’s memories.’

In 1990, in Moscow’s Pushkin Square, a McDonald’s opened, and above it shone the country’s first advertisement for Coca-Cola. Festively honouring the end of an era evoked in the politically incorrect memoirs of Márquez – ‘The USSR: 22,400,000 square kilometres without a single Coca-Cola advertisement’ – we gathered in a company of Márquezomaniacs, and went to the Friendship Park by the Rechny railway station. There in 1957, the thirty-year old Colombian, deputed to the International Festival of Youth and Students, had planted a tree. Our idea of spontaneous performance concluded in laying a bouquet of yellow flowers (Márquez’s favourite bloom) at that same tree. The flowers could equally have been a tribute to Cervantes – in those years, the only monument in Moscow to a foreign writer was in the same park – but, of course, One Hundred Years of Solitude had long been dubbed the ‘Don Quixote’ of the twentieth century. We made merry, tossing quotations at each other; someone claimed that this wide linden was just like the chestnut of Jose Arcadio Buendía; but at that moment from the neighbouring treetop flew out a flutter of brimstone butterflies. Yellow butterflies – a clear sign from the wise Gabo – we unanimously decided to name this that same tree. On the way to the metro, someone cried out, ‘Look at the puddles – a goldfish is sure to emerge!’ The text of the ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ was firmly rooted in our lives: the golden fish would first evoke Aureliano Buendía and, only much later, Pushkin’s fairy tale.

The appearance of One Hundred Years of Solitude coincided with a major shift in Russian consciousness. The final days of the USSR were upon us: mirages of history were sprinkled with ‘fallen leaves’, life was stuck in an ill groove, and nobody wrote letters to anyone, not merely the Colonel. Everything appeared all too familiar: the non-existent trains with corpses; the sleeping sickness that destroyed memory; the commands to paint all housesin blue; generals and patriarchs. But gradually the storied parallels fell by the wayside, like a ‘transparent or ghostly’ town, and the mythic reality became paramount: an idealised model of reality where any ‘big village’ from Moscow to the suburbs could be equated with the universal village of Macondo, and any history found itself mirrored in the alembic of Melquíades.

In the middle of the 1980s, I was a guest at the translator Ella Braginskaya’s. Behind the glass door of a bookcase was a photograph: Ella and Márquez in an affectionate argument. Such surrealism! ‘Yes, this was at Vera Kuteishikova and Lev Ospovat’s, in 1979 – he was exhausted from our discussions about his artistic plans and asked how we cooked potatoes. So we began to argue about national cuisines. His eyes just lit up…’ Then Márquez explained to Ella that his entire family used to live on potatoes while he was writing One Hundred Years of Solitude, and when he wanted to send the manuscript to the publisher, he need 160 pesos, while he only had 80, and so he had to pawn a dryer and a mixer. His long-suffering wife Mercedes sighed: ‘All we needed was for the novel to sink…’ Amazing shots from this first literary visit of Márquez to the USSR survived with Yuri Greiding, an adviser on Latin American literature to the Writers’ Union. He had accompanied Márquez and family, and fortunately didn’t abandon his camera: there were pictures of the meeting at the airport, of Yevtushenko, of signings, of the Pushkin Museum, of dinners with Hispanists, of meetings at the journal ‘Latin America’. In this journal appeared the only non-pirated Soviet edition of Márquez – the writer had personally allowed Lyudmila Sinyanskaya to publish the translation of Chronicle of a Death Foretold.

The third – and final – visit of Márquez to the USSR in 1987 was to the Moscow Film Festival. He refused to travel in an entourage, but he was happy with a promised meeting with Gorbachev. Following their interview, Márquez’s verdict was: ‘You have never had a ruler of such intelligence, of such measure.’ Gorbachev’s calibre left a special trace in my own Márquezian history. At the Film Festival, I worked with the Spanish delegation; we were dining at the Rossiya hotel, and examining the slogan that proclaimed that Communism was Soviet power plus the electrification of the entire country, and adorned the thermal power station across. The producer, Enrique Gonzalez Macho, now the president of the Spanish Film Academy, waved his hand, and we were joined by his friend of a somewha t gloomy mien. I continued my story about the slogan’s mathematical operations, and of my dream of living under ‘electrification’: Communism minus Soviet rule, nothing could be better. The grim Spaniard laughed with everyone else, his eyes brightened, and he announced that he hadn’t seen a crazier hotel in his life, and if private enterprise were allowed in the USSR, he would establish a taxi service to transport guests through its corridors. He apologised, said he was tired and that he had an unbearably officious press-conference to attend, and said goodbye. The Spaniards began to talk about unfortunate films based on Márquez’s works, and that’s when I understood that it had been him. That was the chronicle of an appearance unforetold. I remembered Ella Braginskaya, and that potato.

