European science made in Russia, by Pere Puigdomènech


Russia is a large European country and has been also for culture and science. In its history, which it has often shared with Ukraine, we find prominent names in some scientific disciplines. But Russia, and its science, These centuries have passed through tragic stages, and now with the violent invasion of Ukraine they live another.

From the middle of the 19th century in Russia, one of the richest periods of its culture and this is also true for science. In that period we find names like that of the chemist Dmitri Mendeleyev, who established the periodic table of elements, or that of the physicist Konstatin Tsiolkovsky, who is considered the father of astronautics. In the life sciences, in this period we find the name of Elie Mechnikov, Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1908. He was born near the Ukrainian city of Kharkov, unfortunately well known these days, and was a professor at the University of Odessa, from where he went to the Pasteur Institute in Paris. There he carried out important work to understand the mechanisms of immunization against bacteria. One of his disciples was Nikolai Gamaleya, whose name bears the Moscow institute that has made the Sputnik vaccines against the covid-19 virus. Also in 1820, the Odessa Botanical Institute was founded, a large plant conservation institution that now depends on Odessa University, the oldest in Ukraine, founded in 1850 and named after Méchnikov. But modern biology had a difficult time establishing itself in Soviet Russia. Stalin considered that genetics was a bourgeois science and supported theories that did not accept the new ideas about genes. Nikolai Vavílov, one of the fathers of the application of genetics to agriculture, he died of starvation while being deported to Siberia. In St. Petersburg, an institute dedicated to conserving plant varieties bears his name.

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But it is in physics, and above all in mathematics, that the Russian tradition is strongest. Russia is the third country in the world in laureates with the Fields Medal, the mathematical equivalent of the Nobel Prizes, after the United States and France. Among the Nobel laureates in Physics we find in the year 1962 Lev Landau, one of the most widely used theoretical physics textbook authors, with a few more following between 1958 and 2010. The recent laureates have done much of their work outside of Russia. This may be a symptom of the great changes that have taken place in that country. In times of the Soviet Union there was the Academy of Sciences, huge institution with more than 200,000 employees. He managed entire cities such as Akademgorodok, a district of Novosibirsk or Puschino, in the south of Moscow, where scientists lived in conditions reserved for the Soviet ‘nomenklatura’. Perhaps the needs of specialized personnel to building nuclear weapons they were the reason for this privilege. However, some physicists raised their voices against the regime, as was the case with Andrei Sakharov, Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1975. The disappearance of the Soviet Union led to the dissolution of the Academy of Sciences as an institution that managed research centers and a large number of scientists and university students found themselves in difficult conditions. Many emigrated.

In recent years, Russia and the other countries that had been part of the Soviet Union they have restructured their science and their universities. Some, like the Baltic countries, have boosted their science by taking advantage of the European environment. Ukraine was also rebuilding its scientific structure and was looking towards Europe. Russia has not reached the brilliance it had in the past, perhaps with the exception of mathematics, in which its great tradition helps to develop new digital technologies. Lately, the Russian Government has been drifting towards a dictatorial regime which is too reminiscent of some of the worst stages in its history. And it has culminated in an aggression of an imperial nature that we thought had been forgotten in Europe. In the current conflict we are left with the regret of whether, at all levels, we have done enough to recognize the value of this great country that we have in Eastern Europe and that is an integral part of our history.


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