“I don’t think anyone should write their autobiography until after they’re dead.“
Several years ago I was on a trekking trip in the Jordanian desert with a large group of Brits. We were camping and, as usual, there was not much to do in the evenings, so we filled the hours by sitting around a campfire, playing the popular British game ‘Call My Bluff’. In it a player makes several statements only one of which is true, and the rest of the group have to guess which one it is. All other statements are called ‘bluffs’. I teased my fellow hikers with statements like ‘I was born in a Mediterranean climate’, ‘I was a lieutenant in the Red Army’, ‘I have won an Ig Nobel prize’, ‘I climbed several five kilometre high mountains’, ‘I fell down a 100 m deep crevasse without a rope’, ‘I was called ‘Russian’ for the first time at the age of 32′, ‘At my university I studied intercontinental ballistic missiles’, ‘I was a bricklayer north of the Arctic Circle’, ‘I knew Mikhail Gorbachev personally’ and so on. What surprised me was that all but the last statement were dismissed by most of the group as ‘bluffs’, while people found it easy to believe that it is typical for any Russian to know their political leaders personally. I won every single game because the truth was a complete opposite: Apart from knowing Gorbachev (whom I only ever saw on TV) all the other statements were true. This made me think for the first time that, perhaps, my life had not been as trivial as I thought.
Still, with reference to the epigraph, I am not dead yet. I think it is too early for me to write an autobiography, as doing so somehow implies that one’s life story is finished. I am only fifty-two and plan to actively continue my research work. However, I am a law-abiding citizen (of course!) and, according to the rules of the Nobel Foundation, I must provide an autobiography. So, below I have conceded a sort of one, a literary exercise. Although I do not expand on any of the non-bluff statements above, the reader is still likely to find my life path atypical. I do not know whether this somehow infiuenced my way of doing things or it is just a separate story, having little in common with my research career.
The timeline of this autobiography ends in 1987 when I received a PhD. After that point, my scientific biography is given in the Nobel lecture ‘Random walk to graphene’.
I was born on October 21, 1958 in the small Black Sea resort of Sochi, the second son of Nina Bayer and Konstantin Geim. The first seven years of my life I spent there with my grandmother Maria Ziegler and grandfather Nikolai Bayer. I remember little of my grandfather because he died when I was only six, but my grandmother was my best friend and an important part of my life until the university years, when I left home. At the age of seven, it was time to go to school and, reluctantly, I had to leave Sochi and go to live with my parents and my elder brother Vladislav in the city of Nalchik where they worked. Nalchik is the capital of a small Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains and can be found on the world map as a host to the Europe’s highest peak Elbrus and in proximity to the infamous Chechnya. For the next ten years I spent my school time there but returned to Sochi every year to stay with my grandmother during the summer months.
At this point, it is probably right to mention my ethnic origins, because for certain groups of people in the Soviet Union ethnicity was a very important factor and often defined their life choices and eventually their life path. I belonged to one such group. Despite the great ethnic diversity of the Soviet population (the official census of 1989 listed over 100 ethnicities), the authorities managed to keep track of each and every one of them by having a special line in the Soviet passport (‘line 5: nationality’). In my passport this line stated ‘German’. This is because my father came from the so-called Volga Germans, descendants of colonists from Germany who settled on the Volga River banks in the 18th century. My mother’s bloodline was also mostly German. I have long believed that my maternal grandmother Maria was Jewish, but according to my brother’s recent research into family history, her father was also German. Therefore, to the best of my knowledge, the only Jew in the family was my great-grandmother, with the rest on both sides being German.
A note is needed here to explain why I devote so much space to explaining my ethnicity. Firstly, of course, the word ‘German’ in my Soviet passport had a very real effect on my life, as the reader will find out below. Secondly, the issue of my ethnicity unexpectedly surfaced again after the announcement of the Nobel Prize – suddenly there have been a lot of discussions whether this prize is British, Dutch, Russian, German or Jewish. To me these discussions seem silly. Having lived and worked in several European countries, I consider myself European and do not believe that any further taxonomy is necessary, especially in such a fluid world as the world of science.
Skeletons in the Old Chest
My knowledge of our family history is rather sketchy and, for a Western person, it is perhaps difficult to understand why. The reason goes back to well before I was born. In Stalin’s time, family history was a dangerous subject to discuss, and stories were not passed from generation to generation because parents deliberately concealed their history from the children in order to protect them. A telling example can be found in the many documents that I had to fill when applying to university, for a job and so on. Among such documents there was always a questionnaire asking whether you had relatives abroad, whether any of your relatives were prisoners in forced labour camps (the infamous Gulag) or were prisoners of war. I always answered ‘No’ to all those questions, in good faith, believing this answer to be true. It was only in the late 1980s that I learned that nearly everyone in my family, including my father and grandfather, spent many years in the Gulag, that some of the family were prisoners in German concentration camps, and that I had an uncle living in Bavaria. This was deliberately and successfully concealed from me during my first 30 years of life.
Below is what I have learned since then from my few living relatives. My grandfather Nikolai Bayer was a professor at Kharkov University who specialised in aerial cartography. In 1946, documents were found by the Soviet Army in post-war Poland which revealed that after the First World War, he was a junior minister in Petliura’s short-lived Ukrainian nationalist government. This anti-Bolshevik past, together with his German ethnicity and the fact that at the time he was compiling maps of Eastern Siberia, was apparently enough reason to accuse him of passing state secrets to the Japanese and send him to a northern Gulag camp near Vorkuta. He was released only in 1953, after Stalin’s death.
When I was born, my father was forty-eight years old and already had quite a long and difficult history behind him as well, which I managed to learn from him bit by bit over many years. Until his last years, he avoided discussing it, even when I asked, and those bits came out mostly accidentally. Before the Second World War he was a young professor at Saratov State University, lecturing in physics and maths. However, when the war broke out in Europe, being an ethnic German became a political crime and he was sent to a Gulag camp in Siberia, where he spent many years building a hydroelectric power station and a railway. In 1949 he was allowed to join his family, who in the meantime had been deported to Novosibirsk.
An episode I vividly remember from my early years is finding a box of old medals at the bottom of an old chest hidden in my grandparents’ garden shed in Sochi. One of them was the Cross of St George, an award of high military distinction in the Russian Empire (before the revolution). I showed my findings to my grandmother. Being confronted, she explained that the Cross belonged to her father, who served as an army surgeon in World War I, whereas other decorations were related to the nobility status of her grandfather, a descendant of German aristocrats. In the 19th century her family lived in Poland (then a part of the Russian Empire), where they took part in the 1863 uprising and consequently were deported to Siberia, which was to become such a familiar place to my forebears a century later. The next time I tried to find those medals, they were long gone. It was only many years later that I found that my grandma Maria threw them all away immediately after the episode. Incomprehensible as it sounds to us today, this kind of behaviour became imprinted in the DNA of people who lived through the Stalinist terror. She was afraid I would talk about the medals to my friends and, if the story got around, the whole family would be in trouble. This happened in Khrushchev’s times, when the terror receded, but ‘bourgeois’ reminders were still deemed unacceptable by ‘the proletariat’ until the 1990s.
By the time I went to school, the mentality of Stalin’s time was largely gone from the Soviet system. Except for some remnants, such as the ‘nationality’ line and all those family questionnaires, young people like me were largely unaware of the recent terror. The only time I really suffered because of my ethnicity was when trying to get into a top university, as described below. Otherwise, it was just being occasionally called ‘fascist’ in the playground, or a ‘bloody Jew’ (‘ЖИД’ or ‘Zhid’), because a foreign name was often associated with being a Jew (in Russian, the word ЖИД sounds very offensive). Maybe because of the latter I am particularly keen to emphasise that some small portion of my blood is likely Jewish.
Schooling as Usual
Despite this sombre family history, I myself was lucky enough to be born late and had a happy childhood. My best childhood memories are associated with my birthplace, Sochi. My grandma Maria was a meteorologist and I spent my first years of life on the beach, around the weather station where she worked. My mother was a head of quality control and my father chief engineer at a very large vacuum-electronics factory (chief engineer would be equivalent to a CEO in the West). After two decades, many people in Nalchik still remember him as a hard-working and influential person. Perseverance and hard work are the qualities I probably inherited from him. My parents’ occupations placed our family in the top layer of technocrats in the Soviet Union. They were not within the communist party elite who enjoyed all the perks of the Soviet system and, as ethnic Germans, they could not possibly be. Nevertheless their status allowed the family a relatively comfortable existence.
My school in Nalchik was called a specialist English language school and considered to be the best in town. Despite its name, the teaching of English was not its strongest point. Looking back and comparing how we were taught English then and how I was taught Dutch 30 years later, the notion of English specialisation in my old school seems nothing but laughable. On the other hand, mathematics was taught at an extremely high level, especially in senior forms, thanks mostly to our maths teacher, Valenida Sedneva. I may not have realised this at the time but, when I looked at my old exam papers several years later and was already a student at an elite university, I was amazed at how tough and challenging those papers were. Some of them required not only powers of recall but also imaginative and non-standard thinking. Physics and chemistry were taught at a good level, too. I once won a regional chemistry Olympiad, which however was not so much due to my love of the subject as to the fact that in a couple of days I managed to memorise a whole chemistry dictionary some 1,000 pages long (happily forgotten in the following few days).
I also fondly remember Olga Peshkova, our teacher of Russian and Literature. Despite getting excellent marks in these two subjects, I did not excel in either of them. Still, I like to think that her lessons were helpful in learning – eventually – how to write research papers in a clear and concise way. There is nothing else particularly remarkable to mention about my schooling, except for the brain-washing Soviet propaganda that penetrated every aspect of our lives at that time. As a counterbalance, schoolchildren often listened to the Voice of America and similar radio stations, and this small rebellion helped us to develop a healthy scepticism about many things (albeit not all) that the propaganda told us. Of course, like everyone around me, I played my due role of a disciplined Soviet pupil.
Failing the First Hurdle
At the age of 16, I graduated from school with a gold medal, a distinction given to those who achieved the perfect score in all subjects (typically, the top 5%). My parents encouraged me to go to the best possible university and my sights were set on a couple of elite universities in Moscow. At school I was doing well in all exact sciences, including physics and chemistry, but my strongest subject was maths. However, my parents persuaded me that pure maths would not offer good career prospects. Hence, my decision was to study physics. The very top university for physics in Russia was (and still is) the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (Phystech). However, the entrance examinations to Phystech were famously competitive and extremely tough and, as I grew up in a provincial town, I believed they were beyond my ability. So, I chose to go to another leading university, Moscow Engineering and Physics Institute (MIFI). In the way of preparation I solved problems from sample MIFI and Phystech exam papers and felt ready, even if still not very confident. Little did I know that the main obstacle for me would turn out to be my ethnicity.
The first exam in MIFI was written maths, and I was pretty confident that I solved all the problems correctly and would get an ‘excellent’ (the marking system in Russian schools and universities consists of four grades: ‘excellent’, ‘good’, ‘satisfactory’ and ‘fail’). However, I then found it was only a ‘satisfactory’ and, even worse, my mark for the oral maths was a ‘fail’. I attributed this failure to poor preparation and my inexperience in sitting real tests: problems at my oral exam seemed a lot harder than those from the sample MIFI papers that I did at home. So I decided to go home, continue to study and take my chances a year later.
That gap year turned out to be very important for me. My parents were supportive and found a job for me at the factory where they worked, as a technician responsible for calibration of measurement equipment, and also paid for tutoring in maths, physics and Russian literature (these were standard entrance exams at my chosen universities). After a couple of weeks I found that I knew maths better than my tutor (who was considered to be the best in the town), so these tutorials stopped. On the other hand, my physics tutorials were the best I could wish for. My tutor was a physics professor from Nalchik’s University, Valery Petrosian. I thoroughly enjoyed every lesson. We solved many problems from old exam papers either from Phystech or, even harder, from international Olympiads. But even more helpful was the way he taught me to deal with physics problems: it is much easier to solve a problem if you first guess possible answers. Most problems at Phystech level require understanding of more than one area of physics and usually involve several logical steps. For example, in the case of a five-step solution, the possibilities for dealing with the problem quickly diverge and it may take many attempts before you get to the final answer. If, however, you try to solve the same problem from both ends, guessing two or three plausible answers, the space of possibilities and logical steps is much reduced. This is the way I learned to think then and I am still using it in my research every day, trying to build all the logical steps between what I have and what I think may be the end result of a particular project. After a couple of months, my tutor no longer asked me to write up a solution. Instead, I just explained verbally the way I would solve a particular problem – all the logical steps required to get to its end without describing routine details. This allowed us to go through the problems at lightning speed.