2012 was a triple jubilee for Márquez: 85 years since his birth, 45 years since the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude, and 30 years since the Nobel Prize. In the Cervantes Institute, we decided to hold an exhibition of modern Russian artists on the themes of the novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. Honoured artists responded immediately, but the reaction of the younger ones, who had taken up the novel following our invitation, was surprising: ‘What a strange book… we couldn’t grasp it… tedious, exhausting.’ Was this a generational problem? The answer turned out to be simple and unhappy. Firstly, the classic translation of the novel was by Valery Stolbov and Nina Butyrina. They had worked for years on the complex text; all the items in their house had been named after the heroes of the novel: the armchair was Ursula, the massive sideboard was Aureliano Buendía; they had engaged with the characters and discussed them constantly, honing the rhythms and styles. That text sounded natural and poetic in Russian, and became the ‘real Márquez’ for several generations. In its early editions, there had been elisions of several sex scenes, but these were later reinstated. And then in 1997 the Rusiko publishing house printed a new translation by Margarita Bylinskaya with the surprising subtitle ‘A complete translation from the Spanish’.

The translator accompanied her publication with a series of articles in the press on the imperfections and sins of the previous translation, and also informed Márquez’s literary agent that the novel had been published earlier in an abridged Soviet translation, and that only now were its mistakes corrected. As a result, when the AST publishing house acquires the legal rights for the One Hundred Years of Solitude, the only version printed is that of Margarita Bylinskaya’s translation.

This is not the place for a detailed analysis of blunders and mistakes – these could happen to anyone. The tragedy mainly lies in the intonation and stylistic register. Recall the scene of the passing of Remedios the Beauty, who had inspired the love and caused the death of her beloved. Butyrina and Stolbov rendered it: The foreigners, who heard the noise in the dining room and hurried over to take away the corpse, noticed that his skin exuded the stunning aroma of Remedios the Beauty. Margarita Bylinskaya: The remaining uninvited guests, hearing the terrible noise, rushed out of the dining room, lifted the corpse and immediately realised how strongly it reeked of the breath of Remedios the Beauty. In the same translation, instead of ‘ants crawling on the body’ (original text), there appeared ‘flesh that bristled and burned’. In Márquez’s prose there is a poetic, musical nature; in it rings the voice of the narrator, archaic and fearless. And so the erotic texts, a particular standout in the ‘full translation’ of Bylinskaya had appeared in the original translation of Butyrina and Stolbov as a stylistic revelation for Russian literature. García Márquez himself had noted that he had always wanted the book to have a poetic rather than a narrative value. The Mozart of the Caribbean captivates the reader, and if this doesn’t happen, if the tonality of the speech is lost, then even One Hundred Years of Solitude can seem ‘tedious and exhausting’ reading. And so the novel should be sought not in bookstores, but only in libraries, in the old translation. Even though the AST publishing house has confirmed that the preprint of the ‘new old translation’ is ready and has shortly gone on sale.

A few years ago in Guatemala I stumbled across a lump of ice at a beach bar. It lay on the hot sand, shimmering in a cloud of vapour. There they were, ‘ants crawling on the skin’. ‘Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.’ There is no greater wonder. To the question posed in 1979 in the journal ‘Latin America’ – ‘What do you believe in: magic realism or the magic of literature?’, García Márquez had replied: ‘I believe in the magic of real life.’ May there be with everyone that inspired solitude, with the cockerels of Ursula, the goldfish of Aureliano, the aromas of Remedios and the parchments of Melquiades.

[Also see Yan Shenkman (April 21, 2014), ‘Márquez was inspired by the Soviet Union‘, Russia & India Report.]

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The House of Naked Writers

Sinayev-Bernstein’s friezes in an Arbat house, by Seva Kolosent.

This is an excellent example of eccentricity in Moscow, which is always good to show visitors to the capital: a house decorated with bas-reliefs of great Russian writers cavorting with various women. Conventional wisdom is that in pre-revolutionary times there was a brothel at this location, and that the bas-reliefs immortalise its VIP clients – Pushkin, Tolstoy, Gogol and others. In actual fact, this is a sculptural composition of Parnassus by Sinayev-Bernstein (‘ancient muses embracing great writers, artists, scientists, and so on’), which was to form a frieze in the Museum of Fine Arts in Volkhonka. The director of the museum refused the composition, and so Sinayev-Bernstein, in his grief, gave it to a certain Broido to decorate his private home in one of the lanes of Arbat. The frieze had to be chopped into parts so as to fit between the windows. To be fair, local historians do not believe 100% in this version of the story either, so you can make up what you will. The figures, unfortunately, are very fragile and soon there may not be much left to see.

