Hidden talent'They are undiscovered, unrecognized and unpublicized'

These are the Russian-speaking Jewish Americans you never knew changed your life

From cancer research to designing systems powering the Eiffel Tower, the unsung scientists, inventors and entrepreneurs found in the new book ‘Hammer and Silicon’ make an impact

Clockwise from top left: 'Hammer and Silicon' authors Daniel Satinsky, Sheila Puffer, and Daniel McCarthy (Courtesy Sheila Puffer); scientist Slava Epstein (Adam Glanzman/ Northeastern University); Vladimir Torchilin, director of pharmaceutical biotechnology and nanomedicine at Northeastern University; anti-aging researcher at Harvard, Vadim Gladyshev (YouTube screenshot).
Clockwise from top left: 'Hammer and Silicon' authors Daniel Satinsky, Sheila Puffer, and Daniel McCarthy (Courtesy Sheila Puffer); scientist Slava Epstein (Adam Glanzman/ Northeastern University); Vladimir Torchilin, director of pharmaceutical biotechnology and nanomedicine at Northeastern University; anti-aging researcher at Harvard, Vadim Gladyshev (YouTube screenshot).

BOSTON — When renowned Russian biochemist Vladimir Torchilin immigrated to the United States in 1991, he brought with him a degree from the Soviet Union’s most prestigious educational institution, Moscow State University.

He was 45 years old, and his accomplishments included the development of a new medication to dissolve blood clots. The drug, called streptodekaza, was just as effective as older medications, but with fewer side effects, he said.

Less than 10 years prior to his arrival in the United States, Torchilin received the Soviet Union’s highest award — the Lenin Prize — for his work on enzymes for the treatment of cardiovascular diseases.

Torchilin, who is Jewish, quickly found a job in the United States. He is now the director of the Center for Pharmaceutical Biotechnology and Nanomedicine at Northeastern University in Boston, where his research focuses on devising ways to deliver medications directly into human cells to increase the effectiveness of cancer treatments.

“The education I received in Moscow was superior to what is offered at American universities. The expectations were set very high. The focus was on the best students, and the weak were not needed,” he told The Times of Israel. “This is because Soviet education was not tuition-driven. Soviet universities were not afraid to expel students who couldn’t keep up for fear that they would lose tuition revenue.”

Torchilin is one of the immigrants from the Soviet Union profiled in a new book, “Hammer and Silicon: The Soviet Diaspora in the US innovation Economy.” Published last summer, it claims to be the first work that examines the contributions of Russian-speaking immigrants to America’s high tech, business and innovation fields.

“Immigrants from the former Soviet Union contributed significantly to the US innovation economy, but those contributions have been undiscovered, unrecognized and unpublicized. This book is an attempt to bring those contributions to light,” said Daniel Satinsky, one of the book’s authors. Satinsky’s Jewish grandparents came to the States from Ukraine about 100 years ago.

Vladimir Torchilin, director of the Center for Pharmaceutical Biotechnology and Nanomedicine at Northeastern University in Boston. (Courtesy)

“The people were recruited to come to the US to be part of the American [high tech] sector, particularly mathematicians. Microsoft recruited a lot of mathematicians to work in software. Some of the best mathematicians in the world were Russian,” Satinsky told The Times of Israel.

Sheila Puffer, a professor of international business from Northeastern University in Boston, is the lead author on the book. “The general public may not realize that some of the innovations that appear in the well-known tech companies came from people who immigrated from the Soviet Union to the United States,” Puffer said.

“My understanding is that there are hundreds of Russian-speaking people who work at Google, Facebook and Apple. They have Russian-speaking social groups,” said Puffer. In the coming months, Puffer will be traveling around the United States, Europe and Russia to give presentations about “Hammer and Silicon.”

The authors interviewed 157 highly educated Russian-speaking immigrants who moved to the United States in the last 40 years, many of whom are also Jewish.

