Back to the USSR (not quite)

Russia always looms in the back – its brutal energy can sometimes devour its neighbors, can sometimes unbalance (or rebalance) the rest of the world. And its past avatars (the Russia of Peter the Great, of Catherine, of Alexander I, of Alexander III, of Lenin, of Stalin and now of Putin) always seem to rebuild and repeat and rehash and recrush. Something. Very often itself.

For all one can say of Russia, of its power drunkenness, of its supposed collapses (apparently, West Germany former chancellor Helmut Schmidt said in the late 1970s “the USSR was Upper Volta with nuclear power”, referring to the state of its economy – I wonder what Merkel thinks now – she could certainly not say such an absurdity, when Germany’s energy depends so much on Russia).

Beyond political differences, Russia’s way of doing mathematics is something I wish I could have lived – in many ways the most inspired (and inspiring) mathematicians are Russians, or people attached in some way or another to the “Russian school”. Perhaps in no other country as in Russia can you find such a true continuum of knowledge, ranging from cinema, visual arts, poetry, music, linguistics… all the way to physics and mathematics. Many, if not all, Russian mathematicians I have had the chance to deal with are not only greatly original in their mathematics, but they seem to see their work as embedded, entangled in a web that sometimes connects to some films, sometimes to poetry, sometimes to linguistics. Of course, this is a terrible oversimplification of a situation that has many more angles to it. Russians are not the only ones with those connections, and not all Russians like to see things that way. But overall, one can safely say that as a mathematical culture (if such a thing exists), Russians are those most sensitive and acquainted with “the rest of knowledge”.

Walking (while doing math, while discussing, while thinking) is also very linked to Russian culture. In that sense, St. Petersburg is a paradise. You walk and walk, tread the canals, cross the bridges, salute lions, see the Admiralcy from many angles, encounter the arches of the Hermitage – the Russian Ark – go back to Fontanka, check out Idiot for some borscht or vodka or pivo or blini – and walk and do math (or think movies or take photographs or recite poetry or sing or…) and walk.

Here are some notes of those walks (and train from Finland), in five marvelous days we had in March of 2007 with MC, in St. Petersburg: