Gelfand’s Gift

Israel Gelfand was my scientific adviser from the time I was 15. This is the story of how Gelfand helped me, when at 20 I was an undergrad at Moscow State University. At that time, I was married to Sasha (Alexander) Goncharov, who was also Gelfand’s student.

Sasha was more driven by mathematics than I. I had a lot of different interests: I wanted to hang out with friends, go to movies and read books. Sasha only wanted to do mathematics. His only other obsession was with what our colleagues (including me) were doing mathematically. So he was constantly asking me about the math problems I was thinking about.

For example, I was sitting at my side of the desk working, and he asked me to tell him about my problem. A few minutes later, I was forced to interrupt my work to go grocery shopping, because the household chores fell to me. As soon as I returned with bread and milk, Sasha excitedly told me the solution to my problem. It made me feel stupid, as if I should have solved it while I was waiting in the line for bread and milk. That feeling blocked out all the other feelings I should have been noticing, such as frustration and annoyance with Sasha.

Without his interference, I would have happily solved the problem myself. I was about to start my serious research, but I worried that I’d end up as a supplier of new problems for his papers.

You might wonder why I didn’t stop sharing my math with Sasha. But at that time, I wasn’t very in touch with my feelings and I prided myself on being a logical person. The idea that a husband and wife would discuss their work together seemed logical. Besides, even though I wasn’t particularly interested, Sasha was always ready to tell me about his math problems. It seemed important for me to be fair and to reciprocate. So I was stuck in a situation I didn’t know how to resolve.

I never confided this issue to any math colleagues. I never mentioned it to Gelfand — mostly because I was too scared of him to initiate any conversation. Besides, Gelfand delegated most of his responsibilities to others, because he was quite famous and busy. For example, all official paperwork related to his adviser role was done by Alexandre Kirillov. With me avoiding Gelfand and Gelfand being busy, we almost never spoke one-on-one.

You can understand my surprise when one day Gelfand approached Sasha and me to have a chat. He told us that we were about to start our own research, and while he permitted me to ask Sasha about what he was doing, he would not allow Sasha to interfere with my research.

Gelfand was a great judge of character. Without anyone telling him, he perceived what was going on in our marriage and gave me an excuse to stop Sasha’s prying. It was an appreciated gift.



  1. Jeanine:

    Beautiful story. Thank you for sharing it.

  2. Karl Kriegfried:

    I think it is in very poor taste to publicly display your married life ,attack your ex-husband and blame him for your shortcomings.
    Your cultural bragging (“I wanted to hang out with friends, go to movies and read books. Sasha only wanted to do mathematics.”)
    and whining can’t alter the fact that he is a brilliant mathematician and you are not.

  3. Tanya Khovanova:


    I do not think that being obsessed with mathematics is a bad thing, so I do not consider this essay as an attack on my ex-husband. Moreover, this story happened 30 years ago – I hope that my readers won’t judge anyone based on a personal story about events happened a long time ago.

    Also, we were married for a very short period of time, and, hence, this marriage didn’t have much effect on my later life. Whatever problems I have in my mathematical life, they can’t be noticeably related to Goncharov.

    This story was about Gelfand, not about Sasha.

  4. Maria Roginskaya:

    @Karl Kriegfried: As a matter of fact the problem described in this posting has little to do with married life (the same happens between classmates, especially those who have the same supervisor). Some (but not all) mathematicians think that solving other people problems is poor manners, but as you may noticed the story handle about time when both Tatyana and her hasband were 20. I doubt many people would consider a story about some embarrassing or socially unacceptable behavior in your 20’th as a malign (unless you are still in your early 20’th).

    I quite often disagree with Tanyana’s opinion about what is important or less important in the life (of a mathematician), but I don’t find this text indescreat – she just describes her personal interpretation of the situation (and it is a point with a blogg, isn’t it?).

    PS. Tanya’s words ”I wanted to hang out with friends, go to movies and read books. Sasha only wanted to do mathematics.” in the Russian cultural interpretation is rather admitance to a weakness and by no way bragging.

  5. anonymous:

    Thanks for sharing. I completely understand what you are talking about. I am in similar situation (I gave up my career for family and now trying to reenter) and trying to come out without sacrificing my marriage and kids.

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