The book profiles Slava Epstein, who discovered a new antibiotic. Epstein also regularly travels to the Amazon rainforest to look for new microscopic lifeforms. Other scientists include Vadim Gladyshev, who is at the forefront of anti-aging research at Harvard School of Medicine; mechanical engineer Alexander Gorlov, who designed a wind turbine that is now used to power the elevators and lights at the Eiffel Tower, as well as Russian-speaking engineers, scientists and businessmen living in places from Boston to Silicon Valley.

Their contributions to the American economy included the development of the first handwriting recognition technology used by Apple, similar to the system that is used to verify the signatures on credit card receipts, Satinsky said.

One helped establish one of the world’s leading laser manufacturing companies — IPG Photonics, based in Massachusetts and owned by Russian immigrant Valentin Gapontsev — and many others worked in software development roles in large American companies.

‘Hammer & Silicon’ co-authors Daniel Satinsky, Sheila Puffer and Daniel McCarthy. (Adam Glanzman/ Northeastern University)

Tense relations

“Hammer and Silicon,” published by Cambridge University Press in the UK, comes out as relations between Russia and the United States are at a low.

Satinsky is the former chairman of the US-Russia Chamber of Commerce of New England, a body that advised American businessmen who were interested in doing business in Russia. He says that the relationship between the two countries was warmer even during Soviet times, when it was common for researchers to exchange information.

Satinsky first began traveling to Russia on business after the collapse of the USSR, importing to the US rare earth oxides such as lithium, which are a byproduct of atomic energy production. Recently, however, he had to quit his job as a consultant at Moscow State University.

Illustrative: On July 16, 2018, US President Donald Trump, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin arrive for a meeting in Helsinki, Finland. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP)

“It became politically incorrect in Russia to be paying Americans to provide technology consulting,” he said.

American companies are also no longer interested in doing business in Russia because they are afraid of the difficulties they might have with the US State Department, Satinsky added.

Honorable (un)mentions

Despite the fact that the book’s authors interviewed more than 150 Russian-Americans, some notable names were omitted — including Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who was born in Russia to a family of Moscow State University graduates and came to the United States at age six.

Satinsky said the authors tried to get in touch with Brin, but didn’t make it beyond Google’s press office.

“We weren’t able to speak with him; we never got to a place where he personally responded,” Satinsky said. “We talked to people who worked at Facebook and Google and Microsoft. What we did was work through the networks that we had to talk to people.”

WhatsApp founder Jan Koum, and Rus Yusupov, the Tajikistan-born American tech entrepreneur who founded the apps Vine and HQ Trivia, were also not among those interviewed. Brin, Koum and Yusupov are all Jewish.

Unfortunately, though most former Soviet emigres fared well in the Land of Opportunity, some of the scientists and entrepreneurs faced tragedy following their move. Also missing from the book are Laura Shifrina and Ilya Zhitomirskiy.

Shifrina, a Russian-Jewish scientist who received the Stalin Prize for her work on Soviet air defense systems was murdered by her next-door neighbor after moving to a Boston suburb. The murder trial is scheduled to start in March.

Zhitomirskiy, a Russian-American software developer who co-founded Diaspora — a non-profit, user-owned social network — committed suicide in San Francisco at the age of 21. Despite his young age, Zhitomirskiy was already one of the most prominent Russian-American Jews in the tech and innovation economy.

In addition, the authors didn’t speak with Inessa Rifkin, the Jewish-Belorussian founder of the Russian School of Mathematics, a successful after-school mathematics program that now has campuses in seven US states.

Sergey Brin (photo credit: CC-BY-Steve Jurvetson, Wikimedia Commons)
Google founder Sergey Brin in 2010. (photo credit: CC-BY-Steve Jurvetson, Wikimedia Commons)

Nor did they include the late Alexei Abrikosov, who came to the US from Russia in 1991 and received the Nobel Prize for physics in 2003. His mother, Faina Abrikosova (nee, Wolf) was Jewish.

When asked why these famous Russian-Americans are not mentioned, Puffer said, “We decided that we wanted to bring to light in our book more [of] those who are not as well-known.

“There were many contributions made by people from the former Soviet Union, but behind the scenes,” Puffer said.

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