Address: Plotnikov pereulok, Number 4/5.

[Translated from Bolshoi Gorod’s guide to Moscow.]

The Melnikov House

[THAT DELICIOUS MAGAZINE BOLSHOI GOROD HAS PRODUCED AN ONLINE GUIDE TO THE FINER-YET-LESS-KNOWN WALKS, SHOPS, CHURCHES AND RESTAURANTS OF MOSCOW. I TRANSLATED SOME OF ARTICLES I PARTICULARLY LIKED.]

Melnikov’s House, by Lidia Koloyarskaya. (2009).

In 1929, the architect Konstantin Melnikov constructed this detached house for his family: it was the most futuristic monument and the only private construction of the Soviet period in Moscow. The building is made of two vertical cylinders of varying heights and intersecting each other. From the positioning of the fifty-seven hexagonal windows, it is impossible to guess at the number of floors in the house: one cylinder has three storeys, the other two, and of course there is an open terrace on the roof.

Address: Krivoarbatsky pereulok, Number 10.

Need more? Check out this superb set of photographs by Igor Palmin of this avant-garde masterpiece.

You know, you really should go see this before it falls apart completely. A family feud and court cases mean that it is not being maintained, and is in danger of irreparable damage.

Vladimir Sarabyanov

[That fine magazine Bolshoi Gorod has frequent profiles of people who live in the big city of Moscow. The latest issue has an article on Vladimir Sarabyanov, a restorer and art critic. I have loosely translated it. The original text is by Elena Mukhametshina. Cross-posted at Art of the Russias.]

People of the Big City: Vladimir Sarabyanov

Restorer and art critic – on revealing XII century frescoes, footstools, the phenomenon of the sacred space, spasmodic state funding, and the tints of Titian.

On the specifics of working with Russian antiquities

A third of my life is spent in the studio, and two thirds on projects. We go on the road to restore monumental paintings in Novgorod, Pskov, Ladoga, Polotsk, Zvenigorod, Kirillov, the Trinity church of St Sergius. All of the ancient monumental paintings that we have in this country are religious, so we work mainly in churches. But there is far more: for example, in the Shulgan-Tash caves (the Kapova caves in Bashkortostan), there are a palaeolithic paintings from about fifteen or seventeen thousand years BC – scientists haven’t yet decided.

I love antiquity. The twelfth century is the dawn of Russian culture, and I have worked hard on it: the Yuriev monastery, St. Anthony monastery, St Nicholas cathedral in Novgorod, the St. George and Assumption churches in Ladoga. Mirozhsky monastery and Snetogorsky convent in Pskov – the latter, of course, is from the fourteenth century, but still a favourite. About seven years ago we began the restoration of the frescoes at the St. Euphrosine monastery in Polotsk, also dating from the twelfth century, which hopefully we will soon complete. This was incredible – it is an amazing monument, invisible, and we revealed it over a few years from under layers of oil paint. Such monuments are for me the most precious jewels in my work.

All the ancient churches of Russia, from the Kievan churches of the eleventh century to the seventeenth century churches at Yaroslavl and Kostroma – all of them were repainted. Between the seventeenth and the nineteenth centuries, they were never restored but merely renewed, with paint applied directly atop the ancient paintings. Sometimes they tried to correspond with the originals, and sometimes they didn’t bother. And sometimes the paintings would be broken up with a hammer, ‘to improve them, to beautify them’. The only exception is the Ferapontov monastery cathedral which has survived without renovations. Therefore, our restoration of monumental painting has some specificities unlike other countries of the world – we reveal art from under the works of later periods. This is quite specific to the Russian school of restoration. In Italy, for example, where there are large numbers of monumental fine art, it was very rare for artists of one period to overwrite another. It’s the same in Greece. In Byzantium, such stratification is rare. For us, though, it was common practice. Often there would be several layers. In Polotsk we revealed a twelfth century mural from under several layers of oils, in some places up to seven. Sometimes we soften the layers, exfoliate them, and where there are figurative elements, we transfer them onto a new foundation, while where it is just paint, we remove it. It is like a surgical operation.

