Russia is different from America. The differentness, however, resists enumeration; it defies lists. The differentness is a comprehensive “fabric” filling the air. Russia’s environment, culture, and texture together assemble into a dense subjective experience. Beyond my window lie the broad walls of a complex of tattered, stucco apartment buildings; raindrops drip from the trees onto the puddles covering the dark sidewalks. Power lines arch across the sky. Opposite the nearby road, the iron structures of the metro station jut above the retaining wall. The tiny local grocery store is empty: inside, a solitary clerk sits past the shampoo and next to a wall of alcohol bottles.
Inside the dormitory, the slow “bunsen-burner” stovetops are mustering their strength below a pot of hot noodles. A big jar of fresh tea is steaming on my table, next to the honey, as it cools. The chessboard is ready. Soon the room will be filled with hot tea, deep discussions of mathematics, and the excitement of king-of-the-court blitz chess. Welcome to Moscow.
I’m studying with the Math in Moscow program at the Independent University of Moscow. There are 16 American and Canadian students; we live in a dorm together and take classes together. (Occasional Russian graduate students permeate our classes, and also live on our hall.) We take the metro (subway) to classes, working our way through thick crowds. Nearby, there’s a rundown, brick elementary school; its schoolyard bars facilitate a rudimentary workout. The old ping pong table in the lobby gets used well.
The IUM’s building is a humble, broad four-story building, hidden by trees. In the lobby, the IUM’s bookstore — which doubles as a storefront for the school’s in-house publishing op — features walls of math books to its ceilings, but a walkway too narrow for two to pass. Upstairs, lectures and classes take place. On our first day, we sat in the back of a lecture hall, a row of nervous Americans: a mathematical seminar was holding “English Lecture” day. Russian mathematicians conversed earnestly in English about canonical isomorphisms. The language might as well have been Russian.
The math is incredible. The science has pushed past the confines of high-school and undergraduate mathematics, in which subjects are learned piecewise and conceived insularly. The floodgates are destroyed. Moscow has burst open the doors to a much grander world, a massive abyss of rigid blackness and grand unity. The various “doors”, previously labeled with subject names like “Topology” and “Algebra”, now open out to the same massive expanse. These tools integrate and interlock, now, towards the construction of deep structures of complexity unimaginable. We’ve begun to witness the very beginnings of “true math”. There’s a long way to go.
I still want to go to graduate school. Professor Alexei Gorinov (an algebraic topologist), in after-class discussion after a particularly fast and riveting first lecture, offered to sit down with me and discuss future goals, plans, and areas of interest. The “narrowing of focus”, the “maturing of interest” — it might all begin soon. The gears are turning.
If that fails, however, I might find myself in a small, unknown town in Russia for a year, living an unknown life and studying math only by desklamp at night. I will assimilate and I will become fluent in Russian. I’ll return to America transformed, and I’ll advance to graduate school a changed man.
I can’t say what will happen. But if the world, derived from mathematics, shares any of its unity and perfection, I must proceed free from worry.