A Refugee at Harvard

Harvard's Scientific Minds: Soviet Researcher Joins the Math Department

"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."