On the sacred location

Stratification is a Russian cultural mentality. Nothing can be done about it. For example, the Annunciation cathedral in the Moscow Kremlin is the third cathedral of the Annunciation on that site. Where are the previous two? They were demolished because people wanted to do them even better. Well, if you want to do better, build it on a neighbouring site, as is done in any other European country. In some little French or Italian towns there are huge Romanesque-Gothic cathedrals that were built over periods of 200 or 300 years. In Russia, everything was done differently. They built, demolished after a hundred years, built again, and demolished a hundred years later, and rebuilt. And then they say ‘This is the Cathedral of the Assumption of the city of Kolomna from where the advance to Kulikovo field began…’ No, this is not that cathedral. This cathedral is from the 17th century. Of the cathedral from where Dmitri Donskoi went to war, not a stone remains. Intolerance to what someone has done before you lies deep in the Russian subconscious. If you want to do something, you have to somehow destroy all that was done by your ancestors. Why do all the nouveaux riches have to build their ugly towers necessarily in the centre of St. Petersburg or Moscow or another wonderful town? If you want to build a skyscraper, build it on a vacant lot. But they have to build it right where there already is something. In no civilisation is there a concept of a sacred location. ‘No, we have to build a church here.’ – ‘But why? There already is a chapel here.’ – ‘No, we must build it right here.’ – ‘Why?’ – ‘Well, now, it is a sacred spot.’ Sorry, this stinks of heathen practice, it’s not a sacred space. In Christianity, there is no concept of a ‘sacred location’, and yet we have it: we have a special Christianity, a special mentality, a special way about us. We are all special, with quirks.

Irrationality can reside within a person, but when it spills out into public life, and begins to determine the fate of the country, it becomes frightening. But I have an optimistic attitude to life. Firstly, no matter how bad it gets, we know that it could be worse. Secondly, we still believe for the most part in God, consciously or unconsciously, we live in hope. And this hope helps us, otherwise our country would long have ceased to exist. I am deeply convinced of this.

On training in restoration

I came into the profession in the mid-1970s, where you could hardly study the subject anywhere. There were no serious schools offering training in restoration, so I learned everything in the studio, and went to the evening courses at Moscow State University only later, once I had learned to work with my hands.

These days it’s better for restorers. There are strong departments at Stroganovka, Moscow Architectural Institute, Surikov academy; in St. Petersburg as well there are several schools. Firstly, the profession has come into demand. Secondly, towards the end of the 1970s and the early 1980s, it became clear that the restorers who formed the basis of our schools may have been great masters, but were for the most part, quite uneducated. When they were asked, ‘What kind of icon is this?’ they would hesitantly mutter, ‘From some time between the 16th and 18th centuries.’ It was a strange time: an eerie, inward-looking state, the rise of the Brezhnev era, absolute stagnation in all things, but somehow there sprang occasional shoots of hope. And one of these was the fact that the government’s attention was drawn to the serious lack of training in restoration.

On professional principles

Many people go into the profession out of a sense of idealism. In my studio there is a girl who has just graduated from the Stroganovka. She pursued a highly technical diploma for half a year at Polotsk, lived in a hostel for monastic novices and owned barely anything. And today she earns a very modest pay, because we ourselves, old men, are hardly paid. She could have gone into another ‘department’ of our organisation, where it is possible to earn 100-150 thousand every month – on demand, on expensive objects, where it is necessary to engage less in restoration than in renovation – to repaint or apply gilt. These days there are lots of such jobs in Moscow. But the girl didn’t go there. Out of six people in her course, four didn’t go into that line – they all work in my team.

The career of a restorer offers a wide choice. It is possible to get into the commercial, profitable way, where you needn’t work to the highest principles of restoration, but rather based on demand, working on everything that’s brought to you. But if you want to work with wonderful monuments and history, then step off the path of riches.

It is like with doctors: you can bleed your patients dry pretending to treat them, or you can actually cure them. The doctors call this the Hippocratic oath. Among restorers there are no oaths, but there are principles.

A specialist in monumental restoration needs hands, a head, eyes and a conscience. If any of these is lacking, the chain is broken. You can distinguish a good restorer from a poor one by the results. But the difference can be understood only by other specialists. The hoi polloi are far from this level of understanding.

Restoration – it is a way of life. It is better to ask my wife about this – she will eloquently keep silent on the subject. All my life I’ve spent either in the studio or on the road, on projects.

It is not necessary to equate restoration with the creative process. We do not create anything new; we concern ourselves only with the extension of life. The proper restorer thinks not of themselves, but of the object they hold in their hands.

Our team has a rigid principle – we restore antiquity, revealing it from under all the growths on top of it, and we present it to people in the way that it has been preserved. Not in the form that they want to see it – with little eyes and smiling mouths, little arms and legs; but rather in that authentic form that it has reached us from the past.

