Thirty seven years ago, Mikhail Brin and his family packed their bags and left the USSR for America. The decision would influence the future world of web. In 1998, Mikhail’s son Sergey Brin and his business partner Larry Page founded Google, the search engine synonymous with web knowledge.
Back in the USSR
In summer 1990, University of Maryland mathematics professor Mikhail Brin took a group of bright American students on a two-week exchange program to the USSR. His 17-year-old son Sergey came along on what was a rare opportunity to see relatives left behind in Moscow. To the future Google founder, Russia appeared dull and depressing. For a moment he pictured his life in the Soviet Union, stripped of prospects and in constant fear of the authorities. In a petulant act of defiance against the system he saw, the young Brin threw stones at a police car. Just as the two officers sat inside it got to teach the boy a lesson, his father stepped in and calmed the situation.
Sergey says his rebellious spirit was born in Moscow and has “accompanied me even in adult life”.
That rebellious spirit was prevalent throughout the Brin family. The process of immigration from Soviet Russia to the US was an arduous one fraught with danger in the late 70s but Mikhail managed to escape together with his wife, mother and six-year-old son.
In the Soviet Union, Brin Sr. worked as an economist at the Economic Research Institute on the State Planning Committee of the USSR, but his passion lay in mathematics. For Brin, a Jew, this seemed like only a pipe dream. For Jewish students in the 1970s, carving out a career in the field seemed next to impossible. Exams at the department of mechanics and mathematics were conducted in different classrooms to segregate Jews from the rest of the class and dubbed by students “gas chambers”. Even after school, Mikhail planned to study astronomy but Jews were banned from studying at the department of physics in order to restrict their access to nuclear facilities.
“I got As in nearly every subject, except three: history of the Communist party, military drills and statistics. But I wouldn’t have dared apply for a Ph.D. because of my Jewish heritage,” he recalls.
Brin Sr. nonetheless completed his thesis and met his future wife Evgeniya Krasnokutskaya whilst studying at university.
Evgeniya rarely talks about her family life but it is known that Jewish traditions were strictly observed at home.
“We always celebrated [the Passover dinner] Seder. I got the gefilte-fish recipe from my grandmother,” she says about her early years.
In summer of 1977, after returning from a mathematics conference in Warsaw, Mikhail Brin, having previously talked with foreign colleagues, said to his family they could have a brighter future abroad. Brin’s wife and mother were at first reluctant the move. Evgeniya was particularly against the move. She had grown up in Moscow, graduated from school with honors, and worked as a scientist at the Institute of Oil and Gas. But gradually Mikhail convinced the family, the future of their young son was the underpinning argument.
The US opened doors for Mikhail’s passion – mathematics. He was appointed a professor at the University of Maryland while Evgeniya became a researcher at NASA. But in 1999 their American dream suffered a slight nightmare after Evgeniya was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. She kept it secret from public until 2014 when together with the Michael J. Fox Foundation she urged people to take part in research into the disease.
In the US the family had another son, Sam, now 29 and working in HR at Robinhood, a finance company. Three years ago Sam launched his own startup - Butter Systems - software for digital menus in restaurants, but the project ultimately failed.
Evgeniya has completely devoted herself to charity and manages a program on preserving archives in the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, an organization that assists Jewish immigrants. Sergey Brin himself has contributed $1million to the cause.
The University of Maryland boasts The Maya Brin Residency Program, a research initiative named in honour of Sergey Brin’s grandmother, who taught Russian at the institution for 10 years. Maya Brin (born Katsina) had previously worked as a philologist and English teacher in her native USSR. As part of her legacy, the university offers an honorary Maya Brin Distinguished Lecturer in Russian title and a scholarship program, which were established thanks to an endowment of $600,000 from her son Mikhail.
Sergey’s grandfather Israel Abramovich Brin stayed in Moscow. From 1944 to 1998 he taught at Moscow Energy Institute and similarly devoted his life to mathematics, namely exploring the theory of probability.
His career wasn’t affected by his son Mikhail’s departure to the US. On the contrary, he automatically became one of the Union’s best loved Jewish figures, living generally free of harassment. He rarely saw his son or grandson minus several times on their return to Moscow and a couple more meetings in the US. During Israel’s first trip to the US in 1993, he met with Sergey who was then studying at Stanford University. On the night before he left for Russia again, Sergey drove from California to see him and the two even drank tequila together.
Later they met in Yasenevo, Moscow, when Sergey visited his grandfather in a limousine. Israel Brin died in Moscow in 2011.
Among other of Sergey’s relatives are a number of scientists and respected figures. His great grandmother, Rahal Katsina, was a microbiologist. Before the war she headed to Moscow bacteriological institute. In the late 1930s she was arrested and later demoted to work in a local clinic.
Alexander Kolmanovsky, Sergey’s great-uncle, was a Soviet wrestler and Greco-Roman wrestling coach. He became an Honored coach of the USSR and worked at Dinamo and Lokomotiv sports facilities. Eduard Kolmanovsky, a composer who had written scores for many Soviet films, one of which a famous mini-series Big School-Break (Rus.– Bolshaya Peremena), is also distantly related to Brin.
Author: Victoria Charochkina