A Refugee at Harvard
Harvard's Scientific Minds: Soviet Researcher Joins the Math Department
Soviet mathematician Joseph Bernstein should have gone a long way in his homeland. He is, in the words of one Harvard math professor, "regarded as one of the world leaders in the many fields he works."
Instead, the man whom Harvard snapped up almost immediately upon his arrival in the United States had a "stature equivalent to being practically a research assistant," observes Shlomo Z. Sternberg, Putnam Professor of Pure and Applied Mathematics.
Joseph Bernstein is Jewish. And in official Soviet circles, that mean being a persona non grata.
For this world-reknowned scholar, it meant that he never had the chance to gain a position in a Soviet math department or institute. "I never tried to do that. It was just impossible," recalls Bernstein.
Bernstein in speaking from his cramped Science Center office, where he is now safely ensconced as the newest full professor in the Math Department. He is doing general research, as well as teaching a graduate course on p-adic fields. He arrived at Harvard this semester, following a stint as a visiting professor at the University of Maryland and his emigration from the Soviet Union in the summer of 1981.
The story of this 37-year-old professor is by no means unique. Bernstein follows friend and Harvard colleague, Professor of Mathematics David Kazhdan, as well as 40 or 50 other Russian mathematicians who have emigrated to the United States and other countries in the last 10 years-the victims of a new wave of official anti-Semitism that is said to have hit the mathematics establishment particularly hard.
"The anti-Semitism runs so deeply that they distinguish between Russian mathematics and Jewish mathematics," says Melvyn B. Nathanson, dean of the graduate school of Rutgers University in New Jersey and a widely noted authority on Soviet mathematics. What this means, explains the dean, is that Jews have found it increasingly difficult to gain admission to undergraduate and graduate programs in math and earn advanced degrees, as well as finding it "almost impossible" to obtain academic position.
Why the Soviets allow mathematicians of such caliber to go seems rather odd, especially in light of their fixation with mathematical and technical expertise. Nathanson guesses that it has to do with the fact that scholars like Bernstein and Kazhdan work in pure mathematics which, unlike applied math, has no immediate use for developing weapons and technology. "These people tend to be short-sighted," he says, adding that losing such mathematicians could come back to haunt the Soviets in the long-term.
The determined effect from pushing out established mathematicians is only part of the Soviet problem. Discouraging younger Jewish scholars from advancing could also have serious implications for Soviet efforts in the field. Bernstein in himself estimates that in his undergraduate class of about 400 to 500, at least one-fourth were Jewish. Now, he says, the figure has dropped to 1 percent.
Explaining the rise of anti-Semitism which has caused such a drop in the last 10 to 15 years, Bernstein-like others familiar with Soviet academic-cites a general rise in discrimination as well as the rise of a number of virulent anti-Semitic mathematicians into key positions within the important Soviet Academy of Sciences. One, for example, has been quoted in a report by Nathanson as saying. "Jewish mathematical is bad mathematics."
Because of the heavy centralization of Soviet mathematic efforts, these key officials wield enormous influence, unlike in the United States, explains Nathanson. "Power flows down from above in a very pyramidal influence. The people at the apex of the pyramid have a very dominating role." Hence, experts say, anti-Jewish sentiment is stronger than in other academic fields.
Bernstein himself happened to be one of the luckier of the Jewish mathematicians. Coming into the field in the 1960s, before official discrimination against Jews had reached its current feverish pitch, he was able to complete graduate studies, receiving the equivalent of a Ph.D. in 1972 from Moscow State University. The highest degree possible, the Doctor of Sciences, would have proved next-to-impossible to achieve, recalls Bernstein, but he did manage to land a job with a research group at the university, studying mathematical methods in biology.
"I wasn't so hurt by this anti-Semitism as compared to my friends," says Bernstein looking back. "I was settled. I didn't have the opportunity for a doctorate, but that was somehow OK." However, Bernstein ominously adds, "Were I five years younger, the situation for me would have been much different," and he remembers a variety of horror stories of friends who were not able to defend theses or gain positions because of their Judaism.
Despite official ostracism (he was not part of the math department, per se). Bernstein was able to gain a reputation-especially in the West-as one of the top young Soviet pure mathematicians. As Harvard Math Department Chairman David B. Mumford relates it, Bernstein was a student of a Russian mathematicians named I.M. Gelfand, who runs a series of weekly seminars world famous in advanced math circles. Bernstein, like Gelfand's other students, developed a broad facility that ranges "over almost the whole of mathematics," according to Mumford. That breadth-the likes of which is seldom seen in the West, says the Harvard chairman-includes a wide variety of topics; d modules, mathematical physics, representation of lie groups, and algebraic theory of partial differential equations.
Harvard had been keeping an eye on this bright young scholar, and when he emerged from Russia in 1981, the decision to offer him tenure was an easy one, says Mumford. But for Bernstein, the decision to leave his country was not quite so simple.
"It's very difficult to decide to leave. I don't think here in American people understand that," Bernstein says quietly. "In Russia you know it will completely change your life and you won't have the possibility of changing it back."
Bernstein is now on his feet, up from the behind the desk where he began the interview an hour before. He is pacing back and forth, as if he were on a lecture podium, and he gesticulates to make his points. He goes on to explain the reasons he finally decide to leave.
The first is the welfare of his family. His wife is also a mathematician, but she is seven years younger and would have faced much keener discrimination. Now she will be able to continue as a graduate student at M.I.T. His daughter is 11 years-old, and Bernstein states firmly, "I want some future for her."
But beyond the family concerns lay Bernstein's dislike for the "general atmosphere" of life in Russia. "In Russia, you have an atmosphere of lies," he says, eerily echoing the reports of dissidents one reads about in newspapers. "People say something and nobody believes it, and they themselves don't believe what they are saying."
Thus in 1979, Bernstein decided to apply for an emigration visa. He had to wait more than two years-"the most unpleasant years" of his life-for permission to come through. Again, Bernstein got on the early side of good fortune, as the visa came through just in time for him to join the last big wave of Russian emigres. With the recent cooling of East-West relations, emigration from the Soviet Union has slowed to barely a trickle, but Bernstein got out, and he came almost directly of the United States.
The unpleasant nature of the Moscow math scene is now behind Bernstein, as he settles down to a new life of research and teaching. He gives his plans for the future with characteristic understatement. "I want to study new things. I want to finish some new things. Then I want to look. That's all."