On stools and bureaucrats

It used to be that you would arrive in some Old Ladoga and you would be lodged literally in a hovel – no windows, no doors. And to begin work, you would have to make the doors yourself, glaze the windows, set up the electricity, build furniture from wooden boards. We used to go to Novgorod every year and we’d be settled in the empty chambers of the half-ruined Yuriev monastery. Floors were missing, the roof leaked, the windows had no panes – everything was smashed or burned. So we constructed beds and tables and stools and we lived there for about five months. We would return the following year, and again there was nothing around. Sometimes, it is true, we’d discover one of our stools in a neighbouring studio of some Novgorod artist who had taken it but wouldn’t admit to having done so. And we’d take it back from him in exchange for a bottle of port.

Recently, attitudes towards us and in general towards restoration have improved. That same Yuriev monastery where we long had a base for restoration and archaeology is now functional, in use.

The biggest obstacle today to the work of restoration is its financing. It is the most destructive force that puts a spoke in our wheels. Financing always appears at the last moment, because of which it is impossible to make plans for the year. It’s one thing if you restore an icon or a painting or a sculpture inside your studio. If you aren’t paid, you get up, go home and wait until they pay you. On the other hand, we have objects that are out on the street, exposed to the elements, interacting with the environment. You can work on them in summer, but not in winter. But this goes completely against the system of government funding. When it is warm – there is no funding. Maybe it is available where it is even warmer. But when it gets colder, the bureaucracy gathers in Moscow and begin to cluck: ‘Oh no, we really need to finish the project. Oh no, we did nothing for half the year.’ Or maybe they did something with the money – perhaps it provided for their presence in some warm clime. ‘Well, we got to do something. Let us hand out the money here and there.’ They do not consider that we would now have to work in subzero temperatures. But we need at least seven degrees Celsius for ordinary work in the interior of a church. Last year, for example, we worked on the southern facade of the Assumption cathedral in October, while the money for it had been granted at the beginning of the year. Sadly, this spasmodic regime of funding is the main problem today with the industry and, it appears, the whole country.

On Moscow art and Titian

In Moscow there are few ancient monuments. They are mainly concentrated in the Kremlin; there are some in the Novodevichy convent, the Trinity church at Nikitniki, and the Intercession church at Fili. All the restoration there was accomplished thirty or forty years ago, often done quickly, focused on some festivity or the other, such as the Olympics. Perhaps the only church that was restored according to scientific techniques is the Annunciation cathedral in the Kremlin. Three generations of restorers worked on it, the most recent contribution being our own.

Matters are not good at the Novodevichy convent – everything is covered with writing; it needs serious restoration. I would restore all the churches of the Kremlin too but this is not a pressing problem – the paintings there are in stable condition, not falling apart. They look somewhat unclear because the original is covered by the remains of overpainting and additions from previous restorations, but they can be handled in the future, there is no hurry. And anyway, these flaws are visible only to a professionally picky eye, like mine, for instance. I can scarcely enter a museum in peace because I see not art but its restoration. This is a professional defect in me. Everybody says, ‘Look, what a Titian!’ And I think, ‘Why does this Titian have such heinous tones? Who put them there? Tear off his hands.’

Olga Orlova and the Fields Medallists – Part III

The third meeting

Venue – Independent University of Moscow. November 2002.

There were three of us in the meeting with Laurent Lafforgue, with the interpreter Darya Sisoeva helping out.

OO: Monsieur Lafforgue, you are well-known as a patriot of French culture and language. You know several languages, including Russian, and have always defended the right of mathematicians to communicate in scientific circles in their native tongues. This position – is it the result of reflection, or a fruit of family upbringing?

LL: Since childhood, books have been the most important part of my life. From early on, I began to read not only French but also Russian literature. In fact, till I was about twenty years old, my main occupation was literature. I was also interested in history, which kindled in me an interest in other cultures. I didn’t plan on taking up mathematics as a career. I had a very good education, and I had a wide ranges of choices on what to do next. But I’m Parisian, and I wanted to remain in Paris, and so at the age of 19, I joined the École Normale Supérieure– the best school for mathematics and physics, completely unaware of my future career as a researcher. Only in the second year did I realise that I was attracted so much to mathematics. I began to read the works of Grothendieck – he is a French mathematician, and founder of algebraic geometry. That’s when I began my interest in algebraic geometry, because I found in it the sort of beauty that had always appealed to me in literature. I have always thought that in mathematics there’s a deep link to literature, just as with history. After all, mathematics is a collective endeavour. And if I count for something in mathematics, then surely I count for something in the historical process as well.

OO: Is there anyone you would like to share your success with?

LL: Certainly. There are people who supported me in my most difficult moments. In addition, having spent six years at University and in graduate school, when I was unable to write my thesis, I was admitted into a research group with some fellow investigators. Still, for two years I had no serious results to show. I was getting paid, but I just couldn’t complete my dissertation. This wasn’t the best time of my life. But the head of my group, Luc Illusie, not only believed in me but also took charge of my situation, and offered to change my supervisor. Now I understand that I just wasn’t interested in working on old themes. If you don’t like what you are doing, you can’t come up with any beauty in your work. Thus I got a new supervisor, Gerard Laumon, who then took charge of my fate.