I also learned an important lesson from my tutorials in Russian literature. My tutor said that what I was writing was good but it was clear from my essays that I tried to recall and repeat the thoughts of famous writers and literature critics, not trusting my own judgement, afraid that my own thoughts were not interesting, important or correct enough. Her advice was to try and explain my own opinions and ideas and to use those authoritative phrases only occasionally, to support and strengthen my writing. This simple advice was crucial for me – it changed the way I wrote. Years later I noticed that I was better at explaining my thoughts in writing than my fellow students.
Enemy of the State
After this year of intensive preparations I felt I knew enough and was much more confident than the previous year and ready for MIFI. I easily solved all the problems in the written maths exam (which again was first), polished the presentation and expected an ‘excellent’ mark. However, at the next exam (oral maths) I was told that the mark was only ‘good’, and the examiner refused to explain what was wrong or to show me the script, even though it was right there in front of him. He gave me three further mat hs problems, the hardest I had ever seen. I managed to solve one, partially solved the second one, with a minor mistake, and provided the correct answer to the third one. However, I could not explain how I came up with this answer. It just appeared in my head and I still remember it now: the answer was 998. The mark I got for these efforts was ‘satisfactory’, which was clearly not enough to be admitted to the university. In addition to the rather harsh treatment from the examiner, I noticed more odd things about the exam – apart from me, not one single person in the same room (about 20 candidates) managed to get even a ‘satisfactory’ mark; they all failed. Even more curiously, the names of all the candidates were either Jewish- or foreign-sounding. I went to look at the lists of people in other examination rooms and most of the names sounded Russian, with a very few exceptions.
Even for someone as naïve as I was at 17, it was clear that there was a policy in place to fail certain ethnic minorities. In hindsight this can be easily explained because this particular university specialised in nuclear physics and, at that time, if you were a Jew or a German, you were assumed to be a potential emigrant who would learn ‘state secrets’ and then go abroad. That was always considered a threat in the Soviet Union. So in a sense it was clearly a policy, and even an understandable policy, but not much advertised. Several years later I found that there were a few Jewish people who attended and successfully graduated from MIFI. To achieve this, their parents had to go to KGB representatives at MIFI (they were present in every Soviet organisation at the so-called First Departments) and persuade them that their children were reliable Soviet citizens and had no intention of leaving the country. Apparently, these tactics did work but neither I nor probably my parents even suspected that it was needed. Or, maybe my parents were too aware of the true lies in my family questionnaires.
This was the first time I experienced discrimination at an official level and it was quite a shock. Fortunately, there was still a week left to try my luck at another university. I said to myself ‘what the hell’ and applied to Phystech. The way I was treated there was a shocking experience in itself, as it was so different from MIFI. The examiners were friendly and even helpful, the exam problems interesting and the whole environment welcoming. I felt as if by mistake someone put me in a wrong room, away from a firing squad of examiners. Perhaps, this was the case.
My examination marks were comfortably above the threshold required for admission, even though I got only one ‘excellent’ mark out of four exams, with the rest ‘good’. I felt that I could have done better but my MIFI experience was still fresh, and the memories of those failed exams kept coming back, affecting my concentration and sometimes my judgement of the difficulty of the problems. This was especially apparent in my oral physics exam, which I still remember well. The first problem given to me seemed easy and I quickly solved it, but the examiner said ‘It’s a wrong answer’. I tried to protest, and it took us a few minutes to understand that I had solved a much harder problem than the one he gave me; even though the answer to the problem I actually solved was correct, it was still wrong. Incredibly, the same story happened with the second problem. So, when giving me the third one, the examiner repeatedly asked whether I was sure that I understood what was being asked.
The last hurdle at Phystech was an admissions interview and I was scared that the question of my ethnicity would arise again and they might not accept me despite my good marks. It was well known that, on the basis of the interview, sometimes candidates with marks just below the threshold were accepted and those with marks above rejected. The ethnic question did arise in the form of ‘How is your German?’ I answered ‘Barely’ and started thinking what else to add. One of the panel members (Seva Gantmakher, as in the Gantmakher effect) quickly interjected saying ‘Then he is not a real German’. As it turned out, this remark, as well as his following interventions, influenced all of my further life by putting me on the path of solid state physics.
