I’m a Russian scientist living in America. Why can’t people see past my citizenship?

I’m a Russian scientist living in America. Why can’t people see past my citizenship?
Image: AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin
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In August of 2014, when I left Russia to begin a graduate program in biomedicine in America, I was barely 21 years old and just finished my undergraduate degree at Moscow University. I was elated to jump into a new adventure and start carving a space for myself in the bigger scientific world, though I quickly learned that living and working here is more complicated when you’re from a country your adopted home doesn’t trust.

Science wasn’t a priority at home, even decades after the USSR collapse, when people’s main concern was simply to survive on scarce provisions that could be purchased in stores or traded from black market merchants. In the 1990s, many ambitious and talented scientists ended up overseas, preventing them from rebuilding the former glory of Soviet science that first launched a human into space. Among the 40 USSR- and Russian-born scientists that appear on the 2017 list of World’s Most Cited researchers, only one has primary affiliation at the Russian Academy of Sciences. More than half of those 40 now live and work in the US.

Moscow University chancellor Viktor Sadovnichiy estimated that his institution alone had lost about 20% of teaching faculty and research assistants to the United States, Germany, and Israel. According to the former Russian Minister of Education and Science, in the 15 years between 1989 and 2004, about 25,000 scientists left Russia permanently, and about 30,000 were working abroad on temporary contracts. Unofficial estimates from the Russian Foundation for Basic Research are even higher and claim that no less than 80,000 scientists had left Russia in the first half of the 1990s alone. More than 73% of them were PhD holders.

Andrei Sakharov
Andrei Sakharov, a Nobel laureate and dissident scientist.
Image: Dominique Cappronnier/Flickr via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Despite the recent government efforts to revitalize Russian science by injecting more money into select research centers, such as Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology, and creating funding programs like the infamous nanotechnology initiative ROSNANO, science as a whole is still struggling to recover from a long period of decline and stagnation. For me, like many others, moving to the United States represented a big opportunity to break free from stifling atmosphere of research institutions depleted of funding, where lab supplies can be unavailable for months and salaries barely cover the price of a monthly bus pass.

I was excited at the prospect of joining a community of people from all around the world who have the resources to pursue their curiosity and ideas rather than spend their days trying to make ends meet. But I often feel like I have to serve as a spokesperson for an entire nation and explain that people of my country don’t represent its regime.

From colleagues to taxi drivers, I am subject to a steady barrage of comments. They usually come as jokes: Was it I who hacked the DNC? Do I know Putin? Can I tamper with some doping probes? After four years of living here and getting the same questions over and over again, I’ve developed scripted answers I can almost recite in my sleep. Still, I like to think that I can change people’s perspective one question at a time.

But even if I don’t take their curiosity personally, those jokes underscore the bigger problem that’s underneath: lack of trust and subtle hostility. With the newly intensified interest in Russian affairs, I feel that people increasingly tend to equate the word “Russian” with corruption, online trolling, human rights violations, and “fake news.” I constantly get asked about my opinion on Russia’s president and whether Russian people view America as an enemy. I try to explain that there is a big distinction between the people and the government. As the regime tightens and election results become more and more predictable, the gap between opinions held by the citizens and their elected officials widens. Data shows that despite strained diplomatic relations, 40% have a favorable view of the United States as a country, and more than half have a favorable view of American people.

Lack of trust was also a fundamental theme in the world of Soviet science. Many great minds like the engineer and inventor of television, Vladimir Zworykin, fled the country soon after the Red Revolution. Those who stayed were often sent to labor camps and forced to work from prison.

My great-grandfather was a scientist too. He was the head of a microbiology lab at a water plant in a quaint suburb just outside Moscow, responsible for testing and ensuring the safety of water supplied to the city. But his status and authority weren’t a guarantee of stability or personal safety. Soviet Russia had a gory history of persecution and killings of intellectual elites, scientists, and doctors, many of whom were Jewish. As I found out a few years ago, my great-grandfather carried a small bottle of cyanide at all times. He would rather die than be taken to the secret police’s headquarters to be tortured to call out the names of other “enemies of the state” or to compromise the safety of the entire city’s population.

The past and present headquarters of Russia’s secret police
The past and present headquarters of Russia’s secret police.
Image: Graham Chandler/Flickr via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Those fears weren’t unwarranted. Another relative, a professor at my future alma mater, was snatched from his home in the middle of the night in the mid-1930s and was never seen again. Sixty years later, after the government of newly democratic Russia briefly opened the KGB archives, his two sons found out that a neighbor had falsely accused their father of espionage.

That freedom of speech and transparency regained after almost a century of propaganda and misinformation were fleeting. Since mid-1990s, Russia has been slowly but steadily reverting to its former ways.

The year I began to adjust to living 5,000 miles away from home, Russian troops invaded Ukraine. The following year, Russia intervened in the Syrian Civil War on the side of the government. And more than a year since Donald Trump was sworn into office, we’re finally starting to get an idea of how powerful and consequential was the media campaign orchestrated by the Russian government in influencing the US elections.

Not surprisingly, according to the Pew Research Center, views of Russia in the US and Canada are overwhelmingly negative (and were even before the news about the indictments and election meddling surfaced). In the spring of 2017, fewer than 30% of Americans had a favorable view of Russia, and more than 60% of Democrats viewed Russia’s power and influence as a major threat to national security. In 2018, as the Mueller probe continues its work, I fully expect this number to drop even lower. Already, the latest Gallup poll shows that 72% of Americans have an unfavorable opinion of Russia. That’s the highest that figure has been in 30 years.

At the same time, I am now torn more than ever. I disagree with Russia’s politics of corruption, bureaucracy, and favoritism, but at the same time I feel guilty talking about it. I can’t escape the thought that it’s hypocritical of me to speak up and criticize my country now, when I no longer live there. Unlike my family and friends whom I left behind, my primary concerns are no longer centered around how to game the system and not get arrested at a peaceful protest, but whether I receive another research scholarship or award.

I want my country to be known for its talented people, scientists like my great-grandfather, who had unwavering integrity and class. People like that don’t get enough media coverage and credit. Not many people know about Russian scientists who are moving our knowledge of physics, math, biology, and chemistry forward, while also standing up for what they believe in. The dynasty of Soviet scientist dissidents started with Andrey Sakharov, the physicist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, hasn’t ceased—it’s just gotten quieter.

This piece was originally published on Massive, a site that publishes science stories by scientists on the cutting edge of research. Subscribe to their newsletter or visit them on Facebook or Twitter for more.