He gave me a new topic, and things improved – I began to get good results. My supervisor, despite being a famous mathematician, took a lot of interest in me, uncaring of his own time. I owe him personally no less than I do professionally. And the next topic, the one for which I won the prize, was one he founded. But even here, things were not simple. I worked on the subject for six years, and as my research concluded and I began to present expository lectures on my work, I realised that I had somewhere along the line committed an error.

This was a deeply tragic moment in my work, because the error cast doubt on my entire research. I have to say that at that time not only my supervisor, but also all my colleagues at University understood the gravity of the situation that I found myself in, and all of them supported me. All of them.

OO: Are you from an academic family?

LL: My grandparents were uneducated, and my parents are physicists. I have two younger brothers, both of whom are mathematicians. One is a researcher, and the other a teacher.

OO: In earlier times, during the USSR, there were widely distributed scientific family dynasties. Following a career in science didn’t bring much by way of material gain, but much honour and respect. But in the last fifteen years, the situation has changed dramatically. How does a mathematician feel about himself in France? Is there a problem of ‘brain drain’ in your country?

LL: French scientists receive good money, albeit less than in the US, but overall they do lead good lives. Importantly, in France we have very strong mathematical schools and many famous universities. There isn’t much of a brain drain because the majority of French mathematicians want to work in their own country. Nor is there much unemployment because there are lots of places open to researchers. So we have not only Russian mathematicians visiting us, but also Americans. They are happy to lose monetarily because they are attracted by the high scientific level.

Undoubtedly, France has not been unaffected by the changes that have occurred throughout the world: the undervaluing of intellectual capability. Our youth prefers to entertain itself. They prefer sport or show-business, anything other than science. And that’s a pity. Young people do not want to occupy themselves with anything intellectual because there are no guarantees of any material fortune. But I have always sought beauty. In the beginning, in literature and poetry, then in history. I realised very late that in mathematics too there is an equal beauty. If you work in the fields of scientific discovery, this is always interesting. I felt this most keenly in the university when all around me were so many bright people, all of whom were inventing, discovering something new.

OO: In Russia, we have a joke: “An American university is where Russian instructors teach mathematics to Chinese students.” Don’t you think that in coming years, Russia might stop supplying mathematical brainpower, and the arena will be left open to that other scientific superpower, namely China?

LL: Of course, having been in Beijing, I am able to assess the level of state support for science. But I think such pessimistic forecasts are premature. In Russia, despite the poor funding for science, mathematics cannot really die out – after all, for seventy years, the Russian school has been the strongest. And other countries, too, won’t let Russian mathematics die out. For example, the Independent Mathematical Institute where we are now has been financed by the US.

OO: Our interview with Vladimir Voevodsky ended with his apocalyptic predictions about the future of mathematics in general as a fundamental science. In this regard, are you an optimist or a pessimist?

LL: As you prefer… Voevodsky is a representative of the American mathematical scholarship. That is a completely different world; true, they are paid a lot, but intellect in the US has never been particularly valued. My prognosis is more optimistic. Science with such a long history cannot die, and people will continue their researches. On my own part, I have two themes that will over the next thirty years interest a lot of people.

OO: Are you ready to return to this debate in thirty years?

LL: If we live that long.

[I translated loosely from Olga Orlova’s piece on Polit.Ru. It appears that in 2002, when she first wrote it up to link with the International Congress of Mathematicians at Beijing, the journal that had commissioned it, ‘New Model’, went out of business without publishing it. She and her editors decided that the content was still relevant in 2006, when the Perelman story was appearing in the world’s press in the run-up to the ICM in Madrid.]

Olga Orlova and the Fields Medallists – Part II

03/08/2010 1 comment

The second meeting

Venue – A Moscow Kitchen. October 2002.

Vladimir Voevodsky came to the interview not alone, announcing from the entrance that his prize should be shared with three people, of whom he couldn’t bring along the first and the third, but he had managed to snare the second.

VV: Let me introduce you: this is Yuri Shabat, Professor at the Moscow State University. If I make a mistake in something, he’ll correct me.

OO: And who is the first person?