Like many would-be students of that age, I dreamed of doing astrophysics or particle physics and aspired to solve ‘the greatest mysteries of the universe’. But there was a rumour among Phystech candidates that saying so was considered to be very naïve by interviewers. I remembered that but did not want to cheat. So, when asked about my aspirations, I said that I wanted to study neutron stars (true) because I wanted to understand how matter behaved at extremely high densities (an excuse, not to sound so naïve). A prompt reply from Seva was ‘Good, you can then study high-pressure physics at our Institute [of Solid State Physics].’
Another memory of that interview is being asked to estimate the weight of the earth’s atmosphere (it was customary to give candidates some tricky mental problems to solve). I spent most of my three minutes multiplying the numbers in my head (atmospheric pressure multiplied by the surface area of the earth divided by gravity, all in SI units) and when I gave an answer in trillions of trillions of kg, everyone was surprised because I was only expected to give a general answer, not a specific number.
This is how I entered Phystech. In the end, my rejection from MIFI turned out to be a blessing in disguise because Phystech was a two-notch higher level university. The only reason I did not go there first was because I did not believe I was up to it. Basically, circumstances forced my first choice on me rather than my second one!
Mother of All Grillin
Phystech is quite an exceptional university, not only by Russian standards, where it is considered crème de la crème, but also with respect to any other university I know. The only reason that it is not found in any world league tables is that it is a purely teaching university. (Teaching and research are traditionally separated in Russia – research is done mainly at the Academy of Sciences and teaching at universities). In addition to the very rigorous student selection, a well-known reason for Phystech being so good was that, unlike other Soviet universities, all specialist and some general courses were taught by practising scientists from the Academy institutes from all over the Moscow region. Of course, in the West it is a standard to have active researchers giving undergraduate courses, but in Russia it is an exception.
Even more importantly, as Phystech students we were forced to think and find logic in everything we studied, as opposed to just memorising facts and formulas. This was largely due to Phystech’s examination style: when it came to specialised subjects, many of the exams we took every year were open-book. This meant that there was no need to remember formulas, as long as one knew where to find them. Instead, the problems were challenging, requiring combinations of different subject areas and thus teaching us to really understand science rather than merely to memorise it.
From the moment of its establishment, Phystech was led by prominent Soviet scientists such as Kapitsa, Landau and many others. Among my own lecturers and examiners were many eminent scientists such as Emmanuel Rashba, Vladimir Pokrovski, Viktor Lidskii, Spartak Belyaev, Lev Pitaevskii, Isaak Khalatnikov and Lev Gorkov, to name but a few. I have to admit that their names did not tell me much at the time, which was helped by the fact that I was not very good at attending lectures. I rediscovered some of the names only recently, when I saw their signatures in my old exam certificates, which Phystech put on the web after the Nobel Prize announcement.
The workload at Phystech was heavy and the courses extremely challenging. It is probably enough to say that our standard textbooks for quantum mechanics, statistical physics, electrodynamics and classical mechanics were from the Landau-Lifshitz Theoretical Physics Course. Perhaps they are not the best textbooks for undergraduate students, but they are a good indication of the expected level of achievement. Not all students managed to cope with the psychological pressure imposed by this teaching style and some dropped out not only because of bad marks but, more often, because of nervous breakdowns. I personally knew several students who developed suicidal tendencies and psychiatric problems. My own sanity was perhaps saved by the amount of alcohol that I and some of my friends consumed after each exam to release the accumulated stress.
The first two and a half years of foundation courses were particularly tough. After that the pressure subsided as we moved on to specialist courses. From year three we started attending lectures at the so-called base institutes of the Academy of Sciences. In my case it was the Institute of Solid State Physics in Chernogolovka, chosen at the above-mentioned interview due to my love for high-density neutron stars. From year five, we also started working in research labs – not on some specially designed undergraduate projects but on real ongoing projects, where we worked as part of an academic research team. Year six was a Master’s year and 100 % research based. After that, the normal route (if you wanted to stay in academia) was two years of research probation and, if you were successful, you were eligible for a PhD student-ship, which lasted another 3 years. It was an 11-year long process to get a PhD – 6 years at Phystech plus 5 years leading to a ‘viva’, or oral defence of one’s thesis.
