By Mark Trevelyan
(Reuters) – A century after his father and mother fled Russia to escape the Bolsheviks, renowned mathematician Alexey Sossinsky found history repeating itself when President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine.
Brought up in France and the United States, Sossinsky moved to the land of his parents’ birth in 1957 and carved out a distinguished academic career.
But at 85 he is now an exile once more. When Putin launched the war last year, he left with two suitcases in the middle of the night.
“I had no hesitation, I immediately did whatever was possible to get out,” Sossinsky told Reuters in a phone interview.
A former student secured him a plane ticket to Istanbul – the same city where his father fled by ship in 1919 – and from there he travelled to France, where his daughter lives.
Fluent in three languages and still delivering classes to students in Russia via Zoom, he now expects to live out his life in exile.
WAR AND PEACE
The family story that Sossinsky recounts with pride and painstaking detail is a microcosm of Russia’s history of upheaval, war and repression going back more than a century.
His mother, Ariadna Chernova, was the daughter of Viktor Chernov, a socialist revolutionary who fleetingly served as president of Russia’s Constituent Assembly in 1918, before it was dispersed by the Bolsheviks.
She fled Russia in 1923 with her mother and sisters. In France she met and married another exile, Bronislav Sossinsky, who had won the highest medal for gallantry in the White Army that fought against the Bolsheviks in Russia’s Civil war.
Alexey was born in France in 1937. During World War Two, his father fought in the resistance against the Nazis and was a prisoner of war. The family moved in 1948 to New York, where Bronislav worked for the UN. Alexey got his first taste of Russia in the mid-1950s, after the death of Stalin, when the family visited there on holiday.
He was surprised at the “absolutely horrid level of life” even in Moscow. But “against all logic” he decided in 1957 to stay on there and study mathematics, a subject in which he believed that Moscow was “the centre of the whole world”.
By the early 1970s he was an associate professor at Moscow State University and had gained an international reputation in an area of geometry called knot theory.
His career took a dive after he and a friend wrote a letter in 1974 defending Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the dissident writer who had been expelled from the Soviet Union. Addressed to a French literary journal, the letter was intercepted by the KGB, and the friend lost his job.
Sossinsky was instructed to sign an application form for classes in Marxism-Leninism but could not bring himself to do it.
“I tore up that piece of paper, took a blank piece of paper and wrote my resignation from the department – a completely crazy thing to do,” he said. He worked for 13 years as an editor at a science journal before he was able to return to academia.
Decades on, he is still speaking out.
The West, he says, has dangerously underestimated Putin’s “intelligence, cleverness, total immorality and cruelty”, his ability to adapt to sanctions and his success in using state media to “hypnotise” the population.
“It’s absolutely horrible that normal ordinary people support this hideous regime,” Sossinsky said. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is a hero who has made mistakes but is doing a “fantastic job” overall, he added.
Sossinsky says he now wants to die in France, the country of his birth. And he does not expect the Ukraine conflict to be over by then.
“I’m very pessimistic because I’m pretty sure the war will not end in my lifetime,” he said. “This is the kind of war that nobody is ever going to win.”
Nevertheless, as decades ago, exile still makes Sossinsky restless. He said he is weighing a brief return, if only to see friends and visit the country cottage outside Moscow where he would ski in winter and swim in a lake in summer.
“Surprisingly, my hope is that at some time I will overcome my fear of repression and go back to Russia for the summer – if not next year, then the year after that or the year after that,” he said.
“My daughter is absolutely panicked by the thought that I will return to Russia and will be put in prison and God knows what. So I have to convince her she should not worry.”
(Reporting by Mark Trevelyan; Editing by Peter Graff)