VV: Well, actually even before him were the dinosaurs. When I was really little, I loved dinosaurs. And then books on chemistry began to fall into my hands; my mum brought them, she was a chemist. From theory I soon moved onto practice, and there were explosions in the bathroom, after which there were experiments with electricity, and then, going backwards, theoretical physics, which my father, a physicist, introduced me to. When I was seriously ill with pneumonia, my father’s friend Oleg Sheremetyev brought me a Rubik’s cube to distract me. There were no published solutions to the puzzle at the time, and I killed two days to crack it on my own. And then Oleg and I went on to solve more complicated mathematical puzzles. Oleg used to spend much time those days teaching mathematics to kids at the Pioneers Palace. He was the first to show me that mathematics could be interesting of itself, in a very pure sense.

OO: Volodya, you finished high school but you do not have a degree. Does that mean, by Russian standards, that you are under-educated?

VV: I was rusticated from Moscow University for academic failure. I was already interested in algebraic geometry, but attending classes seemed like such a waste of time. I took a break from academics, and began an apprenticeship at a vocational school where kids were being taught programming. One day, I found some scrap paper on a table with formulae scribbled over it – and immediately realised that there was someone around who thought just like me. I was overjoyed and went in search of the owner of that paper. And that’s how I found Yura Shabat. He didn’t deny it. “Yes,” he said, “These are my papers. So what?” Well, I said, I have also been thinking along those lines. It was very important to me that I had found him.

YS: Yes, and after that, we worked for a long time together.

OO: So what attracted you to algebraic geometry?

VV: Purely subjective factors, I have to say. At the time, algebraic geometry was being done by interesting people, such as Shafarevich.

OO: And how did the move to America come about?

VV: Even after returning to academics, I still wouldn’t attend classes. In 1989, then, obviously, everything collapsed, and such formalities as degrees seemed quite useless. After Yura Shabat, I began to work with Misha Kapranov, and we published several papers. Then he went off to graduate school in the States, talked about our work, and thanks to him, I became a graduate student at Harvard.

OO: Your relationship with America, it appears, was not entirely idyllic?

VV: To be honest, America impressed me at once. On the very first day I arrived at Harvard, I was handed keys to an apartment, to an office, and a cheque for a thousand dollars. And I was a mere graduate student! At the time, there were many Russian mathematicians on the faculty. Dmitri Kazhdan was Dean. I need to share my prize with him as well. He and his colleagues supported me at a period when I could no longer live in Russia, and I was still new to America. I remember, during my first Christmas in Boston, I got drunk and wandered into a black ghetto. There I was robbed, beaten and hurled into the snow. This, of course, added to my discomfort; but I was deeply anguished, missing Moscow, and thinking how much I hated their Christmas. I wanted my New Year [My note: Russians celebrate New Year rather than Christmas], with a fir tree and my mum and presents. I went to Professor Joseph Bernstein, and said to him – I can’t stay here. He answered me in one sentence, “Well, if it’s so bad for you here, then go home.” I am eternally grateful to him for this. I went to Moscow for four months, and he covered up for me, saved my fellowship and stipend. Then I returned and lived for a few months in my office, writing up my dissertation quickly. When I went in the mornings to brush my teeth in my sweat-pants, students would be coming into the department and looking askance at me. But Dean Kazhdan gave me the possibility to complete my work in peace. So I got my doctorate, but without any college degree either from Russia or America.

OO: Was such an option open to you in Russia?

VV: Formally, it wasn’t prohibited, but it is clear that the entire procedure would have been much harder, and taken much longer. There have been earlier precedents, but in my opinion, perhaps more often in the pre-war days than today.

OO: Setting aside material comforts, what distinguishes a scientist’s life in Russia from that in America?

VV: Everything. It’s a different professional environment. In my own field, there are ten times as many people working in America. There is the corresponding level of competition. In Russia there is no direct relationship between a scientist’s academic success and financial situation. If a person is comes up with an extraordinary idea, then everybody says, ‘Praise God, we are happy,’ but his salary is not going to go up from tomorrow. In America, it is likely to increase; but if you prove something interesting with your colleagues, at once the question arises – who did what first? Because the prizes have to be divided. In Russia, when people think up the same idea simultaneously, it is rather nice. There’s a professional collegiality. But in the US, this would decrease the material consequences of a scientific achievement. Although I have to say that in mathematics this is not as strongly felt as in biology, chemistry or medicine.

OO: Besides science, you have always had a wide range of interests. You have travelled the world, kept up your interest in history, followed politics. You live in the US, your wife is Egyptian, and you have friends of various religious persuasions. You have, perhaps, a nuanced view of events in the world.

VV: Undoubtedly, I have a cosmopolitan regard of current events as I do constantly listen to views of people from different sides of the barricades. And it is not difficult for me to note that not all of them are true. No less, it is evident nuclear weapons that used to be so difficult to obtain, will become quite common. And I don’t see any reasons that can stop those people who want to use them. Clearly, nuclear war awaits us in the coming decades. On the other hand, in American scientific journals, such as Science, I regularly read that its consequences are not as scary as we might imagine.