For me personally, only the first half year at Phystech was a struggle. I came from a provincial town, while some of my classmates were graduates of elite Moscow schools specialising in physics and maths. Quite a few were winners of international Olympiads in physics or mathematics. The first few months were essentially designed to bring everyone to the level of those guys; they were nearly a year ahead of the rest of us in formal topics, especially maths. Only after I got all the highest marks in the first set of mid-year exams did I start feeling confident enough in this wunderkind environment and was able to relax somewhat. Despite all the pressure and grilling, every single one of us who managed to graduate from Phystech have great memories of those hard years and are most proud of our alma mater.
Go With the Top Flow
I graduated from Phystech with a so-called ‘red diploma’, which meant within the top 5 to 10% of my class. Out of 50 or so final exam marks, I got only two ‘good’. One of them was for a course on “political economy of socialism”, which I attributed without much shame to my inability to find any logic in the subject. By contrast, I got ‘excellent’ for the political economy of capitalism and to this day have fond memories of reading Das Kapital by Karl Marx, whom I occasionally quote to tease, or perhaps shock, my Western colleagues. My second ‘good’ was for the course on superconductivity taught by Lev Gorkov himself, who also was my examiner. Oddly for Phystech, he did not allow us to use textbooks during the exam (shame on him), and I made a mistake in one of the derivations. This is funny because in the 1990s, when I was already a professor in the Netherlands, superconductivity became my research subject.
Despite my exam success, I do not believe I particularly stood out among the students in my class. In my year there were one or two students with only ‘excellent’ marks, and some were digging deeper and understood the courses better than I did. At that time I did not really try my best; I worked just hard enough to guarantee myself maximum marks and stay at the top of the class. I was successful at that but it did not take all of my time or effort. In fact, in my university years I was not at all an exemplary student. With excellent marks, I normally was entitled to a scholarship awarded every half a year, but it was quite regularly (four or five times) withdrawn as a punishment for missing some mandatory lectures, being late from holiday breaks, organising those after-exam parties that sometimes saw some people end up in a hospital and similar misbehaviour. Missing lectures was generally allowed (unless it was a political subject) and I managed to miss most of them. I learned from textbooks and attended group tutorials, unless I disliked particular tutors. I would not recommend this style of learning to aspiring students as a recipe for success, but it may well suit some people as it suited me and a few other students in my class.
My attitude of doing alright to reach a goal but not doing my utmost persisted through all the university and PhD years. I only started to really enjoy physics and do my absolute best, for its own sake, much later when I became an independent researcher.
From the Sublime to the Ridiculous
The topic of my Master’s project was electronic properties of metals, which I studied by exciting electromagnetic waves (so-called helicons) in spherical samples of ultrapure indium. From the helicon resonances I could extract information about the resistivity of those samples. The competitive edge of this research was the extreme purity of the indium I was working with, such that at low temperatures electrons could shoot over distances comparable with the sample diameter (~1 cm). After graduating I started working towards my PhD in the same laboratory, as was customary for many Phystech graduates. Looking back, those five years of doing PhD seem remarkably uneventful in terms of the science I was doing.
My first year as a PhD student was signified by an event that was to become a rather regular perturbation in my life: moving from one institute to another. This was when my PhD supervisor, Victor Petrashov, moved from the Institute of Solid State Physics to the newly established Institute of Microelectronics Technology. Although the two were only 200 m apart, it meant a serious disruption of work, losing some equipment and setting everything up again. Initially, I did the metal physics research with some enthusiasm but it gradually faded away as I realised that no one, except perhaps my supervisor, was interested in what I was doing. Nevertheless, educationally, those years were very important for developing experimental skills and making my fingers ‘green’. This experience played a crucial role in my further research career, including the graphene story. In this respect I owe a lot to Victor, whom I count as one of the most skilful experimentalists I ever met. With the help of a shoestring and sealing wax he could do amazing things, and a shoestring and sealing wax was what, in those days, we typically had in research labs in Chernogolovka.
I meet quite a few people who feel nostalgia for the ‘golden era’ of Soviet science, but I myself never saw those times even in Chernogolovka, which was a rather elitist academic place. My recollection is that the arrival of almost any material important for research, be it copper wire or GE varnish, was a cause for celebration, almost on a par with the arrival of a multimillion piece of equipment in the West. Once Victor was lucky to borrow a US-made lock-in amplifier to do some measurements, which we usually had to do using a Soviet equivalent (the word ‘equivalent’ does not describe the entirety of the difference). In just a couple of weeks I was able to get results that I could not dream of with the ‘equivalent’. The availability of resources (or the lack of them) essentially dictated what I could possibly do. I believe experimentalists who claim to have witnessed ‘the greatness of Soviet science’ either belonged to the select few who had benefactors among the top academicians or more likely fool themselves, choosing to believe that the skies were bluer in the old days.
Having said this, it is true that in the Soviet Union there was a huge difference between being an experimentalist and being a theorist. The theory school was extremely strong, especially what people referred to as ‘Landau theory school’. Those guys did things at the highest possible level. The roots of this strength were partly in education but also in the way Soviet theorists worked. I witnessed it by attending many research seminars. A lot of time was spent in discussions and heated debates, where there were no questions that could not be asked and no authority that could not be questioned. In the West, this style is still remembered well by those who ‘experienced’ Soviet scientists in the 1980s and 1990s. It could be a dreadful experience for the participants, but sometimes I really miss this style. The nostalgia usually appears after coming across certain papers in today’s scientific literature: If they were to be first presented at such seminars, even the authors would not dare to put them in print. Those debates were very influential and allowed people to learn more quickly and to develop a broad and informed view of many areas of physics. I myself benefited greatly from such seminars and consider them the second most important part of my education in Chernogolovka. Many of the seminars I attended were organised by Seva Gantmakher. His care for detail and breadth of experimental knowledge were a great example for me and my fellow students.
Despite the great atmosphere in theory departments, even theorists suffered from the state of Soviet science and in the late 1980s many of the best of them moved to the West. I do not think that better living conditions were the only reason for this brain drain: Theoretical ideas do not come out of vacuum; they are often born in interaction with experimentalists, as experimental results serve as a trigger for new ideas. This was completely lacking in Chernogolovka, because new results were hard – if at all possible – to get with the existing equipment. By the time of my PhD, Soviet experimental science had decayed to the point where it was considered that the most appropriate route to reach the top of fame and glory for an experimentalist was to confirm a theory produced by an eminent Soviet theoretician. Indeed, many experimentalists in Chernogolovka were doing just that.
This was my scientific life. Parallel to that, there was another life, busy with events. Chernogolovka is a nice Moscow suburb, quiet and peaceful, surrounded by forest. Life was generally pleasant, even though my living conditions were austere to the extreme – for most of my years there I lived in a residence hall, sharing a room with two other young researchers. One of my roommates was Sergey Dubonos who over the years became my regular coauthor and also played an important role in the graphene paper recognised by the Nobel award. In addition to research, my other hobbies were mountaineering and white-water canoeing. Every year I spent more than a month in the mountains and on the rivers in different corners of the Soviet Union, from the Caucasus to Central Asia, sometimes managing to fit in as many as four trips in a year. Those travel experiences were often shared with Max Maximenko and Phystech friend Stas Ionov. It was at this time that I met my wife, Irina Grigorieva, who was also working towards a PhD at the neighbouring Institute of Solid State Physics. She later became my collaborator and significantly contributed to the graphene work.
In a way Chernogolovka offered ideal conditions for scientists – there were hardly any distractions, which allowed us to concentrate on research. Except for queuing for hours for sausages and cheese (which had become a regular scene in the 1980s), most of our time was spent in the labs. Even without much enthusiasm, my research advanced at a steady pace, with a few papers published and due progress made. But it was only when I became an independent researcher, and especially after moving to the West in 1990, that I started to do my real best and the pace of my life changed dramatically, as described in my Nobel lecture ‘Random walk to graphene’.
This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and later published in the book series Les Prix Nobel/ Nobel Lectures/The Nobel Prizes. The information is sometimes updated with an addendum submitted by the Laureate.
Their work and discoveries range from cancer therapy and laser physics to developing proteins that can solve humankind’s chemical problems. The work of the 2018 Nobel Laureates also included combating war crimes, as well as integrating innovation and climate with economic growth. Find out more.