OO: Well, thanks for the consoling thought… And what will happen to mathematics in these projections?

VV: Nothing good is going to happen to mathematics, even if there’s no nuclear war in the near future. Mathematics has developed over a long time with lots of intensive research. But today’s mathematics requires immensely larger resources: of people, time, and money. You understand, in modern science we have a situation where the amount of time a person has to spend just to bring himself up to speed with an open problem is unacceptably long. I cannot explain – even to a very good student in his final year at University – the details of my work! Today, new people find it harder and harder to engage in the scientific process. I think it’s a bad sign. If mathematics does not turn to the practical needs of mankind, in fifty years it will no longer be in any form we can recognise.

YS: Well, here I’d like to object. I am well acquainted with the history of mathematics, and can say that apocalyptic predictions of its demise are not new. But mathematics, paradoxically, has always evolved in an irrational fashion. Its history is very similar to that of poetry. In some periods there is a crisis, and then there’s a period of barely discernible development in new directions, and then there’s a powerful creative explosion. Forecasting this systematically is impossible. I think than in fifty years mathematics will still exist as a fully-fledged science.

VV: Shall we bet on it? Let’s meet in thirty years, say, and examine the situation. We won’t wait fifty years – who knows if we’ll live that long?

Vladimir and Yuri made the wager, I excused myself. Time passed.

[To be continued.]

[I translated loosely from Olga Orlova’s piece on Polit.Ru. It appears that in 2002, when she first wrote it up to link with the International Congress of Mathematicians at Beijing, the journal that had commissioned it, ‘New Model’, went out of business without publishing it. She and her editors decided that the content was still relevant in 2006, when the Perelman story was appearing in the world’s press in the run-up to the ICM in Madrid.]

Olga Orlova and the Fields Medallists – Part I

The first meeting. Venue – Beijing, August 2002. We met up with Vladimir Voevodsky and Laurent Lafforgue at the International Congress of Mathematicians – the pre-eminent event in the world of mathematics. The Congress is nothing less than a hybrid between the Olympics and the Nobel Prizes. What it has in common with the former is its quadrennial occurrence, and to present at it is as much an honour as it is for a sportsman to win a medal at the Olympics. And like the Nobel it confers an award, the Fields Medal, which is possibly the greatest prize in mathematics.
We may never learn what occasioned Alfred Nobel so much dislike: mathematics as a discipline, or mathematicians as a community. One thing is for sure, though: he did not declare any share of the prize to mathematicians that might enhance either their prestige or their financial status. Nobel laureates quickly become stars on TV and radio, their bank accounts bulging to the tune of several trailing zeroes; for the rest of their lives, they enjoy the fruit of their labour. Fields medallists, though, are known chiefly to their colleagues, and the prize money itself is so modest that they scarcely have enough to purchase a middling automobile. In addition, there is a severe restriction: the prize can be won only by a mathematician not older than 40 years of age.

But none of this diminishes any of the scientific work that is nominated for it. And so the professionals in their thousands descend upon the Congress from all parts of the world, reminiscent of warriors who congregated to measure themselves against each other in ancient times. In 2002, the Congress held in Beijing was unusual in two ways. It was the first time since the inception of the Fields Medal in 1932 that it was being held in China. Secondly, it was the first time that the prize was being awarded only to two mathematicians, not four as was the usual practice. [My note: this is not true. The first five ICMs had only two prizewinners each, as did the one in 1974.] The quality of achievement of these two men was considered so high that it had been impossible to find another pair equally eminent. In Beijing, the event had assumed a national importance. I suppose this was no different from the way we conducted the International Festival of Youth in Moscow in 1957.
On all TV and radio stations, they transmitted live broadcasts of the events unfolding at the mathematical institute where the Congress was hosted. All manner of strangers, in the markets, on the streets, in the shops, came up and welcomed us when they noticed the badge we wore with the ICM logo. And the prizes themselves were awarded in the great hall of the Chinese parliament by the President, Jiang Zemin. At the centre of all the attention, of course, were two young light-haired Europeans, who looked so alike to the President that he mixed up the medals, and didn’t at once realise with whom he should standing to be photographed.
[I translated loosely from Olga Orlova’s piece on Polit.Ru. It appears that in 2002, when she first wrote it up to link with the International Congress of Mathematicians at Beijing, the journal that had commissioned it, ‘New Model’, went out of business without publishing it. She and her editors decided that the content was still relevant in 2006, when the Perelman story was appearing in the world’s press in the run-up to the ICM in Madrid.]